Romania: Apold – Police! Camera! Action!

August 8th 2016

We’ve come to the end of all things. Final day, final survey, final gathering in of the trail cameras. Tomorrow I fly home. Nothing more can happen…can it?

Clouds have settled over Apold’s grey walls. A raven is calling above me: wilderness bird in a Saxon village. It is timely – I’ve been thinking about people and wildlife sharing space. Romania is full of lessons; it has done so well for plant, insect and bird biodiversity, but its mammal policies need improvement.

Final breakfast is battered courgettes. So, we’ve ten trail cameras to collect. They’re divided between two transects, and I opt for the East first. It is a small decision with major consequences.

Not that the wildlife has failed to put on a fine show.

Badger

Snapshot_18

Red fox

Snapshot_11

Wild boar

Snapshot_15

Roe deer

Snapshot_14

Last afternoon, last walk, last cameras. West Transect beckons. It’s a long, long way over all those electric fences. Trailcam 1 collected. A family are driving two chestnut horses out of the forest with a cart full of timber. A man walking ahead in a white shirt, two smallish and grumpy dogs – one looks like a fox terrier – and various kids, one with the reins, two walking behind. Stand back, acknowledge, take photo…usual procedure.

Trailcam 4 suspectsa

We pick up Trailcam 2, in the wood with the spiders. A black woodpecker calls from somewhere. Trailcam 3 – so that’s where I put it, on an intersection near a ridge.

Last of all, there’s Trailcam 4. Something is uneasy on my mind – we’re walking down the trail of that big horse cart.

The GPS goes beep. The camera is gone. Axed straight off the tree!

Axe marks

Again?! How is this even possible? Of course it just had to be Trailcam 4. It might be the first trailcam in history to be stolen twice in the same field season!

Nope. Not happening. They’re not far ahead. Fine, they’re clearly armed with an axe. Whatever; we’re armed with raw horror. We give chase!

Out of the wood we march, up slopes, down cart tracks. Meadows roll on under our boots in the brightening sun. They’re just ahead – we can see them now. We cannot close the gap! Trailcam 4 is within metres but we cannot win this race. Not against two horses.

Apold stares at our hazy-eyed return. Trail has become stony road flanked by barns and tumbledown wooden huts. Do you recognise these people? Yes, everyone does. The priest gives us their names. They’re well-known thieves and the police have twenty open cases against them. To the police we go. But the station is shut.

Final supper of stew. Everyone else seems to have had an enjoyable last day.

The stars are fairly nice. Polaris is directly ahead. The police are coming, sometime. Hours roll on and still I’m sitting with my colleagues under the fortified tower of Apold’s grey church. A new ritual; students and expedition staff wander by, ask astonished questions, and vanish back into the darkness.

Still waiting in the starry silence. It’s getting surreal. A phone rings; now the police want us to meet them at the station…

We grab our ID and stroll down the streets of Apold at midnight. Not a soul to be seen, nor a building light, except at the station itself, which has a blocky police car outside. Two enormous men are in there; both have broad faces and stern eyes, and the kind of bearing that suggests getting in a quarrel with them would be remarkably stupid. They’re sitting in a small interview room with an old green carpet and an umbrella stand that has truncheons hanging from it. A door behind them is covered in bars. The map on the wall still shows Yugoslavia.

It’s ridiculously late when we leave the station, watching the officer put a bag in his car with the air of a man who thinks his work day over. So is mine. My field season, actually; Romania has been mesmerising, exhausting, beautiful and thought-provoking. I did not expect to end the project in a 1960s-style police station, but these things do happen.

A message will be passed to our friends in Viscri. Perhaps Trailcam 4 will be rescued again, but for now, it’s farewell.

And we’ll never know if it caught a bear…

Romania: Apold – Never Eat an Amanita

June – August 2016

Fortunately, nobody does. We’re welcomed into the woods above the final Transylvanian village by the most notorious species in European biodiversity: a death cap Amanita phalloides. Eat this, and you will need a liver transplant…at best.

Death cap2

Gathering medicinal plants is a common activity in Transylvania; I’ve met many elderly women doing just this while I’m out on my mammal surveys. But as with most things in life, you do need to know what you’re doing. Apart from highly poisonous fungi, these hills also host deadly nightshade.

Deadly nightshade

Going back to the mycology, we note many boletes, some of which are edible.

Bolete

So, Apold. I don’t remember much about arriving here. I had a headache for a full week in Daia and arrived in the final village desiring nothing except sleep. The novelty of the campground wakes me a bit – it is actually inside the parameter of a fortified church. The students are based in the towers, but I’m sticking to my trusted tent.

The village is modern enough to contain car noise and German tourists. There is an ‘end of season’ air to the work this week and my main ambition is not to lose any more cameras. Trailcam 4 gets special treatment of course – we leave it on a track next to some huge bear tracks.

The transects are laced with electric fencing, but I find mammal sign before even leaving town: badger fur caught on wire.

Badger fur

Going higher, we find some very welcome mammal sign – bear scat!

Bear scat4

The geography is for the adventurous spirit; the Great Thicket of Apold remains in our mind for many days. We achieve the gold standard of Apold by climbing right through it, but it’s so hot, and transect after transect is starting to blur into one.

Apold thicket

But with a few surprises – a beautiful slow worm greets us. This is not a snake, but a harmless legless lizard.

Slow worm

Time rolls on. The final survey is only days away.

Romania: Daia – Bear Feet

June – August 2016

The storm bells have stopped ringing. The sky is nearly blue!

Daia church

Up the hills we go again, seeing Daia in context.

Daia from East Transect

It’s steep. Joints click and backpacks sag. Water flasks empty and hats fight against the sun. These hills are hard work for a human hiker, but easy for a bear – not that they are hurrying when there are so many anthills to investigate. I feel slightly hostile to ants after last week’s trail camera fiasco, but to a bear, they are a welcome dinner.

There’s not much left of an anthill after a bear has razed it.

Dug up anthill.jpg

Mammal surveys often involve playing detective – diggings, hair, even bones. Some tracks are familiar to English eyes; this, for example, is a red fox. I have a video explaining how to identify fox footprints here.

Fox track

Then again, it’s been many centuries since anyone in England saw a fox footprint right next to a bear’s massive track. I’ve highlighted the footprints here but they were easy enough to observe in real life.

Fox track and bear track

So, ever higher into bear country, passing a barbed wire fence decorated with bear fur – it passed under the barrier without hesitation, no doubt thinking of yet more tasty ants.

Good news! All ten trail cameras are safe and unstolen. They tell their own story of the week.

As usual, plenty of roe deer trotted by.

Snapshot_8

Wild boar is a more unusual catch; they’re not rare, but for whatever reason the cameras weren’t lucky before Daia.

Snapshot_9

And…

Snapshot_7

After six weeks in the field, I’ll take 80% of a bear!

Yes, it would have been nice if it had stepped just a bit to the left, but that’s the way it goes. And even bear feet are rather awesome to see 🙂

Romania: Daia – The Winged Ones

June – August 2016

Daia is still in a questionable mood. Clouds roll inwards from the mountains.

Daia mist

High on the transects, the trail cameras keep a lonely vigil in the mist.

Daia up high2

Weather has a low impact on large mammal surveys, unless the rain is so heavy that it obliterates the tracks. The bird team are warier than me; their standard method is to set mist nets, very fine netting that captures birds with low risk of harm. Using mist nets in rainy conditions is not recommended for many reasons, and given that they take time to set up, it is easier to have them near camp when the weather is changeable.

Which means that the rest of us can have a look too.

Baby great tits

Red-backed shrikes are abundant.

Red backed shrike2

And a great spotted woodpecker is a nice surprise.

GSW

All the birds are fitted with an identification ring and released to continue their day.

They are far from the only animals in camp. A convolvulus hawk moth searches for nectar in the drizzle.

Hummingbird hawkmoth

Even when the wildlife is hiding, the farm kittens melt everyone’s hearts.

Daia kitten

Through it all, their wild forest cousins move noiselessly in the misty hills, fending for themselves amongst the bears.

Romania: Daia – Storm Bells Ringing

June – August 2016

I’m not sure what Daia means in Romanian, but in my mental dictionary it is ‘authentic, beautiful, rustic, irresistible’ 🙂

Meadows at Daia

It is hard to remember that all the world used to be like this. No car noise – merely the sweet chirps of sparrows, and the whinnying of horses.

The streets are old, and stray dogs play in them.

Daia streets4

This is Transylvania at its purest. Daia is everything that a medieval village ought to be. And the transects! If there’s a more beautiful corner of agricultural Europe, I haven’t found it.

Daia transects1

Walking in these meadows is to be lost in a fragrant dream. Crushed thyme infuses the air with every step.

But like all the best parts of the world, Daia is moody – the weather spins on a dime from suffocating hot to something entirely else:

July 29th

Hear the loud alarum bells– Brazen bells! 
Bells, bells, bells! What a tale their terror tells of despair! How they clang, and clash, and roar! What a horror they outpour on the bosom of the palpitating air! Yet the ear, it fully knows, by the twanging and the clanging, how the danger ebbs and flows… (Edgar Allan Poe)

Bells cry from the church tower. Not continuously, but after each peel of thunder, and today there are many. I’m told it’s a ritual; people here believe it will drive the storm away.

The light levels are dropping although it is only 5pm, and wind is licking around the tent corners, but so far no rain. The thunder is more than weather; it sounds like the sky itself is rending like a –

Plastic sheet. I think that’s what I meant to write. In the middle of that sentence the wind slammed into my tent like a tidal wave. I was ready (in the sense of having footwear donned) so grabbed my laptop bag, slammed the laptop into it while running, and bolted for shelter. These clouds are painting grey blotches, circling overhead like aerial hunting creatures.  It’s like being inside a plughole watching the torrent circle.

Storm coming2

Lightning strikes, sheet mostly, and from all possible directions. The sky is a living thing that roars at us. Nearly the whole expedition huddle under the lecture room roof, save the botany team, who are getting a swimming lesson somewhere out on transect.

Bells, bells, bells! They’re still ringing…

The storm consumes itself, and the sky is given over to night.

Daia church at sundown

Romania: Malancrav – The Woods Today…

June – August 2016

Everyone who’s set up a trail camera has had a ‘what in the name of all wonders is that?!’ moment. Malancrav is up there with the best of them.

It is not that there is no wildlife; we even have a blurry clip of red deer, the largest mammal in Transylvania.

Snapshot_0

And a pine marten puts on a welcome show.

Snapshot_2

It is also one of the few places where I’ve caught a buzzard on a cam.

Snapshot_4

And then the monster strolls by.

Snapshot_5

In the mammal book? No. Wikipedia tells me that it is a corb, also known as a Romanian raven shepherd dog, best described as a gigantic, rambling, black St Bernard. It is indigenous to Brasov where it has been driving bears away from cattle for centuries. What it is doing roaming around Malancrav’s outback by itself is a mystery. Romania has a serious stray dog problem that is not only a hazard to people, but also to wildlife – in fact sadly we see one guard dog run down and kill a hare on the outskirts of the village.

The corb is a little strange, but Trailcam 7 wins the prize. I’ve been having arguments with this camera all season; it seems to have some kind of power leakage and is chomping through 10 AA batteries a week. It buzzes, glitters and goes flat. One of my colleagues has kindly offered to leave it in front of a moving bus. But, alas, first it is stolen…by ants.

Snapshot_6

The photograph does not do the crisis justice – there is a video clip on YouTube here.

Gingerly, very gingerly, we put Trailcam 7 into a Ziploc bag, spray it with mosquito repellent – the only weapon at hand – and carry it three miles back to camp.

Thieves, corbs and ants – who would be a trail camera?

But our next stop is the remote village of Daia, where cams keep the royal company of bears.

Romania: Malancrav – Edge of Somewhere

June – August 2016

I think we’ve just tumbled off the edge. Viscri took us close to modernity; Malancrav reminds us that the real world is rural, dusty, and cut over with scythes. The fifth Saxon village of this expedition thumps with Roma music over a background base of barking. Every night, one dog yelps, and the cry is caught by another, and another – the barks bounce around the village like a tennis ball. It’s like listening to a relay team.

Where else can you find a goat inspecting your camp?

Goat in Malancrav

Where else can you mull over both haystacks and graveyards?

Malancrav camp

And where else can you wander out of the farmhouse to spot an aesculapian snake trying to nibble the herpetologist’s arm?

Aesculapian snake

This is only a small aesculapian. Fully grown, they can reach over two metres and count amongst Europe’s largest snakes. They are not venomous.

But I’m ready to be tracking mammals after the difficulties of Viscri. As a point of order, Trailcam 4’s number is not transferred; it retired with the camera’s death, like a famous footballer’s shirt number.

We have a long, long walk through the heart of Malancrav before we even turn off towards the wood. It’s a world of small sights: the well has a huge branch balancing its bucket like a see-saw. A man with a checked shirt is driving a haycart, and pauses to tell us that a cow has been attacked by a bear. Another horse is driven past with yellowish flem dripping from its jaws; its owner shows no mercy. More trusting are tiny puppies – a little girl shows one to us, beaming.

And then there’s the terrier…

Alin and Oscar

We thought we were here to collect data, but, alas, the real reason is to walk this dog. He trots after us for hour upon hour, never doubting that we will bring him safely home.

He takes little interest in his wild neighbours. Here is a footprint from one of the largest: a wild boar.

Wild boar track

And one of the liveliest: a stone or pine marten.

Stone marten track

So we return to base – and it is there that a blonde woman walks up to us, smiling.

In her hand is the stolen camera!

Trailcam 4

She hardly stops long enough to be thanked. Eventually we establish that:

  • shortly after I set Trailcam 4 in Viscri, a poacher came across it. He panicked, thinking it was a police sting operation, and snapped it off the chain.
  • Two days afterwards, he went to a wedding in Viscri, and jovially asked another guest how trail cameras operate.
  • Unluckily for him, this other guest was our host back in Mesendorf.
  • Our local friends in Viscri joined up the dots and ran a SWAT operation to retrieve the camera.

Or something like that. Trailcam 4 is immediately put back to work.

We badly want it to catch a bear after its troubles.

Trailcam 4 RIP