In terms of diversity, Neusiedler See-Seewinkel National Park in Austria is one of Europe’s least known wildlife hotspots. Forget the alpine meadows and mountains of the Alps that you would normally associate with Austria! On this holiday we will be focusing exclusively on the country’s warm and flat lowland regions, more akin to the steppes to the east, and the reason we can expect to see such a range of birds, insects, mammals and plants is that we will be exploring a region that lies at a crossroads of landscapes, habitats and cultures. During our week here we will enjoy all these highlights, but particularly the birds.
Neusiedler See-Seewinkel National Park, in fact, spans the Austro-Hungarian border and was the first bi-national park to be created in Europe, the majority of it lying within Austria but the southern part being in Hungary. Flying via Vienna, a comfortable hotel in Illmitz will be our base for the week, situated right amongst the sights and sounds of nature. The numerous Great Egrets are just one indicator of a rich diversity which also includes breeding Black-necked Grebes, Savi's Warblers and Bee-eaters.
For our initial exploration of the region we will spend the morning of our first full day focusing on the largest of Seewinkel’s lakes, Lange Lacke, where the birds and plants are more representative of the coast. Amongst a wide range of species, we will be looking out for breeding Mediterranean Gulls and Avocets, whilst the swathes of wild flowers all around us include the purple-flowered Austrian Sage and contrasting yellow bedstraws that span the ‘hutweide’ or shepherded pasture. After lunch, we will head off to the extensive plain near the Hungarian border, where we will go in search of displaying Great Bustards, which will be for many, the undoubted avian highlight of our holiday, plus Short-eared Owl, Montagu’s Harrier and a variety of other raptors.
On our third day we will rise early and travel by horse-drawn carriage to enjoy some amazing views across the reedbeds from the upper platform of an ex-Cold War watchtower. Here we will have breakfast whilst watching numerous herons and egrets setting out to feed, Pygmy Cormorants and Ferruginous Ducks flying between areas of open water, and we may even catch a glimpse of one of the Bitterns that boom in the vast reedbeds. Later in the day we will look for migrant waders at one of Seewinkel’s soda lakes and explore the adjacent woodland and fringing reedbeds, which are home to Golden Oriole, Hoopoe, Barred Warbler, Penduline Tit and numerous Nightingales.
The insect-life, too, is very rich and throughout the holiday we will look for both the dragonflies and butterflies that are attracted to the area's profusion of meadow flowers. The beautiful Southern Festoon may, perhaps, be amongst the highlights. Interesting beetles, praying mantis, flies and spiders will also turn up on our walks, particularly on our day-trip to Zitzmannsdorfer Wiesen, another area of remnant steppe and a breeding site for Black-tailed Godwits, Curlews and many other species. We will have lunch at a nearby restaurant to taste the local specialities before driving to a hilltop nature reserve known for its profusion of butterflies and flowers. Later we will offer an optional evening walk to watch waterbirds flying to roost, and to look for bats.
On another day there will be an option of travelling by minibus to the River Danube and beyond, or using bicycles provided by the hotel to explore the many miles of cycle routes that criss-cross the region. If you choose the latter, you may wish to take the ferry to the other side of Lake Neusiedl and on to the beautiful little village of Rust, with its old town square, colourful houses and White Storks nesting on the rooftops.
We will spend our penultimate day, a long but exciting one, in Hungary. Rising early, we travel to the Hansag, the remains of a wild marshland and wetland forest which the Hungarians are currently restoring. This is a very atmospheric place, offering a great feeling of isolation. In addition to an interesting variety of birds, the grassy plains are home to colonies of Souslik, an endearing little ground squirrel and favoured prey of the Hansag’s raptors!
Finally, we will visit the local Geiselsteller to meet a wine farmer who will explain how the area’s distinctive soil and climatic conditions affect both the quality of the wine and the wildlife that the region supports. In the afternoon we will enjoy a final few hours in search of the region’s abundant birdlife. We must not forget to look down as well as up, however, for the flowers here are a spectacle in May, with a good display of wetland orchids amongst the highlights. A final evening meal in Illmitz, enjoying a Puszta Nacht or Mulacsag (a traditional local dinner with gypsy music) offers a fitting end to a holiday rich in both cultural and wildlife highlights