Sunday, August 10, 2014

Romania and the Last Frontier - Day 7 p.m: A Quiet Afternoon

After the manic morning session with the jackals and eagles, I was feeling in the need for a relatively relaxed afternoon. Another wave of exhaustion had come over me after a very long week of sleep deprivation. I had actually found this trip to Romania much less exhausting than the previous year and  more relaxed. On the trip last year, the lack of sleep obviously had an impact on my immune system as I contracted septic tonsillitis as soon I returned to the UK, an illness I have not had since childhood. I think the spluttering person sat next to me on the plane home may have been the source.  I think this trip had been more chilled,  partly due to it being a repeat visit to the Danube Delta, but also I have tried to take a much more laid back approach to my photography this year. I have grown weary of the degree of ridiculous competitiveness, and the unpleasant undercurrent of deceit that it floats on,  which sadly seems to have developed in wildlife photography in recent years. So I made a conscious decision at the start of the year, that I would set out to immerse myself even more with the wildlife and be removed from the pressure of pleasing anyone except myself. It is for this reason I have entered no photography competitions this year and concentrated on spending more time in the company of a few species close to home. It has been refreshing.

Over a pasta lunch we discussed the plans for the afternoon. Rene having seen some of my Bearded Tit photos from the previous day fancied trying to improve on those he had taken when we first arrived. I offered to take him out to try and help.

We picked up on of the electric buggies and headed out in mid afternoon but the light was still too harsh for trying for the acrobatic tits among the reed stems so we decided we would visit one of the hides to pass some time. The one we selected was a small reed clad hide set on the corner of an L-shaped pond which had some posts set in the water in front of it which frequently seemed to be used by terns.
I was hoping to get some photos of terns landing or hovering over the posts but it proved to be very quiet and the slight breeze was in the wrong direction. We took photographs of the couple of terns, a Whiskered and a Common, that came in and perched up on the posts for a while.


While we were sat that a long thin snake swam across the surface of the channel in front of us before crawling up out on the far bank. After a bit of Google searching we identified it as a Diced Water Snake. Interestingly at home I struggle to get a mobile signal yet everywhere we went in the Danube Delta I seemed to have full mobile and 3G signal!

After a while the sun seemed to be softening down and we decided it was time to go and look for the Bearded Tits. Once again I seemed to find myself photographing Bearded Tits but was more than happy to try and help Rene get some photos and maybe I would get the shot of a male bird I had visioned in my head since arriving. So off we headed down the western track and tried the three places that had been the most productive the previous day. After a bit of effort we managed locate and get some photographs of the birds. Again it was the juveniles that provided most of the camera action.
Right at the end of the session I finally managed to get the photograph I was hoping for of a male bird on a solitary stem at the edge of the reeds.

Rene wanted to head back to the the hotel which brought an end to a relaxed session. As we arrived back at the 'ranch', we bumped into Zoli. He asked if we wanted to see a Penduline Tit nest he had found that afternoon. Rene declined but I was curious to see this odd structure and so found myself heading back along the tracks to a spot a short-distance from the hotel.

The nest was low in a willow tree at the side of pool and proved very awkward to get an angle on for a clear shot of it. The nest is a truly remarkable structure that looks a bit like a small rugby ball made of cotton wool with a small entrance funnel at the top. After watching it for a short while it began to shake a little and the bandit masked face of the tiny Penduline tit appeared in the entrance.
My first opportunity to see one of these birds up close and I was surprised how small it was as I had always envisaged them to be larger. The light was all but gone to try and get any photographs of the bird out of the nest but it gave me some ideas for something to possibly try for the following and final day of the trip which I intend to recount in one large blog post.

Saturday, August 02, 2014

Romania and the Last Frontier - Day 7 a.m: Where Eagles Dare

Another early rise but this morning I knew the weather was going to provide some glorious dawn light. A quick coffee, and Rene and I were soon heading south down the sandy track to the 'Southern Jackal Hide.' This hide was in a very different setting to the northern hide the previous morning, being set into the ground on a sandy ridge in an open short grassland area. A grass bank sloped down and away from the front of the hide to a ditch, before the bank rose once more on the far side. There were two large lumps of dead tree set into the slope. To give you an idea here is the view from the hide.

Luca pulled a large plastic tray from the back of the pick-up, inside it was a huge silver carp that must have weight in excess of 10kg which was staked in to the ground with the large metal hoops. Hopefully this one would be held more securely than the one the previous morning. Peanuts were scattered around once more to attract corvids.

With the dust cloud of the exiting pick-up still visible, a jackal appeared from the right walking down the far side of the ditch, before disappearing from view to the left. An encouraging sign. Meanwhile in the hide we had a small problem, insufficient ventilation and two warm photographers in a confined space were causing the cool early morning front glass to mist over. With the coast clear outside, except for the rapidly accumulating Hooded Crows and Magpies, we gave it a quick clean.  This window mist started to clear from the top as the first rays of sun broke through which was just as well as we were about to get our first visitor.

I said to Rene that looks to be a very large bird in the distance which seems to be heading this way. The bird got larger and larger and a White-tailed Eagle swooped in and landed on the old tree stump to the right. It sat there watching for a while occasionally calling.


A short while later a second larger eagle appeared but this one casually walked in from 'stage' right having landed at distance out of view and flew up on to the other tree. One eagle dropped down and started just eating the fish when the Golden Jackal re-emerged and it appeared less than 'happy'. It stalked around, occasionally dashing in to try and scare the eagle and other birds away from the fish.
The Golden Jackal was doing its best to keep all the birds off the fish and would come in take a chunk, run down towards the ditch, drop it and return for the next bit. Each piece it dropped was immediately pounced upon by hordes of corvids and we watched as  it became more and more irritated and aggressive towards the birds.

The jackal managed to shift the eagles temporarily off the fish carcass and back on to their perches and a running battle commenced between Jackal and birds


The Golden Jackal disappeared briefly allowing the White-tailed eagles a short period when they could drop from their perches and feed on the fish but it was short-lived as it came trotting back in from the right and before finally rushing in and seeing both eagles off before subsequently departing itself.
Wow, was the only word that came out of my mouth as we had just witnessed an amazing wildlife spectacle between two top predators in the Danube Delta. This had taken place very close to us as most of the photographs above were taken with a 300mm lens. For me this had to have been some of the best  moments trip and when Luca returned to collect us later he thought we had probably just had the best session anyone had experienced to date in that hide. Two smiling photographers left the hide and headed back to the hotel for some breakfast which tasted particularly good that morning.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Romania and the Last Frontier - Day 6 p.m: Bearded Tits by Buggy

After a very good lunch which I cannot recall but know it wasn't fish, I had a brief rest before setting out on the afternoon session. Rene, Paul and Kevin had decided to head off to various hides around Ultima Frontiera and I was going to go out with Zoltan in one of the electric golf buggies, covered with some camouflage scrim net, to have a bit of an explore. However, the main objective for the afternoon was to have another try for Bearded Tits. As we left the hotel around mid-afternoon it was obvious that the Bearded Tits would need to wait until the evening as not only was the light still very harsh but a stiff breeze had developed which would make photographing these tricky birds on reeds even more difficult. Hopefully the wind would calm down with the light later in the day.

We had not gone down the sandy track from the hotel when we came across the first bird, a Hoopoe hunting mole crickets along the verges with the sun high overhead.


We carried on and took a small track eastwards towards the north-eastern corner of the site. Given the conditions I was not too bothered about photography as my thoughts were firmly fixed on Bearded Tits. It was very enjoyable just driving along and seeing what birds were around and if there were any potential photo opportunities that may be worth revisiting the following day.  We saw quite a good range of species including Cuckoo, Red-backed Shrike, Common Redstart, Garden Warbler, Penduline Tit, European Roller and Grey-headed Woodpecker.It was also interesting to see some of the flooded forest habitat that formed the northern boundary area of the site which looked a little like a scene from the film 'Southern Comfort'.

Time was passing and we head to the south-western area of the site and try for the Breaded Tits once again. These are actually a very interesting species as they are not actually part of the Tit family and so are now often referred to by their other names of either Bearded Reedling or Parrotbill. It has been placed by taxonomists into the grouping of Parrotbills but is actually a unique song bird species with no other closely related living species.

Small birds which inhabit reed beds such as various warblers, and of course Bearded Tits, as any bird photographer knows can be a very frustrating pursuit. Trying to get a clear photograph of the birds is usually hampered by a single leaf or stem in the wrong place. Often in these situations it is best to concentrate the efforts on the edges of the vegetation where the plants and stems are less dense.

Over the next few hours Zoltan and I worked hard in some very warm conditions at three locations along the western track,  trying to get some photographs of the birds. Typically a group of Bearded Tits would appear at the edge of the reed fringing on the far side of a channel adjacent to the track before flying across in fluttering procession to the reeds next to the track. Beyond the difficulties of photographing the glimpses of these hyperactive birds amongst the reeds, they did seem fairly tolerant to our presence although definitely did not like any fast or large movements. This was particularly case with the adult birds.We just used the electric buggy to get us between locations, all the photography was done on foot.

Eventually our persistence was rewarded, particularly with a small group of young birds which spent an extended time, although in reality was probably only a few minutes, at the top of some stems in a relatively sparse part of the reedbed.  A selection of photos from the afternoon session are below.

Birds on one side of the track were back lit.
Whilst the other side provided some good even lighting conditions in the softening evening sun.
Adult nale birds were particularly challenging. As they would only stop for the briefest of moments in any one location.
Young birds on reed seed heads
A rather soggy looking adult male, presumably that has recently bathed.
The long tail helps with the reed stem acrobatics.
'Peas in a pod'
Young bird just about to lift off
It had been a challenging but enjoyable session with these attractive and acrobatic birds. As I was eating the evening meal I was already contemplating the next day and what I did not know at that stage was that in a few hours time I was going to be treated to a very memorable and special morning session.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Romania and the Last Frontier - Day 6 a.m: Day of the Jackal

It was good to have a a bit of extra time in bed on the morning of the 6th day with breakfast slightly later at 5 a.m. There had been rain overnight and a blanket of grey cloud hung overhead. It was to be our first session trying for European Golden Jackals, which had been one of our primary reasons for travelling to the 'Last Frontier'. That morning I was going to share the Northern Jackal Hide with Rene. 'Would they show-up?' was the main nagging question on both our minds.

Luca took us up to the northern end of the site and after a short drive the pick-up came to a stop in a small grass clearing bordered on either side by low scrub with a couple of old stumps and logs on one side. At the end of the clearing  a permanent hide was positioned which was partially sunken into the ground and fitted with the glass that has become a common feature of wildlife photography hides throughout Europe. Personally I am not a big fan of this glass as I have mention previously in this Blog. To get the best out of it you need to position the camera, without lens hood as close and square to glass as possible and don't use the lens with a wide open aperture. You also lose quite a bit of light through this one way glass (which I estimate to be between 1.5 and 2 stops) which was not going to be ideal as we had limited light at dawn on this overcast day.  We were going to have to rely on the high ISO capability of the 1DX to help us get some photos in the gloom of this dawn. This was our view from the hide that morning.


We both entered the hide which was flooded in the bottom with dark foul smelling stagnant water and a wooden platform had been placed on top which we set up on with the cameras and tripods. Obviously the hide was in need of a few drainage improvements. Meanwhile outside Luca was preparing some 'breakfast' for the Jackals which were one very large and one smaller dead carp which he staked  with large bent metal rods hammered into the ground. The rhythmic chime of metal on metal no doubt providing the equivalent sound of a dinner bell announcing this regular feeding for any jackals lurking nearby. A half bucket of peanuts were scattered around the grass clearing to attract in Magpies and Hooded Crows. The activity of all the birds being a further visual and auditory cue of a potential waiting meal to the jackals.

As Luca drove away the first Hooded Crows came in for the free handout and the numbers of corvids quickly began to build. It was only about 10 minutes later and with the light levels still very low that we had our first view of Golden Jackal. A large male, its fur soggy, cautiously appeared from the long wet grass on the left side of the clearing. My first impression was that these were much larger and stockier animals than I had anticipated.
Having checked the area to be clear, the male approach the staked fish and ripped a small piece off before retreating quickly to the scrub on the left hand side. A process it repeated several times over a short period.
It was obvious the Jackal knew that something was in the hide as it kept staring right at us. I suspect it could hear the shutter sounds of two Canon 1DX whirring away every time it stopped moving as there was not enough light to get any photos of it on the move. We were really struggling for any shutter speed even with the cameras set to high ISO.

A second smaller Jackal which appeared to be a female appeared with a snarl on the left hand side of the clearing and seemed slightly wary of the male which again retreated back into the scrub.

The male appeared once more and this time managed to rip the entire large carp from the stake and quickly carried to carcass back into the scrub. I turned to Rene and said I thought that would be game over in terms of photography as the jackal had just walked off with around 8kgs of fish to eat and probably didn't need to come back. It did return once more and walked out to where the fish had been, cocked its leg to mark it territory and casually walked off, giving one last look back before disappearing out the back of the clearing.
That was to be last we saw of them morning. It was all over within 30 minutes of getting in the hide. At this point I made the decision that I was going to spend each of the two remaining mornings of the trip trying for Golden Jackal, as although we had got some photos there was certainly room for improvement!

With the jackals departed we stayed in the hide for another hour or so just to make sure they did not return and would not be disturbed by us leaving the hide. I passed the time photographing some Hooded Crow and also a Hoopoe that appeared on a soil pile to the left of the hide.
There seemed little point staying there much longer and we called Luca to collect us. Despite the light and the brevity of the action it had been a wonderful experience to see have our first sight of the European Golden Jackals which surprisingly few people seem to know are present in Europe.

I decided I would walk back to the hotel which proved to be further than the short drive I remembered. I felt like I needed to stretch my legs and it would be interesting to get a feel for some of birds around the site. It was very enjoyable just casually walking the sandy track and absorbing the sights and sounds around me in the early morning. On my journey back I  did not bother trying to take any photos as I just wanted to enjoy the vibrancy of the abundant wildlife. I saw and heard a good variety of species that included Hoopoe, Cuckoo, Purple Heron, Great White Egret, White Stork, Thrush Nightingale, Great Reed Warbler,Bee-eater and Kevin (who was set up in a temporary hide next to the track trying to photograph some Bee-eater in a shallow sandy depression in the bank).

Back at the hotel I decided to have a rest before lunch and think about what I wanted to do during the afternoon from the wealth of hides on offer. My thoughts turned back to the Bearded Tits of the previous and found myself wanting to get some better photographs, maybe an afternoon of stalking photography rather than being cramped in a hide was in order.

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