The Hungarian Hortobágy is one of Eastern Europe’s truly great bird areas. Some of the continent’s rarest species make this their home - and a late autumn visit here is hard to beat! In November, the sweeping steppe grasslands, woodlands and reed-fringed lakes of Hungary’s most famous National Park are a vital staging post for huge numbers of passage migrants and winter visitors too, streaming south to escape the onset of the harsh Russian winter further north.
From October onwards, numbers of winter wildfowl continue to build on the plains, where for a few short weeks every autumn they are joined by legions of trumpeting Common Cranes, pausing here to rest and ‘refuel’ as they journey south to their winter quarters in Northern Africa.
With them from the north come skeins of wild geese. The majority of those arriving now will have bred on the vast, open Russian taiga. The largest flocks will consist of Russian White-fronted Geese, but we should see Eastern Greylag and Taiga Bean Geese, too. Best of all, with the help of our expert local guides and contacts, we will seek small flocks of immaculate Red-breasted Geese - in November, sometimes numbering more than 100 birds. And with careful scanning, we hope to find the rare Lesser White-fronted Goose among them, too. Set against a backdrop glowing red with the last rays of sun, the stirring sight and sound of the goose flocks here is an experience never to be forgotten.
The Hortobágy’s extensive grasslands support significant populations of rodents, notably the squirrel-like European Souslik. These in turn attract numerous birds of prey - and November is an excellent month to look for them. Eastern Imperial and Greater Spotted Eagles, Rough-legged Buzzard, Goshawk, Merlin and Saker ... we have seen them all here in autumn.
The Hortobágy also boasts many fine wetlands. Here we may see the immense White-tailed Eagle, spreading panic amongst the gatherings of winter wildfowl - and often causing them to take flight in huge, swarming flocks. Great and Pygmy Cormorants, Ferruginous Duck, Eurasian Bittern, Great Egret, and Bearded and Penduline Tits are also resident, while for any ‘larophiles’ amongst us there are Caspian and Yellow-legged Gulls to check through and get to grips with. Much easier to identify (although you need local knowledge to find them) are Long-eared Owls, already gathering in significant numbers at their favoured 'winter' roosts across the Hortobágy.
On the edge of the steppe, in freshly cut fields of alfalfa, Great Bustards will already be gathered in post-breeding flocks. With the fields laid bare, late autumn is a good time to look for this large but elusive resident. A November visit also adds chances of seeing Syrian Woodpecker and the solitary Great Grey Shrike along with some of the region’s more unusual wintering passerines. Although their appearance here is somewhat unpredictable, surprisingly, these can include Snow and Lapland Buntings - and even Twite.
To round off our stay in eastern Hungary, we’ll pay a visit to nearby Debrecen Great Wood, where there are plenty of trails for us to explore. Come early November, the autumnal forests of oak, beech, hornbeam and cherry are not only a glorious sight to behold, but we could also find Short-toed Treecreeper, Hawfinch and up to five species of woodpecker, including Middle Spotted and Black.
What more could you possibly want from a late autumn birdwatching break?