Hungary & the Czech Republic Sep 12—27, 2015

Posted by Barry Lyon

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Barry Lyon

Barry Lyon's passion for the outdoors and birding has its roots in his childhood in southern California. During his teenage years, he attended several VENT/ABA youth birdin...

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Replete with historical and cultural attractions, Budapest and Prague are revered as some of the world’s most beautiful and charming cities. Among birders, Hungary and the Czech Republic are not as well-known as many destinations but, in fact, offer some of the finest avian riches on the entire European continent. On this first-of-a-kind tour for VENT, we presented, in a single program, a Birds & Music tour that encompassed some of the best natural history and cultural attributes that this part of the world has to offer.

Long-eared Owl

Long-eared Owl— Photo: Mahlon Hale

From a birding standpoint, the trip was incredible, with many standout highlights from our time in both countries which demonstrated just how much there is to see in Eastern Europe. For two weeks we traced a route that took us from the wetlands and hills of Hungary to the mountain forests of the Czech Republic, accruing one memorable experience after another. In Hungary the gathering of Great Bustards, several White-tailed Eagles, and flocks of European Bee-eaters in Kiskunsag National Park made for a prime opening day; a day-roost of Long-eared Owls, a field full of beautiful Red-footed Falcons, European Rollers, a Black Stork, and near side by side views of Imperial Eagle and Saker Falcon near the town of Tiszaalpar made for another astonishing day; and, of course, the dramatic sighting of a Ural Owl hunting in a forest-ringed mountain meadow of Bükk National Park was sublime.

As advertised, Hungary’s historical and cultural heritage received strong emphasis, and our natural history pursuits were supplemented by an array of interesting and fun activities including the chance to ride a narrow-gauge railroad through the wetlands of Hortobágy National Park; tour a wine cellar—like something out of Edgar Allan Poe—in the Bükk Mountains that included a tasting of the famous “Bull’s Blood” wine; stop in at the Cistercian Abbey of Belapatfalva, the oldest Romanesque church in Hungary; and, for a most remarkable activity, visit the medieval “Farkasko” tufa dwelling below the town of Nosvaj.

Our time in Hungary wrapped up with a superb tour of Budapest, the Hungarian capital famously bisected by the Danube River. With an excellent local guide we visited many of the city’s iconic sites including the Széchenyi Bath House, Basilica of St. Stevens, the Chain Bridge, the Orthodox and Dohany synagogues in the Jewish quarter, St. Matthias Church, Fisherman’s Bastion in Buda Castle, and the Royal Palace.That evening we were treated to the first of three musical performances: a private chamber orchestra in an intimate concert hall. It was a beautiful way to end a beautiful day.

Hungarian Parliament Building

Hungarian Parliament Building— Photo: Barry Lyon

Our time in the Czech Republic demonstrated why a visit to this country makes for a perfect complement to our stay in Hungary. Whereas Hungary is a lowland country of wide-open spaces, the Czech Republic is more heavily forested and with more contour to the landscape. Yet, as with Hungary, the Czech Republic offers excellent birding and the cultural highlights to match.

Birding outside of Trebon yielded resplendent Great Crested Grebes, Red-crested Pochards, and Middle Spotted and Gray-headed woodpeckers, while Trebon, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, hosted historical attractions such as picturesque Masaryk Square and its famous Plague Column. The next day we found ourselves in the beautifully preserved medieval village of Cesky Krumlov, another World Heritage Site, complete with winding cobblestone lanes, a bustling central plaza, and a centuries-old castle—all begging for exploration. Meanwhile, the Vlatava River wound around two sides of the town, at one point forming a rapid below a weir designed to regulate the water flow. Despite the presence of people, the area below the weir hosted a wonderful collection of birds including scads of Black Redstarts, Gray and White wagtails, and, most memorably, our only White-throated Dipper of the trip.

Our entry into the Sumava Mountains region heralded many exciting bird observations to come. Here, amid stands of Norway Spruce and stubble pasturelands of early autumn, we were treated to a parade of birds that could not have made our day in and around Sumava National Park any better. Highlights from our time in the field included a flock of Mistle Thrushes and Fieldfares; a gorgeous Northern Shrike hunting unconcernedly at close range; an arresting male Black Woodpecker atop a spruce; a single Crested Tit scolding from only yards away; and an eleventh-hour find of a seldom-seen Eurasian Three-toed Woodpecker. And before heading to Prague the next afternoon, the avian jewels continued around our hotel with fine sightings of the bunting known as Yellowhammer, and marvelous views of Eurasian Bullfinch, one of Europe’s loveliest birds.

Our tour wrapped up in Prague, the wonderland of a city that is the Czech capital. With a little over a day here, we partook in a guided city tour that hit most of the essential highlights including Prague Castle and the beautiful St. Vitus Cathedral; the famous Charles Bridge; the Old Town District where we saw the remarkable Astronomical Clock; the Old-New Synagogue in the historic Jewish ghetto; and Wenceslas Square in New Town. For a finale on each of our two nights here, we attended musical performances in two of the city’s great concert halls, audience to the sounds of Beethoven, Dvorak, Mozart, and others. Birds, music, and culture. What a combination. What a trip.