Hungary and the crane migration, Autumn 2002

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Christopher and Alison Hall

Our second autumn visit to Hungary in two years reminded us of the magic of this special time and place. Zsolt Végvári, our local guide to the wonderful Hortobágy National Park, recommended we start with the "difficult" species. Within minutes we were scoping a Saker Falcon, followed by a stream of other raptors; Sparrowhawk, Common and Rough-legged Buzzards, Marsh Harrier, Hen Harriers galore and three White-tailed Eagles flashing their white tails with each soaring turn. What a start.

Our next difficult target was Great Bustard but these proved more elusive and so we dipped. After a picnic lunch watching hundreds of cranes, feeding and occasionally dancing with outstretched wings, we set off on foot across the Angyalhaza pustza in search of Dotterel. We soon bumped into the first recorded Snow Bunting of the season, followed by a trio of lingering Dotterel, en route to North Africa. Both of these species are mountain tundra dwellers but here they were on a lowland plain, the nearest thing they could find to their barren breeding home. A circular scan of this big sky landscape produced 25 floating Hen Harriers!

As dusk approached, we settled on a lonely mound to watch the cranes fly by and gather to roost. These majestic birds dotted the land across a wide angle in great hordes surely 5000 strong, a truly remarkable scene.

Come 8.30 am next morning Zsolt had another wonderful treat for us. Ten Long-eared Owls roosting in a couple of trees in Hortobágy village. We were so close that a single bird more than filled the view in the scope as it starred back with glowing amber Teddy Bear eyes, and feathers that looked more like fur.

Onward to the Hortobágyi-halast, a vast complex of lagoons and reedbeds, where the strengthening gale force wind hindered our progress. Penduline Tits refused to show though we did manage a dozen or so Bearded Tits followed by the first of many Great White Egrets and over a hundred Pygmy Cormorants which showed very well as they sheltered in the lee of waterside bushes. Even a Bittern broke cover briefly for all to see. Battered by the wind we decided to seek shelter in the famous Hortobágy inn for a welcome cauldron of hot Goulash. A tour of smaller fishponds in the afternoon came up trumps with a pair of Ferruginous Duck, shining like burnished copper in the late afternoon sun.

Now it was time to take our positions behind a line of trees in readiness for the evening crane run. Soon the air was filled with wild music as thousands of cranes announced their approach with an evocative whistling trill. As each flight of birds appeared over the trees, they rapidly lost height, almost dropping to ground level as they battled to steer a course directly into the ferocious wind. Line after line pushed on in determined waves undulating in perfect synchrony as they crossed the setting sun.

Today we made an early start in a determined bid to find the Great Bustard. As we arrived at a favoured area near the village of Nagyiván, shortly after 7.30 am, the cranes were already out in force in the fields. Thanks to a tip off from the local park warden we soon had the distinctive thick grey necks of four Great Bustards in our sights, behind a line of cranes.

Returning to Hortobágyi-halastó we tried again for Penduline Tits and this time some of the group managed to connect with four of these delightful little birds, lured out by a recorded song, before they retreated to the shelter of the reeds.

That afternoon we visited the watchtower at Kiscserepes where a flock of some 650 White-fronted Geese was thought to include a few of the very rare Lesser Whitefronts. As they sat half hidden by grasses we managed to pick out one or two by their diagnostic yellow eye rings. Suddenly the whole flock took off, possibly spooked by a nearby White-tailed Eagle. As the melee of wildfowl wheeled to and fro, a line of a dozen or so of the smaller geese magically emerged from the crowd as they kept in their own tight formation. Once they landed again we counted ten adults with five young, a very pleasing sight.

Another target species for this site was Long-legged Buzzard but there was no sign of it here. Fortunately another visiting group brought news of a sighting a little further to the east, so we quickly drove across to find this cinnamon beauty standing tall in the middle of an empty field, providing excellent views through the scopes. This marked a stunning end to three days of fantastic birding in the Hortobágy National Park, so we thanked our guide Zsolt, and said farewell.

Before leaving our base in Tiszafüred, we took a morning walk along the banks of the Tisza river which flowed beside our hotel. In no time at all our list included Tree Sparrow, Redwing, Fieldfare, Jay, Green, Great and Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers and not just one but a flock of a dozen or more Hawfinches perched for all to admire close up in the scopes. Further downstream we added a bouncy flock of over 50 Siskins as well as scope-filling views of handsome Kingfisher and Great Grey Shrike.

Driving west towards Budapest we stopped off to look for more raptors and were soon scoping a Saker Falcon. Scanning distant tree lines we eventually pinpointed our main quarry here, first one and then a second Imperial Eagle. At such a distance their sheer size, dwarfing their Hooded Crow mobsters, indicated their possible identity, but once we got closer and trained our scopes again one could clearly discern the sandy crown and white shoulders, which became more evident as they made short slow flapping flights to neighbouring trees. For me this was bird of the trip.

Now installed on the banks of the Danube we embarked on a small ferry boat for a day trip across this great river to the Börzsönyi Hills. With woodpeckers in mind we soon had excellent views of the first of several Middle Spots seen during the trip. The woods hereabouts had Nuthatches, Common Treecreepers, smart white headed eastern race Long-tailed Tits and especially Marsh Tits by the barrow load, but Black Woodpecker refused to show.

Next morning we had woodpeckers for breakfast, as a pole outside our dining room window, was visited by Grey-headed, Syrian and Great Spotted individuals in quick succession! Driving to Lake Tata, a flock of Crossbills flew overhead as we got out of the minibus, so we made a bee line for the nearby pines and soon had a lovely pair of colourful Crossbills in our scopes, one lime green, the partner orange. The lake and adjacent woods were however surprisingly quiet. On the return journey we called in at Esztergom with its huge basilica, where a family of four Kestrels were screaming around the massive dome.

Our final day began with a stroll from our hotel, along the bank of the Danube, where we enjoyed excellent views of Syrian, Grey-headed and of course ubiquitous Great-spotted Woodpeckers. The area seemed awash with woodpeckers but still no sign of a black one, so we headed up to the Pilisi Hills in a final effort to find one but still no luck, so we had to make do with the many good views of the other six species we had seen. The final species added to our list here was Firecrest. Although this time of year in Hungary does not produce a massive bird list, the quality of species is superb, and who can ever forget that fabulous 'crane show'?

Christopher and Alison Hall,
New Horizons (Bird Tours)

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