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Trip Report: Hortobágy National Park in Hungary


The great crane migration might be one of Europe’s avian spectacles, but don’t expect the star performers to arrive on cue, and don’t forget the most essential item of kit, writes Fiona Halliday.

I hadn’t even set foot in Hortobágy National Park in Hungary when a local man who had heard of my plans asked if I had a jam jar. I replied “no”, thinking that a discussion about the delights of Hungarian marmalade or homegrown paprika was about to issue forthwith. I was mistaken. “You’ll need one to pee into,” he said.

A common buzzard.

A common buzzard.

I had travelled to this remote area of Hungary to photograph the great crane migration – an event reputed to be one of Europe’s greatest wildlife spectacles. I thought I was well prepared, but jam jars? Someone had clearly forgotten to put them on the kit list.

The following morning we drove out to the park’s crane hides. Cranes flew overhead in small groups. In a field, great white egrets and grey herons were poised, looking for mice and frogs. Our 4WD rocked and bounced on to the vast salty steppe of dry grass known as the puszta, a whispery Slavic loanword that means ‘bare’ or ‘bereft.’ 

The puszta is the largest area of natural grassland in Europe. 10,000 years old, you can feel the wildness of the East in the hot winds that blow across a landscape where mastodons and wild horses once grazed and where horsemen, sheep, pigs and horned grey cattle still roam. Salt was once transported westwards across the puszta from the Transylvanian salt mines. The Communists tried to turn the puszta into a vast paddy field, but its ancient soils were too alkaline. In the early 1950s, some 10,000 political prisoners were sent here to work in forced labour camps, herded into the traditional sheep and cattle folds that still stand, but the paddy fields failed. The few stands of trees they planted remain, shimmering on the horizon like a mirage.  

The land is now a national park that comprises some 82,000 hectares of protected land and provides sanctuary for some 340 bird species (three-quarters of all European birds).

The juveniles in this family of cranes do not have the adults' black and red feathers

The juveniles in this family of cranes do not have the adults' black and red feathers

Beside a watering hole my jam jar and I disembarked. The door of the hide swung closed behind me and I watched the 4WD disappear across the flat horizon. There was a moment of doubt, a Mad Max moment, a feeling of being swallowed by darkness. I peered out at the muddied water. This is not going to be easy.   

In October, upwards of 100,000 cranes gather here. From my vantage point, though, the puszta was deserted: a desiccated, barren wasteland of dry grass and thistle, like the Texas badlands used to be. A common buzzard sat in a lone tree. Crows hung around as if they were waiting for something to happen. I had expected the place to be backed up like Terminal 5 and full of cranes, but there was nothing. At some point, a stray dog jogged past, or maybe I imagined it. I could hear the noise of cranes flying overhead, but none landed.

There are about 250,000 Eurasian cranes worldwide and their breeding range extends from north west Europe to northern Mongolia and Eastern Siberia. In the autumn, they migrate south to France, the Iberian peninsula, north and east Africa, the Middle East, India and south and east China. There are two main crane migration lines that straggle across Europe: one through Spain and one through here, Hortobagy.

Long eared owl

Long eared owl

By midday I had reached an existential low point and the hide was hotter than a bograc of goulash. Spooked into week-long dehydration by a jam jar, my throat had dried out like a csiko’s (cowboy’s) flip-flop, and I found myself idly envying the lesser bar-godwit that can adapt to long periods on the wing by shrinking its liver, kidneys and intestines to the point where they become superfluous.

Then, entering stage left, a family of cranes suddenly spiralled down on parachute wings. My heart lifted as I watched them step cautiously, tall and graceful, towards the watering holes. The two adults were a soft, pastel grey with a splash of red and an imperious carmine eye.

Cranes are ancient, long-lived birds that have long been extirpated from Britain (though they’re making inroads again). These specimens carried themselves with an understated and minimal elegance, as regal as the Magi. The Egyptians saw them as messengers of the Gods and, in China, cranes flew gods home to the island of the Immortals. In Christianity they are a symbol of the Resurrection.

I raised my camera and tensed but they veered off and went to another drinking hole. I would have howled with frustration but my throat was too dry. A croak like a heron or Tolkien’s Gollum may have emerged.

In the evening, Arpad, our lovely driver-guide-personal ornithologist (and shopper), returned us to the tree-lined town of Balmazújváros, perched on the edge of a dry sodic lake (and almost as unpronounceable as nearby Hajdúböszörmény). Plums littered the pavements and a horse and cart clopped ahead of us down a wide street. A gigantic, empty stork’s nest balanced perilously upon a chimney. The Balmaz hotel, where most Sakertour guests stay, advertised ‘non-stop bowling’ and thermal baths. It served dinners of epic proportions and sent its guests into the field armed with spare ribs and potato croquettes – though I imagined breakfasting birders avoided the café au lait and went for the Immodium instead.

Restoring the Marshland

A major conservation project promises to protect Hortobágy’s future.

Hortobágy is a very important avian stopping-over site that supports huge numbers of migrating waterfowl and waders. It is an especially important roosting site for migrating cranes and dotterels. Some 337 bird species have been recorded here, including several globally threatened and endangered ones, such as the lesser white-fronted goose, or breeders like ferruginous duck, pygmy cormorant, great bustard and aquatic warbler. The park also holds breeding populations of bitterns, spoonbills and great white egrets.

However, the land itself is badly degraded and since the 1950s there has been a considerable loss of bird diversity – after the Communists built a large network of drainage ditches and dykes that have resulted in the shrinkage and separation of sodic lake, marsh and ephemeral season wetlands: essential habitat. These massive unused infrastructures have fragmented and degraded the puszta.

There is now major conservation and restoration work going on. Since 2002, 500km of abandoned drainage canals have been filled in and more than 800m2 of concrete rubbish removed. It will take decades for the land to recover and for water levels to rise again. The spring snowmelt will hopefully not drain away now – providing marshy wetlands for breeding bitterns – while the higher water levels come autumn will provide increased roosting beds for migrating cranes.

Success is already being observed. In those areas directly tackled, ornithologists have witnessed an increaseof 53 per cent in the number of bitterns and a five per cent increase in the numbers of the rare great bustard – not to mention an increase in the number of roosting cranes of 25 per cent. 

As for the cranes, they came a little closer that day. I felt like they were teasing me, circling me, doubting my commitment. 

“You can leave a hide smiling but you’ll never leave completely satisfied,” said Janos Olah, the intense, courteous man who runs Sakertours and who gave me the gift of an extra day at the hides. He has captured some of the most beautiful images of the puszta’s birds and his name flits around online birding communities. He leads groups all over the world. 

At the fish pond system, a manmade network of reed-choked ponds in the heart of the puszta, I sat there all day with Conrad, an American. We felt like those two tramps from Waiting for Godot. Bearded tits darted through the rushes and a shy little crake hot-footed it through the reeds. A marsh harrier like an anchor loosed itself into the reed beds and pygmy cormorants flew overhead.

Later, I watched an egret stalk the pond for six hours with slow, rather camp deliberation. Out came its beak like an assassin’s blade and then – a sudden clash with another egret mid-air, all flailing feathers and beak. It was the most ridiculous thing I’d ever seen and suddenly I felt quite happy. 

It was hard to fight the midday narcolepsy. Every day around noon, your head drooped forward, your eyelids became heavy…  But suddenly, a thunderbolt came out of the cerulean sky. I blinked stupidly, and had to tell myself over and over “no it’s not a common buzzard, it’s not a common buzzard, it’s not, it’s not”. I was too scared to take my eye away from the viewfinder to adjust my ISO in case it flew off and I missed it. In Britain, we call it a sea eagle.  But here it was, this fire-breathing, yellow-fisted bird, on a burning plain in the old heart of Mittel Europe. 

It stayed at the pool for such a long time that I developed an ache in my neck and a tremor in my shutter finger. It stirred up the muddy waters violently with its great yellow claws and then, with a contemptuous flick of its long-fingered wings, the head swept arrogantly left and right, the hooked beak dipped and it was off, its scaly claws practically brushing the roof of the hide. I was suddenly floating higher than the bar-headed goose (which can fly over 10,000m, where the air is so thin that helicopters can’t fly and kerosene can’t burn – so, pretty high).

Before it got dark that night, Arpad took us into town to see an acacia tree. I peered up and, there, in the shadows of the leaves, a pair of huge orange eyes cracked open and peered down with inscrutable contempt. It was a long-eared owl. It studied me like I was a mouse it had puked up. Apparently the winter record is 300 birds. 

Bearded tit

Bearded tit

Another evening, Janos drove us out into the heart of the puszta as the sun set. All over Europe, Russia and China, wild habitat is beingdegraded and lost – enter the bird world and you are never far from the wing-beat of sinister words like ‘Globally Threatened’ – but out here, in the company of learned men like Janos, it’s possible to be briefly overwhelmed by a sense of optimism; the certainty that crane season will always be crane season. 

That was when they came sweeping in, in great untidy formations: 15,000 cranes, awhirl in the night. The air was alive with harsh cries and the soft, sweet peep-peep of the young, a symphony that blew away in a second the bother of carting lenses and tripods and jam jars into the wilderness with gritted teeth. 

“Cup your ears with your hands, hear it better,” said Janos. And you could.