Romania and Bulgaria from 13 until 19 October 2014

An autumn trip to Eastern Europe was a bit of a gamble. Three species that I have never seen before were waiting for me and a whole range of other interesting species as well. The weather conditions however are changable in this season and even the week prior to our trip it was cold and rainy. Luckily we were blessed with sunshine throughout most of our time in both countries and we had mostly sunny autumn days. Our route led us into the Carpathian Mountains and back via Bukarest to the coast, seeing the southern end of the wider Danube delta. From there on we headed into Bulgaria following the coast south to the area south of Burgas. The time we had was limited to a week so we had to make choices on were to go and our tight schedule did not allow to visit all of both countries - not bringing justice to these beautiful places and surely requiring a return visit.

Our team of cheeky monkeys consisted of myself, Gertjan Verspui and Ronald Zimmerman from The Netherlands and Paul Lambourne, Trevor Willis and Sean Cole from the UK.

Overview of prospected sites.
Overview of prospected sites.

13/14th of October 2014 - Carpathians and Bukarest

The weekend prior to the trip I visited the AG Urodela in Gersfeld and on Monday I flew from Munich to Bukarest in the early morning. Eventough Ronald was unsure if he could make the flight due to overbooking (still can't believe this is legal) he was lucky and flew together with Gertjan from Amsterdam to the Romanian capitol. Our three British friends were already waiting for us and after collecting our damaged rental van we were on our way north into the Carpathians. In the late afternoon we arrived on site just outside Brasov and searched for a known place for Adder, Eastern Slow Worm and Carpathian Newt, finding only Yellow-bellied Toad (Bombina variegata), Sand Lizard (Lacerta agilis) juveniles and Grass Frog (Rana temporaria). Not the most spectacular beginning of the trip and on the ornithological front things were a bit more interesting. An Ural Owl (Strix uralensis) was hunting for mice and allowed close approach. What a bird! In the evening we checked in in hotel Astra in Brasov, ate at the Golden Arches and went to look for bears on the outskirts of town without result.

The next day we had a very special breakfast with warm lemonade that was supposed to be tea I think and Sean enjoyed his cup of cold coffee. On the herping front things were equally slow as the day before and as mind lifting as the breakfast because we could only add Crested Newt (Triturus cristatus), Alpine Newt (Ichthyosaura alpestris), Marsh Frog (Pelophylax ridibundus) and Viviparous Lizard (Zootoca vivipara) to our list. We still enjoyed our time in the Carpathians as the full autumn gloom in the forests was a delight to observe.

In the afternoon we drove to a patch of forest outside Bukarest and searched for Meadow Lizard which we didn't find. Eastern Green Lizard (Lacerta viridis), Eastern Tree Frog (Hyla orientalis), Agile Frog (Rana dalmatina), Edible Frog (Pelophylax kl. esculentus), Common Toad (Bufo bufo), Crested Newt and Smooth Snake (Coronella austriaca) were our only observations here. Two Black Woodpeckers (Dryocopus maritius) were heard calling. A long drive to the coast followed and we checked in into La Scoica Land in Mamaia, an opulent estate at the coast where we could replenish our energy supply on fresh pizza and a beer or two. I had jacuzzi duty this evening and we all slept like babies in our kingsize love nests.

15th of October 2014 - wider Danube delta

Lots of wind and a clouded sky. No optimal conditions to observe reptiles and none of our highly desired Steppe Runners (Eremias arguta) could be observed in the morning. A bit further inland the wind had lost most of its influence and a Smooth Snake was found basking along with a juvenile Caspian Whip Snake (Dolichophis caspius), several Dice Snakes (Natrix tessellata) and a few Grass Snakes (Natrix natrix). When the sun finally gained in strength and the wind calmed down we headed back to the beach and could easily observe many Steppe Runners basking at the base of small shrubs. Especially many juveniles were found. A great experience to see these small little lizards in the wild. The Steppe Runner is a widespread species occuring as far east as China and Mongolia but in Europe they are confined to Romania. They prefer the spargely vegetated coastal strip in direct vicinity of the Black Sea. We also found a juvenile Sand Lizard (Lacerta agilis chersonensis), several Grass Snakes crawling around and a few Eastern Tree Frogs calling. Lots of birds were seen here as well some high-lights including: Pelican (Pelecanus sp.), Pygmy Cormorant (Phalacrocorax pygmeus), Marsh Harrier (Circus aeruginosus), Hen Harrier (Circus cyaneus) and Arctic Skua (Stercorarius parasiticus).

In the late afternoon we headed towards the Histria ruins. Scenery wise not the most impressive place nor archeologically but the amount of Dice Snakes certainly was. Many were seen basking in the rock walls along with a few Caspian Whip Snakes. Also Marsh Frog, Balkan Wall Lizard (Podarcis tauricus) and three European Pond Terrapins (Emys orbicularis) that fell into a deep hole were saved by GJ while a Little Owl (Athene noctua) was observing us.

After dark we went to a place hinted to us by Benny Trapp, certainly a good tip as we could easily see more than 30 Eastern Spadefoot Toads (Pelobates syriacus) foraging open sandy clearings in the marsh. On the road back to the hotel we saw a couple of Tree Frogs. After another great pizza and a few beers I was so looking forward of using the jacuzzi again, sadly it was Gertjan's turn so I watched a movie in bed. Solido man! Ronald and Trevor had a mystery guest in the room that turned out to be our first Green Toad (Bufotes viridis) observation.

Sunset over the grassy plains. © Trevor Willis
Sunset over the grassy plains. © Trevor Willis

16th of October 2014 - Bulgarian Black Sea Coast

Our day started with a horribly long drive south to reach the far Southeastern part of Bulgaria. An area with lots of species most notably the only place in Europe where Reddish Whip Snake (Platyceps collaris) occurs. This species was not for all of us new as some of the team-members saw them in Israel, but it is still worth to search for this stunning little snake. It would be hard to find them as they seem to be not really active anymore at this time of year. We decided to give it a try all the same... Also Blotched Snake (Elaphe sauromates) occurs here and since none of us ever saw an adult, also this species took a prominent place on our wish lists.

After Paul bribed one of the border police officers who has an indestructible Iphone now we changed the poor Romanian roads for the clearly better Bulgarian ones and drove towards Primorsko. In the afternoon we reached the range of Reddish Whip Snake and started searching. At the first search site we found Marsh Frog, Agile Frog, Nose-horned Viper (Vipera ammodytes), Caspian Whip Snake, Eastern Green Lizard and an Eastern Slow Worm (Anguis colchica) juvenile. At the second site three nice Nose-horned Vipers and a few Balkan Wall Lizards. The third place is an unfinished hotel, built for the last Bulgarian dictator Todor Zhirkov but it never was in use. By humans that is because the piles of rubble around the main structure offers great habitat for both species of snake that we wanted to see so badly. Neither of them could be found but instead we found Balkan Crested Newt (Triturus ivanbureschi), Agile Frog, Marsh Frog, Grass Snake, Wall Lizard (Podarcis muralis) and Eastern Green Lizard. The basements of the hotel are partially flooded and provide refuge for a great number of bats. In places that catch a bit of sunlight Marsh Frogs live within this gloomy world and even Grass Snakes were seen hunting for frogs.

I made a reservation at Guest House Stenli this evening but with a non existing address, local people not knowing it and a false phone number it became obvious this was a scam. Luckily Hotel Imperial provided a more trustworthy stay and after negotiating we even got single rooms for a great price. Dinner in the hotel was also very tasty and a bit before midnight we headed towards the Arkutino Swamp to search for Fire-bellied Toad (Bombina bombina) that was easily found next to Common Newt (Lissotriton vulgaris), Balkan Crested Newt larvae and metamorphs and many Marsh Frogs. After ample admiration and one soaking wet boot we went back to the hotel. GJ and I secretly didn't sleep in our single rooms but shared a room so we could have pyama parties.

17th of October 2014 - Bulgarian Black Sea Coast

In the morning we searched at the same promising looking sites as the day before but could not find our main targets. We still enjoyed finding loads of other beautiful species. A revisit to the abandoned hotel delivered for example the same species as the day before plus Common Toad, Snake-eyed Skink (Ablepharus kitaibellii), Nose-horned Viper, Eastern Slow Worm and its considerably larger relative; a beautiful Glass Lizard (Pseudopus apodus). At the Ancient Thracian rock sanctuary of Beglik Tash we found two Hermann's Tortoises (Testudo hermanni), Wall Lizard, Eastern Green Lizard, Edible Frog and from within Rock Crevices calling Kotschy's Geckos (Mediodactylus kotschyi). With still some hours of sun to go we went to the last search site of the day, an old quarry within open oak forest. Several Fallow Deer (Dama dama) were spooked when I approached the site and also several amphibians and reptiles could be found such as Nose-horned Viper, Grass Snake, Balkan Wall Lizard, Wall Lizard, Eastern Green Lizard, Balkan Crested Newt and Edible Frog. Beautiful habitat and we agreed to come back here the next day.

We had dinner in the hotel while loud Greek music (that Shazam did not even recognize as music) didn't annoy us at all. After dinner we searched for Kotschy's Gecko in the town and hanging at the roof of a pharmacy Trevor found the only individual we saw this trip. Ronald and I didn't feel like sleeping yet so explored the thrilling nightlife of Primorsko downtown and had a few beers before heading to bed as well.

18th of October 2014 - Bulgarian Black Sea Coast & Danube river

Before driving back to the Romanian border we searched a bit in the wider Primorsko area. At the promising quarry we visited the day before we could find Balkan Crested Newt, Agile Frog, Marsh Frog, Wall Lizard, Balkan Wall Lizard, Eastern Green Lizard, Grass Snake, Caspian Whip Snake, Aesculapian Snake (Zamenis longissimus) and Nose-horned Viper. At the Arkutino Swamp we found many amphibians and met the friendly Bulgarian ecologist Krasimir Kirov who gave us a good tip for Danube Crested Newt, our main target for the evening. We decided to search shortly at a good place along the road before starting the long drive north and I could catch a big and beautiful Eastern Montpellier Snake (Malpolon insignitus), what a magnificent snake! Just besides the road Paul discovered a freshly killed Blotched Snake (Elaphe sauromates). After seeing a Blotched Snake getting run over in front of my eyes in Greece in 2010, again I (or rather the group) was unlucky as this snake was certainly less than a day old. Such a beautiful creature killed by an unwary driver.

A long drive followed across the Bulgarian countryside, next to the road we saw a freshly run-over Lynx (Lynx lynx). In the late evening we arrived at Ruse, a border town were we would spend the night. First we searched at the place hinted to us by Krasimir and could easily find dozens of Danube Crested Newt (Triturus dobrogicus) leaving the water behind as they were crossing the road to their hibernacula. Also Marsh Frog, Green Toad and Fire-bellied Toad were seen in small numbers. Rather late we searched for a hotel and with most hotels being fully booked, we ended up in Hotel Mali. A fitting name. The lady behing the counter didn't understand a word of what we were saying or trying to say and it literally took an hour (!) before this hungry lot could finally go to their rooms. There were no restaurants nearby so we ordered pizza. Ronald and I went into the grim city at night for a beer and discovered that Ruse is a beautiful lively city at night.

19th of October 2014 - Bukarest and home

After a not so long drive we arrived in the same forest outside Bukarest again were we searched a few days before, in the hope to find Meadow Lizard this time. Again no luck and only Grass Snake, Marsh Frog and Eastern Green Lizard were found. Then it was time to bring back the rental car and head to the airport were we had a looooong wait for the flight. Paul saved someones life to stir things up a bit but after a while it was time to say goodbye after a great trip.

Autumn is a hard season for herping and knowing this, our somehwat limited results can be explained. But with a total of 34 species found, seeing so many beautiful places and having so much fun we can hardly complain about anything! Surely I will come back to see both Romania and especially Bulgaria into more detail because both countries have lots of places left to explore.

Massive thanks to all amigos for making this trip to such a succes, I had a blast!

Species

Alpine Newt (Ichthyosaura alpestris)

Common Newt (Lissotriton vulgaris)

Great Crested Newt (Triturus cristatus)

Danube Crested Newt (Triturus dobrogicus)

Balkan Crested Newt (Triturus ivanbureschi)

Fire-bellied Toad (Bombina bombina)

Yellow-bellied Toad (Bombina variegata)

Common Toad (Bufo bufo)

Green Toad (Bufotes viridis)

Eastern Tree Frog (Hyla orientalis)

Eastern Spadefoot Toad (Pelobates syriacus)

Marsh Frog (Pelophylax ridibundus)

Edible Frog (Pelophylax kl. esculentus)

Agile Frog (Rana dalmatina)

Grass Frog (Rana temporaria)

European Pond Terrapin (Emys orbicularis)

Hermann's Tortoise (Testudo hermanni)

Kotschy's Gecko (Mediodactylus kotschyi)

Snake-eyed Skink (Ablepharus kitaibellii)

Eastern Slow Worm (Anguis colchica)

Glass Lizard (Pseudopus apodus)

Steppe Runner (Eremias arguta)

Sand Lizard (Lacerta agilis ssp. chersonensis)

Eastern Green Lizard (Lacerta viridis meridionalis)

Common Wall Lizard (Podarcis muralis)

Balkan Wall Lizard (Podarcis tauricus)

Smooth Snake (Coronella austriaca)

Caspian Whip Snake (Dolichophis caspius)

Blotched Snake (Elaphe sauromates) DOR

Eastern Montpellier Snake (Malpolon insignitus)

Grass Snake (Natrix natrix ssp. persa)

Dice Snake (Natrix tessellata)

Aesculapian Snake (Zamenis longissimus)

Nose-horned Viper (Vipera ammodytes ssp. montandoni)

 

Many thanks to: Vlad Cioflec, Lepadus Florin, Krasimir Kirov, Tibor Sos, Jeroen Speybroeck, Benny Trapp and Bert Vandebosch.