The Hortobagy, Hungary, 4th - 7th September 2003

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The 3rd Hungarian Bird Race

Paddyfield Warbler

by Mike Watson

Between 4th and 7th September 2003 I took part in the 3rd Hungarian Bird Race, an event claimed by Hungarian birders as some of the best fun you will ever have birding. The idea of the HBR was to bring some extra interest to the annual field meetings, which have been a major social event in Hungarian birding circles. The event is held at Hortobagy Halasto (or "fishponds"), widely regarded as the best single birding site in Hungary not only for the range and number of species but also for the relative ease of access. The site is vast and although you can't leave the boundary of the fishponds, when the surrounding puszta, in which you are allowed to count birds seen from within the fishponds, is added the potential area of the bird race is about 5000 hectares.

The event started in the evening of 4th September with birders arriving at the Puszta Camping Site at Hortobagy Village, a short drive away from the fishponds. It continued into the next day with a series of lectures and slide shows however I managed to mess up their schedule by finding a Paddyfield Warbler (see photo above) at the fishponds on the evening of 4th which was, amazingly, the first sight record for Hungary. Sadly it wasn't present the next morning and resulted in a painful dip for many of the contestants. Most of the teams were camping next to an excellent open-air spa bath, which provided a great way to relax with a beer after a hard day in the field. There are however lots of other places to stay locally.

The food at the Camping area was great and included local fish soup and there were also several stalls selling amongst other things the famous bird race T-shirt, which everyone tends to wear on the day of the race. The bird on the T-shirt is the best bird from last year's race and this time it was an adult male Pallid Harrier on a Navy background. There are also much sought-after black versions given to the top three teams from the previous year although places two and three usually have too much pride to wear theirs!

I was dead keen to win the black T-shirt so I had spent 3 or 4 days before the race finding more tricky birds like Linnet, Skylark and believe it or not, Pheasant. I also had the advantage of being in a team with Janos Olah jr. and Zoli Ecsedi of Sakertour and even though I knew I was going to be a passenger in this company I felt we had a good chance to win. It was going to difficult though against the Debrecen and Szeged "Hardcores" and last year's winners the "Moby Dick" Team of Manu, Husi and Fiteti.

The day of the race came on the 6th, everyone assembled at the start of the fishponds track before 0900 and Zoli explained the rules. The idea of having a 0900-0900 race is to allow 2 part-mornings birding and it also takes the pressure off trying to twitch species seen by other teams at the Northern limit of the fishponds before it gets dark on day one. Another interesting rule is that if you find a bird on the mega list (previous years megas have included Pallid Harrier and Terek Sandpiper) you can claim it for your team by mobile phone and then no other teams are allowed to count that particular individual. The teams must consist of three and only 5% of the total number of birds counted can be seen by two of the team and all heard records must be heard by all of the team. It is also an eco-friendly race in that you are only allowed to take part on foot.

The bird race started with a minute's silence for Walter Wettstein, one of Hungary's top young birders, who was tragically killed in a car accident in Austria. This sums up the togetherness in Hungary's birding community and another example of this camaraderie was when one of our closest rivals, Toky Bela of the Szeged Hardcore, gave us some of his water later in the day when he saw how shattered we were! It was a great sight to see all 37 teams gathered at the start however only a few minutes into the race you would have no idea how many people were birding the site - it is that big. Two minutes before the start a fine Hobby flew low over the crowd - it isn't such an easy bird to find to order and caused much amusement. As soon as the signal to start went we already had a Wood Warbler waiting in the 'scope in the trees above us - another tricky bird. We then ran back into the village to see the Little Owl still perched in a tree by the hotel, quickly followed by Pied Flycatcher and Red-backed Shrike in the gardens there.

Our tactics were to head up the main channel as quickly as possible for several reasons. Firstly we knew that we would (unintentionally) flush anything on the way, like Squacco Heron and Little Egret which can both be difficult and also to get to the best bushes for passerine migrants first, about half way to the end, where we had seen Blackcap and Lesser Whitethroat several days before. We saw both the Herons easily and sure enough they duly flew away into the reed-beds. We also managed some more difficult birds in a calling Little Bittern, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Golden Orioles, a Grey Wagtail and some Linnets. I missed the latter - Whoops! I was going to have to stay closer to the other two boys and not wander off. Our hopes of the bushes were rewarded with a tame juvenile Thrush Nightingale which we later learnt wasn't seen by anyone else. As it transpired we saw several of each of Lesser Whitethroat, Whitethroat and Common Redstart, birds we thought might pose a problem. Other goodies, which fell easily, were Pygmy Cormorant, White-tailed Eagle, Montagu's Harrier, Purple Heron and Penduline Tit. It was also quite an experience to be surrounded by countless calling Savi's Warblers.

The only semi-drained fishpond, no. 5, was our next target as waders sometimes move through the area quite quickly and also you are limited in the time you can spend in a hide if there are other teams waiting. We scored a Saker here and some reasonable waders in Grey and Golden Plovers, Curlew Sandpiper, Temminck's and Little Stints, Sanderling, Turnstone and Redshank (it's good to see Spotted Redshank outnumber it by 100 to 1!). Other good birds here were Garganey and Ferruginous Duck. We did however overlook a juvenile Red Knot, which we had to return for the next morning. The giant Kondas fishpond at the end of the track was next and produced a juvenile Black Stork, a Moorhen, which we all saw cleaning up our previous 2/3 bird, a juvenile Red-necked Grebe, Black Tern, Little Gull and a Bluethroat, staked out from one of my recces. We also bumped into the 'Male Model' Team of Robi Goder, Brad Pitt and Fekete Parduc who had seen a Lesser Spotted Eagle but had only scored about 50 species by going all the way up the generally poorer West side of the fishponds. It was only 1300 and we were now on 105 so we knew a big score was possible.

Things started to become much more difficult though as we ran out of energy, water and Red Bull too. Walking down the East side of the fishponds we only added another six species all the way to the SE corner however these included a fine juvenile Pallid Harrier which we blocked from the other teams with a quick phone call, a Pheasant and a Bittern sneaking off into the reeds a few metres away which was only seen by 2 of us. We then learnt that immediately after we had left the Male Models they had seen a male Pallid Harrier although there was also some controversy with other teams as to who had found it first. Three different Pallid Harriers were also seen on the 2002 Bird race so there is always a good chance of this excellent bird. Just before the corner we added Wheatear, Skylark and a Long-legged Buzzard, soaring several kilometres away over the puszta. Then came the SE corner which was to prove the crucial point for us with what turned out to be two more exclusive birds on the other teams in Tawny Pipit and Hoopoe but also some other difficult ones in Short-toed Eagle, a juvenile Lesser Grey Shrike (most have left by early September) and a small flock Woodpigeons which eventually flew towards us showing their wing-bars after being no more than mere dots on a distant telegraph wire. We also saw another Saker here. You always seem to find some common bird difficult on a bird race and this time ours was Sedge Warbler. Although we saw several on day two our first on day one was also at the SE corner.

On our way back to the start we saw a Black Redstart around some farm buildings and from there we had time to walk to the SW corner fluking a Great Reed Warbler on the way and then getting both Hobby and some distant Red-footed Falcons from the corner itself. Mosquitoes can be a problem on the Hortobagy and we got bitten quite a lot in the evening but we were very confident finishing on 121 at the end of day one knowing the record was only 3 species away. We spent the evening waiting at the start for the other teams to return as we knew lots of them would try to end the day at the No. 5 tower hide so would be walking back in the dark and we tried to get as much information as we could for day two. It seemed we had missed lots of birds - White Stork, Wigeon, White-fronted Goose, Swift, Wryneck and Firecrest in addition to those already mentioned. We were absolutely knackered and the prospect of the walking all the way back to the Kondas fishpond where we heard that the 2 White Storks had gone to roost on the the roof of the hide wasn't appealing. Also how could we have missed Red Knot and Wigeon? We must be useless!

We set off before dawn at 0430 next morning reaching No. 5 about an hour later and fortunately the Red Knot was still there. After this we saw a Nightingale nearby and also a Wigeon on the Kondas, followed by lots more on our return to No. 5! Zoli once again showed his amazing talent for finding birds in the very far distance by spotting the 2 White Storks on the puszta North of the Kondas from the No. 5 tower hide! We then legged it back quickly to try around the village where we knew there should be Crested Lark. Right next to the start we saw the juvenile Red-breasted Flycatcher which had been found there that morning and then the remaining minutes were spent 'scoping around the farm buldings to the South of the railway line in an attempt to see Crested Lark. Again Zoli came up trumps with one but by now a crowd had gathered and lots of other teams saw it.

With only two or three minutes to go we walked back to the start which also acts as the finishing line and a couple of Turtle Doves flew over our heads - species no. 128. We wondered if this would be enough. Luckily it was, with the Debrecen Hardcore finishing second with 122, after a late charge on day two seeing about 16 new birds that morning and the Moby Dick team won the third place black T-shirts with 119, this was even more impressive considering the completely knackered state they were in. Fourth place went to the Szeged Hardcore with 118 and in all 10 teams scored over 115 with a total of over 150 species seen by all the teams. We should also get an 'armchair' additional bird as our total doesn't include Caspian Gull as a separate species.

It was definitely some of the best fun I've had birding for ages, of course helped by winning but I'd recommend it to anyone. Although we walked over 30 km during the course of the 24 hour race you can still see well over 100 species by taking it much easier. There is an open invitation to take part and the organisers can also arrange trips before and after the race for visiting birders to see specialities like Great Bustard, Ural Owl and White-backed Woodpecker. There is also the regular flock of up to 3000 (yes, three thousand!) Red-footed Falcons going to roost, like Starlings at nearby Heves which is one of most amazing avian spectacles I've seen.

For more information about the 2004 race, which should take place during the first week in September please contact or .