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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