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Danube near Belgrade (Yugoslavia), Summer 1996, Winter 1997,Dragan Simic
During spring and summer months, Belgrade riverbanks and willow groves owe their charm especially to their egrets and herons. The first Night Herons appear in the treetops of the little island by the name of Konjska Ada in the River Danube branch by the end of March, silent and motionless, exhausted by the long migration, and the first Little Egrets appear at the beginning of April. Later in April, when the river rises and floods the banks and groves enveloped in the strong scents of the blossoming willows, and the wind plays with the first shaggy fluff of the poplar trees, the third nesting bird of the breeding colony in the very hart of the city arrives - the Squacco Heron.
During July, my wife Duda had a hard week at work and was at the end of her strength, exhausted and depressed. On Saturday morning I woke her up with a lot of difficulty so that we would be able to get on the river before pleasure boaters occupied the banks.
"Listen, I'm very tired. We won't go far, will we?"
Duda wasn't wide-awake yet; her paddle strokes were slow and sleepy. At that time of day only fishermen, enveloped in the morning mist, can be seen in their slender river boats, almost unchanged by centuries, as they give themselves to the river streams. Oily still water was carrying one such riverboat. The fisherman sat on the middle thwart, ruddering with one hand and whacking against the water with the wooden cone with the other hand. This cone is a 40cm long wooden rod with a hollow on the lower end which is made for traditional catfish fishing. With each blow a sound is produced like when you put your finger in a bottleneck and take it out with a noisy pop sound. That irritates the catfish so he comes to check what is going on; in the muddy green water he sees a red wobbler. He swallows it greedily, only to realize a moment later that with the red wobbler he has also swallowed a big treble hook - so curiosity kills the catfish!
I noticed that Duda was paddling more and more easily with every stroke. I knew how much stamina she had, and I knew that this day outdoors would enable her to face the problems at work more easily.
I directed the canoe to the River Sava, which at the base of Belgrade's fortress' walls flows into the River Danube. We paddled by the medieval dungeon, the Nebojsa (Dare-Devil) Tower, and went on with paddling on the River Danube branch near Konjska Ada island. The heronry now was a noisy place where parents came flying every moment to feed their numerous offspring. Dozen years ago, the colony numbered about 1,000 nesting pairs and was located on the neighbouring Veliko Ratno Ostrvo island. In 1987, 260 pairs moved to Konjska Ada island and the rest joined the other colony, 15km down the river. We spent some time under the willows that were white from bird droppings, enjoying seeing how the ruffled Little Egrets clumsily tried to leave their nests.
Turquoise and rich pink coloured dragonflies were flying around us. The banks of Veliko Ratno Ostrvo island were covered with the yellow flowers which grow in the water, and my friend Tommy appeared in his yellow kayak somewhere from the flowers, giving Duda the whole bunch.
The moment I had feared came. Duda became suspicious so she turned back and asked "How long do you think we will go on like this?"
It was a psychological hitch: as long as she didn't find out how many kilometres we had done, she would paddle effortlessly but if she found out the mileage it might seem too far and she could be very tired and, at the very same moment, feel tired. That's why I lied to her that we had done only half of what we really had. Satisfied with the answer, she lowered the paddle into the water. Phew! The crisis had passed for now.
We passed by a colourful group of boats anchored in a marina, in which, in the little restaurant, excellent spicy fish soup is cooked - the speciality of the Danube River fishermen. Fishermen make this soup of small fish, not worth taking to market. In some willow groves they cross three oars, wrap a chain around them and hang a smoke-black cauldron on the chain. The one on duty stirs up the fire and adds all the ingredients while the others drink wine and discuss the size of the fish that got away from them that day. We were approaching the upper end of the island of Veliko Ratno Ostrvo with a wide beach of fine river sand. Out of the swimming season, this is a heavenly place with its flock of Black-headed Gulls fishing in the shallow waters or resting for a while but now this was an overcrowded beach and we desperately tried to go around as quickly as possible.
"How much have we done so far?"
Considering we were past halfway and it was shorter to return to the marina by continuing around the island, this time I told her the true distance. If only you could see her face! I knew she could do it! Anyway, from here it was downstream all the way - even if we take out the paddles, the river would take us to the marina. The sun was high and we left the canoe to the river stream...
... which stranded us on the bank of Veliko Ratno Ostrvo island near a 6m long pleasure boat by the name of Bohemian. I pinpointed the canoe by sticking paddles around it into the river mud. Not far away from us, in the deep shadow of the willow branches bending over the water, from roots protruding from the eroded bank, a few Night Herons searched for food for their offspring. They usually feed in the dawn and in the twilight but at this time of the year they are forced to change their habits.
The owner and captain of the Bohemian, my good friend Gane, who at that very moment was stirring up the fire under the smoke-black cauldron, invited us to join them - there was enough soup for everyone. We spent hours chatting and taking a nap in the hammock stretched between old tall poplar trees. When we got into the canoe again, a few aquatic snails were caught on the paddles.
We went on with our journey approaching a sand bar which, during low water level, emerges 50-100m from the bank of the island. Duda got out of the canoe, happily floundering through the shallow water, letting fine sand get between her toes...
... only the very next moment to go down one of the holes on the bottom with a bewildered expression on her face. She came to the surface immediately with wet hair, only to look at me angrily while I laughed - she splashed me with water.
A little further down the river, a large flock of Little Egrets floundered through the shallow waters of the mud bank on the east of Veliko Ratno Ostrvo island. Among them we spotted four motionless giants, Grey Herons. We went on with our voyage, surrounded by lots of Barn Swallows chasing after low flying insects all around our canoe. For some unexplained reason, we always paddle more coordinated when we return to the marina. With pleasure I watched Duda's silhouette lifting and lowering the paddle with fluent movements blending into one movement. We entered the marina, calmed and relaxed, filled with pleasure from being outdoors.
In two weeks, in the middle of July, the heronry on the Konjska Ada island would be deserted, and the number of herons and egrets on the banks of the river would considerably decrease: breeding would be over and the birds would move to places with better feeding conditions. Autumn migration takes place during August and September and, before thick layers of autumn fog cover the river, the last of the birds from the Konjska Ada island would leave this region.
This area of the Danube in winter months attracts large number of waterfowl (over 20 species of ducks were recorded in the last 14 years - White-headed Duck included!). White-tailed Eagles are recorded here reasonably frequently. I observed the eagles at that very same mud bank, once even tearing its prey apart - only at the time it was frozen solid. The Danube is important wintering area for wildfowl and downriver from Belgrade to Bulgarian border, in January 2000 there were 300,000 wintering ducks!
One sunny winter Saturday in 1997 I was paddling along the Danube just outside Belgrade, near the Veliko Ratno Ostrvo island, well known to those familiar with the view of the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers from the buttresses of Belgrade ancient Kalemegdan fortress. It was just after noon and the fishermen had long since checked their nets. We were quite alone, my two friends in a canoe, myself in a kayak and sizable flock of Northern Pochards and Coots.
As a canoeing birdwatcher, I have been observing birds along the Belgrade section of the Danube River for years and, according to notes that I have collected, I have information about more than 130 species of bird, some of them true rarities. One of them has eluded me for a long time, and the quest for the rarest of birds to be found in this region - Europe's biggest eagle - was slowly growing into an obsession.
Suddenly, the calm of the winter day was shattered by a huge bird that dived among the Pochards. Things were moving too quickly for me to be able to identify the intruder with certainty. The panic stricken Pochards scattered heavenwards.
I had a fair idea what the huge creature might have been but I was not certain. The predator, its claws empty after its abortive hunt, beat its powerful wings two or three times to soar away in the direction of Veliko Ratno Ostrvo island. "Was it truly it, was it really?" My heart throbbed in my throat with excitement.
The magnificent bird took an upward current of air above the island, riding it with its wings outspread to their outer limits, over two and half metres, rising without any expenditure of energy. Entering the western segments of the imaginary circles it was tracing with its beak in the sky, it would turn its brilliant white tail to the sun. My excitement grew uncontainably! I waited for it to make another circle and then let the certainty wash over me: the sky over Belgrade had been graced by the white tail of the bird I had been stalking for years - the White-tailed Sea Eagle!
Early this century, a pair of White-tailed Sea Eagles nested on the island of Ada Ciganlija in the Sava River, today situated virtually in the heart of Belgrade; in the 1920s another pair nested near Zemun, today a Belgrade district. It is a realistic supposition that no less then ten pairs nested across the Danube in the Pancevacki Rit wetlands.
Today, in the reclaimed wetlands of Pancevacki Rit, only one pair of these glorious birds remains. The situation is no better elsewhere; deforestation and wetlands reclamation have deprived these once frequent birds of nesting places and hunting grounds while water pollution, disturbance of their nests and illegal hunting and poisoning of stray dogs have combined to reduce their number to some 25 to 28 breeding pairs, all of them in Serbia's northern province of Vojvodina, across the Danube and the Sava from Belgrade.
Since that first sighting I have published a paper on the White-tailed Sea Eagle in the Belgrade area but no sighting has touched me so deeply as the view of two adult birds I saw on the Danube opposite Belgrade's Dorcol district on the sunny afternoon of 7th February: they flew close together, joining claws and cartwheeling in the sky, courting and abandoning themselves to their joy of life.
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.