Friday, 15 August 2014 12:49

From Beaver to Bison; the wild side of Poland, part one: Bialowieza

Trek Eco Adventures Polish Wildlife Adventure. Part one, the Primeval Forests of Bialowieza.

We touched down in the land of the mazurka, in the middle of the pouring rain, at around midnight. The sense of anticipation was high as we walked off the plane at Chopin airport, Warsaw. The spattering of rain against the airplane windows had not dampened our spirits, and an excited buzz hung in the air. I had flown from Liverpool John Lennon airport, with Trek guests: Tom, Shirley, Jess, Rachel and Jennifer, and we were meeting Jay, my Trek colleague, and Ollie at the airport. They had flown to Poland from Italy, earlier in the day. Ever the clown, Jay looked very fetching dressed in his suit jacket, smart shoes and socks (pulled up to his knees) and holiday style shorts and t-shirt! I shook my head in wonderment as I imagined the looks of bewilderment he must have faced as he picked up the minibus and visited the supermarket earlier on that day! I listened with envy when they told us that they’d been a matter of metres away from a pine marten when they had fuelled up the minibus at a filling station on the edge of the city. Hopefully this was going to be an omen for things to come. It was around half past twelve by the time we were all sat in the bus. We faced a four hour drive, through the night, eastwards towards the border with Belarus, to begin our Trek Polish wildlife adventure. We were looking forward to four days based in the Bialowieza National Park, and then another four days based at the Biebrza marshes.

The Bialowieza National Park is home to the last fragment of ancient lowland forest, identical to the deciduous and coniferous forests that once swathed much of Europe inculding the UK, and is located on both sides of the Polish-Belorussian border. The forests are often referred to as “primeval” due to its primitive state and is also a UNESCO world heritage site in virgin forested terrain with a variety of habitats from, wetland and coniferous forest, to deciduous and riparian forest, and is home to a superabundance of biological diversity. Some of the trees, including large ancient pedunculate oaks, are over 500 years old and would have stood when the forest was historically protected by Polish monarchs, and in the 19th century used as a hunting ground for Russian tsars. The forest is characterised by deadwood in various stages of decomposition and has over 1,500 trees with features that qualify them as natural monuments. The world heritage site is home to some 632 vascular plant species, an abundance of algae, bacteria and fungi, totalling well over a thousand, 250 lichen species and over 80 species of mosses. Over 200 birds nest in the area, including cranes, white-tailed and lesser spotted eagles, black storks, grouse and Europe’s smallest Strigiform, the pygmy owl. It is also famous for being home to all of Europe’s ten woodpecker species, including the migratory wryneck. It has 44 species of forest mammals including beaver, red deer, roe deer, wild boar, wolves, Eurasian lynx, foxes, otters, a few elk, but is probably most renowned for providing refuge to Europe’s largest population of European bison. This superabundance of biological diversity was the purpose of our visit.

The journey passed by quite quickly and pretty much went by without event, except for a kamikaze Red Deer buck, who decided to bolt across the road in front of us. A twelve month supply of venison burgers, and quite possibly the worst ever start to a wildlife watching trip, was avoided by some expert driving from Jay, who had lightening reactions considering the length of his day. We had hoped to see the sun rising over the Polish countryside as we travelled, but it was all very grey, and wet. We didn’t see the sunrise; we just saw the gloomy grey turn a gradually lighter grey.

Our guests dozed and chatted and before we knew it we had passed through the town of Hajnowka and we were entering the Bialowieza National Park. I had pre-arranged with our host in Bialowieza, the good lady Maria, that we would be arriving at an ungodly time in the morning, but still I felt a little guilty. When Jay suggested a drive around the outskirts of the village, and the palace park, before we hit the sack, even though I was dead on my feet (or arse), I responded with gusto. Jay’s suggestion soon reaped its reward as a family of wild boar screamed across the road, right in front of the bus. The highlight of the morning was yet to come. As we drove the bumpy track around the back of the park, through the gloom and fifty shades of grey, in the distance several spectral figures of European bison began to slowly emerge through the dampened mist. Spookily enough, just 10 minutes earlier, Rachel had said that she’d be happy with her trip to Bialowieza as long as she saw bison, and there they were; just the length of a football pitch away within our first five minutes of being there! Through binoculars you could make out the steam rising from the animal’s nostrils as they grazed on the pasture, framed by the forest behind.

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We checked into Maria’s and it was agreed that we’d have a much needed five to six hours sleep. Jay and I have stayed at Maria’s place before. The buildings are two story log cabins with spacious rooms with their own washing and shower space. The wild boar and bison pelts that adorn the walls and floor of this area added to the authentic Polish hunting lodge effect, even if they were a little macabre. Maria and her husband are lovely hosts and pretty much leave us to our own devices. Communication is achieved via google translate; the comedic value of this is priceless. The term “good lady Maria” was conjured up by google translate! Luckily the humour flows both ways.
As it happened, we didn’t end up getting the full allocation of sleeping hours. A guest of ours, who shall remain nameless, had set her clock wrong and then set about the good deed of waking everyone up, as she thought we’d all overslept. After some deep exhalations and some muttering of various swearwords, said under baited breath, we prepared some breakfast/lunch, and then set off around the Tsars palace and surrounding gardens. The Tsar’s palace is high in natural and historic value. The palace itself no longer stands; much of it was destroyed in 1944 in a raging fire. The building was eventually demolished in 1962. The picturesque Tsar’s hunting lodge remains, perched on the edge of the great lake, as does the museum of nature and forestry of the Bialowieza primeval forest. The palace, lodge and surrounding gardens were built in 1894. They were built in Bialowieza due to the proximity of the European bison population, and these were the favourite hunting grounds of Russian tsars, including Tsar Alexander III and Tsar Nicholas II.

The weather still wasn’t exactly ideal but we got some great views of some really good birds such as thrush nightingale, wryneck and honey buzzard. Birds that would have us salivating in the UK such as black redstart and red-backed shrike are fairly common. The distinctive call of the golden oriole echoed throughout the park. The golden oriole is a bogey bird of mine. The call almost seems to be mocking me as the bird remains elusive. Our guests had a mixed grouping of interests, ranging from insects to trees and flowers. Subsequently, an hour walk around the palace gardens took the best part of three hours, as every couple of steps saw a photo opportunity of some form. We don’t mind that at Trek Eco Adventures as Jay is a keen photographer too, the main thing that matters to us is the smiles on everyone’s faces. It was clear from our guest’s faces that they were enjoying themselves, despite the weather. Walking back to the bus on the palace car park, the general consensus seemed to be that it was time to eat, and then, time to sleep. Everyone looked shattered. Conveniently, the Hotel Zubrowka is just a stone’s throw from the tsar’s palace. As Jay and I had eaten there several times before, and had left impressed, we knew it would be a safe bet. I heartily wolfed down my roast duck with apples; known locally as kalzka pieczona z jablkami (for short) it was absolutely delicious. This was washed down with two glorious pints of Zubr beer and the obligatory shot of zubrowka, bison grass vodka, a speciality of the region. The vodka bottle contains a few stalks of bison grass which is said to give the drink its unique qualities. By the time everyone had eaten, we were all more than ready for bed. Coupled with the fact we had a 3:30 am start with our local guide Irek, our only option was to head back to the good lady Maria’s to hit the pillow.

It seemed like I had blinked, rather than slept, as in no time my alarm on my phone was screaming at me to awaken. After scrambling my things together and a quick cup of coffee we made a packed lunch for the morning ahead. Jay assembled some mega-butties while I made a hearty vegetable soup to fill up our guests flasks. It wasn’t long before I was squeezed next to Irek in the front passenger seat of the minibus while Jay drove the ancient logging paths that dissect the active protection areas of the forest. Again the weather gods were not on our side as it was absolutely bucketing it down. The windscreen wipers were going ten to the dozen it was raining that hard. Irek took us to several different places that he said were good for sightings of wolf and lynx in recent times but we saw nothing. We all accepted that this was no fault of Irek’s; this is just a chance you take when you come on a trip like this. The weather, much like the wildlife, is totally unpredictable. Still, it was awe inspiring to back traipsing along the forest trails again. The height of the trees, and the ethereal feel of the forest, gives the impression of an almost mythical, natural cathedral. Everybody I looked at had their heads tilted backwards as they gazed up in amazement. In the half light of morning, looking deep into the forest, so that the shadows play tricks and shapes shift, it is easy to convince yourself that there is something in the forest, something watching you. The shrill call of a middle spotted woodpecker made me jump right out of my skin. The final location we visited that morning with Irek, was a recently constructed hide, one of several built in the Bialowieza area, and it over looked a clearing in the forest. We were hoping to get some good views of bison grazing at close range but it just wasn’t our day.

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Feeling a little deflated we headed back to base to get some rest before chancing our arm again later. The plan was to head out for a late afternoon dinner and then to go for a mooch in the minibus later on. Funnily enough, our planned destination was roughly in the same area we had visited earlier with Irek. A site we both knew was good for a possible sighting of European beaver. First things first though, we had to eat. We were booked into the Restauracja Stoczek 1929, a well respected restaurant in the town centre. Upon our return to blighty, we asked the question “where was the best place we ate?” Restauracja Stoczek 1929 was unanimously voted by far the best. The music and décor of the restaurant evoke a sense of a bygone era. It is decorated in a style that you can imagine was popular at the turn of the 20th century, with hand painted pictures hung on the walls and traditional Polish and Russian folk music hung on the air. All eight of us were comfortably seated around a wooden antique table. I ordered potato pancakes and spinach dumplings, which are traditional Polish dishes.

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The food did not disappoint, everyone was really impressed, and this was the major topic of conversation as we drove towards our park up spot before beginning that evening’s walk. Jay and I had seen beaver at this spot twelve months earlier. There was a chance that the beaver had relocated further upstream but after that morning’s wash-out, we had a feeling that our luck would change. The excited chunner of our guests lowered to a whispered murmur as we neared 'Kosi Most' bridge that carried the old narrow gauge railway over the river. No sooner had I set up my digi-scope then a splash just ahead in the river caught my attention. It couldn’t be, no it couldn’t be, we’d literally just got to the bridge, but yes, yes it was a beaver. It was that close that, no word of a lie, it wouldn’t fit on my camera screen which was attached to my scope. Right there in front of our eyes a beaver, who looked like it was on important business, zig-zagged its way ever closer. But that wasn’t all. Within ten minutes another beaver appeared and it was a delight to see them playing, rolling and cavorting, oblivious to our focused stares. Without a word of a warning, there was a splash as they exited the water, and then they were gone. The look on our guest’s faces was unforgettable. For me, this is what Trek is all about. It’s a look that can’t be faked; it’s a look that comes from genuine awe and astoundment.

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As we were a short stroll away from the hide that Irek had took us to, earlier on that day, we thought it worthwhile to check out the clearing for bison. As the sun set behind the trees, and the sky turned umpteen shades of reds, the outline of a lone wild boar grunted its way through the shoulder high grasses. This was a true moment of wonder. A big crescent moon hung in the sky, that close you could see the craters, the sky, now a paint box mixture of red, orange and purple. The trees stood tall, enveloping us with overlapping shadows of greys and black, giving a sense of depth and there in the middle of the clearing a small herd of bison cautiously edged their way out from the safety of the forest. A collective sigh of amazement was rapidly followed by the repeated click of half a dozen cameras. We stood in that hide until you could no longer see your hand in front of our faces. Even though I was cream crackered, my mind raced as I lay my head on the pillow. A day began so dull and miserable had transpired into an evening to never forget.

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The weather the next day was grim, rain of biblical proportion battered roofs, overflowing drain pipes and gutters. The plan for today was to hire mountain bikes and explore the forest. As the weather was so terrible the option of ducking out, and having a chill morning at Maria’s was mooted instead. One by one the bike riders dropped out as the weather intensified, leaving only Jay, Tom and Jen who went on an epic journey deep into the forests. I opted to stay back at base to catch up on some reading and check my emails. Later on we had a wander round the tat stalls near the palace. I picked up a brilliant handmade bird nest box made from silver birch for 12 zloty, which is around £2.40 in English money. We had a delightful, traditional Polish broth in a café in Bialowieza and then headed back to wait for the others to return. That afternoon we had a great walk which took us right up close to the Belarussian border. This conjured images in my mind of riding a motorbike, much like Steve McQueen rides in the great escape, straight through the road block while dodging bullets from the military guard. I always have had an over-active imagination! Again wildlife sightings were thin on the ground, but we saw some really clear wolf tracks in the mud and got some great “ticks” like barred warbler, lesser spotted eagle, red-backed shrike and collared flycatcher.

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We had booked Irek again to take us around the strict reserve that evening which is the central hotspot for biodiversity and the most protected / untouched area. You can only enter this section of the forest with a licenced guide and a permit for each member of our party. Irek was very knowledgeable about the forest. He is employed to carry out surveys in the strict reserve. Every ten days he must visit his quadrat to collect his data. He informed us that this data goes back over 60 years! There is something immensely special about this part of the forest. Knowing that no humans have ever touched it is heart warming and you can see the effects all around. It is teaming with life in all its forms as you can see from some of the pictures below. The biggest trees in Europe are in this section and most of them have their own name. Oak trees in Britain tend to be gnarly looking things situated in open pastures etc. Not here, they grow straight up with no branches until the highest of heights. This is due to the fierce competition for sunlight with other trees. The diameter of the trunks is also unreal and have to be seen to be believed, true giants. 

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Large mammals and birds were quite difficult to see but it made a change to be able to see the more intricate sides of the ecosystem, heads down not up. We did get some great views of red-breasted flycatcher, black and grey-headed woodpecker so all was not lost. As the entrance to the strict reserve is not far away from the spot where we sited bison on the morning of our arrival, we headed there to chance our look. Amazingly two adult bison stood grazing on the pasture. With some cunning and stealth the whole party edged ever closer until we were just 20-30 yards away from them. 

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That night we went on a night drive, utilizing Jay’s thermal imaging equipment and mega-powerful torch. We saw many mammals that night including deer, fox, badger and a delightful wild boar sow with piglets. Wild boar piglets are one of the cutest things on the planet. I defy even the toughest man to not emit a sigh upon spotting one. This was our last day at Bialowieza, and we had a lie-in the next day before driving north to Biebrza around mid-morning, so it was drinks all round. Jay had brought some limoncello with him from Italy which went down a treat, as did the ice cold bottles of zubr I had kept in the fridge. As we chatted until gone midnight we all agreed that despite the god-awful weather, Bialowieza had yielded some unforgettable wildlife moments, such as watching the two beavers frolicking in the water and the two bison we had crept up on earlier that day. I went to bed that night in high spirits, the weather forecast was looking better, which was great news for our next destination; Biebrza. Part 2 of the blog to follow.

Images by Jay Knight, Thomas Taylor and Jessica Kevill

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