Thursday 11 October
We arrived in Budapest to be greeted not only by our guide for the week, Gerard Gorman
(email@example.com) but also, clear blue skies and temperatures of twenty degrees centigrade. Without any delay we loaded up the minibus and started making our way towards the Bükk Hills and the village of Nosvaj. Heading north through vast agricultural plains the first birds started to appear. Common Buzzards were plentiful, along with flocks of Starlings and a Great Grey Shrike on a roadside fence. Our picnic lunch stop was enlivened by four singing Crested Larks and out first bottles of Hungarian wine.
As we came to the start of the Bükk Hills and turned onto more minor roads the scenery changed to an attractive mixture of small villages, orchards and vineyards. As we drove past one orchard Gerard noticed three woodpeckers flying behind the bus, because of the habitat there was a good chance they would be Syrian Woodpeckers. Quickly the minibus pulled over and we all climbed out. The birds performed beautifully for the next twenty minutes as they flew from tree to tree around us, calling. With such good views it was not difficult to appreciate all the features that Gerard explained separate Syrian Woodpecker from Great Spotted Woodpecker.
Our small family run hotel was situated on the edge of a village in a wooded valley. Before we had even unloaded the luggage a singing male Black Redstart showed well on a nearby roof. Following a short rest we walked from the hotel into the nearby woodland. Plenty of Jays flew overhead, many carrying acorns and a selection of common woodland species included Marsh Tit, Siskin and Great Spotted Woodpecker. A small pond near the hotel yielded both Kingfisher and Grey Wagtail.
The Hungarian family who own the hotel treated us like friends, the cooking was superb and everybody instantly felt at home. After dinner we took advantage of the cheap beer and spent several hours in the bar getting to know each other.
Friday 12 October
Those out and about before breakfast had fine views of a Middle-spotted Woodpecker feeding in trees on the hotel driveway. This is one of the easier species of ‘pied’ woodpecker to identify, with its distinctive red crown, pale head, pinkish red wash to the vent and streaked underparts. Several Hawfinches flew around uttering their distinctive ‘tic’ calls and the Black Redstart seen the previous evening again showed well.
After a fantastic buffet breakfast all of us eagerly gathered outside waiting to start the days birding. Whilst loading the minibus Gerard heard a Grey-headed Woodpecker calling in the distance and quickly imitated the call to try and tempt it closer. After a few minutes the bird gave fleeting views as it flew over the road and into some woodland. The whistles proved too much for the bird as it flew onto a dead tree giving us superb views. Not happy with this, Gerard tried again and the bird flew into the tree right next to us and just sat there allowing us to take in every detail and even the amber coloured eye.
After the Grey-headed Woodpecker disappeared into the woods we made our way to a beautiful open wooded valley surrounded by steep wooded hills. Slowly and quietly we walked around the area seeing familiar species such as Mistle Thrush, Yellowhammer, Green and Great Spotted Woodpecker. Hawfinches flew overhead calling and several Middle and Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers were heard but remained hidden in the dense foliage. A Short-toed Treecreeper also sang but mostly remained hidden, only showing in flight.
Rounding a bend in the track we flushed two Black Woodpeckers that had been feeding on the floor. The birds flew into some dense cover but with a few whistles from Gerard they came back across the path before disappearing for the final time. Despite the brief views their unmistakable size and flight meant they could be little else. Unfortunately they could not be tempted to show again.
The whole area is good for birds of prey so we spent some time scanning the skies and ridges. Ravens called constantly overhead, with a flock of eight spending a lot of time over one ridge. Common Buzzards and Sparrowhawks were on view all the time and at least two Goshawks were also seen. However, Eastern Imperial Eagle, the star bird of the area failed to show.
Other wildlife in the valley included Clouded Yellow, Red Admiral and Comma butterflies, a Praying Mantis and several brightly coloured species of frog and crickets. As we met with the minibus further down the valley a party of Long-tailed Tits appeared. The majority of the flock were of the northern European race that shows a distinctive white head.
Our next stop was the woodland at Vár-Hegy, where after a short walk we sat down to enjoy some lunch. The picnic lunches were a real highlight of the week. After a good mornings birding everybody was always ready for the plentiful supply of bread, local cheese and meats, tomatoes and Hungarian wine eaten in attractive locations.
During a post lunch walk, Gerard showed us a dead tree where a White-backed Woodpecker had been feeding, the bark had been neatly chiselled away leaving a distinctive pattern. Despite no White-backed Woodpeckers being seen we did manage to find Great and Middle Spotted Woodpeckers, Hawfinch and Common Treecreeper.
The final stop of the day was an area of agricultural land adjacent to some woodland near to the village of Nosvaj. A flock of around thirty Tree Sparrows was a nice sight and one that is increasingly difficult to see in Great Britain. There was a distant Great Grey Shrike perched on some power lines being mobbed by Yellowhammers. The bushes lining the lane we walked down produced Siskin, Lesser Spotted Woodpecker Black Redstart, Chiffchaff, Serin and a pair of Bullfinches. A late Swallowtail butterfly was a fine sight as it drifted around the grasses near to the minibus.
Saturday 13 October
The central Bukk was our destination for the morning. The steep sided, wooded valleys contain a mixed of age and species of tree, providing homes for all eight species of woodpecker found in Hungary.
Through a mixture of walking and driving we covered the length of one such valley. As a result of the pervious clear night, the steep valley sides and the woodland, temperatures were slow to rise and bird activity was therefore low. Common woodland species included Marsh Tit, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Nuthatch and Common Treecreeper. During the first few hours we also heard Grey-headed, Black and Lesser Spotted Woodpecker but couldn’t find any of them.
After two and half hours of searching Gerard took us to another of his regular sites to listen for any woodpeckers. Within a few minutes we heard a tapping coming from the valley side to our right. Fortunately there was a path leading towards the noise. As we drew closer a ‘pied’ woodpecker appeared on a dead stump right in front of us. Several of the group immediately shouted in a whisper ‘White-backed Woodpecker’. Telescopes were soon trained on the bird as it fed and flew between trees giving fantastic views. The whole group were able to watch the bird, Hungary’s most difficult to see woodpecker species, almost uninterrupted for fifteen minutes.
As the bird disappeared into the woodland everybody beamed smiles at each other and were more than pleased with the reward of over two hours diligent searching. We continued our drive into the valley, stopping along the way. One stop gave us flight views of a Black Woodpecker high up on the valley side.
As the valley opened out into a grassy meadow where Corncrakes breed in the summer we took a break for lunch. Whilst enjoying the food a Great Grey Shrike flew past, several Crossbills called overhead and a Goshawk circled an area of nearby woodland.
By early afternoon we had driven to Hereg-Ret, an area of extensive beech woodland. The highlight of the stop was a flock of more than sixty Brambling feeding on the path. A single Hawfinch also appeared briefly with them and we also had more good views of Middle Spotted Woodpecker.
Driving back to Nosvaj we stopped for coffee and managed to find Great, Middle and Lesser Spotted Woodpecker right next to the café and in the adjacent park. We arrived back at the hotel relatively early to have a break and freshen up. Then Gerard took us to a hole where a Black Woodpecker roosts most nights. About twenty minutes before dusk and with some encouragement in the form of whistles from Gerard a female flew onto the tree with the hole in full view. After giving us fantastic views the bird flew out of view to another tree so we decided to leave her in peace. A short walk down the road was a vineyard where we sampled four Hungarian wines and had a tour of the cellars. It was an interesting and enjoyable end to a rewarding days birding.
Sunday 14 October
With all eight woodpecker species seen well it was time to move south and west to the Great Plain and the second part of the holiday. A short stop outside the village of Cserepfalu provided views of now familiar species such as Great Grey Shrike, Hawfinch, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Yellowhammer and Raven. A Black Woodpecker also called distantly.
Leaving the hilly landscape of northern Hungary we reached the edge of the Great Plain in under an hours drive. Soon after that it wasn’t long before we stopped to watch a female Hen Harrier quartering some crops. Whilst watching the harrier we noticed a large bird of prey sat on one of the pylons. We climbed out of the van and set the telescopes up and soon confirmed the bird to be a juvenile Eastern Imperial Eagle. The views were relatively distant so we decided to try and get closer, running the risk that the bird may fly whilst we were driving towards it.
Fortunately the bird stayed on the pylon until we had almost stopped the minibus. It circled above us being mobbed by two Buzzards and a Kestrel, giving excellent views. Its large size was immediately obvious, being almost twice the size of the accompanying Buzzards. The bird drifted off into the distance and we returned to the minibus. Driving back to the main road we noticed two more large, dark birds perched on another pylon, this time closer. These turned out to be two adult Eastern Imperial Eagles. One was a particularly old bird, showing extensive snow-white patches on the shoulder and a very pale head. We watched both birds before one by one they flew off and were lost to view.
Back in the minibus we continued on our way but stopped to scan a field where Black-headed Gulls, Lapwings and Starlings appeared to have been flushed by a bird of prey. There was no sign of any bird of prey but as we were about to get back on the bus we noticed our fourth Eastern Imperial Eagle of the morning circling the area.
We stopped for lunch next to a reed filled ditch, overlooking areas of agricultural land. Before lunch we walked parallel to the ditch away from the road. On the closest pylon to the track we found a pair of Saker Falcons. We admired them from a distance before making our way closer to them. Unfortunately for us a Woodpigeon chose to fly past the pylon the birds were sat in. The two Sakers instantly saw the bird, let it pass and then dropped of the pylon and accelerated towards it. The Woodpigeon evaded capture and landed in a tree, one of the Sakers then plunged into the tree and that was the last time we saw the birds. The acceleration, power and agility of these Buzzard sized falcons was incredible to watch.
We sat enjoying yet another tasty lunch in the shade of some poplar trees and after, feeling refreshed, we made our way onto the Heves Grasslands. Here we found a subadult Eastern Imperial Eagle sat in a tree being mobbed by two ringtail Hen Harriers. After several minutes of continued mobbing the bird took flight and circled lazily in front of us and even engaged in some mock display. A Reed Bunting, our first of the trip called from a roadside ditch, small flocks of Tree Sparrows appeared to be everywhere and a Northern Wheatear was found in one of the ploughed fields. Our sixth and final Eastern Imperial Eagle of the day came in the form of a distant adult circling the grassland.
Our hotel for the second part of the week was situated right next to the huge Lake Tisza and was a modern, very clean, tidy and comfortable place. We checked in mid afternoon and had a short rest before visiting the nearby lake. At first we noted common species such as Mute Swan, Coot, Great Crested Grebe, Black-headed Gull and Cormorant. At least three Great White Egrets were in the area, including one roosting on a dead tree and two Marsh Harriers quartered the reedbeds surrounding the lake.
There were both Caspian (Larus cachinnans cachinnans) and Western (Larus cachinnans michehellis) race Yellow-legged Gulls in the centre of the lake and with them one Mediterranean Gull, a late record. Wildfowl species present included Tufted Duck, Pochard, Shoveler, Gadwall, Teal and the eastern race of Greylag Goose. An adult Peregrine perched in a dead tree was our eighth species of raptor that day.
Monday 15 October
Up until this morning the weather had been faultless, with clear blue skies, warm sunshine and a gentle breeze. However, today we woke to a heavy fog. Fortunately as we made our way towards the Hortobágy to meet Dr. Gábor Kovács, a warden of the National Park and frind of Gerard's, the fog started to lift.
As we drove slowly across the Nagyivan Puszta with our new guide the views became clearer and the first rays of sunshine penetrated the fog. The fantastic bugling calls of Common Cranes could be heard coming from the mist as we climbed out of the minibus. We set off across the puszta, listening to the calls of Cranes, Curlews and singing Skylarks.
A Red-throated Pipit flew over, uttering its distinctive call and in the distance we could make out the shapes of nine feeding Cranes. Making regular stops to scan the grasslands rewarded us with more views of Cranes along with Curlew and Lapwing. As we were about to continue after one of these stops two large shapes flying out of the mist grabbed out attention. Raising our binoculars, we were rewarded with views of two Great Bustards. The birds flew in front of us and landed out of sight. Slowly making our way forward we soon realised that there was a flock of birds, with at least nine grey necks showing above the grasses.
With the mist now rapidly dispersing we found some slightly higher ground and settled down to enjoy the eighteen Great Bustards grazing on the grasslands in front of us. We watched these magnificent birds for over an hour, taking in their huge size and striking plumage. The flock contained three males, obviously larger than the females. All the time, Cranes flew around calling whilst Hen and Marsh Harriers hunted the area - a magical experience. As we were about to leave a local farmer flushed the birds and they all flew past us in their majestic manner before settling again in the distance.
Walking back towards the minibus the calls of geese attracted our attention. Small flocks of Eastern Greylag Geese were passing overhead and also, a flock of seventeen Bean Geese. Other birds seen in this rich habitat included Merlin, Snipe, Crested Lark and Corn Bunting.
After an unsuccessful attempt to see Stone Curlews we bid farewell to Dr. Kovács and drove to a small copse for some lunch. By now the weather was warm and sunny and the shelter of the trees was welcomed. In the summer this copse is home to twenty pairs of Red-footed Falcons but at this time of the year there was little of note, or so we thought. During lunch we had been chatting to Gerard about the occurrence of Black Woodpeckers on the Hortobágy. He had told us they were rare birds and he had only ever seen three and never in this copse. Just after we had all sat down in the minibus Gerard waved frantically from outside and mouthed the words Black Woodpecker. Within seconds we were all back outside enjoying ‘scope filling views of a male Black Woodpecker. In perfect light, the bird posed beautifully on a dead tree, before flying from tree to tree uttering its full repertoire of calls.
With everyone excited about the views of Black Woodpecker we made our way to the next spot and our first wetland birding of the trip. En route a roadside field held four, rather late White Storks that were no doubt still in Hungary due to the warm weather.
The fish farms in Hungary are a haven for breeding, migrating and wintering birds. Some ponds are completely drained, some contain deep water and others have not been used for years providing a variety of different habitats and as a result the number of species at a single site can be high. Our first experience of these wetlands was at the Fenyes Fishponds. Walking down the reed lined path between the fishponds we found a tame Ferruginous Duck and several Penduline and Bearded Tits called but remained elusive.
The first few ponds held little of note except Great Crested Grebes and Yellow-legged Gulls. However, the third pond was alive with birds. The most common bird present was Coot but amongst them was smaller numbers of Pochard, Wigeon, Gadwall and a single Red-crested Pochard. A Bittern gave brilliant views as it flew across the fishpond right in front of us. Tucked away in one corner was a flock of Ferruginous Ducks and a dark Marsh Harrier quartered one area of reedbed. The star bird of the pond however was Pygmy Cormorant. There were at least twelve, along with several Great Cormorants allowing direct comparison.
The next two ponds we looked at were drained so instead of wildfowl held several species of wader. Three Little Ringed Plovers flew in calling whilst we were watching a flock of seven fishing Great White Egrets. Grey and Golden Plover, Lapwing, Dunlin, Ringed Plover, Greenshank and Dunlin were all present in various numbers. With time ticking by we started to make our way to the northern part of the Hortobágy but not without stopping at Gyorkerkuti Fishponds. Here, Bearded and Penduline Tits called on and off but stayed hidden in the reeds, as did a Water Rail. Several Pygmy Cormorants moved around the area and a Kingfisher flew within ten feet of us. An adult and two juvenile Night Herons circling the ponds together for several minutes was a fine end to this part of the day’s birdwatching.
After a short drive we arrived at the Cserepres Puszta where we were to spend the remaining hours of daylight waiting for the Cranes to come in to roost. Just outside of the national park we came across a ploughed maize field that was filled with birds. The most obvious were the four thousand or so Cranes and the three thousand Eastern Greylag Geese. Parking the minibus carefully on the side of the road and setting up telescopes we scanned through the birds. It was not long before our first Lesser White-fronted Geese were picked out, a family party consisting of two adults and four young. We continued scanning and found several Russian White-fronted Geese and then some Bean Geese and another two pairs of Lesser White-fronted Geese. At the very left hand of the flock feeding discretely and slightly away from the rest of the birds was at least forty Lesser White-fronted Geese. Flocks of Cranes and geese were arriving continually adding to the numbers, the noise and the general excitement, it was a fantastic experience.
With the sun lowering and the sky turning pink it was time to move down the road a few hundred yards to the observation tower. As we arrived the sky was already full with the sights and sounds of Cranes heading to roost. During the last hour of light we watched thousands of Cranes flying in low over our heads in flocks of between a few dozen and several hundred. The total number using the roost site was estimated to be between twenty and thirty thousand. As each flock passed overhead, thousands more could be seen in the distance heading towards us. Our concentration was broken only temporarily by a Long-legged Buzzard sat on top of a well before the magic of the Cranes gripped us once more. As each flock passed over us the distinctive whistling calls of young birds could be heard over the deep, far carrying calls of the adults. It was unforgettable, both visually and audibly.
Tuesday 16 October
Again we woke to a heavy fog but this time we were less fortunate as it seemed reluctant to clear. Not to be put off we made our way to the Csecsi Fishponds. Despite the heavy fog we had superb views of a Bittern, which kept flying around us, and close views of several Pygmy Cormorants.
With viewing restricted we concentrated on the reeds and were rewarded by two pairs of Penduline Tits that showed down to fifteen feet as they perched up in the reeds in response to our pishing. By mid-morning the fog slowly started to lift. We enjoyed more views of another Bittern and commoner birds such as Great Crested Grebe, Curlew and Yellow-legged Gull. We decided to have an early lunch and return to the fishponds a little later. The scrub and trees around our picnic site held several Chiffchaffs, Black Redstart and a female Blackcap.
Back at the fishponds the fog had cleared enough for us to see the entire area. Thousands of birds covered the drained pond, mostly consisting of Black-headed and smaller numbers of Yellow-legged Gulls and dozens of Grey Herons. Amongst them were a few Common Gulls, nine Great White Egrets and a few hundred Teal. Whilst enjoying the scene the whole place erupted and all birds took to the air, scanning the skies we soon found the reason. A subadult White-tailed Eagle had arrived unseen by us. It flew low over the pond before settling in the distance. After several minutes the birds had started to settle down until panic ensued once more. The eagle was still sat on the ground but above us was a second bird, it too flew in low and landed, this time much closer to us, giving fantastic views of such an impressive bird of prey.
With both birds in the same telescope views, at different distances we watched, enthralled at their size. The closer bird spotted an ill Cormorant, took to the air and made several unsuccessful attempts at trying to catch it before the Cormorant reached the safety of a pool where it dived out of harms way. The eagle gave up its hunt and instead found a dead fish that it took from the ground and flew out of sight behind some trees. By this time the more distant bird had found a meal. We watched it plucking a dead gull until it too flew off and was lost to view. Before leaving we found a pair of Spotted Redshank preening in one of the pools and six Pintail in flight
Pleased with the mornings birding we had had, particularly the views of the two eagles we drove to the Derszi Fishponds. One pond here had not been worked for several years so provided plenty of emergent vegetation and some new birds. A flock of at least twenty-three Ferruginous Ducks was a nice sight and feeding close to them was a Black-necked Grebe in winter plumage. We enjoyed more close views of Pygmy Cormorant and also an eclipsed plumage drake Garganey.
With the fog starting to fall again there was just time to revisit the Fenyes Fishponds, which we had looked at yesterday afternoon. The drained ponds held ten or more Spotted Redshanks, Ringed Plover, Golden Plover, over twenty-five Grey Plover, a Dunlin, six Snipe and two Greenshank. Our third White-tailed Eagle of the day gave great views as it flew in scattering the waders before settling on the mud, looking around for a few minutes then taking off and flying into the distance.
Driving back to our hotel we passed the field that yesterday held four White Storks and they were still there but had been joined by an impressive fifty-two Great White Egrets.
Wednesday 17 October
Another day, another foggy start. With the same tactics in mind as yesterday we headed for the Kun-Görgy Fishponds. Common Cranes called constantly as they flew around in the mist, unseen by us. Small flocks of Linnets, Tree Sparrows and Corn Buntings perched on wires next to the track, whilst Siskin and Fieldfares called overhead. A single Great White Egret loomed out of the mist but was soon lost to view. The highlight was watching five Penduline Tits for over half an hour. The birds flicked around an area of willows and reeds, showing together and even tending to one of their remarkable nests. A Great Grey Shrike perched on an overhead wire as we returned to the minibus, rounding off an enjoyable few hours birding.
The aim of a return visit to Derszi Fishponds was to look for a Black Stork that had been seen in flight by Gerard the previous day. Whilst walking along the edge of the pond small flocks of Cranes flew overhead, along with more Spotted Redshanks and Grey Plover. At least two Ruff were discernable in the mist and a pair of ‘pinging’ Bearded Tits gave exceptional views on the edge of the reeds. Along the edge of the reeds we found an unhappy looking Black Stork, hunched in the mist. We enjoyed reasonable views of this late bird as the mist lifted slightly so we could make out the large red bill.
With the fog showing no signs of lifting we headed to a small Hungarian restaurant for our lunch. Before lunch we had a look for Long-eared Owls in some nearby trees but without any luck. However, the traditional Hungarian Goulash followed by sweet cheese and vanilla pancakes more than compensated for missing the birds.
By early afternoon the fog had lifted enough for us to explore the Hortobágy a little more. We headed for the Üjszentmargita Puszta stopping at various points along the way. We spent the afternoon experiencing the sights and sounds of feeding Cranes. The mist did not distract from the magical experience and in some respects even added to it.
As well as the Cranes we saw many Common Buzzards, a Merlin, flocks of Eastern Greylag Geese, over 50 Great White Egrets in one area and seven Hen Harriers together, including a stunning male.
The highlight of the afternoon was slowly stalking a flock of Cranes that we could hear feeding on the other side of a small wood. Quietly we edged through the wood and using its cover managed to get relatively close to this wary species. Even by being our quietest and moving slowly the birds were aware of our presence, with many looking around nervously. After admiring them on the ground for several minutes the whole flock took to the air presenting us with a truly wonderful spectacle. It was the perfect end to a tremendous weeks birding in Hungary.
Thursday 18 October
After packing our bags and loading the minibus for the final time we headed west towards Budapest. After an entertaining and informative sight seeing tour of the city, given by Gerard, we spent a few hours wandering the city taking in the atmosphere and culture.
Unfortunately, all too quickly it was time to head for the airport and check in for our flight home. We said goodbye to our guide Gerard who had been fantastic. Without whose local knowledge and expertise we would never have found all the birds. It was however, not only his birding skills that we enjoyed but also the entertaining and intelligent conservation and his good sense of humour.
We boarded the plane without incident and following an easy flight home we said goodbye to each other at the airport where the tour concluded. Everybody agreed it had been a fantastic trip in every respect and will not only be remembered for the number of birds we saw but more importantly the quality views of every single one of our target species.
This is a combined list of species seen by the group during the trip, individual lists may vary.
Great Crested Grebe
Great White Egret
[European] White-fronted Goose
Lesser White-fronted Goose
[Eastern] Greylag Goose
Little Ringed Plover
European Golden Plover
Yellow-legged Gull (Western and Caspian)
Great Spotted Woodpecker
Middle Spotted Woodpecker
Lesser Spotted Woodpecker
Eastern Imperial Eagle
Great Grey Shrike
Total = 125