Trip Report: Danube Delta (Romania), September 6-13, 1997

Peter Hirsch, Vienna, Austria;

32 members of BirdLife Austria took a trip to the Danube Delta in the beginning of September. The trip was organised by Dr. Gerd Wichmann, and Dr. Andreas Ranner found and identified most of the birds for the group. The Finesse travel agency from Bucharest took care of the local arrangements.

First a few words about conditions:

Generally speaking Romania proved to be a run-down country suffering from an attitude problem. Maintenance is often non-existing or perfunctory, garbage is dumped just about everywhere, services are mostly bad, most houses, fields, vineyards and gardens look untended. In addition, western fads of years past are followed and look even more ridiculous now than they did when they were the height of the fashion with us. Even the main roads are pretty bad, and on secondary roads we were often forced to slow to a crawl -- the sagging springs of our vintage bus did not help much either.

The weather was cooler than expected, even on sunny days, and on the boat in the delta it got very chilly. Sweaters and windbreakers were very necessary. Mosquitos were not a problem, probably because everybody had brought the strongest repellants money could buy; highest concentrations were found in the toilet of a rest stop on the way to the delta, and in the rooms of a hospital for infectious diseases.

More than 25% of the participants suffered from intestinal problems although we were all careful about what we ate and drank, but most soon recovered. Only my wife had to go and spend a night in a hospital in Tulcea, an experience in itself due to the mix of negligence and poverty; however, the treatment she received there took care of the problem, and the young medico in the ambulance was extremely concerned and helpful.

We left Vienna on Austrian Airlines on September 6 at 13:35 and arrived in Bucharest at about 16:00 CET or 15:00 EET. It took about an hour to get the luggage and to go through immigration and customs. The bus waiting for us was a Mercedes O302 with an Iranational label, apparently assembled in Romania about 30 years ago. However, the engine and gearbox seemed to be well-maintained, and the brakes worked well; the young driver drove fast but not recklessly and seemed very responsible. We arrived in Tulcea, a town at the edge of the delta, around 10:45 and, after a simple snack, went to our rooms which were reasonably clean, but well-worn and spartan.

Jackdaws woke us at 6:00 sharp on September 7 (they were the eastern race with white on the necks called 'necklace jackdaws' in German). Breakfast at 7:00, and we left at 8:00 for our boat that was to take us down some arms of the Danube first to Mila 23 and then to Crisan. We covered Bratul Tulcea, Canalul Mila 35, Girla Sontea, Canalul Olguta, Lacul Baclanestii Mare (where we had a picnic lunch), Lacul Furtuna, Dunarea Veche (with a stop at Mila 23), Crisan (where we checked into our hotel), and the Caraorman sand dune. As you have probably realised, Bratul means arm, Canalul canal, Lacul lake, Mila mile, and Dunarea Veche is the Old Danube, the former main channel. The whole area has been improved for shipping, starting more than a hundred years ago, and is crisscrossed by natural and artificial waterways.

The weather was sunny and reasonably warm, and there was almost no wind, but it got rather cool as the boat started moving. The trip gave us a first introduction to the fabulous richness in bird life. Hundreds of Little Egrets, dozens of Great Crested Grebes, Cormorants and Pygmy Cormorants, White Pelicans, Grey Herons, Great White Egrets, Squacco Herons, Night Herons (mostly juveniles), Glossy Ibis, Coots, Yellow-legged Gulls, Black-headed Gulls, Common Terns and all three species of marsh terns, Graylags, and Hooded Crows stood on the banks or flew around. Rarer birds included Little Grebes, Red-necked Grebes, Dalmatian Pelicans, Purple Herons (around Lacul Furtuna), Black Storks, Mute Swans, Mallards, Garganeys, Pochards, Ferruginous Ducks, Pintails, Gadwalls, White-tailed Eagles, Red-footed Falcons, Kestrels, Marsh Harriers, Pheasants, Moorhens, Spotted Redshanks, Greenshanks, Redshanks, Black-tailed Godwits, Snipes, Marsh Sandpipers, Wood Sandpipers, Lapwings, Curlews, Ruffs, Caspian Terns, Collared Doves, a Cuckoo, Bee-eaters, Kingfishers, Rollers, Green, Grey-headed, Great Spotted, Black and Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers, Magpies, Spotted Flycatchers, Swallows, Sand and House Martins, Tree Pipits, and a Raven (which mercilessly harassed a White-tailed Eagle).

The boat ride through the canals and lakes was rather idyllic, with extensive reed beds, riverine forests and meadows as well as an endless stream of birds passing by. There were smaller boats with fishermen everywhere, and some families camping on the banks, most of the men also fishing.

Mila 23 is a village founded by orthodox immigrants from Russia in the late 18th century. Russian is still spoken here, and it is the first language in school, with Romanian as the second language, which does not help the career prospects -- only 2.5% of the children go on to high-school, it seems. Most children we saw were blonde, while most children elsewhere had dark hair. There also seemed a fair share of feeble-minded children, maybe a result of inbreeding since most villagers will not marry outside their community.

After checking into hotel Lebada (= Swan) in Crisan, we went for a boat ride down Canalul Crisan and went for a walk on Grindul Caraorman as the sun was about to set. Grindul is a former seawall (sand and lots of seashells), and Caraorman means Black Forest in Turkish, so you could well say that the Danube goes from the Black Forest (in Germany) to the Black Forest (in Romania). These former seawalls are covered with short grass and some bushes and serve as pastures. It was nice to stretch our legs again after a day on the boat. This is where we saw the Raven harass the eagle, kor-kor-korring all the time until the eagle had left.

The official tally for the day was 94 species.

On September 8 we covered Canalul Crisan down to Caraorman village (where we stopped to look at a defunct sand loading facility and the lake between the village and the canal), Canalul Caraorman, Lacul Puin, Lacul Potcoava, Lacul Rosu, Lacul Rosulet, Canalul Tataru, Sulina (with a walk through town and to the shores of the Black Sea), Bratul Sulina, Dunurea Veche back to out hotel. The weather was mostly warm and sunny.

Caraorman, according to our Romanian guide, is a prime example of Communist megalomania. Apparently Ceausescu was told the sand from the Caraorman dune was excellent for glass production, whereupon -- without further research -- the canal was widened and deepened, and a harbour and huge loading facilities including workers' quarters were built. The sand turned out to be useless, and the project was dropped. The cranes and loading installations are still there, rusting away peacefully, and the houses are used as quarries and stables by the villagers.

Sulina was one of the headquarters of the International Danube Commission in the 19th century, when the Danube was turned into a waterway suitable for commercial shipping. This huge project attracted lots of foreign personnel, and the cemetery in Sulina bears witness to this former international community with an Anglican, Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox section. (There would have been Muslim and Jewish cemeteries also, but we did not look for these.) Today, Sulina is in decay due to lack of modern infrastructure and the general decay of the Romanian and Bulgarian industry; the Ukrainian ship that sank in the Sulina channel and blocked it for two years did not improve matters.

Bird life was much the same as the previous day, with the addition of Spoonbills, Oystercatchers, Black-winged Stilts, Avocets, Little and Common Gulls, Sandwich Terns (over an otherwise rather lifeless Lacul Rosu), Hoopoe, Crested Lark, Yellow Wagtail, Lesser Whitethroat, Lesser Grey Shrike, and Starlings. The lake in Caraorman yielded most of the new waders, and the cemetery in Sulina provided most of the songbirds, plus the Hoopoe and a juvenile Cuckoo that showed very well. The event of the day was a Paddyfield Warbler that flew by while we had our picnic lunch; it settled in some reeds, where it showed well when one of the group approached carefully.

We came back late that night, and negotiating the Dunarea Veche (which is rather narrow in some parts) in the dark was not much fun.

On September 9 we covered Canalul Crisan, Caraorman (with a walk through the village and sand dunes to the edge of the protected Caraorman oak forest), Canalul Crisan back to Crisan, Dunarea Veche, Lacul Bogdaproste, Dunarea Veche, Canalul Magearu, Lacul Raducului, Dunarea Veche. The weather was partly sunny, partly cloudy, with clouds getting stronger in the afternoon. One of our objectives was to reach the Letea oak forest; however, due to a piece of floating island blocking Canalul Magearu, we had to turn back.

We saw pretty much the same birds we had seen on the canals and lakes the previous days; Lacul Bogdaproste, however, held several surprises: First hundreds of Ferruginous Ducks, then two adult White-tailed Eagles in a tree, and finally a large raptor flying overhead that was identified as another White-tailed Eagle initially, but turned out to be a Griffon Vulture -- an absolute rarity according to our Romanian ornithologist, with maybe one record every ten years in the west of the country, but no records in the Danube delta. We also saw the first Honey Buzzard of the trip this day, two Stone-curlews were seen for a few seconds near the Caraorman forest, and the only Fieldfare of the trip was seen. Caraorman village yielded Red-breasted Flycatcher, Blackcap and Garden Warbler. Outside the village a Wagtail defended its pond vigorously against some swallows, sometimes forcing them into the water.

We came back to the hotel early and went to the Nature Preservation Center that shares the island with the hotel. The manager gave us a guided tour; his speech (in Romanian) was translated into English by our guide and then into German by Andreas Ranner.

On September 10, we returned to Tulcea via Bratul Sulina, and then took the bus to Lacul Murighiol and Lacul Plopul (which was missing from my map, but is located north of Plopul village). The weather was cold and rainy up to noon, but turned sunny and warm towards evening.

Not much was seen on the boat trip, with everybody sheltering from the cold as much as possible; the bus drive and especially Lacul Plopul was everybody's favourite. Birds (among them Little Stints and a Little Owl) were very cooperative and gave excellent views in the late afternoon sun; also, the migration was spectacular, with more than 2,000 Garganeys, more than 150 Squacco Herons and about 250 Purple Herons (together with Grey Herons, btw) flying high over the village and numerous Hobbies and Red-footed Falcons speeding by close to the rooftops. Black-necked Grebes, White Storks, Shelducks, Shovelers, a Goldeneye, Montagu's Harrier, Long-legged Buzzard, Ringed Plover, Grey Plover, Dunlin, Curlew Sandpiper, Red-necked Phalarope, Lesser Black-backed Gulls, Turtle Dove, Wryneck and Redstart were new to the list.

On September 11, our bus took us to the Babadag forest, Lacul Istria, the Istria ruins, Enisala, and back to Tulcea. The weather was beautiful and warm again. We walked through a part of Babadag forest and looked out for forest birds [Woodlark, Tree Pipit, Whitethroat, Sombre Tit (a first for most), Jay and Yellowhammer were added to the list]. At the edge of the forest we had a good view of the surrounding hills and valleys, many raptors were seen here, among them Sparrowhawk, Levantine Sparrowhawk, Goshawk, Buzzard and Steppe Buzzard, Lesser Spotted Eagle, Booted Eagle (all new to the list) as well as Honey Buzzard, Marsh Harriers, Kestrel, Red-footed Falcon and Hobby. A Wryneck showed very well here, and a Sombre Tit made several appearances.

Lacul Istria provided us with many old acquaintances among the waders, ducks and herons, but also gave us our one and only Collared Pratincole.

Most birdwatchers went to see the Greek ruins at Istria -- I stayed behind and drank a beer at the little cafe near the museum. This was rewarded with a tree full of very yellow Willow Warblers and Lesser Whitethroats, a fence lined with young Red-backed Shrikes, a juvenile Cuckoo showing very well, and a Wheatear popping up on the roof of the cafe every now and then.

The stopover at the Enisala fortress did not yield much ornithologically, but the evening was warm and pleasant and watching a Wheatear playing peekaboo with us was certainly better than the bumpy and dusty ride in the bus.

On September 12 I stayed with my wife who had been released from the hospital that morning. The rest of the group went to the Babadag forest and Enisala again and then visited Lacul Plopul. Again, many old acquaintances were seen that day, but there was no migration at Lacul Plopul. Only Osprey, Icterine Warbler and Greenfinch were added to the list.

On September 13 we started going back to Bucharest to catch our flight to Vienna. The plan was to stop at Topolog and Lacul Hazarlic. However, close to Nicolae Balcescu we saw a raptor over a hill, the bus stopped, the raptor was identified as a Short-toed Eagle, and everybody tumbled out of the bus to see it. The bird was extremely cooperative, approached slowly and then flew directly overhead about a hundred feet above us. Everybody got splendid views of the dark head and the barring on the very light underside. Since more raptors appeared, we decided to stay a little longer; we ended up seeing Marsh Harriers, Buzzards and Steppe Buzzards, Long-legged Buzzards, Lesser Spotted Eagle, Booted Eagle, Kestrel and Hobby. Apart from the Short-toed Eagle, Quail and Corn Bunting were added to the list. After a few minutes a minibus with a group of British birders also stopped and joined us. We stayed so long that we decided not to stop anywhere else, but go on to Bucharest directly -- what could have topped that Short-toed Eagle anyway? After dealing with a short bus tour through the outskirts of Bucharest and a huge traffic jam, we made the airport in good time and arrived back to a rainy and cool Vienna. Altogether we saw 163 species on the trip.

Trip List

                                                  7  8  9 10 11 12 13

Little Grebe        Tachybaptus ruficollis        x        x  x  x      
Great Crested Grebe Podiceps cristatus            x  x  x  x  x
Red-necked Grebe    Podiceps grisegena            x     x  
Black-necked Grebe  Podiceps nigricollis                   x  x  x

Cormorant           Phalacrocorax carbo           x  x  x  x  x  x
Pygmy Cormorant     Phalacrocorax pygmeus         x  x  x  x  x
White Pelican       Pelecanus onocrotalus         x  x  x  x  x  x
Dalmatian Pelican   Pelecanus crispus             x  x  x

Grey Heron          Ardea cinerea                 x  x  x  x  x  x
Purple Heron        Ardea purpurea                x  x  x  x  x  x    10
Great White Egret   Egretta alba                  x  x  x  x  x
Little Egret        Egretta garzetta              x  x  x  x  x  x
Squacco Heron       Ardeola ralloides             x  x  x  x  x  x
Night Heron         Nycticorax nycticorax         x  x  x  x  x
Little Bittern      Ixobrychus minutus            x
White Stork         Ciconia ciconia                        x  x  x      
Black Stork         Ciconia nigra                 x     x  x  x
Spoonbill           Platalea leucorodia           x  x  x  x  x  x
Glossy Ibis         Plegadis falcinellus          x     x  x  x  x

Mute Swan           Cygnus olor                   x  x  x  x  x  x    20
Greylag Goose       Anser anser                   x  x  x  x  x  x
Shelduck            Tadorna tadorna                        x  x  x
Gadwall             Anas strepera                 x     x  x  x  x
Teal                Anas crecca                   x  x  x  x  x  x
Mallard             Anas platyrhynchos            x  x  x  x  x  x
Pintail             Anas acuta                    x     x  x  x  x
Garganey            Anas querquedula              x  x  x  x  x  x
Shoveler            Anas clypeata                          x  x  x
Red-crested Pochard Netta rufina                  x     x
Pochard             Aythya ferina                 x  x  x  x  x  x    30
Ferruginous Duck    Aythya nyroca                 x  x  x  x  x  x
Tufted Duck         Aythya fuligula                     x  x  x  x
Goldeneye           Bucephala clangula                     x

Osprey              Pandion haliaetus                            x
Honey Buzzard       Pernis apivorus                     x     x  x
White-tailed Eagle  Haliaeetus albicilla          x     x
Griffon Vulture     Gyps fulvus                         x
Short-toed Eagle    Circaetus gallicus                              x
Marsh Harrier       Circus aeruginosus            x  x  x  x  x     x
Montagu's Harrier   Circus pygargus                        x          40
Sparrowhawk         Accipiter nisus                           x
Lev. Sparrowhawk    Accipiter brevipes                        x
Goshawk             Accipiter gentilis                        x
Buzzard             Buteo buteo                               x     x
Steppe Buzzard      B. (b.) vulpinus                          x     x
Long-legged Buzzard Buteo rufinus                          x        x
Lesser Spotted Eagle Aquila pomarina                          x     x
Booted Eagle        Hieraaetus pennatus                       x     x
Kestrel             Falco tinnunculus             x  x     x  x     x
Red-footed Falcon   Falco vespertinus             x  x  x  x  x       50
Hobby               Falco subbuteo                x  x  x  x  x     x

Quail               Coturnix coturnix                               x
Pheasant            Phasianus colchicus           x

Moorhen             Gallinula chloropus           x  x  x  x  x  x
Coot                Fulica atra                   x  x  x  x  x  x

Oystercatcher       Haematopus ostralegus            x  x
Ringed Plover       Charadrius hiaticula                   x     x
Little Ringed Plover Charadrius dubius               x  x  x  x
Grey Plover         Pluvialis squatarola                   x  x  x
Lapwing             Vanellus vanellus             x  x  x  x  x  x    60
Dunlin              Calidris alpina                        x     x
Little Stint        Calidris minuta                  x     x  x  x
Curlew Sandpipers   Calidris ferruginea                    x  x  x
Ruff                Philomachus pugnax            x  x  x  x  x  x
Snipe               Gallinago gallinago           x  x  x  x  x
Black-tailed Godwit Limosa limosa                 x  x  x  x  x
Curlew              Numenius arquata              x  x  x  x  x  x
Spotted Redshank    Tringa erythropus             x  x  x  x  x  x
Redshank            Tringa totanus                x     x     x
Marsh Sandpiper     Tringa stagnatilis            x     x  x  x  x    70
Greenshank          Tringa nebularia              x  x  x  x  x  x
Green Sandpiper     Tringa ochropus               x  x     x  x
Wood Sandpiper      Tringa glareola               x  x  x  x  x  x
Common Sandpiper    Actitis hypoleucos            x  x  x
Red-necked Phalarope Phalaropus lobatus                    x  x  x
Black-winged Stilt  Himantopus himantopus            x  x  x  x  x
Avocet              Recurvirostra avisetta           x  x  x  x  x
Stone-curlew        Burhinus oedicnemus                 x
Collared Pratincole Glareola pratincola                       x

Little Gull         Larus minutus                    x     x     x    80
Black-headed Gull   Larus ridibundus              x  x  x  x  x  x
Common Gull         Larus canus                      x  x  x
Yellow-legged Gull  Larus cachinnans              x  x  x  x  x  x
Lesser Black-b. Gull Larus fuscus                          x
Common Tern         Sterna hirundo                x  x  x  x  x  x
Sandwich Tern       Sterna sandvicensis              x
Caspian Tern        Sterna caspica                x  x  x  x  x  x
Whiskered Tern      Chlidonias hybridus           x  x  x  x  x  x
White-w. Black Tern Chlidonias leucopterus        x  x  x  x  x
Black Tern          Chlidonias niger              x  x  x  x  x       90

Feral (Rock) Pigeon Columba livia                 x  x  x  x  x  x  x
Stock Dove          Columba oenas                 x        x
Wood Pigeon         Columba palumbus              x        x  x  x
Collared Dove       Streptopelia decaocto         x  x  x  x  x  x  x
Turtle Dove         Streptopelia turtur                    x  x  x

Cuckoo              Cuculus canorus               x  x  x  x  x  x

Little Owl          Athene noctua                       x  x     x

Swift               Apus apus                           x  x  x
Kingfisher          Alcedo atthis                 x  x  x  x  x
Bee-eater           Merops apiaster               x  x  x  x  x  x  x 100
Roller              Coracias garrulus             x  x  x  x  x  x
Hoopoe              Upupa epops                      x  x     x

Wryneck             Jynx torquilla                         x  x  x
Grey-h. Woodpecker  Picus canus                   x  x  x  x
Green Woodpecker    Picus viridis                 x     x
Black Woodpecker    Dryocopus martius             x     x     x
Great Spotted W.    Dendrocopos major             x  x  x  x  x  x
Syrian Woodpecker   Dendrocopos syriacus                x  x  x  x
Lesser Spotted W.   Dendrocopos minor             x     x

Crested Lark        Galerida cristata                x  x  x          110
Woodlark            Lullula arborea                           x  x
Skylark             Alauda arvensis                           x  x
Sand Martin         Riparia riparia               x     x     x  x
Swallow             Hirundo rustica               x  x  x  x  x  x  x
House Martin        Delichon urbica               x     x     x  x
Tree Pipit          Anthus trivialis              x           x  x
Yellow Wagtail      Motacilla flava                  x  x  x  x  x
Pied Wagtail        Motacilla alba                x  x  x  x  x  x
Redstart            Phoenicurus phoenicurus                x
Black Redstart      Phoenicurus ochruros          x  x  x     x       120
Whinchat            Saxicola rubetra                    x  x     x
Wheatear            Oenanthe oenanthe             x  x  x     x  x
Fieldfare           Turdus pilaris                      x
Savi's Warbler      Locustella luscinioides          x
Sedge Warbler       Acrocephalus schoenobaenus                x
Paddyfield Warbler  Acrocephalus agricola            x  x
Great Reed Warbler  Acrocephalus arundinaceus     x           x
Icterine Warbler    Hippolais icterina                           x
Lesser Whitethroat  Sylvia curruca                   x  x     x  x
Whitethroat         Sylvia communis                           x  x    130
Garden Warbler      Sylvia borin                        x     x  x
Blackcap            Sylvia atricapilla                  x        x
Wood Warbler        Phylloscopus sibilatrix       x
Chiffchaff          Phylloscopus collybita        x  x  x     x  x
Willow Warbler      Phylloscopus trochilus        x  x  x  x  x  x
Spotted Flycatcher  Muscicapa striata             x  x  x  x  x  x
Red-br. Flycatcher  Ficedula parva                      x     x  x
Bearded Tit         Panurus biarmicus             x  x  x     x
Long-tailed Tit     Aegithalos caudatus           x     x
Marsh Tit           Parus palustris                              x    140
Sombre Tit          Parus lugubris                            x  x
Blue Tit            Parus caeruleus               x  x  x  x  x  x
Great Tit           Parus major                   x  x  x  x  x  x
Short-toed Treecreeper Certhia brachydactyla      x
Penduline Tit       Remiz pendulinus              x  x  x
Golden Oriole       Oriolus oriolus               x  x  x  x     x
Red-backed Shrike   Lanius collurio               x  x  x  x  x  x
Lesser Grey Shrike  Lanius minor                     x
Jay                 Garrulus glandarius                       x  x
Magpie              Pica pica                     x  x  x  x  x  x    150
Jackdaw             Corvus monedula               x  x  x  x  x  x  x
Rook                Corvus frugilegus                      x  x  x
Carrion (Hooded) Crow Corvus corone cornix        x  x  x  x  x  x
Raven               Corvus corax                  x  x  x  x
Starling            Sturnus vulgaris                 x  x  x  x  x  x
House Sparrow       Passer domesticus             x  x  x  x  x  x  x
Tree Sparrow        Passer montanus               x  x  x  x  x  x
Chaffinch           Fringilla coelebs             x           x  x
Greenfinch          Carduelis chloris                            x
Goldfinch           Carduelis carduelis           x  x  x             160
Yellowhammer        Emberiza citrinella                       x  x
Reed Bunting        Emberiza schoeniclus          x  x  x     x
Corn Bunting        Miliaria calandra                            x

Please note that records of the last day are incomplete.

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This page served by Urs Geiser;; October 22, 1997