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A Report from

Hungary, 27th March - 3rd April 2004,

Bob Swann

This report gives details of the birds seen and the sites visited during a week's holiday in eastern Hungary. This was an organised tour run by Ornitholidays and led by local guide Sandor Konyhas. It is the first time I had gone birding on an organised tour.

27th March.
Arrived Budapest in mid afternoon and met up with Sandor. It was cold, cloudy and wet. We headed east in the mini-bus, not seeing much due to the steamed up windows.  We stopped in an area of flooded steppe near Karcag. A nice male Hen Harrier hunted low over the steppe and flushed a Common Snipe. On a ploughed field there was a vast mixed flock of Golden Plover and Common Starling. We had nice close views of a pair of Garganey in a roadside pool. We continued up to Nadudvar and to the Trofea hotel where we stayed. This was a grand hunting lodge, built for the Communist party high heid yins. It was surrounded by woodland and a large reed fringed lake.

28th March.
Up early at 6.30am for a walk round the hotel grounds. Lots of Chiffchaff and a single Sedge Warbler were singing in the reeds along the lake.  The woods held good numbers of Wood Pigeon, Collared Dove, Tree Sparrow, House Sparrow, Greenfinch, Chaffinch and Goldfinch. A Fieldfare flew over the lake and started singing from the top of a lakeside tree. There were masses of Common Pheasants as this was obviously a shooting lodge.

It was a cool, cloudy but dry day. After breakfast we headed out onto the steppe just north of Nadudvar. Following some quite wet weather, prior to our arrival the steppe was very wet with numerous shallow pools. We had nice views of three feeding Common Cranes. Along the roadside were many Corn Buntings, a few Stonechat and an early Hoopoe. A Little Owl sat on the roof of an old shed. Lots of Rooks were busy building their nests in roadside rookeries. We walked a couple of miles out across the flooded steppe. Around some of the shallow pools were huge flocks of Ruff, several thousand, with hundreds of Black-tailed Godwits, Golden Plover, a few Common Redshank and Curlew. A single Spotted Redshank flew over giving its characteristic call. Lots of local Northern Lapwings were engaged in display flights. Also on the steppe were large flocks of feeding Greater White-fronted Geese. Garganey and a few Common Teal flitted between the pools. Overhead Skylarks were singing everywhere and Common Kestrel, Common Buzzards and Marsh Harriers hunted the steppe. Two Yellow-legged Gulls flew over. Mammals included lots of Roe Deer, good numbers of Brown Hares and a Red fox.

We walked back to the bus and headed back into Nadudvar and then drove out to another area of flooded steppe to the west of the town. Once again their were huge flocks of waders 5000+ Ruff, 1000+ Black-tailed Godwit. Both Hen and Marsh Harriers flew over, but best of all were two hunting Rough-legged Buzzards, giving good views as they hovered and soared over the steppe.

We then drove towards Hajdusoboszlo and on a transmittion line had reasonable views of our first Saker. As we watched a flock of 74 Common Crane flew north. Further up the road we came to some large fish ponds. One pool contained lots of Common Coot, Common Pochard and several displaying Great Crested Grebes. The other had been recently drained and this had attracted lots of birds, especially waders: 92 Avocets, 30 Dunlin, 5 Ringed Plovers, 25 Common Redshank were feeding in the mud. Around the edge were 40 Grey Heron, 50 Great White Egret, 3 Eurasian Spoonbill and a nice Black Stork. On the mud was a large flock of Black-headed Gulls, with 20+ Common Gulls and at least three immature Caspian Gulls.  Raptors included several Marsh Harriers and two recently arrived Ospreys. The reedside fringe contained Reed Buntings, Chiffchaffs and Stonechats

We headed back to the hotel and had a stroll round the grounds, where we had nice views of a pair of Common Kingfisher at the side of the lake. We also saw our first Blackcap. In the woods we located Song Thrush, Dunnock and Great Tits. Finally a flock of 25 Common Crane flew over giving their evocative contact calls.

29th March.
Up at 6.25am for another walk round the grounds. A strange call alerted me to a male Marsh Harrier doing its display flight high over the wood. From the lakeshore I disturbed a Common Sandpiper. I also located a nice pair of Black Redstart and finally spotted a Long-eared Owl roosting in one of the willows just in front of the hotel.

Another cloudy but dry day. After breakfast we headed out in the bus to the northern part of the Hortobagy. Our first site was another area of steppe just northeast of Nagyivan. We left the bus in a farmyard, where we had nice views of a singing Crested Lark. After a long walk out along a track we arrived at a small wood with a viewing platform. From the tower we had excellent views of a male Great Bustard which fed and then started displaying. In the distance were another group of 12 Great Bustards, some of which were turning themselves into white quivering feathery balls. In the wood was a flock of 100+ Fieldfare plus a few Redwings and a female Black Redstart. Overhead we had nice views of an immature Long-legged Buzzard. As we walked back the sky was full of singing Skylarks, whilst in the distance a huge ball of a few thousand Ruff swirled across the sky. We also found a nice fire-bellied Toad and saw another Red Fox. Back in Nagyivan lots of White Storks were standing on their nests on top of roadside electricity poles. We also had nice views of two roosting Long-eared Owls. On roof tops we spotted two Little Owls and a few Jackdaws.

We drove back towards the settlement of Hortobagy spotting a nice Saker flying over the steppe. After lunch we explored some fishponds just west of the settlement. A large pond just south of the road held lots of Great Crested Grebes, Common Coot, Common Pochard, Garganey, Common Teal and a few Tufted Duck and Common Goldeneye. There were also several pairs of Greylag Geese. Close to the reeds were 17 Ferruginous Duck. These were mostly males with their rufous brown head and flanks. They often swam after one of the few darker females forming quite a dense pack. Sitting sunning themselves on the edge of the red bed were a few Pygmy Cormorants. In the reeds we had brief views of 3 Bearded Tits and a Penduline Tit.  Beyond this large pool were a series of small drained pools. Along the edges of these we had good views of 5 Water Pipit, 2 Blue-headed Wagtails, a few White Wagtails, some Common Linnets and a female Black Redstart. We then moved to an even larger pool just north of the road. It held fewer duck, but we did see a few Little Grebe and lots of Eurasian Spoonbills (some carrying sticks), Great White Egrets and a few Pygmy Cormorants flying into their breeding areas in the reeds. Had nice views of one Great Cormorant (subsp sinensus) with its very white head. Finally a huge flock of 110 calling Common Crane flew over in a large V shaped formation.

We drove back through Hortobagy and further east. By the road we had close views of another Saker, a male with a very pale head. It was perched on a road side tree, being mobbed by a Common Kestrel. We then drove south to Hajduszoboszlo and stopped at the airfield on the outskirts of the town. As we approached a Saker flew off, but another one remained sitting on a small mound. We had excellent views of this bird. A few European Souslik had just emerged from hibernation and were feeding at the edge of the airfield just in front of us. A Common Buzzard had caught one and was feeding on it. The Saker regularly flew low over the airfield, presumably looking for a souslik. At one stage it tried to frighten the buzzard and steal its meal, but it was repulsed. It gave us quite a show.

We went back to the hotel after an excellent day. En-route we saw three Barn Swallows, the first of the year. On arrival at the hotel we had excellent views of a Syrian Woodpecker in one of the willows.

30th March.
Up again at 6.30am and the pre-breakfast walk located several Blackcap, a pair of Goldcrest and two small flocks of 5 then 6 Common Crane flying north. We then headed back north to the Hortobagy area. It was a cool cloudy day with a strong easterly breeze. First we visited some ponds at the end of the road to Argus. One had several hundred Common Pochard, along with a few Tufted Duck, about 15 Ferruginous Duck and a pair of Common Goldeneye. Dabbling duck were also present: Mallard, Common Teal, a few Wigeon and quite a few Garganey. There were also masses of Common Coot and some Great Crested Grebes. In the reeds we had nice views of a singing White-spotted Bluethroat, though it lacked its white spot! A Black Stork flew low over the pools and another Barn Swallow. We then headed back through Hortobagy and out onto some flooded steppe (beyond a small wood, with a large rookery in it). By the farm buildings we had a Crested Lark. Out on the steppe were many displaying Black-tailed Godwits, Northern Lapwing and Common Redshank. There was also a large flock of 600+ Greater White-fronted Geese and a real Hungarian rarity - a Common Shelduck. A small pool was packed full of a few hundred dabbling duck mainly Wigeon, Shoveler, Common Teal, a few Northern Pintail, Garganey and Gadwall. As we walked back an immature White-tailed Eagle flew low over us giving excellent views, the Hooded Crow mobbing it being tiny in comparison.

In the afternoon we visited another flooded area this time on the outskirts of Balmazujvaros. En-route small flocks of 7, 10 and 4 Common Crane flew north. The marshes held a few hundred Ruff, including some males moulting in their white head. Amongst them were 100+ Black-tailed Godwit and 2 Avocet. A Eurasian Sparrowhawk soared over. We headed back to the hotel passing small flocks of feeding Common Cranes. An evening walk round the lake revealed another Common Kingfisher and a singing Reed Warbler.

31st March.
Up at 6.30 am and my pre breakfast morning walk was rewarded with good views of a drumming Syrian Woodpecker, another roosting Long-eared Owl and a Black-crowned Night Heron, flushed out of one of the willows by the hotel. It was a very bright sunny morning and the wind had dropped.

We loaded up the bus with our gear, as last night was our last at Trofea. We headed out again towards Hortobagy. We went through the settlement and turned left to Hortobagy Halasto. Here we boarded the small fish farm freight train that took us the two miles out to the great fish ponds. We passed a series of small reedy pools one of which held a pair of Ferruginous Ducks. Other pools held pairs of Greylag Geese and one a large flock of a few hundred Common Teal. We got off the train and walked further north. A large drained pool contained a big flock of Ruff and Black-tailed Godwit. In addition we found a pair of Little Ringed Plover and two Marsh Sandpipers feeding alongside some Common Redshank. As we walked out we were seranaded by singing Bluethroats. As they sang their white spot appeared to flash on and off. Some were also song flighting, fanning out their tails as they landed displaying the red patches. We must have seen 20+ singing birds. We also had brief views of a recently arrived Savi's Warbler, which was reeling from a trackside bush.  In the reeds we had good views of a group of four Bearded Tits, a few Penduline Tits and lots of Reed Buntings. At the end of the track was a huge pool containing masses of birds. The track led to a large hide built out into the reeds. This gave a good view of the pool. Several hundred duck included lots of Shoveler, Common Teal, Garganey and Mallard with a few Gadwall and Northern Pintail. There were lots of Common Pochard, a few Tufted Duck, Common Goldeneye, but best of all small groups of Smew, possibly around 80 birds swimming and diving together in small groups. There were also a few pairs of Mute Swan. Large numbers of geese were loafing on the pool as well. Although they were mostly Greater White-fronted Geese, Sandor spotted a small separate flock of 26 Lesser White-fronted Geese, characterised by their darker backs and head, shorter neck and smaller, neater bills. There were quite a few Great Crested Grebes and we also located a summer plumage Red-necked Grebe and a winter plumage Black-necked Grebe. On islands in the pond were large numbers of Great Cormorants and lots of gulls, including quite a few immature Caspian Gulls. Flying amongst the many Black-headed Gulls I noticed a winter plumage tern dipping down to feed off the water surface. Sandor identified it as a Whiskered Tern. At the edges of the reeds were many Eurasian Spoonbill, Great White Egrets and a few Pygmy Cormorants, with their dark bronzy heads. A few waders were passing over including 5 Whimbrel and a Green Sandpiper. Suddenly all the duck and geese spooked as a superb adult White-tailed Eagle flew low over the pool. We started to walk back, it was now hot and sunny. A Water Pipit flew by and a Blue-headed Wagtail. We also had nice views of a food pass between a pair of Marsh Harriers. We boarded our train and headed back till we reached the small reedy pools by the track side. We got off by the first one and had excellent views of a singing Moustached Warbler. We decided to just walk the last half mile back to the bus. In the pools we had a few singing Reed Warblers, a Sedge Warbler and good views of a Wryneck we flushed from the side of the track. Overhead an immature White-tailed Eagle flew by, being chased by an early House Martin. This had been a superb mornings birding and we headed back to Hortobagy for a meal.

In the afternoon we crossed over to the most northerly part of the Hortobagy area to view a small wetland just north of the Balmazujvaros-Tiszacsege road. We parked at a farm where amongst the Tree Sparrow and Corn Bunting were a small flock of Yellow Hammer. The wetland was disappointing with only a few pairs of Greylag Goose. We did see our first Northern Wheatear and another couple of Blue-headed Wagtails. Raptors included many soaring Common Buzzards, Marsh Harrier, Eurasian Sparrowhawk and Common Kestrel. Small parties of 6, 10 and 25 Common Crane migrated north.

We then headed north to Sarospatak in the Bodrog valley which was to be our base for the next few days. The floodplain of the Bodrog was spectacularly flooded. A quick walk in the park round the castle before the evening meal revealed a few Black Redstart and some singing European Serins.

1st April.
Today was to be our first day exploring the Zemplen Hills with Sandor and local expert Zolly. After breakfast we headed south along the main road from Sarospatak. On a roadside bush just south of Vamosujfalu, Sandor spotted an adult Eastern Imperial Eagle. We got excellent views as we scoped it from the road side.  We then met up with Zolly and drove up towards Erdobenye, where we turned off to follow a series of tracks, which took us in to the forested hills. The deciduous forest is made up of beech, oak, hornbeam and cherry. As we got out the bus we quickly located several calling Nuthatches. Other typical woodland species included Eurasian Jays, Stock Doves, a pair of Mistle Thrush, lots of Chaffinches, Song Thrush, Blackbird, Robin and Wrens. Tits included many Great, Blue and a Marsh Tit. There were also several Great Spotted Woodpeckers calling and drumming. A high pitched kee kee kee alerted us to a pair of Lesser Spotted Woodpecker. We had brief views of a Black Woodpecker in flight and better views of a female Grey-headed Woodpecker. It was another warm sunny day and this had brought out lots of butterflies including Red Admiral, Brimstone, Large Tortoiseshell and several superb Camberwell Beauties.

On leaving the forest we had a nice view over the valley. An immature Eastern Imperial Eagle soared by, later followed by a Black Stork and a Common Raven. We then moved down to an area of woodland adjacent to the roadside. In a scrubby area by a small burn we located a Willow Tit and then had superb views of a Hawfinch. As we walked up through the wood we had excellent views of a female Black Woodpecker, a Middle Spotted Woodpecker, another Lesser Spotted Woodpecker and a pair of Eurasian Tree Creeper.

We then drove down to Szegilong for a lunch at the village picnic site. As we were eating a male Northern Goshawk flew over and started hunting. This was followed later by a Black Stork and then a Short-toed Eagle, the latter giving excellent views as it hunted along the edge of the Bodrog flood plain. The floodwaters of the Bodrog held a few duck: Garganey, Common Pochard and Tufted Duck, some White Storks and Great Cormorants. There were lots of Black Redstarts singing in the village and we had nice views of a Syrian Woodpecker. High above us flocks of Black-headed Gulls and Common Starlings fed almost martin like on flying insects.

After lunch we headed back to the forest. We took the road to Makkoshotyka and followed the track into the hills. Typical woodland birds included several Nuthatch, one of which was nest building. Close to one of Zolly's nest boxes we got excellent views of an adult Ural Owl, staring at us with its dark eyes set in its large pale facial disc. We headed back to the road, locating a Grey Wagtail along a small burn, then drove further up the track to the road end and walked a bit further. En-route we located a roosting Tawny Owl, saw more Eurasian Jays, another Middle Spotted Woodpecker and more Hawfinches. As we walked up a path through the wood we disturbed another huge Ural Owl, which gave excellent views as it flew passed us. As we walked back to the bus we had another Marsh Tit, a pair of Coal Tit (noticeably greyer on the back than Scottish birds) and a Comma butterfly.

2nd April.
Another bright sunny day but quite a strong cool NE wind. We headed back into the Zemplens taking the road between Karolyfalva and Rudabanyacska. We explored an area of wood to the north of the road. It was quite quiet. We did have some excellent views of Hawfinch, disturbed a Woodcock and found a small flock of Redwing, but little sign of woodpeckers. We headed further north towards the Slovakian border, where we could overlook the hills. A pair of Common Buzzard were displaying and a Black Stork, Eurasian Sparrowhawk and male Hen Harrier flew by. In the scrub were a few Common Linnets and Yellow Hammers. The wind was strong and cold so we decided to move back south. We then visited a large quarry off the main road where Zolly pointed out an Eagle Owl. It was a massive bird, with huge ear tufts. It sat on quite an exposed ledge incubating its clutch.

In the afternoon we drove up passed Erdohorvati and onto Komloska. We then explored a wooded valley just to the east of the village. It was a good area for woodpeckers. We saw several Great Spotted Woodpeckers, had nice views of a male Black Woodpecker in flight as it flew across the valley and then started drumming. Had good views of a female Green Woodpecker and finally on the edge of the wood located a pair of Syrian Woodpeckers. We also saw several Hawfinches and a pair of Black Stork soared over us. We then drove back down to Erdohorvati and by the river north of the village found a Grey Wagtail and a White-throated Dipper.

3rd April.
Our final day and it was bright and sunny. We took a pre breakfast walk in the park round the castle and had superb views of one female and 2 male Syrian Woodpeckers. The two males were chasing and fighting each other. After breakfast we packed the mini-bus and started the journey back to Budapest. Our journey was fairly uneventful, though on the toll motorway we came to an abrupt stop to watch a huge immature Eastern Imperial Eagle fly past us. It was a fitting end to an excellent weeks birding.

In all we saw 141 different species and I had 5 lifers. Early spring is probably an unusual time to visit Hungary. Quite a few of the winter visitors had gone and most of the summer migrants had not arrived. However there were still vast numbers of geese, ducks and waders on the Hortobagy and the Crane migration was in full swing. Migrants that had arrived like the Bluethroats were in full song and easy to see. The resident owls and woodpeckers were all there and as there were so few leaves on the trees it made locating them a lot easier. This was my first holiday as part of an official tour. I was a little apprehensive about this, but we were a fairly small group (5 + leaders) so this made the logistics of getting around less of a problem. It also meant there were lots of eyes and ears to locate birds. To a certain extent we were restricted in where we went and what we did and how long we could spend looking at particular birds. This was however, out weighed by the excellent local knowledge and birding skills of our Hungarian leaders Sandor and Zolly. Without them we would have missed a lot of stuff. I will probably revisit Hungary but perhaps later in the summer once all the migrants have arrived.

Bob Swann

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