Story and Photographs by Haley R. Pope | TerraLens Photography, LLC
It is the largest wetland, the second largest river delta, and the best preserved in Europe, I was told. It’s an intricate pastel mosaic of winding river channels, floating reed islets, never-ending blue skies, migrant nesting birds, diminutive spotted frogs, and schools of fish, I was told. A pristine haven for wildlife lovers, birdwatchers, and fishermen and a sight to behold as the river flows through ten countries and finally joins the Black Sea. They were talking about the Danube Delta, a UNESCO world heritage site that covers parts of Romania and Ukraine.
With a rich and tumultuous history of occupations, revolutions, wars, and superstitions, gothic-era cities and fortified churches, and landscapes spanning the mist-shrouded Carpathian Mountains to the marshes of the Danube Delta, Romania is as bewitching and mysterious as its most famous, albeit fictional, native, Count Dracula.
I had spent the first three weeks in Transylvania leading a team of Habitat for Humanity volunteers on a Global Village build and exploring the beautiful countryside. Expectations ran high as my husband and I drove eight hours from Bucharest to Tulcea, a harbor town bordering the Danube Delta. It was May, the beginning of the migration period for over 300 bird species from six ecoregions (1). I cleaned my lenses and camera body and charged my batteries. Tomorrow, I would be using a Pentax K-7 camera mounted with a Sigma 70-300mm f/4-5.6 DG Macro Telephoto lens. Tomorrow, I would be ready for our trip into the delta; for the thousands of birds…
Cool mist hung in the grey morning light heavy with humidity and the scent of salt water and fish as we arrived at the dock. Our guide, Christian, and a Romanian couple from Bucharest who would join us on our day trip met us there. Christian spoke some English, however, he wasn’t fluent, so we had difficulty learning about the region’s wildlife and history. Despite the unfavorable weather and language barrier, we remained optimistic.
I was dressed in several layers of clothing topped with a rain jacket, life jacket, and hat. My camera strap crisscrossed around my torso and I held my camera tightly as we started off with a jolt in our eight-passenger flat bottom boat. The Danube River branches into three main distributaries that fan out into Romania and Ukraine: Chilia, Sulina, and Sfântul Gheorghe. Today, we would explore parts of each.
The thick green forest swallowed us whole as we wound through the enormous 1,616-square-mile maze that is the Danube; the mist settled; silence and stillness permeated all, broken only by the occasional birdcall and the low-pitched hum of our boat engine. Some river channels were no more than ten feet across. We tucked in our elbows, ducked our heads under branches, and Christian turned off the motor and raised the propellers to avoid bottoming out in the shallow water. Other channels suddenly opened up into vast freshwater lakes where floating reed beds spread out like shag carpet covering some 600 square miles (1).
Like visitors from the future, we continued our search passing abandoned markets slowly being reclaimed by the wilderness – markets that once had bustled with fishermen and fish during the communist era. Now the buildings stood deserted and forgotten, their concrete walls cracked and crumbling, their floors buckling from the coming and going of the seasons, and their roofs draped in vegetation determined to smother the past. Living fishermen stopped to glance at us as we passed their mud and reed huts built on the riverbanks. A few chickens pecked the ground. Around 12,000 people of ethnic minorities live in the delta today and work in the fishing, agricultural, and tourism industries (2).
Eventually, we emerged from the dense forest and coasted to a stop in a large lake. As expectant birdwatchers, we looked skyward and skimmed our eyes across the water seeking the thousands of fluttering wings. But the numbers weren’t there. The migration was still in its infancy, Christian explained, and the dreary weather was not helping. Nevertheless, out in the open we were finally rewarded. Instead of clouds of birds, one indistinguishable from the next, each solitary encounter put the bird on principal display.
Grey herons (Ardea cinerea) took flight, launching themselves into the air with one powerful downward stroke of their wings and glided off into the reeds. Squacco herons (Ardeola ralloides) with buff-brown tufts of neck feathers perched in the foliage and peeked at us with curious yellow eyes. Great white egrets (Ardea alba) leapt towards the sky with their snowy wings outstretched and their toes pointed, dancing above the water like ballerinas in mid-flight. Great white pelicans (Pelecanus onocrotalus) who had arrived from Africa, skimmed the water’s surface and glided on the air currents hundreds of feet above keeping a sharp eye out for fish. Great crested grebes (Podiceps cristatus) bobbed their dramatically feathered heads above the water and waded to and from nests built atop lily pads. White-tailed eagles (Haliaeetus albicilla), the Eurasian cousin to the bald eagle, perched on old-growth trees along the water’s perimeter and scanned the lake with their piercing stare, beak and talons ready for the kill.
Our tour of the Danube Delta lasted another five days during which we traveled countless miles up and down the channels and saw other birds, frogs, and the elusive raccoon dog (Nyctereutes procyonoides). But it had not been without frustrations or disappointments. We were equally satisfied and dissatisfied. The delta had been beautiful and our wildlife encounters memorable. Yet, the bird numbers had been underwhelming, while the language barrier overwhelming. Plastic trash was lodged in the reeds and engine oil coated the water’s surface. It’s filthy permanence juxtaposed with the migrant nesting birds.
Despite our time there, the Danube Delta not only remained veiled in a complicated cultural and biological history involving multiple nations, peoples, and species, but also reminded me that few places are as pristine as we imagine. Our impacts extend beyond conceptualization, tainting areas that used to be pristine – areas that are thought of as pristine – but nevertheless bear the hallmarks of encroachment, destruction, and neglect. Yes, stay hopeful. Find beauty in every landscape. Let expectations be tempered with feasibility. But don’t stay silent. Our action and advocacy has never been more important. Time is of the essence.
- UNESCO: http://www.unesco.org/new/en/natural-sciences/environment/ecological-sciences/biosphere-reserves/europe-north-america/romaniaukraine/danube-delta/
- Danube Delta Biosphere Reserve: http://www.ddbra.ro/en/danube-delta-biosphere-reserve/danube-delta/population/distribution-of-the-population-in-danube-delta-biosphere-reserve-a909
Haley Pope is a zoologist and conservationist by training with a passion for photography and writing. She uses those mediums to share her biological knowledge with others in a visual story-like format to inspire awe of our planet’s inherent beauty and encourage the responsible treatment of nature. As the president and owner of TerraLens Photography LLC, she’s focuses on wildlife and conservation photography assignments and offers photo archiving services to other organizations. Information about her services is available on her website.
She is also a trip leader for Habitat for Humanity’s Global Village program, which operates in more than 40 countries and builds houses for those in need. In the future, she hopes to lead ecological and photography focused trips.
Join Haley on a Global Village trip: http://www.habitatsforglobalvillage.wordpress.com/