Note: The itineraries for our spring and autumn cruises within the Danube Delta are different. On the May tour, we start our cruise at the Danube port of Tulcea and travel along the Sulina Channel to access the sheltered bays and lakes of the northern part of delta, where most of the delta’s breeding birds are found. In September, we embark at the port of Murighiol and travel along the St Gheorge Channel, in the southern part of the delta, out to Sacaline Bay, where the sheltered waters are a hotspot for wetland birds and passage migrants in autumn.
TO BUCHAREST & THE RIVER DANUBE
Our birdwatching tour to Romania begins with British Airways morning flight from London Heathrow to Bucharest. Afternoon arrival in the Romanian capital, where we'll be met by Zoli - our long-standing, English-speaking Romanian bird guide - and set off east (about 2 hours) across the plains towards Calarasi.
Evening arrival at our Calarasi hotel, which stands on the banks of the River Danube, looking across to the Bulgarian shore and approximately midway between Bucharest and Romania's Black Sea coast. Night Calarasi
CALARASI TO BLACK SEA LAGOONS
Calarasi is an excellent place to start our tour due to its strategic position beside the river en route to the coast. Here, the meandering Danube valley comprises a patchwork of parks, wetlands and riverine woods, where the likes of Little Bittern, Little Crake and Whiskered Tern breed. Purple Heron, Garganey and Ferruginous Duck are also about, brightly coloured Golden Orioles frequent the tall poplars and woodpeckers to be found include Black, Syrian and Grey-headed.
After crossing the winding Danube river by ferry, we’ll take the 'old road', travelling east through an attractive landscape devoted largely to vineyards. Keeping an eye open for Pallid and Alpine Swifts along the way, we may pause to admire a roadside colony of Bee-eaters and Sand Martins near the village of Ostrov, where Balkan Wall Lizards can often be seen sunning themselves. Continuing, a visit to Lake Bugeac offers chances of Ruddy Shelduck - and more!
From the lake, it’s only a short distance to Canaraua Fetei, whose forests of oak and false acacia conceal a valley of limestone cliffs. Honey Buzzard and Lesser Spotted Eagle may be seen soaring and other birds to watch for include Short-toed and Booted Eagles, Icterine Warbler and possibly Red-rumped Swallow.
After stopping to enjoy our picnic lunch beside a Romanian Orthodox monastery, we continue to our hotel at Baia, close to the coast, where we spend the next three nights. Lying to the south of the Danube Delta (midway between the ports of Constanta and Tulcea), and close to the historic ancient Greek and later Roman colonies of Histria on Romania’s Black Sea coast, Baia is well placed for easy exploration of the brackish Sinoe lagoons and coastal steppe. Night Baia
HISTRIA & WOLF PENINSULA
Histria is perhaps the richest birding location along the Black Sea Coast, with a mosaic of grazed steppe grasslands and wetlands that represent one of Romania’s last surviving examples of pristine coastal habitat. In spring and autumn, the small wetlands out on the steppe are a great place to find shorebirds, roosting pelicans and gulls, while a small row of acacia trees mixed with Russian Olives acts as a magnet to migrant passerines and is also a breeding site for Hobbies and Long-eared Owls.
After lunch back at our hotel, we visit the Wolf Peninsula - another superb spot, lying close to Histria. In the past, Wolves did roam here but today only Golden Jackals remain. In ‘wet’ years, the Wolf’s shallow and ephemeral saline lakes are noted for breeding Collared Pratincoles, Kentish Plovers and Little Terns, and especially as one of the best sites to look for the localised Paddyfield Warbler - one of a number of rare breeding species that find the westernmost limit of their range in this tucked away corner of Europe.
The Delta’s biggest breeding colony of Dalmatian Pelicans is situated at nearby Lake Sinoe and this rare and endangered species is often to be seen in the vicinity, too.
Both spring and autumn can be outstanding for migrants along the shores of the Black Sea and our accommodation at Baia is superbly placed to watch for these as they arrive off the sea. On a good day, waves of herons, ibises, pratincoles, ‘marsh terns’ and waders may be seen passing right overhead! Night Baia
VADU WETLANDS & SITORMAN
We begin our birding today by exploring the coast at Vadu, at the southern end of the Danube Delta biosphere reserve. Thanks to its location, this remarkable wetland site - with its mix of small lakes, seashore and Salicornia steppe - can provide a wonderful selection of birds. Waders, raptors and migrants are likely to be on the menu here this morning!
Having enjoyed a picnic lunch in the field, in the afternoon we visit Sitorman, a contrasting area of grazed steppe and rocky habitats that is home to several localised ‘dry country’ specialists. The star birds are Pied and Isabelline Wheatears - two more species that reach the westernmost limit of their breeding range here. As Calandra and Greater Short-toed Larks display overhead, other birds to watch for include Black-headed and Ortolan Buntings, Stone-curlew, Red-footed and Saker Falcons, Long-legged Buzzard, and Short-toed and Booted Eagles.
After another exciting day of birding, we return to our hotel for dinner and our third and final night's stay there. Night Baia
BABADAG FOREST & MACIN MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK
Leaving Baia, a short drive brings us to the extensive deciduous forests of northern Dobrogea. We will spend some time exploring the woodlands and valleys around Babadag, looking for regional specialities such as Levant Sparrowhawk, Black, Grey-headed and Middle Spotted Woodpeckers, Turtle Dove, Icterine and Wood Warblers, Red-breasted Flycatcher, Sombre Tit and Hawfinch. In spring, we might also be lucky to find Wryneck here.
After lunch at an excellent roadside restaurant, we continue north and west towards the Macin Mountains National Park. Rising to a little over 450m (1500ft), this chain of low granite hills are the oldest in Romania and rich in birds and wildlife. European Roller, Isabelline Wheatear, Tawny Pipit, Woodlark, Lesser Grey Shrike and Corn Bunting nest in the grassy foothills, while Common Rock Thrush along with Pied and Northern Wheatears occupy the higher slopes. Areas of fine earth are much burrowed into by breeding Bee-eaters, as patrolling Long-legged Buzzards and Lesser Spotted, Short-toed and Booted Eagles scan the ground below for lizards, snakes and European Sousliks.
Our destination this evening is a comfortable, newly built and privately owned village hotel in the Macin. Vineyards and orchards close to the hotel hold nesting Bee-eaters, Hoopoes, Crested Larks and Black-headed Buntings, while Long-legged Buzzards breed in an abandoned stone quarry nearby. Night Turcoaia
Days 6 - 8
EXPLORING THE DANUBE DELTA BY BOAT
We will spend a little more time this morning birding in the Macin Mountains, looking for any species we may have missed the previous day.
From Turcoaia, we then head east (about an hour) towards the River Danube and board our floating hotel boat - known locally as a ponton - to begin our discovery of the wonderful Danube Delta. The comfortable ponton will be our home for the next three nights of the holiday. [Please bear in mind that our planned itineraries for the boat are subject to possible change due to water levels and other local conditions at the time.]
Our spring and autumn cruises follow different routes, with our ports of embarkation being Tulcea (May) and Murighiol (September) - please see separate cruise itineraries below.
Whichever trip you choose, typical Delta species will soon begin to appear: chevrons of Glossy Ibises trailing across the wide sky; buff-plumed Squacco Herons standing motionless along the banks as we pass; dancing Whiskered Terns flickering over the water; and noisy ‘Eastern’ Greylag Geese with their tell-tale rosy-pink bills.
Using our floating hotel as a base, we have the remainder of day 6 plus the following two days to experience some of the best spots within the vast Danube Delta, seeing birds and places that are simply impossible to reach any other way.
The Delta extends over an immense area - more than 2000 sq. miles! Unsurprisingly, the itinerary and route we follow may vary from year to year, being dependent upon a variety of factors including the advice of our local guide on current bird activity and the whereabouts of key species at the time of our visit; changing seasonable access to the maze of waterways and channels due to weather conditions, vegetation, water levels and other local factors - plus of course the advice of our captain at the time.
Please note that there are limited opportunities to go ashore within the Delta itself - and landing isn’t always possible, even where terra firma exists - but we will endeavour to take advantage of them whenever we can. During our cruise, we will be making several excursions by smaller, faster boats to reach localities where our larger, slow-moving floating hotel cannot go.
SPRING CRUISE (MAY)
Our May visit focuses on the northern part of the Delta, accessed along the Sulina Channel. The patchwork of lakes, channels, immense reedbeds and stands of willow here provide ideal habitat for many birds. At this time of year, the breeding season for many Delta birds will be at its height.
We will aim to visit lakes where Great and Little Egrets, Purple, Grey and Squacco Herons, Black-crowned Night Heron, Spoonbill, Glossy Ibis and Great and Pygmy Cormorants are frequently seen as they move to and fro between the breeding colonies and favoured feeding grounds. The lakes also support good numbers of Red-necked Grebes, a treat to see in breeding plumage, as well as dapper Black-necked and Great Crested Grebes. We should find white-eyed Ferruginous Duck, Whiskered, Black and White-winged Terns, Common Tern and Caspian Gull, too. With luck, we will also encounter the impressive Pallas’s (or Great Black-headed) Gull; a relatively newcomer here from further east, this sought-after bird has recently started to nest in the Danube Delta.
The uncommon White-tailed Eagle regularly perches in the willows that fringe the channels and lakes, sometimes affording close views from the boat as we pass; Hobbies skim low over the reedbeds in pursuit of the Delta’s abundant dragonflies and we’ll check for a migrant Red-footed Falcon, another agile predator with a penchant for catching flying insects on the wing. Other species to watch and listen out for in the waterside willows include nesting Grey-headed and Black Woodpeckers, colourful Rollers and Golden Orioles, loud-voiced Thrush Nightingales, Common Redstart, Great Reed and Garden Warblers, Bearded Reedling and Penduline Tit.
Europe’s biggest breeding colony of Great White Pelicans - more than 12,000 pairs - is also located within the northern part of the Delta. Although the colony itself is out of bounds to visitors to ensure it remains undisturbed, the undulating flocks of pelicans that grace the Delta’s skies are a daily attraction as they move out from the breeding colony to surrounding lakes to scoop up fish with their enormous pouched bills. With them, we may find the rare Dalmatian Pelican.
In May, we aim to spend our first night aboard our floating hotel moored in the heart of the Delta, near the isolated village of Crisan. Next day, we will explore the surrounding area before returning to our ponton in the afternoon, and if time allows, moving to the lakes around Mila 23, where we’ll tie up for the second night. We may return to Tulcea by way of lakes along the Sontea Channel and Canal 36. Our third and final night aboard the floating hotel will be spent moored close to the port of Tulcea, ready to disembark after breakfast the next morning. Three nights aboard our floating hotel in the Danube Delta
AUTUMN CRUISE (SEPTEMBER)
Our September tour explores the southern part of the Delta, sailing from Murighiol (which lies about 25 miles southeast of Tulcea), along the Sfantu Gheorghe Channel towards the mouth of the delta. Next morning, we visit the sheltered waters of Sacaline Bay before going ashore to look for migrants, and the following day take in ‘classic’ birding spots such as Lake Erenciuc, the Perivolovka Channel, and Lakes Isac and Isaccel as we sail back to Murighiol. With the breeding season over, our September cruise will focus on the essence of migration and, in the southern part of the Delta, we should see large numbers of northern and eastern European birds making their way south.
Protected by a 20km long sandbar jutting into the Black Sea, the shallow waters of Sacaline Bay are accessible by small boat and hold a plethora of pelicans, herons, waders, gulls and terns in autumn. Scrubby bushes along the isolated seashore here can also harbour good numbers of passerine migrants, with an ever-changing set of species day by day. At the time of our visit in early September, Red-breasted Flycatchers, Willow, Wood and Garden Warblers, Blackcaps, Red-backed Shrikes, Robins, redstarts, thrushes and tits should all be on the move. In the skies above, raptors and storks will also be migrating south and likely species to watch for at this time include Honey Buzzard, Levant Sparrowhawk, Marsh Harrier, Hobby and Red-footed Falcon.
Alongside the migrants, we should encounter many of the special birds of the Delta region, including Red-necked Grebe, Squacco Heron, Little Bittern, Little Crake, Great White and Dalmatian Pelicans, and White-tailed Eagle. With luck, we might even come across some local rarities too - perhaps a party of Lesser Kestrels heading south, scarce passage waders such as Broad-billed and Terek Sandpipers, and Collared or Black-winged Pratincoles, or some magnificent Pallas’s Gulls loafing on the shore.
In September, we spend our final night in the Delta onboard the ponton moored at Murighiol, ready to disembark after breakfast next morning. Three nights aboard our floating hotel in the Danube Delta
DANUBE DELTA TO BUCHAREST
After breakfast onboard the ponton, we return to terra firma and reluctantly turn our backs on the Delta for the journey back to Bucharest.
Flight schedules permitting, we usually have time to make a short birding stop just before we cross the Danube River, followed by a final picnic lunch at a convenient halt along the motorway.
Our birding over, we complete the journey to Bucharest and check-in for the British Airways afternoon flight to London Heathrow, where our birding tour to Romania concludes this evening.