2008 January 20.
Ambios Ltd. (UK) and the BOF (Hungary) were recently successful with an application to the EU Leonardo Mobility Programme to host two volunteers (John Sutcliffe and Mike Cooke) from the UK for six weeks in Hungary. The main objectives of this international co-operation is to support participants in training and further training activities, in the acquisition and the use of knowledge, skills and qualifications to facilitate personal development, employability and participation in the European Labour Market.
Diary by John Sutcliffe and Mike Cooke
Day 1 15.01.2008.
After staying the first night in Gyömrő we packed the car and trailer with all the equipment and supplies needed for the weeks ahead and headed for the new BOF centre at Orosztony. Before leaving, we walked to see a couple of spruce trees very close by which long eared owls roost in throughout the winter. Astonishing to see owls right by the road in full view unperturbed by our or anyone’s presence. First stop on the journey was the huge open expanse of the Kiskunsági National Park, miles and miles of open grassland wetland and forest. We pulled up at the side of the road and watched a range of overwintering birds using the open ground including rough-legged buzzard and a flock of great bustard. Also on the agenda was a stop to check a barn owl nest box in the roof space of an isolated derelict farmhouse and a little owl nest tube in a stand of young woodland. Signs of little owl were present. Then it was back in the car and onto a vast supermarket for a trolley full of provisions (not tesco) – then the three hour drive in the evening darkness to our new home in Orosztony.
Day 2 16.01.2008.
Ákos had set this day aside for general acclimatisation and to get the lay of the land. Ákos took us round the newly acquired BOF accommodation and it’s 1ha estate and talked us through the restoration needed before everything will be up and running. Many photos were taken of the old and derelict buildings around the estate. After chopping wood to feed the traditional Hungarian tile stoves in our rented accommodation for the days ahead we washed our hands in water drawn from the old well, rural life – very real. The rest of the day into the evening was spent chatting about the weeks ahead and getting to know each other – great stuff.
Day 3 17.01.2008.
This was the first day of the programme of long eared owl survey, visiting several villages in the local area, peering up at any coniferous trees and checking around their bases for pellets and droppings. The BOF had not previously carried out any such work in the county of Zala so it was very much uncertain as to whether we would find any evidence during the course of the day. A total of approximately 150 trees were checked in three villages and at places between. A few pellets were found in one village early in the day and fair number of pellets in a small roadside plantation in Gelsesziget last thing before returning home for the evenings proceedings. This plantation appears to be used at least as an occasional long eared owl roost site and possibly for nesting.
Day 4 18.01.2008.
Today was a day of hard labour as we started to clear up the grounds of the new BOF centre in Orosztony. Work started with the felling of a few scrub trees and the tricky, yet enjoyable demolition of the old corn store. Whilst satisfyingly deconstructing the store with a range of tools and the good old fashion boot, we came across signs that a pine martin may be using the area as a nest, or as a place to stash its stolen booty of farmer’s eggs, so fingers crossed we may come across one as they are fairly common in the area. So after hours of hard work destroying everything we could get our hands on, the site ended up looking like a bomb had gone off, so we decided to construct a series of large fires to burn off all the unwanted material, which turned out to be quite a lot, so the rest of the day was spent around the fires tending them, which was very enjoyable and satisfying as it kept you warm!!
Day 5 19.01.2008.
After a slightly longer sleep in till 8am, which was fully deserved after yesterday’s hard work myself and Mike headed off around Orosztony to conduct a Long Eared owl survey of the pine in the village and the surrounding plantations. This was our first real chance to see Orosztony in its entirety during the day, which allowed us to get a real feel about the day to day life of a local, in the town, which basically was relaxing as there was no work to be done in the fields due to it being winter. The survey took roughly 2hrs and we checked all the trees on one side of the town and a row of planted pine trees near an old run down farm which used to be a farmers depot during communist times, which is a typical sight to see in Hungary. After surveying all the trees roughly 150 to 250 we couldn’t find any traces of owls in the town which would be quite interesting to know why? As the town is perfect habitat for owls. After the survey and a spot of lunch we headed to Lake Balaton to do a little bird survey, as the lake has a great ornithological diversity, ranging from your common Mallard duck to the Great White Egret and the Pigmy Cormorant, and due to the shear size of the lake, the number of bird species is enormous, in some areas you get upto 500 Great White Egrets congregating and massive flocks of Greylag Geese. As a little treat Ákos took me and Mike to the local bird ringing centre where we observed the capture and ringing of Blue Tits, Great Tits, Greater Spotted Woodpecker and the Green Finch and observed the patrolling Sparrow Hawk on the lookout for an easy meal from the captured birds. After the ringing centre we headed to Keszthely to buy some safety equipment such as helmets and visit the Cities palace called Keszthely which was very nice with well managed gardens and lovely architecture overlooking Keszthely. Food supplies were also very short so we headed to a not so well known food supermarket called TESCO!!! To stock up on supplies before we headed back to Orosztony.
Day 6 20.01.2008.
Today was a great treat Ákos had organised with the local ranger to help him carry out a nest survey for White Tailed Eagles in the Balatoni National park, which I do have to say was one of the most beautiful and diverse places I have every been to. The park is massive covering 300 000 hectares of unprotected land and 3000 hectares of protected land, composing of open woodland, Pine plantation and wet woodland very similar to mangrove swamps, which was very interesting trying to cross in the smallest Wellington boots imaginable to man, needless to say my feet got very wet, but it was a great experience. The park is very diverse with large numbers of Roe and Red deer, and large numbers of Wild boar as the tracks were everywhere, and I am pretty certain I saw a young piglet which was extra special as the animals are very elusive. Other species present at the site are Otters and visiting Wolves, however we didn’t see any which is a shame!! However we did learn from the ranger that he is the only person employed at the site which is absolutely absurd given the sheer size of the area and the diversity of the fauna and mega fauna he has to survey and protect, in the UK a site this size would have easily around 12 rangers and not to mention a massive volunteer program. After a very long day covering many miles of woodland habitat we stopped of at the fish ponds in the park as the White tailed eagles often hunt in the area, needless to say we were not let down, there were two pairs of White Tailed Eagles around the pond, which was a marvellous site to see these large birds flying overhead.
Day 7 21.01.2008.
Today we started the first Barn Owl surveys; we visited four little towns to check for signs of Barn owls on our way to the city Pécs. The first town we visited was called Balatonmagyaród were we checked the local theatre as there was a nest box in place. As with most sites the first task is to find the key holder to gain entrance to the sites. Once in the building we carried out a survey of the loft space where the nest box was present to look for signs of occupancy, such as pellets, feathers and droppings. The site didn’t have a Barn owl present however there were signs of the nest box being used as there were fresh pellets and small feathers. The second site we visited in Vése was more promising as there was a juvenile barn owl present in the church tower, so well worth climbing up the old spire for . This allowed us with our first opportunity to handle the owls and learn techniques for assessing the age and sex of the bird. The third church tower in Somogyszob was equally successful as we found a roosting adult in the tower as well, who had been tagged a previous year. The site was suitable for nesting however we had to clear two corners in the top of the spire to allow room for nesting, so hopefully we will have a nesting pair come summer. The last town we visited called Kisbajom was Ákos favourite site, however building work had recently been carried out on the spire to restore the windows and to our disappointment the first site we received on getting to the top of the spire was a pair of dead barn owls. Ákos had explained to use that the probable cause was starvation due to the owls being unable to exit the building as the builders had sealed of any possible exit . He informed us that this was a common problem in the past due to miss communication between the builders and the foundation, as they don’t contact the foundation to ask for information on what they should do if they are renovating a tower where owls are present resulting in individuals becoming trapped. Later that evening Ákos had received an email from a colleague who had also come across the same problem that day finding a pair dead in another church tower, so it is apparent the problem still needs to be addressed. Once the last site was finished and we had informed the caretaker about the problem and that in the future the site will need to be re-opened we head of Pécs where we would be spending the next day with one of Ákos old friends Mátics Robert (Bobmatix).
Day 8 22.01.2008.
An early start to the day as we set off to Mecsek mountain to carry out a general wildlife survey of the area, paying particular interest to nest sites of birds. This was done in collaboration with Fábián Eszter and Rezneki Rita who are employed by the local land owner to assess the biodiversity of the area. Using a similar transect method we patrolled the woods listing any nests and Mike helped Rita carry out a botanical survey of the woodland plants. After the survey we headed to the local cave system for a little treat stopping off at the bat museum where we got a vague idea of the species distribution of bats thought Hungary. After the museum we had a guided tour of the Abaliget caves where we came within centremeters of roosting Horseshoe bats. Once the tour ended we carried on with our surveys patrolling the surrounding woodland before heading back to Pécs.
Day 9 23.01.2008.
After waking from a heavy nights sleep we headed of back to Orosztony via several church towers where we conducted further barn owl surveys. The first town we visited was called Pettend, where we were to check the dome of the spire for barn owl activity. The spire was in very bad condition as the town was very poor and unable to carry out renovation works, however a job needed to be done in the removal of a relatively new hornets nest in the spire to make it safe for further visits as well as take pictures of the bells for the locals as they have never seen there bells due to being to scared to go into the tower. We also visited three other places where we found evidence of barn owls and the little owl, as well as a new nest site found in an abandoned water tower which was ideal for nesting barn owls. Once the surveys were complete we headed back to Orosztony visiting Barcsi Ösborókás protected area (juniper woodland). We then carried on back getting a little lost and the car rear spring also broke due to the poor roads of Hungary.
Day 10 24.01.2008.
A day of rest: Whilst we waited for Ákos to get the car fixed at the local garage me and Mike had a sleep in then later ventured into the local woods for a little adventure trying not to get lost in the vast woods.
Day 11 25.01.2008.
Continued with work on the house clearing and levelling the yard and burning off all the cut brash from the orchard.
Day 12 26.01.2008.
Carried on with further work on the house, including levelling off the floor for later placement of wooden floorboards, stripping paint and painting the ceiling.
Day 13 27.01.2008.
Spent the afternoon with Máté and Gabi, ranger and eco tour-guide for the Kis Balaton specially protected area. After having a meal of traditional Hungarian bean soup at their house we headed off for a bird watching tour of the lake. Managed to get some good views of a large flock of great egret and caught sight of a couple of white tailed eagles.
Day 14 28.01.2008.
After tidying the house we packed up our stuff and headed off on a six day long excursion to the south of Hungary, Serbia and Croatia. During the course of the journey to our first accommodation base at Gara we stopped at several locations to carry out barn owl surveys of old buildings, including churches, a disused stable and two disused agricultural buildings. Our destination at Gara was a large stylish former German peasant house of grand proportions, belonging to the local minister and run as a hostel. A great place to stay. We were the only guests present.
Day 15 29.01.2008.
Spent the day with Nagy Tibor (founder of the Barn Owl Foundation of Hungary and ranger for the Duna-Dráva National Park) and Garai Zsolt who works alongside Tibor, and who’s skills as a climber are put to good use in carrying out nest surveys . During the course of the day we carried out numerous barn owl surveys of buildings. Most notable were a water tower where a barn owl was flushed out during the course of accessing the water tank, a large derelict chapel at Bácsborsód and a disused military camp at Kövesmajor . Here we found three species of owl including a single barn owl and single little owl (the site being used for nesting by both of these species), and long eared owl roosting in a spruce tree. Towards the end of the day we visited a loess (soft) cliff at Madaras. This has numerous holes presents used by bee eaters and sand martins for nesting. Barn owls have been previously recorded nesting within the largest cavities. No evidence of this was apparent during the visit.
Day 16 30.01.2008.
Set off with Tibor and Zsolt for Serbia and a full day of church visits. On the itinerary was a visit to a grandiose and quite beautiful church in a fairly advanced state of dereliction. Mike got to play a proper church organ (that is virtually never used) for the first time, a life long ambition fulfilled. At the end of the day we packed up out stuff from the accommodation at Gara and headed to Topolya to meet our hosts for the next couple of days, Sihenlik József (who is doing an extensive analysis of long eared owls pellet as part of his degree), his family and Füstös Adrian his friend.
Day 17 31.01.2008.
After visiting a local market in Topolya for the days provisions we headed to a location in the town centre known by József as a well used long eared owl winter roost site to do a bird count. We found several trees occupied by owls with upwards of 40 owls roosting in single tree – quite an astonishing site, particularly given that the tree with the greatest numbers was a birch offering little cover and providing a clear view of the birds. Much of the afternoon passed by in negotiation with the inhabitants of a local village, finding a location to install a nest box. A site was eventually found in a hay barn and the box was put in place without any problems. Then onto pick up a couple of pigs legs from József’s friend and pig farmer Igor. On arrival we were given a glass of wine and invited for a tour of his farm. A deep cultural experience indeed. Finally the days activities ended with further long eared owl survey. Simultaneously flushed what seemed to be hundreds of owls from a single tree right above us – a spectacular sight.
Day 18 01.02.2008.
Spent the morning having a leisurely walk around Büdös lake the banks of which support very rich grassland habitat and a number of rare plant species. The pigs legs obtained the previous day were placed out to feed the local raptor population. The other main purpose of the visit, to looking for the early flowering of a rare crocus species (Crocus variegates) was unsuccessful but the walk was very enjoyable and we got the chance to lie out in some warm sunshine for a few mins (very spring like). Later we headed back to Topolya and climbed the tallest church tower in Serbia to check for owls and take in the vista of the city. Three adjacent churches in an other village were surveyed for barn owls late in the afternoon with a single bird being flushed out of the village orthodox church during the proceedings. Success was had in persuading the minister to allow József to install a barn owl box in the church. In the evening all five of us drove together across the Croatian border to our next hosts Tórizs István and his family in Várdaróc (István is carrying out a programme of barn owl pellet analysis as part of his degree).
Day 19 02.02.2008.
A further day of barn owls survey at numerous churches within the Drávaszög area of Croatia. There appeared to be some contrast between the churches here and those in Hungary, these having less incidence of being closed off from birds and are more abandoned, derelict and dark. It was also puzzling to note that while signs of barn owl were abundant no live birds were encountered, a situation that would be unlikely to occur during the course of a days surveying in Hungary – very odd. Also during the course of the day we made a quick visit to see the Kopácsi specially protected area adjacent to the banks of the Danube. Much of this area was heavily mined during the Serbian / Croation conflict during the 90′s and has consequently been unmanaged ever since. What we saw from a safe distance was mature semi-natural wet woodland which nobody ever goes in. Also on the agenda for the day was survey of a disused mansion at Tökös.
Day 20 03.02.2008.
Back across the Hungarian border for an expedition up Szársomlyó mountain, a conspicuous hill overlooking the wider lowlands to find the early flowering of the rare crocus species magyar kikerics (Colchicum hungaricum). The mountain supports a fantastic habitat of species-rich grassland / exposed limestone mosaic and low growing (pioneering?) ash dominated woodland. The flower was found and the summit was reached – a fantastic view taking in the city of Pécs where we stayed a couple of weeks earlier. Then back to Croatia for an evening at the local cock festival. Proceedings included the local traditional custom of disorientated and blindfolded women trying to hit a cockerel (a stuffed toy since the invention of animal rights) with a long stick, Hungarian stew ‘cook-off’ and traditional dancing in the brightly lit village hall. Subsequent activities centred on the local pub were live traditional folk music was being performed. It was a late and good night.
Day 28-32 11-15. 02.2008.
A working week giving presentations about the work of the Barn Owl Foundation in a total of seven high schools in and around Budapest. We had prepared a presentation of 45 mins for each class making best use of PowerPoint. The talks took place as biology/English lessons and were delivered by both of us following a brief introduction in Hungarian from Akos. We were armed with a number of ‘props’ including owl pellets and skulls and a captive injured tawny, barn and little owl to show the students.
We were given a warm welcome in each school (the first time we have had school dinners in a long while), and after a nervous beginning to the week we increasingly gained confidence and relaxed, with the quality of presentation improving all the time. 22 presentations were given during the course of the week, teaching something like 450 students in total. There was a fairly wide range of English skills to accommodate during the programme. In a couple of schools we were stumped by difficult questions about owl biology from bright students, a good sign that they were interested. By the end of the week it seemed that some good work had been done in spreading the word about owl conservation.
William Todd, a friend and keen supporter of the BOF who is an American ex-pat English teacher living in Kápolnásnyék helped by contributing to the presentations on a number of occasions. His teaching experience was much appreciated particularly on the first day when both John and myself were speaking in separate schools.
We finished in the schools fairly early in the afternoon for most of the week and had the opportunity to explore the city before returning to our base in Gyömrő for the night. Both of us were very very taken with the place, fantastic architecture and history, the massive sweep of the Danube and an abundance of beautiful women everywhere – fantastic. We stayed in a flat on the Buda side of the city on the Thursday night and for the weekend, making the most of our time in the city. Dora (Akos’ sister) took us for a great Friday night out, showing us some fascinating places including a number of very ‘happening’ temporary bars in old derelict buildings.
Day 34 17.02.2008.
Drove back to Oresztony stopping off at Kápolnásnyék and meeting William Todd who had arranged access to the Gárdony church in order to do owl survey of the building. The tower was perfect for owls but no signs found.
Day 35 18.02.2008.
A day for sorting things out, shopping in Nagykanizsa and doing a bit of tidying of the orchard at the new BOF centre (removing old bottles and plastic etc).
Day 36 19.02.2008.
An early start and a long drive up to Sopron in the far north west of Hungary where Akos was giving a presentation in the university in the evening. This wasn’t the end of the road however. Last thing the previous night we had agreed to make the most of being up there and drive another 50 km onto Vienna for the afternoon (action beyond the call of duty from Akos and another country on the list). We spent a few hours taking in the grandeur of the city before returning to Sopron where we spent an hour or two in the student bar while Akos gave the presentation. The presentation was very successful, 40 students were present, and most of them were touched by the problem of owl conservation. New volunteers and conservationists in the future – hopefully.
Day 37 20.02.2008
Headed to Zala County to meet two contacts of Akos, who had organised a barn owl survey of the area. The first site we stopped of at was a large farming depot where we check an old nest box. From the contents of the box it seemed like it had not been used for at least two seasons, however the location is a perfect habitat for barn owls and the little owl with plenty of old open farm building to nest in and open fields to hunt. We then headed to our first church to check the installed nest box at the site which showed signs of promise as there were plenty of fresh pellets. However the box lid had been left open, so the resident owl has been able to move freely in the tower using the box as an entrance, which the foundation would prefer, however this would go against the agreement with the church so unfortunately we had to reseal the box, but the area still has great potential for nesting. We carried on through the day surveying nest boxes in a further two churches, one of which contained a pigeon nest with two chicks, so the box will have to be modified later on as it was allowing to much light to enter. On the way to our final church we stopped of a known site where you can find the European Beaver which was very exciting, but unfortunately we were not in luck to see one, we did however find many signs that they were present, such as chewed branches and felled trees which was very interesting to see how such a small animal in relation to a tree could fell such a thing with just its teeth!!! After a well deserved brake we arrived at the final church where we had received permission to install a nest box at the site. Now this was very interesting hauling all the necessary materials and tool up to the top of the tower then constructing the nest box in such a small space, as there were five of us in the tower, its was a success though, so one more nest box available for a nesting barn owl. After a long tiring day we took a well deserved brake from cooking and ate out at a take away pizza place which restored my faith in Hungarian pizza, after should I say a very disappointing pizza at the Owl hotel not recommended!!!
Day 38 21.02.2008 – 22.02.2008
Carried on working at the house and the orchard which was being stripped of its wildness by chainsaw and secuteurs, to restore it back to its former glory. In addition we also searched the internet for possible grants to help fund the foundation.
Day 39 23.02.2008
Today was our last day in Orosztony which involved making sure the accommodation was clean and tidy as well as packing all our stuff together, as we would not be staying the night, as Rita had invited us to a party at a wine cellar in Zalaszentlászló. This was a great experience as we were able to try her own wine and pálinka (spirit) at her family’s wine cellar before heading to another wine cellar where the party was being held. The night was very long and full of dancing and merriment over countless pálinka and wine, I have a sneaking suspicion that as we were the British guests our hosts were trying to get us a little bit drunk! Well they did succeed however they themselves we also worst for wear by the end of the night. However it was a night to remember (well should I say try to remember) and we took many memories back with us to Orosztony.
Day 40 24.02.2008
The last day: on arriving back at Orosztony we gathered all our belongings into the car with a slight head ache might I add! We then headed off back to Gyömrő stopping off on the way to pay our farewells to William Todd who presented us with a few little gifts to take home with us. The rest of the day was then spent at Ákos house relaxing and downloading all our photographs and reminiscing at our great Hungarian experience.