Hungary in Autumn

Saturday 25 October - 1 November 2003

Neil Arnold

Sandor Konyhas



A comfortable flight brought us to Budapest where we were met by Sandor, our guide and Zsilt, our driver. We then drove east to Hortobágy, stopping briefly halfway to take coffee.



WEATHER 8/8 Cumulus, cold, light breeze.

The early morning air was leaden. Frost-laden reeds edged the iron-hard dykes which surrounded the lodge, but the fishing lake was frost free. Autumn leaves carpeted the woodland from which emerged Pheasants by the hundred. The only other sign of life was the haunting cries of Common Cranes flying overhead. We were undoubtedly in the heart of the Hungarian puszta, seemingly endless grassland-steppe.

The rest of the day was spent in the Nádudvar area, much of it in the Hortobágy National Park. The open steppe was a magnet for flocks of birds. Common Cranes fed in open fields as did flocks of Rooks and Hooded Crows. One flock of Crows were seen mobbing a Goshawk as Common Buzzards, Hen Harriers and Sparrow Hawks hunted over the frozen pasture.

One of the most attractive sights of the day was a herd of Hungarian Grey Cattle. As we watched them a lone cattle herder changed position flushing seven huge Great Bustards which flew off beyond the cattle. We were able to watch the flock of ten birds through the telescope. Nearby was a herd of Roe Deer that put up a lumbering immature White-tailed Eagle which flew to a nearby hedge. Northern Grey Shrikes were also noted.

At a nearby site we found another immature White-tailed Eagle that had put up a flock of Grey-lag Geese and small groups of duck. Common Buzzards were legion.

Lunch was taken at a local restaurant.

In the afternoon we drove out over the puszta to an area dominated by Racka sheep. Here on the closely-cropped turf were feeding waders, a flock of about fifty Golden Plover and one hundred and seventy five Dotterel, some still bearing evidence of their breeding plumage. A very active male Hen Harrier was then seen diving on a Brown Hare. As we watched the waders a huge Siberian Peregrine flashed across the plain, alarming both the waders and the chickens at the nearby farmhouse. Later we watched the male Hen Harrier swooping down on the Peregrine which sat in the field; it seemed totally untroubled. We then discovered eight more Great Bustards.

As the sun began to slip towards the horizon skeins of Common Cranes began to fill the air, as did their evocative calls. By the time the glorious sunset was at its peak we had seen approximately eight thousand Cranes flying to roost.

The day closed with flocks of Corn Buntings flying overhead, a hovering Rough-legged Buzzard hunting over nearby fields and a Little Owl watching us from a farmyard roof. A covey of ten Grey Partridge then put the seal on an excellent day of non-stop entertainment.



WEATHER a.m. 3/8 Cu, sun, 0. p.m. 8/8 Cu, dull, dank, light wind

We awoke to still air and hard earth. Further explorations of the hotel grounds brought us into contact with Jays, Chaffinches, a Firecrest and three Teal. Needless to say there were droves of Pheasants again.

As we set off for the north of the National Park the sun shone.

By 09.30 we were at the Great Fish Ponds, having already seen a White-tailed Eagle. On our arrival at the fish ponds we transferred to a very comfortable cart pulled by two hefty horses. This was to be our transport for the morning.

The Great Fish Ponds consisted of a complex of ponds, drainage channels, reedbeds and carr. The size of the operation is best illustrated by the fact that it boasted a light railway to transport fish and reed to the depot.

The cart gave us an elevated platform from which we were able to see flocks of Bearded Tits and Reed Buntings. At one point we stopped to look at perched Reedlings and flushed a Bittern from the adjacent ditch. Sadly, three Penduline Tits were only seen by a small group of us, and only in flight.

A brief climb to the top of an observation tower enabled us to watch another White-tailed Eagle, a fine adult.

Eventually we reached a hide overlooking a huge pond, which was a paradise for waterbirds. The geese were particularly interesting. The majority were Greylags, next came fifty or so Great White-fronted Geese, then about forty Lesser White-fronted Geese, then finally eight Taiga Bean Geese. There were also seven species of duck. Grebe were represented by Little, Black-necked and Great Crested. As we watched the waterfowl the nearby reeds were quartered by at least two male Hen Harriers and one female and one immature Marsh Harrier.

We remounted our cart and headed back to the depot. En route we were surprised to see a Red-backed Shrike. We would have expected it to have flown south by late October.

Two brief stops at the smaller ponds produced Long-tailed Tits, Goldcrest, twenty or so Pygmy Cormorant and a Kingfisher.

Overhead we watched an adult and an immature White-tailed Eagle as two flocks of Buzzards soared south. One thermal held twenty-one Buzzards and a Sparrowhawk. Even the depot provided us with views of Little Owl and Black Redstart.

Lunch was taken in a restaurant in the village of Hortobágy. During the meal we met Janos, our agent. The local meal was accompanied by vigorous Hungarian music played by a trio sporting violin, cello and cymbaline. We then had a brief shopping session.

By the time we had finished lunch the weather had changed to dull and dank.

Sandor took us on a very successful Saker hunt, finding two on a pylon at the first stop. One of the huge falcons was feeding on a kill.

As we drove an obliging Merlin flew alongside the bus for several hundred metres. We then visited a local refuse tip and a disused sewage plant - a must for any TN trip! We hoped to see Long -legged Buzzard in the area but as there are only two pairs this proved difficult.

Our final destination was the town of Balmazújváros. We drew up alongside a block of housing, all of which had fenced gardens. These gardens were graced by well-grown trees. Before long we found a roosting Long-eared Owl in a pine tree, then another, then another. The eventual count was sixty-four, and I've no doubt some evaded us.

As we approached the hotel a Red Fox crossed the track; it was the finale to a very inspiring day.



WEATHER 0/8, sun, NE1. Cold in wind

The day was dedicated to a search of a variety of fishponds, ranging from those that had been drained to those with deep water.

Before we had driven a few kilometres we saw a raptor perched on a pylon. It was soon identified as an immature Saker Falcon. While we watched it took off and stooped on a passing Rock Dove. It missed its target. We were then entertained by the wheeling mass of birds disturbed from a nearby fishpond by an overflying immature White-tailed Eagle. While this was happening a Sparrowhawk joined the throng and a Raven flew by.

A drained pond was home to a flock of Grey Heron, a few duck and an adult Little Gull. Forty Great White Egrets passed overhead and small flocks of high-flying Common Cranes headed south to warmer climes.

A nearby pond was ideal for waders as it had a number of muddy islands. A large flock of Spotted Redshank and Lapwing gave shelter to two Dunlin and a Little Stint. Six Snipe were also noted feeding in the distance. Ten Penduline Tits were also seen but only in flight once again. The sun had encouraged a Red Admiral to take to the wing. Two immature Marsh Harriers and a ring-tail Hen Harrier also took advantage of the excellent flying conditions.

As we drove to lunch near the village of Fehalon we came across a lone White Stork and an equally lonely Stonechat.

Lunch was excellent, especially the soup. The garden even held a Clouded Yellow butterfly and a Common Darter dragonfly.

In the afternoon we once again concentrated on a complex of fishponds. Large numbers of Coot and duck were noted. We were especially thrilled to enjoy good views of Ferruginous Ducks in brilliant sunshine. We were also pleased to see a single immature Red-crested Pochard from western Hungary and a male Goldeneye from the far north. Pygmy Cormorants were also much in evidence. Waders included Lapwing, Ringed Plover, Curlew, Ruff, Greenshank and Grey Plover. It was wonderful to have the leisure to really study each of the wetland species at hand.

As we left the ponds three Mute Swans flew in and the Cranes started to fly to roost. It had been another fascinating day.



WEATHER Fog early 7/8 Cu, hazy sun later.

Today was dedicated to raptor watching despite the initial weather conditions when visibility was about thirty metres.

The first major venue was Hajdúszoboszló airfield. Even before the fog cleared we found a Merlin perched on the grass landing strip, then a Sparrowhawk flew over. In the dim distance was a large raptor perched on a mound. As the fog lifted and a milky sun shone the bird became a fine Saker Falcon. Meanwhile Buzzards took to the air as did a Hen Harrier.

On driving north we found two more Saker Falcon.

We soon arrived at Viragoskut, an area of open farmland just north of Balmazújváros, to find that the visibility had improved considerably. Almost immediately a handsome rufous Long-legged Buzzard took to the air and soared overhead. Common Buzzards abounded, some even soaring in a thermal.

More searching brought to light a juvenile Imperial Eagle but it was very distant. Fortunately there was a track across the field which enabled us to draw closer. Once within two hundred metres we found the bird standing in a ploughed field. We were able to study it through the telescopes. The eagle's life was then made uncomfortable by mobbing Hooded Crows. A Saker then entered the picture, flashing across the field. Much to our surprise it was chased off by an adult White-tailed Eagle which had also been resting in the field. Eventually we dragged ourselves away only to find another juvenile Imperial Eagle by the roadside. This one attracted the attention of a Common Buzzard which eventually forced it to fly away.

Lunch was taken at Tiszacsege by the RiverTisza. Here we saw Great Spotted and Syrian Woodpeckers and yet more raptors. White-tailed Eagle, Sparrowhawk, Buzzard and Hen Harrier were seen in flight and a male Goshawk and a Little Owl were found at rest.

Before driving north to Sárospatak we spent a while watching the first of the Cranes flying to roost.

Nine species of diurnal raptors and an owl were seen during the day.



WEATHER 8/8 Stratus, RAIN nearly all day. SW1.

We spent the day in wet woodlands, wet fields and wet quarries.

The mixed woodland dominated by Beech and Oak was enchanting despite the rain. Feeding flocks of birds moved quickly through the stands of trees making observation difficult. Eventually though we did track down Nuthatch, Tree Creeper Long-tailed, Blue and Great tits. Chaffinch and Hawfinch were also in abundance , but very flighty. Great Spotted and Grey-headed Woodpeckers were heard but not seen, who can blame them for finding a dry bolthole.

The one advantage of the rain was the emergence of a brilliantly coloured Fire Salamander.

We searched for roosting Ural Owls but without success. Almost as soon as we left, though, we passed through an area of carr. Sandor suddenly shouted 'Stop!' and we ground to a halt. There in the woodland was an Ural Owl being mobbed by a Jay. We watched the owl from the coach until it was forced to fly. Then we all piled out of the coach to enjoy good views of the owl at rest. Twice more it was forced to fly. Eventually it was lost to sight. That was the climax of the day. We were indeed fortunate as only four pairs bred during the season.

The rest of the morning was spent at the forest edge searching agricultural land for birds of prey; the highlight being a male Kestrel.

On our return to the hotel we had lunch.

Then some of the party relaxed, some shopped and some went Eagle Owl hunting. The consensus of opinion in the late afternoon was that the owl hunters could have saved themselves a wetting.

In the evening we drove to the Panzio Sos Borhaz, a traditional restaurant and winery. The meal was excellent and the four wines we were forced to sample were very fine, especially the ultimate offering, an eight-year-old very smooth dessert wine. Happy days!



WEATHER 5-8/8 Cu. Generally overcast, sunny spells. SW 1-2

We were soon surrounded by forest covered, rolling hills, the trees showing off their autumn colours. A Raven called and then flew across the valley. Suddenly, to everyone's delight it began to roll, displaying, no doubt, to an unseen female.

The forest birds seemed strangely inactive. Slowly, though, they began to emerge. Chaffinches and Hawfinches flew by as tit flocks moved noisily through the tree-tops. The stars of the area, though, were undoubtedly a pair of Grey-headed Woodpeckers and two pairs of Middle Spotted Woodpeckers.

The woodland at Sima was to emerge as the venue of the day. A pair of White-backed Woodpeckers and a pair of Black Woodpeckers competed for our attention. As though this was not exciting enough an adult Imperial Eagle joined the fray.

Lunch was taken in comfort in a lean-to at a nearby house, the full-scale meal having been provided by the hotel.

A nearby quarry was searched in the hope of discovering an Eagle Owl but we drew a blank. Our consolation prize, however, was a fine Rough-legged Buzzard.

We then drove on to the Boldogkóvarálja Castle where we were lucky enough to find six newly arrived Alpine Accentors decked out in their brand new autumn plumage.

The day concluded in yet another quarry near Tokaj. It was a frustrating experience standing on the floor of the quarry listening to an Eagle Owl hooting loudly from the forest above. Try as we might we could not set eyes on the beast.

Final score:- The Travelling Naturalist: 0, Eagle Owl: 1




The highlights of the drive to Budapest were a host of Common Buzzards, Sparrowhawk, Merlin and two fine adult Imperial Eagles at close range as they flew along side the coach as we drove at speed along the M3.

After a pleasant flight we arrived at Heathrow on time.




Hortobágy HO

Zemplen Hills ZE

Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis Common HO

Great Crested Grebe Podiceps cristatus Common HO

Black-necked (Eared) Grebe Podiceps nigricollis Two HO

Great Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo Common HO

Pygmy Cormorant Phalacrocorax pygmaeus Over 100 HO

Grey Heron Ardea cinerea Fifty sightings H

(Great) Bittern Botaurus stellaris One Great Fish Ponds HO

White Stork Ciconia ciconia One HO

Mute Swan Cygnus olor Three HO

Greylag Goose Anser anser Common HO

Taiga Bean Goose Anser fabalis Eight Great Fish Ponds HO

White-fronted Goose Anser albifrons Fifty Great Fish Ponds HO

Lesser White-fronted Goose Anser erythropus Forty Great Fish Ponds HO

Eurasian Wigeon Anas penelope Common HO

Gadwall Anas strepera Common HO

Common Teal Anas crecca Very common HO

Mallard Anas platyrhynchos Common HO

Northern Pintail Anas acuta Six HO

Northern Shoveler Anas clypeata Common in deeper ponds HO

Red-crested Pochard Netta rufina One HO

Common Pochard Aythya ferina Common in deeper ponds HO

Ferruginous Duck Aythya nyroca Twelve HO

Tufted Duck Aythya fuligula Thirty HO

Common Goldeneye Bucephala clangula A male HO

White-tailed Eagle Haliaeetus albicilla Nine records HO

Hen Harrier Circus cyaneus Ten records HO

Eurasian Marsh Harrier Circus aeruginosus Ten records HO

Eurasian Sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus Common throughout

Northern Goshawk Accipiter gentilis Three records HO

Common (Eurasian) Buzzard Buteo buteo Common and widespread

Long-legged Buzzard Buteo rufinus One Viragoskut HO

(Eastern) Imperial Eagle Aquila heliaca Two HO, one ZE and two en route Budapest

Saker Falco cherrug Seven sightings HO

Common (Eurasian) Kestrel Falco tinnunculus One ZE and one near Budapest

Merlin Falco columbarius Two HO and one en route Budapest

Peregrine Falcon Falco peregrinus One HO

Grey Partridge Perdix perdix Two coveys HO

Common Pheasant Phasianus colchicus Abundant HO, present ZE

Common Crane Grus grus Up to 8,000 seen on 28th HO

Common Moorhen Gallinula chloropus Heard HO

Eurasian Coot Fulica atra Peak count 800 HO

Great Bustard Otis tarda Two flocks eleven and eight HO

(Northern) Lapwing Vanellus vanellus Common HO

(European) Golden Plover Pluvialis apricaria Fifty HO

(Greater) Ringed Plover Charadrius hiaticula Two HO

Eurasian Dotterel Eudromias morinellus 175 HO

Eurasian Curlew Numenius arquata Forty-five HO

Spotted Redshank Tringa erythropus Forty-two HO

Common Greenshank Tringa nebularia One HO

Common Snipe Gallinago gallinago Seven HO

Little Stint Calidris minuta One HO

Dunlin Calidris alpina Two HO

Ruff Philomachus pugnax Four HO

Common (Mew) Gull Larus canus Six HO

Yellow-legged Gull Larus michahellis Common HO, a few ZE

Black-headed Gull Larus ridibundus Common HO

Little Gull Larus minutus One HO

Rock Dove (Feral Pigeon) Columba livia Common in towns

Stock Dove Columba oenas Locally common HO

(Common) Wood Pigeon Columba palumbus One HO

Eurasian Collared Dove Streptopelia decaocto Common and widespread

Eurasian Eagle Owl Bubo bubo Heard ZE

Ural Owl Strix uralensis One ZE

Little Owl Athene noctua Common HO

Long-eared Owl Asio otus Roost of sixty-four birds HO

Common Kingfisher Alcedo atthis Three records HO

Middle Spotted Woodpecker Dendrocopos medius Two pairs ZE

White-backed Woodpecker Dendrocopos leucotos One pair ZE

Syrian Woodpecker Dendrocopos syriacus Two HO and heard ZE

Great Spotted Woodpecker Dendrocopos major Common in woodlands throughout

Black Woodpecker Dryocopus martius One pair ZE

Grey-headed Woodpecker Picus canus A pair ZE

Crested Lark Galerida cristata Six ZE

(Eurasian) Sky Lark Alauda arvensis One HO

White Wagtail Motacilla alba alba Heard HO

Meadow Pipit Anthus pratensis Flock HO

Red-backed Shrike Lanius collurio One HO

Northern Grey Shrike Lanius excubitor Twelve records HO and ZE

(Winter) Wren Troglodytes troglodytes Common

Hedge Accentor (Dunnock) Prunella modularis Heard HO

Alpine Accentor Prunella collaris Six Boldogkovaralja Castle ZE

Common (Eurasian) Blackbird Turdus merula Common

Mistle Thrush Turdus viscivorus One HO

European Robin Erithacus rubecula Common

Black Redstart Phoenicurus ochruros Nine records HO/ZE

Common Stonechat Saxicola torquata One HO

Bearded Tit (Reedling) Panurus biarmicus At least thirty HO

Common Chiffchaff Phylloscopus collybita Three records HO/ZE

Firecrest Regulus ignicapillus An unexpected record of a single, HO

Goldcrest Regulus regulus Common HO woodlands

Long-tailed Tit Aegithalos caudatus Flocks HO/ZE

(Eurasian) Penduline Tit Remiz pendulinus Over twenty in flight HO

Marsh Tit Parus palustris One ZE

Coal Tit Parus ater Heard ZE

Great Tit Parus major Common

Blue Tit Parus caeruleus Common

Eurasian Nuthatch Sitta europaea Two records ZE

Eurasian Treecreeper Certhia familiaris One record ZE

Eurasian Jay Garrulus glandarius Recorded HO/ZE

Black-billed Magpie Pica pica Common

Eurasian (Western) Jackdaw Corvus monedula Common with Rooks HO

Rook Corvus frugilegus Huge flocks HO only

Hooded Crow Corvus cornix Common HO

Common Raven Corvus corax One HO, three ZE

Common (European) Starling Sturnus vulgaris Common HO

Corn Bunting Miliaria calandra Flocks of up to thirty HO

Yellowhammer Emberiza citrinella Flocks in the forest ZE

(Eurasian) Reed Bunting Emberiza schoeniclus Common HO

Common Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs Common HO and ZE

European Goldfinch Carduelis carduelis Common HO

Hawfinch Coccothraustes coccothraustes Common but elusive ZE

House Sparrow Passer domesticus Common

Eurasian Tree Sparrow Passer montanus Very common throughout


Bat species One ZE

Red Fox Vulpes vulpes Four records throughout

Roe Deer Capreolus capreolus Very common especially HO

Brown Hare Lepus europaeus Four records HO


Fire Salamander Salamandra salamandra Two ZE

© The Travelling Naturalist 2003