Sunday, July 20, 2014

Romania and the Last Frontier - Day 6 p.m: Bearded Tits by Buggy

After a very good lunch which I cannot recall but know it wasn't fish, I had a brief rest before setting out on the afternoon session. Rene, Paul and Kevin had decided to head off to various hides around Ultima Frontiera and I was going to go out with Zoltan in one of the electric golf buggies, covered with some camouflage scrim net, to have a bit of an explore. However, the main objective for the afternoon was to have another try for Bearded Tits. As we left the hotel around mid-afternoon it was obvious that the Bearded Tits would need to wait until the evening as not only was the light still very harsh but a stiff breeze had developed which would make photographing these tricky birds on reeds even more difficult. Hopefully the wind would calm down with the light later in the day.

We had not gone down the sandy track from the hotel when we came across the first bird, a Hoopoe hunting mole crickets along the verges with the sun high overhead.

We carried on and took a small track eastwards towards the north-eastern corner of the site. Given the conditions I was not too bothered about photography as my thoughts were firmly fixed on Bearded Tits. It was very enjoyable just driving along and seeing what birds were around and if there were any potential photo opportunities that may be worth revisiting the following day.  We saw quite a good range of species including Cuckoo, Red-backed Shrike, Common Redstart, Garden Warbler, Penduline Tit, European Roller and Grey-headed Woodpecker.It was also interesting to see some of the flooded forest habitat that formed the northern boundary area of the site which looked a little like a scene from the film 'Southern Comfort'.

Time was passing and we head to the south-western area of the site and try for the Breaded Tits once again. These are actually a very interesting species as they are not actually part of the Tit family and so are now often referred to by their other names of either Bearded Reedling or Parrotbill. It has been placed by taxonomists into the grouping of Parrotbills but is actually a unique song bird species with no other closely related living species.

Small birds which inhabit reed beds such as various warblers, and of course Bearded Tits, as any bird photographer knows can be a very frustrating pursuit. Trying to get a clear photograph of the birds is usually hampered by a single leaf or stem in the wrong place. Often in these situations it is best to concentrate the efforts on the edges of the vegetation where the plants and stems are less dense.

Over the next few hours Zoltan and I worked hard in some very warm conditions at three locations along the western track,  trying to get some photographs of the birds. Typically a group of Bearded Tits would appear at the edge of the reed fringing on the far side of a channel adjacent to the track before flying across in fluttering procession to the reeds next to the track. Beyond the difficulties of photographing the glimpses of these hyperactive birds amongst the reeds, they did seem fairly tolerant to our presence although definitely did not like any fast or large movements. This was particularly case with the adult birds.We just used the electric buggy to get us between locations, all the photography was done on foot.

Eventually our persistence was rewarded, particularly with a small group of young birds which spent an extended time, although in reality was probably only a few minutes, at the top of some stems in a relatively sparse part of the reedbed.  A selection of photos from the afternoon session are below.

Birds on one side of the track were back lit.
Whilst the other side provided some good even lighting conditions in the softening evening sun.
Adult nale birds were particularly challenging. As they would only stop for the briefest of moments in any one location.
Young birds on reed seed heads
A rather soggy looking adult male, presumably that has recently bathed.
The long tail helps with the reed stem acrobatics.
'Peas in a pod'
Young bird just about to lift off
It had been a challenging but enjoyable session with these attractive and acrobatic birds. As I was eating the evening meal I was already contemplating the next day and what I did not know at that stage was that in a few hours time I was going to be treated to a very memorable and special morning session.

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.

Saturday, July 05, 2014

Romania and the Last Frontier - Day 5 p.m: To 'The Last Frontier'

After a fish lunch, we packed up our gear. This didn't take me long as I was living out of the suitcase anyway.  It was time to wave goodbye to Mila 23. It had been a great start to the trip with so many memorable encounters and wonderful birds. By this stage in our journey I was looking forward to some dry land and actually going for a walk. For the past few days we had been on the boat and there is nowhere to walk by the hotel given that it is on an island and the only place for a stroll is around 20m in either direction on the veranda outside the hotel front door.

We piled our mountain of luggage onto the boat and slipped away downstream from the floating jetty. Our destination was a further two hour journey by boat to the Ukraine border in the far north-eastern corner of the Danube Delta. It seemed like the boat journey went on for ever and we got waved in on the main channel where the border runs by the police for a passport and papers check. The border patrol officer was bemused for a little while by struggling to match Paul with his passport. Since this was issued he had lost a remarkable 70kgs in weight and bears little resemblance to the photograph inside!

We eventually arrived at Ultima Frontiera, which translates to the'The Last Frontier', and following our boat journey it certainly felt a very apt name and that we were a very long way from anywhere. We received a very warm greeting at the dock as we loaded our luggage into two pick-up trucks. Zoltan, the Sakertour guide was also staying with us for the few days and obviously keen to explore the site as we were.  I will take a few moments to tell you about Ultima Frontier.The site covers an area of around 1000 ha or 2500 acres and was the location of a former fish farm that was left undisturbed for many years. Below is map of the site to give you some idea of the layout.
The site was purchased with a view to it being developed as a destination for angling, wildlife watching and nature photography. A long single story hotel was constructed which  fits well into the landscape withs it thatched reed roof and low profile. This hotel is fitted out to a very high standard inside and the food is excellent (particularly given the lack of fish!!).
Across the site to date, 18 different hides are available. In addition, given the extensive size of the site around a dozen all-terrain electric vehicle are available for use to explore the area. Apart from being great fun to drive around the sandy tracks they are reasonably useful for stalking birds.
The site is managed by an Italian company called Skua Nature and apart from being very friendly and knowledgeable about the wildlife, they strive to make your stay as enjoyable and productive as possible. I would like to particularly like to thank Luca for all his efforts and to the kitchen staff for not serving fish on a single meal!

The site has only literally just been opened to visiting wildlife photographers and we were to be amongst the first paying guests. Obviously this has advantages and some disadvantages. The main disadvantage is that the hides are new and such facilities usually take time to become established and the set-up refined. On my return I sent Skua Nature some suggestions where refinement of some of the hides could be made.

Once settled into the hotel, we all loaded up into the back of one of the pick-up and were taken by Luca and Zoltan for an evening tour of the site. This was mainly to familairise us with the layout of the huge area and hide locations but obviously the cameras would come with us just in case we came across anything on our travels. I was not expecting to get many photos though with a group of 4 photographers.

My first thoughts as we headed out in the early evening was what an incredible place this was. There were birds everywhere. Bee-eaters gliding around, Hoopoe probing the sandy tracks looking for mole crickets, the loud electric song of Thrush Nightingale from areas of scrub, Great Reed Warbler singing deep within the reedbeds, the list could go on and on. I could grow to like this place very quickly. However, it is not only birds here as there is a good head of mammals that includes wild horses, wild cat, otters and a very special animal which was one of the primary reasons for us heading here - the European Golden Jackal.

We drove around for quite a long time and eventually stopped on the main eastern track to try and photograph some Bearded Tit. The birds were relatively twitchy and are not easy to photograph with their constant fluttering and doing acrobatics around the reeds stems but we managed to get a few photographs of some young birds,  my first of this species. I could see myself returning to try again for these over the next couple of days.

We carried on driving around, with Luca pointing out various hides and birds, butterflies and dragonflies on our travels. After a while we stopped on the main western track and tried for some cuckoo photographs, a bird which appeared to be common across the area based on the number we heard calling. I managed to get a couple of photographs.
Onward we traveled, being shown some old buildings where Little Owl and Roller could be found. A White stork stared down on the wide eyed photographers from its huge stick nest. We had made a full circuit of the place and returned back to the hotel for a great evening meal and each made out a rough schedule for the few days ahead.

It had been a long day and I headed to bed early to recharge my  batteries for the following day. I was excited at the prospect of next days of photography at the Last Frontier, particularly as it would start at 5 a.m with trying to photograph our main reason for being here.......the Golden Jackals.

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Romania and the Last Frontier - Day 5 a.m: Black Tern Tuesday

I was now reduced to crawling from my bed when the alarm sung its merry tune once more at 4:15 am for what was to be our last session on the hide boat. Before heading down to breakfast I slipped out on to the balcony in the pre-dawn gloom to check if the wind direction had shifted from the previous day. The little wind there was seemed to be in a more favourable direction in relation to the pink faint pink glow in the distance where the sun would soon rise.

With omelette and coffee quickly consumed, we were soon heading upstream and north-west  to 'Grebe Lake'. Would we finally get to photograph some Black Terns? I guess I have probably already given that away with the title of the post! The boat was guided towards and brought to rest on the edge of an extensive patch of lilies in the first soft light of dawn. A reasonable number of Common Terns, and more importantly Black Terns, were speeding around, occasionally hovering over the lilies and coming to rest on the broad floating leaves and tubers.

Excuse the quality of this following video which is a bit shakey but it is just to give you an idea of the scene before us that morning.

Black tern Lilies from Richard Steel on Vimeo.

As you can see the terns do not hang around and their flight involves a lot of twisting and turning (if you will excuse the pun!) which is not the easiest to track with the camera from the confines of a hide boat.

Before the sun was up a pair of Black Terns were mating in front of us close to the boat. A promising start to what turned into a lengthy stay at this location.

The sun broke through casting its orange glow, not strong enough for flight photos but sufficient for some portraits of birds perched on lily tubers and some more mating action. As this is the first time I had been up close to these birds, I had previously be unaware that there was such a marked difference between the male and female birds. The males being much more dark birds with more extensive black over their bodies as you can see in the following photographs.

Over on the left hand side of the lily bed was a pair of Ferruginious Duck. The early warm sun really fired off the rusty coloured plumage.

The light had now increased sufficiently to get enough shutter speed to start taking some flight photographs but as stated previously it was not particularly easy but at least the wind was in a more favourable direction than the previous day.

The rest of the time there was spent alternating between flight, and occasional mating photos of the elegant birds.
The colour of the birds changed as the sun rose and the quality of light hardened.
A special session of pure Danube Delta magic.

We spent the majority of the session photographing the terns and slowly started making our way towards the Paradise Delta House Hotel. En route we came across both Night and Squacco Herons but I guess you have seen enough images of those species already in the previous posts.

As we slowly cruised down one of the myriad of channels we stopped briefly for by pair of Red-footed Falcons at the top of a channel-side tree. I didn't really bother with these distant birds having had such a great session with them a couple of years previously in Hungary. I knew any photos would no doubt end up in the trash bin, particularly given the fact that the temperature had rapidly increased and there appeared to be a lot of wobbling air between us and the birds.

Our time with the boat hide was over, it was now time to move on from Mila 23 and on to the second part of our trip and head further east and north into the delta and to a place known as Ultima Frontiera - the 'Last Frontier'.


Related Posts with Thumbnails