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European Bison © John Muddeman European Bison
Bison bonasus
© John Muddeman

Poland: birds and bison in a winter landscape
by John Muddeman

Trip report extracts 12th - 20th February 2005

This was a ground-breaking tour for both The Travelling Naturalist and Limosa, going to some of those areas usually visited in the spring, but this time in the depths of winter. So why on earth choose to travel to somewhere typically freezing cold and snow and ice-bound, instead of during the flush of spring? Well, it's easy really, since winter brings a cloak of snow in which it is much easier to track animals and see them in the woods where there are no longer leaves. At least that's the theory…

Monday 14 February

The early risers followed in Bogdan's wake as he cruised round a different woodland circuit to the day before, but not before watching a Brown Hare cross the frozen lawn and then nibble the bark on a tree. Very few birds were evident however, with a calling Common Buzzard and drumming Black Woodpecker of most note. A fine European Bison © John Muddeman European Bison
Bison bonasus
© John Muddeman
Great Spotted Woodpecker watched by the hotel was one of many present, their tappings could be heard just about everywhere. T. and I however ventured out later, also hearing Black Woodpecker and also watching a small group of stunning white-headed Long-tailed Tits, and best of all, a flock of 11 Waxwings which flew over before landing in a tree top, giving fine scope views!

Breakfast was followed by a long 2-hourish drive (including our first Ravens) to get to the Borecka forest area, where we remained all day. After arriving, within just minutes, half the group were admiring 20+ European Bison which had come in from the forest to feed at a special feeding station on the edge of the reserve! Lesser Spotted Woodpecker © John Muddeman Lesser Spotted Woodpecker
Dendrocopos minor
© John Muddeman
Those left behind, blissfully ignorant of what was round the corner, watched Tree Sparrows, Yellowhammers and Willow and Marsh Tits along the road leading out from the forest in lovely sunny conditions. This was then soon reversed and fortunately the majority of the bison still remained for the second group, giving fine views to all.

A brief bit of free time was usefully used by walking along the road into the edge of the wonderful mixed forest. This proved to be excellent, with the above-mentioned birds all being observed in numbers, and after a short stretch and just as we were about to turn back, a fine Middle Spotted Woodpecker fed quietly high up in an old oak, giving good views to all, especially in the scopes, though remarkably, and much closer, a superb male Lesser Spotted Woodpecker was working away feverishly on some small saplings almost at eye level, and basically ignored us completely, giving stunning views.

The walk back was brisker, but some good Badger tracks added variety, though we were soon back off along the snow-covered roads for lunch, this time of soup followed by zander, and very good it was too!

We returned after a leisurely lunch to be taken in two groups to a long series of high seats, though the deep snow and treacherous conditions meant the time involved was considerable. At least those in the bus were treated to fine views of a Black Woodpecker landing on a nearby tree to keep them occupied! Sadly, blanks were noted by almost all, except a couple of Red Deer and a Pine Marten for P. and Black Woodpeckers for almost all those on Elk © John Muddeman Elk Alces alces © John Muddeman the earlier run, but the drive back gave 4 Brown Hares and 7 Red Deer for those in the bus and 28 European Bison (!!) and a Red Fox in those in Marek's vehicle… The delays meant we finally arrived at 21:30 and dinner was prolonged until 23:00!

Tuesday 15th February

A later, rather grey and slightly misty cold start at 7:15… Crested and Coal Tits, Siskins and Treecreeper were the bird highlights by the hotel, but we rounded off by cutting back across the lake, where on opposite side netting using a generator hauled out onto the ice was being carried out!

A very different morning was very fruitfully spent walking round a scientific animal breeding and research centre at Kadzidlowo set up and run by Dr. Krzywinski. A super site in pastures and meadows in the forest, and the tone was set when we walked into the first enclosure where "vulf, roe deer and elk are good friends"… And indeed Boreal Lynx © John Muddeman Boreal Lynx Felis lynx © John Muddeman they were!!! We also saw how Pine Martens can be discouraged from predating Black Woodpecker nests using miniature electric fences around tree trunks (!) and heard that the woodpeckers apparently specifically nest in the trees in the pens due to increased protection from smaller predators given the presence of larger predators, i.e. Wolf - a remarkable idea and very plausible given 4 Black Woodpecker nests within the numerous enclosures!

The route walked us through numerous pens where we (actually) rubbed shoulders with a huge Elk and petite Roe Deer, and also contemplated Wolves at very close range, watched how a superb lowland Boreal Lynx male played with Dr. Krzywinski's scarf and then refused to give it back (!), while a couple of charming and playful Otters squeaked and squabbled, Black Grouse 'bubbled', young Chamois gambled on their little hill and Wild Boar trundled round their pen, among many others! The food put out also attracts wild birds, including numerous Ravens and two White-tailed Sea Eagles, plus single Middle Spotted and Black Woodpeckers, a Grey Heron and large numbers of Yellowhammers. A Red Fox or two and a Red Squirrel or two (in fact the only ones we saw free-living!) also put in brief shows, but it was sometimes hard to know exactly where to look!

White-tailed Eagle © John Muddeman White-tailed Eagle
Haliaeetus albicilla
© John Muddeman

We rounded off by passing a duck pond full of surprising species, the mix covering from Arctic Europe to S Africa to the Far East, and then into the area by his house a mixed bag of species, many of them either previously injured, or held 'in quarantine' for the Polish authorities, or of captive-bred stock. Wild Tree Sparrows and a few Goldfinches came in to feed on the food available. The tour de force though, beating first a male 'rackelhahn' followed by a stunning male Black Grouse held on the hand, was a fine male Capercaillie which sat placidly on his hand like a prized falconer's bird, and was a really astonishing sight, its huge beak just inches from his face!

After another excellent lunch at a dog-filled restaurant (both things being generally agreeable!) we were out at high seats again, this time in certain luxury given a little carpeting on the floors and 6 windows on three sides for Capercaillie © John Muddeman Capercaillie Tetrao urogallus © John Muddeman better viewing in more comfort. A mixed bag of sightings as usual, but including a Wild Boar sow with 7 piglets at one hide, a single Wild Boar, 150+ Yellowhammers and a Tawny Owl at another and a few Roe and / or Red deer for most of the rest. Not bad at all!

We got back with some time before dinner, where we then also celebrated a birthday!

Saturday 19th February

A typical pre-breakfast amble, but the slightly colder conditions meant it was crisper underfoot and even noisier than normal! The birds were the same too, with Great Spotted Woodpeckers again seen, and on our return a high density Oak sp., Bialowieza © John Muddeman Oak sp. Quercus sp. © John Muddeman of Great Tits, plus a few other tit species. A local farmer also took a pot-shot with an air rifle at an over-inquisitive dog which encroached on his land, which then prompted K. to mention that the hoteliers were also not averse to taking pots shots with an air rifle at their own hotel, but in order to knock down the numerous icicles which were forming on the edge of the thatch, then dropping down to the lower layer and damaging it!

We were off at 5 to nine today, in order to pick up our guide for the day, who after various posts within the Bialowieza National park, then became its director for 10 years, until retiring recently. His academic English was terrific and we started our walk in the 'strict' part of the forest (i.e. where no motorised vehicle will ever be allowed to go, or will anything be done to interfere with the natural processes underway). We started by contemplating one or two of the trees present, including one of the largest oaks in the forest and towering up to 120 ft above the forest floor. The extraordinarily diverse ages of all the species present and the amazingly straight trunks of the trees were signs of the great age and absence of 'management' (= intervention) by man in the past. This was a feature everywhere we went, including when some of the group stayed longer and saw the largest pussy willow tree (yes, a tree!) in Europe.

White-backed Woodpecker © John Muddeman White-backed Woodpecker
Dendrocopos leucotos leucotos
© John Muddeman

The group had spilt since several of us were all also suffering from an impressive cold one of the clients had brought with her, and we wanted to return earlier. This actually proved to be in our favour since our return was much slower, allowing J. to briefly spot a Pine Marten bounding over the snow, and as we neared the gate, so a superb White-backed Woodpecker hammered away near the base of a dead stump! Considering that there were dozens and dozens of Great Spotted Woodpeckers in the forest, this was no mean feat, these numbers being unknown before and undoubtedly due to a major influx of N and/or E birds. In addition, as we walked out of the forest and back to the bus, four Red Deer ran across a field and a fine White-tailed Eagle circled up and glided past. Sadly the remaining group did not have this luck, though a Pygmy Owl sitting in a hole was spotted by a few when they stopped at a woodpecker-rich spot including a single Lesser Spotted and several Middle Spotted Woodpeckers.

I was in bed, feverish and 'dead to the world' when most of the rest of the party went out again at dusk, this time in search of Pygmy Owl with the aid of a local guide. Unfortunately, though birds had been there at 6:15 am, they roam the forest following the tit flocks, and were not present, despite him imitating their calls for c. 30 minutes.

Sunday 20th February

Breakfast at 8 and away at nine, giving a few early risers the chance to watch for the Grey-headed Woodpecker again at the fat, but 'only' Lesser, Middle and Great Spotteds turned up!

We sped towards Warsaw in crisp conditions, noting much heavier snowfall in some areas coating the trees with a good covering, but also stopping for a fine Great Grey Shrike (the second on the same long stretch of wire) and also noting good numbers of Grey Partridge, often right beside the road and sheltering at the base of trees. Single Brown Hare and Red Fox were also noted out in the open, with a few Waxwings noted by Phil, and towards Warsaw in the towns, Jackdaws, Rooks, Magpies and Hooded Crows becoming common again. Gulls in Warsaw included Black-headed and Common, but we were unable to ID those large gulls going over, though some appeared to be Caspian…

Warsaw Main Square © John Muddeman Warsaw Main Square © John Muddeman

We walked through old Warsaw to a little restaurant where we ate our final meal together, then after another short wander afterwards, returned to the bus where we said goodbye to three of the party (all of them staying for an extra day in Warsaw) and soon reached the airport. Check-in was easy, we killed time buying drinks and /or gifts, then spent ages to get through the ultra-sensitive metal-detectors, before getting away in good time.

John Muddeman

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