Second boat on Danube delta tributary
This was a biology and geography three-day trip to the Danube delta wetland biosphere reserve designed to supplement the ecological units of the IGCSE specifications.
The bus turned up ten minutes late and the driver got lost. We ended up in the middle of a herd of goats having overshot a turning by 15 minutes. A change of plan was needed so after a quick snack and room allocations we walked 1km to a patch of marshland to take samples of biological indicator species. Students got very good results, surprisingly so considering October is not an ideal time of year for macroinvertebrate larvae. I can only imagine the diversity and numbers that must be there in spring and summer. It was good for pupils to stretch their legs after the five-hour coach journey, a pack of friendly stray dogs followed us to the site, one boy got temporarily stuck in mud and we saw a grass snake. So, all in all, this Plan B turned out to be a worthwhile and enjoyable late afternoon activity.
Stuck in the mud at Site 1
After dinner we were joined by Cristian Mitielu from WWF who gave a talk on the history of the Danube Delta biosphere reserve, its ecology and human impacts. It was fascinating to learn about the drastic changes that occurred within the area during the communist period. Wolves were exterminated by poisoning, land was drained for agriculture and musk rats were introduced from the USA so that they could be hunted for their pelts. Approximately fifteen years ago golden jackals began to appear in the southern regions of the delta, having crossed over from Bulgaria. The jackals have since proliferated and are reported to be having a major negative effect on ground nesting birds. Reintroducing wolves has been tabled as a possible solution to the jackal problem but this has been met with resistance from locals due to the wolf’s “reputation from fairytales”. There have been a couple of unreported sightings of wolves in the far north of the reserve so perhaps a natural reintroduction is taking place. This might also help reduce the number of feral horses that have exploded in population and is consequently preventing the regeneration of trees.
Pupils paid attention to these insights for the full hour and asked lots of great specification-relevant questions at the end which were answered expertly by Cristian. It always a positive experience for pupils to hear about real-life examples from experts working within the field rather than just their subject teacher – it adds weight to the content and makes for deeper learning.
Breakfast at 7.00am and most of the students were punctual, followed by a 40-minute bus journey to Tulcea to meet Mihai Baciu for a slow boat tour of the delta’s tributaries. Just before we set off, I noticed that one of the stray dogs that joined us yesterday had been lying in the road since 6.45am and it was now an hour later. Phil, our science technician, was at hand to investigate and sadly shift the body into some nearby bushes before any of the students saw. Phil is a great example of how important support staff are, regularly going the extra mile like this.
Mihai Baciu is a bird guide, guidebook author and a speaker of German, French, English and Romanian. I put the keener half of the group on his boat with me, his enthusiasm for the biodiversity of the delta unwavering for the four hours we were out with him for. A former ranger and bylaw enforcement officer of ten years, he even stopped alongside a group of fishermen to tell them to pick up their plastic waste – a great example to the students. A few of the students’ interest wavered after a couple of hours, though they were happy enough to relax on the hull of boat and perk up when we spotted something interesting. Some of the more notable species included White-tailed eagle, lesser-spotted eagle, European pond turtle, marsh harrier, hobby, Dalmatian pelican, white stork, osprey and otter. Not bad for four hours in October! Next time I would have a break after two hours so pupils could take a rest from being on high-alert and refresh themselves with drinks and a snack.
European pond turtle basking in the sunlight
After a late lunch back at the education centre where we were staying, pupils completed geography past paper questions and those who did not do Geography had some free time. Later on students visited what was supposed to be a meandering river site to collect some abiotic data but sadly since last year’s visit the water had been redirected into a straight channel between farmland and the vegetation cut right back. What a depressing state. I took the non-geographer biologists for a walk and we found a patch of field margin half a kilometer away that had been left to grow wild where we saw a grass snake and a few silver-studded blue butterfly but on the whole it was pretty grim. The wind was blowing what remained of the dry soil into our eyes and plastic litter dominated the landscape. Still, this gave us lots to talk about in terms of the impacts of intensive farming practices on soil erosion and wildlife populations which led into an interesting discussion about EU subsidies such as CAP.
Day three was geography dominated, with a shoreline study that wasn’t relevant to the biology syllabus. So, I took my four non-geographers for a walk through the sand dunes where we saw a hare, swans with signets, a pair of little grebe and a hunting marsh harrier. I didn’t push discussion, nor ask for any written exercise to be completed or data collected. Sometimes it’s better to allow students just to enjoy being outside exploring and make up their own minds, whilst the teacher remains on hand to answer any questions or point out something interesting now and again.
On the whole this was a successful trip; the students were well behaved and enjoyed an intensive variety of learning experiences. The main change I would make next year is the time that we visit. Apparently the mosquitos in June make fieldwork unbearable and I certainly don’t want to put pupils off outdoor learning so perhaps end of April or first week in May would be best. The main benefit being that this is peak migration season so pupils will see colourful bee-eater, European roller and kingfisher amongst much more. The only obstacle to this option is that this is a Year 10 trip and a few pupils will be doing early entry mathematics and languages GCSE examinations around this time or very shortly afterwards. Still, it is only three days away and if we can avoid a direct clash with exams I believe it will be worth it. Getting outdoors for a short time will help de-stress pupils and we could even set aside a couple of hours per day for supervised revision – although I imagine this might be a hard sell to the maths and languages departments!
I have recommended Mihai Bacui before as a wildlife guide for anyone wishing to visit the Danube delta in Romania in a piece I wrote about my recce trip in April, but here is his website again https://www.chettusia.com/