Fri 15th April 2016 (a)

Posted on May 28, 2016 at 12:50 AM


Bialowieza at dawn

The BUBO lads overlooking Bialowieza Forest at dawn.

So, in the late afternoon of Thursday 14th, Andy and I checked in for our flight to Poland. We thumbed our noses at Ryanair's extra charges by sharing our hold luggage and packing our bag right to the limit. As usual, my hand luggage was double-checked by security and they did that test thing for explosives - every single time! - and the guy seemed rather dubious that I was going birdwatching in Poland. But apart from that, everything went smoothly and we touched down at Modlin Airport, Warsaw around 9 30pm. All went smoothly for Ian too on his flight from Glasgow and we greeted him in the terminal. We sorted our car hire at the desk and walked out into the night ready for the adventure ahead - and immediately epic-failed when we couldn't find the car. Almost 20 minutes later we eventually located it and we set off eastwards.

I was happy to sit in the back whilst the other two drove the car - I was barely used to driving in the UK, never mind on the wrong side, abroad and in the dark. Our first mission was to find Bialowieza Forest, about a 3 hour drive away, and I had some printed Google-map sheets to follow, which worked pretty well and we never got totally lost. Although some of the "major" roads we were following suddenly turned into little more than dirt tracks and we wondered whether we were correct, but they always turned back to normal. Our first Polish bird was a White Stork perched up in the headlights. After a difficult drive we finally made it to Bialowieza village at about 2 am.

Of course, with our expected arrival being so late in the night, we didn't book any accommodation for this first night, and since it wasn't going to be light for a couple of hours we found a suitable lay-by and made an attempt to sleep in the car. When I was more flexible, curling up in the back seat for a kip may have been nice and easy, but now into middle age, I struggled somewhat. By ramming my face into the back of the front seat and with my feet resting on the parcel shelf, I think I managed an hour's kip before the first of the sun's rays began to light the horizon. I think it took almost as long to unfold myself and straighten to my full height.

After we sorted ourselves out, we drove to our hotel (for the next 2 nights) where we had arranged to meet Bogdan. We had decided to organise a local guide for our time in Bialowieza Forest, not especially to find the birds for us - cos clearly we are more than capable at that aspect - but to show us where the best places were to look. Hiring a guide was not something I had done before, but we were well aware that birding in large forests can be a nightmare. Even if there are birds there, unless you are in the 'hotspots' you can easily spend hours seeing almost nothing. The hotspots will vary from year to year and so local knowledge is useful, and we had a few target species that we simply had to see. So we decided that it was worth the cash, and Bogdan had superb knowledge and was a good guy, and I thoroughly recommend him if anyone else was thinking about it.

Even though we were pretty tired from very little sleep, we wanted to get out birding as soon as possible, and the first place we checked was some fields on the edge of town where Bison are often seen early in the morning (see photo above). It was all very misty and evocative, and despite no Bison being visible it was a beautiful sight, with the forest looming behind the wet, sweeing fields. We did hear a Cuckoo calling through the dawn.

It was soon light enough to do some proper birding and we headed deep into the forest proper, Andy and I following Ian and Bogdan in his car. We suddenly pulled up at the side of the road and Ian creeped out back towards our car. He pointed sideways into the forest, and 30 yards into the trees stood a brute of a Bison looking at us!

Bison Bialowieza

Bison - Bialowieza Forest

This was great stuff. Apart from the birds, the famous Bialowieza Bison was the main thing we wanted to see here and we saw one straight away. It didn't want to move and spent all of the time just stood there munching on weeds. It had a pretty good shaggy mane and impressive horns, but it was difficult to appreciate the size as it was hidden behind the trees. It was difficult to take any kind of photograph of it as there were twigs in the way and it was so dark still. The above photo is much better than I imagined.

Photography itself was quite difficult on the trip altogether. The birds were often in the dark forests where light was a problem, and of course they were not generally on the first tree in front of you, but a few trees back. Everything in the woods seemed to spook very quickly and it was difficult to get close to the birds before they scarpered. Away from the woods, especially on the marshes, the areas were so vast that it was difficult to get close enough to the birds for good pics. I was pleased I decided to bring my scope as I was using it all the time as a lot of the things we saw were far away. The weather whilst we were there was nearly always cloudy and so light levels, in general, were poor. So, with these problems and our priority being the birding, a lot of the shots in these posts are 'record' type shots. But I did get a few pretty nice ones when conditions were more suitable.

Roadside birding in the forest.

After watching the Bison for a little while, we decided to do some general birding in the immediate area, along the roadsides (as in the above photo). I was surprised by the number of conifers in the woods as I had always assumed Bialowieza was mainly deciduous, but perhaps in the proper reserve this was more the case. One of the most common species in these woods was the Hawfinch and, although most of the sightings were brief and flyovers, I watched a pair along here really close - a superb species. Jays were common and we heard lots and lots of woodpeckers drumming all the time, although we hadn't seen any yet. Bogdan bumped into an old friend here and a short while after they had parted, he phoned Bogdan to tell us that he'd just had a singing Hazel Grouse just down the road from where we were! Obviously, we rushed down that track but it had already disappeared when we got there. Hearing a loud call above us though, we looked up to see a large, dark bird fly across the tops of the trees - a Black Woodpecker. Unfortunately we didn't see it very well, but it was obvious what it was.

We carried on birding for a while, having a few Crested Tits calling in the tree tops, when Bogdan got another call, about a calling Pygmy Owl near where we had parked the car. Again we hurried there at speed, but again there was nothing to be heard. We were chasing shadows at the moment. Along this stretch of track we had a nice Wood Warbler singing in the trees. This was a good sign because, I had presumed that we were going to see very few new migrants, but if the Wood Warblers were in, then we stood a chance at seeing many of the summer birds. The others saw a Goshawk here flying past but I was in the bushes having a pee!

Bialowieza WBWP habitat

White-backed Woodpecker habitat in the swampy areas of the forest.

We moved on to a different part of the forest which Bogdan knew was very good for White-backed Woodpecker. This area was very swampy and looked quite different from the dry woodland we had just left, and we had a Marsh Harrier patrolling an open area behind the trees.

Bialowieza birding 1

WBWP hunting.

We strolled up and down the road, looking and listening for woodpeckers. After a short while we saw a woodpecker fly in and land on a roadside tree. It appeared similar in size to the familiar Great Spot as it flew across, and luckily we could see it on the tree where it landed, and it just clung there. I managed to get the 'scope on it and it was indeed a superb male White-backed Woodpecker. The reason that it was staying there on the tree became evident, when it suddenly popped inside a nesthole. The good views showed all the plumage details as well as the larger size compared to Great Spot, and the bill was noticeably longer and more pointed. After a while it flew out onto a tree which was a bit further away, but with better light.

White-backed Woodpecker, Bialowieza Forest

White-backed Woodpecker Bialowieza2

White-backed Woodpecker, Bialowieza Forest (phonescoped)

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Phonescoped video. (click Youtube link to see in a better size)

Bialowieza birding 2

BUBO lads thrilled with the White-backed Woodpecker, the first tick of the trip!

We didn't have much time to celebrate, since Bogdan got his third call of the morning as his friend was watching a singing male Hazel Grouse! We hurried on up to a different part of the forest - where exactly it was I haven't a clue - and followed Bogdan through the trees. After a while we stopped because we could hear a really high-pitched, 'penny-whistle' song coming from the trees ahead of us - not what I was expecting at all. It sounded more like a passerine song. It then seemed to move away from us a bit and we moved further in.

Bialowieza HazelG habitat

Deep in the forest - Hazel Grouse habitat

I was looking ahead on the ground to try and see this gamebird, then all of a sudden the Hazel Grouse flew over us and landed near the top of a tree - it was singing from high up! We tried to get a view of it and then we saw it really well as it glided through the tops of the trees away from us. I thought that it was going to quickly disappear and was so pleased that we even saw it. However, it didn't carry on, but landed on a high branch ahead of us. I managed to get the scope on it quickly and could see the intricate barring and spots of its plumage, the jet black face and breast, bordered with white, and even the red comb over the eye. I had seen brief Hazel Grouse before in Sweden, but this was a million times a better view. It stayed on the branch for ages although from my position it was partially obscured, but I didn't want to start moving in case it startled. I managed a bit of phone-scoping to get record shots and a video, which was more than I'd ever expect from such an elusive creature.

Hazel Grouse Bialowieza

Hazel Grouse, Bialowieza Forest

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video of Hazel Grouse (click on Youtube button for larger view)


Walking back to the car we were still hearing woodpeckers drumming all the time, mostly Great Spotted Woodpeckers of course. However, nearing the road one was drumming slightly differently, and after a short search we managed to find a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker searching the tops of the trees for food. We had reasonably good views as well. I cannot remember the last time that I'd seen a Lesser Spot.

We were all now rather flagging even though it was still only early morning, so we decided that it was important that we got some breakfast inside of us. We headed back into the village and found a nice place to eat where I scoffed on bread, cheese, eggs and tea - pretty much the same breakfast that I was to have the whole trip. Fully nourished, we headed out into the forest for more birds.

Toothwort Bialowieza

Toothwort - an unusual flower found in the forests

Categories: 2016 Spring, POLAND 2016