I am thinking about taking Year 12 and 13 Biology students to the Danube Delta Biosphere Reservation next academic year. A UNESCO World Heritage site, this 6,265km2 wetland mosaic of islands, tributaries and freshwater lakes frequently features in top ten lists of the most biodiverse places on Earth. Whilst this may be a contentious accolade, the Danube Delta certainly boasts a huge wealth of animals with over 300 species of birds and 45 freshwater fish species.
Last week my fiance and I went on a three-day reconnaissance. The weather was terrible, with rain, wind and even heavy snow seriously holding us back from the amount of hiking and birding we had planned. Nonetheless we did manage a day-trip with a guide who turned out to be ideal for school groups. Mihai Baciu is an ex ranger, photographer, multi-linguist and naturalist. He took us out on his boat along with a group of French birders and his assistant for a full day of birding and conversation about everything from golden jackals to cuckoo morphs and the increase in Romanian ecotourism over the past ten years.
The trip cost 50 Euro per person. Lunch was provided, which consisted of a delicious homemade chicken soup followed by Spanish style stew (Mihai’s assistant lived in Spain for sixteen years) washed down with red wine and palinka! I think we’ll opt out of the alcoholic drinks for the school trip, although I can think of a couple of students who would be keen!
A lot of migratory species we were hoping to see hadn’t yet made it due to the unseasonably cold weather, most notably bee-eater and roller, but we still managed to tick off close to fifty including a few firsts including my first good view of a lesser-spotted eagle. Mihai knows the delta and its wildlife like the back of his hand. He is an expert birder, having authored two bird guides specific for the area. Mihai’s passion for wildlife and level of knowledge really shone through. When he overheard me say to my fiance “It actually looks a lot like the Amazon” he proudly responded with “No. The Amazon looks like the Danube”.
I’ll have to have a think about what objectives the trip would aim to achieve. At the moment I think mapping levels of biodiversity through different areas, encompassing varying levels of human influence could be interesting. Measuring dissolved oxygen, pH and nutrient levels using data loggers would add useful data. There’s a side of me that wants the pupils to spend one of the days simply spotting wildlife and enjoying eachothers’ company without any expectation to note down observations or gather data. As AS and A level Biologists, they will develop an appreciation for how lucky they are to have such amazing wildlife just four hours away by car.
I remember paying a visit to Cat Tien national park which was also a four hour drive away from a previous international school I taught at in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, with a view to organising a trip there. I was disappointed with the lack of wildlife, the national park showing severe signs of ’empty forest syndrome’. This site had previously contained a population of Indochinese tigers and is where the last remaining Vietnamese Javan Rhino was killed for its horn in 2010. In hindsight, perhaps I should have ran the trip anyway to show pupils first-hand the problem of illegal poaching and habitat loss. I decided in the end to take the group (Year 10 GCSE Biology) to a TRAFFIC wildlife sanctuary on the outskirts of HCMC, which they enjoyed and did learn a lot from.Hopefully there will be no such need for such a decision in Romania for many years to come, especially with the decline in bear ‘entertainment’.
Early May next year is the ideal time to take a group the the Danube Delta. Apparently June-August is out of the question due to extremely high mosquito numbers making it unbearable. I want to inspire pupils, not put them off! Bee-eater and roller will surely have arrived by the start of May so we can observe them nesting alongside one another in sand banks. What a cacophony of colour that will be!
Mihai Baciu’s website can be found here and I fully recommend him: http://www.chettusia.com/