Monday, 16 June 2014

In Search of the Great Bustard

Gt Bustard - Ged Gorman

Our trip to Austria was planned to fulfil a long-standing ambition to see Vienna, but I looked up 'Birding Austria' as a matter of course.  There wasn't too much information, apparently the Austrians are not greatly into birding, and Swarovski developed their optics for hunters.  There were a few blogs, some of which said there were supposed to be several types of woodpecker in the gardens of some of the palaces, but a lot of the other species reported were not unusual.  However, 60 miles to the SE of Vienna there is a National Park around the Neusiedler See, which runs close to the Hungarian border.  Details were scant, especially to someone with very little German, but a visitor centre was advertised, and mention was made of a road with viewing towers, from which it was possible to see the fabled great bustard, only now being reintroduced to  England after being extinct since 1832.  Neusiedler See was added to the agenda forthwith.

Opportunities for birding whilst driving down were few and far between, and we had some filthy weather, but in Belgium we watched a pair of black redstarts hopping around the campsite in the pouring rain.  I saw quite a few over the course of the  trip, they seemed more common than robins.  (I even saw one in the Spar car park in Saltzburg.)  In Karlsruhe, Germany, our pitch was under a tree with a nest from which issued some very strange noises.  Again it started to rain, and the nest owners came down to feed.  They were fieldfares, and again they seemed more common than here, even haunting motorway services.  We also saw hooded crows as well as the plain black variety.

Next we stopped at Augsburg, where the campsite was next to a lake, poetically called the Autobahnsee.  It was probably originally the run-off collector for the motorway, but it has been prettily developed as a leisure facility.  As well as the usual Canada and Greylag geese, there were 15 to 20 red crested pochard.  Our pitch was under a lamp which was unlit at night, which was fortunate because a pair of blue tits obviously had a nest in the top of it.

In Klosterneuburg, just north of Vienna, we were wakened every morning by a very assertive goldfinch whose home we pitched beneath.  On my (rain-soaked) walk with the dogs I thought I'd found the local woodpeckers, flitting in and out of holes in a grove of poplars which served as a BMX track.  I went back with my binoculars only to discover they were enterprising starlings! I had no more luck at the Schönbrunn palace, though getting there in the middle of a hot afternoon probably wasn't the best strategy.

Non-bird wise, Vienna was wonderful, but after 11 days we finally set off for the Neusiedler See and the national park.  We stayed on the western side, and saw storks and great white egrets flying over.  The next day we drove around the lake, first to the visitor centre at Illmitz, which was much advertised but seemed to be mostly an educational centre for organised groups.  It has an observation tower, and a hide, supposedly to look out over one of the many shallow lakes which dot the region, but they were so far away you could barely make out that there were birds on it.  Approach to the shore itself was strictly 'verboten', so we asked directions to better viewpoints. 
Black winged Stilts - C Daniels
At the first of these there were avocets, and gaggles of greylags.  A group of about 30 walked across a field, each one surrounded by goslings, and there  were more families on the water.  Not unusual maybe, but great to see in such numbers.  A bit further on was a viewing tower, from which we saw more avocets, but also black-winged stilts, one of which was on a nest.

Confusing signs meant we missed the next lake we were aiming for, so we pressed on, heading for the loop of unclassified roads south from the towns of Tadten and Andau. Signage in these small towns is appalling, not in its lack, but in its proliferation.  Boards point to every small business and side street, with no consistency of colour to indicate directions to where you might want to go.  We could find nothing to indicate the right road in Tadten, and nothing was immediately apparent in Andau, but a plan in the town square came to the rescue, and we were able, eventually, to find the nondescript side street which was the start of the 'Flüchtstrasse', (which turned out not to refer to bird flight, but to the fact that it was walked by thousands of Hungarian refugees in 1956.) Once out of town the road was narrow and unfenced, running through open fields.  I was getting the feeling this was all just not meant to be, but the first of the viewing towers eventually appeared, though with nowhere to pull off the road.
I climbed, with considerable trepidation, a very rickety structure, and looked out over an expanse of empty fields in the sunshine.  A typical end to a grand expedition! I swept around with the binoculars for form's sake, and I was compensated with a great view of a red kite quartering a field in front of a small copse.
Hare & Bustard -C Daniels
I finished the sweep and there, standing in a gap at the edge of a grain field was the fabled great bustard.  I watched it for a while as it pottered about, then we drove on to the next observation tower.  This was a much sounder structure, and another bustard was visible among the seedlings of  maize, and just about close enough for a record shot.  The mottled markings on its back were clearly visible in the binoculars, as it fed among the seedlings.  Several curlews were in evidence, and half a dozen hares.  With reluctance we drove on, slowly as the road narrowed, down to the Hungarian border.  We sighted no more bustards, but a red-backed shrike flew across our path.  We stopped at the last observation tower, right next to the border, but all I saw here were pheasants.  There is also a National Park on the Hungarian side, but crossings are not permitted here, except for a few yards to visit the memorial to the refugees of 1956.  The road peters out to a cycle track so we went back up the 'Flüchtstrasse' to AndauPerhaps not the greatest trip in terms of numbers, but it was worth it all for the great bustard!    

Chris Daniels

No comments: