ROMANIA Tour - 21st June to 5th July 2020

Brown Bear and cub by D. Petrescu - Inala Nature Tours
Brown Bear and cub by D. Petrescu - Inala Nature Tours
Itinerary download: 
Tour date: 
Sunday, 21 June 2020 to Sunday, 5 July 2020
Duration: 
15 days
Price: 
AU $7,700 pp twin share - Single Supplement $920
Highlights: 
• 395 bird species have been recorded in Romania • High chance of Brown Bear and several other European mammal species • We visit a variety of habitats in iconic areas such as the Carpathian Mountains, Danube delta and the Dobrogea region of Romania as well as visiting the Black Sea • We explore Transylvania and the castles that inspired the Dracula legends TOUR LEADER: • Dr Tonia Cochran, Inala Nature Tours with local guide
Overview: 

Romania is a south-eastern European country bordered by the Black Sea to the east, the Ukraine and Moldovia to the north, Bulgaria to the south and Serbia and Hungary to the west. The relatively inaccessible forested region of Transylvania, ringed by the Carpathian Mountains is home to the largest number of large carnivores (Brown Bear, Lynx and Wolf) in Europe; the extensive plains to the south and east, combined with the mighty Danube delta which empties into the Black Sea within Romanian borders, support one of the largest numbers of bird species in Europe. The Romanian culture and buildings have also been preserved due to the country’s, including the medieval city of Sighisoara, and the many fortified churches and castles such as Bran Castle which has long been associated with the Dracula legend.

This tour is a repeat of our hugely successful 2018 trip and once again covers a great diversity of topography and geology designed to maximise our wildlife viewing opportunities. We include the alpine areas for species such as Alpine Marmot, Wallcreeper, Alpine Accentor and Ring Ouzel, the wild forests of Transylvania for large carnivores and raptors like Lesser-spotted Eagle, the Danube delta for a huge variety of waterbirds including White and Dalmatian Pelican and the Black Sea for a variety of gulls and terns. This year we are offering this trip in late spring as soon as the Transfăgărașan Pass opens, so that we have further opportunities to see spring wildflowers.

We will be staying in comfortable en suite rooms in hotels and B&Bs throughout and will also have exclusive access to a floating hotel with en suite rooms in the delta of the Danube from which we will go out exploring the smaller channels in a boat. 

Start Location: 
Bucharest
Romania
Finish location: 
Bucharest
Romania
Itinerary download: 

ITINERARY OUTLINE:
Day 1. Sun 21 June 2020. Arrive Bucharest (most probably fly in as a group). Accom: Bucharest
Day 2. Mon 22 June 2020. Bucharest to Vidraru Lake. Accom: near Vidraru Lake.
Day 3. Tue 23 June 2020. Vidraru Lake to Sibiu. Accom: Sibiu.
Day 4. Wed 24 June 2020. Sibiu-Sighisoara-Zarnesti. Accom: Zarnesti. 
Day 5. Thu 25 June 2020. Zarnesti-Kingstone Mountains NP. Accom: Zarnesti.
Day 6. Fri 26 June 2020. Zarnesti-Kingstone Mountains NP. Accom: Zarnesti.
Day 7. Sat 27 June 2020. Zarnesti to Tulcea. Accom: Floating hotel on the Danube delta.
Day 8. Sun 28 June 2020. Danube Delta. Accom: Floating hotel on the Danube delta.
Day 9. Mon 29 June 2020. Danube Delta. Accom: Floating hotel on the Danube delta.
Day 10. Tue 30 June 2020. Danube Delta. Accom: Floating hotel on the Danube delta.
Day 11. Wed 1 July 2020. Danube Delta. Accom: Floating hotel on the Danube delta.
Day 12. Thu 2 July 2020. Dobrogea region- Parches and Macin Mountains National Park. Accom: Tulcea.
Day 13. Fri 3 July 2020. Babadag- Black Sea coast. Accom: Tulcea.
Day 14. Sat 4 July 2020. Tulcea to Bucharest. Accom: Bucharest.
Day 15. Sun 5 July 2020. Depart Bucharest. Accom: none.

Romania is a south-eastern European country bordered by the Black Sea to the east, the Ukraine and Moldovia to the north, Bulgaria to the south and Serbia and Hungary to the west. The relatively inaccessible forested region of Transylvania, ringed by the Carpathian Mountains is home to the largest number of large carnivores (Brown Bear, Lynx and Wolf) in Europe; the extensive plains to the south and east, combined with the mighty Danube delta which empties into the Black Sea within Romanian borders, support one of the largest numbers of bird species in Europe. The Romanian culture and buildings have also been preserved due to the country’s, including the medieval city of Sighisoara, and the many fortified churches and castles such as Bran Castle which has long been associated with the Dracula legend.

This tour is a repeat of our hugely successful 2018 trip and once again covers a great diversity of topography and geology designed to maximise our wildlife viewing opportunities. We include the alpine areas for species such as Alpine Marmot, Wallcreeper, Alpine Accentor and Ring Ouzel, the wild forests of Transylvania for large carnivores and raptors like Lesser-spotted Eagle, the Danube delta for a huge variety of waterbirds including White and Dalmatian Pelican and the Black Sea for a variety of gulls and terns. This year we are offering this trip in late spring as soon as the Transfăgărașan Pass opens, so that we have further opportunities to see spring wildflowers.

We will be staying in comfortable en suite rooms in hotels and B&Bs throughout and will also have exclusive access to a floating hotel with en suite rooms in the delta of the Danube from which we will go out exploring the smaller channels in a boat. 

DETAILED ITINERARY:
B- breakfast; L- lunch; D-dinner

Day 1. Sunday 21 June 2020. Pre-tour.  Details of where we will meet today will be advised once we have a better idea of the origin of the participants. The most suitable option may once again be to meet at Heathrow Airport (International terminal) and travel together to Bucharest but it may be better to meet at Bucharest.  Tonight we will have a group welcome dinner this evening where we will have an introduction to the tour. Accommodation: Hotel in Bucharest (ensuite room). Meals included: D

Day 2. Monday 22 June 2020. Bucharest to Vidraru Lake. After breakfast this morning we will travel from Bucharest to Vidraru Lake (2.5 – 3 hours’ drive) which lies in the shadow of the Făgăraș Mountains. This artificial lake was created in 1965 by the construction of the Vidraru Dam on the Argeș River and a village still lies submerged at the bottom of the lake. En route we will visit the spectacular marble and sandstone Curtea de Argeş cathedral, built in early 16th century, when Wallachia was an independent territory under Prince Neagoe Basarab. We will also pass Poenari Castle, one of the fortresses of Vlad III (Vlad the Impaler) who inspired Bram Stoker's fictional creation, Count Dracula. This abandoned 13th century castle was repaired in the 15th Century by Vlad, who realized the potential for a fortress perched high on a steep rock precipice. The castle once again fell into disrepair after his death and only the ruins of the walls and towers stand today. Accommodation: Hotel next to Vidraru Lake (en suite rooms). Meals included: B, L, D.

Day 3. Tuesday 23 June 2020. Vidraru Lake to Sibiu. After breakfast, we will cross the mountains to Sibiu on the Transfăgărașan road, built in the early 1970s by Nicolae Ceausescu as a response to the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Soviet Union. The road climbs to an altitude of 2,042 metres, making it the second highest mountain pass in Romania after the Transalpina and offers great chances for Wallcreeper, raptors and other mountain bird species such as Ring Ouzel and Alpine Accentor. Mammal-wise we can observe Alpine Marmots and Chamois at the highest altitudes.  A profusion of alpine flora such as Gentians, Wild Pansy and Wolfsbane should be observed growing amongst the rocks. After passing through the Lake Balea Tunnel we will emerge into the Transylvanian region of Romania (Transylvania is named for the dense forests that cloak the lower slopes of the mountains and the plains below). We will visit the medieval city of Sibiu on our arrival. Built in the 12th century by German settlers known as Transylvanian Saxons, the riches amassed by its guilds paid for the construction of both impressive buildings and the fortifications required to protect them. Sections of the medieval wall still guard the historic area, where narrow streets pass steep-roofed 17th century buildings with gable overhangs before opening into vast, church-dominated squares.  Accommodation: Hotel in Sibiu (en suite rooms). Meals included: B, L, D. 

Day 4. Wednesday 24 June 2020. Sighisoara to Zarnesti. Today will visit Sighisoara, Vlad Dracula’s birthplace, which has its origins in Roman times and still stands as one of the most beautiful and best-preserved medieval towns in Europe and has been designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Sighisoara played an important strategic and commercial role at the edges of Central Europe for several centuries and became one of the most important cities of Transylvania, with artisans from throughout the Holy Roman Empire visiting the settlement. The German artisans and craftsmen dominated the urban economy, and also built the fortifications to protect it. In the afternoon we will also visit Bran Castle which has also been associated with the Dracula legend, thus completing our foray into the Transylvanian vampire mythology, before traveling to our accommodation in nearby Zarnesti. Bird species we should see en route include Lesser Spotted Eagle, Northern Shrike (formerly Great Grey Shrike), Red-backed Shrike, and White Storks nesting in some of the townships. Accommodation: Guesthouse in Zarnesti (en suite rooms). Meals included: B, L, D.

Days 5 & 6. Thursday 25 and Friday 26 June 2020. Zarnesti-Kingstone Mountains NP.  We will spend two days in the Gorges of Zarnesti in the Piatra Craiuhui (Kingstone Mountains) National Park tracking large carnivores and visiting the ancient Spruce, Fir and Beech woods. Bear and deer tracks are almost always seen and we are also hopeful of seeing wolf and wildcat tracks.  Bear and deer tracks are almost always seen and we will also look for traces of wolf and wildcat/lynx.  A large variety of birds are also found here, including Wallcreeper, Tree Creeper, Alpine Swift, Crag Martin, Serine, Crossbills, Black Woodpecker, White-backed Woodpecker, Honey Buzzard etc. On both evenings, we will visit a bear hide located in the forest where we will have the chance to watch the bears and other species such as Wild Boar from the shelter of a small hut. We will also be hopeful of seeing Eurasian Wolf and Eurasian Lynx. Accommodation: Guesthouse in Zarnesti (en suite rooms) as for last night. Meals included: B, L, D.

Day 7. Saturday 27 June 2020. Zarnesti to Tulcea.  Today is predominantly a day of travel. After breakfast we will travel towards Tulcea, the gate of Danube Delta, crossing the Danube at Brăila by vehicle ferry. We will then transfer to our floating hotel where we will spend the next 5 nights (we have sole use of the whole boat).  Accommodation: Floating hotel on the Danube delta (cabins with en suite rooms). Meals included: B, L, D.

Days 8-11. Sunday 28 - Wednesday 1 July 2020 inclusive. Danube delta. During these days we’ll explore Danube Delta with its narrow reed- and waterlily-lined channels and lakes, bird colonies, reed beds and large willow forests. You will have the chance to see colonies of White Pelican, Dalmatian Pelican and Cormorants (including Pygmy Cormorant), also many Locustella and Acrocephalus warblers (including Savi's, Sedge, Paddyfield, Moustached, Marsh, Reed, Great Reed warbler), egrets, herons, Common Sandpipers, Green Sandpipers and Greenshanks, Kingfishers, Penduline Tits and other reed bed species (including Little Bittern). Raptors will include frequent sightings of Marsh Harriers whilst the Red-footed Falcons will be seen in small groups hunting insects. There is also a chance of locating one of the ten breeding pairs of White-tailed Eagles that live here. Frogs are abundant on the vegetation in the water and channel edges and Grass Snakes can be seen swimming in the channels. Golden Jackal may also be spotted along the shoreline. On one of these days we’ll travel by boat to Letea Forest, a strictly protected area of Balkan oak (Quercus pedunculiflora) woodland on maritime sand dunes. This area is the oldest natural reservation in Romania, established in 1938 and covering approximately 2,825 hectares. This forest was the initial foundation of the Danube Delta Biosphere Reserve, which has been declared a World Heritage Site. It was internationally recognized as a Biosphere Reserve under UNESCO's Man and the Biosphere Program in 1992. We will travel around by horse and cart driven by one of the local residents; this will be a good day for finding a variety of mammals, lizards and birds. The flora is also amazing, with many endemic species of trees and flowering plants. We will also visit a few traditional villages from the Delta, such as Letea village. Accommodation: Floating hotel on the Danube delta (en suite rooms). Meals included: B, L, D each day.

Day 12. Thursday 2 July 2020. Dobrogea region-Parches and Macin Mountains National Park. Today we will explore the Dobrogea region (Parches and Macin Mountains National Park) of Romania, which extends along the Black Sea coast from Ukraine to Bulgaria. In the morning we will visit Parches, a 30-minute drive from Tulcea where we will have great views over the Delta. We can expect to see a large range of birds. Raptors include Long-legged Buzzard, Lesser Spotted Eagle and Marsh Harrier. We should also see European Suslik (Ground Squirrel) foraging over the grasslands. We will then travel to the Macin Mountains (the oldest mountains in Europe). These granite ranges were pushed up during the continental collisions that formed Pangea (around 300-400 million years ago). The steppe here is dotted with Oriental Hornbeam (Carpinus orientalis) and the lower slopes of the mountains are covered in oak forest. Here we will look for interesting species like Long-legged Buzzard, Isabelline Wheatear, Rock Thrush, Ortolan Bunting, Corn Bunting and Hoopoe. The scenery here is also wonderful. Accommodation: Hotel in Tulcea (en suite rooms). Meals included: B, L, D 

Day 13. Friday 3 July 2020. Babadag- Black Sea coast. After breakfast we will travel southwards, passing through small villages en route. On our way we will make a stop at Babadag Forest where several species of woodpeckers, Hawfinches and raptors such as Honey Buzzard and Imperial Eagle are commonly seen in addition to many rare plant species. If we are lucky, we may also see Spur-thighed Tortoise (Testudo graeca) grazing on the vegetation here. The Sinoe-Razelm lake complex lies to the south of the Danube Delta. An extensive sand spit has isolated the area from the Black Sea and has left behind a series of shallow, brackish lakes, which are extremely rich in birds, including Sandwich, Caspian and Gull-billed Tern, Little Gull, Pied Avocet, Ruff, Little and Temminck's Stint, and Common Shelduck and a selection of plovers and sandpipers. Our main stop (for lunch) will be at Histria, where there is a large salt marsh containing scattered pools. Herons and ducks can be seen in large numbers, Acrocephalus warblers can be seen quite well here, in addition to Balkan yellow wagtail and numerous waders.  This is also the main feeding area for the small delta population of Dalmatian Pelicans. A variety of wild flowers should also be seen. We will have time to walk across the marsh to the ancient Greek-Roman port of Histria, located on the western coast of the Black Sea and the first urban settlement on Romanian territory founded in the 7th century BC. It was under Roman rule from the 1st to 3rd centuries AD. Invasions during the 7th century AD rendered it indefensible, and the city was abandoned. Accommodation: Hotel in Tulcea (en suite rooms) as for last night. Meals included: B, L, D

Day 14. Saturday 4 July 2020. Tulcea to Bucharest. We will leave Tulcea early this morning to travel back to Bucharest, the capital and largest city of Romania, as well as its cultural, industrial, and financial centre. This afternoon will be spent visiting features of interest, including the Palace of the Parliament, the seat of Romanian government. Ordered by Ceausescu in 1984, the Palace took 13 years to build; the interior still remains unfinished. It is the heaviest building in the world and the second largest administrative building. (Only the Pentagon is larger.) The Palace extends eight storeys underground and includes a nuclear bunker. We will also visit the National Village Museum, exploring its fascinating display of Romanian houses, churches and farm buildings, some of which date back to the early 19th Century. Accommodation: Hotel in Bucharest (en suite rooms). Meals included: B, L, D.

Day 15. Sunday 5 July 2020.  Depart Bucharest. We transfer to Bucharest airport this morning for our departure flights to our various destinations. Accommodation: none. Meals included: B.

Tour Price: AU$7,700 per person twin share.
Single supplement: AU$920
Min group size: 6 people + tour leader Tonia Cochran + local guide.

 

Price includes: 14 nights’ accommodation at 3 to 4 star standard guesthouses and hotels in Vidraru Lake, Sibiu, Tulcea, Zarnesti, Bucharest and on the floating hotel on the Danube delta, specialist guide and transport on water and land, return transfers from/to Bucharest, all meals, entrance fees and activities as mentioned in the itinerary (including access to bear hides).

Price does not include: International and domestic airfares, alcoholic beverages, snacks, internet, gratuities, laundry or other items of a personal nature or activities not mentioned in the itinerary.

Please note: 
Meals and drinks: Breakfast generally consists of a continental style breakfast with cereal, fruit and yoghurt and tea/coffee, usually with a selection of meats and cheeses.  A full cooked breakfast is not generally offered at most locations.  Lunch will generally consist of a packed lunch style meal eaten in the field, but we may sometimes eat at a local cafe.  Dinner usually consists of several options for main with the choice of either an appetiser or dessert. Drinks (soft and alcoholic) are generally not included but at lunches and breakfasts juice may be made available.

The itinerary: Whilst we aim to follow the itinerary as planned, please note that the itinerary provided should only be used as a guideline.  Depending on individual trip circumstances, weather, and local information, the exact itinerary may not be strictly adhered to.  The guides reserve the right to make changes to the itinerary as they see fit.

DAILY REPORT 2018 TOUR:
 

Day 0. Monday 20 August 2018. Pre-tour.  This morning at 08:40 all members of the group met at Heathrow London Airport (International Terminal 5). Our Romanian guide Daniel, who had attended the British Birdfair, also joined us. After general introductions (Tonia had met everyone before, but most of the group did not know one another) we flew to Bucharest, arriving at around 17:00. We spotted the first birds of the tour – a group of Common Pheasants – at the edge of the runway! We then transferred by bus to our hotel, which was close to the airport, and had a group welcome dinner.

 

Day 1. Tuesday 21 August 2018. Bucharest to Vidraru Lake. After a delicious breakfast, we drove north-west through the rich agricultural land of the Romanian plain, arriving at the township of Argeş in the late morning. We visited the spectacular marble and sandstone Curtea de Argeş cathedral, built in early 16th century, when Wallachia was an independent territory under Prince Neagoe Basarab. This Romanian Orthodox cathedral incorporates elements of both Byzantine and Ottoman styles. The quality of the craftsmanship combined with the intricate design made this a truly extraordinary building. We also saw several birds in the gardens surrounding the cathedral, including Nuthatch, Icterine Warbler and Middle Spotted Woodpecker. After a large lunch, we travelled up the steep, winding road into the Făgărăş Mountains. A brief but fierce thunderstorm increased the drama as we passed Poenari Castle, one of the fortresses of Vlad III (Vlad the Impaler). In the early afternoon, we checked in at our hotel on the edge of Lake Vidraru. This mountain lake was formed by the damming of the Argeş River in 1965-6. It is surrounded by extensive mixed coniferous and deciduous forest, with tall larch, beech, and birch trees. We walked down to the dam wall, where hundreds of House Martins swirled and dived around us while they feed over the gorge. Later we embarked on a boat trip around the lake and watched the play of light and mist as the storm cleared. Heeding the warnings not to leave the hotel at night because of the danger from bears (and aware of our proximity to Poenari Castle), no one ventured out after dark! 

 

Day 2. Wednesday 22 August 2018. Vidraru Lake to Sibiu. We started the morning by driving along the scenic road above Lake Vidraru. We ascended the precipitous Transfăgărăşan Highway, which was built in the early 1970s by Nicolae Ceausescu as a response to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. The road climbs to an altitude of 2,042 metres, making it the second highest mountain pass in Romania after the TransAlpina. We stopped at several locations on the way up to look for birds, mammals and flora in the alpine meadows, and to admire the views of the limestone peaks. We saw (and heard) several Alpine Marmots, and had excellent views of Alpine Accentor, Water Pipits, Ring Ouzels and Black Redstarts. A profusion of yellow, purple and white flowers, including Gentians, Wild Pansy and Wolfsbane, grew among the rocks. We watched shepherds with their big white mountain dogs rounding up sheep and goats to move them down to the valley. After passing through the Lake Balea Tunnel we emerged into the Transylvanian region of Romania, where we stopped for a picnic lunch. (Transylvania is named for the dense forests that cloak the lower slopes of the mountains and the plains below.) We then descended the vertiginous road towards Sibiu. Shortly after our arrival in Sibiu we met local guide Mihai for a walking tour of the Old City. Founded in the 12th Century by German settlers known as Transylvanian Saxons, Sibiu (Hermannstadt) was the most important town in Transylvania (Siebenbürgen). The wealth amassed by its craft guilds paid for the construction of the impressive city buildings and the fortifications required to protect them. Towers, ditches and sections of the medieval wall still guard the historic area, where narrow streets wind between steep-roofed buildings before opening into broad cobbled squares. Sibiu is known for its characteristic architecture: the tiled roofs have eye-like windows to release hot air during the summers and many of the buildings are painted in pastel colours. The Saxon influence remains strong here. Sibiu has a thriving arts culture and was named European Capital of Culture in 2007. In 2019, it will be the European Region of Gastronomy. (None of the group was surprised by this!)

 

Day 3. Thursday 23 August 2018. Sibiu to Zărneşti. Margit and Hanspeter Gadola joined us after breakfast. Our local guide Mihai took us on a tour of several small towns close to Sibiu. At Cristian, the town of storks, we visited the fortified Evangelical Church of Saint Servatius. Built in the late 15th Century, the church provided protection to villagers during attacks. We were very taken by the Ham (or Bacon) Tower, which villagers had used as a cold store during summer. It is now used as a shop where visitors can buy sausages, preserves and sauces. (And we did!) At the Byzantine-style Church of Holy Paraschiva at Răşinari, we admired the spectacular frescoes and heard about the church's history. To complete our tour with Mihai, we visited another church with a strong Saxon influence. We then travelled to our accommodation in Zărneşti. Bird species we saw today included several Lesser Spotted Eagle, Northern Shrike (formerly Great Grey Shrike), Red-backed Shrike, and many White Storks in nests in the township of Cristian.

 

Day 4. Friday 24 August 2018. Zărneşti: Kingstone Mountains NP.  After breakfast, we visited the Gorges of Zărneşti in the Piatra Craiului (Kingstone Mountains) National Park. We spent time walking through the towering limestone landscape with its ancient Spruce, Fir and Beech woods. Although we were scanning the cliffs for Wallcreeper and Chamois, we also managed to see a lot of interesting flora including endemic species of harebell (Campanula carpatica), saxifrage and campion, as well as several species of clausiliid snail clinging to the limestone. In the afternoon we visited Bran Castle which has been associated with the Dracula story, but is best known as an ancient customs post between Transylvania and Wallachia and, more recently, as the home of Queen Marie of Romania. Any connections with Vlad III (and 16th Century serial murderer Countess Elizabeth Bathory) are tenuous, but Bran Castle has wholeheartedly embraced the vampire legend. In the evening, we visited a bear hide in Raşinov Nature Park where we saw a Wild Boar and a Brown Bear, as well as some cheeky Chaffinches and a Wood Pigeon. Back at the bus, a film crew interviewed Hanspeter, Deirdre and Daniel about the experience. The sequence appeared later on Romanian TV! We returned to our B&B at around 10pm.

 

Day 5. Saturday 25 August 2018. Zărneşti to Tulcea.  Today was a day of travel. After breakfast we drove eastwards through the mountains, with a short stop at Siriu Lake dam wall to search for Alpine Swifts. During our lunch break, we watched paragliders sail down from the mountains, and then we explored some small ponds, where we found Fire-bellied Toads (Bombina bombina). While we were at lunch, a young lad appeared from nowhere to offer us bags of buckthorn berries, which are used in traditional medicine, but we declined. As we headed east, the topography flattened into the Romanian Plain and oil derricks dotted the landscape. At Brăila we crossed the Danube by vehicular ferry and then drove the remaining 90kms to the Danube Delta port of Tulcea. We arrived at sunset and were welcomed aboard the floating hotel with a glass of sweet plum brandy (ţuică). We overnighted at Tulcea, looking forward to our upcoming time in the Danube Delta World Heritage Area.

 

Day 6. Sunday 26 August 2018. Danube Delta. This morning after an early breakfast we embarked on the first of two small boat excursions from our floating hotel. We left Tulcea and headed out through the reed- and waterlily-lined channels and lakes, where we saw Black Stork, hundreds of White Pelicans circling in thermals, Pygmy Cormorant, Grey-headed and Black Woodpecker and a variety of waders. Raptors were plentiful, and we spotted one White-tailed Eagle feeding on the shore and two more circling, and a Red-footed Falcon being chased by a Eurasian Hobby and Jackdaws. The shore was wild with leaping green frogs, while several more dignified Grass Snakes swam across in front of the boat. The Danube Delta is also rich in invertebrate life and we were dazzled by dozens of damselflies and dragonflies. The Giant Ram's Horn Snail (Planorbarius corneus) and the Common River Snail (Viviparus viviparus) were common among the waterweeds, and empty shells of swan mussels (Sinanodonta woodiana and Anodonta cygnaea), Painter's Mussel (Unio pictorum) and Thick-shelled River Mussel (U. crassus) lay along the water's edge. Among the abundant plants in the willow-lined waterways were Yellow Waterlily (Nuphar luteum) and White Waterlily (Nymphaea alba), which provided basking spots and launching pads for the frogs. Daniel pointed out Cowbane or Water Hemlock (Cicuta virosa), the most poisonous plant in Europe, growing among the reeds. While we were exploring, the floating hotel was moved by tug to Maliuc, downstream from Tulcea. We rendezvoused with the hotel for a late lunch and a rest while the floating hotel continued to our next destination on the Crisan – Caraorman Channel. On our evening boat trip, we spotted three Golden Jackals, and a wide variety of birds, including Reed Bunting, Hoopoe, Ferruginous Duck, Red-necked Grebe, Common Kingfisher, and a Little Crake and a Dalmatian pelican.

 

Day 7. Monday 27 August 2018. Danube Delta. After another early breakfast we spent the morning exploring the various channels in the Crisan – Caraorman area in the small boat. The larger channels were populated with fishermen and tourists, whereas the smaller ones – just wide enough for our boat to pass through – we shared with frogs and kingfishers. We stopped briefly at Lake Iacob, where we saw Ruff, Black-tailed Godwit and European Rollers (the latter species starting their migration). During lunch and early afternoon, the hotel travelled eastward along the old Danube to Mila 8. Then we headed out once again on the surprise journey our leader Daniel had organised for us. There was a bit of consternation in the group as life jackets were handed out, and a small, very low fibreglass boat appeared at the bottom of the loading point. A few terrified faces peered over the life jackets as the members of the group were launched into it by the expert hands of the crew. Then we were off and racing down the main channel towards the Black Sea. After taking an unexpected side channel, we then found ourselves in the large shallow Musuru Bay (Golful Musuru). The huge volume of the water pushing into it from the Danube River makes this part of the Black Sea fresh to brackish. The adventure hadn't finished as we roared over the surface of the shallow lagoon with no land in sight until we arrived at some newly-created sandbanks which had formed over the last few years. The emergent banks form K Island, a new territory split unevenly between Romania and Ukraine. We soon discovered that this island was now home to an astonishing array of what we estimated to be at least 100,000 seabirds. This included about 300 Dalmatian Pelicans (around 10% of the estimated total population in Romania which is the stronghold for this species), hundreds of White Pelican, six species of tern and five species of gull (including Pallas’ Gull which was one of the main targets). A pair of young Marsh Harriers disturbed the flocks and filled the sky with thousands of whirling birds. They managed to catch an adult Common Tern before disappearing. As the sun started to set, we turned back to land. Thanks to the excellent skills of our boat driver, we arrived relatively dry and remarkably undamaged, although we found that getting out of the boat was not as easy as getting into it!  We then had a lovely dinner and a glass or two of wine to celebrate our adventures. That evening we were joined by a European Tree Frog (Hyla arborea), which had clambered up the side of the vessel and was watching us through the window.

 

Day 8. Tuesday 28 August 2018. Danube Delta. Another fantastic day exploring the labyrinth of channels and floating islands of the Danube Delta. We spent the morning at the township and surrounding forest of Letea. We were met by locals with horse-drawn carts and enjoyed a scenic (if bumpy!) ride to the forest. In 1938, Letea Forest became the first nature reserve in Romania, and it was declared the foundation element of the Danube Delta Biosphere Reserve in 1994. The vegetation here is an archipelago of oak forests in a sea of dunes, which formed around 500 years ago, when the Black Sea receded. The forest flora is important for its diversity and high level of endemism. Balkan Oak (Quercus pedunculiflora) and Pallis' or Fluffy Ash (Fraxinus pallisae) dominated the forests. Silkvine (Periploca graeca), a climbing liana, gave the trees an almost tropical appearance, but we resisted the urge to swing from them like Tarzan. The dunes were covered in low-growing plants, but diversity and endemism were high here too. The scrambling Sea Grape (Ephedra distachya) bound the sand and provided a stable substrate for other grassland species, including the white-flowered scabious Scabiosa ucrainica. We walked back through Letea town, admiring the blue and white houses built in the traditional style with thatched roofs and wood and clay walls. The gardens brimmed with flowers, fruit and vegetables, and wild hemp grew between the haystacks. While we ate lunch, the floating hotel travelled to Mila 23, from where we took the boat to Trej Iezere for more birding and a closer look at the water plants. The leaf rosettes of Water Chestnut or Water Caltrop (Trapa natans) were a common sight on the quiet waterways. Having learnt that the large, spiky seeds were edible, we had to taste them. The Water Soldier (Stratiotes aloides) was another abundant plant species. During summer, the leaves stand straight up out of the water, but as the temperature declines in autumn, the plant sinks to the bottom and stays there until the water warms again.

 

Day 9. Wednesday 29 August 2018. Danube Delta. For our final day in the Danube delta we set off once again in the early morning to explore some more channels in our little boat, finishing at Lake Furtuna where we saw a raft of White Pelicans feeding communally. We then rendezvoused with the floating hotel. After another enormous lunch in the company of our tour leader’s parents, we then spent a leisurely afternoon onboard the floating hotel while it returned to Tulcea. We were fascinated by the skilled manoeuvring of the floating hotel by the crews of the tug and accompanying boat. In order to moor at Tulcea, the tug changed position from the front of the hotel to the side, and pushed, rather than pulled. As we approached Tulcea Harbour, we passed the Romanian Navy river patrol and Ceauşescu's yacht, moored among the naval fleet. We docked at Tulcea at 7pm and spent our last night aboard our hotel in the harbour.

 

Day 10. Thursday 30 August 2018: Tulcea. This morning we sadly farewelled our tour leader Daniel and his crew aboard the floating hotel, met our new guide Florin and reunited with Vali and the bus. Our destination today was the Black Sea coast. We travelled southwards, passing through small villages on the way. We stopped at Babadag Forest where we saw several interesting and rare plant species, as well as butterflies and a Praying Mantis (Mantis religiosa). The highlight of the stop was a large Spur-thighed Tortoise (Testudo graeca) which was grazing on the very tough and desiccated foliage of a herbaceous plant. We were amazed that it could survive in such a dry environment. We then drove to the Sinoe-Razelm lake complex which lies to the south of the Danube Delta. Here an extensive sand spit has isolated the area from the Black Sea and left behind a series of shallow, fresh and brackish lakes, which are extremely rich in birds, including Sandwich, Caspian and Gull-billed Tern, Little Gull, Pied Avocet, Ruff, Little and Temminck's Stint, a selection of plovers and sandpipers, and Common Shelduck. While tucking into a splendid picnic lunch at Vadu on the Black Sea coast, we had brief glimpses of the local subspecies of Harbour Porpoise (Phoecena phoecena relicta) and longer ones of Black-headed Gulls. After lunch, we drove past Lake Nuntasi for more bird spotting. We returned to our hotel in Tulcea in the late afternoon.

 

Day 11. Friday 31 August 2018. Dobrogea region: Parcheş and Măcin Mountains National Park. Today we explored the Dobrogea region of Romania, which extends along the Black Sea coast from Ukraine to Bulgaria. This area encompasses a variety of ecosystems, including Pontic-Caspian steppe, a type of grassland now rare in Europe. We first visited Parcheş, a 30-minute drive from Tulcea, where we had great panoramic views over the Delta and watched European Suslik foraging over the grasslands. This is an excellent area for raptors and we saw Long-legged Buzzard and Marsh Harrier. The cliffs here were riddled with abandoned European Bee Eater burrows, some of which had been adopted and enlarged by Little Owls. From here, we drove south to the Celic Dere Monastery. The name Celic Dere dates back to the 18th Century and is derived from the Turkish for 'river of steel'. This refers to the weapons retrieved from the river that winds through the area. A walk along a rural lane (in the company of a stray dog) netted Middle Spotted Woodpecker, but not the Syrian Woodpecker that we were after. (We did see a pair of young Syrian Woodpeckers later in the day.) After a picnic lunch, we travelled to the Măcin Mountains, which are the oldest mountains in Europe. These granite ranges were pushed up during the continental collisions that formed Pangea (around 300-400 million years ago). The steppe here is dotted with Oriental Hornbeam (Carpinus orientalis) and the lower slopes of the mountains are covered in oak forest. Here we saw Sombre Tit, Long-legged Buzzard, Hoopoe, Willow Warbler and Spotted Flycatcher. In the late afternoon, we visited a disused granite mine above Turcoaia, where we were lucky to see a Pied Wheatear before the light faded. When we arrived back at our hotel in Tulcea, a raging Romanian party was in full swing in the next dining room, so we were treated to some traditional music and very colourful costumes.

 

Day 12. Saturday 1 September 2018. Bucharest. This morning we left Tulcea to drive back to Bucharest, the capital and largest city of Romania, as well as its cultural, industrial, and financial centre. On the way, we stopped at a high point and saw a flock of Black Storks feeding on the farmland below. We crossed the Danube at Giurgeni and headed west on the highway, arriving in Bucharest mid-afternoon. Our first stop in the city was the Palace of the Parliament, the seat of Romanian government. Ordered by Ceausescu in 1984, the Palace took 13 years to build. The interior remains unfinished. It is the heaviest building in the world and the second largest administrative building. (Only the Pentagon is larger.) The Palace extends eight storeys underground and includes a nuclear bunker. We then spent the afternoon in the National Village Museum, exploring its fascinating display of Romanian houses, churches and farm buildings, some of which date back to the early 19th Century. After our final group dinner in the hotel, we said our sad farewells before heading to our rooms to pack and prepare for our various departures on Sunday. Our tally for the trip exceeded 140 bird species.