Sunday, June 01, 2014

Romania and the Last Frontier - Days 1 and 2: Return to the Delta

Firstly apologies for the lack of recent blog updates as it has been a very busy time for me that has included a return trip to Romania which I will recount over the next several posts. Regular readers may recall my trip to Romania last year, which was so enjoyable I decided to repeat it this year. However, this year was going to be different as the journey of discovery would see me heading to the 'last frontier'.

For those of interest in the camera kit I took for  this trip I will get that over with straight away. Packed in my Gura Gear Bataflae bag were the 600mm F 4, 300mm F2.8, Canon 1DX and 1Dmk4 bodies, together with a 1.4x and 2 x teleconvertor together with the usual chargers, spare batteries, memory cards and other small bits and pieces. The Gitzo tripod and monopod went in the suitcase. The only real difference this year was that I did not take the Wimberley Gimbal head but took along the new Uniqball ballhead to try out. The obligatory netbook and two 1GB hard drives were also taken. There is nothing like travelling light!!

So the day had finally arrived and on Friday 16th May I left home at 12 noon and started out on the long journey to the heart of the Danube Delta. This year, having done the journey previously, the long hours of travel ahead seemed less daunting particularly given the lack of terminal change in London. Following the short flight from Manchester down to Heathrow, I met up in Terminal 5 with the three other photographers I would be spending the week with Rene, Paul and Kevin. We touched down in Bucharest after a three hour flight at about 11:15pm local time (2 hours ahead of the UK) and were collected by an airport hotel minibus. We arrived at the hotel after midnight which was a lot easier to access than the heavily guarded palace hotel where we had stayed the previous year. It was a perfectly good hotel and no complaints at 29 euros for the night and given they served breakfast from 3am it meant we would get some food before our 6:30am pick up.

Saturday morning saw us all assembled with our mountain of luggage outside the hotel although the driver was about 30 minutes late due to an accident down the road. We loaded the bright yellow taxi to capacity with people and luggage and headed off on a fairly unremarkable 4 hour drive, accompanied by some terrible music, eastward across Romania to Tulcea and the 'gateway to the Danube Delta'.

We met up with Zoltan and Romi and as we loaded up the boat with our luggage it was noticeable that there was a good deal of  flood water coming down the Danube.  The coffee coloured water swirled in powerful currents around the jetty and chunks of tree rapidly passed further out in the channel. Recent heavy rains across central Europe had caused the river to swell and the speed and volume of water passing was impressive.

The boat journey to our first destination of Mila 23, where we would stay for the next few days, took around two hours. As we were getting closer to the hotel, I began recognising places from the previous year which was surprising as you would think one reed and tree lined channel can look very much like another. Certainly it was noticeable that the colour in the water was reducing quickly as we moved further into the delta, as the huge wetland filtered the sediment from the water. 24 hours after leaving home and we were stepping on to the jetty of the Paradise Delta House Hotel which sits on its own island opposite the small settlement of Mila 23.

We had arrived and were warmly greeted by some familiar faces bearing flammable Ribena in shot glasses and the crazy small white dog (which I think is half canine and half Tasmanian Devil). By strange coincidence I ended up in exactly the same room as last year over looking one of the Danube's  Channels.

I spent the next hour or so settling in and sorting out the camera gear as we would be heading out after a lunch of a rather grim carp and catfish soup on our first photo session.

We boarded onto Sakertours specially adapted hide boat around 3:30pm. It was agreed that we would rotate position on each trip out so everyone got to try a different place in the boat each of which had its own advantages and disadvantages. We had only travelled around 100m from the hotel when our cameras were trained on to their first feathery subject, a Caspian Gull (which is effectively a herring gull with a few minor differences).
Nearby a Common Tern was perched on a small rock that was just breaking the water surface.
A gentle start to get the shutter finger warmed up. Nearby was a solitary Dalmatian Pelican and it was not long before this large bird was also gracing the viewfinder.
Now every one was warmed up and a bit more settled in the boat it was time to leave the area around the front of the hotel and head deeper into the delta's wetlands. We passed along several wide reed fringed channels before entering into one of the vast eastern lakes. Again I quickly recognised this from the previous year where we had spent a morning photographing a Whiskered Tern colony.  The lake did look slightly different though as the abundant surface vegetation that was there the previous year had not fully developed, a subtle difference from our trip being 3 weeks earlier. We paused briefly to photograph a Great Crested Grebe that was gently swimming around and occasionally preening.
In the distance we could see a couple of pelicans standing on a narrow spit of what appeared to be accumulated floating vegetation close to a small island. Pelicans are generally quite wary and we took a wide circular route using a small island as cover to get closer and into a good photography position. The White Pelican was going through the daily ritual of preening and was looking magnificent in the softening late afternoon light.
and then went for a full flapping wing stretch. It felt good to be back here.
A second White Pelican flew in. It is not until you have a pelican flying right at you  that you fully appreciate the size of the huge vulture like wings on these heavy birds. During the middle of day it is common to see large swirling groups of pelicans spiralling upward on thermals to great altitudes.
The incoming bird nearly landed on top of the other one which was followed by a short period of  pelican 'greetings'. I was thinking when taking these photographs that the clump of reeds was slightly annoying and the photograph would have been better without it. However, photographing birds in the Delta involves nothing that is set up you take the birds as you find them in the wild and try and make the most of the situation. This is why I find a trip to the Delta so enjoyable as you never really know what is waiting around the next reedy corner and you know that the images will be unique and different from every day and year. Personally I will always prefer this mobile approach to the that of the fixed hide.
We spent quite a while with these pelicans taking a variety of photos.
Eventually the preening was over and the pelicans drifted off.
Of course what you cannot see in the photographs is about 2 metres to the right of the White Pelicans was one of the rarer and less colourful Dalmatian Pelicans.With the departure of the White Pelicans this soon rose from its slumber and took to the water before eventually taking off and ending a very enjoyable mini pelican photo session.
The sun was beginning to drop quickly now as we continued our journey through the lake and it was inevitable that the first heron species that we were going to photograph on this trip was a Squacco heron which seem to be the most common in the Delta. This one at full stretch having spotted some potential prey.
We left the large lake and moved through some small back channels and into a very small lake. Suddenly there was a synchronised 'stop the boat' call from all four photographers as we all seemed to have spotted at the same time a beautifully lit common tern on a piece of floating lily tuber.
The sun was disappearing very quickly now and in the small lake we managed to find a Red-necked Grebe, drifting around the patches of yellow water lilies, which simply glowed in the last of the warm evening light. In 2013 we only had one encounter with these small grebes in some overcast conditions. This was going to be the first of several over the next couple of days. Another subtle change in the photography from being in the Delta earlier this year. A wonderful way to finish our first session.
The light had gone now so we headed back in the boat towards the hotel and into a beautiful sunset and unfortunately the inevitable waiting meal of carp or catfish in some form or other.

It was great to be back in the Danube Delta, and although it had been a very long and tiring day, the first session had been excellent.  Anticipation was high for the following days to come and the further avian treasures this vast wetland area would reveal to us.


Dave Williams said...

And to think I was disappointed when I was told the smoked Catfish was off the menu last year !
Great start to the adventure, bring on the rest !

Nelson said...

What wonderful photographs!

France Paulsen said...

I really enjoyed your post today - i felt as if I had been taken along for the ride....a virtual trip....awesome!

The happy wanderer. said...

The bills on the White Pelicans are amazingly bright - Australian ones are more subtle. Great light for the end of the day.

Silvia said...

Thank you for this amazing photos.


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