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Transylvania School Expedition 2019 – A Diary of Events

by Stefan Scerri

Click here to view images of expedition.

Day 1: 2nd July

We’re at Luqa Airport at 0630.  Two teachers and 10 very hyped-up students.  Some teary farewells and we’re on our way.  We fly to Munich, grab something to eat, and then on to Cluj-Napoca Airport in Romania, where we’re met by Fundatia ADEPT representative Romi.  We’ll be travelling in two vans, but one is stuck in traffic, so we leave after about 50 minutes.  It’s dry and hot outside.  Driving in Romania is fast and overtaking is scary.  Romi bats it away with a “we’re used to it” while I try keep control over my braking foot.  Romi is a pleasant and chatty fellow, which makes the trip feel shorter.  We stop for a short break after about an hour and a half, and our van decides to call it a day.  The other van proceeds to the hotel while we wait for a replacement van to pick us up.  We get messages from the other group that the hotel has messed up our room booking, but Nathan (Malta Office manager), Toby (project leader) and Liliana (another Fundatia ADEPT rep) are all over it and get it sorted out.  As the replacement van arrives, the stopped van seems to take offence and promptly starts up.  We get to the hotel just before midnight for a quick, late supper, and it’s off to bed after a long day of travel.

Day 2: 3rd July

Breakfast is a sleepy affair.  We rest for another couple of hours and then meet up with Toby, who has driven over to meet us and the Australian contingent joining us on the expedition. We’re on the way to Nou Sasesc by noon.  Our students and some of the Australian group get to know each other during the 40 min drive.  At the village, we settle down in a holiday camp that was designed for schools during the soviet era.  There is no mobile connection here.  Lunch, quick talk from Toby, and off for an introductory and muddy walk with the lead Scientist, Bruce.  We go to bed early, half of us have an early 0530 call for the next day.

Day 3: 4th July

Up at 0430 to be ready for the 0530 call.  A short walk to meet up with Paul for bird ringing session. He has already set up the mist nets.  First inspection yields 2 birds that are untangled and carried back to base station for identification, ringing, and measurements. Then the magic moment. The birds are passed on to the students to be released. The look in their eyes as they feel the warm softness of the delicate wriggling body – priceless.  Then it’s a farewell nip and the flutter of wings as the bird flies off out of their hands.   After many more birds, we’re back at the camp by 1000.  Some of us catch up on our sleep.

Day 4: Fri 5th July

Botany day.  We leave at 0915 with Zuni, Mark and Razvan to walk up the side of the valley. We must make up for the other group, who managed only 2 transects yesterday.  We must do the other 4.  Long hot day with some steep bits, but we cover the 4 transects. Back at 1600, which gets us off lecture time. Shower, supper and off for bat-catching with Paul at 2000 hours.  We’re in a cemetery next to a church, in the middle of Transylvania.  We set up 3 mist nets and a harp trap, with one of the more adventurous students stepping into very muddy water to cross a stream.  And it’s 25 bats by the time we leave at 0050 (up to 31, we get to know in the morning).

Day 5: Sat 6th July

Butterfly day. Long walk from 0900 till 1600 – 6 transects done. Hilka and Madda are happy we’ve covered them all.  At 1900, a short visit to a buffalo farm nearby (oh the smell!). They have a cute dog (no flea collar), a newly born calf that is still shaky on its legs, rabbits and pigs (even more smell).  Back at the dorm, one of the boys rams his head through the glass of an “open” window as he tries to peek out.  He is thankfully unhurt.  That’s half an hour for Toby and 2 other guys picking up tiny shards of glass from the soil under the broken window.

Day 6: Sun 7th July

Only early morning starts left now.  It’s large mammals today.  Rupert and Madda say that dry weather means less tracks, but they are glad to be immediately proven wrong as we turn onto the transect and start spotting stuff: some Marten poo, some badger poo, some fox poo, which stinks badly when you smell it (yes we did), and most importantly, large bear prints, along with smaller ones of its cubs.  We walk along the same tracks for about 500m.  Rest of the 11km walk is spent spotting faint clues in the dry mud, with many more bear prints, wild boar beds, and many Roe Deer prints.  In the afternoon it’s 2 lectures and then out again at 1920 to set small animal traps with Eliot, but not before another one of the boys locked everything in his luggage along with his keys.  He manages to pick the lock open – the wonders of YouTube videos!

Day 7: Mon 8th July

Out at 0520 to check the traps.  We get 19 small, cute field mice and 1 vole.  They all scurry or hop off as they are released after measurements.  Back at camp one of the boys from the other group is brought back by Toby with an ankle sprain, but it looks like he’ll be ok.  Final lecture and film night to end on a good note.

Day 8: Tue 9th July

Last day on camp. It’s Bird Point Count at 0530.  Adam’s incredible radar ears can identify bird species, direction and distance just from their call.  We struggle to contribute. Transect is cut short by rain – the birds go all quiet in the rain.  Back to camp in time for breakfast.  Students go around getting signatures from all the group leaders, research assistants and translators.  A short presentation by Bruce to give us the “numbers” and by Toby to close up.  We’re back in the vans by noon and it’s off to Sighisoara. It’s a different Hotel now, with a much cheerier reception. Pizza and visit to the old town, final soup in the evening and off to bed.

Day 9: Wed 10th July

Late breakfast. In coach at 12.35 and it’s a 3-hour drive back to Cluj-Napoca Airport.  The students raid the duty-free shops, and then it’s onto the plane to Frankfurt and from there on to Malta to return the students to their parents at around 1100 Malta time.  It’s over.  What an experience!

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