Hungary is a scenic land of wooded hills and endless flat plains, dotted with reed-fringed lakes and cut by one of Europe’s great rivers, the mighty Danube. With such a variety of landscapes and habitats on offer it is not surprising to learn that Hungary is also one of Europe’s very best wildlife destinations, in particular for its abundant and varied birdlife. Early May is an exciting time in Hungary’s avian calendar when resident species are joined by migrating waders, warblers and raptors on their way further north and the woods are alive with birdsong. During this tour we will journey through of some the country’s most picturesque ‘Magyar’ landscapes, from the forested Zemplen Hills in the north-east, to the lowland steppe, grassland and farmlands of the Kiskunság and Hortobágy National Parks. Aside from its avifauna, Hungary also has much to offer in terms of butterflies and other wildlife; in cultural terms, it is both rich in folklore and famed for its full-bodied wines and hearty food. Indeed, throughout the tour we will sample only authentic Hungarian cuisine!
Having flown to Budapest, the capital of Hungary and split in two by the Danube, our first destination is the Kiskunság National Park, just one hour’s drive away. This tranquil lowland region of steppe, sandy dunes, farmland and wooded copses is one of Hungary’s most important areas for the Great Bustard, which we will hope to see displaying! Collared Pratincoles also breed here, whilst ponds and gravel pits attract all three marsh terns, plus Red-crested Pochard and Ferruginous Duck. Fringing reedbeds are home to Moustached, Savi’s and Great Reed Warblers, whilst overhead there are hunting Montagu’s Harrier, Saker Falcon and Red-footed Falcon. Roller and Lesser Grey Shrike dot the roadside wires and on an evening walk we will look for Scops Owl, Long-eared Owl and Nightjar.
For our next three nights we head northeast to the Zemplen Hills. The Zemplen is characterised by dense broad-leaved forests, traditionally farmed fields, flowering meadows and vineyards. This is the best area in the country for Ural and Eagle Owls and no less than nine species of woodpecker including the rare White-backed Woodpecker. It is also rich in birds of prey, with Goshawk, Eastern Imperial, Short-toed and Lesser Spotted Eagles all breeding. The scratchy ‘crex-crex-crex’ of the Corncrake may be all that we record of this elusive species, but there will be many more obvious birds to enjoy such as Woodlark, Red-backed Shrike, Black Redstart, Barred Warbler and Golden Oriole to name but a few.
We will then travel to the famous Hortobágy National Park for our final two nights, the foremost wildlife region of Hungary and one of Europe’s most valuable ecological areas. This is a flat land of distant horizons, dotted with small woodlands and reed-fringed fish ponds, but dominated by the lowland semi-steppe and grassland known as the ‘puszta’.
Abundant small mammals and insects live in the grasslands making this an excellent area for raptors including Long-legged Buzzards, Imperial Eagles, Red-footed Falcons, Montagu’s Harriers and Saker Falcons. The curious, gopher-like Souslik (a small ground squirrel) is also a favoured prey of the larger raptors. During our time in the Hortobágy we have another opportunity to enjoy sightings of the massive Great Bustard, along with Stone Curlews, Collared Pratincoles and hawking White-winged Terns. White Storks nesting on the roofs of cottages, shepherds with their scruffy ‘puli’ dogs, and flocks of gaggling white geese all add to the atmosphere of the puszta, which is, not surprisingly, steeped in folklore and myth.
The Hortobágy is dotted with a series of huge complexes of fish ponds. These are rich in breeding marshland birds and a magnet for migrating waders and passerines. At this time of year the reedbeds resound to a cacophony of song, from the loud, harsh notes of Great Reed Warblers, to the sweeter, mellow songs of Marsh and Moustached Warblers and the reeling of Savi’s Warblers. The adjacent sedge beds are also home to the beautiful ‘tiger-striped’ Aquatic Warbler; although this rare bird is sadly declining in Hungary and becoming increasingly more difficult to see. By early May the herons and egrets will be nesting in large raucous colonies. Spoonbill, Great Egret, Purple Heron and Glossy Ibis all occur here, as does the secretive Bittern which can often be heard booming from the surrounding reedbeds. Other interesting species include Whiskered Tern, Black-necked Grebe and Pygmy Cormorant, whilst a host of migrating waders and wildfowl further augment the variety.
With our holiday at an end we will return to Budapest. From here you can either complete your journey home or perhaps consider extending your stay with a couple of nights in Hungary’s attractive and vibrant capital.
I have rated both trip leaders as excellent but in fact they were outstanding, not only for their knowledge of the plumage, song and other calls of nearly every bird in Europe. I am not a twitcher or even a birder like the rest of the party but just someone who enjoys watching birds. The others, however, were eager to give me help and advice and this added greatly to my enjoyment of the holiday.
In 37 years of birding I have never come across a more skilled birder - his eyes and ears, as well as his knowledge of Hungary’s birds, are wonderful.
Tim's [Melling] knowledge and enthusiasm was terrific.
The driver was brilliant and took great care of his passengers at all times.
N & M.
Hungary has so much wildlife in the spring and has so many excellent wildlife sites that 8 days proved far too short.
The trip was considered a success by us all. We saw so many birds, flora and amphibians. The guides were outstandingly helpful. The whole party got on extremely well.
Tyne & Wear
The local leader was excellent - a good leader and with great knowledge of local birds.
F. & B.I.
The driver, and especially the local guide, gladly gave us the benefit of their great ornithological expertise.
I thought this was an excellent holiday and I will be travelling both to Hungary, and with Naturetrek, again. Keep up the good quality.
Andy Smith had patience and willingness, not just to identify birds, reptiles, amphibians and insects, but also to explain in a manner that was interesting to both beginner and expert. This was our third European trip with Naturetrek and by far the best.