Danube Delta


Millions of birds—over 300 species—find temporary or permanent homes where the Danube River, longest in Europe, winds up a journey from Germany’s Black Forest to the Black Sea and broadens into the 56-mile-wide (90-km) Danube Delta, largest wetland in Europe and one of the most important in the world.

At least 176 species nest among this labyrinth of floating islands of vegetation (plaur), wooded dunes and embankments, lily-covered lakes and channels, and an expanse of reedbeds covering some 603 square miles (1,563 km2)—largest contiguous reedbed in the world. Many others come to spend the fall and winter.

The visual impact of some of these is unforgettable—as when thousands of white pelicans with nine-foot (3-m) wingspreads cover the waterways or fly up to fill the air with a pinkish glow, the combination of a setting sun and carotene from their oil-preening glands.

The astonishing figures include 5,500 pairs of cormorants, among them 2,500 pairs of threatened pygmy cormorants—61 percent of the world population; 2,100 night heron pairs; 2,000 pairs of buffy-gold and white Squacco herons; 1,500 pairs of glossy ibises; 2,500 pairs of white pelicans— 50 percent of the palearctic breeding population; 25–150 pairs of threatened Dalmatian pelicans, to mention just a few.

Terns include 20,000 breeding pairs of whiskered, twittering over nests on acres of whiteblossoming lily pads; 20,000 pairs of common; 10–20,000 black; among raptors, more than 300 marsh harrier pairs, eight white-tailed eagle pairs, and 150 pairs of red-footed falcons; plus thousands of little bitterns, iridescent multicolored bee-eaters, violet rollers, bearded and penduline tits, and Savi’s warblers.

Fall and wintering concentrations are equally impressive: records of 45,000 dramatically plumaged and globally threatened red-breasted geese—almost 95 percent of the world population (weather conditions can move them into neighboring Bulgaria in midwinter)—150,000 teal, 200,000 mallards, 14,000 pintails, 40,000 shovelers, 32,000 red-crested pochards, 970,000 pochards, 13,000 threatened ferruginous ducks, a half-million white-fronted geese, and 30–40 white-tailed eagles.

Among mammals on floating reed islands and wooded dunes are wildcats, otters, raccoon dogs, steppe polecats, wild boar, foxes, wolves, and European mink in one of their last European refuges—plus rare reptiles (Aesculapian snakes, Orsi’s vipers, and Eremias lizards) and amphibians, butterflies and dragonflies.

The Danube Delta Biosphere Reserve, so designated in 1992, covers a total transfrontier area of 2,417 square miles (6,264 km2) with more than 25 types of natural ecosystems—20 percent of it across the border in Ukraine—and, with millions of tons of riverborne silt, its boundary growing every year by about 100 feet (30 m).

The delta ecosystem, usually described as “intact,” unfortunately has been degraded both by activities within and land use outside it. Agriculture and irrigation projects pour pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers into a Danube already heavily laden with chlorine, nitrogen, and potassium, all made worse with drainage and removal of upstream reedbeds that formerly filtered it. Overflows from upstream mines have poisoned fish with cyanide and other heavy metal sludge. Overfishing, introduction of exotic species, and creation of breeding ponds, have adversely affected 160 native fish species, along with anadromous varieties such as sturgeon that swim upstream to spawn. Some of these may improve as this natural treasure comes into worldwide focus.

Tulcea, ancient city settled by Dacians and Romans from the 7th to 1st centuries BC, is a good starting point for visitors, who can stay in hotels and arrange for channel cruises and overnight stays on comfortable boat “floatels” between there and equally ancient Sulina, 45 miles (71 km) away. Other waterside villages, such as Maliuc and Crisan, offer a panoramic view of the delta; or take smaller boats into channels for a quieter, more intimate view. Another useful stop is Murighiol on the delta’s southern edge, where boats can be hired to enter the channel and nearby lakes. Sinoe and Razelm, two large lakes south of the main delta, can be alive with birds, both reachable by dirt road near Istria. Cars can be rented in Mamaia, beach resort just north of Constanta, which has an international airport.

Many areas can be difficult or impossible to reach due to variable water levels and constantly changing positions of dense floating reedbeds. All visitors to the reserve need permits, available at travel agencies and hotels in Tulcea, Crisan, Sulina, and Murighiol—but special permission is required to enter more rigorously protected areas, especially during nesting time.

In Ukraine, numerous hotels, campsites, chalets, and private homes offer rooms at Yalta, with further information available at the West Ukrainian Avifaunistic Commission, L’viv State University, Zoological Department, Grushevsky str. 4, L’viv 290005, Ukraine.

In Slovakia, contact the Slovenia Ornithologicka Spolocnost (SOS/The Slovakian Society for the Protection of Birds), Zapadoslovenske muzeum Trnava, Muzejne namestic 3, 91809 Trnava, Slovakia.

Sociable white pelicans nest together, fly together and even feed cooperatively together, flying low over water in tight V-formation until they find a school of fish close to the surface. Then they flap their 10-foot (3-m) wingspans and dip bills in water, driving fish to shallows where they scoop up as many as they can in expandable bills which can hold over three gallons (11 liters) of food and water. They then strain out the water and consume the rest whole. Since their daily requirement is only two to four fish, they’re usually through by mid-morning and can spend the rest of the day basking and preening.

Sociable white pelicans nest together, fly together and even feed cooperatively together, flying low over water in tight V-formation until they find a school of fish close to the surface. Then they flap their 10-foot (3-m) wingspans and dip bills in water, driving fish to shallows where they scoop up as many as they can in expandable bills which can hold over three gallons (11 liters) of food and water. They then strain out the water and consume the rest whole. Since their daily requirement is only two to four fish, they’re usually through by mid-morning and can spend the rest of the day basking and preening.

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