To my American eyes, the great brown raptor circling high above an endless grassy expanse stretching all the way to the horizon might well have been a Golden Eagle. Except I wasn’t standing on the Great Plains, but in the great Carpathian Basin. I wasn’t on prairie but puszta. And that wasn’t a Golden Eagle but an Imperial Eagle, once the emblematic bird of the Hapsburgs and the Austro-Hungarian Empire—and perhaps emblematic again of Hungary’s proud and resurgent conservation movement.
Three decades ago, only 10 breeding pairs of Imperial Eagles were known to exist in Hungary, the last vestiges of a species disappearing in Eastern Europe. Today the population numbers about 150 nesting pairs, and they’ve spread out from their last refuges in the wooded foothills to the lowland plains they historically inhabited.
“Back in the old days, there were people guarding the nests,” said István Bártol, one of the guides for the week-long birding tour I was on, organized by Swarovski Optik last summer to showcase the abundant birdlife of Hungary. “The parks purchased the breeding areas to protect them. Imperial Eagles are one of our biggest successes.”
Hungary lies at an avian crossroads, near the eastern extent of many European species and the western edge of Eurasian birds with ranges that run across the steppes of central Asia. The tour group of 16 bird journalists and bloggers was a veritable NATO birding contingent, including four Brits, a Belgian, a Frenchman, a Spaniard, and three Americans. Some in our group had grown up during the Cold War and had always wondered what birds lay beyond the Iron Curtain. Now, just miles from the ruins of a Soviet military base, we trained our spotting scopes and binoculars skyward at the soaring eagle circling in grand arcs above the plain.
“This you would never see 20 years ago,” said Attila Steiner, the other Hungarian guide on this tour. He told me how Imperial Eagles benefited from a series of conservation measures that began in the early 1980s under the communist government, such as protecting the birds from shooting and poisoning. And now Hungary is continuing an ambitious program to install cross-arm insulation at every electrical tower in the country by 2020 to prevent eagle electrocutions. It’s a deeply devoted recovery effort, every bit as impressive as the one to save our own national symbol, the Bald Eagle.
Over the course of five days, Steiner and Bártol led our group to more impressive bird sightings, each one a further testament to the deep national tradition of bird conservation in Hungary.
The tour began with a two-hour bus ride east from Budapest to the Hortobágy region of eastern Hungary, a flat grassy plain where the steppes that run all the way across Asia to Mongolia begin. Out the bus window, I was hypnotized by flatlands ad infinitum, familiar from my Midwestern upbringing—a sea of seedheads atop bending grasses waving in the wind beneath billowy white clouds. Prairie and puszta, twins separated at birth, I thought. And they are. Hundreds of millions of years ago, in the days of Pangaea, this steppe and our American prairie were one vast super-grassland, says Hortobágy National Park ecologist Zsolt Végvári. Hence the mirrored ecosystems: prairie dogs and susliks, both ground squirrels; pasque flowers in each; the spectacle of Sandhill Cranes by the thousands jostling at a migratory stopover at the Platte River, and thousands of Common Cranes doing the same at Hortobágy in spring and fall.