Friday, March 30, 2007

I think I sometimes take it for granted. I mean, with a tiny bit of effort, like driving 15 minutes up into the hills, I can see Black Woodpecker ANY DAY OF THE WEEK. I have at least two pairs staked out in the Buda Hills (there are several more, but I just haven't had time this spring to check them). They are using beech trees, hacking out their large oval holes, getting ready to breed. I say "taking it for granted" because it is not at all unusual for folks in the UK to ask me "if I know any sites for Black Woodpecker?" or "I need Black Woodpecker, what's the chances of seeing one?" Well, the "chances" are very good, nothing ever guaranteed, of course, because we are dealing with a wild bird here. But I am fairly confident that anyone visiting Budapest who wants me to find them one of these magnificent forest carpenters, the largest European woodpecker species, will not be disappointed.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Spring & Autumn Birding Tours

I am now getting ready ready for the spring season. I will soon be in Croatia with two groups and then back in Hungary for the May season, later I will be in Bulgaria. It is going to be a busy time, but I will try to keep this blog up-dated with sightings, events and maybe even photos. I have a private trip in Hungary schedued for 2 - 9 May, and if anyone fancies joining that we can take one or two at this late stage. We will be looking for all kinds of goodies - Great Bustard, Saker, Eastern Imperial Eagle, Ural Owl, Aquatic Warbler etc etc etc. Click this link to get an idea of what we will be doing:
If you need time to plan and decide where you are going birding, then consider coming to Hungary in autumn for the Common Crane migration. From October 14 - 21. We see Great Bustards and the raptors then, too, as well as wildfowl and waders:
Wherever you go this spring... Good birding. I have this feeling it is going to be a bumper year.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Syrian Woodpecker calling

All I did was pop out to the post office. Down the street, turn left, 100 metres, and then I heard it. A Syrian calling in someone's back garden. When you live in a place that has both Great spotted and Syrian Woodpeckers side by side, you soon learn to separate them on call. Don't think I will find it's nest hole though, too many houses, too many dogs... unless it's in the park nearby. I will keep an eye open there. By the way, I have been asked why this woodpecker is named "Syrian" ? Well, the species was first described (as Picus syriacus) by Hemprich & Ehrenberg in 1833... in, yes, correct, Syria.

Warblers and White Storks

It's back to the warm, sunny weather again. Blackcaps are singing in the gardens round hear and I have heard the odd Chiffchaff. Plenty of woodpecker activity again, some hacking out holes. The first White Storks are back in Hungary, and I expect a flood of them in the next week or so.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Winter Fights Back ?

A few days ago spring was well and truly here. I even saw two Peacock butterflies in our yard.
Then a cold wind arrived and things have gone a bit quiet. We've gone from summer to winter in 2 days... though it's still March. I think the first butterflies and frogs and toads that popped out last week got a bit of a shock. But think ahead... any of you that fancy a trip to Hungary to see plenty of amphibians, reptiles and butterflies in the summer, take a look at this:

Thursday, March 15, 2007


I managed to get into the Bukk Hills for a few hours. I checked an area with big beeches where White-backed Woodpeckers (one of my very favourite species) had a nest last year. A few trees had been knocked over by high winds in the winter, but the site is still good. Plenty of dead wood. A female was drumming (just in case you did not know, females drum, too) and after a bit of searching, I got decent views.
The global range of White-backed Woodpecker lies within the Palearctic from Fenno-Scandia and central Europe eastwards through boreal Asia, to Kamchatka, China and Japan. Though generally regarded as an “eastern” species White-backed Woodpeckers probably inhabited all of Europe including Britain in the past, possibly up to the Middle Ages, when there was still much old forest covering the landscape. Today it is Europe’s rarest woodpecker, being often very local in the boreal and temperate zones of central and Eastern Europe, Fenno-Scandia and Russia.
Elsewhere it has a rather scattered distribution with small relic populations of the lilfordi race in the Pyrenees, the Balkans and the Apennines in Italy. Over most of its European range White-backed Woodpecker is uncommon, if not rare, though in some areas such as the Carpathians and the lowland forests of Belarus it is widely distributed. A major contraction in range, particularly in the west of Europe, occurred in the 19th and 20th centuries. Yet despite its overall rarity in Europe the species can be locally the most common woodpecker.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Middle Spotted Woodpecker

It's all action now on the woodpecker front. I had a quick walk round the oak and beech woods above Budapest and several species are drumming, calling and hacking out holes. The Middle Spotted Woodpeckers are calling like mad. Yesterday I witnessed a couple of males having a fairly serious argument. Now that spring is here, their all red crowns are bright red and they used them well, fluffing them up like a punk-rocker's hairstyle (showing my age here folks). Mostly bravado, and chasing around tree trunks, but there was a bit of bill pointing and jousting, fake stabbing. No doubt a female was nearby watching it all. Maybe thats' why the males were so aggressive. Showing off. It's time to get mating and nesting.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Great Bustards

More signs of spring... the Great Bustards are starting to think about lekking. I went out into the Kiskunsag region yesterday, about an hour south-east from Budapest. A flock of 20 of these large birds were lounging around in some crops. A male stood up flapped his huge wings, walked around a bit and then puffed his chest out, then pushed his tail up. Suddenly he changed from a largely brownish-orange bird into a snow-ball. Someone once described displaying cock Great Bustards as "foam-baths" But it was a bit half-hearted, he soon gave up, none of his companions seemed bothered. Maybe another few weeks are needed before things take off on the displaying, lekking, courting and breeding front.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

A syrian in the garden

I opened the balcony door to let some fresh air in. It shouldn't be so warm in here, it's still only March. Almost at once a few faint "chips" drifted in. One of our local Syrian Woodpeckers was about. I peeped out and there she was, a female, on a shrub at first, low down, then she hopped onto a walnut tree (on of their very favourite trees). A classic Syrian: almost totally black outer tail feathers, just a few white dots there, a pinkish ventral area, fine ending to the bill, and white cheeks. No red at all on the crown... a female. She made a few more "squeaky doll" calls and was off. A noticed a few half-finished holes in the adjacent garden. Now that would be nice, if a pair set up home hereabouts.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

"Flocks" of Woodpeckers

I took a UK birder, Andrew, up into the Buda Hills this morning. My brief was to take him to places "where we might see some non-UK woodpeckers". No pressure, nothing, just a "relaxing day's birding". But he did want to see Grey-headed Woodpecker. By 9am we were watching a female Lesser Spotted drumming. A little deeper into the woods and by 10am we had heard a couple of Green Woodpeckers "yaffling" and seen two male Great Spotteds in dispute, flying around, calling, bill pointing. We must have heard about 6 other Great Spotteds drumming, too. It was as if an army band was in there. Then a Middle Spotted Woodpecker made its cat-like, almost painful call and we soon found it. The first of five. After a bit of calling (yours truly this time) a Black Woodpecker, a female, finally responded. A male soon joined her and we watched them feeding on a fallen log. Of course, our "target" was not playing the game, it's often like that. As in life, the one you want most, won't play. So off we went to another Grey-headed spot, seeing another Black on the way, hacking a tree to pieces. But nothing new there. So another site, 2 miles down the hill. I made a few calls. Something responded, not near, but near enough, so we walked towards it. There were new Black Woodpecker holes here, and lots of old ones. Finally, in she flew, silenty, but she was curious. The female Grey-headed sat cross-wise on a bough and Andrew got his "lifer". He was pretty cool about it. Then she flew over out heads and sat atop a broken pine tree. They are always better after a bit of hard work.

What now? It was only midday. "What about Syrian?". I had a little think. Then down into the city and a park. All kinds of noise here. Cars, a bus, workers, dog-walkers, kids... a typical urban Syrian site. I heard a brief call. A Syrian. Then a Great Spotted. They live together hear. Finally, a woody flew by, but it was the Great Spotted. We walked to some chestnut trees. And there it was, a male Syrian. A brief view, but a good view. Andrew said he never expected "flocks" of woodpeckers. It was 12.30.

Monday, March 5, 2007

Beech Marten

There's a beech marten living round here. I found it's sprait (droppings) in the garden. Beech martens (also known as stone marten, scientific name Martes foina) are a mustelid, relatives of otters, polecats and mink. They are quite widespread across central and eastern Europe. They live mostly in low-lying broadleaved woodlands but also in settlements. They are nocturnal and the best views I have had have always been when walking home late on, usually one bounding across the road and then diving under a parked car or leaping into someone's garden.
A few winters ago one used to sleep under the bonnet of my mother-in-laws car, we found scraps of food, including a nibbled bread roll and it had bitten through a cable, too.
Beech martens have a brown coat, a long bushy tail and a distinctive white bib. Its close relative, the pine marten Martes martes, is also fairly common but is more of an upland species inhabiting mature mixed forests. Both martens are good tree climbers and prey on squirrels, dormice, and birds. They use tree-holes, black woodpecker cavities and squirrel dreys as dens.
Anyway, back to those droppings. I gave them a poke with a stick and found they contained a few fruit stones and undigested house-hold scraps.A close sniff revealed them to be quite sweet smelling, which is typical for this mustelid.

Sunday, March 4, 2007

Blackcap singing today

Went out to put some seed on the bird table and heard a Blackcap singing... the first warbler of the spring. The first White Storks have been noted in Hungary, too. Spring is here and very soon all kinds of birds will be flooding in from the south. It has been a very mild winter, just two sprinklings of snow and everything - birds, frogs, plants - are already getting started, a few week agead of usual.

Saturday, March 3, 2007

No whine about the wine

We sampled a glass or two of cabernet sauvignon yesterday from the village of Noszvaj on the southern slopes of the Bukk hills. I say "sampled" but actually, we finished off the bottle... as they say "a bird never flew on one wing". The wine in question was a gift from Eva Thummerer... her father is one of Hungary's very best vinters. I often go in the Thummerer cellar after a hard day's birding in the Bukk hills, there's a Black Woodpecker nesthole not far away and Serins, Black Redstarts and Tree Sparrows right by the cellar. On one occasion I met a Green Toad on the way in... on the way out we usually see much more !!! I have taken Finns, Swedes, Americans and English in this cellar and all have enjoyed the wine, the snacks and the short tour we do. I had kept this wine safe at home for two years as Eva said it would be better after "a rest". She was right.

Friday, March 2, 2007

Buda Hills

I spent an hour in the woods above Budapest, the Buda Hills. This is my "local patch" and I've been birding it for years... decades actually. The area of woodland I walk in most is less than half an hour by bus from the city centre, 10 minutes from where I live. Fairly common birds in the woods up there include Nuthatch, Hawfinch and Tree Sparrow and there are 6 species of woodpecker resident. Middle Spotted tends to be in areas with oaks, Lesser Spotteds like broadleaved stands with plenty of dead wood and snags, Great Spotteds are all over the place. There are a couple of pairs of Green and Black Woodpeckers on the route I usually take and at least one pair of Grey-headed. Not bad at all for a capital city. There are no Syrian Woodpeckers in the woods proper but they are not far away in gardens and parks.

Walking Hungary's Hills

There are some fine hill ranges in Hungary, some blanketed in forests, others more open country with limestone karst features, all riddled with paths and trails. Over the years I have walked many of them, sometimes just for the walk with family or friends, often when guiding birding groups, and many, many times when looking for woodpeckers. Two of may favourite Hungarian ranges are the Bukk and Aggtelek. A few like-minded friends and I now run WALKING HUNGARY. We have come up with a variety of year-round walking holiday intineraries taking in scenic routes, folklore, wildlife, wine tours and, of course, just walking! We have tried to cater for all ages and abilities.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Woodpeckers of Europe

I have a website devoted to European woodpeckers. It took me a while to think of a name for it, one that would instantly express what the site was about. Finally, I came up with this, I think it does the trick: WOODPECKERS OF EUROPE. Friends and fellow woodpecker enthusiasts from all over Europe have sent photographs for the site. There are some real crackers. If you have any photos of woodpeckers that you'd like to see on the site, then just drop me a line.


The Collared Doves where cooing outside on the balcony at 7am this morning. Spring is here, officially, today... and the doves know it. The woodpeckers know it, too. Actually, they've known it for some time. Last week I spent a day in the Bukk hills. I saw Black, Green, Grey-headed, Middle Spotted, Lesser Spotted, White-backed and Great Spotted Woodpeckers in the forests and a Syrian in a village near Eger. All in one day. It was a clear, warm day, just an odd shower, but more like spring than winter. Several of the woodies were drumming. Every spring I have to get my "ear-in" again and sort out who is doing what. It's possible to identify all of Europe's woodpeckers on the basis of their drumming. Some are easy to recognise as their drumming is diagnostic, unique and unmistakable. Some a bit tricky at times, there is overlap, at least to the human ear. And it's difficult to describe these drumming in words. The only way to learn them is to go out, listening, spending time in the woods. Woodpeckers can drum at almost anytime of year, it's their main way of communicating with each other, but spring, now, is the time when they really go at it... staking out their patch, bragging to rivals, showing off to potential mates.