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Four days in Hungary - post-pandemic special (1 Viewer)


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Day One (22.10.22)

Each October myself and a few friends take a few days off for birding, normally somewhere along the east coast of the UK. With travel once again opening up, Johny suggested a trip to the Hortobagyi area of Hungary as an alternative. Time was very much of the essence this year, with Johny and Gareth staying on for a week (still there at the time of writing, and providing regular grippage via whatsapp), whilst John and I could only commit to four days.

After a very early start in time for our 06:30 flight from Stansted to Budapest, we landed around 08:30 ahead of a whistle-stop birding trip around eastern Hungary. The first birds of the trip were Skylark, Crested lark, Hooded Crow and Tree sparrow, with all four species becoming more or less ubiquitous throughout our trip. Common buzzard was also very frequent, whilst an early highlight just outside of the city was a smart Great grey shrike perched up on roadside wires.

Having negotiated the airport and sorted the hire car, we decided that our first stop would be the area of rather homogeneous farmland between Bugyi and Dabas just south of Budapest. This area has become a rather good area in recent times for geese, with the outside chance of Great Bustard too. Sadly, the latter species eluded John and I during our four days, the only blip in an otherwise enjoyable trip.

We parked at a little pull at Borzasi zsilip, and walked south east along the track to search the farmland. Having barely stepped out of the car, Gareth called a woodpecker flying out of a reedy ditch - a lovely Lesser-spotted Woodpecker. A quick scan revealed several raptors in rather quick succession; White-tailed eagle, Kestrel, Sparrowhawk and two ringtail Hen harriers in addition to several Buzzard. We walked along the track, picking up more birds as we went, with a particularly strong showing of raptors - we soon added Merlin, a rather late Hobby and an early highlight in the form of an immature Eastern Imperial eagle. A little later on, we would watch a young Goshawk hunting feral pigeon, making for a pretty standout showing of nine raptor species from a rather random bit of farmland - not bad. We also heard Penduline tit calling from two areas - one over near the fishing ponds, and a bird calling from the reedbed near to the car park.
Unfortunately we couldn’t find any geese, and there was no sign of any bustard, so we decided to continue east towards our base just outside of Hajdúszoboszló, a few hours later than planned.

Travelling east along the E60 towards Szolnok, we encountered further raptors, with two adult and an immature Eastern Imperial eagle atop the roadside pylons, in addition to one of our most wanted species - Saker. Also seen along the journey was our first Rough-legged buzzard, as well as a distant bird which was probably Long-legged buzzard, unfortunately a bit too brief and distant to pin down.

Our final stops of the day were along the road that borders the national park as you head north towards Nádudvar, where we started to encounter our first larger groups of Common Crane. A stop at a pig farm (of all places!) south west of the farm delivered a bonus Woodcock, along with a precursory showing of small groups of Common Crane heading off to roost. A brief call sounded spot on for Spotted crake, however after stealthily tracking the bird for 5 minutes or so, the source of the “call” was found to be a leaky pipe attached to a timer… it had been a long day!

At our accommodation we scrambled some form of vegetable pasta dinner together, sank a few beers and retired to bed around half 9. Gareth added Tawny and Little Owl to proceedings whilst enjoying a post dinner smoke, however half of our number (me included) had already retired by this point.​
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Day 2 (23/10/22)

Our second day didn’t get off to the best start, with a blanket of thick fog present until lunchtime, and only dissipating moderately by mid afternoon. Our host wanted to speak to us around 9am, so we decided on a bit of birding around the environs of our accommodation. Several common species were seen, with Great and Long-tailed tit, Chiffchaff and Siskin present, whilst a heard-only Grey-headed woodpecker gave us the slip in the fog. We headed south to the fishponds immediately south of the house where we had hoped to add a few waterbirds to the proceedings. Unfortunately the weather had other ideas, and a few hours of squinting into the fog brought only meagre returns; Black headed, Lesser Black-backed, Yellow legged and Caspian gulls, Curlew, Dunlin, Little grebe, Great egret, Stonechat and Kingfisher. Somewhere off in the fog there was a cacophony of calling, but frustratingly the birds largely remained out of view. Heading back to the house, we did have a brief treat in store, with the first Syrian woodpecker alighting atop a tree on the other side of the river. One final surprise of the morning came in the form of a small flock of Woodlark disturbed off of an arable field near the house - a slightly unexpected but welcome addition to the growing trip list.

Having had our consultation with our host (I’m still none the wiser why we couldn’t do it by phone!) we headed north east for what would be my personal highlight of the trip, but not before a few more random stops. The fields north-east of the 33 at Nagyhegyes were absolutely rammed with Greater White-fronted and Greylag geese, as well as a few hundred Common Crane. Whilst stopping to enjoy the spectacle, Johny expertly picked out our second Saker, which having disturbed a number of the geese promptly dropped to the floor and blurred into the fog.

Next up, we headed to the village of Hortobagyi, as we had some gen that the area around the church often held a Long eared Owl roost. Despite some thorough checking, it was apparent that the Owls weren’t in residence, with several Black Redstart providing the only entertainment of our visit. Whilst wandering around, Johny spotted the familiar figures of Ray and Nicholas Galea whom he knew from his time volunteering at the Maltese raptor camp. After a brief catch up and general exchange of what they had caught up with, they very kindly gave us some gen on a LEO roost in a nearby town, along with some information on an area which had been productive for geese the previous day.

Our next stop a little further on was the excellent watch tower overlooking the magdolna-er south of Balmazújváros. The number of geese here really had to be seen to be believed, with probably a very conservative count of 8,000 individuals present. We spent a while scanning through, but the combination of poor visibility and dim light made things tricky. A couple of times I thought I’d picked up a smaller goose with the White fronts, only for it to disappear into the mist. There were other birds here, with several hundred Common Crane, Teal, Mallard and smaller numbers of Wigeon and Tufted duck. Raptors were also very evident, again White tailed and Eastern Imperial eagles occasionally responsible for mass panic among the hordes. A lone Ruff flew across the road behind us, and whilst watching this bird we picked up another immature Goshawk again worrying the local feral pigeon population.

Moving a bit further along the road to get a different perspective on the geese, we once again pulled over to have a scan. The White-tailed and Eastern Imperial eagles were still alternating between buzzing the flock and sitting up, and soon enough a call went up from Gareth - he had located two Red breasted Geese in the throng. The birds were distant, but we could get clear enough views to enjoy these smart little geese. We all remarked on how easily they disappeared into the flock, rather surprising given their striking plumage.

After a while we decided to follow up on Ray’s gen and try for the Long-eared owl roost in town. A few wrong turns later and we pulled into an anonymous cul-de-sac, and immediately saw a beautiful LEO dozing in the misty afternoon. We carefully checked through the trees and found several more - activity was somewhat limited to the occasional stretch, yawn and scratch, but it was an absolute privilege to enjoy these birds at close quarters without causing any distress. We counted at least 27 individuals, but could easily have missed more.

By this time the fog had begun to lift slightly, so we decided to head back out to look at the geese once again, this time trying a location to the east of the town. This proved to be a great success, as we had negotiated our position to the back of the flock we were observing earlier, and could pick through them at a marginally closer range. The numbers of Greater White-front and Greylag were staggering, perhaps in excess of 10,000 birds. Whilst trying to relocate the Red-breasted geese seen earlier, John rather incredibly pulled out a pair of Lesser White-fronts! The birds remained distant, but views were sufficient that the smaller stature, more extensive blaze, smaller bill and yellowish eye ring could all be seen. There were plenty of other birds around, with hundreds of Mallard, Teal and Wigeon, and a few Shoveller - the first of the trip. Common Crane had been moving throughout our time, and about two hours before dusk we were treated to a near continuous stream of birds overhead, dropping in for a feed, drink and bathe before heading off to roost. This was arguably one of the highlights of the trip, with huge numbers (again, maybe between 10 - 15,000 birds) soaring overhead, the bugling calls of the adults occasionally punctuated by the squeaky toy sounds of the juveniles.

With so many crane coming to the area, we followed up on the suggestion of a few trip reports to try the tower at Kilátó terasz just north of the town. There were still plenty of Crane in the area, but it appeared that the site was not in use, with most of the birds continuing to the south and west. Luckily there were a few other birds to hold our interest, with a smart male Hen Harrier joined by a few Marsh Harrier, and small parties of Grey heron, Little and Great Egret flying into the reed bed to roost. A quick wander around the adjacent farmland produced a large flock of Meadow Pipit, but no hoped for Red throated. A few Stonechat were buzzing about in the ditches, and several skeins of Greylag and Greater White-front moved through.

A quick pit stop at an off-licence had us develop a taste for Meggy Ale, with Johny and Gareth dispatched on a second beer run later on. Despite the fog, it had been a very productive day with many highlights (not least the beer!). There was one thought on everyone's mind in the evening though - would the fog persist?​

Please excuse the poor images - these are just off my phone as I've not had time to look at my camera yet!


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Day 3 (24/10/22)
Our third day dawned somewhat brighter than the previous day, and gave us a more optimistic outlook. Our first port of call was to head out onto the puszta proper, specifically the plains to the north-west of Nádudvar, with the general aim of trying to catch up with one of the most enigmatic birds of the steppe - Great Bustard.

Heading north out of Nádudvar, we encountered our first Corn bunting and Yellowhammer of the trip, the former showing particularly well and even engaging in a bit of singing. As we headed northwest along a track, we frequently stopped to scan the open expanses of the plain, but it appeared that birds were few and far between. The occasional Hen harrier out in a brief appearance, whilst corvids were common with Hooded crow, Rook and Jackdaw accounting for much of the activity.

Stopping at a traditional bustard lekking site, we once again drew a blank, however a brief view of a flock of Golden Plover in flight gave us something to look at. We spent a few minutes unsuccessfully trying to pick the birds out on the deck before they took flight again. Amongst the flock was a noticeably smaller bird with darker underwings - unmistakably one of the Lesser Golden Plover species! The next hour or so was spent grilling the flock, and despite the distance and generally poor views consensus settled on American Golden Plover on the basis of the attenuated rear end, greyish plumage tones and strongly flared supercilium. We managed a couple of very distant record shots, but nothing approaching worthy of submission of a formal record.

Continuing further out onto the plain a Great Grey Shrike gave a small amount of interest, along with a few closer views of Crested Lark, but on the whole it was surprisingly quiet. We had anticipated Souslik and good numbers of raptors, but drew a blank on both. Eventually the track we were following became ambiguous to say the least, and to avoid testing the 4x4 capabilities of our little Nissan Juke, we turned around and made our way back.
Approaching the area where the Golden Plover flock had been showing, Johny picked out a cracking immature Eastern Imperial Eagle on the deck, which gave protracted (if distant) views through the scope.

Although we had hoped to cross the plain, it appeared that this wasn’t possible, so as a result we had to drive around 3 sides of a square in order to reach Nagyiván, where we were once again trying for Great Bustard. Heading west along the 33 near to Hortobagyi, Johny clocked a few raptors kettling together close to the road, and with lightning reactions that would make an F1 driver envious, Gareth swung the car off the road, and we were soon scoping 3 White-tailed eagle, which were joined briefly by a Common buzzard. After a while another large raptor drifted in to join them, and we were treated to our best views yet of Eastern Imperial Eagle - yet another smart juvenile to boot. Other distractions here included Clouded Yellow and an odonata tick for me - Red-veined Darter.

Continuing west towards our destination there were fields full of Common Crane as well as hundreds of geese, but we were set on reaching Nagyiván before midday. Arriving in the area, once again we indulged in some rather fruitless scanning of the fields, which again produced Great Grey Shrike and Crested Lark, but despite the promising looking landscape, no sign of the plains turkey. We stopped for lunch on the edge of the village, and having exhausted all options in terms of passable tracks, we decided that a change of scene may be a better way to spend the second half of the day. Whilst looking at the excellent birding.hu website, a raptor drifted overhead, and we all enjoyed our best views yet of an adult Rough-legged buzzard.

Once again it was time to hop in the car and travel back in the direction we had come, with our discussions settling on the fishponds at Arkus. The sat-nav seemed to be struggling, so we decided to take the minor road that leads south past Fényes Tó towards Arkus.
Although this proved to be wholly unsuccessful in terms of reaching our destination, we did enjoy some quality birding, with another distant Roughleg, several Pygmy Cormorant, Marsh Harrier, Caspian Gull, a large flock of Curlew and no less than 30 Great egret on the various fishponds. After some epic driving skills once again shown by Gareth - successfully reversing about 2km down a somewhat precipitous single track next to a river - we headed west again, this time taking the Harmashalom turning, which led us to Arkus.

A calling Brambling was in a small patch of scrub as we turned off the road. Within minutes of parking up the action began, with a spectacular display of 3 adult Hen harrier joining a female and undertaking some serious aerial acrobatics - fabulous to watch. The sole Fieldfare of the trip flew west overhead, whilst a pair of White-tailed eagle were doing a decent impression of Black Woodpecker, at least close enough for me to wind Johny up with for an hour or so. A male Black redstart sang from some abandoned buildings, and a calling crest remained hidden in some bushes - almost certainly a Firecrest but we weren’t able to clinch it. Our walk along the drain towards the main lakes brought us more birds, with Great Crested and Little Grebe, Gadwall, Pochard, Tufted and Ferruginous Duck, a couple more Pygmy Cormorant and a calling Water Rail. After what seemed like a longer walk than anticipated, we reached the drained lagoon where a Pacific Golden Plover had been reported in recent weeks, and marvelled at large numbers of waders; Greenshank, Spotted Redshank, Ruff, Dunlin, Lapwing, Grey Plover, Snipe and Black-tailed Godwit - certainly enough to keep us occupied for a few hours. Despite searching, there was no sign of the PGP, and to be honest, the lighting and distance was perhaps a bit too much for my scope at least, many of the birds were at least 1km away. Off in the distance a Black Woodpecker gave a flight call, but remained unseen. Other ponds had groups of Great egret as well as a large group of Grey heron.
Having grilled the pools and finally enjoyed a good walk and some great birding after a lot of time in the car, we decided to call it a day, and after a quick wash and change we headed into Hajdúszoboszló for dinner and a few drinks following an excellent days birding.​
Day 4 (25/10/22)

All too soon our final day had arrived, and there had been some discussion over dinner and beers (then over whiskey) about the best course of action - once again without resolution!
As we had so much enjoyed the spectacle of the LEO’s and geese around Balmazújváros, it was decided that would be our first port of call. Unfortunately the fog had again returned, and any thoughts of grilling geese were soon abandoned. We returned to the inconspicuous cul-de-sac hosting the Long Eared Owl roost, and once again spent the best part of an hour admiring these absolutely stunning birds. Fantastic!

With time ticking, we decided against a return to the Puszta, opting instead for something of a long shot - a twitch with no recent gen. We headed to the fishponds at Kaba-földesi gyepek which had hosted a Sociable lapwing five days earlier, but of which there had been no subsequent reports. It very quickly became apparent that this was a strong choice, critically endangered plover or not, the site was nearly at capacity with regards to birds - it was a wetland crowded to such a level that for a minute or so, I just stared, unable to decide where to begin scanning first.

There was a nice selection of waders on show, with many Ruff and Dunlin, along with smaller numbers of Snipe, Grey Plover, Black-tailed godwit and Curlew, whilst over towards the back was a large flock of Lapwing. There were also hundreds of Greater White-fronted geese, along with smaller numbers of Greylag. Birds were constantly shifting due to the presence of an immature Eastern Imperial eagle and at least seven(!) White tailed eagle. The farm behind the platform held a few Black redstart and a decent sized flock of Tree sparrow.
A calling Spotted redshank once again drew our attention to the waders, and the lapwing flock lifted up - I just happened to have them in view when I noticed a startlingly pale wader with flashing black and white wings - Sociable Lapwing! There had been good numbers of the species in the country this autumn, perhaps remnants of the former Ukrainian population which may winter in Western Europe, or just a vagrant from further east. Either way, it was an absolutely fantastic bird to catch up with, and a proper rarity in every sense of the word.

After enjoying distant views of the bird for a while, attention turned back to the geese, with John picking up two fantastic Red-breasted Geese, shortly followed by a pair of Bean Geese. Other birds around the site included Great egret, Caspian gull, and a brief calling Water pipit. After a few hours enjoying some of the finest birding of the trip, it was time to continue west towards the airport, but not before a final stop.

Along the road, flocks of Common Crane were frequent, as were smaller numbers of geese. A couple of Great grey shrike were noted on roadside wires, whilst another brief Rough legged buzzard put in an appearance.

Our final stop was a nice bit of mixed habitat at Kecskeri puszta. A Goldcrest was the first bird out of the car, whilst a few Crane loafed about in the fields. Raptors were quite apparent too, with another adult White-tailed eagle, a ringtail Hen Harrier, Kestrel, Sparrowhawk and several Buzzard. Off in the distance several skeins of geese were moving between sites, and the last Rough legged buzzard of the trip was hunting some way away.

It had been a largely successful trip, with the only major dip being Great Bustard - we had tried quite hard to catch up with these enigmatic birds, but we had simply ran out of time in the end. The weather had foiled us on the second day, but on any trip (particularly a short trip) birding is always at the mercy of the weather.
Hungary offers some fine birding, though perhaps a week or so earlier would have increased the overall diversity of species, with more waders and some of the summering species perhaps still present. In the end we observed/heard 110 species, with all other main target species in the bag, as well as a few bonus birds too.
The American Golden Plover you mentioned is a known bird which was found on the 20th. Crazy to have PGP, AGP and Sociable Lapwing on the same day in the same general area. Hungary has had quite the autumn with the cherry on the cake obviously being the Sandhill crane.
The American Golden Plover you mentioned is a known bird which was found on the 20th. Crazy to have PGP, AGP and Sociable Lapwing on the same day in the same general area. Hungary has had quite the autumn with the cherry on the cake obviously being the Sandhill crane.
Thanks for that - I've managed to find an image of the AGP and looks a good match, but the location is a bit away from where we saw this bird, I suspect either they move around a fair bit, or perhaps the location wasn't accurate on the website. There has certainly been an incredible run of birds in Hungary this autumn - Sandhill crane is one crazy record!
A nice report Daniel - making me regret I only had a "conference birding " day in Budapest a few years ago, when there's so much on offer!

27 Long-eared Owls is a terrific number

Great report, sounds like a very good trip. I’m in Hortobagy this weekend-do you have a street name for the LEO's? Also where did you find best for pre-roost crane flyovers? Thanks.
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