In September 2020, my son Patrick and I embarked on an exciting adventure in Bulgaria, accompanied by mammalogist Nedko Nedyalkov. Our goal was to explore the diverse flora and fauna of the country, with a particular focus on the charming Romanian Hamster. Although we encountered numerous fascinating species, we missed out on the opportunity to witness these captivating creatures in person. However, determined to fulfill our quest, we returned to Bulgaria in September 2022, eager to reunite with the elusive hamsters.
A Second Chance in Pleven
Our expedition centered around Pleven, renowned as the heartland of hamster habitat. Armed with our previous knowledge, we scoured the alfalfa fields, meticulously studying fresh hamster burrows. We learned to distinguish them from vole holes, marked by their smaller size and sloping entrance tunnels. Hamster burrows, on the other hand, were larger and featured a distinctive vertical shaft, plunging at least 50 centimeters into the ground.
A Patient Pursuit
For two consecutive nights, we set traps near the active hamster burrows we had identified. On the first night, our efforts were rewarded with a few Wood Mice. Excitement filled the air as we persisted with our hamster hunt on the second night. Additionally, we placed Longworth traps in an abandoned vineyard, hoping to catch the elusive Bicoloured White-toothed Shrew.
Surprises Along the Way
As dawn broke, we eagerly checked our traps, anticipating our encounters. To our delight, we discovered several Guldenstadt’s White-toothed Shrews, which we had previously encountered in 2020, as well as Yellow-necked Mice. However, the hamster continued to elude us. A hunch began to form: perhaps the Romanian Hamster possessed a remarkable ability to avoid traps.
Determined not to be discouraged, on the second night, we ventured out into the hamster fields with a thermal scope in hand. Despite the gusts of wind and our dwindling optimism, our perseverance paid off. Within minutes, we spotted several rodents, likely apodemus mice, and even a Brown Hare. Then, something magical occurred. A larger creature, emitting heat, caught our attention. As our light illuminated it, Nedko and I simultaneously exclaimed: “HAMSTER!”
With swiftness and precision, Nedko captured the hamster, preserving it overnight. The following morning, we embarked on an hour-long hamster photoshoot before finally releasing the animal. Nedko also collected DNA samples for his ongoing hamster study. The hamster swiftly vanished into its burrow, as if escaping from the clutches of predators or overeager mammal enthusiasts like ourselves.
A Night in the Mountains
Buoyed by our encounter with the hamster, we proceeded to the mountains near Gabrovo for our final night. Our target species here were the European Water Shrew and the European Pine Vole. Acting upon Nedko’s suggestion, we set traps at an elevation of approximately 1600 meters above sea level. Although Nedko had never trapped in this particular area before, records showed the presence of pine voles. Our hopes were high for encountering a water shrew if we could locate a crystal-clear mountain stream.
Embracing Nature’s Surprises
Finding a flowing mountain stream proved more challenging than expected. Eventually, we stumbled upon a virtually stagnant stream, resembling a series of pools rather than a lively creek. Nevertheless, we set our traps by its banks, hoping for the best.
The following morning, our efforts bore fruit. We discovered two European Pine Voles, a fossorial species distinguished by having five pads on its hindfeet, unlike the similar voles in the area, which possess six pads. But the most thrilling moment came with the inspection of the first trap by the stream – it held a water shrew. Nedko’s excitement was contagious as he identified it as Miller’s Water Shrew, a species I had previously encountered in the company of Nedko himself.
Eager to seize the opportunity, we set up a photo session, capturing the shrew’s remarkable features as it fearlessly attacked a hapless snail we had placed in its path.
As we journeyed to and from the trapping site, nature bestowed upon us a few unexpected encounters. In the early morning and twilight hours, it appeared that a Red Squirrel and a Stone Marten crossed our path. These serendipitous sightings added another layer of delight to our adventure.
A Captivating Land of Nature’s Wonders
Bulgaria once again revealed its splendid beauty as we traversed its landscape. From remarkable mammals to delectable cuisine and exquisite wine, the country did not disappoint. Moreover, I managed to avoid any mishaps with the rental car this time, which was an added bonus.
I extend my heartfelt gratitude to Nedko for his invaluable guidance and companionship throughout our journey. Although his busy schedule no longer allows him to serve as a dedicated mammalwatching guide, his passion for the natural world remains unwavering.
- European Hare (Lepus europaeus)
- Eurasian Red Squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris)
- Romanian Hamster (Mesocricetus newtoni)
- European Pine Vole (Microtus subterraneus)
- Yellow-necked Field Mouse (Apodemus flavicollis)
- Long-tailed Field Mouse (A.sylvaticus)
- Miller’s Water Shrew (Neomys milleri)
- Guldenstadt’s White-toothed Shrew (Crocidura gueldenstaedtii)
- European Roe Deer (Capreolus capreolus)
In total, we encountered 9 species, including 2 lifers (Romanian Hamster and European Pine Vole). The journey was a testament to the wonders of the natural world and the joy of rediscovery.