I’ve driven the road from the village to Sármellék and on to Balatonszentgyörgy often enough to comment repeatedly on the dead trees and reed fields that follow it on either side. I knew the Kis-Balaton (Little Balaton) was once drained to increase the amount of available agricultural land in the area but when the Balaton waters started to suffer because of it, it was reflooded to act as a much-needed filter for the lake that is the backbone of Hungary’s domestic tourism.
There are actually two Kis-Balatons. Looking at the map, western Kis-Balaton is shaded in blue [bottom left]. The body of water with Kányavári Sziget (island) in the middle. That’s what I’m familiar with. That’s the one I cross the bridge to, the one I walk around. That’s where I go to watch the fishermen as they stand black, silhouetted by the setting sun. It’s lovely. This reservoir (Phase 1) was created in 1980 because as the unfiltered nutrients from the Zala River flowed into the Balaton the water quality suffered. The whole reclamation project was a bad idea and had to be reversed. It’s now a winter ground for many a goose on their travels to hotter climates, home to myriad ducks and swans, and lots of other wildlife.
I knew there was another lake on the map, another body of water. I knew where it was supposed to be but I’d never seen an expanse of water to match it. I took it to be the marsh, the sedge, the swamp that sits on the right-hand side of the road as we drive out of the village towards Sármellék and on to Balatonszentgyörgy. Most of the dyke roads into it are signposted saying entry is not allowed without permission, so I’d not been in. This, apparently, is Phase 2. Its restoration process began in 1992, finishing in December 2014. It took that long for the wetlands to get back to where they were before potential profit interfered.
Curiosity finally got the better of us and we tagged along quite happily when CE booked a private tour [they take two tours per day, Tuesday to Friday, and one tour on Saturday, with only as many people as will fit legally in one vehicle, including the guide]. Covering some 150 square kilometres, the place is truly spectacular. Crisscrossed with channels and dikes, it’s a virtual wilderness, home to some 240+ species of birds, some wild cats and jackals, and the usual bevvy of frogs and snakes. Himself spotted an old grass snake who was in no hurry to take his 80 cm anywhere. They don’t hurt, but apparently their pee stinks to high heaven.
One of the channels comes from the lake at Hevíz. Although not quite spa water, it’s warmer than usual and is the only water to run freely even when the Kis-Balaton freezes in the winter. And the waterlilies bloom a month early – in April. It’s our own little miracle. The Water Board controls the complex system of gates and sluices knowing that the longer water is left in the reed fields, the cleaner it gets. That’s not to say it becomes clear – it doesn’t. It’s brackish water so will always have that telltale hue. In May, the reeds are two-toned – half green, half brown. I’m coming back to see that. And the waterlilies.
Our guide, Éva spoke of the birds as if they were family. This lot will be here next week, they’re en route from Greece. That lot we don’t expect till later in May. These others are new to the neighbourhood. Her enthusiasm was palpable as we spotted a Marsh Harrier, the largest of four carrier species that hang out in the reed fields. She seemed very fond of the shy ferruginous duck that is thriving in this area. And when she spotted the purple heron only newly returned for the season… Well, passionate birders are a breed unto themselves. And it’s infectious. For a minute there, I was back in Kruger with the Springbok kids trying to spot a Kori Bustard.
There are some 220 nesting pairs of egrets and some 100 nesting pairs of grey herons. The pygmy cormorants, a rare migrant to this part of the world, came back in 2000 to reclaim their old breeding ground. And the first purple heron to come back was seen on March 15 this year. Some of the songbirds, like the grass warblers, look so alike that they can only be picked out by their song.
Back in 2016, a colony of cormorants moved house. They’d abandoned their original site because of sewage problems (a build-up of acidic pooh), and in just three days one April, they built 40 nests in their new place. At the northern edge of Phase 2, another newcomer is the hoopoe – that’s a bird I’d love to see. The cattle egret first landed in Hortobágy in 2016 [Hortobágy seems to be the Ellis Island for birds in this part of the world – their first point of entry] and then travelled on to the Kis-Balaton. Close watch was kept to see if they’d upset the ecosystem but they seem to have integrated well. The local buffalo are an obvious attraction. [I hadn’t known that buffalo are the only grazing animal that can feed on reed and sedge. Others would be poisoned.] And as the cattle egret eat grass only, the little egrets and squacco herons can dine happily on their small fish and frogs without threat.
It all looked so fresh and new, which in a way it is. But the newness was more because of the marked absence of humans. The slightest noise and the birds were off. They’re not used to sharing their space. The wild cats and deer can be seen in daylight, so unused are they to having to hide from anyone. It really is a magical place. I forgive them what I had thought to be rather excessive exclusionary policies as the place really does need to be protected. And I’m grateful that they’re doing such a good job of it.
I asked about the dead trees. Trees don’t mind water, apparently, but they do mind constant water. When the land was reclaimed, the trees were planted (there’s no natural forest in the area) and they grew quickly. But when it was flooded, they slowly died. Nature has reasserted herself and taken back what was rightfully hers.
When the water levels drop naturally around May and the sandbanks appear, so too will the common terns. But some parts that were usually under water were dry. And as we’re in for a long dry summer, there’s obvious concern for the Kis-Balaton. No water, no birds. End of. How sad would that be.
If you’re in the area, book a tour. Book in advance though, particularly in the summer months. It costs 5000 ft per person (~€15) and takes about three hours.