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|A Report from birdtours.co.uk|
Hungary 2 - 9 June 2001 ,
"You'll love Hungary; it has incredible avian diversity." "You won't believe the raptors, herons and egrets." "Best bet for Eastern Europe." With comments like these from fellow birders enticing me, how could I resist? But on the other hand, with its turbulent political history, how much is really known about birds there? How could this land-locked country possibly be so special?
In short, a major part of the answer to that question is habitat diversity, and less intensive farming practices. Hungary's Puszta, lowland dry grassland-steppe, and the associated fishponds, are home to significant populations of globally threatened species such as the Great Bustard, Corncrake, Imperial Eagle, Aquatic Warbler, and Ferruginous Duck. The Northern Hills feature both deciduous and coniferous forests, as well as karst topography, typified by rocky slopes, scrub grassland, and limestone outcroppings. These areas host a surprising variety of woodpeckers, Red-backed Shrikes, and raptors.
We were a fun-loving (and wine-loving!) group of eight, with our leaders Gerard Gorman (http://www.probirder.com), author of The Birds of Hungary, A Guide to Birdwatching in Hungary, and Where to Watch Birds in Eastern Europe, and Neil Donaghy.
Our first three days were spent in Aggtelek National Park, in the Northern Hills on the Slovakian border. Our hotel was perched on a steep forested hillside, atop one of the most extensive cave systems in all of Europe. The area was well worth the considerable time on foot spent nearby exploring. Within a short distance of the hotel, mostly in the early mornings, we found Honey Buzzard, Common Buzzard, Cuckoos with an odd four-syllable song, Great Spotted, Black and Grey-headed Woodpeckers, Collared Flycatchers, Dipper, Nuthatch, Wren, Grey Wagtail, Wood Warbler, Hawfinch, and Red Squirrels and Salamanders!
In more open country, walking the lovely valleys and rocky hillsides, we saw Golden Orioles, Black Redstarts, Red-backed Shrikes, Wryneck, Jay, Nightingale, Whinchat, Stonechat, Barred Warbler and Hawfinch, as well as our first magnificent Imperial Eagle. Skylarks, Corn Buntings and Yellowhammers contributed their endless chirruping, jangling keys and "little bit o' bread and no cheeeeese" to our grassland walks. Quail were heard everywhere. Green lizards scampered beneath our feet.
Throughout the week, our very accommodating bus driver, Attila, prepared lunches of fresh bread, meat and cheese, crisps, fresh fruit and wine.
We explored a marble quarry and found a very obliging Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush, who posed for pictures. A river valley produced River Warbler and Marsh Warbler, both singing their hearts out and showing well. A Black Kite soared over a distant hill.
Our route to the Tisza valley in eastern Hungary took us through the Bukk Hills, where we walked a lovely valley that held Bee-eaters, Lesser Grey and Red-backed Shrikes, Roller, and more woodpeckers. We had a long look at a tiny, very cooperative Lesser Spotted Woodpecker.
Our accommodations near the Hortobagy National Park were situated in a grove which provided excellent birding for us nearby. When we arrived, a Little Owl was perched on a fence post, looking for all the world like an ornamental fixture. Before dinner, and frequently during our four-day stay, we followed a track across the road, where we found at least 9 Red-footed Falcons hunting over the adjacent field, nesting White Storks, Golden Oriole, Lesser Grey Shrikes and a Long-eared Owl.
The villages had nesting White Storks on chimneys and poles, often with young. Tree Sparrows seemed far more common here than in the UK. Swallows and House Martins were abundant, with occasional colonies of Sand Martins. Serin and Goldfinch popped up now and then.
The fishponds in the Hortobagy are large, and should more aptly be called "lakes." Many are surrounded by reedbeds, and are important habitat for herons and egrets. Daily, we saw many Great Egrets, Grey Herons, Purple Herons, Squacco Herons, and Black-crowned Night-herons. Bitterns, Little Bitterns, Little Egrets, Spoonbills, and Pygmy Cormorants were not difficult to find. Nesting Penduline Tits and Bearded Tits were commonly present. Savi's Warblers, Sedge and Reed Warblers, as well as Great Reed Warblers, put up a cacophany that made it difficult at times to separate songs.
Gerard, from inside our vehicle travelling down the road, heard a Bluethroat song. We piled out to enjoy a smashing look at a male of the White-spotted race. At a spot just a bit further along, we found a group of waders that included Redshank, Green Sandpiper, Common Sandpiper, and Marsh Sandpiper, a new species for most of us. Additional waders in other areas included Avocet, Spotted Redshank, many Black-tailed Godwit, Curlew, and Little Ringed and Grey Plovers.
We were accompanied one morning by Dr. Gabor Kovacs, a National Park warden, who took us to a flat grassland area where we had little difficulty finding a group of Great Bustards. Not long after that, we found Stone Curlew and Little Owl. One of Europe's key populations of Aquatic Warbler is here, and we were eventually all able to get decent looks at them as they hopped out momentarily, and then back into the shelter of the grass.
One magnificent grassland stop netted us a pair of Saker, Long-legged Buzzard, Black Stork, Marsh Harrier, Imperial Eagle and Short-eared Owl! Later, along the roadside, someone's sharp eyes picked out a Lesser Spotted Eagle walking in the grass, hunting. We had an excellent look at him before he flew. Montagu's Harriers were seen over grassland areas.
The only hide we found in Hungary was an odd, multi-story structure built of reeds, with tiny, insufficient slits cut for viewing at various heights on all sides. Very frustrating for short people, who needed step-stools! It was here that several of our group found a briefly visible Moustached Warbler, who shall forever remain a mystery to me because I could not find a slit to peer through!
We spent an hour or so in a village park one morning, and found 3 Syrian Woodpeckers. This is a nesting area for them; they are often found in urban park areas, apparently.
Back in Budapest, we took a final walk and a picnic lunch in the wooded hills, and were rewarded with a Middle Spotted Woodpecker.
A few of us stayed on in Budapest for a few days, enjoying the sights and sounds. Hungary's capital is less crowded and less expensive than many other cities. Our hotel was located on the banks of the Danube, just across from the beautiful Parliament building. The Castle district was within easy walking distance, and we also spent considerable time in Pest, across the river, easily accessible via the underground.
A strikingly beautiful country, with surprisingly rich avifauna. Superb leaders, delicious wine, and a terrific group of people to enjoy it all with. Even despite Gerard's ceaseless jokes, what more could one ask? J Bird list follows..
BIRD LIST - HUNGARY, 2-9 June, 2001
Great Crested Grebe
Lesser Spotted Eagle
Little Ringed Plover
European Turtle Dove
Lesser Spotted Woodpecker
Middle Spotted Woodpecker
Great Spotted Woodpecker
Yellow Wagtail (flava and feldegg)
Lesser Grey Shrike