Hungary 19th to 26th May 2000
In December 1999 we decided to take our first organised birdwatching trip and chose Hungary, travelling with BIRDING, the company formerly run by John & Robbie Gooders. With hindsight this was a wise decision. Very few people spoke English, road signs were confusing or non-existant at times and maps were not easy to read, even for our guide who had lived there for 15 years.
RESEARCH AND BACKGROUND READING
Comprehensive background information on all aspects of the trip was provided by 'Birding', including a birding checklist and details of species seen on previous trips. With a local guide and all transportation covered there was no need to buy maps or research birding sites. However The Birds of Hungary by Gerard Gorman provides excellent background to the area as well as covering a systematic distribution of species. At the time my favourite identification guide was Birds of Europe: With North Africa and the Middle East (Helm Field Guides) by Lars Jonsson.
TRAVEL AND ACCOMMODATION
We flew from London Heathrow with MALEV the Hungarian State Airline on their scheduled service which left LHR at 07.55hrs on 19th May, arriving at Budapest at 11.25hrs; a two and a half hour flight with Hungary being 1 hour ahead of BST. The onward journey to our first destination, the Tengerszem Hotel at Josvafo in the Aggtelek National Park, took between 3 and 4 hours with stops along the way for a picnic lunch and the occasional bird.
We were met at Ferihegy Airport by Gerard Gorman who was to be our guide for the trip, along with 2 local experts. Gerard has been living and working in Hungary since 1985 and is one of Eastern Europe's leading birders. Our return journey on 26th May left Budapest at 18.20hrs, arriving LHR 19.55hrs and giving us the opportunity to spend some time in Budapest.
The Tengerszem Hotel was a little Spartan but scrupulously clean with attentive staff and a good local menu. The hotel is set at the head of a heavily forested valley and, all in all, provided a very comfortable location ideally placed to tour the Aggtelek area. It appears the same remains true to date (6/07).
When we moved on after three nights to the Hortobagy National Park to the Patkos Motel at Tiszafured, for the remaining four nights of our stay, the contrast could not have been more marked. The motel was (and remains) little more than a truck stop on one of the main routes from Budapest to the former Russian Republic. The rooms were cold and dank with really ancient furniture and beds; consequently the whole place felt dirty. The shower barely functioned and the towels were wafer thin and wet before you had dried your hands. Subsequently we have occasionally stayed in the odd dodgy hotel on birding trips to Africa and India, but none to match the Patkos Motel. The food was very bland, ethnic and despite different titles on the menu, almost always tasted the same. In its favour the Motel is on its own, almost in the centre of the National Park and hence its apparent popularity.
In view of the early departure from London and the need for car parking facilities, we stayed overnight at The Comfort Inn Hotel, near the airport with the room costing £79, car parking £28 (7 nights @ £4 per day) and transfers to Heathrow at £3.50 per person. The “Birding” trip cost £870 per person for travel, accommodation, all meals and services of leader plus local guides. Although it was very convenient to have everything laid on in one complete package we have subsequently never used a birding holiday company preferring to have more control over the food, accommodation, company and pace of birding.AREAS VISITED
Aggtelek National Park
Situated north east of Budapest, the park covers an area of nearly 20,000 ha, was established in 1985 and has been a World Heritage site since 1995. The impressive limestone scenery covers an extensive cave system which in itself supports nearly 500 cave dwelling plant and animal species. Some areas are heavily wooded, mainly with pine forest, with rolling hills, low intensity agriculture and numerous small villages, giving a diverse habitat range for a variety of bird species.
Hortobagy National Park
The Hortobagy covers an area of 80,000 ha and was established in January 1973. This area, almost due east of Budapest and in the north of the Great Plain, is much more than an empty grassland: in addition to extensive natron pastures, there are also numerous large fish ponds and c40% of the area is marshland. The apparently barren, scorched 'puszta' (grassland) is home to many birds, whilst the marshes and old reedbeds provide ideal roosting and feeding sites for numerous nesting and migrant birds. The fish ponds provide an ideal habitat and food supply for waders and other waterbirds.BIRDING HIGHLIGHTS
For us, the potential for Western Palaearctic lifers was mouth-watering and although we had a few minor disappointments, by and large we were well satisfied with the birds Gerard was able to locate for us.
In the first few days in the Aggtelek region our highlights were Lesser Spotted Eagle, Imperial Eagle, Black Woodpecker (a nesting pair in the woods behind the hotel), River Warbler, Marsh Warbler, Barred Warbler and a nest-building male Penduline Tit. We were unlucky with Corncrake (which would have been another lifer); despite hearing several birds, one of which we must have been virtually on top of, we were unable to locate any. Although not lifers, the following birds were special :- a splendid male Golden Oriole perched on a branch out in the open for all to admire, Honey Buzzard floating gracefully overhead, good views of a Lesser-spotted Woodpecker after it flew in to a nearby tree, numerous Hawfinch fly-bys, Goshawk and nesting Collared Flycatcher in the wooded valley immediately below the hotel. On our first morning in the area Gerard persuaded a few of us to head off into a belt of mixed woodland to search for the elusive Hazel Grouse. We spent the best part of an hour scrambling through thick undergrowth, with no marked paths, without any success. Indeed we saw hardly any birds in the area. Subsequently it was a little annoying to find we had been on something of a wild goose chase as Hazel Grouse had not been seen on a spring tour for over 10 years.
Moving on to the Hortobagy we had not really been prepared for the amazing number and variety of species we would find in this bird rich area. Lifers came thick and fast with a lone Red-breasted Goose remaining with a flock of Greylag, an immaculate male Red-crested Pochard plus several Ferruginous Duck on the fish ponds along with the numerous other waterbird species and a soaring Long-legged Buzzard which we were able to scope to confirm identity. Saker were found at their nest sites on electricity pylons and Whiskered Tern graced virtually every stretch of open water along with hundreds of accompanying marsh terns. A pair of Syrian Woodpecker was nesting in the sparse woodland near the hotel and on one of our early morning walks we found a splendid Icterine Warbler nearby – didn't even need Gerard for this one! A singing Savi's Warbler was eventually located, as were two calling Aquatic Warbler, although the views of the latter were far from satisfactory. We found another nest-building Penduline Tit and whilst watching the spectacle of numerous species overflying the marshes from a raised bank, we had an all-to-brief fly-by of a small flock of 7 early Rosy Starlings.
Amongst other highlights were close-ups of displaying Bluethroat (white-spotted variety) at the fish ponds, occasional Roller on the overhead wires and, most memorably, five Bittern in the air at once over the marshes as we were setting up our picnic lunch one day. Near the hotel numerous Red-footed Falcon hunted overhead and perched on the wires and memorably, one morning, were joined by a splendid Hobby. Several Pygmy Cormorant were visible in the distance at the fish ponds near their nest site, a male Little Bittern briefly flew overhead and three Glossy Ibis joined the numerous egrets and herons which grace the Hortobagy.SUMMARY
Despite the dire accommodation on the Hortobagy we had an enjoyable trip with 149 species seen and a further 7 only heard. We had 18 lifers and would have had another if we had been able to pin down the elusive Corncrake. An added bonus was meeting Pat and Judy Hayes on the trip. We have remained friends ever since and shared many memorable birding holidays around the world.
David and Amanda Mason
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