The celebrated myth of Dracula is just one aspect of Transylvania, whose near 40,000 square miles take in alpine meadows and peaks, caves and dense forests sheltering brown bears and grey wolves, and lowland valleys where wisent cool off in the rivers. Thanks to its antiquated agriculture and extensive areas of untouched native forest and wetland, Romania is uniquely important for wildlife in Europe.
While outside its borders the image of the country is of industrial pollution, the reality is that its landscapes are considerably less polluted than much of present-day Western Europe. As you climb up into the hills, you enter a world where pesticides and fertilizers have never been used and where meadows are full of an amazing variety of birds and wild flowers – a landscape representative of Europe two or three centuries ago.
When one has a significant other whose interest in birding is limited to separating tits on the garden birdfeeder, your choice in holiday location has to strike a well-judged compromise. I knew that she would be sold on Transylvania’s timeless landscape and quirky Saxon towns and villages virtually unchanged since the Middle Ages, as well as the fact that some close friends own a house in a remote valley in the foothills of the eastern Carpathians. The added mention of a hammock firmly sealed the deal. I was aware that the house was in a rural location and had indeed seen photos of it, but nothing quite prepared me for the situation or its immediate surroundings. The hamlet of Ceie is mostly strung out along a single road that would give even the most hardened of suspensions a severe test. Our destination was a two-mile drive down this track off the main road and the very last house before countryside that demanded nothing short of a four by four.
On arrival we were promptly serenaded by a family of Buzzards. As we live in South Wales, I immediately felt at home. No sooner had I dumped our bags and parked my beloved in the hammock than I was grabbing my bins and heading straight down the track and into a world I had only imagined. The valley continued ahead for about a kilometre and then curved round to the right. Trees of varying ages dotted the landscape; a majority of scrub and tall grasses. Being midsummer, the hot air was full of the sound of crickets and butterflies teemed in every direction.
I stopped and soaked it all in. The sheer diversity and myriad of wild flowers was quite unlike anything I had seen in Europe. The buzzing intensity of the insects and the kaleidoscopic fluttering of the butterflies were mesmerising. In fact I was so caught up in it all, that it took the harsh ‘chack, chack’ call of a Red-backed Shrike to snap me out of it. I had waited a long time to see this bird, but I knew precisely what it sounded like. Perched upon the top of a gorse bush it was obviously alarmed and understandably so. A short distance away was a pair of juveniles feeding on an impaled lizard. I savoured the moment, expecting it not to last. I needn’t have. The truth is that the Romanian countryside is awash with Red-backed Shrikes, with a breeding population of roughly three million pairs. So much so, that by the end of the fortnight I was tired of the sight of them.
Once I had reached the end of the valley and followed the track round to the right, I was faced by an even larger valley with extensive deciduous forests on other side. Whereas oak rules the roost in most of Britain, beech is king here. I came to a junction of numerous tracks, but no obvious footpath. My friend had advised on various local walks, but no clear cut details of routes. Now I knew why. Footpaths don’t exist in Romania. It is near impossible to distinguish one piece of land from another and to comprehend who owns what. Essentially, you walk where you like, until someone or a large savage-looking dog (of which there are many) takes offence. This took some getting used to, but once you had, the feeling was liberating. I decided to walk to the end of the valley plain and then head back via the forest. If all went well, I would see plenty of birds, whilst avoiding becoming vittles for any local bears.
I had only gone a few feet when a Short-toed Lark launched itself into the air with its undulating song-flight. This species is scarce to eastern areas, so I was lucky to see it. I was told by a local birder (of which there are very few) that the area also held Calandra Lark, though it was certainly considered rare. Continuing further ahead I heard the sound I had been eagerly expecting – a trisyllabic hollow, muffled “oop-oop-oop”. The Hoopoe is common throughout Romania, occupying a place in rural folklore owing to its tame habits and use of nest sites in village houses. By now it was midday and raptors were on the agenda. I selected a suitably-shady spot and sat down to scan the sky. Within the space of an hour I had seen Lesser Spotted and Booted Eagle, as well as Red-footed Falcon. The Carpathians hold approximately twenty percent of the global population of Lesser Spotted Eagle and it is specially protected within the area. Its conservation status and its large size territory make this bird an ideal flagship species for biodiversity conservation in the region.
Continuing down the valley and before reaching the end I had added Roller, Bee-eater and Lesser Grey Shrike to my Transylvanian tally. I reached the forest edge, thinking it couldn’t get any better, and made my way in via another ambiguous track. I stood under the canopy, grateful for the shade once again. A harmony of woodland bird song and calls enveloped me. Testing myself, I picked out Chaffinch, Hawfinch, Nuthatch, Song Thrush, Treecreeper and Great, Marsh and Blue Tit – all within the first five minutes. The prevalent beech eventually gave way to swathes of oak and the ambiance changed. This is the domain of the Middle-Spotted Woodpecker, the intermediate cousin of our two native Dendrocopos, and a male soon gave himself away with a territorial assertion by song.
I was pondering the absence of this species in Britain, when I spotted a robust, broad-tailed, rather plain brown bird skulking in a thicket. A Chiffchaff called nearby, followed conveniently by the LBJ – Nightingale. The call a soft ‘hweet’, similar to the Chiffchaff, but louder. Walking back through the remainder of the forest I may well have been back in South Wales, as the songs of Wood Warbler and Redstart accompanied me. I reached the cottage, my birding appetite suitably sated, and this was only day one. Black Redstart song jangled from the village rooftops. I sat on the veranda that evening and watched a family of White Storks in their large nest, characteristically built on our neighbour’s chimney. Romania is a refuge for this species, as well as many others. The 21st-century is encroaching on the country increasingly, but wilderness reigns.