Winter birding at Călărași
December, 4.30 AM. A good time to wake up if you want to catch some goose action. Could have been even earlier if we weren’t lucky enough to have the sun rise so late at this time of the year ! Some frugal breakfast, pack up and hit the road for Călărași, the best place close to Bucharest where you can see roaming clouds of geese. And, with some luck, even get close to the feeding flocks.
The flat countryside where the small city of Călărași lies has always been a border area, due to its vicinity to the mighty Danube: border between the Dacians and the Roman Empire, between Byzantine Empire and “barbarians”, between Wallachia and the Ottoman Empire, nowadays between Romania and Bulgaria. Its name (meaning approximately “Riders”) originates from late 17th century, when the Wallachian Voievod (Prince) Constantin Brancoveanu ordered that a squad of riding relays should be based here. In more recent times, another Romanian ruler, Ceauşescu, ordered something much more aggresive to be set up here: a steel factory. Fortunately for the ecosystem which surrounds the old plant, it is now out of service.
Ups, I’m going to be late with all that history stuff !
So… Driving all the way through downtown Bucharest is not by a long shot as terrifying at 5 AM in the weekend as it is weekdays at 9, then there is one of the three (or rather 2 and a half) highways in Romania that takes you quickly close to Călărași, so at 7 AM you should already be looking for a path to go deep into the fields (you should consider yourself lucky to be able to do that on board a 4×4 SUV, the other option being the old-fashioned but reliable walk).
At sunrise it’s showtime: geese leave their night resting places and begin the search for a feeding spot. The usual size of a flock that might fly over you is 500 to 2000 birds, mainly White-fronted (Anser albifrons), but Red-breasted (Branta ruficollis) is to be expected too (actually is one of the reasons why I would want to wake up at 4.30 in the morning…). The bad part is that one can hardly take decent pictures at that hour, due to poor light, but some late smaller flocks which still roam at 9 might offer some shooting opportunity. Unfortunately not only to birders, who shoot with canons and nikons, but also to hunters, who shoot with a different kind of guns.
Once the geese landed for feeding on one of the many grain fields in the area, it’s time to test your luck again: if you are close enough to a feeding flock, you can enjoy the breakfast show (actually it’s rather a brunch).
Every now and then birds will take off and even relocate if `visitors` are too annoying, but if you behave yourself, you can enjoy the show for hours.
If you see this, then it’s your lucky day:
Others were even luckier than me: Barnacle and Lesser White-fronted geese have been spotted here (Branta leucopsis and Anser erythropus).
In the meantime, for the sake of variation, other birds spice up the scene.
And not only birds !
Well, if you declare yourself happy with your goose experience and the mud on your boots weighs heavy enough to cause pain when moving your leg, maybe it’s time to go back to the asphalt and plan a new birding approach.
If winter is not too harsh and the water in the Iezer-Călărași IBA is still in a liquid form, then the Iezer lake itself or, even better in terms of accessibility, the canal that links the steel factory to the Danube can offer quite a treat.
When going to Călăraşi in winter, wear warm clothes and solid boots and bring hot tea in a thermos. The rest is up to the birds.