Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Romania and the Last Frontier - Day 4: Sleepy until Sundown

I always think of my trips overseas as a 'holiday' but they are never really very relaxing. In fact they are a bit more like a survival course as they are always fairly punishing in terms of schedule and sleep deprivation. The early starts, combined with the time difference, and long days quickly take their toll with cumulative fatigue. I find it easier by trying to keep organised and sticking to a fairly strict regime whilst away.

On the morning of the 4th day the effects of lack of sleep were starting to take their toll. There was a subdued atmosphere on the boat that morning. Some were more subdued than others.
The boated gently chugged through the back channels of the soft pre-dawn light and we entered into the small western 'Grebe Lake' once more. We had barely entered the lake when the first bird, a Squacco heron,  was in front of us bathed in early light. The mosquitoes seemed to be out in force that morning.
We decided to try and get some tern flight photos, as everyone was keen to try and get some Black Tern shots, but it was never really going to happen as the gentle breeze was  completely in the wrong direction seeing the birds generally flying into the light. If the conditions are wrong it doesn't matter how hard you try, it will always be a struggle to get images. I managed to get my first couple of photographs of the Black Terns but could see it would have been so different if the wind had been blowing the other way.
In the end it soon became obvious it was fairly hopeless continuing, as the camera shutters progressively fell more silent, it was time for the boat of tired photographers to move on. A Hooded Crow flew lazily overhead on the look out for an easy food opportunity
We entered into a back channel and encountered a pair of Red-necked Grebe which we stayed with for a short while before continuing our journey.
A little further on a Squacco Heron preening amongst the emergent aquatic plants.
Onwards we traveled before entering the large lake where we had finished the previous evening and the boat came to rest amongst a large lily bed which groups of Whiskered Tern were hunting insects over. The same frustrating problem though of the wind being in the wrong direction persisted to thwart our efforts with few useful photos being produced.

While we were sat there I decided to make a short video which I thought you may find of interest. The video is not about what you will see but will be hearing so make sure you have some volume on before hitting play. Now you may think this wetland paradise is an oasis of tranquility? It is far from it and what you are hearing in the video, except for the occasional camera shutter, is the constant background chorus of thousands of frogs. The volume of these amphibians increases quite considerably at night.

Tranquility in the Danube Delta from Richard Steel on Vimeo.

The morning outing was over and it was time head back to our hotel. This has been our least productive session on the trip, partly due to making a wrong choice with the conditions and also due to a general lethargy amongst the photographers that morning. Hopefully a dose of carp broth for lunch and an extended siesta would set us back on track and raring to go for our final evening boat session on the Delta.

I had a good sleep and felt much more back on the planet when we assembled on the hotel jetty around 3 p.m. I put this down more to the curative properties of the afternoon nap than the fish and vegetable soup.
The boat slipped away from  the jetty and headed off downstream which meant we would be travelling to one of the large eastern lakes, and probably some pelicans which seemed to be showing a preference for those areas. I must admit I do like photographing pelicans as they always look great either stood on an accumulation of vegetation, swimming around or in flight. I was hoping we could get some more flight photographs during this session.

We encountered a solitary Dalmatian Pelican stood on the same area were we had encountered pelicans previously.

After a few photographs the bird took off and we moved across the lake to a small group of White Pelicans, which provided us with some good flight photographs. Photographing pelicans in flight is relatively straightforward as they are such large birds that they require a long run up to get airborne which allows plenty of time for the photographers to get locked on to the with the cameras.

The boat manouvered back around and we made our way slowly towards two more Dalmatian Pelicans. En-route we came across a male Ferruginous Duck in a patch of lilies, a new species for me. An attractive bird in its rusty plumage.
The boat eased up close towards the two Dalmatians Pelicans which also provided us with some good flight opportunities.

A bonus Purple Heron passed the boat with long slow wing beats  allowing opportunity for a couple of welcome bonus photographs.
On our travels we came across a Little Egret stood on a log mid-channel with the strong currents swirling round it. A fairly tough exposure with the sun still bright and the background relatively dark.

We were heading to the same destination as the previous evening and paused as we entered once more into the large lake for a loafing Pygmy Cormorant. If ever there was a bird species which reminds me of birds reptilian ancestors then this would be it.
The same cast of birds was set out before us as the previous evening, with numbers of herons and ibis picking their way through the large floating mass of weed . The sun was starting to soften down  now and we started with a Glossy Ibis. This bird was not looking as a good as the one from the previous evening with its guano splattered feathers where it had been sat on the lower branches of the roosting tree. An avian analogy of human lives really, with the lower your position on the ladder the more you tended to get dumped on!
A Grey Heron stopped by briefly which was a good reminder of how small both Squacco and Night Herons actually are.

Of course with the light becoming better by the minute the cameras turned back to both of these smaller herons until there was no glow to play with using sensible camera settings.
Another very enjoyable session had come to an end and as we headed back to the hotel, we were treated to a beautiful sunset as the grand ending to our final evening session.
We had one last boat photography session left the following morning, before we headed off to our new destination, deeper into the Delta, to a place known as the 'Last Frontier'. Would a overnight complete change in wind direction finally allow us to photograph the Black Terns the next morning?  Well  you will have to wait for the next instalment to find out :)

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Romania and the Last Frontier - Day 3 p.m: Golden Glow

A good day was about to get a whole lot better! so expect a good number of photographs below. After the midday break which included fishing around in the vat of soup on the dining table trying to avoid the bits of carp, downloading cards and backing up and a quick siesta, we were assembled on the jetty at 3.pm ready for the afternoon session.

First stop for the afternoon was going to be some Kingfishers. We had tried this spot the previous year with no sign of the birds but I think we had missed them due to our later trip. The strong current pushing down this channel made positioning the boat upstream and into the margin difficult. This was especially the case as the boat need to be perpendicular to the flow. After about 15 minutes the boat was in position and this was the scene before us.

On the left side of the image you can just see the vertical clay bank where the Kingfishers were nesting. After about 20 minutes the male appear with a fish and landed on the perch. With nice even light from some thin cloud overhead, and the dark green swirling waters providing a back drop, the colours of these birds appeared incredibly vivid. A flash of brilliance in this watery landscape. The bird flew into the nest before re-emerging a short while later and disappearing downstream in a flash of electric blue accompanied by the characteristic high pitched penetrating call. Apologies for the background on these photos which have suffered greatly  at the hands of jpeg compression but do look great on the originals.
Another 30 minutes or so past and the female appeared, distinguished by the red on the lower bill, also carrying a small fish.
The boat swung round due to the force of the current and needed to be re-positioned. Having photographed both birds on the perch I was thinking what else I could do. Typically the birds were landing, moving along the perch and then launching straight into the bank. I thought I might try a flight photo although this was not an easy proposition from a the moving platform of the boat that was gently rocking and yawing in the strong flow. Also probably not a very sensible idea given the light limitations, as you need to lot of camera shutter speed to freeze these small fast moving birds. I kept one photo from these attempts.
In total we spent a couple of hours at the Kingfisher site before we all agreed it was time to move on. As we traveled through the back channels to our next destination, the thin cloud dispersed and the sinking sun broke through. We came out into a very large lake, which I call 'Ibis lake', as we had managed to photograph some of these birds there the previous year. As the boat glided into the lake, to our left was a large area of floating weed that extended out from the the high reed fringed egde. Dotted across this mass of floating vegetation were numerous Squacco and Night Herons, a Little Egret and a couple of Glossy Ibis. With a lack of clouds in the sky this whole area would become beautifully lit in golden light as the sun dropped away.

I thought for this part I would post the images by species rather than in any chronological order as to be honest the whole session is a bit of a blur of birds and the sound of whirring camera shutters. At one point we had a Glossy Ibis, Night Heron, and Squacco Heron in a line in front of us and I was sequential going down the line up taking images. An amazing experience to have these photogenic species in front of you with the light improving with each passing moment. Of course the whole process was accompanied by the constant background chorus of frogs just to add the vibrant atmosphere.

I will start with the Glossy Ibis. We managed to photograph this bird the previous year in some fairly poor light. To really appreciate the beautiful colours of these birds they need some sun on them and this particular bird was in superb plumage. A wonderful combination of deep rusty red with a green and bronze metallic sheen across the wings that changed hue with the direction of light. The further the sun fell the more the colours sang out. The bird was striding across the vegetation which it was constantly probing with its curved beak and occasionally pausing to snap up an aquatic morsel. A small selection of photographs are below.

Occasionally a Hooded Crow would drop in amongst the feeding birds.These corvids seemingly perfectly happy in the water.
Next species was the Little Egret, a familiar species that has become increasingly common since the early 1990's  throughout the UK. However, what a treat it was to have one in such a great setting and light. The bird was showing the typical hyperactive traits of this species, striding around on top of the vegetation looking for food and generally harassing the diminutive Squacco herons. At one point the fish successfully captured a goby (embarrassingly as a trained fish scientist I am unable to tell you which species as thereare several that inhabit the diverse fish community of the delta).
When not feeding the Egret was making life difficult for the numerous Squacco Herons.
If there was ever a bird ideally suited for photography in golden evening light it has to be the Squacco Heron. The golden tones of their feathers really glow and softens the glare off their bright white wings. A range of activities were photographed including stalking prey, and fluttering across the weed having spotted a prey item at distance and shaking out those long feathers.
To finish off this incredible session, the Night Heron. I started off the session with a couple of flight photos as the birds moved in to their evening feeding area.
Typically these birds stand motionless for long periods before a small movement in the floating plants ahead falls under the stare of those large penetrating red eyes. The birds are then spurred into rapid action.
We were fortunate to witness the whole hunt of a frog from capture, to subduing the large meal to it finally disappearing from sight. A couple of photographs from this event are below.
We pulled up alongside a  Pygmy Cormorant was also glowing in the last of the days sun....
......and finished off the session with a Night Heron in the remainder of the light which was now taking on some pink hues
I felt quite drained after such an intense session and with some beaming photographer on the boat,  it was time to fire up the outboard and head back to the hotel for some catfish and tomatoes stew....oh great. Here is a short video clip of us leaving this area just to give you a feel for the number of birds we had in front of us.

Evening on the Delta from Richard Steel on Vimeo.

This had probably been my favourite session on the Danube Delta to date and one that will remaining in the memory, albeit slightly blurry by it intensity, for a very long time to come. I was already looking forward and wondering what the next day might bring.


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