Thursday, June 27, 2013

Roaming in Romania - Day 3: Silence is Grey

Having returned to our hotel at Mila 23 after a frenetic first morning on the Delta, it was time for a bit of a relax with a light lunch, downloading and backing-up images and a siesta to catch up on some missing sleep. As I drew the curtains for the afternoon nap, I noticed a gathering mass of grey clouds in the distance. When I woke at 3pm to get ready for the next photography session, that would take us through the late afternoon and evening, I opened the curtains and a mass of clouds had filled the sky in a low grey blanket. The atmosphere beneath was very still, heavy and slightly oppressive.

We set off in the boat and soon again cut off the wide main channel into a narrow twisting one. However, as we travelled along it very quickly became obvious that a different mood had settled across the Delta. It was as if the change in the weather had tripped a large 'off switch' causing all the birds and wildlife to become inactive and quiet. Even the constant chorus from the frogs had fallen silent. It was quite eerie as we slowly chugged along through the silent weed choke channels that seemed devoid of bird life. You get times like this back in UK, when one day will be very quiet for birds even though they are very active on the days preceding and following.

Despite the apparent lack of activity it was inevitable that we would eventually happen upon the ubiquitous Squacco Heron. This bird put on a good show as it went into stalking mode to catch a frog. The bird became almost cat like as it got lower and lower as it approached the unsuspecting amphibian.

After photographing the bird for a while we carried on our journey with the only bird we came across being a solitary Green Sandpiper in the grey gloom
Not surprisingly the next bird we happened across was another another Squacco heron this one being busily engaged with tackling a large water beetle larvae.
I am not sure if it was the lack of action, the apparent 'weight' of the sky pressing down from above or the fact that we never seemed to quite be in the optimal position to photograph the bird but I was starting to find this session slightly frustrating. I suspect this had mainly to do with the fact of normally being more in control of the position where I am photographing a bird from to ensure a good background and pose. Here I had to make do with where the boat had stopped and I could often see a better photography angle if it had just come to rest in a slightly different position. However, you have to always try and make the best of what is in front of you and the camera.

I think when you travel abroad you often go with expectations that it will be continual action with the camera but this is rarely the case. Those who remember my trip to Hungary last year might recall how we sat in a hide with just a single coot bobbing around in front of us for 7 hours. On this occasion those two Squacco Heron had so far saved a very quiet session.

We sailed into a larger channel and tied up along side a vertical soil bank close to a Kingfisher burrow, although despite waiting there for a while there was no evidence of any birds. Not even a passing electric blue flash to raise the hopes that a bird might appear. As we sat there waiting and hoping, a hatch of large cream Mayflies started. It has many years since I have seen this as thousands of these large flies emerge from the water in unison and dance across the surface for their brief few hours life to mate and then expire. This event certainly woke some of the fish up that were greedily sucking in those that had become trapped in the surface film.

We headed off downstream escorted by a swarms of mayflies and where the channel rejoined the main one a few birds were taking advantage of nature's bounty. A merlin, a roller a few common terns were busily snapping up the easy meals but the light was to poor and the sky unattractive shade of grey to make it worthwile to attempt any flight photos. In fact I only took a couple of a Caspian Gull (which is very similar to a Herring Gull except some subtle differences) and a Common Tern that had temporarily alighted on a branch in some debris that had accumulated mid-channel.
We headed off in the boat once more and turned up another channel which after a while opened out in to an enormous reed fringed lake whose surface was dotted with patches of yellow and white lilies. We had a brief encounter with a Night Heron and a solitary White Pelican and as the little light there left was further diminished at the end of the day we could see there were quite a large number of Squacco and Night Herons around the different patches of lilies.
It looked like a place that might be worth visiting the following evening when hopefully the light would be improved. A lone pelican in the rapidly descending darkness also proved to be our first sighting of the much rarer Dalmatian Pelican.

Overall the first day on the Delta had been one of two halves with a wonderful start but a slightly disappointing and frustrating end. However, this silence in the grey would all be forgotten the next day as the Delta sprung to life once more and really showed us what an amazing destination this is for the bird photographer. Of course that will be the subject of my next post...

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Roaming in Romania - Day 3: Dawn on the Danube

The alarm went off at 4:45 a.m, I rolled out of bed and the first thing I did was to look out of the window. We had arrived in the dark the evening before and I just want to get a view of the surroundings. As I peered out into the approaching dawn it looked like the weather would be good for the long awaited morning photography session ahead. A small group of Pygmy Cormorants passed, as I gazed out with bleary eyes, and flew rapidly upstream. 15 minutes later I had joined the rest of the group for our 5 a.m breakfast of bread, hams,cheese and tomatoes. Now bearing in mind that Romania is 2 hours ahead of the UK I must confess it was a struggle to eat when my body clock was still tuned in to it being 3 a.m! However, the hot freshly brewed coffee was very welcome.

At this point you should note for this series of blog posts on Romania, some days will be contained in a single post, whilst others that were particularly productive, like this one will be spread over two. Typically our days in Romania were split into two daily sessions with the camera, 5 - 11am and then 3pm to about 8pm. We would have a break in the hot middle of the day when the light was to harsh and the air wobbled with haze neither of which are conducive to good photography. The midday break took in lunch and also allowed time for both camera and people 'batteries' to recharge after the early start.

After boarding the hide boat we headed off upstream and quickly swung off the main river in to a small reed lined side channel that was chocked with various water plants. Progress was relatively slow as we would periodically have to stop and the boat reverse to clear the accumulated vegetation from the propeller. After about 30 minutes travel along the narrow winding channel it suddenly opened out into a small lake. The edges of the lake were again reed fringed and crystal clear water was covered in large patches of yellow and white flowering water lilies and beds of Water Soldier. A beautiful and tranquil setting in the rapidly rising sun made all the more attractive by good variety of birds going around their early morning business and the rising chorus of frogs singing. Here is a photograph of a typical view on this lake from the boat to give you an idea.
My first thoughts were that the boatman had a difficult task ahead of him to try and navigate us through the dense vegetation into the right position in terms of the light and distance for photography. The first bird we encountered was a Squacco Heron which had been one of my favourite birds from a trip to Hungary last year.

These small herons were dotted all around the lake and were gently glowing in the soft dawn light. The first of many more encounters with this species over the next couple of days as they proved to be the bird we most frequently encountered on a travels around the Delta. The bird was busy looking for prey which included the larvae of what would have been a very large water beetle.

Our first bird encounter taught me a quick lesson that when the boat had got into position the movement of four photographers slightly adjusting their positions to get the best angle on the bird from would cause some rocking of the boat. After a while I actually found it was much easier for me during these moments to dispense with the tripod.

The next birds we encountered were  two White Pelicans which are a new species for me. They are visually such appealing birds with their large colourful beaks and some lovely textures in their feathers. Our time with these birds was brief but it gave chance to get the first few portraits of these huge birds.

Next stop on our journey around this small lake was close to a colony of Whiskered Tern. This was a bird I had seen last year on my journey into Eastern Europe but of which I had failed to get any photographs. Failure was not going to be an option this time though as numerous birds flew past in close proximity to the boat as they gathered nesting material and searched for food to get their day started or perched on nearby lilies.
The end of another water beetle larvae
Time to move on once more and this time the boat slowly a colony of noisy Blacked-headed gulls that had built a nesting colony on a large patch of lilies in the middle of the lake.

I was quite glad that we were not here to photograph the gulls but another species that often associates with them and apparently uses the gull colony as an early warning system of approaching predators, the Black-necked Grebe. It has been a few years since I have photographed this small but beautiful bird and I was only thinking earlier this year it would be good to find some more in the UK where they are fairly thin on the ground. Those thoughts all seemed a bit irrelevant now with the dozen birds drifting around close to the boat and going through an early morning bathing and stretching routine.

These proved to be the main photography subject for the morning and we stayed with the birds for quite a long time having been put in to a very good location with the boat that was carefully manoeuvred and positioned to  steer a wide berth of any nest sites.

A Great-crested grebe drifted through its smaller relatives as we sat their soaking up the atmosphere of the wonderful birds in front us whilst being serenaded by a constant chorus of frogs.

The sun was rising rapidly now and the light growing increasingly harsh. We spent a short-while with some Common Terns but then started to make the voyage back to the hotel at Mila 23.
En route we had our first encounter with a Night Heron, in one of the narrower channels that would return us to the main river stem together with some more of the ubiquitous Squacco Heron.

Overall it had been a memorable first morning in the Delta and as you can see a very busy one for the four photographers on the boat. The beauty of this type of roving photography is that you never know what is waiting round the corner in the channel or on the next lake you enter. They way I have described this first session you may think the photography is easy due to the abundance of bird life but you do have to work for your images, think about composition and position and backgrounds. It was this aspect of the trip that was going to make this adventure all the more rewarding than just waiting for  birds to appear on pre-arranged perches in front of a permanent hide.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Roaming in Romania - Days 1 and 2: Long Journey to the Delta

Following my trip to Hungary last year, I was so impressed with the abundance and diversity of bird life, that I decided to make a return visit to Eastern Europe for my main overseas trip this year. This year I decided I would head a bit further east into Romania with the main attraction being the Danube Delta, known as the last true wilderness of Europe and noted for its amazing diversity and abundance of bird life.

There will not be many bird photographs for this post which mainly recounts my long journey to Delta but I did manage to get a couple of photographs en route including a new species.

The trip had been booked for many months so it was with excitement that I departed from the house on Friday lunch time for the 50 minute drive across to Manchester Airport. For this trip I decided to fly with British Airways which proved to be a much more enjoyable experience and removed any worries in terms of heavy camera hand luggage due to their allowance. All my kit was safely packed in to the Gura Gear  Bataflae bag and for those interested the basic camera kit for the trip was a Canon 1DX and 1Dmk4 combined with a 300mm F2.8 and 600mm F4 lens and the two teleconvertors.

My first flight was a short 'hop' down to Heathrow and then the hassle of having to swap from Terminal 5 to 3. By the time I had reached Terminal 3, dragging my heavy hand luggage, I had felt like I had walked half-way to Romania! In Terminal 3 I met up with Rene who was one of the other three photographers on the trip that had been organised by Saker Tours.

My trip last year to Hungary was also booked through Saker Tours. However, this trip was to be quite different. The Hungary visit was based around a number of established fixed hides and you could also predict what images you would home with, even down to the settings. The Romania trip was based on a much more mobile approach and birds encountered which would result in different images on each tour. This really appealed to me together with the fact the most of the photography would not be through glass as it was in Hungary.

We boarded the 3.5 hour flight to Budapest and lost a further 2 hours to time difference and so arrived around 11:15pm. We were not due to be collected until the following afternoon and so had booked a night in the accommodation in the Mogosoaia Palace. We managed to get ripped off by the taxi from the airport and getting into the Palace at midnight seemed a bit like trying to gain entry to a secure facility as we had to negotiate our way around several sets of security. We had chosen this accommodation as it is surrounded by parkland that may offer some opportunities for photography the following morning while we were waiting for collection.  It was a nice looking hotel but I was starting to have doubts!

I did not sleep well mainly due to the fact that huge spotlights, lighting the historic building, lit up the room as if it was daylight and this was accompanied by a constant howling and barking or packs of feral dogs that seemed to be roaming the grounds. After a couple of hours restless sleep I woke around 5:30am to an unfamilar dawn chorus of nightingales and cuckoos. Further sleep seemed pointless so I thought I would head out with the camera for a couple of hours as the sun was rising to see what could be found.

I wandered down the edge of a large reed fringed lake and immediately heard the loud song of the Great Reed Warbler. This is a bird I have always wanted to photograph and after a short wait this giant warbler was in front of me singing. A good start.

Bursting into its very loud song in the early morning light.

I spent the rest of the time trying to photograph some cuckoos that were constantly flying around calling and managed to get a couple of photos before the light became to harsh and it was time to retreat back to the hotel for breakfast.
At breakfast I met another of the members of the trip Hans from Holland. There was nothing left to do now except wait for our collection in the afternoon to start our journey into the Delta. We slowly basted in the sun sitting outside the hotel which seemed to be in chaos. We watched the comings and goings of a couple of weddings, a christening and a large meeting of Masons. After some difficulty and much confusion I eventually managed to pay for my room.

Zoltan, our host for the week, eventually arrived around 3:30pm with the fourth photographer, Michael from Austria. We loaded all the luggage and camera bags into the minibus and set out on a 4 hour drive across Romania to Tulcea, the gateway to the Danube Delta. It was interesting to note on this journey that the was a marked absence of bird life compared to Hungary which no doubt was partially a result of different farming practices. Huge swathes of the country are covered in enormous prairie like mono-cultures of wheat and sunflowers which are no doubt a remnant of the large state farms from the communist era. A very different situation compared to Hungary. Our journey to Tulcea did not pass without incident as we had a rear wheel blow-out which fortunately occurred about 100m from a tyre repair garage and so did not delay our journey much.

At Tulcea we transferred on to the boat for a 2 hour journey to our final destination, Mila 23, in the heart of the Danube Delta.

Mila 23 means 'Mile 23' and refers to the distance of the location within the Delta from the Black Sea into which the Danube finally discharges. At this point I will quickly mention the boat which has been specially constructed by Saker Tours for photography and was to be our 'home' for the next few days. The boat comfortably accommodates 4 photographers and has been well thought out as a floating hide and allows birds to be photographed at near water level.

As we headed in to the Delta, darkness began to quickly descend and as we approached our destination of the Paradise Delta House Hotel we were sailing at speed through reed lined channels in the pitch dark. Our boat driver obviously knew the waters very well and must have very good night vision!

It must have been around 10 pm when we eventually arrived at the hotel which was very good and on an island opposite Mila 23. After a quick meal of fried carp, which I can't really recommend, we all headed to bed for the 5am start. I drifted off to sleep quickly while outside was the sound of thousands of 'singing' frogs under a million stars in a clear sky above. After a long journey it felt we had finally arrived. Anticipation was high for our first day out photographing birds in the Delta which will be the topic for my next post.


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