Think I'll spend a day with cabin fever in frigid cold temperatures remembering adventures I never got around to blogging about in 2013. Generally, work takes me to fun places and in the last year or so, my meetings have involved some unexpected locations.
I had to go to a meeting last summer at Seewinkel – Lake Neusiedl National Park on the Austrian/Hungary border. This area is known as the burgenland and is made up of mostly vineyards. We stayed at the delightful Hotel Post Illmitz right next to the park. The inn owner Otto was quick to offer food, wine and conversation upon our arrival. My favorite part of the whole experience were the bikes in the hotel garage that we could take in our off hours and explore the town and park.
Illmitz is a small town, easily bike able (and walkable for that matter) down the quiet streets. The traffic is used to bike riders on the road and there is plenty of space to get through. It was not a bad place to have a couple of all day meetings.
You can quickly find yourself on the paved trails around the park (the signs are easy to follow even if you cannot read Austrian). The trails take you through bucolic vineyards, wetlands and shallow lakes. Blinds give you high up views to watch for harriers, shorebirds and waterfowl.
Here's a greylag goose digiscoped with my iPhone from the lookout tower. What a treat to see one of these wild and not the barnyard version I'm used to seeing in the US. Turns out these things really can fly.
We were there in late summer and the shallow lakes were chock full of shorebirds, here's a wood sandpiper. Some of the lakes were dryer than usual, so a scope was handy as the birds were sometimes far out. I brought along my backpack and some bungee cord and still managed to find a way to attach my trusty scope to the bike--though some of my fellow meeting attendees were very kind to take my scope on their bikes from time to time. I didn't take any book field guides with me but downloaded a couple of apps. I ended up relying on the kindness of Europeans on the trip to help me id birds--especially shorebirds. I recently got a copy of the Crossley ID Guide to Britain and Ireland and wished that had arrived before I left. It's an easy to carry guide for an American in Europe for the super common birds.
Stilts never disappoint no matter what continent they are on. This is a black-winged stilt taken from the tower.
But this park is more an International Park rather than National Park. If falls right along the Hungary/Austria border. We spent one morning before a meeting looking for Hungarian birds--we used cars for that. I sometimes tell Non Birding Bill that if I ever end up in some sort of vegetative state or if I'm sick in a hospital, plug in slide shows of places I've been and I'll be ok. I think this is one of my favorite offices I've ever had. Our morning was filled with purple herons, eagles and turtle-doves.
While we were taking it all in, flocks of bee-eaters came into the trees. Many of the birds that we saw on the Hungary side we could see on the Austrian side, but hey, how often does one have the chance to do some birding in Hungary?
Here's an up close bee-eater.
Half the fun of the trip was the food. This is one of the reasons why I bike so much in warm weather and run 5ks in the winter--the 20 something metabolism just ain't what it used to be and in order to keep eating in the manner in which I have become accustomed, I need to exercise (boo). I am an adventurous eater and when I was trying to decide dinner one night, one of the items translated for me on the menu was something called "pike perch." A British companion insisted I try it, that is was a very tasty fish. It was...but also familiar. A quick Google search revealed that pike perch is also in the Percidae family making it a walleye--which is Minnesota's state fish. And a tasty fish it is indeed!
Many of the places we ate served local wines (from their own vineyards), homemade schnapps, their own cured meats and homemade cheeses. We even got to eat some of the "National Park Cow." I'm not sure if you can see the condiment tray in the back of the photo, but there was one item on there that was life changing.
This. I spread it on some bread and felt the soft gooey very unvegetarian flavor take over my mouth. "What is this," I asked our Austrian server.
"Um...this is...how you say...fat. Pig fat. Um, yes...lard spread?"
Imagine the consistency of butter but with all the best flavors of pork--that was this. I enjoyed it so much that our host ordered three more dishes of it--perhaps fearful no one else would have a chance to taste it after I fell in love with it. No worries, this was so rich that a little truly goes a long way. I immediately sent a photo to Non Birding Bill informing him that I was never returning from Austria again.
I fit one more bike ride in the following morning before I had to catch my flight in Vienna. I had to work off some of that "lard spread." The burganland was truly beautiful but because all of the surrounding vineyards had ripening fruit...it had the full attention of the native European starlings who were hell bent on eating the ripening grapes and the growers were trying any method to get rid of them which included speakers blasting wildly barking dogs, injured starling calls and screeching goshawks. There were also periodic air cannons and single engine planes diving at flocks (and coming down well below tree level) and shooting fire crackers. It was vaguely like being in a war zone...not totally relaxing. I'm not sure how well it worked to keep the starlings away but the pilots of the planes sure looked like they were having fun.
The birds sure seemed used to it. This is one of the many red-backed shrikes I encountered while biking around.
A blue tit lurking in the shrubs on my bike ride.
A great tit was mixed in with the blue tits.
And this was a distant photo I took of spoonbills for my digiscoping big year only to download them later to notice that one of the preening birds was a stork!
And a super cute little ringed plover.
Illmitz is definitely worth putting on your travel itinerary if you find yourself heading towards the eastern end of Austria. Maybe avoid late August and early September if you want to avoid the ambient noise of bird scaring techniques.
We stayed at the Hotel Post Illmitz and they have a variety of bikes for a variety of body heights.