Thursday, 11 September 2014 14:52

From Eagle to Elk; the Wild Side of Poland, Part Two: Biebrza

The forecast hadn’t lied. The sky was a clear intoxicating blue without even the wisp of a cloud. The morning sun beat on our backs, casting long shadows, as we loaded up the van. We wiped the sweat from our brows, waved the good lady Maria goodbye, and strapped ourselves into the van. The mood was beatific with excited chatter as we navigated the forest roads, en route to Biebrza to begin the second part of our trip. The forest looks so much different on a clear and sunny day and I have to admit to feeling a little forlorn at the thought we were leaving Bialowieza, just as the weather had changed for the better. The forlornness soon passed as my focus switched to the destination ahead.

The Biebrza National Park, or the Biebrzański Park Narodowy, is the largest national park in Poland. It is home to all manner of wetland habitat including marshland, peat bog and wet forests. The complex natural lowland fens are the largest of their type in the whole of Europe. This huge natural bog has never been drained, and along with the river sprawls including one of the last untamed rivers in Europe, the Biebrza River, provide an ecosystem of unbridled biodiversity. The national park has been designated a wetland site of worldwide significance and is under protection of the RAMSAR convention. The wetlands are host to a wide range of European mammals including otter, beaver, elk and wolf. Over 270 bird species have been recorded in Biebrza. This impressive tally amounts to over half of all species recorded in Poland. The marshes also provide refuge for all manner of flora, amphibians, reptiles and trees. It is fair to say I was a little bit excited.

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Soon we were on the a-roads, passing farmsteads and sleepy villages. I love watching the world pass by the window and this part of Poland is particularly enjoyable. The outdated farming methods and rusty old ancient tractors evoke a nostalgic longing for a bygone age. Every now and again my daydreams were rudely interrupted by Jay reacting to some crazy Polish driving but before long we were in the town of Bialystok, where we stopped for food and to answer the call of nature. Bialystok seemed like a lively place and I was pleasantly surprised at the amount of people using bicycles, even if this did make the pavements a dice with death.

With everyone swiftly fed and watered we were back on the road, passing white storks in fields and scanning azure skies for soaring raptors. One raptor on a telegraph pole had the ornithologists among us, including myself, puzzled. Thumbing through “Collins” It had the general jizz of a lesser spotted eagle but not enough to confirm its identification. It also had a distinctive bright yellow wing tag. Photographs were taken for further reference.
Before long and with lickety-split we were on the tree lined Tsars road that dissects the south of the Biebrza national park. First impressions indicated that the habitat was not too dissimilar to the Bialowieza forest we had left behind earlier on that day. The elk warning signs and illustrations on guest house (or pensions as they’re called in that part of the world) advertisements providing an indication of the area’s most famous, ruminant, inhabitant. Once again Rachel made the announcement that she’d leave Biebrza happy as long as we saw elk. Surely this wouldn’t prove as a lucky omen twice?

Eventually we were turning into the grassed front of the pension house we were staying at in Budy-Dobarz and being greeted by our amiable host Eugene. Everyone was shown to their rooms and we were given instruction that dinner would be served in two hours. This gave us just enough time to head to a local hide and viewpoint that was noted for possible sightings of great snipe. The hide was situated down a bumpy track just off the Tsars road, we got there just as two Dutch birders were leaving. The wooden constructed viewpoint offered amazing views across honey gold fens and vibrant reed beds. Within ten minutes we’d chalked up a considerable list including grass snake, great grey shrike, cuckoo and nightingale. Then the hoodoo of Rachel struck again, there in the near distance was a female elk, munching hedgerow vegetation, completely oblivious to the whoops and exaltations coming from our direction. I shook my head in disbelief. She will have to come on Trek trips more often! That night we had a late dinner of traditional Polish food and after sitting out on the veranda, watching bats and listening out for owls, we all retired to bed, ready for an early start.

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We’d prearranged to meet Wiedźma at five o’clock. I was outside tying up my boots and blowing the steam of my coffee at twenty to. The noise was amazing, the sweet sound of early rising songbirds cut through the early morning mist, the flute-like call of the curlew fought with the sound of a frog concerto from a near-by pond. The sun was slowly rising, making fens of cotton grass look like low lying fog and picking out the effervescent colours of marsh marigold and bog orchid, giving the impression of a Van Gogh painting. I stood for a good ten enchanted minutes before Wiedźma pulled into our grass fronted pension at 4:55am in her distinctive little car. This car has to be seen to be believed. It’s a tiny Suzuki splash painted in matt khaki with a ladder on the back that led to two massive metal military containers that sat on a roof rack. Out she jumped in her trademark bare feet causing looks of surprise among our guests. I have never before met anybody with so much natural, infectious enthusiasm for nature as Wiedźma. This promised to be a memorable day. As it happened she gave us an epic 16 hour tour of the Biebrzański Park Narodowy which included us seeing aquatic warbler, white tailed eagle, lesser spotted eagle, Montagu’s harrier, Penduline tit, and loads of elk among many other wild and wonderful things. The day culminated with the star sighting of the day, on the strictly protected red marsh we got a sighting of a lone male grey wolf! A sighting I will remember for the rest of my life. Since reading Jack London’s “white fang” as a young boy I have dreamt of such an encounter. I can now die happy.

It wasn’t just birds and mammals of Biebrza that Wiedźma has a passion for. She is also a veritable font of knowledge on plants, trees, insects, reptiles, conservation and even history. Plus she seems to know every inch of the 592.2 km2 national park like the back of her hand. With her unkempt hair, lack of make-up, bare feet, eccentric ways and her almost encyclopaedic knowledge of utilising wild plants for medicinal, beauty and food purposes, it wasn’t that surprising to learn that Wiedźma translates as witch. Perhaps some would find this nickname cruel or insulting, but Wiedźma seems to relish the nickname, and actually embraces it! It was a truly momentous day. Wiedźma is the best wildlife guide we have ever worked with, through Trek. The day with her is worth the price of the trip itself, and she does it all in bare feet! It didn’t take that long for me to get to sleep that night. I was well and truly exhausted.

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Fire bellied toad belly

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Our third day in Biebrza was to be spent kayaking the Biebrza River that winds, twists and meanders its way through miles and miles of pristine Polish countryside. Sadly I had to duck out of this one. I have slipped discs in my neck and didn’t want to put my vertebrae under any unnecessary stress. By all accounts (see Jay’s words below) the group had an extraordinary day. Jay remarked that it was the best wildlife adventure that he has ever experienced. This is a man who has led Trek tours to the Masai Mara and been cage diving with great white sharks of the coast of South Africa. High praise indeed!
Jay’s account:

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‘The Kayak trip was without a doubt the highlight of the trip for me. We managed to secure a permit from the Polish government which gave us permission to do 45km on Kayaks along the Biebrza River through the national park. The beauty of Kayaks is, not only can you penetrate deeper into the wild areas of the park, but we can do it silently and get closer to wildlife than you would by any other means of transport. We set off very early, as we realised the sheer distance we had to cover. Within 5 minutes of setting off we witnessed one of nature’s most mysterious events. We saw a cuckoo fly directly over our heads to try and raid a reed warbler’s nest, only to be aggressively followed by the incensed reed warbler. We are not sure if the cuckoo was successful in parasitizing the warblers nest but it certainly had a good go at it. Then out of nowhere, a lesser spotted eagle flew low over the reeds to inspect what all the commotion was, It quickly lost interest and carried on hunting elsewhere. By this stage we knew we were in for a special day trip! Floating down the river was surreal. It was an extreme form of relaxation. After an hour or so we realised we were not going to make the full 45km in time due to the amount of sightings that were distracting us. We decided to cut the length to just 12km which freed up our time and meant we no longer had to paddle, instead we just floated at the rivers pace. We decided to connect all 3 kayaks together to make a floating raft and we all silently floated our way down the river. The weather was unreal, clear skies and around 30 degrees and the wildlife was everywhere. As we floated along, a flock of bearded reedlings chased each other around the reeds on the river’s edge making their characteristic pinging sounds. I have sat for hours back in the UK just to get a record shot and here I am (without my decent camera) with 10 of them right next to me. Then on the opposite side of the bank, a herd of Polish Tarpan horses. A Tarpan is a true wild horse that went extinct in the early 20th century. There were many attempts through selective breeding to recreate the Tarpan and these are the results albeit not the real deal:

 

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 With plenty of time on our hands we decided to moor on a small beach and have lunch. The panoramic vista was immense both to sight and sound. The volume of this place was incredible, a cacophony of sounds from different species of frog, insects and a wealth of different birds. I couldn’t believe the amount of raptors in the sky, it was as if we were on a migration route, as within one view you could see marsh, Montagu and Hen harriers, buzzards and lesser spotted eagle. After lunch we floated off along the river again and within a few kilometres we noticed a flock of gulls and white-winged black terns mobbing something ahead. For me that could only mean one thing, Otter! We decided to anchor up on a meander and wait to see if one rocked up. It did, but it was highly unpredictable. As soon as we heard the splashes we had seconds to turn round and locate it before it was gone. It kept popping up all around us but never for long enough to get a photo. It was a crafty little customer.

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I could write pages on the amount of wildlife we saw this day but I have to keep it short and sweet so I will have to take you to the end of the kayak trip, which turned out to be the highlight for the guests. We floated past a huge hide on stilts and I thought to myself, this might be the 12km point where the kayak company asked us to stop if we were doing the shorter trip. At this point we came across a huge herd of cows, some of them actually in the river (which was bizarre to see) and the rest on the bank. By the time we had got past the cows, we were half a kilometre past the hide where we were supposed to dismount, so we quickly paddled to the bank and pulled the kayaks out of the water. The cows didn’t like it one bit and all created a barrier of beef for us to try get past. The 3 men went first and we really struggled to get past them. To make matters worse the mud was like quicksand except it wasn’t mud, it was deep cow dung.

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Luckily, everyone found it hilarious as we dodged angry cows whilst caked in cow pats up to the knee. We finally got passed and called the kayak company to come collect us. While we waited, Tom and Jess decided to have a swim in the river, but strangely they chose to swim in a calm pool where it seemed the cows had recently be washing, so as you might expect, they were on their own with that one. It did look very refreshing though as the heat from the sun was getting intense. The rest of us enjoyed point blank views of swallows nesting in the thatch of the hide! Anyway, the trip was a pleasure from start to finish and there wasn’t as minute without some form of sighting. If you are ever in this area then I could not recommend the kayak trips enough.

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Back at the ranch, on terra firma, I had a chilled out day enjoying Biebrza at my own pace. I borrowed Eugene’s ancient and antique bike and rode to Trzcianne, the nearest village, which was around five miles away. It was a beautiful day. Bikes are one of the best ways to enjoy nature and the countryside. I saw hoopoe, golden eagle, around ten grass snakes sunning themselves on the road, black stork, and I finally saw my bogie bird. At long last I finally saw a golden oriole! I heard it’s clanger like call and tried to cut it out of my mind to stop myself from being driven insane and there it was, right in front of me. I was overjoyed.
On the way back I stopped off at the neighbouring hotel and bar to have a bite to eat. Dwór Dobarz is an impressive building made from timber in the style of a grand Old Russian tsars hunting lodge. The food was outstanding, once I managed to communicate what I actually wanted. I was having trouble conversing with the Polish waitress and things took a turn for the worse when she mistakenly assumed I was French and called over a French speaking guest to help me order my food. I have an amazing knack of turning situations into something like a scene of out of ‘some mothers do ‘ave ‘em’.
I spent the rest of the day sprawled on the grass, reading, outside Eugene’s pension waiting for the others to return. It was here that I made a remarkable discovery. While browsing through some literature that Wiedźma had very kindly left for us I came across a pamphlet about the conservation and protection of the greater spotted eagle, one of Europe’s rarest and most endangered birds of prey. The thing that caught my eye first was the yellow wing tag, and then it sunk in. The raptor we had spotted while making our way here was a greater spotted eagle. What a sighting!

That night, on my recommendation and also because it was the last night of our trip, the gang headed to Dwór Dobarz for the evening. Again the food was perfect. Ordering was a little easier as the waiter spoke excellent English. As the evening wore on a few of us were dead on our feet, so we headed back to our digs. Jay and a few of the others stayed out enjoying the hospitality and the oak vodka, a local speciality. When I heard the stories the next day, I wish I’d stayed out. Apparently a Russian hen party arrived for a celebration. At one point in the evening they had formed a circle and began to perform a traditional Russian pre-wedding dance. What transpired next sounds side-splittingly hilarious! A couple of the girls on our trip had joined with the hen party on the dance floor and persistantly blagged Jay to get up and dance. Jay loves to show off his moves, especially when he’s under the influence of liquid refreshment. He then reluctantly burst onto the dancefloor flying from one end of the room to the next at full throttle busting out all sorts of crazy moves. Tom, one of our Trek customers told me while containing hysterical laughter, that the women had a look of total bemusement and bewilderment on their faces and began taping the side of their heads saying “crazy” before quickly all going sitting down. He managed to clear the dance floor. You can guarantee that you’ll get one moment like this on every Trek trip. Jay’s an absolute superstar! 

Jay's account: 'They just couldn't keep up with me and backed down from the dance-off challenge. To be fair I think I went in a bit too heavy to begin with.'

I was gutted the next day to be on our way back to Warsaw for the flight home. I don’t know if the others were feeling the same or if it was because of hangovers that the atmosphere in the van was a little subdued. Still, we all agreed that it had been an amazing trip. Poland is a spectacularly wild place. There are not many places left in Europe that can offer such an experience. Join us next year, come and see the wild side of Poland, from beavers to bison and from to eagles to elk. You will not leave disappointed. That is a promise.

Images by Jay Knight, Tom Taylor and Jessica Kevill. For the full album please check out the Poland 2014 album in the Gallery section.

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