Every year we (a group of friends from the UK) form a party and organise our own foreign birding holiday. We decided to visit Hungary in 2005 as it hosts several bird species which would be "lifers" for us: Saker, Eastern Imperial Eagle, Ural Owl, Great Bustard, Aquatic Warbler and several woodpeckers. Two of our party (Richard and Steve) had visited Hungary before (with Naturetrek in October 1999 and with WildWings in August 1998) and had brought back excellent reports of the birds, habitats and conditions there. As neither of these trips had been in the spring Richard and Steve decided to return on our late spring trip to see what that season had to offer. On both of those trips the local birding guide had been Gerard Gorman (author of The Birds of Hungary and Woodpeckers of Europe) and Richard and Steve informed us that he had been an expert, organised and helpful local guide. So we decided to contact him to ask for his assistence. Browsing the web we found that his web-sites BIRDING HUNGARY (www.birdinghungary.com) and PROBIRDER (www.probirder.com) provided good background reading and reliable information and thus aided us in our planning. We booked flights with MALEV Hungarian Airlines London-Budapest return and found these very satisfactory.
Day 1: Our groups of friends arrived at Budapest Ferihegy airport on time after a comfortable flight on Hungarian Airlines. Our local leader Gerard Gorman and our bus driver for the week Attila were waiting in the arrivals area. We were soon on our way towards our first base (the Aggtelek National Park in the north-east of the country on the border with Slovakia) in our comfortable and air-conditioned Mercedes bus. The journey was broken up by a “comfort” stop half-way and what a stop it was! Several species of raptor were waiting for us: Common Buzzard, Marsh Harrier, Kestrel, a magnificent perched adult Eastern Imperial Eagle and then an overflying Lesser Spotted Eagle. Clearly this was no fluke, Gerard had obviously chosen this spot as the perfect place to take a break, and indeed we were to find throughout our week that our guide's precise knowledge of birding sites was exceptional. Other birds on the way included White Stork, Red-backed and Lesser Grey Shrikes and Corn Bunting.
After check-in at out wonderfully situated hotel some of us went out before dinner into a nearby woodland for a stroll. It was here that we were first treated to another of Gerard's skills, his ability to imitate the calls of woodpeckers. A few whistles and a Black Woodpecker called back, and then, amzingly flew over us and landed in a bare, dead tree. Superb, and a lifer for several of us. Dinner was a 3-course affair of goulash soup, a tasty Hungarian style pork dish and jam pancakes. Later Gerard briefed us on the following days plans for our stay at Aggtelek. What a first day!
Day 2: Some of us turned out at 6 am for a pre-breakfast walk in the vicinity of our hotel. A Barred Warbler displayed, Collared Flycatchers and Wood Warblers were singing and 2 Grey Wagtails gave good views. After a good breakfast we left at 8.30. We drove for about 15 minutes to the mouth of an valley. Here we disembarked and walked along a hazel-tree lined track following a stream. We had informed our guide that one or two of us were "not so nimble on our feet" (or as David put it "old crocks") so Gerard promosed to take the easiest trials and indeed took it slowly. I must say that throughout the tour he was particularly attentive to the needs of the "slower" and "less experienced" members of our group (no names mentioned!). But the going was, in any case, not too bad. In the hour that followed we saw Black Redstart, Golden Oriole, Red-backed Shrike, Woodlark, Barred Warbler, numerous Hawfinches, and Lesser Spotted, Middle Spotted and Great Spotted Woodpeckers. Reaching a grassy plateau we rested and waited, Gerard telling us to scan the skies. John soon spotted a circling Black Stork, a Goshawk flew over and several Common Buzzards were up, and then Gerard pointed out an approaching raptor. It turned out to be another adult Eastern Imperial Eagle as it soared into view. Another wonderfully chosen spot. We walked a little way back and at the edge of the village had a pleasant surprise as Attila had preapared our picnic lunch. The timing (and lunch) was excellent as we were all ready for it: a combination of fresh local bread, cheeses, ham, fruit and biscuits which we washed down with mineral water, orange juice and local red and white wines. During lunch Gerard said he could hear a Corncrake (no mean feat given the excited chatter that was going on in the group about the raptors!) and so as soon as we had finished eating and drinking we followed him a little way back up the track to the first clearing. Sure enough a Corncrake was rasping away and after a while brief views were had by all as it scurried across the track. In the afternoon we drove further into the Nat Park and walked in an oak-hornbeam-beech wood where Gerard said he had recently seen 2 Ural Owls. After about a mile Gerard asked us to stay still and listen as he strolled ahead a way. But he was soon back explaining that a roosting Ural Owl was just 100 yards away. We moved in that direction and sure enough there it was, magnificent, a huge Ural Owl perched in a beech tree. Gerard had his scope on it in a flash and most of us had magnified views before it flew into the canopy There is no doubt that we would never have found this bird without local help, this is what we had employed Gerard to do to, and he had produced the goods. Our first full day had been a real success.
Day 3: We all went into the woods near the hotel before breakfast and the Black Woodpecker obliged again. After breakfast we drove for about 20 minutes to a fine old beech stand. The first 50 yards was steep but again Gerard took it slowly and explained to all that once we were over the first bit the going would be flat and easy. Prior to the tour I had wondered whether the hilly part of the trip might be too hard for some of us, and whether our local guide might be a bit gung-ho, but it turned out that Gerard was very aware of our needs and abilities and took them into consideration when planning each day. After a rather quiet hour Mike said he had heard a tapping noise to his left. Gerard was onto it like a flash and began to raidly tap a tree with a stick. Soon a female White-backed Woodpecker came into view on a rotting hornbean trunk! It was a brief view, but enough to see that it was a WB and a female. It was a fine lifer for all of us, one some of us a missed on previous trips in the Pyrenees, Poland and Bulgaria. After another superb picnic (thanks again Attila!) we spent the rest of the day on short walks in deciduous woods and by rocky hillsides. We picked up a flock of Bee-eaters, 2 Wrynecks, a male Syrian Woodpecker, a male Grey-headed Woodpecker (both heard first and then called in by Gerard) and Rock Bunting on the juniper dotted slope near Aggtelek village. At the end of the day we had another good Hungarian dinner. Some of us celebrated our lifers with glasses of palinka (the local fruit-based fire-water).
Day 4: Today we headed south-eastwards leaving the forests and valleys of the Aggtelek area for the grasslands of the Great Plain. We stopped in a quaint village where Attila got in some picnic provisions (I think we were exhausting the wine supplies!) and whilst he did that we took photos of the White Storks nesting on the telephone poles and rooftops. We also made a stop at a roadside quarry between Aggtelek and the Bukk Hills where we 'scoped an Eagle Owl with chicks. After an hour we reached flat open country and species such as Lesser Grey Shrike, Montagu’s Harrier and Roller were added to the list. At about 1 pm we pulled up by a copse overlooking a "puszta" (grassland). As Attila prepared our picnic, Gerard led us on a short stroll casually mentioning that this was an area for Saker. Within a minute John shouted that a large falcon was soaring in our dorection. Sure enough, there it was, another lifer, a Saker! During our picnic it was joined by another and the pair perched on a high-voltage pylon allowing us to 'scope them as we spilled our wines! After this well chosen picnic spot (and by now we knew that this places were not casually chosen ones) we headed to the famous Hortobagy National Park. We stopped at Lake Tisza which produced several Great White and Little Egrets, Little Bittern, Reed, Great Reed and Savi’s Warblers and Bearded and Penduline Tits. We checked into our rooms in Tiszafured and before dinner some of us saw Syrian Woodpecker in the garden. Our dinner was large portions of meat-pancakes, a paprika stew and then cherry strudel. Besides the birds we were also getting very fond of Hungarian cuisine!
Day 5: We had an early breakfast today (7 am) as we needed to get out onto the Hortobagy’s grasslands early to find Great Bustards. Our first stop to scan for them produced parties of hunting Red-footed Falcons, more Lesser Grey Shrikes and a Tawny Pipit displaying. After a walk of around a mile along a dry farm-track near Tizsaors Gerard stopped set up his 'scope and invited us to view 10 male Great Bustards in a field of short lucerne. Fantastic, a lifer some some of us, surperb views for all. Then Dawn spotted a family of Little Owls on a barn and a Northern Wheatear hopped onto the track, too. Near Nagyivan we we met a friend of Gerard's (a National Park ranger) and as they chatted away in Hungarian Attila handed out cups of mineral water as it was getting warm. Gerard told us that the ranger had lined up some Stone Curlews for us in his 'scope. And sure enough there they were, 2 of them, partly hidden in the short sunflower plants. You just can't beat local knowledge. We would never of found these ourselves and indeed would never have thought to look for this species in those crops. Later we drove for 30 minutes to a large fish-farm system. It was full of birds: Black-necked and Red-necked Grebes, 2 Glossy Ibis, 100s of Spoonbills, 24 Pygmy Cormorants, 7 Garganey, 6 Ferruginous Duck, lots of Squacco, Purple and Night Herons, breeding Whiskered Terns and both "Caspian" and Yellow-legged Gulls.
Acro warblers were singing everywhere. As we watched the wetland birds Gerard pointed out a Magpie nest in a willow which was hosting breeding Long-eared Owls: a lifer for Ruth and Mike.
Day 6: The local grapevine had informed Gerard that an adult Great Black-headed Gull had been found on a drained pond at the other side of the Hortobagy, around an hour from our hotel. Though Gerard did not insist we agreed that we should go to look for it, indeed Gerard said the route there would not hinder our overall itinerary and plans. Upon arrival it did not take long to add it to our lists. An adult in breeding plumage. Besides this fine, and somewhat "bonus" bird, there were also Black-necked Grebes, Black Terns, a Penduline Tit nest, singing Bluethroat (the white-spotted race breeds here) and waders such as Common and Spotted Redshanks, Snipe, Ruff and Common, Wood and Curlew Sandpipers. In the late afternoon we drove to large grassland in the north of the park. Here Long-legged Buzzard and another Saker was added. There were also 35 Common Cranes here and a fine male Montagu’s Harrier. Finally, and amazingly, our driver Attila suddenly stopped near Tiszacege and announced (in English) "White-tailed Eagle". And he was right! A huge adult was soaring above the road before us. Our last stop was a roadside canal were Gerard said Little Crakes were likely to pop out into view. It took time and a lot of peering into the reeds but finally that is what happened, a male Little Crake did walk out briefly and was seen by most of us. As we approached Tiszafured 2 Golden Orioles flew alongside the bus and then a Barn Owl flew across in front of us and started to glide and hunt by the roadside disturbing some Crested Larks!
Day 7: Today we met with a HNP park ranger (a friend of Gerard's) who was to take us into the strictly protected damp grasslands near Nagyivan where Aquatic Warblers breed. We walked through the area avoiding the wetter parts and at about 9.30 am in a seemingly random (but of course it was not) spot the ranger played a few short bursts of taped calls. This play-back method is used to provoke responses and thus estimate the number of singing males in the area each year. We were informed that around 600 singing males are found each spring. After a short while and several false alarms as small birds whizzed back and forth (mostly Sedge Warblers and Yellow Wagtails!) a male Aquatic began to sing on tall grass stem some 25 yards in front if us. Another wonderful sighting and one well planned and organised by the locals for us. As we walked back to the road groups of White-winged Black Terns in breeding plumage went by. A lifer for Derek and Sean. The afternoon was spent birding various roadside fish-ponds which Gerard had promised would be easy to walk around. In fact, again, our guide's local knowledge was crucial here as the many fish-farms of the Hortobagy can be very different in terms of character and access. Ponds which are drained one week may be full of water the next, and some ponds are accessible by tarmac roads whilst others are encircled by dirt tracks which are imposible to drive (or walk) after rain. Anyway, we picked up many herons and egrets, innumerable Marsh Harriers, a Water Rail, Icterine Warbler (lifer for Jean) and our best view yet of a singing Bluethroat. Cuckoos were everywhere, too. But the best bird for many here was a Moustached Warbler which after singing and then skulking for 10 minutes eventually popped out into view.
Day 8: We had breakfast and then set off for Budapest. We stopped at a service station on the M3 and saw another Saker fly by then, after a total journey of 2.5 hours, Attila was driving us through Budapest's Hero’s Square, by the Parliament and then the Opera House and Basilica before we reached the airport. Check-in was straightforward and we said our farewells to Gerard and Attila and headed home. All in all, a very successful tour with birds galore, fantastic habitats, great food and drink and an expert and considerate driver and excellent local guide. Thanks also to my fellow travellers Dawn, Dave, Mike, John, Ruth, Derek, Sean, Steve, Jean and Richard.
Peter Davis, 2005
Bird species recorded
Number in brackets indicates number of days recorded. H = Heard only.
Little Grebe (5) Fairly common on Hortobagy.
Great Crested Grebe (6) Common on Hortobagy.
Red-necked Grebe (2) Good close views on fish-ponds at Hortobagy.
Black-necked Grebe (3) Good views of 8 birds in breeding plumage.
Common Cormorant (7) Common and widespread.
Pygmy Cormorant (3) Around 12 seen at colony at Hortobagy fish-ponds.
Common Bittern (3) Numerous heard and 2 seen in flight.
Little Bittern (2) Good view of a perched adult and one in flight.
Night Heron (5) Common at fish-ponds.
Squacco Heron (4) Common at Hortobagy. Several good close views.
Little Egret (5) Fairly common at Hortobagy.
Great White Egret (7) Common at Hortobagy.
Grey Heron (7) Quite common.
Purple Heron (6) Common. Exceptional views.
Black Stork (2) Good views including one overhead at Aggtelek.
White Stork (7) On nests and feeding at roadsides throughout.
Glossy Ibis (2) Only seen at Hortobagy. Ten birds.
Spoonbill (5) Numerous good views of feeding and flying birds.
Mute Swan (2) Two on Danube in Budapest.
Greylag Goose (4) Common throughout.
Gadwall (1) Surprisingly few this year.
Teal (2) Around 12 seen over Hortobagy fish-ponds.
Mallard (6) Common throughout.
Garganey (3) Several good views, including adult drakes.
Shoveler (2) Quite common.
Pochard (5) Very common.
Ferruginous Duck (4) Quite common on Hortobagy. Several good views.
Tufted Duck (1) Uncommon. Just 2 seen at Rakaca Reservoir.
Honey Buzzard (2) Up to 6 seen at Aggtelek.
Black Kite (1) One near Ohat, Hortobagy.
Short-toed Eagle (1) 4 seen on first day in Zemplen, one with snake.
Marsh Harrier (6) Common. Several very close views.
Montagu’s Harrier (2) 2 males & 1female on the Hortobagy.
Sparrowhawk (1) Surprisingly just one seen.
Common Buzzard (7) Very common.
Long-legged Buzzard (1) One roadside view on the Hortobagy.
Lesser Spotted Eagle (2) One on route on first day, one at Aggtelek.
Imperial Eagle (1) Magnificent views at Aggtelek.
Kestrel (6) Quite common.
Red-footed Falcon (5) Excellent views of birds feeding and nesting.
Hobby (3) Good views including one amongst Bee-eaters.
Saker (2) 2 perched in Heves County, one on Hortobagy.
Grey Partridge (1) Rather uncommon.
Quail (H) Quite common, many heard, but difficult to see.
Pheasant (7) Common throughout.
Water Rail (H) Several heard.
Little Crake (1) One at Fekete-ret marsh, Hortobagy.
Corncrake (1) And several heard at Aggtelek.
Moorhen (4) Fairly common.
Coot (5) Very common.
Common Crane (2) Calling group in flight and 10 seen over fish-pond.
Great Bustard (1) Exceptional views of males on the Hortobagy.
Avocet (2) Around 10 seen on Hortobagy
Black-winged Stilt (1) Six at Fekete-ret marsh, HNP.
Stone Curlew (1) Good views at Nagyivan.
Lapwing (5) Fairly common.
Curlew Sandpiper (1) One adult summer bird seen well.
Common Snipe (2) Several seen and heard.
Black-tailed Godwit (3) Fairly common.
Curlew (2) Rather scarce this year.
Common Redshank (2) Quite common.
Great Black-headed Gull (1) One adult on drained Hortobagy fish-farm.
Black-headed Gull (6) Very common on Great Plain.
Yellow-legged Gull (4) Quite common on Great Plain fish-ponds.
Common Tern (2) Uncommon.
Whiskered Tern (5) Very common over fish-ponds and marshes.
Black Tern (1) Small flock hawking over Fenyves fish-ponds.
White-winged Black Tern (1) Wonderful views of around 50 at Nagyivan.
Feral Pigeon (7) Common.
Stock Dove (2) Fairly common at Aggtelek.
Woodpigeon (6) Common.
Collared Dove (7) Common.
Turtle Dove (6) Quite common.
Cuckoo (6) Common. Several very good views.
Tawny Owl (2) One calling, and seen, by hotel at Aggtelek.
Ural Owl (1) One at Aggtelek.
Long-eared Owl (3) One roosting by motel on Hortobagy.
Eagle Owl (1) A perched adult and 2 chicks seen very well.
Little Owl (2) Seen peeping from farm rooftops on Hortobagy.
Common Swift (1) Uncommon on route taken.
Bee-eater (6) Numerous good views.
Roller (2) Roadside birds in Heves and Hortobagy areas.
Hoopoe (4) Several good views.
Wryneck (3) Some good views and more heard.
Grey-headed Woodpecker (2) One wonderful view of a male calling at Aggtelek
Green Woodpecker (1) Only one seen.
Black Woodpecker (3) Three seen, and heard, at Aggtelek.
Great Spotted Woodpecker (3) Common at Aggtelek.
Syrian Woodpecker (2) One at Aggtelek village, one at Tiszafured.
Middle Spotted Woodpecker (2) Several seen in oakwoods in the ANP.
White-backed Woodpecker (1) A female in beechwood at Aggtelek.
Lesser Spotted Woodpecker (1) One in orchard at Aggtelek village.
Crested Lark (5) Common on Great Plain and at roadsides.
Woodlark (2) Seen in open woodland in the ANP.
Skylark (6) Common throughout.
Sand Martin (3) Large numbers along River Tisza.
Swallow (6) Common and widespread.
House Martin (6) Quite common in and around settlements.
Tawny Pipit (3) Displaying birds seen in Heves and Hortobagy.
Tree Pipit (2) Quite common at Aggtelek.
Yellow (Blue-headed) Wagtail (5) Quite common locally on Great Plain.
Grey Wagtail (2) Only seen at Aggtelek.
White Wagtail (6) Common and widespread.
Dipper (2) One at Aggtelek, A very rare bird in Hungary.
Wren (2) Rather elusive.
Robin (2) A true woodland bird in Hungary.
Nightingale (6) Common. Very good views of singing birds.
Bluethroat (3) Several fine views of singing males.
Black Redstart (5) Common and widespread.
Whinchat (3) Fairly common locally.
Stonechat (6) Common roadside bird.
Northern Wheatear (4) Quite common on Hortobagy.
Rock Thrush (1) One displaying male seen at Aggtelek.
Blackbird (4) Common in hills, rare on Hortobagy.
Song Thrush (3) As above.
Mistle Thrush (2) Just two seen in ANP.
Grasshopper Warbler (1) Heard and seen near Tiszafured.
River Warbler (3) Many heard, two seen near Szin, ANP.
Savi’s Warbler (4) Good views of singing birds at Hortobagy.
Moustached Warbler (1) 1 seen, but heard well, at Hortobagy fish-farm.
Aquatic Warbler (1) Four males seen at Nagyivan, Hortobagy.
Sedge Warbler (5) Common. Numerous displaying birds seen.
Marsh Warbler (3) Good views of birds singing in open.
Reed Warbler (3) Quite common.
Great Reed Warbler (4) Common. Close views of singing birds.
Icterine Warbler (1) Two seen at Hortobagy fish-ponds.
Barred Warbler (5) Numerous displaying males seen well.
Lesser Whitethroat (4) Quite common.
Common Whitethroat (3) Quite common.
Blackcap (3) Common.
Wood Warbler (2) About 12 singing birds seen in the ANP.
Chiffchaff (3) Common throughout.
Willow Warbler (1) Just one seen near Josvafo, ANP.
Goldcrest (2) Two outside hotel at Aggtelek.
Spotted Flycatcher (4) Many good close views.
Collared Flycatcher (3) Only in the ANP where common.
Red-breasted Flycatcher (1) Two singing males seen in the ANP.
Bearded Tit (4) Outstanding views of males at Hortobagy.
Long-tailed Tit (2) 10 seen (inc. white-headed birds) at Aggtelek.
Marsh Tit (2) Seen in the ANP.
Blue Tit (4) Common at Aggtelek rare at Hortobagy.
Great Tit (4) Very common.
Coal Tit (2) Two outside hotel in ANP.
Nuthatch (2) Seen only in the ANP where common.
Common Treecreeper (1) Two seen in the ANP.
Short-toed Treecreeper (1) One singing in park near Tiszafured.
Penduline Tit (4) Many heard and close views at 3 nests.
Golden Oriole (6) Several fly-bys, two perched views.
Red-backed Shrike (6) Many seen.
Lesser Grey Shrike (4) Good views of nesting and displaying birds.
Jay (2) Surprisingly few seen.
Magpie (6) Fairly common throughout.
Jackdaw (6) Quite common.
Rook (5) Quite common.
Hooded Crow (7) Very common.
Raven (2) Several families seen in the ANP.
Starling (6) Very common.
House Sparrow (6) Very common.
Tree Sparrow (6) Very common.
Chaffinch (3) Many heard, surprisingly few seen.
Serin (5) Numerous displaying birds seen.
Greenfinch (5) Quite common.
Goldfinch (6) Very common.
Linnet (2) Scarce on route taken.
Crossbill (1) Four flew overhead near Szin, ANP.
Hawfinch (3) Common at Aggtelek. Some good views.
Yellowhammer (5) Fairly common.
Rock Bunting (1) Two seen in the ANP.
Reed Bunting (5) Quite common.
Corn Bunting (6) Many roadside singing males seen.