Poland / Slovakia / Hungary

8th-25th July 2004

Simon Woolley & Julia Casson

See photo page here

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Background gen

Getting there / car hire

We flew with British Airways from Heathrow to Warsaw, for £112 each (booked through www.ebookers.com). Car hire was arranged through Europcar - not cheap at £508 for 17 days, but did get a free upgrade to an Opel Astra 1.6 with A/C - excellent.


It actually rained on every day but one, but in fact we were hardly inconvenienced - apart from one wet day in Bialowieza (with decent breaks), we hardly had to alter our plans at all. Late afternoon storms were a positive relief in Hortobágy, in particular! It was very windy before a thunderstorm on one day at Biebrza. Temperatures reached c. 27°C most days in Poland, and up to 35°C in Hungary, which was stinking hot!


The marshy areas of Biebrza and Bialowieza, and the Tatra forests were a bit mozzie-infested at times, especially early and late - do not neglect insect repellent and after-bite. We found the really big cans of repellent were best. That way, if the spray doesn't work, you can take out your frustration on the little sh*ts by hitting them with the can. Alternatively, take up smoking.


· Wellies are useful (but not essential) in Bialowieza. Despite it being a relatively wet year in Biebrza, we did not need wellies there. We might have explored some really wet woods there, but it would probably have been pointless and a good way to get eaten alive!

· For the first time, we used a wholly digital sound system in the field - a brand new MP3 player loaded with the relevant tracks ripped from the Roché 'All the Bird Sounds of Europe' CDs. Add in a pair of tiny but quite loud battery-powered Sony speakers, and we were in business. Highly satisfactory, and better than CDs!

· Usual photographic kit - Canon EOS D60 with (mostly) 100-400m IS lens. 2x 256Mb Compact Flash cards, Image Tank 40Mb storage device for back up, and laptop for nightly image sifting and previewing.


8th July Fly to Warsaw. Drive to Wizna. pm in Biebrza southern basin
9th July Biebrza southern basin
10th July am in Biebrza southern basin. Drive to Bialystok. pm at Dojlidy fishponds and near Bialystok
11th July am at Siemianowka reservoir. Drive to Bialowieza. pm owling trip in puzszca
12th July Bialowieza forest
13th July Bialowieza forest
14th July am in Bialowieza forest. Drive to Sanok (Bieszczady)
15th July Drive to Ustrzyki Dolne. Day in Bieszczady NP
16th July Bieszczady NP
17th July Drive to Štrbské Pleso (Slovak Tatras)
18th July High Tatras
19th July High Tatras
20th July Drive to Slovensky Kras (Turna na Bodvou area). Continue to Hortobágy (Hungary)
21st July Hortobágy NP
22nd July Hortobágy NP
23rd July Hortobágy NP (day with János Oláh)
24th July Drive to Radom (Poland)
25th July Drive to Warsaw. Fly to London

Site notes, birding contacts and accommodation

Biebrza Marshes

We visited only the southern basin, all from our base in the village of Wizna. We can thoroughly recommend Zenek Borawski's agrotouristic pension "Ortolan" (c/o ul. 1000-lecia 26, Wizna) - contact him on zen1@poczta.onet.pl or via his website at www.biebrzan.prv.pl, or telephone 086 219 6400 or (mobile) 601 152 032.

The Biebrza Marshes are truly accessible at only a few points, so plan carefully and especially think about the sun direction at different times of the day - in essence, try the road up the eastern side in the morning, and the western road later in the day.

· The eastern road, looking mostly west: we found this to be rather disappointing (but then it was windy, and rather late in the year for the specialities of this area, such as Great Snipe - which incidentally had not appeared at all at the traditional Barwik lek in 2004). White-backed Woodpecker occurs in the first area of wet alder/aspen forest north of Laskowiec, but access is impossible. Elk were easy from the road early morning, and we had Crane and Common Rosefinch here too.

· The western road, looking mostly east: much better! There is a series of vantage points at various little villages - the best was Brzostowo, where you get a great view of a huge area of the marshes - there is a constant turnover of birds, and this is a good a place as any for raptors, including Greater Spotted Eagle, which is reputed to terrorise the local domestic goose flocks! From here, we had five species of tern, numerous waders, White-tailed Eagle and Crane.

· Mscichy: about 35km from Wizna, up the western road, and about 40 minutes on slightly complicated roads, including an entertaining cobbled section. North of Brzostowo, head for Radzilow, away from the valley, then turn first right in the village (before the square) to Karwowo and on to Mscichy. There is just one (easily) driveable track which plunges east into the very heart of the marshes (towards an area marked on the Grajewo 1:100 000 map, available from Zenek, as Bialy Grad), through scrub (apparently holds Bluethroat), then sedge fen (the perfect habitat for Aquatic Warbler), then reedbed, then open wet grassy meadows. Loads of warblers, waders and marsh terns throughout this area. Aquatic Warblers, at least late in the season, apparently only sing as dusk approaches - so stay late, and take lots of mosquito repellent! But remember: these may be the only 'roadside' Aquatic Warblers in the EU!

· The meadows just south of Wizna village, right by the river: calling Corncrake here, plus a vast Starling roost, and Beaver is meant to be possible here after dusk.

· The agricultural areas to the south of Wizna, especially near the former collective farm / prison village of Grady-Woniecko. The best road is the one running west, immediately north of the tiny bridge south of the village - follow this through first open scrubby woods, then fields, then lovely hay meadows, and then cross the river back north to the village of Bronowo, to return to Wizna.

Bialystok area

We are hugely indebted to Tomasz (Tomek) Kulakowski (avestom@op.pl) for his enormous help in setting up the north-eastern Polish leg of our trip. His website (http://www.avestom.republika.pl - bilingual, thankfully!) is essential for any birding visitor. We stayed in the Best Western Hotel Cristal in central Bialystok, which has excellent cheap rates at weekends.

Two important sites well worth visiting:

· Dojlidy fishponds: just to the south-east of Bialystok, and easily found using a city map. The biggest pool is heavily used for watersports, but the others were completely quiet, even on a Saturday afternoon. Great Reed Warblers are common in the reeds, and Marsh Warbler occurs in slightly drier areas. Slavonian Grebe was absent this year, but often breeds, as do the other four grebe species. We somehow dipped the breeding pair of Whooper Swans! Also an excellent site for amphibians and Odonata, plus Large Chequered Skipper.

· Siemianowka reservoir: immediately north of Bialowieza NP, and easily found via local maps. Approach from the north, and head for the railway causeway, which has a perfectly driveable track alongside it, but n.b. the road stops 2/3 of the way across the lake! From here, assess the best areas according to water levels. Many Whiskered and some Black Terns here, plus Osprey, White-tailed Eagle and many wagtails, but sadly no Citrine, though apparently 4-5 pairs did breed in 2004. The right tactic is to try and avoid weekends, when the causeway is swarming with fishermen, we suspect!

Bialowieza NP

Accommodation is plentiful in Bialowieza village - there is a full range from cheap rooms in local houses right up to two smart chain hotels. Tomek arranged for us to stay at the 'Stork House' agrotouristic B&B (ul. Olgi Gabiec 14) (http://abuszko.webpark.pl/www/offer.htm, tel: 085 681 2681), which was comfortable and quiet.

This famous area has had acres of gen written about it, but here are just a few precise and up-to-date tips.

· Number one tip - get in touch with the excellent guide, Arkadiusz (Arek) Szymura - (email: pub@o2.pl or lszymura@zbs.bialowieza.pl; phone no: 601 450035) He (and his son Matteus) are licensed park guides, and totally up to date with the latest bird sites, notably the tricky woodpeckers and (in season) owls. He took us deep into the woods on our first evening, where we scored with Pygmy Owl and 3 bull European Bison. Arek was immensely helpful with gen for even the commoner species, and knows everything worth knowing about Bialowieza - including the deep history of the forest, botany and soils, and the threats (incredibly) still facing this amazing place. He charged a very reasonable 170 PLN (about €40) for two guiding sessions (late evening and early morning), and very flexibly aborted one trip due to rain, and rearranged for the next day!

And site specifically:

· Pogorzelce and Teremiski clearings: these large open areas are ideal for shrikes, storks and raptor-watching (Lesser Spotted Eagles & Honey Buzzard in particular). River and Barred Warblers and Thrush Nightingales occur in the wet edges near the woods, and there are Golden Orioles too.

· Teremiski forest swamp: immediately west of the village, where the road enters the forest, park in the obvious spot on the left, before the river bridge. Enter the woods immediately north of the road (there may be a track), and head north-west for about 30m into wet spruce/aspen woods with many dead trees - wellies recommended. This looks like, and is, a fabulous woodpecker spot - we had many Great-spotted, plus Grey-headed, Lesser Spotted, White-backed and after much effort, Three-toed. They all nest in the immediate vicinity, and juveniles in particular clearly continue to use the area after fledging. Also River Warbler and Corncrake near here, but too wet to get close.

· Zebra Zubra boardwalk: the well-known "Bison's Ribs" trail. Soggy in places, slippery in others, but highly user-friendly, and deservedly popular - try to get there early. All woodland species possible here - we scored with Greenish Warbler after about ½ an hour's walk from the northern car-park.

· Bison breeding centre / visitor's centre: very touristy, but the birds do seem to be used to the people - a mid-afternoon visit produced Middle Spotted Woodpecker, a family of Wrynecks, and a very likely Collared Flycatcher.

· Palace Park (Park Palacowy) area: immediately north of the Best Western hotel and information kiosks, cross the bridge onto the lake causeway, and head north with the crowds to the brand new Park museum. The lakes are quite good early and late (warblers etc.) - there was a Blyth's Reed Warbler singing at the north-east corner (by the road bridge) until a week or two before we arrived - we tried but it had indeed gone quiet or moved off! The Palace Park has numerous mature trees and plenty of birds - many Crossbills (as throughout in a year of abundance), Collared and Spotted Flycatchers, and reputedly Greenish Warbler is quite regular here too (eastern side especially). We missed White-backed Woodpecker within 50m of the Museum here, too!

· East of the village: drive out of Bialowieza, and follow the road south to the road bridge. River Warblers and Thrush Nightingales were very vocal but invisible here towards and after dusk, and there are lots of very amenable Red-backed Shrikes too. Beaver is possible in this area.

· The puszcza proper - into the woods. Organise your guide, then arrange to get in to the closed area of the NP as early as physically possibly - 0400 would not be too early. If you hire a bike, then you'll get much further into the park, into areas that few visitors reach. It is impossible to overstate just how fantastic the heart of the forest is - it's more like Amazonia than Europe, and you half expect to tick gnome, fairy or werewolf around the next tree. We saw only rather few bird species (and heard more) - White-backed Woodpecker, Red-breasted Flycatcher - plus Wild Boar and Red Deer. In season, and with time, owls, Hazelhen and Three-toed Woodpecker should be possible.

Bieszczady NP

A beautiful, quite remote and hard to cover area! Non-camping accommodation appears to get distinctly dicey south of Ustrzyki Dolne, so it may be best to stay there (numerous private rooms available). Do not neglect the beautiful wooden Uniate churches (cerkwa), to be found throughout the area.

The main trails swarm somewhat, but there are lots of very quiet trails to explore, and quality birds present. The problems are twofold - (1) lack of gen and (2) a vast area with a low density of tough birds! Nevertheless, there is a feel of real quality here, if you have time and patience. It is also the only place in Poland with the full suite of mammal species, including Brown Bear, Lynx, Wolf and Bison, and is one of the four (so far) highly presitigious PAN National Parks in Europe. A useful contact is Gregorz Sitko (mobile phone: 608 765 540, email: gregsit@pro.onet.pl or we@dziprzyroda.pl), who works for the NP, and is based at the interpretation centre at Lutowiska. He is also a commercial guide, who may well be able to help with mammals in the right season, but he was kind enough to give us some helpful tips for our short summer visit.

· Upper San valley: drive west from the junction just south of Smolnik (itself south of Lutowiska), and park by the bridge just north of Dwernik. Explore the minor road on the northern side of the valley towards Chmiel. Although we only visited mid-afternoon, we still saw Grey-headed and White-backed Woodpeckers here.

· Berezki loop: park at the car-park/campsite near the village of Berezki on the 896 road south of Lutowiska. Follow the trail uphill to the west, and after an hour or so, turn south (still uphill!) at an open meadow and climb through beech forest to emerge at a very steep last 250m or so in the ridge top meadows. Descend to Ustrzyki Górne by the well-used track to the south-east, and return to the starting point along the road. We saw few birds, but time of day and season were against us. Black Stork and Lesser Spotted Eagle likely, and no doubt the woods hold the woodpeckers.

· Lower San valley: to reach this site, turn east off the 896 road just south of Stuposiany and drive via Muczne for about 16km to the village of Tarnawa Nizna. Go beyond the village through fields towards the river, which forms the border with Ukraine, and explore the trail and fields to the north. On no account stray to or across the border - this is an EU frontier, and as such is a bit sensitive! Corncrake and River Warbler were both present here, plus Lesser Spotted Woodpecker.

The Slovak Tatras

We based ourselves in the ski resort of Štrbské Pleso - it's touristy and not as cheap as (say) Poprad, but has the advantage of being right on site for the forests and high mountains. The Litvor Hotel (first right as you go into town - http://www.litvor.sk/uk_index.html) is probably as cheap as anywhere in town, and is very comfortable, with a pleasant and remarkably good value) restaurant downstairs.

· The Solisko chairlift and Furkotská Dolina: lazy people like us take the chairlift from Štrbské Pleso towards Solisko summit (it starts c.0830am), but you can walk up if you want to! Nutcracker should be easily seen from the chairlift. There are lots of well-marked and safe trails, all connected by colour-coding to the widely available walkers' map, which is an obligatory purchase. From the top of the chairlift, we headed west then immediately north - follow the yellow trail. Alpine Accentor showed exceptionally well by the higher of the two tarn lakes. The descent straight down the hill back to Štrbské Pleso runs through prime Nutcracker habitat - at least in July, the species is simply easy to see, given the number of vocal juveniles present.

· Tatranská Polianka: on the mountain road about 10km east of Štrbské Pleso: another good Nutcracker spot. The birds were very easy to see in the grounds of the spa hotel immediately north of the road.

Slovensky Kras

One of those areas we wished we had a week to explore. Especially fantastic for butterflies, but by repute, the plants and birds are wonderful too - the only Slovak Rock Bunting site, plus owls and raptors.

· Turna na Bodvou (with thanks to Jerzy Dyczkowski and his 2001 gen (http://www.birdtours.co.uk/tripreports/slovakia/slov1/slov2001.htm): approaching from Rožnava and heading west on the main road, you will see the ruined castle on your left. Drive past it, then take a left onto a minor road (European Souslik here), and park to view the castle area. Arriving at 1030, we had an adult Eastern Imperial Eagle immediately on getting out of the car, and soon saw another! This really does seem to be a reliable site.

· Háj canyon: continue up the same minor road, and bathe in butterflies in the hot clearings along the road! Utterly magical. There is a trailhead at the top of the road with colour-marked trails to explore on the limestone pavement - we did not have enough time, but we'll be back…

· Furkotská na Bodvou quarry: drive towards the Hungarian border, and on your right you will see a large active quarry. The workmen there hardly blinked when I waved bins and asked whether we could drive in and wander about. We managed to locate an immature male Rock Thrush in the heat (actually visible from the main rock crusher). Again, an apparently reliable site for the target species.

Hortobágy NP

Accommodation is not necessarily as plentiful as you might think, and is over-priced in Hortobágy village. Consider staying in Debrecen (though that would mean some very early starts), or the village of Nádudvar. The Trofea Hunting Lodge in Nádudvar (actually about 2km east of the village) is used by many tour groups, but is quite expensive and the strong hunting bias may not suit all! We stayed at Kisvárosi Panzio (proprietor Anita Varga (544 81226) - her English speaking contact is Róbert Kiss (kiss.robert73@axelero.hu, mobile: 703 863 802)

This famous site is, like so many of the great sites of Europe, enigmatic. You could spend a few days here on your own and leave happy, but not exactly exhilarated, and with the sense that you'd been missing something. You would have been! There are two golden rules for birding Hortobágy - (1) get a Park map from the roundhouse museum in Hortobágy village, and (2) HIRE A GUIDE, at least for a day! We thoroughly recommend János Oláh of Sakertour (tel: 36-66-210390, www.sakertour.hu). We had met János on a pelagic trip off Peru last August (he is fantastically well-travelled world birder - life list of 5000+ at 27!), and had threatened him with a visit to his home turf - so we followed it up! He charged €112 for the whole day (0600-1900), including transport, and it was money extremely well spent.

The key point is that János (or his business partner Zoltán) will get you inside the NP and into otherwise inaccessible areas. Without him, we would likely have missed Great Bustard, Moustached Warbler, Great Bittern, Black & Syrian Woodpeckers, Long-eared Owl, Tawny Pipit, Marsh Sandpiper and others. We would also have had only poor views of Saker Falcon. It would be meaningless to detail inaccessible sites here, so the following is simply a summary of the best publicly accessible spots.

· Hortobágy-halasto: this well known area of large fish-ponds has a 13.5km trail (!) around it - if you try and do it on foot, you will never reach all the good areas before it gets hot and birds get less active. Either hire a bike, or hire János. Nevertheless, walking just to the first two towers on the western side produced a multitude of good species - Pygmy Cormorant, Little Bittern, Penduline Tit and more

· Fényes-tó: another (more compact) complex of ponds, just south of the main 33 road, about 15km west of Hortobágy-halasto. Park by the twin metal contraptions on the left hand bend, and explore the bunds. A good central spot is by the smelly fish barns about 500m from the road. Here, you can see which ponds have lowered water levels, and thus the most interesting birds. We had Oystercatcher and Temminck's Stint here, and muddy conditions can produce Great Black-headed Gull.

· Nagyiván road: this well known road still further west on the 33, and off to the south, is meant to be capable of producing Great Bustard from the tops of the tumuli - this is certainly the right viewing technique, though we saw the species elsewhere in the NP. There are breeding Rollers in the small woods here, and there is a very active Red-footed Falcon colony in the small wood on the northern side of the 33 opposite.

· Nádudvar road: staying in Nádudvar, we drove the 20km stretch from the village to the 33 several times - it was consistently good for Lesser Grey Shrike and Red-footed Falcon. We had a Nightjar at dusk from the field gate (access prohibited) immediately north of the factory just north of Nádudvar village. Syrian Woodpecker probably occurs in Nádudvar itself.

· Balmazújvaros area: it is well known that the vicinity of the roundabout junction of the 33 south of town is a good area for Saker Falcon. Check especially the big high-voltage pylons - and check carefully - the birds are not as big as you think, or rather the pylons are bigger than you think! The town itself has two big attractions - Syrian Woodpecker and Long-eared Owl. The former can turn up anywhere there are even small trees, in the suburbs - for active nests, get in touch with János at Sakertour. The Long-eared Owl roost is active from at least July, right through to early spring - apparently 300+ birds can be present in just three trees! Ask locally for the spot (it's somewhere near the church and park) - it is apparently quite well known.

· Balmazújvaros - Tiszacsege road: this is the best open access area for raptors. We had Long-legged Buzzard just to the south of the road near Balmazújvaros, Sakers are regularly seen north of the road just west of the Hortobágy River bridge, we saw Montagu's Harrier, White-tailed and Short-toed Eagles in the general area, and other birders had Eastern Imperial Eagle here too. Steppe Eagle is far from impossible. There are three quite obvious observation towers along the south side of the road - only the most westerly has a roof, however! They make as convenient spots for observation and reference points as any. Incidentally, there is a simply excellent fish restaurant at Tiszacsege - follow the road right through the village towards the river ferry, and the place is on your right on a bend under trees. The local fish soup with sour cream is especially good.

· Hajdúszoboszló: two good areas here:

(1) The airfield has short grass and is therefore good for European Sousliks, and is consequently good for Saker Falcons. We scored only distantly here, but other birders had excellent views late afternoon. On balance, early mornings may be best, but there are so many other places you need to be at 0700!

(2) The fish-ponds just to the west of town, by the raised bridge. These held a substantial gull roost (including Mediterranean) at dusk, plus many other herons, terns and other wetland species. There was a pretty enormous Starling roost just east along the road back to Nádudvar, too.

· Kaba beet factory lagoons: located about 12km south-east of Nádudvar - look for the large Eastern Sugar silos. The lagoons can be viewed from a network of driveable tracks. Depending on water levels, they can be excellent for waders and wildfowl. We had big counts of Avocet, Black-winged Stilt, Spotted Redshank, plus Marsh Sandpiper and lots more. A good site for the hot part of the day?

Blow-by-blow birding account

8th July

Following an 0400 start, we went through the usual rigmarole of getting to Heathrow on a bus, and successfully caught the 0915 BA flight to Warsaw. Given Julia's recently twisted knee, she was very grateful for having two spare seats next to her! All went smoothly at the airport, and we were soon on our way out of Warsaw on the Bialystok road. It rapidly ceased being a dual carriageway, but it was at least straight and relatively uncrowded.

After stopping for a drink at a roadside bar and provisions at a small supermarket, we finally turned off the main road and plunged into some 'proper' Polish countryside. The final 10km or so to Wizna was wonderful - just two or three short stops produced a pair of Red-backed Shrikes feeding two fledged young, a Barred Warbler, a singing Savi's Warbler, flocks of both Black and White-winged Black Terns, Montagu's and Marsh Harriers, and many occupied White Stork nests.

In Wizna, we easily found Zenek's agrotouristic pension, and checked in to our very comfortable and quiet room. Showers done, we ate well and got plenty of up to date gen from Zenek. Acting on the most local, we headed down to the riverine meadows by the village. Quite apart from a highly impressive Starling roost (50,000+?), harassed by both Monty's and Marsh Harriers, we heard a Golden Oriole singing, saw several Blue-headed Wagtails, and just as we were about to give up, heard a Corncrake crexing away in the rank herbage. Could we see it? No! But such a great sound to hear in this lovely, though quite domesticated place. People and wildlife living together - it can be done!

9th July

After a short but OK night's sleep (Julia struggled with the heat rather more than Simon), we were up at 0430 and out into the field. It was surprisingly chilly, and a stiffish breeze soon got up, which made passerine hunting a bit tricky. Nevertheless, we did score with an Icterine Warbler in some wet alder / aspen woods (but no White-backed Woodpecker), and a red male Common Rosefinch, Sedge and Reed (but no Aquatic) Warblers in a vast sedge bed, both harriers, Cranes, Ravens, Whinchats, many marsh terns and at least 10 Elk, including 3+ females with calves.

After a late breakfast in Wizna, we set off again up the western side of the Narew valley, stopping at various small villages to view the floodplains - the highlight was a Black Stork over a roadside wood. Birding is good but a bit frustrating here - as with so many 'great wildlife areas', you know the birds are there, but you need time and luck to see them! What is really good is the abundance of 'commoner' species - plenty of Marsh and Monty's Harriers, Red-backed Shrikes, Blue-headed Wagtails, hirundines, and even stacks of House Sparrows and Starlings being worthy of note. We had great views of mating Tree Sparrows at one spot, too. We spent about three hours beside the river at Brzostowo, which is plainly an excellent place for a "big sit" - new species just kept appearing throughout. Waders included Greenshank, Common and Wood Sandpipers, Redshank, Lapwing, Ruff and Curlew, there were five tern species present, including Common, Little and Whiskered (and juveniles of all three Chlidonias species together!), 20+ Cranes and hundreds of Greylag Geese, the latter being harassed from time to time by a sub-adult White-tailed Eagle. The top bird was an Aquila eagle which showed just briefly and distantly - we ruled out Steppe and Eastern Imperial, and it was clearly a Spotted Eagle sp., but which one? Simon had even more distant views of it perched and in flight from a small tower a bit later on - everything about it (bulk, structure, colour tone) said Greater Spotted, but the burden of proof is high indeed on such a rare bird.

By now the wind had got even stronger and was coming from the south-east, straight from Belarus, so although it didn't feel hot, the car thermometer said 28ºC. We headed home for a nap, pretty shattered, and Simon was sufficiently tired to sleep right through a monstrous thunderstorm that left the street outside flowing like a river! No bad thing really - it cleared the air, and the wind had dropped - a good time for a snooze injection….

After another substantial supper, we hit the road once more at 1900 or so, heading for the unpronounceable village of Mscichy, north of where we were this afternoon. It took only about half an hour to get there, and we easily found the slightly raised dirt track heading out onto the floodplain. What a fabulous area! Another Black Stork, many marsh terns (including Whiskered feeding young), lots of waders, especially displaying Snipe, and numerous singing warblers including Savi's, and what we eventually became convinced were Aquatic Warblers. But would they show? Not for ages - and the mosquitoes quickly got cataclysmic. But at last, finally, one popped up briefly - for Simon only! An excruciating half an hour followed (a bit like the White's Thrush on St. Agnes incident in reverse), until finally a singing male showed well in the gloaming on the opposite side of the track. Success! A great way to finish the day.

10th July

Another 0430 start, but this time on a lovely still morning, with mist rising off the wet meadows and marshes. Corncrake, Quail, Savi's Warbler, Golden Oriole, Woodlark and lots more were singing, and we connected with another proper 'scarlet' Rosefinch. We did a fairly short but productive loop to the south of Wizna, covering again some of the spots we'd found on our way in. The Red-backed Shrike family was still in evidence, along with a pair of Barred Warblers (just as the Collins guide suggests!) - we saw another mixed group of the two species later on too, plus several more Shrikes dotted about. A pair of Icterine Warblers fed their young low by the road, we had a brief Grasshopper Warbler, and three Hawfinches flew over. The countryside was simply wonderful - full of life, neglected corners, and open, low-intensity fields.

After another tank-filling breakfast, we paid our bill (great value at £13 pp per night full board) and headed off to Bialystok. It's hardly an exciting place, but it's all about practicality, sometimes! We checked in to the Hotel Cristal (Best Western - cheap rates at weekends!), and put our feet up for an hour or so late morning, having called Tomek.

Post doze, we had a picnic lunch in our room, and then met up with Tomek and Gabriela in the lobby, and headed straight for Dojlidy fish ponds on the south-east edge of town. These quiet, reed-fringed ponds would have been turned into a major nature reserve years ago had they been in the UK, but here they are just left, conserved by benign neglect and simply allowed to be chock full of wildlife - we noted at least four kinds of frogs and toads, many Odonata and Lepidoptera which we didn't recognise (and one we did after reference to the book - Large Chequered Skipper), and plenty of birds.

Sadly, there were no Slavonian Grebes present this year, but all four other European grebe species were present, although Little Grebes went down as a 'Finnish trip tick' - heard only. Great Reed Warblers chuntered from the reedbeds, showing fleetingly, and lots of other Acros included a pair of Marsh Warblers at a nest site, the male singing briefly. We saw two family parties of Penduline Tits, plus a now abandoned nest, young Marsh Harriers just out of the nest and many Pochard and Tufted Ducks. Best of all, Julia's knee held up really well!

We headed onwards, about 10km out of town, and ended up in sandy little spot beside a line of poplars and a little pond. A pair of Hoopoes got things started, and an Ortolan Bunting sang from a power line, while an Icterine Warbler did the same from the trees. Hawfinches flew over, a Golden Oriole sang and showed briefly, and yet another family party of Red-backed Shrikes got on with eating and growing up. Yet despite all this, we were left feeling a little disappointed. We packed everything up, and were just about to go, when one last scan of the power lines revealed our target bird - Roller! It showed magnificently for some time, even posing for a group of interested locals who wandered over. With only about 50 pairs in Poland, and being totally amazing to look at, this was a special bird indeed.

We headed back to town, and dropped by at Tomek and Gabriela's flat for a coffee and a look at his photos of Biebrza and other local sites through the year. Inspiring stuff, and after we said our thank-yous and goodbyes, we spent the journey back to the hotel planning our next visit(s)… Room service, showers, bed. An earlyish night and not too early a morning to come - yippee!

11th July

A relatively leisurely start with breakfast at 0700 (face stuffing time again), then off and away eastwards to Siemianowska reservoir. We found the place with no difficulty, at the end of yet another lovely and different drive through open countryside and light woodlands - best bird en route was a Great Grey Shrike.

We drove out onto the railway causeway, and spent a couple of hours enjoying the profusion of waterbirds (and insects and flowers). Most obvious were large numbers of Whiskered Terns, with fewer Blacks and just one White-winged Black Tern. We checked every wagtail thoroughly, but simply could not turn one into a Citrine at this, their main Polish breeding station. Can't win them all! Out on the marshes, we pinned down a single Osprey and a near adult White-tailed Eagle, and many Marsh Harriers, plus at least 3 Great White Egrets.

We moved on towards Bialowieza, stopping for lunch in some dense forest, and reaching the village mid afternoon. We failed to check in (no-one at the B&B), so we 'did' the Museum, and the bison park just to the west of the village. At the latter, it was interesting (but not exciting) to see Wolves, Bison, Boar etc in their paddocks - much better were the wild birds. We had Middle Spotted Woodpecker, a very vocal family party of Wrynecks, Nuthatch, Jay, and a female Ficedula flycatcher (probably Collared). Just dodging a thunderstorm, we went back to town, and finally got checked in, rather later than we would have liked. Still, it's a great flat!

Simon hit the local pizzeria, and by 2000 we were ready to go out and meet Arkadiusz (Arek), our guide. We drove off past the bison park and turned off onto a forest track. "Keep an eye out for Bison", said Arek. "Yeah, right", we thought. "Fat chance." Within seconds - BISON! An immature bull was right there, about 25m to the right of the track - unbelievable! And he just stood there, munching away, and occasionally eyeballing us. And there were two more immature males - Arek estimated them at about 600kg each - big, but a fully adult male can weigh a tonne….. An amazing stroke of luck, and the perfect start to our puzszca odyssey. And things stayed good. Twelve kilometres into the forest, less than a kilometre from the Belarus border, we stopped and whistled appropriately - and a Pygmy Owl answered! Very soon, he was right in over our heads, showing well in the gloaming, even allowing photography. Add in a roding Woodcock, and this had been an excellent evening.

We arranged to meet up with Arek on Tuesday morning, and having gathered some woodpecker gen, made our way to bed. The night is clear, and fog is already forming over the meadows around the village.

12th July

By 0530, we were at the woodpecker site recommended by Arek, just a few kilometres west of Bialowieza village. It was clear that there were birds present and calling at once, and within an hour we had located Great Spotted, Grey-headed and (best of all) at least one White-backed Woodpecker in the dead trees around the river swamp, plus Nuthatch, Icterine Warbler and Marsh Tit. We could not find Three-toed Woodpecker, however - perhaps a bit more luck another time? A River Warbler sang (along with a Savi's) in the distance, but we couldn't get a view - ditto Corncrake.

We made our way back slowly, via the open meadows around Pogorzelce, picking up Golden Orioles, Barred Warblers and still more Red-backed Shrikes. As we ate breakfast, it began to rain, and it poured until about 1400 - so we vegged and slept through it in our nice dry room.

After a picnic lunch down by the river east of the village, we spent some time photographing a family of Black Redstarts by the old railway line, and then headed up to the Park Palacowy, to recce for our meeting with Arek tomorrow morning, and to see what was out and feeding after the rain. The answer was - lots! There were several very confiding Spotted Flycatcher families, Collared Flycatcher, Common Treecreeper, lots of very confiding Crossbills, and numerous other common birds with young, something that's turning out to be a big feature of this trip.

We spent an hour or so in a big clearing near Teremiski once again - both species of shrike, Whinchats, singing Grasshopper and (brief, unseen) River Warblers, three Honey Buzzards soaring, and a Lesser Spotted Eagle flushed from the woodland edge. Julia was by now very tired, so we retired for a rest and something to eat, and then headed off with River Warbler as our big target species…

Back at the Teremiski clearing, a River Warbler was in song close to the road immediately on arrival. Simon soon had a good (if slightly dark) view of it low down in an alder hedge … but after that it resolutely refused to show again. Another individual across the road sang too - same problem. Savi's and Grasshopper Warblers sang invisibly as well. But we had a very pleasant surprise in the form of a young Thrush Nightingale showing very well in a small tree - and its parents / siblings calling and responding to the tape across the road.

But still no River Warbler for Julia- so we tried the River Narew bridge east of the village again - singing Marsh Warbler, Thrush Nightingale and Golden Oriole, roding Woodcock, and, sure enough, three singing River Warblers. But still we simply could not see any of the latter! A deeply frustrating evening, from this point of view at least. Perhaps we'll have better luck tomorrow…

13th July

The earliest start yet - 0500 meeting with Arek at the forest gate. The weather did not look good, and sure enough, after just a short time in the magnificent primeval forest reserve, the rain started. It wasn't that we were getting very wet, just that it meant that there were virtually no birds (a few common woodland birds and a Black Woodpecker drumming distantly) and that it would be impossible to locate our target woodpeckers given all the noise! So we thought tactically, and abandoned for this morning, hoping for better weather in an (even) earlier start tomorrow. It rained even harder, and we felt no guilt at catching another couple of hours sleep before breakfast!

Mid morning, we did the Zebra Zubra ("Bison's Ribs") boardwalk trail (northern section) - slightly too many people, and not the ideal time of day, but still a wonderful, atmospheric bit of swamp forest, and plenty of birds - most common woodland species, plus Red Squirrel, Marsh and Willow Tits, Buzzard, Raven, calling but unseen Wood Warblers and, at the top of the list, a persistently calling and briefly singing Greenish Warbler.

By now the sun was shining, and we had a lovely hour at the Pogorzelce clearing for lunch once more, this time connecting very well with Lesser Spotted Eagle - three birds climbed up out of the woods, and displayed, calling, for much of the time we were there. Two Cranes flew by, and the usual Red-backed Shrikes entertained on the wires. We gave the woodpecker spot a 20 minute blitz (in wellies this time) - still no Three-toed, but a calling Lesser Spotted Woodpecker boosted the list by one more species!

Unfortunately, thunder rumbled once again, and with yet more rain on the way, we retreated again to have a rest and charge up for this evening.

After a rather flash meal in the Best Western hotel next door (but still 2 courses, coffee and drinks for under £15 in total, with the bonus of the Maitre D' playing not one but two kinds of Polish hunting horn as a floorshow included in the price), we hit the Teremiski woodpecker spot one last time, more in hope than in expectation. Within about 10 seconds of arriving, a smallish woodpecker flew over our heads and perched up in full view on a dead tree - Three-toed! Excellent telescopic views were had by us both.

We played the percentage game and headed straight for the River Warbler site by the River Narew. After a pleasant diversion with a pair of Red-backed Shrikes feeding two very newly fledged young, two River Warblers started singing - but once more, we simply could not get a look at either of them. Still more frustration with what is rapidly becoming a bogey bird for Julia! Never mind - more chances later, we hope…

14th July

Breaking all records (so far) we got up at 0330, and successfully picked up two rather small bikes from the PTTK hostel in the Park Palacowy, prior to meeting Arek at 0415. This time, the weather was ideal. Having seen Three-toed Woodpecker yesterday, we told Arek that any pressure he might have felt was off, and could he show us the best of the strict reserve in the time available?

So in we plunged, pedalling along for about 5km, deep into the Fangorn-like depths of the puszcza. Immense trees towered up, including reputedly Europe's tallest deciduous tree, a 46m Ash, and vast fallen oaks and spruces littered the forest floor. Quite soon, we connected with two fairly active White-backed Woodpeckers, one of which gave good views through the canopy. Wood Warblers and Crossbills were calling constantly, and we heard a distant Black Woodpecker calling and drumming. Top value on the bird front was a family party of calling Red-breasted Flycatchers, one of which showed well in the sub-canopy. The plants were excellent - special ones included Herb Paris, Water Violet, Labrador Tea, Mezereon and May Lily, plus a superb Lycopodium moss bog and a clutch of rude Stinkhorn fungi. A small herd of Red Deer crossed the track, but the best sighting of all was late on, near to the famous fallen "King's Oak" - a crèche of 20 or so extremely junior Wild Boar (with 5 or 6 mothers) exploded from the forest floor, and charged off thunderously into the darkness. One (perhaps a boar?) kept up a rearguard vigil long enough for us to have a good look, and to get some photos.

Reluctantly, we left the forest just after 0700 (!), and said our goodbyes to Arek, who has been simply superb. After (yet another) bulky breakfast, a Raven and a Lesser Spotted Eagle over the pension bade us farewell to this magnificent site, and we hit the road for the long journey south.

And it was long! 500+km in about 8 hours, including stops, via Bielsk Podlaski, Lublin, Rzeszów and finally arriving in Sanok. Unexpectedly, we found it quite hard to find a room, and ended up in a humorously unreconstructed communist-era hotel, run by the formerly state-owned bus manufacturer, called the Autosan Sanlux, which sounds like a brand of tampon. All the furniture was black and in the MFI circa 1984 style. Still, it would do. A quick Italian meal in town, a bit of shopping, and then a deserved early night.

15th July

Up at 0700 (luxury!) and into Sanok to get some cash and breakfast, and then away west to Ustrzyki Dolne, where we quickly found a room on the south edge of town - better to get a base organised than to head south and find everywhere full up, we calculated. Once checked in (and Stonechat added to the list in the adjacent field), we drove south to Lutowiska and found the National Park information office.

By a stroke of luck, Gregorz Sitko (the contact I'd tried to call last night) was in, and he was very helpful with maps, gen, and the loan of a regional bird atlas. Via a couple of wooden Uniate churches (cerkwa), we made our way gently to lunch in a tranquil spot by a river meander, accompanied by Crossbills and Lesser Spotted Eagles overhead, and Lulworth Skippers and Small Pearl-bordered Fritillaries in the flowery field edges.

By about 1400, we were ready for a bit of a hike, so we parked up near the village of Dwernik and ambled west along the (easy) track. It was a very peaceful and enjoyable walk - not that many birds about, but some good quality in the form of yet another invisible River Warbler, a distant Black Stork, Willow Tit, Grey Wagtail for the trip and, best of all, another White-backed Woodpecker. Back at the car after a three hour there and back hike, we were photographing a family of Red-backed Shrikes (again! boring or what?), when suddenly a cracking Grey-headed Woodpecker appeared from nowhere and hopped about at point blank range on some posts and poplar trees. Result!

We drove over the pass to the south, and dropped down to Ustrzyki Górne, where we had tomato soup, chips and a Coke at the walkers' trailhead café - the perfect antidote to cheese rolls and pizza!

Finally, we headed for a spot Gregorz had recommended right on the Ukrainian border - a lovely quiet valley, albeit downhill from a huge abandoned army barracks (or it might have been an industrial pig unit…). There, we enjoyed calling Corncrakes, a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, and above all about five singing River Warblers, one of which FINALLY deigned to show itself for Julia to tick! It actually performed really well on a small patch of Phragmites in the middle of a damp meadow, even posing for photographs.

It got dark strangely early tonight, but we weren't complaining, and we made our way home for a thoroughly deserved night's sleep.

16th July

Walking day! For whatever reason, we started a bit slowly today - just as well, as the cloud was down on the hilltops first thing. After a quick breakfast, we drove south and reached our trailhead at Berezki (600m), a few kilometres north of Ustrzyki Górne. We got organised and set off under dry but grey skies at about 0845. The grass in the meadows was wet after overnight rain, and the slopes were steeper than we expected early on, but we pressed on and reached some lovely sub-alpine meadows as the sun began to make its case.

We saw very few 'interesting' birds at all today (the best were two Black Storks) - the focus was very much on the hiking and the plant and insect life. We saw several good butterflies, including (we think) Arran Brown, Lulworth Skipper and Twin-spot Fritillary, plus Chimney Sweeper moth. The meadows were full of Sweet William, Geraniums and Campanulas. Further up the hill to the south, we passed through lovely open glades in the beech forest, full of juniper and heavily fruiting bilberries (yum). The hill got steeper and steeper, but we finally emerged from the woods and made the final short but very steep climb over the open meadow to the ridge crest at 1248m, after about 2½ hours on the trail.

The trail along the ridge is about the most popular in Bieszczady, so it was pretty busy, but most of the traffic was the other way, and we made our way south-east along and down the ridge, again into dark beech forests and along narrow defiles. It was pretty treacherous on the way down - Simon managed to lose it completely on a slippery wooden bridge, damaging both legs (but thankfully not his bins) in the process….

Once down off the hill, we had a quick second lunch at the café, and then hiked the (rather boring) last few kilometres north up the road, in the absence of the marked track! Exhausted after 14km or so and a 600m plus ascent, we flopped and snoozed for a while before making our way slowly back, via another of the lovely cerkwa on the way.

We cooked ourselves pasta and tomato sauce this evening, and then drove out for another quick wander around a couple of local by-roads - probably the best cerkiew of them all at Rownia, and few birds but a nice valley to the north of town. Home by 2030 - sleepy.

17th July

Grey skies and a few spots of rain first thing, but the weather brightened up as we left Bieszczady shortly after 0800. After getting fuelled up in Sanok, we were soon motoring east, then south across the Slovak border. The countryside changed rather little (and neither did the birds - still lots of shrikes and Fieldfares), but things felt a bit less well-off. We stopped to get some Slovak crowns, and moved on via Prešov and east towards Poprad.

Screeching to a halt for a large raptor (a very obliging Lesser Spotted Eagle, as it turned out), we found ourselves in a cracking little butterfly spot, so we had a picnic in the company of many Essex Skippers and Ringlets, plus a few Chalkhill Blues and a Heath Fritillary.

Onwards via quite good roads, past two spectacular ruined castles on rugged hilltops, and by 1400 we were past Poprad and in the foothills of the Tatra mountains. We pushed straight up the approach road, and then along to the east, and ended up in Štrbské Pleso, a busy little ski resort. We found a 'room' (actually a suite) in a small hotel near the lake - slight issue in that they've just fitted new double glazing (good) but haven't yet got the curtains up again (bad)!

Later - curtains sorted! In fact, we had two (and then three) very hard-working Slovak blind fitters in (and today was a Saturday), drilling holes and putting up very superior, totally light-excluding external roller shutters - that counts as a result!

In the meantime, we went out for an orientation walk around Štrbské Pleso, found the chairlift for tomorrow, and had a generally very touristy afternoon. We drove down to Podbanske (15km west) for a quick look - very few birds, but Simon did briefly see a very large Purple Emperor-type butterfly. Possibly Poplar Admiral?

Back at the ranch, after a slap-up meal, we strolled up to the larger of the two lakes, and were pleased to add three species to the trip list - a Peregrine overhead, Goldcrests in the conifers, and best of all, a male Ring Ouzel feeding a youngster (bizarrely) in and under thick pine cover right by the tourist resort. We also experienced a pair of Bullfinches and lots of midgies.

18th July

Kicked off with an 0800 breakfast (after Julia saw Crested Tit from the balcony) - no rush because the first chairlift up to the Solisko shoulder wasn't due to leave until 0830. In fact, it didn't start until rather later, and we got the first chair up at 0910. Agonizingly, Simon glimpsed a Nutcracker flying across the clearfell, but Julia couldn't get onto it. As we trundled by, we could hear it singing (!), and again Simon saw it very briefly, but Julia (who needed it for a life tick) remained bereft of views…

Once at the station (1840m), we had the mountain almost to ourselves for the first hour. We headed immediately west across the spur, and then headed uphill into the Furkotská Dolina. Early on, we connected with several Water Pipits and Ring Ouzels, a Northern Wheatear, and Dunnocks and Black Redstarts were common in the scree and krummholz stunted pine scrub. We had a truly weird sighting of 39 (count them) Ravens in a loose flock, heading downhill away from some bad weather - an extraordinary gathering! We heard a Peregrine calling somewhere in the crags, but couldn't see it. We also saw three or four very furry and deeply cute Alpine Marmots (manuška in Slovak - this I know because I bought a cuddly one later on…) amongst the rocks.

Up and up we climbed, reaching a lovely tarn at 2053m, and then after a stiff climb over the second rock step, another larger (and partly frozen) one in a huge corrie at 2157m, our highest point. And there we first located, and then had crippling views of an Alpine Accentor, our major target bird for the walk.

Thoroughly chuffed, and with lots of people now making it onto the mountain, we headed downhill, and shortly back into the trees. Very quickly, we could hear Nutcrackers calling, and before long, we had superb views of an adult feeding a juvenile in a fir. All told, we saw at least 9 birds on the descent, including several noisy youngsters. Julia unblocked - phew!

Exhausted and with aching knees, we made it back to Štrbské Pleso for (thoroughly deserved) celebratory fizzy pop and yoghurt-covered peanuts, with thunder and lightning in the eastern sky, and the warm glow of quality birds.

In the late afternoon, as so often in the mountains in summer, the storms intensified, and we had a couple of hours of heavy rain with spectacular thunder and lightning - thankfully from the comfort of our hotel. All birding was called off for the day, for which our legs thanked us. Only 27 species today, but never mind the width, feel the quality!

19th July

Another day devoted to some stiff walking, with birding incidental! We drove a few kilometres east to Tatranské Zruby after breakfast, and headed straight uphill through humid pine forests. There was still lots of hail on the ground from yesterday's storm, but few birds - although Coal Tit was new for the trip, and we heard several Crested Tits and Nutcrackers.

We climbed for about 2½ hours (some bits really exhausting!), and finally reached the somewhat nasty but excellently situated hotel / snack bar at Velické Pleso tarn (1670m, up from 995m at the trailhead). Not one but two cold Cokes (and an ice cream) later, we picked our way through the Russian film crew (complete with donkey, a man dressed as God and some fake peasants), and headed back downhill, this time diverting slightly further west, to emerge after about another two hours at Tatranská Polianka - where there appeared to be a Nutcracker fir-cone eating party in progress. There must have been upwards of ten birds in the fir trees around the hotel, all very tame and photo-friendly.

We wandered back along the road to the car (Crested Tit unblocked for the trip for Simon), and then decided to give the cable car at Tatranská Lomnica a try, despite the increasingly showery weather. We got there, parked, and then tried to enquire at the ticket booth about prices, timings etc. The woman on the desk was first impatient, then offensive and rude (in German), and seemed to be more interested in eating her ice-cream than serving her customers, so we turned on our heels and left her to it. Supplies were acquired, and by now it was chucking it down and thundery again - so we retreated for hot tea and a bath in the hotel!

Still the rain fell. We have actually had rain every day on this trip, but it really hasn't disrupted us too badly, and has often given us a much needed excuse to rest up! So once more, we abandoned the wild, and hunkered down with hot baths and more food. Another low total day - just 30 species seen. But we have had a great time in the Slovak Tatras - good walking, some real quality birds and a very comfortable hotel with (eventually!) lots of hot water. But our feet now need a holiday - roll on the flat Hungarian puszta…

20th July

Simon went out at about 0645 to try and get some better shots of Nutcrackers, with some reasonable success, and after breakfast we paid our bill and headed off, first to Poprad, and then south through the Slovensky Raj National Park, to the area of the Slovensky Kras, a small limestone area right on the border with Hungary (Aggtelek NP abuts the area). We had some reasonably hot gen about a place called Turna na Bodvou, and sure enough, we connected immediately on arrival at the foot of the hill with the ruined castle - we didn't even have to climb up in the rising heat to see a superb (and enormous) adult Eastern Imperial Eagle low over the wooded ridge. It steadily gained height and was joined by a second bird - and they promptly started sky-dancing for us! What a great thing to see - new for Julia, and upgrading a very ancient and distant sighting in 1992 for Simon.

Elated, we headed up the dead end road immediately north of Turna na Bodvou, through the village of Háj, and into a steep and narrow little limestone canyon, which quickly became cauldron hot as the sun beat down. It was absolutely packed with butterflies - familiar ones like Essex Skipper, Small Blue, Silver-washed Fritillary, Comma, Red Admiral, rarer (to us) species such as Swallowtail, Heath Fritillary, Purple Emperor and Camberwell Beauty, and several brand new ones, such as Rock Grayling, Hungarian Glider, Scarce Copper and Nettle-tree Butterfly. An absolutely wonderful couple of hours, soaking up a superb display of 22+ species of butterfly, and all to ourselves.

After a picnic lunch, and a flyover Honey Buzzard, we headed south to the Hungarian border, and succeeded in gaining access to the working limestone quarry right by the frontier - the workmen were very calm about visiting birders! We searched in red hot (33°C) conditions for about half an hour, finding nothing more than Scarce Swallowtail, a Hobby and many Black Redstarts, and were just about to leave when a final sweep of the cliffs produced our quarry species (ho ho) - a recently fledged male Rock Thrush. Yet another life tick for Julia (her 10th on this trip), and again only Simon's 2nd ever. Quality birds for a travel day, really!

From then on, it was head down to Hortobágy, pretty much. We had a slight delay crossing the border - perhaps a UK passport was the most exciting thing to happen to the guards at this (very minor) post all week, or maybe they thought UK citizens crossing from Slovakia to Hungary in a Polish car was a bit weird…

Hungary started off attractively, but at about Miskolc, and out towards Debrecen, it got busy, flat and decidedly grotty. Things improved once we left the main road (plenty of Marsh Harriers and shrikes: Lesser Grey (briefly) and Red-backed), and we reached the quiet little town of Nádudvar, on the edge of Hortobágy National Park, at about 1700. Once checked in to our small pension, and having met Robert, who had arranged things for us here, we suffered in the heat for a while, ate a pizza, and staggered out for a local drive at dusk to cool off a bit - Nightjar was rather a good luck-in, It's going to be a sticky night, despite a brief thundery shower (keeping up our 'rain every day' record).

21st July

Sticky indeed! Very little sleep had by either, and it was cooler outside than in when we left at 0615. Just down the road from Nádudvar, we had an excellent start with three Red-footed Falcons and two Lesser Grey Shrikes sharing a telegraph line.

We successfully found the Hortobágy-halastó fishponds - to be greeted by literally thousands of Swallows and Sand Martins on wires and around the reedbeds. An hour or two turned up a multitude of birds, although many were a bit distant. Pygmy Cormorant (life tick for us both!) stole the show - also Great White and Little Egrets, Purple Heron, Glossy Ibis, Spoonbill, Night Heron, three Little Bitterns, a Garganey, three White-tailed Eagles, numerous Marsh Harriers, hundreds of Greylag Geese and Black-headed Gulls, several Caspian Gulls, many Whiskered Terns, Great Reed Warbler, Water Rail, Avocet, Ruff, Common and Wood Sandpipers, Little Ringed Plover, Spotted Redshank, Penduline and Bearded Tits, Stonechat, Golden Oriole, Kingfisher - and Grass Snake & Large Copper butterfly. Also there were many Pochard and Coots on nearby ponds.

By 1000 or so, it was getting stinking hot - 34.5°C said the car thermometer - so we drove about for a bit to get the lie of the land, stopped for a cold drink or two, and went for an early lunch at Hortobágy Csarda, armed with a National Park map. We laid plans - avoid as much daytime heat as possible, and pace ourselves!

So after lunch, we took a leisurely pootle in air-conditioned comfort around the quieter road traversing the northern pusztas - not many birds about (Buzzards, Marsh Harriers, Golden Orioles and a few shrikes - plus Corn Bunting was new), but again, it was good to get an idea of the habitat.

Post ice cream, we headed back to Nádudvar to regroup in the still scorching heat, and to shower / bathe. Better! Once the heat dropped a bit (ominous clouds and distant lightning, but no rain, for the first time!), we drove out to a promising looking area to the west of Nádudvar, around the hamlets of Lóré and Mihályhalma, and managed to find a driveable track out onto some nice puszta. No really spectacular birds, but it was nice to photograph a family of Lesser Grey Shrikes, and we saw many Blue-headed Wagtails, plus a couple of Woodlarks.

As the sun began to set, we went back east through Nádudvar, and ended up at the ponds near Hajdúszoboszló. Here we found Savi's Warbler, several Night and Purple Herons, Caspian Gulls, a single adult Mediterranean Gull and many Black Terns. To finish off, we found a sizeable Starling roost, and enjoyed the spectacle of several thousand flying in at dusk.

22nd July

An earlier start, to avoid the worst of the heat. We were up at 0445, and birding near Nagyiván by 0545. Here we found Hoopoe, up to five Rollers and 20+ Red-footed Falcons, all looking stunning in the warm dawn light. A good start!

Staright afterwards, we headed for the Fényes-tó ponds, and walked out past the full ones to the drained tank at the far end. Although the light wasn't totally favourable, we managed to score with 2 Temminck's Stints, plus two Kentish Plovers, Oystercatcher, several Pygmy Cormorants and a Ferruginous Duck in flight, lots of Acros (but still no Moustached), two Little Bitterns and three fledgling Bluethroats.

The air was still quite cool, and we were shortly back at Hortobágy-halastó, again working the ponds in the south-west corner. Much the same birds present as yesterday, plus a Black Stork, another Bluethroat, more Penduline Tits and a calling (but invisible) Little Bittern. Julia had a close encounter with a small Grass Snake, and we added Wall Brown to the butterfly list.

Now it was getting hot, and we decided to do the 'northern raptor loop' once more, thus maximising the air-conditioning quotient. We worked it east to west this time, to reduce the glare from the sun, and we were rewarded with a major rarity within a few kilometres of the Balmazújvaros - a strikingly pale raptor in some roadside trees resolved itself on closer approach into a very worn but nevertheless quite unmistakeable Long-legged Buzzard. Many Red-footed Falcons, a couple of Honey Buzzards and a few Common Buzzards completed the raptor haul. We chatted with a Danish birder and his son at one of the observation towers - we had narrowly missed 2+ Eastern Imperial Eagles, apparently.

Now it was getting really hot - well into the 30s again. So we went for discretion, and had another slap-up lunch at the Hortobágy csarda, and a short visit to the folk museum over the road. Then, once more, we retreated from the sun for an hour or two in our room and under the shower!

Although it did indeed begin to cool down a little after 1700, we still wanted to do little else but sit in the shade, so we drove to the airfield at Hajdúszoboszló, where we soon had views of the two target species - European Souslik and its number one predator, Saker Falcon - except the latter was about a mile away and highly unsatisfactory! Despite waiting for two more hours and enjoying the gliders and microlights, it didn't show again. A last look at the fishponds nearby produced similar species to last night. Another hot night ahead, we feared.

23rd July

Actually, we didn't sleep badly at all, and were up and ready to meet János Oláh (from Sakertour) at 0600 sharp. We set off in his 4x4, and were soon in the restricted area of the National Park proper, bumping along dusty tracks in the morning light and updating János on our target species. We scored remarkably easily with our first when we stopped at a 14th century burial mound and scanned - three enormous Great Bustards flew majestically past at several hundred metres range. Good start!

Moving on, we reached an area of swamp and more importantly bulrushes, the key species for our next target. A bit of tape work and whistling up produced the very much desired result - a juvenile Moustached Warbler showing very well in the sedges. We were beginning to get a good feeling about today. On we drove, heading north across the puszta, emerging on the main 33 road at Hortobágy-halastó, and driving (luxury) up the main spur track, to check two or three of the much larger, very bird-filled northern tanks. One held several new waders - Curlew Sandpiper, Dunlin and Little Stint, plus two more Temminck's Stints and hundreds of Avocets, Spotted Redshanks, Ruff and others. A rather wetter pond had scores of Pygmy Cormorants, Spoonbills and Black-winged Stilts, while Garganey, Wigeon, and a single Ferruginous Duck bobbed about in the flower-filled marsh. A Great Bittern in flight over the reedbeds 'completed' our heron list, too.

Still more dry steppe followed, turning up a new species in the form of Tawny Pipit, plus another Long-legged Buzzard, a Roller and large numbers of Hoopoes and Blue-headed Wagtails. We were now in raptor mode, and began scanning the skies just north of the 'northern' road through the Park. A surprise early on was a rather tatty Short-toed Eagle, and we soon added Montagu's Harrier, Lesser Spotted Eagle, two White-tailed Eagles, and many Marsh Harriers and Buzzards. Numerous Kestrels, Red-footed Falcons and four Hobbies occasionally got the pulse racing, but by late morning we still lacked any large falcon sightings.

We next headed for an area that János's bird society has leased and is managing with a combination of very hard grazing and seasonal flooding, under EU LIFE funding. He told us of the wonders it attracts in season (10,000+ Ruff, 3,000 Wood Sandpipers, Great Snipe, Lesser White-fronted Goose etc.!), and we had a little taster in the form of good numbers of mixed waders - mostly Wood Sandpipers and Lapwings, but also Curlew, Marsh and Green Sandpipers, Greenshank, Black-winged Stilt and even a single Golden Plover. Equally good were two Black Woodpeckers in a tiny belt of trees on the entrance track - there was a brief Green Woodpecker near here, too.

Once we had rescued János's colleague who had managed to half lose his jeep in a ditch, we got back on the road, and drove west for an hour's break at his favourite fish restaurant at Tiszacsege - and the fish soup with sour cream and paprika really was excellent!

Refreshed, but not feeling too hot today, thanks to a light northerly breeze, we renewed our raptor efforts. After about 20 minutes searching, we finally picked up a tiny dot at huge range, shortly joined by another - they were indeed Saker Falcons, but again very distant. Mission accomplished, but still slight disappointment.

By now, a big storm was brewing, and we watched fascinated as it rolled in, successive woods and shelter belts being buffeted before the downdrafts and dust devils reached us and we scampered for the van! It began to bucket down with rain, accompanied by thunder and lightning - very refreshing.

We drove back east to Balmazújvaros, and unexpectedly, János drove us into a tiny cul-de-sac, and began peering into a large tree. On close inspection, we were amazed to find that it contained (on final count) at least 15 Long-eared Owls at this, a traditional winter roost which can hold up to 300 (!) birds. We could watch them first struggling with the wind, then apparently bathing and enjoying the cooling rain - but after the tempest had passed, they looked extraordinarily bedraggled. An excellent bonus species.

With rain still in the air, we checked two of the most unlikely woodpecker sites we had ever been to - one behind a public lido, the other in the back garden of János's business partner's parents. No joy - but a slow cruise around the blustery suburban streets did the trick - a juvenile Syrian Woodpecker flew across the road and perched up on a concrete lamppost, thus completing our extraordinary July run of all nine European woodpeckers, plus Wryneck.

One last target site to try - and there were two adult Saker Falcons perched on a pylon. After initial views, János drove Hadoram-style off across the fields to get us as close as possible - excellent views of the birds perched and in flight. Now that was what we were after!

Thoroughly satisfied, we did one last site - some sugar beet factory settling ponds south of Nádudvar, one of János's local patch sites. New species just kept coming - Little Gull and Shoveler took our trip list (amazingly) to over 200. Also here were 300+ Avocets, 200+ Black-winged Stilts, 200+ Spotted Redshanks, 50+ Garganeys, 25 Black-necked Grebes, Black Terns, Marsh Sandpipers and many more. A wonderful way to finish a fantastic day, during which we finally felt we had seen the 'real' Hortobágy.

Once we had said our goodbyes back at our pension, we drove to the Trofea hunting lodge for an evening meal and to see Robert once more. A much cooler night tonight, and we intend to sleep the sleep of the just.

24th July

An excellent night's sleep to usher in our 6th wedding anniversary. We took breakfast in the conventional way for a change, and left Anita's pension at about 0800. Having stopped off at the Balmazújvaros roundabaout, and seeing a distant Saker Falcon on the same pylon as yesterday, we headed fairly rapidly west along the 33, saying farewell to our last Lesser Grey Shrikes and Red-footed Falcons en route. Acting on a tip-off from János, we stopped briefly at the disused sand quarry immediately south of Egyek - and within seconds had recorded our 203rd and final species of the trip, Bee-eater!

From here on, birding mode was essentially switched off, as we had a huge drive to do to get within range of Warsaw for tomorrow's flight. So it was heads down, via Miskolc (Hungary), Košice (Slovakia) and Rzeszów (Poland), all the way north to Radom - a drive of 650km (out of a total of about 3800km for the trip as a whole). Once checked into the most anodyne of business hotels (when we finally found it!), it was relaxation all the way. We ate a huge evening meal (with fizz) to celebrate an extraordinarily successful trip.

25th July

A leisurely breakfast, and away by 0900, for the 99km final drive north to Warsaw airport. All entirely predictable and easy - light rain, few birds, dead straight road. And that's that!

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Simon Woolley

July 2004