Victoria Hillman is a National Geographic Explorer and Research Director for the Transylvanian Wildlife Project overseeing research on carnivores and biodiversity of Europe’s last great wilderness. Follow the expedition here on Explorers Journal through updates from the team.
Despite the rain we have been busy these first few weeks getting out to the site when we can but also finalising all the details and paperwork for the research site which falls within the Alpine biogeographical region in Central-Northern Covasna County (Romania) of the Carpathian Mountains. The Csomad-Balvanyos region covers just under 1900 hectares and ranges in altitude from 641m to 1244m. The habitats of the area consist of both deciduous and coniferous forests along with mixed and transitional forests interspersed with natural grassland meadows, rivers and streams. The Carpathian Mountains are Europe’s largest mountain range experiencing huge temperature variations from around -20°C in the winter to +35°C in the summer, have huge species diversity that is unparalleled in Europe leading to it being named by WWF in the ‘Global 200’ making it one of the most significant natural areas left on the planet and a conservation priority. That said only around 16% of this vital corridor for species dispersal is under some form of protection and to put this all into perspective, our research site is less than 0.01% of this total area.
Our research site is a volcanic region and as such is characterised by numerous post-volcanic phenomena including lethal sulphur caves and pits, sulphur springs and numerous caves and trust me when I say you can certainly smell the sulphur in these areas! As the weather has improved we have been making trips to different parts of the research site to collect as many photographs of species as possible with the main focus being on the wild flowers to capture them before their flowering period comes to an end and with this there have been plenty of invertebrates as well. We have been keeping an eye out for any signs of the larger mammals and have not been disappointed finding signs of wild boar, deer and plenty of bear tracks and on making our way down from the ridge we came across our first wild bear just eating away next to a stream in the late afternoon sun. We believe this one to be a sub-adult due to the size, we watched it for a few minutes but as soon as it saw us it was off back into the forest but it was a real joy to see this great animal in its natural habitat and this was in fact my first wild bear sighting so I was extra excited!
Other sightings have included several buzzards, white storks, a baby grass snake in a temporary pool of water that was also filled with tadpoles of the fire-bellied toad, two species of lizard, plenty of invertebrates in all shapes, sizes and colours and although we have not seen them we have heard cuckoos calling the majority of the time we have been in the field. The work continues and during the rainy periods focus is directed to identification work of the wild flowers and invertebrates and where as some are pretty straight forward others are proving to be a little trickier to obtain a firm identification.
To our delight we did find another pink grasshopper but this time in a completely different location and habitat. The previous pink grasshoppers were all found around some ruins where as this one was found in a meadow at much lower altitude. This individual was a little older and larger but lacking the long back legs which they use for jumping, on close examination it didn’t appear that it had lost the legs in an incident but rather they were never there in the first place which maybe a result of the genetic mutation that causes the pink colouration. As they have captured everyone’s imagination, here is another photo of a pink grasshopper but this time in a yellow flower and another very well camouflaged grasshopper found on the banks of a stream!
During our search for invertebrates we have so far come across two species of lizard, the sand lizard (Lacerta agilis argus) and the viviparous or common lizard (Zootoca vivipara vivipara) both in good numbers and they certainly have plenty of food with invertebrates in abundance in the meadows (no pesticides used allowing good species richness and abundance) but they are very skittish as they are also one of the favourite prey items of the white storks which are busy gathering food for their very hungry chicks.
With the warm weather finally making an appearance we have also seen a rise in the number of spiders which up until now have been very few and far between. I love invertebrates I think they must be one of my favourite subjects to photograph and just could not resist this adorably cute jumping spider that was resting on a leaf! So I will leave you with him and his big black eyes and a quick taster of the nest post which will be about a bear sanctuary we were invited to visited to see the work they are doing rescuing captive bears of Romania.