Imagine waking up to the sound of golden orioles wolf whistling in the rustling poplars, nightingales stridently clattering behind screens of billowing ash and the ‘thrip thrip’ calls of bee-eaters slicing through the calm dawn skies. All of this bathed in golden sunlight caressing miles of dew-spangling grasslands bejewelled with myriad wild flowers. Sounds good, doesn't it? In fact almost too good to be true, but these things happened every morning of our stay in the Kiskunsȃg National Park of central Hungary. There were times when literally the only things that could be heard were the calls of wild creatures; the chirruping of crickets, the croaking of frogs and the aforementioned birdsong which provided pleasant background music all day long. There were seldom any man-made noises to intrude. But I race ahead of myself and should really begin at the beginning and recount the events of our week long Honeyguide holiday to this beautiful area as they unfurled.
Day 1 – 24 MayThere were only four participants on this trip. We rendezvoused at Budapest airport for the pick up by Gábor and Andrea who would be our hosts, guides and caterers for the duration of our stay. Unfortunately almost as soon as we loaded our cases into the minibus the heavens opened to produce a substantial downpour for the duration of our drive to Kondor Lodge, our base for the week. We did stop once or twice en-route to look at the architecture of a traditional Hungarian village and to see if we could spot a few birds, but the rain was never far away and always drove us back to the sanctuary of our wheeled transport before we had time to see much. That said, it was heartening to note that a lot of turtle doves were being flushed from the road as we progressed and there were tantalising glimpses of red-footed falcons hawking insects over the damp fields. Promises of good things to come.
Settled into our accommodation and well fed, it was time to have a quick tour of the lodge grounds in the gathering dusk hoping to catch sight of a nightjar that occasionally came to the pond to drink. No luck tonight. With the sound of crickets ringing all around and early moths floating around the grasses we retired for the night. With nothing but a nightingale breaking the silence I for one was soon soundly asleep.
I was wide awake and sitting in the sunken hide by the pond by . With the dawn came the birds: tree sparrows, greenfinches, a nuthatch and a family party of great tits tucking into the sunflower seeds liberally scattered on the bird tables. A honey buzzard caused momentary alarm when it appeared twisting through the woodland and away over the meadow and occasionally a grass snake would swim strongly from one reed lined edge to another. The highlight awaited me as I left the hide for there, sitting unmoving in a nearby ash, was a multi-hued hawfinch caught resplendent in the strengthening light. All this and it wasn't yet breakfast time.
After that leisurely meal (one virtue of Honeyguide holidays is the relaxed nature of the activities), we stepped across the road and entered a lost world; a world of yesteryear invoking visions of what the countryside at home must once have looked like before the age of intensive farming. Here in such a sparsely populated area nature held sway. Everywhere there were rafts of pastel-coloured wild flowers where butterflies danced from bloom to bloom supping the abundant nectar. Striding through the knee high sward would catapult grasshoppers in all directions and every step would disturb a moth from its daytime roost.
Our walk took us along sandy tracks where a male red-backed shrike flitted along fence posts and more golden orioles teased us from every stand of poplars where turtle doves purred their love song. It wasn't long before we came upon a small group of bee-eaters that were nesting in holes they had excavated at ground level at the edge of the track. These burrows seem very exposed and vulnerable, but extend some way laterally, ensuring the nesting chamber is out of reach of any passing vehicle. Nonetheless the colony seems most precarious but the birds more than beautiful. We were able to watch these aerial pirates hawking dragonflies and other flying insects against a pure azure sky. So colourful, so manoeuvrable and so deadly. But this is what we had come for: to see wild landscapes and wild creatures we could no longer encounter at home.
Bee-eater With Norfolk Hawker
Fritillary Species - Any Help Appreciated
Presently we arrived at what until recently would have been the shores of a sizeable lake. Lake Kondor began to mysteriously empty in 2010 and has not since refilled. Reasons for this dramatic transformation from open water to open grassland are unclear, but some disturbance to the fragile geology of the site would seem likely. In any event where once water birds; terns, herons, wildfowl and reed dwellers abounded and lone fishermen made a tenuous living, now the gently rolling landscape is home to jangling corn buntings, hovering kestrels and bright-chested yellow wagtails, while over all skylarks pour forth their liquid symphony. In the lower lying areas reed still grows, and here great reed warblers crash out their grinding notes while marsh harriers float above. Cuckoos call from every stand of scrub and insects abound. Gábor expressed a fervent hope that one day the lake would return, but his neighbour regards the newly formed pasture as heaven sent grazing for his cattle. It is an ill wind.
It dawned on me that being of good Norfolk stock I felt very much at home in this flatland environment which reminded me very much of Broadland and the transition zone between the Norfolk & Suffolk Brecks and the Fenlands. Not totally flat and featureless like the agricultural Fens around the Wash, but rather a complex tapestry of differing habitats merging to form a rich mosaic. The soil was very sandy and most of the grassland areas dry and well drained. But an under layer of alluvial deposits facilitate the formation of small lakes and reed fringed channels interspersed with wet woodland or commercial stands of poplar. All rather pleasant, and with organic farm methods being widely employed wildlife is allowed space to thrive.
Upon completing the loop, we returned to Kondor Lodge, boarded our minibus and headed out to explore. Our afternoon turned out to be rather interesting both from a wildlife spotting perspective and also from a meteorological one. Thunderstorms were looming.
However our first visit was to an area of Puszta – a local term for large areas of steppe like grasslands – a couple of kilometres from the lodge. By slowly driving along the sandy tracks we were able to get very close to a large colony of nesting bee-eaters. These birds were busy excavating their burrows, courting, mating and generally going about their business. And we could watch it all by using the minibus as a hide. The rainbow colours of these excellent birds were seen to stunning effect when sunlit against the backdrop of brooding storm clouds. It was interesting to note that the birds were catching dragonflies in numbers, among them good numbers of Norfolk hawkers. I mentioned this to Gábor who informed us that he too refers to the insects by that name – evidence, he teased, that English should never have been adopted as a default world language.
Bee-eater - What a Stunner!
Can't Get Enough of Them
We did plan to drive around more of this habitat, but the dark, angry looking clouds were approaching fast. Plan B kicked in and we returned to the lodge for a cuppa before deciding where best to resume our trek. This turned out to be a good move since no sooner had we put cup to lips than the heavens opened to unleash a storm the likes of which we seldom see – although the last week back here in the UK has run it close. The rain simply bulleted from the sky for 30 minutes or so. Biscuits helped relieve the frustration.
Once the initial storm abated we spent the remainder of the afternoon dodging further storms by the simple expedient of aiming the minibus at any patch of blue sky. Gábor’s intimate knowledge of the area gave this strategy focus as he was able to concentrate efforts on the specialist birds and animals he knew were present. In this way we were able to obtain glimpses of black woodpeckers, and listen to the songs of both grasshopper and Savi’s warblers both reeling at the same time. A very instructive comparison. More importantly we avoided getting wet while all around torrential rain fell.
Once back at the lodge it was interesting to note the numbers of moths that had been dislodged from the thatched roofs by the rain. Several white ermines were now roosting in full view together with riband wave, yellow shell and several micros I could not identify. Later that evening another guest produced a dead clearwing species (a wasp mimic) he had discovered on the nearby track. Evidence, if any was needed, of the great diversity of life inhabiting this area.
We retired as the shadows of the poplars lowered their curtain on the day. No TV containing scenes of mayhem from around the world to worry us here. In fact not much to do at all, except reflect on the day and sink slowly like the sun into a restful slumber.