Saturday, February 16, 2008

Hortobagy, Hungary: 8th-11th Feb 2008.

Firstly, a little background to this short trip. It is thanks to East Lancs birder and Birdquest tour leader Mike Watson who in late 2007 posted a trip report on his blog involving a day spent embedded in a White-tailed Eagle photograpy hide in the Hortobagy, Hungary. Mikes account and photographs of these truly awesome birds were simply mindblowing, and so it was that plans were made for a long weekend in February with the itinarary of one days photography in the Eagle hide and 1.5 days days guided birding.

Feb 8th: Steven Flynn, John Wright and I departed Liverpool at 12:55 and arrived at Budapest, Hungary at 16:30. Our guide, Janos Olah of Sakertours, was there to meet us and so began the 2.5hr journey to the town of Balmaz which was to be our base for three nights. The start of our journey was still in daylight and a Great White Egret feeding in a roadside ditch was noted within a few minutes of leaving the airport. A Long-eared Owl, the commonest Owl in Hungary, was seen in the headlights c30 minutes from Balmaz.

Before being shown to our apartment, Janos took us to a local restaurant in Balmaz where we were firstly introduced to a popular Hungarian 'shot' of alcohol before indulging in a delicious selection of Hungarian dishes, washed down with a couple of local beers. The shot was particularly savage, taking me a good minute to recapture my breath after downing it in one!

Following the meal we were taken the short distance to our excellent accomodation, then it was a case of settling in relatively quickly and getting some sleep as we were up at 04:30 to be embedded in the White-tailed Eagle hide before first light.

9th Feb: Janos arrived at the apartment just prior to 05:00 and shortly afterwards we hit the road for the 20 minute journey to the hide with Janos detailing final instructions on maximising our chances of success.
The pre-dawn temperature as we arrived at the hide was -5 degrees, relatively balmy by Hungarian standards apparently. Once We and our equipment were inside Janos lit the heater, deposited the huge basket of rations, and reiterated some key instructions. One thing that was not in our favour was the fact that the weather forecast was wall-to-wall sunshine. In the short life of the hide (this being the first winter of operation) this weather condition had proved least succesful in terms of the Eagles coming down to feed on the catfish staked outside the window.

John set up his scope, whilst Steve and I set up our camera gear. Amongst the instructions for sunny days was to sit well back and have scrim netting up in place between us and the window until the sun had moved around enough so as not to be illuminating the inside of the hide. This would be around 11:00.
As dawn broke, there was a great sense of anticipation amongst the three of us as to what the day would bring!
Above: Dawn anticipation!
At 06:24, the first of two flocks of c200 Eurasian White-fronted Geese could be heard, then seen passing over, and the first two White-tailed Eagles of the day left the roost site and headed west straight over the hide followed by another two birds shortly after.
At 06:55, there was an almighty thud on the roof of the hide as something deemed to be of significant size and weight landed on the roof. For the next 15 minutes, we sat there in total silence listening to what we percieved were the sounds of a bird with large talons shuffling about! Although we never saw the culprit, our gut feeling was that an Eagle was perched just above us, although we will never know for sure.
At around this time, the first birds to appear on the Catfish in front of the hide was a flock of Hooded Crows plus a couple of Raven. The latter species was only present briefly, with no further sign for the remainder of the day.

Above: Hooded Crows - Hortobagy, Hungary - 9th Feb 2008.

Common Buzzards could be seen in the surrounding area from 07:05 and two WT Eagles were perched in the treeline in the photo above at 07:20. This set a theme for the Eagles for the remainder of the day, with up to 14 birds seen from the hide either perched or in flight in the wider area, but sadly none came down onto the Catfish during the entire session. That's the unpredictability of bird photography for you!

Above & below: White-tailed Eagles, Hortobagy, Hungary - 9th Feb 2008.

Back to events in the morning. At 07:25, we heard the first call of what had to be a Caspian Gull overhead and by 07:32, seven Caspian Gulls had landed by the Catfish. For the next several hours up to 50 Caspian Gulls at a time, of all ages, were in view down to feet from the hide. From an educational perspective, this was was worth its weight in gold as far as I was concerned and more than made up for the lack of Eagles to photograph. It was truly Caspian Gull heaven!

Below: 1stw Caspian Gulls

Below, two images of same bird: some 1stw birds were (to us) extensively and very strongly marked on the underwings.

Below two images: Another even more coarsely marked individual in all respects.

Below: 1stw underwings.

Below: 2ndw Caspian Gulls.

Above & below: 2ndw Caspian Gull under & upperwings.

Below: 3rdw Caspian Gulls.

Below: presumed 4th winter Caspian Gull.

Below: Adult Caspian Gulls.

Above: Adult & 1stw Caspian Gulls.
In terms of leg colour amongst the adults present variation ranged from some birds with bright yellow legs, to the majority either showing pink or pink/grey legs.
This 2ndw Yellow-legged Gull (below) made a brief appearance mid-afternoon.

Above: left-right - Myself, Steven Flynn and John Wright in the WT Eagle hide - 9th Feb 2008.

Above: a photo of the outside of the hide at dusk with Janos inspecting the condition of the Catfish.

In total we spent 12 enjoyable hours in the hide. It's normal practise not to leave the hide in daylight and thankfully the four immodium tablets taken beforehand did their job!

Other birds seen from the hide in the wider area included 2+ Rough-legged Buzzard, a male Hen Harrier, 1 Great Grey Shrike, Kestrel, Sparrowhawk, Fieldfare and Starling.

10th Feb: Following another hearty meal in the local restaurant the previous night, we were up at 05:30 for a full days guided birding with Janos, who arrived promptly before 06:00 and kindly provided breakfast whilst we talked about the itinerary for the day. Shortly afterwards, we loaded our gear into the 4x4 and we were off en-route to a Great Bustard site. The journey was interrupted briefly as we drove through a small village when I noticed some interesting shapes in a deciduous tree in a churchyard which turned out to be several superb Long-eared Owls. During this brief stop we counted at least 15 birds as they flew into nearby conifers to roost. A great start.

Continuing enroute to the Bustard site, we stopped a few times to scan several pylons for perched Saker Falcon but with no success. Multiple large skeins of Eurasian White-fronted Geese totalling several thousand could be seen flying over the wider area.

As we neared the Bustard site we started to see Hen Harriers inc some fabulous grey males. Indeed by 09:00 we had already seen 15 birds.

Above: Male & female Hen Harriers, Hortobagy, Hungary - 10th Feb 2008.

Below: Janos, JW & SGF scanning for Great Bustards - 10th Feb 2008.

It was whilst scanning some fields for Great Bustards that we heard Penduline Tits calling from a phragmites ditch. There were three birds in total and i managed to get a record shot of one before they all flew some distance. With a scan of the binoculars you could not fail to see a Hen Harrier in this area.

Above: male Penduline Tit, Hortobagy Hungary - 10th Feb 2008.

Whilst parked here, the first Bustards were located briefly before they flew to distant fields where they landed near to a flock of 17, all males. Fortunately the track went in that direction although we had to stop and view from a considerable distance due to the very wary nature of the birds. Nontheless, I am very pleased with the videograbs obtained of these incredibly impressive birds.

Above: Male Great Bustards, Hortobagy, Hungary - 10th Feb 2008.

Below: JW and Janos watch the Great Bustards whilst I am momentarily distracted by yet another Hen Harrier.

The first Rough-legged Buzzard of the day appeared behind the Bustards as we watched them and a flock of 46 Twite flew overhead, calling.

Moving on, our next target species was Saker Falcon. Whilst enroute, the first of 3 Crested Larks were noted as well as a few more Hen Harrier, several Reed Bunting and a Corn Bunting. A significant flock of Eurasian White-fronted Geese in fields relatively close to the road just had to be scanned and JW duly picked out the first of 9 Red-breasted Geese of the trip, a good spot considering the very strong, low, side-on sunlight and the fact that the RBG was low down amongst a large scrum of White-fronts. Fortunately it became more obvious allowing for a videograb.

Above: Ad Red-breasted Goose - Hortobagy, Hungary - 10th Feb 2008.

Further on, a superb pale 'northern' Common Buzzard was perched in a nearby field. A striking bird.

Above: 'northern' Common Buzzard, Hortobagy, Hungary - 10th Feb 2008.

Two Great Grey Shrikes, the first of a day total of 12 were noted on roadside bushes enroute.

Shortly afterwards, Janos pulled up, scanned with his binoculars and announced the presence of a Saker-like object perched atop a distant pylon, so we drove closer, flushing another Crested Lark in the process, to find a pair of Sakers perched up, the larger female being particularly impressive.

Above: The male Saker photographed below was on the upper right arm of the pylon.

Above: Janos points out the perched male Saker Falcon.

Above & below: female Saker, Hortobagy, Hungary - 10th Feb 2008.

Above & below: male Saker, Hortobagy, Hungary - 10th Feb 2008. This bird was apparently very heavily marked below.

Above: Janos, JW and SGF watch the male Saker Falcon. The female was perched on the pylon in the background.

Next on the agenda was to search for Lesser White-fronted Geese amongst the vast flocks of eurasian White-fronts with the hope of locating more Red-breasted Geese in the process, and for this we drove to the wider area of the White-tailed Eagle hide noting another couple of Great Grey Shrikes en route as well as hearing Long-tailed Tit, presumably caudatus, but unfortunately could not locate them.

Approx 1/4 mile from the hide is an observation platform and it was atop this that we scanned the very distant flocks of White-fronts. 6 Red-breasted Geese were picked out, but no Lesser-White-fronts, perhaps due to the distance. Up to six White-tailed Eagles were in the area, but interestingly, none in the vicinity of the hide. JW noted a couple of soemmeringii Jackdaws.

Above: 4 of 6 Red-breasted Geese amongst Eurasian White-fronts taken at c1mile range in a breeze and heathaze from atop the observation tower. About as record shot as you can get, but surely remarkable any image can be obtained at such distance!

Above: Eurasian White-fronted Geese, Hortobagy, Hungary - 10th Feb 2008.
Two of the White-tailed Eagle's, one older than the other, briefly locked talons. although distant Steve did a good job documenting the incident with the dSLR.

Above: Two White-tailed Eagles spar briefly (SGF).

Below: The observation platform. It was from here y/day that Janos could see two White-tailed Eagles perched on the ground only 20m behind the photography hide we were in!

We continued in our search for a Lesser White-front by driving to a wetland reserve that Janos had been working on for three years to create, and what an excellent area it proved to be with many Eurasian White-fronted Geese, Tundra Bean Geese, eastern Greylags, 2 Red-breasted Geese (the latter an overdue site tick for Janos), Great White Egret, several Hen Harrier, 3 Rough-legged Buzzards, many Common Buzzard, Kestrel, Sparrowhawk, White-tailed Eagle, calidus race Peregrine, 2 Great Grey Shrike and 2 Penduline Tit seen on the wetland area itself and neighbouring fields.

Above: Steve & Janos scoping the wetland area.

Above: An adult male Rough-legged Buzzard lands in a field (SGF).

Above: 1stw Hen Harrier, Hortobagy, Hungary - 10th feb 2008.

Above: calidus Peregrine, Hortobagy, Hungary - 10th Feb 2008. Perched on a fencepost at distance out on the wetland, the bird was overall a noticably colder, grey tone than birds I am used to seeing in the UK.

Apparently any 'pied' Woodpecker seen in the towns of Hungary is most likely to be Syrian, the next species on our hitlist, so a trip into Balmaz town itself was necessary. Firstly though, we were keen to see the Long-eared Owl roost. Most cities, towns and villages in Hungary have their own LEO roost apparently and Balmaz is no exception, with an all time record roost count of a mindboggling 300 birds!

I have to say though, that nothing prepared me for the awesome spectacle ahead involving one of my favourite species!

To begin with there was at least 30+ visible in coniferous trees in residential gardens, a wonderful sight, but then things became totally insane as we rounded a corner to find ten Long-eared Owls perched fully out in the open in leafless deciduous trees right by the side of the road, behavior totally at odds here in the UK!

I was so caught up in this mindblowing phenomena that I began to get carried away, exclaiming "My God!, how many more must there be, this is just one street in the town!" only to be brought back down to earth slightly as Janos told me that they were only concentrated in this area of Balmaz! These continental LEO roosts simply have to be witnessed by UK birders to be fully appreciated, it was incredible!

Above: The LEO's tolerated such close approach for several minutes before flying into nearby conifers. They don't spook at all as people just walk on by.

Below: a closer view of the LEOs in the trees above - Insane from a UK perspective!

Above (BA) & below (SGF): closer still!

Above: 13 LEO's visible if you look hard enough.

Above: More trees, more LEO's. JW & SGF count yet more Owls.

Below: 20+ LEO's in this tree!

c90 LEO's were seen in total, whilst Janos estimated that the true total was probably nearer 150!

After feasting on the LEO's we had c1hr to find a Syrian Woodpecker before it was time to head off for the Greater Spotted Eagle roost site. It took us a good forty minutes before we finally located one, a male, which showed well in gloriously warm late winter sunshine, in Walnut trees in residential gardens.

Above (BA) & below (SGF): Male Syrian Woodpecker, Balmaz, Hungary - 10th Feb 2008.

The views obtained were excellent allowing all the features that separate Syrian from Great Spotted to be fully appreciated, as well as the call.

Now mid afternoon we were straight back in the 4x4, arriving at the G.S. Eagle site some 30 mins later. Following a 20 minute muddy walk to view the wood, Janos feared it may already have gone to roost. But we needn't have worried as Janos brilliantly located at distance and with such confidence, the Greater spotted Eagle perched low in an adjacent copse.

Shortly after I had managed to obtain some video of it perched, the Eagle flew, but instead of flying over us, it flew round towards the back of the wood in a low, wide arc totally against the light. However, as its apparantly mainly a jizz thing when seperating Greater from Lesser spotted Eagle in flight it didn't really matter. Steve did very well obtaining the flight shot below.

Above (BA) & below (SGF): ad Greater Spotted Eagle, Hortobagy, Hungary - 10th Feb 2008. This bird has wintered here for the 10th sucessive year, first appearing as a juvenile. The yellow cere is another apparent difference between Greater and Lesser.

With the light beginning to fade we hurried around to the back of the wood to see whether the Eagle was in view, noting another Great Grey Shrike as we arrived at the far side. There was no sign of the Eagle, it must have gone further into the wood to roost, so I decided to get a blog image of the GGS. Upon obtaining said record image, I hurried on to catch up with Steve, John and Janos, whom I could hear was whistling as I attempted to catch up. By the time I had done so Janos had stopped whistling and I continued ahead for 20yrds or so, before glancing at the wood to notice a dark shape appear atop the trees. I binned it and was shocked to see a fantastic Black Woodpecker in full view which I frantically shouted to the others to come and see, totally oblivious to the fact that Janos had in fact called the bird out with his whistling! Still, i'm glad i was too dozy to realise what was going on, as it would have lessened the surprise of when I first clapped eyes on this superb bird.

Above: record image of the Great Grey Shrike.

Below: male Black Woodpecker!

A pair of Great Spotted Woodpecker and a flock of Fieldfare enroute back to the 4x4 rounded off a superb days birding. Our final night in the restaurant was buzzing as we recanted the days events. Even Cllr Wright, who is considerably better travelled than I, announced that the days birding was amongst his top 10 best birding days ever!

11th Feb: Janos really wanted us to go home with great photos of the White-tailed Eagles and so allowed us to spend more time in the hide on our final day. We were flying at 17:10, so the plan was that we would only have until 10:30 in the hide, then straight back to the apartment for our luggage before heading towards Budapest, taking in a little birding at Hortobay fishponds before ending the trip with Eastern Imperial Eagle at a site closer to Budapest.

So, once again, we were up at 04:30 and in the hide and set up well before first light. The weather was again wall to wall sunshine, so confidence was not sky high that we would succeed in obtaining our photos, and this is how it transpired. Once again it was a super Caspian Gull fest as well as the other usual suspect, the Hooded Crows. This time though a Common Buzzard came down to the Catfish, allowing for great photos. As nice and welcome a bird as the Buzzard was, one can't help but imagine what a White-tailed Eagle would be like at the same range!

Above: Common Buzzard, Hortobagy, Hungary - 11th Feb 2008.

Several White-tailed Eagles were in the wider area and on one occasion it did appear that two birds were flying low directly towards the Catfish, but to our utter frustration they landed at c100m range before flying back off more distantly!

10:30hrs arrived and Janos came to pick us up. Once back at the apartment and luggage was loaded we travelled towards the Fishponds, briefly stopping off to look from an observation platform where four Bewicks Swan had been present a few days earlier. Janos hoped we would be able to grip his friend Mike Watson, who needs Bewicks Swan for his Hortobagy list, but sadly there was no sign of the Swans.

An hours birding at firstly the Fishponds, then a vast lake, produced highlights of 4 White-tailed Eagles, Tundra Bean Geese, Eastern Greylag, 4 Smew, several Great White Egret, Great Grey Shrike and Penduline Tit heard.

Above: SGF and Janos birding one of the Fishponds.

Below: Tundra Bean Geese, eastern Greylag Geese and GW Egrets some of which are photographed below. The Smew were unfortunately too distant for images.

Time was now of the essence and it was full steam ahead towards the Eastern Imperial Eagle site near Budapest. Janos had a couple of scouts on the ground in the hope that they would have an Eagle 'pinned' down for us upon arrival. However, the sunny weather was ideal for the Eagles to be displaying at height and even Janos's men on the ground were having trouble locating the target birds.

Now in the area, we were beginning to think we may dip, but no, amidst the many Common buzzards thermalling, Janos located a pair of Eagles at great distance and we raced round where one of his scouts had the birds at closer range. Time was really tight now, so I just had time to scope and digest the features before it was time to depart for Budapest Airport and our flight home, thus ending a short but extremely memorable first trip to the Hortobagy.

Totals of selected species: 11 species of raptor including 25 White-tailed Eagle, 1 Greater Spotted Eagle, 2 Eastern Imperial Eagle, 2 Saker Falcon, 13 Rough-legged Buzzard, 30+ Hen Harrier, 1 Marsh Harrier, calidus Peregrine. Caspian Gulls, 9 Red-breasted Geese, c30 Tundra Bean Geese, 19 Great Bustard, 1 Black Woodpecker, 1 Syrian Woodpecker, c90 Long-eared Owl, 15 Great Grey shrike and 5 Penduline Tit.

Many thanks to Janos Olah, a top guide and truly exceptional birder, for a wonderful short break, the guided birding carried out with military precision! - I highly recommend both Janos and Sakertours to any UK birder contemplating a birding trip to the Hortobagy and beyond. And Janos has been kind enough to offer us a free day in the hide next winter in the hope that we can exact revenge on the White-tailed Eagles with the dSLR.