Romania: Wolves howling, bears frolocking and wild boars munching

On day 5 the team undertook habitat surveys of the future bison enclosure. With the animals due to arrive in a month and many transects remaining to be done, the clock is ticking.

Starting from the hide at Bunea, we scrambled down the precipitous forested hillsides overlooking Lake Pecineagu, wondering whether the bulky animals would fare any better on this terrain.

Oliviu, a botanist with FCC, picked out the locations of two new transects, which were staked out. With the help of visual keys, we were able to identify almost all the vegetation present, clarifying the remainder with Oliviu’s help, and reference to field guides.

Bison reintroductions are still experimental, so surveys like these are vital to understanding the large herbivores’ impact on their new habitats.

Days 6 and 7 were spent at the hides: Bunea, and the higher Comisu, with groups swapping between the two on the second day.

Both teams were lucky enough to observe bears and boar. Thanks to clear skies and the light of a full moon, we were able to watch late into the night, and record the movements of individual animals. At one point a bear and a boar were seen feeding just 5 metres from each other, at another, two bears fed simultaneously.

That night, the valley echoed with the booming grunts of red deer, with at least three audible from Bunea. The rut is just now beginning and will continue until mid-October.

Up at Comisu, the only artificial light visible, beyond those on Pecineagu Dam and the occasional passing aircraft, was a candle in the window of Bunea hide below. While admiring the night sky, we heard the distant howling of wolves on the other side of the lake.

Over the two days we also caught a rare glimpse of, and heard, a three-toad woodpecker, saw sparrowhawks dive-bombing jays, which were feeding at the hide, heard a ural owl, and found our largest sample of bear hair yet.

This brings our inaugural expedition to ths beautiful part of the world to an end. A big thank you to our citizen scientists for your energy and enthusiasm, and for making a great contribution to the conservation of this beautiful and important area. Thank you also to our partners at FCC. We are glad and proud to be supporting your efforts in conservation, which are second to none in Europe, and be a small cog in your big operation.

We’re already looking forward to next year!

Romania: Bear visits, lynx photos, fire toads and hummingbird moths

On day 3 we split into three teams to set and check camera traps for lynx, in the vicinity of neighbouring villages. FCC aim to install 64 camera trap stations by the beginning of October, so we are here at the perfect time to help them out.

Team 1 followed a long and winding logging road past signs of deer – tracks and stripped saplings, whose bark is rich in the minerals they need to regrow their antlers. After hopping dead trees and scrambling uphill, we were able to see out across the Dragoslovene Valley to and Mount Tamasel and Draxin, with clearings dotted in amongst the forest.

Approaching the target area, we heard the unmistakable noise of chainsaws and falling trees, meaning we had to carry on further to find unmarked trees, not in danger of being felled. On the way back down, we came across fire-bellied toads, in a pond formed of a wheel rut.

Team 2’s long route took them past a spot where deer had recently slept, to a lookout where they stopped to admire the sight of house martins swooping as they fed. Camera traps installed, they passed an area of cleared forest where FCC is replanting, through beautiful, mature beech forest. On the way they found bear scat and hair, including possibly from a bear cub, from a rubbing tree.

Team 3 both installed and checked camera traps, recovering over 60 photos from one. At one point they encountered multiple tracks in the mud, including of a wild cat.

We awoke on day 4 to find that the camp had been visited that night by a bear, who was attracted by the rubbish bins, and left us our freshest sample yet! When the rangers arrived, they showed us photos of a lynx sighting on the previous day’s camera traps.

Setting off, we drove through Stoinești and Cotenești, to sample future beaver habitat in two locations. The team sampling Valea lui Coman found three sites that contained the right mix of vegetation, habitat and lack of human disturbance favourable to beavers. They also came across otter tracks and markings under a bridge, as well as two species of hummingbird moth. They then made a visit to an FCC fir nursery, nestled in a forest clearing at the end of a forest track bounded up a precipitous gorge.

The team sampling Valea Badenilor found a mix of sites, including one highly suitable for beaver, where FCC are planting more willow. On the way back they made a visit to a monastery perched on a clifftop, built on the site of an ancient Dacian temple.

 

Romania: The hills are alive with the sound of life

Another group, another arrival, introductions and training day. Another night with our two ferocious guard dogs, Labuși and Lucia standing watch against bears 😉

After some some more training on day 2, including hunting for gold on our GPSs, we set out in three teams to look for signs of bears and other animals. Team one began in the orchards above the village of Podul Dâmboviței, then to the meadows and forest margins above. Team two covered mixed meadow and forest terrain. Team three’s route took them through beech forest.

Our haul across the groups were signs of the high biodiversity we have in these mountains: all sorts of signs of deer, wild boar and of course bear. Birds of all sorts flitting about, mushrooms (including parasol and chanterelle, which we enjoyed back at base), the humming of a multitude of insects and birds, the sun shining on us, with mountains high and valleys low, and a group fully engaged. These hills are indeed alive with the sound of life and the work of citizen science.

Tonight were delighted to receive a visit from Christoph and Barbara Promberger, the founders of Foundation Conservation Carpathia, whose vision is to create Europe’s largest wilderness reserve, here in the Făgăraș Mountains. It’s great to be a part of this effort.

  

Romania: Stags, wild boars, bear, lynx and beautiful views

On day 5 we undertook habitat surveys for future beaver reintroduction sites. From base, we drove through the small town of Rucăr to the first area, past some daunting boulders and other extreme terrain.

After assessing areas at this first site, as well as finding bear prints at a ford and catching sight of a nutcracker – a bird found only in higher-altitude forested areas – we travelled to the second site. The drive took us up through a narrow and beautiful densely-forested valley, along a former logging road, now a hiking trail.

Humid, with dense, thick vegetation and fallen trees criss-crossing the narrow gorge, the area felt like a primeval forest.  We carried out more habitat surveys, and found more sites suitable for beavers. FCC plans to reintroduce pairs at numerous different locations around the reserve, next spring. Using the results of surveys including today’s, they will soon choose those locations, and monitor the animals’ impacts with subsequent surveys.

On day 6 we set off on a two-day excursion to Bunea and Comisu hides. Set on or near the mountain tops, they provide beautiful views over the forested hills, sometimes gleaming in the sunlight, sometimes hidden in clouds and sometimes with mist swirling around the trees. FCC has set the hides up as a conservation enterprise, to generate income to help fund their work. They are also also interested in understanding the impact of hides and associated feeding regimes on the behaviour of wild animals.

After a break at Bunea, the largest and most luxurious of the hides, the group split and one team trekked up to the hides at Comisu. On the way, we were thrilled to find a clear lynx print in the mud beside the path. Comisu hides 1 and 2 are higher up, and enjoy stunning views out over the surrounding mountains, including the unmistakable ridge of Piatra Craiului. While the team at Comisu made no observations that evening, those at Bunea enjoyed the sight of a large stag, spotted by Mihai, the cook, by torchlight after nighfall.

Rising at dawn on day 7, the team at Comisu were able to observe a wild boar, feeding for an hour just a few metres from the hide, followed by a spectacular sunrise. The Bunea team were visited by the same stag, at 06:15. Immediately upon his departure fifteen minutes later, those still in bed were swiftly awakened by the shout of ‘bear!’, as a small brown bear made a brief appearance, scavenging for corn not eaten by other visitors the preceeding day.

After breakfast, the two teams swapped hides. The team at Comisu split into two groups for the descent to Bunea. One group took the longer route, which initially ascended, past a mountain refuge, to an area with panoramic views. From here we could clearly see patches of forest which had earlier been clear-cut, then replanted by FCC, who are working hard to reintroduce a greater diversity of tree species, in contrast to the ecologically poorer spruce monocultures, which predominate in areas with a history of silviculture.

That evening, the group at Comisu observed two roe deer – likely a female and her foal, while those at Bunea saw a magnificant stag, thought to be the same individual, followed by a large wild boar at 21:00.

On the morning of day 8, both teams made an early start to meet at the vehicles. We bade each other fond farewells, then set off, to the airport at Bucharest, and other destinations.

Thank you group 1 for being trailblazers! See you tomorrow group 2.

Romania: Lynx & bison work

Day 3 saw the team embark on a full day of camera trapping. After a short session at base learning how camera traps work, and viewing some images of bears, lynx and wolves taken earlier, we set out in three teams, to check on existing cameras and install new ones.

The main focus of this work is lynx. These are hard to study using other non-invasive methods as their hair rarely contains enough DNA to successfully identify individuals, and their scat is hard to find, unless tracking them in snow. In contrast, it’s possible to identify individuals based on the unique patterns of markings on their flanks, so the camera traps we’re using take colour photos (with a flash at night) and are positioned in pairs to maximise the chances of photographing both flanks of passing animals.

Our suspicions as to the rangers’ descriptions of the terrain were verified – routes included some pretty steep and challenging sections. Trails involved four of five hours walking, with breaks for views. Along the way we encountered several fresh bear scats and prints, as well as a den.

During day 4, the team was working with Oliviu, an ecologist with FCC, on the enclosures, which will house the bison, due to be translocated in October this year. We drove, then hiked to Bunea hide, then located a suitable site on the forested slopes below, which will form part of the bison enclosure.

We undertook vegetation surveys along a transect, contributing to a baseline habitat assessment prior to the bisons’ release. This will allow FCC to understand the impact of the bisons’ presence on the forest, by comparing changes in the enclosed areas with ‘exclosures’ control plots in which the bison cannot graze.

The day was cooler, with a high temperature of 18 degrees, and light rain.

Romania: Training, training, training

It is the end of day two here in the Carpathian mountains and the team have completed their main training to help scientist Ruben with his work studying bears, wolves and red deer. We ended the day listening to three different tawny owls calling around are base and looking at the stars in the clear night sky. Over the last two days we have heard about the project here to restore the ecology of the forest and to work to assess scientifically the numbers of large carnivore and their main prey that are resident in the study area.

The team have worked hard learning how to use the GPSs and radios that we use as part of our safety procedures, and have spent time looking at genetic sampling kits that they will use to collect biological samples for Ruben’s work.
The sun has shone and the weather has been warm for our first two days, with the afternoon of the second day seeing the first of many survey hikes in the hills.

Group planning with map
Team on alpine meadow

Romania: All set up at base

The expedition base is now all set up for you. We have an excellent main room for training and storing equipment and have found that eating outside has been lovely, even in the evenings. Our host at base, Aurel, is very hospitable and the rooms are clean and good for a mountain hut, although you may find them a little rustic. Showers are hot, the food is great and the wine is locally made. Ruben, our expedition scientist, arrives Sunday morning and we are looking forward to welcoming the first team later in the day. See you later.

Assistant expedition leader Robin (Johnson)
The equipment room
Expedition leader Kathy (Gill)
Expedition base

Romania: In Brasov

I  arrived in Brasov (where the HQ of our partner organisation is located) Tuesday evening with all the kit and our trusted photographer, Matthew, who will be helping document the work that we do on the group 1. We spent Wednesday with Ruben, the expedition scientist, talking through the work that we will be doing and the logistics generally.

Ruben checking out camera traps

For both groups we are going to spend our last two nights in the three wildlife watching hides in the study area; hides that use a technique of baiting to attract animals so that tourists coming to the hides are more likely to see some of the larger mammals. Our time there as citizen scientists, not tourists, will be spent documenting the animals that come near the hides as part of the work to understand the impact of these tourist ventures; ventures that make up a necessary part of wildlife conservation in many areas. By understanding the impact, there can be improvements to the feeding regimes and recommendations can be made on regulations to support good wildlife watching practices across the wild areas of Romania.

Anyway, stay tuned for more of our arrangements in a few days (including my phone number and some more details).

Romania: Inaugural expedition opener

Dear Romania expeditioners and friends

I am Kathy Gill and I will be your expedition leader for our forthcoming inaugural Romania expedition.

I have arrived from the UK at our stores in Germany to pack up kit (see photo with my dog Elgin who is staying in Germany while I’m in Romania) and to be briefed on the expedition.

Kathy Gill and Elgin

We discussed a lot of the details of the expedition today and I’m setting off to drive to Brasov, very close to the expedition base, but going via Vienna and Bratislava. In Bratislava I’m meeting with our scientist, Tomas, from a Slovakia expedition that we ran for many years up until 2017, as he some excellent books and papers on bears and lynx in central Europe – all useful background for our work in Romania. The weather is due to be very warm over the next few days across central Europe, but still don’t forget to pack warm clothes for the evenings and early mornings when it could be quite chilly (see the list in the expedition dossier).

I’m looking forward to meeting group 1 on 1 September and once I’ve reached Romania, I will send you all an update from the ground along with the best mobile number to reach me on, in case you need to get in touch before your arrival.

In the meantime, I hope you are enjoying your preparations and are getting excited. Happy and safe travels and you’ll hear from me again in a few days.

Best wishes

Kathy