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A Report from birdtours.co.uk

Iron Gates N.P., Serbia (Yugoslavia), January 1999,

Dragan Simic

The Danube Winter Season

Copyright 2000-2003 by Dragan Simic goingbirding@yahoo.com

International Waterfowl Census on Yugoslav Danube: More than 300,000 waterfowl come annually from northern Europe to spend the winter on the Danube at Ram, Golubac, Donji Milanovac...

(There is a bit of history attached to this article: it first appeared in last ever published issue of Evropljanin (The European) newsmagazine owned by Slavko Curuvija, the forerunner of free media in Serbia - until his sudden, violent and still unsolved death. Curuvija was shot dead in front of his home in Belgrade city center in April 1999 during NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, less than three weeks after the magazine was published.)

One very old, golden-headed mature White-tailed Eagle flew above us one late January 1999 afternoon, while the green trawler Aka entered the dock at Donji Milanovac in east Serbia. Milica Ivovic (Belgrade's Natural History Museum), Goran Sekulic and myself (Bird Protection and Study Society of Vojvodina) had counted 29,000 ducks that day alone.

Next morning, Zoran Milovanovic, biologist from the Djerdap (Iron Gates) National Park joined us, and Captain Popovic started the engine. Zoran showed us the garbage container by the Park HQ building: "These days it's often full of ducks. While diving for food, Pochards, Tufted Ducks, Goldeneyes and Smews often end up in fishing nets, and in the morning we find containers full of heads and feathers."

The day was cold and windy, but despite the weather, Milica, Goran, Zoran and I were sitting on the prow in order to count all the waterfowl. In front of us - wide flooded Porec River mouth and 23 Goosanders. Compared to previous years, their number is growing.

Raising the collar of his green ranger's uniform, Zoran told us that in the winter pf 1998, 17 Mute Swans had came here. Tomorrow there were 16 of them, the day after only 15! Although Yugoslav law does allow fishing and hunting in national parks, swans are protected (but the law is little enforced) and are not considered game birds. Hunting in the parks is totally banned only from certain high-protection special reserve areas. It is questionable that is it respected there, either - the Park is understaffed and lack vehicles, e.g. they don't have a singe boat. Zoran was only too happy to join us, not only to count wildfowl but also for an opportunity to patrol the Park by boat. And so, the next day Zoran, without his uniform, visited a nearby village only to find out that "these geese are really tasty!"

We continued our sail toward the village of Golubinje. It was damn cold, and the wind was playing with the first snowflakes, but we remained on the prow. "Science is a cruel mistress", a line from Luc Besson's The Big Blue movie came to mind. Soon, we were rewarded: along the left, Romanian bank there was a flock of 1100 Pochards, then 250 more in flight, and 200...

"Total 8000 Pochards" said Milica into her tape recorder a few minutes later. Dressed like an Eskimo, she explained that the Yugoslav sector of the Danube, especially downriver from Belgrade, is one of the key areas in waterfowl migration and wintering.

While snow was getting heavier, the Aka found itself in front of one of the most impressive sights on the entire Danube - after being 2000 meters wide at Donji Milanovac, the river is squeezed into less than 200 meters in the Kazan Canyon where cliffs rise up to 600 meters above the river. Zoran pointed our attention toward relict Yew - the only green spots on the limestone-gray and snow-white cliffs. In ancient times Yew was considered a holy tree among the Serbs, among other reasons because it's the only conifer that will continue to grew from it's stump after the tree has been cut down. A Yew branch in a wallet was supposed to prevent money from leaving it (pity, I don't think they ever invented a tree capable of inviting the money into the wallet).

After Kazan, in front of the small town of Tekija, Derdap Lake becomes wider, 1000 meters and more, and any water flow seems to cease. I was sick of snow and cold, so I sent all the birds straight to hell and went to warm myself on the bridge - where all the windows were foggy from condensation, and counting was all but impossible. Zoran explained that there is an initiative to protect the left bank of the river - the poorest and least developed part of Romania, and establish an international park.

There are lots of reasons for such protection. The Danube is a collector of wastewater for the region which has 80 million inhabitants, and because the speed of the flow is significantly reduced in front of the Dam, all heavy metals, pesticides, fertilizer run-off and other toxins from entire Central Europe end up in the bottom sediments. (Only two months later, NATO destruction of chemical plants and oil refineries contributed another thick layer of toxins on the riverbed - not to mention a cyanide spill from a Romanian gold mine in February 2000.)

A few more kilometers, and the green trawler was tied up among the Dam gates. I expected some turbulence while we were loosing 34 meters - like going down from the 11th floor. On the contrary, we were loosing height quickly and unnoticeably. This Dam has flooded Djerdap Gorge in 1969, slowed the river flow and forever cut the migration route of endangered White Sturgeon and Stellate Sturgeon (900 kg heavy White Sturgeons used to be caught by the Donji Milanovac fishermen), and made extinct unique cave species of insects and arthropods even before they were studied and described by scientists. Also, more than 80 significant Neolithic, Roman, mediaeval and Turkish archaeological sites will never be fully explored, and more than 24,000 people have had to be resettled.

But, on the other hand, all depressions upriver from the Dam were permanently flooded, and a number of wetlands restored or created. Among them is the Dubovac Wetland which supports a 1000 pairs-strong heronry - the largest in Serbia. Also, more than 300,000 waterfowl overwinter on the lower Danube in Yugoslavia - that was not the case before the dam was built.

In front of the Aka's prow the Dam gates opened, and again we took our places at the deck to count Great Cormorants roosting in the tree canopies of the Davidovac Island. There were few a dozen Pygmy Cormorants among them. Canopies were white... of snow? No, of bird droppings!

Ten more kilometers, and we saw the town of Kladovo and numerous dark spots in the winter sunset. We were counting frenetically: 100, 200, 300... all 2000 Mallards, 450 Wigeons, 300 Pochards and 60 Tufted Ducks. Milica takes off her frozen binoculars to explain that wetland areas in northern Europe are several times larger than in southern Europe and that's why we have that great concentrations on several important spots of southern Europe - Yugoslav Danube among them.

That evening the Aka was tied at Kladovo wharf. The snow was covering the trawler, while Milica, Goran and me were enjoying the warmth of flames, visible through the glass door of the boat oil stove, their yellowish glow playing on the mahogany interior, and made totals for the day. Since everyone was counting for him/herself, due to poor visibility combined with swirling movements of some large flocks (10,000 individuals) totals tended to differ from the usual 15% to sometimes even 30%, so we were extracting the middle figures to lower the bias.

On that night, the Aka ended the voyage started in Belgrade five days ago. The remaining 90 km of the Yugoslav Danube were covered by car. The research, organized by Belgrade's Natural History Museum, was mostly sponsored by the Regional Environmental Center for Central and Eastern Europe (REC). More than 200,000 waterfowl were counted.

It is interesting to notice that one year later, in a similar count in January 2000, the Danube section from Belgrade to the triple border with Romania and Bulgaria was covered entirely by boat, and more than 300,000 waterfowl were counted.

Wintering waterfowl of Djerdap (Iron Gates) National Park:

Great Crested Grebe (Podiceps cristatus), Little Grebe (Tachybaptus ruficollis), Great Cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo), Pygmy Cormorant (P. pygmeus), Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea), Mute Swan (Cygnus olor), Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos), Wigeon (A. penelope), Pochard (Aythya ferina), Tufted Duck (A. fuligula), Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula), Smew (Mergus albellus), Merganser (M. serrator), Goosander (M. merganser), Coot (Fulica atra)

Travellers' Advisory

The Djerdap National Park in eastern Serbia, internationally known as Iron Gates after its old Roman name Porta Ferea, stretches along the right bank of the Danube River from the well preserved 15th century nine-tower Golubac fortress to the Iron Gates Dam near the town of Kladovo. It spreads over 65,000 hectares, and the Park HQ is in Donji Milanovac (National park Djerdap, 19220 Donji Milanovac, tel. +381 30 86788).

What to see:

The main feature of the Djerdap NP is the famous Iron Gates - the grandiose gateway through the southern slopes of the Carpathian Mountains. The 100 kilometres long Djerdap Gorge (from Golubac to Tekija) is actually a compound river valley made up of four gorges and canyons (Gornja Klisura, Gospodjin Vir, Kazan Canyon and Sipska Klisura), separated from each other by ravines. In Gospodjin Vir, one of the greatest (natural) river depths in the world has been measured - 82 m (after the Dam was built, it's over 90 meters now).

The National Park has an abundant and diversified animal (Lynx, Chamois, Deer, Wild Boar, Golden Eagle, Peregrine Falcon, Eagle Owl, Black Stork, etc) and especially plant life (relict Yew conifer, etc), attractive landscapes, historical monuments and a huge lake - with wind pattern making it a popular spot for sailing regattas.

The area is dotted with many cultural heritage sites: Lepenski Vir Museum, the 8,000-year-old archaeological site with exceptionally important traces of a 59-house settlement and numerous stone sculptures representing human heads that in fishermen's lore had gained some fish-like characteristics - round, full lips and bulging eyes; the Golubac fortress, the Kladovo fortress, remains of a Roman fortress at Hajducka Vodenica Cove in Kazan Canyon, etc.

Where to stay:

I stayed on the boat, but there are a number of hotels (excellent Lepenski Vir Hotel on the hill above Donji Milanovac, with a restaurant, bar, swimming pool and tennis courts, overlooking the 2000 meters wide river; two more hotels in Kladovo) and other facilities (small motel in Tekija; private rooms for rent at Porec River summer cottages; campsites on the beach in Tekija, unfortunately without shade nor showers and with long-drop type toilets).

Getting there by car or bus:

Go southeast from Belgrade along Nis Highway, take the exit for Pozarevac and continue east by Veliko Gradiste to Golubac and Donji Milanovac. Iron Gates Dam is also a border post to Romania.

Once in the Park, there are only two asphalt roads: the main Golubac - Donji Milanovac - Kladovo road going along the bank of the river (be sure to stop at the parking lot above Hajducka Vodenica, in between Donji Milanovac and Tekija, to feed your eyes and soul on the most grandiose vista on the entire Danube), and the Donji Milanovac - Negotin road going along the slopes of wooded Miroc Mountain (and passing by the Sarkamen mediaeval archaeological site that is being excavated these years - not yet opened for visits, but you may be lucky to find archaeologists at work).

Dirt roads through the woods can be negotiated by high-clearance 4x2 sedans in August-September, well after the spring rains, but if there were any heavy showers recently, you'll need a 4x4.

Getting there by canoe:

A great way to explore and enjoy Iron Gates is to join Tour International Danubien (TID), the longest annual canoe tour in the world starting in Germany in late June and, after 2080 km, ending in Bulgaria by the end of August. Of course, you may join them for a day or two (e.g. just to pass the Iron Gates) or for a week or two... The choice is entirely yours.

I have joined the TID in 1998 to pass the Iron Gates, and in the process I didn't only explored Djerdap, including visit to a flooded Veterani Cave by paddling 50 meters into it (and another 200 m can be explored on foot), but also made new friends. TID paddlers, coming not just from both West and East Europe but also from entire world, from America to New Zealand, share great camaraderie and a laid-back attitude. It's common to join them wherever, and there'll probably be an empty seat in some of the boats, so you don't even need a canoe of your own.

TID is passing through Serbia from late July to mid-August, and Iron Gates from 9th to 12th of August, camping at Dobra, Donji Milanovac, Tekija and Kladovo. For arrangements you may contact the Kayaking Federation of Serbia: Kajakaski savez Srbije, Timocka 18, 11000 Beograd, Yugoslavia, or phone their Secretary Dusan Milenkovic at +381 11 404088. Alternatively, you may contact an experienced TID paddler and my good friend Bole who will be happy to make an arrangements for you: Borislav Bozinovic, Seljackih buna 41, 21000 Novi Sad, Yugoslavia; phone +381 21 400739, e-mail bolens@EUnet.yu.

Local contacts:

For information, please write to: League for the Ornithological Action of Serbia and Montenegro, 51 Njegoseva St., 11000 Belgrade, Serbia and Montenegro; or directly to the LOASM chairman, Dragan Simic, at goingbirding@yahoo.com.

Copyright Notice
Material contained within this page is copyright 2000-2003 Dragan Simic.
Permission to reproduce this material in any manner must first be obtained in writing from the author.

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