Last week I wrote about the first half of a fantastic tour to north eastern Poland that I led for Greenwings Wildlife Holidays. We spent an incredible few days in the unspoilt Biebrza Marshes which were enormously biodiverse and had me wondering whether we really know what we are missing in our British landscape. The whole area felt like a step back in time, the farming was far less intensive and the wildlife thrived alongside the locals as they cut their hay and tended their crops. The second half of our tour would take us into the Białowieża Forest, into a UNESCO World Heritage Site which in itself was something I hadn’t knowingly experienced before. I couldn’t help but wonder how much more this corner of Poland could hold.
To start where I left off last time, having devoured the soup and potato pancakes our guesthouse provided for lunch, we loaded the van and set off. The drive took about an hour and we had a brief comfort break just before our main stop for the afternoon where coffee, chocolate and paprika crisps were the order of the day. Having stocked up, we drove the short distance to some fishponds that Tomasz had told us of.
The first view of the site was a cacophony of Black-Headed Gulls circling above an area thick with rushes. As we made our way along the bank, Great Reed Warbler and Sedge Warbler were singing too and Fire Bellied Toads plus Pool/Marsh Frogs joined the chorus. We could see several Gull chicks on nests and a Little Tern flew overhead. Great Crested Grebe and Red Necked Grebe were both seen and later, both appeared with two chicks each.
It wasn’t long before we started to spot dragonflies and damselflies with Red-Eyed Damselfly and Four-Spotted Chaser quickly added to our list. Siberian Winter Damsel along with both Common and Small Bluetail as well as both Variable and Azure Damsels were seen too. A teneral dragonfly was thought to be a Norfolk Hawker while Common Clubtail, Scarce Chaser and Black-Tailed Skimmer were spotted. In the background, Bittern boomed and Cuckoo called incessantly. Our guests were happy to find some Robberflies to photograph and a couple of Small Heath butterflies were seen. I came across a sawfly larva trying to shuffle out of the remains of its old skin and watched as it freed itself.
As we walked, Pool/Marsh frogs leapt from the grassy path towards the reeds and a couple of Lizards also scampered out of our way, likely Common Lizards here though none hanging around to be formally identified. One frog in particular caused some amusement as it sized up a damselfly hanging from a reed above it and leapt to try and catch it for dinner, sadly failing. I hadn’t spotted the damselfly as I took my first photograph and sadly failed to get both in the image but the frog’s upward gaze made for a different shot.
Meanwhile on the water, Gadwall, Mallard and lots of Coot were noted and on a distant part of the furthest pool, a single swan proved to be a Whooper while a Tufted duck was also spotted. Nearer to the bank a Lilypad Whiteface dragonfly was pointed out to us by Tomasz and a little further along the path a teneral Blue Emperor was found hanging vertically on a reed. As we turned onto the last stretch back to the van, a Savi’s Warbler reeled and a wounded Gull was found in the middle of the path and carefully circumnavigated.
We made a swift departure for our onward journey as we still had some way to go. The first impressions of Białowieża Forest were how verdant everything seemed. Our final stop before reaching the second hotel was in a meadow with a viewing tower where one of my keen eyed guests noticed a Lesser Spotted Eagle atop a branchless Silver Birch trunk. Having made one last detour to check for Bison (but without finding any) we made it to the hotel and checked in. Our evening meal was devoured and we managed a run-through of the checklist before turning in for the night.
The first morning in Białowieża Forest dawned bright and clear. After breakfast we took a short drive to a spot outside the village and very close to the Belarus border. Here we walked a track which briefly passed through a meadow where Red-Backed Shrike was seen in the top of a nearby tree while Painted Lady and Small Heath butterflies zipped over the Cow Parsley.
The track then entered the woodland and we were treated to a number of differing forest habitats, beginning with wet woodland. Wild Raspberry, Jack-by-the-Hedge and Greater Celandine were growing by the path while Yellow Flag Iris and Water Violet bloomed from the pools beneath the trees. I found tiny Figwort Weevils on the Figwort here. Crested Tit was seen and a Wren was singing loudly out of sight.
Walking on, we entered a drier area of mixed forest where a guest found a Great Spotted Woodpecker nest and shortly afterward, I spotted a Green Hairstreak. Broad Leaved Helleborines were found beside the path just coming into bud along with Asarum europeum, white starry flowers of Wood Stitchwort which is less common in the UK and the yellow flowers of Touch-me-mot Balsam. Song Thrush sang from the trees as we continued.
We soon reached a bridge over the river which gave us picturesque views up and downstream. There were large numbers of European Map butterflies on the Cow Parsley here as well as both Banded and Beautiful Demoiselles on the river below. A Blue Tit looked particularly resplendent in the sunshine as it flew across the river at head height.
Crossing to the other side we entered Alder Carr woodland with Cirsium dissectum flowering in patches beneath the trees. The Cuckoo which had been calling throughout our walk so far sounded particularly resonant here, almost seeming to echo around us, while Chaffinch and Robin sang from the treetops. Both Collared and Pied Flycatchers were also heard calling but couldn’t be located among the leafy canopy.
Moving on, we came to a part of the woodland dominated by Norway Spruce on a raised bog, conditions typical of the Taiga forest of the far north. Here we found Common Spotted Orchids in bud and masses of Anemone hepatica leaves, hinting at the purple carpet this woodland enjoys each spring. Here we also heard both Wren and Dunnock singing as well as finding another Great Spotted Woodpecker nest. Tomasz was surprised to hear White Backed Woodpeckers too and we soon had a brief but clear sighting of them as they flew into a clearing in response to him playing their call.
As we came to a junction in the path, we found the telltale signs of Wolves scent marking which Tomasz thought to be a couple of days old. He also pointed out Dentaria, a plant in the cabbage family which produces edible and nutritious dark purple bulbils. At his suggestion, I tried one and reported that it tasted rather like raw broccoli but not unpleasant.
We soon reached the end of our walk and were met by Lukasz in the minibus for a short drive to a roadside meadow. Here we spent a short time wandering between flowers of Ragged Robin, Lesser Spearwort and Ox-Eye Daisy looking for butterflies. We had some success with one of my guests finding a Short Tailed Blue and me adding Dingy Skipper to the list along with more Small Heath and Common Blue.
Finding a dry patch where we could comfortably sit, we had a few minutes rest in the sun while Tomasz went in search of fritillaries in an adjoining, wetter meadow. We enjoyed listening to a Great Reed Warbler in a nearby clump of bushes while we photographed a variety of flowers and insects around us.
Our afternoon stop was a little drive away where the forest gave way to a chain of lakes, glittering in the afternoon sun. As we were unloading lunch from the van, one of our guests spotted a Purple-Shot Copper flitting around. We watched Black Redstart and White Wagtail hopping around in the sun as we ate. Having finished, we set off for a circular walk around one of the lakes.
We had barely begun when we spotted some lovely flowers including dark purple Columbine, Spiked Rampion (in its white form), the pretty Wood Vetch and a single Bird’s Nest Orchid behind a nearby bench. A guest also found a lovely Sand Lizard basking on a tree stump.
As we rounded the bend to join the path around the lake a Great Reed Warbler sang from a nearby reed patch. We walked only a few feet onto a small bridge and were surrounded by Dragonflies. Despite the strange looks that the local fishermen were giving us, we studied them as best we could through binoculars, scope and cameras. There were lots of Norfolk Hawkers, Brilliant Emeralds and Four-Spotted Chasers not to mention damselflies. The first part of the walk was going to be slow paced, there was almost too much to take in!
As we moved on, we followed a disused narrow gauge railway line through a shadier patch where the water was behind the trees from us. Another Sand Lizard was spotted on a fallen tree trunk and Painted Lady butterflies were nectaring on Bramble flowers in the dappled shade. Emerging back into the sunlight, we found a spot where several fallen branches in the water were being used as perches by a variety of Dragonflies, including a very obliging Yellow-Spotted Whiteface which allowed us all a good look at it.
Taking a right turn to follow the edge of the lake, we were now under some large trees, mostly Oak and there was wet woodland on the other side. The sheer number of dragonflies and damselflies was still astonishing as they seemed to occupy every square foot of space on the water’s edge. We soon came to another junction from which there was a good open space to view the lake. Behind us, I realised that there was another Woodpecker nest in a dead tree, and it turned out to be a Lesser Spotted which allowed us good views as it came to feed the noisy youngsters within.
Just as we were about to move on again, a Great Reed Warbler flew into the reeds only a few feet away and proceeded to sing. After teasing us by moving about several times we eventually all got a decent view of the bird.
We paused again at a sluice gate and marvelled at the number of dragonfly and damselfly exuviae on the structure. There was also a teneral damselfly drying off on the back of the handrail. It looked such an idyllic place and in the heat of the day we joked at the idea of swimming despite the sign warning us not to.
We were nearing the end of our circuit now and the lake edge was a little further from the path but there were several small meadow patches which Tomasz and I checked for butterflies. There were few to be seen but the ubiquitous Common Blue and Small Heath were noted.
As we began the last stretch back to the minibus, Tomasz saw a Pine Marten cross the path beyond him but unfortunately was unable to locate it again. He did discover a huge patch of Bird’s Nest Orchids under the trees on the last section of path though, perhaps fifty or more nestled inconspicuously in the undergrowth.
As we still had good light and plenty of time, we made one more stop on our way back to the hotel at a meadow full of Bistort. Rose Chafers and Shield Bugs adorned many of the flowers, but we were here to look for butterflies and duly found them.
Both Weaver’s and Bog Fritillaries were flying around, difficult to distinguish from one another until they settled long enough to look closely at the patterns on their underwings.
Spreading Bellflower flowered in small patches and further into the meadow Tomasz found a lovely area full of both fritillaries and Violet Copper which provided us all with wonderful photographic opportunities. A rather tatty Peacock butterfly was also patrolling the edge of the woodland here adding to our tally for the day.
Having enjoyed a wonderful, nature filled day we retired for an early night after dinner.
Our day began incredibly early the next morning with coffee in the dining room at 3.15am but with excellent reason; we were heading out on a Bison hunt!
Incredibly, despite the early hour, the light was already growing and the scene that met our eyes as we left the confines of the village was exceptionally beautiful, with mist hanging low over the meadows and Roe Deer grazing in its depths.
We made several loops around various hopeful spots but apart from a couple more Roe Deer and a Fox there were no Bison to be found. In a change of tactics, Tomasz took us for a walk down one of the many tracks through the forest in the hope that if we couldn’t see Bison from the vehicle, maybe we’d find them in the forest on foot.
We paused on our way to investigate insect traps which Tomasz showed us to be full of what he called “stupid males” of the Spruce Bark Beetle, a forestry pest lured into the trap by pheromone scents. It was almost fully light by now and the birds were beginning to wake. We stopped at a crossroads in the track and were given strict instructions to keep scanning in all directions, as Bison could cross the track at any moment and this would be our best chance to see them.
Tomasz had kindly brought a flask to make coffee so that we were alert for our scanning duties and duly handed it round. A cat wandering across the path made for momentary confusion but we couldn’t see the intended Bison. Having wandered up and down a short distance in each direction while we kept watch, Tomasz returned to the crossroads only to discover that we had been milling around with signs of the elusive Bison right beneath our feet! He pointed out hoof marks that he explained were fresh since yesterday as they had yet to dry out. We followed the direction of the beast’s path into the trees but they disappeared far quicker than we imagined for such a large creature.
In the meantime, Tomasz whistled like a Pygmy Owl in the hopes of drawing one in. It didn’t work in that respect, but it did draw attention from all number of small birds including Blackbird, Great Tit, Blue Tit, Marsh Tit and Crested Tit. I spotted a Hawfinch in the top branches of a nearby Alder tree and a Greater Spotted Woodpecker nest was located beside the track.
Having waited some time with no joy, we returned to the bus and Lukasz took us back to the hotel with time for a quick nap before breakfast.
Refueled after a delicious breakfast, we met with our guide for the UNSECO site, Joanna. Despite his excellent knowledge and respect for the countryside around us, we were not allowed to enter the World Heritage site with Tomasz alone and so Joanna would accompany us for the morning. We took the short drive round the perimeter of the Tsar’s Palace grounds and got our things together while Tomasz sorted out our official passes.
Joanna was excellent at explaining the history of the area as well as how and why it became a UNESCO site. We began our walk along a sunny track with meadows either side. A Red-Backed Shrike was spotted on the telegraph wires nearby and a Corn Bunting called from the top of a Silver Birch in one of the meadows.
Joanna explained that the meadows went through a period of neglect when it was thought that leaving them unmanaged was more beneficial for the species within, but that this led to a decline in various species. Since then, they have begun to cut them regularly again and the invertebrate and bird life has increased once more and the meadows have become more floristic again. They now supported Marsh Orchids, Spreading Campanula, Bistort, Bloody Cranesbill and a number of other lovely flowers which were being frequented by Small Heaths, Common Blues and Pale Clouded Yellow butterflies.
We soon came to a huge wooden gate signalling our entry into the specially protected area of virgin forest. Passing through, we stepped into a green and tranquil ancient mixed woodland with Oak, Ash, Maple, Douglas Fir, Alder and Hornbeam. Joanna explained the natural succession of the forest and how when one tree dies and falls others will take its place. We stopped to admire a variety of fungi and slime moulds and listen to the bird song around us.
Taking a junction in the path, we paused to watch a pair of Collared Flycatchers at their nest hole and Joanna explained that in this part of the forest, many more species nest in holes created by woodpeckers because the diversity of the place is such that the woodpecker population is large, and so there are lots of available spots and that they are safer from predation from species like Pine Marten as a result.
Further round, we came to a section of boardwalk overlooking a patch of Alder Carr and we were shown how the trees here grew differently where it was wetter as they developed a hump shaped structure on which they grew to keep their roots out of the water as much as possible. A Robin was spotted singing from a low branch beside the path a short way further on, and as we came to the next junction Joanna asked us to wait a while because there was a nest she wanted to show us. In the meantime, we enjoyed a traditional pony trap that was patiently waiting to take a group of tourists back to the main entrance.
Joanna then revealed the nest cavity of a Black Woodpecker, the largest of the eight Woodpecker species here, similar in size to a Crow. The hole was just over half way up the trunk of a tree beside the main path and we waited for a while to see if the adult bird would appear. In due course it did and we had great views of the adult feeding its babies, two of which stuck their heads out to take food.
At various points on the walk, we were able to see Woodpecker damage on both fallen logs and standing dead wood. It was interesting to see the different types of foraging behaviour from each species. Joanna showed us how Black Woodpeckers were much more destructive and usually at the base of a standing tree trunk where ants had made a nest in the base; Greater Spotted Woodpeckers tended to take strips off fallen logs to access the beetle grubs and other insects within; while smaller Three-toed Woodpeckers made much smaller, shallower round holes in standing dead trees looking for insects just beneath the bark.
We paused to look at a large patch of Wild Garlic and the strange flowers of Herb Paris. We came across a Badger latrine very close to the path and photographed Fairy Ink Caps (Coprinellus disseminatus) growing on a moss covered fallen tree nearby.
Continuing on, we were soon retracing our steps back to the gate through which we had entered. We walked back through the grounds of the Palace and had lunch in a small restaurant next to the National Park Headquarters which has since been built on the site of the main Palace itself. Sadly the Palace had been burnt down after coming under friendly fire during the war.
On our way back to the hotel after lunch we admired the original gate house and stable block, which are still standing. Our afternoon today was free and some chose to explore the little town a bit more while others took time to catch up on a bit of sleep, do some photography or edit images. We reconvened for an early dinner before an evening outing.
Tomasz explained that he wanted to take us to a spot a little further away where he was sure we would find Bison, but we briefly checked a couple of the spots we had visited that morning before leaving the immediate area. We weren’t successful and so we drove for a while to the area Tomasz had in mind. We once again took several bumpy tracks to check meadows bordering the forest, but despite our efforts there were no Bison to be seen. Then, as we rounded a corner, Lukasz got a glimpse of a large brown lump in the middle of a field and we turned off the road onto a gravel track to allow us a better view.
Under Tomasz’s expert guidance, we got out of the vehicle and walked carefully towards the huge bull, one of the largest in the area, who we named Bruce. We paused when he lifted his head and approached up wind so that he could smell us and not be startled. He wasn’t bothered by us in the slightest and continued grazing before walking nonchalantly across the path we were on and behind a manure heap, promptly disappearing from view despite his bulk. He soon reappeared, but it brought home to us how well these huge animals blend into their surroundings even in more open spaces.
We eventually left him in peace and returned to the minibus buzzing about our experience. On our way back towards Białowieża we pulled into the meadow where we had seen the Eagle on our way here. We climbed the observation tower and spent a short while scanning the area with our binoculars. A Roe Deer was spotted grazing in front of us and steadily moved towards us until it was startled by a guest sneezing. Woodcock and bats flew overhead and Corncrakes rattled their call out of sight.
The stars were just appearing as we descended the tower and Tomasz showed us Jupiter rising above the trees. He got the scope trained on it and we were able to see four moons of Jupiter through it.
We made one last stop to look for Beaver but Tomasz informed us that there were people drinking by the water and so it wasn’t possible this evening. A Red Deer bounded over the road an our homeward journey and we returned to the hotel a tired but very happy bunch having seen our first European Bison.
Our final morning dawned bright and clear and we set out after breakfast to a spot where Tomasz was planning another walk in the forest.
Our first stop was alongside the main track to the walking spot. Tomasz knew of a nesting site of Three-Toed Woodpecker, a species we had yet to see. We were lucky that the adult female came in fairly quickly after our arrival and we had good views of it sticking its head into the cavity to feed the youngsters. We hoped for a male to arrive next and so we waited for some time to see if we could see both. Unfortunately for us it was the female that fed them again next and by this time we had been waiting a while, so we moved on content with our views.
Further along the track, we came across a Northern Goshawk nest. The adult bird flew when we reached the site, but there were two chicks visible on the platform of sticks which seemed somewhat precariously placed in the very top of a Norway Spruce tree. Having watched their antics for a moment or two before leaving them in peace and continuing on our drive to our main stop.
It wasn’t much further to a large glade where we could park. The meadow in the glade was buzzing with life including some large Robberflies and one of our guests decided to stay behind to photograph them while the rest of us continued on our walk.
We began down a wide track which had a broad verge on one side yielding an unusual plant, Thesium ebracteatum which was tricky to see at first, but once you got your eye in appeared everywhere! It is semi-parasitic on a number of other plants and has the odd feature of producing flowers which appear to be in the centre of the leaf.
Butterflies were flitting up and down the track in the sunshine including Map, Painted Lady, Brimstone and Comma. As we continued on, we noticed a Wren singing loudly from the depths of the woodland alongside both Goldcrest and Firecrest, plus the ever present background call of the cuckoo. We soon emerged onto an old railway bridge where we settled for a while in the sunshine to take in our surroundings. Golden Orioles called from somewhere nearby and Tomasz tried to whistle them in for a closer view but without success. Both Banded and Beautiful demoiselles danced in the sunlight beneath the bridge. A Kingfisher called on the river below us and a Barred Warbler sang in the undergrowth out of sight. A White Wagtail was very curious and obliging in sitting only a few feet from us as we rested. A Yellowhammer also flew into one of the Willows beside the bridge and sang for a while.
Moving on, Tomasz lured a Thrush Nightingale from a dense scrub thicket out into the open giving us all great views. We took a narrower path into the woodland here and wound our way between the tall Spruce trees. A Black Veined White was spotted flitting through one of the small glades from thistle to thistle and another Great Spotted Woodpecker nest was found near a fork in the path.
We came out onto a raised bank where an enormous observation tower stood overlooking a marshy section. A couple of our guests braved the seven storeys to take in the view, while I was thrilled to find buds of Martagon Lily and an intriguing crab spider which turned out to be Xysticus cristatus. Another White Wagtail was busy feeding a nest full of young somewhere just out of sight and a Blackcap sang from a nearby willow tree. The sky was darkening though and there was a distant rumble of thunder so Tomasz advised we shouldn’t stay long here.
Our walk back to the vehicle took a lovely track winding though the Spruce forest but we didn’t slow our pace to take it in as the rain was clearly headed our way. It arrived just as we neared our starting glade and we piled into the bus glad of the shelter from the storm. We enjoyed a lovely lunch in a pub in a nearby village where it was insisted that we try the local vodka!
Our final afternoon was bright and sunny after the thunderstorm and we headed to a picturesque spot by a large reservoir to soak it in. The grassy banks here yielded a number of interesting butterflies including Sooty, Small and Large Coppers, the latter in the form of a pristine female which had obviously just emerged.
The reservoir itself was a distant blue line on the horizon but we were overlooking a large marshy area that drained into it and this yielded all number of wonderful bird species including Common, Black and Whiskered Terns, Great White Egret, Marsh Harrier, Snipe and Lapwing plus White Tailed and Greater Spotted Eagles. A Lesser Spotted Woodpecker was seen in a tree beside the water and Swifts and Swallows hawked for insects along with Norfolk Hawker and Common Clubtail. Redshank and Green Sandpiper were heard calling out in the marsh; Yellow Wagtail and Black Redstart were also spotted and a Lesser Whitethroat sang noisily from the scrub beside the embankment. Green Frogs added to the glorious cacophony and a Penduline Tit was found to be building a nest nearby.
Our last stop on the way home was at the meadow we had visited on a couple of occasions previously. Here, there was little to see in the way of larger wildlife but one of my eagle-eyed guests came across Grizzled Skipper, which was a new butterfly for the list and there were plenty of Small Heaths flitting around too.
We returned to the hotel to pack before dinner and our final evening meal was accompanied in true Polish style by a bottle of the famous Bison Grass Vodka and one of a Belarusian honey vodka kindly supplied by Tomasz and Lukasz by way of a farewell. There was one last bit of wildlife watching to squeeze in before the morning though and so after dinner we took a short walk into the Palace grounds. Tomasz had his torch with him and as we walked along the path beside the small river he scanned the surface for activity.
It wasn’t long before we came across what we were looking for, a young beaver swimming with its head above the surface and its tail floating out behind it. It didn’t seem to be bothered by us in the slightest and so we kept quiet, hoping that it might be brave enough to leave the water and join us on the bank. It passed very close in front of us on several occasions and eventually slipped out of the water among the long grass on the opposite bank. We thought for a moment or two that it had vanished altogether until some loud chewing noises emanated from the vegetation on the far bank. After a while it reappeared and having watched it swim down the river a way, we left it in peace. It was a splendid way to round off the day and we chattered happily about it on our return walk to the hotel.
The morning was another bright and sunny one. I ventured out along a section of railway line for a photographic walk before breakfast and came across a Latticed Heath Moth. These little day flying moths had been numerous throughout the trip but this individual was covered in dew drops and made for a lovely photographic subject.
After another lovely breakfast and having packed up the vehicles we were just about to set off when a Lesser Spotted Eagle was seen by a guest, soaring overhead. We had to get on the road though and so we departed Białowieża discussing the highlights of our trip.
Tomasz had one last place in mind to visit on the way to the airport; the Forest Lake we had enjoyed walking around a few days earlier and the road up to it. He called out for Lukasz to stop the van in a sunny patch of the track and got out to investigate some butterflies which he had hoped might be Poplar Admiral. They turned out to be Woodland Brown, another new to the tour species and although not the Admirals we had hoped for, still a beautiful butterfly to see with striking eye spots down the outer edges of the underwings.
We spent a few more minutes watching Norfolk Hawkers and Brilliant Emeralds hawking over the pools a little way up the road and Nigel contributed another bird to our list with a pair of Goldeneye that he spotted further out.
The rest of our journey was less eventful in terms of wildlife and we were soon entering Warsaw along the riverside to drop some guests at their hotel so they could stay a few days longer. We however were on our way to the airport for the rest of our journey home. We had so many lovely encounters with a great variety of species over the course of our week, there would be plenty of fond memories to look back on and plenty of photographs to go through! What astonished me was the sheer diversity of both Białowieża Forest and Biebrza Marshes. I have certainly never found so many woodpecker nests before – we found ten belonging to five species of woodpecker in just three days!