Romania Diary

 

Welcome to my Danube delta in spring diary. i will be going on this special trip first week of June 2013. This fantastic tour focuses on the Danube delta and Dobrodgea area of Romania, which is an amazingly diverse breeding and migration hotspot of Europe. 

The Danube delta is one of the largest delta's in Europe and most of the delta can be found in Romania. The Danube delta is an important stop-over for migrating birds. The delta provides shelter and food in abundance, attracting more then 150 breeding bird species and another 150+ bird species who use the Delta to rest and prepare for their journey to their breeding grounds in Siberia, Mongolia and the Arctic.

The delta is a maze of rivers and swampy area's and has largely been untouched by human beings.

The tour combines hid-photography and stalking photography and on top of that i will be spending time in a special photo boat that will allow us to float among the various bird species and of course photograph them. The special glass in the boat will allow me to photograph the birds without the birds spotting me!

The floating hide (image Janos Olah)

Hopefully i will be able to photograph bird species like Purple heron, White and Dalmatian pelicans, various Grebe species, Glossy ibis and Egrets.

i will also be spending time in the Macin Mountain national park where i will photographing birds from a photo hide near a drinking pool. Among the birds i hope to photograph are Levant Sparrowhawk and Ortolan bunting.

Purple heron (image Janos Olah)

Finally to top it off i will be spending time photographing the Souslik also known as the European ground squirrel. The Souslik lives in colonies and is active both at night and during the day.

They are mainly confined to the eastern parts of Europe and can be found in Romania, Hungary, Moldova and Czech republic. Sousliks have come under thread due to the destruction of their habitat due to agriculture and land development and are listed as endangered.. 

It will be great spending time with these little squirrels and hopefully i will be able to get some nice images during my stay in Romania.

Pied Wheatear (image Janos Olah)

i will be updating my diary every day while in Romania, so please stop by from time to time to see what's going on!

Friday 31 of May

My story always starts and ends the same way! With a flight! So here we go. Promptly 16.00 hours Parker car service picks me up from home to take me to Terminal 3. Checking in is easy as I am flying business class again! For a relatively small fee you have more space, better food and a nice glass of wine or 2! I can recommend it!

I meet Richard Steel the other tour member shortly after checking in and our flight leaves Heathrow slightly delayed. The business class section is rather empty!

The time difference with Bucharest, the capital of Romania, is 2 hours. So if all goes well we should arrive around 23.30. We will spend the night in a hotel in Bucharest. Hans Schouten, the old-timer, die-hard bird photographer, should already be there. Tomorrow Zoltan, our guide will pick us up from the hotel for what, hopefully will be, a fantastic bird photography tour.

We arrive at Bucharest airport around 23.30. Bags picked-up and ordered a taxi. Apparently, in the past, visitors to Romania got screwed by cab drivers, hence the new system at the airport whereby you order a taxi. Well we still got screwed. £50 for a 15 minutes cab drive.

We arrive at the hotel in a park. A rather strange place with security personal in and around the garden of the hotel, which is an old castle. Finally by 01.00 I can put my head on my pillow.

Looks nice but is shit

 

Saturday 1st of June

A gorgeous start of the day. Richard is already out and about and managed to photograph a Cuckoo near the lake. We meet Hans. Breakfast is poor and “all of a sudden’ we are being told that the credit machine has broken down. Meaning we have to pay cash. We hang about the hotel for most of the day. Around 3 o'clock Zoltan picks us up from the hotel. It will take around 6 hours to Mila 23, the first 4 1/2 hours by road and the last stretch by boat.

On leaving Bucharest, the country side is very reminiscent to the cold war era. Everywhere you look you see derelict buildings and massive agricultural sites with not a single bird or any kind of wildlife to be spotted! Not a great sight but it all changes when we reach the Danube river. The country side is then more like what you can find in Hungary. Less cultivated, a bit wilder and finally; birds!

Disaster strikes 30 minutes before we reach the launch side of the boat; a massive bang and we end up with a flat rear tyre. By cheer luck it happened almost opposite a trepair shop, so within no time we are back on the road again.

We reach the bank of the Danube river around 20.30 where our boat is already waiting tot take us to Mila 23, a remote village with a small hotel which can only be reached by boat. We set off and we arrive 22.15 at the hotel. We quickly check in, have a our dinner (i skipped the fried carp) and head for bed. Tomorrow up by 05.00 for our first boat trip into the delta of the Danube river.

Sunday 2nd of June

A gorgeous start of the day and by 05.30 we are all set to go! The Danube delta is a maze of creeks, small lakes with reed beds and small islands. As soon as we set off we see the first glossy ibis flying over, followed by the first Pelican. The first stop is with a Red-Necked Grebe in breeding plumage. The boat, of which you can see a picture in this diary, is purposely built for photography. One site of the boat is closed and the other side allows for 4 photographers to photograph the birds from a low angle. It works amazingly well and the boats man is able to steer the boat close to the birds. he turns the engine off and it is amazing how little scared the birds are. We photograph Pelicans, Black-Necked Grebes, Squacco Heron, Night Heron, Whiskered tern and a few other species.

From inside the boat with Richard Steel

Around 10.00 we head back to Mila 23 for a rest and lunch. The light is now very harsh. The second "assault" will be late afternoon. In total we will be staying here for 3 days, before heading to the Macin mountains. The first impression of this area is great! good opportunities for bird photography. The hotel is very nice and if you like Carp, you are in the right place.

Taken from the boat: Squacco Heron

After lunch and a quick nap, we head out again in the Danube delta. The weather has changed a bit, there is more wind and it has become cloudy. We go to another canal and lake "system to see if we can find the large group of Pelicans but unfortunately they are nowhere to be seen. 

We scout the immense canal system and manage to photograph various birds. We spent quite sometime with a Squacco heron who is hunting in the Yellow water lilies. We also find a Wood Sandpiper and  a variation of other birds. Still i thought the first part of our excursion this morning was better. 

On the way back we stop at a Kingfisher nest site but unfortunately the Kingfisher doesn't show. We notice that the Damsel flies are out in force, which in return attracts birds! Among them Hobby and Roller but as the light is not great,taking any decent images, is a no.

We head into another canal system and find a lone Pelican and a number of Squacco Herons fishing in the reed beds and water lilies. Just before we head for home, the sun comes through the clouds. For 5 minutes we can photograph the Squacco Herons in amazing light. Soon we are back. A fine first day in the Danube delta. Let's hope tomorrow will be as productive.

Last light in the Danube delta

Monday 3rd of June

The same drill as the previous day! Up by 05.00, a quick bite to eat and on the river by 05.30. I feel pretty tired, for sure the lack of sleep! The weather is pretty good this morning, less wind, some clouds: great light for some serious bird photography in my book. This morning we head in a northerly direction to check out some of the lagoons and lakes for the resident waterfowl. One special bird is also on the menu this morning; Red-Necked Grebe.

Whiskered tern colony setting

For those of you that might be tempted in this trip: the boat is very stable and is able to get to the very shallow parts of the lagoons and lakes. There is ample space in the boat for 4 photographers with backpacks and tripods. Trust me: you will not get seasick!

Soon we head into the Danube delta and along the way we find the usual birds like Night and Squacco Heron, Pygmy Cormorants and the first Marsh Harrier. The first stop is a small lagoon where we spot a Red-Necked Grebe family. We moor the boat and from there onwards is a waiting game! Our patience is rewarded and after 15 minutes the family show well and they give us great opportunities to photograph them, even with the parents feeding the chicks with some small fish.

Further down, we come across a large colony of Whiskered terns. We stay there for well over an hour! Some of the Terns are sitting already on eggs but the majority of the birds are still in nest building mode. Due to the fact that the boat is low, one can get some nice images either of birds in the sky or, almost, in a horizontal line on the Water lilies.

Last year there were hardly any Whiskered terns and there were quite a lot of Black-Winged terns, this year it is exactly the opposite! It shows how different each year can be.

Onwards we go and we come across a couple of Dalmatian Pelicans. Normally rather shy birds but this time they keep on preening on the bank of the small lake but eventually these Jumbo jets take flight!

All too soon we have to head back to Mila 23 as lunch is awaiting. We will go out again around 15.30 in the afternoon till dusk. A superb morning has come to an end! I wonder what else the Danube has in stock for us!

Egg stealing Hooded Crow

 

After lunch we promptly we leave Mila on our way to the next lagoon. We do not get very far. 500 meters from the Hotel a group of White Pelicans is feeding on small fish. We decide to park the boat and for the next hour or so we photograph the Pelicans feeding, flying in, taking off. It is absolutely brilliant.

It is very humid and we can see a thunderstorm approaching. Within 15 minutes it starts to rain but interestingly: the light remains very nice! One by one the Pelicans start to leave the scene. We also decide it is time to move on, however the boat got stuck in the mud and Zoltan has to get out of the boat to push it to deeper water.

Feeding Pelican near Mila 23

The bird life in the Danube delta is amazing! It must be one of the richest bird areas in Europe.  We march on into the maze of canals, lakes and small streams. One of the species that was (and still is) high on the list is the Glossy Ibis. We spot a couple of these birds along a canal and we slowly approach them. We can take some images but for whatever reason they got spooked and take off.

After an other 30 minutes boat ride we enter a lake filled with water lilies. The Squacco and Night Herons are out in force on the water lilies to feed on the small fish and frogs. It gives us great opportunities to photograph these birds. The light remains fantastic throughout.

Slowly we make our way back to Mila 23 but we spot a few Glossy Ibisses fouraging on the water lilies. We manage to approach them and are able to get some really nice images of these great looking birds. The light could have been a bit better but it will do!

By 21.00 hours we are back in the hotel. We have our diner and will get ready for bed soon. Tomorrow we have one more trip into the Danube before we head back to Tulcea.

Glossy Ibis

 

Tuesday 4th of June

The usual start of the day and by 05.30 we are on our way for the final trip into the Danube delta. Hans has decided to stay put as his legs hurt too much from sitting on the beanbags in the boat. This is also the only improvement Janos has to make! The beanbags make it difficult to get a good position behind your tripod. It would be better to have some low chairs. Other then that: this boat is fantastic!

The weather is great! No wind and we witness a great sunrise in the lagoons. The birds that we encounter are the usual suspects. We take some nice images of Night heron and try our luck with the Red-Necked Grebe. Unfortunately the birds don’t want to play today!

We decide to head for the Black-Necked Grebes and once we arrive we notice that the birds are a bit less tolerant of us. With a little bit of persistence we manage to take some nice images. We also find a pair of Black-Necked Grebes whereby the female is carrying the young chicks on her back. Difficult to approach but with the help of the 2x converter i manage to take some images. Other then that it is a relatively calm day! I suppose you can't expect everyday to be as good as the last!

Zoltan suggest we try for an alternative Kingfisher site but upon arrival there is no Kingfisher to be seen. We do see a couple of active Cuckoos and by simply standing on the bank of the river we manage to photograph them in flight!

Male Cuckoo in flight

From there onwards it is back to Mila 23. This afternoon we have the long boat journey back. As we are going upstream it will take us a good 4 hours to reach our hotel for the night. Tomorrow it is another 1 1/2 hour drive to the Macin mountains, for the second part of our tour.

We leave Milia 23 around 14.15 for the long boat journey back. The trip back is rather uneventful and the current is stronger then anticipated. Birds are far and between and we use the time to sleep, read a book or do nothing!  By 19.00 we arrive in Tulcea. No more boats for me for some time come!

Tomorrow we leave Tulcea around 05.00 in the morning for the 1 hour drive to the Macin mountains. A hide near a drinking pool will, hopefully, give us opportunities to photograph the birds that come to drink. In the past 2 weeks Levante Sparrowhawk, Sombre Tit, Larks stopped by! So the expectation among us is high. The hide has space for 2 photographers. The other 2 will do some more opportunistic stuff in the mountains and late afternoon the roles will be reversed.

So to round up the first part of the trip: the Danube delta is fantastic place for bird photography. I can seriously recommend it. Birds and photographic opportunities are endless. 2 ½ day should be sufficient but of course every year is different! The boat offers great cover for the serious photographers among us. The hotel was nice, food ok and the shower cold!

Paradise delta house, our hotel in Mila 23

Wednesday 5th of June

We leave Tulcia (a city i will NEVER come back to for sure) around 05.00 for the roughly 1 hour drive to the Macin Mountains. At the foot of the mountains is Macin,  a village, where we will be staying for one night.

The drive to Macin is painless. We see  a fox along the road and did i mention the zillion of stray dogs yet? Well it must be a Romanian speciality...they are everywhere!

We go straight up to the hide. Michael and Hans will do the morning session in the hide, while Rich and myself will use the car around the Macin plains to photograph the larks, buntings and other species that we might encounter. In the afternoon we do things the other way around.

The hide with the Macin mountains in the background

After dropping Michael and Hans off at the hide, Zoltan drives us to the plains around Macin. Mainly agricultural fields with wheat and sunflowers. We see various different Lark species. Among them Crested lark and Short-Toed Lark, which we manage to photograph. There are many Cuckoos around and again we are lucky to photograph male Cuckoos chasing down a female. Bird life is pretty impressive.

All in all it is pretty hard work to get the images. There are not a lot of rocks or twigs for the birds to sit on! With a bit of persistence we photograph a singing Corn bunting and a lovely Goldfinch. Soon Zoltans's mobile rings. It is Hans asking to be picked up. Zoltan first drops us off at our overnight acomodation. Words can not describe this place. It is... well rather outdated and hasn't been refurbished since the early fifties! I am glad we are only staying one night.

Hans and Michael are picked up and the morning session in the hide was very disappointing. Hardly any birds. They managed to photograph Turtle doves and not much else. Reason could be the fact that previous days it has been raining, so there is ample water available for the birds. Rich and myself are not very hopeful for the afternoon session.

The weather has been throughout pretty good with a bit of wind and slighty overcast. Pretty good for us photographers!

After lunch, Rich and myself are dropped off at the hide. We put up our equipment and wait. Within 30 minutes a Male Ortolan Bunting decides to come down for a drink and wash, shortly followed by Corn Buntings, Turtle Dove,  Red-backed Shrike and a Jay. Activity is not brilliant but at least we have some images to show for.

We see many Golden Orioles, Rollers and a Cuckoo but neither of them wish to stop by the drinking pool. A beautiful Lizard shows and close by a Nightingale sings his heart out. It is a beautiful place.

Corn Bunting visiting the hide

By 19.30 Zoltan picks us up. The other two had their expedition around the Macin plains and managed to get some images of the above mentioned Lark species. We head back to Macin and have diner in a small Restaurant. Food is pretty good!

Tomorrow Rich and myself will do a morning session in the hide. Michael and Hans will be stalking the Macin plain again and in the afternoon we do everything in reversed order. In the evening we drive to Constanza for our final 2 day stop. So far we can't really complain. We have some really nice images and hopefully the next 2 days will give us even more!

Thursday 6th of June

I was glad to have left the hotel in Macin. What a horrible palace to be. Dirty, old, insects on the floor in the bathroom. If you read this Janos: please change to another hotel because this was really below all standards in my book!

So let's refocus on the trip. We left around 06.00 hours. Rich and myself would be in the Macin hide while Hans and Michael would do some stalking on the Macin plains. In the afternoon we would swap "places".

To cut a long story short: the hide didn't produce anything. And i mean nothing. 2 Turtle Doves showed very briefly and other then that: ABSOLUTELY NOTHING! Very disappointing but on the the other hand: birds can come and go as they please. A possible reason for them not showing was the fact that it had rained rather heavily days before our arrival in Macin, so there was water in abundance.

By 12.00 Zoltan picks us up and with the other 2 we decide to leave after lunch for the Constanta area. Better to be there a bit earlier and photograph some birds in the afternoon then another afternoon in Macin looking at nothing!

We arrive at our place of destination around 16.00 hours. We see many different Lark and Bunting species like Calandra lark, Short-Toed Lark and Black-Headed Bunting. We take some nice images. This is a super place to be. The area where we are active is populated by a massive Wind Turbine Park. (Cogoleac)

We move on and end up Cheia, a beautiful spot, unfortunately ruined by litter. This place is great to photograph Souslik, the European Ground Squirrel and Black Wheatear. We spent a good hour here. I love these little critters and they were high on my to do list and are fairly easy to photograph....with a bit of patience.

Souslik

Around 19.00 we head back, past Cogoleac, to our hotel in Sinoe. We manage to photograph a Black-Headed Wagtail along the road. A beautiful bird. The hotel, by the way, is fantastic. What a luxury to have a fully filled fridge in the massive room!

Tomorrow we will head for the Bee eaters, more Souslik and anything else we can get in front of the camera.The weather forecast is not brilliant for tomorrow but i am sure we will have a productive day. So far the trip has been great but i believe that the Macin part should be taken out of the itinerary and replaced by more days in the Black Sea area. 

Displaying Calandra Lark

Friday 7th of June

The final full day of this awesome tour so far! Up by 05.00 hours and we leave the fantastic hotel by 05.30. First stop of the day will be Vadu. This small village on the edge of a Black sea lagoon is THE place for Collared Pratincole. This is one of the most beautiful wader species. As soon as we park the van up, we see a number of the birds sitting in a field. Insect repeliant was mandatory this morning as the place is infested with mosquitoes.

Soon we are trying to approach the birds surrounded by clouds of the biting insects. Not that much fun to be honest but sometimes you need to suffer to get the images! We get pretty close and snap away. Great birds! Soon some are flying over the field, which gives us the opportunity to take some flight shots. After an hour we call it a day. The mosquitoes are getting too much for us.

Next stop are the Bee-eaters. It is a 30 minute drive and hen we arrive we can see the birds flying around. We put up 2 portable hides and Rich and myself go in first while Hans and Michael will try their luck on the resident Souslik colony. We take some great images. Perched birds, birds passing on the "catch of the day" to each other and incoming birds. After a good 1 1/2 hour Hans and Michael take our place while we give the Sousliks a try. I really love this small (endangered in parts of Euorpe) rodent.

We also photographed Hoopoe and crested lark, singing on a rock. This place has an incredible rich bird life and i know already that i will be back one day. opportunities are endless in this part of Europe for serious bird photography.

We head back to the hotel for lunch and a rest. Around 15.30 hours we will go out again and try our luck on waders, larks and shrikes.

Collared Pratincole in flight

Out again by late afternoon. The weather has changed a bit. More clouds and we can hear thunder in the distance. We first head off to Grindul Lupilor, which is a Biosphere lagoon. We drive along the edge and come across many different birds. Among them Pelican, Stilt, Kentish Plover and Spoonbill to name a few. It is a very interesting place and if we could have spent more time there, i am sure we would have come away with images.

On the way back to Sinoi, we come across many Black-Headed Wagtails and when they sit on top of the grain stems, they make for lovely images. Still not that easy as the birds are quite wary at times.

It starts to rain rather heavy but as we make our way to Cogoleac (the windmill area) it dies down. We want to drive along the 2 mile road as it can be very productive for buntings and larks. We come across several Black-Headed Buntings but the birds don't want to play. We take pictures of Roller, Tawny Pipit, Short-Toed Lark and Calandre Lark. It is a very bird rich area and who ever wants to visit Romenia for bird photography should put this area on his/her shortlist.

On the way back we try our luck with Spanish Sparrow but these birds are rather shy and always in cover, so no result there! To top it all off, we come across a Black-Headed Bunting and Ortolan Bunting, both sitting on top a Sunflower. We take our pictures but unfortunately the light is not in our favour.

Singing Ortolan Bunting

By 20.30 we are back in our hotel. Tomorrow one more quick session with the Bee Eaters and we will try our luck with waders. Around 10.00 we will head for Bucharest airport. This will take us 3 1/2 hours. The final part of my diary will be updated Sunday, latest Monday. I hope you all find it an interesting read. As a bird (nature photographer i am very impressed with the potential of Romenia for bird photography. I will be back for sure.

Saturday 8th of June

The final day of this fantastic trip to Romania has started. Today we start a little bit later. Breakfast by 06.00 hours and on the road by 06.30 hours.

Hans, Rich and myself want to spend more time with the Bee-eaters, while Michael wants to do a bit of stalking with Zoltan. It is only a 15 minutes drive to the bee-eater site. The weather is rather chilly and foggy. Some of the birds are already out, sitting on perches, waiting for the sun to warm them up.

Activity remains rather low. I have pre-focused on a twig, hoping to take some images of landing bee-eaters. Rich told me that it is best to focus just behind the twig and switch to manual focus. No need to look through the viewfinder. Just keep your finger on the trigger and as soon as a bird attempts to land: let it rip!

Sounds easy: unfortunately the birds didn't want to play. Around 07.30 the sun starts to hit the Bee-eaters and activity increases a bit. I am able to take a couple of landing Bee-eater images but around 08.00 hours Zoltan arrives to pick us up. End of the show!

Bee-eater

We make a short final tour around the area. We photograph Spanish sparrow, Great Reed Warbler and Yellow Wagtail. By 09.30 hours we are back in the hotel, pack our bags and leave for the 3 1/2 hours trip to Bucharest. We arrive there around 14.00 hours, say goodbye to Zoltan (an excellent guide), check in for our return flight to London and by 17.30 hours we are airborne. 

So what are my thoughts about this trip? I have been on many different trips around Europe to photograph birds. This trip to Romania scores high on my list. The first days in the Danube delta were absolutely brilliant. The Macin moutains were rather poor but i think this has more to do with te abundance of available water, meaning that the birds were not tempted to stop by the drinking pool. The final days around the black sea were very good as well and i could have easily spend a further day or 2 there. The abundance of bird life in Romania is amazing and there are ample opportunities to photograph birds.

Rich Steel worded it perfectly: this trip was hard work and you will need to work to get your images, which made this trip even more rewarding. This trip is NOT for photographers who think the birds will come to them!

The weather has been fine throughout the trip with a bit of rain and light overcast, making it perfect for photography. We generally didn't photograph from around 11.00 hours till around 15.00 hours as the light was to harsh. The other tour members were great company: Hans, Rich and Michael made the trip very enjoyable and it was great to be on another trip without so called Nature photographers who don't know the difference between a Sparrow and a Starling, spend most time on their Twitter account and who are mainly interested in themselves and how others see them.

So if you are interested in this trip, i would get in touch with Saker tours. Of course feel free to contact me with any questions or remarks. Happy to answer them.

Fact file Romania trip

The trip was organized by Saker tours. I have used them many times in the past and they are superb! Cost for the trip was roughly £1500 inclusive of transport, guidance, all meals, non alcoholic drinks and single room accommodation. Hotels were generally of acceptable standard with the exception of the Hotel in Macin, which was just below par. The hotel in Sinoi was excellent.

Cost for a return flight from Heathrow to Bucharest was approximately £250. I decided to upgrade to Club Europe for an additional £150.

Weather in Romania in May/June is generally hot with temperatures between 25-30 degrees Celsius. Clothing, in my case, T-shirts, shorts, a few long sleeved shirts, low trekking shoes, insect repellant is a MUST.

Camera equipment used: Canon EOS 1DX, Canon EOS5DMIII, Canon S100. Lenses that i used: Canon 600 Mark 2, Canon 70-300L, Canon 400/5.6 for flight shots. !.4 and 2.0 converter. For macro lovers: Macin mountains is a great place to photograph butterflies, so you might want to consider taking a macro lens with you.

I always wanted a vintage Dacia