At the end of May, I was fortunate to lead a new tour for Greenwings Wildlife Holidays to Poland. This dual-centre wildlife trip was based in the Biebrza Marshes and Białowieża Forest in the north-east corner of Poland and both considered to be the finest reserves in the country. I was joined by a local guide for the week who had phenomenal knowledge of the area and its diverse fauna and flora. I have wanted to tell you about it ever since my return but have been so hectic with other tours and catching up on paperwork and image processing that I’ve only just got the opportunity to sit and write about it.
Our first base in the southern half of the Biebrza Marshes had us excellently positioned for 24 hour wildlife viewing should we be so inclined. With its own wildlife ponds in the grounds and views over both forest and marshland, there were endless interesting things to be seen, heard and photographed, including the potential for large, iconic species such as Moose and Wolf. We hoped therefore for good weather and good wildlife sightings in this beautiful, unspoilt corner of Poland.
The group met up at Warsaw Airport where we were greeted by Tomasz, our local guide and Lukasz, our driver for the week. Introductions made, we were soon heading out of the city to the North East. Along the way, a few things were spotted from the motorway including White Storks, Buzzards and a single Roe Deer. We stopped for lunch with just over an hour of the journey under our belts and enjoyed traditional pierogi dumplings in a small restaurant.
On our way once again, we had a lesson from Tomasz about the large fauna of the country and in particular, the regular placement of green bridges to allow them to cross the motorway safely. He explained that they were already obligatory once the motorway networks had begun to be developed and are therefore a common sight. We certainly passed beneath a number of them. We also spotted a couple more White Storks, one of which was on its nest. We were told we’d see plenty more and probably be bored of them by the end of the holiday as they are so common in Poland, but for now we were pleased to get good clear views albeit at high speed as we passed!
It wasn’t long before we were leaving the motorway once more and we had barely been on the side road two minutes when we saw a lovely male Montagu’s Harrier quartering low over an arable field beside the road. A short distance further on we pulled onto a gravel track and Tomasz led us to a spot where we could see a Bee Eater colony. There were several birds on the telegraph wires nearby and we got good views with the help of his scope to see a pair on the far side of a deep quarry.
Having had a good look at the Bee Eaters, we had a wander to take in more of our surroundings. We were parked between fields of Barley and Rye which, unlike many of our British arable crops, held treasures among their stems in the form of azure blue Cornflowers and tiny white Field Pansies. A few butterflies were on the wing, most proving to be Painted Ladies but also Common Blue and Small Heath.
Alkanet was flowering beside the track and we came across a mass of bumbling Rose Chafers busily feeding on a naturalised garden hybrid Iris. The soundtrack to much of this was a mixture of Skylarks trilling overhead, Yellowhammers singing of bread but no cheese, the cronking of a distant Raven pair and a Nightingale Thrush warbling its crystal clear notes over the top of them all. Walking a short distance down the track, I suddenly realised that the Goat Willow beside me bore not just one but many Cockchafers and these, plus some very large snails, were admired by the group while a Marsh Warbler sang from the bushes.
Moving on, we stopped the vehicle a few times having spotted lovely things; first for a pair of Common Crane where a female Golden Oriole was calling nearby; then a Great Grey Shrike sitting on the telegraph wires beside the road; another pair of Cranes closer to the road and Grey Partridges in a recently cut hay field.
Our final stop was a particularly wonderful roadside spot where Tomasz managed to pick out Clouded Apollo butterflies on the verge. On clambering out to investigate, we established that there were at least four individuals, and that as well as nectaring on red clover flowers, they were making the most of the sun and basking on the lower leaves of the trees which gave us a good clear view of them. Growing here we also found Melampyrum nemorosum, the Wood Cow-wheat which has glorious yellow flowers beneath vibrant purple tipped leaves. There was a patch of Lily of the Valley here too but most of it was sadly going over.
A little way up the road one of my guests found Graphosoma italica, strikingly striped red and black shield bugs which were favouring the Cow Parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris) here.
A couple of Chequered Skippers were also found flitting from flower to flower in the dappled light and an Orange Tip skimmed past. An impressive Black Veined Moth also caught our eye and all the while, Chiffchaff, Red-breasted flycatcher and Cuckoo called from the woods around us.
A short drive onwards brought us to our first hotel for the trip and having checked in, most of us were soon out venturing in the grounds where Fire-Bellied Toads called in one pond and hybrid Pool/Marsh Frogs sang in another. Another guest from Germany showed us photos of a Moose he’d seen only moments earlier on the edge of the woodland, but sadly we didn’t catch a glimpse. We did hear and see a few birds though, with a guest spotting a pair of Red-Backed Shrike, while Woodlark and Hoopoe joined the Cuckoo’s chorus and a great many Swallows hawked for insects high above us. A Lapwing flew over and Greenfinch, Linnet and Pied Wagtail were spotted in the gardens.
A good supper awaited us and having settled in, eaten and made plans for the morning, we retired a happy bunch.
The following morning our day began exceedingly early, meeting at 4am to take a dawn drive down the road to look for moose. Our first attempts were unsuccessful, but we stopped at a high tower viewing point from which we enjoyed the dawn chorus. A Nightingale Thrush remained elusive while singing beautifully nearby; a Common Rosefinch provided us with fleeting views and sweet calls of “Pleased to meet you”, and a Red-Backed Shrike was spotted in a treetop on the roadside. A pair of Golden Orioles flitted tantalisingly between the trees but failed to stop for long in one place; a confiding White Wagtail came to investigate us from the safety of the closest Silver Birch, and a Chiffchaff sang with unerring regularity throughout. Blackcap and Blackbird joined the chorus along with Chaffinch, while Grasshopper and Savi’s Warblers reeled in the background. Corncrakes rattled, Common Cranes honked and overhead drumming Snipe joined the orchestra. The diversity of the Biebrza Marshes was astonishing and the lack of any human sounds like traffic or aircraft only added to our sense of wonder.
Back in the van to have another look for moose and before long Tomasz suddenly asks Lukasz to stop because he has seen one. It took us all rather a lot longer to locate as it was at quite a distance, but we had seen our first and were suitably impressed. We also noted that a tree stump beside the road showed evidence that Beavers had been in the area. They had begun gnawing it and humans had finished the job with a chainsaw, presumably as a safety precaution owing to its proximity to the road.
Our next stop was a section of boardwalk out to a viewing platform over the marsh. The walk down to the platform was briefly punctuated with pauses to look at flowering Bogbean (Menyanthes trifoliata), singing Sedge Warbler and a large Drinker Moth Caterpillar. On reaching the platform, a second female Moose at closer quarters held our attention for a short while as it wandered across the reedbed. Several male Snipe drummed overhead while the females called from a short distance away; Black-Tailed Godwit flew over and males of both Marsh and Montagu’s Harriers came past.
Tomasz explained the song of the Aquatic Warbler to us and we listened for some time. They were singing in the distance and we thought that a small bird performing an undulating song flight may have been one, but it was too far away to identify with positivity. A nearer Gasshopper Warbler was much more obliging and gave us fantastic views as it sang from the top of a small bush. As we were about to leave, I spotted a Tiger Moth caterpillar and one of my guests contorted himself around the fencing to take a hand held focus stacked image of it to great effect.
By this point it was trying to rain and so we moved on before it set in too steadily and returned to the guest house for a hearty Polish breakfast. Our hunger satisfied, a quick look around the ponds in the grounds revealed another amphibian to add to the list in the form of a European Tree Frog which we had great views of in a small Alder on the water’s edge. The numerous Tree Sparrows were admired and both Linnets and Spotted Flycatcher seen here too while Icterine Warbler called from the woodland nearby.
Setting out for the main part of the day, our first stop was at a section of boardwalk accessed via a small meadow. A brief but light rain shower greeted our arrival and we didn’t pause long in the meadow as a result, but the boardwalk area held a number of delights. We made our way to a viewing platform from where we had nice views of a male Reed Bunting singing from the top of a reed.
We could also hear Penduline Tit calling here and after a little exploration we found a visible nest just a few yards back the way we had come. It was hanging in the boughs of a Willow tree, halfway constructed with the male bird visiting to continue building work.
Tomasz also taught us the call of the Bluethroat as we heard one singing nearby. We had soon located it and over the course of our visit, we watched several.
Cuckoos were calling almost constantly and several made an appearance. A Common Rosefinch sang nearby too, though we failed to see it. A Grey Heron was spotted and several Black Headed Gulls flew over along with a Marsh Harrier. On the smaller scale there were some nice damselflies including White Legged and Azure plus a male Banded Demoiselle. Wood White, Green Veined White and Female Orange Tips were spotted along with a number of Painted Ladies. One of my guests delighted in finding and photographing jumping spiders and seeing Ruby Tailed Wasps. There was also a very large Weaver Beetle sitting nicely on the edge of the boardwalk.
Retracing our footsteps through the meadow in drier conditions, we admired a great number of Latticed Heath moths and a Small Heath butterfly plus Thrift, more usually associated with coastal locations, in good flower.
We moved on and had a slightly longer drive round to an area known as the Red Bog. After a brief wait, interrupted by a Black Redstart outside the van, Tomasz had collected our permit and we were on our way into the restricted area. We learnt that only five vehicles per day are allowed into this zone and he had had to book some months in advance to secure our place. It was soon apparent why, as this was a beautiful and particularly unspoilt area with patches of virgin forest.
Having parked up in a grassy glade, we enjoyed our packed lunches at the picnic table. Some rather large horseflies buzzed around and seemed a little alarming but in fact none seemed to be biting, much to our relief. A large ground beetle was spotted as we ate which could have been Carabus granulatus, but it had scuttled off by the time we had finished and so we didn’t get to examine it further.
Suitably replete, we prepared for a walk into the forest. It began with a great swathe of Lily of the Valley on one side of the path and May Lily on the other interspersed with small, delicate white Chickweed Wintergreen (which is actually neither a Chickweed nor a Wintergreen!).
Only a short distance further on, we came across the stunning pink blooms of Bloody Cranesbill in another small clearing and the fluffy seedheads of Pulsatilla patens. Back beneath the trees, Solomon’s Seal had just gone over.
We soon emerged onto a section of track which consisted of looser sand and was bordered on one side by a high sandy bank and on the other by long grass and the odd small sapling leading to the woodland edge. A Common Clubtail dragonfly was spotted by Tomasz who helpfully focused the scope on it for us to look through, particularly as it was tricky to locate even with binoculars let alone the naked eye.
The track here was sunnier too and several Painted Ladies were seen zipping past at high speed. Northern Dune Tiger Beetles flew ahead of us and occasionally a Sand Lizard darted off the path before we had a chance to take a closer look. Annual Knawel flowered inconspicuously among the lichens on the bank while Tufted Vetch put on a blousier display and Wood Cow-wheat flowered in the grass on the other side of the track. A number of bumblebees were making the most of the available nectar sources, among them Red-Tailed and Buff-Tailed, while Painted Ladies flitted about in the sun.
We soon reached a viewing platform and on climbing the wooden steps to reach it we startled several large sand lizards that had been beneath them. From the top we had fantastic views over the marsh but despite our best efforts we could see very little. The breeze here was a pleasant respite from the heat of the afternoon though and so we were content to sit and watch a while. A couple of Ravens flew past while both Yellowhammer and Common Whitethroat sang from the Birch trees below. On the way back down, I came across an Antlion in the sand at the bottom of the stairs.
Returning the way we had come, we noted a few more butterflies than earlier including Common Blue, Small Heath, Brimstone, Pale Clouded Yellow, Chequered Skipper and quite a few Sooty Copper.
A Scarce Chaser dragonfly was also seen resting atop a dead plant stem.
Cuckoo had been calling almost constantly during our visit and one flew overhead here. Tomasz was also able to point out a very obliging female Sand Lizard on the edge of the track which allowed us all to photograph her and admire her beautiful markings. It’s no award winning photo for me, but I was happy to get such a clear view of a species I’d not seen before.
Having told us that Wolves tend to use the track to patrol their territory, Tomasz also explained that the recent rain had washed away any tracks that we might have seen, but he was able to show us an old scat which consisted mostly of fur.
On the way back through the wood a Clouded Apollo was briefly glimpsed, and in the glade beyond we looked for Scarce Heath butterflies but without success. On reaching the minibus we took a moment to rehydrate and relax. During our brief wanderings in doing so, we came across a single Map butterfly and a male Beautiful demoiselle.
When we eventually moved on we drove back towards the guest house and stopped at an area of raised bog which Tomasz described as a Fairytale Forest and we could soon see why.
It was beautiful with the foamy white flowers of Labrador Tea among vivid green Bog Bilberry leaves and Stiff Clubmoss beneath the Silver Birch trees. We had nice views of a Wood Warbler as we started out and a Tree Pipit called and was eventually located in the top of a Silver Birch a little further round.
In some pools created by old peat cutting activity we found Round leaved Sundew growing alongside Cottongrass and a couple of small Marsh Frogs were spotted among the moss. Several Painted Ladies were chasing one another round the canopy and an Eggar type moth was seen briefly as it flew from the undergrowth. We found a few piles of Moose droppings beside the path too and noted their distinctive rugby ball shape.
We had heard a thunderstorm building while we walked and at the first few drops of rain we turned back, reaching the van just as the heavens opened. We only had a short drive back to the hotel and the rain only seemed to get heavier as we arrived, so we stayed put for a minute or two in the hope that it would abate. Eventually it did just long enough to grab our things and make a run for it to the cover of the hotel. When we reconvened for dinner later the storm had passed completely and there was barely any sign that it had happened save the odd puddle outside. We enjoyed another hearty meal and having gone through our species checklists, took an early night after our dawn start.
The next morning dawned cloudy but thankfully not wet. After breakfast, we set out to a small town where we stopped at a viewing area overlooking the river Biebrza below and the marshland beyond. It was chilly and trying to drizzle, but we weren’t dissuaded and our resilience soon paid off. Swifts wheeled overhead, Mute Swans patrolled the river and a Stork on a nest below us stood up to reveal three chicks safely sheltered beneath. We watched the adult birds swap over parental duties and listened to a Great Reed Warbler calling from somewhere nearby. It wasn’t until I got home and put my photos on my laptop that I spotted the interloper, a House Sparrow that had taken up residence in the bottom of the Stork’s nest, not an uncommon sight but an amusing one nevertheless!
A White Tailed Eagle put in an appearance and circled slowly in front of us before moving off over the marsh, while a noisy flock of Rooks departed their Rookery for the day. A Common Rosefinch was spotted singing from the very top of a Silver Birch tree by the river but flew before Tomasz could set up the scope. He soon had it trained on a Roe Deer he had spotted in the distance though!
Just as we had decided to move on one of our eagle-eyed guests spotted a Falcon which sped overhead and disappeared. Despite hurrying back to the best viewing spot we were unable to locate it again to confirm the species but Tomasz thought it was likely either a Hobby or Red Footed Falcon.
We eventually did move on and our next stop was at a Bridge over a smaller river from where we could see a scrape beyond the riverside meadow. A Great White Egret had been spotted in flight only a few moments before we stopped and we were surprised to see five more and a Grey Heron all sharing a ditch! Black Headed Gulls were numerous here and Redshank called around us unseen. Lapwing flew over the scrape giving their “peewit” calls and Ruff were spotted. The meadow here was full of flowering Bistort and a confiding White Wagtail sat on the crash barrier a few feet from us while a Yellowhammer called nearby.
Driving on, we asked if we could stop to photograph Storks in a meadow and duly came across a large non-breeding flock beside the road. Having photographed these we found a similar flock in the next field and several more in almost every one we passed. Tomasz estimated that there must have been nearly 100 in this one village alone!
Another Stork caused us to stop to see what it was carrying – nesting material as it turned out – and just as we were about to move on Tomasz spotted a stunning male Red-Backed Shrike in a sapling right beside us. One of my guests carefully opened the door and we were all able to get a great view and photographs of this lovely bird.
Our next stop was in a village right by the river where Tomasz usually sees hundreds of Terns. He explained that this year they had had a very dry spring followed by a very wet week where the water level had risen by over twenty centimetres, and subsequently the Terns’ nests were flooded and so they had dispersed. Nevertheless we saw both Whiskered and Black Terns here as well as Black-Tailed Godwit, Redshank and Sand Martins skimming over the water.
Having checked a couple more spots in the village without success we continued to our lunch spot, pausing only briefly to photograph a roadside shrine decked out with ribbons and flowers, one of a great many seen during our trip.
Lunch was at another viewing point overlooking the marsh and we enjoyed our sandwiches with a fantastic panorama in front of us. There was another group of Great White Egret here along with Grey Heron, the ubiquitous White Stork and more Black Terns. There were also several Shovelers, the first duck we had seen other than Mallard. We heard Cranes calling in the distance and a huge flock of seventy five flew over. Tomasz looked and looked for Black Stork but didn’t find any. He did spot a Moose however, again at a great distance.
The Rye field beside us was once again full of Cornflowers but also Common Poppies and Scentless Mayweed. Artemisia absinthium grew here too and Tomasz enjoyed demonstrating its delicious scent to the group.
Near the edge of the field I found a Paper Wasp building a nest on a dry plant stem and this, along with Latticed Heath moths, weevils and various other small critters, became a favoured photographic subject here.
It was soon time to move on and Tomasz took us to another site to look for Black Storks. We waited in the minibus for a few minutes while he went off to scout it out. He came back shaking his head but we had kept ourselves entertained trying to make out whether a Wood Pigeon was actually a Stock Dove and watching another House Sparrow return to its nest in the bottom of a White Stork’s nest.
Driving on we made a brief stop to look at a Crane with two chicks only to find a second, also with two chicks in the distance too. Only a short way down the same road we stopped again having seen a White Tailed Eagle fly into a nearby tree. It was out of sight for us but we waited and sure enough it soon emerged, only to fly in the opposite direction meaning we didn’t get the views we were hoping for. Not to be disappointed though, we found all manner of insect life to look at instead, including a beautiful orange micromoth (Olethreutes sp.), a jumping spider, lots of Scorpion flies, several longhorn beetles, a variety of weevils, a Dock Bug, a Yellowtail moth caterpillar and a number of damselflies too. I also found the eggs of a predatory shield bug which were intriguingly edged with tiny spikes. We duly heard Bittern booming in the distance as well and saw a Mute Swan on a nest from the track on the other side of the road.
Tomasz was still hopeful that he could find a Black Stork to show us and so we visited one last stop to look for them. Collared doves flew past and a couple of domestic Guineafowl foraged in the undergrowth on the bank below us but the Storks were still elusive apart from the odd white one. There were the remains of a Second World War bunker here with a memorial which proved interesting though. Tomasz helped to translate the interpretation board which explained that in an extraordinary battle lasting three days, 720 Polish soldiers had held off 42,000 advancing German troops. When the captain realised that they had run out of ammunition he told his men to surrender to the Germans and blew himself up inside the bunker, destroying it in the process.
With this incredible but sobering tale in our thoughts, we climbed back into the vehicle to head to a spot where we would look for Citrine Wagtail. It turned out to be only a short distance up the road from where we had looked at the butterflies on the first afternoon. The Wagtails were not to be seen but we did have nice views of a Montagu’s Harrier and a couple of Lapwing. Water Plantain was growing in some of the puddles and a few damselflies were lurking in the undergrowth too.
A Common Rosefinch called nearby and I located a Thrush Nightingale in the dense undergrowth beside the road, only for it to have moved by the time the group joined me. Instead, Tomasz played their contact call to lure it briefly into view. We also noted a number of branches of a nearby cherry tree covered in cobwebs containing caterpillars of the Orchard Ermine moth.
Our last stop of the day was at the boardwalk we had visited the previous morning. Sedge Warblers were still the most conspicuous residents here, but Meadow Pipits and Snipe were also seen and the Tiger moth caterpillar had hardly moved. Aquatic Warbler was heard calling in several spots and eventually located very close to the boardwalk allowing us all good views.
A few flower buds of Early Marsh Orchid were found, much to Tomasz’s surprise as he said they should be in full bloom already by now. Marsh Cinquefoil was also noted in distinctive flower.
On our return to the hotel we were once again treated to a delicious three course meal in the evening and having eaten, we retired to start packing up ready to move bases in the morning.
We woke to glorious blue skies the followingmorning. One of my guests had been out at 3.20am for a hike through the woods to a viewpoint recommended by Tomasz. Over breakfast he told us of a close encounter with Moose, hearing what he thought were howling Wolves and photographing a dew-jewelled Chequered Skipper roosting beside the path. Having eaten, we packed our luggage in the minibus to the sound of a Woodlark singing high overhead.
The first stop of the day was a very short drive away. We took a walk down a track through the Alder Carr and out to the wet meadows and marshland beyond. Our progress was slow as there was so much to see. We began finding jumping spiders to photograph only a short distance in and a Wood Warbler was spotted in the trees nearby. Painted Lady butterflies zoomed past every few minutes while Willow Warbler, Chiffchaff and Blackcap provided a steady background soundtrack interspersed with Common Rosefinch, Great Tit, Song Thrush, Thrush Nightingale and distant Cranes.
We also found quite a few caterpillars of the Scarce Fritillary. We looked in vain for adults too.
A few interesting plants were noted on our walk. Along with Wood Cow-wheat which is very common here, we found Herb Paris and Twayblades in bloom as well as the bud of a Lesser Butterfly orchid. Leaves of Broad Leaved Helleborine and Lady’s Slipper Orchid were also found but although the latter should have been flowering it was not yet. One unusual plant seen was Asarum europeum which has very round, glossy leaves and a strange, bell shaped flower at ground level which is pollinated by ants. Both Wood and Water Avens were flowering and Yellow Flag Iris blooms punctuated the pools either side of the track.
Further down the track a couple of Grass Snakes were spotted, one on the track itself which slithered off at our approach and another in the undergrowth to one side. On reaching the observation tower that we had been aiming for, we found that two vehicles which had passed us (to our surprise) were in fact those of wardens/rangers who were repairing the tower and boardwalk there. We went a short distance beyond to a point labelled as the end of the trail so that we could hear one another over the noise of their chainsaw and had a brief break, during which a Swallowtail was spotted flying at high speed just above the rushes in the marsh around us. Marsh Valerian was flowering here and still more Painted Ladies came in a steady stream overhead.
Turning back, we noted one Alder tree which seemed to have a lot of Cockchafers in the lower branches. On closer inspection each branch all the way up the tree must have held at least a dozen, meaning that this one tree would have had several hundred of these large beetles that are so scarce in Britain these days.
We paused on the way back in a wet meadow full of Bistort, Meadow Thistle, Ragged Robin and Lesser Spearwort and studded with Marsh Orchids. This group of orchids is notoriously difficult to identify to species level, particularly as they hybridise readily, but after some discussion, Tomasz and I suggested that these were likely to be the Broad-Leaved Marsh Orchid, Dactylorhiza majalis. A Common Toad was also enjoying the meadow and Green Veined White, Peacock and Common Blue joined the Painted Ladies nectaring on the flowers here. Back on the track, Map, Scarce Heath and Heath Fritillary were spotted as well as both Chequered and Northern Chequered Skippers. A Common Lizard was also seen as it scampered off the path in front of us.
By this time we were a little behind schedule as there had been so much to look at. We made our way steadily back to the road and were met by Lukasz in the minibus. He took us back to our guesthouse one last time for lunch and a quick break before we moved to our second base for the trip in the forest. It is at this point that I’m stopping for now. There is so much more to tell you but you’d be here all week reading about it and so you’ll have to wait for the next instalment!