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In terms of diversity, Neusiedler SeeNational Park in Austria is one ofEurope's least known wildlife hotspots.Forget the alpine meadows and mountainsof the Alps that you would normallyassociate with Austria! On this holiday wewill be focusing exclusively on thecountry's warm and flat lowland regions,more akin to the steppes to the east, andthe reason we can expect to see such arange of plants, birds, insects and animalsis that we will be exploring a region thatlies at a crossroads of landscapes,habitats and cultures. During our weekhere we will enjoy all these highlights, butparticularly the latter, for sampling the local food and wine will be amongst this holiday's pleasures! Neusiedler See National Park, in fact,spans the Austro-Hungarian border andwas the first bi-national park to be createdin Europe, the majority of it lying withinAustria but the southern part being inHungary. To reach it we have simply totake a short flight to Vienna then a bus rideto the very comfortable hotel in Illmitzwhich will be our base for the week,situated right amongst the sights andsounds of nature. The numerous GreatEgrets are just one indicator of a richdiversity which also includes breedingBlack-necked Grebes, and both Little andSpotted Crakes. For our initial exploration of the region, wewill rise early and travel by horse-drawncarriage to enjoy some amazing viewsacross the reedbeds from the upperplatform of an ex-Cold War watchtower.Here we will have breakfast whilst watchingnumerous herons, egrets and Spoonbillssetting out to feed. Later in the day we willlook for migrant waders at one ofSeewinkel's soda lakes and explore theadjacent woodland and fringing reedbeds,home to Golden Oriole, Bluethroat, Hoopoe,Barred Warbler and numerous Nightingales.We will spend the morning of our third dayfocusing on the largest of Seewinkel's lakes,Lange Lacke, where the plants and birdsare more representative of the coast.Amongst a wide range of species we will belooking out for breeding MediterraneanGulls and Avocets, whilst the swathes ofwild flowers all around us include thepurple-flowered Austrian Sage andcontrasting yellow bedstraws that carpet the'hutweide' or shepherds' pastureland. Afterlunch, we will head off to the extensive plainnear the Hungarian border where we will goin search of displaying Great Bustards. Formany these will be the undoubted avianhighlight of our holiday, but we also hope tosee Short-eared Owl, Montagu's Harrier anda variety of other raptors.The insect-life, too, is very rich, andthroughout this holiday we will look for boththe dragonflies and butterflies attracted tothe region's profusion of meadow flowers -the beautiful Southern Festoon butterflyperhaps being amongst the highlights.Interesting beetles, praying mantis, flies andspiders will also turn up on our walks,particularly on our day-trip toZitzmannsdorfer Wiesen, another area ofremnant steppe and a breeding site forBlack-tailed Godwits, Curlews and manyother species. We will have lunch at a fishrestaurant to taste the local specialitiesbefore driving to a hilltop nature reserveknown for its wealth of butterflies andflowers. Later we will offer an optionalevening walk to enable us to enjoy the sightof waterbirds as they fly in to roost as wellas to look for Fire-bellied Toads. On another day you will have the optioneither of travelling by minibus to the RiverDanube and beyond, or of using bicyclesprovided by the hotel to explore the manymiles of cycle routes that provide access tothe region. Should you choose the latter,you may wish to take the ferry to the otherside of Lake Neusiedl and ride on to thebeautiful little village of Rust, with its oldcentral square and colourful housesadorned with rooftop-nesting White Storks. We will spend our penultimate day, a longbut exciting one, in Hungary. Rising early,we'll travel to the Hansag, the remains of awild marshland and wetland forest whichthe Hungarians are currently restoring. Thisis a very atmospheric place, offering a greatfeeling of isolation. In addition to aninteresting variety of birds, the grassy plainsare home to colonies of Souslik, anendearing little ground-squirrel that is thefavoured prey of the Hansag's manyraptors!Finally, we will visit the local Geiselsteller tomeet a wine farmer who will explain how thearea's distinctive soil and climaticconditions affect both the quality of the wineand the wildlife that the region supports. Inthe afternoon we will enjoy a final few hoursin search of the region's abundant birdlife.We must not forget to look down as well asup, however, for the flowers here are aspectacle in May, with a good display ofwetland orchids and clusters of SiberianBlue Iris amongst the highlights. A finalevening meal in Illmitz, enjoying a PusztaNacht or Mulacsag (a traditional local dinnerwith gypsy music), will provide a fitting endto a holiday rich in both cultural and wildlifehighlights.Austria's Steppes & WetlandsAn exciting and comprehensive 8-day exploration of the rich natural and culturaldiversity offered by a premier national park at the heart of Europe, Neusiedler See.Thursday 2nd May - Thursday 9th May Cost: £1,295Outline itineraryDay 1Fly Vienna; transferIllmitz.Day 2/7Natural history andcultural excursionsthroughout NeusiedlerSee National Park fromIllmitz. Day 8Drive Vienna; flyLondon.AccommodationA comfortable hotel; all rooms withprivate facilities. FoodAll included in the price.GradingGrade A/B. Short day walks onmostly flat ground, plus oneoptional cycle ride. FocusBirds, plants, mammals, butterflies,dragonflies and local Austro-Hungarian culture.LeaderDave Smallshire.Single room supplement£140.ExtensionsNights in Vienna, or other options,available on request.Web quick search:AUT0130Call now or visit your free Trip ItineraryHUNGARYCROATIASLOVENIACZECH REPUBLICAUSTRIANEUSIEDLERSEEVIENNAILLMITZThe HansagAustrian Sage Black-necked Grebe

Far out in the Atlantic Ocean, midwaybetween Europe and North America,the Azores archipelago marks thewesternmost frontier of the EuropeanCommunity. Belonging to Portugal andstretching for more than 600 kilometresacross the Atlantic, it consists of ninevolcanic islands sweeping in a long arcalong the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, rising to justover 2,351 metres at its highest point,Mount Pico. Situated in a privilegedposition between the 36° and 40° NorthParallel and 24° and 32° West Meridian, theAzores enjoys a mild climate andsurrounding seas that are warmed by theGulf Stream. Surrounded by the deepwaters of the Atlantic, the islands shelvesteeply into the sea creating an underwatertopography that is perfect for attractingsome of the most exciting animals on Earth- the great whales. Once a centre forcommercial whaling, those days arehappily long since gone and the Azoreshas instead become renowned for itssuperb whale-watching, and is now firmlyestablished as one of the best places inthe world for seeing both whales anddolphins. Indeed, 27 species of cetaceanhave been recorded in these waters!Sperm Whales are found in the watersaround the Azores all year round. Largestof the 'toothed whales', Sperm Whalesseem to conjure up every superlative in thebook. They have the biggest brains onEarth, and make possibly the deepest andlongest dives of any animal - typicallyforaging on squid at depths of about 300 to800 metres, but able to dive (descending ata staggering 3 metres a second!) to over1,000 metres for more than an hour. SpermWhales are relatively easy to identify at seaand we'll be looking out for their 'wonky'blow, which comes out off-centre at anangle of 45° from a blowhole positioned onthe left-hand side of their enormous head.Sperm Whales prefer to give birth inlatitudes of less than 40°, making theAzores an ideal location, and we shouldsee females with calves during our Augusttrip. We'll hope to spend some timewatching the whales travelling, breachingor 'logging' at the surface, and we mayeven be lucky enough to hear their sub-surface sonar through hydrophones as theyclose in on squid hundreds of metresbelow us!As well as Sperm Whales it is alsopossible to see a good variety of othercetaceans in the Azores. Common,Bottlenose, Risso's and Striped Dolphins,as well as Short-finned Pilot Whales, areseen here all year round, while AtlanticSpotted Dolphins visit the islands duringthe summer. We also have a chance ofseeing other, rarer cetacean species -perhaps Sowerby's Beaked, False Killer orNorthern Bottlenose Whales.During this holiday we will be based on theisland of Pico, in a comfortable 3-star hotelsituated within a few minutes' walk of theharbour and, during our 5-night stay, wewill offer six half-day, morning or afternoon,whale and dolphin-watching excursions,weather permitting. Following the traditionalAzorean method of finding whales,'spotters' will be on the look-out at strategicpositions on land, ready to inform ourguides the moment any large whales areseen. Once we hear the word, we'll go intoaction quickly, setting out to sea in fast andmanoeuvrable Rigid Inflatable Boats fortrips lasting about 3-4 hours; the thrill ofbeing close to whales measuring up to 30metres long in a small craft is one of theworld's top wildlife experiences! Most of our time will be devoted to whaleand dolphin-watching, but we will find acouple of half days on each tour on whichto look for some of the region's birdlife.During the summer, Pico supports abreeding colony of Cory's Shearwaters,and the Azores Bank and Princess AliceBank are among the few places in Europewhere Wilson's Storm-petrel may be seenwithout having to spend an extendedperiod at sea! In late spring it's stillpossible to see vagrant or migrant birdspecies, with August and September beinga good time for vagrant American waders.We may also, at any time, encounter othermarine-life at sea, such as Portuguese ManO' Wars, sharks, turtles and flying fish.These small unspoilt islands are friendlyplaces, where you can start to feel at homewithin a short time, and faces becomefamiliar quickly. Offering in addition somedelicious food and wines, excellent localguides, and a rugged and fascinatinggeography, the Azores are a real pleasureto visit.Whales & Dolphins of theAzores A 6-day holiday in search of whales and dolphins in the cetacean-rich waters of the Azores archipelago.Monday 19th August - Saturday 24th August Cost: £1,495Tuesday 10th September - Sunday 15th September Cost: £1,495Book direct on 01962 733051or see page 284 for Booking InformationATLANTIC OCEANSETECIDADESTERCEIRAPONTADELGADAHORTAMADALENAFAIALFLORESCORVOPICO SÃO MIGUELOutline itineraryDay 1Fly Faial; then ferrytransfer to Pico.Day 2/5 Whale and dolphin-watching boat tripsfrom, and some birdingon, Pico.Day 6 Fly London.AccommodationA comfortable 3-star hotel inMadalena on Pico Island. All roomshave private facilities.FoodAll breakfasts are provided.Lunches and dinners are notincluded, to give you the choiceand flexibility of samplingMadalena's harbourside bars andrestaurants at leisure.GradingA. Zodiac-style/RIB boat trips insearch of whales and dolphins.Some easy/moderate birdwatchingwalks.FocusPrimarily whales and dolphins;some birding opportunities.LeaderEd Drewitt or Catherine Strong,plus local naturalist guides.Single room supplement£185.Web quick search:PRT0531Sperm WhaleAtlantic Spotted DolphinsPico Island