Sunday, 29 June 2014

Hungarian Rhapsody...Part Five...On the Puszta (Steppe)

Day six was to be spent visiting the Little Hortobagy a fairly short drive from Farm Lator.  As Farm Lator’s website reminds us, it is set nicely on the edge of the Carpathian Mountains and also the great plains of Hungry and therefore offers excellent habitat to explore.  As the name suggests, a smaller area than the Hortobagy (proper), but no less exciting and rewarding and there are in my experience few visitors.  The other advantage is that there are no areas requiring official guides to enter.  The area is officially managed by the Bukk National Park.

White Storks
Sam and I began the morning garden watch even earlier today. But there was still no sign of Hawfinch or Serin.  My promise to Sam before we’d left the UK of easy sightings of Serin was proving a little dodgy.  Never mind we had our now regular sighting of Eastern Imperial Eagle, so we weren’t complaining!  We passed the Common Terns on flying over the pond at the reed-bed near Saly.
Roller and Lesser Grey Shrike were two of the target birds today and it wasn’t long before we were watching both species.  Rollers were seen in glorious close up and in some numbers.  I’m also pleased to say that after hearing Quail we actually saw a number of them.  The actual sighting of these birds was a first for us all.  Red Backed Shrikes were also in the area. As was Grass Snake seen under our feet as we sat by a small bridge watching Marsh Harriers.  We’d driven along a bone dry and cracked road and had intended to take this off road route around the area, but such was the concern for the hire car we turned around and took a very long detour to the other area we wished to visit.  In 2008 a walk along the tracks meant that Graham and I had to struggle through rubber like mud that stuck to the boots and seemed to suck us into it.  It was so different today as there had been little rain in recent times.  The area was baked hard by the hot sun and we had been told that that the few pools there are, were very low.  We did have new hides to visit which had been put up since our previous visit.

Red Backed Shrike
Walking past the farm and along by the water channels I was surprised that no Whiskered Terns were present at all.  Probably a sign of conditions and one sign of several that climate is playing a part in the distribution of flora and fauna.  We did have sighting of our first (Eastern) Clouded Yellow Butterflies of the trip however, and we were soon climbing the tower hide where we spent a long period of time with excellent and often close sightings of the likes of Night Heron, Great White Egret, Grey Heron, Purple Heron, White Stork, Black Stork, Spoonbill (in numbers), Marsh Harrier, Common Buzzard, Kestrel (we found pellets on the hide floor which Sam examined in detail), Common Crane (in numbers) and Lesser Grey Shrike.  To have the Black Stork fly over our heads and to watch the mixed flock of Spoonbill and Common Crane take off was definitely a highlight of the trip.   Curlews were heard and we decided to walk to the hide where we could have closer views of the pool.

Black Stork
Once in situ we had fine sightings of Greylag Geese, Mallard, Gadwall, Pintail, Teal, Avocet, Lapwing, Redshank, flock of Spotted Redshank, Greenshank, Curlew, and a flock of Ruff in summer plumage.  Black Winged Stilts had been picked up in flight early on our walk.  All of the birds today were active and giving fine views often in flight above and around us.

Sam in action


 As we walked around the area we came across Turtle Dove, Hoopoe, Bee-Eater, more Rollers, Skylark, Swallow, House Martin, Yellow Wagtails in number, Wheatear, Stonechat, Blackcap, Sedge Warbler, Grasshopper Warbler, Savi’s Warbler, Marsh Warbler, Icterine Warbler, Hooded Crows, Golden Oriole,  House Sparrow, Tree Sparrow, Reed Bunting, Yellowhammer and Corn Bunting et al.

As we walked back towards the farm and the car we had Roe Deer approach in front of us from the right and it gave a wonderful sighting as it stood on the track watching our approach.  Then as we passed the car a Short Toed Eagle flew over the farm directly towards us and flew over our heads and turned as if to watch us whilst giving a grand sighting.  The bird hung in the air for sometime giving me my best ever sighting of this species.

At the farm
Today’s trip is up there with my all time great birding days.  The sun was still hot as we left for our return to Farm Lator.  It had  been baking hot out there at times today.  Such was the rewards of the day we decided to return tomorrow.

Day Seven. 

Sam and I were in the garden hide bright and early and as well as sighting both Great and Middle Spotted Woodpecker, we heard Green Woodpecker.  Also much to my relief we had sighting of Serin so my promise wasn’t broken.  Perhaps the garden sighting of the week turned up in the form of Hawfinch both adult and juvenile.  Definitely my best ever sighting of Hawfinch.  All this amongst numerous Great Tits, the odd Blue Tit, Marsh Tits and numbers of Nuthatch.  Coal Tit never did appear on the trip list!  We kept up our daily sighting of Eastern Imperial Eagle.

We were soon to be off to the Little Hortobagy again and this time we intended to make straight for the area with the pools and hides.  Missing out part of the region gave us the opportunity to call first at the Bee Eater colony at Tard which was just a short drive away.  This paid dividends as we had excellent sightings of the Bee Eaters, although just not close enough to get images other than distant record ones.

We were soon back under the heat of the sun on the Little Hortobagy and whilst it was a little quieter bird wise today, we saw most if not all of the same species and managed to add a few extra sightings.  I’ll try and confine myself to fresh sightings rather than repeating myself.

The long and winding road (in fact pretty straight).

 Squacco Heron and Little Egret were soon added to our trip list and Graham is sure he saw a Red Footed Falcon (more of them to follow).  Shoveller and Coot were added to our trip list, Chiffchaff was heard today and we had far better sightings of Hoopoe and Lesser Grey Shrike.

Snakes added interest today with both Grass Snake and Smooth Snake being seen in close up.  Marsh Frogs were about in number.  Insects also caught the eye in that we saw Humming Bee Hawkmoth and Cardinal Butterfly.  Perhaps the out standing sighting of the day was Swallowtail Butterflies.  These came unexpectedly as I had remembered on my previous visit to Hungary at the same time of year that Rob had said we were to early for this species.  Rob later today said that species were in flight much earlier now.  We were pleased to see the Swallowtails.  I haven’t seen more than the odd one previously and this species has been a target for Sam for sometime.  The first one we saw was very flighty and we thought that there was little chance of a photograph.  It turned out to be one of the highlight of our photography opportunities when one Swallowtail settled and allowed close up images to be taken.  The butterfly settled at length and I believe it was still there when we set off to on our walk again.  It had given us a great opportunity to examine it and photograph it.  Roe Deer were seen again and Sam found Water Shrew.

Swallowtail Butterfly.  One of the best photographic opportunities of the trip.


Our days on the Little Hortobagy were wonderful and as I said earlier the first day especially is up there with my top birding experiences.  I’m confident that it won’t be beaten this year!

Roe deer from the hide

A view from the hide

Roe Deer on the Road.

 We were grateful for the cooler evenings after days on the open plains under a hot sun.  Our next day was already planned, with an all day visit to the Halasto Fish Ponds and Hortobagy (proper) after another early morning garden watch.  A guide had been arranged so that we could enter the restricted area in search of Great Bustards.

Friday, 27 June 2014

Hungarian Rhapsody...Part Four...High on a Hill

Not a lonely goat-herd today, but a Hungarian Glider!

The day began with an early watch from the garden hide where we again watched Middle Spotted Woodpecker amongst the usual visitors.  We also had the now usual overhead flight of Eastern Imperial Eagle.

Garden action...Middle Spotted Woodpecker

...and Great Spotted Woodpecker
Our quest today was for Hungarian Glider Butterfly and I knew this would mean a quite steep climb on what was another hot day so well topped up with water we set off with Rob leading in anticipation of finding many butterfly species.

Did we find the Hungarian Glider?  Well to cut a long climb short I can confirm we did although it only gave a brief sighting.  The circumstances gave us one of many laughs on this trip.  We’d reached the top of what I began to call Mount Everest and Rob suggested that we spread out and search.  Graham continued the search along with Rob whilst Sam and I and our Dutch companions on the trip sat down for lunch in the sun after our long walk.  We heard shouts from Rob of Hungarian Glider and it flew close to us as we ate our sandwiches.  Graham had nicely flushed it out towards us, but sadly missed having a good sighting.  All I can say is that it pays to rest, sit and wait.  Rob explained that the changing seasonal patterns meant the Hungarian Gliders (quite uncommon anyway) were thin on the ground. 

Graham decided eating and resting is for the best after glider escapes him!

Southern Festoon Caterpillar

Mount Everest had offered us some interesting sightings and it wasn’t just butterflies on the wing that we saw.  The Southern Festoon Caterpillar had cameras in action as did the very attractive blue headed Green Lizard and a variety of unnamed insects.

Green Lizard
We did have quite a number of birds on the climb too the most interesting being Hobby, Raven and Tree Pipit.  The best sighting of Tree Pipit I’ve ever had.  It gave us a fine display and song.  Red Backed Shrikes were seen today, but I can’t remember quite where.  Sam caught sight of what was either Pied or Collared Flycatcher in the woodland we passed through.  All of this, and of course splendid views from a-high.

Blue Spot Hairstreak???

Insect Action

Rob Shows us a Woodland Graying
A beer was most welcome once we had returned to the village, but this wasn’t the end of the trip, as we stopped off at another good butterfly area on our return.  With Rob’s help the butterfly day list continued to rise.  I can handle the bird identification, but I certainly required Rob’s help with the butterflies.  We heard our first Nightingale of the trip here, although I’m told that there was one singing outside of our accommodation at Farm Lator.  What really had us excited towards the end of the day was the sight of the unexpected Bee-Eater colony.  This species was one of a number of lifers for Sam and I can’t think of a better situation to add a species to your life list.  These birds showed stunningly well in the bright sun as they perched on trees on the ridge in full sunlight and flew across the area we were standing.  It was one of the many highlights of the trip and the atmosphere is all coming back to me as I type.  Very special.  We later made plans to revisit the colony with the loan from Rob of a two man hide.   This would mean a climb up to the ridge around sunset, but some good images might be possible.  Sadly we never did return as time simply beat us.  You never know it may happen some day.

Nice strip.  Name the team!
Lists can be boring, but just for the record I’ll list the butterflies seen today…Large White, Small White, Marbled White, Essex Skipper, Large Skipper, Peacock, Comma, Small Heath, Pearly Heath, Meadow Brown, Ringlet, Hungarian Glider, Great Banded Grayling, Woodland Grayling, Adonis Blue, Mazarine Blue, Silver Studded BlueReverdin’s Blue, Purple Shot Copper, Queen of Spain Fritillary, Heath Fritillary, Twin Spot Fritillary, Silver Washed Fritillary, High Brown Fritillary, Marsh Fritillary, Lesser Marsh Fritillary, Pearl Bordered Fritillary, Weavers Fritillary, Glanville’s Fritillary, Blue Spot Hairstreak, Lesser Purple Emperor, and Sloe Hairstreak

Queen of Spain Fritillary

Hawk Moth we stumbled across whilst checking out the moth trap before using it the following evening.

Dinner tasted good after such a long days walking.  Red Fox had been seen again and as we relaxed in the evening and as Sam examined the moth trip he added Hedgehog to our mammal list.  We completed our lists for the day and decided that tomorrow we would visit the Little Hortobagy never anticipating that tomorrow would be such a wonderful experience for us all.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Hungarian Rhapsody...Part Three...A Plateau

By day four I must have been looking a bit jaded as Sam was telling me that there was no need for me to get up so early.  No way was I staying in bed and allowing him the chance to have sightings I missed!  Just as well, as we had Middle Spotted Woodpecker in the garden this morning along with the regular Great Spotted Woodpeckers, Nuthatches and Marsh Tits et al.  A Red Squirrel was also visiting.  After breakfast we watched numbers of Essex Skipper Butterflies visiting the lavender along with the likes of Comma Butterfly.  Today we again watched a flyover of Eastern Imperial Eagle.  This time a pair of them!  Also watched was a fly over Short Toed Eagle.  Oh, and Sam found a Lesser Purple Emperor Butterfly in the garden.

Essex Skipper Butterfly

Comma Butterfly

We decided to have a relaxing day by walking up onto the plateau above Farm Lator.  In 2008 Graham and I had done this amidst torrential rain and my boots took a week to dry out.  Today it was dry and hot.  Very hot at times.  This meant that the butterflies were out in numbers.  The most heavily represented were Heath Fritillary, Great Banded Grayling and Meadow Brown.  I won’t list all of the other species, but they included Wood White, Marbled White, Small Heath, Peacock, Red Admiral, High Brown Fritillary, Scarce Copper and Brown Argus.  Butterflies gave us some good photographic opportunities.  Mammal sightings here included four Red Deer and a Shrew species.

Meadow Brown Butterfly
Great Banded Grayling

As we had begun our walk we were soon listening to the calls of Turtle Doves.  Finding them proved far harder, but we did eventually get some decent sightings.  Quail was heard nearby at one point, as were Cuckoos and Golden Orioles.  Hoopoe was heard and briefly seen and the sound of Skylarks, Corn Buntings and Yellowhammers was with us throughout the walk.  Hooded Crows were becoming accepted now as common birds as were the Jays, as we had such good sightings in the garden.

Mating Heath Fritillary
Heath Fritillary en-masse

We found our first Stonechat of the trip and warblers heard and/or seen were Garden Warbler, Blackcap, Common Whitethroat, and Chiffchaff.  We were on the look out for Barred Warbler in what is good territory for this species and we did think that we may have picked up its alarm call.  I have just checked it out on the CD and although after over a week it becomes a little difficult I do think we had it.  I won’t add it to the list until I have spoken with Sam and Graham and have them confirm it too.  What were in no doubt were the numbers of Tree Sparrow we saw today and most days of the trip.  Reed Bunting was also found.

Scarce Copper Butterfly 

Colourful Insect

Colourful insect
One of the better sightings of the day had to be our first Red Backed Shrikes of the trip.  More surprising however was the fact that we bumped into a couple who were also staying at Farm Lator.  We found that it wasn’t often that we saw anyone at all in this area.  We were able to put them onto mating Heath Fritillary Butterflies and they pointed out where they had just minutes earlier seen Hoopoes.

Map Butterfly (summer brood)
Well the above just gives a taste of the day.  We marched down hill hot, but happy and still listening to Turtle Doves.

Believe me, it would have made a great image if it hadn't run off!

Just seen a Great Reed Warbler!

We had previously decided that later in the day we would visit the reed-beds near the village of Saly.  We were soon watching Marsh Harriers and Common Buzzard here and during what was a pleasant walk between the reed-beds and cultivated farmland we counted numbers of Red Fox.  More Cuckoos were heard and this time we managed to briefly see one of them.  Both Sedge Warbler and Great Reed Warbler were both seen and heard and although I’m not so sure that Cetti’s Warbler is meant to be in the area I’m positive that we heard one singing.  I took a few hits from biting insects here, but happily we were never bothered by mosquitoes throughout our time in Hungary.  White Wagtail was found again, Savi’s Warbler heard as we were preparing to return for dinner and Map Butterfly gave us a very good sighting.  This is an ideal patch for any birdwatchers living in Saly.

As we ate dinner we listened to the chorus of Marsh Frogs and agreed with Rob that we would join a small group on a quest for a Hungarian Glider the following day.

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Hungarian Rhapsody...Part Two...A Journey

We set off for Farm Lator taking a route known to Graham and me which kept us off the motorway.  Ok, making the journey a longer one, but offering a better chance of seeing wildlife.  It certainly wasn’t long before we were watching Marsh Harriers and we had lost count of numbers by the time we had arrived at our destination.  A pair of Marsh Harriers flying over the reed-beds at the village of Saly near to our destination gave especially good views.

As we passed the spot some kilometres from Budapest where we had stopped for a break in 2008, Graham remembered precisely that place and parked in the exact same spot just off road.  We knew it to be good for butterflies.  The crop in the field was sunflowers and not lucerne as it had been in June 2008, so this no doubt accounted for a change in butterfly species.  There were no Eastern Pale Clouded Yellow Butterflies which had filled the air back then, but we did find Small White, Marbled White, Small Heath, Meadow Brown, Painted Lady, Skipper species and Comma.  The Marbled Whites being far the most numerous.

Marbled White Butterfly

Marbled White Butterfly with fly in Skipper species.
As we continued we found the likes of White Stork, Common Buzzard and Tawny Owl.  The latter being perched on a tree at one of our many rather tiresome road work stops.

One of the first of many White Stork sightings.
Our next stop was to be the reservoir near to Bogacs.  This spot had been recommended to us in 2008 by Gary alias Brunswick Birder.  Gary had also visited the area in 2008.  It is an area much closer to our destination and was easily found again.  My impression was immediately that the area had become more tamed over the past six years, although it still appears to be a good birding site there are a few new buildings and perhaps in place it is a little more cultivated.  In a short time however we had found some very good species including odonata and butterflies.  It was here that we heard our first Cuckoo and Turtle Doves of the trip.  Other species of bird included Mallard, Pheasant, Grey Heron, Water Rail (H), White Wagtail, Yellow Wagtail, Wheatear, Marsh Warbler (singing continually), Chiffchaff, Golden Oriole (which showed well on the ground if only briefly), Tree Sparrow, Goldfinch and Reed Bunting.  Pygmy Shrew and Roe Deer were also seen today.

I'm not clued up on European odonata, but the top image seems to be a 'blue' type chaser and the bottom image a Banded Demoiselle.  Both seen whilst listening to a close by Marsh Warbler.

As we approached Farm Lator things began to seem very familiar and we were soon greeted by Rob de Jong and his wife Barbara.  It was hard to believe that it was six years since my previous visit.  Rob has much expert knowledge as a naturalist, especially concerning butterflies, so we knew that the stay would be a productive one and that expertise and advice about the area would be at hand although all done in a relaxed manner .  It seemed we had arrived after a week of oppressive heat and there had been little rain.  Thankfully the temperatures were dropping a little although I’m happy to say the dryness continued throughout our stay.  Being in the hills meant that evenings were cooler.

We had one of our highlight sightings even before dinner.  As we walked near our accommodation I got my eye on a large dark bird flying past the hills to the left of us.  I realised as soon as I took a good look that it was an Eastern Imperial Eagle.  A magnificent sighting indeed.  I hadn’t raised Sam’s expectation too much about sighting this species or any other for that matter, but knew there was always the chance as I had seen one fly overhead briefly in 2008.  The situation got even more exciting when the eagle was harassed by a Goshawk as we watched from the Farm Lator gardens.  The Goshawk seemed to win the battle in the skies as it pushed the eagle out of the area.  I don’t think we could have asked for much more to begin our stay!  Also seen in or around the gardens were Great Spotted Woodpecker, Black Redstart, Song Thrush, Marsh Tit, Nuthatch (much less colour than our UK Nuthatches), and very obliging Jays et al.  Rob reminded us that the Eastern Imperial Eagles nested in the area so we were going to be on the alert for them.  By the end of the day our bird list for the trip had reached sixty-one species. 

Long-horn Beetle, possibly Alpine Long-horn.  A beetle worth leaving the dinner table for
 The food at Farm Lator is very good and dinner is usually taken in a relaxed manner out doors.   It can prove to be interesting if someone finds something of interest and dinner can be interrupted.  This evening it was Rob’s find of a Long-horn Beetle species that had us leaving the table.  A beautiful insect which was new to me.  On checking up on this on my return I’m pretty sure it was an Alpine Long-horn Beetle, not uncommon in Hungary.  We took a stroll into the forested area after dinner and listened to the Turtle Doves.  I’m pleased I took the macro lens on this trip.  Sleep came very easily after some chat and brief thoughts of possible Hawfinch and Middle Spotted Woodpeckers visiting the garden.

Monday, 23 June 2014

Hungarian Rhapsody...Part One...The Beginning.

Up well before the larks, Sam, Graham and I left Newcastle International Airport around 6.00am on 12th June, taking a KLM flight for Budapest via Amsterdam.  My weighty bag only just made the check in allowance I think as the tripod, biscuits, salted peanuts, milk chocolate and books had upped the weight considerably.  It was to be clear skies and sun all of the way and when we touched down at Ferenc Liszt Airport in Budapest the temperatures were touching 35˚ C.  The taxi ride to Hotel Burg on the Buda bank of the Danube was almost as if we were being baked alive in a large yellow tin can!  The friendly taxi driver’s (he was also feeling the heat) attempts at avoiding traffic  failed dismally and sent us into even deeper traffic, but I can’t help thinking that the cost was far below that of a London Taxi and it didn’t take long to reach our hotel in Buda.

The boys are back in town!

A hide with a view.

This little excursion has been in the planning for at least twelve months.  Graham and I have visited Hungary before, but it was a first for Sam as indeed it was a first time experience for him of focusing so much upon nature outside of the UK.  Our ultimate destination was to be Farm Lator in the Bukk Hills region of Hungary, but more of that later.  We’d decided to spend some cultural time in Budapest (a first time experience for us all.  Budapest, not the culture), so we were to be here for a couple of nights.  The air conditioning in Graham’s room was ‘out of order’ but once fixed up with a large fan we were exploring Buda and taking in the views over the Danube to Pest, and in particular the Hungarian Parliament building that I’m sure all of my cultured readers are aware of!  I secretly congratulated myself on the choice of hotel and area for our short stay.  It was well away from the maddening crowd, although if honest, I never really saw crowds in Budapest or anywhere else in Hungary.  Quite a relief for someone who lives in an over populated UK.
Round the corner from the hotel.
Now Budapest is not without bird life and I shall come along to that soon, but first a little information concerning our experiences.  Importantly we found a very nice little restraunt up the street from the hotel and had our evening meals there whilst serenaded by a Gypsy type band that where very good, as was the food and friendly service.  Our evenings were spent looking over the Danube River from high up on the area known as the Fisherman’s Bastion which was a two minute walk from our hotel.  Sam and I ventured down to the riverside and blimey that walk back up the hill was a tough one.  I found the area unbelievably quiet for a capital city and it was all the better for that.  The lighting at night is spectacular and one experience which sticks firmly in my mind is listening to Crickets, Blackcap song, Gypsy Music and the church and bells sounding from various parts of the city, whilst drinking a cappuccino on a warm evening whilst looking across, up and down the Danube.  Like true tourists we took a boat trip on the Danube, although for me I think our walk across the Chain Bridge and back was far better, as we took in St Istvan’s Basilica, Parliament buildings (where by sheer chance we timed arrival to see the changing of the guard) and much more great architecture.  Our walk back was made  easier with a trip on the Funicular Railway (no queue at all despite warnings to the contrary in my guide book).  We were lucky once again to time things in order catch the changing of the guard, this time at the Presidential Palace. 

St Matyas Church.  I'm afraid no camera could do the beauty justice.

The dome of St Istvan's Basilica

 A short stay in the city passed by very quickly but not before we had begun our bird list with the likes of Hooded Crow, Night Heron, Yellow Legged Gull and Garden Warbler.  We had found Swifts at the airport, significant in that on my previous trip to Hungary I had seen no Swifts.  The Hooded Crows and Night Heron were lifers for Sam as indeed was the Suslik he had seen at the Airport.  We’d listed nineteen bird species without really looking, plus Comma and Green-veined White Butterfly before leaving the city.  The blue and fritillary butterflies remained unidentified.  Two birds of signifigance come to mind.  Firstly the Night Heron which flew past us and away from the Danube and the lit up Church of Matyas which was  opposite our hotel, and secondly what I will call Graham’s bird which I gave much thought to so as to be able to add to our list.  Unfortunately I had come into the conversation mid way have arrived from the bathroom, so all of my thought was to no avail anyway as I suddenly realised that we were talking about a dead bird seen on the pavement outside of the hotel!  This I thought might make a nice comedy sketch, but I think Monty Python may have beaten us to that some years ago.  I’ll just add a third significant bird species, the Hooded Crow and in particular the one stood upon the remaining ruins of Second World War bombing opposite the present rebuilt Presidential Palace.  A reminder of what this city has suffered in the past.

Hooded Crow.  More nature to come, I promise.
It had been a great stay in one of the world’s great city’s (where everyone had been so friendly) and I had been able to practice the use of my only known Hungarian word, Kōszōnōm (Thank you), but the real focus of the trip was to be on nature so it was with some eagerness that we set off in the rented car on 14th June and headed for the Bukk Hills.  There’s to be several parts to this expedition so I hope you’ll stay with me until the end of what was planned as a general relaxed nature trip with a focus on birds and butterflies and definitely nil twitching.