One of Eastern Europe’s truly great bird areas, an autumn visit to the Hungarian Hortobágy is hard to beat. In addition to its wealth of scarce resident birds, the sweeping steppe grasslands and reed-fringed lakes of this most famous National Park are a vital staging post for huge numbers of passage migrants and winter visitors streaming south to escape the onset of the harsh Russian winter further north.
October is the best time to visit the Hortobagy in autumn. Flocks of winter wildfowl and droves of stately Great Bustards assemble on the plains, where they are joined by legions of regal, trumpeting Common Cranes. At its peak, there may be upwards of 100,000 of these magnificent birds in the area! At one spot we visit, it is quite possible to find an incredible 20,000 Cranes roosting together. The sight and sound of these huge birds flying to roost against a backdrop glowing red with the last rays of autumn sun is an experience never to be forgotten.
With them from the north come skeins of wild geese. The majority of those arriving now will be Russian White-fronts, but we should see Eastern Greylag and Taiga Bean Geese, too. With the help of our expert local guides and contacts, we also have a chance of finding the rare Lesser White-fronted Goose among them - and we have sometimes been lucky to see Red-breasted Goose, too.
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 October is an excellent month to look for them. White-tailed and Eastern Imperial Eagles, Long-legged and Rough-legged Buzzards, Goshawk and Saker Falcon... we have seen them all on this tour. As we search the steppe for them, we may encounter a solitary Great Grey Shrike watching over the grasslands, witness the pre-migration gathering of Stone-curlews or perhaps enjoy close-up views of migrant Dotterel (these super mountain plovers stop off in Hungary every autumn, when up to 200 birds may be present).
No less exciting are the Hortobágy’s many ‘fish ponds’ - immense reed-fringed lakes that shelter the likes of Pygmy Cormorant, Eurasian Bittern, Great Egret, and Bearded and Penduline Tits. Long-eared Owls will already be gathering in significant numbers at their favoured 'winter' roosts and an autumn visit adds the prospect of passage waders, with Spotted Redshank, Little Stint and Ruff among species we regularly see. October is also a great time of year for rarities: surprise finds on our past tours here have included vagrant Sociable Plovers and Black-winged Pratincole, while Arctic Skua and Slender-billed Gull showed well last time!
We conclude our autumn tour with a three-night stay in the beautiful Zemplén Hills. In October, the picturesque autumnal forests of beech, oak and hornbeam are a glorious sight to behold. Specialities here include Ural and Eagle Owls, gangs of Hawfinches and up to eight different species of woodpecker - including Black, Middle Spotted and the rare White-backed.
We ran our first ‘Carnival of Cranes’ tour as long ago as October 1993 and autumn birding trips to Hungary have been a regular feature of the Limosa programme ever since. Join us this year for a truly enchanting autumn week and share in the delight of one of Europe’s most thrilling birdwatching experiences!