Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Eastern European Trip Day5: Slovakia

This is the 5th post about my recent trip to Eastern Europe with Birdwatch Ireland. You should go back and read the previous posts to get caught up.

     Day five of our trip took us to Slovakia.  This was one of the primary reasons for me wanting to go on this trip, and one of the reasons that my wife said okay.  My Great-Grandfather emigrated to America from Slovakia over a hundred years ago and we still carry a Slovak name.  I was really excited to see the home of my forefathers, and also to bird there.
     Our bus ride today would over an hour to cross the boarder from Austira into Slovakia near Slovakia's capital of Bratislava.  Vienna Austria and Bratislava Slovakia are the two closest national capitals on Earth, only 35km apart.

River Danube Slovakia
River Danube - Bratislava, Slovakia
     Our targets for the day were woodlands in the morning and then a sand hill and pine forests in the afternoon.  It took a bit longer to reach the morning's location because the roads and bridges in the area were couldn't support the motor coach.  Our driver, Gabriel, was Slovak and found us a way in, along a very narrow, dirt road.

Big bus, narrow road
Rural Slovakia
     The road took us past a Cold War era bunker and over some really, scary bridges.  But one of the guides said that the bridges were made to support Soviet tanks, which made plenty of sense.  

Cold War Bunker
Old Bunker - Bratislavsky kraj, Slovakia
     We finally made it to the location for the day, along the river March, south of where we were birding on the very first day in Marchegg Austria.
     The group was greeted by what had become the normal birds seen: Red-Backed Shrikes, Golden Orioles, Nuthatches and the first Great Tits of the trip.  But our main target were Bird of Prey.  The first large birds that we saw flying over were storks, mostly White Storks with one Black Stork seen.  And then someone spotted a couple of shapes very high in the sky.  They were two White-Tailed Eagles flying very high.  I was somehow able to get a shot of one that shows the distinctive tail.  It really reminded me of seeing Bald Eagles back in the USA.  They slowly soared off to the East.

White-Tailed Eagle
White-Tailed Eagle - Bratislavsky kraj, Slovakia
     A short time later a pair of Honey Buzzards were spotted.  As we were watching one of them started to clap it's wings overhead in a display flight, which we were incredibly fortunate to see.  This flight is not done very often and was amazing to witness.
Honey Buzzard display flight
Honey Buzzard display flight - Bratislavy kraj, Slovakia
The group would see Marsh-Harriers, Red and Black Kites and the ubiquitous Common Buzzards too.
     We had been walking atop a levy along the river in the hot Sun and once again I felt a pang for New Mexico.  I was hoping to see a Wryneck on a short trip into the trees, but it wouldn't be.  We did get a quick look at a Short-Toed Treecreeper (sorry for the potato photo, but they aren't easy to see let alone photograph).

Short-Toed Treecreeper
Short-Toed Treecreeper - Bratislavy kraj, Slovakia
     Another really common bird in the area were Yellowhammers.  They seemed to be in every tree singing away.  One came down and perched on a gate in front of the group quite a long time.

Yellowhammer - Bratislavy kraj, Slovakia
    We had brought our lunches along and sat in the shade of the trees and the bus eating when another pair of White-Tailed Eagles came flying by incredibly low, maybe 50 meters above the ground.  One was an adult and the other a sub-adult with lots of light brown spotting and no white head.  And my camera was on the bus!
    Shortly after that we boarded the bus once again for our afternoon location.  We did stop in the local town of Malacky for a coffee break.  I was hoping to get some souvenirs for my kids and dad, but every shop that wasn't a cafe was closed, welcome to Europe on a weekend. It was a nice looking town.  
Statue in Malacky Slovakia
Statue - Malacky, Slovakia
     Our destination in the afternoon was Sandberg, a hill made from very soft sandstone on the Austrian border, again along the March river. It is well known for containing fossils from an ancient lake.  The bus parked at the very bottom of the cliffs below the sandy area.  We heard some Woodpeckers in some trees along the river and were trying to ID them when another White-Tailed Eagle flew overhead, again fairly low.

White-Tailed Eagle
White-Tailed Eagle - Sandberg, Slovakia
     The way to the top sandy area wound through a nice little neighborhood, but we finally made it to the top.

Sandberg, Slovakia
Sandberg, Slovakia
     Our target bird for this area was a Tree Lark,which nobody ended up seeing.  But we were lucky to see some Hawfinches, more Turtle Doves, and heard a Common Cuckoo.  I also saw some Great Spotted Woodpeckers and even a Lesser Spotted on the walk through the neighborhood.
     Being near sandy hills meant more European Bee-Eaters and sure enough there were some nests present.

Bee-Eater nests - Sandberg, Slovakia
    And pairs of Bee-Eaters were perched in the trees above.  My photos really don't do Bee-Eaters justice.  Their colors are beautiful, and their calls are fun to hear too.

European Bee-Eater
European Bee-Eaters - Sandberg, Slovakia
   I set off to try and see a Tree Lark, but instead found an amazing looking castle.

Hrad Devin
Hrad Devin - Slovakia
It was Hrad Devin, an ancient castle guarding the confluence of the March and Danube rivers.  Unfortunately I didn't get a chance to see it any closer, but maybe someday I'll visit Slovakia again. It was great to see White-Tailed Eagles close-up, a very rare bird to see in Ireland, and the display of the Honey Buzzard was the sight of the day.

As always, you can see more photos on my Flickr page here.


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