Poland 3rd -10th February 2013 -Biebrza Marshes and Bialowieza Forest.

We decided on a winter trip to Poland with the focus for a change on some of the amazing mammals that live in these parts. Bird wise the Spring is the time to go for the incredible amount of breeding birds but there is still plenty to look out for. We flew with Ryan air and hired a car with express rent a car.

Sunday 3rd February

Our flight arrived into Warsaw airport on time at around 7.30 local time and we were in the fiat Panda and on the road in good time. It was around a 3 hour journey to our accommodation near Goniadz.  The journey went well although the sat nav sent us through the National park to get there which meant it took longer than expected as we spent a good hour or so driving on an icy single lane track. This route however meant we came across our first target species in the form an Elk feeding just off the road. Such a huge animal that soon moved off further into the woods as we got the lamp on to it. We finally arrived at just before midnight and got our heads down.

Monday 4th February

We were up by 7 and went off for a drive around the area close to the B&B.  It was a snow covered landscape and very chilly.  Nearby we had a flock of around 80-100 Siskin and noticed signs of Beaver all over the place with many trees gnawed and felled.  A track a little further on led to an area of real promise but it was quiet other than yet more Siskin going over with a Buzzard on a nearby post. 12 Northern Bullfinch flew over here with their distinctive call giving them away.

As we returned for breakfast the trill of Waxwing filled the air and we pulled in to watch 26 birds. It is always a treat to see these stunning birds and we spent time watching them before they departed.
After a cracking breakfast (with the best scrambled egg ever) we headed off for the national park, not before notching our first Lesser spotted Woodpecker in the garden.  Once on our way, it wasn’t too long until we were pulling over as three Elk were just off the road.  It was a mother and two first year young and we had really great views before they moved away deeper into the undergrowth.
We headed to the visitor centre to pick up a map and our permits and started heading along the forested road that runs through the park. Tree Sparrow and House Sparrow were around the centre and not long after entering the forest we stopped to watch yet another family trio of Elk close to the road.

In an area nearby we heard and then saw a Black Woodpecker and two Lesser Spotted Woodpecker were also foraging nearby with one giving outrageous close up views!

Continuing along the track an area of flooded woodland looked very promising and here we watched another Black Woodpecker and then had excellent views of a White-backed Woodpecker feeding very low down on a rotten spruce. Great Spots were always nearby and one came in to try and see it off.

Continuing on Greg picked up a Middle Spotted Woodpecker with 15 Waxwing on top of a nearby tree and our third Black Woodpecker flew close by. The area was full of Woodpeckers!

Leaving the forested area we crossed a large river and 2 Common Buzzard were seen from here and our first Beavers with 2 together sat near an air hole but they were very distant.

We were heading towards the tiny village of Rus and we stopped at another bridge with views over a vast flooded area. On pulling up a White-tailed Eagle went over the road and we spent time here watching 2 Rough-legged Buzzards. They were dropping down to the ground and worming before returning to a favoured perch. Great birds.

Near the village of Rus we had excellent views of a Beaver keeping its air hole open and around 20-30 Hooded Crow, 70-80 Yellowhammer and around 20 Tree Sparrow were nearby.

As we travelled back towards our accommodation we stopped to watch the Rough legged Buzzards again with 30 Tree Sparrow on the side of the road and noticed another Beaver very close in. We watched it plop thought its air hole and swim nearby with its head just popping up above the surface.

We decided on a walk at dusk to try and see some mammals and spotlighting we saw Fox and Roe Deer and a hunting Owl which looked like a Long-eared. We finished the day with a cracking meal and a couple of pints at a huge place in the forest. Top day.

Tuesday 5th February

We set off in a different direction today and were soon stopping to watch more Northern Bullfinch  and in a small pine stand we spotted two Red Deer that soon charged off and 2 Crested Tit were nearby foraging on the ground. Here we saw prints in the snow which looked spot on for wolf!

We travelled next through some agricultural land and here found a large finch flock and had a good scan through them. There were 60-70 Yellowhammer, 10-15 Chaffinch , 6 Greenfinch and 2 Brambling. The highlight here was a really great flyby from an adult White-tailed Eagle. A stunning bird.

Approaching the forest again we saw 30 Waxwing in flight and the first stop saw us getting back onto more Woodpeckers! Here we saw another Lesser and Middle Spotted Woodpecker and more great views of Black Woodpecker. The light was fantastic and the chattering of Redpoll had us wandering down the road to enjoy a 60+ strong flock. We watched these Common or Mealy Redpoll which are much frostier and bigger than the lessers we are used to at home.

A nice flock of Northern Long tailed Tits were close by here and continuing on 2 more Elk were in the woods but they moved off rather quickly. More woodpeckers in another great section of woodland included 2 White-backed Woodpeckers along with the usual Great spots and in an open area a Rough-legged Buzzard was hovering low over reeds.

Continuing on our way our first Red Squirrel of the trip was just off the road with views of yet another Black Woodpecker! They were all over the place and always so vocal. Great birds.  A nearby bridge had a Beaver lodge next to it and an American Mink was running about through it! It was such a cheeky character and we had brilliant views of it walking across the ice and swimming around under a bridge. 38 more Waxwing briefly landed in trees here.

We left now for Bialoweiza and as we were travelling through a more open area we came across an adult and young Elk on the side of the road. You really couldn’t get closer to these two! Amazing animals.

We arrived safely at our next accommodation at around 7pm after spotlighting a Tawny Owl en-route. After checking in we headed for a bit of lamping along the Narewkowska road and had good views of a group of 7-8 Wild Boar before turning in.

Wednesday 6th February

We woke early as always and in the morning gloom could hear Green Woodpeckers calling as we got togged up for a day in the forest. Driving towards the Narewkowska road which runs through the heart of the forest we stopped and watched a Green Woodpecker and had good views of a White-tailed Eagle being mobbed by Hooded Crows.  The road was totally covered in snow but the panda dealt with it well!

We started walking along a track off this road called Pojedynacki Tryb and chose this path from a site guide we had bought. Not long after setting off we came across a noisy Black Woodpecker and saw another Middle Spot. Trudging through the snow we suddenly stopped as 8 Bison were not too far from us. It was an amazing sight as these mighty animals slowly made their way through the forest. They were quite wary and soon spotted us and disappeared. An incredible experience and a massive target achieved.

We slowly walked back to the car after this encounter and slowly made our way to a spot called Kosy Most further down the track. Here we went on a walk watching another Middle Spotted Woodpecker in a tit flock and watched a Black Woodpecker drumming. Such an amazing sound. We then heard another great sound as a Hazel Hen started singing nearby but although we seemed to get very close we just couldn’t see it. Not even flying off! How this was possible we will never know.

We drove steadily back along the track after glimpsing what we were pretty sure was a Nutcracker going over the glade.  Pulling up in a good looking area we again could hear Hazel Grouse! In fact two! Surely we could see one now as they called to each other? It wasn't to be as somehow again we failed to even glimpse one as snow started to fall. Frustrating.

Driving back we suddenly stopped as 3 Bison were stood in the middle of the road. They just stood and stared at us with the snow coming down hard. Amazing! They moved away slowly and getting a bit closer 10 animals were counted.
We decided to head back as the light was fading and decided not to go lamping as the snow was really coming down!

Thursday 7th February

We woke to a thick covering of snow but even at 6 o’clock the plough had been out and we could make our way to the forest and picked a small glade to walk to. On the walk, amazingly we actually saw a Hazel Grouse! It was on open ground clear of snow under a spruce but got up before the bins could be lifted unfortunately. Tricky customers. The forest looked stunning with all the trees coated in snow and so many tracks could be seen in the fresh covering. It was clear though that the forest had been thrown back into winter and birds were quiet.

We made it to the glade and heard a distant Pygmy Owl calling. We decided to play our PYGMY OWL call from the phone and amazingly a bird responded from very close by. We got close to it and then spotted it flying. It sat for a good 20 minutes and allowed some brilliant views. What an amazing little bird. So alert and incredibly small.

We slowly headed back to the car and drove to the Kosy Most area for a long walk we had chosen. The weather wasn’t great and I spent a bit of time photographing a Nuthatch which looked very pale and had a slight pale stripe above the eye. An eastern race?

A Lesser Spotted Woodpecker was seen on this walk but not a huge amount else and unfortunately we had to turn back due to a warning about a bridge failure.
We headed down to the river and spent some time watching from a bridge. A Goshawk flew over along with a drake Goosander and the trill of Waxwing was in the air again as 31 flew overhead.
Scanning the river a real treat was in store as an Otter was fishing just upstream. We spent the remaining light watching this great animal, which came out onto the bank on occasions and was catching with almost every dive. We headed back to the house to warm up and had a few beers and some food before getting an early night.

Friday 8th February

We were up early again and headed for a large glade off of the  Pojedynacki Tryb track. As the sun came up we were scanning paths in all directions for mammals. We found fresh Wolf prints here and across the glade itself we could clearly follow the path a Wolf had taken very recently. Whilst waiting and watching, Siskin were always overhead and 5 Waxwing went over with 2 perching for a while.A Red Squirrel was going about its business and a Black Woodpecker was drumming in the distance.No mammals showed themselves and on the walk back we stopped to watch 2 Middle Spotted Woodpeckers chasing each other around and 9 Wild Boar crossed the track ahead of us. It was amazing seeing such clear tracks and knowing such an iconic animal had been there so recently!

We continued along the Narekowskka road to another glade and sent some time here hoping for Nutcracker but unfortunately none were seen but we did see around 10 Jay and 3 Northern Bullfinch feeding on the snow. We drove back towards the village of Bialowieza and on the way stopped to look at a distant White-tailed Eagle sat in a tree. Ravens and Hooded crows were all over the place and Mistle Thrush were running about on the ice. We decided to have a walk around the palace park and to see the town a bit and birds noted here were 14 Fieldfare and 20 Greenfinch with more Bullfinches, Treecreeper and Tits.

We returned to the forest for the remaining couple of hours of light and headed along the track we first saw the Bison. Again woodpeckers were noted with a Black Woodpecker seen and Great Spots all over the place.  A Raven was alarming overhead and looking up it was mobbing an immature White-tailed Eagle and we had good views.

Reaching the end of the track it was very damp woodland and in the area 2 White-backed Woodpeckers were seen. We split up for a short time and as I was watching a male Lesser Spot with a tit flock, Greg had found the third White Backed Woodpecker of the walk and had great views of it feeding, managing to grab a video.

White -backed Woodpecker feeding

We looked out over the frozen open ground for mammals but 2 Roe Deer were all we had here. We slowly waked back keeping a look out in the forest and a single Wild Boar charged off nearby. Along this track there was an area where the wardens put hay down in extreme conditions and sure enough Bison could be seen around it. We had brilliant views of at least 9 Bison nervously making their way towards the hay and Wild Boar were running around in amongst them.  It was quite a sight and we spent a while taking some photos and enjoying the spectacle. A scene not to be forgotten.

With light fading we got back to the car and decided to head towards the village of Teremiski.  As we rounded the corner and looked across the glade here, we couldn’t believe it as a massive bull Bison was stood not too far from the road. We pulled over and watched as this huge beast as it came closer and closer and a small crowd gathered. We realised a local girl had a basket full of fruit and she walked out to put some down. Eventually the Bison came over and fed only a few meters away. Amazing. It may well have done this in winters for many years and where the others we had seen were very shy, this animal knew it was ok to approach and take the hand out. Quite an experience!

We turned in for the night and had a couple of beers and a very good Pizza.

Saturday 9th February

We decided to get up very early this morning and walk in the dark to the glade where we had seen all the Wolf Prints. We were spotlighting on the way and waited, scanning over the open ground and along tracks for any mammals. Unfortunately once again it was just the tracks that we saw. Throughout the week we had put ourselves in great positions but finding rare mammals requires a lot of luck!

We heard Tawny Owl and Pgymy Owl and as morning broke the first birds we saw were 35 Waxwing going over the glade and Siskin were again always noisy overhead. We made our way back to the car and went for a walk along a track called Wilczy Tryb. Walking along this track we soon found tracks in the snow we had not seen before. We were unsure what had made them but they could well have been Lynx! Along here we saw two Red Deer and two Roe Deer before hearing and glimpsing a Nutcracker. All too brief unfortunately. This area held some huge spruce trees and the dead ones are particularly fantastic food trees. In one single tree there were three Lesser Spotted Woodpecker busily tapping away! Another Black Woodpecker noisily flew in and we saw Crested Tit, Willow Tit and Nuthatch here. Although we found a lot of dead Spruce we failed to find any Three-toed peckers.

We crossed the main road and headed to another small glade noting a Rough Legged Buzzard high above us and many Jays were again evident. We decided at this point that we needed a break from the forest and went for a drive towards the village of Budy. On the way we stopped off to look at a Middle Spotted Woodpecker sat obviously on top of a small tree and an adult White-tailed Eagle gave a great flypast. Two Bison were at a feeding station not too far from the road and 3 Sparrowhawks were seen around the houses.
The weather really hadn’t helped since the snow and with no blue sky or anything like Spring conditions, there was not a great deal of activity.

We stayed positive and decided to head back to the forest and find more spruce trees and more birds! Crossing a river on the way we noticed another Otter out on the ice. It is always a treat to watch these animals but it soon rounded the corner. We headed for the same path as earlier and the massive dead spruce trees that had attracted so many birds. We watched another Black Woodpecker and Lesser spot before deciding to split up in search of large spruce and hopefully the spruce specialist we were after! I headed one way and Greg the other agreeing that if either found a Three toed we would whistle for communication.

This plan seemed less than fool proof but after around 15 minutes and 4 Great Spots later I heard a faint whistle! Making my way towards the sound, Greg had indeed found a Three-toed Woodpecker high in another monster spruce. It was small and un obtrusive in its feeding action and now we had heard the sound of its tapping it was quite different from the usual Great Spots. We watched this bird for a while with possibly a second seen before the light faded and we headed back.

A great end to the day and a bird we both really hoped to find all week. On the walk back a distant Pygmy Owl was heard again and a Wild Boar thundered through the snow. As we made our way back to the house an unexpected surprise was a Pine Marten or Beech Marten as it crossed the road in front of us. It really surprised us how large it was! We wrote up the days sightings and swilled down another Pizza with a couple of Zubr before hitting the sack.

Sunday 10th February

Our last day and we had until around half 12 before we needed to head for the airport. We headed for the forest again seeing White-tailed Eagle and hearing Waxwing on the way and decided to try and find Three-toed Woodpecker again. We returned to the same spot and almost instantly heard the tapping which led us to the bird. This time it was lower and provided some brilliant views and a second was confirmed far higher in a bigger tree.  The one we had great views of was a female and we managed to get a few photos.
Going for one final stroll along the Pojedynacki Tryb track we heard another Hazel Grouse with 2 raven and 6 Jays finding something to eat in the snow.

We left the forest after a very enjoyable couple of hours and drove towards the town of Hajnowka. As we were passing through the village of Budy I noticed loads of Jays and a woodpecker flying from the woods towards us. We pulled over and followed the woodpecker as it landed in a tree right next to a house and realised there was food put out. At this feeding station there was not one but two Grey- headed Woodpeckers! This was another species we had really hoped to see all week. One bird was on the roof and soon flew off but the other was bashing away on what looked like some dried meat hanging from the house. We had some amazing views before it flew over us and worked its way up a birch before heading out over the fields towards the forest again. What a great bird and a real bonus. Always search for feeding stations in extreme conditions!

Grey-headed Woodpecker feeding

We spent the last two hours of the trip birding a park in Hajnowka which holds breeding Syrian Woodpecker but unfortunately we could not complete the set of European Woodpeckers. It was a great end though as a Juvenile Goshawk flushed the pigeons and drifted over our heads and along with the flocks of Greenfinch and Tree Sparrow a male Hawfinch allowed a very close approach. So tame! We wandered around the park getting stunning views of a cracking male Lesser Spotted Woodpecker and Middle Spotted Woodpecker. The park was full of birds and we dragged ourselves away for the 3hr journey back to Warsaw airport.
The journey went very well and en route we saw our only Great Grey Shrike of the week on wires and another Rough Legged Buzzard sat on a hay bale.

It had been a fantastic week and despite the weather making birding difficult we had managed to see many of the targets. The snow made it an unforgettable scene and experience and the many new mammals we came for didn’t disappoint. Everything went smoothly and it’s an area we just have to get back to in the Spring to see the contrast!