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Hortobágy-Zemplén Spring Tour downloadable itinerary

Day 1. The journey time from Budapest airport to our hotel in the heart of the Hortobágy National Park is around three hours. We shall arrive in time for some initial exploration of the superb grassland and wetlands.

Day 2-4. Hortobágy has several vast fishpond complexes and is one of the greatest birding Meccas in Europe. We will be sure to visit the best fishponds, which will depend on water levels at the time of the tour, where it is easy to see one hundred bird species in a day. The reeds are alive with birdsong at this time of the year! Great Reed, Savi's and Marsh Warblers are common and even the secretive Moustached Warbler can be found here. Great White Egrets and Spoonbills, Little Egrets, Purple Herons, Night Herons, Squacco Herons, Bittern, Little Bittern and the Glossy Ibis also all inhabit the reed beds. In the noisy cormorant colony we can observe the Pygmy Cormorant, which now numbers over 300 breeding pairs. All three Marsh Tern species are possible at this time of the year, even if the nomadic White-winged Terns are not breeding. There are great flocks of migratory birds on the drained and freshly exposed mudflats and it is an exciting time to look for rarities among the myriads of waterbirds roosting and feeding here. The huge feeding flocks are frequently disturbed by raptors such as White-tailed Eagle, Peregrine or Saker. While exploring the various wetlands we will certainly see Bearded and Penduline Tits and singing Bluethroats are also common. Magnificent males of Great Bustards are active in the early hours of the day, with their females already on their nests. Hungarian Grey Long-horned Cattle and the strange Racka Sheep with their long twisted horns can be seen on the grasslands, recalling the atmosphere of the Asian steppe. In the southern part of the national park breeding Montagu's Harrier can be seen while we will make a special effort to find the scarce Stone Curlew which is an obligate breeder of the bare natron soil habitat. On the dirt roads Tawny Pipits run in front of us, calling to announce our presence. Our midday lunch in a restaurant is always a nice way to find some shade from the strong sun for an hour. The sandpits hold a few special breeding birds like Sand Martins and Bee-eaters while Hoopoe and Roller are also relatively common. We visit some other fishponds alive with shorebirds, ducks, terns, egrets, herons and we will search here for Black-necked and Red-necked Grebes as well as Ferruginous Duck. A few of the small Robinia forests host colonies of Rooks and Red-footed Falcons breed in their abandoned nests. Lesser Grey Shrikes have returned to the forest by now and Red-backed Shrikes are everywhere. We will end the day watching a family of Long-eared Owls. The northern part of Hortobágy is a slightly different landscape with the steppe here having more patches of woodland. The grassland is full of sousliks - the favourite prey of Eastern Imperial Eagle, Saker and Long-legged Buzzard. Northern Goshawk and White-tailed Eagles may appear above the forested patches and, with luck, even Lesser Spotted Eagle. We will also visit the Dinnyés-lapos man-made wetland, where Common Cranes are present almost throughout the year.

Day 5. After our final birding on the Hortobágy steppe we drive to the Great Wood of Debrecen to look for Short-toed Treecreeper and also our first woodpeckers. Later we leave for our hotel in the Zemplén Hills, stopping en route to search for the endangered local form of Greater Short-toed Lark. When entering the Zemplén area we will drive through the small town of Tokaj, the town of the famous white wine of the same name, frequently called the ‘wine of kings’ or the ‘king of wines’. We spend the next three nights in Komlóska while birding in the Zemplén Foothills. It is a quiet and forested landscape, the foothills of the Carpathians. The wonderful mosaic of small rounded peaks, forested slopes, beautiful valleys and rivers meandering through a countryside dotted with tiny villages and castles, creates an atmosphere of peace and tranquillity. Oak and beech woods cloak the northern slopes, coniferous forests cover the tops, and the vineyards of the famous Tokaj wine stretch away out to the south. Dramatic Carpathian castles are a feature of the area and represent a transition between the medieval fortresses and the later baroque castles. We bird this afternoon in the abandoned quarries, haunted by the Eurasian Eagle Owl. Linnet, Serin, Black Redstart, Barred Warbler and Wheatear prefer this habitat and the harsh call of the raven can be heard echoing across the hillsides. The Common Nightingale is particularly numerous in the area.

Day 6-7. In the protected tranquil old forests of the Zemplén valleys lives the surprisingly small-eyed and long-tailed Ural Owl. We can often only see this perfectly camouflaged bird when our guide, Zoltán Petrovics, an expert local researcher, puts the telescope on an owl sitting quietly in the dense canopy. We can often examine the impressive bird in daylight for as long as we want. However, there are many more birds around. Black, Lesser Spotted, Middle Spotted, Great Spotted, White-backed and Grey-headed Woodpeckers are all also here in these forests and Green and Syrian Woodpeckers can be found near the settlements. In the abandoned small and middle sized holes Collared Flycatchers have already started nesting and Hawfinches are around the clearings. At the end of the day, coming back from the forest to the hotel we stop at the floodplain meadows of River Bodrog where the first Corncrakes have already started to call and the Barred Warblers and River Warblers are in full song. Bee-eaters are already nesting in the steep clay walls nearby.

One day we will bird along the open valleys and look for Lesser Spotted, Short-toed and Eastern Imperial Eagles as well as Honey Buzzard. The cultivated valleys with steppe mosaics on their hillsides are full of raptor prey. We will spend the rest of the day looking for woodpeckers and other forest birds we have missed before and when returning to our hotel we will stop at the Bodrog River flood plain habitats once more.

Day 8. After some early morning birding we will leave this remarkable area and make our way to Budapest airport along the northern foothills for an early afternoon departure back to home.

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