Red-breasted Goose Special - Winter Birding in Hungary; 3 - 7 November, 2018

Published by Zoltan Baczo (baczozoli AT

Participants: Gábor Simay and others


The third Red-breasted Goose Special Tour in a row organized by Sakertours was a successful trip again! We recorded 121 species of birds, which is very high number for such a short tour in November.

The main aim of this trip however is to see two threatened goose species within one short tour: Red-breasted and Lesser White-fronted Goose. The flyway route of the Red-breasted Geese has been shifting in recent years. As a result, while flying from their breeding area - the Taymyr Peninsulas - to South-east Europe, more and more of these beauties visit Hungary and staging in the Carpathian Basin utill the cold winter weather arrives. A very similar process - though to a smaller extent - can be observed in the case of the Western Siberian population of the Lesser White-fronted Goose. In the last five years seeing the two rare and threatened geese in the Hortobágy National Park in November became reliable! This year everything was ‘on time’ and there was a large influx of Greater White-fronted Geese from the very last days of October with many Red-breasted Geese arriving too. The circumstances were ideal for our wild goose chase!

Altogether in just three days proper birding we had nine encounters with Red-breasted Geese, and we saw 366 individuals in total - the biggest flock contained 129 indviduals. Some of the views were superb as sometimes they were really close to us. We regularly found Lesser White-fronted Geese in the big geese flocks as well, and seven individuals was our maximum count in one flock. Our best views were related to a single individual which was so close to us as it almost filled the entire view in the scopes – in perfect light. Thanks to this perfect view, the Lesser White-fronted Goose was voted the ‘bird of the trip’.

The supporting cast on this very short tour was also great. We saw a total of 69 Great Bustards, tens of thousands of Common Cranes and many species of raptors, like daily encounters with Eastern Imperial Eagles, a nice Great Spotted Eagle and superb views of
Saker Falcon. We saw six species of woodpeckers, Ferruginous Ducks, Pygmy Cormorants, Long Eared Owls on their day roost and a couple of local rarities like Great White Pelican or Spotted Nutcracker. We had luck with the weather too. It was sunny, dry and not too cold. The only obstacle was the morning fog on our third day, however we always found a way of birdwatching which was enjoyable even in the thickest fog.

From next year (2019) we will also include an optional visit to the Bükk Hills on our last day of the tour for wintering Wallcreeper, depending on the arrival date of these fantastic birds.

Saturday, 3rd of November

The group met at the Budapest Airport at 13:00. The Hortobágy is three hours drive from here and the days are short at this time of the year. We did some birdwatching close to Budapest while we still had some daylight. The landscape is quite varied here with extensive farmlands and alkaline or sandy grasslands. There were plenty of Hen Harriers around, a small flock of Corn Bunting and our first Eastern Imperial Eagle (an adult) of the tour majestically sitting on the top of a willow tree. However, our target here was the magnificent Great Bustards.

Scanning from a high point we spotted a flock of 27 males. It was a great a view, but the birds were a bit distant. We decided to try another nearby location, where we found another flock of 42 Great Bustards. These were much closer, so we were really satisfied with the first-class views we got! It was time to drive to the Hortobágy National Park. One of our last bird of the day was a nice adult Rough-legged Buzzard which was circling and howering above farmland. It was already totally dark when we arrived at our accommodation, the Bíbic (Lapwing) Nature Lodge, which was desigened for birdwatchers and run by birders.

Sunday, 4th of November

As the days are short this time of the year, we decided to have a rather early breakfast, so we can maximize our time in the field. The first scan from the lodge balcony produced a few hundred Greater White-fronted Geese and Greylags while flocks of Common Cranes were passing by. A Little Owl on a chimney was also seen, while our quick stop in the town produced an obliging Syrian Woodpecker.

We were about to spend the whole morning around the Hortobágy Fishponds. There are several big ponds and a tourist train can be used to get to the furthest one. As we still had some time until the next train, we walked around the first ponds to start. There were a lot of Bearded Reedlings in the reeds, while on the wetland there were at least a thousand Gadwalls, about 150 Pygmy Cormorants and three Ferruginous Ducks. We saw two Water Rails and at least a hundred Great Egrets and a lonely, very late Little Egret. While we were walking along an area with Water Buffalos, more and more geese were arriving from the grasslands.

With our scopes we soon spotted the very first Red-breasted Goose of the trip. Unfortunately, we had not much time to enjoy it, as we had to connect with our train which took us to a pond
with a couple of hides. There were already a few thousands of geese staging on the fishponds and we wasted no time to start scanning! Most of them were Greater White-fronts, but soon
we found dozens of Red-breasted Geese among them! WOW! We also found seven Lesser White-fronted Geese, and though they were too far to see their yellow eyering, all the other differencies were well visible. After a while the gesse flew closer and we had the opportunity to count the Red-breasted Geese in perfect light. We counted 129 individuals and an adult pair of Lesser White-fronted Goose walked out to a mudflat allowing great looks. There were happy faces around! The pond held a few other interesting birds such as Eurasian Spoonbills, hundreds of Common Cranes, a vagrant Great White Pelican and a few commoner wader species. In the reedbeds we had fantastic views of a male Penduline Tit. After this successful morning birding we had some lunch with great local food.

In the afternoon we went to an area which is usually good for Saker Falcon and it didn’t disappoint us, as we found one quite soon. Fortunately, the bird wasn’t far, and the light was perfect, so we had excellent looks of this threatened species! We finished the day around the grasslands and wetlands of our lodge. There were about 20,000 geese grazing, or swimming.

They were scattered in a large area and we could only check a fragment of the flock from different positions. Still, we found another 28 Red-breasted Geese, another five Lesser White-fronted Geese – two in really close range, with their yellow eyering visible – and two Tundra Bean Geese. It was a great finish of a superb day of birding. Our daily count was 158 Red-breasted Geese and 12 Lesser White-fronted Geese. Success!

Monday, 5th of November

To our disappointment the surrounding of the lodge was covered in thick fog this morning! According to local contacts and maps from weather websites, it wasn’t any better anywhere in ur vicinity. Definitely not good for geese watching. We decided to check a Long-eared Owl roosting site nearby, where visibility shouldn’t be a problem, as the birds are usually close. We counted eleven owls, and the closest one was roughly two meters away. Very nice indeed! Our next stop was in the Hortobágy village, where we received the news that yesterday a Spotted Nutcracker was seen in a garden. This year Hungary has experienced a large influx of this otherwise rare montain species (mainly Siberian birds of the macrorrhynchos race). It was still foggy as we were walking along a small street where we saw a Syrian Woodpecker, when the Nutcracker suddenly appeared and first it perched on a wooden electric pole, then it was feeding along a ditch. We got superb looks before it disappeared again among the houses. What a great bonus! We got some news from local birders that the fog is clearing on the western part of the national park, so we drove westwards. It was a great move as by the time we arrived at a remote wetland area the weather had turned sunny and nice again. There were a few thousand geese already in the area, but as we were standing with our scopes, we witnessed flocks after flocks arriving from the direction of the agricultural lands bordering the national park. We estimated their numers to about 50,000 geess – it was a really great experience! From time to time parts of this huge flock were disturbed again and again by White-tailed or Eastern Imperial Eagles. A nice adult Peregrine also appeared.

We checked carefully the closest part of the flock and we had great views of at least 85 Red-breasted and two Lesser White-fronted Geese while a Barnacle Goose was a bonus. We had our picnic lunch here, and after that we continued birding in this area. There were plenty of Common Cranes around, and a few of them gave us nice, close views. Two Cattle Egrets were spotted on the field too – still a rarity in Hungary although they become more regular in recent years and even started to breed, but in November they are still rare.

While we were driving back to our base we stopped along the road by a small goose flock which was so close to the road, we couldn’t resist to check them. On the very first line a Red-breasted was spotted - another ten birds a bit further away, but the adult Lesser White-fronted took the show. It was the very closest goose! It showed all the field marks in beautiful light.

This view ensured this species winning the ‘bird of the trip’ competition!

Next we drove along a dirt track and checked the trees and the sky as this area is the wintering site of the Great Spotted Eagle. It is not necessarily an easy bird to see as it likes to perch low and usually well amongst the trees. Despite we tried hard, we failed to find it, though there were several White-tailed Eagles and allowed views, together with Marsh and Hen Harriers. A few Brambilngs were also seen with Chaffinches. It was time to go and see the Cranes coming to roost! We arrived a few minutes early, so we still had
some time for general birdwatching and we saw a Red-throated Diver, 25 Red-breasted Geese, one Tundra Bean Goose, a Lesser Black-backed Gull among a few Yellow-legged and hundreds of Caspian Gulls. At dusk, Cranes started to arrive and flocks after flocks passed very close to us, against the nice sunset. We estimated the numbers around 30,000 individuals. A real spectacle and what a way to finish our second day! Our daily count was 121 Red-breasted Geese and 3 Lesser White-fronted Geese.

Tuesday, 6th of November

It was another foggy morning! Decision was quickly made, and we drove to Debrecen and visited a nice old oak forest. There are plenty of trails to walk around and bird activity was good despite the grim weather conditions. The fog was not so thick here, thus the birding was good. The forest was full of Nuthatches, and though usually they are not readily seen, Short-toed Treecreepers were easy this time. We saw five different individuals. Marsh Tits were also seen among the more common species. Woodpeckers were performong well, we had great looks at Middle Spotted and two Black Woodpeckers. As the forest was very dry, seedeaters were not numerous but eventually the call of a Hawfinch was detected and quite soon the bird was found and we had really nice views of it. After a good coffee in the town we headed south to the Bihar Plains. A similar habitat to the Hortobágy, just south of the national park. There are a lot of protected habitat fargmants here and some really nice wetlands, too. The area was a bit foggy when we arrived, but in a few minutes the sun broke through and the 15.000 geese became visible. Superb timing! We had – once more – very good views of Red-breasted Geese (we counted 64 individuals) and one adult Lesser White-fronted Goose. The eagles here were just amazing. There were about ten White-tailed and four Eastern Imperial Eagles and they were flying around giving absolutely amazing views. A few Spotted Redshanks and two Ruffs were also new additions to our list.

Our next stop was by a fishpond where we gave another chance for the so far so elusive Great Spotted Eagle. Rough-legged Buzzard, Eastern Imperial Eagle, at least another 10 White-tailed
Eagles were around and eventually we managed to find the Great Spotted Eagle too. It gave us nice flight views, before it disappeared among the trees. The evening was spent around the
lodge again, where we saw another 18 Red-breasted Goose and a Lesser White-fronted was almost found at dusk. Our daily count was 82 Red-breasted Geese and 2 Lesser White-fronted Geese.

Wednesday, 7th of November

Our very last day started with thick fog cover again. What a surprise! After an early breakfast, we packed our bags and left the lodge as we were due to arrive to the Budapest Airport in the late afternoon. The main aim of this day – as all the tour particpants were satisfied with the views we already had of the two threatened geese species and the other speciality birds – to add a few more species to our trip list.

One of the possibilities regarding new species was the highly desired Lesser Spotted Woodpecker. We took a short walk along a wooded area, but this time it was very silent, so we didn’t spent too much time here. Instead we drove to the Tisza Lake wich is a huge water body along the Tisza River on the way to Budapest. The lake is fragmented by many islands, wooded areas and reedbeds, so the huge open water areas are quite far from each other. When
we arrived, the southern region of the lake was still foggy, while around the northern part it was bright and sunny. Unfortunately, the lake was rather empty of birds so we concentrated on the poplar woods around the southern stretches of the lake. Quite soon we found a nice female Lesser Spotted Woodpecker and as the sun broke through, we found a male as well, a bit further away. So we did get our sought-after woodpecker! We started to scan the water and new birds started showing. Black-throated Diver was first to turn up and later a Red-throated Diver was also seen. Eventually we found a huge raft of ducks which included Tufted Ducks, Common Pochards and Eurasian Coots but Greater Scaup, Common Scoter and Red-crested Pochard was also found. A very nice female Penduline Tit was a good bonus! We had a good lunch in a nearby restaurant and we took our two hours drive to the airport. On the way we saw a beautiful adult Eatern Imperial Eagle perched on a tree by the road. It was a great bird to finish the trip with.

Link to the report in PDF:

Species Lists

Mute Swan Cygnus olor: Recorded on two days. On the last day on the Tisza Lake it was rather common.

Tundra Bean Goose Anser fabalis rossicus: Three birds were seen on two days.

Greater White-fronted Goose Anser albifrons: This year there were really big flocks all over the region. Tens of thousands were recorded on all of our full days. The biggest flock was around 50.000 individual.

Lesser White-fronted Goose Anser erythropus: We had really good views and we had no difficulties in finding this often hard-to-spot species. We saw 17 individuals during the trip and it was voted as the “bird-of-the-trip” because of the fantastic views we had.

Greylag Goose Anser anser: We saw over a 1000 on all of our full days.

Barnacle Goose Branta leucopsis: One was seen on our third day in a big goose flock.

Red-breasted Goose Branta ruficollis: We recorded them on three days. It was a fantastic year for this species. Our daily records were: 158, 121 and 82 birds, respectively. Our biggest flock was 129 on our first full day in the Hortobágy. Absoulutely stunning birds!

Eurasian Wigeon Anas penelope: Fairly common, recorded on four days.

Gadwall Anas strepera: We recorded it on four days. On one of the ponds there were more than a thousand.

Eurasian Teal Anas crecca: Really common at all type of wetland habitats.

Mallard Anas platyrhynchos: Very common.

Northern Pintail Anas acuta: Small flocks were seen on three days.

Northern Shoveler Anas clypeata: Fairly common, but not numerous.

Common Pochard Aythya ferina: We recorded it on three days. There were about 200 on the Tisza Lake on our last day.

Ferruginous Duck Aythya nyroca: It was not easy this time. As most of them had already migrated we could find only three birds on our second day, but we had good.

Tufted Duck Aythya fuligula: There were about a 100 birds on the Tisza Lake on our last day.

Greater Scaup Aythya marila: One female plumaged bird was seen among Tufted Ducks on our last day on the Tisza Lake.

Red-crested Pochard Netta rufina: One female was found on the Tisza Lake on our last day. A scarce bird in Eastern Hungary.

Common Scoter Melanitta nigra: One – most probably an immature – was seen on the Tisza Lake on our last day. A real rarity in this part of Hungary.

Common Goldeneye Bucephala clangula: We saw about ten birds on the Tisza Lake.

Common Pheasant Phasianus colchicus: Common.

Red-throated Diver Gavia stellata: We saw two individulas: one on a big fishpond on our third day, and another one on our last day on the Tisza Lake.

Black-throated Diver Gavia arctica: One was on the Tisza Lake on our last day.

Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis: Recorded in small numbers on three days.

Great Crested Grebe Podiceps cristatus: Small numbers were seen on most of the bigger lakes and ponds.

Pygmy Cormorant Phalacrocorax pygmeus: We saw this species on two days. On our second day we saw at least 150 individuals on and around one pond, and on our last day we saw a lone individual.

Great Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo: A fairly common sight in the Hortobágy.

Great White Pelican Pelecanus onocrotalus: A vagrant immature was seen among Common Cranes on a pond on our second day.

Great Egret Egretta alba: Common; our biggest flock was over a 100 bird.

Little Egret Egretta garzetta: One very late individual was seen with Water Buffalos in the Hortobágy.

Cattle Egret Bubulcus ibis: It has become a more regular bird in recent years, but in November it was definitely a surprise to find two birds by a wetland on our third day.

Grey Heron Ardea cinerea: Common in the Hortobágy.

Eurasian Spoonbill Platalea leucordia: Four birds were seen on our second day. Quite a late observation.

White-tailed Eagle Haliaeetus albicilla: Recorded on four days; daily maximum was 20.

Western Marsh Harrier Circus aeruginosus: We saw it regularly; daily max. was 10 individuals.

Hen Harrier Circus cyaneus: Surprisingly scarce this year. Though we saw at least six birds on our first afternoon, later we saw only one or two each day.

Eurasian Sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus: We recorded it on four days.

Common Buzzard Buteo buteo: The commonest raptor of the tour.

Rough-legged Buzzard Buteo lagopus: One bird was seen well on our first afternoon, then another bird was seen on the fourth day.

Great Spotted Eagle Aquila clanga: One adult was seen on our fourth day.

Eastern Imperial Eagle Aquila heliaca: Recorded on four days. Immatures and adults were also seen. Best views were around the Bihar plains where we saw five birds together.

Common Kestrel Falco tinnunculus: We recorded it every day.

Saker Falco cherrug: We saw one perched on a pylon in our second afternoon. Good views indeed.

Peregrine Falcon Falco peregrinus: Two birds were seen on two different days.

Water Rail Rallus aquaticus: Two birds were seen in the reedbeds of a fishpond. Heard elsewhere.

Common Moorhen Gallinula chloropus: Only one bird was seen and another one heard.

Eurasian Coot Fulica atra: Surprisingly scarce. We saw them only on two occasions, though on the Tisza Lake on our last day it was rather numerous.

Common Crane Grus grus: We saw smaller and bigger flocks literally everywhere in the Hortobágy. One evening we went to a roost site, where we saw at least 30,000 birds.

Great Bustard Otis tarda: On our very first afternoon we counted 69 birds in two flocks. Superb views of this rare bird.

Pied Avocet Recurvirostra avosetta: Three birds were seen on a fishpond.

Eurasian Golden Plover Pluvialis apricaria: One bird was seen with Lapwings on our second day.

Grey Plover Pluvialis squatarola: Four birds were seen on a pond on our second day.

Northern Lapwing Vanellus vanellus: The commonest wader of the tour.

Dunlin Calidris alpina: Recorded on two days. The biggest flock consisted of about 100 birds.

Ruff Philomachus pugnax: Two birds were seen on the Bihar Plains.

Common Snpie Gallinag gallinago: Recorded on two days in small numbers.

Eurasian Curlew Numenius arquata: Regularaly recorded around wetlands or garsslands.

Spotted Redshank Tringa erythropus: We saw them on three days. Max. 5 ind./day.

Black-headed Gull Chroicocephalus ridibundus: Common.

Common Gull Larus canus: We recorded it every day in small numbers.

Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus: One first year bird was seen with hundreds of other gulls on an evening roost.

Yellow-legged Gull Larus michaellis: Only a few birds were seen among the flocks of the much more numerous Caspians.

Caspian Gull Larus cachinnans: Hundreds were seen around wetlands.

Rock Dove Columba livia: A very common resident throughout the tour.

Stock Dove Columba oenas: A small flock was seen on the fourth day.

Eurasian Collared Dove Streptopelia decaocto: Very common in the villages and farmlands.

Little Owl Athene noctua: One bird was seen near of our lodge, and another one was heard later.

Tawny Owl Strix aluco: One bird was seen well on its day roost in the woods near Debrecen.

Long-eared Owl Asia otus: Eleven birds were seen well on a day roost.

Common Kingfisher Alcedo atthis: One was seen, another few were heard by different fisponds.

European Green Woodpecker Picus viridis: One was seen in the Hortobágy and we heard another one in the woods near Debrecen.

Black Woodpecker Dryocopus martius: We had very good views of two birds in the woods near Debrecen.

Great Spotted Woodpecker Dendrocopos major: Heard or seen every day.

Syrian Woodpecker Dendrocopos syriacus: We saw it on three different days. We had very good views.

Middle Spotted Woodpecker Dendrocopos medius: Two birds were seen well in the woods near Debrecen.

Lesser Spotted Woodpecker Dendrocopos minor: We found it only on our last day, but eventually we had cracking views of two – male and female – in a gallery forest.

Crested Lark Galerida cristata: Seen or heard on four days.

Eurasian Skylark Alauda arvensis (H): One migrating bird was heard on the third day.

Meadow Pipit Anthus pratensis: Small flocks were seen and heard at various locations.

Water Pipit Anthus spinoletta (H): One bird was heard in a fishpond on the second day.

Grey Wagtail Motacilla cinerea: One bird was seen on the third day. It’s a scarce migrant in the Hortobágy.

White Wagtail Motacilla alba (H): One was heard at the Common Crane roost site in the evening.

Winter Wren Troglodytes troglodytes: Seen or heard every day.

Dunnock Prunella modularis (H): Heard on the second day near a fishpond.

European Robin Erithacus rubecula: Seen or heard on four days.

Eurasian Blackbird Turdus merula: Seen on four days.

Song Thrush Turdus philomelos: Two birds were seen in the woods near Debrecen.

Redwing Turdus iliaca: Two birds were seen in the Bihar Plains and a few more heard.

Mistle Thrush Turdus viscivorus: At least five were seen in the woods near Debrecen.

Common Chiffchaff Phylloscopus collybita: Four individuals were seen in bushy areas.

Goldcrest Regulus regulus: Severeal were seen in the woods near Debrecen, heard elsewhere.

Bearded Reedling Panurus biarmicus: Recorded on four days.

Long-tailed Tit Aegithalos caudatus: We had a two encounters with flocks containing many white-headed (nominate) birds.

Marsh Tit Poecile palustris: We saw several in the woods near Debrecen.

Eurasian Blue Tit Cyanistes caeruleus: It was common throughout the tour.

Great Tit Parus major: It was common throughout the tour.

Eurasian Nuthatch Sitta europaea: Very common in the woods near Debrecen.

Eurasian Treecreeper Certhia familiaris: One was seen in the Hortobágy on our second day, and another one heard on the fourth day.

Short-toed Treecreeper Certhia brachydactyla: Five birds were seen in the woods near Debrecen.

Eurasian Penduline Tit Remiz pendulinus: We had very good views of a male in the reedbeds of a fishpond, than, on the last day a female by the Tisza Lake.

Great Grey Shrike Lanius excubitor: We saw five birds on the tour.

Eurasian Jay Garrulus glandarius: Recorded on four days.

Spotted Nutcracker Nucifraga cariocatactes: We managed to relocate a bird on a misty morning in Hortobágy village. There was an influx going on all over Hungary, otherwise very rare here.

Common Magpie Pica pica: Very common.

Western Jackdaw Corvus monedula: Quite common in the Hortobágy

Rook Corvus frugilegus: Numerous.

Hooded Crow Corvus corone: Common.

Common Starling Sturnus vulgaris: Small flocks were recorded on all five days.

House Sparrow Passer domesticus: Common, mainly in villages.

Eurasian Tree Sparrow Passer montanus: Common in many type of habitats.

Common Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs: Small flocks were seen around wooded areas.

Brambling Fringilla montifringilla: Three birds were seen with Caffinches on the third day. Also heard on the second day.

European Greenfinch Carduelis chloris: Small flocks were seen regularly.

European Goldfinch Carduelis carduelis: Fairly common.

Eurasian Siskin Carduelis spinus (H): We heard them on three days.

Common Linnet Carduelis cannabina: Samll flocks were seen or heard on three days.

Eurasian Bullfinch Pyrrhula pyrrhula (H): We heard one on the last day.

Hawfinch Coccothraustes coccothraustes: Good views in the woods near Debrecen.

Yellowhammer Emberiza citrinella: Common around the Tisza Lake, heard elsewhere.

Common Reed Bunting Emberiza schoeniclus: Seen regularly around reedbeds.

Corn Bunting Miliaria calandra: Eleven birds were seen on our first afternoon.


Roe Deer Capreolus capreolus: Very common in farmlands.

Brown Hare Lepus europeaus: Regularly seen in open areas.

Eurasian Otter Lutra lutra: A very lucky encounter by the Tisza Lake.

Stoat Mustela erminea: Seen once, as it was running into a reedbed