Black-crowned Night-Heron is one of the many waterbirds to be found on the great delta of the Danube River. Photo: Dan Brown
The remote province of Bucovina in the north of Moldavia is a land in a time warp. Far from the rush of the twenty-first century, White Storks follow black-clad nuns as they scythe hay, while Black Redstarts sing from nearby monastery rooftops. These beautiful monasteries are remarkable enough to distract the most ardent of birdwatchers from matters avian. Founded during our own Tudor period, the condition of their frescoes, covering the entire walls both inside and outside, can only be described as ‘miraculous’. We’ll combine relaxed visits to these rural monasteries with birdwatching nearby among remarkably rich forest, hay meadows and hill-village habitats. The second part of the tour involves three nights afloat on a modern houseboat in the Danube Delta, the largest wetland reserve in Europe, followed by an exploration of the western edge of the Asian Steppe.
This unique tour combines some of Europe’s more elusive birds – Pygmy Cormorant, Pallid Harrier, Dalmatian Pelican, Pied Wheatear, Sombre Tit, and a great deal more – with the mediaeval landscape of one of the most attractive areas of Eastern Europe, the Carpathians and their foothills. This tour is tailor-made to appeal to a variety of interests; the villages, mountains, and hayfields of Bucovina are notably rich in flowers and butterflies, as well as rural tradition in dress, farming practice, and building. We have chosen our accommodation so that those who would prefer to study the human history of the area rather than its wildlife can do so – right outside the door of where we stay.
Day 1: The tour starts in London with a flight to Bucharest. We’ll have an early dinner in the city centre in a traditional restaurant before returning to the airport for an internal flight to Suceava. From Suceava’s airport we’ll drive directly to our accommodation where we’ll spend the next three nights in the Sucevita Valley. We’ll base ourselves in a very comfortable family-run chalet beside steep, flower-filled hay meadows on the edge of primary forest. Grey-headed and Black Woodpeckers, Red-backed Shrike, Fieldfare and Dipper are present here, and we might even see Spotted Nutcracker from our bedroom windows. Night in Sucevita.
Day 2: This morning we’ll visit one of the many forested valleys, then later in the day we’ll visit the fortified monastery in the village. As Sacheverell Sitwell, visiting in the twenties, wrote: ‘ This first view of the painted church of Sucevita is among the most impressive revelations of the whole Byzantine world’. In the cool of the late afternoon we’ll search for Red-breasted Flycatcher, various woodpeckers, and other woodland birds in the surrounding forest. Night in Sucevita.
Day 3: Pre-breakfast birding around our hotel could produce six species of tit, Hawfinch and Grey Wagtail. Later we’ll drive up to a wooded pass at 4,000ft in search of Collared Flycatcher, Crossbill, Crested Tit and maybe even Hazel Grouse and White-backed Woodpecker. A raptor viewpoint on the edge of the forest will give us a good chance - if conditions are favourable - of seeing Montagu’s Harrier, Honey Buzzard, Lesser Spotted and Booted Eagles, and Goshawk. We’ll continue to Moldovita Monastery, remarkable for its eyewitness battle scene based on the Turkish siege of Suceava Fortress. After a picnic lunch we’ll explore a second tributary valley leading from Sucevita. Night in Sucevita.
Day 4: Once we leave our rural accommodation we’ll have the option of visiting two more 16th century painted monasteries – Voronet and Humor – but en route we shall make many birding stops for a range of species from Red-footed Falcon and Lesser Spotted Eagle to Whinchat and Great Grey and Red-backed Shrikes. In the afternoon we’ll reach Neamt Monastery. Built in the 12th century, the Monastery resembles a fortress with high stonewalls and is the oldest monastery in Moldavia. The orchard nearby is a good spot for woodpeckers (Black, Green, Grey-headed, Great and Lesser Spotted and Syrian). We’ll spend the night at a charming guest house which usually has Serin and Tree Sparrow in the grounds. Night in Agapia.
Day 5: After breakfast we’ll visit the nearby Agapia Monastery. Built in the 17th century, the outer plain white-washed walls belie the splendour to be found inside. Nicolae Grigorescu, the country’s foremost painter, stayed at Agapia for two years and painted the interior frescoes, a visual feast of rich and colourful images. Later in the day we continue our journey southeast towards the Danube Delta. This is a scenic journey through the rolling mediaeval strip fields of Moldavia, possibly with roadside Short-toed and Booted Eagles, Crested Lark, Roller, Bee-eater and Golden Oriole. At Tulcea we’ll board our private houseboat in time for dinner, with an evening cruise to a convenient mooring spot. With luck we’ll see the first of the usual Delta species with flocks of Glossy Ibis and Night Herons flying to and from their roosts. Night on houseboat.
Days 6-7: Our next two days will be spent exploring the heart of the Delta. The exact locations visited will depend on the water levels at the time, but are likely to include large areas of freshwater surrounded by reed beds hosting thousands of Ferruginous Duck and hopefully White (and the occasional Dalmatian) Pelicans. Little Egrets and Whiskered Terns will be almost constant companions. Squacco, Night and Purple Herons are abundant and we’ll see the occasional Little Bittern. Marsh Harriers will be frequently sighted, while White-tailed Eagle, though less frequent, is likely. Red-necked and Black-necked Grebes should be seen, together with good numbers of waterfowl and Pygmy Cormorants. There are stands of willow and poplar above the reeds and along the banks where we can expect to see Hobby, Roller, Hoopoe, Penduline Tit, Kingfisher and much more, while any muddy edge may hold Little or Spotted Crakes.
The pleasure of relaxing under the canopy of the observation deck, sipping endless tea or coffee (or even the occasional beer or soft drink) and gliding past a succession of exciting birds, cannot be over-emphasised. Nights on the houseboat.
Day 8: We’ll drive a short distance from Tulcea to Celic Dere Monastery (a good site for Sombre Tit,and Syrian and Middle Spotted Woodpeckers) and then south to Enisala and across the Gura Dobrogea plateau looking for larks, Tawny Pipit, and Isabelline Wheatear, continuing to the gorge at Cheia Dobrogea. This is a fine area of rocky steppe adjoining oak forest. Pied and Eastern Black-eared Wheatears breed here and other species in the area could include Levant Sparrowhawk, Booted and Imperial Eagles. Little Owl and three harrier species (Hen, Pallid and Montagu’s). Overnight at Vadu at a peaceful guest house with excellent home cooking.
Day 9: A pre-breakfast visit to the oil refinery pools has, in past years, provided an assortment of rare waders (Broad-billed, Marsh, and Terek Sandpipers) plus Spotted Redshanks, Curlew Sandpipers, and Paddyfield Warblers and Bearded Tits in the reedbed. The pools at Vadu could hold Red-necked Phalarope, Temminck’s Stint and Collared Pratincole, whilst the beach (an excellent spot for a swim in the Black Sea) usually holds good numbers of Kentish Plover and Sanderling. We’ll then explore the coast around Histria and its reserve on Grindul Saele adjoining Lake Sinoie. Both species of pelican, Spoonbill, Spotted Crake, Short-toed Lark and Paddyfield Warbler are all possible here. Istria is also the oldest settlement in Romania, inhabited for 1300 years, and we shall spend some time at the ruins and excellent museum there. Night in Vadu.
Day 10: After some birdwatching at the oil refinery pools we’ll return to Bucharest and catch our flight back to London where the tour concludes.
Updated: 27 July 2015