East and West
Continuing the account of our recent trip to Hungary……..
Day 3 – 26 MayToday’s pre-breakfast stroll revealed a family party of black redstarts that had recently nested on one of the Lodge’s roof supports together with a lovely spotted flycatcher in the process of doing the same. As I pulled back the cloth flap of the pond hide I disturbed a large grass snake that had been resting in the cool interior. That specimen slithered away before I could have a closer look, but several newly hatched individuals provided very close encounters as they swam in the shallows and sometimes investigated the dark opening to the hide. On more than one occasion I had to give them a gentle tap to discourage them actually entering; I was more concerned for their safety than mine. These bright, inquisitive creatures provided great entertainment as they silently explored every niche of the pond surround, while the nightingales, golden orioles and hoopoe enriched the scene with their song.
The main focus of the day was exploration of the oxbow lakes of the River Tisza that lay some way to the east. Our first activity here was to spend a pleasant hour or so slowly walking through well-preserved woodland looking for woodpeckers amid the towering oak, poplar and ash. It wasn’t long before we had satisfying views of both Syrian and middle spotted woodpeckers that nest commonly in natural holes in the impressive stands of mature trees. We also were lucky to be able to watch a pair of great spotted woodpeckers feeding young in a nest cavity close to the track. Wood warbler, short-toed treecreeper and of course the ever-present nightingales were welcome. The swarming mosquitoes were not.
Once out of the forest, a short walk across a damp meadow rich in wild flowers – meadow buttercups, ragged robin, cotton grass and yellow flag iris – led us to a raised platform from which we had a commanding view across a clear oxbow lake, richly carpeted with flowering lilies. The scene was one of intense activity with masses of whiskered terns gathering nesting material and hawking insects all around. These dainty marsh inhabitants danced around us allowing close appreciation of their silver-grey plumage offset by jet black underparts. Lovely creatures. Dabbling among the prolific water plants were small numbers of ferruginous ducks, two drake garganeys, fishing purple herons and the special bird we had come to see: the pygmy cormorant. These diminutive fishermen seem to be expanding their range in this region and certainly seemed at home feeding in the rich freshwaters of the lake.
From our elevated vantage point we had the ability to scan the skies through 360 degrees. The ability to pick up moving objects over a considerable distance allowed us to add an immature white-tailed eagle soaring over the river valley, common and honey buzzard, kestrel, black stork and marsh harrier to our growing day list. On one occasion a lovely female marsh harrier came very close to the watchtower providing exceptional views. Such majestic birds.
We ate lunch in the shady tranquillity of a local churchyard. Here we noticed large numbers of bright red firebugs gathered on the weathered stone, as well as being able to see cardinal fritillaries flying strongly over the sun-dappled grass. In the quiet area behind the church we were able to at last get good views of an obliging male golden oriole and a pair of lesser spotted woodpeckers feeding newly fledged young.
Golden Oriole - At Last!
Newly Fledged Lesser-spotted Woodpecker
As the afternoon progressed we were treated to the sight of saker falcons nesting in a box specially placed on a tall electricity pylon. With the aid of a telescope we were able to see an adult and two young panting in the stifling heat. This was a privileged sighting made all the more poignant due to its surroundings. There we were watching such uncommon birds while all around us fields of corn rippled in the afternoon breeze. But these fields were not like those at home. Here they were full of wildflowers: cornflowers, corn cockles and swathes of bright scarlet poppies with fritillaries, skippers and painted ladies dancing above. Was it once like this back home? If so we have surely lost so much and are the poorer for it.
Day 4 – 27 MayWe headed west today, firstly to investigate a number of small ponds where red-footed falcons hawked dragonflies and the ubiquitous nightingales blasted forth from every tangle of dense scrub. Our main quarry here was nesting penduline tits, but unfortunately a party of local fishermen had set up camp beneath the nesting tree. Undeterred, Gábor engaged the chaps in conversation, pointing out the nest and the need to allow the birds a bit of peace and quiet. The message was gracefully received and we all stood watching these masked architects put the finishing touches to their work of art, a masterpiece of woven aspen seed heads. Many smiles ensued with promises to look after the birds.
Penduline Tit's Nest
At this site we were lucky to encounter a lesser purple emperor butterfly and some banded demoiselle damselflies that lazily flapped around the reed fringed margins of the ponds. The reeds themselves held a good population of great reed warblers that despite much patience failed to show themselves. And all around courting golden orioles fluted high in the poplars and sometimes offering a glimpse as they chased one another through the sun-dappled canopy.
Lesser Purple Emperor
Across the road from these ponds lies an area of vast open Puszta comprising lush grasslands interspersed with shallow saline and freshwater lakes, some of significant size. We took a leisurely lunch in a small picnic zone beside Böddi-szék, a large waterbody housing a number of small reed fringed islands. Another watchtower gave an opportunity to scan over a wide area for birds and other wildlife. By this method we could log spoonbill, black-winged stilt, avocet, redshank and a beautiful pair of black-necked grebes in full summer garb. The grasslands around the picnic site held a large variety of wild flowers and insects; many butterflies, beetles and crickets. These provide a banquet for the squadrons of swallows and sand martins nesting in the area as well as an important food source for the next species we saw at close quarters, the simply stunning red-footed falcons.
Being a mainly open habitat, the scattered groups of stunted and dying trees provide much sought after nesting sites for a variety of predatory birds. To assist with breeding success, the park wardens have allowed nest boxes to be set up in suitably undisturbed spots which have proved to be very popular not only with the red-footed falcons but also kestrels and owls. At one such location, we parked the minibus and sat patiently watching the antics of these avian delights. We had excellent views of both male and female red-footed falcons at the nest and once again were surprised to see Norfolk hawker dragonflies as a regular prey item. A stunning pair of rollers engaged in a loud, grating bout of courtship nearby and a pair of kestrels fed their well grown young. Such a treat to be so close to these animals and watch them intimately go about their lives.
While we were sitting unobtrusively at this spot we delighted in hearing a bittern booming from a nearby reed bed and were also fortunate enough to catch sight of squacco heron, purple heron, great white egret and white stork. With whiskered terns gracefully twisting over the shallows in search of emergent insects we left the grasslands to visit an area of total contrast.
The National Park is full of surprises, none more so than the juxtaposition of seemingly incompatible habitats. How can an area of lush verdant wetland be bordered by an area of dry, shifting sand? But such is the case here with a few minutes’ drive bringing us to the latter zone baking in the afternoon heat. The Fulophaza sand dune system is one of great ecological and geographical importance containing a variety of specialist plants and insects that have adapted to this ever changing landscape. But sadly it is under threat from a number of alien invasives, especially the milkweed, an introduction from North America. There it is a revered plant, preserved due to its association with the monarch, or milkweed, butterfly; here it is an unchecked pest which dominates large areas of disturbed ground to the detriment of all other plant life. Large areas of the drier Kiskunság are now being colonized by this unwelcome intruder and little seems to be happening to prevent its spread. Highlights of our circular walk were large numbers of the southern festoon caterpillar, crested lark, a singing woodlark, yellowhammer and once again those cheeky golden orioles chasing one another through the poplar stands.
Such is the wealth of wildlife here though that no drive along the sparsely populated roads is without interest and just before we reached the lodge Gábor brought the minibus to a halt so we could admire a close up view of a charming souslik. These little rodents, a kind of ground squirrel, are common inhabitants of the more cropped areas where they can frequently be seen standing on their back legs, meerkat style, as they keep a watchful eye out for the ever present buzzards, kestrels, sakers and harriers. We had encountered several of them on previous drives, but none so close as this particular individual. With its large dark eyes constantly scanning the skies for those hungry birds we could watch the animal feed on the abundant grasses before it disappeared from view, diving into an unseen burrow and sanctuary. A large buzzard was patrolling the field.
Once weary but happily back to base a further surprise awaited us in the form of a mating pair of poplar hawkmoths. Sometimes it was simply impossible to tear yourself away from the animals.