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A Report from

Hortobagy + Bukk Hills,  October 18th ~ 25th 2003,

Shena Maskell

The twinkling lights of the Willow Hotel greeted us as we approached the Hortobagy National Park. This was our first night in Hungary! Our picturesque accommodation was beside Tisza Lake in individual chalets. The hotel boasts a heated indoor swimming pool and a sauna. Our first evening meal was a warming soup, paprika chicken, followed by a rich chocolate cake, delicious, as was the Egri Bikaver "bullsblood" wine that we drank. This ensured an excellent first night's sleep!

Dawn saw the group watching a Great White Egret fly past the hotel, while a Kingfisher darted along the stream. After a tasty buffet breakfast, the group boarded their Ford Transit minibus, complete with packed lunches. Our initial exploration was along the western bank of Tisza Lake, where we saw the first Great Grey Shrike, Gadwall, Teal, Great Crested Grebe, Cormorant, Yellow-legged Gulls, Grey Herons and Little Grebe. By a small farm we had close views of Little Owl, while the local farmyard pigs and chickens ran around us. Then heading to Hortobagy we encountered our first flocks of Cranes, in the agricultural fields beside the main road.

Next we hurried to Angyalhaza puszta as we had heard from our other group that some of the 500 Dotterel still remained. As this was towards the end of their usual stay, our guide, Balazs Szigeti was enthusiastic to show the group this enigmatic species, which is a typical feature of the Hortobagy in autumn. Within minutes of arrival we spotted a "trip" of Dotterel keeping company with some Golden Plover.  With this tick safely tucked under our belts, we were back on our route to Hortobagy Halasto, the biggest fishpond of the area.

We drove towards the last pond, and had a forty-minute gentle walk to the hide. It was heartening to encounter large flocks of Tree Sparrows many times along the path. We also saw Pygmy Cormorants, White-fronted Geese, Greylag Geese, Teal, Pintail, Mallard, Wigeon, Hen Harrier, Marsh Harrier, Snipe, Curlew, Avocet, Little Egret and Kingfisher. Often we heard Penduline Tits, and could wonder at their marvellous suspended nests, as well as hearing Bearded Tits "pinging". On our walk we saw close views of Goldcrest and Chiffchaff, Water and Meadow Pipits.

We knew that the Lesser White-fronts had arrived, so we were searching carefully through the flocks. Excellent views of the everyday life of Pygmy Cormorants were enjoyed by all. As the evening was drawing in, the horizon was filled with the first thousand Cranes in the near distance. We left this idyllic hide to approach the Cranes more closely, hearing their evocative calls, and seeing how they dance as they land. By now it was sunset, and as our guide had taken us to one of the four main overnighting areas, we witnessed the fantastic spectacle of great waves of Cranes in their thousands gathering in the fishponds all around us. As it was now dark we returned to the minibus, hearing the heart-stopping concert of the Crane families.

The second day started by looking at waders in one of the fishponds. Spotted Redshanks, Little-ringed Plovers, Curlews, Dunlins, Redshank, Snipe, Yellow-legged and Common Gulls. Then we targeted the Ferruginous Duck, which we found accompanied by approximately 150 Pochards. While looking at them we spotted an adult White-tailed Eagle, as it was hunting, as well as a Sparrowhawk. We also saw many Shovelers. Then we visited Balmazujvaros, a little village where in a garden more than 100 Long Eared Owls gather during winter. Our guide rang the bell, and some minutes later, we were looking at the roosting birds as close as 8 metres. The willow trees were full of owls, and we could count about 40.

We visited Viragoskut fishponds in the afternoon, adding to our list Bittern, Tufted Duck, a juvenile White-tailed Eagle close by on a tree, and the "white headed" variation of the Long- tailed Tit. Finally we arrived in the Northern Hortobagy to check a typical puszta habitat. This is another main viewing point for masses of calling Cranes flying overhead, giving us another spectacular experience. We returned to our cosy hotel for a very tasty Hungarian Goulash.

The 3rd full day started with one of the most spectacular sightings even for the local ranger of the National Park. One of the group found a very strange bird on the newly ploughed field. It was a Wallcreeper!! The first sighting for the Hortobagy, ever! One can imagine how excited we felt!

At the time we were watching a distinctively marked juvenile Saker Falcon, which was having a rest after its hunting period. Next we called at the famous 300 hundred year old 9-arched Bridge in Hortobagy village, where we also looked around a special exhibition in the museum.

Enroute to Debrecen, the second biggest city of Hungary, we had close views of another White tailed Eagle. In Debrecen Old Forest, and the nearby cemetery we found Syrian, Lesser, Middle and Great Spotted Woodpeckers.  We spent the evening relaxing in the hotel's indoor swimming pool and the sauna.

Next morning we awoke full of excitement, as today was Great Bustard day! We called at Nagyivan to collect our outstanding ranger friend, Dr.Gabor Kovacs, who led us directly to watch the antics of a large group of Great Bustards. Turning around we saw a Rough-legged Buzzard. Saker, Merlin, and 150 Dotterels were the feature of the afternoon. We searched in vain for the elusive Lapland Bunting. On leaving the puszta we saw a covey of Grey Partridges very close by.

We travelled on to our second hotel, nestled in the Bukk hills. During the journey we stopped to look for Imperial Eagle, but we were instead rewarded by good views of an adult Saker with its beautiful head markings. Arriving at our scenic village hotel, famed for its warm family hospitality we enjoyed a delicious homemade dinner of countless courses.

Our stay in the Bukk started each morning with an optional pre-breakfast walk with our tour guide. We were often rewarded with close views of several species of woodpecker, including a regular flyover of a Black Woodpecker. Hawfinch and an unexpected male Hen Harrier were nice additions.

 After breakfast we drove to a pretty valley where we found the second Wallcreeper, this time in its usual natural habitat, in a little quarry, just below a Raven's nest!! One could think the group already had enough of this bird, but surprisingly all agreed to dedicate some half an hour to observe this wonderful creature. We could even see the moths and other insects the bird was catching. Our determined search turned up a White-backed Woodpecker, which gave good views, as well as a very late Blackcap. This area also provided calls of Treecreeper and Rock Bunting. An extra surprise was an unscheduled visit to an ethnic museum, where we all had the chance to learn about simple country life in the last 2 centuries. Returning to our hotel we searched again for the Imperial Eagle in vain, but saw a Goshawk & yet another good view of a Saker.

Next day started similarly exciting as the other days. It was the 3rd time Balazs was searching for the Imperial Eagles, and this time we were lucky! A juvenile was giving us a good view, first roosting, and then showing its markings, while flying. We found two adult birds nearby, and spent some time wondering at the shape and colour of this magnificent raptor perched in the bright sunshine.

From here we headed to one of the area's special geological wonders, an outdoor natural spa, used widely by locals and foreigners to remedy their ailments. The scene was fantastic. Steam curled up from the little shining white hills, formed by the ancient water rivulets, and people soaked in the 68 C water, chatting while snowflakes fell around them. Soon we found ourselves in one of the highest points of the Bukk Mountains, in a huge quarry giving a last chance for the Alpine Accentor to show itself. Instead, some of us saw another Lesser Spotted Woodpecker in a mixed tit flock, a further 10 Raven, and a Sparrowhawk.

We concluded our memorable trip with a snowy walk on the Bukk plateau, which is the home of the elusive Ural Owl, which despite the warming glass of Brandy did not "appear"! Ham was nearly on our menu, when three Wild boars jumped into the beam of our headlights. As promised by the brochure: we did not have time to get "boared"!

All our evenings were spent in typical regional settings, sampling local traditional cuisine, whilst enjoying the flavour of the famous Hungarian wines! Our friendly group gave a well-deserved vote of thanks to our  Ecotours guide, Balazs Szigeti, who besides showing us the Hungarian birds and countryside he loves so well, made time to add extra cultural sights to our well-planned itinerary. No-one could have done more to provide such a full and rewarding experience....


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