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Romania Birds & Brown Bears

A 5-day, small group single-centre tour to Romania seeking birds & Brown Bears in the Carpathian Mountains

Join us for a super short break in Romania’s beautiful Carpathian Mountains, combining great birdwatching with opportunities to see and photograph Brown Bears in the wild. Enjoy exclusive access to special, purpose-built bear watching hides on this small group tour limited to just 6 participants. Excellent for birds: Lesser Spotted Eagle, Ring Ouzel, Collared Flycatcher and Wallcreeper to look for - plus up to 10 species of woodpecker. And all within a few hours drive of the Romanian capital, Bucharest.

Tour Dates

2019

Spaces
4

Leaders
Zoli Baczo

Max Group Size: 6
Duration: 5 Days

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Cost: £1295

inc return flights London Heathrow-Bucharest, nonstop with British Airways

Deposit: £300

Single Supp: £95
Land Only: £1125

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Brown Bear 1 ROM 0415 Jim Bennett

If you go down to the woods today... Don't forget to take your camera! Brown Bear photographed from our bear-watching hides in the Carpathian Mountains © Romania tour participant Jim Bennett

The Carpathian Mountains run in a huge arc, stretching 900 miles from the Czech Republic in the west, through Slovakia and the Ukraine to dominate the landscape in northwest Romania. Rising to 1800m (6000ft), the immensely scenic Harghita range lies along the eastern flank of the Carpathians and is home to more than one third of Europe’s Brown Bear population, with an estimated 5000-6000 animals within Romania.

We visit the area in late April, when the winter snows at lower elevations have melted and the region's breeding birds are busy establishing territories as the trees begin to break into leaf.

The European Brown Bear is one of the largest carnivores in the world, weighing up to 500kg (that's 79 stones in old money!) - and yet in spring is sustained by a diet of carrion, grasses, shoots and sedges. These shy mammals are most reliably encountered in April, when food is still scarce in the forest and the bears are hungry after their long hibernation. Sightings of wild animals can never be guaranteed of course, but on this short tour we stand an extremely good chance of seeing and photographing Brown Bears in the wild - indeed, a quite remarkable total of 21 different individuals was seen by our group on our last April tour here!

Restricted to a maximum of 6 participants, this exclusive short tour is designed to spend time enjoying Carpathian Brown Bears in their natural environment. Mornings will be spent exploring locally for birds - including visits to the remarkable Bicaz Gorge, the fishponds at Sanpaul and the great forests of the area; our afternoons are set aside for us to enter purpose-built bear observation hides. Tour participants are invited to spend all three afternoons in the hides, to wait for, watch, photograph and enjoy these impressive large carnivores in their natural habitat. Wild Boar, Red Fox, and Red and Roe Deer often come close - and hunting Goshawks passed right in front of the hide on both our April 2015 and 2017 tours!

The birdlife of this fascinating region is both varied and exciting. The dark pine forests and upland habitats are home to a range of 'boreal' specialties, including Ural Owl, Fieldfare, Great Grey Shrike and ten of Europe's woodpeckers. We will also spend time searching the limestone gorges of the region for another highly sought-after bird - the crimson-winged Wallcreeper.

By way of a nice contrast to the forests and mountains, we will also visit some productive local wetlands, which can be excellent during spring migration. In April, the fishponds can host Garganey, Ferruginous Duck and Pygmy Cormorant along with passage waders, gulls and terns. Marsh, Green and Wood Sandpipers, Black-winged Stilt and Little Gull were present on our last tour. Warblers will also be arriving now and in song and we have been lucky to see Citrine Wagtail here, a rare but regular migrant to Romania during the second half of April.          

Harghita is part of the historic region of central Romania known as Transylvania, renowned for the scenic beauty of its Carpathian landscape, its rich history - and bloodthirsty legends! Though we'll not see any vampires, there are still wolves in the mountains (shy and seldom seen), and we hope that you will want to join us on this varied short tour to Romania.

Limosa has been operating bird tours to Eastern Europe since 1992, including more than 30 trips to Romania in the last dozen years. Our April 2019 tour - our third in search of 'Birds & Bears' - is designed and led exclusively for Limosa by our English-speaking Romanian wildlife expert Zoli Baczó. Born and raised in Transylvania, he knows the birds and wildlife of this land of myth and legend like the back of his... very hairy hand!

Ring Ouzel f snow ROM 0415 ZB

Female Ring Ouzel in the snow - excited parties of these handsome 'Mountain Blackbirds' will be arriving in April © Zoli Baczo, Limosa Holidays

Day 1                                                                   
FLY BUCHAREST, TRAVEL NORTH TO ZETELAKA

Our April Birds & Brown Bears tour to Romania begins with British Airways morning flight from London Heathrow to Bucharest. We’ll be met on arrival in the Romanian capital by our resident guide Zoli and travel north (a journey of three to four hours) to our comfortable Carpathian hotel. We spend all four nights here, with views across a tranquil valley in the foothills of the Harghita range - and close to our bear-watching hides.

If time allows, we may pause for some birding along the way. After dinner at our hotel this evening, we have a first opportunity to sample the local Blueberry brandy... before sleeping well in readiness for tomorrow. Night Zetelaka

Day 2 - 4                           
WATCHING BIRDS & BROWN BEARS IN THE CARPATHIAN MOUNTAINS

This mountainous corner of Europe has been populated by Hungarian Székelys since the Middle Ages. Clad in dense natural forests of pine, oak and beech, the woodlands have a distinctly 'primaeval' feel that have not only given rise to this region’s characteristic architecture of decorative wooden gates and houses with pine harrows and shingle roofs, but to the stuff of supernatural legend! In the 15th Century, the Romanian ruler Vlad Drakulea was exiled in the mountains as the Transcarpathian lowlands came under Turkish control... and the bloody legend of Dracula was born. The town of Sighisoara is where Vlad Tepes (alias ‘Drakula’) was born and we may catch sight of his house in the citadel on our way to check some nearby beech woodland for woodpeckers.

Our hotel is the perfect base from which to explore the spectacular forested mountains of the lovely Harghita range. On one morning we will visit Bicaz Gorge, a canyon carved by the waters of the Bicaz River. It serves as a link between the old Romanian provinces of Moldova and Transylvania, and is designated an Important Bird Area by BirdLife International. The most beautiful and scenic of all Carpathian gorges, and well worth seeing in its own right, Bicaz's dramatic limestone cliffs also host the region’s biggest population of Wallcreepers.

In many parts of Europe, finding these unique, crimson-winged birds requires considerable walking and climbing - so it is quite a luxury here to be able to drive right into the heart of their domain! Although it can still be quite tough to find so small a bird against the immensity of the sheer limestone walls, Bicaz is a reliable spot - we've not yet missed them here. Rock Buntings also inhabit the cliffs and bluffs, and Golden Eagles can sometimes be seen soaring above.

Another morning will find us visiting nearby Sanpaul fishponds, which are located on a superb - and very picturesque - migration route. This tiny fishpond system boasts an impressive bird list of over 250 species, and we will hope to experience the excitement of spring migration. Past Limosa visits here have produced plenty of migrants, plus a few surprises - such as Lesser Spotted Eagle, Pallid Harrier, Marsh Sandpiper, Great Snipe and Red-throated Pipit, a handsome bird in spring! This compact area is a magnet for birds and we will hope for something unusual. The second half of April is a particularly good time to find Citrine Wagtail, another scarce migrant but one that is now recorded annually here as this species continues to expand its range westwards.

At lower elevations, the magnificent beech woodlands are home to the wary Hazel Grouse, Grey-headed and Black Woodpeckers, Collared Flycatcher and Hawfinch. We might also be fortunate to come across one or two of the rarer inhabitants of these forested uplands, such as White-backed Woodpecker or the big Ural Owl.

Snowline permitting, a drive up into the higher altitude pine forests should produce a new range of species. Ring Ouzel, Nutcracker, Common Crossbill, black-bellied Dipper and Crested Tit await our discovery, along with one of Europe’s most elusive woodland birds, the uncommon and undemonstrative Three-toed Woodpecker.

After enjoying full mornings birding and lunch, in the afternoons we head into the forests and position ourselves in one of our special Brown Bear watching hides. With the help of local foresters, we will select the hides where we have the best possible chance to observe these magnificent but declining creatures in the wild. The population of Brown Bears in Transylvania is currently estimated at around 5000-6000 individuals and, being here at the very best time of the year, we have a great chance to see these magnificent creatures - our April 2017 visits produced no fewer than 21 different individuals! Each hide can accommodate six people, but to make our observations more comfortable and allow everyone the best chance of photographing bears we may decide locally to split the group between two different hides.

As we wait for the bears to emerge from their daily slumbers in the forest, we will take up our station well before sunset and may well see other forest creatures such as Wild Boar, Red Deer and Roe Deer. Three further nights Zetelaka

Day 5                                                                    
ZETELAKA TO BUCHAREST

We leave the hotel after breakfast this morning and start our journey back to Bucharest - but not without enjoying some more good birding along the way. On our last tour, this day produced Wryneck, Common Redstart, Wood Warbler, Serin and nest-building Hawfinches in a nearby park, followed by Lesser Spotted Eagle, Marsh Sandpiper and Ring Ouzel at various stops.

Returning to Bucharest after lunch, we catch British Airways late afternoon flight back to London, where our Romania Birds & Brown Bears tour concludes early this evening.

Three toed Woodpecker 2 Suseni woodland ROM 0415 Jim Bennett

Three-toed Woodpecker, photographed in Romania's Carpathian Mountains - remarkably, no fewer than 10 of Europe's woodpeckers could be seen on this April tour! © tour participant Jim Bennett

What To Expect

Single-centre, small group tour to Romania’s beautiful Carpathian Mountains, combining great birdwatching with opportunities to see and photograph Brown Bears in the wild. Enjoy exclusive access to purpose-built bear watching hides on this small group tour limited to just 6 participants. Excellent for birds, with Lesser Spotted Eagle, Ring Ouzel, Collared Flycatcher and Wallcreeper to look for - plus up to 10 species of woodpecker. All within a few hours drive of the Romanian capital, Bucharest.

In mid-late April, the sunrises over Romania at about 06.30am and sets again around 8.00pm. On this short break the pace is easy but we shall naturally want to make the most of our time, remaining at the hides until near sunset to maximise our chances of seeing bear activity. As ever, birdwatching is most productive during the first few hours of daylight, so we will usually take breakfast relatively early.

Good to excellent photographic opportunities, especially from the hides. Please make sure your camera has a 'no flash' mode (or you disable it), and that the flashing red lights of autofocus can also be switched off - bears are timid creatures and although the sound of a camera is not a problem, the different lights (flash or otherwise) readily scare them away.

Spring in Romania's mountains is a relatively short season, with variable weather. April temperatures here range between 5-22C (41-72F), but due to their upland location the areas we visit are prone to colder periods. Depending on the lateness of spring, some wet weather (occasionally even snowfall) is possible, especially in the mountains, so be sure to pack some warm and waterproof clothing as well.

Birds

100-120 species

Mammals

We’ll be making a special effort to see Brown Bears on this trip, enjoying late afternoon or early evening visits to secluded, new and purpose-built bear watching and photography hides in the mountains. Note that the hides are quite small, each holding about 6 people, so for comfort and best experience we may sometimes divide up into two smaller groups stationed in different hides.

Clearly, we need to be on station before the bears appear and so generally go to the hides at around 2.00pm, leaving there again around dusk (7.00pm). These shy forest mammals typically appear during the last hour or two of daylight - but if we are lucky, they may arrive earlier!

Please do keep in mind that these are wild animals and just occasionally – in spite of our best efforts and local knowledge of the foresters who will escort us – the bears do not show. Nonetheless, we have several days at our disposal and April is a prime time for bear activity, so we do have an excellent chance of seeing and photographing these amazing wild creatures during our stay... and haven't missed them yet! 

Accommodation

4 nights accommodation at a pretty rural hotel in Zetelaka (close to Zoli's home town of Odorheiu Secuiesc), in the Carpathian Mountains. The hotel serves good food, has wonderful surroundings and all rooms en suite.

Meals

All main meals are included in the tour price, commencing with dinner on the evening of Day 1 and concluding with lunch on Day 5.

Food is good, with breakfasts and dinners taken at the hotel. Lunches will usually be picnics. To maximise our chances of seeing bears, we may remain in the hides until dusk some days, so this does of course mean that dinner may be taken relatively late (about 9.00pm).

Walking

The walking effort is easy and, with a maximum group size of just 6 participants, this is a rather relaxed tour - with time to doze in the hides while we watch and wait for the bears to appear. We follow well-established forest trails and move at a gentle pace.

Please note: In April, the higher altitudes are still 'off limits' because of winter snow and so do not form part of the itinerary on this trip.

Sturdy waterproof walking shoes or boots with stout corrugated soles for grip are advised.

Travel

We fly from London Heathrow to Bucharest, nonstop with British Airways.

Ground Transport  By minibus (4WD vehicles are available to reach some of the bear hides, if needed). The drive from Bucharest to our hotel in Zetelaka is about 180km and takes 3 to 4 hours. Once we are there, distances are relatively short so we will not have to travel far each day.

Citrine Wagtail male spring Gabor Simay

The second half of April is a good time to find the stunning Citrine Wagtail, a very scarce migrant but one that is now recorded annually in Romania - where we have been lucky © Gabor Simay

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