For 32 years, the Conservation Camp Atanasovsko Lake (Burgas) by the Bulgarian Society for the Protection of Birds (BSPB) has become the traditional summer volunteer vacation for nature lovers. By mixing learning, work and birding, they create a world where’s everyone is equal and has to support the volunteer community and the birds’ habitats. For me, it’s was the most utopian eco holidays I’d ever had. Yet it was very inspirational to be part of a great tradition.

Enjoying a sustainable lifestyle

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‘What is the camp about? It’s a place for making interesting acquaintances, enjoying useful work, and planting seeds for learning new things’, – defines the project Nikolai Katsarov, a participant of the Camp since 2011.

In essence, the Conservation Camp Atanasovsko Lake in Burgas is the oldest Bulgarian volunteer eco holidays. It takes place every August and lasts for one week, the participation fee is 100 levs. The initiative started in 1988.

This year over 40 participants joined the project.

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The project aims to support the natural reserve which hosts thousands of birds and raise public awareness of the challenges birds face. Atanasovsko Lake is part of the second largest in Europe bird migration route Via Pontica.

For the years of its existence, the project has had many functions.

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‘The camp has become an incubator for many Bulgarian eco-activists and environmental professionals’, – shared insights Petar Yankov, one of the camp’s founders.

‘Through citizen science projects, like this one, we want to show that collaborations between environmentalists and ordinary people can be mutually beneficial, – points out Irina Mateeva, European Policy Officer of BSPB .

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Another lector Stoycho Stoychev, the Director of Environmental Protection of BSPB encouraged us to activate our interest in nature through citizen science tools (websites, collaborative projects, etc.) and not be afraid of possible mistakes.

‘The experienced and inexperienced make the same number of mistakes, the latter from a lack of experience and the former from an abundance of confidence, – wisely remarked Stoycho. – The more date, the more reliable data’.

Working to experience support

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I participated in the project several weeks ago as this oldest Bulgarian eco-vacation is part of my ethnographic research Mapping sustainable holidays in Bulgaria: combine volunteering and vacations! More details are in my previous post.

At the Conservation Camp Atanasovsko Lake in Burgas, I was impressed by a particular environment based on equality and support. Somewhat Utopian for our times, particularly for holidays.

Even so, the project is inspired by some hippie values: a love for nature, a purpose-driven life, kindness, open-mindedness and equality.

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‘It definitely makes sense to embark on such an adventure and enjoy its outcomes, – believes volunteer Teodor Trifonov. – Because it’s always easy to find what’s wrong and isn’t perfect, but here everyone works for one great cause, which I find worthwhile. And it’s a real pleasure to work with like-minded people!’.

Every day we subscribed for different team-based tasks related to supporting the camp and the reserve.
Serving meals, repairing work, restoring an artificial island, building wood platforms, cutting cane, bird monitoring. These were just some of our responsibilities.

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While working, we learned a lot about the area and the birds that use it. We maintained an artificial island for pelicans, cleaned the way of pied avocets, planted seaweeds from Atanasovsko Lake to Pomorie Lake and helped ornithologists monitor bird migration.

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Some participants with wood-crafting skills repaired the roof of the camp headquarters, used as the main office, the kitchen, storehouse and many other unrelated purposes.

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Every day one should choose a different task and work on a different site. In this way, for a week, everyone had an opportunity to learn something new by taking care of each other and birds.

‘There is some magic in such events that allow to touch nature and get away from it all, – notices volunteer Vladimir Terziev. – For me, such experiences with people on the same wavelength help me rediscover myself, reconsider my values and exchange experience with others’.

Cultivating peer-to-peer learning

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‘Education is the main purpose of the project, – says Vladimir Mladenov, the camp’s organizer by BSBP. – In its current format, the project has existed since 1995. We create for our volunteers an environment where they can exchange experiences and educate each other. For some people it’s a big adventure with which they can try new things: camping, lecturing, working with ornithologists…’.

Yet, the conservation bird-watching vacation isn’t only about birds. It’s also about a lot of fun due to some impromptu events, like a t-shirt auction.

‘The Camp is a special project that doesn’t have any analogy due to its different activities, – thinks Adriana Todorova, who has been joined the Brigade since 2013. – If there’s at least some interest in nature, you can develop it here with a great lecture course and practical activities. I learned a lot about the unique Atanasovsko Lake and its history’.

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At the same time, she admits that one should be somewhat adventurous to enjoy camping with strangers for a week.
‘I like the superb mix of fun, work and learning! It’s a highly recommended experience for those who want to develop their interest in nature and enjoy trying new things, – notes Alexander Petkov. – Of course, camping implies some inconveniences, the conditions here aren’t perfect, but the impressive experience and cool people make up for it!’.

Developing curiosity for birds

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‘We are all united through our love and curiosity for birds, and it’s very beneficial to develop this curiosity to expand the understanding of nature’, – says Vyara Marinova from Pleven, one of the new volunteers.

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Observing birds together with ornithologists was the most favourite type of ‘work’ for everyone. But it wasn’t possible to choose it every day because it was a kind of a privilege, an award for hard work.

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During 4-hour sessions, the ornithologists taught us to observe and record our observations using proper methodologies.

‘Bird-watching is my hobby, and I am here to benefit from practical training and communication with professionals, – says Tsonka Zelyazkova, a volunteer and my fellow companion for the Bird ID course. – In addition to useful methods, I learned a lot about interesting projects BSPB works on’.

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At this time of the year, the sky over Atanasavsko Lake is a picturesque kaleidoscope. With diverse migrating flocks, one can see many different birds – eagles, pelicans, flamingos – and learn about them from professional ornithologists.

With the sudden yell: ‘Storks!’, everyone would leave their work and, with fascination, fix their gaze at the flying away symbolic for Bulgaria birds.

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The species usually migrates in hundreds of individuals maneuvering gracefully in air flows. So, every storks’ flock is another captivating performance.

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Images and video: Tatyana Garkavaya

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