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Hungary Carnival of Cranes

An 8-day, small group birdwatching tour to Hungary

The autumn arrival of tens of thousands of Common Cranes on the marshes and steppe of Hungary’s celebrated Hortobágy National Park is one of Europe’s greatest wildlife spectacles. October finds peak numbers of Cranes gathering here - alongside flocks of wild geese and waders, birds of prey, Dotterel and Great Bustard. Add the prospect of seeing Ural and Eagle Owls, gangs of Hawfinches and a superb range of woodpeckers in the glorious autumnal forests of the Zemplén Hills - plus accommodation at two characterful rural hotels - and you’ve got our classic Hungarian tour!

Tour Dates

2019

Available

Leaders
Stephen Daly
Zoltan Ecsedi

Max Group Size: 10
Duration: 8 Days

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Cost: £1895

inc return flights London Heathrow-Budapest, nonstop with British Airways

Deposit: £300

Single Supp: £165
Land Only: £1695

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Common Cranes bugling Hortobagy Hungary Agoston Paksz

One of Europe’s great wildlife spectacles - the mass arrivals of Common Cranes in the Hungarian Hortobágy during October © Agoston Paksz

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!

Dotterel autumn Hortobagy Hungary Janos Olah

In October, we shall be making a special effort to look for Dotterel, a scarce but regular autumn visitor that typically lingers in the Hortobágy until the first snows arrive © Janos Olah

Day 1                                                         
TO BUDAPEST & THE HORTOBÁGY

Our autumn birdwatching tour to Hungary begins with a British Airways flight from London to Budapest. We'll be met on arrival in the Hungarian capital by Stephen and our expert local guide and travel east (a journey of about three hours) to reach the freshwater marshes and puszta steppe of the magnificent Hortobágy National Park.

We spend our first four nights here, staying at an excellent and new, purpose-built birdwatchers’ lodge near Balmazújváros, overlooking a splendid wetland site at the edge of the National Park. It's the ideal base from which to explore the Hortobagy with its 50,000 hectares of lakes, reedmarsh and forest set amidst large swathes of original steppe grassland or puszta. Night near Balmazújváros

Days 2 - 4
HORTOBÁGY NATIONAL PARK

Of major importance here are the region’s many halastoi or ‘fish ponds’. In reality, these are not really 'ponds' at all but huge man-made lakes, broadly hemmed with reed. Marsh Harriers float on upturned wings above the golden swathes as we watch for restless parties of Bearded and Penduline Tits in the reeds and willows.

Elegant Great Egrets, mahogany Ferruginous Ducks and lumbering White-tailed Eagles are usually about in autumn, as skeins of Eastern Greylags and incoming Russian White-fronted Geese clamour noisily across the Hungarian sky. We’ll sift carefully through the flocks of geese in our quest to find the scarce Bean Goose as well as the rare Lesser White-fronted. With its neat pink bill, prominent white forehead blaze and distinctive yellow 'eye-ring', this petite grey goose is not only one of Europe’s rarest but also one of the most attractive.

All this is but a prelude to the spectacle of the 'Carnival of Cranes'. Few sights or sounds in nature are more stirring than the massed arrivals and wild bugling cries of these great birds, as wave after wave of elegant cranes passes against a reddening October sky. Although we are unlikely to find them all together in one place, recent counts by satellite have revealed peak numbers in the Hortobágy at this season to be in excess of 100,000 birds! With our local guide, we will visit one of the major roosts.

Out on the surrounding steppe, Great Bustards gather in small flocks - or droves - as winter approaches. Moving sedately across the autumnal fields, these proud, turkey-sized birds can often be easier to spot now than in spring.

An abundance of European Souslik and other small rodents also makes the puszta one of the best places in Europe for birds of prey. In October, we should see Saker, Hen Harrier and Common Buzzard hunting over the steppe, with a chance of a newly arrived Rough-legged Buzzard and the scarce Eastern Imperial Eagle also possible. We may come across a dashing Merlin chasing down a hapless Meadow Pipit and we could well be lucky to encounter one or two of the season’s rarer raptors - perhaps a Short-toed Snake Eagle, the cinnamon-tailed Long-legged Buzzard or a wandering ghostly Pallid Harrier, the latter a scarce but annual visitor to the Hortobágy.

We will also make a special effort to look for Dotterel, another scarce but regular autumn visitor to the Hortobágy that typically lingers from August until the first snows of winter arrive. As we search for them, we may come across other autumn migrants such as Great Grey Shrike and Red-throated Pipit, Lapland Bunting or even Twite before the mellow hues of the Hungarian autumn slip into winter.

Last but not least, October is a great month to find both Long-eared and Short-eared Owls in the Hortobágy. Our local guides will check out some favoured roost sites for us, visits to which have been a highlight for many participants on previous tours. We will see if we can beat our previous record count of 74 birds! Three nights near Balmazújváros

Day 5            
GREAT FOREST & ZEMPLÉN HILLS

Leaving the Hortobágy today we head north towards the rolling Zemplén Hills, breaking our journey with a visit to the Great Forest near Debrecen, Hungary’s second city. Preserving some of the oldest oak woodland in the area, we'll try for the big Black Woodpecker, the mouse-like Short-toed Treecreeper and the 'snow-headed' eastern form of Long-tailed Tit.

Our destination this evening is the picturesque wine-growing district of Tokaj, close to the borders with Slovakia. We spend three nights here, staying at a superbly situated hotel right on the doorstep of the Zemplén’s beautiful hill-forests. Night Komlóska.

Days 6 - 7
ZEMPLÉN HILLS

With the unmistakable scent of autumn in the air, birdwatching in the beautiful Zemplén Hills is a delight. Rising to almost 1000m and pretty as a picture, the Zemplén's extensive forests of ancient beech, hornbeam and oak are simply outstanding for woodpeckers... we will try for Black, Grey-headed, Syrian, Middle Spotted and the rare White-backed!

Roving gangs of Hawfinches are also much in evidence here in autumn as we search for two of the region’s largest but most elusive avian residents: Ural Owl and Eagle Owl. Goshawk, Crested Tit and Short-toed Treecreeper are among other forest dwellers to watch for. If we are lucky, perhaps a Golden Eagle or Eastern Imperial Eagle will soar into view. Two further nights Komlóska

Day 8                                                                    
RETURN TO BUDAPEST, FLY LONDON

We have time for a last look around the Zemplén Hills this morning or to stop for birds along the way as we travel back to Budapest. We catch British Airways late afternoon flight to London Heathrow, where our autumn birdwatching tour to Hungary concludes early this evening.

[For operational reasons it may occasionally be necessary to switch the itinerary around, visiting Zemplén first and the Hortobágy second. Should this be necessary, please note that the change will not affect our birding or the places visited.]

Geese flying sunset Hortobagy Hungary Janos Olah

White-fronted Geese at sunset over the Hortobagy National Park © Janos Olah

What To Expect

An 8-day birdwatching tour to Hungary in autumn, focusing on one of Europe’s great wildlife spectacles - the annual arrival of tens of thousands of Common Cranes over the marshes and steppe of Hungary's Hortobágy National Park.

October finds peak numbers of Cranes gathering here - alongside flocks of wild geese and waders, birds of prey, Dotterel and Great Bustard. Add the prospect of seeing Ural and Eagle Owls, gangs of Hawfinches and a superb range of woodpeckers in the glorious autumnal forests of the Zemplén Hills - plus two characterful rural hotels - and you’ve got our classic Hungarian tour!

Hungary frequently enjoys an ‘Indian Summer’ in autumn, when the weather is often pleasantly warm and sunny. However, the weather can equally be mixed - just like back home! So pack rainwear and waterproof walking shoes or boots, just in case! In October, daytime temperatures in Budapest average warmer than the UK, typically 12-16C (53-61F).

Birds

120-140 species

Accommodation

We stay at two comfortable and characterful hotels, with all rooms en suite.

We begin with four nights in the Hortobágy region, staying at an excellent, new lodge in Balmazújváros, purpose-built for birdwatchers and overlooking a splendid wetland site on the edge of the Hortobágy National Park.

For our 3 nights in the Zemplén Hills, we stay at a pretty rural hotel in the hamlet of Komlóska, set in wonderful wooded surroundings at the end of the road - with great forest birding right outside, and its own wine cellar inside!

Meals

All main meals are included in the tour price, commencing with lunch following our arrival in Hungary on Day 1 and concluding with lunch on Day 8.

Hungarian meals are tasty and substantial. Breakfasts and dinners will be taken at the hotels. For lunches we enjoy a mix of visits to traditional Hungarian inns (csarda) with tasty picnics in the field.  

Walking

In the Hortobagy, easy walks over flat terrain. In the Zemplen Hills, our walks are typically shorter, mostly along forest tracks and trails; expect some slopes here of course, but nothing too strenuous and all taken at a gentle pace. Wear waterproof walking shoes or boots.

Travel

We fly London Heathrow-Budapest, nonstop with British Airways.

Ground Transport  Minibus with local driver

EAGLE OWL Hungary Gordon Small Aug 2012

We'll go in search of two big owls in the beautiful Zemplen Hills - Ural Owl and (above) Eagle Owl © tour participant Gordon Small

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1 VC & RB, Hungary Tour … We feel honoured to have been in the company of Janos Olah... He was unfailingly cheerful and helpful and is obviously a major force for conservation in his country. He knows the birds of Hungary intimately. We would rate him as Excellent… [empty string]
2 CG, Hungary Cranes tour ... Thanks for a great trip - with lots of fun, as well as lots of birds... [empty string]
3 Colin Bushell, Limosa guide, Hungary tour Another thoroughly enjoyable trip to the Hortobagy, our autumn experience enhanced by staying at the very comfortable Bibic Nature Lodge. A warm welcome from English speaking owners and staff, with superb accommodation - spacious bedrooms, all en suite with a large shower and terraces overlooking the national park. Tasty home-cooked food served in the main building and migrant birds in the surrounding woods. What more could we ask for? I can't wait to return! [empty string]
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