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In search of popandau

There I was: hectares upon hectares of steppe pasture below my feet. I came here with one solemn objective in mind: to search, find AND photograph the elusive Popandau. A creature that – according to both literature and photography fora – should occur in this part of Romania. A creature that didn’t ring a bell with my lovely wife and my Romanian in-laws. A creature I was prepared to spent hours – even days! – on in order to get my first hopeful glimpse. But I didn’t need too, because as soon as I got out of my crappy beaten up rental car… I saw one: sitting 4 meters in front of me.

Yeah, that’s correctly called an anti-climax. These Popandau or European Ground Squirrels (Spermophilus citellus) were in fact so numerous, it was very hard not to see them. My wife still denies their existence, but my in-laws told me that “Oh you meant that one? Indeed they are all over the place.” Do you mean to say there are other ‘small ground-dwelling marmot-like creatures with a tiny tail’? And there is in fact: the speckled ground squirrel (Spermophilus suslicus), which I found as well. Oh, the mysteries Romania has to offer… Having sorted that out, I thoroughly enjoyed observing and photographing these 20 cms something (7.8 inches) furry cutie pies.

I liked the grasslands here, endless plains, and rolling hills with endless skies above them. In this case that equaled endless windmill parks as well, but even they added to the feeling of space. Who doesn’t like the smell of grasses and herbs just after a rain or when the earth finally warms up by the sun? Surely, lying flat on the ground while stalking a ground squirrel with the smell of thyme in the nostrils beats any day in the office? I enjoyed the calls of a pair of overflying hoopoes (Upupa epops) and then a curious shepherd asked me “What the @#$ I was doing here, scaring the living daylight out of his sheep and cattle?” Oops, my apologies sir.

Ion told me – while his sheep were quietly munching on my thyme – that a) ‘there are a lot of popandau here.’ You don’t say… and b) ‘if you put a PET bottle (with the bottom cut off) in the field they often go sit inside, because they seem to find it comfy and warm!‘ Haha, and there is me thinking all that plastic litter lying around has no function at all. Silly me.

So far I was trying to avoid the various shepherds and their dogs that were navigating these pastures. Previous experiences up in the mountains of Transylvania made me slightly wary of shepherd dogs, but these turned out to be of the ‘friendly herding type’ kind and not the ‘I will rip you to pieces – even though you don’t look like a wolf or bear – livestock guardian type’.

The ground squirrels and shepherds are a package deal by the way: both ground squirrels benefit from pastures with different grazing pressure. Already a lot of these old steppes have been converted into arable land with monocultures, meaning a loss of suitable habitat. Ecologically, the popandau seemed (to me at least) to have taken over the niche that is inhabited by rabbits in western Europe. Sometimes the steppe seemed literally dotted with squirrels. While feeding on grasses and herbs they often keep a fearful eye on the sky – sometimes while sitting upright – with multiple birds of prey species circling overhead. Those didn’t pose the only danger as I actually witnessed a steppe polecat (Mustela eversmanii) running through the field in their awkward gait while looking for a quick snack (thanks to Zoltan Nagy for the determination).

Overall, I really had a great time with both species and I am looking forward to seeing them again. Popandau, I’ll be back!

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