Ural Owl, Saker, Eastern Imperial Eagle and most of the European woodpeckers, Hungary, May 14th-17th

Ural Owl, Zemplen Hills, Hungary, May 15th.
Ural Owl, Zemplen Hills, Hungary, May 15th.

For my “stag do” (or “bachelor party” as it is known in the US), I decided upon the rather unconventional choice of a four-day birding trip to Hungary. My best man is just as keen a birder as I am, and with lifetime Western Palearctic lists for the both of us comfortably in the mid-500s, we are on the stage of “mopping up” one or two birds here and there, having seen the vast majority of what there is to see in Europe. Hungary seemed like a good choice for a long weekend, offering both of us the chance of Saker Falcon, while I needed Ural Owl and Tim was targeting Eastern Imperial Eagle. In addition, mid May would offer some excellent forest and wetland birds, with nine woodpecker species likely, and a spectacular birding bonanza in the marshes of the Hortobagy.

Tim made the arrangements through Saker Tours, and we were generally very impressed, both with the Zemplen Hills bird guide and the quality of the accommodations.

Lying down, listening for River Warbler and Corncrake and .... zzzzzzzzzz.
Lying down, listening for River Warbler and Corncrake and …. zzzzzzzzzz.

Day One: We picked up our rental car at Budapest airport and headed east. A rest stop along the main M3 motorway, about an hour from the airport, is frequently mentioned in the gen as being a good spot to try for Eastern Imperial Eagle. We spent an hour here and finally came away with superb views of a near-adult, which passed almost over our heads, at one point being mobbed by a ringtail Hen Harrier. This was our only Eastern Imperial Eagle of the trip, so making a stop here proved to be well worthwhile.

We also saw a single Montagu’s Harrier from the motorway, and this also proved to be our sole sighting of this species, which surprised us as we expected this species to be fairly common. Western Marsh Harriers, on the other hand, were abundant in many habitat types.

Gardens, hills and woods near our overnight accommodation in a small village near the Zemplen hills provided many of the common species of Hungary, including White Stork, Crested Lark, Black Redstart, Hawfinch, Red-backed Shrike and Corn Bunting.

Day Two: We picked up our guide at 7am, and birded various locations in the Zemplen hills. The lower levels of these hills are covered in vineyards and orchards, which give way to unspoiled beech, oak and hornbeam forests higher up. Early on, we lucked out on superb views of a Lesser Spotted Eagle, sometimes a tricky bird to find. Our first stop in some mature forest was productive for woodpeckers, with White-backed Woodpecker at its nest hole, a pair of Black Woodpeckers coming in to imitations of their call, and a pair of Middle Spotted Woodpeckers feeding young. Collared Flycatchers were singing, but proved extremely hard to catch sight of in the dense canopy. We heard this species frequently, but my only sightings all day were a briefly seen female, and a male glimpsed in flight.

The highlight of the day – and the trip – was without a doubt the magnificent Ural Owl. Only four nestboxes are occupied in the whole of the Zemplen hills this year – compared to up to 50 in good years – so a guide is essential if you want to find one. We scored with not only a magnificent female in trees near the nest, but also brief flight views of the male in nearby forest. A bird I won’t forget in a while and certainly one of my “birds of the year” so far.

Later in the day we stopped at a quarry, where three well-grown Eagle Owl nestlings were showing, but neither of the parents seemed to be around. A singing Barred Warbler gave us the runaround near the quarry, but we saw many others of this species at another location near Tokay. One bird we heard quite often but never managed to see was River Warbler, so unfortunately it cannot go on my year list ….. it’s 17 years since I had good views of this species, in Germany.

We drove south to the Hortobagy, and arrived shortly before dark, just in time to be shown to a Eurasian Scops Owl nest box, complete with calling male at the entrance – owl species number three for the day.

The marshes at Hortobagy-Halasto, a fantastic area for wetland birds.
The marshes at Hortobagy-Halasto, a fantastic area for wetland birds.

Days Three and Four: We focused on the Hortobagy marshes, especially the accessible area at Hortobagy-Halasto. In the afternoon of the first day, we were taken to a restricted area where a Red-footed Falcon colony made for interesting viewing. During the course of the afternoon here, we enjoyed five sightings of a huge subadult female Saker Falcon as it hunted for sousliks in the area – which, along with the arctic-dwelling Gyrfalcon, is probably Europe’s most impressive falcon. Also here, a distant Long-legged Buzzard, a pair of Black Storks, and several Lesser Grey Shrikes.

The marshes themselves were nothing short of spectacular, with many species of ducks, herons, and reed bed birds. Of particular interest were abundant singing Bluethroats and Savi’s Warblers, a passage Marsh Warbler seen well, Moustached Warbler and Penduline Tit, a big gathering of ten White-tailed Eagles, a Great Bittern in flight, breeding Red-necked and Black-necked Grebes, gulls including a lone adult Slender-billed and breeding Caspians, and passage waders including both Temminck’s and Little Stints.

Lifers: Saker Falcon, Ural Owl (total 1,903).

Western Palearctic tick: Eastern Imperial Eagle (total 528).

2015 World Year List: 711

Cows on the "puszta" on the Hortobagy.
Cows on the “puszta” on the Hortobagy.

Hungary Trip List:

  1. Great Crested Grebe
  2. Red-necked Grebe
  3. Black-necked Grebe
  4. Little Grebe
  5. Great Cormorant
  6. Pygmy Cormorant
  7. Great Bittern
  8. Black-crowned Night Heron
  9. Squacco Heron
  10. Little Egret
  11. Great Egret
  12. Grey Heron
  13. Purple Heron
  14. White Stork
  15. Black Stork
  16. Eurasian Spoonbill
  17. Mute Swan
  18. Greylag Goose
  19. Common Shelduck
  20. Mallard
  21. Gadwall
  22. Pintail
  23. Northern Shoveler
  24. Common Teal
  25. Eurasian Wigeon
  26. Garganey
  27. Common Pochard
  28. Ferruginous Duck
  29. Tufted Duck
  30. White-tailed Eagle
  31. Eastern Imperial Eagle
  32. Lesser Spotted Eagle
  33. Short-toed Eagle
  34. Black Kite
  35. Western Marsh Harrier
  36. Hen Harrier
  37. Montagu’s Harrier
  38. Long-legged Buzzard
  39. Common Buzzard
  40. European Honey-Buzzard
  41. Eurasian Sparrowhawk
  42. Common Kestrel
  43. Eurasian Hobby
  44. Red-footed Falcon
  45. Saker Falcon
  46. Common Quail (H)
  47. Ring-necked Pheasant
  48. Common Moorhen
  49. Eurasian Coot
  50. Common Crane
  51. Eurasian Oystercatcher
  52. Pied Avocet
  53. Black-winged Stilt
  54. Little Ringed Plover
  55. Northern Lapwing
  56. Dunlin
  57. Sanderling
  58. Curlew Sandpiper
  59. Little Stint
  60. Temminck’s Stint
  61. Wood Sandpiper
  62. Common Redshank
  63. Eurasian Curlew
  64. Black-headed Gull
  65. Slender-billed Gull
  66. Common Gull
  67. Little Gull
  68. Caspian Gull
  69. Yellow-legged Gull
  70. Black Tern
  71. White-winged Tern
  72. Whiskered Tern
  73. Common Tern
  74. Feral Pigeon
  75. Woodpigeon
  76. Stock Dove
  77. Turtle Dove
  78. Collared Dove
  79. Eurasian Cuckoo
  80. Eagle Owl
  81. Ural Owl
  82. Eurasian Scops Owl
  83. Common Swift
  84. Hoopoe
  85. European Roller
  86. Black Woodpecker
  87. Grey-headed Woodpecker
  88. Great Spotted Woodpecker
  89. Syrian Woodpecker
  90. Middle Spotted Woodpecker
  91. Lesser Spotted Woodpecker
  92. White-backed Woodpecker
  93. Eurasian Wryneck
  94. Eurasian Skylark
  95. Crested Lark
  96. Woodlark
  97. Sand Martin
  98. House Martin
  99. Barn Swallow
  100. White Wagtail
  101. Yellow Wagtail
  102. Eurasian Wren
  103. European Robin
  104. Rufous Nightingale
  105. Bluethroat
  106. Common Redstart
  107. Black Redstart
  108. Northern Wheatear
  109. Whinchat
  110. Common Stonechat
  111. Song Thrush
  112. Blackbird
  113. Barred Warbler
  114. Blackcap
  115. Lesser Whitethroat
  116. Common Whitethroat
  117. Sedge Warbler
  118. Moustached Warbler
  119. Savi’s Warbler
  120. River Warbler (H)
  121. Reed Warbler
  122. Marsh Warbler
  123. Great Reed Warbler
  124. Icterine Warbler
  125. Willow Warbler (H)
  126. Wood Warbler
  127. Chiffchaff
  128. Spotted Flycatcher
  129. Collared Flycatcher
  130. Great Tit
  131. Blue Tit
  132. Marsh Tit
  133. Long-tailed Tit
  134. Bearded Tit
  135. Eurasian Penduline Tit
  136. Eurasian Nuthatch
  137. Red-backed Shrike
  138. Lesser Grey Shrike
  139. Common Magpie
  140. Eurasian Jay
  141. Western Jackdaw
  142. Rook
  143. Hooded Crow
  144. Common Raven
  145. Common Starling
  146. Golden Oriole
  147. House Sparrow
  148. Tree Sparrow
  149. Chaffinch
  150. Linnet
  151. European Goldfinch
  152. European Greenfinch
  153. Serin
  154. Northern Bullfinch
  155. Hawfinch
  156. Common Reed Bunting
  157. Yellowhammer
  158. Corn Bunting
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