The next day’s Zeiss Victory SF tour activities weren’t scheduled to start until a bit later in the morning, but some of us were unwilling to let the best birding of the day slide by unused. So some of us met at 5:00 am to walk down the street to some reedy marshes that spread like fingers into the edge of town from the Neusiedler See. It was a great decision! Our first reward was brief but definitive views of Savi’s Warbler on the marsh edge while singing its distinctive low-pitched hum of a song, easily overlooked if not focused upon. Frustratingly, we heard but didn’t see Marsh and Reed Warblers, so a Sedge Warbler (photo) that popped into view and sang loudly was a distinct pleasure. The tall cottonwoods on the edge of the marsh provided our first views of a male Golden Oriole when his flutelike song called our attention to him. The descending calls of Penduline Tits led us to two more of their nests. A walk around a grassy interior of the marsh yielded the gem of the morning: a singing male Bluethroat! Sadly, it was out of photographic range, but what a gorgeous bird! We also found a family group of Bearded Reedlings. These little birds strongly prefer marshy, reedy areas, and evidently have large broods. We saw several of the distinctive males with their pale gray heads and drooping moustaches contrasting with rusty back and wings. The juveniles have a very distinctive plumage with features the adults lack, including prominent black in the rectrices and a black facial mask. Their overall coloration is a light tan, instead of the more reddish color of the adults. All ages show the long rounded tail. It was also a delight to hear a Common Cuckoo giving the “clock” call!
After a rushed breakfast (we were a bit late returning to the hotel – it’s hard to walk away from great birds!), we boarded the bus for an excursion into western Hungary. Our first stop was an open lake with reedy islands and an elevated viewing platform. The lake was covered with several thousand European Coots and Greylag Geese, many Red-crested Pochards, Black-necked (Eared) and Great Crested Grebes, and Common, Whiskered and Black Terns. The first gem of the day was a calling Water Rail that finally appeared several times at the edge of one of the islands. Water Rails are members of genus Rallus, and thus are closely related to our Virginia Rail, which they closely resemble. Soon the raptors stole the show. First to appear was one of several Eastern Imperial Eagles here, this one being mobbed by a Common Buzzard, which looked as tiny as a Kestrel beside it. The eagle was incredibly agile for such a large bird, flipping completely upside down to meet the Buzzard talons up, and often completing the barrel roll in levelling out. Next up was one of the special targets here: a White-tailed Eagle. This relative of our Bald Eagle (same genus: Haliaeetus) has an even bigger wingspan. We saw it in flight at a distance of several kilometers, flashing the white tail it’s named for. Everything else in the marsh saw it too, as suddenly the sky was filled with Gadwalls, Tufted Ducks and Garganey in panicked flight towards the safety of the water. Here we also had our first well-seen Hobby of the trip, circling high over the lake. Hobbies are very handsome falcons, very dark overall, with a white semi-collar, two teardrop markings on the cheek, and heavily streaked breasts.
One of the interesting sights at this location had nothing to do with birds. Two shepherds and a pair of dogs brought a flock of a traditional Hungarian strain of sheep through the edge of the park and then drove them down the road. These sheep had spiraled horns – really wicked looking! We took a walk down the length of a canal beside the original lake to another lake more heavily lined by reedy edge. Here we got our first good looks at Ferruginous Ducks, which are shy and retiring and often difficult to see. On the walk, we had multiple Little Bitterns fly by. Some lucky people got to see a Collared Pratincole do a fly-by – they have a very distinctive, almost nighthawk-like wing motion. Everyone got to see the Purple Herons though (photo) flying by, slow and labored, dark and streaky on the neck.
On the way to the next park, we stopped in a small town for a particularly close White Stork nest. This one is of moderate size – the old nests can get quite big, with amassed sticks reaching a depth of two feet or more. Note how the parent deliberately stands to shade the babies. We saw many such nests in the rural towns, some with nearly grown chicks and broods of up to 5 birds. Also at this site, we found several Little Owls. They were very good at eluding us, dropping almost to ground level before swiftly looping up into a new perch, usually in the densest part of the tree. Often the Chaffinches and Great Tits helped us relocate them, but eventually they disappeared across a field.
The next park was a more heavily forested area with horrific mosquitos! Before getting there, we had one of the most exciting raptor encounters of the trip: a Honey Buzzard in full flight display. First, we saw it circling over a distant woodlot, but then it suddenly swooped straight downward before looping back up nearly vertically, stalling and clapping its wings together over its back. It repeated this display several times as we all watched raptly. Another pair of Hobbies escorted a Common Buzzard from the area. The main target here was a colony of Bee-eaters. Bee-eaters are billed as Europe’s most colorful bird, and it would be hard to dispute that, with their pale blue chests, bright yellow throats, reddish cap and upper wings, black face masks setting off red eyes, and white foreheads. Bee-eaters nest colonially in holes (photo) in dirt cliffs and banks and they cruise around in the vicinity of their colonies, grabbing bees and other insects on the wing, making their distinctive chirping calls. Their flight is hypnotic with bursts of rapid, shallow flapping followed by stiff-winged glides. The silhouette (photo) in flight is diagnostic: long-billed face, sharply triangular wings and fanned tail with pointy extended central rectrices. They seem restless, almost never alighting, endlessly patrolling the skies. The walk back to the bus was productive, yielding great but distant views of a Wryneck feeding on the road, and a brief appearance by a Sparrowhawk bursting down the road. We ran (literally in some cases!) the mosquito gauntlet back to the bus and headed back for dinner in Austria.