Monday 30 May 2016

Poles Apart 20th-23rd May 2016

A long planned four day trip to the Bialowieza Forest in Poland came to fruition on Friday 20th May.

The Bialowieza Forest is the last remnant of the primeval forest that once stretched right across lowland northern Europe and it can only be described in superlatives. It is immense and has largely remained untouched and protected for over 9000 years. It covers 60,000 hectares in eastern Poland, only some of which is protected and stretches into Belarus where it covers 150,000 hectares and is completely protected. The whole forest in both countries supports more than 1000 vascular plant species, 4000 species of fungi, over 10,000 insect species and around 60 species of mammals. The Polish part of the forest is also home to over 240 species of bird, 180 of which breed there and it is home to the last remaining 800 European Bison, the continent's largest mammal, Grey Wolf and Eurasian Lynx as well as ten species of woodpecker, five species of owl, six species of tit and four species of flycatcher.

Unbelievably or believably if you have the same jaundiced opinion of politicians and their greed and dissembling as I do, the Polish part of the forest is now threatened by the newly elected Polish Government in the form of one Jan Szyszko, Minister for the Environment who, no surprise is a former forester and forestry academic. He has decreed a three fold increase in logging to 6.4 million cubic feet of wood in the forest using the excuse that the forest needs to be logged to combat an infestation of Spruce Bark Beetle and make it safer for tourists. No one with an ounce of intelligence is fooled by this. The Minister is blatantly giving a huge boost to influential forestry interests whose political lobby is very strong, at the expense of nine thousand years of history, the flora and fauna that has thrived in the forest for all that time and of the 150,000 tourists that come to this UNESCO World Heritage Site and EU Natura 2000 Special Area of Conservation, every year. Is it coincidence that 32 of the 39 members of the State Council for the Conservation of Nature (SCCN), all outstanding scientists in their own right and opposed to Szyszko's plans have been recently dismissed to be replaced by foresters so now more than 50% of the SCCN consists of foresters? Smell a rat anyone?

So far, despite protestations from far and wide across Europe nothing has caused the Polish Government to change its mind. Even the fact the forest is protected under European Law as it is a EU Natura 2000 site has had no effect and increased logging commenced on May 25th 2016. I would suggest you go and see this wonderful resource before it is too late and sign any petition that is presented to you asking that the forest be spared and fully protected.

With the unwelcome awareness that we were visiting somewhere that was under severe threat and could possibly look very different in the years to come, eight of us met at a very busy Stansted Airport at 6am on Friday morning. My seven colleagues were all birders from Sussex, namely Chris and his partner Angela, Harry, Dan, George and Jake.

It was no choice but to endure Ryanair for the two hour flight to Modlin Airport just outside Warsaw, so I slept most of the way to shut out the horrors of the rigid plastic coated seats, the lurid  blue and yellow colour scheme and exhortations to purchase scratch cards. We were quickly through immigration checks at Modlin and then out into the warmth of a sunny day. Chris collected the vehicle that would take the eight of us plus all our luggage and optics and we were soon off on our birding tour.

I have never been to Poland and the first surprise was how flat the land was that we drove through. The main roads were of good quality but we had a long hold up in slow moving traffic as we joined what looked like a major road construction project that continued for miles, cutting a huge swathe through conifer forest. I am sure the Polish Minister of the Environment would be delighted. Although there seemed to be only light traffic on the roads there were all too regular examples of appalling driving that would never be tolerated in Britain.

The drive was three hours to the village of Bialowieza and on the way we passed through mainly areas of agriculture but not nearly on such a mechanised scale as is found in Britain, being much more labour intensive and it was not unusual to see people working in the fields cutting grass with a scythe or driving primitive tractors. This lack of intensity was naturally better for birdlife and we saw both Marsh and Montagu's Harriers drifting over the fields, many of which were divided up into strips of different crops and not the monoculture we are used to in Britain. White Storks were frequent, either in the fields or sitting on their huge stick nests on top of poles in the small villages we passed through. Red backed Shrikes were also not in short supply in the roadside bushes and I was surprised to see Fieldfares which were obviously breeding.

We made one stop for refreshment in a garage on the main highway and then left the highway and traversed more rural roads until, at last, we reached our modest hotel, The Unikat, in the village of Bialowieza, at 5.30pm local time. 

The Unikat Hotel
We made a rapid check in, deposited our bags in the rooms and then we were off out and properly birding at last. We walked a few hundred metres up the village road to the entrance to Bialowieza Palace Park which is part of the Bialowieza Forest.

The entrance to Bialowieza Palace Park
Our first really good bird became immediately apparent right inside the gate as a very confiding male Collared Flycatcher, visited a hole in a tree by the path.

It was collecting small green caterpillars to feed its young. The female was absent so I assume she was brooding the young which were presumably still quite small. We did see her a day or so later. 

The wheezy calls of Collared Flycatchers were to become a familiar sound in the days to come throughout many parts of the forest. Cameras clicked away as we all recorded this smart little bird for posterity. 

Collared Flycatcher
We wandered further up the road and through the park, passing under huge, magnificent trees, mainly Oaks, that towered high above us. A Blackcap's pure song came from the trees and  descending arpeggios of shivering notes betrayed the presence of Wood Warblers. The woodland here was intersected by large grass and flower meadows, the kind you would have seen in Britain before our land became vast. sterile. intensively farmed fields. drenched with herbicide and insecticide. I looked and wondered at what could have been and what had been lost but it is too late now for Britain so I decided to enjoy this spectacle while I could. Doubtless Polish agriculture will eventually become like Britain but hopefully not for a long time.

A Spotted Flycatcher swooped around an open fronted nest box in which it was building a nest, agitated by the close presence of a couple of Red Squirrels that were having a spat. 

Red Squirrel
We walked onwards, out of a gate at the bottom of the park and down a long track between two large meadows that led to a protected part of the forest and where entry was forbiddden unless you were with an authorised guide. We would enter this part of the forest tomorrow with our guide for the day.

Note the flower rich meadows on either side of the track
Whinchats were singing from the wires and small trees by the track and Yellowhammers sang a slightly different song to the ones I am used to back home. Such pretty birds when seen close to. 


Wood White butterflies fluttered feebly in the grass and we found an Early Marsh Orchid growing near the edge of the meadow. 

Early Marsh Orchid
We turned back, as time was passing and we still needed to eat. On the way back we were detained by our first sighting of a good woodpecker, a Middle Spotted Woodpecker no less and a lifer for me, which was collecting food from the leaves of another immense Oak and flying off to presumably feed its young. It shared the tree with a Nuthatch, to my mind paler on its underparts than the ones we get in Britain. Whilst watching the woodpecker the calls of a Tawny Owl came from the same huge trees but all that flew out was a Jay, A bit strange but five minutes later the owl calls came again and we found at least three well grown owlets perched high in another Oak. So presumably it was the owls calling and not as some of us suggested the Jay!

Tawny Owlets
We walked back and out of the park and headed for a Pizza Restaurant near our hotel in the sleepy little village of Bialowieza, where we ordered the only thing on the menu, pizza and some local beer. 

Both were very good but I  was completely taken aback by the size of the pizza when it arrived. It was immense, easily two feet in circumference and I struggled to eat even half of it. Still, the rest I could take back to the hotel and have cold later on the following day. Food and drink, I should add was cheap compared to the prices we are used to in Britain.

No explanation required!
Afterwards we went on a speculative night drive to look for wolves as there are three packs in the forest but unsurprisingly found little animal life apart from Roe and Red Deer wandering the forest and in fact some of us fell asleep, no doubt as a result of the early start back in Britain.

Still feeling overstuffed with pizza and beer it was back to the hotel room I was sharing with George at around 1130pm. We had a very early start tomorrow at 3.15am when we would meet Matthew our local guide for the day. I was excited as tomorrow, with luck we should see some very good birds and possibly even find some European Bison.

Saturday 21st May

My alarm woke me at 0245am and I felt like I had hardly been asleep but I  had, for three hours which was not nearly enough. Nevertheless we staggered downstairs and met our guide Matthew outside the hotel at 0315am just as it was getting light. The reason for getting up so early was that it was the best time to find the European Bison before they retreated back into the forest at sunrise. A short drive brought us to a large area of meadow with a full moon hanging above us like some vast white orb in the pink flushed sky, whilst the meadows were blanketed with a thin band of white mist as Corncrakes rasped away in the grass.

Early morning in Bialowieza Forest
Matthew got out of the vehicle and scanned across the meadow. He returned to announce that there were at least three European Bison in the distance but they were difficult to make out due to the mist.We all got out to look and sure enough the dark, hulking and distinctive profiles of the bison were visible in and out of the mist and just about distinguishable  from the very similar looking scattered bushes, also at the same range. In fact the best way to tell which was which was when the bison occasionally moved causing their shapes to change. Not the greatest of views but we still had a whole lot of morning to find others.

We drove on and sadly had no joy, as everywhere we went was devoid of bison. We stopped at various lookouts, huge wooden structures that you could climb up via steps to get an elevated view across the meadows but still saw nothing bison shaped.

These wooden lookouts were scattered throughout the forest giving a panoramic
vista over the forest from the top. Access is by wooden steps
At one spot we stopped at, although we failed to find any bison we did find a very showy Wryneck and a supporting cast of Red backed Shrikes, Golden Orioles and a nice male Common Redstart.

Another Hawfinch flew over, not exactly common but much more frequent and widespread in the forest than would be the case at home. A strange song had me fooled for a while but it transpired it was a Song Thrush but instead of pure repeated notes here it sounded far less precise and somewhat throaty. Chaffinches were the same, their song sounding  different to those in Britain.

Matthew directed us down long straight roads through the forest in the hope of finding bison lurking in the trees but again it was no go but we did encounter a Wild Boar, now something of a rarity as they have a disease which is fatal to cattle and so are being culled, their population having been halved by hunters in one year. Surely some will be spared? The one we saw was huge and black and very wary. The minute he realised we spelt danger he was off into the forest at high speed. On we went, driving down road after road but it was useless and Matthew actually fell asleep at one point which was hardly re-assuring, before, finally we came to a stop and Matthew announced we would go to a Pygmy Owl site he knew. This was better as it would be great to see this pint sized feathered terror.

We walked across an old railway line, probably built by the Germans in the last war, stretching dead straight far into the distance and then followed a trail through another area of giant trees, all looking magnificent with new leaves showing every hue and shade of green.

Mystery railway

Matthew showed us some wolf tracks in the wet mud and announced that they had passed this way not more than fifteen minutes ago. He told us that they are very elusive and he sees them no more than two or three times a year and they can cover vast distances in a day - up to 100km in some cases.

Wolf's paw print
We turned off the main track and walked a little way into the woodland along a smaller less distinct trail. It was still only 6am but it felt like we had been up for many more hours than actually was the case. Matthew told us to wait and he walked further into the wood to check out the nesting hole of a Pygmy Owl. On his return he told us the female was poking her head out of the hole so we could all get a view of her. We followed him and there was the hole large as life but not a sign of any owl.He tapped the tree trunk but the owl was having none of it and refused to budge.We walked back out to the trail and waited whilst Matthew did a pretty good imitation of the Pygmy Owl's call in the hope of attracting the male owl. This went on for quite some time and we began to get weary of waiting but Matthew told us that the owl was guaranteed to come although this could take up to one and a half hours! I settled in for a long wait. A Black Woodpecker drummed out a deep tattoo on a tree behind us and then swooped, huge and black through the trees above us. Wood Warblers and Marsh Tits responded to Matthew's owl imitations yet still no owl appeared but then in a period of silence came an owl call and this time from an owl and not from Matthew. He told us it was the male and he was near the nest hole. We rapidly went back to the nest hole and there unbelievably close on a low branch sat the male Pygmy Owl, clutching a half eaten mouse or vole in its claws.

The Pygmy Owl calling

Pygmy Owl- male
It was impassive and totally ignored us, sitting there with the headless rodent in its claws and blood on its beak. Maybe the rest of the mouse was for the female incubating her eggs in the hole. What a formidable little bundle of murderous violence presented itself, perching there so innocently as we went into papparazi mode. It called a couple of times a mellifluous series of single notes. An absolute beauty of a bird and only my second encounter with one. My previous experience was with one miles up a tree in The Netherlands but here we were within feet of one. I noted this one had greyish plumage whereas the one in The Netherlands was much more brown. We gave it twenty minutes but then felt the owl should be allowed to carry on its life undisturbed by us and we retreated. The morning now felt a whole lot better and we returned to our hotel for breakfast at 8am. Matthew said he would come back for us at 9.30 and we would go to the protected area of the forest that required you to have special permission to enter and can only be done with an authorised guide, and once in there you must remain on the track and not walk into the surrounding forest.

The protected area was at the bottom of the long track we had walked yesterday evening so we walked down it again, this time encountering an immature Lesser Spotted Eagle flying over the meadows and entered the protected area with Golden Orioles fluting their calls in the huge willow trees above us.

Apart from the birds and mammals there are many special and unique trees in the forest, none more so than the Oak illustrated below. It has divided its trunk and as can be seen one half is more advanced in leaf than the other which is thought to be a survival strategy.

Oak Tree
Matthew gave us a brief introduction about the area we were about to enter and then on we went through the entrance gate

Matthew our guide for the day by the entrance to the restricted area
Spotted Flycatchers and Wood Warblers were very much to the fore here and as we went deeper into the forest it became apparent just how old and impressive these forest trees are. Some of them are huge and are hundreds of years old. Below on the forest floor, untouched, lie rotting trunks and branches, one of the favourite feeding sources for White-backed Woodpeckers and indeed we found one feeding avidly on one of the many fallen, moss covered tree trunks. It  systematically covered every bit of bark, working its way along the fallen trunk and chiselling away the rotten wood when it found something to its liking. It never rose more than a few feet off the ground, seemingly much preferring to remain almost at ground level

White backed Woodpecker
The forest was pervaded with the smell of thousands of wild garlic flowers growing on the forest floor and bracket fungus of various sorts adorned live and dead trees alike. Perhaps the most remarkable was the Chicken of the Woods Fungus, fleshy and bright yellow and apparently edible.

Wild Garlic carpeting the forest floor
Chicken of the Woods Bracket Fungus
Bracket Fungus sp.
A Pine Marten scampered along the track behind us and we were to see no less than three during our visit. It is strange to see them out in broad daylight here when in Scotland they mainly come out at night. We walked on with Matthew as a Red Fox ambled down the track towards us. The fox eventually saw us and casually turned off into the woods and we could see it had a bad case of mange as its fur was scruffy and bare in places and its tail was certainly not bushy.

Red Fox. Note the thin tail
We found a couple of Great Spotted Woodpeckers but understandably did not give them too much time as there were too many 'new' birds to get to grips with.

Great Spotted Woodpecker at its nest hole and bracket fungus
Soon we encountered another of the forest specialities, a Red breasted Flycatcher, singing from the understory. Although a male it was only a young one, presumably hatched last year so did not have much of a red breast which was a little disappointing. We watched it singing and flitting about but our main goal was the nesting site of a pair of Black Woodpeckers, the most magnificent and desirable of European woodpeckers, the size of a crow and similarly black all over apart from a red crown.

We got to the site and stood and waited.The nest hole was someway up in a large tree and there was little sign of life. Half an hour had passed before Harry saw the woodpecker flying in to a tree to our left. Black Woodpeckers never fly directly to the nest hole but quietly arrive on a nearby tree and wait until they are satisfied all is well and then fly to the nest hole. This individual duly adhered to the script and much to the delight of those who had not seen one before a magnificent male arrived at the nest hole and fed three well grown young whose head and bills were thrust out from the nest hole beseeching their parent to feed them. Black Woodpeckers to me always look a little manic, as if they are likely to do something extreme at any moment. I think it is the white staring eyes in that all black head that engenders such an impression.

The woodpecker remained for a few minutes, clinging to the outside of the nest hole and giving us all ample opportunity to admire it and then it disappeared inside the hole, emerging half a minute later with a faecal sac in its white bill and flew off into the forest.

Black Woodpecker-male
The experience was so good we decided on one more and so, after another thirty minute wait, the woodpecker returned and we got our second view of this wonderful bird as it fed its young.

Matthew had one final woodpecker to show us, A Three toed Woodpecker which he knew was nesting in a hole nearby. We passed a horse and cart, waiting to pick up four other visitors who were walking around and which is one other way to visit this protected area of forest if you do not want to walk.

We stood on the wide track and surveyed a hole, a very long way up in a medium sized tree trunk. Matthew tapped on the trunk and out popped the head of a Three toed Woodpecker. It was that simple, another lifer for me and we had seen three of the most sought after European woodpeckers in one morning.

We walked back through the forest, the warm sun filtering down through the immense trees and casting a golden green light across the glades. We returned to the vehicle and Matthew directed us back to the park and a large lake which somehow we had failed to notice the evening before.

Here, by the lake he showed us the nest holes, very close together, of a Middle Spotted Woodpecker and Grey headed Woodpecker one each side of adjacent large trees. The Middle Spotted were feeding young and we worked out these must have been the birds we saw collecting food yesterday evening. They came back and fore about every twenty minutes but the Grey headed Woodpeckers were incubating eggs so the chance of seeing them out of the nest hole without waiting hours for the birds to change over was minimal. Matthew tapped on the trunk and the male Grey headed Woodpecker popped his head out to check what was going on. Bingo!

Grey headed Woodpecker-male
Seven species of woodpecker in a morning if you count the Wryneck is pretty good going by anyone's estimation and I felt extremely pleased with myself.

It was now noon and we returned to the hotel to drop off Matthew who went home for a rest leaving us until 5.30pm when he would return and we would resume birding with the promise of seeing a Great Snipe lek as a finale. As we drew into the hotel car park and exited the vehicle a loud clattering came from the huge nest of a pair of White Stork's, built on top of a nearby roof, as the storks greeted each other at the nest change over. The clattering came from one of the birds opening and shutting its mandibles rapidly whilst going into a full display, throwing its head over its back whilst sitting and then standing and arching its wings. Quite impressive.

White Stork

We were left to our own devices and I decided to just bird around the lake, first of all staking out the Middle Spotted Woodpecker's nest and trying to get some acceptable images of the birds as they came to feed their young.

Middle Spotted Woodpecker
Eventually satisfied with this, I then turned my attention to stalking the male Great Reed Warblers that were singing from the reeds surrounding the lake. It was easier said than done as when they felt secure they would sit openly at the top of the reeds but the minute they saw you, down they would drop into deep cover. Finally I  managed to get one singing, relatively in the open in a  tangle of dead twigs and branches by the reeds, that did not see me. Such big, chunky satisfying birds to see with a marked peaked crown.

Great Reed Warbler
Their song is very loud and is a combination of loud creaks, guttural croaks and whistles delivered in a series of phrases. Quite distinctive it dominated the whole lake. There must have been at least three singing males in the area of reeds I covered. A Thrush Nightingale also gave occasional bursts of song but remained invisible.

I moved on to join the others who were checking out some dead trees by the road. There was a woodpecker nest hole high up just below a fork and in the hole there was a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker nest. Chris played its call and out popped a female Lesser Spotted Woodpecker to give us our eighth species of woodpecker in a day.  Amazing. The others wandered off around the lake while I decided to go back and have some more Middle Spotted Woodpecker action. Above me a Common Rosefinch sang its simple song of sweet notes and delightfully it was a 'proper' male, as its plumage was truly rosy and not the more usual grey that they mostly appear in when seen in Britain.

The afternoon wore on and the others returned from their walk around the lake having seen a Serin to add to the list. We slowly made our way back to the hotel to rendezvous with Matthew and having achieved this we set off, with our first target being a Barred Warbler. A short drive brought us to a scrubby area and with a quick burst of the tape there was a Barred Warbler, singing and flying in display above us.

Barred Warbler
I have to say I was distinctly underwhelmed as I was hoping for a fully coloured male, grey above and strongly barred below but what we got was a first summer male which was more buff than grey and looking a lot more like the ones we see in autumn in Britain. True it did have a pale eye and there was some barring on its underparts and really, I know I should not complain, but reality certainly did not come up to expectation in this case.

We watched it flying, its display flight reminiscent of a giant Common Whitethroat but then, at the apex of its flight it would descend in a series of swooping glides with rigid outstretched wings.

We moved on and our next stop was a wide track through mainly coniferous woodland. Matthew played a tape of a Red breasted Flycatcher song and almost immediately one responded and a male arrived to sing above us.

Red breasted Flycatcher
This was more like it as here was the red breast and grey head of a true adult male. It was extremely flighty, hardly still for a moment. Satisfied we headed for our final destination and one I had been anticipating for a long time. The Great Snipe lek.

We drove for some way and then turned off the road at a place called Narev and drove down a dirt track and parked in a small area of grass surrounded by bushes and trees.We walked through the trees and out onto a huge area of grassland and marsh that stretched away before us.

The viewing platform seen in the distance was unfortunately in
totally the wrong place to view the Great Snipe lek which was
completely in the opposite direction, so we had to view from
 ground level
We followed Matthew as we wound our way out on a muddy, hardly visible track passing through hosts of tiny yellow and white pansies and on into the heart of the marsh. We could hear Common Cranes calling and rounding a bush I saw two flying away from us to land further out. Corncrakes were also calling and we tried to lure one in with a tape but we were unsuccessful so we gave it up and headed further out into the marsh to await the Great Snipe commencing their lek.  A Marsh Harrier flew across and then a Sparrowhawk carrying prey. A long way off an Elk, brown and massive was feeding in the grass and a herd of Konik, a grey semi wild pony, passed in the distance.

Elk or Moose depending on what country you are in!
A Grasshopper Warbler sang from a Sallow bush, a distant Nightjar churred, its song rising and falling in volume as it turned its head and a Spotted Crake commenced calling from nearby. The light dimmed and the whole area became almost enchanted or at least it would have been but for the mosquitos. At first I had hardly noticed them but soon they were biting hard and becoming ever more annoying. I put up my jacket hood to protect my face and tucked in every bit of clothing possible to fend them off but they always found a way through my defences. I resolved to just try and bear it. The Great Snipe lek was on a small ridge some way off from us but we could not go nearer for fear of disturbing them. According to Matthew there were up to twelve displaying males. The trick was to listen for them calling and then as the lek got into full swing the birds would mount the small ridge and display, pouting and standing on tiptoe and flying up for a few feet. We waited and at first it was frustrating as some of us saw a snipe shape in the dim light whilst others could not, but soon we were all calling different birds and everyone got onto one or other of them. I saw one in the classic pose of puffed out breast, head sunk down onto its shoulders and standing almost on its toes. Another flew up briefly. The display carried on but I had reached the point where the mosquitos were unbearable and I was getting badly bitten on my hands. Chris and Angela were of the same opinion so we left the others to it and made our way back to the car to be serenaded by a Thrush Nightingale. The others returned half an hour later and a brilliant day of birding came to its conclusion. Back at the hotel we bade farewell to Matthew and headed for bed.It was going to be another early start tomorrow.

Sunday 22nd May

The others decided that they would make another 4.30am early start and go off in search of a better view of a European Bison. Personally I knew I needed to get more than a couple of hours of sleep so George, my room mate and myself resolved to set the alarm for the appointed time of 4.30am but if we did not feel up to it to sleep in. When I say sleep in we still resolved to get up by 6am and meet the others on their return.

The alarm went off  at 4.30am and I stayed put. So did George.We slept on.

We met the others later and to learn that they had indeed seen a European Bison and whole lot more clearly than yesterday and not only that but had great views of a singing River Warbler. There was nothing to do but take it metaphorically on the chin but I did feel better for my extended sleep.

We drove with the others from the hotel  and down one of the small roads running through the forest and parked on a bridge overlooking an area of marsh, woodland and water. 

There were birds singing everywhere and most enticingly at least three River Warblers were giving voice but it was almost impossible to locate them let alone see them. I cannot say for certain whether I even saw one as every place I was, they seemed to show somewhere else. At least three Marsh Warblers were, however, much more showy and I watched one singing from the dead reeds by the river. Hawfinches and Golden Orioles put in brief appearances and an Icterine Warbler eventually revealed itself singing in the trees. Best of all was a Thrush Nightingale which after some persuasion with the tape and leading us on a bit of a dance as it zipped through the undergrowth settled on a tree stump in the open and sang for some minutes, before retreating back into cover. Its song is subtly different to its relative the Common Nightingale, still loud and rich but with less variations. Its plumage is also darker with little or no rufous on the tail and upperparts and as the name would imply it has a mottled grey breast. It was good to see one so well as they are inveterate skulkers.

Thrush Nightingale
We went back to the hotel for breakfast at 8am and once finished, our next excursion was a search for a Nutcracker. We followed the directions that Matthew gave us last night and think we ended up in the right spot although the venture predictably ended in failure but then we did not hold high expectations of success. The place we stopped in was pleasant enough and a couple of singing Woodlarks were an unexpected bonus as were superb male Common and Black Redstarts. A few Siskins flew over as we walked up a trail into the forest which sadly was almost devoid of birdlife. Chris found a Crested Tit whilst myself and George found a couple of Firecrests. Orange Tips and Wood White butterflies patrolled the grassy edges to the track but of a Nutcracker there was no sign.

Matthew had also given us directions to a park in the small town of Narev where, last year Syrian Woodpeckers had nested. Frankly this was even more of a long shot than the Nutcracker but we duly entered a reasonably large park that was much like any other park in a small town, with open areas of mown grass, mature trees and tarmac pathways running through it. Being a Sunday it was well populated with dog walkers, people out for a stroll  or using it as a thoroughfare between one part of the town and the other, plus the odd gent clutching a bottle of liquor. We separated and I found myself on my own just wandering around checking anything of interest. A Serin was feeding on the ground on seeding dandelions but did not like my close presence and flew off. The mown grass was home to families of Fieldfares which seemed to adopt the role that Blackbirds have in Britain.The parents busied themselves hunting for worms and when they found one were engulfed by fledged juveniles well capable of looking after themselves. Still it was nice to see them, as they are one of the most attractive of thrushes and I never knew they bred this far south, always having assumed they were a breeding bird of Scandinavia and points north and east.

Fieldfares young and adults
I walked along one of the paths and a movement on a leafy overhanging branch above me caught my eye. A nest of white tissue paper seemed to be tucked into the leaves on top of the overhanging branch and the bird that slipped off it was a Spotted Flycatcher or so I thought. I waited and the bird came back with more nest material but to my delight was not a Spotted Flycatcher but an Icterine Warbler. I watched as it busied itself adding material to the nest. It departed and returned at regular intervals and on one occasion dropped to the ground to look for more material for its nest which gave me a chance to get some images of it. I met the others and told them about the nest and we returned to find the warbler still busy adding yet more material to its nest.

Icterine Warbler
Needless to say there was no sign of any woodpecker let alone a Syrian Woodpecker so we returned to the vehicle and after stocking up with drink and snacks from a local store headed on a forty minute drive to Lake Siemianowka  for some waterbird action. Our main target was Marsh Terns and anything else we could find and when we arrived we were not disappointed. A vast area of reeds, marsh and open water greeted us and it would have taken days to cover it all. 

Lake Siemianowka
We settled for the main picnic area which despite its name was virtually deserted even on a sunny Sunday and we had the place almost to ourselves. Getting out of the vehicle a Citrine Wagtail took fright and left rapidly before we could all get onto it which was a bit unfortunate as this was one of the birds I really did want to see, especially if it was a male.

Out over the reed beds flew Whiskered Terns, Black Terns and White winged Black Terns but only the Whiskered Terns came close showing what beautiful plumaged birds they are, chunky and broad of wing with dusky grey breasts and bellies and gleaming white cheek patches. 

Whiskered Terns
Birds were being identified thick and fast by various of our group. A drake Garganey flew by, Jake found a Penduline Tit feeding in the marsh grasses, an immature White tailed Eagle dropped into the distant reeds as a Marsh Harrier flushed some Shoveler and Gadwall as a Great White Egret flew up from the reeds. We could also hear Bitterns booming in the distance and White Wagtails flew around us, agitated as they had fledged young. 

White Wagtail
A Thrush Nightingale sang from the bushes by the water's edge and Bullfrogs kept up a continuous bugling chorus far out on the marsh. We walked along a bush lined bund that ran alongside the edge of the marsh and a male Whinchat, Red backed Shrikes, Reed Buntings and Common Whitethroats flew before us. It was now very hot and although I should not complain, as we had been so lucky with the sunny and warm weather throughout our stay, I needed to find some shade. On reaching the shade at the other end of the bund a Willow Warbler, our only one of the trip despite many areas appearing to be suitable habitat for them, sang from, yes you guessed, some willows.

We turned to walk back as we had two more destinations to go to. Jake and myself amused ourselves by identifying, well Jake did mostly, various butterflies and I got three lifers in the form of a Map Butterfly. a Sooty Copper and a rather worn Queen of Spain Fritillary.

Map Butterfly

Sooty  Copper
On getting back to the picnic area Dan spotted a male Citrine Wagtail perched in a willow which promptly flew off only to land on some nearby mud and gave us the opportunity to briefly study its superb yellow and grey breeding plumage.It was not there for long before flying off but it was there long enough for me to enjoy the unique experience of seeing a male of this species in its full breeding glory.

Citrine Wagtail- male
We were going to make another attempt to see European Bison later in the evening but before we did we headed for another area of the forest at Naradowy to again look for a Nutcracker but we were unsuccessful. Walking down the trail I was amazed at the number of Wood Warblers trilling in the woods. I counted at least ten males in less than a kilometre. We saw very little else but eventually came to one of the huge elevated lookouts that are scattered all over the forest and which looked over a small marsh and away to a distant ridge of trees.This proved to be more interesting than the forest trail as Red backed Shrikes chased around the bushes and at least two River Warblers were singing but as per usual remained frustratingly invisible. We tried hard to see them, especially George who had yet to see one well and despite sounding very close we just could not make them out in the thick bushes they inhabited. A couple of Chequered Skippers diverted my interest and then a call from the top of the lookout had us scampering up the many steps to the top to view a male Golden Oriole perched in the bare branches of a distant tree on the ridge. 

Chequered Skipper
Looking down we could see some bright green frogs in the pond below us and went back down to get closer. According to the Information Board they were Moor Frogs but Jake thought this might be wrong. They allowed close approach which is unusual as frogs usually disappear underwater at the first sign of danger.

Moor Frog
Dan then called to us that he could see a River Warbler perched deep in a bush.We chased over to him and there, hardly visible, was a dark shape that occasionally moved revealing a grey streaked breast and a typical locustella profile. 

River Warbler
How Dan found it in all the leaves and twigs is, as far as I am concerned, a minor miracle of observation and we were certainly grateful that he had. It even sang a few times as we watched it and from differing angles we got reasonable views of it.

In the meantime I think Harry or maybe Jake had been speaking to another visitor who said he had just been watching some European Bison and gave specific directions as to where they were. He had been watching them less than an hour ago at a place called Bukar Village. We needed no second bidding and headed as fast as possible back to the vehicle and drove to where they were supposed to be.

I am not sure what went wrong but we drove a huge circuit passing what looked like prime meadow habitat for the bison in and around Bukar Village. This is where they were supposed to be but we saw nothing.We drove the whole circuit again and stopped yet again at Bukar Village but still came up with nothing. All we saw was a Lesser Spotted Eagle that perched in a distant tree and then flew off.

We gave up on the bison. It was obviously not meant to be

We now headed back to the forest proper and rather naughtily drove up a wide track which was for cyclists only but no one seemed to mind, even the couple of cyclists already there sharing a bottle of beer. Ian parked the vehicle by the same bridge that he and the others had visited in the early morning whilst George and myself were asleep. The bridge spanned a small river, more stream than river if truth be known, dammed by beavers. 

The plan was to try and see the beavers but this was hardly likely to be successful as the beavers only came out at dusk and that was some three hours or more away.

Standing on the bridge we just waited to see what would fly over or appear in the bushes and trees by the stream and a variety of birds kept us interested,  Hawfinches, a White backed Woodpecker and a typically invisible River Warbler, which in the end I just about managed to see the tail of in a thick bush were the best.  A female Grey headed Woodpecker swooped in to land on a tree and spend some minutes examining the bark before flying off again. Another River Warbler commenced singing much closer to the bridge and we scurried over to see if we could locate it. At first it remained elusive but by standing quietly it eventually came out and had a favourite perch on a low slender branch right out in the open.This was my chance to get a half decent image and I took it.

River Warbler 'going at full throttle'
The warbler dropped back into cover and then Ian standing on the bridge and surveying the distant meadows downstream said one magical word - 'Bison'.

An undignified scramble ensued as we joined Ian on the bridge and there were the bison, ten of them, presumably having just emerged from the forest beyond the meadow. Fantastic- we had, virtually at the last possible opportunity, found them.

Further up the road where we had parked the vehicle there was an obvious track off to the right which would take us much closer to the bison. We decided to take it as the opportunity was just too good to miss. Chris and Angela elected to remain on the bridge but the rest of us needed no further encouragement and set off and after a bit of surreptitious stalking using bushes and the edge of some dense woodland as cover we found ourselves looking out across the river at the ten bison feeding unconcernedly in the meadow beyond. They knew we were there, of that I am certain but looked untroubled. The odd long stare at us but that was it. They were all males, two very large bulls that kept themselves to themselves and looked much darker in colour than the rest which were a rich chestnut in colour. We watched them for thirty or so minutes before they started to move back towards the trees and we in turn started to move back to the bridge. Chris was happy despite foregoing the bison as he had got good pictures of the River Warbler so everyone was in a good mood as we drove for the hotel and a celebratory pizza and beer.

European Bison
We passed back through Bukar Village and saw a number of cars drawn up beside the road. We stopped and would you believe it, where earlier we had drawn a blank twice, now there were two European Bison feeding in the meadows!

We shrugged, looked at them without getting out of the vehicle and then headed for our hotel. Double figures of European Bison was a good result in anyone's book

There was celebration afoot. 

Monday 23rd May

The previous evening my equanimity had been disturbed by a text from a colleague in Britain telling me that a Black billed Cuckoo had been found on North Uist in Scotland. I badly wanted to see it but here I was in Poland until I arrived back in England late on Monday afternoon. George was similarly keen to go and we discussed the logistics and possibilities of getting there as fast as we could. 

We went to bed and I determined to have an extra hour in bed and get up at six whilst George and the others went out earlier to wander around the park and lake. On getting up next morning I packed all my stuff, had a shower and then went birding in the park, walking in the still of the early morning up the road, stopping to admire the Black Redstarts and Red backed Shrikes breeding in the deserted and derelict garden on the other side of the road.

There were a number of traditional but derelict buildings in Bialowieza
Main Road through Bialowieza Village
Bialowieza Polish Orthodox Church

Red backed Shrike-male
Red Backed Shrike-female
Two birders were already staking out the Collared Flycatcher nest by the entrance gate to the park but I passed them by and headed for the lake. Two lovely scarlet Common Rosefinches were singing from the top of the bushes on the island in the lake whilst the Great Reed Warblers were creaking and croaking away in the reeds. I walked up into the park and met the others coming back, who told me they had seen very little. I carried on as a pair of Collared Flycatchers flitted around an Oak, a Middle Spotted Woodpecker tapped away at a branch and an adult Tawny Owl, presumably keeping watch over its fledged young high in the trees looked down on me. It hooted a quavering call which promptly brought mobbing Blackbirds and Jays to the tree.

Tawny Owl
Being on my own it was a bit easier to take images of various birds and the park itself was deserted at this early hour. A Wood Warbler was singing low down in the understory of a small patch of woodland. I think as more people appear they move up higher into the trees but just now with no one around they were emboldened to come lower. I walked into the gloom of a green half light under the huge trees and just above me this tiny bird with lemon and white underparts and moss green upperparts shivered its whole body with effort as it poured forth its delicate trilling song. They look so neat and dapper in their spring plumage when compared to ChiffChaffs, their duller and drabber phylloscopus cousins.

Wood Warbler
I moved on down the trail towards the bottom gate admiring the meadows and their abundance of summer grasses and flowers. It was a wonderful time to be out and about, everything feeling fresh and growing, a vibrancy in the air, bringing a feeling of expectation and hope.

I went through the bottom gate and commenced walking down the long track between the meadows. The two Whinchats were still singing but further along a large, dark raptor flew up from the meadow to settle in a silver birch. It was an immature Lesser Spotted Eagle and I stopped to watch it. Soon it became apparent that it was using the small scattered silver birches as vantage points to locate prey in the grass of the meadows, swooping down to seize whatever it was that it saw and liked. It moved from one tree to another and looked superb in the early morning sun. 

Lesser Spotted Eagle
Eventually it moved much further away but I had the opportunity to get some reasonable images of it before it did. I walked down as far as the entrance to the protected and restricted area of the forest and then turned back. Time had passed far too fast and I needed to get back to the hotel for breakfast by 8am. The magic of the early morning was now fading as more people were about and a close encounter with a Roman Snail crossing the trail was the only other highlight as I made for the hotel.

Roman Snail
The two birders were still mounting a vigil beside the Collared Flycatchers nest as I passed back through the entrance gate.  

I sat down to breakfast but no sooner had I done so than Dan and Harry told me they had found an area of marsh and reeds just up the road where they had just seen a Savi's Warbler. I looked at George and as one we forgot about breakfast and following Dan's directions headed immediately for the location where the Savi's was meant to be but not before checking out and depositing our suitcases in the vehicle which Chris said he would drive down to collect us after he had his breakfast.

It took me and George ten minutes to walk to the spot but there was no sign of the Savi's Warbler. I played its call from my i-phone and we had an instantaneous result as the Savi's Warbler popped up out of the reeds and showed itself. Brilliant. It showed itself several times after that and we also saw another Great Reed Warbler but even better, what looked very like a Gull billed Tern, although the identification subsequently has become somewhat contentious amongst us.  No matter when the others arrived they too, after a short  wait saw the Savi's Warbler and the contentious Gull billed Tern.

That, then, was it. The finale to a fantastic long weekend in Poland. We got back into the vehicle and headed for the airport. I passed the three hour journey to the airport organising how I was to get to North Uist for Tuesday and admiring the occasional Montagu's Harrier floating over the passing green fields of Poland.

Birds seen

Mute Swan; Mallard; Gadwall; Northern Shoveler; Garganey; Goosander; Corncrake (heard only); Common Pheasant; Great crested Grebe; Bittern (heard only); Great White Egret; Grey Heron; White Stork; White tailed Eagle; Lesser Spotted Eagle; Marsh Harrier; Montagu's Harrier; Common Buzzard; Eurasian Sparrowhawk; Common Kestrel; Hobby; Spotted Crake (heard only); Moorhen; Coot; Common Crane; Lapwing; Wood Sandpiper (heard only); Common Redshank; Woodcock; Great Snipe; Common Snipe; Black headed Gull; Gull Billed Tern (possible); Common Tern; Black Tern; White winged Black Tern; Whiskered Tern; Woodpigeon; Collared Dove; Pygmy Owl; Tawny Owl; European Nightjar (heard only);Common Swift; Black Woodpecker; Grey headed Woodpecker; Great Spotted Woodpecker; Middle Spotted Woodpecker; White backed Woodpecker; Three toed Woodpecker; Lesser Spotted Woodpecker; Wryneck; Skylark; Woodlark; Barn Swallow; House Martin; White Wagtail; Yellow Wagtail; Citrine Wagtail; Robin; Thrush Nightingale; Common Redstart; Black Redstart; Whinchat; Song Thrush; Fieldfare; Blackbird; Barred Warbler; Blackcap; Garden Warbler; Common Whitethroat; Lesser Whitethroat; Sedge Warbler; Grasshopper Warbler; River Warbler; Savi's Warbler;  Marsh Warbler; Great Reed Warbler;  Icterine Warbler;  Willow Warbler; Wood Warbler; Common ChiffChaff; Firecrest; Wren; Spotted Flycatcher; Red breasted Flycatcher; Collared Flycatcher; Great Tit; Blue Tit; Marsh Tit; Penduline Tit; Nuthatch; Tree creeper sp? (heard only); Red backed Shrike; Magpie; Jay; Jackdaw; Rook; Hooded Crow; Carrion Crow; Common Raven; Starling; Golden Oriole: House Sparrow; Tree Sparrow; Chaffinch; Goldfinch; Greenfinch; Siskin; Serin; Hawfinch; Common Rosefinch; Reed Bunting;Yellowhammer; [113]

Mammals Seen

European Bison; Elk; Konik; Red Deer; Roe Deer; Wild Boar; Red Fox; Pine Marten; Brown Hare; Red Squirrel.