FLY BUDAPEST, TRANSFER TO KISKUNSAG NATIONAL PARK
Our summer 'Birds, Butterflies and Dragons' tour to Hungary begins with a lunchtime flight from London Heathrow to Budapest, the Hungarian capital. We shall be met on arrival by Gábor and his wife Andrea, and head south in our minibus for around 90 minutes to reach their home, Kondor Eco-Lodge. The busy airport motorway soon gives way to deserted country lanes!
We expect to arrive at the lodge in the early evening and, having checked in to our rooms, relax over the first of our lovely home-cooked Hungarian dinners, washed down perhaps with draught lager or a glass or two of the famous red wine Egri Bikavér - the bull’s blood of Eger. Set in the heart of lovely Kiskunság National Park, this tranquil lodge will be our base throughout the holiday. Night at Kondor Eco-lodge, Kiskunság National Park
KISKUNSÁG NATIONAL PARK
Our thatched lodge is situated in a small area of woodland and the grounds are cool, shady and a haven for wildlife. From our rooms we can expect to hear the fluty song of the Golden Oriole, the purring of Turtle Doves and the staccato call of Lesser Spotted Woodpecker. Black Redstarts breed on the lodge buildings, and Short-toed Treecreeper, Spotted Flycatcher and Hawfinch are all regular visitors. There will be an opportunity each day to wander in the tranquil gardens before our 8am breakfast; the dining room table will be beautifully laid out with a range of cereals, yoghurts, salads, cold meats and cheeses, home-made jam and fruit. From this sumptuous fare we make our own picnic lunches as part of our daily routine.
A short stroll along a track takes us deeper into the forest - home to Honey Buzzard, Goshawk and Black Woodpecker - then to a clearing where it is possible to see Red-backed Shrike and, perhaps, Woodlark, Wryneck or Barred Warbler. Walking in the opposite direction leads to a path alongside a large hay meadow. Here we will see our first exotic Rollers, Bee-eaters, Hoopoes and Lesser Grey Shrikes and marvel at the variety and number of birds in the area.
Unsurprisingly, on our first full day we have no need to venture far from our lodge. An area of short grassland holds good numbers of Sousliks, a hapless rodent which is the main food item of many of the local birds of prey. We visit an area where Bee-eaters nest in holes in the ground right next to the track, and these gorgeous birds allow close approach without being disturbed. They certainly decimate the local dragonfly population!
The flat grassy plains of the Hungarian puszta has several different habitat types ranging from dry grassland to marshy meadow and other birds we might see in this area include Little Owl, Corn Bunting, Crested Lark and Tawny Pipit. Quail call from time to time off the beaten track, and the concentration of Rollers in Kiskunság makes it one of the best places in Europe to observe this colourful species - the population here continuing to increase due to the tireless efforts of the local conservationists to place nestboxes in strategic places.
The roadside verges and flower-rich meadows are filled with butterflies. Our identification skills will be tested from the off by the blues with Silver-studded, Idas, Reverdin’s, Eastern Baton, Short-tailed and Eastern Short-tailed Blues amongst numerous possibilities! Pale Clouded and Eastern Pale Clouded Yellows are another difficult species pair, though separating Chestnut and Small Heaths will be rather more straightforward. Lesser Fiery Copper, Eastern Bath White, Marbled White and Wall Brown are very distinctive and we also hope to enjoy close looks at the aptly named Lesser Spotted Fritillary, one of the most sought-after butterflies of this region.
The nearest small town not only offers the chance of a coffee or cold drink but often plays host to a roosting Long-eared Owl and a pair of Syrian Woodpeckers.
After getting to grips with the wildlife near the lodge, we will head a little further afield the next day - although none of the drives are especially long, with nowhere more than an hour or so from Kondor.
The north Kiskunság is perhaps the best place to search for Great Bustards in some of the more remote puszta. The park hosts one of the biggest populations of this declining species in Europe - but perseverance and patience may still be required to find one! Although the Kiskunság is largely flat, a small man-made hill increases our chances of both spotting a bustard and scanning for raptors. We will hope to see the rare Eastern Imperial Eagle as well as a Montagu’s Harrier or two. A colony of Bee-eaters in a small quarry will allow yet more photographic opportunities before - via a well-appointed cake shop! - we make for a vast area of fishponds.
From a centrally-placed tower hide overlooking the water we may see Garganey, Ferruginous Duck and Red-crested Pochard on the water, Great Egret, Purple Heron and Marsh Harrier flying above the reeds and both Savi’s and Great Reed Warblers plus Bearded Reedlings right below us. Continuing our anticlockwise loop drive, our final stop will be a Red-footed Falcon colony. These beautiful birds breed in Rooks’ nests and, because our chosen spot is used by general tourists, the birds are used to people and allow us to observe them from remarkably close range. A White Stork nest in the vicinity is a fine example of its type and will provide a fitting end to a varied and bird-filled day.
The habitat of the western area of the Kiskunság includes an impressive area of alkaline lakes, rich in nutrients. Avocet, Black-winged Stilt and Little Ringed Plover are three of the shorebirds which breed in this area. In mid-June, most other species will be on their nesting grounds further north, but it is possible we might see late spring or early autumn migrants such as Ruff or Wood Sandpiper. Large flocks of Greylag Geese inhabit the lakes and the sight and sound of the birds taking to the air is impressive – and might also alert us to the presence of a majestic White-tailed Eagle!
Another typically Hungarian tower hide allows us to see far into the horizon - and a large covered table is the ideal place for our picnic. Pottering from here we hope to find Dark Spreadwing, a local and uncommon dragonfly which breeds exclusively in shallow coastal and inland saline wetlands. Another speciality here is the Scarce Blue-tailed Damselfly: the orange aurantiaca form of the female is so different from other damselflies as to be immediately obvious even to the untrained eye! Gábor and David were suitably excited when finding these two species on their last tour. Seeing Knapweed Fritillary on Knapweed and Mallow Skipper on Mallow provided a nice sentence for their last trip report!
A number of roadside ponds are very different in character from the salt lakes and we can expect to find Black-necked Grebes in dapper summer plumage plus noisy, nesting Whiskered Terns. The secretive Little Bittern is also possible but we may need a prolonged flight view if we are all to see one. The strikingly orange male Large Copper will stand out like a beacon in the tall grasses.
Resisting the temptation to linger near another Red-footed Falcon colony, we make a short drive to an oxbow lake surrounded by tall trees with a channel on one side. The star attraction in this area is Penduline Tit and we hope to find a pair attending their wonderfully ornate nest. Icterine Warbler breeds here and we hope that males will still be holding territory. While scanning the water’s edge might produce a Kingfisher or two (as well as a Grass Snake or European Pond Terrapin), this site is one of the best for dragonflies and we can learn to separate Southern from Common Darters and White-tailed from Black-tailed Skimmers. White-legged Damselflies are also relatively abundant here.
The floodplain of the River Tisza, on the eastern side of the Kiskunság, is pitted with oxbow lakes and the wetlands hold high concentrations of waterbirds. As we stroll slowly through an area of ‘proper forest’ en route to one of the lakes we will be on the lookout for Middle Spotted and Black Woodpeckers as well as commoner woodland species. It is possible to see both Treecreeper and Short-toed Treecreeper together in this area, one of few places in Europe where this occurs. Dryad, Common Glider, Duke of Burgundy Fritillary and Map Butterfly, along with Winter and Willow Emerald Damselflies are all possible in the rides and clearings. A lake covered in water lilies provides the perfect habitat for Whiskered Terns and Squacco Heron and a perfectly placed tower hide will allow us to observe Southern Migrant Hawkers patrolling the woodland edges. The flower-rich meadows are worthy of exploration as we strive to get to grips with all the different fritillaries, coppers, blues, darters and damselflies.
Having enjoyed our picnic in the picturesque town of Tiszaalpár, we head next to a viewpoint that will give us an idea of the sheer scale of one of the best wetland areas of this region - as well as another chance to find Syrian Woodpecker, which favours town parks, gardens and squares rather than the woodlands. Pottering down to the water’s edge, we cannot fail to be impressed by the numbers of Great and Pygmy Cormorants, Little and Great Egrets, Black-crowned Night Herons, Black-necked Grebes and Spoonbills. Scanning above the trees might reveal a party of Black Storks, or raptors such as a Short-toed Eagle or Osprey. The damper tracks can attract butterflies and we have our first chance of seeing the gorgeous Lesser Purple Emperor - a flash of colour sure to live long in the memory!
Reacquainting ourselves with one of the areas not far from our lodge will take us to a well-marked nature trail through an area of damp woodland. We have a further chance to see Black Woodpecker and Honey Buzzard here, whilst Small Emerald and Scarce Emerald Damselflies occur side-by-side to allow proper comparison. The sight of a Cardinal butterfly flashing its red underwings whilst feeding on a tall flower will certainly produce a wow and a click of the shutter! Whinchat, Grasshopper Warbler and Wheatear are possibilities from a nearby mound and it will be worth keeping a eye out for one of the local pairs of Marsh Harriers performing a food pass. A nearby open area holds nesting Barred Warbler, Tawny Pipit, Lesser Grey and Red-backed Shrikes, and we shall make a special effort to see the powerful Saker, which breed in nestboxes provided for them on pylons.
On one day we visit the reserve at Lake Kolon. A relaxing boat trip on the lake should allow us to see a plethora of dragonflies. Large White-faced Darter is the speciality here and our tour coincides with the peak time for this species. Yellow-spotted Emeralds patrol the reed edges and, out over the water, we'll enjoy Southern Migrant and Norfolk Hawkers, Lesser Emperor, Four-spotted Chaser, Scarlet Darter and Small Red-eyed Damselfly. Birds may play second fiddle to the dragonflies on our boat trip, but we have chances to see again the likes of Penduline Tit, Pygmy Cormorant and Squacco Heron and might hear Savi’s Warbler reeling, Bearded Tit pinging and Water Rail squealing. The localised Moustached Warbler breeds in numbers at Lake Kolon but, unless the local ringers are providing a demonstration allowing us to see one in the hand, the chances of locating this elusive little bird are small.
The sandy soils around Lake Kolon allow heathland flora and pine forests to flourish and butterflies in this area include the alluring Nettle-tree Butterfly, both Common and Scarce Swallowtails and Queen of Spain Fritillary. By way of a contrast, we may divert to an area of puszta where yet another tower hide affords panoramic views and further opportunities to see Great Bustards on the ground or a Saker Falcon hunting Sousliks.
In the garden of Kondor Eco-Lodge there are two wildlife viewing and photographic hides overlooking the ponds. Both are available for our use and ideal places to look for birds coming to drink and bathe in the early morning or late afternoon.
On one night we hope to run a moth trap and marvel at the quantity and variety of insects. On another, we stroll up a track to a forest clearing which is home to several pairs of European Nightjars - June is the ideal month to see them. Six further nights at Kondor Eco-Lodge
RETURN TO BUDAPEST, FLY LONDON
After breakfast we have a couple of hours to enjoy our last encounters with the local Golden Orioles, Rollers, Bee-eaters and Lesser Grey Shrikes about the lodge, and perhaps to add to our butterfly and dragonfly lists before returning to relax over our picnic lunches in the shade of the garden.
In the early afternoon we load up the minibus and return to Budapest Airport where we bid farewell to Gábor and Andrea. We check in for our flight home to London Heathrow, where our summer 'birds, butterflies and dragons’ tour to Hungary concludes.