Friday, August 30, 2013

Roaming in Romania - Day 8 - Back seat Photographer

We tumbled out of the the hotel for our final evening session in Romania. It was announced that this session would be spent roaming along tracks in the minibus and photographing any birds we encountered. My internal groan must have almost been audible at the prospect, as I knew everyone would head straight to 'their seat' on the minibus which would leave me stuck in the very restricted position in the back corner. This seat allowed me to photograph nothing to my left as the was no window that opened and anything to the right would have to be photographed through the sliding van door between Rene sat on the middle bench and Hans sat on my right to the back. In hindsight I should have really just asked Zoltan to drop me off somewhere to try and do some photography on foot but fatigue and lack of sleep were well upon me by this phase of the trip. I was not expecting this van session to be particularly productive.

Before hitting the tracks around the wind farm and agricultural land we headed across to a couple of large lagoons where there was a large flock of white pelicans but the birds were distant and the shimmering haze off the warm salty water in between made photography pointless as achieving a sharp image would be near impossible. We had headed there on the outside chance there may be a wader or two to photograph but our trip was between the spring and autumn passage periods. The place was a wader desert. We left and drove up to the farmland and started our slow drive around the dusty tracks. A large white van is not ideal for sneaking up on birds especially when there are 4 photographers inside all suddenly wanting to point their lenses at a bird encountered at the side of the road.

The first bird we encountered that I could actually manage to get in the viewfinder was a Yellow wagtail of the black headed 'feldegg' subspecies perched on top of a sunflower. I suppose it was fortunate that the blooming of the sunflowers had been delayed by the cold spring across Europe otherwise it may have been very difficult to spot.

Yellow wagtails comes in many different sub-races across Europe. Some with grey heads, others with black or blue. I have seen several of these varieties in my travels around Europe but still find the yellow headed 'flavissima' race that visits the UK to be the most beautiful.

A short distance further down the track we came across a Calandra Lark, again perched on top of a sunflower and peeking out from behind one of the broad leaves.
Our journey along the dusty tracks continued and we came across more larks in the shape of the Short-toed variety, stood on the track, and another stocky Calandra lurking amongst the sunflowers.

A brief encounter with a male Ortolan Bunting which burst in to song lifted the spirits and we finished this session by finally coming across a Black-headed Bunting (albeit not a particularly great looking one) at the side of the track. All these birds we had seen previously had been perched up high on the telegraphs wires that followed some of the tracks.

As predicted, before we had headed out of the hotel car park, this was not the most productive session but we did encounter some interesting birds that included a couple not previously photographed on the trip.

We were soon heading back to the hotel and decisions needed to be made on our final session in Romania the next morning. I felt the need to finish on a flourish, and after the trawl around the dusty track, was in need of both some colour and action. There was only one answer, a return to the Bee-eater colony with my main objective being to concentrate on some flight photos rather than perched or landing images. Hans and Rene decided they would join me at the Bee-eaters the next morning while Michael headed off back along the dusty farm tracks looking for more larks and buntings to photograph.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Roaming in Romania - Day 8: Blood Donor

The last words from Zoltan the previous evening were to make sure we applied some insect repellent the next day as we may encounter a few mosquitoes. So when I rose at 5am, I liberally doused myself in Avon SSS dry oil assured by the claims that no midge or mosquito would come anywhere near me. Our first destination for the day was the lagoons as Vadu on the edge of the Black Sea and the target bird was Collared Pratincole. This is an unusual but attractive bird that is classed a wader despite it not really looking much like one. The approach was going to be stalking on foot, or more accurately should I say on stomach, as we crawled our way through strange coloured salt marsh vegetation to photograph the birds in the soft early light.
As we stepped into the dry basin like lagoon, clouds of mosquitoes erupted off the short vegetation. I suspect these mosquitoes had recently flown in from the east of Romania having been under some intensive training at the Vlad the Impaler school of blood sucking in Transylvania. The supposed repellent properties of the Avon oil was useless and the mosquitoes were instantly enjoying a good corpuscle breakfast at my expense. I reckoned I could take about 30 -40 minutes of this blood draining onslaught. We soon got in amongst the Pratincole that were glowing in soft dawn light. After taking some portrait photos and some of the birds in flight it was time to beat a hasty retreat before forced anaemia took hold. During my brief time in the 'mosquito lagoon' I had managed to accumulate over 80 bites on my forearms and hands to add to the ones all round my head and face. The suffering was worth it to finally get some photos of these birds.
These birds look quite unusual in flight and look even less like waders than when on the ground with their swallow like tails.
We were soon back in the minibus and heading back up the road to a large area of rolling grassland near our hotel at Sinhoe , part of which was being used as a local rubbish dump, where we would spend the rest of the morning. Here we split into two groups with Rene and I taking first shift on some temporary hides that we set-up next to a Bee-eater colony whilst Hans and Michael toured around the grass plains looking for Souslik and other birds.

Setting up next to the Bee-eater colony.

I love photographing bee-eaters as not only are they such obviously incredibly beautiful with their rainbow plumage but there is always plenty of activity with birds coming back and forth to the colony with various insects they have plucked from the sky. The following photographs are a selection taken during a relatively brief but productive session. I do not apologise for posting quite a few images of these wonderful birds.

Birds of a feather stick together.
Sharing a butterfly for breakfast
The early morning ruffled look.
Coming in to land
Perched amongst the short grasses of the plains
The last moments of a dragonfly
It was all to soon to swap our hide places with Hans and Michael and we were heading along the dirt tracks looking for some Souslik to photograph. The light was starting to get harsh now and the heat haze starting to develop. I lay down next to a fairly active looking burrow and sure enough after a short wait was rewarded with the ground squirrel appearing.

After spending some time there, slowly baking in the sun, we carried on and found some more Souslik feeding away on wall barley heads.
On our trail around these grasslands we also picked up a few birds including Hoopoe, Juvenile Isabelline Wheatear and a Crested Lark that was perched on top of a dry stone wall.
It has been a very enjoyable morning, despite the mosquito bites now starting to get itchy, and we headed back to the hotel for some lunch and the by now routine afternoon siesta before heading out on our final late afternoon and evening session.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Roaming in Romania - Day 7: 'Groundhog Day'

Everyone was outside the ' 'roach motel' early the next morning, obviously very keen to get away from the place. With the luggage and camera bags loaded back into the minibus, we headed off back to the the drinking pool hide and farmland tracks. Rene and I returned back to the hide for the morning session while Hans and Michael toured the dusty farmland tracks to see what they could find.

The drinking pool hide was extremely quiet and we spent most of the morning watching a solitary frog lazily swimming around and snatching the occasional fly trapped in the surface film. Eventually a Turtle Dove arrived for a quick drink before departing leaving the pool eerily quiet once more.

It was coming close to collection time so we decided to give up on the hide and see if we could stalk some birds on foot. A cuckoo was flying around, chasing another bird so we started with that and managed to get a couple of photographs before it disappeared in pursuit into the distance.
There was not much else around except the occasional singing Corn Bunting. After much crawling through the undergrowth I eventually managed to get up close to a bird.

At this point I had a chat with Rene whether it was really worth staying here for the afternoon or if we should suggest moving on to our next destination, subject to the agreement of the other two photographers. In the distance a cloud of approaching dust signalled the return of the minibus. A quick exchange on how the morning session had gone and it was a unanimous decision that we should leave Macin behind and head to our final destination the coastal lagoon areas near Constanta on the Black Sea coast. After lunch at the lay-by restaurant once more we hit the road again and headed east on a journey of a couple of hours along the bumpy roads of Romania.

Our first destination was some tracks running through an extensive area of farmland. This was within the Cogoleac Wind Farm which is an enormous area dotted with over 240 huge wind turbines,  gently turning in the breeze, that have invaded the landscape in all direction,

Our drive round the farmland tracks was fairly unproductive, although not surprising given that there were four of us in the minibus. It was particularly frustrating from my position in the back corner of the minibus which made it extremely difficult to get the camera on the bird and only then if it was on the right hand side. A funny thing I have noticed on this trip and subsequent ones is that the places people first select in a vehicle or hide, and in this case also the boat, is the same one they stick to for the entire duration of the trip. It obviously pays to think about this carefully at the start of a trip which I obviously hadn't on this occasion. In our drive around the tracks I only managed to take photographs from my restricted position of a male Ortolan Bunting and a new species, the sturdy Calandra Lark, perched on top of sunflowers. I am sure the other photographers will have got some photos of other species as well.
We left the farm tracks but not the wind farm to finish the day off at the low limestone valley at Cheia. This was a beautiful spot but somewhat spoilt by the accumulations of litter left by visitors. The sky was clouding up quickly and the light was in decline.

The main target species here were Pied Wheatear and the European Ground Squirrel or Souslik which inhabit the sheep grazed carpet of grass on the valley floor. The Pied Wheatear were very striking birds but fairly unapproachable with little cover. After several attempts I managed to get a couple of photographs of both the female and the very beautiful male. In hindsight I wished I had spent a bit more time trying to get some better photographs of these wheatear.

The female
and the male.
However, my attentions were drawn to the Souslik that could be seen dashing across the grass before disappearing down a burrow only to emerge somewhere else. In a similar way to Marmots (Groundhog) or Meerkats, there would often be one animal on sentry duty that would let out a very loud high pitch warning squeak when people approached. I decided the best approach was to lie down where I had seen one disappear down a burrow and hope it appeared back out of the same hole of from where nearby where I could crawl up to it to get closer. This waiting tactic seemed to work well. It was good fun photographing the ground squirrels and time passed quickly when I noticed the rest of the group waiting by the minibus to depart.

A head emerges from the labyrinth of tunnels below.
I think this may be an older ground squirrel as it had very pale colouring and appear right next me so I could only just fit it in frame
On sentry duty

and calling which is very loud when you are right next to it!

We headed off to the check-in to our hotel in Sinhoe. A very nice hotel indeed and a complete contrast to where we had stayed the previous night. Our first destination for the next day, our final full day in Romania, was to be to try and photograph some Collared Pratincole a bird that has long been on my 'wish list'.

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Roaming in Romania - Day 6: The Macin Mountains

Another very early alarm call pushed me out of the bed. It was quite strange to hear the sound of occasional traffic outside rather than a chorus of frogs.  After a brief bit of stumbling around my room to gather my belongings I headed down to the hotel reception, where I had chance to grab a quick coffee before boarding the minibus with the other three photographers. Our destination today was the Macin Mountains. After about an hour we turned off the main road and headed up a dusty dirt track across a patchwork of flat farmland to finally come to a stop at the lower slopes of the mountains.
Our plan for the next two day was that we would split into two groups with two sessions in a drinking pool hide, the only fixed hide of the whole holiday, and two sessions going round the farm tracks seeing what birds we could find. Hans and Michael took the first hide session while Rene and I headed off in the minibus with Zoltan.

As we travelled down the dirt track away from the hide, the occasional Corn Bunting could be seen flitting between song perches and Isabelline Wheatear dashed on to the track to grab an insect. I noted there were a few puddles on the track from recent rainfall. The first bird we managed to put in front of the lens was a Short-toed lark quietly calling from a large boulder in the early sunlight.

We carried on along the dust track for a while before we heard the ubiquitous cuckoo call and decided to stop for a while as Rene was keen to get some photos of the three birds that were preoccupied  chasing each other around.

By the time we had finished with the cuckoos the sun was well and skyward with the light becoming increasing harsh. However, more importantly and has been my experience of photographing on farmland previously, a heat  and water vapour haze was very quickly developing. Heat haze is a major cause of people thinking  their camera has malfunctioned as the wobbling air can make it very difficult to produce sharp images. This was well demonstrated as we came across a perched European Roller but the images all went in the trash. There are only two approaches for these conditions which are to pack up or to get very close to the birds to reduce the amount of wobbling air between you and them. Even if you can get very close there is still a need to take a lot of images as a good proportion of them will not be sharp.

The next bird which we managed to get very close to was the familiar sight of a Goldfinch which was busy pulling apart a globe thistle seed head.

Onwards down the track and we came to a small section  that was relatively busy with birds including Tawny Pipit and a new species for me, the Crested Lark. The latter is very similar in an appearance to a Skylark but with a permanently erect head crest.
Conditions were getting more and more difficult and after a failed attempt to find an Ortolan Bunting we finished the session with a close encounter with a singing Corn Bunting

The dry dusty farmland with its assortment of sandy coloured birds was a stark contrast to the lush vibrancy of the Delta that we had recently left. We returned to the hide to collect Michael and Hans who reported a very slow morning with only a Turtle Dove and out of condition Hawfinch showing up. The drinking pool hide at Macin can be very productive particularly during prolonged hot and dry conditions. However, the puddles on the tracks were a sign of recent rainfall providing the birds with other places to find essential water.

We all headed off into Macin to check in to another hotel where we would fortunately only be staying for one night. To say the hotel was very grim is an understatement. My door lock was hanging on by a single screw having obviously been forced open on several occasions. Certainly somewhere to sleep on top of the bed covers with your boots on to prevent being eaten alive by the mattress wildlife and also allow a quick exit if needed. Everyone quickly decided it was not the place to leave any camera equipment which would now stay with us for the rest of the time in Macin.

We had a pasta lunch outside of a roadside restaurant before heading back to the farmland and hide. Rene and I were dropped off for our afternoon session. For those of you not familiar with a drinking pool hide it is basically an infinity pool for birds with a hide at one end. The design of the pool tends to force the birds to visit the far end and the low set hide allows photography near water level.

As we sat and waited in what felt like a mini-sauna, there were sounds around would have been a delight to any bird lover's ears. In the tree behind the incessant calling of cuckoo and gentle purring of Turtle Dove, to the left the metallic jangle of a Corn Bunting, in the large distant tree ahead the flute-like calls of Golden Oriole and in the bush to the right the scratchy warbles of a Red-backed Shrike. In front of us to photograph....nothing. Eventually a bird appeared in the shape of a male Ortolan Bunting, a promising start. The attractive bunting stayed for a while on a small perch before deciding it was safe to bathe.

Another hour past with no signs of birds except the occasional flash of a male Golden Oriole chasing away a cuckoo. The next arrival was a Corn Bunting which paused briefly before getting down to the important business of cleaning its feather.

After the bird departed we were forced into a prolonged wait once more. We sat there hoping that a Golden Oriole might come in to bathe but it never happened. The arrival of the next bird did jolt us from our late afternoon lull, a stunning male Red-backed Shrike which has been there the whole afternoon just out of sight in the bush to our right. For me this was definitely bird of the day.

A Jay was the next visitor. When these birds decided to get a bath they don't mess around and soon the bird was completely soaked.

The final bird to arrive was a Turtle Dove. These are such beautiful birds but under so much pressure across Europe from intensive farming and hunting pressures. In the UK, this once common bird, is very sadly rapidly heading towards extinction as a breeding species. Efforts are being made to try and help the species in the UK but I wonder if the external pressures are too great and it is too little and too late to save this attractive dove.
That was the last bird which visited and we soon heard the rattle of the white minibus returning to collect us. Overall it had been a reasonable day but fairly slow, particularly in the hide where long periods of inactivity were punctuated by the occasional bird. We went straight for a meal before heading back to the 'roach motel'  where I quickly fell asleep on top of the bed still wearing my boots.


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