Sunday, June 8, 2014

Great Bustard

Gerard picked me up at the Budapest Ferenc Liszt International Airport around 1:00 pm on Saturday, May 24th, and we left the airport to begin birding almost immediately.  My typical way of dealing with jetlag is to remain active until the normal bedtime in my new time zone, so this suited me.  It was hot, humid and sunny.  I had worn jeans on the plane but needed to change quickly to shorts.  My heavy jeans would not cut it in such warm weather.  We drove through a few villages and stopped along some dirt farm roads.  We were immediately in Great Bustard habitat - specifically Kiskunsag Nemzeti Park - almost directly south of Budapest.

Great Bustard (Otis tarda) in the family Otididae was the target bird that really got me thinking about birding in Hungary.  A New Yorker article titled Ruffled Feathers by John Seabrook about the fraudulent documentation of now discredited (and deceased in 1967) British ornithologist, Richard Meinertzhagen, first made me aware of the Great Bustard.  Meinertzhagan used specimens of Great Bustards from other locations to falsify their presence elsewhere.  His fraud was uncovered by Michigan State University ornithologist, Pam Rasmussen, and documented in Seabrook's riveting article.  Arguably, it is the heaviest flying bird, with male birds weighing in at 8 to 16 kg! Female birds are significantly smaller.  They are birds of the grasslands.  It is a resident bird in Hungary and, though I can't find the reference now, I have read that there are approximately 1,000 breeding pairs here.  It is the national bird of Hungary.   

So when Gerard pulled out his spotting scope for the first time of the afternoon and we climbed the steps up a steep observation tower, I'm not sure I was thinking we would see the bird.  When he called out that he had a bustard in the scope perhaps it was jet lag, but I responded lamely, "you're kidding."  His response was a surprised, "no I'm not" as in what do you think we're doing here?    

Gerard had the male Great Bustard in the scope just in the forefront of the largest shrub in the top left-center of the photo above.  The bird is in the center of the heavily cropped photo below.  In this photo the bird's head is ducked into the grass and its back and tail are all that's visible.  We watched it for awhile.  Then I saw a female bird to the left of the male bird.   

There is no question that the birds were far out.  But they were well seen in the spotting scope.  For the photos I could only focus my camera on the shrub and then search for the bird in the viewfinder and click and hope that the bird would show up in the photo.

We watched the birds for approximately a half-hour.  The male spread his tail and both birds walked and flew around.  In the photo below, cropped from the photo above, the full shape of the male Great Bustard is in view.  I was lucky to get this shot.

At one point the bird began walking toward us.  Gerard pointed out something that I would not have noticed on my own.  When walking the bird appeared to be rolling, like a child's pull toy on a string.  I watched this unique gait in the scope at the bird moved forward. 

Gerard found another male, arguably slightly closer, directly in front of us.  But, my far reaching photo attempt above did not have the bird in it.  Still, it's a nice view of the beautiful grassland habitat.

The sky was darkening quickly in the direction we would be driving. Gerard pointed out that it was already raining there and so we left our Great Bustards, my first life bird of the trip, and backed our way down the steep stairs of the tower and drove on to our hotel which was not far from this location. 

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