White Tailed Eagles of the Hortobagy

In 2 weeks i will be departing to the Hortobagy, Hungary to spend a week in the company of the wintering White-Tailed Eagles and Paul Beastall. Paul is a fine photographer from Cambridge, who will join me on this trip.

We will spend most of the week in hides from where we, hopefully, can photograph the many White-tailed Eagles that winter in this vast area. Not only White-Tailed Eagles but we can also expect Buzzard and with a bit of luck the Imperial Eagle. We will also spend time in the the passerine hide. A few years ago i visited the Hortobagy around the same time and managed to photograph drinking Waxwings from this hide. Who knows? they might show up again! Of course a lot depends on the weather. It can be anything from sunny, rainy to heavy snow fall and frost. I hope for the latter!

As always i will try and update my diary on a daily basis. I hope you will follow me on my journey.

 

Saturday 13th of February

The normal drill for a Rene de Heer holiday. Up at the crack of dawn, jump in the cab and on my way to terminal 3 for the flight to Budapest. It is half term, so the terminal is pretty busy, and i even have to queue up at the Business class desk. Much to my surprise i find , a little bit further down the queue, my companion for the trip: Paul Beastall.

We quickly make our way to the business lounge, have something to eat and before we know it we are at the gate. With a 30 minutes delay we depart and we arrive at Budapest airport around lunch time. Our driver is already waiting and in the pissing rain, we head for the Hortobagy. It doesn't stop raining and after a 2 hour drive we arrive at the Bibic nature lodge. I stayed here last year when i photographed the migrating Cranes and the lodge is superb!

We unpack and head to the lodge for a cup of coffee. The weather forecast will be somewhat better for the week but as i look outside of the window, i feel like emptying the bottle of Queen Margot (Hungarian blended scottish whiskey) in one go! We have to make the best of it, i suppose and it is decided that tomorrow we will commence our week stay here in Eagle hide nr 2. Pick up is at 05.30, so it will be a long day. Thank god that it is valentine's day and i can't wait to see what Paul got me. Diner at 19.00 hours tonight and trust me: the food here is excellent. A zillion times better then the fried Catfish and boneless Carp we had a few years ago in a totally different hotel and restaurant.

A room with a very wet view

Sunday 14th of February

At 04.30 the alarm went off. Not a very good night: the White Fronted Geese kept me awake with their constant wing flapping and quaking! Well i suppose it is always better then listening to a london police helicopter over head in the middle of the night. Paul and i had a quick kiss, after all, it is valentine's day! 

Janos picked us up at 05.30 and after a short drive we arrived at Eagle hide nr 2. We settled down quickly and waited for tthings to come. Within no time a Buzzard arrived and also quickly disappeared. The first White tailed Eagles showed after the hour, followed by a raft of Caspian gulls, hooded crows, Raven and Rook. The weather was rather dull and overcast but no rain! In total we counted 11 White Tailed eagles around the hide during the day.

Raven in love

We spent our time photographing the Eagles flying around, sitting on the dead trees and i especially enjoyed the calling Raven and Rook in front of the hide. This was the first outing for my Sigma Sport 150-600 and for this kind of photography this lens is a blessing. It is so easy to adjust the image with a zoom lens. The lens might be a bit slow but i really enjoyed using it next to the 500 mm.

Around midday, the weather got a bit better. The sun showed for the first time and we also witnessed the arrival of a rarity; a juvenile Imperial eagle. We happily took this opportunity to photograph this beautiful raptor. There was a lot of interaction between the Eagles but photographing this was a bit of a challenge. More often then not you ended up with a white blob in the middle of the action: a gull!

Later on in the afternoon we saw a herd of Roedeer passing the hide. Unfortunately a bit too far off for some decent images. By 17.00 Janos picked us up and after a short drive we were back at the lodge. We had an excellent diner including Valentine's day candle light! The first day has come to an end. All in all a decent day. Tomorrow we will be heading for the Buzzard hide. The forecast is poor but with Paul's eclairs i am sure we will make it through the day!

White Tailed eagle

Monday 15th of February

Let's get the weather out of the way first.: it was horrible. This winter in the Hortobagy is not a winter. Lets call it the rainy season. It is as bad as England and today was no exception! We started off early, as ususal, and drove down to the Buzzard hide. When we arrived the weather was still pretty reasonable. I believe there was even some sort of sunrise! A Buzzard appeared and sat in the tree next to the hide but decided that the dead fish was not for him or her and disappeared. With the disappearance of the Buzzard, the weather disappeared as well and the heaven opened up from 09.30 till the moment we left! Bar 3 White Tailed eagles and a couple of Gulls and Raven, not much else showed, so needless to say: we didn't really take that many images during the day.

One of the 3 White Tailed eagles of today

I decided to call Jozsef around noon asking him to pick us up early. As a warden, Jozsef has his duties as well as he was working on the other side of the park fixing some of the other photography hides. So time was killed by sleeping, eating and the occasional pee in the provided plastic bottle. It very much sums up the day.........boring. Unfortunately that is the name of the game: some days are good and other days are simply bad. Apparently the weather should improve over the week. Tomorrow Paul and myself will be going back to Eagle hide nr 2 and Wednesday we will go to the Well hide. I can imagine that we will need a rubber boat to get there! 

By 16.00 we were back in the hotel where a nice bottle of Famous grouse was waiting to be opened by me. Hopefully tomorrow things will improve. 

This really is rain. We use a bottle for a pee!

Tuesday 16th of February

No rain this morning! Up, as usual, at the crack of dawn. The Mitsubishi 4 wheel drive took us again to Eagle hide nr 2. We stayed there on Sunday and that was a great success. We settled down, put the equipment up and waited for things to come. The sky was dull and grey and almost as dark as the night sky. I think it is fair to say that both Paul and myself were getting a bit frustrated. It clearly has been a very poor winter in the Hortobagy. No frost or snow but plenty of rain instead. Most of the surrounding fields have turned into lakes and even for the 4 wheel Mitsubishi it is heavy going at times.

Soon the first Eagle appears, followed by a raft of Caspian gulls, Rook, Hooded crow and Raven. More Eagles appear but there is very little interaction going on. Maybe the birds have eaten enough over the last few days? Who knows! The light remains poor but we try to make the best of it. Thank god Paul has a supply of Jaffa cakes and Wine gums to kill the time! Later on the Imperial eagle appears and i am able to get some nice images of a fight between this beautiful eagle and a young White Tailed eagle.

Imperial eagle, a rarity

Around noon all turns quiet. We are left with the gulls and we try hard to get some interaction images but it is difficult as every time you release the shutter: a gull decided to walk through the viewfinder so to speak! The eagles are still around but do not visit the feeding station. Instead they are sitting further afield doing what eagles do best; nothing!

Late afternoon 2 mature eagles visit the feeding station for a little while but by then the light has become so poor that taking images has become difficult. Later on we are, all of a sudden, surrounded by hundreds of Rooks and Jackdaws! A truly spectacular site. Not much later Janos picks us up. Tomorrow and the day after, the weather should be better. We will be going to the Well hide both days and Friday we will take it easy. The early starts do they take their toll. 

White tailed eagle

Wednesday 17th of February

An even earlier start today! 04.00 hours! When i open the door i see something that i hadn't seen before; a clear sky full of stars! Today we went to to Well hide. Due to the fact that it has rained a lot, the 4 wheel drive was not able to get us to the door of the hide. So with our head lights on, we made our way to the hide by foot. I knew this hide from a few years ago and it is very comfortable. Big, warm and great views to the front and right of the hide!

We made ourselves comfortable and waited for things to come. Within no-time we had already a number of White Tailed eagles around the hide. It was still too dark to take any kind of pictures but this day looked to be turning into something special. 

For a start there was a sunrise and secondly we had 35 White Tailed eagles around the hide and as a bonus an immature Imperial eagle showed up! We were shooting away. There was a lot of interaction during the morning. Eagles fighting over fish, Hooded crows battling with the Eagles. It gave us ample photo opportunities. And for sure we needed this after 2 disappointing days!

A White tailed eagle close up with Sigma 150-600

By noon things started to turn a bit quieter. Time for us to have a sandwich and work our way through the fast supply of Paul's sweets. Kevin? Are you taking notice?

We also did not forget about the more common species around the hide. We spent time photographing Jackdaws and Hooded crows. For what ever reason there were hardly and gulls. Not that we care, as they are always in the way! Later on in the afternoon, some more activity developed around a small pool in front of the hide. The eagles were fighting again and we were happy to be able to take the pictures. I am so pleased about the Sigma 150-600. Yes it is a bit slow but for hide work this lens has proved itself as very useful and versatile. Image quality is also very good. 

Around 16.00 the eagles left to their roost. Paul and myself reflected on the day and started to pack our camera equipment. Later on Jozsef picked us up, we walked back to the car, while Paul was organizing the delivery of his new John Lewis sofa's, dropped the kit in the boot and waited for Jozsef to empty 300 kg of fish from the trailer! This amount of fish will last the eagles just 4 days!

Back at the hotel around 18.00. A quick shower, followed by diner and a glass of wine! Tomorrow the last very early start. Fair to say: we are both really tired but happy that we had such a good day!

Maybe common but still beautiful: Jackdaw

Thursday 18th of February

This morning we would be going again to the Well hide. Weather was unfortunately not as good as yesterday. Overcast but no rain. We left around 05.00 and half an hour later we arrived. The soil was so soaked with rainwater that the Mitsubishi was not able to make it to the Well hide, so we needed to walk the last kilometer or so in pitch dark. They even bought a pair of brand new Dunlop wellies for me!

We set up the equipment and before long the first White Tailed eagles appeared. it was actually still dark when we spotted 2 birds already perched in one of the two trees! Today we were also visited by a large flock of Jackdaws and the first Caspain gulls. The latter made us not very happy as they often appear as ugly white blobs in the images!

During the morning we counted 45 White Tailed eagles and one Imperial eagle. We also moved the dead fish to the far side of the small pond. This gave us a bit more flexibility for fight shots and birds coming in to land. paul spent most of the morning trying to get eagles with reflection in the water as there was absolutely no wind. I tried my luck on some clean fight shots. The weather did not much improve during the morning but we tried to make the best of the situation.

As the weather forecast for Friday was very poor, we decided there and then to return home a day earlier. An hour was spent on the phone with the "fantastic" BA service desk and at the end we managed to change our booking! i know that weather can't be guaranteed but the amount of rainwater that Paul and myself had to endure in the Hortobagy this week was beyond belief. It would make no sense to hang around for another day, knowing we would not take any images.

The afternoon was much quieter. later on in the afternoon around 10 birds returned to the hide. Actually it was rather nice to have less birds around the hide as it was easier to get isolated images of eagles. Around 16.30 Jozsef picked us up and we made our way back to the car. We were back at the fantastic Bibic lodge around 17.30. Diner was more relaxed as we knew we didn't have to get up early

Friday morning we left the lodge around 08.30 and arrived at Budapest airport around 11.00. Flight was on time and we arrived back in the UK 14.30. All in all it was not a bad week in terms of birds. If you want to photograph White Tailed eagles, Hortobagy Hungary is THE place to go. I think it is the most reliable spot in Europe. Unfortunately the week was (quite a bit) ruined by the awful weather. Still Paul and myself came back with some nice images. We are both looking forward to our spring trip this year to the Hortobagy!

A mirrored White Tailed eagle and hooded crow

Fact file White Tailed eagles trip

The trip was organized through Saker tours in Debrecen. They are THE experts for bird photography trips in Hungary and beyond. Cost per person, including lodging, all food and pick and drop off from airport works out at approximately £1100 for the week. The hotel and quality of the food is  superb. Not to mention the fine selection of Hungarian wine!

We flew business class with British airways and the cost per person came to around £450 return. Weather in the Hortobagy should have been cold but instead it felt like spring with a hell of a lot of rainwater thrown in! The hides are very comfortable, have heating, are very spacious and have a chemical toilet.

In terms of camera equipment. Paul used Canon with a 300mm and a 500mm lens. i used Nikon bodies with a 300mm, 500mm and the Sigma 150-600 Sport. The latter was used a lot and i really think for hide photography this lens is great! it might be a bit slow and you need good light but its flexibility is superb!

Thanks to Jozsef and Janos to ferry us around and a big thanks to Paul Beastall for a great companion and for being THE supplier of Winegums, Jaffa cakes and Short bread and before i forget Paul; i loved the shampoo!

Very low light White Tailed eagles