Photography trip to Hungary spring trip

Mid May i will be going back to the Hortobagy in Hungary for a spring trip with (hopefully) good weather and plenty of birds to photograph. Hortobagy is a vast, flat ( it could have been Holland) area with many fish ponds. It is an agricultural area and it is unspoilt. No square green grass meadows with cows and small canals but open, rural, unspoilt diverse meadows.

This and the many fishponds attract many birds. Among the birds i hope to photograph are Red-Footed falcon, various Egret species, passerines and hopefully Black storck. Mostly i will be photographing from hides. The weather should be good. After all it is spring but....the last few times i have been to the Hortobagy the weather was poor!

I will be updating my diary on a daily basis and i hope you will have a look from time to time to see what is happening when i am out and about in one of the nicest area's in Europe for bird photography.

Spoonbill in flight, pretty common in the Hortobagy

 

Great White egret from a hide in Hortobagy

Saturday 14th of May

And here we go! Another visit to a fabulous part of Europe: Hungary, the Hortobagy. The taxi picked me up early this morning and in no time did i arrive at terminal 3. Checking in was so easy! There was no queue and before i knew it i was settling down in the business lounge of British Airways.

A text message from Paul confirmed what i was expecting; Kevin overslept and as he was driving a Landrover (very slow) it could well be that they would not be able to make it to the lounge. But amazingly they did! We had a cup of coffee, a few croissants and bacon rolls and before we knew it, we had to make our way to the gate.

Flight departed in time but while we were waiting for take off, one of the passengers got ill! The plane had to return to the stand and police, fire brigade and medical personal boarded the plane. The gentleman in question was taken off and of course the luggage needed to be off loaded.

With a good hour delay we left Heathrow and we arrived in Budapest around 13.30 hours. Jaap La Brijn and Inge Duissens had already arrived together with John Gooday. The weather was better then expected and we arrived at the Bibic Nature lodge around 16.00 hours. It was nice to be back! Black-Winged Stilts were feeding in the small lake, a Purple heron fishing near by , Golden oriole calling and coffee on the veranda! Fantastic!

Jozsef told us that tomorrow three of us would spend the day in the Red-Footed falcon hide while the three other photographers would spend the day in the Egret hide. I will be part of the latter group. As always, the food, in the Bibic Nature lodge was superb! And so was the Hungarian wine.

Tomorrow up at 04.30 hours: i think we are all ready to go for it and it looks like the weather will be pretty decent this week!

Sunday 15th of May

Up at the crack of dawn...which means 04.30 hours. A quick breakfast and we are off in two directions. Paul, Kevin and Inge will spend the day in the Red Footed falcon hide and Jaap, John and myself will spend the day in the Egret hide. The weather is reasonable. Cloudy, a bit of sun and hardly any wind. Lots of birds are singing including the Golden oriole and in the village they thought it was a good idea to have  disco music on  very loud at 05.00 in the morning!

Our Four wheel is waiting

 

After a 20 minutes drive we reach our hide. We quickly settle in and wait for things to come. Grey herons are the first birds to appear and they stay around the hide for most of the day. We see many cranes flying over. Mainly juvenile birds who have decided to spend the summer in the Hortobagy. A lone White Tailed eagle flies over but other then that it is fairly quiet. All of a sudden a Night heron appears and decides to take residence in front of the hide. The camera's are clicking away and we take many nice images. For Jaap it is the first time he has photographed this beautiful small egret.

A Grey heron at the Egret hide

The weather is a bit changeable. Fog, sun and rain showers are the order of the day. The Herons stalk the many fish in the pond and there are many good opportunities to photograph these birds! Later in the afternoon the first Spoonbill arrives and this bird will stay near the hide for most of the afternoon. It is in breeding plumage and looks absolutely stunning. In the meantime SMS messages are received from the other group in the Red Footed falcon hide. They had mating Red footed falcons and Rollers! So it seems everyone is having a pretty good day!

The Egret hide is well known for Black Stork but unfortunately this beautiful bird is nowhere to be seen. However 2 Great White egrets do show and spend a lot of time preening and fishing. it must have been around 15.00 hours that the rain finally got the upper hand. Even with the rain we are able to take some nice images but soon the light starts to fade. By 18.00 Jozseph picks us up and takes us back to the hotel. We had, as usual, a great diner and the fact that Max Verstappen has won his first Grand Prix is the icing on the cake. Well no it is not the icing on the cake! That must be my wife's birthday which i missed!

Tomorrow we will reverse the hides. We will be going to the Red Footed falcon hide while the other will go to the Egret hide. Hopefully the weather will be a bit better as well. All in all a good start of the week.

Jaap photographing a Spoonbill

Monday 16th of May

Today reversed roles for the 2 groups. No rain this morning and through the thin layer of clouds we could see the sun! Attila was driving us to the Red Footed falcon tower. A twenty minute drive. The prolonged rain had saturated the soft Hortobagy soil and just before we arrived our destination, we got stuck in the mud with the 4 wheel drive. We all had to abort the Toyota and as we tried to push the car out of the trench we all got covered in mud. Eventually we got going again and soon we arrived at the tower.

The Red Footed falcon hide

The Red Footed falcon are small migrant raptors and they like to breed in colonies. Around the tower there are 8 pairs breeding together with Roller, jackdaw,Kestrel and......Long eared owl!

We settled down in the hide and focused our attention to the west side of the tower. The Red Footed falcons were not playing ball at all, and spent most of the time preening and sitting in their nest boxes staring into space. The Rollers were an other story: a lot of activity, fighting and eventually they were mating right in front of our cameras. The jackdaws were also looking splendid and gave us ample opportunities to photography them. The light was superb. No rain, some cloud and sun! We couldn't have asked for more.

Jaap and John in the Red Footed Falcon tower hide

 

By lunchtime all went a bit quiet and we took the opportunity to have some lunch and stretch the legs a bit. AFter lunch we decied to close the west facing blinds and concentrate on the Red Footed falcons on the eastern side. That was the right decision. Courtship, followed by mating but unfortunately the birds were facing the wrong way! Later on in the afternoon a second mating took place and this time with the low sun illuminating the birds! I think it is fair to say that we were all very pleased with the result.

The rest of the afternoon we spent trying our luck with fly shots of the Jackdaws, Kestrels and Falcons.I switched lenses and used the new short and lightweight Nikon 300MMF4 on the D500 and i was pleasantly surprised by the results! By 18.00 hours Attila picked us up and brought us back to the hotel but 5 meters before he reached the tarmac, he got stuck again in the mud! This time a friend with a massive Toyota pulled the car free.

A fantastic day passed by in no time! Tomorrow Kevin and me will be spending the day in the Pygmy cormorant hide, while the others will try their luck with Bee eater and Hoopoe. Let's hope for another super day!

Rollers

Tuesday 17th of May

A beautiful morning! The early days start to take a bit of a toll on me but as a real trooper i will keep on going! Today Kevin and myself will be going to the Pygmy Cormorant hide. This hide is located in one of the many fishponds in the Hortobagy. I have been in this hide a number of times over the last couple of years. I photographed many different egret species, ducks and harriers from this hide.

View from the Pygmy Cormorant hide

To be honest: this day turned out in a bit in a disappointment. There were hardly any birds in front of the hide. We did manage to photograph the Pygmy cormorants, Whiskered tern and Little grebe...but that was all! eeason why there were so little birds? Because of the wet spring the water level in the fishponds was simply too high for the Egrets, so they feed in the surrounding fields. Less water but swampy with many frogs!

The weather throughout the day was pretty good. Later on in the afternoon it started to get windy a bit. A surprise for me was a low flying Bittern, which was flying, low over the hide. Sorry Kevin!

By 16.00 hours we called it a day and asked Attila to pick us up. We were back in the hotel around 18.00. Diner was a bit later that evening. The others tried their luck with shorebirds, Hoopoe and Bee eaters with mixed results. You can't always get it the way you want it i suppose.

Tomorrow we start at 05.00 hours. Kevin, Paul and myself will be going to the Red Footed falcon hide, while John and Jaap will try for shorebirds and Shrike. Inge? Well she isn't feeling too good and will have a half day break and have a bit of rest!

Little grebe

Wednesday 18th of May

Today we got up even earlier. According to Kevin it would be a splendid sunrise. So by 04.30 hours we were hitting the road on our way to the red Footed falcon tower. The weather? It was overcast! So thanks Kevin for denying me an extra 30 minutes sleep!

We arrived at the tower and settled in. Activity was pretty disappointing. Rollers were sitting and doing nothing and the Red Footed falcons were also in no mood to do anything significant. During the morning the weather started to improve but still the birds wouldn't want to play ball. All would change after lunch, when we trailed our lenses on the eastern part of the tower.

Female Kestrel photographed from the Tower hide

A pair of Red Footed falcons had taken up residence there as well as Jackdaws and Kestrels. The bird were very active and the male falcon was often out hunting for wedding presents in the form of mice. It offered us great opportunities to photograph both falcons with the mice, but above all: as a thank you to her husband, the female Red Footed falcon would copulate 4 times this afternoon! Camera's were clicking away. And when it was quiet; Paul would serve us with Shortbread biscuits. What a treat!

The birds were also flying around the tower, giving us the opportunity to try for flight shots and i believe we were very happy with the results. Normally the Kestrels would sit in their nest boxes but today a few decided to perch on the twigs, which gave us good photographic opportunities.

By 18.00 hours Jozseph picked us up and brought us back to the hotel. Unfortunately John Gooday was ill and spent the afternoon in his bed. Inge and Jaap photographed Red Backed shrike with a lot of success. So all in all everyone had a good day. So far the week has been pretty good......but i strat to feel really tired.

Tomorrow Paul and me will be spending the morning in the Roller hide and the afternoon we will try for Red Backed shrike. Let's hope for another good day!

Female Red Footed falcon with mouse

Thursday 19th of May

A gorgeous morning and finally it looks like the weather will become more stable over the next few days. Today i was going to spend time in the Roller hide with John and Paul and in the afternoon, Paul and myself would move to the Red Backed Shrike hide. Inge and Jaap were spending the day in the Red Footed falcon hide, while Kevin was trying his luck in the Shorebird hide and in the afternoon in the Hoopoe hide.

We left promptly, and i must say the long days are taking their toll. Spending 12-13 hours a day in a hide can be hard going at times! We arrived at the Roller hide and set up the equipment. The Rollers were there but hadn't started breeding yet, for that reason the perches were not used or that reason, and the birds were mainly using the lone tree with the nest box. There were many other birds around like Tree sparrow, Yellow wagtail and Stonechat. I forgot to mention the enormous amount of hares that we spotted around the hide and we were able to take some nice images of these lovely mammals.

The Roller hide

But our main focus were of course the Rollers. I decided to change tactics and concentrate on flight shots and i believe i got some really nice images! Not only of the flying Rollers but also of a Marsh harrier and a Wood pigeon. All in all  the morning session was a bit of a let down but i suppose you have good days and not so good days (i wouldn't want to call it a VERY bad day)

Rollers in early morning light

Around noon the ranger of the National park picked us up, dropped John off at the Red Footed falcon tower and drove further afield to drop us off at the Red Backed shrike hide. A lovely setting for a ditto bird but the afternoon passed very slowly. The birds did show a view times but not enough in my opinion. There was not much else to photograph and by 17.30 we were picked up. On the way back we stopped at the Hoopoe hide to collect the lone ranger aka Kevin. He had a great day with the shorebirds and the Hoopoe. Actually the other 3 were still in the tower hide as there was a lot of activity there as well!

Red Backed shrike

Tomorrow the weather (according to the forecast) will be superb and for the last full day Inge, Jaap and John will spend the day in the forest hide in Debrecen for passerines, while Paul will be spending the morning in the Shorebird hide and the afternoon in the Hoopoe hide. Kevin and myself will be staying in the Heron hide.....500 Kilo of fish had been released in this small pond, so hopefully  Egrets and Storks will come and feast!

Friday 20th of May

Tired, very tired now! Longing for my own bed but i keep on going! The last full day which will i will be spending in the Egret hide. The weather is fantastic. A sunrise to die for and by 05.30 i am on my way to the hide. Yesterday 500 Kilo of fresh fish was dumped in the small pond, in the hope it would attract one of the rarest breeding birds of the Hortobagy: the Black stork. Only 3 breeding pairs are resident in this vast area.

When i arrive at the hide i can see Grey herons and Great White egrets flying off, so there are definitely birds feasting on the fish. I quickly set up my equipment and wait and wait and wait! it is dead calm. Till 11.00 hours, the only birds i can see are a few Herons, nothing more!

Great White egret with catch of the day

It must have been around 11.00 hours that a large bird flies over the hide. I can only make out its shadow and i was expecting another Grey heron to arrive but....the birds that lands in front of the hide is a Black stork! Shortly followed by 3 more birds. Amazing! Camera's are clicking away and the birds stay for a long time. During the day they disappear but do come back on 3 more occasions. It goes without saying that i took many many images of these lovely birds.

There is also a lot of interaction between the Herons and the Egrets. Chasing and fighting each other makes for nice action photo's. Later on during the day some "common" Storks visit the hide as well. They only stay briefly. All in all it turns out to be one of the best day's of the week. Late on in the afternoon a Buzzard swoops down to try and catch a fish from the pond. It is chased away by the Herons but later on it makes another attempt and sits on top of a dead branch by the side of the pond.

Buzzard waiting for his or her's fish

It is the end of an amazing day! Tomorrow the last half day before Kevin, Paul and myself fly back to London. Jaap and Inge will head for the airport earlier. They will spend the last morning in the Shorebird hide, while we will be going to the Passerine hide. John Gooday has left this evening because he is running a tour in another part of the Hortobagy.

Black stork

Saturday 21st of May

The last morning session in the Hortobagy before i return to London. The weather is superb and believe it or not, i actually had a sleepin till 05.30! This morning Paul, Kevin and myself will go to the passerine hide in Debrecen. It approximately a 30 minute drive from the lodge. The passerine hide is excellent for all kind of small birds like Hawfinch, Blue and Great tit, Blackcap and many other birds.

After a short walk through the old oak forest we arrive at the hide. Light conditions are great but the hide is situated in a rather dark part of the forest . The rays of the sun "reach' the hide but i found finding the correct exposure a bit tricky as the light changed constantly.

After 15 minutes the first bird arrives for a bath and a drink: Collared flycatcher. foir me a new specie. It is a beautiful bird! The female shows as well and within no time a whole raft of passerines arrive at the hide. We all take many pictures of all these little birds. Among them are Robin, Willow warbler, Great and Blue tit, Nuthatch and Starling. A few species are missing: no Woodpeckers, Turtle dove and Yellowhammer show up.

Collared Flycatcher

 

Jaap and Inge are spening the morning in the Shorebird hide and a text mnessage reaches me from jaap: they photographed Collared Pratincole! A rarity in this part of Hungary.

Around 11.00 all turns quiet and there is not an awful lot happening. I start to pack up my gear and by midday Attila picks us up and drives us back to the lodge. We have a quick lunch, shower and pack our bags. Our taxi awaits, we say goodbye to our fantastic hosts and guides and make our way to Budapest airport. Checking in was easy and for once the airport was quiet. it does make sense to take the evening flight from Budapest to London. It also gives you the opportunity to use the morning for some last minute bird photography in one of the hides! 

By 20.30 we arrive back in London. As always border control is a pain but once through our luggage has already arrived! I say goodbye to Paul and Kevin and make my way back home. It was a good week. The weather started off a bit changeable but got better through the week. i had some really good days and 2 days that were not as productive. I suppose it is all in the game. I would like to thank Inge, Jaap, John, Paul and Kevin. We had a lot of banter and they were all excellent company. Originally Hans Schouten, my photo trip friend for many many years, would be on this trip as well. He booked his flight last April but in November of last year, after a long battle with cancer, he passed away. You were sorely missed!

Inge, Jaap, John, jozseph, Kevin, Paul and me

Fact file Hortobagy Spring tour

The trip was organized by myself in conjunction with Saker tours in Hungary. They have excellent hides in the Hortobagy and i can recommend them if you are interested in a bird-nature photography trip to Hungary (www.sakertours.com) The cost for this trip worked out at EURO 1200 per person. This is for usage of ALL hides, accommodation in single rooms ,meals and airport transfers. Cost for flights and drinks are not included.

We stayed in the excellent Bibic Eco Lodge, on the edge of a wetland near the entrance to the Hortobagy National park. It is a fantastic (small) hotel and the food is absolutely fantastic. Rooms are large and there is of course WIFI. (www.bibiclodge.com)

I flew with British Airways from Heathrow Terminal 3, Business class for £425 return. Economy tickets should cost approximately £200 return if booked early. (www.ba.com)

Weather in the Hortobagy in May should be warm and sunny. It is prime time for bird photography but as always every year is different. This spring birds arrived late due to the unpredictable weather.

in terms of camera equipment. i used Nikon D500 and D810 with a 500mm , 300mm and Sigma 150-600 Zoom. I used the Sigma and the 300mm most of the time. Especially the zoom is great for photographing out of the various hides and the 300mm is of course great for flight shots. A tripod is a must in the hides. Be prepared for long days: i spent 12 hours each and every day in the hides!

I hope you enjoyed my diary. If there are any question, feel free to contact me anytime. 

The end