Hortobágy National Park – Trip Report (Part 1)
I thought I’d tell you all about my recent trip to Hortobágy National Park in Hungary. This reserve is about 120 miles east of Budapest and is a wonderful place in which to photograph White-tailed Eagles, especially in Winter. I booked a place through a marvellous local company called Sakertour, the owner of which is a delightful man called János Oláh Jr. János is the M.D. of Sakertour and an renowned expert in Ecology and Ornithology. Actually, this wasn’t actually a tour in the strict sense of the word as I was the only one travelling to this destination in late December.
I organised my own flight to Budapest and the less said about the outward journey the better. The snow and freezing temperatures had brought the airports at Humberside and Amsterdam to a standstill and I was lucky to get there at all. Next time I will fly direct from Luton! Nevertheless, I eventually arrived at Budapest airport at 11.00 pm on Saturday evening. Tired and hungry from standing in endless queues all day, I asked a taxi driver to take me to the nearest hotel. Next morning, I phoned János and he kindly arranged a driver to pick me up and take me to the small town of Balmazújváros on the edge of the national park. A couple of hours later, Árpád walked into the lobby complete with his trade mark Leica binoculars hanging from his neck. The two hour drive in sub-zero temperatures was pretty uneventful but the scenery was fantastic. A white frost covered the surrounding fields and trees and the M3 (toll) motorway was strewn with Common Buzzards. It seemed as though there was a Buzzard perched on every fence, almost like mile posts.
We arrived too late to visit any of the local hides. However, Árpád took me to a local spot in the centre of Balmazújváros, where he assured me that I would see some Long-eared owls. Sure enough he was right—there must have been at least ten owls roosting in one tree and I managed to get several good shots of the owls through the branches.
Next morning at 5.30 AM, I waited outside the hotel as instructed and was picked up by local guide Gábor, who transported me some ten miles on dark icy roads to a remote farm in the national park. We then gathered our equipment and made our way across the snow covered fields to the Eagle hide. The hide is quite small and sunk into the surrounding terrain with about equal proportion set above and below ground. In some ways, it resembles a Hobbit house and the entrance door is tiny. However, it does benefit from a gas heater and special reflective glass windows. This was to be our home for the next eight hours as we were forbidden to leave the hide during daylight hours so that we did not alert the eagles to our presence.
The hide was certainly comfortable and came equipped with chairs and a central black curtain that prevented reflections. A large jar came in handy when it was time for a No. 1 but thankfully, the ‘Porta-potty’ remained unused. Initially, I was quite skeptical about photographing through the special reflective glazing but in hindsight, my fears were unfounded. You do lose about 1.33 stops of light but the resulting images did not lack any apparent sharpness.
We settled down in our chairs and waited for dawn. We were soon rewarded with the sight of our first eagle as it swooped down next to the fish bait that was staked to the ground, about twenty feet from the window. The eagle was soon joined by three others as we concentrated on getting some good photographs. The eagles were soon joined by many hooded crows, who competed with the eagles for a free meal. The crows were wary but certainly not afraid of the eagles. In fact, it was fun watching the crows sneaking behind the eagles and pulling their tail feathers. A rook or two also joined in the feast and it was exciting to watch the crows as they approached within feet of the hide windows.
A heated hide was very welcome in these cold temperatures and the noise of our D3 camera shutters did not alert the birds to our presence. When the eagles had had their fill and flown off, a Common Buzzard or two appeared to join the crows. The crows were slightly more respectful of the buzzards and kept their distance. As daylight failed it became more and more difficult to focus and about 4.00 pm we left the hide for the short walk back to the farm.
After a good (and cheap) evening meal and a pleasant night’s rest at the hotel, it was up again before dawn for another day at the Eagle hide. This time I was accompanied by a local photographer from Budapest called Peter. The snow was beginning to thaw and the light was a little duller than the previous day. Still, we both had a great day’s photography and even got a lift back from the hide in the local guide’s Suzuki 4×4.
As far as photographic equipment goes, I probably would have been better off photographing the eagles with a fast 300 mm lens. I often found that the eagles were too close to the hide for my 500mm lens. The Nikon D3 performed admirably as usual and it was great to be able to return to the hotel and review each day’s images over a pint or two of lager.
I will continue the trip report later with details of my exploits in the Passerine hide…