|Romania 2008 Tour Report 27th May- 7th June|
After a safe flight with WizzAir from Luton we arrived in Bucharest's second airport, Baneasa around lunchtime. Our Romanian guide Andu was once again waiting for us and we were escorted onto our transport, a brand new Volkswagen minibus with our driver for the next 12 days, Vasile. A four hour journey from Bucharest to Tulcea followed, stopping at Ciucurova around half way for a well appreciated birding stop. Throughout the journey we saw White Storks on nests in various localities. A few Rollers were seen on the wires along with Red-backed and Lesser Grey Shrikes. At Ciucurova we were fortunate to see Ortolan Bunting as the fine sunny weather gave excellent visibility. We arrived at our hotel in Tulcea by early evening and enjoyed a superb three course meal whilst looking out over the Danube. A great start to the holiday.
Our first full day in Romania was spent exploring the variety of habitats in Dobrogea, starting off with Somova Forest and the Monastery at Celic Dere. Some of the highlights here were Sombre Tit, Middle Spotted Woodpecker, Levant Sparrowhawk, Hobby, Honey Buzzard, Booted Eagle, Woodlark and 4 Red-rumped Swallows. The star bird though for many was a single Thrush Nightingale, a new species for many of the team. After the woodlands and grasslands of Celic Dere we spent the later part of the afternoon exploring some of the wetland habitats at Plopu and Murighiol. At Plopu we had a wide variety of birds, for some of us life species. These started with the rare Pallas Gull (Great Black-headed Gull) and continued with a couple of Dalmatian Pelicans, good numbers of Collared Pratincole, Black-winged Stilt, Avocet, and a Spoonbill. When arriving at Murighiol, a flock of pelicans flew down, landing just in front of us. It was a superb close view of the birds posing for us for several minutes. Other highlights were Black-necked Grebe, Ferruginous Duck, Mediterranean Gull, Sandwich and Black Terns and 3 Red-footed Falcons flying low, alongside us. On the way back to Tulcea we had a short stop for Bee-eaters and Roller. Another superb meal in our hotel at the side of the Danube in Tulcea ended the day on a high.
After a hearty buffet breakfast at our luxurious hotel we walked the short distance along the tow path alongside the hotel down to the harbour. Here, our boat was waiting for us to take us deep into the Danube Delta itself. The first part of the journey was down the wide cargo channels of the Danube and we passed some large vessels carrying a variety of produce as we headed deeper into the Delta. Red-necked and Great Crested Grebes were frequently seen diving as the channels got steadily narrower and we entered areas that only our small boat could access. Over 1000 Great Cormorant and 200 Pygmy Cormorant were seen flying over the channels to their breeding grounds and Squacco, Night, Purple and Grey Herons were numerous. A few duck species added to our list today including Gadwall, Shoveler, Garganey and Ferruginous Duck. After lunch our skipper took the boat to the breeding grounds of Red-footed Falcons deep in the Danube delta where a small island of trees was occupied by at least 10 pairs. Whiskered Terns were a constant presence in this area. Great views were had of Grey-headed Woodpeckers in the Willow Carr and warblers included Icterine, Great Reed Warbler and Blackcap. Penduline Tit was heard continually in the willows and a Golden Oriole gave splendid views as its bright yellow plumage caught the afternoon sun. On the large Fortuna Lake, huge numbers of White and a few Dalmatian Pelicans were seen at quite close quarters. The highlight of the day though, was a immature Pallid Harrier which swooped low alongside the boat and gave us amazing views. After a whole day spent exploring the channels our boat moored at the village of Maliuc in the very heart of the Delta. Here, we were taken to our hotel and were able to observe good numbers of Redstarts in the surrounding carr. An excellent meal followed of traditional Romanian Fish courses including Catfish, Carp and Pike and all washed down with complimentary home-made wine!30th May
Another day was spent on the boat exploring the channels of the Danube Delta. 20 Black-necked Grebe were a morning highlight and as we delved deeper into the delta. The sheer numbers of birds was breathtaking. 400 Night Heron and 600 Pygmy Cormorant were seen as wellas 70 Glossy Ibis and 100 Squacco Heron. 15 Spoonbill were also observed, several feeding in the shallow waters at the edge of the channels and giving excellent photographic opportunities. Excellent views were also had of 3 separate White-tailed Eagle as they hunted over the delta and 2 Black Woodpeckers, which posed magnificently on a fork shaped tree. As we navigated the narrower channels, one of the biggest highlights of the day was a family party of Wild Boar swimming across, a large female with 5 juveniles. The boat also moored up a few times to explore some of the islands and the village of Caraorman where Fire-bellied Toad and European Pond Terrapinadded to the list of non-bird species seen. Overnight was spent in our hotel at Maliuc where Tawny Owl was heard calling.
After another excellent breakfast we left Maliuc Village and boarded the boat with our luggage for the next leg of our journey. The whole morning was spent traversing the Danube to return to Tulcea where the minibus was waiting for us. Along the way, we saw plenty of birds including many Rollers and 50 White Pelican amongst the usual array of herons and egrets and a single Caspian Tern flew over. Once aboard the minibus it was then an hours journey by road to Babadag Forest. Here we spent the rest of the day walking through the rich and beautiful heathlands, grasslands and woodlands of the forest. Syrian Woodpecker gave us good views here as did Calandra Lark and Nightingale. Ortolan Bunting was heard calling and a male Levant Sparrowhawk was observed hunting. Many butterflies were also seen, Queen of Spain Fritillary being particularly numerous amongst the Silver Studded Blues and Hungarian Skipper. Babadag Forest was a superb spot to have our picnic lunch, freshly prepared from the minibus as we sat in the dappled sunshine amongst the wild flowers. A Giant Cricket was found here and rapidly became the centre of all the photographers' attentions. After another excellent day we headed to the Black Sea coast to the hotel complex at Mamaia for our overnight stay.
Another warm sunny morning greeted us for our first day on the coast, although the wind was stronger than it had been inland. Many of us walked down to the reedbeds and pools at the back of the hotel complex before breakfast for a spot of early birding (and butterfly-ing). The reeds here were alive with bird song, mostly dominated by Great Reed Warbler and Cuckoo which were numerous. Large Copper Butterfly was seen soaking up the morning sunshine and Little Bitterns flew hither and thither continually. A Little Crake was also heard calling from within the reeds but not seen. After breakfast on the deck of the pirate ship (the novelty restaurant on the Mamaia complex) we boarded the minibus for another days excellent birding. First stop was Sitorman Quarry, a disused quarry site now occupied by thousands of Rose-coloured Starlings. The sheer numbers were incredible and several large flocks were observed moving to feeding grounds before heading back to the relative safety of their nesting sites on the steep quarry sides. Superb views were also had of a pair of Long-legged Buzzard, Tawny Pipit, Crested and Short-toed Larks and butterflies included Spotted Fritillary. A brief stop at a colony of Spanish Sparrows nesting in a White Storks nest also gave us our first Little Owl of the tour. Our picnic lunch was had at Gura Dubrogei, a beautiful valley rich in wild flowers, birds and butterflies. Another Levant Sparrowhawk was observed here, perched in a tree and other raptors observed included Common and Steppe Buzzards, and Kestrel. A heavy rain shower followed us all the way to our next stop at the breathtaking Cheia Gorge but fortunately this had cleared by the time we arrived. Here, we observed Great Spotted and Syrian Woodpeckers, the latter feeding on the ground and had good views of Short-toed Eagle, Isabelline and Pied Wheatears. Further down the gorge we once again tried for Eagle Owl but were unsuccessful, despite it being seen here earlier in the year. Overnight was once again spent in Mamaia.
Most of the day was spent exploring the coastal dunes, lagoons and pools around Vadu. The pools and coastline were rich with birds, 15 Dalmatian Pelican and 400 White Pelican giving some indication of the sheer volume of birdlife. 10 Purple Heron were seen flying low across the dunes and reeds and 800 Mute Swan were feeding in the lagoons along with 150 Shelduck and 40 Red-crested Pochard. The area was very good for Marsh Harrier, 20 seen during the course of the morning. The various pools increased our total of wader species quite dramatically, with 20 Avocet, 25 Black-winged Stilt, 30 Collared Pratincole, Temmincks Stint and Caspian Tern among the highlights. Further down the coast at Sinoie, Spotted Redshank, Green and Marsh Sandpiper were also added to the list. On one of the sand dunes, Andu attempted to catch one of the fastest snakes in Europe, The Large Whip Snake- the snake lived up to its expectations and despite a very close call managed to give Andu 'the slip'. The short search of the shore revealed Turnstone, Kentish Plovers, Sandwich and Little Terns. By late afternoon there was still enough time to visit the reedbeds of Histria, where the highlight of the day was a Stone Curlew running down the main road between the traffic! As we searched the reedbeds at Histria we once again heard Little Crake calling and had superb views of Paddyfield Warblers, first flitting to and from among the reed stems but then one sitting out in full view for several minutes. Our night was at Mamaia, as before.
The majority of the day was spent travelling the long distance from the coast to Transylvania, for our final leg of the tour in the mountains. To prepare ourselves for the long drive we spent an hour exploring the reedbeds, carr and wetland channels behind the hotel before departure. Once again, several Little Bittern and Savis Warblers were seen and a male Olivaceous Warbler gave great views as it sang from a branch. On the way to the mountains we stopped at Fundata Lake for our picnic lunch which gave us good views of Golden Orioles and many butterfly species including Glanville Fritillary. A short stop at Bucegi Mountains proved successful with several Black Redstart in the woodlands and the chance to pick up some common species which are harder to find outside of the mountain areas. These species included, Robin, Song Thrush, Fieldfare and Mistle Thrush. Warblers included Lesser Whitethroat, Whitethroat and Blackcap. The highlight for many at this site was a beautiful Agile Frog, a scarce, pink coloured woodland species that spends little time in water. We arrived at our hotel in Bran by the evening and received a warm welcome and a superb meal after a long day's travelling.
The hottest day of the tour began with a 2 hour drive to Dimbovicioara Gorge. The gorge was alive with wildlife, from Chequered Skipper and Duke Of Burgundy butterflies in the flower-rich verges, Yellow-bellied Toads in the streams and of course some spectacular birds. It wasn't long before we observed several Dipper flying upstream and Crag Martins and Alpine Swifts flying overhead. A picnic lunch by the stream was memorable as Small Blue and Mazarine Blue butterflies came down in large numbers to collect salts from the muddy banks. After lunch we then spotted our first Wallcreeper to the delight of the whole group. The bird gave fantastic views, flying butterfly-like up and down the rock face searching for insect prey. Shortly afterwards a further male Wallcreeper was seen and then a female as we followed the birds to the nest. For half an hour we were captivated by Wallcreepers in this stunning location. Feeling that our day couldn't be bettered we moved on to another smaller gorge and stream at Dimbovita where the rare White-backed Woodpecker was seen clearly and Collared Flycatchers were observed flitting in the tree canopy to excellent views. More Yellow-bellied Toads were found in the streams here along with Alpine Newts and Smooth Newts. An extremely successful day ended with a stunning meal at the hotel in Bran.
A long bus ride to another Mountain range today, the spectacular Fagaras Mountains, the highest massif in Romania. On the way up the mountain we were fortunate to see a Pine Marten run across the road in front of the bus and a Lesser Spotted Eagle soaring overhead. Unfortunately at half way point, at the spectacular Balea Waterfall we were unable to continue further up the mountain. The previous day's blistering weather had caused landslides of snow and mud making the final descent dangerous and the resulting closure of the road. Feeling a little disappointed we set off up the track towards the waterfall in the hope of salvaging some good birds from our trip. A Ring Ouzel was seen here which helped make up for some of the disappointment but heavy rain drove us back to the bus for the first time. After lunch we moved back down the mountain to the foothills of Persani where it was a lot drier. Another White-backed Woodpecker was briefly seen along with another Lesser Spotted Eagle and a calling Quail. Great Spotted, Syrian and Middle Spotted Woodpeckers were also found here creating good opportunities for comparison. Another fantastic meal at Bran Ebro ended a busy and not unproductive day.
Our last day of the tour would be truly memorable. A leisurely stroll around Bran Castle gardens in the morning brought us good views of 4 Serin and a Hawfinch together with good numbers of commoner woodland species. Great Crested Newts swam in the pools around the castle and Speckled Yellow moths were flitting from flower to flower. A few members of the group bought speciality cheeses at Bran market and Collared Flycatchers nesting in a telegraph pole gave great views. For lunch we visited Rasnov Gorge, a small gorge surrounded by woodland and flower rich meadows. Raven was seen here along with Tree Sparrow, Red-backed Shrike, Alpine Swift and amazingly another White-backed Woodpecker! Pearl Bordered Fritillary butterflies flew alongside the hedgerows. After lunch we returned to the hotel to enable the group to catch a couple of hours sleep. At 17:30 the wardens from Piatra Craiului National Park arrived in the Land Rover for our evening bear watch and we were taken deep into the park where the public are not usually allowed access. We clambered out of the Land Rover and walked silently towards the bear hide where we sat patiently waiting. A couple of Black Woodpeckers were heard calling and were briefly seen. Our wait was rewarded by spectacular views of 3 male Brown Bears, 1 young single animal and then a pair of older males. We watched in awe as these powerful truly wild animals fed only a few feet in front of us. As dusk fell we left the hide to be greeted by a female Bear and 2 cubs on the track back to the Land Rover. We stopped and watched silently as the family group made its way past our vehicle and over the hill before disappearing from view. An incredible end to the evening! Back at Bran Ebro a late evening meal was presented to us in style with a special cake made to celebrate the end of the trip. We left Bran at midnight for our overnight journey to the airport.
Most of us managed to obtain some sleep aboard the minibus after our very early start.We arrived at Baneasa just as dawn broke. Our final day in Romania was a brief one but gave opportunities to reflect on what had been another superb tour.
Ben Keywood all images © Ben Keywood 2008