We teamed up with Sakertour for this ambitious trip with a difference, visiting three different countries with the added goal of seeing Brown Bears in the wild. Local guide Zoltán Ecsedi and driver Barna Balogh were waiting to meet us at Budapest airport and take us to our first base in time for dinner at the Hotel Bodrog in Sárospatak, north-east Hungary.
The weather had been unseasonably cold, just as in Britain, and so the wintry leafless landscape of the wooded Zemplén hills, the setting for our first birding day, did not look promising. Nevertheless we soon had a Lesser Spotted Eagle in flight and also perched for a scope view. Alongside Zoltán today, we had an extra local guide, Zoltán II aka ‘Woodpecker Man’, who new every tree hereabouts and had an amazing rendition of Black Woodpecker, which came in handy later in the day. The very muddy trail produced plum scope views of Hawfinch, Great and Middle Spotted Woodpeckers and a superb male Collared Flycatcher, followed five minutes later by a male Pied Fly for a handy comparison. A Wood Warbler singing right overhead was a real pain in the neck. Further on we came to a bucket shaped nestbox with brown tail feathers protruding by an inch or so. These belonged to a sitting Ural Owl but we decided not to tick it as they could equally have belonged to a dead Pheasant! Emerging from the woods we enjoyed a fly past by a Black Stork, showing off its red bill and legs against the wooded backdrop. Feeling very satisfied with the morning’s results, we were treated to a mammoth three course lunch with wine in a csárda (inn) next to the flooded Bodrog river, with trees and bushes emerging from open water, making it hard to believe we had actually driven our car across the same landscape in a previous summer!
An afternoon stroll through a pleasant parkland landscape in a chilly breeze produced a soaring Imperial Eagle, which dwarfed a couple of mobbing Buzzards, followed by more Hawfinches, masses of Yellowhammers plus Raven and Woodlark. As we drove away a roadside Hoopoe allowed close views of its exotic crest as it probed the ground with a long curved bill. On our last walk of the day we were very lucky to spot the massive head of a snoozing Ural Owl with long protruding tail. We admired this ‘top bird’ through the scope, swaying from side to side in the breeze within the treetops while it completely ignored us. What a privileged sight that was. Returning to the vehicle we almost began to ignore the embarrassingly common Hawfinches but did stop when a calling Black Woodpecker flew back and forth across the valley over our heads.
The morning began miserable and wet as we set off on a day trip to Slovakia, but it soon perked up as we crossed the border. We just had to stop for the Lesser Spotted Eagle standing yards from the roadside for an unbeatable view of its chocolate brown plumage and small hooked bill. At journey’s end above the small village of Rejdová, we were greeted by another wintry scene with brown grass, bare trees and snow patches complimented by Fieldfare, Brambling and a treetop packed with at least two hundred Waxwings, a lovely sight. Among the throng were a couple of smart male Ring Ouzels of the eastern European alpestris race, with strong white markings on the underparts. As we followed the trail into the forest of Christmas trees, we soon saw a nice male Siskin and then the unmistakable fairly fresh paw prints of Bears in the snow and mud, followed by scat to prove that Bears really do poo in the woods! Here we flushed a Hazel Grouse but a patient stake out proved fruitless. Due to the unfortunate excess of snow on the trail following the prolonged winter, we could not walk up to the higher forest as planned and so we dipped out on the local specialities, although we did see a consolation Dipper and the first of many Black Redstarts. On the drive back to base we made a brief stop below a ruined castle to watch the entertaining antics of Sousliks, a kind of ground squirrel with a neat disappearing act each time one dropped into its burrow.
At last, a blue sky, some sunshine and tree buds hinting at bursting out soon, in a prime Zemplén forest of Beech and Oak, filled with birdsong including Chiffchaff, Great Tit, Chaffinch and Tree Pipit. Good scope views included a Middle Spotted Woodpecker foraging on the track ahead, followed by Great Spotted, Lesser Spotted and a mighty Black Woodpecker, which flew towards us in a bounding manner to perch on a tree trunk above us for a closer look. Who was watching who?
After lunch back at the hotel, we took off to a quarry near Tokaj and found an Eagle Owl sitting on a ledge with its ear tufts standing erect by about three inches, making a brilliant view in the scope. With another star bird in the bag we did another forest walk and soon had fabulous views of a Grey-headed Woodpecker calling from the top of a broken branch, like a piece of film footage from Planet Earth. Nearby a calling Black Woodpecker advertised itself and then came hurtling over the top of the canopy and away across the valley. That evening the meal was a buffet with Tokaj wine tasting, deep in the vaults below Sárospatak castle, where the fungus-coated tunnels are lined with serried ranks of wine barrels.
An early start for the long drive east into Romania, and it was beautifully sunny all day. A brief refueling cum toilet stop allowed time to spot the first of many lovely bright yellow Blue-headed Wagtails, which are so common throughout this area. It took well over an hour to complete the necessary formalities and drive the few yards across the border. As the solemn border guard scrutinized our passport photos he stopped at mine and queried my lack of a moustache, whereupon I jokingly said “it went this morning”. He was not amused and asked where we were going. Our reply was Torockó, and as he looked blank I added “it’s near Rimetea”, which amused our guide as this is the same place in two languages!
Across the border lay a different world. The roads were slow, riddled with potholes and cluttered with horse drawn carts, driven by gypsy people dressed in old-fashioned clothes. The villages were rustically picturesque with ramshackle houses of crumbling plaster, with grass verges not curbs, with bulky White Stork’s nests on chimney tops or concrete telegraph poles and with wells and livestock in the gardens. The factories were dirty and decaying eyesores of disastrous proportions. In the small town of Huedin, we marveled at the palatial gypsy ‘houses’ with their over the top ornately decorated tin rooves, which gleamed like silver in the sunshine. This was now Transylvania. After this cultural overload we made it to Torockó and headed across meadows of Cowslips and Mountain Pansies below spectacular limestone cliffs and soon had nice views of handsome Rock Thrush, plus Wheatear and Tawny Pipit Eventually we tracked down a couple of Rock Buntings and then as we discussed the remaining target species, lo and behold, a majestic Golden Eagle floated overhead, just seconds after we had mentioned it! That evening we dispersed between three rustic houses in the village of Torockó, where six-foot high wood-burning stoves decorated with ceramic tiles provided a very warm welcome.
A small group of early birders set out to explore the area around the village and were rewarded with Hawfinch, Marsh Tit in song, both Green and Syrian Woodpeckers, making a total of seven, in addition to a stunning view of a Wryneck, which perched erect with outstretched neck, as if newly arrived on migration north. After breakfast we waved goodbye to our hostess and departed Torockó but didn’t get far before aGreat Grey Shrike stopped us in our tracks. Our scopes revealed just how sharply hooked its beak is. Other good birds seen on the journey further east included Turtle Dove and a male Montagu’s Harrier. By early afternoon we were in Segesvár and had lunch near the birthplace of Vlad Dracul, the legendary Transylvanian Count. Come late afternoon we arrived in a tranquil wooded valley, where two cottages beside a fast flowing stream would be home for the next three nights. Our plan to visit a nearby Capercaillie lek next morning was scuppered by the remains of lingering deep snow and so a new plan was hatched after dinner. The bad news was, it required an early start, 1.45am!
The alarm clock at 1.15am signaled the start of ‘Operation Capercaillie’, which began with a two hour drive around the Hargita mountains. Details are hazy but at one point a gang of Wild Boar dashed across the road forcing an emergency stop and a wake up for the dozing passengers. Next we picked up a local woodsman guide dressed in green fatigues and Jagermeister hat. As we got nearer, the road became a bumpy muddy track until our driver could get us no further. By now it was raining, so we kitted up in waterproof trousers, grabbed as many torches as we could muster and set off in convoy behind the Jagermeister. Soon we were off the icy track and climbing up the bed of a stream and weaving between tall pines on snowy slopes. By now the script had gone out of the window, but we had gone too far to turn back as our Jagermeister lead us into the realms of ‘extreme birding’. As dawn began to break we crept ever higher into a position within the snow covered lekking ground, strewn with Capercaillie droppings, listening to the dawn chorus of invisible Robins, Coal and Willow Tits, Chaffinches and Bramblings and the quiet but unmistakable cork popping and gurgling sounds of Capercaillies close by but still hidden within the dark forest. As we peered between the trees, with the Jagermeister gesticulating in a promising silent manner, Alison and Irene were lucky enough to catch a glimpse of a magnificent cock bird, with fanned tail and outstretched bearded neck. For the rest of us the Capercaillie was to remain a mythical beast seen only as pictures in fieldguides. Deeply disappointed after our efforts, we made the long descent through the snow, between the trees and down the stream bed, back to the waiting vehicle and a welcome warm drink.
After a well earned afternoon’s relaxation, we gathered for the promise of another wildlife watching spectacle. We were driven from our cottages, higher and deeper into the forest where we split between two hides, each group accompanied by a local forest guide. The larger group had a longer walk with an armed escort and the muddy paw prints on the outside of the door to the hide were real enough. Even from outside the hide two Bears were seen but they sensed the group’s presence and quickly bounded off. Once safely locked inside the hide, a large dark hairy Wild Boar made a brief appearance, followed by a succession of up to fourteen different Bears arriving from various directions, though never more than two or three at a time. Each new Bear would timidly sniff the air as it approached the feeding trough and the smaller Bears quickly scarpered when larger ones arrived with a snarl. There was so much happening that even the local forester was excited by it all. Back at the other hide, a trough filled with special Bear food, (maybe Sugar Puffs?), lay in the centre of a muddy clearing scattered with sweetcorn cobs, attracting a pair of Jays and numerous Chaffinches. After a short silent wait, a dark male of about five years old walked into the clearing, grabbed a couple of corns on the cob in his jaws and melted away back into the forest with surprising speed for such a large cumbersome looking animal. Crikey! I asked our guide if that was a large one and he casually said no. We then realized why, when a huge bulbous headed male of seven or eight years appeared from the other side of the clearing and then stood upright to check for danger. It must have been at least eight feet tall, and an awesome sight. As it strode across the clearing towards the trough, its feet and claws were massive. This was a tale of the three Bears as next came a female of about three years old. She was a gorgeous blonde with big brown eyes, which twinkled in the low evening sunlight. It is amazing to think that such magnificent creatures can survive on a diet of mainly plant foods like bulbs and berries and that some people derive pleasure from shooting them for sport! That was one Easter Monday we shall never forget.
On Tuesday we reached our eastern limit for the trip with a visit to the Bicaz gorge with spectacular vertical walls of pale grey limestone, where we hoped to find a highly prized treasure. On arrival a trio of Grey Wagtails flew noisily back and forth along the course of the powerful river, carving its way deep into the rocks over thousands of years. We walked a short way along the bottom of the gorge and scanned the nearby cliff face. Suddenly we spotted a small shape flicking across the sheer rock face but it fluttered across to the other side of the gorge and disappeared. We waited for more action and had lunch in the meantime. Deep in the gorge a bat circled around and around, like one of those toyshop novelties. Then something equally small caught my attention from the corner of my eye so I went to investigate. A drawn out whistle barely audible above the noise of the river confirmed my suspicions, adrenaline started to flow and I beckoned the group on realizing that this was what we were after. We frantically clustered at the base of the rock to see not one but a pair of Wallcreepers. It was a remarkable sight as the two handsome birds flicked their red wings and hopped across the vertical rock against the law of gravity, barely twenty five yards in front of us and not much above head height! Sheer magic.
On the way back to base, through a scenic coniferous forest with plenty of snow on the ground, a couple of stops produced brilliant views of a Firecrest, as well as lime and orange coloured Crossbills and a very obliging Crested Tit which sang from a treetop perch while everyone had time for a good look through the scope.
Today we began the long journey back to Hungary but still found time for some good birding en route. First stop was at a fishpond where we found our first Caspian Gull, Black Tern and Garganey, the only Red-crested Pochards and Black-headed Wagtails of the trip plus super views of Black-necked Grebes, with their fancy yellow ear tufts and bright red eyes. Further on, a deliberate short cut through suitable habitat gave us great views of two male Syrian Woodpeckers as they squabbled in a nearby tree. We arrived at the Torda gorge in time for lunch at a lovely picnic spot, where we watched Sparrowhawk, Golden Eagle and Alpine Swift flying across the gorge, scoped a Tawny Pipit and had the world’s best possible view of a Woodlark singing to us from a rock at ridiculously close range. Mid afternoon, we arrived at a site for Ortolan Bunting and eventually managed to pinpoint a male in its exquisite summer plumage with orange belly and greyish head with yellow throat and moustachial stripe. Eventually we crossed the border back into Hungary with less fuss than last time, and when the pretty lady who checked the passports came to my photo, she made a comment in Hungarian, which amused Zoltán and Barna. Our final stop was a wetland near the village of Tetétlen, alive with the low hum of Fire-bellied Toads, and brim full with water and waders including Avocet, Marsh and Wood Sandpipers, Common and Spotted Redshanks, Black-winged Stilts, Black-tailed Godwits and Ruff showing a variety of breeding colours including black, white and ginger individuals. By now our trip list had really taken off.
Our last base was the Trofea Lodge, a high class hotel set in its own grounds, with a medley of wonderful birdsong every morning, as well as throughout the night in the case of the Nightingales which were so incredibly common here. Pre breakfast walks were always exciting. On one such outing we had the unusual spectacle of a Wryneck and a singing Nightingale barely four feet apart in the same tree, and we could clearly see every fine detail of the Wryneck’s cryptic plumage as it froze on a bare branch. It was a dilemma as to which bird to look at although fortunately both stayed so long that eventually we had to walk away and leave them both to it. On another morning, a very entertaining Great Spotted Woodpecker struck up a resonating drumbeat whilst hammering on a rusty old pylon!
On the morning of our first full day in the famous Hortobágy National Park, we spotted our first skein of Cranes, on the way to the White Stork village of Nagyiván. Here, we met up with Doctor Gábor Kovács, an expert on Great Bustards, who took us to one of its traditional areas. By scanning the distant grassland we located a magnificent male, with a thickset grey neck merging into a rufous breast and a tail fanned upright in parallel with his body, as he strutted his stuff for the ‘ladies’. At one stage he even turned himself into a fluffy white ball as he reached the climax of his display. It was here we also heard Quail calling and enjoyed seeing a beautiful male Bluethroat singing on top of a line of reeds. A circular scan of the area produced a total of thirty one Roe Deer! Next Dr. Kovács gave us a tour of his local patch and we soon added Spoonbill, Purple Heron and Crested Lark to our rocketing group list, with a Bittern booming in the background. Incredibly we even saw a Bittern superbly well, stalking an open patch of short grass, its outstretched yellowish neck contorted into various vertical and horizontal postures. This was a real treat, as they are normally so hard to find, thanks to their camouflaged pattern and skulking nature, but this one showed everything! Meanwhile, both Whiskered and Black Terns were hawking insects over a nearby pool, allowing a nice comparison of their differences and soon after, we came upon a mixed flock of marsh terns in which White-winged Terns could be picked out by their high contrast combination of black torso with white wings and tails.
We said thank you and goodbye to Dr. Kovács and headed to a traditional csárda for a more than ample lunch of ‘big soup’ and chunky bread, followed by stuffed pancakes. We all staggered out of the inn, where many nest building Swallows posed for the cameras. Afternoon stops included a visit to a rookery, for full frame views of an attractive pair of Red-footed Falcons, recently arrived from east Africa. The male is almost completely slate grey except for his red feet, undertail, cere and eye ring, while the female is blue-grey and barred above, and buffy below with a black moustache! As they look so different, they should really merit two ticks. We also spotted a very early dazzling blue Roller here but sadly it didn’t linger. Following a path into a large reed bed, we had close views of male and female Bearded Tits as well as Savi’s Warbler, which has the amazing ability to produce a continuous insect-like reeling song with a constantly open beak! At the end of the path, an observation platform gave a grandstand view of a nesting colony of Great Egrets, Night Herons and Spoonbills. Dozens of these different birds circled above the throng, as if waiting for permission to land at a busy airport. We also found Ferruginous Ducks and drakes and numerous Pygmy Cormorants, which were distinguished from their larger cousins by their lack of a beak in flight! With Marsh Harriers ten a penny they barely got more than a passing glance each time one floated by. This was our most productive day for sheer numbers and varieties of birds but Zoltán had one more trick up his sleeve. On the way back to the lodge he took us to a thin strip of woods for an intimate view of a Long-eared Owl sitting on its nest, quickly followed by a Little Owl perched on a barn roof, a great end to a grand day.
On our last full day in the Hortobágy National Park, we spent the morning in the fishponds near to Hortobágy village. The reed beds were buzzing with the songs of Savi’s, Reed and Sedge Warblers, as well as Bluethroat and Nightingale. With so many host species to choose from, it’s no wonder we spotted a Cuckoo, which posed for a good view in the scopes. It was here we found the nest of a pair of Penduline Tits, dangling from the end of a slender Willow twig and it wasn’t long before the black masked male arrived to make some finishing touches to his design by carefully winding a thread around the top of the nest where it was tied to the twig. Mrs Tit then arrived to inspect his work and we also had a stonking Great Reed Warbler here. Deeper into the fishponds, an observation platform allowed views of more Bearded Tits as well as Moustached Warbler.
After lunch in the Hortobágy Inn, accompanied by a duo of very talented musicians playing traditional tunes on a violin and a strange instrument which looked like a cross between a piano and a xylophone, we had a short shopping spree in the village and then headed for Darassa in the north of the park, with raptors in mind. Along the way, we had the only Red-backed Shrike of the trip, a nice male. Well spotted John. At Darassa, we watched a male Montagu’s Harrier hunting low over the grassy plain and then a distant speck flashed a gleaming bleached tail each time it circled away from the sun. As we tracked this locally rare Long-legged Buzzard in the scope, it gradually spiraled closer and closer and eventually landed on a barn roof. By now it was close enough to show its very pale almost white head and breast as well as the typical peach coloured tail, and when it hopped onto the beam of a well, the legs could clearly be seen protruding well beyond the feathered trousers. Another target species successfully tracked down.
It was now our last day and we couldn’t finish a Sakertour without seeing one of these impressive falcons well. Zoltán new exactly where to find one, so we set out at 7am on a short drive to a nearby line of pylons. Within ten minutes we had our quarry in the scope but it flew to a more distant pylon, so we followed it in the minibus and parked with the bright morning sun behind us for a really first class view of the Saker Falcon with powerful muscular chest, pale head and bright yellow feet.
After breakfast it was sadly time to leave this wonderful lodge. In the spring sunshine, with fresh green leaves sprouting fast, and glossy blue Swallows busy nest building under the eaves, the gardens were full of birdsong including Blackcap, Wood Warbler, Nightingales galore and the unmistakable exotic notes of an early Golden Oriole.
Our last birding outing to the nearby Angyalhaza Puszta was a memorable nature ramble with spring now blossoming profusely. A Bittern was booming, Cuckoos were calling, Corn Buntings jangled in every direction and Skylarks filled the air with their lively song and dance show. A raucous cacophony of balloon blowing frogs jostled in a pool while Grass Snakes and Fire-bellied Toads swam in a flooded ditch, a Red-throated Pipit appeared out of the blue and a Little Owl looked on from its pole top perch. Driving away from this idyllic natural scene, we had to make an emergency stop for a Bittern, which froze on the spot barely thirty yards away from the track and finally for a Lesser Grey Shrike with a pink flushed breast, which brought our trip list total to a very respectable 168 species. The drive back to Budapest gave us all time to reflect on the many memorable sightings we had enjoyed during this trip through so many varied natural settings, which also seemed to have spanned the seasons from winter snow to warm spring sunshine. A special thank you and well done to Barna our superb driver and to Zoltán our excellent guide.