Hungary 2012 - Saturday 3rd November – Wednesday 7th November

We decided we needed some European birding and decided on a short trip to Hungary with flights booked through Ryan air at £80 return and a car hired through Fox Autorent. The flights went very smoothly and the car was just what we needed. In total the whole trip cost us a touch over £300.

We had challenged ourselves to find some sought after species with rare geese and woodpeckers on the target list and any birds were to be self found as we decided against hiring a guide.

Saturday 3rd November

We flew out very early leaving Birmingham at 6.00am and we had picked up our car by 10.30 in Budapest. The car hire was just outside the airport and on the drive there the first bird of note was a Great Grey Shrike perched on a roadside fence.

Our first destination was to be the Hortobagy National Park which is around 2hrs east of Budapest but it was instantly apparent that birding was going to be difficult. There was a terribly thick fog and you could barely see 30 yards ahead! On the drive we did manage to see at least 25 Common Buzzard 5 more Great Grey Shrike and a single Hen Harrier. The shrikes were very obvious on wires and fences and it was great to see so many!

Nearing the Hortobagy we passed through Lake Tizza but the fog was not clearing! On the lake we could hear hundreds of geese and managed to see at least 300 Greylag Geese but views were quite poor.  Also seen were 6 Wigeon and 2 Gadwall.

We drove on towards the town of Hortbagy and to our delight the fog all of a sudden eased and we were able to actually see the surrounding habitat where many Crane were instantly obvious feeding in stubble fields and groups were going over regularly. Hooded Crow were also evident alongside the road.

Continuing along the main road we saw our first skein of Geese overhead and pulled in for a scan of a small pool getting very close views of a female Marsh Harrier. We scanned through the 60-80 White-fronted Geese before they all got up and the bird responsible was a Rough-legged Buzzard. After seeing at least 30 Common Buzzard on the drive it was great to see this species and the white rump was striking as it headed away, though all too quickly unfortunately. We enjoyed the Geese flying overhead at this spot for a while and noted the direction that most of the geese were being seen to track them down, feeding later in the trip.

We continued on and decided to visit Balmazajuvros for a walk round. In a relatively short time we didn’t manage to find a Long-eared Owl roost in likely looking spots and could not locate any Woodpeckers just noting a around 15-20 Tree Sparrow. We continued on to a good spot for watching the crane come in to roost and en route noted a single White Stork in a roadside field. Driving across the vast puszta a Falcon Species dashed in front of us but pulling over we were unable to get enough on it as it headed away.

As soon as we pulled up at one of the watch towers it was clear a lot of Crane were already on their way in. Lines running the length of the horizon were heading our way and as they came closer their trumpeting call was filling the air. Thousands and thousands came over our heads and just as you thought that must be it, more lines could be seen stretching across the horizon. It was so hard to judge numbers but an estimated 30,000-40,000 birds passed overhead with some settling in fields and others on a distant fishpond. We stood and appreciated this magnificent spectacle until the sun went down.

Common Crane heading in to roost

In the evening we went for a cracking meal that was also very very reasonable. The goulash was great and the local lager went down very well after a long day.

Sunday 4th November

We were up at 6:00 and headed off towards the Halasto fishponds near the village of Hortobagy. As usual it wasn’t long before we were pulling over to watch Geese and Crane streaming overhead and whilst we were watching a Merlin dashed by. A little further on we pulled over once again to try and scan through some geese but they got up all too quickly. There were around 800 White-fronted Geese with a couple of hundred Greylag Geese. These Greylags far paler than ours here. Proper wild ones! Whilst pulled over we saw three Hen Harrier sat in the grass including one male, their heads just visible, waiting for a bit of warmth before flying.

Arriving at the Halasto fishponds we started walking to the first watchpoint. This area is a complex of fishponds with a rail track leading to the very end and also a footpath. In season or maybe just not on Sundays a train takes tourist to the very end which is a good hours walk away.

Walking between the ponds Great White Egret where all over the place with a group of 6 flying overhead. Flocks of Tree Sparrow were in the bushes and a single Sedge Warbler was in a ditch and showed well. In the reeds either side of us we could hear Penduline Tit and two showed really well.

Penduline Tit

Nearing a larger pond we could see Cormorants flying and 2 smaller Pygmy Cormorant flew by too. We went on to see 6-7 around here. They are distinctly smaller with a shorter bill and brown neck.

Stood at the watch tower 2 White-tailed Eagle were seen with one perched in a small tree and the other flying low over a distant reed bed. It was fantastic birding from here with parties of Bearded Tit pinging all around us and flying over the reeds and more Penduline Tit were heard with 2 showing well close by and 6-8 in flight overhead. We scanned the water which held a few Great Crested Grebe and Shoveler. We spent some time here and a ringtail Hen Harrier flew close in directly in front of us with Marsh Harrier always present nearby.

What happened next was totally unexpected and a real treat. In a single willow just 60m from the tower a Black Woodpecker started calling! We glimpsed it and it called a few times. This was one bird we were both intent on getting good views off after France earlier in the year but even in one tree though we could still not see it. The bird fell silent for a while and we carried on scanning the water and surroundings. All of a sudden the call came again but this time louder and to our right! It has flown across without us seeing it! Finally in this smaller willow we got views of it moving around the tree and then to our delight it gave a fantastic flypast! What a great bird. A real monster of a woodpecker!

A Black Woodpecker giving a fantastic close flyby.

A Bittern flew over the reeds here and we watched the Pygmy cormorants before heading back to the car. On the walk back we followed the Black Woodpecker and crept up to get amazing views of it bashing away in various willow trees! Seeing its crimson crown and piercing white eye. We continued back to the car seeing the Sedge Warbler again and near to the car a Black Redstart was on a building there. An excellent walk.

Back in the car we decided to drive to around the open puszta stopping regularly. As usual it wasn’t long until we were pulling over to watch a cracking little Merlin. It was sat close to the road and got up to chase a few pipits. Great to get such close up views.

Merlin on the puszta.

We drove on and had more very close up views of Great Grey Shrike and scanning another fishpond there was a distant Great Northern Diver.

One of many Great Grey Shrikes seen

We continued on scanning lines of pylons and spent some time watching the open puszta seeing 2 Hen Harrier and after a short wait the bird we were really after, a Saker Falcon went past. This was high on the list to see and we both could see its pale colour and obvious streaking and bulk but it was past us and away all too quickly. We continued on and pulled in again to check a bird of prey dashing across a field, a Sparrowhawk, and then hit the jackpot as finally sat on the nearest pylon was a Saker Falcon. We watched the bird for a while, it was preening and stretching but unfortunately didn’t fly. While we were watching 4 Serin flew by with one sat up showing well. We watched the Saker for a while before moving on. Great stuff.

A stretching Saker

We decided to look over the Halasto Fishponds again to try and watch some geese coming in to roost on the larger bodies of water as we still had a couple of sough after species to find. We walked out right to the far pond and had some great birds en route. Again Pygmy Cormorants were evident with at least 15 seen and we had good views of White-fronted Geese and Greylag Geese on the smaller bodies before getting close but brief views of a Ferruginous Duck on a small pool next to the track.

Pygmy Cormorant

We scanned through some wildfowl from the next tower with Shoveler and Pochard dominating with a few Teal and a couple of Great-crested Grebe. Also here was a nice Red-necked Grebe quite close in and we spent some time watching the bird hoping Geese would arrive to roost as the light was starting to fade.

Red-necked Grebe

Reaching the largest pool at the end there was a group of around 2000 Crane and a distant gull roost. Also seen was a small flock of waders which looked like Dunlin but were all too distant. The tower here is huge and offers great views across a wonderful habitat. Unfortunately for us the light was fading fast and although small skeins of geese were coming in it was too dark to have any chance of identifying them. As we walked back large numbers were streaming in overhead and this great atmosphere topped off a very good day.

We had remembered the general area the Geese were heading at first light and knew we had another chance first thing in the morning if we could just locate them feeding. Tracking down rare gesse isn't easy! We headed back and went out for some more goulash and had a few lagers before getting our heads down. A stunning area full of top birds.

Monday 5th November

The owner of the hotel we were staying at offered to get up at whatever time we wanted to make breakfast so at half 5 we were up and he was in the kitchen knocking up eggs and bacon with loads of toast. Top bloke.

Full and ready for a big session we headed off in search of geese taking a different route to try and find some suitable feeding fields. A brief stop to look over a marsh produced Grey Plover, Greenshank and Redshank but it was still quite dark and we continued on towards the town of Nadudvar.

Rounding a corner a few kilometres on, to our delight up ahead a large amount of geese were dropping in on a stubble field! A large group was already down and feeding with hundreds more heading in to join them, the sky was full and they were close to the road! This was our chance and we pulled in quite a way off to let more birds settle while we discussed the plan to get views of them without putting them up.

We drove past the birds, slowing only slightly and came back on the other side of the road pulling in. Using reeds and bushes as cover we crept out of the car and stood behind it and finally started working our way through the birds. The vast majority were White-fronted Geese with a few Greylag Geese standing out.

Amazingly only a few minutes had passed before Greg said he thought he had a Lesser White-fronted Goose! This was top of my wish list and although admittedly I was a little dubious at first I shouldn't have been as once Greg had directed me onto the bird in question I couldn’t believe it as I was clearly looking at an adult Lesser White-fronted Goose! It was close to the front of the nearest feeding group and when the light was good a clear yellow eye ring could be seen but most obvious for me was the small very pink bill and extensive white reaching past the eye. A great pick up and we tried desperately to get a few record shots.

After battling with the failing digi kit we concentrated on taking in all the features and it didn’t take long for us to realise that in fact there were 2 birds and they did stick by each other’s side. We worked hard to not lose the birds and also to look for any others near them and although Greg thought at one point he had seen a third bird with no white on the forehead but a short bill it was just the two that we were able to confirm. Stunners. The birds were really settled now and feeding happily and we were just considering working into a better spot for viewing when a red van pulled on the other side of the road. Instantly all their heads went up and they all took to the sky!  

We were less than amused as the van drove off but we tucked into some hedges in an excellent spot as the geese dropped back in. We spent the next 3 hours or so scanning through them again and a White-tailed Eagle flew over putting a small group up and Hen Harrier and Marsh Harrier were also seen.

Scanning through the birds again and once more Greg hit the jackpot as 3 cracking Red-breasted Geese were picked out. Smashing birds. It was a wonderful scene with hundreds of Crane behind the geese.The Red-breasted Geese can really stand out but once they get their heads down can dissapear for long periods. 

Finally after working through the birds many times Greg again relocated the two Lesser White-fronted Geese. They were at a nice range and offered some excellent views! We managed this time to get a few record shots and enjoyed them again for a long time.

Lesser White-fronted Goose showing the yellow eye ring and far smaller, pinkier bill.

Both Lesser White fronts together

A stunning scene with 2 of the 3 Red Breasted Geese and a back drop of Crane

One had a far more distinct eye ring and spent a while sat down with the other feeding nearby and occasionally they both held their heads up together. Great birds. It had been a fantastic few hours and when a White-tailed Eagle flew low over putting all the Geese to the skies we decided to move on. Stunning birding and the most enjoyable and rewarding session for me.

This is how a field of geese should be put to the sky, a huge bird.

We were thrilled to have found these rare geese and continued on to the town of Nadudvar. We walked around the town looking at pine trees for Owls and it didn’t take long until I found a stunning Long-eared Owl staring back at me. In these three trees were five birds and we spent some time watching them. Amazing birds with so much expression.

We now left the Hortobagy very happy with the birds we had managed to find. A brilliant habitiat offering simply superb birding.

We now made our way to our next stop at Tolcsva in the foothills of the Zemplen forests and on the way saw 2 Hen Harrier and on a short stop found a party of tits with 4-5 Northern Long-tailed Tit. Arriving at our next accommodation we could hear Woodpeckers and look around the town produced 3 but they were all Great Spotted Woodpeckers. 7 Crossbill went over and we went for a drive into the woodlands to look for woodpeckers. On the way a male Hen Harrier was hunting roadside fields.  It was rather quiet in the woods but the weather really wasn’t helping as some rain set in. Hawfinch flew overhead and Treecreeper, Nuthatch and Goldcrest were seen and we heard Willow Tit.

We got into the woods for a bit and they were dominated by Beech. There were not many Oaks or other quality food trees for the woodpeckers and on a short walk not a huge about of dead wood either. As the darkness drew in we headed back to our accommodation getting some beers en route to celebrate a stunning day in the field.

Tuesday 6th November

Today was our last day and we were up very early again. Our first good fortune was the weather, it was a clear night and shaping up for a great bright day. After looking at the map we decided on another town and decided to work the woodlands around Makkoshotyka. We were through this small town and heading into woodlands within 25 minutes and the area was buzzing with birds.

A large flock of around 60 Siskin with a few Redpoll were getting into some alders along a river and Hawfinch were overhead all the time with at least 20 in one flock. We walked along the track and the first Woodpecker we heard was a Black Woodpecker. The bird was distant but we did see it fly over the trees.

We walked along the track and on a sunlit slope a Great Spotted Woodpecker was tapping away and then I picked up a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker nearby. This tiny gem of a woodpecker showed very well going about its business and we watched it for a while before carrying on.

Lesser Spotted Woodpecker in the morning sun

Heading up a track into the woods and it was full of Nuthatch and Hawfinch were all over the place. There were far more oaks and rotten wood here and hopes were high. We walked slowly listening for tapping and watching for movement in perfect conditions finding 4 more Great Spotted Woodpecker.

Greg was up ahead as I decided to stay put for a while and suddenly heard some tapping very close by, just off the track.  Looking up, in front of me in full view was a stunning White-Backed Woodpecker happily feeding! What a bird! We both had cracking views of the bird and as it moved away we were able to follow it and even get it in the scope for a long time seeing every feather! We had stunning views before another Great Spot came in and pushed it away. Despite being obviously slightly larger the Great Spot was the aggressor and eventually they moved off deep into the woods.

A few shots of the stunning and very showy male White-Backed Woodpecker

Buzzing from this encounter we headed back to the car seeing more Hawfinch and Willow Tit and also 2 Bullfinch which had a distinctly different call to the soft call we are used to and did seem bulkier. I expect these were Northern Bullfinch but we weren’t certain before they flew off.  We decided to walk along the river in more sparse woods the other side of the road now but no new birds were seen.

We headed to where most activity had been and got deeper into the woodland along the same track as earlier. On the away, around 60 Fieldfare went over and a smart Goshawk circled over the woods above us briefly.  All of a sudden there was a lot of activity with 6- 7 Nuthatch very vocal as always and many Tits and a few Hawfinch were flitting around. We gave this area some close examination and I soon spotted a Middle Spotted Woodpecker. Another target bird and although mobile we had cracking views and took in all the features. The shorter bill, large white patches and pinky underbelly. A smart bird.

Middle Spotted Woodpecker

We slowly ambled back down after the bird flew a long way into the woods and drove into the village for a look in orchards and gardens. We saw yet another Great Spotted woodpecker and an Eagle species was distantly over the mountains. It was all dark from what we could see, possibly an Imperial Eagle but far too distant for a positive ID.

We continued to search for more Woodpeckers aiming for Syrian but had no luck and started the journey towards our last stop near the airport stopping to scan a flock of Yellowhammer and Linnet. Another fantastic day where we managed to find more sought after species.

Wednesday 7th November

We had very limited time this morning before heading to the airport and birded the town from 6-7.30. Even in this short time we saw 2 Hawfinch, 6-8 Crossbill and good views of 3 more Great Spotted woodpecker! No luck on a Syrian but there’s always one that gets away. We also watched 3 Sparrowhawk warming up together, 3 small flocks of Tree Sparrow and Raven and Hooded Crow flew overhead.

We had a good breakfast before heading to the airport. There was just one more bird on the drive as a Green or maybe Grey Headed Woodpecker flew in front of the car.

It had been a fantastic trip and although we had considered a guide it goes to show with a bit of research, diligent birding and luck of course, difficult and sought after species can be found alone. All accommodation was great and we ate and drank very well indeed. Thats £311 well spent! If anyone would like any more details of certain sites or where we stayed feel free to email.

Highlights of the trip

White-Fronted Goose – 7000-8000 seen.
Lesser White-Fronted Goose – 2 adults seen well.
Greylag Goose – 200 – 300 seen around Hortobagy
Red-Breasted Goose – 3 seen.
White-tailed Eagle – 4 seen in total, one an excellent flyby.
Saker Falcon – 2
seen, 1 in flight and another perched on a pylon.
Merlin – 4 seen over the trip. Great views of one hunting and sat perched.
Rough-legged Buzzard – A single bird seen.
Hen Harrier – Seen daily around Hortobagy and 1 male in Zemplen.
Goshawk – 1 seen in Zemplen hills
Great Grey Shrike – Seen daily around the hortobagy. Up to 8 on a single day.
Crane – A stunning spectacle, hard to estimate numbers, maybe 40,000.
Ferruginous Duck – A single bird seen.
Red-necked Grebe – A single bird seen.
Pygmy cormorant – 15-20 seen around Halasto fishponds.
Black Woodpecker – Stunning views of an adult male at Halasto fishponds. 1 inflight in Zemplen.
White-backed woodpecker – Great views of 1 adult male in Zemplen Hills
Middle Spotted Woodpecker – Great views of 1 adult male in Zemplen Hills.
Lesser Spotted Woodpecker – 1 seen well in Zemplen Hills.
Hawfinch – Many seen including a large flock of c30.
Long-eared Owl – 5 seen at a roost in Nadudvar.
Penduline Tit – 2 seen perched well at Halasto Fishponds and 7-8 in flight also.
Bearded Tit – A party of 10-12 seen at Halasto Fishponds. Flying over the reedbed here.
Great White Egret – 15-20 seen around fishponds.
Bittern – 1 seen briefly in flight at Halasto
Sedge Warbler – 1 at Halasto
Black Redstart – 3 seen well at Halasto, one with a hint of red on the belly.
Northern Long-tailed Tit – 4-5 birds seen in a tit flock on the way to Zemplen and 2-3 in the Zemplen Hills.