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TRANSYLVANIA September 2006

“Once more our Transylvania and Hortobágy tour proved the perfect pairing.  The two habitats – vast open atmospheric puszta and fishponds on the one hand, dramatic mountain scenery, gorges, and high-elevation conifer forests on the other - offer a satisfying contrast; the hotels are comfortable; and the food and wines remarkably good.

Our first 24 hours in Hungary was, by any standards, a classic European birding experience both for quantity and for quality - 112 species including several on the IUCN Red List and eight of world conservation importance: Lesser White-fronted Goose, Greater Spotted and Eastern Imperial Eagles, and Great Bustard (all globally threatened species), plus Pygmy Cormorant, Ferruginous Duck, White-tailed Eagle, and an unexpected Buff-breasted Sandpiper, only the second record for the Hortobágy (all ‘near threatened’).  Staggering.  Even the supporting cast was impressive: Squacco and Purple Herons, Black and White Storks, Spoonbill, Bean Goose, Long-legged Buzzard, Red-footed Falcon, Crane, Red-throated Pipit, Bearded and Penduline Tits, and Bluethroat.  It was indeed a tremendous kick-start to a holiday in which every day brought a new and memorable experience.

Even our travelling day, transferring to Transylvania, added new species - our only Kingfisher (right outside our hotel before breakfast), Red-necked Grebe, Whiskered and Black Terns, Common Sandpiper, and Lesser Whitethroat, and our first Syrian Woodpeckers and Goshawk and Sparrowhawk at the same location (a useful comparison).  We even found a Blue-winged Teal, a new species for Romania.

Our first full day in Transylvania added Nutcrackers, Hazel Grouse (two pairs, frustratingly only glimpsed in flight), and Water Pipits at 5500ft.  But highlight of the day without doubt was the European Brown Bears, with six individuals performing in good light and providing the photographers with some excellent images.  The one target bird that eluded us was Capercaillie, which tantalised us with footprints, faeces, and a feather.  But ample compensation came the following dawn when we watched a cock in full strutting, jumping, and gurgling display for over half an hour at an autumn lek (a feature which doesn’t seem to be recorded in the books).  Little wonder that this was voted Bird of the Trip, leaving our next target species (Wallcreeper-which we saw the moment we arrived at Bicaz Gorge: too easy) to trail in thirteenth place.  Back-up birds included another Long-legged Buzzard (a new species for our Romanian guide), Dipper, a flock of Fieldfares, Firecrests, Crested Tits, and Crossbills.  The most photographed bird of our Transylvanian days, however, was a Three-toed Woodpecker which obliged us by flying onto a dead spruce the moment we were about to enter the forest to begin our search.

Just as in 2005, with all our Transylvanian targets met we were able to enjoy a non-birding interlude in atmospheric Sighisoara with its film-set main square, romantic castle and clock tower, and photogenic old houses which still looks largely as it did when Dracula lived there in the fifteenth century.  Equally photogenic were the houses in the UNESCO World Heritage Village of Torocko, some of which housed us for our final night in Transylvania - a happy evening of home-cooked produce, local brandies, and reminiscences of the birds of the day: overhead Golden Eagles, Rock Buntings, and a Green Woodpecker.

Back in the Hortobágy, the epilogue was just as rewarding as the prologue: several well-photographed Middle Spotted Woodpeckers, white-headed Long-tailed Tits, a pylon-perching Saker, and a thrilling climax to our final evening - 22,000 Cranes bugling in to roost and flying over and around us in unending lines, first into a red sunset and then under a bright moon.  Quite magical.

Our last morning began with Hawfinch (curiously the first of the trip), bringing our total to 160.  This left us four short of last year’s tally but the countdown continued with Grey Partridge and Stock Dove (which gave these humble species as much significance as the three more Great Bustards in the same fields), a typically tame Dotterel, 25 Long-eared Owls roosting in a town garden, (the equaliser), and finally 11 Greater White-fronted Geese - full circle from our first day in the Hortobágy when its smaller cousin was our first target bird.  Satisfyingly this gave us one more species that last year and a healthy target to beat in 2007.”  Bryan Bland

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