Words and photos courtesy of Krisztina Csiki
As a Swedish master student with Transylvanian roots, I expected my dissertation journey with Operation Wallacea in Transylvania to be a fairly familiar experience. This has proved to be both true and false. During my 8 weeks on the project, I have had moments of nostalgia and a feeling of being home – especially when it comes to some of the food I had here. But in so many other ways, I got to see Transylvania with a new perspective, making me appreciate the beauty of the area even more. Spending so much time out in nature with people sharing the same passion about wildlife has been eye-opening and extremely educational. What I liked the most during my stay was to see how everyone, even though people specialized in different areas, showed interest in all parts of wildlife – whether it be a snake, rare plant, bear print, or a bird’s nest. The breath-taking view of the Carpathian Mountains from some of the survey sites in the villages we stayed in certainly added a lot to the experience!
The atmosphere of the villages was warm and hospitable. The locals and hosts especially appreciated our efforts to learn some words in Romanian, and even though I knew some words and phrases from before my Opwall journey, I learnt a lot from the Romanian translators as well. Because of the fact that the villages have a Saxon history, many of them had beautiful fortified churches looking down from the hills, adding to the atmosphere. In the early mornings and evenings, one could hear the bells of the ciurdă (the cow herd) coming home to their owners. The old couples were often sitting on a bench outside their little farmhouse to guide their cow home and to get a glance of the strangers arriving to their village.
A normal day for me began at 4:30 in the morning. After half an hour to get ready, me, my field supervisor, and a Romanian translator left camp with a packed breakfast to set up mist nets at the ringing sites. We opened the nets at 5:30 AM and set up the ringing station at a distance from them, to avoid disturbance. The nets were checked every 40 min until closing at about 11 AM. At this time, bird activity usually dropped due to the heat. On most mornings we had a high school group or research assistant group with us on site, to teach them about the birds and how a ringing survey is carried out. As the weeks passed, I got more and more comfortable with ringing and taking measurements myself. After packing up the nets and equipment, we headed back to camp for a traditional lunch: soup! The mid-days and afternoons were most often very hot, so if there were no excursions or lectures on the schedule, the team spent the time talking or entering survey data inside or in the shade. Some afternoons, we took a trip to the closest city Sighisoara to go to a grocery store or restaurant. Dinner at camp usually consisted of traditional Romanian food like sarmale (cabbage rolls) with sour cream, polenta, or different kinds of pork dishes. For me and some other surveyers, the days usually ended early to catch up some sleep. The last evenings in each village often ended with a campfire.
I would have never thought that some of the things I would appreciate the most after these weeks include sleeping on flat surfaces (not waking up in new corners of the tent after gliding), finding shade without ants crawling on you, a nap in a hammock, or a warm shower. Those little things that I definitely take for granted at home. Moreover, if someone had told me that I would be waking up at 4:30 AM nearly every day for 8 weeks, I would not have believed it. And that some nights would be spent listening to the barking stray dogs. But here I am! And I am certain that what made me make it through was doing something that I have been dreaming of doing for a while now – ringing birds. Except for gathering data for my dissertation on passerine biodiversity, I came with the goal to see four specific species in the hand: the hoopoe, golden oriole, bee-eater, and kingfisher. Not only did I get to see three of them, I also got to ring at least one of each myself, including 60 more species! Some unexpected species that I also got to experience was a water rail and a sparrow hawk.
This unforgettable experience had not been possible without Operation Wallacea and my incredible field supervisor and bird ringing survey leader, Paul Leafe. He always spread positive energy, made an effort to give me the best possible experience by finding new places to try mist netting, teaching me everything he knows about birds, and letting me handle them. This trip has definitely given me more than one reason to come back to Transylvania!