Saturday, June 07, 2014

Romania and the Last Frontier - Day 3 a.m : A Chorus of Thousands

The irritating relentless beeping of the alarm rose me from my slumber at 4:15 am (2:15 UK time). It was still dark outside, and even through closed windows the incessant chorus of thousands of frogs could be heard, to help remind me where I was and get over the temporary waking moments of disorientation. Some cold water was thrown from the tap in the general direction of face and I slipped into the pre-arranged pile of clothes, picked up the camera kit and was downstairs waiting for breakfast at 4:30am. Coffee and an omelette with a bit of ham and cheese on top slipped down with difficulty but the cold fish on the plate in the middle of the table were certainly not going to be entertained.

By 5 am, the hide boat with the four photographers on board was making its way slightly upstream before cutting right into a narrow channel. Ahead of us the feint creeping glimmer of pink orange light was increasing as the sun moved up towards the horizon. The morning session was going to be spent in what I call 'Grebe Lake' as we had spent a good deal of time there the previous year photographing the Black-necked variety. This was one of my favourite places from the visit last year. The lake is ringed by a perimeter of high reeds with various patches of floating aquatic plants across the placid waters. Being relatively small it conveys a certain feeling of 'intimacy' with the wildlife. A very special and idyllic place to be at first light although not a tranquil one as there is a  tenable throb in the air from the mass of life that inhabits its crystal clear waters.

The boat slowly eased in to the lake and almost immediately encountered a breeding coloured Squacco Heron struggling to subdue its frog breakfast in the soft pre-dawn light. A great start to the session.
The boat continued on in a gentle arc around one side of the lake and it soon became evident that the Black-necked Grebes which were so accommodating the previous year were in a very different mood this time and would not allow approach by the boat. Another change from the threes weeks difference in the timing of our visit. Eventually we came to rest on the edge of large lily patch being used by some Common Terns. Normally when I travel overseas I want to spend my time photographing birds that are difficult to find or absent from the UK. I can find Common Terns speeding around the River Mersey at the end of my street in the UK. However, it is also good to spend some time with familiar birds in different settings.
One of the terns had obviously rolled off the wrong side of its lily pad that morning as it appeared to be less than happy with one of the neighbouring birds.
This resulted in repeated diving attacks and subsequent middle air battles which certainly kept four photographers busy.
It was agreed it was time to move on and see what other avian delights where hidden around this lake. The next bird we came across was a drake Garganey but the bird appeared to have a broken wing so we did not stop and left it in peace and to its fate.

Next stop around this bird photographers' paradise were some Red-neck grebes. I was actually happier that we were getting much better encounters with these than the Black-necked variety given the limited opportunity with them the previous year. They are a fairly small grebe and looked superb in their fine late spring plumage. We spent a while with these birds as they gently cruised around us in front of the boat, occasionally stopping to the preen.
A pair swimming and calling in unison
A interesting feature I noted with the birds is that when the neck is compressed the rusty red tone of the neck become much more intense as shown in the photograph below.
Keeping those feather clean and water tight.
Of course as with all birds every preen is followed by a good shake to get those feathers settled back into position.
This is probably a good moment to tell you a little more about the boat we were on which has been well thought out and is operated by Sakertours. It is very stable and comfortably seats four photographers with all their kit. Being low to the water it gives a good low-level angle whilst photographing birds on the water. A canopy is built over the top of the boat which acts as a hide (blind for those of you in the USA). The boat is fitted with glass windows but we chose not to use them. I personally have a strong dislike of shooting through glass. The boat is carpeted to reduce noise and seating is in the shape of large beanbags or cushions. There are two seats at the front for Romi the boatman and for Zoltan to look out for birds and provides directions with simple hand gestures to get the boat into the right position. Power at the back end is by an outboard motor. A silent electric motor would be preferable but due to the abundance of aquatic plants a more powerful petrol engine is essential.

The  light was rapidly getting more intense and it was time to move on, before leaving the small lake we came across another two more Squacco Herons perched in amongst some lily pads and glowing in the warm early morning light.

The second one quickly dipped into the water in front and plucked a large water beetle off the vegetation which with a quick flick quickly disappeared between its bright blue bills.

With the light intensity and temperature rapidly increasing the boat slipped out of the small lake and into an elongated back channel.  Again this was a reed fringed area with dense patches of lilies, water soldier and water mint dotted with the pale forms of Squacco herons. The fragrance of mint filled the air as the warming sun evaporated the oils of the plants. Here is a brief video as we passed down the channel to give you an idea of the scene.

A back channel on the Danube Deta from Richard Steel on Vimeo.

In the distance we could see a long snake-like neck of a Purple Heron emerging from one of the vegetation patches. This was a bird I was keen to try and photograph on this trip having only previously managed some flight photos of them  in Mallorca. However, they are incredibly wary birds and difficult to get close to. The boat crawled along the edge of the channel to bring us close. The young bird, appeared to catch a newt, before taking off on a short flight and fortunately landed in a patch of water mint opposite us.

This was certainly the highlight of the morning so far. The bird eventually took off away from us and soared over the tall reeds behind in long ponderous wing beats.

We back tracked along the channel to where we had seen another Red-necked Grebe. This one was having a bit of territorial dispute with a Great Crested Grebe. Presenting the two contenders...
The larger Great crested Grebe appeared to win the skirmish.....
....leaving the Red-necked grebe little to do but shake down in defeat.
Drifting back along the channel we picked up another Squacco heron and our first Night Heron of the trip before calling it a morning and heading back to base and the inevitable carp broth that was awaiting for lunch and a quick siesta.
What an excellent morning it had been and you can probably see why I have had to split these days over two blog posts especially as, unknown to us at the time, we had a wonderfully productive evening session in some glorious light to come later that day.


Carol Blackburn said...

Visiting your blog is always a wonderful adventure. Your photography is awesome and I enjoy your commentary very much too.

JR said...

What a great journey!
The pictures of the Comon Terns are simply superb.

Paul Sorrell said...

An inspiring collection of images, as always, Rich. The squacco heron with the frog is pure magic.

Linda said...

Marvelous photographs! Definitely worth getting up early for these beauties.

Noushka said...

Hello Rich,
I just discovered your blog and it is a great pleasure to see all these magnificent photos!
That is QUALITY!
Not only that, but you managed some very lively shots!
What a thrill to have this kind of environment around you!
The Squacco Heron is one guy I have difficulties to approach and this one with its frog is fantastic!

Dave Williams said...

Superb shots Rich. Good to see the shot of the boat too.Sakertours do things right !

Eliz Anghel said...

Wonderful photos. It seems third day was the greatest.

p.s. i would love to see photos with the exif intact. i'm curious about settings details


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