My wife and I recently returned from an 18 day tour af Eastern Europe. This was a tourist type trip run by Grand Circle Tours. We selected this company as the pace of their trips is generally less frantic than what we had experienced on our last European visit, and more time is spent in each city. The lower age limit for attendees is 50 and we were the youngest of the 42 participants. There were several octogenarians along who were still quite spry and mentally alert, so perhaps there is hope for at least some of us in the future. I had been birding in Europe several times before but hoped to slip away from the group when possible and perhaps even see a few new birds. Using this strategy, I took an early AM walk on most days, and despite being lodged in the middle of 4 large cities still had a modest amount of success. Pre-trip preparation consisted of obtaining a copy of Gorman's Where to Watch Birds in Eastern Europe, which provides at least wishful thinking concerning species of interest.
We took an afternoon walk into the large park directly across from our Hotel -- The Victoria. The Polish name for the park is Osgrod-Saski, and it contains the tomb of the unknown soldier. There were good numbers of the common woodland species (GREAT TIT, EURASIAN NUTHATCH, EURASIAN TREECREEPER, BLUE TIT, EURASIAN BLACKBIRD, CHAFFINCH, JACKDAW, HOODED CROW). Of more interest was a group of SPOTTED FLYCATCHERS and about 20 ratty looking FIELDFARES. Many of the birds seen on the trip were in advanced moult, and with numbers of juveniles around, ID of unfamiliar species was problematic. A late PM walk to the Vistula River produced the ubiquitous BLACK-HEADED GULLS, 1 HERRING GULL, and 1 MEW GULL. Two days later, using a suggestion from Gorman, we hired a car and driver (US$100) and went to the nearby Kampinos Park. The driver spoke fairly good English, but I was unable to convince him to go to the park headquarters, and instead he took us to the part of the park with which he was most familiar. We spent most of the day hiking the roads in that damp pine-birch-spruce forest which held few birds but was excellent for mosquitos! They were so ferocious that we gave up by mid-afternoon and returned to the city in full retreat. Other than the common woodland species we added only EURASIAN JAY, YELLOW WAGTAIL, EUROPEAN ROBIN, RED-BACKED SHRIKE, WOOD WARBLER and a nice female LESSER SPOTTED WOODPECKER. I would not recommend going to this park unless you are able to obtain better information or guide than we did.
The all day drive from Warsaw was notable only for a number of WHITE STORKS seen in the fields near the road. We stayed in the Forum Hotel on the bank of the Visla River. This turned out to be an ideal location for birding. On our first morning, I walked away from the river along a small stream labeled "Wilga" on my map into an area with numerous small gardens, a few ponds, and despite intermittent rain, I was still able to find ICTERINE WARBLER, EURASIAN REED-WARBLER, GREATER WHITETHROAT, BLACK REDSTART, EUROPEAN SERINS, EURASIAN TREE-SPARROWS, and a male COMMON PHEASANT. Along the banks of the river we saw our first ROOKS, and several pairs of WHITE WAGTAILS. A quick stop in a small park near the hotel featured a large party of EURASIAN BLACKBIRDS making a fuss near a huge tree, and soon I was looking at a TAWNY OWL in a day roost. The following day I again walked away from the river down Monte Cassino which runs directly into a large area of farmland and a number of abandoned quarries, some of which are filled with water. There is even a small marsh. The area is very large and crossed with many trails, and the birding was excellent. Highlights were TUFTED DUCK, COMMON MOORHEN, LONG-TAILED TITS, GOLDEN ORIOLE, and a party of BLACK FRANCOLIN (introduced?).
This city is visited by more tourists than any other in Europe, and even though we were there in the off-season it was still quite crowded. There is danger here from pickpockets, and despite warnings one of our ladies lost her wallet, and several others had attempts made which were less successful. The drive down yielded a family of RED-TAILED SHRIKES at a gas station stop. On our second day in the city we visited Konopiste Castle which was the home of the Archduke whose assassination started WW1. There is a very mature woods on the property, and a large flock there contained the only EURASIAN BULLFINCH of the trip -- a nice adult male. We were housed in the castle district at the Hotel Diplomat. Early AM walks in town found both GREAT and MIDDLE SPOTTED WOODPECKERS. Large flocks of COMMON SWIFTS in all of the first 3 cities visited were seen noisily wheeling overhead.
Unfortunately, my wife became ill (with a nasty upper respiratory infection), and so I spent one entire day birding in the area. After my bad luck with the car and driver in Warsaw, I decided to use only public transportation. Prague has an excellent subway system, so I obtained a map, looked for a green area, and rode the red-line to the third stop from the end -- Chodov. There is a very large park here (Kunraticky Les) consisting mostly of mature woods with many nice trails. I spent half a day hiking here and added FIRECREST, EURASIAN JAYS, and a WINTER WREN. Adjacent fields contained CRESTED LARK, EUROPEAN GOLDFINCH, and EUROPEAN SERIN. Many other common woodland species were seen as well. I then rode to the last stop going further East -- Haje. There are large open fields near the station, as well as a large lake and more woods. This area is called Praha15. Heavy rains ended my day here, but first I saw large flocks of EUROPEAN GREENFINCHES, and YELLOWHAMMERS. A EURASIAN HOBBY perched on an open snag. This area seemed to have great promise with varied habitats, and one could easily spend most of a day. On our final day in Prague, a male COMMON POCHARD was seen from the Charles Bridge.
I followed the suggestions from Gorman for my initial expeditions -- on the first morning I hiked up Gellert Hill to the parkland in a search for Syrian Woodpecker. There were very few birds and no woodpeckers. Nice walk, nice views, poor area for birds. Morning 2 found me in the City Park directly behind Hero's Square -- easily accessed by subway (Yellow Line). Birding was fair with several MIDDLE-SPOTTED WOODPECKERS, one ICTERINE WARBLER, and 4-5 either European Pied or Collared Flycatchers. They were all in advanced moult and I could not be sure of the ID. The next morning I rode the Blue subway to another large park which contains the planetarium. The exit is Nepliget. The habitat and birding here was excellent and highly recommended. There is an extensive mature woods and many rather natural areas particularly on the East side of the park. A EURASIAN SPARROWHAWK was seen perched in a tall tree. One Picus Woodpecker (likely Eurasian Green) was flushed but got away; however both GREAT and MIDDLE-SPOTTED were seen. One SPOTTED FLYCATCHER was seen as well.
The final day in Budapest, I arranged for a Hertz rental car -- expensive -- $US150. I left the hotel at 0530 and drove to the Pilas Hills taking route 11 along the Danube. At the town of St. Andrews there is a road clearly marked to Visegrad which heads into the hills. Driving North as soon as you leave the city there is a large bluff on the left which has an old dump on the top. There are open fields around as well as some small gardens. An old abandoned Russian military base lies below the hill. This area was alive with birds and we quickly found COMMON QUAIL, EUROPEAN TURTLE-DOVES, COMMON CUCKOO, 15 EUROPEAN BEE-EATERS, EURASIAN HOOPOE, GRAY-HEADED WOODPECKER, several singing? EUROPEAN WRYNECKS, COMMON STONECHATS, NORTHERN WHEATEARS, a small flock of CORN BUNTINGS, EUROPEAN LINNETS, GOLDEN ORIOLE, and 2 NORTHERN RAVENS. A flooded field near route 11 held 2 WHITE STORKS, 3 GRAY HERONS, 20 NORTHERN LAPWINGS, and 4 WOOD SANDPIPERS. Two GRAY PARTRIDGES were flushed from the adjacent cornfield, and a pair of SYRIAN WOODPECKERS was seen along the road. The hike above Visegrad along a small stream suggested in Gorman yielded only GRAY WAGTAIL and very few other birds. Several woodpeckers were heard but none seen.
The trip produced 15 life birds for me, which exceeded my expectations. I'm sure we would have seen many more had we traveled earlier in the season. I will gladly supply further information or maps either via cyberspace or snail-mail. I may be reached at (615) 890-0942
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