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Pelicans in Romania

Unveiling the Danube Delta

 Words & Photos by Haley Pope

Published on the North American Nature Photography Association Blog

It is the largest wetland, the second largest river delta, and the best preserved in Europe, I was told. From a birds-eye-view, it’s an intricate pastel mosaic of winding river channels, floating reed islets, never-ending blue skies, nesting birds, diminutive spotted frogs, and schools of fish, I was told. A pristine haven for wildlife lovers, birdwatchers, and fishermen and a sight to behold as the river flows through ten countries and finally joins the Black Sea. They were talking about the Danube Delta, a UNESCO world heritage site that covers parts of Romania and Ukraine.


With a rich and tumultuous history of occupations, revolutions, wars, and superstitions, gothic-era cities and fortified churches, and landscapes spanning the mist-shrouded Carpathian Mountains to the marshes of the Danube Delta, Romania is as bewitching and mysterious as its most famous, albeit fictional, native, Count Dracula.


I had spent the first three weeks in Transylvania leading a team of Habitat for Humanity volunteers on a Global Village house build and exploring the beautiful countryside. Expectations ran high as my husband and I drove eight hours from Bucharest to Tulcea, a harbor town bordering the Danube Delta. It was May, the beginning of the migration period for over 300 bird species from six eco-regions. I cleaned my lenses and camera body and charged my batteries. Tomorrow, I would be using a Pentax K-7 camera mounted with a Sigma 70-300mm f/4-5.6 DG Macro Telephoto lens. Tomorrow, I would be ready for our trip into the delta, for the thousands of birds…

Great white pelicans (Pelecanus onocrotalus) take flight over the blue waters of the Danube Delta in Romania where many breed during their migrations from Africa. A pelican's wingspan can stretch up to 12 feet across, so they are a sight to see close up!

Squacco heron (Ardeola ralloides) seen in the Danube Delta, where the river meets the Black Sea, in Romania.

Dance of the Egret

Romania is as bewitching and mysterious as its most famous, albeit fictional, native, Count Dracula.

A great egret (Ardea alba) dances over the water of the Danube Delta in Romania. May can be a great month to witness bird migrations coming through the Delta. Many bird species breed here during this time, so flocks and flocks of birds can often be seen clouding the skies and crowding the shorelines. For this reason, I love the simplicity of this shot and the elegance of the egret - it reminds me a graceful ballerina caught in mid-flight.

Cool mist hung in the grey morning light heavy with humidity and the scent of saltwater and fish as we arrived at the dock. Our guide, Christian, and two Romanian tourists from Bucharest met us there. Christian spoke some English, however, he wasn't fluent, so we had difficulty learning about the region’s wildlife and history. Despite the unfavorable weather and language barrier, we remained optimistic.


I was dressed in several layers of clothing topped with a rain jacket, life jacket, and hat. My camera strap crisscrossed around my torso and I held my camera tightly as we started off with a jolt in our eight-passenger flat bottom boat. The Danube River branches into three main distributaries that fan out into Romania and Ukraine: Chilia, Sulina, and Sfântul Gheorghe. Today, we would explore parts of each.


The thick green forest swallowed us whole as we wound through the enormous 1,616-square-mile maze that is the Danube. The mist settled. Silence and stillness permeated all, broken only by the occasional birdcall and the low-pitched hum of our boat engine. Some river channels were no more than ten feet across. We tucked in our elbows, ducked our heads under branches, and Christian turned off the motor and raised the propellers to avoid bottoming out in the shallow water. Other channels suddenly opened up into vast freshwater lakes where floating reed beds spread out like shag carpet covering some 600 square miles.

Grebe Nest
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