Highlighted by a White-tailed Eagle swooping just over our heads to take a Greylag Goose off the water, a pair of Saker Falcons, swarms of brilliant Bee-eaters, and, finally, a Great Bustard, our week from June 6 to 12, 2005 with Janos Matolcsy and Karoly Teleki of http://www.hungarianbirdwatching.com/ and their superb guides, was a wonderful experience. My wife and I had six days available between meetings in Vienna and Budapest and we wanted both a good birding experience and an opportunity to see and learn about Hungary, particularly the life and land outside the cities. We contacted Karoly by e-mail through the Hungarian Birdwatching website, and he proposed an itinerary that turned out to be just what we wanted.
Although we had blustery, sometimes rainy, weather part of the week, and most of the migrants had already moved on, we put the scope on 130 species, most of them new to us.
We started out in the Ferto-Hansag area of northwestern Hungary after Janos picked us up in Vienna. Our first two nights we stayed in the charming new little Hotel Rozalia in the tiny village of Sarrod where we had a two-story suite with a kitchen and fireplace and a lovely garden where a nightingale sang.
We met out first local guide, Lazlo, and on our first afternoon in Hungary, hiked the canal banks and the marsh habitat at the southeast corner of Lake Ferto. Geese, Black-headed Gulls, Lapwings, Great White Egrets, Grey and Purple herons and numerous ducks and shorebirds abounded including a Little Ringed Plover and an up close visit with the, new to us, Ferruginous Duck. We stalked the reed beds listening for both Reed Warblers and Great Reed Warblers until they both emerged and we could watch them sing. At various times, a Red-backed Shrike sat obligingly nearby on his hunting perch. At the end of the day, we toured the enormous Esterhazy Palace, where Hayden composed many of his works, and later went birding in the extensive palace gardens where we were nearly adopted by a young Great Spotted Woodpecker. Dinner that night, our first taste of a traditional Hungarian meal, was at a local restaurant owned by a wine making family, and after dinner we visited their wine cellar in a cave carved into the hill behind the restaurant.
Our trip included not only our local guides, but also the hotels and pensions, all of our meals, special excursions, and transportation - with Janos on the first two days and last two days and Karoly taking the middle two. Because of the wet weather, they had to make some mid course adjustments, but everything was to our liking. Not only that, we spent the week traveling with two gentlemen who know not only birds but the history, culture, economy and politics of Hungary and its neighbors, and who are absolutely fluent in English.
The second day, despite a cold wind and dark clouds, we hiked to a birding tower overlooking the ponds we had visited the day before. There we watched a White-tailed Eagle , blissfully ignoring the screaming Black-headed and Mediterranean Gulls and Lapwings, fly in a leisurely half circle around us and, with the rising sun behind him, drop his long yellow legs and talons like airplane landing gear and snatch a Greylag Goose out the water. Later in the morning, we visited the Hansag area and toured a local natural history museum designed to teach Hungarian school kids about the Hungarian environment. After lunch in a local pub, we drove to a harvested grain field where we glassed a huge oak tree standing by itself in the middle of the field. We spotted first one, and then the other of a pair of Saker Falcons that had just raised a single youngster in that tree. They put on a wonderful display soaring over the field together and landed in the tree to give us a fine view through the scope. We then visited an ancient hunting lodge which houses an amazing taxidermy collection confiscated from a notorious poacher and then went to see a Bee-eater nesting area in clay cliffs where we were surrounded by these gem brilliant birds. Nearby is an extensive marsh area that was drained during the communist era for poorly conceived agricultural projects and is now being reflooded and restored. We then hiked into the deep woods and visited a Black Stork nest, being careful not to disturb them but getting a great look through the scope. After birding all day in blustery weather we were tired enough to really enjoy our visit to a fabulous new spa facility in Sarvar with huge indoor/outdoor pools of hot thermal mineral waters.
The third day we packed up and left for Tata, but it was raining so hard that Karoly adjusted the schedule and took us for a morning tour around Budapest. In the late afternoon we headed back north to Tata where we were lodged in the lovely lakeshore Casablanca Hotel. That evening, we walked through the little old historic town of Tata on the Old Lake with a local lady, Katalin, while occasional raindrops fell through the tattered clouds, and got in a bit of birding around the old castle ruins. Dinner at the hotel included wild mushroom soup and an excellent chicken goulash topped off by Hungarian pastry
On day four we were up at first light. It was misting and windy when Karoly arrived with our second guide, Norbert but the woods were full of birds. We began with a long hike around the Old Lake and saw Great and Middle Spotted Woodpeckers, Siskins, Serins, Greenfinches, Hawkfinches, Tits, Flycatchers, Buntings, and Thrushes. We then drove to the Ferencmajor fish ponds and hiked to a birding blind on the wooded shore where we had lunch while watching a wide variety of water birds including Great Crested Grebes dancing across the water, Night Herons, and a Kingfisher flashing back and forth in the densely forested creek behind us. We then went on a long, wet, and windy hike around the ponds to a forest inhabited by black woodpeckers, but the wind driven rain kept them hidden from our view despite our guide’s attempt to call them.
We were rewarded, however when we got back to our hotel by news of a Long Eared Owl nearby. The hotel owner, watching us head out again into the rain, opined that bird watchers are “obsessed”. We soon located a damp juvenile owl and soon our guide spotted the adult in a nearby tree who kept us amused with frequent shakes of her feathers to shake off the rain alternating with tail twitches each time she called to the youngster. We dried out and drove through a series of little villages up on a high ridge overlooking the Danube north of Budapest to the Hilltop winery, one of the finest in Hungary. The country’s long tradition of fine wines suffered grievously during the communist period and it has taken some years to return to quality production. Hilltop Winery has won a number of prestigious awards in recent years, and deservedly so, as we found out on a private tour of their plant and wine tasting in their cellars. Hilltop also has an excellent restaurant where we enjoyed not only fine Hungarian food but fine Hungarian wine.
Day five had us up early when Janos arrived for a 6:30 breakfast and we traveled southeast around Budapest toward the Kiskunsag. We picked up our next guide, Bence, near his village and were soon in the middle of another little village street looking for a very elusive Redstart, a rare visitor to Hungary, who had been spotted by one of the local birders. Bence, a birdcall expert like all of our guides, could hear the Redstart. So Bence followed the bird from house to house and tree to tree until at last, the Redstart deigned to sit and sing for us. It was later, in a nearby wood, that we finally were able to watch a nightingale sing, a very important item on our list.
Then we were off for a long and full (80 species) day in the Kiskunsag pusta. We hiked out along canals into the wide, open fields of the pusta with Herons, Egrets, Spoonbills, a Crane, Black-tailed Godwits, and Curlews, also Warblers, Stonechats, and Buntings singing in the reeds and occasionally posing for a close look. We saw Common Terns, Whiskered Terns, and dozens of the wonderfully flamboyant White-winged Black Terns feeding in the marshy fields all around us. Finally, out in the midst of all this bird life we watched three pair (of the five pair currently known to be in the country) of brightly marked Collared Pratincole land nearby. At one point, we saw a family of Marsh Harriers, clearly displaying the different colors, patterns and sizes of male, female, and juvenile, work the field next to us and finally land and pose for a close inspection in the scope. A major thunderstorm loomed up, but passed safely to the north of us as we walked back to the car and drove to a delightful lunch spot next to a birding tower. Here Janos outdid himself with special salads and spreads, dry salami, cheese, and sweet Hungarian pepper sandwiches on wonderful rolls, and icy cold Hungarian beer. During lunch, birds were always in sight over the fields. We were impressed with kiting kestrels, hobbys and marsh harriers soaring over the fields, and four cuckoos as well as a pair of golden orioles that flew over us.
Afterwards, we continued our tour of the Kiskunsag. At one point we set up in an exquisite field of wildflowers on top of an enormous hill built by prehistoric people of the Kiskunsag. During the afternoon, there was wonderful birding at every stop and we were especially delighted by an overwhelming number of blue rollers and, at one stop, a Little Owl who stared fiercely at us from atop a hay bale. At last, we arrived at our final night’s lodging, a wonderful old Tanya (farmstead) that has been converted into a small pension where we again had a two-story suite. That evening, we visited an historic Hungarian ranch where we were treated to a display of horsemanship. Although our purpose was to avoid “tourist” attractions, the fine animals and exceptional horsemanship was an outstanding addition to our visit, particularly the demonstration of four-in-hand driving at which the Hungarians are the best in the world. After the show, we were invited to a classic goulash dinner and, because it was our wedding anniversary, we were serenaded with Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March”. We were also presented by Janos with a fine bottle of Hungarian Tokaji wine and a beautiful book on Hungary’s National Parks.
The sixth day, our last day with Hungarian Birdwatching, dawned cloudy. Janos and Bence were worried that we had not yet seen a great bustard, the premier bird of Hungary. Because of the rain, they had scattered from their usual haunts on the Pusta. The plan had originally been to drive to Hortobagy to see another Pusta area but that would have cut our remaining birding time in half as we had to be back in Budapest by 5 p.m. So we decided to stay in the Kiskunsag area. .
We began our morning with a long walk through the forest plantations near our Tanya pension listening to and seeing many birds. We played listen-and-look tag with a barred warbler for some 15 minutes before getting a good – if quick-- look. The walk’s highlights were a hunting goshawk, a perfectly posed tree pipit, and an absolutely brilliant pair of goldfinches. Then we were off in a clear but unspoken search for the great bustard. We drove to a salt lake in the midst of the Pusta with a birding tower near a traditional working sheep farm and looked at what was left of the migratory shore and water birds. We stopped for an ice cream at a new Czarda beside a canal and watched a moorhen feed pondweed to her three chicks. And then, on a phone wire, as bold as brass we saw a red phase cuckoo, close enough to completely fill the scope. Later, we stopped to talk to an Irish artist sketching a nesting pair of red-footed falcon. The artist and his guide had seen a great bustard that morning so we took off in a hurry, eventually driving several miles down a rutted grassy road until we were stopped by a mud puddle that Janos car was not likely to negotiate. From there, we hiked to an isolated birding tower. Just before we got there, Bence set up the scope and in the distance was a great bustard! We went up in the tower and for a long time watched the single male bustard display and dance. For no known reason, after the mating season is over, the males go off by themselves and display, throwing back their heads and fluffing their feathers until they look like great white puffballs. So he danced and we watched, until, to everyone’s surprise, two great bustard females showed up and joined the dance. Our trip was complete. We hiked back to the car and drove to the same wonderful spot as yesterday, where we enjoyed our last lunch on the Pusta with celebratory high fives and cheers all round. The sun was warm and the day was fine and we saw even more golden orioles, red footed falcons and cuckoos. Then we drove north at a leisurely pace, dropped Bence off near his village, and pulled into our destination in the center of Budapest precisely at 5 pm. Karoly met us there and we all said goodbye with heartfelt thank-yous and our best wishes for what seems to us to be a wonderful new enterprise (http://www.hungarianbirdwatching.com)
Great Crested Grebe
Great White Egret
Little Ringed Plover
White-winged Black Tern
Great Spotted Woodpecker
Middle Spotted Woodpecker
Lesser Spotted Woodpecker
Great Reed Warbler
Long Tailed Tit
Lesser Grey Shrike