Cranes, the journey south

At the end of the coming week, I will be going to the Hortobagy in Hungary to photograph migrating European Cranes. European Cranes breed in the Northern european countries like Norway, Finland and Sweden. The Hortobagy is an important stop over for the Cranes, en-route, to Israel.

More then 100.000 Cranes use the shallow lakes to rest and during the day they feed in the surrounding fields. A number of hides have been erected from where to photograph these birds when they move from their roosts to the lakes to feed and drink. Not only will i be spending time with the Cranes but will also try and photograph Passerines from a drinking pool and a special canopy hide. 

I hope to be able to update my website every day and hope you will follow me on my journey.

European crane having a bath (Photo courtesy Janos Olah)

 

Drinking European crane (photo courtesy Janos Olah)

Friday 4th of September

A fairly short trip this time with a slight difference; i didn't fly business class this time!  It was too expensive! The whole Heathrow check in experience was easy and straight forward. Boarding the flight: a bit of a different story! With the new luggage restrictions, British Airways decided to check every piece of hand luggage going onboard. Too big? Tough...it will go in the haul. So all you photographers are warned! maybe it was just this flight but i wouldn't want my kit to travel in the haul. Thankfully, i had no issues and on-time we departed for Budapest.

After a good 2 hours flight, arrived at Budapest airport, where Jozsef was waiting for me. It was pretty hot and the summer has been very dry and with very little rain. After a 2 hours drive we arrived in Balmazujvaros, a small village near Debrecen. i have stayed here every time i went to Hungary and always in the Spa hotel. This time i was going to stay in the brand new Bibic Nature Eco lodge. I must say it is fantastic. Lovely large rooms, a great dining area and a massive fridge with beer and cold white Hungarian wine. 

The fantastic Bibic Nature lodge

After unpacking my stuff, i decided to spend a few hours in the Tower hide, which is on the premises. How comfortable a hide do you want? it is massive, has airco and can easily accommodate  3-4 photographers. Birds were pretty slow. Afer all: summer is more or less over and migration has already started. nevertheless i was able to take some images of Common Flycatcher, Goldfinch and a juvenile Redstart.

Common Flycatcher

After a few hours i decided to head back to my room and threat myself to a beer. This evening 3 more photographers willarrive. Tomorrow we will have the first sessions with the cranes. Jozsef told me that approximately 200-250 birds have already arrived. It will peak in October to more then 100.000 and after that the birds will depart for Israel. Let's hope the weather will keep. Rain has been forecasted.

Comfortable room and cold beer

Saturday 5th of September

Let's go back one day. I arrived around 15.00 hours in the afternoon. My fellow photographers didn't arrive till (almost) midnight. Budapest was in lock down. Migrants walking over the motorway to Austria, fights between Romenian and Hungarian football supporters...well it says it all i guess!

I had a lovely meal complimented with a nice glass of Tokay. Went to bed not too late as we would kick of this trip by 07.00 hours. Later that night i woke up by the sound of something very familiar: RAIN! It was forecasted but still i thought, this being the Hortobagy, it will be a few drops and that's it! How wrong i was!

Did i say it rained?

Off to breakfast it was still raining a tiny bit, met my fellow photographers over breakfast : 2 from Belgium ,Ingeborg and Chris ,and Zdenek from the Czech republic. We drove off fairly soon and the rain got worse and worse. We first dropped of Chris and Zdenek at hide Nr1. A Little owl was greeting them on top of the hide. The little canal next to the hide attracts the European cranes during the day for a drink and bath. Inge and myself went to hide Nr2. A similar set up. The hide was low and was overlooking a small pond.

We set up our equipment and waited and waited and waited for ...nothing... bar a massive amount of rain! We did see the Cranes in the distant flying around and we could hear them as well but the rain meant: no Cranes. Chris sent a few SMS messages with the same information: no Cranes but he did manage to photograph the Little owl.

By13.00 hours Inge and myself decided to call it a day. SMS message to Joszef, asking him to pick us up. We dismantled the equipment and then all of a sudden i saw 2 Cranes flying low past the hide with the breaks on. I sent another SMS to Joszef asking him if he could see from a distant whether the Cranes had landed behind the hide. The reply came soon: there are 200 Cranes behind the hide. As quickly as we dismantled the camera's, they were put back on the tripod. Slowly the Cranes made their way to the little pond. These birds are very wary and it takes sometime for them to feel relaxed and have a drink of water. 

Soon we were taking images of the Cranes. the light wasn't great but at least we were able to get some shots on our CF cards. More Cranes arrived and soon i counted around a 100 Cranes near the hide and around the pond. I always find it difficult to concentrate with so many birds around and it often becomes a bit messy. Still it was good to get some images and interaction. I think these birds are fantastic. Flying from Scandinavia and the Baltic states, stopping over in the Hortobagy and by mid October onwards to Israel...what a journey!

After 2 hours the birds flew off. We called Joszef again and after a bit of a wait, he picked us up and brought us back to the hotel. A decent first day. The forecast for the coming days will be better. So more images to follow. That's it for today. off to another glass of Tokay i would say.

European crane

Sunday 6th of September

A bit of an early start today as we were heading a bit deeper into the Hortobagy. I was going to stay in the Pygmy cormorant hide for the day, while the others were staying in the Reedbed hide and in the afternoon they would go on a stalking trip for Dotterel. I have been in the Pygmy hide many times before but always in spring. It never disappointed me. The small shallow pond was always teaming with birds.

When i arrived at the hide it was raining again. The forecast was dry but as usual the weather forecast for the Hortobagy was way off again! While installing myself in the hide, it started raining heavier and heavier. A quick peep out of the large window showed that the only bird present was a Snipe.

While setting up my gear, i all of a sudden, noticed this grey raptor sitting on a branch in the water; a Sparrowhawk! As quick as i could i aimed my 1DX  with the 150-600 Sigma at the bird. Despite the pretty poor light conditions, i managed to take a number of shots. All of a sudden the Sparrowhawk flew up straight to the window and caught a Barn swallow that was sheltering for the rain. It flew back to the same branch and started to eat the swallow. How lucky was i! I took many images of the Sparrowhawk. Eventually it disappeared.

Sparrowhawk

Around 10.00 hours it stopped raining and the sun came through the clouds. Much to my surprise the Sparrowhawk was back! This time on the branch on the left hand side of the hide. It sat there for an hour, drying his feathers in the sun. Absolutely fantastic to be able to witness this! Finally it took off, not to be seen again. Most likely it was a migrating bird. Jozsef told me that he had never seen a Sparrowhawk taking shelter at the Pygmy cormorant hide.

The rest of the day was....well....rather boring. Nothing much more happened. It was dry, sunny and very breezy. I saw some Spoonbills, Red Footed falcons and Spotted redshank. By 18.00 hours Jozsef picked me up and we went back to the Hotel. Diner was a bit later then usual and for my tour participants who are coming with me in May: this hotel is awesome. Great rooms and fantastic food!

Tomorrow we will head for the Cranes again, we will swap hides and as the forecast is REALLY rainless, we should be able to get the Cranes in our viewfinders.

Pygmy cormorant hide

Monday 7th of September

Another day gone by and while i am writing this, i am sitting in the office of Hotel Bibic with a nice bottle of Dreher, Hungarian lager. The day started very much as all the others before. Early breakfast and by 07.00 on the road for the Crane hides. I was going to stay in hide nr1 together with Zdenek, while Chris and Inge would try their luck in hide nr2.

The weather was beautiful. Far less wind and not a rain cloud in sight! Driving to the hides takes approximately 20 minutes and you are dropped off right in front of them! How easy is that? The hides are really well made and a lot of thought has gone in them. They are dug into the ground and still high enough to stand in. They easily accommodate 2-3 photographers and you photograph through glass. I have never found it to be an issue to be honest. There is even a low by the ground window, in case you would like to have a very low angle to photograph the cranes. 

Crane hide Nr1

I put my equipment up and as the light was great, i opted for the 200-400 and 150-600 side by side on the Uniqball bridge. After that.....silence....more silence.....not a single Crane to be seen. I did hear them but far away and the only sign of live was a White Tailed eagle flying overhead. God forbid that this would turn out to be a rubbish day!

I spent my time sleeping a bit while Pavlov decided to read a book. It must have been around 13.30 hours that i, kind of, woke up, asking Zdenek: do you see any Cranes? Looking up from his book, he looked out of the window and said; as a matter of fact: i do...there are 3 walking up to the hide!

In no time were we sitting behind our cameras and very soon more and more birds arrived at the hide. They are very wary and will take their time to move from the meadow down to to the water edge to drink. Eventually the first birds made their move and within no time birds were drinking and having a bath. On the meadow there was a lot of interaction and one bird was jumping around following a feather. It was almost like ballet, so beautiful. Of course i was clicking away with both camera's. It really was fantastic and to top it all off the light was beautiful.

European crane in front of the hide

 

In between i mounted the Sony A7RII on the Canon 200-400 and even on the Sigma 150-600 With the Metabones adapter, the AF works pretty ok.

In total we counted around 100 birds and they stayed for approximately 2 hours. One by one they flew off to the fish ponds for the night. Cranes are late risers (funny enough i think my son has been a Crane in an earlier life) and "go to bed" early.

It was a great day and i was lucky to have plenty of good images to boot. By 17.00 Jozsef together with the other 2 picked us up. Chris and Inge had no birds for the whole day. Hopefully they will be lucky tomorrow. I have said goodbye to the Cranes and will spend a day in the passerine hide in the Debrecen forest. The weather should stay dry again, so hopefully i can report back with some good stories. That's it for today. I am off to the bar to select another nice bottle of White Tokay.

Tuesday 8th of September

Let's start of with some good news: Chris and Inge had 105 European cranes in front of the hide! Thank god for that. I have not seen them yet, as they are on the way back from the hide, but i am sure they have taken many images.

My start of the day started with mist over the fields, a calling Curlew, a hare and an orange sunrise. This lodge is beautifully positioned and anyone going there will love it. A half hour car ride took me to the forest near Debrecen. I have been there before and it has 2 cool hides for smaller birds. I have always been there in spring and it is always good for species like Hawfinch, different Woodpecker species, Goshawk and many other small birds.

Woodpigeon with Sony A7RII and Sigma 150-600

I arrived together with Zdenek around 08.00, put my equipment on the tripod and waited for things to come. Actually for a moment i thought i was in the Crane hide...things moved so slowly but eventually the more common birds started to arrive at the drinking pond. Great tits, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Hawfinch and Blue tit to name a view. I did hear the Black woodpecker calling and a Buzzard as well. It is not uncommon for them to come down for a drink but today they didn't play ball at all.

There were plenty Hawfinch around. At one point i counted 20 of them, many of them were young birds and there was a lot of interaction going on. Great for the Compact flash cards! It seems the birds came in waves. At times it was totally dead and then it was total mayhem.

Later on in the afternoon i decided to mount the Sony A7RII again on the Sigma 150-600. i must say that i am pleasantly surprized how well the AF works in conjunction with the Metabones adapter. I took some really nice images of Long Tailed tits (white head variation).

By 16.00 Jozsef picked us up and brought us back to the hotel. Tomorrow the last morning before i am flying back to London. It will be a quite relaxed morning. I will be spending some time in the Canopy hide, built on the premises of the lodge and after that try my luck with the migrating Dotterel. As it will be a later start, i might even be tempted to try the local Schnaps!

Hawfinch with autumn leaf

Wednesday 9th of September

The last morning before the return car journey to Budapest, followed by the flight to London Heathrow. A gorgeous morning. This morning we would try for Dotterel on the plains of the Hortobagy. This small wader migrates in  groups from Northern europe down south and uses the Hortonagy as a stop-over.

Before that, i spent some time in the canopy hide on the premises of the Hortobagy eco-lodge. This hide is high up overlooking the trees and can be (especially) good for Golden oriole in spring and summer but also other birds come and visit for a bath and a drink.

It was a fairly quiet morning but i managed to photograph a Common flycatcher and 3 migrating Turle doves. Apparently a first for the canopy hide. As the lodge is built on the edge of a shallow lake, there is also a wader hide. You can move this hide up and down, depending on the water level. As you can see from the picture: the lake it totally dry! It has been very dry, this summer, in the Hortobagy. According to Tibor the hide can be very good to photograph Black stork, Avocet and various other wader species. Let's hope the lake will be filled with water when we go on our spring trip in 2016!

The wader hide at the lodge

By 09.00, together with Atiila one of the wardens, i went to look for Dotterel. Chris, a Belgium photographer was joining me. Along the dirt tracks we saw many Red Footed falcons, Saker falcon, various Wagtail species and larks. We managed to take some images oif a second year Red Footed falcon as well! Easy to see but not so easy to photography....unless you are in a hide!

Eventually we managed to find a group of 19 birds. Dotterel are very difficult to spot. They blend in very well with their surroundings. They are often easy to approach but this group had other ideas! We had to do some real stalking: lying on our bellies, moving forward slowly with the tripod and long lens we finally got within shooting range. After a while the Dotterels moved away and a second low ground stalking exercide was on the cards! Again we managed to get some nice images! 

Dotterel

By 12.00 we were back at the lodge. Packed our backs and left for Budapest around 13.00 together with the 2 Belgium guests chris and Inge. After a good 2 hour car journey we arrived at Budapest aiport and said goodbye. The trip started off in a depressing fashion: 2 days of clouds and rain. At the end it was a good trip. I managed to photography the Cranes and other birds. For me the highlight was the Sparrowhawk with the swallow. Back next winter for White Tailes eagle together with paukl Beastall and in May with a group for a spring photography trip. I can't wait!

Factsheet Hortobagy cranes trip

The trip was organized through Saker tours (www.sakertours.com). Cost for a 5 days all inclusive Cranes photography trip works out at approximately £850 including lodging in single room, breakfast, lunch and diner. Excluding alcoholic drinks. The flight from London was with British airways and cost for an economy ticket worked out at around £440 (www.ba.com). Reason why it was so expensive, was the fact, that i booked it rather late. If you book early a return economy ticket would cost somewhere between £150-£200.

The weather in Hortobagy is generally dry and warm but nights and morning can be cold. There are still some mosquitoes around but this was generally not a real issue.

Accomodation was in the brand new Hortobagy ecolodge. The lodge is run by Tibor and Orsi. It is a fantastic lodge. The lodge is first class. Great large rooms with ditto bathroom. Food was excellent and Osri is a master chef, while Tibor is a perfect host. Alcoholic drinks are readily available and there is a fine selection of Hungarian wine and beer. Don't forget to ask for a sample of the Hungarian schnaps!

I used the following camera's Canon EOS1DX, Canon 7DMII and Sony A7RII. Lenses used; Canon 200-400, Sigma 150-600, Canon 70-2300 and Zeiss 24-70. At times i used the Sony with a Metabones adapter on the 2 long lenses and that worted absolutely fine.A tripod is a must.

A big thank you to my fellow photographers; Chris, Inge and Zdenek, the guides from Saker tours: Janos, Jozsef and Attila and finally to the hosts of the Eco lodge: Tibor and Orsi. 

If any questions or remarks, feel free to get in touch with me anytime.

The perfect hosts; Tibor and Master chef Orsi