If the nightingales would just pipe down...

...you might hear the bittern's boom. Adrian Phillips is spoilt for birdlife to watch on Hungary's Lake Tisza

Ploop. A fisherman leans over the side of his peeling boat and slaps the surface with the cupped end of a carved stick – ploop – before returning to statuesque contemplation of his rod tip. "Frogs," Gerard says. "It sounds like frogs jumping into water, and that attracts the catfish."

I'm not sure I'd want to attract the catfish. They grow to more than 100kg (220lbs) here; the stuffed, gaping specimen I'd seen on display at the landing stage could have gobbled the fisherman and his stick, and still had room for a froggy dessert. "A froghurt, perhaps," I muse cheerfully.

Lying at the heart of Hungary's sun-starched Great Plain, Lake Tisza is a place where nature quenches its thirst and shakes the dust from its feathers. The lake was formed during damming of the River Tisza in the 1970s, and has matured into the country's leading wetland – a mosaic of reed beds, wet forest and open water covering 170sq km (66sq miles).

Gerard Gorman perches alongside me in our flat-bottomed boat on the lake. A bald and bulky Lancastrian, he looks more like a bouncer than a birder, but he's lived in Hungary for 20 years and is the best guide in the business.

A chubby dragonfly zigzags ahead as we glide along a narrowing channel and duck the grasp of willow trees at the water's edge. We pass a night heron, hunkering among tangled branches, grey shoulders hunched like a grumpy grandfather. A purple heron flaps lazily above the water, its neck a looping S-bend. Gerard offers a patient, passionate commentary as the scene unfolds. There, the fluting of the blackcap; that, the crackle of a great reed warbler. The trilling? A chaffinch. No, that's not a pigeon, it's a cuckoo ....

I wouldn't know a budgie from a barn owl, but I'm enthralled. Lake Tisza promises the odd globally endangered species to draw the tick-listing twitcher – there was an excited stir last year when a pair of white-tailed eagles raised three chicks – but it's the abundance and accessibility of wildlife that's the real beauty of this spot. Where else would you find yourself wishing nightingales would pipe down so you could better hear the bittern boom? It's like a lake from a Disney film.

But what Gerard's really got me hankering after is a glimpse of a black stork. White storks and black storks are the chalk and cheese of the bird world. We'd seen plenty of the white variety as we drove across the Great Plain, their heads poking above twiggy piles on telegraph poles and their stringy legs dangling like broken landing gear as they flew overhead. But the black stork is a more bashful breed; it won't poke a blood-orange beak anywhere near a village, instead nesting deep in wet woodland. And at Lake Tisza, you can't see the wet woodland for the wet trees.

Our boatman jumps off as we bump against an island, and drags the bow aground. Franz Liszt – yes, that really is his name – has lived in the lakeside village of Tiszaorveny all his life. This region is among Hungary's poorest and unemployment is rife. There's a cheese factory, and some fishermen scrape together pocket money selling their catches to local restaurants, but many youngsters abandon ship for Budapest's richer prospects. Not Franz. He's taking lessons in traditional basket-making, and plans to sell goods crafted from bulrush. Another enterprising local has enlisted the support of the Hortobagy National Park in building a marked nature trail and birdwatching tower on this island. For the canny few who see it, eco-tourism promises hope for a better future.

It's certainly not a peaceful walk along this trail through the island's flood-plain forest. Things tweet and whistle and rustle incessantly. A woodpecker drums somewhere nearby. "It's communicating mechanically, signalling its territory," says Gerard. Edible frogs create a chorus of strangled quacks – like a class full of schoolboys imitating Daffy Duck – which rises to a crescendo before stopping as suddenly as it started.

Gerard points to earth turned by the rootling of wild boar ("They're excellent swimmers," he says), and tapering tree stumps bearing tell-tale tooth marks ("Beavers were re-introduced five years ago").

We reach the viewing tower and two marsh harriers display for us above the lake's golden reed beds. Gerard mimics the nightingale's call and receives an instant response. He's like an oversized woodland sprite; I fully expect bluebirds to alight on his shoulder and deer to nuzzle his neck.

We greet the day's end on a restaurant terrace across the water from our forested island, and nature's treasures are forgotten as I tackle a bowl of catfish soup. Fortunately, Gerard is ever-alert. The spoon is midway to my mouth when he nudges my elbow, but I forgive him a soup-splashed shirt. As I follow his gaze, the bird rises from the island's thickest depths, surfing a thermal on broad black wings, wheeling as if simply for pleasure in life. Dinner time seems special when a black stork is in the sky. For the villagers of Tisza, I'm sure the future is black – and it's got the brightest of blood-orange beaks.

Adrian Phillips is author of Bradt's guide to Hungary ( bradtguides.com).

Compact Facts

How to get there

Gerard Gorman ( probirder.com) leads wildlife tours to Lake Tisza and elsewhere in Hungary for all types of visitor – from novice families to serious birders. Adrian Phillips stayed at Kormoran Kikoto (00 36 59 350350; kormorankikoto.hu) in Tiszaorveny, which offers lakeside chalets with kitchens from £80 per night for four sharing.

Lake Tisza is a two-hour drive from Budapest. Fox Autorent (36 1 382 9000; fox-autorent.com) provides car hire from £20 a day. Hilton Budapest (00 36 1 889 6600; budapest.hilton.com) has rooms from £125 per night. The Buda Castle Hotel (00 36 1 224 7900; budacastlehotelbudapest.com) has rooms from £75 per night. EasyJet ( easyjet.com) flies to Budapest from £60.

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