Romania with a difference diary

Mid May sees my 2nd trip of 2014 and it’s to Romania for the 2nd time. I will be deep down the Danubia delta to photograph the European jackal. It is one of the last strongholds of this mammal in Europe.

The rest of this trip will be spent photographing waterfowl from a purpose-built boa and a number of hides which cater for the photography of species such as the Roller, Bee-eater and Little owl.

The Danube Delta is a very important wetland in Europe. More then 150 bird species use the delta as a stop over to their breeding grounds in Russia, Arctic and Mongolia so it should be a very productive trip.

As long as the internet is up and running, I will be updating my diary every day. I hope you will stop by from time to time to see where this journey is taking me.

Image courtesy Carlo Galliani/Skua Nature

Saturday 17th of May

Actually the trip started a day earlier, so lets rewind for a minute. I met the other troopers at Heathrow Terminal 5 late afternoon on Friday.  As so often on my trips to Eastern Europe i decided to fly business class (sorry Richard) together with Kevin and Paul. The flight was rather uneventful and by midnight we arrived in Bucharest. Hotel shuttle picked us up and 15 minutes later we were in our EURO 25 a night hotel. A quick beer in the, not so busy bar and to bed  we went.

Up at 05.30 hours. Marius, our driver, picked us up at 07.00 hours for the 4 hours drive to Tulcea, where we arrived around noon. It was great to see Zoltan again. A superb guide from Saker tours. We boarded our boat, which will be our floating hide for the next 4 days before we move to our final destination.

I haven't mentioned the weather but actually it was pretty good and became better later on during the day. The forecast is superb. Let's hope the birds and mammals will cooperate to make this trip even better then last year.

We arrived at Mila 21 around 13.00 hours, quickly unpacked, got the camera gear ready and had lunch. If there is one thing i was looking forward to , it must have been my reunion with the many fresh water fish dishes: there is nothing nicer then a nice piece of carp! (not)

We boarded our floating hide around 15.00 hours and we instantly saw Glossy ibis and White Pelican, The delta is beautiful and everywhere you hear the chorus of the millions of tfrogs!. The delta is a maze of small canals and then it opens up into shallow lakes. Every time you are surprised what you see. Whiskered tern, Black tern, Squacco heron, Purple heron and the list goes on!

We managed to snap away at some Dalmatian and White  pelicans, while Richard was demonstrating the new Unique Ballhead! Pictures to follow. 

Around 19.00 we started to make our way back to Mila 21. The sky was clear and the light gorgeous and this is when we managed to photograph 2 Common terns and a Red-necked grebe is fantastic light! For me the highlight of this first day.

We were back around 21.00 hours, had something to eat. Tomorrow the second day starts at 04.30 hours. We are all excited about the prospects of what hopefully will come.

Photographers DO travel light

 

Pygmy Cormorants in the Danube delta

 

Sunday 18th of May

How often does it happen that i oversleep on my nature photography trips? I can honestly say:never! But the inevitable happened this morning, i should have been downstairs by 04.30 hours and a knock on my door told me it was almost 05.00 hours! 2 nights with hardly any sleep didn't do much good for me....or was it the Romanian glass (or 2) of White wine?

With a little delay we departed. A beautiful, calm morning with a moon, calling Cuckoo and Glossy ibis flying overhead.. What a wonderful place this part of Europe is!

We set off in a more southern direction, scanning the creeks, lakes and canals for perched bids. We saw Squacco heron, Night heron and Glossy ibis but it was still a bit too dark to take any images. The light does come quickly, so by around 06.00 hours we were able tot take our first images. A Squacco heron with frog started off a pretty good morning session in the Danube. Later on followed by Black-necked and Red-necked grebes, fighting Common terns, Black tern and Whiskered tern.

In a creek we saw a Purple heron  Slowly we made our way towards the heron and much to our amazement the heron didn't move and continued hunting and we could take some really nice images. I don't think Richard Steel took his finger of the shutter release once! To top it all up we also witnessed displaying  Black-necked grebes and a fight with the resident Great-crested grebes.

Last year we didn't manage to see any Purple herons and NO Black terns. This year, both birds are well presented in the delta. It shows that every year is different and that new opportunities are always present. The first Rose-coloured starlings appeared as well. We saw a flock of 30 birds flying over. If there is plenty of food available, they normally breed in delta.

Around 10.00 hours we make our way back to Mila 23 for a rest, lunch, recharge the batteries. A very good first morning. We will leave again this afternoon around 15.30 hours. First objective will be the kingfisher, followed by Glossy ibis. 

Squacco heron with catch of the day

After lunch, a quick nap and a recharge of the batteries, we set sail around 15.30 hours. First stop: Kingfisher. Last year we had no luck with this beautiful bird, so hopefully it would work all out this year. The main difference between this trip and last year's trip is the timing. Last year we were in the Danube in the breeding season, so there were relatively LESS birds as they were already breeding. Now we are mid May and still many birds are displaying or just starting to breed.

We anchor the boat, the current is rather strong and the boat moves a bit up and down the stream but within 15 minutes the kingfisher appears. We spent around 2 hours there and the bird visits the perch regularly during that time, offering many good opportunities to photograph it. Meanwhile a thunderstorm starts to develop, it starts to rain a bit but by the time we move on, the weather has cleared and we are heading for a lovely evening in the Danube delta.

We move to a small lake just behind Mila 23. i recall this same lake from last year. We photographed fishing Squacco and Night herons there, as well as a flock of Glossy Ibis on waterlilies but that specific evening the weather wasn't great.

This time we are well rewarded. Many fishing Heron species, catching frogs, a glossy Ibis in beautiful late evening sunlight foraging along the reed beds and a Little egret (Paul calls it a Smurf egret, i wonder why?)  We regulatly need to take converters out as the birds are so close. An amazing start of this trip. The decision to move this trip from June to May was definitely a good move.

For those interest in the camera equipment. Most of us (basr Kevin who uses Nikon) are using Canon bodies with lenses from 500-600mm with and without converters. For shorter work a 300mm works great, especially for flight shots of the many Tern species. For support either tripod with gimabl or video head.

By 20.30 hours we are back in Mila 23. Fantastic start of this unique trip. Tomorrow we will continue our quest for more images and visit more of the lagoons and canals in this unique wilderness.

Hunting Squacco heron

 

Me in the boat, no idea who the fellow in the background is
 
Monday 19th of May
 
The same drill as the previous day. Up by 04.00 hours and this time i didn't oversleep. A beautiful morning, no wind and by 05.00 hours we were off into the Danube.Generally by 06.00 there is enough light to start to photograph.
 
On a small lake we find a number of Black-necked grebes. Last year fairly easy to photograph, this year far more difficult. The birds stay well away from our floating hide and despite various attempt, we do not manage decent  shots.
Various Tern species are present as well. Either resting on the vegetation or flying around, trying to catch insects. We position our boat and try our luck. I start of with the 600 mm, but soon enough i swap it for the 300 mm with a 1.4 converter.Even with the shorter lens, it is still difficult to get good images of the erratic flying terns, especially the Black tern version!
 
Soon we move on to the small lake where we photographed a Purple heron and Red-necked grebes the day before. No Purple heron this morning but we do find the Red-necked grebes. They give us great opportunities to photograph them. Further down the lake we find many Squacco herons along the reedbeds fishing and we even see a few a few Gras snakes.
 
We continue to our final stop this morning: the lake where we were very successful yesterday evening. There were many Whiskered terns flying around, grabbing insects from the water plants. We park our floating hide but even with state of the art autofocus, it is more miss then hit!
 
Around 10.00 hours we make the journey back to Mila 23. Not the most productive morning but such is life! You have good days and bad days!Finally, before i forget, congratulations to Brendon Bigall's 22 birthday! 
 
Calling Red-necked grebe
Late the in the afternoon we set off  into the delta. Photographing from the boat is not that easy. The boats always rocks a bit sideways. For a moment you have the bird perfectly framed, the next it is either up or down in your frame! 
Also the boat needs to be positioned perfectly and there is where the boats man, Tomi, comes in. He knows very well what photographers expect and time after time again manages to move the boat as close and silent as possible near the "target".
 
As important as the boats man is our guide Zoltan. He sits in front of the boat (under cover) scanning the lakes and canals for possible birds, assisting Tomi to position the boat so we can take our images. I can't fault their dedication and persistence. Absolutey brilliant!
 
We visit different lakes but the birds are a bit sparse today. Maybe it is because it is very warm. We manage to find some White and Dalmatian pelicans and take some really nice flight shots. A Ferrugeous duck is very cooperative as well, even allowing for a nice take off shot.
 
Around 18.00 hours we decide to head back to the lake where we were yesterday evening to try our luck again with the many different heron species that were fishing there. On the way back we are lucky to see a Purple heron flying over low and we manage some nice images.
 
When we arrive at the lakes, we can see the Squacco, Night and Grey herons fishing along the reed beds. Glossy ibis is present as well. We manage to take some nice images of all these birds. It is (again) a beautiful evening. The light starts to fade around 20.15 hours and we make our way back to Mila 23.
 
Tomorrow a last morning session in the delta before we move on to another exciting location: Ultima Frontera
 
Purple heron

Tuesday 20th of May

The last morning into the Danube delta. Compared with last year i find that there are many more birds and bird species. I believe it is due to the fact that the breeding season is just starting and some birds have not spread out yet. For example Purple heron was very scarce last year. This year we have seen them every day. Another bird missing on last year's trip was the Black tern. They do breed in the delta but in some years they hardly show up. Every year in the delta is different!

The last few days we have seen many Black terns and our main objective this morning  is trying to get some good images of these beautiful birds. When we set off there is no wind, it promises to be a beautiful and hot day.

We make our way to one of the small lakes not too far from Mila 23. There is a thin layer of fog hanging over the water and thanks to Zoltan we find a large number of Black terns, hovering over the water, displaying and even mating! We position the boat with the rising sun coming from behind us and start to take many images. The Black tern was high on my wish list and i do not think that any of us could possibly get better images then what we got this morning!

We leave the Black terns in peace and scan other lakes and canals for other birds. We managed to find a pair of Red-footed falcons, perched in a tree. Not the best position but we spend some time with them and take some images. Further it goes to our final stop in the delta: a small lake with Whiskered terns feeding. We anchor the boat and shoot away.

Soon the light becomes to harsh and we decide to pack it all in. It has been a good first half of this trip. Cooperative birds, great weather and good company! After lunch we will make our way to a very special location; Ultima Frontera, literally on the Ukraine/Romanian border. The boat trip will take approximately 1 1/2 hour. 

Black tern

 

Around 13.00 hours we leave Mila 23 and make our way to Ultima Frontera. This is a new reserve/venture. It used to be a fish farm and has been converted to a nature reserve with a large number of hides for nature/bird photographers. There are hides for Little owl, Bee-eater, Roller, passerines and the ultimate prize: Golden jackel.

We arrive after a 2 hour boat journey. Ultima Frontera is literally on the Romanian/Ukraine border. Needless to say: we were stopped by the border police and checked out.

Ultima frontera has a lot of potential and has opened it's doors for photographers this year. The reserve is managed by the Skua nature group, based in Italy. The hotel is absolutely wonderful and it is great to have a hot shower!

We plan our days for the next few days and we will be trying a number of the hides that are available. Later in the afternoon we make our first trip around the reserve and try our luck with Bearded tit.  Mixed success. We see many Purple herons, White pelicans, Roller and Hoopoe....just to name a few of the resident birds. It is truly a beautiful reserve. fish ponds, shrubs and large reed beds make up for the scenery and it is that, that makes it so attractive for so many bird species.

A few Cuckoos are active and we try our luck with flight shots. We slowly make our way back to the hotel, where we arrive around 20.00 hours. Time for a shower and a meal. Tomorrow Rich and myself will be trying our lukc in the Golden jackal hide, while Kevin will go for the Bee eaters and the Paul will try luck with Little owl and Roller.To be continued!

Ultima Frontera visitor pick up

 

A bit of stalking

 

Cuckoo

Wednesday 21th of May

By 04.00 hours i was up and having a cup of coffee. This morning would be spend in the Jackal hide. Ultima Frontera is well known for the presence of the Golden jackal. originally confined to Bulgaria and Greece. This mammal, is slowly increasing its presence throughout Europe. it mainly takes over wolf territory. Golden jackals have even been spotted  in Germany.

Photographing them is not very easy as they are very timid. Not here so in Ultima Frontera where you stand a good possibility to photograph them . Around 20 individuals are living on the extensive estate.

By 05.30 in the hide. The jackals are lured with fish. The weather is rather overcast this morning and there is quite a bit of wind as well. Around 06.00 hours we see movement and the first Golden jackal appears. They are much larger then the African jackal. The poor light forces me to use higher ISO but it is a fantastic experience to photograph these mammals.

After 20 minutes the 2 Jackals disappear and the stage is taken over by the resident Magpies and Hooded crows. I try flight shots of the Magpies with some success.

Around 11.00 hours we are picked up and driven back to the hotel. Hopefully we will get a second chance, so we can improve on the images that we have. A fine morning session comes to an end!

Golden jackal

After lunch Paul and myself decide to spend the afternoon in a hide overlooking a small lagoon. Should be good for Purple heron and Pygmy cormorant. Unfortunately it turns out to be a very quiet afternoon. We briefly see a Purple heron and the most regular visitor is the Muskrat swimming around with vegetation.

I call it a day around 18.00 hours ( We are 2 hours ahead of the UK ) and i make my way back to the hotel for a beer and to update my website. I suppose an "off day" is part of this hobby and hopefully it will be better again tomorrow.

Ultima Frontera is a fantastic place to be. I am not sure if the current hide structure works very well  .The place has a massive potential but hides need to be improved a bit. In my opinion, there are too many of them and not all of them are positioned correctly. For example the hide i spent in this afternoon ,  is set too high up from the actual pond.. You are shooting at a slight angle. I think it would be better to have LESS hides but BETTER hides. (a bit like the hides Janos Olah has in the Hortobagy). 

Let's not forget that this is the first year they are fully operational and i am sure over time the place will be superb and attract even more bird-nature photographers from all over Europe. The top attraction are the Golden jackels and they can almost be guaranteed!

So that brings me to the birds. As stated earlier: it is absolutely top end in that respect. To give you an idea of some of the species you can expect: Cuckoo, Roller, Bee eater, Pygmy cormorant, Purple heron (never seen so many), Hoopoe (as i write this i am starring at one in the garden), Bearded tit, Marsh harrier, White-tailed eagle, various warbler species like Thrush nightingale and the list goes on and on!

The hotel is brand new, very comfortable and the food is absolutely superb. Everyone tries to make you feel at home and go out of their way to please you. Tomorrow we are trying some other hides for Golden jackal and White-tailed eagle. I stop writing because i am having my chilled Ciuc premium Romanian lager!

Purple heron

 

Thursday 22nd of May
 
The very early mornings are taking its toll! i feel very tired this morning and it takes me some time to get going. I suppose an "old man" like me, needs to take a rest from time to time. On the other hand:: it is part of the "pain" i need to suffer in order to get my images!
 
So 04.00 hours it is again. a beautiful morning and the moon is up. I hear the first birds singing and calling. Richard and myself have decided to spend the morning in the Southern Golden  jackal hide. We would like to try to improve on the jackal images from yesterday.
 
By 04.30 hours, Luca drives us to the hide, put out the bait (a massive carp). Meanwhile we make ourselves comfortable in the hide and wait for things to come. Within 10 minutes we see the faint contour of a Golden jackal approaching the hide. There is not enough light to take any images. Thankfully the jackal has other plans and decided to go for a walk in the country side!
 
After a little while the first Jackdaws, Magpies and Hooded crows start to feed on the dead carp. All of a sudden we see this hugh bird flying towards the hide: a White-tailed eagle lands in the dead tree and starts to warm itself in the first rays of the rising sun.
 
Eventually the eagle comes down and starts to feast on the carp. From time to time it looks up and becomes a bit edgy. Then we see the Golden jackal approaching the dead carp and what happens next is a stand of between a wing flapping White-tailed eagle and a jackal growling and showing its shiny white teeth. Near impossible to photograph unfortunately!
 
The eagle gives up and flies back to its tree and, in the meantime, a second eagle has joined and sits in the opposite tree watching the jackal taking chunkc out of the carp. From time to time the jackal disappears down a trench with its catch and this gives the eagles the opportunity to feed as well.
 
The jackal is very protective of the carp and from time to time it is running around like a madman growling and showing his (her) teeth to the resident birds.It is a truly magnificent experience and it is this that has made Ultima Frontera so famous among nature photographers.
 
We snap away and by 09.00 hours all turns quiet. The jackal makes another brief appearance and disappear in the reedbeds. Zoltan comes and picks us up from the hide and take us back to the hotel. This hide is very suitable for shorter lenes. Richard and myself opted to go for the 2.8/300 with and without converter. A 500 or 600 mm would be too long.
 
So far it has been a great week. We still have 1 1/2 day left and we will be trying some of the other hides as well as going on a short trip tomorrow to photograph different wader species.This afternoon, we will be trying to get some more images of Bearded tit and i will be spending some time in one of the hides for Purple heron and Great white egret.
 
Golden jackel

 

White-tailed eagle and Hooded crow
After lunch we all needed a rest. Today was probably the hottest day of the week r. By 15.30 hours we are out in force. This time we make use of the electric mobility scooters. Never thought i was going to make use of them at such a young age!
 
Richard and myself went to one of the hides overlooking a lagoon. In front of the hide were some wooden polls in the water and these were frequently used by Whiskered and Common terns, We managed some nice shots of both species but overall it was a rather quiet experience.
 
We set off along the dirt tracks that run along the many ponds, frequently stopping to listen for Bearded tit. We did see them but as there was quite a bit of wind the birds generally stayed low in the reedbeds.After a number of fruitless attempts we headed back the first stop. This final stop was bingo! We found a family of youngsters and adults and they gave some good photographic opportunities.
 
We met up with Kevin and Paul as they were also heading back to our hotel. Kevin had a great afternoon photographing Bee eaters, while Paul had some lovely images taken from the Marsh harrier hide.
 
By 19.45 hours back in the hotel. A great day had come to an end. Tomorrow the final day here. In the morning we will give the Golden jackal one more try and in the afternoon we will leave the estate for a short drive to an area where we hope to find  Pratincoles and other waders.
 
Bearded tit
Why does this remind me of the sitcom Benidorm? Mobility scooters maybe?

 

Friday 23rd of May
 
This morning i had a hour more sleep! Up at 05.00 hours for a second visit to the Northern jackal hide. By 05.40 hours we are on our way.The Weather is, unfortunately, cloudy, but should improve during the day.
 
By 06.00 hours we are sitting in the hide, waiting for things to come. 15 minutes later we see the first Jackal approaching the bait, followed by another 2 Jackals. A male and 2 females (by the look of it). The male is very dominant and does not allow the others to join breakfast. At times agressivelly chasing the 2 smaller Jackals off.
 
The animals stick around much longer then during our first attempt and we are able to take many more images. The light conditions force us to use anything from ISO 1600 to ISO 3200 but for the Canon 1DX and the 5D Mark3 ,this is not a problem.
 
Eventually the Jackals wander off and disappear into the wilderness of Ultima Frontiera. All in all we are very pleased with the results. We have seen Jackals during all 3 attempts and have some nice images of these great predators.
 
Around 07.30 hours Zoltan picks us up and brings us to another hide where we hope to photograph Purple heron. The hides is situated along a small shallow lake and is ideal feeding territory for Egrets and Heron species.
We settle down and wait for the first birds to appear. We take some nice images of male and female Kingfisher, Squacco heron catching a fish, Great White egret and Pygmy cormorant. Richard wants to photograph Bee eaters and decides to move to the hide "next" door.
 
It is getting a bit quieter but i spot a Golden jackal on the other side of the small lake. Around 12.00 hours we return to our hotel for lunch. I don't think i have mentioned this yet but the food is absolutely superb!
 
This afternoon we will leave Ultima Frontiera for a short drive to photograph Pratincoles and  other waders species. The trip is now slowly coming to an end and tomorrow we will return home.  
 
Pygmy cormorant

Around 15.30 hours we left Ultima Frontiera for a 40 minutes drive in easterly direction. We were heading for a muddy flat lying area where a colony of Pratincoles held residence. Main roads in this part of Romania are not blessed with smooth tarmac. Instead we were driving all the way on a dirt track.

In a way it feels like modern civilization hasn't reached this part of europe. Call it a time warp::small villages, dirt tracks, a landscape reminiscent of the 60s and an unbelievable density of birds, butterflies and wild flowers. I hope it will stay like it is. I am really impressed by the beauty of this part of Romania.

We arrive at our destination and we find the birds sitting and flying around. They are not nesting yet. Normally this starts to kick of in June. The 2 youngsters decide that it is time for some mud crawling, while i just sit on my rear end waiting for things to happen. I have opted for the 2x converter and it was the right choice! We all manage to take some nice images of this beautiful bird.

Soon we decide to head back to Ultima Frontiera, making some stops along the road. We photograph Black-winged stilt and a Roller also decided to cooperate. Again we see many Purple herons flying along the reed beds and small lakes. I believe i have said it before: i have never seen so many of them in such a small area. Ultima Frontiera should be high on a birders list!

We arrive back around 19.00 hours. Time to do a bit of packing. Tomorrow we have to deal with a rather long track back home to london. We leave at 08.00 hours for a 2 hours boat trip to Tulces. There the taxi will take us, in 4 hours, to Bucharest and the final leg is the 3 1/2 hours flight to london.

Before we leave: we will have one more session with  Ultima frontiera's ultimate attraction, the animal that decided us to come here in the first place: the golden jackal!

Pratincole

Saturday 24th of May

The last morning in Ultima Frontiera. Before we leave we are having one more session in the Northern jackal hide. It is a beautiful morning and by 05.30 hours we are sitting in the hide ready for things to come. Did i mention brief? Well it was very brief! The jackal appears within 10 minutes, snatches a piece of fish and wanders off! On top of that the inside of the glass in the hide was steaming up, so not ideal to take pictures.

Half an hour later and we are back ion the hotel. We start to pack our belongings, have breakfast, a shower and meet up with Max. Max is the manager of Ultima Frontiera and we tell him about our experiences with the hides and what we think should change to make this awesome place even better! We say goodbye to, what has becoming, one of my most memorable trips. 

By 08.00 hours we start the long journey back. a 2 hour speedboat journey over the Danube river to Tulcea, followed by a 4 hour Mini bus road journey to Bucharest and the final leg: a 3 1/2 hour flight with British Airways to London. Driving in Romania, by the way,  is a hairy experience and there were a few scary moments along the way!

I am home by 19.00 hours, tIred but i can look back on a fantastic trip. The Danube delta is beautiful but Ultima Frontiera is really an ultimate destination for nature photographers, bird watchers and those who like flowers, butterflies and dragonflies. Go there before the hordes arrive! You will not be disappointed. You can always email me if you have any questions: happy to help.  

Rest me to say thank you to: Richard Steel, Paul Beastall, Kevin Lunham and Zollie for a great trip. It is great to be on a trip with nature/bird photographers that are interested in taking pictures of birds instead of being obsessed with selfies and social media. I hope we will be going on a trip soon. Zollie: thanks for the guiding! You were great as always and finally a big thank you to Lucca at Ultimate Frontiera. 

Ultima Frontiera's star attraction: the Golden jackal

Factsheet Romania with a difference trip

This trip was organized through Saker tours (www.sakerours.com). Cost of this one week trip was approximately £1850 and includes everything, except alcoholic drinks. Flight were with British airways, cost for a coach class ticket is £250. We upgraded to business class for £150 return. (www.ba.com)

Our flight was on a Friday night, arriving in Bucharest around midnight. We stayed in Hotel Charter, near the airport. Cost for a room: £25. They also have a airport shuttle

Ultima Frontiera opened it's doors for photographers this year and we were the first serious photographers trying out the facilitites. Some hides are better then others but the overall experience was great. Ultima Frontiera is managed by the Skua Nature group. (www.skuanature.com)

Equipment used; Canon bodies, lenses from 24 mm to 600 mm. Please note that for the Golden jackal a zoom lens (70-200 or 70-300) could be very useful.

The Whiskered tern hide and Ultima Frontiera's extensive reedbeds

 


Ultima Frontiera map