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Danube delta – Sfantu Gheorghe

The Danube delta is (after the Volga Delta) the best preserved large Delta on the European continent. The approximate surface is 4152 km², of which 3446 km² are in Romania.

Geographically spoken it’s a very young landscape that originated around 13.000 years ago. The Delta consists of an intricate pattern of marshes, channels, streamlets and lakes. It opens up in western direction from the industrial harbour town of Tulcea, where the Danube river splits up into the three main arms that shaped the delta, the Chilia (120 km), Sulina (64 km), and Sfântu Gheorghe (70 km).

About 15.000 people live in the area, of whitch about 5000 in the port of Sulina, 1000 in the village of Sfantu Gheorghe. The others live in the 23 villages scattered over the delta of which only three villlages contain more than 500 inhabitants.

Cruising down the Danube Delta is simply an amazing experience. Nature starts right after leaving Tulcea. All along the banks are very old willow trees with impressively shaped roots. They look like giant mangroves. The dead ones provide ideal nesting opportunities to numerous rollers and (if you are lucky) grey headed woodpeckers. We found ourselves continuously surrounded by the sweet songs of nightingales, orioles, cuckoos, penduline tits and marsh frogs. All types of herons showed up from the sides, as well as glossy ibis and whiskered terns. Swimming grasssnakes frequently crossed our track.

There are roughly five different types of habitat:

• The wide open waters of the main stream and wider canals.

• The narrow canals that get you closest to the birds.

• Open shallow lakes with large fields of waterlilly and reed.

• The more open canals closer to the sea (ferruginous duck, pygmy cormorant, stilt).

• The dry sandy dunes, also known as ‘grinduri’ (pink on the map above).

Actually the delta harbours 23 natural ecosystems and many species, because the area forms part of the Eurasian steppe and has mediterranean influences al well.

Features that add to the biodiversity are the gradients between dry and aquatic habitats, between stagnant and streaming water and between fresh and salt water.

White pelicans.
Flying white pelicans from a big distance blend up with the horizon
Whiskered tern

Sfantu Gheorghe

The moment we arrived in Sfantu Gheorghe in the early afternoon, we felt home. Sfantu Gheorghe, which has its name in common with the oldest of three arms through which the Danube flows into the Black Sea, has only 800 inhabitants, many of whom are of Ukrainian origin.

There is no road to Sfantu Gheorghe, because it is situated on one of the sandy dunes (the so called ‘grinduri’ or ‘grindles’) that emerge from the Black Sea to mark the far end of the Danube Delta. The regular way to get here is by boat, except when the river freezes in winter (when the village is supplied by helicopters).

Don’t expect paved roads here. And wood replaces brick walls. Most houses even have walls made out of reed that is hardened with river clay. At first sight, the sandy roads reminded us of El Rocio (in Coto Doñana / southern Spain), which is also a delta-village. But soon it became clear that Sfantu Gheorghe is more peaceful and more authentic than this well-known Andalucian place. In addition, Sfantu Gheorghe is almost devoid of motorized traffic and there is cattle in the streets all over the place. This, plus its friendly people, made walking around in the village a real delight!

The unpaved roads make you feel very close to nature in Sfantu Gheorghe

And there are interesting herps here too. To start with, on our arrival we were welcomed by a chorus of fire-bellied toads in a temporary pond along the road leading from the boat ramp up to our accomodation. The rest of the daylight hours were spent on the sandy plain just north of the village. The target species was Orsini’s viper. The Danube Delta population of Vipera ursinii is currently under study, since it may belong to the subspecies renardi rather than moldavica. Some even claim V. renardi is a full species. To reach its habitat, we had to cross a steppe-like plain that is used by the villagers to dump their garbage. Some of it was spread out by the wind over a wide area, an ugly sight. Unfortunately we failed to find any vipers, in spite of intensive searching. We did, however, find many sand lizards, mainly males, a few of which had a reddish back. Furthermore, the area was full of interesting birds, such as roller, red-footed falcon, white-eyed and red-crested pochard, and glossy ibis.

Reptiles & amphibians5-2008
Common newt Lissotriton vulgarislarvae
Fire-bellied toad Bombina bombinaseveral
Common spadefoot Pelobates fuscus10
Green toad Pseudepidalea viridis3
Common tree frog Hyla arboreacalling
Marsh frog Pelophylax ridibundusabundant
Edible frog Pelophylax kl. esculentusabundant
European pond terrapin Emys orbicularis5
Steppe runnerEremias arguta4
Sand lizard Lacerta agilis chersonensisabundant
Grass snake Natrix natrix> 20
Orsini’s viper Vipera ursinii 4
Other highlights  
Russian sturgeonAcipenser gueldenstaedtii1 dead juv.
Pygmy CormorantPhalacrocorax pygmaeus> 100
White pelicanPelecanus onocrotalus> 100
Dalmatian pelicanPelecanus crispus 10
Glossy IbisPlegadis falcinellus> 100
Squacco heronArdeola ralloides> 100
Night heronNycticorax nycticorax> 200
SpoonbillPlatalea leucorodiax
Red-crested pochardNetta rufina 8
White-eyed pochardAythya nyroca > 20
White-tailed EagleHaliaeetus albicilla1
Red-footed falconFalco vespertinus several
Whiskered ternChidonius hybridus> 100
Lesser grey shrikeLanius minor 2
RollerCoracias garrulus > 100
Grey headed woodpeckerPicus canus2 calling
Penduline titRemiz pendulinus> 100
Rose-coloured starlingSturnus roseus15
Stone CurlewBurhinus oedicnemus 2
Black-tailed godwitLimosa limosa several
Swamp around Sfantu Gheorghe. Habitat of V. ursinii (dryer parts), Pelobates fuscusTriturus
dobrogicusRana ridibundaLacerta agilisNatrix natrixEmys orbicularisHyla arborea and
Bombina bombina

After a cold beer in the local pub, a delicious home-made meal was served at our hostel. Outside, there was thunder and lightning. After dinner, when the rains had stopped, we went for an evening walk to look for amphibians. Fire-bellied toads were calling now in several places, and so were tree frog, edible frog and marsh frog. Green toads were easily found crossing the sandy streets. Outside the village, common spadefoots were common. We set a funnel trap in one the ponds, in the hopes of finding Danube crested newt (Triturus dobrogicus). Unfortunately we didn’t. A second attempt in another, more promising pond in which we found unidentified newt-larvae in our torch-lights, yielded no adults either.

The morning of the second day was spent to find steppe runner. The westernmost occurrence of this lizard is in eastern Romania. It prefers sandy habitats, like coastal dunes. We discovered several specimens in shrubs close to the beach. Apart from the Black Sea coast, the species has recently been (re)discovered inland on river dunes.

Later that afternoon, we also found our sought-after viper. Four specimens were captured in order to count their mid-dorsal scales. Two females had 21 (said to be typical for V. (ursiniirenardi), both males had 19 (more in the range of V. ursinii modavica) rows of dorsal scales around their midbody. However, given the natural variation of dorsal scale numbers within both (sub)species, these counts do not allow for conclusions as to which (sub)species these animals belong.

Common spadefoot (Pelobates fuscus), common on the sandy planes outside the village. We happened to have a slight drizzle on the first night, that allowed us to find some specimens.Wit hin the village this species is replaced by green toad (Pseudepidalea viridis).
Green toad (Pseudepidalea viridis)
Here it is: Lacerta agilis (subspecies chersonensis). Only a few specimens have the 
famous red back, but they all have ticks. This one has two ticks in its ear. The parasites 
may come from grazing cattle. 
Our stray dog, joined us inseparatebly for two days around Sfantu Gheorghe
Orsini’s viper
Ronald and Ben counting mid dorsal scales of Orsini’s viper. Two females had 21 (said to 
be typical for V. (ursiniirenardi), both males had 19 (more in the range of V. ursinii 
modavica) rows of dorsal scales around their midbody. 

Sleeping yes, dinner no!

“Sleeping yes, dinner no”, that was the basic level of English communication with our host in Sfantu Gheorge. He was an educated man though who impressed us by knowing the magic words ‘Vipera renardii’ and ‘Natrix tessellata’ and he also had a certain glance of importance about him. It took us three days to discover that it was his face on the election boards and banners that were all over the village. He was the present lord mayor.

Our host, the local mayor of Sfantu Gheorge, Dimache Dumitrel, is the real man for 
a better future. From horsecarts to oldtime trucks and quads …  
Our boatman telling a dirty joke. 

That evening we were invited by our boatman to join a fish barbecue ‘at his place’ in de delta. This turned out to be an adventurous (and very tasty!) experience. While entering the boat, we got very excited by a dead Russian sturgeon, Acipenser gueldenstaedtii, floating in the harbour. It was only a juvenile, but it reminded us of the presence in the Danube waters of these impressive animals. We were told that sturgeons are still being fished here, in spite of their protective status.

Hunting stories by our boatman at a fish barbecue in the delta.
The boatman showing the hooks traditionally used for catching sturgeon.
A delicious fish meal prepared by the fisherman himself.