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.