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Romania Birds & Brown Bears

A 5-day, small group birdwatching tour to Romania, seeking birds and Brown Bears in the Carpathian Mountains

Our April birding tour to Romania focuses on the beautiful Carpathian Mountains and combines great birdwatching with excellent 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. Outstanding for birds as well as bears, this Romania birding tour regularly sees Wallcreeper, Lesser Spotted Eagle, Ring Ouzel, Collared Flycatcher and up to 10 species of woodpecker - with Shore Lark and Citrine Wagtail possible, too. All within a few hours drive of the capital, Bucharest. Join us for an exciting birdwatching holiday to Romania!

Tour Dates

2020

Spaces
5

2021

Available

Leaders
Zoli Baczo

Max Group Size: 6
Duration: 5 Days

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Cost: £1375*

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

Deposit: £300

Single Supp: £95*
Land Only: £1200

* Prices Provisional (tba)

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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 beautiful Carpathian Mountains run in a huge arc, one that stretches for 900 miles from the Czech Republic in the west, through Slovakia and Ukraine, and on to dominate the landscape of northwest Romania. Rising here to 1800m (6000ft), the wild and 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... participants on our 2019 tour saw a total of 8 bears, including a mother with 3 cubs - and we haven’t missed out on them yet!

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 Bicaz Gorge, the fishponds at Sanpaul and the great forests of the area - while afternoons are set aside for us to enter purpose-built bear observation hides.

We have the opportunity to spend up to three afternoons in the hides, to wait for, to watch and to photograph Brown Bears at close range, and to enjoy these impressive large carnivores - as well as other wildlife of the forest - at home in their natural habitat.

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.

NEW for 2020, we begin our tour with a night at Sinaia, an improvement to our itinerary which not only cuts down on travel time the first day but also affords a chance to visit the high tops next morning. We’ll get there by cable car and go in search of the localised balcanica race of Shore Lark plus Alpine Accentor, too. (Or if the weather on the day is unsuitable to visit the high tops, we’ll bird at lower elevations, looking for Ural Owl and White-backed Woodpecker.)

By way of a nice contrast to the forests and mountains, we will visit some productive local wetlands. These can be excellent during spring migration. In April, the fishponds at Sanpaul host Garganey and Ferruginous Duck along with passage waders, gulls and terns. Black-winged Stilt, Marsh Sandpiper, Little and Temminck’s Stints, and Whiskered, Black and White-winged Black Terns were among species seen here on our April 2019 visit. Warblers will also be arriving now and we have sometimes been lucky to find Citrine Wagtail, too - a rare but nowadays regular migrant to Romania during late 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! Although we'll not see any vampires, there are still wolves in these mountains (shy and seldom seen) and the wildlife here is exceptional. Recently built in traditional style, our small, rural hotel here - the Harghita Bear Lodge - has a great cook and is modern, comfortable and set in a great location.

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 2020 tour - our fourth to Romania 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 TO THE BUCEGI MOUNTAINS

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 this afternoon by our resident English-speaking guide, Zoli, and transfer north (a journey of about one and half hours) to a comfortable Carpathian hotel at Sinaia. We’ll enjoy dinner and the first night of our tour here in the Bucegi Nature Park area of the High Carpathians, before continuing further north after some exciting birding tomorrow to spend the next three nights in the Harghita Mountains. Night Sinaia

Day 2-4                
CARPATHIAN MOUNTAINS: CABLE CAR TO HIGH TOPS (BUCEGI RANGE), THEN NORTH FOR BIRDS & BEARS (HARGHITA RANGE)
Sinaia sits at an elevation of 770m (2500ft) in the Bucegi Mountains - the ‘High Carpathians’. It’s here that we start our birding this morning, taking a cable car up to explore the alpine zone at around 2000m (6500ft). At this time of the year there is still plenty of snow in the higher parts of the mountains, but the localised balcanica race of Shore Lark breeds up here in spring and Alpine Accentor is also possible.

In the event weather conditions on the day are unsuitable to visit the alpine zone, we’ll go to woodlands at lower elevations instead, checking some nesting territories for the secretive Ural Owl and rare White-backed Woodpecker. Ring Ouzels will be arriving about now and we’ll look out for them in the alpine meadows.

After lunch, we continue north towards the Harghita range of the Carpathians, where the comfortable Harghita Bear Lodge at Sub Cetate will be our base for the remainder of the tour.

Before arriving there however, we’ll pay a first visit to Sanpaul fishponds, which are located on a superb - and 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 here. Past Limosa visits have produced plenty of migrants and quite a few surprises, too - from Lesser Spotted Eagle and Pallid Harrier, to Marsh Sandpiper, Great Snipe and Red-throated Pipit, the latter a handsome bird in spring. 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 most attractive species continues to expand its range westwards into Europe. All in all, this compact area is a magnet for birds and we will hope for something unusual on the day - plus we have a second chance to visit Sanpaul later in the tour!

The Harghita is a mountainous corner of Europe that has been populated by Hungarian Székelys since the Middle Ages. Clad in dense natural forests of pine, oak and beech, the mountains 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 out some nearby beech woodland for woodpeckers.

Newly built in traditional style, Harghita Bear Lodge makes a lovely base from which to discover the forested mountains and rich and varied wildlife of the lovely Harghita range.

On one morning we will visit Bicaz Gorge, a canyon carved by the waters of the Bicaz River. Serving as a link between the old Romanian provinces of Moldova and Transylvania, the gorge has been designated an Important Bird Area by BirdLife International. The most beautiful and scenic of all the Carpathian gorges - and well worth seeing in its own right - for birdwatchers, Bicaz's dramatic limestone cliffs also host the region’s biggest population of Wallcreepers.

In many parts of Europe, getting to see these charismatic, crimson-winged cliff climbers requires considerable uphill walking - 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 and we've not missed them yet - incredibly, 6 were seen on our April 2019 tour! We’ll keep a keen eye open for Peregrine and Alpine Swift over Bicaz’s cliffs and bluffs, and Golden Eagle can sometimes be seen, too.

At lower elevations, the region’s magnificent beech woodlands are home to Black and Grey-headed 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 the shy Hazel Grouse, Ural Owl and White-backed Woodpecker.

Snowline permitting, a drive up into the higher altitude pine forests gives access to a range of different species. Nutcracker, ‘black-bellied’ Dipper, Ring Ouzel, Crested Tit and Crossbill are among those awaiting our discovery, along with one of the most elusive of all Europe’s woodland birds, the scarce and undemonstrative Three-toed Woodpecker.

After enjoying full mornings’ birding and then lunch, in the afternoons we head out into the forests and position ourselves in our modern, purpose-built Brown Bear watching hides. With the help of local foresters, we will select those hides which, at the time, offer the best possible chance of observing these magnificent creatures in the wild. The population of Brown Bears in Transylvania is currently estimated at 5000-6000 individuals and, by being here at the best time of the year, we have excellent chances of seeing them, fresh from hibernation and eager to feed.

We will take up our station well before sunset and, as we wait for the bears to emerge from their daily slumbers in the forest, we may well see other forest creatures such as Red Deer and Roe Deer, Goshawk and Crested Tit. Three nights at Harghita Bear Lodge, Sub Cetate

Day 5                                
SUB CETATE TO SANPAUL & BUCHAREST
We leave our hotel after breakfast this morning and travel back to Bucharest - but not without stopping to enjoy some more good birding along the way, including another opportunity to drop by at Sanpaul fishponds. On our April 2019 tour, highlights this day included Glossy Ibis, Little Bittern, Black-crowned Night Heron, Garganey, Mediterranean Gull, Wryneck and Ring Ouzel.

Returning to Bucharest after lunch, we check-in for the British Airways early evening flight back to London Heathrow, where our Romania ‘Birds & Brown Bears’ tour concludes.

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

Our April bird tour to Romania focuses on the beautiful Carpathian Mountains and combines great birdwatching with excellent opportunities to see and photograph Brown Bears in the wild. Enjoy exclusive access to modern, purpose-built bear watching hides on this small group tour, limited to just 6 participants. Outstanding for birds as well as bears, our Romania birding tours regularly see Wallcreeper, Lesser Spotted Eagle, Ring Ouzel, Collared Flycatcher and up to 10 species of woodpecker - with Shore Lark and Citrine Wagtail possible, too. And all within a few hours drive of the 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 photo 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. In April, temperatures here typically 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 at higher elevations.

Provided conditions are suitable on the day, we will take the cable car from Sinaia up to the alpine zone at around 2000m (6500ft]. We will hope for a good, clear day, but even so it is likely to be cold with at least some snow still lying at the top. Come prepared with layers of warm, wind and waterproof clothing, including a warm hat and gloves.

Birds

100-130 species

Mammals

We will be making a special effort to observe Brown Bears on this tour, enjoying late afternoon visits to modern, purpose-built bear watching and photography hides in the Harghita mountains.

Clearly, we need to be on station before the bears appear, so we generally go to the hides at around 4.00pm, and leave them 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!

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

Accommodation

4 nights accommodation in Romania, with our first night at a hotel in Sinaia, followed by 3 nights at the Harghita Bear Lodge, in the village of Sub Cetate.

Recently built in traditional style, the lodge is small but modern, comfortable and nicely appointed, with a great cook and set amidst wonderful surroundings. It was rated ‘Excellent’ by participants on our April 2019 tour. All rooms are en suite.

Meals

All main meals are included in the tour price, commencing with dinner at our hotel on the evening of Day 1 and concluding with lunch as we travel back to Bucharest on Day 5.

Food is good, with breakfasts and dinners taken at the hotel. The local Blueberry brandy is well worth trying! Lunches will usually be picnics on this tour.

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 party 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 tracks and forest trails and move at a gentle pace.

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 available to reach some of the bear hides, if needed).

The drive from Bucharest to our first hotel at Sinaia takes 1.5 hours, and the journey from Sinaia to Sub Cetate village takes around 3 hours - but once we are there, distances are relatively short so we will not have to travel far each day. We’ll break our return journey to Bucharest on Day 5 with stops to enjoy some more good birding along the way.

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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1 LS, Romania ‘Birds &?Bears’ tour Zoli was great to have as a tour guide, driver and birder. His English is better than mine... The lodge was a lovely place to spend a bird tour at, the veg. food was excellent and interesting. The chef served some great food. [empty string]
2 JL, Romania ‘Birds &?Bears’ tour (Zoli was) Good company, fluent in English, great fun!... Modern purpose built lodge - very well appointed & great location... Great cook, great choice. [empty string]
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