When I was a keen bird-watcher and before the photographic side of things really took over my love affair with the natural world, I remember visiting the Austria:Hungary border back in the early 1980’s and gazing over the then imposing border fence at the distant specks that were displaying Great Bustards. Hungary was inaccessible really for the likes of me to go and enjoy the riches of it’s birdlife, but the Hortobágy region, an area of flat grassland/wetland habitat, was one I longed to visit such was the diversity of species and subtly different habitats it offered.
Fast forward to today and things have changed dramatically on the political front, but in the natural world the area remains a well managed example of how farming and wildlife interests can work together when there is an understanding and collective approach, and as a result the diversity remains intact, from wintering Imperial Eagle to summer breeding Bee-Eaters and huge numbers of migratory Cranes passing through each autumn.
I have been there a number of times now, and was this year leading a trip for Natures Images so was able to share the cracking hide based opportunities that local conservationists Janos, Atilla and co have quietly established here. In the style that Hungarian photographers have pioneered these are all glass fronted in their construction, a reflective coating ensuring that the birds can’t see in and with the added benefits of no moving lens hoods sticking out and a fantastic vista from inside too: the 2/3rds of a stop of light lost in the process is the tiniest of compromises.
The habitat here is wonderfully varied and the combination of permanent and substantial yet movable hides gives the opportunity to work at fixed sites as well as be a touch more opportunistic, and one such hide placed near an ever drying wet area in the grasslands gave an excellent chance to spend a morning with the long-legged and elegant Black-winged Stilt.
With the glass front running right down to the floor of the hide the chance to photograph at ground level really emphasised the length of legs these birds have.
This Spring had seen good numbers of all 3 species of Marsh Terns (as opposed to the coastal Terns we are more used to seeing here in the UK) and during the morning several pairs of dainty White-winged Black Terns alighted in the dry patches starting to appear and reinforcing their pairing off.
One of the permanent hides, built on a platform in the heart of a reed-bed and again allowing water level photography appeared to be THE haven for Whiskered Terns though and they too were at the early stages of nest-building and the associated courtships.
The pool area the hide overlooked is a setting I have enjoyed photographing Pygmy Cormorants in the past and they didn’t disappoint with much swimming, splashing and classical wing-drying activity throughout the afternoon.
With the occasional (and intensely coloured) Ferruginous Duck floating by and the sound of Great Reed Warblers among others in the surrounding reeds it was once again a great place to see more of the areas diversity of birdlife from.
The grassland habitats offer an excellent selection of food for some of the small birds of prey, and the careful placement of nest boxes to ensure their continued presence in the area means that the tower hide that allows the chance to photograph the incredibly pretty Red-footed Falcons here also gives the chance to enjoy watching their behaviour on an almost non-stop basis as well: I spent 23 hours in a 35 hour period here over the course of 2 days and can honestly say I wasn’t bored for a single minute with preening, feather cleaning and very regular mating activity to observe and photograph.
Even an afternoons heavy rain shower provided a welcome chance to both record the conditions and also the drying out process required afterwards!
There were chances too to photograph some of the colourful ad iconic Central and Southern European birds too and although I wasn’t able to fit in the Bee-Eater hide that guests did I was able to spend a short time with an obliging Hoopoe and an excellent couple of days with the stunningly colourful European Roller.
The Rollers too were busy bonding, food passing, mating and generally establishing themselves in a strategically placed nest box – often overlooked when compared to their Lilac-Breated African relatives the setting here with an intense dark brown background though really made their colours sparkle in my eyes.
On the outskirts of the Hortobágy National Park sits the town of Debrecen, and the mixed deciduous woodlands that surround it are as rich with birdlife as the grasslands themselves, and a couple of drinking pool hide setups there gave ample opportunity to work with both difficult and more common UK species in a different setting – Hawfinch and in particular Turtle Dove have seen massive declines here in the UK but were regular visitors here.
Again on previous visits I had enjoyed photographing a number of Woodpecker species including the Middle-Spotted that we don’t see here in the UK – mind you once he’d had a bath then it would be a test of anyones identification skills to be absolutely sure which species he was!
The bathing opportunities were taken as much advantage of as the chance to drink and it was equally enjoyable seeing a Hawfinch and the easily overlooked and highly colourful Common Starling enjoying themselves, often with great vigour.
And these last two images summed up the week and the photography here perfectly for me – a combination of everyday and challenging species to work with and fantastic behaviour to watch and capture due in part to the thought in the settings but also due to the amazing views that the glass-fronted hides offered. With no frontiers preventing me you can be sure that the Hortobágy and Hungary will remain on my photographic agenda for some time to come.