Hungary & the Czech Republic Sep 10—25, 2016

Posted by Rafael Galvez

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Rafael Galvez

Rafael Galvez has been birding and illustrating birds since childhood, a dual passion that developed when his family moved from Peru to South Florida. Always with a sketchp...

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Framed by the elegance of Budapest and the beauty of Prague, this year’s Hungary & The Czech Republic: Birds and Music tour granted us some of the best birding Europe can offer along vast stretches of wetlands, steppe, and forests, interspersed with visits to historical attractions, excellent food, and unforgettable music.

As part of this singular European program, we stayed at hotels that offered close proximity to easy and ample birding opportunities to see the staple European species along with some specialties, and authentic accommodations that offered traditional cuisine, regional charm, and in some cases access to historical monuments.

White-throated Dipper

White-throated Dipper— Photo: Rafael Galvez

 

Our birding escapades took us through the hearts of Hungary and the Czech Republic, from extensive marshes replete with wading birds including Eurasian Spoonbill and Curlew Sandpiper to some of Europe’s most pristine forests where we found up to seven woodpecker species including Black and Gray-headed. The timing of the tour was perfect to straddle the closing of the breeding season and the onset of migration, with Great Crested Grebes and Mute Swans still feeding their young while raptors such as numerous Red-footed Falcons and countless shorebirds staged along their routes southward.

In Hungary, the valleys stretching from the northeast along the Tisza River offered bird species characteristic of the Palearctic steppe, including flocks of Great Bustards flying low and foraging over extensive pastures, and Eurasian Thick-knees blending in with the fallow fields as they rested during migration. Highly sought species and vulnerable in the region—Saker Falcon and Eastern Imperial Eagle were not difficult to find; all the while Western Marsh Harriers, Common Buzzards, and Eurasian Sparrowhawks were frequently seen.

As we explored the wetlands of Kiskunság National Park in southcentral Hungary, White-tailed Eagles and Eurasian Kestrels could be seen overhead. The flats along marshes held numerous sandpipers including Eurasian Curlews, countless Common Snipe, numerous Ruffs, Spotted Redshanks, Greenshanks, and Wood and Green sandpipers. A town in the southern Great Plains region hosted a day roost of over a dozen Long-eared Owls, while along the way we encountered European Rollers and visited a hub for endangered Meadow Vipers.

Long-eared Owls

Long-eared Owls— Photo: Rafael Galvez

 

The cultural offerings of this tour beautifully complemented our time outdoors, often intertwining with the birding experiences to create a unique combination of nature and culture. A narrow-gauged train ride in Hortobágy National Park, reclaimed from a vast network of railways established during the Austro-Hungarian Empire, took us from a bird banding station through various fish ponds where we encountered Ferruginous Ducks, Pygmy Cormorants, and Black-tailed Godwits, among many other species. The banders demonstrated their research with a handful of recently caught warblers, while Bearded Reedlings, Penduline Tits, and Reed Buntings foraged in the surrounding marshes. Butterflies of many species were abundant in the meadows surrounding an authentically restored peasant house, furnished with traditional hand-made items—it was also home to hundreds of bats including Grey Long-eared and other species. The primitive dwellings of Farkasko, carved from limestone outcroppings, gave us a window to the past, while thousands of Common House-Martins migrated overhead. We also toured a wine cellar and experienced a fantastic wine tasting which included regional blends such as Egri Bikavér, or Bull’s Blood, a terroir wine seeped in the flavor of regional soils, and the oldest eminent wine in Hungary’s history with a specific region of production.

The Hungarian Parliament Building

The Hungarian Parliament Building— Photo: Rafael Galvez

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In Budapest, we were treated to a tour of the grand city, brimming with historical and architectural juxtapositions from Gothic to Art Nouveau—a stunning array of buildings stand side by side. Our knowledgeable guide took us through historic streets of Buda, the historic side of this city split by the Danube River, past the stunning Nyugati railway terminal, built by Eiffel and Co. We stopped by the Széchenyi Thermal Baths, one of the largest spa complexes in Europe, built in the early twentieth ccentury in Neo-baroque style, with spacious galleries showcasing intricate mosaics. In the Jewish Quarter, we visited the intricately decorated Dohány Street Synagogue, one of the largest in Europe, and the orthodox synagogue, one of the oldest. We also wandered into one of the so-called “ruin pubs” with a whole farmer’s market in its courtyard, an experience that blended Hungary’s history and tradition with its vibrant contemporary scene. We visited the tremendous St. Stephen’s Basilica, a Neo-Classical structure that is Hungary’s most important church, and the St. Matthias Church, a stunning fourteenth century Gothic building. We culminated our return to the Hungarian capital with an intimate chamber orchestra given at a beautiful hall exclusively for our group. The fine selection included divertimentos by Mozart and Weiner, compositions by Vivaldi and Tchaikovsky, and even a tango by Francini, beautifully interpreted by a string quartet from the Ferenc Liszt Chamber Orchestra.

Tower at Cesky Krumlov

Tower at Cesky Krumlov— Photo: Rafael Galvez

 

By the time we entered the Czech Republic, our Eastern European adventures had already exceeded expectations. Our time there only elevated our experience, adding a new set of birds during our time afield, and granting us exceptional cultural and musical experiences.

The moment we entered the Czech Republic, we found Red-crested Pochards and Tufted Ducks in roadside ponds. Great Crested Grebes actively fed their striped chicks, and an array of wading birds including Eurasian Spoonbills could be found in the fish ponds near Trebon. The eastern ornaments on the crests of buildings in the medieval town were perches for Black Redstarts and Kestrels. Beyond the scenic town square and its Plague Monument, a park offered excellent birding, where we saw a number of migratory warblers including Willow Warblers, Blackcaps, and Chiffchaffs, as well as flocks of Chaffinches and Hawkfinches. Our time in the Czech Republic only grew more fantastic when we visited Ceský Krumlov in southern Bohemia; with its medieval origins and Baroque stylings, it has a fairy tale air to it. There we had our best looks at Gray Wagtails and a group of White-throated Dippers.

We had a magical time in the Boubin Primeval Forest within the Sumava Mountains region where we secured looks at Willow and Crested tits, Lesser Whitethroat, and Goldcrest. This “virgin” forest is the largest indigenous woodland in Central Europe and one of the oldest preserves in the continent. The firs, spruces, and birches there are hundreds of years old—and gigantic. A variety of mosses cover the forest floor, atop which an array of mushroom species could be found. We had a great time identifying the various colorful fungi as we strolled through the stately interior gallery of the forest, itself like an ancient cathedral. A few stops along the edges of pasturelands proved to be some of our favorites. Hundreds of Fieldfares were on the move and could be appreciated as they foraged in the fields, joined by Mistle Thrushes. Waves of White Wagtails and pulses of Yellowhammers streamed by; a Great Gray Shrike perched on a cable nearby; and we saw mixed flocks foraging on trees at the edge of such clearings, which included Eurasian Serins, Lesser Redpolls, and various tits.

Black Stork

Black Stork— Photo: Dixie Sommers

 

For our grand finale, we toured through the City of a Hundred Spires, Prague—led along its historical landmarks by a professional guide. Wandering through this charming city was a passage through time; from the Romanesque to the Rococo, building after building, monument after monument was testament to the wonders of architecture. We finalized our exploration of the city with a grand stroll over the Vltava River by way of the Charles Bridge. Our last two days were crowned with stellar musical performances. Most memorable was the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra at the Rudolfinum, which performed standouts like Martinu’s choral masterpiece—Field Mass, and works by Antonín Dvorák.