Thursday, June 21, 2012

Hungary for Birds - Day 1 and 2:  The Red Foots of Hortobágy

The waiting was finally over and having been booked for over 6 months, the day had at last arrived for my journey to eastern Hungary.  This was to be a slightly different trip to my previous overseas bird photography adventures in that the whole week would be based on using the network of hides that had been specifically developed for photographers in and around the Hortobágy National Park. The design of the hides was based on those developed by the globally famous Hungarian wildlife photographer Bence Mate and incorporate a one-way glass that allows close encounters with some of the spectacular birds that inhabit this region.

A trip to Hungary had been in my thoughts for a long time. Even during the hours of sleep images of colourful birds such as Bee-eaters and European Rollers had swept across my dreamscapes.  Birds that I had only admired in the pages of well thumbed books would hopefully now appear before the camera.

The journey to Budapest with my companion for the trip, Gerhard, was surprising uneventful given the traumas that can be associated with getting bird photography equipment through airports. We touched down mid-afternoon and were quickly standing outside arrivals to meet a driver who would transport us on a 2.5 hour journey across Hungary to our final destination of Balmazujvaros

We encountered our first Hungarian birds in the airport car park as Crested Larks hopped around across the  warm tarmac picking off unwary insects. I must confess I do not know a great deal about Hungary as a country and our journey across it in a slightly rattling old minibus gave plenty of time to take in the scene. We travelled through large areas of agricultural land which are farmed with a much less intensive approach than in the UK leaving beneficial large areas of uncultivated land around and through the fields. Natural buffer zones around reed filled drainage channels, that meandered across the farmland, providing important corridors of connectivity between the varied habitats. It was obvious how the birds would benefit from such a landscape. We spotted a good number of bird species on our journey including numerous Red-backed Shrike perched up on low bushes and fence posts, a species which has been unfortunately lost as a breeding bird in the UK.

We arrived at the Hotel Balmaz in the early evening and met our contact, Janos, who suggested that we should start early the next day at the Red-footed Falcon hide. So there was little left to do that day except to rest from a long journey, have a meal, unpack and ready the camera kit for the following day's action. I had a fairly restless night in anticipation of the next day especially as I never seem to sleep well when an early alarm is set.

An irritating beeping of the alarm work me from my sleep at a very unreasonable hour. Having grabbed a couple of quick coffees to reduce the stumbling around of being half asleep and collected our large packed breakfast and lunch provided by the hotel, we headed out in to the early dawn to be taken to the hide. It was about a 30 minute drive, half of which was off-road along deeply rutted farm tracks across a large plain of low grassland dotted with occasional white farm buildings and barns. A tree line in the distance marked our destination with the low sun glinting of one of the mirrored glass sides of the tower hide.

The hide itself was constructed on the top of four telegraph poles set in the ground at an angle and had two mirror glass sides to allow for photography throughout the day as the sun moved round. Access was up a steep staircase and through a trap door in the floor. As we approached the hide the dark shapes of the male falcons could be seen elegantly scything through the air around the hide. Next to the hide and along the tree line where it is sited there are numerous nest boxes for the Red-footed Falcons and Kestrel, six of which have perches mounted above for photographing the birds.

As a quick introduction to the Red-footed Falcon, a male bird on one of the perches.
A female bird in some bushes next to the hide.
I was surprised how small these birds were when compared alongside the Common Kestrel and I would have estimated them to be about 2/3 the size. My impression is that they mainly feed on large insects like a Hobby but also catch some small rodents as well.

We quickly found at the sun arced skyward that the hide turned in to a mini sauna and got very hot inside. It took Gerhard and myself  a short while to get accustomed to photographing through the glass which not only leads to loss of around 2 stops of light but also requires the camera to be set as square to the glass as possible for best results. This obviously makes flight photographs difficult but I did manage a couple of the male. You will notice in this photograph that he is clutching what appears to be a large cricket, which he is nosily bringing back to the female as a 'gift' as a prelude to mating.
We only saw the birds mate on three occasions during the whole day as the birds were already starting to lay eggs. I missed the first two matings with the camera as I did not read the behaviour signals that it was going to happen but with lesson learnt I managed to get the full sequence on the last occasion with this being one of the photos.
To show how productive the area is, at one point over a small area of the grassland there were 5 Red-footed Falcons and 2 kestrel hovering for prey. It was a glorious view from the hide across the grassland plains and we spotted Brown hare and Roe deer together with passing Purple Heron and Marsh Harrier.

The falcons spent a good deal of time perched allowing for plenty of photo opportunities and swapping duty sitting in the nest box.

The birds also seemed to spend a lot of time preening and keeping those feathers in prime condition. They create some beautiful shapes in the process particularly when cleaning tail feathers.
I could obviously show many more images taken during the day but have decided that is enough for this post. On my next blog post as I take you on the journey of this Hungarian bird photography adventure I will show two other species we encountered from the tower hide. All I will say for now is the day got a good deal more colourful and included watching and photographing a sight that is not often seen.


Martin Clay said...

Some Gorgeous Photos Richard! Can't wait for the next instalment!

Matt Latham said...

I've been looking forward to these posts - simply awesome images and somewhere I am going to have to visit.

Gary Jones said...

Brilliant images Rich, looks like you had an amazing trip, cant wait to see more!

Firas said...

No doubt, this is one exquisite blog! Excellent shots with real close view of the birds in this post makes them stand out!!

Anonymous said...

Hey Rich,
awesome images

I wanted to sent you an e-mail asking about a few images, but neither your contact form nor your e-mail address works.

Maybe you could drop me an e-mail at and I will sent you an e-mail back :)



Rich Steel said...

Thanks for the comments. I hope you are all enjoying the photos from Hungary. I already have another exciting trip lined up for next year.




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