The Ultimate In Birding Tours

Europe & Surroundings

HUNGARY & TRANSYLVANIA

Sunday 2nd May – Tuesday 11th May 2021

Leader: János Oláh.

10 Days Group Size Limit 8

Birdquest’s Hungary birding tours, combined with Transylvania (the latter is a part of Romania), are a classic among East European birding tour itineraries. Our Hungary & Transylvania birding tour is an exciting springtime journey through the Zemplén hills and Hortobágy plain of Hungary and the Carpathian mountains in Transylvania in Romania, featuring Brown Bears, Great Bustard, Western Capercaillie, Ural Owl, Aquatic Warbler, Wallcreeper and many other great birds.

Eastern Hungary and the Romanian region of Transylvania contain a fascinating diversity of habitats and offer some of the finest and yet most undisturbed birdwatching in Europe today. Indeed, the combination of these areas creates what is undoubtedly the most productive bird tour of Eastern Europe in existence. Above all, the friendliness of the local people and their obvious enthusiasm to show off their culture and natural heritage ensures a memorable tour during which we shall see many of Eastern Europe’s most exciting birds.

Our springtime Hungary & Transylvania birding tour starts in the city of Budapest, from where we head for Eastern Hungary.

Eastern Hungary conjures up images of wide-open spaces, Magyar horsemen and gypsies, but before we go on to enjoy the wide open spaces of the Hungarian puszta we will visit the historic town of Tokaj and the Zemplén Hills in northeastern Hungary. In an area long famous for its wines we will pass through timeless villages where the single storey houses are decorated with elegant stucco work and where White Storks peer down from their untidy nests. In the hills we shall often be gazing upwards in search of birds of prey. The prize amongst these must surely go to the powerful Imperial (or Eastern Imperial) Eagle, which nests in these uplands and can be seen soaring effortlessly over the woods and meadows. There are plenty of other specialities too, as other inhabitants of this superb area include Black Stork, Lesser Spotted Eagle, Ural and Eurasian Eagle Owls, Black, Grey-headed, White-backed, Syrian and Middle Spotted Woodpeckers, and Collared Flycatcher.

From Tokaj we will drive eastwards into Transylvania, the wild, mountainous heartland of Romania and renowned as the homeland of the Dracula legend. The Carpathian Mountains of Transylvania are some of the most magnificent and least disturbed mountains in Europe today, possessing an exciting avifauna. Here we will look for Hazel Grouse, Western Capercaillie, Eurasian Three-toed Woodpecker, Thrush Nightingale, Red-breasted Flycatcher, Crested Tit and the delightful Wallcreeper. Equally exciting will be the opportunity for some exciting encounters with Brown Bears, lured in to hides, following their long winter hibernation, by the prospect of an easy meal. Transylvania still has some 3,000 Brown Bears, a truly amazing quantity, and this is undoubtedly the best place in Europe for observing this magnificent creature.

Finally we will recross the border into Hungary in order to explore the famous Hortobágy. The Great Hungarian Plain is to this day an evocative and romantic place with its own special atmosphere and charm. Here one can appreciate the Hungarian’s ancestral roots, for these lands are populated by the descendants of those famed and feared invaders from the steppes far to the east, the Huns, who swept irresistibly across Europe in the Dark Ages. The Czikos, the ‘cowboys’ of the puszta, are still expert horsemen who spend a great deal of their lives in the saddle. Their charges, the grey long-horned cattle and the strange Racka sheep with their long twisted horns, are also of ancient lineage.

Despite the encroachment of modern agriculture a good deal of original steppe survives and the magnificent Great Bustard can still be found in some numbers in the grasslands of the Hortobágy National Park, whilst the powerful Saker Falcon can be seen more easily here than anywhere else in Europe. Even the dainty Red-footed Falcon is still a common sight. Man has also helped to redress some of his past wrongs to nature, albeit unwittingly, by creating new wetlands in the form of large fishponds the size of lakes, home to a wide variety of waterbirds including Pygmy Cormorants, grebes, herons, egrets, spoonbills and graceful marsh terns. Elsewhere there are marshes and wet thickets where Aquatic, Marsh and River Warblers and Bearded Reedlings skulk tantalizingly, European Penduline Tits build their basket nests and Little Crakes are regularly to be seen.

Birdquest has operated Hungary birding tours since 1989 and Transylvania birding tours since 2001.

Accommodation & Road Transport: The hotels/guesthouses are of good standard throughout. Road transport is by minibus and the roads are mostly good.

Walking: The walking effort during our Hungary & Transylvania birding tour is mostly easy, with a few moderate grade walks, but there is one optional fairly strenuous hike (starting pre-dawn) to look for Western Capercaillie.

Climate: Many days are warm, dry and sunny, but cool, overcast weather with some rain is not unusual. In the higher levels in Transylvania it can be distinctly cold at times.

Bird/Mammal Photography: Opportunities during our Hungary & Transylvania birding tour are quite good.


PRICE INFORMATION

Birdquest Inclusions: Our tour prices include surface transportation, accommodations, meals and entrance fees.

We also include all tipping for local guides, drivers and accommodation/restaurant staff.

Deposit: £220, $290, €250.

TO BOOK THIS TOUR: Click here (you will need the tour dates and deposit amount)


2021: provisional £1720, $2230, €1990. Budapest/Budapest.

Single Supplement: 2021: £170, $220, €200.

The single supplement will not apply if you indicate on booking that you prefer to share a room and there is a room-mate of the same sex available.

This tour is priced in Euros. Amounts shown in other currencies are indicative.

Air Travel To & From The Tour: Our in-house IATA ticket agency will be pleased to arrange your air travel on request, or you may arrange this yourself if you prefer.

HUNGARY & TRANSYLVANIA BIRDING TOUR: DETAILED ITINERARY

Hungary & Transylvania: Day 1  Our Hungary & Transylvania birding tour begins in the early afternoon at Budapest, from where we will drive to Tokaj in northeastern Hungary for a two nights stay. We will arrive in time for some initial exploration.

Hungary & Transylvania: Day 2  Tokaj is a pretty town with many old, red-roofed buildings situated at the confluence of the Bodrog and Tisza Rivers. This is one of the most easterly areas in Hungary and one of the most charming. Here onion-domed churches rise above a landscape little changed since the last days of the Hapsburgs, where ancient meadows dotted with traditional haystacks.

White Storks are still common in the area and the flooded woodlands along the Bodrog River are alive with the sound of Common Nightingales and Eurasian Golden Orioles, while other species of interest include non-introduced Mute Swans and Syrian Woodpecker.

Close to our hotel an oxbow lake encloses a large area of swamp and marsh where, in the denser thickets, displaying Barred Warblers leap into the air. The nearby Zemplén Hills are of recent volcanic origin and their sides are largely covered in thick deciduous woodland.

Here, in the isolated valleys, Black Storks and an impressive list of birds of prey breed, including European Honey Buzzard, Northern Goshawk, Eurasian Sparrowhawk, Common Buzzard, Short-toed and Lesser Spotted Eagles, Common Kestrel, Eurasian Hobby and the magnificent Imperial (or Eastern Imperial) Eagle. We have a good chance of seeing all of these as we scan the skies above the woodlands.

Down in the valley bottoms we will walk amongst attractive woodland inhabited by Eurasian Wryneck, Icterine and Wood Warblers, Collared Flycatcher, Hawfinch and European Serin. In the more open areas European Bee-eaters call as they circle their colonies, Red-backed Shrikes perch menacingly on prominent lookouts and Common Ravens sometimes tumble overhead, while we could also find a singing Wood Lark. These are the favourite hunting grounds of the Imperial (or Eastern Imperial) Eagle, as sousliks find the habitat to their liking. The old stone quarries hold Black Redstart and even a few pairs of Eurasian Eagle Owl.

In the very heart of the Zemplén we will visit a steep-sided valley clothed in ancient forest where Black, Grey-headed, European Green, Great Spotted, Middle Spotted and Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers, plus the uncommon and localized White-backed Woodpecker, can all be found.

Here we have a very good chance, with the help of local researcher Zoltán Petrovics (whose work Birdquest has financially supported), of coming across a magnificent Ural Owl dozing at one of its favourite daytime roosts close to its nest site. This large, rather long-tailed and small-eyed owl is often surprisingly well camouflaged, but once Zoli has pointed it out we can watch this marvellous creature in broad daylight for as long as we wish. As we leave this beautiful, half-forgotten place we can almost sense it settling back into normality after this brief intrusion by man.

Other birds in Hungary’s Zemplén are likely to include Grey Partridge, Common (or Ring-necked) Pheasant, Stock Dove, Common Wood Pigeon, Eurasian Collared Dove, European Turtle Dove, Common Cuckoo, Tawny Owl, Common Kingfisher, Eurasian Skylark, Sand Martin (or Bank Swallow), Barn Swallow, Common House Martin, Tree Pipit, Grey and White Wagtails, Winter Wren, European Robin, Common Stonechat, Common Blackbird, Song Thrush, Common and Lesser Whitethroats, Blackcap, Common Chiffchaff, Spotted Flycatcher, Marsh, Blue and Great Tits, Eurasian Nuthatch, Eurasian Jay, Eurasian Magpie, Hooded Crow, Common Raven, Eurasian Tree Sparrow, Common Chaffinch, European Greenfinch, European Goldfinch, Common Linnet, Yellowhammer and Corn Bunting.

Hungary & Transylvania: Day 3  Today we will drive southeastwards into Transylvania, stopping along the way to look for Greater Short-toed Lark. After leaving Hungary and crossing into Romania, we will stop to look for Ortolan Bunting before we continue to Torockó for an overnight stay. At the nearby Turda Nature Reserve we can admire the splendid scenery (including the steep limestone walls of a 300m deep gorge) while having our first chance of finding that avian gem the extraordinary Wallcreeper. Other bird species likely in this area include Alpine Swift, Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush, Great Grey Shrike and Rock Bunting.

Hungary & Transylvania: Day 4  After some early morning birding in the Torockó area we will drive through Transylvania to Harghita in the Székelyudvarhely district (‘Székelyland’) for a three nights stay. We will arrive in time for some first explorations.

Hungary & Transylvania: Days 5-6  The scattered townships and villages that make up the Harghita area lie in ‘Székelyland’, a community of two million Hungarians living in the middle of Transylvania and dating back to the Middle Ages. The word Székely derives from the community’s role as defenders of the border at the time of the Hungarian kingdom in the Middle Ages and, more specifically, comes from their particular military and administrative organization, the Szék (or Chair).

The western slopes of the Gurghiu Mountains, part of the Carpathian range, offer some great birding. Here amidst beautiful mountain scenery, with limestone crags rising above dark coniferous forest, we will get up early and walk to a lekking ground of the magnificent Western Capercaillie. If the lek is active we should enjoy great views of these huge birds. Hazel Grouse are also quite common here and we shall make a special effort to get good views of one, although they can sometimes be hard to locate. In these largely undisturbed forests we will have another opportunity to find Tengmalm’s Owl and our only opportunity for Eurasian Three-toed Woodpecker (potentially the 10th species of woodpecker of this remarkable tour!).

Other species breeding in this wild area include Golden Eagle, White-throated Dipper, Dunnock, Thrush Nightingale, Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush, Mistle Thrush, Goldcrest, Firecrest, Red-breasted Flycatcher, Crested and Coal Tits, Eurasian Treecreeper, Spotted Nutcracker, Eurasian Siskin, Common (or Red) Crossbill and Eurasian Bullfinch.

On our second day we shall drive to the spectacular Bicaz Gorge in search of the marvellous Wallcreeper, which has a relatively high population density in this most scenic of areas. It may take us some time to spot one against the immense limestone walls of the gorge, but we should eventually succeed.

Each evening we will have an opportunity to wait for Brown Bears at the hides in the Harghita area. There are estimated to be between 22-24 Brown Bears in the Harghita area and at this season an average of three or more visit each hide on a daily basis! Food is put out at a reasonable distance from the hides and we can wait in fair comfort for the bears to appear around sunset. We have a good chance of some really wonderful views of these splendid creatures.

Hungary & Transylvania: Day 7  Today we will head back towards the Hungary border. During our return journey across Transylvania we will stop off briefly in the town of Sighisoara and visit the home-in-exile of Vlad Dracula, a 15th century Romanian ruler displaced by the invading Ottoman Turks, who gained a notorious reputation for bloodthirsty behaviour and was later the inspiration for the modern ‘vampire’ legend. We will also visit the Remete gorge where Eurasian Crag Martins can often be seen. After crossing into Hungary we will continue to Nádudvar, in the heart of the Hortobágy National Park, for a three nights stay. We will stop along the way in an area of parkland to look for Short-toed Treecreeper. We should arrive in the Hortobágy in time for some initial exploration.

Hungary & Transylvania: Days 8-9  The Great Hungarian Plain was at one time, millions of years ago, part of an inland sea and even today has many plants that are normally associated with coastal areas. The grasslands of the steppe, or puszta, are dotted here and there with bright patches of purple, yellow and white flowers.

This is Great Bustard country par excellence, for these spectacular but endangered birds find conditions here exactly to their liking. Despite their bulk they can be surprisingly difficult to locate and even in flat and open country they can mysteriously metamorphose into large thistles, rocks or other unlikely objects. We will visit one of the prime areas where we should find a number of these leviathans of the steppe and we may well come across an adult male with its head sticking out of some tall grass and may be close enough to admire his hussar-like moustaches.

Stone-curlews crouch nervously among the herbage, a Tawny Pipit may scurry across a bare area and Northern Wheatears seem to perch on every vantage point. Here we may well see sousliks (ground squirrels), the favourite prey of many of the local raptors and gypsies alike, and especially the magnificent Sakers that they support.

Another speciality of the area is the delightful Red-footed Falcon and we will visit a colony of these attractive birds which make extensive use of old Rook nests, sometimes having to delay their breeding until the original owners have finished with them! They are quite a common sight, either perched on roadside wires or hovering over fields searching for insects. Even a few Long-legged Buzzards occur in the area, although they can be hard to find.

In the damper sections of the plain Black-tailed Godwits nest, and Western Marsh and Montagu’s Harriers patrol overhead. Some 500 pairs of Aquatic Warblers breed here, in an isolated population, and we will enjoy a rare opportunity to see this skulking species on its breeding grounds. The birds nest close to the ground, but just sufficiently raised up to lessen the danger of being trampled on by itinerant cattle. The males sing from the tops of the taller grasses, often giving superb views. Even some wintering Common Cranes are likely to be found lingering on in the area.

The many fishponds and some newly created saline lakes provide superb habitat for numerous waterbirds. Red-necked and Black-necked Grebes swim and dive in areas of open water, Garganeys and Ferruginous Ducks keep nervously to the reedy edges, Little Bitterns creep up reed stalks and Great Bitterns boom unseen from inside the reedbeds, only occasionally flying from one hidden corner to another. Eurasian Spoonbills are constantly passing overhead and Purple, Squacco and Black-crowned Night Herons, as well as Little and Great Egrets, are all present in some numbers, while a few Pygmy Cormorants are greatly outnumbered by their larger cousins. In the more open areas, Pied Avocets and Black-winged Stilts are to be found, whilst Whiskered, White-winged and Black Terns dip gracefully as they pick up small insects from the surface of the water.

Great Reed Warblers sing stridently from the tops of reed stems and the countless European Reed and Sedge Warblers, numbers of Marsh Warblers and the occasional Savi’s Warbler or dapper Moustached Warbler, all create an avian cacophony which is supplemented by a medley of sound from various amphibians including the mournful-sounding Fire-bellied Toad. Bearded Reedlings move noisily around the reedbeds, Bluethroats skulk in the sedges, Eurasian Penduline Tits call insistently from waterside bushes and River Warblers utter their insect-like songs. With just a bit of luck we will find a Little Crake nervously creeping along the water’s edge.

Other species we are likely to encounter during our visit to the Hortobágy include Little and Great Crested Grebes, Great Cormorant, Grey Heron, Eurasian Wigeon, Gadwall, Common Teal, Mallard, Northern Shoveler, Common Pochard, Tufted Duck, Common Moorhen, Common (or Eurasian) Coot, Common Ringed Plover, Northern Lapwing, Little and Temminck’s Stints, Dunlin, Eurasian Curlew, Spotted and Common Redshanks, Common Greenshank, Wood and Common Sandpipers, Little, Black-headed and Yellow-legged Gulls, Common Tern, Little Owl, Common Swift, Blue-headed Wagtail, Whinchat, Western Jackdaw and Common Reed Bunting. Many migrants are moving through the area at this time of year, so we have a good chance of a surprise or two.

Hungary & Transylvania: Day 10  After some final birding in the Hortobágy, we will return to Budapest airport, where our Hungary & Transylvania birding tour ends around midday.

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HUNGARY & TRANSYLVANIA TOUR REPORT 2015

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HUNGARY & TRANSYLVANIA TOUR REPORT 2013

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Other central and southern Europe birding tours by Birdquest include:

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Europe & Surroundings

HUNGARY’S HORTOBÁGY