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Trip Report: SPEC Birding tour through Romania and NE Bulgaria ~ 5-22 May 2019

Bears, birds and bees tour

Introduction and summary

The tour group consisted of 14 birders of diverse experience, eight staying for the tour duration and six returning home after ten days.  Our principal aim was to see the famous Brown Bears of Transylvania along with many species of birds, butterflies, dragonflies, reptiles and amphibians. We again used Neophron as our Ground Agent with a special request that Minko Madjarov acted as our local guide for the first two weeks of the tour.  He didn’t disappoint. 

We started our tour during peak spring migration on the Bulgarian Black Sea coast close to the border with Romania. The wildlife frequenting the colourful wild steppe that spreads up to the cliff edge of Cape Kaliakra was rewarding as were the lakes that were explored before crossing the border into Romania.  We birded the Dobrogea region, the easternmost part of Romania, which is a mix of dry, gently rolling steppes and farmland, dotted with woodland hills, a wealth of lakes, marshes and lush meadows. The coastal lagoons and marshlands hosted a huge variety of water birds along with many migrants giving sensational birdwatching opportunities. 

A visit to Romania would not have been complete without enjoying an unbroken vista of the Carpathian Mountains in Transylvania, the country’s highest mountains. This long chain of mountains in the southern, eastern and northern parts of Romania, with vast stretches of spruce, beech and oak forests, host large populations of Brown Bear, Wolf, Chamois and a rich diversity of birds, reptiles, amphibians, invertebrates and plants. We visited some spectacular gorges and explored the high mountain tops.  We were fortunate in seeing 14 bears all told and achieved a trip list of 218 species of birds. 

Team:  Minko (local leader) Steve Piotrowski, Paddy Shaw, Chris Jennson, Rebecca Bedwell, John Bedwell, Sally Middleton, Lesley Glassington, Helen Gooderham, Martine Huit, Fiona Smith, Mervyn Jones, John Grant, John Garbutt, Carol Elliott 

Click on photos to enlarge

Team shot - John Garbutt

5 May - Steve Piotrowski

Flight from Luton to Varna

Our evening flight took off about 30 minutes late but otherwise went without incident.  Once we had collected our luggage at Varna it was approaching 3 a.m.!

6 May – Paddy Shaw

Bulgaria’s NE Black Sea coastal marshes

Weather – strong northerly winds and very cold

Where May 5th ended and May 6th began is a bit blurred; the delay to our  flight from Luton and then the journey from Varna to Kavarna by minibus, in the company of our old mate and Neophron Tours guide Minko, (plus the +2hours time difference) meant it was around 4.30am local when we finally got some sleep.  Whoever said ‘it is better to travel hopefully than to arrive’ was obviously going to Luton Airport, not leaving it.

The journey had started our mammal list before the bird list, with a Wild Cat by the side of the road, plus a European Golden Jackal (spotted by Minko).

We’d stayed at the Venera Hotel on a previous trip, with its upper-storey rooms with verandas overlooking the Black Sea – which of course had some of us sea-watching at 8.30 next morning!

Although not much was moving at sea, memories came flooding back with the sound of Nightingale, Golden Oriole, Black Redstart and an early (for us anyway) flight of Bee-eaters over the hotel. The cliffs to the south of Kavarna had a large colony of Alpine Swift, which added to the House Martins, Swallows and Common Swift around the hotel itself.

We were headed for Eagle Marsh at Durankulak, a site previously visited and very reminiscent of the Suffolk coast, with beach, dunes, reedbeds and watercourses. The minibus trip produced the first Red-rumped Swallow and Turtle Dove of the trip, but we suspected the weather might prevent a repeat of the massive list generated in 2017; a cold and fairly strong wind was blowing from the NE. 

However, you can’t really moan about the weather when the list included Collared Pratincole, Squacco and Purple Heron, Little Bittern, Glossy Ibis, Wood Sandpiper, Great Reed Warbler….of course, being birders, we have to start from the negative, and there was no Paddyfield Warbler as there had been on the last visit. In retrospect (see later for May 9th), this was not an issue however.

We adjourned for lunch at the Yanitsa restaurant at Krepets – a great place with views over the sea, so we ordered food, (some of us risking a quick pint of Kamenitza) and set up the scopes, checking out Black-necked Grebes in full colour and passing Sandwich Terns while Cuban music played on the sound system: could it be only 24hrs since we were preparing to leave for Luton?

One marinated Pontic Shad salad later (look it up!), we were back on the bus and heading for the Shabla Lake pumping station site – again, one with which some of us were familiar. The walk down starts in scrub and bushes, heading towards tree-lined reedbeds and ponds/ditches. The main water of Shabla Lake is not visible from here. It was warmer just off the coast, and the lunch, beer and lack of sleep meant we moved fairly slowly, picking up Barred Warbler, Hoopoe, Tawny Pipit, Red-backed Shrike and good views of perched Bee-eaters. Every site in this part of Bulgaria has at least one obligatory Cuckoo, and Nightingales seemingly in every bush. Minko said that often – when listening for a particular call from a ‘target’ species – Nightingales could be particularly irritating, drowning out everything else.  Would that we had that problem in the UK.

Wilt was setting in, so we took a ‘slow road’ back to Kavarna, cruising for birds……  Grey Partridge and Crested Lark added to the trip list, before a quick clean-up, beer, dinner and log. Not many of us made it past that on this particular night, as alarms were set (by those who do this sort of thing) for sea watching from the balcony.  How’s that for a life? Roll out of bed and grab your scope, making a minimal attempt at public decency.

Spannish Sparrow - John Garbutt

7 May – Chris Jesson

The magnificent Cape Kaliakra

Weather: cold northerly winds abating, sunny periods but still cold

The day started promisingly with a great view of a Cuckoo on the telegraph wires as we drove eastwards from Kavarna towards Cape Kaliakra. Our main targets for the morning in the windfarm-dominated steppe country outside the village of Balgarevo were the Calandra and Greater Short-toed Lark, along with the Isabelline Wheatear and Black-headed Bunting. In the course of an excellent morning, all four were seen along with the Crested Lark. Also seen were the Tawny Pipit, Stone Curlew, and some birds that would prove to be regulars for the trip: Golden Oriole, Red-backed Shrike, Lesser Grey Shrike and Hoopoe.

The onward trip towards Cape Kaliakra also gave us a Woodchat Shrike, Pied Wheatear and obligatory Storks. We arrived at the south-facing Kaliakra headland before lunch. The promontory extends several kilometres out into the Black Sea and it is a magnet for migrants.  It is dominated by the ruins of the ancient fortress, which has existed in one form or another since ancient Greek times. The bird list was not especially surprising - Black-throated Diver, Sandwich Tern, European Shag (ssp. desmarestii) and several persistent Pied Wheatears - but the location was dramatic, offering great views out to sea and an excellent lunch spot towards the southern end of the peninsula. The small museum of the history of the cape - located inside a natural cave - was also given a look.

The first stop after lunch was Bolota Cove, three kilometres north of Kaliakra. Rather than the beach, our interest was in the small canyon extending inland from the cove, a designated nature reserve. The clear highlight here was a fantastic close-up view of a Short-toed Eagle that at one point circled directly overhead. Red-footed Falcon, Hobby, Kestrel and Montagu's Harrier completed the raptor list, with the high cliffs of the canyon offering the classic raptor vantage point.  A Great Reed Warbler also proved hugely entertaining, being hard to miss among the reeds and impossible to ignore with its persistent warbling. A Kingfisher and Purple Heron in the river at the bottom of the canyon completed the list.

The final stop of the day was Shabla Lake, a little further up the north-east Bulgarian coast.  Shabla is actually two coastal lakes separated from each other by a canal and from the sea by a sandbar. The target here was unsurprisingly the waders, and in the walk around the lakes we saw Curlew Sandpiper, Wood Sandpiper, Little Stint, Black-winged Stint, Ruff and Little Ringed Plover. Non-waders included Garganey, a Black-headed Wagtail, Corn Bunting and Marsh Harrier.

In summary, a fantastic day's birding for the second full day of the trip, with for me the Short-toed Eagle at Bolota winning "Bird of the Day".

Pied Wheatear - John Garbutt
Great Reed Warbler - John Garbutt
Lesser Grey Shrike - Paddy Shaw

8 May – Rebecca Bedwell

Cape Kaliakra and the invisible Eagle Owl

Weather – cloudy and overcast but crucially no wind

Today we left Hotel Venera in Bulgaria to go to Romania, but we still had birdwatching to do in Bulgaria before hopping over the border. 

Once we were all loaded and packed up, we set off to try our luck for the Eurasian Eagle Owl on which we had dipped yesterday.  We drove to the Thracian Cliffs and spent around a half an hour scouring the rock face and discussing the shape of the rocks that resembled owls plus tree stumps that also looked like owls.  But owls were there none! There were a number of very good sightings of Golden Orioles which kept up our interest before other adjacent cliffs were scanned but to no avail, Minko, for once, had to admit defeat. 

We moved onto the shallow gorge adjacent to Cape Kaliakra that we had visited yesterday.  The Great Reed Warbler was still singing and we spent a couple of hours in this area walking down the road.  We were treated to long flight views of Short-toed Eagle, which then perched up on the rock face. Another memorable highlight of the day was the hundreds of hirundines flying around above us being chased by a hobby who was no doubt looking for its lunch!  It was now time for ours, so we returned to the Yanitza Restaurant at Krapets. Before lunch we did a little sea watching on the restaurant deck and turned up Oystercatchers, Arctic Skua, and Black-throated Divers. It was too cold to sit outside, so we moved indoors and had a light lunch and some ice creams whilst some of us were treated to an impromptu tasting of wines from the owner’s vineyards.

We piled back into the bus and headed towards Durankulak Lake with sand dunes and a beach.  What at first sight looked like a very unproductive area turned up Sanderling, Common Sandpiper and Dunlin on the shore, plus various water birds to keep us busy.  Turning our attention inward over the reeds we picked up Black and Whiskered Terns plus various herons. A call from Carol made us look up into the sky where we saw approximately 120 White Pelicans, ten White Storks and three Black Storks.  We spent some time watching the flocks come in and swirl overhead. By this time, it was a little chilly and we went into the nearby restaurant for some liquid refreshment.

Back on the bus then for our drive over the border into Romania. This was interesting as it was probably the shortest time anyone has had in Romania!  Once again, a cry from Carol who realised she had not got her binoculars and feared she had left them at the restaurant. By this time, we had crossed the border and were into “No Man’s Land” waiting the checking of our passports.  Minko hurriedly called the restaurant, and much to Carol’s relief, they had found them. After a quick discussion between Minko, our driver and the border patrol we did a U-turn, drove the short journey back to the restaurant, picked up the binoculars and set off again for the border.  This time we got through with no delays and an uneventful journey saw our arrival at a lovely warm hotel at around 8.15pm. After dropping off our luggage we had our supper, did the tick list and fell into bed ready for the next day’s adventures and lots more birds! 

Spannish Sparrow 2 - John Garbutt

9 May – John Bedwell

Sinoe Lake and Vadu

Weather: Sunny with a gentle breeze

We left Pensiunea Grindul Lupilor promptly at 8.15 and took a rutted track out of the village towards Sinoe Lake.  A bumpy ride between extensive fields of wheat, barley, sunflowers and rape ended as the wetlands came into view. Adjacent fallow fields yielded Red-throated Pipit, Collared Pratincole, Black-headed Bunting, Red-backed Shrike and Yellow Wagtails while the distant wetlands provided both species of Pelican, Ferruginous Duck, and Ruddy Shelduck plus the usual watery suspects. 

Continuing along the track, we approached the reedbeds where the first Roller of the trip was found together with a breeding Bee-eater colony and a number of European Ground Squirrels also known as Sousliks. The target bird here was Paddyfield Warbler and, after some sterling work by Minko, a number of these showed well often sitting up in the reeds.  A gentle walk along the edge of the reedbeds gave us numerous waders such as Ruff, Redshank and Spotted Redshank before it was time for our packed lunches.

After lunch, we retraced our way back to Sinoe, a journey enlivened for the lucky ones at the front of the bus by a brief sighting of a European Golden Jackal.

Journeying south we arrived at Vadu where we were surrounded by goats and in the shadow of an abandoned petrochemical works, we had scope views of Wood Sandpiper, Curlew Sandpiper and a flyby Night Heron. Not wanting to get mixed up with another birding group down in the wetlands, Minko directed us to a village with a special stop for Lesley to photograph the White Stork nests. Continuing on north through the village we arrived at a flat area where we had an Isabelline Wheatear and were entertained by numerous Red-footed Falcons hawking after dragonflies. 

Guessing that the other birding group had by this time departed, we returned to the goats and descended to the wetlands. Birding along the causeway was superb. Highlights were Spoonbill, Garganey, Squacco Heron, Little Stint, Temminck’s Stint, Curlew Sandpiper, Wood Sandpiper, Spotted Redshank and Dunlin and most unusually a blue-morph Little Egret.  Continuing along we had more Collared Pratincoles, Bittern, Black-tailed Godwits and Red-breasted Flycatcher but Steve was the only person to see a Thrush Nightingale which he flushed when he went for a pee under a small bridge! Finally, we arrived at a lagoon which was alive with all the marsh terns, Common Terns and Little Gulls.

Our time was up and we returned to the accommodation at 19.50.  Only my birding highlights are mentioned here but look at the Checklist to see the huge numbers of birds seen.  What a superb day! 

Red-footed Falcons at Vadu - Paddy Shaw
Red-breasted Flycatcher - John Garbutt

10 May – Sally Middleton

Pallas’s Gull eventually!

Weather: dull with occasional showers, heavy at times

We left behind one of our party to recover from a cold and set off in our luxurious minibus.  Although the weather was wet, we were in high spirits, driving northwards along the shore of Lake Raziml. Our target bird was the Pallas’s Gull, so we checked out every passing flock of gulls seeing plenty of Caspian Gulls, but would we see their elusive giant cousin? 

Birdlife was somewhat lacking until we came upon another giant bird next to a small lake called ‘Balta Lunca 3’ outside Jurilovca.  Often nicknamed the ‘flying barn door’ we saw a pair of juvenile White-tailed Eagles. The birds took off and soared past us giving fantastic views and becoming the bird of the trip for many. We returned later to the same lake and were pleased to see Gadwall, Squacco Heron, Glossy Ibis, Red-crested Pochard, Common Pochard, Ferruginous Duck.

Driving on we came across a Stone Curlew standing at the roadside and who seemed quite happy to have birdwatchers spill out of the minibus to take photographs.

We stopped off at a castle near Tulcea.  A Common Quail calling from some grassland failed to reveal itself, but there were few birds around except for Wheatears and the occasional Barn Swallow.  However setting off again, we were thrilled to see a Peregrine from the bus. Nearby we climbed a low hill to look out over the truly enormous Lake Razim. Numerous wildflowers underfoot made this a beautiful walk and in better weather we would have considered stopping for a picnic, but it was still a little rainy.

Next we continued along to the lake frequented by Pallas’ gulls.  To our guide’s surprise, not only were the gulls not present but the lake had also disappeared. The lake is shown clearly on the map and had been visited before numerous times by the guide, so its fate can only be a mystery.  Slightly dejected and hope of the gull fading we travelled on to the next lake, Lacul Sărăturii, and spent time by the roadside with our telescopes watching Spoonbills, Avocet, Ruff, Great Crested Grebes, Mediterranean Gull, Red-crested Pochard and the lovely Black-necked Grebe.  We piled back onto the bus and hands reached towards sandwiches when our tenacious guide strongly encouraged us to try again further up the road. Not expecting much we tried and were delighted to finally see five Pallas’s Gulls that towered above the other gulls.  

On the way to our final stop, we had great views of Hoopoes and Collared Pratincole.  Our last stop of the day was at the Cetatea Histria archaeological site that is considered the oldest urban settlement on Romanian territory dating back to 630 BC.  However, we ignored the ruins in favour of a fabulous male Red-breasted Flycatcher with a full red throat. Pied Flycatchers also darted about accompanied by Wood Warblers.  A lucky find was an Eastern Tree Frog. An assortment of plump dogs kept us company before we headed back to the hotel.

White-tailed Eagle

11 May – Helen Gooderham

Travel Day – Dobrogea to Transylvania

Weather: dull but brightening up in the mountains

We left the Guesthouse Grindul Lipulor at 8.30 a.m. for our long day of travelling.  Minko announced “No birding”! We set off west through industrial and farmed landscapes passing round the outskirts of Bucharest then northwest, through the mountain range in Sinaia-Brashov area (north of Bucharest) and wetland areas to the north of Brashov, towards our destination in Transylvania leaving behind us the wetlands of the enormous Danube Delta.

The flat steppe landscape was dotted with windfarms and tantalizing stands of trees and bushes that we had no time to look at. The road was good and birds were noted from the bus, but many took the opportunity catch up on some sleep.

At 10 a.m., we crossed yet another wide branch of the Danube delta with massive barges travelling along it and shortly afterwards a flock of sheep and shepherd with the luxury of a saddled donkey to carry him. A field of white storks flashed past then an oil refinery that Mervyn told us was heavily bombed during the last war.

By 2 p.m., we were seeing forested hillsides and distant snowy mountains.  We passed through some towns with stalls of tourist souvenirs and from a brief petrol station stop a Raven, Sparrowhawk, a Black Redstart, Great Tit and Whinchat were noted.

After seeing several impressive fortified churches, we made a stop at ‘Eagle Junction’ where we saw a Lesser Spotted Eagle sitting on a post, four Ravens, two Common Buzzards, a Golden Oriole and another Lesser Spotted Eagle.

We at last reached Deság Villa in the Harghita region but roadworks on the bridge along the access road caused a small diversion.  The diversion route took further along the Desag Valley where we noted a Red backed Shrike and our first Fieldfare of the tour.

The Hotel was very comfortable and in the lovely setting of rolling hills, orchards and gardens. The evening log produced 52 species, but the king of the birders was Granty who, despite having slept a great deal, had one eye wide open to note more than anyone with an impressive number of Bee eaters!

Lesser Spotted Eagle - John Garbutt

12 May – Lesley Glassington

Our first bear

Weather: bright and sunny

We woke up to a hearty breakfast in our new hotel.  Some of the group had already taken a pre-breakfast stroll around the grounds and reported that there was a rich abundance of birds and wildlife, including sightings of the red squirrel (which is a much darker red then found in the UK) lots of Black Restarts, Tree Sparrows and the now very familiar sound of the Cuckoo.  After the long trip yesterday we were eager to explore the surrounding area and of course excitement at the prospect of spending time in the bear hide tonight, so it was decided we would spend the day locally. The hotel was surrounded by beech and conifer woodland through which we made our way slowly up the forest track.  The day was bright and warm as we made our way into the forest alert to bird song such as the Song Thrush, while looking at the many different wildflowers beginning to come into flower. Minko, as always was attentive to the group and pointed out things such as the giant Roman Snail, which fascinated those of us who had never seen one before. 

At one point we came to a clearing where we stopped for a while and had the good fortune to watch in awe at a Collared Flycatcher going in and out of a nest box. At one point, there was so much to watch it was difficult to keep up with someone pointing out a glimpse of a Black Woodpecker along with a Tree Creeper while quickly turning attention to a Crested Tit and Goldcrest all in close proximity.  Carrying on there was an increasing excitement about seeing bears later and some apprehension at the prospect of meeting them while we were out walking. Steve found it appropriate to tell the ‘bear joke’ which caused much mirth, but which I shall refrain from telling here, (however it’s worth hearing and if you ever get the opportunity I am sure he will be more than happy to retell it!). As we carried on walking up the fairly steep incline shout outs of possible sightings continued, such as Honey Buzzard overhead, Grey Headed Woodpecker, and someone saw a Hawfinch.  Suddenly from the front of the group there was a shout that they had startled and come face to face with a bear cub. Although only a fleeting glimpse, it was incredibly exciting for the group and we dined out on Minko’s ‘startled bear cub’ impersonations after this, but that’s another story!

After a couple of hours making our way through the forest, we started to descend.  Some of us found ourselves at the back of the group and we marvelled at a wonderful display of butterflies, which included: Scarce Swallowtail, European Map, Heath and Pearl-bordered Fritillaries, Common Glider, Duke of Burgundy Fritillary, Grizzled, Dingy and Chequered Skippers and Eastern Short-tailed Blue.  Many were taking moisture from damp muddy patches. Minko also pointed out what he thought was wolf scat and bear footprints. After a slow and delicious lunch, sitting outside enjoying the sun the constant shout outs continued. For example, Yellow Wagtail, while overhead there was an abundance of House Martins, Swallow and Swifts – It truly was very special!  

In the later-afternoon, we were met by a specialist guide for our trip to a specifically adapted hide from where we had hoped to see bears.  After a fairly short drive by minibus going deeper up into the forest the guide parked up and we slowly made our way in single file. We were instructed to keep very quiet and alert as we were going through an area where we could disturb bears.  I think this left some of us a little apprehensive, but very excited at what was to come. When we reached the hide we filed in quietly and took a seat in front of the glass window. We had to turn fans on to prevent the bears picking up our scent and we all eagerly searched the scene in front of us while the guide scattered bait around the clearing. After about 20 minutes we were rewarded as slowly a female bear emerged from the forest into the clearing and started to eat the titbits that had been left out. This was a breath-taking experience to be so close to this amazing animal and watch her. Shortly after a much larger bear emerged transfixed on her – I later learned from the guide that it was the mating season and not unusual for a male bear to follow a female for weeks until she is ready to mate.  She seemed quite nonchalant of his attention, but I was struck at her cub appearing and she keeping in the middle of them both as the male bear could potentially attack the cub. All too soon our hide time was over and after a couple of wonderful hours watching these magnificent animals we made our way quietly out of the hide and back to the minibus.  

Over our delicious evening meal of stuffed vine leaves and sour cream we shared our experience of the day and all agreed it had been quite magical.  

Brown Bear 3 - John Garbutt
Brown Bear 2 - John Garbutt
Brown Bear - John Garbutt

13 May – Martine Huit

Sânpaul Fish Ponds and more bears

Weather: bright and sunny

Up and out at 6.30 a.m., sun shining over the wooded hills and valley surrounding Desag Villa.  Local houses had shingled roofs and gardens filled with vegetable patches and apple trees. Singing from the top of a fir tree was a Common Redstart, his song accompanied by the call of Cuckoo, Chiffchaff, Mistle Thrush, Greenfinch, Wren, Blackcap, Great Tit, Red-backed Shrike and, surprisingly, a Yellowhammer.  

Following a wholesome breakfast, we drove along Desag Valley heading for the Sânpaul Fish Ponds. On route, we passed many houses with large carved wooden gates that incorporated dovecots. We were told that, according to local legend, if a dove nests in the cote then it means that a baby is due to the household. The intricately carved gates had a large arch originally to allow access to horses and wagons, with the smaller gate for people to pass through. The modern houses with steep roofs (indicative of winters with heavy snowfalls) were interspersed with rustic old wooden houses and barns.  Most properties had vegetable gardens and frames over which trailing vines were growing.

As we drove through small villages, there were numerous stork nests most appearing to have adults attending their eggs.  As we neared the Sânpaul Fish Ponds, we admired the distant snow-peaked mountains of the Central Carpathian Mountains.

The first pond visited was a dry basin with a few small muddy pools which hosted a small flock of waders including: Grey and Ringed Plovers, a Little Stint and Curlew Sandpipers that were foraging together.  A sandy, elevated bank provided habitat for European Bee-eaters to nest.  

We walked towards some of the larger fish ponds with elevated dykes and reedbeds, surrounded by gentle rolling and partially tree-clad hills and we noted a slow build-up of billowing cumulus clouds. 

Red Deer made a brief appearance in a field, whilst Common Buzzard and Lesser Spotted Eagle circled overhead. 

I had my first Turtle Dove sighting, whilst the distant but constant call of a Cuckoo was heard throughout the day but not quite drowning out the croaking Marsh Frogs. The reedbeds were full of singing warblers including Great Reed, Sedge and Savi’s to list but a few.  We observed the slow flight of the Marsh Harrier sweeping across reedbeds and listened to the intermittent boom of Bitterns. We obtained clear views of Bearded Tits and the swooping flight of marsh terns held our attention for some time. Whiskered, Black and White-winged Black Terns together with Little Gulls gave an amazing display which added to the magic of the day. Night Herons were roosting in the reeds and Purple Herons were seen in flight and fishing along the edge of the ponds.  There were also numerous Great Crested Grebes, Ferruginous Ducks, Garganey and Common Pochard. A Woodland Ringlet butterfly was new to our list. 

We stopped for a picnic lunch in the sun, sitting on the edge of a wildflower meadow before a brief stop at the town of Odorheiu Secuiesc, which had strong Hungarian influence, Transylvania was formerly being part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but transferred to Romania at the end of the First World War.

At around 16.30, we arrived at Ivo where we transferred to four-wheel drive vehicles, Paddy and Minko taking the “back seat” in the rear of the truck, a somewhat slippery and bumpy ride through dense beech forest towards the “dead end” hide. We stopped a short distance from the hide and were led silently and in single file. After food had been laid out, we did not have to wait too long for the first adult Brown Bear to emerge from the forest, later joined by a larger bear. There was a small pond as well as a brook running through the open glade, which the bears crossed several times, eyeing one another but keeping a safe distance. We were privileged to have amazingly close views of the bears for over an hour.  The bears eventually ambled quietly into the forest and didn’t return to the glade during our presence. Many Jays, Stock Doves, Woodpigeons and Chaffinches came to feed on the food that the bears had not eaten.

 We quietly returned to the vehicles to endure another bumpy ride through the forest before transferring back to the minibus and back to the Villa.  Our evening meal was washed down with a cold beer or two, good conversation and great company, a great day.  

14 May – Fiona Smith

The wonders of the Bicaz Gorge

Weather: dull, misty and heavy showers

After our 7.30 breakfast, we set off on the two hour drive to the Bicaz Gorge with a short stop off en route to take in some lovely Green-veined Orchids in a roadside field. 

The Bicaz Gorge is located in the north-eastern Carpathian Mountains of Romania. The gorge is a truly breath-taking natural attraction, even in the mist and drizzle! It links Transylvania to the historical Romanian region of Moldavia and it is part of Cheile Bicazului-Hamas National Park. Along the roadside there were many stalls where you could buy local products made by Romanian and Hungarian craftsmen and women. You can also look out for Chamois on the cliff face, but none were seen by us on this occasion.

It was the one place where we hoped to see the elusive and oh-so-sought-after Wallcreeper. However, our hopes were not set too high after cautionary suggestions from Minko of perhaps tramping up and down the gorge to stand any chance at all.

It was a stunning drive in dramatic scenery nonetheless. The gorge twists and turns steeply uphill for 5km, cutting through sheer 300m high limestone rock. The stunning gorge has a part that is so narrow it is known as “the neck of hell.”

On arriving we parked up by a narrow ravine and wandered across the road.  Within five minutes of arriving, incredibly, Sally spotted a Wallcreeper flying down the ravine! Amazing!  This bird has a near mythical status among birders who travel far and wide, with often little success, to see it. This was a ‘lifer’ for most of us and we had some close and stunning views of the bird on the rock face, followed by a round of applause. I don’t think we could all quite believe it, and so quickly too!

However, there was more to follow. We then were rewarded with views of two Wallcreepers flying up and down the ravine to what appeared to be a nearby nesting site.  As if that was not enough, on leaving the gorge we pulled over in the minibus as a Wallcreeper flew in front of us and landed on the wall and on the gravel path right beside us and gathered nesting material. Incredible! We were able to take in the bird in all its colourful glory; the grey, the strong red on broad white-spotted wings and the fine, curved bill. What a buzz!

We stopped off by a river bend further down the gorge and found the White-throated Dippers there along with a White Wagtail. The rain came in then, so we stopped for a picnic lunch from a local shop.  On the return journey we had a roadside stop to buy honey and local honey products (the bees part of the tour!), and then had an unplanned walk beyond the honey stalls and up to an alpine meadow which yielded very good views of Crested Tit and numerous Coal Tits, Firecrest and Goldcrest. There were also three Ring Ouzels that were showing well and a Black Woodpecker.  

We then endured a two-hour drive home that was interrupted when we were flagged-down by the police (defective headlight, apparently, but our driver also received a speeding ticket) and with a short stop-off at a quarry in the remote hope of an Eagle Owl.  No luck!

All in all, a very successful day and our driver managed to hit the right turn-off for our hotel for the first time this trip.

15 May – Mervyn Jones

Stork versus snake – there was only one winner!

Weather: bright and sunny

This was to be a somewhat quieter or rather a less full day as six of our number were departing  this morning along with Minko, our guide and our driver. The driver was apparently the father of the new driver who was due to take over tomorrow.  Clearly a family concern! There were eight of us left and a new guide, Vlado (short for Vladimir), was due to arrive later that evening.

The entire group had a short morning walk near the hotel, picking up the ever-vocal Common Redstart among other birds. The mandatory ‘team photo’ was then taken on the steps of the hotel before the six headed off for Bucharest for their flight back to Luton. The eight of us then retraced a super walk we did some three days ago through neighbouring woodland leading eventually to a near-hilltop bear hide.  We again had excellent views of Collared Flycatcher and Nuthatch at or near their nesting sites. Paddy had a glimpse of three large mammals through the foliage that he thought were Brown Bears and we all saw several bear pad-prints and tracks. Other highlights of the walk included a number of very colourful butterflies and Steve briefly plucked a hapless Yellow-bellied Toad from a pool to show us its yellow belly.  This was nature in all its sunlit variety!

We returned to the hotel for an al fresco snack lunch and I promptly fell asleep.  Fiona grabbed the opportunity for some rest too. The remainder headed out into the lanes and fields nearby for a good afternoon walk, seeing many butterflies and Yellowhammers and a White stork catching and consuming a very large Adder, just minutes after catching and eating two Slow worms.  A bird with both attitude and appetite!

The butterflies include Small Copper, Camberwell Beauty and Eastern Pale Clouded Yellow.

White Stork with Adder - John Garbutt

16 May – John Grant

Raindrops keep falling on my head

Weather: heavy rain throughout the morning but brighter in afternoon

Raindrop-splattered pages of my notebook for the morning of May 16 tell the soggy story of greyness, of misty moisture, of dreary drizzle. We trudged a trail known as the Dead End Track, beside the fast-flowing river Paraul Bradesti. It wound its way through tall, dark and handsome Spruce trees that formed, with the inevitable sprinkling of yellow-leaved Beeches, an impressive and impenetrable forest. The rushing, roaring river attracted several Grey Wagtails and at least four White-throated Dippers, including spotty youngsters demanding food from hard-working parents. A Cuckoo called and a Raven 'kronked' - it all seemed reminiscent of Scotland's Speyside, complete with that infernal, nagging rain.

Time to turn around, admit defeat and change the plan. 

A short mini-bus trip, enlivened by a roadside Lesser-spotted Eagle and a Stonechat, brought us back to Sânpaul Fishponds. The altitude was lower, our spirits higher. Greeted by a grumpy-sounding Great Reed Warbler that croaked and kreeked in the now-easing rain and two Oystercatchers that stood bedgraggled on a drained pond, we were entertained by 15 flighty Little Stints, with a Curlew Sandpiper, that eventually decided the oozing grey mud was not for them.

The sky brightened and birdsong intensified. Lesser Whitethroats and European Reed Warblers were among those that sparked up and the soft, rolling 'quilp' calls of European Bee-eaters accompanied us on our pondside stroll. Black terns, White-winged Black Terns, Whiskered Terns and Little Gulls dip-fed delightfully over the waters, fine-looking Ferruginous Ducks abounded and at least four hunched-up Night Herons slowly stalked the reedy pond edges.

Now food was required for us too. And a return to the hillside location of our previous lunch here more than justified our decision to dodge the raindrops at the Dead End Track and opt instead for a retreat to Sanpaul. Serendipity struck. Twice over. 

Firstly, as the mini-bus drew to a halt, Steve and guide Vlado exclaimed in unison: "Wryneck!". Prolonged 'scope views of this strange, reptilian woodpecker were enjoyed and this tree-top show-off also treated us to a rendition of his high-pitched 'pee-pee-pee' calls.

An afternoon of idyllic birding from a pond-bisecting reedy bund revealed all the usual suspects, including a fine male Little Bittern and a particularly showy Savi's Warbler. A bonus Otter was added to our trip mammal list (but was only seen by guide Vlado and group members Martine and Mervyn). 

We revelled in our decision to return to the ponds but more affirmation of the wisdom of the move was to come with the day's second surprise bird. Our sharp-eyed guide discerned a circling raptor high above us as we returned to our vehicle.  John Garbutt's increasingly impressive photographic expertise somehow allowed him to obtain passable photographic evidence which, after close collective scrutiny, led us to the conclusion that this was an immature male Pallid Harrier. It was in heavy tail moult and perhaps this was the reason it was a little tardy in its migration - most other Romanian records of this species apparently come in April.

Paddy's musical background perhaps gave him the advantage he needed to be the only one of the group to pick up the varied song of a Marsh Warbler and the final prize from the ponds area was a beautiful Woodland Ringlet butterfly.

In the continuing sunshine, we headed back to the Dead End Track for the day's final hour of birding. Grey Wagtails and White-throated Dippers were noted again but a Spotted Flycatcher and a Honey Buzzard were new for the day. The somewhat mournful whistle of a distant Grey-headed Woodpecker pierced the forest air but the bird remained unseen.

As dusk fell we reflected on the big decision of the day - to flee the forest's morning downpour and head for the ponds. It had been a wise move indeed. It showed that flexibility in a birding sense is a useful attribute. We were indeed flexible friends.

Night Heron - John Garbutt

17 May – Steve Piotrowski

Hargita Mountain Tops – Birds and yet more bears

It may have been the delightful serenading by our resident Common Redstart that persuaded a few of us to rise bright and early and take a pre-breakfast stroll down the track from our hotel towards the river?  The rest were not convinced preferring a more sluggish awakening! Those on the walk logged a host of forest birds, including Yellowhammer, Cuckoo, Blackcap, Garden Warbler, Lesser Whitethroat, Willow Warbler, Chiffchaff, Blackbird, Song Thrush, Black Redstart, Hooded Crow, Jay, Greenfinch and Goldfinch. Martine had found a pair of Nuthatches feeding their recently-fledged chicks.  A Grey Heron glided down the valley and a number of Ravens and Hooded Crows were also noted. 

We stocked up at the supermarket ready for our picnic lunch which we planned to take on the tops at the Madaras Ski Resort. A Garden Warbler could be heard singing in nearby gardens whilst we shopped.   Madaras means “birdy” due it’s abundance of birds, so it was down to us to prove whether it had been aptly named! The name also used by the ski resort had been inspired from the highest peak in the Hargita Mountains which forms part of the Eastern Carpathian chain.  The peak is just over 2,000 metres above sea-level, but we would focus on the alpine and conifer forests slopes at 1,480 and 1,680 elevations. We made frequent stops as we wound our way up the steep and hair-pinned road up the mountain and noted some very special birds including Black Woodpecker, Spotted Nutcracker, Firecrest (at least ten), Crested Tit and a surprise Three-toed Woodpecker. Vlado had known about this breeding site in years gone by but, to his knowledge, the woodpecker had been absent there in recent years. Two White-bellied Dippers and several Grey Wagtails frequented the fast-running stream that ran close to the road. 

At the summit, we found most of the array of hotels and chalets closed for the summer at the summit as the skiing season over. There were still patches of snow around though, which made birding interesting.  Dunnocks, a high altitude species in the Balkans, were numerous as were Tree Pipits and Wheatears. A pair of Water Pipits was the first for the trip and three migrating Honey Buzzards flew over. Other raptors included six Common Buzzards and single Lesser Spotted Eagle, Sparrowhawk, Kestrel and Peregrine. 

As we began our descent down the mountain, there was a yell of “stop” from the back of the bus.  Unfortunately, our driver’s response was far too slow, so most of us missed a female Capercaillie that was feeding on the edge of the road and then perched briefly in a tree.  We stopped at a number of stops on the way down and walked a long stretch of road but little else was seen.  

Back at our hotel, we were collected and transported to our third and final visit to the bear hide.  The skies had now darkened and a rumble of thunder signalled the start of a tremendous storm. As lightning flashed all around us, we made our way through the forest to the hide and timing between the flash and the bang – one mile for every five seconds – meant that the centre of the storm was less than two miles away!  We enjoyed the shelter of the hide so missed the torrential rain that beat upon the hide roof. The rain didn’t deter the bears though as first the female and then the male came to the open glade to gather food. We thought that these were the same bears as those that we watched on our first night in the hide, but they nevertheless put on another amazing display. 

Common Redstart - John Garbutt

18 May – John Garbutt and Carol Elliott

Dracula’s Castle

Weather: bright and sunny

We awoke for the seventh day in Désag Villa Pension near Zeteváralja, Romania. The usually reliable Common Redstart was not singing this morning from its favourite perch at the top of a nearby fir tree.  This was our last day here so, after a typically excellent breakfast served by Erica, we packed and set off at 08:15 with our guide Vlado.

Of necessity, the main road follows the wide flood plain of the Târnava Mare river with tree covered slopes on either side of the valley.  After about 5 minutes near the town of Zetea, we stopped to view 3 Red-footed Falcons.  In the town, as is traditional in this region, the houses often have large, beautifully carved entrance gates with separate pedestrian and vehicle entrances.  And the residents obviously respect their town because there was no litter.

We bought some expensive petrol at 9.6 Lei (£1.80) per litre and then made a brief stop in the town of Odorheiu Secuiesc at a supermarket to buy food for snack lunches for today and tomorrow.

At 10:30 we arrived at the ancient town of Sighişoara, built with defensive walls on a hill top. Two Woodpeckers were calling nearby and perhaps we were disappointed that they were “only” Great-spotted.  We walked up the steep path to the beautiful higher town which has remained largely unchanged for hundreds of years. There we found Eurasian Nuthatch and Marsh Tit plus an impressive view over the sprawling lower town beside the river.  Although we were already in the higher town, there was a long steep enclosed straight staircase of 156 oak steps to the highest point, but no elevator for the overweight American visitors. An Icterine Warbler was calling and then seen plus another Eurasian Nuthatch.  Having descended the long staircase, we saw the house beside the town’s square and cathedral where the real Vlad Dracula had lived from 1431 to 1435.

We left Sighişoara at 12:00 noon for a two hour drive south to the colloquially named Stony Valley.  The flood plain contained some unwelcome signs of intensive agriculture but the hill sides were either natural woodland or moorland.  We passed through the town of Media with its large rail station and trolley buses (electrically powered buses connected by sprung rods to overhead wires – we had them in London until 1962).  Then Vlad heard an Ortolan Bunting calling, so we stopped to view it and also found a Red-backed Shrike, Common Cuckoo and heard a Golden Oriole.

Our picnic lunch stop was on a farm track beside a wood.  Blackcaps were singing and there were calls from a possible Middle-spotted Woodpecker.  The woods contained Comma Butterflies and large Roman Snails.

We finished lunch at 2:30 p.m. and drove into much more hilly terrain near the town of Aiud then stopped to view a soaring Golden Eagle, Alpine Swifts and White Storks.  We then arrived at Cheile Vălişoarei  gorge for Eurasian Crag Martins and Barn Swallows.  Having left the gorge at 5:00 p.m, we soon arrived at the Pensiunea Perla Transilivaniei, the hotel where we would stay for two nights near the town of Moldoveneşti.  The pension was situated on high ground with distant views of wooded hillsides and arable plus pastoral farming shown by some distant farmed Water Buffalo. As we all unpacked our bags and took much-needed showers, Vlado called us to show us an Aesculapian Snake that he had found lurking under some building materials in the hotel grounds.

Dinner was served at 7:30 p.m. and we headed for bed at 9 p.m. after a long day.

19 May – John Garbutt and Carol Elliott

Székelykő Mountains

Weather: Bright and sunny all day

We awoke in the Pensiunea Perla Transilivaniei to a warm and sunny day.  Breakfast at 07:30 caused the usual Romanian queue to use the toaster. A Black Redstart was sitting on an adjacent building where it had a nest.

We left at 08:15, driving through the picturesque small town of Rimetea with its numerous Common House Martins and monotonous, out-of-time church bells that were summoning the faithful to the Sunday worship of their god.  We stopped on the side of a steep sided, tree lined valley above the town, where we saw a Common Whitethroat and heard Woodlark. Our guide “Vlad the impala” ran ahead up the steep hill, but we eventually caught up with him and located Sombre Tits, many Yellowhammers and Red-backed Shrikes, then a distant but very recognisable view of a Rock Bunting, a calling European Green Woodpecker and the surprisingly loud croaking of Marsh Frogs, considering how far below us they were.  With the naked eye, we could see a pair of Golden Eagles that was nesting on an inaccessible cliff face – one bird was on the nest, possibly sitting on eggs or young, while its partner sat nearby. A pair of Sombre Tits seemed to be nesting in a nearby bushy tree.

Vlado has the happy knack of finding reptiles.  This time he found the most beautiful Slow Worm that any of us had seen showing rows of large sky-blue spots along its body.

We were surprised that four hours had passed since we left the Pension, but were now heading again to the Stony Gorge that we visited yesterday.  Once again, we found Eurasian Crag Martins, Red-rumped Swallows, Common Kestrel, Common Buzzards, nesting Northern Ravens, and several butterfly species.  After 30 minutes, we left at 12:45 for a picnic lunch back in the town of Rimetea. Because it was Sunday, the shops were closed except for one that was serving tasty hot doughnuts with cheese.  Across the road, semi-detached with the house of god, some of the Common House Martins had built their nests, although some had been usurped by House Sparrows. While eating lunch in the centre of the town, we could still see the distant Golden Eagles’ nest through our binoculars.

At 1:30 p.m. we set off and passed through the unfortunately named town of Turda towards Cheile Turzii (Turzii gorge) that was extremely busy on a warm sunny Sunday.  Starting in woodland, we were hoping that the baby bird that we could hear calling was a Grey-headed Woodpecker but eventually found a juvenile European Green Woodpecker.  We then walked along the canyon’s narrow track beside the fast flowing Hășdate River, constrained by vertical Jurassic limestone cliff faces.  Here we found Eurasian Crag Martins, Alpine Swifts, Great Tits, Eurasian Wrens and Grey Wagtails.  The track was still very busy so we headed back to our vehicle, passing the baby European Green Woodpecker that was still begging for food. Vlado found another Aesculapian Snake, this one slithering over the path in front of us. 

We crossed the Râul Arieș river and arrived back at the Pension at 5.30 p.m. followed by a beer at 5:31 p.m.!  Eventually, the rest of the party arrived, Messer’s Grant and Piotrowski continued their 50 years of friendly banter, the various butterfly species were identified and the beautiful Slow Worm was confirmed to be an Eastern Slow Worm.  An absolutely wonderful meal was served at 7:30 p.m. to the eight guests, 50% of whom were vegetarians!

The elusive Sombre Tit at Rimetea - Paddy Shaw

20 May – Martine Huit

Beech Forests and White-backed Woodpecker

Weather: Dull with some rain, followed by a tremendous storm late afternoon

Those who made the early-morning stroll around the grounds of Pensiunea Perla Transilvanie were rewarded with exceptional views of Hawfinch.  Other birds included Linnet, Red-backed Shrike, Cuckoo, Whitethroat and Nightingale. The sound of cattle lowing, cow bells and the calls from cattle hand and his dog rose up from the valley. On closer inspection, the cattle were actually a domestic heard of Indian Water Buffalo! 

After another more than ample breakfast, we set off on a transit day towards the Bucegi Mountains to the Hotel Marami in Sinaia.  We stopped briefly to buy provisions for lunch before continuing the journey through hamlets, villages and towns. Steepled and cupola domed churches were present in each inhabited area that we drove through.

In the rural areas, most properties were single storey with a small plot of land in which vegetables and vines were grown. A few houses were painted a lurid purple, yellow or green! Others were painted in more subtle shades with small windows, some with external shutters and red-tiled or tin roofs. Side roads were unmade and no doubt extremely muddy in wet weather. 

The A3 road took us in the direction of Basov.  There were U-shaped valleys with views of sandy escarpments, marshy areas, green fields and meadows stretching to the hills beyond. Shortly after a close sighting of a Lesser Spotted Eagle, we made a short stop by a fishing lake. Marsh Frogs were croaking while we spotted about 20 Great Crested Grebes (including a displaying pair), Little Egret, Black and Whiskered Terns, Nigh Heron and Black-winged Stilt. 

There were several Hop Fields along our route, many flocks of sheep being herded through different pastures and simple farm tools used to till the soil.  Many villages had fortified churches and there were old ruins and hilltop castles, the largest being Rupea. We stopped for a short coffee break at the Dumbrava Hotel where we saw four Lesser Spotted Eagles and hundreds of House Martins were watched as they swooped in and out of their nests on the front of the building. As we drove on, a flock of White Storks flew overhead and the snowy peaks of the Central Carpathian Mountains gradually became a familiar part of our view.

We ascended and descended winding roads with hairpin bends. For part of the journey, tumbling rivers and glorious deciduous forests, predominately beech trees were to be seen.  From the vehicle we watched Common Buzzards displaying and we passed a very large rookery.

We stopped for a picnic lunch in a roadside field that hosted molehills in abundance. We could hear Garden Warblers singing and noted Chaffinch, Blackcap, Nuthatch and Great Spotted Woodpecker. Valdo found a female Sand Lizard and an Eastern Green Lizard but, unfortunately, we were less successful with the Great Grey Shrike that Vlado had seen the previous week. 

On reaching the Hotel Mirami, we quickly dropped off our bags before heading up the mountain road to a spot where Vlado had previously seen a pair of White-backed Woodpecker tending young in their nesting chamber. We were rewarded with some amazing views of both the male and female taking food to their noisy chicks. We stopped further up the mountain where we had really close views of a Firecrest and heard a Ring Ouzel singing.  Two very confiding Red Foxes crossed our path on the way back down. 

We headed back to our hotel in torrential rain and found the staff battening down the hatches.  They said that a huge storm was approaching and the last one had caused tremendous damage to people’s cars.  As the storm broke over the mountains, we took our evening meal, completed the log in enjoyable company over a beer.

White-backed Woodpecker - John Garbutt

21 May – Mervyn Jones

Shivering on the mountain tops

Weather: misty start, cold with heavy rain and hail showers

We awoke after a fitful night in the leafy and pleasant resort town of Sinaia, with (feral, presumably?) dogs in packs barking, raiding nearby bins and generally being noisy.  A misty start but a better forecast than had been expected yesterday and so we headed for the ski-lift at the upper end of town to get up on to the mountain tops towering above Sinaia.

Having stepped into a large cable car reminiscent of many a lively action movie, we waited for the off, and I sought something to hold on to in the absence of a waist-high rail nearby. Yikes! I reached up to grip a handle that looked reassuring like one I’d held on to on many a London tube train, and promptly yanked the emergency stop. Fortunately, we had not yet left the station. Somewhat chastened, and with the word ‘why?’ ringing in my ear from a distinctly unimpressed (angry) Romanian staff member, I found something less hazardous to hold on to, and off we set. Stunning views all the way up.

Bands of cloud were drifting through on a stiff - and very chilly - wind as we stepped on to the mountain top. The views were breath-taking of the alpine scenery, and the town of Sinaia, below, and across the rolling peaks around us where large snowdrifts were still thawing. Northern Wheatear and Water Pipit were soon seen and, before too long, Vlado had found our key target, Caucasian Shore Lark (race penicillata) that I - and I think most of us - had never seen before. What a stunning bird. 

Sitting on the mountainside in the lee of the wind and well wrapped-up, we soaked up the scenery and watched Ravens wheeling overhead and tumbling down, and a Kestrel put in an appearance too. Dark clouds and a biting wind started rolling-in and, as hailstones began rattling on and around us, we bowed to the inevitable and made for the cable car back down. We stepped off at the halfway point to begin walking down and, in much calmer conditions and with the sun now shining, we soon picked up a couple of Ring Ouzels and the almost inevitable Back Redstart. We continued down to the White-backed Woodpecker nesting site we had spent time at yesterday afternoon, and were all again rewarded with super views of both the male and female bird shuttling to and fro to the nest hole with larva and grubs for the young.

We then drove down to and beyond Sinaia and through delightful mountain scenery and dense forest to a possible site for Ural Owl. No such luck, alas, but, with thunder rattling in the hills around, we saw a Black Woodpecker. Heading back to our hotel, Martine shouted out ‘stop’ and there, looking down at us in our minibus from a telegraph pole, was a Tawny Owl in broad daylight. Not quite a Ural Owl, but a lovely way to end a birding day.

22 May – Paddy Shaw

Bucegi Mountains and then Homewood Bound

Weather: bright, sunny and hot

As we were away for more days than we had blog contributors, I got the dubious honour of starting and ending the contributions. 

This had been a trip of the right length – so often, just as you get into the groove, it’s all over. Non-stop birding for 17 days had been interesting, as there seems to be a bio-rhythm to it. Some days, sharp as a blade, onto everything immediately; others blunt as a rock. Can’t find the bird, can’t remember familiar calls/songs, looking the wrong way, etc.

But here we were at the end of it all. The accommodation and welcome had been universally fabulous, the range of environments spectacular and the birds and birding absolutely top-drawer.

We were now in the Hotel Marami in Sinaia, doing the highlands thing, up to around 2000m in the Carpathians. An area of clean air, spruce and beechwood forest, mountain meadows full of wild flowers and high thin grasslands, above the tree line and the last of the winter’s snow melting.

Having packed, settled the bar bills (around £1 a beer throughout the trip) and made the most of the breakfast table, we set off for Bucegi Mountain National Park, in cool, fine weather.

The road snaked ever upwards, tacking like a shearwater up the slopes, through beech, then spruce and finally into high grasslands.

We stopped at various spots, taking in the Spring, mountain-style, with singing Ring Ouzels (a much-reduced, fairly harsh-voiced version compared with what I’d heard before), plunge-diving Ravens and the fantastic displays of Tree Pipit and Northern Wheatear – the latter being  something I’d never seen, with landing birds tail-fanning, revealing what looked like two white eyes as they paraded on a rock-top stage. There were Skylarks up here too – truly tough little cookies.

Eventually, we parked up and walked the necessary meterage to get us to about 2000m altitude, on a track that was eventually cut by snow, and with a rather large set of bear prints coming down a slope – but not going up again, unless he was being very careful about his movements.

And it was here that we got what you have to come to such places for – display flights of not just Water Pipit, but also Shore Lark! It did occur to me that perhaps we’re not the best at naming birds…..

These were different to those we rush off for on the Suffolk coast – perhaps whiter on the throat, pale greyish on the backs and with distinctly rusty red/brown napes, but still with the lemony face colour, rather than the white of the penicillata race.

So that was it for the mountains.  Quick supermarkets stop in Sinaia before 90 minutes or so of travel, through lowering altitudes and increasing temperature and traffic.

We made a stop for lunch in Bloiestiweste, a strangely-scented village just off the main road where Vlado had located Syrian Woodpecker a week previously. There was some mutterings about previous Syrians having been ‘supressed’ (we’d had about three previously) and many on board hadn’t seen one yet. Fortunately, a bird responded well by tree-flitting for Vlado and myself. I stayed ‘guarding’ it while Vlado mustered the troops. Of course, off it went, over the road and behind a building, but fortunately decided the best option to get rid of these people was to perch up on a wire and gets it over with.

Onwards we went, on a last-minute woodpecker hunt, to a beech wood about 30 minutes from Bucharest – a good spot for Middle Spotted Woodpecker, known to Minko and Vlado.

Not only did we get the birds fairly quickly, but discovered the nest hole, and watched as discreetly as we could until the parents’ calls indicated we’d been spotted (as well as the birds!) and a retreat was called for.

One last stop was made at nearby Lake Snagov. The road ahead was taped off with unmarked (obviously) police cars, so we assumed something unpleasant had taken place. Being sensitive to this kind of thing, we retreated about 20 yards and carried on birding.

The final site scans were more productive for dragonflies, with Green-eyed Hawkers, Lesser Emperor and Emperors, along with some basking European Pond Terrapins.

A final flutey offering from a Golden Oriole, and we were back into the bus for the final run to the airport, during which time Steve revealed the results of the ‘Top 10 Birds’ vote.

Perhaps predictably, the Wallcreeper won comfortably.