Hungary 2013

...with Attila Steiner

September 21st-28th

As we have occasionally done in the past, here we present a clients view of a trip. Here Vernon Lundy reports on the September tour to Hungary.

Hungary is a land-locked country in central Europe. It is situated in the Carpathian Basin and is bordered by Slovakia to the north, Ukraine and Romania to the east, Serbia and Croatia to the south, Slovenia to the southwest and Austria to the west. This trip concentrated on two areas; the Hortobágy Puszta, a grassland biome on the Great Hungarian Plain around the River Tisza in the eastern part of Hungary as well as on the western part of Hungary and in the Austrian Burgenland. (The Hungarian puszta is an exclave of the Eurasian Steppe), the largest natural grasslands in Europe and the Zemplén Hills or Tokaj Mountains a range of hills in north-east Hungary. Its highest peak is the Nagy-Milic at 894 metres above sea level. Theresa and I were fortunate that Attila Steiner of Ecotours, the Hungarian ground agents, agreed with Birdwatching Breaks, with whom we booked the tour, to guide us even though other clients dropped out. It was thus essentially a private trip.

We flew with Wizz Air, an Eastern European budget airline, to Budapest. The weather throughout was benevolent, with some sun each day, agreeable temperatures and only one localised shower. Arriving late afternoon we then drove east to Tiszafüred, our base for the next four nights. For the following three days we visited many sites in and around the Hortobágy National Park. Our next base was at Erdobénye, in the beautiful Zemplén Hills, north of Tokaj. From here we were able to visit the oak and beech forests that cloak the hills. The last day we spent in the Kiskunság National Park, south of Budapest on our way to the airport prior to our return to the UK in the evening.

This was a very relaxed trip and although there were not going to be any ‘lifers’ for me we were able to better see birds encountered many years ago. The accommodation was more than adequate for what we needed and the food plentiful and wholesome. Our thanks go to Attila for his excellent birding skills and tireless efforts on our behalf.


September 21st

Theresa and I drove to Luton Airport to take the flight to Budapest with Wizz Air, a budget airline based in Eastern Europe. The drive took less than three hours and with simple booking in procedures we were soon parked and coached to the Airport Departures area. With minimal fuss and no advanced seating arrangements we were airborne only minutes later than schedule. After a trouble-free flight with only a short period of turbulence we landed at Liszt Ferenc Airport on time at 5.50 pm.

Attila met us in the Arrivals Hall and by shortly after 6.00 pm we were driving east in our roomy Hyundai 4X4 along the M3 as dusk gathered. It was too dark to see an Imperial Eagle that regularly roosts on pylons about 81 km east of Budapest so we continued a further 20 or so kms to the junction with the country road 33. With its worn, pot-holed surface progress was slower and the 32 km took more than 30min. This brought us to our first accommodation, Nádas Panzió, Tiszafüred. The town is now a tourist destination with water attractions built around the artificial Lake Tisza fed by the Tisza River Leaving our bags in the family room we had been allocated we repaired to a nearby restaurant, owned by the same people. After an excellent meal, washed down by the local beer we returned to our room on a
cool, star-lit evening and settled down for the night. The all-pervading sulphurous smell in the room came from the water supplied from artesian wells beneath the plains.

September 22nd


At 7.00 am Theresa and I walked in the extensive grounds of our resort-pension where we noted common species of bird that included Black Redstart. I was alerted to the calls of Syrian Woodpecker, less harsh than our familiar Great
Spotted Woodpecker which also called from dead branches of a nearby tree. The morning was warm and high cloud covered most of the sky.

Silvia, our waitress, prepared our breakfast and before 9.00 am we were ready for our first sally into the Hortobágy NP.
As we left the car park I saw a Hummingbird Hawk-moth feeding on the flowers of a shrub. From the road we noted Common Crane, Common Buzzard, White Wagtail and Roe Deer, a species we were to see daily for the following week, before we stopped at a wetland which held Shoveler, Mallard, Grey-lag Goose, Great Egret, Little Grebe and Caspian Gull while a Marsh Harrier quartered the reeds. A colony of Red-footed Falcons left a few juveniles that we could ‘scope at our leisure as they rested in a nearby tree.

Soon we had reached our first destination, an area known as Nyirolapos, where Dotterel were reported to be resting on migration. Despite a long walk and extensive ‘scoping of the we failed to locate them, noting only squadrons of Common Crane, a large population of European Kestrel, Grey Heron, Stonechat , Caspian Gull and Curlew and White-tailed Eagle while streams of migrating Barn Swallows hunted close to the ground. A Hobby rested on the grass, Skylark circled overhead and Attila called Stone Curlew as they flew low and out of sight behind a low ridge. Later from a high platform we could only see Common Pheasant and Song Thrush.

We then returned to Hortobágy town and the NP HQ to get permits for our visits to the Puszta. At our next site, Hortobágy Halasto (fish ponds) we took the tourist train to the furthest pond. This train was for transporting the fish from the ponds to the farm and on to market but with the addition of some carriages now takes passengers. From the train we added Night Heron, Little Egret, White-tailed Eagle and Pygmy Cormorant to our trip list. The sun broke through the light cloud and we enjoyed very pleasant temperatures for the rest of the day. At the terminus we set-off for the hides and observation points overlooking the partially drained pond where we ate lunch. Teal, Great Crested Grebe, Spoonbill, Dunlin, Little Stint, Grey Plover, Bar-tailed Godwit, Curlew Sandpiper, Spotted Redshank, Ruff, Sanderling, Avocet and Northern Lapwing fed on the mud. From the board-walk we noted Bearded and Penduline Tits and Little Crake. We walked back down the rail track, noting Coot, Gadwall, Shelduck, Ferruginous Duck, Common Pochard, Wigeon, Black Stork and Whiskered Tern in other ponds while Red-backed Shrike hunted from the reed tops. We waited for the return train where a photographer stalked Common Kingfisher. On our drive back to our pension we encountered many Red-footed Falcons and Common Cranes going to roost. From a platform together with two Finnish birders we estimated 300 falcons on a ploughed field. Our last new trip bird as dusk descended was a male Pallid Harrier (two, if we did not see the same bird twice!) With little ado we returned to last night’s restaurant where we read the list before enjoying yet another fine meal with beer. We had seen 80 species for the day. With a bright moon shining from a star-lit sky the night was cool as we settled for the night.

September 23rd

At 7.00 am. we birded in the garden but no new species showed so we repaired to the reception for breakfast. By 9.00am we were driving back to Nyirolapos for a second bite at the Dotterel. With no stops en route we were soon walking across the Puszta searching for our goal. Most of yesterday’s species were still present but it was not until we had tramped about 2 km that Attila spotted 9 birds that sat behind a ridge. The Dotterel were ‘edgy’ so we left them after ‘scoping them from about 100 m distance. A Marsh Harrier quartered and a Great Egret stalked the immense grasslands as we returned to our vehicle. Our next destination was the Elep fish ponds, where a drained area proved to be a Mecca for water birds. Grey heron in abundance, 3 Common Shelduck, uncommon in Hungary, a few Mute Swan and all the waders seen yesterday fed on the exposed mud while Common Tern was new to our trip list. A panic among the birds was caused by the appearance of a juvenile Imperial Eagle gliding effortlessly by. A hare sped across the grasslands ahead of the vehicle.

At Os Koselly Marsh we added Ringed Plover, Common Snipe, Little stint and Wood Sandpiper to our list. Driving to the town of Balmazújváros we watched at least 6 Long-eared Owls roosted in the mature trees of suburban gardens. Later, from the road we were able to watch 19 Corn Buntings on nearby power lines and as the evening advanced at km post 57 on road 33 Attila brought our attention to 11 Great Bustards feeding in the mosaic fields about 500 m away.

The sun was low in the sky as we passed yesterday’s first wetland. Bizarrely a Great Bittern crept along the edge of roadside reeds, ignoring us and speeding traffic as it probably sought unwary marsh frogs in the grass verge. This completed our day’s birding and we were soon back at our pension, preparing for the log and dinner. With 15 new species I had now 95 birds for the trip list.

September 24th.

In the garden Theresa and I had good views of a female Syrian Woodpecker in its favoured dead branches of a nearby tree. The day had dawned fine with broken cloud. We breakfasted before leaving to pick up our NP guide, Sandor, who was to accompany us deep into parts of the park normally out-of-bounds to the public. While he failed to locate any bustards we had brief views of a Saker Falcon. Red-throated Pipits fed in a flooded wheel track, Meadow Pipit flew around our heads, Whinchat perched on bushes and House Martin migrated with the Omni-present Barn Swallows. We enjoyed warm sun as it broke through the light clouds, and as we passed some concrete debris I called a Northern Wheatear which perched on the rubbish. Throughout our morning we observed hundreds of
Common Crane. We returned Sandor to his house, on the way we disturbed a bright male Yellow wagtail which didnot have the blue head of the nominate flava subspecies, looking more like the flavissima sub species we see in the UK. As we left his village we ate lunch.

Attila felt we could see more water birds if we returned to the Hortobágy Halasto. We walked to one of the drained ponds where 8 juvenile Night Herons rested on the bund. A Little Egret was noted and while no other new species were seen on the drained pond 100 Spoonbill took to the air before resettling. About the same number of Pied Avocet fed in the shallows. We returned to the vehicle and a Turtle dove flew to a gate and perched. Little Egret was noted and while no other new species were seen on the drained pond 100 Spoonbill took to the air before resettling. About the same number of Pied Avocet fed in the shallows. We returned to the vehicle and a Turtle dove flew to a gate and perched.

We drove towards the M3 and at a raptor watch-point just off road 33 we ‘scoped the fields. Only Common Buzzards and Kestrels were obvious so we drove to 20 km from the junction with the motorway. On a nearby pylon I found a Saker Falcon, much more accommodating than this morning’s bird and it performed a fly-past for our delectation! In the late afternoon we overlooked Tisza River where all the water bird species had been seen before. However I could not believe my eyes when a gull-like bird flew above the waders. I noted dark, long pointed wings with faint pale flashes and white underparts. If we had been on the coast I would have immediately identified Arctic Skua, but I let it go. Later as we drove across the bridge over the river Attila glimpsed the bird and called ‘skua’ – apparently they are sometimes seen in Hungary!

We reached our base in darkness and made our way to the restaurant for the log and a meal. At the log my list stood at 109.

September 25th.

It was cool and cloudy as we had our customary pre-breakfast stroll. Again the Syrian Woodpecker made a brief appearance, together with the usual species. Today we move locations so after breakfast we bade goodbye to Sylvia and packed the vehicle. Because our base at Erdobénye in the Zemplen Hills is only 133km from Tiszafüred, Attila devised a route which took us along rural routes with interesting birding and tourist attractions. We crossed the Tisza River by the quaint paddleboat ferry where Nuthatch and a calling Green Woodpecker were new to the list. We crossed the area known as the Little Hortobágy and at a roadside stop we noted only our second Turtle Dove, Great Grey Shrike, many Corn Buntings and Whinchat. As the clouds broke and the sun broke through a Merlin gave chase to a Kestrel, and two Purple Herons hunted in a drainage channel. White-tailed Eagle drifted past, and Saker Falcon posed on a pylon.

We crossed the M33 and drove along the Hor Valley to the reservoir where 3 Black Storks lazed on the far shore. A second Saker Falcon and Raven posed on pylons and a Sparrowhawk climbed high above us. We drove up the symmetrical, isolated Tokaj Hill and from the 559 m peak we overlooked the vast plain as far as Debrecen, 80 km away. In the suburbs of Tokaj we passed the confluence of the Bodrog and Tisza rivers in a picturesque setting. Just above the valley a Black Woodpecker showed well as it flew to a bare tree where it fed for a while. Jays were busy in the oak woodland, stowing acorns for winter use. We continued to Erdobénye and as it was still only early evening we continued through the town to some pastures set in scattered trees. A Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, Long-tailed and Blue Tits were new to our list but a calling Middle spotted Woodpecker could not be located. We returned to the town and the Erdobénye Fogado, our base for the next three nights. We were soon in the restaurant enjoying a drink before our meal. At our log we found that I had now amassed 121 species on my list – dare we hope for a 150 total?

September 26th.

Our early birding was frustrated when:
We failed to notice that there was a master switch for the room’s electricity supply.
The door lock was so stiff we were afraid we would break the key.
The windows were barred or had large window boxes, preventing climbing out.

Fortunately our host eventually strolled out and he rescued us. Following breakfast we drove to the castle at Boldogkováralja a village in Borsod-Abaúj-Zemplén county. The Dracula-type castle occupies a rocky outcrop overlooking what had been a trade route in former times. A Wood Lark sang from high but little else presented itself. We entered a narrow valley and at a small quarry Attila scanned the rock-face and located an Eagle Owl roosting below a small tree, its bulk being equal to the trunk! In the wooded valley Willow Tit, Long-tailed Tit (both the europus and white-headed caudatus subspecies were present in a mixed flock).Yellowhammer, Hawfinch, Treecreeper and Marsh Tit were also added to the list. We drove on to another castle at Regéc. From an extremely smelly junction we overlooked a ‘stake-out‘ for Golden Eagle. Unfortunately it was not at home but we enjoyed some ripe plums from a nearby tree while Yellowhammer and Great Tit appeared in the orchard. The fields were a riot of pink where autumn crocuses bloomed. A titian coloured Red Squirrel, much darker than those in the UK dashed across the road. On our
travels we were looking at likely sites for Ural Owl but the sound of rutting Red Deer stags was our only reward and as the clouds rolled in we reached the last of these sites but a heavy shower and evening darkness drove us back to the vehicle. We returned to the pension, passing Boldogkor Castle on the way, ironically bathed in late evening sunshine.

Our hosts, who live 50 km from Erdobénye Fogado, had left for the night, not to return until tomorrow evening. Attila was left with the keys and we dined that evening at the newly built Magita Hotel, a short drive from the pension. Here in the beautifully appointed restaurant we enjoyed our best food of the week when Attila and I had venison stew and Theresa cat-fish. My list had swelled to 130, thanks to the change of habitat from plain to hills.

September 27th.

We breakfasted again at the Magita Hotel before leaving on another raptor-search. Our first stop was on
the pastures above the town. A cool, north-west wind kept the temperature low even though bright sun lit
the sky. Ravens circled above us as Green woodpecker flew past. The much darker bellied continental race
of Nuthatch fed in a tree above us and a Sparrowhawk circled high.

At our ‘stake-out’ close to Regéc Castle our only new bird was a Middle-spotted Woodpecker so we left to drive north towards Slovakia and its significantly higher mountains where we hoped to locate Golden Eagle. We ate lunch while we waited but no raptors showed. Later at a picnic site in a small valley Firecrest, Goldcrest and Coal Tit kept the list ticking over. We were now travelling east, parallel with the border and as we swung south we entered a broad valley where the volcanic rock was quarried. From this source Zeolites are manufactured. They are microporous, aluminosilicate minerals commonly used as commercial adsorbents. The valley narrowed and we took a walk in the magnificent Beech forest. Ornithologically our only reward was Wren and as the track steepened we returned to the vehicle. Just before the quarries we stopped again and enjoyed Lesser and Greater Spotted and Black Woodpeckers. Another Red squirrel posed for us in a tree fork.

Before we returned to base Attila drove us back to last night’s owl-site that had been thwarted by rain. Although we waited until dusk and the darkness in the forest made it difficult to walk back our only reward was the eerie sound of rutting deer. We sped past the Tokaj vineyards as we sought Erdobénye. To our surprise the car park was full and there was a private party in the restaurant. Some 20 guests milled around the small bar and dining room but our host still prepared his signal dish of pork knuckles in breadcrumbs for us. They were good – but not as enjoyable as last night’s
food! After a relatively poor day in the field the list now stood at 134.

September 28th.

Our last day in Hungary dawned fine and sunny. After breakfast we loaded the van and left this delightful area, bound for the Kiskunság NP, south of Budapest. In the vineyards of the Tokaj Hills grapes were being harvested for the 2013 wines. Soon we reached the motorway system and progress was rapid until we reached our Imperial Eagle ‘stake-out’ at km post 81. There, resplendent in the bright sunshine, was our quarry, a fine adult eagle roosting on a pylon. Its golden head gleamed in the sun and we even had a flypast as it stretched its wings, hotly pursued by Hooded Crows, dwarfed by this immense bird. Soon we were overlooking the Puszta of the Kiskunság NP. We were hoping primarily for sightings of Great Bustard but unfortunately they eluded us for the rest of the day even though we scanned vast areas from convenient low hills. However trip ticks continued as we noted Little Owl plus Meadow Pipit, N Wheatear, Long-tailed Tit, Stonechat and Great Grey Shrike. A worn Painted Lady butterfly fluttered weakly by and a Red Fox appeared at a field’s edge. At some fish ponds that the indulgent owner allowed access to birders we noted Great Egret, Ruff, Ringed and Grey Plover, Dunlin, Curlew, both Caspian and Yellow-legged Gulls. Attila met and spoke to a birding friend who informed him of White-fronted Geese further into the fish ponds. From a tower we scanned the pools and there with Greylag Geese were indeed five whitefronts. Below us a pair of Reed Warblers flitted through the reeds and a female Red-crested Pochard swam across a nearby pond. Our trip to Hungary was drawing to a close and Attila drove us to the airport to catch our flight back to Luton. We read our last log in a cake
shop where we were treated to a coffee and cake. My final total was 137 species.

For details of the full species list or to request further information about the next time we will be offering this trip. Contact us at

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