That Kondor Moment
Concluding the account of our trip to Hungary…
Day 5 – 28 May
Gábor was working on construction of a water level feeding station in the pond this morning, so the pre-breakfast stroll concentrated on moths. A simple tap on any stand of vegetation was likely to disturb a few insects from their daytime hiding place allowing closer scrutiny. Among the many micros too small or mobile to photograph and/or identify we did see several pyralids, a white plume moth, magpie moth, heart and dart together with a rather splendid and boldly-marked speckled yellow. An encouraging start to what promised to be a most exciting day.
White Plume Moth
A party of ringers had arrived at the lodge from the Czech Republic to spend the weekend investigating the contents of some 300 nest boxes they had placed on telegraph poles and other suitable sites throughout the park. The essence of this programme, which is undertaken on a purely voluntary basis, is to increase the breeding population of rollers and it has been a resounding success. Although rollers are the main occupants of the boxes, they do also attract a variety of other species. We asked whether we could tag along for a little while and were welcomed with gusto.
Amid vast fields of swaying grasses and wild flowers we spent the morning following the ringing group as they checked on various boxes. We were even allowed to climb a ladder to take a peek at a group of well grown little owls that glared at us with baleful yellow eyes as we gazed down at them with a sense of privilege.
Inspecting a Little Owl Nestbox
Being out there in the unspoiled Puszta was an experience almost beyond the ken of a modern day UK based naturalist. The sheer profusion of plant and insect life was overwhelming. Sitting here back at home typing this account, it is not easy to convey the sense of abundance. Suffice to say anyone with an interest in botany or entomology could spend hours here discovering its inhabitants with a big smile on their faces. Over the course of the week we certainly did.
Crab Spider With Bee
Mother Shipton Moth
It was time to leave the ringers to their long, tiring work. Handshakes all round and we were off heading north to explore another aspect of the park. But hang on, what’s that bird floating lazily over the sward? Binoculars rose hurriedly to reveal a most handsome male Montagu’s harrier. And what’s that smaller, pale bird on the wires. Tawny pipit. Another raptor, no two, three! A pair of honey buzzards and a common buzzard. And that bird on the fencepost? A stunning male cuckoo with another further along. What with those birds as well as corn buntings, turtle doves and hoopoes arresting our attention, progress was sometimes blissfully slow.
The Czech Ringing Team
Montagu's Harrier - Beautiful
Our first target site for the afternoon was an area of wild flower strewn high ground, a man-made island in fact, created as a refuge when in historic times the whole flood plain of central Hungary was periodically under water. From here we had a commanding view for miles over a modern sea of grasses that rippled and flowed in the breeze to create an ever moving vista. While munching our sandwiches and gooey cakes we scanned the skies for raptors. First up a close flyover common buzzard. Next, among the sprinkling of more remote buzzards, a larger more robust bird appeared spiralling on wide oblong wings, long primaries fingered for effortless flight. The bird was distant, but through the scope its diagnostic projecting head shape and golden sheen revealed it to be an imperial eagle. How lucky was that? We watched the progress of this bird for some time but unfortunately it didn’t come close enough for a really good look. No matter, for upon retracing our steps back down to the minibus a saker falcon, complete with souslik clasped in its strong talons, sped past; no doubt heading back to its insatiable young somewhere close to.
Next stop was at a bee-eater colony nesting in a low sandy wall. Sitting quietly on the opposite bank gave us a marvellous opportunity to watch these incredibly agile birds at close quarters. As always at these kind of wildlife spectacles it takes a little while to settle down and fully appreciate what is going on, there is so much action that it is sometimes difficult to know where to look. At this time of year most of the bee-eater nests have eggs and the off duty birds were busy collecting food items to deliver to their incubating mates. Some were still engaging in courtship rituals, perched side by side with a food present, a dragonfly or on one occasion a red admiral butterfly, being offered by the male. Trying to photograph birds in flight is always a challenge, especially so when they are so close and so swift. But it is always a privilege and great fun. Not wishing to disturb the colony unduly we crept back to the minibus after 15 minutes and left these beautiful birds to their domestic duties.
Another Norfolk Hawker Bites the Dust!
Farther along the quiet roadway Gábor pulled the minibus to a halt to point out a majestic male great bustard he had somehow noticed posing on the edge of a field of corn. Through the scope the wide neck and great size of this bird could be fully appreciated. Another target bird we had been promised safely in the bag. We were doing rather well here, so well in fact that we decided a reward would be in order.
A few minutes later five hot, sweaty, binocular and camera-draped birders could be found contentedly eating a generous helping of refreshingly cold, calorie-laden ice cream in the nearby village. We attracted a few polite and inquisitive glances but not anything like the stir a local wedding party was creating. We soaked up this burst of local culture and colour which seemed to involve most of the village, parading the newlyweds up and down the main street in a horse-drawn carriage. With the sun blazing down, the wedding party properly photographed and our stomachs pleasantly full, we felt able to resume our explorations.
The Wedding Party
A paper chase of gulls following a plough included a single Mediterranean gull as we drove along more dusty tracks towards an area of large reed fringed fish ponds. Slow driving and frequent stops at likely spots allowed close views of great reed warbler and purple heron before we eventually reached a pond which had recently been drained to reveal a large expanse of mud. This pond contained literally hundreds of birds of many species, herons, geese, waders and terns. Special sightings here included ferruginous duck, good numbers of red-crested pochards, a few immature little gulls, black terns and a lovely summer plumaged grey plover. All too soon our time was up and we left the area to its reeling Savi’s warblers and clattering great reed warblers to drive back to Kondor Lodge, tired and happy, for yet another sumptuous home cooked meal and then bed for well-earned slumber.
Day 6 – 29 May
Our pre-breakfast stroll took us to the area across the road from Kondor Lodge where even at this early hour the sunshine was warm enough to tempt many butterflies to begin their day. Some of these hung motionless from grass stems, small droplets of dew clinging to their wings and antennae, waiting for their bodies to heat sufficiently for them to take wing. And all around the bee-eaters, red-backed shrikes and golden orioles sang and fed. The most interesting incident was the distinct booming of a bittern which came from the lowest, and presumably dampest, area of the old lake bed. Perhaps water is slowly returning to Lake Kondor after all.
Lesser-spotted Fritillary - I Think!
Oberthur's Grizzled Skipper - I Think!
The main portion of the day was spent exploring a lake very much filled with water. Lake Kolon has been subject to a large restoration project with extensive areas of dense reed cover cleared to create a richer diversity of wetland habitats. We were taken by a boat fitted with a quiet electric motor along a tranquil channel covered in white water lilies – a sure sign of good water quality – to the main lake area to see for ourselves how the lake has been rejuvenated.
Honeyguide Wildlife Charitable Trust is a proud supporter of the researchers here, working as part of the Kiskunság Bird Protection Association, who undertake an intensive ringing program for various species, particularly the moustached warbler whose migratory patterns have until recently been poorly documented. The ringers set up to a mile of mist nets among the reed beds during the season, and have already had several ringing recoveries which is beginning to build a picture of the migration routes and wintering areas of these vulnerable birds. It is hoped that data gathered in this way will help to conserve the habitats in key staging posts and the wintering grounds themselves.
We were hoping to catch sight of a moustached warbler today, but sadly that was not to be. The reed beds did hold several species whose squeaks and warblings constantly accompanied our progress, but the lake itself was noticeably devoid of birds. We saw not a single duck, goose, grebe, gull or tern. A rather unexpected and eerie situation. We questioned our guide about this and discussed the potential problems of eutrophication (as applies to much of the Norfolk Broads), pollution, predation and such like but all parties seem mystified as to why the seemingly perfect nesting, breeding and feeding spot has been abandoned. Apparently for the first two years after the restoration work the lake was teeming with all kinds of birds; now nothing. The contrast is stark. The main theory at present is that there are many large predatory fish in the lake which effectively harvest young water birds. That may be a partial explanation as regards the smaller breeding species but would not seem to explain the total absence of loafing non-breeding geese or feeding terns, for example. Let’s hope research can shed light on this problem and a remedy found because it is otherwise a fascinating area with great potential.
Once back on dry land we spent some time on our walk back to base in search of dragonflies and butterflies. In this we were quite successful and had close encounters with a lovely yellow-spotted whiteface and more familiar four-spotted chasers and Norfolk hawkers. Butterflies came in the form of various browns, skippers and fritillaries including several newly emerged and pristine cardinal fritillaries – stunning insects – that were busy supping from the mineral-rich soils. The common name of this species is derived from the blaze of red found on the underwing but they are fast and strong flyers making photography something of a challenge.
Onwards then to another vast area of mixed dry and wet Puszta, where from a high wooden tower we could watch a colony of red-footed falcons at very close quarters. The birds had of course seen us arrive and those closest to the platform flew around calling in protest at our invasion of their space. Not wishing to overly stress the birds, we didn’t linger too long here, but long enough to have another excellent encounter with a great bustard as well as watching those simply beautiful falcons swooping with easy grace over the meadows. I snapped away for all I was worth and obtained some of the best images I’ve ever managed of a bird of prey. If that isn’t worthy of a big smile I don’t know what is. Well, maybe a lesser grey shrike sitting atop a dead branch, or a red-backed shrike glowing in the afternoon sun, maybe the rollers that lit up the sky as they flushed from roadside wires or perhaps the common buzzard and white stork looking for easy prey in a recently harvested field? All these we encountered on our drive back to base to conclude another exceptional day of wildlife watching. It was sometimes almost too much.
Male Red-footed Falcon
Day 7 – 30 May
The week had been full of incident and interest, and the heat at times intense. Over breakfast we discussed today’s plans with Gábor (always accommodating of our requests and very flexible), and decided we would actually quite like to spend a little time in and around the grounds of Kondor Lodge. It always seemed so peaceful here but we had not really had time to simply relax and fully absorb its ambience. Gábor was very happy with this idea and devised an itinerary that allowed a short drive in the morning and most of the afternoon relaxing at Kondor.
But first we went in search of local owls that inhabit the higher ground of what used to be Lake Kondor. Here there are stands of small trees and shrubs together with a dilapidated and abandoned fisherman’s cottage. Abandoned that is except for a pair of little owls that have found the thatched roof and eaves much to their liking. We saw one bird perched conspicuously on the roof as we approached, and also discovered the likely nest hole. No obvious sign of young birds though. We also looked in vain for a long-eared owl that last year nested close by, but had to content ourselves instead with watching a pair of yellow wagtails (blue-headed race flava) hawking insects over the waving fields of steppe grass. A quite acceptable second prize.
Our local drive took us once again over wide areas of Puszta to a local farm where we were able to sit in the shade, sip locally-produced, fragrant white wine, indulge in ample supplies of a local bread supplied by the farm owners and generally bask in a slice of yesteryear. I found the whole complex quite nostalgic, reminding me vividly of the kind of places my friends and I used to ramble around as children. Rustic barns where swallows dived in to feed their young in mud nests sited on the cross beams, shady corners where wagtails, flycatchers and black redstarts fixed us with a wary eye, wildflower patches where butterflies tripped among the blooms and over all a sweltering sky of blue.
In keeping with the plan, we spent the afternoon lazing around the grounds of the Lodge looking for dragonflies and frogs in the pond, listening to the golden orioles serenade us and dozing in the soporific summer warmth. A beer or two may have contributed to the inability to keep our eyes open.
Day 8 – 31 May
Our flights back to the UK did not leave until the afternoon allowing us a leisurely breakfast and an unhurried drive back to Budapest. We even had time to visit the bee-eater nesting cliff, and this time we were able to use the minibus as a hide and therefore stay a little longer. I cannot get enough of bee-eaters and their colourful presence will remain an abiding memory of this holiday.
I would urge anybody with a love of wildlife and wild places to visit Hungary. The people are most friendly, the cuisine wholesome, healthy and satisfying, the sense of space and timelessness priceless. Thank you Honeyguide for a very enjoyable, informative and relaxing holiday. Thanks to Gábor and Andrea for their hospitality and guidance, and thanks to the birds, butterflies, plants and other colourful creatures for gorging our senses. It really was, literally, a most welcome breath of fresh air.