Hortobágy National Park was the ultimate goal of my trip to Hungary. I had heard about the place several times in the past, and more recently, the WP Big Year birders dubbed it the “best birding site in Europe”. A visit to Hortobágy was already planned when I read this last comment, but it got me really excited. A day in the puszta was a nice introduction to birding in Hungary, and I expected wonders in this second national park.
I was not disappointed.
After leaving Kardoskút, we drove to Debrecen, where we stayed at Linda’s mom’s place. The morning was dedicated to the semestrial market in town, but Marci and I managed to escape in the afternoon. The road to Hortobágy is a straight road that crosses endless cultivated fields. The national park itself is quite fragmented, and in every non-protected area lies farming land. This doesn’t sound like much, and it’s indeed very different from a national park in Finnish Lapland, but there are hidden wonders within easy reach if you know where to look!
Our first stop, in Halastó, was a story about the balance between lack of anticipation and good fortune.
We had a chat with the park guard, bought our 24-hour permit for a ridiculously low amount of money, and headed straight into the reserve. Halastó consists of approximately ten fish ponds, human creations designed to diversify land use in Hortobágy during the last century, in an effort to protect the land from overgrazing (Halastó actually means fish pond).
We had a map, but we didn’t check the scale. On paper, Halastó didn’t look that big… well, it turned out that the straight line we followed was in fact 5-kilometer long. When you’re watching birds and trying to make pictures of them, it takes a long time to walk such a distance.
This is a very acute problem when there are birds everywhere around! In the first pond to the east, after the bushes, we observed Eurasian spoonbills (Platalea leucorodia), Black-winged stilts (Himantopus himantopus) and Whiskered terns (Chlidonias hybrida), all very exotic species for a Nordic birder. In the trees, we could see many nest boxes, and Common kestrels (Falco tinnunculus) flying around. One box attracted my attention though, as it seemed there were baby owls inside. They were hidden in the shadows, so I wasn’t sure… until I noticed the adult resting in a willow tree, a few meters away. A Long-eared owl (Asio otus) hidden in plain sight, what a lovely surprise! On the way back, a few hours later, the chicks had come out, allowing for better views.
Even more exciting was the density of herons. In Finland, Grey herons (Ardea cinerea) are reasonably common in the south, and in some places you can see Great egrets (Ardea alba), a bird that’s gained ground towards the north in recent years. That’s it.
There, in addition to those two species, you can add the Little egret (Egretta garzetta), the Purple heron (Ardea purpurea), the Black-crowned night heron (Nycticorax nycticorax) and the amazing Squacco heron (Ardeola ralloides).
All those species are common and roam the paths. It’s difficult to get a picture of them, because they don’t let you come very close, but they offer an incredible show. They are there standing on a little bridge, here fishing in a ditch, or slowly walking along the narrow-gauge railway that runs all the way to the end of the area.
As we walked (and stood), the skies grew more menacing. Dark clouds blossomed in the west, and we feared we would be soaked. Of course we had left without taking much precautions, but the birding was simply too good to just go back because it might rain soon. So we continued, fearless and reckless. Our legs started to feel tired, but we had gone too far to turn back before reaching the last lake. When we arrived there, some rain drops started to fall, but still we managed to climb up the bird tower, miss the pelican, learn new words (lúd = goose), and find shelter by the train station. The small building was locked, but we hid under the eaves. Then all hell broke loose, and a lot of rain fell in a short time, supplemented by many lightning bolts to complete the show. The previously hot atmosphre gave way to an unpleasant chill. We had some protection against the rain, but not against the cold, but we were still lucky to be in the right place at the right time, for there had been no shelter one kilometer down the path.
After most of the storm had drifted away, we headed back to the car. We again saw many herons, and I ticked the Lesser grey shrike (Lanius minor) as one bird came to perch on a line of barbed wire.
On the drive back, we stopped next to a power line, where we searched for a nest box supposed to host Saker falcons (Falco cherrug), the national bird of Hungary. We saw no box, and no falcon of course. The colors in the sky were beautiful though.
I managed to convince Marci to wake up for sunrise the morning after. After a short night, we left the house trying not to wake up the other sleepers, and arrived in the national park as the sun pierced the fog.
From our conversation with the guard the day before, he had obviously made out more then I had (not surprising given that most of it was held in Hungarian), and suggested a stop in Szálkahalmi Tanösvényen. Brilliant idea, for there we found a mixed colony of Rooks (Corvus frugilegus) and, even better, Red-footed falcons (Falco vespertinus). Those birds nest in a small forest in the middle of the steppe, next to a small settlement. Nest boxes have been installed as well for the falcons, and some Common kestrels took advantage of it.
Following the path, we walked along the edge of the woods, essentially looking up in search of a good photo opportunity. The falcons rarely stayed in place when we got close, so I tried to capture them in flight… easier said than done, for those creature fly fast! It was a challenge to hold the camera up so long, trying first to see a bird, then focus and finally follow it long enough to get the shot. Luckily, my tiny muscles allowed me to fire one good frame.
A few distant shot of them perched in trees complemented the morning. When we got back to the car, dawn was long gone. When I saw the swallows there, I remembered the Golden orioles (Oriolus oriolus) that had flashed past me when I was getting out of the car earlier. No picture of course, but these shiny yellow birds never cease to amaze.
Feels like the perfect opportunity to learn colors in Hungarian, doesn’t it?
Sárga = yellow
Fehér = white
Kék = blue
With Hungarian, like with Finnish or Danish, birds helped me learn those words: think of Sárga billegetö (Yellow wagtail) or Kék vércse (Red-footed falcon, different perspectives I guess…). Thank you Marci for your pedagogy and patience!
After that, we drove to the western border of the park, scanning the field in search of Great bustards (Otis tarda). No luck there either, so we drove to the Tisza river and had a walk in the shore woods. The best moment of the day happened in a small village called Egyek. Marci turned right into the village, leaving the main road, and I wondered why; he had simply followed Waze, a GPS App, something I wouldn’t have necessarily done. I mean, why stray from the easy path? A minute later, I spotted a dark shape circling above our heads. “Marci, slow down”, I said. Then, “Marci, STOP NOW!”. He kindly obliged, and I struggled to unlock my safety belt before getting out of the car.
You see, what was flying above our heads was nothing less than an Imperial eagle (Aquila heliaca), a rare eastern raptor, one of the famous Hungarian specialties. It was big, extremely dark seen from beneath, though I could see some hints of paleness on the side of the head, and majestic. I felt awed. It’s difficult to explain this feeling, because, objectively, it was only a black shape in the sky. But some birds, because they are rare, or powerful, or big, can inspire awe to the keen viewer. It felt incredibly good 🙂
Marci told me its name in Hungarian: Parlagi sas. Not a name I’ll forget.
After those strong emotions, we ended up in Halastó again, where I had a short walk while Marci rested in the car. I also lied down on dirt and stones to shoot some House martins (Delichon urbicum) gathering mud from a puddle to consolidate their nests. I also met a young Common redstart (Phoenicurus ochruros) hiding in the ruins of old wagons. Far out in the flooded fields, several White-tailed eagles (Haliaeetus albicilla) waited, reminding me of my Finland.
In the end, we observed 95 species in Hortobágy only, including a few mammals like this fox wandering between the ponds.
Previously in my Hungarian series:
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