A week-long International Tour to Romania, organised together with our friends from Oriole Birding. The Danube Delta is one of the ‘must-see’ wildlife destinations and we spent four days exploring it, sleeping each night on our floating hotel in a different location, right out in the midst of it. We also spent a couple of days exploring the Dobrogea region, down to the Black Sea coast, which is host to some species right at the western edge of their range. A fantastic experience!
SATURDAY 1ST JUNE
Our 10.35 flight from Luton Airport to Bucharest arrived on time. After realising we had come out in a different arrivals hall, we quickly found our local guide, Florin, who took us outside to where our minibus and driver were waiting. There were a few House Sparrows, House Martins and Jackdaws around the terminal building, before we set off on the long drive to Tulcea.
Out in the suburbs, we saw mostly Collared Doves and Feral Pigeons but as we got out into the countryside beyond, we could see Rooks, Hooded Crows and one or two Pheasants in the fields. More exciting, a Long-legged Buzzard circled over the road ahead of us. We broke the journey with a stop at a service station for coffee and/or ice cream, where several Greenfinches were singing outside.
Afterwards, as we continued the journey, we started to see a greater variety of birds. It had clearly rained a lot in recent weeks, given the amount of water on the fields, and some of the wetter areas held a selection of herons – a Great White Egret, a few Little Egrets, two Squacco Herons, three Black-crowned Night Herons, and a couple of the group spotted a Glossy Ibis lurking in a ditch. As we approached the Danube crossing, there were more White Storks, including several nests with chicks on the telegraph posts in some of the villages.
The wires beside the road started to get some more interesting birds too. In one area, we spotted five Rollers in quick succession. There were Bee-eaters too, particularly as we approached a steep section of road which winds down through a small grove of acacia trees. There were plenty of Rooks in the trees, but no sign of any Red-footed Falcons, which also nest here. However, just beyond the trees we spotted a smart male Red-footed Falcon hovering over the grass beside the road.
Further into the Dobrugea region, and we started to see more Red-backed Shrikes and one or two Corn Buntings on the wires. It was starting to get dark now and a Little Owl was perched on the chimney of a house in one of the villages we passed. We finally made it into Tulcea at about 9pm, and we headed straight to the port where the floating hotel, which would be our home for the next five nights, was waiting. After a delicious dinner on board, we retired to our cabins.
SUNDAY 2ND JUNE
There were a few gulls around the harbour in Tulcea when we woke up this morning. As well as plenty of Black-headed Gulls, a couple of Caspian Gulls came close enough to get a good look at. After breakfast on board – cereals with local yoghurt, bread and honey, eggs, and a selection of ham and cheese – we boarded the smaller boat which would take us around the Delta (the floating hotel would be towed out to meet us later). The main Tulcea branch of the Danube is big and open and was fairly birdless at first, apart from a few more Caspian Gulls. After a quick stop to retrieve someone’s cap, which had blown off into the river, we headed over towards the junction with the smaller Mila 36 channel. A Grey-headed Woodpecker flew in and landed in the top of some tall poplars on the bank and our first White Pelicans, a group of fourteen, circled overhead.
White Pelicans – our first of the trip, circled overhead
Having turned off the main channel onto Mila 36, we started to come across a lot more birds. There were Kingfishers calling all around here, zooming back and forth across the water and in and out of the trees. We could hear a variety of different birds in the trees, but they were hard to see in all the leaves and undergrowth. An Icterine Warbler and several Eastern Olivaceous Warblers were singing, as well as both Common and one or two Thrush Nightingales, the more grating and clicking phrases of the latter giving them away. Three calling Collared Flycatchers gave only glimpses but a couple of Spotted Flycatchers sallied out of the trees. There were more woodpeckers too, several Great Spotted, another Grey-headed, and we heard out first Middle Spotted Woodpecker.
The Delta is all about its waterbirds, and is packed full of herons of various sizes. There were plenty of Grey Herons and Little Egrets at first and then, as we got further in, we found lots of Squacco Herons which flushed from the banks as we passed, changing instantly from buff-brown to white. Several Black-crowned Night Herons and a smaller number of Glossy Ibis flew over.
Squacco Heron – a very common heron in the Delta
We encountered our first Pygmy Cormorants too, but they are very skittish and typically flew off ahead of us. More pelicans circled overhead, mostly flocks of White Pelicans, but we also saw our first Dalmatian Pelican, typically a lone bird which flew over.
Pygmy Cormorant – mostly very skittish and flew off before we got too close
A male Little Bittern flew across the channel ahead of us and landed in the base of the reeds, disappearing in before we could get a good look at it. When we stopped to scan, a Penduline Tit started calling over on the other side, and we saw it perched briefly in the top of the reeds. One of the group, scanning for the tit, found a female Little Bittern instead, up on top of the reeds further back. We had already heard several Great Reed Warblers singing in the reeds as we passed, and now one perched up nicely on a dead reed stem. A little further on, and a pair of Hobbys were zooming around through the tops of the trees beside the channel, before landing up in a poplar.
We stopped for coffee at the entrance to Lake Nebunu. As we motored up, a Raccoon Dog was on the bank nearby, but quickly scuttled into the vegetation. There were lots of Mute Swans and Great Crested Grebes out on the lake. A pair of Common Terns and about 15 Whiskered Terns were flying round and dip feeding over the vegetation across the entrance. We could see lots of cormorants and herons coming and going from their nesting colony in the tall trees at the back. Two White-tailed Eagles appeared over the trees, and one was mobbed by a Hooded Crow, which was just a tiny speck by comparison at that range. A Pallas’s Gull flew over the back of the lake too, like an oversized Black-headed Gull, but it was rather distant and disappeared from view behind the trees.
After coffee, we carried on along the channel and hadn’t gone much further when we came across our first Red-necked Grebes. The first one dived ahead of the boat and disappeared into the reeds, but then we found four more together, and had a great view of them, resplendent in breeding plumage with bright rusty-red necks.
Red-necked Grebe – in smart breeding plumage
Next stop was by a White-tailed Eagle nest, which was high in the trees beside the channel. One of the two juveniles was still on the nest, but the other was hiding higher up in the branches above. They were almost fully grown, not long to fledging now. There was no sign of either of the adults at first, until two White-tailed Eagles appeared through the treetops. One of the adults was chasing off an immature, which had presumably flown too close to the nest. Once the intruder had fled, the adult flew back round and landed in a tree not far away.
We cut back across Lake Furtuna, a large open lake surrounded by reeds. Several White Pelicans and a single Dalmatian Pelican were swimming out on the water. There was more floating vegetation over the far side, where we found lots of Whiskered Terns, four Garganey and a pair of Gadwall. It was full of grebes too, nesting Great Crested Grebes, several pairs of Black-necked Grebes and four Red-necked Grebes too. Our first Purple Heron flew over.
Dalmatian Pelican – we saw small numbers daily in the Delta
On the smaller channels especially, there were Cuckoos and Rollers everywhere. A brief Golden Oriole flew over, but was not seen by most of the group and would remain a target for a good view for many for a while yet. There were lots of dragonflies – mainly Emperor, Lesser Emperor and Scarlet Darter, and plenty of Banded Demoiselles beside the channels. As we got out into a more agricultural area, several Western Yellow Wagtails flew up from the feet of a herd cows, though it was hard to see for sure whether these ones were pure Black-headed Wagtails or one of the array of hybrids.
We met the floating hotel for lunch at Maliuc, and while we were settled on board enjoying our three course feast we were towed slowly along to the next location. After lunch, we had a couple of hours to relax over the heat of the day, take a siesta or watch the world go by from the boat. The banks were more open here and in the wetter spots there were lots of Great White Egrets and Glossy Ibis. Three Hoopoes flew alongside as we passed and there seemed to be Rollers on just about every bush.
Hoopoe – several were seen on the river bank today
With the floating hotel moored again, we set off about 5pm in the smaller boat to explore the area. A Penduline Tit was calling from the trees on the opposite bank and a Garden Warbler was singing from the trees on our side. It was still hot, and quiet to start as we checked out a couple of smaller lakes.
The first was overgrown with Water Soldier and not surprisingly there were several Norfolk Hawkers patrolling along the edge of the reeds. Marsh Frogs were everywhere on the lily pads, until a Dice Snake swam across, causing them to disappear into the water. Lots of herons were flying around again, and we saw many more Purple Herons out here. A Savi’s Warbler was reeling from the reeds, the first of many we heard this afternoon.
Purple Heron – more common in the reedier parts of the Delta
The second lake was full of Whiskered Terns, looking to nest on the floating vegetation. When a Hooded Crow flew across, they all came up en masse to mob it, and we realised just how many had been hiding there. A pair of Greylag Geese lurking in the edge of the reeds at the back had distinctive pink bills, birds of the eastern race rubirostris. We could hear a Bittern booming too.
Back along the more open Crisan channel, an obliging Black-crowned Night Heron was standing on the floating vegetation below one of the trees on the bank. We saw several more Ferruginous Ducks, mostly typically flighty, but we had a nice view of a male down on the water’s edge which lingered longer than most. On an area of open sandy shore, an adult Little Ringed Plover was keeping an eye on its already well-grown juvenile. A White-tailed Eagle flew in over the back and appeared to be coming our way before it suddenly dropped down onto the ground. We could see it was feeding on something, and was quickly surrounded by 10 Hooded Crows.
Black-crowned Night Heron – another very common species in the Delta
We continued on back past the floating hotel, and turned in down the small channel leading to Lake Iacob. There were more pelicans on the lake – with two White and two Dalmatian Pelicans on a log, giving us a nice comparison. A Garden Warbler was singing nearby and we could hear more Penduline Tits calling. As we motored back slowly along the wooded channel, a Grey-headed Woodpecker perched nicely in the tree above us. Another Pallas’s Gull flew over, much closer this time but we would still hold out for better views.
Grey-headed Woodpecker – perched nicely in a tree above the boat
Back at the floating hotel, we sat out on the deck to compile the list for the day. We could still hear the Grey-headed Woodpecker calling away in the trees. Eastern Olivaceous and Great Reed Warblers were singing and the Savi’s Warbler was still reeling. A Bittern was booming off in the distance and a Golden Oriole was taunting us, hidden deep in the bushes. What an amazing place to be! After a delicious three course dinner of salad followed by local zander, it was time to turn in, to the sound of Fire-bellied Toads calling.
MONDAY 3RD JUNE
Before breakfast, the earlier risers gathered out on the deck. A Little Crake was calling, but hidden deep in the reeds beyond the trees on the bank. A pair of Eastern Olivaceous Warblers appeared briefly low in the branches, before making their way through to the sunny side of the trees as the early mist burned off. The Bittern was still booming and the Savi’s Warbler still reeling off in the distance. Three Pallas’s Gulls flew high over, one at a time, and the first White Pelicans flapped lazily up along the channel. A Middle Spotted Woodpecker flew past through trees opposite and while we ate breakfast, a pair of Garganey circled round over the water outside.
As we got ready to set off on the smaller boat again, we picked up a distant male Red-footed Falcon on some wires, and through the scope we could just about see its red feet and legs in the morning sunshine. As we motored slowly up the channel, there were the usual herons and egrets everywhere. A Great Bittern flew across and up the edge of the channel ahead of us, a difficult bird to see here.
When we heard Bearded Tits calling we looked over to see a family party right up in the top of the willows on the bank. Another bigger group of Bearded Tits were in the reeds on the junction of the Caraorman channel, lots of juveniles. As we stopped to look at them, one of the group noticed a male Penduline Tit feeding in the sedges right down at the front – nice to get our first good views of this species. We could hear a Reed Bunting singing, and then a pair appeared in one of the willows. The birds here are a different race to back home, tshusii, being noticeably heavier-billed.
Penduline Tit – feeding in the sedges
Continuing on to Caraorman village, a pair of Caspian Gulls were loafing on the bank and a Hoopoe was wrestling with a mole cricket as we made our way down to the small harbour. The vista here was dominated by the ruins of the old communist-era industrial sand mining site, long since abandoned. As we got out at the harbour, a juvenile Northern Wheatear was feeding in between the boats pulled up nearby. Walking down the track towards the village, we were surrounded by Bee-eaters calling and perching on the wires, nesting in the low sandy banks.
Bee-eater – around the abandoned factory at Caraorman
A couple of Black-tailed Godwits were feeding in a grassy pool out where the cows were grazing. Three Red-footed Falcons were perched on the wires further down, two of the males chasing each other a little closer before landing again. It was already starting to get hot. Lots of Marsh Frogs were basking around the edge of a small pool in the sand, before hopping in as we passed, and the head of a Dice Snake appeared out of the water.
Several White Storks were on nests in the village, and one stood bill clapping and throwing its head back as two others circled over. It was eerie walking round past the huge abandoned accommodation blocks, long-since stripped of windows, doors and any other removable fittings, their roofs falling in but providing nest sites for the local Kestrels.
We continued on down the track out into the old sand pits. On the larger shallow pools here we found several Avocets and Black-winged Stilts along with more Black-tailed Godwits and a few Shelduck too. A Hobby flew over hunting dragonflies. Up on the bank of the next basin, there was pleasant breeze to stop us overheating. A single Caspian Tern was out in the middle, dwarfing the Common Terns and Whiskered Terns it was with. Through the scope, we could see its huge black-tipped red bill. A few Black-winged Stilts and Common Terns were nesting on the sandy islands.
Continuing round to the far corner, we could see a group of larger gulls loafing on the edge of the another pool. A single adult Pallas’s Gull was in with the Caspian Gulls – with its black hood, it really stood out. There were more Bee-eaters in the bushes and a male Red-backed Shrike appeared with them briefly. Then it was time to get out of the sun, so we took a short cut back to the boat. A male Northern Wheatear was singing around the abandoned factory buildings.
Northern Wheatear – singing around the abandoned factory
After a break for water and/or coffee back at the boat, we motored round to a former fish farm nearby. There were lots of Whiskered Terns flying round over the pools, but a group of people had set up for a picnic at the viewing platform, so we carried on down the channel. We went looking for a Penduline Tit nest. The reeds were too tall at the first site we tried, but we did see the pair of adult Penduline Tits in the trees calling. Further on, we found another nest hanging in the lowest branches of a willow, just above the reeds, an amazing construction. The remains of last year’s nest was still hanging in the branches further in. It was all quiet here though, so perhaps the female was incubating.
Continuing on, we stopped to look at a pair of Red-backed Shrikes in the bushes on the bank. An Eastern Olivaceous Warbler was singing here too, and perched up in the top of a bush for ages, being unusually obliging. Back round to Caraorman channel, a Common Cuckoo perched on the wires.
Common Cuckoo – abundant in the Delta
As we headed back towards the floating hotel, we heard another Savi’s Warbler reeling. This one seemed to be closer, and a careful scan revealed it perched up in the reeds in full view. We stopped the boat and had a good look at this typically very elusive species. We certainly would not go hungry this week – lunch was another three courses of soup with meatballs, followed by stuffed vine leaves and a delicious traditional pudding.
Savi’s Warbler – we had a good view of this typically elusive species
After lunch, the floating hotel was towed slowly back up to the main channel at Crisan before turning onto the course of the old Danube. Here we got back onto the smaller boat again, to head out for the afternoon. As we motored slowly along a side channel, we could hear several Golden Orioles fluting from some very tall poplars. We saw a couple flying in and out through the treetops, but you had to be quick to get on them. Both Grey-headed Woodpecker and Lesser Spotted Woodpecker were calling here too, but there was no sign of any Black Woodpeckers today.
The usual selection of herons flew out of the trees beside the channel as we passed, and a Little Bittern flew out of the reeds and alongside the boat, before crashing back in. We were still waiting for a really good view of one perched in the reeds. Turning on to Bogdaproste channel, Common Cuckoos were everywhere again. Several Hobbys zoomed in and out of the trees on the banks, and one perched up nicely.
Hobby – perched up nicely in the trees by the boat
There were lots of Rollers here too – one pair was coming in and out of a nest hole in a tree, and another male was bringing food for the female. An Otter was floating in the channel ahead of the boat, crunching on something it had just caught. As we cut the engine, it saw us and dived.
Roller – we saw several pairs in the trees along the channels
The water opened out into Lake Bogdaproste, where we found a scattering of White Pelicans and Pygmy Cormorants, plus rafts of Common Pochard and Eurasian Coot. Two Black Terns flew over calling behind the boat, but disappeared away from us before we could get a good view. We could see several distant Pallas’s Gulls circling and as we motored across the lake we noticed one on the water, so we diverted over for a closer look. We got much closer before it took off – a very smart gull with its black hood and black-and-white wing tips, and multi-coloured yellow bill.
Through the channel on the far side, we found ourselves coming out into another large lake. As we were crossing, we could see some very distant Whiskered Terns hovering over an island of vegetation on the far side, and we picked up a White-winged Black Tern in with them, so we headed over for closer look. As we got nearer, we could see there were actually two White-winged Black Terns and lots of Black Terns too, at least a dozen, loafing on the floating vegetation. We had great views of one of the White-winged Black Terns dip feeding beside the boat – a real bonus, as they are not common here, with just a few pairs breeding in inaccessible areas. All the terns then took off, and flew round over the boat.
Black Tern – breeds fairly commonly in the Delta
White-winged Black Tern – the rarest of the three ‘marsh terns’ in the Delta
Continuing on to the next lake, a pair of rubirostris Greylag Geese swam across in front of the boat with four goslings. An amazing number of Whiskered Terns, probably at least 150 pairs, were starting to nest on carpet of floating vegetation here. We sailed along a channel through the middle, and had amazing views of them flying all round the boat, calling noisily. What an experience! A Hooded Crow flew over, and was immediately chased by a horde of Whiskered Terns. It made repeated visits, looking for eggs. Two Black-necked Grebes swam along the channel ahead of us.
Whiskered Tern – nest-building on the floating vegetation on the lakes
Whiskered Tern – amazing close views as we sailed across the lake
As we sailed back through the lakes, there were lots of Great Cormorants nesting in the surrounding trees. One tree on the edge of the reeds was full of cormorants of two species, Great and Pygmy Cormorants side by side, so we could really appreciate the size difference. Another Pallas’s Gull was swimming ahead of us on the water, and allowed us to approach closer still before it finally took off and flew round past us. Then we headed back to meet the floating hotel which was moored on a different channel nearby.
Pallas’s Gull – we came across several adults out on the larger lakes
After a break to freshen up, we met up on deck to do the day’s list. A group of eight White Pelicans was loafing and preening on a log by the boat, Whiskered Terns and Marsh Harriers were flying round, another Savi’s Warbler was reeling in the distance, and several Great Reed Warblers were singing in the reeds nearby. After dinner of salad, breaded chicken and local cake, we retired to a deafening chorus of Marsh Frogs outside. Another amazing location and a privilege to be able to spend the night out here again.
TUESDAY 4TH JUNE
Up on the deck before breakfast, we spotted a White-tailed Eagle which had obviously roosted in a tree a short way back along the channel. Three Black Terns patrolled up and down the channel past us and we could hear Bearded Tits and Penduline Tit calling from the reeds, and the Savi’s Warbler was still reeling.
After breakfast, on the smaller boat we headed down to look at the White-tailed Eagle. It eventually took off, and flew back upstream, where it caught a fish and landed on the floating vegetation nearby to eat it. We turned round and motored back and had a great view of it feeding, before it eventually flew again.
White-tailed Eagle – caught a fish just after breakfast
Continuing on along the channel, we saw the usual selection of herons, cormorants, Red-necked Grebes and Ferruginous Ducks – amazing that these species had become so commonplace after just a couple of days here!
Ferruginous Duck – a common sight out in the Delta
On the next channel, there were more trees either side, with several Lesser Whitethroats and Blackcaps singing. A Middle Spotted Woodpecker called and a Grey-headed Woodpecker flew across and perched in a dead willow, the first of several we would see today. Once again, there were plenty of Cuckoos, Rollers and Kingfishers, with one of the latter perching up nicely as we passed.
We came out into a more open agricultural area. Several Western Yellow Wagtails flew up calling and one perched on the top of a dead stem. With its dark grey head and white supercilium it was a ‘dombrowskii’, a hybrid form of Black-headed and Blue-headed Wagtails, a speciality of Romania. A little further on, a Cattle Egret was standing on the grassy bank, the first we had got a good look at – they are not very common here.
Cattle Egret – uncommon in the Delta
A female Red-footed Falcon was perched in a willow right above the channel, so we stopped the boat for a look. It was perched just above our heads, staring down at us, and then a male came up off a nest in the tree nearby. The male flew round calling, so we backed off, and watched as the female returned to the nest. We saw several more Red-footed Falcons as we motored along this stretch of channel.
Red-footed Falcon – the female perched in the trees above us
Red-footed Falcon – the male came up off the nest and flew round
Everyone also finally got a look at a Golden Oriole, albeit just in flight, as one came out of the trees and headed away down the channel. Further on, a shrike in the willows was hidden from view at first, but when it finally flew up into the top, we could see it was a Lesser Grey Shrike, its black mask extending over the top of its bill and with a pink flush to the breast. It flew round the back of the trees and we noticed there were now two perched up together in a bush, a pair. Several Grass Snakes and Dice Snakes swam across the channel as we motored on.
There was a large area of reeds on the right of the channel and lots of Glossy Ibises and Purple Herons were flying round as we passed. When we came to a more open area of short wet grass, we counted at least 80 Great White Egrets in one big group, feeding. There were lots of White Storks here too, plus the usual Grey Herons and Little Egrets. We turned onto another channel at the far side of this field and headed out across the meadows where lots of horses and cattle were grazing. A pair of Hoopoes on the bank, flew off ahead of us. A pair of European Stonechat perched on some wires. A couple more Western Yellow Wagtails flew up, one another ‘dombrowskii’ and one a normal Black-headed Wagtail.
Great White Egret – another common heron in the Delta
The channel disappeared into some dense trees. Another Grey-headed Woodpecker flew across and perched up nicely, but a couple of Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers were typically more elusive, just heard calling. Blackcaps and Garden Warblers were singing. A succession of Black-crowned Night Herons and Grey Herons flew out of the bushes ahead of us.
We had our coffee break as we sailed down here before, at the end, we came out into a huge open lake. We were closer to the main White Pelican breeding site here, a restricted area, but we could see several hundred circling in the distance. There were just a few on the lake here though, along with two Dalmatian Pelicans. Apart from that, all we could find here were a rather distant Pallas’s Gull, a distant White-tailed Eagle, and a distant Little Bittern which flew across. The next lake had a similar variety of birds.
Taking the sinuous Eracle channel back, one of the group spotted a Black Stork circling high over the reeds to one side, a new bird for the trip. As if that wasn’t good enough, we had just started moving again when someone else spotted an owl in the trees. We turned back and found a Long-eared Owl staring back out at us – a very good spot as we motored past! As we pulled up towards the bank, a second Long-eared Owl flew out of the trees.
Long-eared Owl – well spotted by a member of the group in the trees
As we continued on along the channel, it clouded over, and we could hear a thunderstorm away to our left. We turned into a small lake, covered in lily pads, where at least twelve Black Terns were dipping down to the vegetation with all the Whiskered Terns. There were several Black-necked Grebes here too. It started spitting with rain now, and continued on and off as we made our way back to the floating hotel for lunch. It felt much cooler too. At least the local weather forecast promised us that the rain would end in precisely 23 minutes!
After lunch and a short break, it had indeed stopped raining as forecast, so we headed out again on the small boat, through various small channels. A smart male Marsh Harrier circled low over. A Purple Heron flew across with a Grass Snake in its bill. A Savi’s Warbler was reeling and when we got out of the small channel we were in and it opened out, we found it perched high on a dead reed stem. Along the next channel, with lots of trees either side, a Thrush Nightingale was singing from deep in cover.
We came out on the Stipoc channel, by an old fish farm which has now been converted into agricultural land (but would make a fantastic nature reserve!). A couple of Stock Doves were on the wires by the farm buildings and a liberal scattering of Rollers were then on the wires all the way down. Several Red-footed Falcons hovered out over the open grassland. A Corn Bunting sang from the top of a bush on the bank on one side and a Sedge Warbler sand from the reeds on the other. We stopped to look at a European Pond Terrapin which was basking on a log in an area of pondweed and realised there were several more lurking in the weed nearby.
European Pond Terrapin – several were in a weedy along the channel
There was an area of open water and wet grass on the other side of the channel. A couple of small flocks of White Pelicans were swimming in the water and lots of Great White Egrets, Little Egrets, Glossy Ibises and a single Cattle Egret were feeding in the wet grass. Two Green Sandpipers flew round calling, and landed in the vegetation. Four Black-tailed Godwits were feeding here too.
Two Western Yellow Wagtails flew up from the grass, one an obvious ‘dombrowskii’, but the other looked like it might be a Black-headed Wagtail until we got better look. Then we could see it had some grey on the nape, and a small amount of white in the supercilium. The Western Yellow Wagtails here are a real minefield of different hybrid forms!
Lesser Grey Shrike – perched in the willows above the channel
Further on, another Lesser Grey Shrike was perched up in the top of a willow overhanging the channel. Two Golden Orioles flew across over the reeds, across the channel ahead of us and up into the trees the other side. A Musk Rat swam across in front of us, but dived and must have resurfaced in the reeds. Two Hobbys and another female Red-footed Falcon were perched in the trees as we made our way over to Lake Furtuna.
As we came out into the huge open lake, a White-tailed Eagle was down in the reeds on the edge of the water on one side. We started to head over towards it, but it was chased off by a Hooded Crow before we got there. We could see lots of White Pelicans gathered over the far side so we decided to head over that way instead. They were loafing on islands of reed and logs, several immatures, but including several breeding adults with orange facial skin and bump on the forehead.
White Pelicans – there were lots loafing around on Lake Furtuna this evening
There were several Black-necked Grebes with the Great Crested Grebes over by the reeds and Pygmy Cormorants flying back and forth. The channel the other side was absolutely covered with Mayflies low over the water, but others were also flying round, providing food for the Black-headed Gulls and Whiskered Terns which were hawking up and catching them.
Pygmy Cormorant – with a distinctive flight silhouette
The floating hotel was moored over the other side of the lake and when we got back there we could hear a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker calling in the trees nearby and a Little Bittern was hiding in the reeds. We watched the sun set with White Pelicans swimming past outside over dinner.
WEDNESDAY 5TH JUNE
Up on the deck before breakfast this morning, it was a stunning view with the early light out on the lake. Several White Pelicans swam past and Pygmy Cormorants and Caspian Gulls were flying around.
White Pelican – swimming past the floating hotel early morning
After breakfast, we could see a feeding frenzy out on the other side of the lake, so we motored over on the small boat for a closer look. There were at least 2,500 Great Cormorants and 175-200 White Pelicans. They were obviously chasing a shoal of fish across the lake, and the stragglers at the back of the flock kept flying up in smaller groups, leapfrogging the massed horde and landing again at the front. Amazing to watch!
By the time we got over, they had chased the shoal of fish across the lake and into the reeds over the far side. Some of the White Pelicans were swimming in and out of the reeds trying to find them again. About a dozen Little Egrets were waiting on the floating vegetation beside the reeds to see what might be pushed their way. Then the shoal of fish reappeared out in the middle, and everything raced back over and started feeding again, the White Pelicans in groups upending in unison.
Feeding Frenzy – thousands of Great Cormorants and hundreds of White Pelicans
We headed back out of the lake along the channel next to where we had moored for the night. As we were motoring slowly along, we noticed a Little Bittern climb up into the top of the reeds on one side. It was promptly chased off by a second Little Bittern and we watched the two of them fly round after each other. One landed again in the top of the reeds right on the edge of the channel, where we had a great look at it, a smart male with a bright red bill, indicating it was in breeding condition. The two of them then chased round over the reeds again and disappeared back.
We were on a wide channel now, with very big mature trees on the bank on one side. We were hoping to find a Black Woodpecker along here, but the best we could manage was a Black Woodpecker nest hole in a dead tree beside the channel. The hole looked reasonably fresh, so we waited for a minute and listened, but there was no sign of any woodpeckers. Two Common Starlings were in the tree but we didn’t see them using the hole.
Further on, a family of Great Crested Grebes were in the weeds beside the channel, and we watched as the three juveniles climbed onto the back of one of the adults as we passed. Just beyond, we could see a Red-necked Grebe and a Ferruginous Duck. Two White-tailed Eagles were perched in the trees above.
Little Bittern – with some bright red on the bill base
Another male Little Bittern flew across the channel ahead of us, and once again perched up nicely in the reeds on the far side, allowing us to get quite close. We had a good view before it flew back across the tops of the reeds, its bill bright but not quite as red as the one earlier. It already seemed like this might be the day of the Little Bittern!
There was lots of lush vegetation along the bank here and as we carried on we heard two Thrush Nightingales singing deep in cover. We stopped and listened for Black Woodpecker, but once again there was no sign. However, we did find a female Golden Oriole mobbing a Hooded Crow in a willow bush right on the edge of the water. It possibly had a nest nearby, as the male was flying in and out of the trees behind too. We drifted over and had a good view of it, finally a perched Golden Oriole!
Golden Oriole – we finally got good views of one perched
We tried another channel for woodpeckers. A Grey-headed flew over, and we heard both Great Spotted and Lesser Spotted calling, but once again there was no sign of any Black. We joined the main channel for a bit at Mila 23 before we turned onto another side channel. A Red-backed Shrike flew up into a willow on the bank, but landed out of view.
Yet another Little Bittern flew across. Out into a lake, a single Red-necked Grebe was outnumbered by all the Great Crested Grebes. An adult Black-crowned Night Heron was feeding on the lilypads on one edge, chasing frogs, but kept sinking into the vegetation when it landed. A White-tailed Eagle was perched in the distance, in the top of a dead tree beyond the lake. As we sailed through a narrow channel and out into the next lake beyond, two more Little Bitterns chased round through the tops of the reeds.
Little Bittern – it was definitely the best morning for them today!
The next channel had more lily pads and floating vegetation either side. We had just remarked how the Squacco Herons has been outnumbered by Little Bitterns this morning, when normal service was resumed and five Squacco Herons flew out! There were several Red-necked Grebes in the lilypads too – the first pair had the juveniles on the back of one of the adults, but swam into the reeds as we approached. The second pair were much more obliging, and stayed lurking in amongst the lilypads as we passed.
Red-necked Grebe – in the lilypads as we sailed past
A smart male Red-footed Falcon was perched in a tree in some dead branches just above the channel, and stared down as we passed right underneath. We had a great view, slaty grey with red ‘trousers’, bright red legs and feet and red cere and eye ring. Stunning! As we made our way back round to the floating hotel, a female Red-footed Falcon was perched in another tree, rather pale buff below and with brown wings, presumably a young bird in its 2nd calendar year.
Red-footed Falcon – perched in a dead tree above the channel
Back at the floating hotel, our stay in the Delta was unfortunately coming to an end. Up on deck before we set off on the journey back, two more Little Bitterns chased each other round an island of reeds in the middle of the junction between two channels. It really had been a day for them! As we set off on board the hotel, past the reeds where they had landed, one flew out and across the channel on the other side. We scanned the reeds for the other one but all we could find was a Great Reed Warbler feeding down at the base of the reeds.
As we motored back, we would be passing the White-tailed Eagle nest we had visited on Sunday. We were just coming up towards the eerie when suddenly one of the adults flew out of the trees right beside the boat, before circling round over the trees where the nest was. We slowed down to have a look at the nest, but the two youngsters had climbed up into the tree above and were half hidden in the leaves.
We didn’t have a chance to look at them though because, just at that moment, a Black Woodpecker called in the trees right by the nest. We glimpsed it dropping down through the branches, but we were going away all the time and not everyone got onto it. Then it flew out, right past us up on the top deck, and landed in the top of a dead tree just ahead. We had a good view of it now, its red crown catching the light as it turned, before it flew on. A great way to finish our visit to the Delta!
Black Woodpecker – just as we were sailing back out of the Delta
We retired inside for lunch – soup with meatballs, vegetable stew, followed by apple strudel. It was a slow journey back on the floating hotel, so we relaxed on deck listening to all the birds singing in the lush trees along Mila 36 – a Thrush Nightingale and lots of Common Nightingales, Eastern Olivaceous Warblers, Common Redstarts, a couple of Collared Flycatchers. Several Great Spotted Woodpeckers were seen, but Middle Spotted and more Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers were only heard. Kingfishers zipped back and forth calling.
Back out onto the main Tulcea branch of the Danube, there were more Caspian Gulls. Several Western Yellow Wagtails on the grassy bank as we approached Tulcea looked like ‘dombrowskii’ again. We spent our last night on the boat in the harbour, with a delicious dinner of the local speciality, tochitura.
THURSDAY 6TH JUNE
We were up early, and after breakfast said our goodbyes to the floating hotel. As we drove west out of Tulcea, a Glossy Ibis was feeding in the plastic rubbish along the shore of a lake. In the villages, we saw White Storks on their nests as we passed. Out into more open country, there were Bee-eaters flying around the old terraces in the grassy fields. Our first stop was near Somova.
As we got out of the bus, a male Red-backed Shrike was perched in the top of an oak tree. A large flock of Common Swifts circled high overhead, a few Sand Martins with them. We started to walk up along the track towards the trees but hadn’t got very far when a male Levant Sparrowhawk flew over. We watched as it circled up high with the Swifts.
Levant Sparrowhawk – this male flew over first thing this morning
In the open woodland, a Hoopoe was calling and several Golden Orioles were fluting. We had brief views of both as they flew round. A woodpecker called, and flew across, landed on the trunk of an oak tree. We walked over to try to get a look at it and confirmed it was a Syrian Woodpecker. We watched it repeatedly dropping down to the ground, then flying back up to the trunk.
A little further on, another Levant Sparrowhawk, this time a female, flew up from the ground and landed in another tree. We had a great view of it in the scope – we could see its gular stripe and more heavily barred underparts than the male.
Levant Sparrowhawk – this female flew up into the trees
It was getting hot now, a good time for raptors. First, three Common Buzzards circled up over a distant ridge, and were joined by a Marsh Harrier. Then a Booted Eagle came up, followed by couple of Honey Buzzards. All were rather distant, but thankfully shortly afterwards, a Booted Eagle and a Honey Buzzard appeared much closer, over the trees, along with a Hobby.
Several Sousliks (aka European Ground Squirrels) appeared in the short grass before disappearing down into their burrows. Lots of grasshoppers and moths came up from the vegetation as we walked through, along with Silver-studded Blues and a couple of Lesser Spotted Fritillaries. A small group of Hawfinches flew over calling. We met the bus again down by the road further on, and stopped for a cold drink. A flock of White Pelicans were circling up in the distance beyond the ridge. Another male Levant Sparrowhawk flew over with a lizard in its talons.
Souslik – there were several in the short grass
Our next stop was at the monastery at Celtic Dere. A couple of male Red-backed Shrikes were around the gardens and farmyard by the parking area. We took the track up to the old orchard, where a Turtle Dove was purring and an Icterine Warbler was singing in the trees.
Red-backed Shrike – a male, one of several at Celic Dere
Several Golden Orioles flew back and forth over the opening clearing, including a stunning golden male. Lots of Hawfinches zipped over in ones and twos, calling. On the edge of the wood over on the far side, a Black Redstart and a Spotted Flycatcher were feeding, dropping down from the trees to the grass below.
A Steppe Buzzard flew over – different to the Common Buzzards we had seen earlier, with a rather pale rufous tail, dark rusty body and underwing coverts, prominent clean white bases to the flight feathers with a well-marked black trailing edge.
Steppe Buzzard – different to the Common Buzzards we saw
Walking through the trees on one side, we came out into another clearing by the stream, where a Nuthatch was calling. We followed the track here up and into the wood. A striking longhorn beetle was in the middle of the track and when we stopped to look at it, we could hear a Red-breasted Flycatcher singing a little further on. It was very active, constantly changing perch, and hard to follow at times in all the trees. Eventually it came out closer to the track, and everyone got a better look at it. There were lots of Icterine Warblers calling and singing in the trees too, but they were very hard to see high in the branches.
Red-breasted Flycatcher – this male was singing in the trees
As we walked back down the track, we finally got good views of a pair in the trees over the path. A Hawfinch flew in and perched briefly on a branch and a Wood Warbler was singing deep in the wood. A family of Marsh Tits worked their way through the trees beside the path. We made our way back out of the trees. A Wryneck had been seen earlier by another group up along the edge of the stream so we walked up to look for it. There was no sign of it, but we decided to stop here for lunch and the minibus drove over to join us.
Just as lunch was set out, a Middle Spotted Woodpecker called in the tree right over the picnic table. We had to take a few steps back to see it, feeding high on the trunk. While we were watching the woodpecker, the Wryneck called once from the same tree. We didn’t see it fly out, but despite looking from all round the tree there was no further sign of it.
Middle Spotted Woodpecker – feeding in the tree above us while we were having lunch
Over lunch, there were Greenfinches and Goldfinches coming down to drink in the streak. Another flock of White Pelicans and another Booted Eagle, this time a pale phase, circled up over the ridge beyond. A young Long-legged Buzzard was chased by two Steppe Buzzards over the clearing.
After lunch, we had a longer drive over to the Macin Mountains. There were lots of White Stork nests in the villages on the way, and several Rollers and Bee-eaters on the wires by the road. We eventually turned off the road and up along a rough track. There were a few Corn Buntings on the wires but pride of place went to a smart male Black-headed Bunting here too. They are scarce here, so always a good bird to catch up with, and this one posed nicely as we pulled up in the minibus alongside it.
Black-headed Bunting – this smart male was on the wires by the track
There were a few Rollers in the trees and on the wires too, and a Short-toed Lark flew up from a field of sunflowers as we passed.
Roller – there were one or two on the wires too
We parked opposite a quarry. As we got out of the bus, a pair of Crested Larks flew in and one of them perched up nicely nearby. We walked over through the grass towards the quarry, flushing lots of grasshoppers, moths and butterflies as we walked. A female Pied Wheatear appeared on the rocks in the grass and stayed just long enough for us to get a quick look at it, before it flew back up into the quarry. Scanning the rock faces, we found several smart black and white male Pied Wheatears and we had a look at them in the scope. An Ortolan Bunting was singing, and we picked up a couple of males distantly on the rocks. A Northern Wheatear flew in too.
We could hear a Common Rock Thrush singing, but couldn’t see it at first. As we scanned the rock faces looking for it, we did find a Long-legged Buzzard on a nest. Then the Rock Thrush flew in over the top of the quarry and landed on the rocks on the top ridge. It flew up singing a few times, gliding round with its wings and rusty tail fanned. It was very active, constantly flying around the quarry, the white patch on its back really standing out when it turned and caught the sun.
It was a hot afternoon, so we walked back to the minibus for a drink of cold water and then stopped in the next village for an ice cream. Afterwards, we headed out onto an area of steppe. It didn’t take long to find an Isabelline Wheatear perched on bush. We stopped and got out, and realised there were several more here too. We got one in the scope, perched on the top of a ridge. Others were feeding in the short grass or occasionally hovering up singing.
Isabelline Wheatear – common out in the steppe grassland
We had a brief glimpse of a Tawny Pipit, but couldn’t refind it, despite walking round through grass where it had been. A Short-toed Lark fluttered singing high in the sky, and one or two Turtle Doves flew over. A Spur-thighed Tortoise appeared on top of the bank where the Isabelline Wheatear had been earlier, but disappeared surprisingly quickly into a hole. Finally the Tawny Pipits showed themselves. Two chased each other round just behind us, and one landed on the same grassy bank, where we got it in the scope. Another two then appeared on the other side of the track and then, as we got back into the bus, one was quite close by in the grass.
We had heard a thunderstorm building away in the distance, and could see the rain now lashing down over the hills. It was a long drive back to Tulcea, and we caught the edge of the rain on our way. But it was dry back in Tulcea as we checked into our guesthouse for the night.
FRIDAY 7TH JUNE
It was another early start, to try to beat the heat of the day, but it was already getting quite warm as we arrived on the edge of Babadag Forest. The minibus dropped us off and we walked down a track through the scrubby woodland.
There were lots of butterflies out in the sunshine – Cardinal and Silver-washed Fritillaries, Ilex Hairstreak, Silver-studded and Green-underside Blues – and loads of dragonflies – mostly Lesser Emperor and Norfolk Hawker.
Ilex Hairstreak – one of several butterflies seen this morning
We found several Spur-thighed Tortoises in the grass, and lizards including Snake-eyed (European Copper) Skink and Balkan Wall Lizard.
Spur-thighed Tortoise – a young one, in the Babadag Forest
There were not many birds active now – a Chiffchaff, a Lesser Whitethroat, a Blackcap and one or two Common Nightingales singing, and a few commoner tits. We had really come to try to see Sombre Tit and we thought our luck was in when we heard one call close by. We stood and listened but it didn’t call again and disappeared deeper into the scrub. Despite looking, we couldn’t find it again. We carried on along the track, where several Turtle Doves were purring and Golden Orioles were fluting, with one or two of each seen flying back and forth.
The raptors were starting to circle up now that it was getting hot, Booted Eagles and a Common Buzzard. As we got out of the trees and into a more open area, we heard a Levant Sparrowhawk call and looked back to see two displaying over the trees. We met the minibus here, down by the road. As we stopped for a drink of water, we spotted a couple of Isabelline Wheatears perched up on small dead stems sticking up out of the short grass. We could hear Tawny Pipit and Ortolan Bunting singing too. There were more butterflies out here too, in particular several striking black and white Great Banded Grayling.
Great Banded Grayling – common in the open grass on the edge of the forest
Back in the minibus, we drove over to a track across a rough area of open ground, where we found three more Turtle Doves, plus several more Isabelline and Northern Wheatears. We stopped to look at a Corn Bunting in the top of a bush and it was joined by a male Spanish Sparrow. The track continued over to the edge of some open woodland, where we stopped and got out for a walk.
A Red-backed Shrike was in the bushes right next to where we parked, and there were several Ortolan Buntings singing as we walked up the hill. A Woodlark flew over singing, and several more came up out of the short grass, but there was no sign of any Sombre Tits here.
Ortolan Bunting – this one perched in the top of an oak tree singing
We walked back to the minibus, stopping on the way to look at an Ortolan Bunting which perched in the top of an oak tree. A Middle Spotted Woodpecker was calling in the trees too. We were back at the minibus and jst about to get back on when we heard a Sombre Tit calling from somewhere in the trees nearby. We walked into through trees, and played cat and mouse for several minutes, before we eventually tracked them down. A pair of Sombre Tits, feeding quietly in the trees, right within sight of the bus!
There had been thunderstorms audible off in the distance for a while, but now unfortunately it started to rain here, so we dashed back and into the minibus. It was a long drive south to Vadu, and it was raining on and off for much of the journey – not what we had been forecast. When we arrived in the village, we decided to stop for lunch first and it was a good call as it stopped raining and started to brighten up.
After lunch, it was hot and sunny again as we headed back to an area of pools we had passed on the edge of the village. As we got out of the bus again, there were several Bee-eaters on the wires. We could hear Red-footed Falcons calling in the trees across the road, and we could just see a nest up in one of the trees.
Turning our attention to the pools, we scanned round the edge where there were lots of Little Gulls. We counted 44, mostly young, 1st summer birds. A pair of Pied Avocets, several Green Sandpipers and a pair of Little Ringed Plovers were on the shore too, along with a single smart summer plumage Little Stint. There were Shelducks on the brackish pool at the front, and several Great Crested Grebes and Ferruginous Ducks on the larger fishing pond behind.
Little Gulls – we counted 44 around the first pool we looked at
A Marsh Harrier quartered over the reeds on one edge and, as we walked down the hill and round the pools, three Red-footed Falcons and a Hobby flew overhead. At the back of the pools, we found two different waders in the far corner, two Marsh Sandpipers in breeding plumage, late migrants through here. We had a good view of them through the scope.
Marsh Sandpiper – one of two still at Vadu
We cut back round to the road on the far side of the village, where we met the minibus again. After a quick drink, we continued on along the road past the old abandoned communist-era factory buildings. We found several pairs of Northern Wheatears in the sandy grassland, with at least two feeding streaky juveniles. Then once we got to the damper areas with reeds, there were lots of Western Yellow Wagtails in a bewildering array of different forms, a couple that looked good for pure Black-headed Wagtail, but mainly ‘dombrowskii’ types of varying hues, and even one ‘xanthophrys’ with a black head and yellow supercilium.
Two Collared Pratincoles appeared, hawking high over the reeds, with one at one point coming quite close overhead, rather like a cross between a tern and a swallow. A little further on, three were loafing down on the short grass where the cattle were grazing. Several Spoonbills and pelicans circled over too.
Collared Pratincole – hawking for insects above the reeds
Our main target here was Paddyfield Warbler, but we weren’t sure how easy it would be to find one in the heat of the afternoon. At first, we found nothing but Eurasian Reed Warblers, singing or collecting food. There were Great Reed Warblers singing too, with one or two seen flying across over the tops of the reeds. We heard Bearded Tits pinging and saw several zooming back and forth. And there were Reed Buntings here as well.
Then, as we walked slowly along the road, we heard a Paddyfield Warbler singing further up. We hurried along, and found it perched briefly on a stem in the top of the reeds. For those who were there quickly, it was a good view, but all too quickly it disappeared down into the reeds. Several of the group had gone back in the bus to use the facilities in the village, so had missed it. It was still singing but with a bit of a breeze, it was keeping well down in the reeds most of the time. We stuck at it though, and eventually it made another appearance for those who didn’t see it first time. The Black Sea coast of Romania is the westernmost point of the breeding range of Paddyfield Warbler, so you need to see it here, unless you want to go further east!
Paddyfield Warbler – we found one singing in the reeds
There were some large sandy banks surrounding some wet basins a little further on, so we walked up for a look. On the first, hundreds of pairs of Common Terns were nesting. Two Little Gulls were in with them, along with several Common Redshanks round the edge of the islands. The basin on the other side of the road was deeper and less productive. Four Spoonbills and a Grey Heron flushed from the brackish marsh on the edge of the reeds on the way, and a Purple Heron flew over.
It is a long drive own to the coast even from here, and we had one more area we wanted to visit this afternoon, so we decided to head back, with a quick stop on the way for ice cream. We made our way over to an agricultural area, passing through another band of rain on the way, and turned onto a newly tarmacked road through the fields. A Calandra Lark circled over a rough field of grass and oats, just the bird we had come to see, but dropped down out of view.
We continued on slowly up the road and stopped by a track. Several Western Yellow Wagtails were bathing down in a puddle and two Black-headed Buntings perched in the tops of some young sunflowers in the edge of a field singing. A Red Fox walked down the track towards us.
We could see another Calandra Lark standing in the middle of the road further up. It seemed to like the new tarmac, as a couple of times it flew round but came back to the road. We drove slowly up towards it, but we were looking through the windscreen and into the sun so it was not going to be the best of views. The Calandra Lark eventually flew up, but circled round and landed again on the road behind. Now we got out and had a look at it through the scope. There was a lot of heat haze from the tarmac, but it helpfully decided to fly up and land much closer to us, where we could see its big bill and black neck patches.
Calandra Lark – kept coming back to the new tarmac
Eventually it flew again, right past us, flashing the broad white trailing edge to its wings and black underwings, before dropping down in the middle of a field of wheat. There were several other Calandra Larks flying round over the fields and several Skylarks here too.
Two Long-legged Buzzards circled over while we were standing here. Then we looked up across the fields to see a Montagu’s Harrier quartering along a ridge. It had been sunny, but now it started to spit with rain again. We had been very lucky dodging the showers this afternoon – we hadn’t been caught by the rain at all while we were out – and it was time to head back anyway now, with a long drive to Tulcea ahead.
Long-legged Buzzard – one of two which circled over
Back at the guesthouse, after a break to freshen up and start packing, we gathered for our final dinner, which was finished off with a celebratory cake prepared by the guesthouse to mark the end of our visit.
SATURDAY 8TH JUNE
After a more leisurely breakfast, we checked out of the guesthouse and set off on the long drive back to Bucharest. We had a quick stop on the way at an area of marshes for Ruddy Shelduck.
As soon as got out of minibus, we saw one flying across over the water down below the hillside. There was a big colony of Sand Martins by the road, and several Bee-eaters with them. Two Rollers flew past and a Cuckoo came over calling. It was great we had seen so many Common Cuckoos on this trip – mostly in the Delta, but we had seen at least one every day so it was good to keep up the record. Further down the grassy hillside, a Hoopoe was feeding out on the grass with a single Isabelline Wheatear nearby.
We walked down the path to where we could get a better view out over the marshes and found at least 9 adult Ruddy Shelducks here, including a pair with several shelducklings. There were a few waders out on the marshes too. Several Black-winged Stilts and Lapwings were out in the middle, and two Green Sandpipers were down on a muddy patch on the near edge. Four Collared Pratincoles flew high overhead calling. In the distance, we could see lots of White Storks circling over the hillside beyond, and a Spoonbill flew in.
All too quickly it was sadly time to move on again. We had another break for an early lunch at the filling station back in Slobozia, where a Lesser Whitethroat was singing in the bushes beyond the back fence today.
Then it was on to Bucharest. We got to the airport in good time, only to find our flight was delayed by 20 minutes, but we were soon on our way back to Luton. We sailed through passport control, but then had to wait almost an hour for bags. Welcome back to the UK! Then we bid our farewells and headed off home.
It had been an unforgettable experience – with lots of good birds, good food and good company. If you would be interested in joining us on our next visit to Romania, please get in touch.