Sunday, July 28, 2013

Roaming in Romania - Day 5: Return to Terra Firma

We had one remaining session on the Delta before leaving and starting on the land-based part of our Romanian tour. Over breakfast it was agreed we would finish the Delta photography on the small productive lake where we started and have another attempt at photographing the Black-necked Grebe in some dawn light. A 30 minutes boat journey through the overgrown back-channels found us once again on the familiar small lake.

Before I show the photographs from the session, I want to change topic slightly and mention frogs. Throughout our stay on the Delta the air was filled with the constant chorus of singing frogs. They are everywhere you go in very large numbers and a key component of the food chain for the larger water birds such as herons and egrets. During quieter spells when we were waiting for birds to come close to the hide boat, I often found myself taking a few frog photos to pass time. A small selection are below:

We had no sooner entered the lake and we came across a Night Heron, standing statue like in the soft dawn light.

The boat was skill-fully manoeuvred once again back into position to photograph the Black-necked Grebes. These attractive small water birds seemed less approachable on this particular morning than they had during our first session and the reason soon became obvious.
During the intervening period some of the chicks had hatched and were being carried around on the parents backs until they became a bit more independent. Naturally we kept a good distance from these birds to prevent any disturbance and stress. A truly wonderful site to watch the adult grebes cruising around with the next generation hitching a free ride, with the bonus of a few photographs as well which were to be our last from the Delta.

Note in this last one there is more than one 'passenger'. In fact there were three  on board. 
We finished the morning session with attempts at both cuckoo and kingfisher, both of which failed to produce any photographs. We did see the Kingfisher on this occasion though, which was diving in to the water slightly upstream, a plunging electric blue flash. Again a pleasure to watch the master 'fisherbird' at work. So our Danube sessions had come to an end and we slowly made our way back to the hotel for a quick bite to eat and to collect the rest of our luggage.

The Danube Delta has left an indelible mark in my memory. Never I have a been to a place where the raw beauty and productivity of nature has been so evident. The sights, sounds and smells of the Delta invokes a sensory overload and you find yourself quickly drawn-in and then completely immersed in the place.  I could have happily spent a month there drifting in a happy daze around the waterways and lakes. The visit also reinforced to me why the preservation of these large natural wetland sites is not just important but essential.  

In the early afternoon we left Mila 23 to head upstream back to some 'terra firma' at Tulcea. It felt like we had been in the hide boat for weeks rather than just a couple of days. The 90 minute journey into the Delta turned into a 5 hour boat ride out as we had to battle against the swift flows of the irrepressible River Danube. En route we passed several  floating hotels that were being towed upstream by small tug boats whose engines were straining to pull that floating mass against the flow and bellowed clouds of exhaust fumes from their funnels. The tourists on the upper deck seemed oblivious to this trail of diesel fumes that seemed to envelope them as they sipped long cold drinks. We were returning back to 'civilisation'.

We arrived in a bustling Tulcea in the early evening and checked into a rather in-personal hotel for our one night stay. I certainly thought that the person who had picked the hotel decoration did the place many favours. The grey net material for the windows gave the freshly decorated rooms a rather drab and tired feeling. It all felt rather oppressive after the light airy feeling of the Mila 23 accommodation. After the meal everyone disappeared quickly back to the rooms to catch some rest after the long journey and an early night was definitely in order as we would be checking out early the next morning to head into the Macin Mountains for the next couple of days.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Roaming in Romania - Day 4: Last Delta Evening

Firstly apologies for the delay in posting but there were a lot of photographs to sort through from this very productive session.

Following the afternoon siesta, the four photographers gathered on the jetty awaiting arrival of the hide boat for our last evening session on the Delta.  As we waited around 20 white pelicans flew lazily upstream to settle in an area off the main channel around 300m away. This would be our first stop off point for the afternoon session. As we stopped and manoeuvred into position I took the opportunity to take a photograph of a Caspian Gull perched nearby and a Common Tern bathing.

The area where the birds had landed was very shallow and even involved Zoltan getting out the boat at one point and pushing it to get us closer into the birds. The Pelicans put on a superb display for us over the next two hours with co-operative feeding , preening and eventually flying off to their next destination. It was both fascinating and a pleasure to watch the feeding behaviour as the birds corralled fish before plunging in together with the hug beaks to scoop up the tightly packed shoals.  A small selection of images from those very memorable two hour are below.
A moment in the feeding frenzy
A quiet spell after feeding
 Wings of an 'angel'.
The pelican is a very heavy bird to get airborne.
We departed with the birds, and only travelled a short distance further upstream, and still within view of our hotel on the island, when we came across our first Little Egret and Glossy Ibis. I was surprised by the apparently low numbers of egrets in the Delta.
The Glossy Ibis, a first for me, was such a beautiful bird that was glowing with metallic green and purple hues off its wings in the slowly descending sun.
We headed onwards in the boat and our destination for the rest of the session was to be the huge lake, where the previous evening we had seen large numbers of Squacco and Night Heron gathering towards dusk and hunting among the lilies.

Predictably it was one of the numerous Squacco Heron that we encountered first as it picked it way gracefully amongst the lilies.
As the light started to soften and reduce the Night Herons became more active allowing us the first opportunities for some flight photographs of these compact birds.

The quality of light was becoming better and better and we managed to get some of the best Night Heron portraits of the trip before the sun temporarily disappeared behind a bank of cloud.

We continued our journey across to the edge of the lake where half a dozen of the usually very nervous Glossy Ibis were oblivious our presence as the busily fed amongst the Lilies. It was a shame we had lost the sun while we were with these birds as they were being very active. There really wasnot enough light to produce sufficient shutter speed as thye jumped and delicately fluttered between floating vegetation.
Next bird in front of the lens was a juvenile Night Heron that was waiting patiently for its next unsuspecting meal to swim past.
The sun briefly reappeared between the low cloud and the horizon offering the last glimmer of sunlight for the day the was used on photographing some more Squacco Heron that were still busy reducing the abundance of frogs in the Delta.
I do not think I have put some many photographs in a blog post before which is just a reflection of how productive the Delta can be for the bird photographer.

Overall it had been a very special day in the Delta and as the sun set, and the watery landscape took on a golden glow, the small boat transporting some smiling photographers slowly made its way back through the weed choked channels to our hotel at Mila 23.
We would have one last session on the Delta the following morning before we headed to the next phase of journey, the Macin mountains. It was agreed that in the morning we would return to the first small lake where we started our Delta sessions to try and capture some more Black-necked Grebes, and of course any other birds we might happen across on our travels, in the soft dawn light.

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Roaming in Romania - Day 4: The Bounty of the Delta

Sleep deprivation was now setting in as I struggled out of bed to the  4:45am alarm call on the 4th day. A customary glance across the balcony to check the weather, as I dressed, saw a group of white pelicans pushing themselves upstream on slow powerful wing beats above the incessant chorus of frogs. The untimely breakfast of omelette's went down no easier than the previous day even with a large mug of freshly brewed coffee.

We set sail and this time head off a short distance downstream before turning off into a medium sized reed bordered channel. The quiet, heavy atmosphere of the previous afternoon had departed as the skies had cleared and the Delta had sprung fully into life once more. The biological productivity of this vast wetland truly has to be witnessed to be believed. The first bird that stalled our progress was a tiny Little Bittern I had spotted but by the time the boat had back tracked it had skulked back into the security of the reeds. After about 30 minutes travelling along an ever narrowing channel, it suddenly opened out into a vast lake bathed in soft pre-sunrise light. 

Ironically the first bird species we came across was the last one we had caught a brief look at the previous evening in the gloom of dusk, the Dalmatian Pelican. This species has been in rapid decline and is now fairly scarce within the Delta. All the pelicans seemed surprisingly shy despite their huge size and this one soon took flight with the approaching boat to relocate to a different part of the lake. 
This was only to be the start of several encounters with these birds over the course of the morning. As the boat was manoeuvred towards two more Dalmatian Pelicans, we paused briefly to take some photographs of a Cormorant that was drying out its waterlogged feathers in the early sun. 
I also managed a photograph of drake Pochard, its head glowing in the early light, as we slowly chugged through thick weed beds and lilies.
We eventually got into position for pelicans from what seemed to be an increasing frequency of positioning boat instructions from the four photographers. We took some portrait photographs of the two birds in the margins while the boat drifted ever closer to the birds until it entered the invisible 'circle of fear'.
All birds have this surrounding fear  zone which once breached will cause them to put more distance between themselves and people either by walking, swimming or flying away. The two pelicans settled for the latter allowing some full frame flight photographs of these magnificent birds.
Next stop on our circuit around the lake was an extensive lily bed  which was hosting a large colony of Whiskered Terns.
We took some more photographs to add to the collection of images taken the previous morning. The birds were busy building what appeared to be precarious nests, comprising a jumble of various water plant,s on top of the lilies. Occasional a Hooded Crow would swoop in a grab an unguarded egg whilst being pursued by a noisy group of terns.
Some of the terns had obviously learnt that it was quicker to build your own nest by plundering the materials from one of your neighbours. After a prolonged stay with the terns we headed across to an channel on the far side of a lake where a Pygmy Cormorant was drying off. I always think there is something very primitive in the appearance of these birds and it is quite easily to visualise the reptilian ancestry. 
We left the lake through a narrow channel and sailed through the weed-chocked waterway for around 20 minutes before entering a small lake. Zoltan, our guide, had brought us here to photograph Red-necked Grebe, a new species for the camera and one I was hoping to encounter during the trip.  A pair were present with the bonus of two chicks. The boat was positioned at distance so as not to disturb the birds and by waiting we were rewarded with the birds coming close on several occasions. A pleasure to watch and memorable time was had photographing these small grebes even though the light seemed to temporarily diminish while we were there. 
After staying there for a quite a while, the grebe family were left, and we finished off the morning session as it had started with further and very close encounters with Dalmatian Pelicans on a medium sized lake.

It had been an excellent start to the day with two new species at close range in front of the camera surrounded by the joys of the pulsating biological abundance of the Delta. As we moored up back at the hotel I was already wondering what avian treasures the evening session, our last on the Delta, would bring. You might have already guessed, given the number of photos above, that will need to wait now until be  my next blog post :). 


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