From its source in the Black Forest, the mighty River Danube winds its way down and across Central and Eastern Europe to finally disperse into the Black Sea just south of the Romanian and Ukrainian border. The Danube’s near 1800 mile (2860 km) course takes it through, or forming the border with, no less than ten countries (Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania and Ukraine) and four capital cities (Vienna, Bratislava, Belgrade and Budapest) making it the most 'international river' in the world.
At the Romanian town of Tulcea the main river divides into three primary branches, named after their respective Black Sea ports - the 'Bratul Chilia', 'Bratul Sulina' and 'Bratul Sfantu Gheorghe’. It’s the northern Chilia branch that effectively serves as the border between Romania and the Ukraine. The area within and around these arms of the river forms the Danube Delta; a constantly evolving 1600 square mile (4150 km2) vast wetland, and complex network of inland lakes, shallow lagoons and interconnecting channels. The total environmental area is the second largest delta in Europe after the Volga, and one of the largest reedbed habitats in the world.
It’s the murky brown, heavily silt-laden waters of the river that filter through the delta and into the Black Sea, depositing an estimated 65 million tons of sediment every year, that creates the ever changing and growing diverse habitat. The inner core known as the Danube Delta Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO World Natural Heritage site, has the third largest biodiversity on the planet with over 5,500 flora and fauna species, exceeded only by the Great Barrier Reef in Australia and the Galapagos Archipelago in Ecuador.
In addition to the lakes and lagoons, which are carpeted with water lilies in the summer, there are marshlands, extensive reedbeds, floating islets of decaying reeds, tree-fringed islands, sandbars and seasonally flooded plains. The area is of massive importance as a refuge and breeding site for a number of rare or imperiled waterbirds, such as the Dalmatian Pelican, Great White Pelican, Pygmy Cormorant and Collared Pratincole.
Dalmatian Pelican ~ Lake Merheiu Mic
We travelled to the Danube Delta in early May 2016 as part of a small photography group, staying at the Ultima Frontiera
private nature reserve near Periprava on the Chilia arm, which is a two-hour boat ride from Tulcea. The reserve is owned and operated by the Italian company SKUA Nature
who have turned what was a former fish farm into a unique centre dedicated to nature photography. The reserve has its own comfortable lodge, which limits occupancy such that a group of twelve have sole use of all the facilities within the 1000 hectares complex. As well as two excellent resident english-speaking guides, the lodge has its own off-road vehicles to transport you to any of the twenty-plus specially constructed photography hides. Alternatively, each room has use of an electric buggy so that you can get to certain hides yourself, or simply to give you the freedom to explore a large area of the reserve on your own. The hides, which take between two and four photographers, are strategically placed and generally dedicated to an individual species or, as with the lagoon hide, a particular type of species. Every period throughout the March to October season provides different opportunities for around eighty species, so whatever time of the season you visit there will always be a good variety of subjects to try to photograph.
The hides are really well thought out and, subject to the weather and the usual inconsistencies when trying to photograph wildlife, provide you with a good opportunity of getting some decent shots of certain species that you would stand very little chance of photographing otherwise. However, there are certainly no guarantees as we found during our visit as one day a hide could be very productive and then the next day very poor.
Everybody will have their target species, but the two key subjects have to be Golden Jackal and White-tailed Eagles. Ultima Frontiera is renowned as being the best site in Europe for observing and photographing the Golden Jackal (Canis aureus
). The reserve also regularly attracts a couple of pairs of White-tailed Eagles and, if you’re lucky, you may even see the two species interacting when competing for food.
Golden Jackal ~ Ultima Frontiera
White-tailed Eagle ~ Ultima Frontiera
Unfortunately the weather was pretty awful for three of the six days we were there, but the hides provided a degree of refuge from the wind and rain so that, despite the low light, photography could still be enjoyed.
We also ventured outside the reserve on two occasions.
The first was an excursion upstream to the Chilia Veche inner lake system in a small specially converted photography boat suitable for just three photographers. The trip took us a short way up the Chilia arm of the Danube and then onto a long winding, scenic channel - the Sulimanca Canalul, which connected the river to the lakes. Although we couldn’t photograph them within the narrow confines of the channel, we came across many Great White Egrets, which would take off in threes and fours in front of the boat making it a very enjoyable ride through.
Sulimanca Canalul ~ access to the inner lakes system
You exit the channel into Lake Merheiu Mic, where we encountered a couple of Dalmatian Pelicans and a few Black and Whiskered Terns. This lake connects into Lake Merhei, then Lake Matita and finally into Lake Lungu. On the day we were there the photography was very challenging due to overcast skies and a very strong breeze that made the water pretty choppy and, consequently, made it very difficult to properly frame and focus as the boat was continually bobbing up and down. Nonetheless, we did manage to both see and photograph, albeit many of the photos were more akin to ‘record shots’, a fair number of other species, including Great White Pelican, Pygmy Cormorant, Great Crested Grebe, Red-necked Grebe, Black-necked Grebe, Caspian Gull, and Common Tern. And, on return, through another connecting channel, a couple of Squacco Herons. On the way back to the river, just before exiting Lake Merhei, we were very fortunate as we found a large flock of Great White Pelicans that were busily feeding. Our guide estimated that there were at least 150 birds in the flock, the biggest he’d encountered since the beginning of that season.
Great White Pelicans ~ Lake Merhei
The second trip was an afternoon overland drive from the lodge down to the Black Sea where we caught a boat from the dock at Sulina that took us out and across Musura Bay to a small island where there was a gull colony. Most were Caspian Gulls, but in amongst them, although unfortunately right at the back of the island, were twenty or thirty Pallas's Gull. Whilst the Pallas’s Gull is relatively common in certain areas of Russia and Asia, it’s a species that is difficult to see in Europe, with this small island being the only site that they regularly visit in the breeding season.
Pallas's Gull ~ Musura Bay, Black Sea
Back at the reserve, and in addition to all the previously noted bird species, we also saw Greylag Goose, Shelduck, Garganey, Ferruginous Duck, Common Pochard, Red-crested Pochard, Great Cormorant, Black-crowned Night Heron, Purple Heron, Eurasian Spoonbill, Glossy Ibis, Black-winged Stilt, White Stork, Western Marsh Harrier, Eurasian Hobby, Little Owl, European Cuckoo, Hoopoe, European Bee-eater, Turtle Dove, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Black Woodpecker, Grey-headed Woodpecker, Yellow Wagtail, Common Redstart, Whinchat, Penduline Tit, Spotted Flycatcher, Common Crow, Hooded Crow, Magpie and Jackdaw, and probably a few I’ve forgotten.
These weren’t necessarily close or photographable, but in total we saw 46 different bird species, which is a pretty impressive list for a European destination.
In order to provide a rough idea of the geography, the following is a basic map of the northern region of the delta showing the general area in and around the 'Bratul Chilia' and 'Bratul Sulina' arms of the river, together with the approximate location of Ultima Frontiera, the inner lakes and Musura Bay :-