Aileen read a website years ago, called Idle Words. It had a post about visiting a primeval forest in Poland with lots of wildlife. The forest he described sounded intriguing, but the process of slow death due to blood-loss to mosquitoes sounded less appealing. So Aileen and I, by some process, decided that the thing to do was to visit in winter. Because, you see, in winter the large animals which one might want to see are still active. The mosquitoes, in theory, should not be. So we booked a trip to Białowieźa Forest for February.
Accordingly, last week, we hopped on a plane and flew to Warsaw. There we were met by a guide from the company we booked a tour with, Wild Poland. From Warsaw we took a long van ride, interrupted by a lunch of “polish dumplings” (dude, we know what pierogi are!). We also stopped at an oddly well lit petrol station.
We arrived in Białowieźa at our accommodations, which were a lodge, normally used by biologists and photographers.
The downstairs had taxidermy and antlers mounted to the walls. The upstairs was frog -themed.
The trip was two days of wildlife touring, then a drive back to Warsaw, where we spent a few hours checking out the old town there.
The first day we went out in the morning before breakfast to look for bison. We very quickly found a few, one of whom posed very nicely for us. I suppose by “posing” I really do mean “showed us his butt.” But I live with a cat so that’s really quite normal behavior for me. Apparently the bulls (which this guy was) are quite unafraid of people, and mostly ignore them unless you get to close. Then…
So better to stay away. More on that later. We also saw a fox later that day. He was running through a field as we drove by in the van (my least favorite fact of the trip–we were riding around in a small group in a van) so I didn’t get a great photo. But he looked pretty fox-like.
After this we had a nice walk in the woods, starting by following the track of a narrow-gauge rail that the Russians put in during World War I so they could get timber out of the forest. We came across the remains of a red deer that a wolfpack had totally stripped – all that was left was some of the bones and the skin. Our guide said sometimes, if it’s a lean winter, they even eat the skin.
We continued walking deeper into the forest, and went to a bison feeding location where a webcam is set up. Sadly, no one wanted a midafternoon snack, so the feeding station was empty. However, on the walk back, we spotted a larger herd, deep in the forest. There were about ten animals, cows and calves, but they were more shy than the males we saw in the morning, so they ran away. In the fresh snow from the storm overnight, we saw the tracks of: wolves, raccoon dogs, foxes, squirrels, badgers, pine martens, roe deer, red deer, mice and voles. We had our lunch break and one of the other travelers sent his drone up to get some footage. He reported that the footage was pretty boring (“just trees as far as the eye can see”, which was sort of the point, but whatever). We went back to the hotel to warm up and dry off. After dinner, we went on an evening walk to spot some more animals. We spotted only tracks (this time deer, fox, boar and hare) but it was great to experience the hush of the forest and Justin took some star photographs.
On the second day in the forest, our pre-breakfast wildlife drive yielded a rare gray woodpecker and two bison.
After breakfast, we got to visit the part I was most excited about: the strict biosphere reserve. This section of the forest is a UNESCO heritage site, and the trees have been untouched for thousands of years. You can only enter with a local guide, and you have to have a permit to go beyond a small corner of the reserve. Most of it is used for scientific study, to examine an ecosystem that was once prevalent in Europe but now really only exists here. Irek, our guide, is a biologist who tells us that his current study is plant tracking, but that it’s very easy right now, since the plants are mostly covered in snow. An unexpected thing about the forest, besides the giant trees (the oldest is ~600 years old), is how much of it is bog. A large part of our walk is through alder carr, a type of forest where alder grows even though it is frequently submerged. Irek also tells us that they can tell where the partisans hid during World War II, because that’s where birch trees grow (as in the picture at left). Birch trees spring up where there’s a clearing, but are generally shorter than other trees so they eventually lose out on the competition for light that governs the structure of the forest. So only where humans have disturbed things in the relatively recent past does one see birch trees.. During our walk, we added the middle spotted woodpecker to our animal list.
After lunch at the hotel, we headed back out, looking for wolf tracks. We saw some fresh tracks in the snow that fell this morning, but didn’t find a wolf. We did find two Tawny Owls, who our guide drew out by knocking on their tree, startling them more than intended. We visited a badger den, but Mr. Badger was off defending Redwall or looking for worms. It started to rain, so we headed back to the fireplace at our warm, dry hotel, stopping only to see a beaver dam, and then for some bison in a field. This visit yielded our best bison photo.
It also yielded our best bison story, as another tour group saw our van pulled over and also stopped. They apparently hadn’t gotten the strict instructions we had (no closer than 50 meters, if the bison wags its tail, grunts or paws the ground, flee) and proceeded to get very close. The bison pawed the ground, and we vacated his field ASAP. Our last view of him from the van was a triumphal pose, having successfully driven the puny humans from his territory. Then it was back to the fire and the bison beer.
After that, the next day we packed up and went to Warsaw and Krakow, which will maybe be the subject of another post. But we will leave you with a photo from Warsaw: