Archive for May 2012
Why would this girl be smiling on leaving Budapest? Because she knows that Vienna is at the other end of the line.
It was a magical week, with the annual cathedral fair on
and the weather more beautiful each day. We even did some shopping.
Furs, jewelry, luxury goods of all kinds are to be had in Vienna’s great pedestrian zones; what we needed, though, was a high-quality German pizza cutter, and that’s exactly what Alison got. That important acquisition out of the way, we spent the rest of our time just wandering around enjoying the scene.
We spent a day in the Kunsthistorisches Museum.
Alison had never seen the Egyptian rooms, so we explored that collection at leisure.
After all that, we barely stopped in to the painting galleries.
Without a set program, we worked around Alison’s research schedule and just ducked in to whatever seemed interesting. Somehow neither of us had ever been inside the Minorite church.
This Virgin and Christ Child is especially fine.
The saints and apostles of the west portal are some of Vienna’s most important Gothic statues.
All that art can make you hungry.
Knowing that our time was limited, we sometimes had “coffee” twice a day, relishing the atmosphere as much as the cake.
Sometimes Alison started planning the next episode while the dishes were still on the table from the first.
We especially wanted to go to the Museum der Stadt Wien, which we hadn’t visited together for a decade or longer. The special exhibition was Klimt drawings, too many of them to really take in; but it was funny to see his famous smock hanging in the case.
It’s a great museum, especially the medieval floor with sculpture and glass from the Stephansdom.
We’d meant to hit some of the fine urban birding spots around town, but there’s just too much to do in Vienna! Next time.
You’ll notice some interesting misses–we certainly did. But we also got to see some great birds in Hungary in May.
Great Crested Grebe
Lesser Spotted Eagle
Little Ringed Plover
Lesser Spotted Woodpecker
Middle Spotted Woodpecker
Great Spotted Woodpecker
Lesser Gray Shrike
Eurasian Golden Oriole
Eurasian Blue Tit
Moustached Warbler (heard only, and identified by the excellent guide, Zsolt Vegvari, with whom we spent our bustard morning)
Eurasian Tree Sparrow
Most people I know bird landscapes, not just birds. We’re no exception: single-minded as we can be sometimes, we still managed to take advantage of some of Hungary’s cultural offerings on our visit.
The Romanesque abbey church of Bélapátfalva is one of the best-preserved medieval buildings in the country. And it sits, wonderfully secluded, in a lush lowland woods.
Tarnaszentmária is one of Hungary’s oldest churches–and among its smallest.
The church is almost severe in its Romanesque simplicity, but there is the occasional ornament, such as this monogram.
There are nearly as many White Storks as humans living in the little village.
Eger turned out to be a splendid small city for passing a rainy afternoon.
Baroque details abound.
Not everything is old–here’s a neat piece of late central European Jugendstil.
But it’s the seventeenth century that really matters here.
Eger went back and forth between Christian and Turkish hands; the city’s minaret is said to the northernmost example of Ottoman architecture remaining in Europe.
Eger is peaceful now, with beautiful parks and inviting walks.
Truly relaxing, and probably a great place to set up base if you can’t get in at the Nomad.
Sometimes getting lost puts you in interesting places. We’d meant to do more shorebirding, but I missed a turn and we ended up in Balmazújváros instead–not bad for an involuntary detour.
It took us two tries to get into the church at Feldebrö.
It was well worth going back–the second time with arrangements kindly made over the phone by Barbara. The sanctuary is interestingly eclectic.
But down below is one of the finest small crypts we’d ever seen.
There are a few remnants of sculptural ornament, whether from the crypt or from earlier stages in the church above wasn’t clear.
The real treasure, though, is the remarkably well-preserved frescoes. The sacrifice of Cain:
and the death of Abel:
Spectacular, Italo-Byzantine faces everywhere.
Don’t pass up a chance to see this church–but be sure to call in advance.
From the intimate and rural to the sublime of Hungary’s great religious metropolis: Esztergom.
The hugely bombastic cathedral is reached by a strenuous steep climb up the mountainside (I suppose there’s a way to drive, too).
The views out over the Danube are breathtaking.
We’d carefully avoided visiting on a Monday so that we could visit the Museum of Ecclesiastical Art, housed in the episcopal palace behind Alison’s left ear–only to discover that the museum was closed on Tuesdays, too. But Esztergom was still a fine place to see.
Leaving Hungary was hard, but at least Budapest’s Keleti station gives you something to look at.
Even a bird or two!
Now that’s Hungary: endless skies, endless grass, and shallow ponds filled with birds. It was a bit of a haul, but Alison and I drove down to the Hortobagy every other day while we were staying in Noszvaj; once we learned the route, thanks in large part to Garmin’s Gulliver Girl, we could enjoy the roadside birds, which included good numbers of Red-footed Falcons, Bee-eaters, and the occasional Hoopoe and Roller. We always knew we’d left the hills as soon as the Marsh Harriers started to appear; I’d never seen that dashing species in such concentrations before.
It was apparently a dry spring on the puszta, but wherever ponds and puddles still stood, there were herons. Great Egrets–pale footed and dark billed, just the opposite of American birds of that (super)species–were the most abundant, but especially early and late in the day, we ran across most of the expected long-legged waders, including good views of a couple of Great Bitterns in flight and plenty of Purple Herons.
It’s always fun to be where there are plenty of Squacco Herons, especially when they’re in the blue-faced peak of the breeding season.
We saw only one Black Stork, a bird that had been high on Alison’s wish list, but White Storks were everywhere, nests prominent in every little town and adults stalking the fields at every turn.
Best of the long-legs, though, were Eurasian Spoonbills.
They were rarely out of sight in the Hortobagy, small parties flying overhead in their funny stiff-necked way, or loafing on the edges of the ponds, plumes ascatter in the wind.
Shorebirding was lackluster in comparison. One little roadside pond near Balmazújváros produced nice looks at a few common species, including Black-winged Stilt, Little Ringed Plover, Wood Sandpiper,
The Halastó fishponds, which we visited several times, were generally shorebird-free except for Wood Sandpipers, Common Redshanks, and Northern Lapwings.
Finally, on our last visit, we ran across a nice flock of shorebirds, among them large numbers of Dunlin, a few Pied Avocets, a Spotted Redshank, a couple of Curlew Sandpipers, Black-tailed Godwits, and Eurasian Curlews; I can only imagine what it must be like here in a “typical” wet spring. At least the dryness didn’t discourage the Blue-headed Wagtails, which were among the most abundant and most conspicuous of the roadside passerines.
Two more of our all-time favorites, Stonechats and Corn Buntings were nearly as common.
Perhaps the most exciting passerines, though, were the shrikes. Red-backed Shrikes, among the most handsome of the butcher birds, were every bit as abundant as we’d expected, from hillside meadows down to the puszta roadsides.
The colorful little males get all the attention, but I like the more demurely plumed females just as much–maybe because the first of this species I ever saw, long ago at Germany’s Taubergiessen, was a barred bird.
As globally uncommon as they are, Red-backed Shrikes still vastly outnumber the rare and seriously declining Lesser Gray Shrike. I’d seen a few in Bulgaria years ago, but was happily surprised to find this species not necessarily common but at least reliable here in Hungary. We saw them every day we were in the lowlands, usually multiple birds, and there was one especially dependable individual that welcomed us to the Halastó fishponds on each visit.
No doubt on retainer from the national park.
The birding was great, obviously. But there was more to see, too, from chubby sousliks and rangy red foxes to grass snakes. There was plenty of frog noise, just as there was up in the hills, with addition of a voice neither of us had ever heard. Click here for a couple of seconds of the weird, hollow hooting of fire-bellied toads–surely one of the strangest amphibian sounds ever.
We’d thought of this as a once-in-a-lifetime trip. And we’re already planning the next one.
Hungary combines the best of many possible worlds: the eye-soothing grasslands of the puszta, the incredibly birdy marshes and ponds of the Hortobagy, and the lovely peaceful forests of the Bükk Hills. On our visit this spring, Alison and I quickly fell into a happy rhythm, alternating days on the plains with long walks in the woods.
We were based in Noszvaj, at the wonderful Hotel Nomad–a place we can’t recommend fervently enough for its friendliness, its comfort, and its spectacularly good food.
Barbara and her family were unfailingly generous, lending us maps, offering advice, and even phoning to make arrangements for us when the language barrier, as too often, proved too much. We’d intended to stay a short week here before moving on, but wound up extending our visit every few days, until in fact we spent the entire two and a half weeks in our comfortable room.
Along with its other terrific advantages, the Nomad is ideally located for exploring the hills. The good birding starts right out the door of the hotel, with a small wooded stream offering some excellent puddle watching.
This spot was often our first and our last destination of the day, and was always good for Spotted and Collared Flycatchers, Blackcaps and Wood Warblers, Great and Middle Spotted Woodpeckers, Song Thrushes and Blackbirds, and uncharacteristically visible Hawfinches.
Just above the hotel, the stream is dammed twice, once forming a little boating pond and once a nice reedy puddle full of frogs. Click on the photo if you want a faint sense of what it sounds like there.
From there it’s a couple of minutes’ stroll into the national park, where Black Woodpeckers join the mix and Wood Warblers sing every few yards.
The chilly scales of European Robins, the smacking chants of Chaffinches, and the buzzy mutterings of Collared Flycatchers provide the rest of the usual soundtrack, with a background of Common Cuckoo hoots.
The woods are quite damp here, or at least where during our visit. There is a spring claimed to have been visited by Attila himself:
And one rainy afternoon, we found half a dozen Fire Salamanders out enjoying their own walk.
A pretty magical place, and no car required. But the nearby Hor Valley, reached from its mouth at Cserépfalu, is even more beautiful.
The long road, largely disused, leads through a lovely hornbeam forest, past dramatic rocky outcrops and (it must be said) the occasional quarry and clearcut. The area has been inhabited for a long, long time.
This is Suba Lyuk, reached by a steep climb up the canyon wall. The cave is known to have been inhabited for some thousands of years by Neanderthal-like humans; nowadays the only troglodytes in sight are Eurasian Wrens and the authors of graffiti.
Our target, and the target of most visitors to the valley, was White-backed Woodpecker. We didn’t come up with any, though an Ecotours group with whom we briefly overlapped at the Nomad had had outstanding views of one in the same areas we were haunting. So it goes!
Towards the end of our stay at the Nomad Alison “discovered” a different trail that took us through the woods and up into the open country atop the hills. This was the land of Red-backed Shrikes, Yellowhammers, and Common Whitethroats, quite different from the forests beneath.
It was also a great place to look for raptors: Common Buzzards, Sparrowhawks, and Eurasian Kestrels were up and hunting, and some patient scanning produced great looks at an adult Lesser Spotted Eagle, the only one we saw during our entire stay. And of course, the magnificent Common Raven we had with us always.
It wasn’t that long ago that we hadn’t even heard of the Bükk. The area turns out to be perfect for a birding vacation. Highly recommended!