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TRIP REPORTS

Eastern Poland 13th–20th May, 2000

By Dave Carroll

Collared FlycatcherIntroduction

This is a summary of a 172-species birding trip to eastern Poland in May 2000, and should be of interest to birders planning to visit Bialowieza Forest and Biebrza Marshes. Our group of friends from South Yorkshire was made up of Alan Archer, Sue Bird, Roger Bird, Dave Carroll, Lance Degnan, Pete Greaves, Chris Johnson, Martin Limbert, Gareth Picton, Chip Rhodes, Richard Scott, Richard Sprakes, Dave Standring and Nick Whitehouse.

Doncaster to Bialowieza

On 13th May fourteen birders left Doncaster at 5.00 am in a 24-seater coach and travelled to London’s Heathrow Airport. Our British Airways Boeing 757 scheduled flight departed on time at 11.40 am and arrived at Warsaw after a two hours and ten minute flight. The drivers collected four large hire cars and we were on the road heading east. Each driver was equipped with a two-way radio, allowing excellent communications between cars, and they were immediately put to use while finding our way out of Warsaw. The radios were also to prove very useful in the field, especially when the group became spread out and new sightings were made. A three hour car journey was a good introduction to eastern Poland’s bird-rich countryside and included nesting White Storks and a pair of Montagu’s Harriers. We reached our hotel in the village of Bialowieza close to the Polish-Belarussian border mid-evening, with a pair of Black Redstarts found as soon as we got out of the cars.

List of Visited Sites

An itinerary was planned around our two bases at Bialowieza and Monki, but up-to-date information from the hired guides modified each day’s birding and resulted in the following sites being visited:

13th Route from Warsaw to Bialowieza
14th Bialowieza Forest ‘Strict Reserve’
Palace Park (Park Palacowy)
Pogorzelce
Stara Bialowieza
Podolany
15th Zebra Zubra (boardwalk)
Palace Park
Podolany
Czerlonka
16th Palace Park
Podolany
Bialowieza (managed forest)
Narewka &
Kosy Most (half group)
Dabrowa near Teremiski (half group)
Pogorzelce
Gleboki Kat
Czerlonka
17th Gleboki Kat
Podolany
Roadsides en route
Siemianowka Reservoir
Monki
18th Biebrza Marshes
Gugny
Bagno Lawcy
Goniadz
Wizna Marshes
Laskowiec
Bestowa
Barwik
19th Monki
Biebrza Marshes
Gugny
Goniadz
Walka Piers
Barwik
20th Zajki
Return to Warsaw

The Week’s Weather

A five day forecast for Warsaw was obtained from the BBC Online weather centre http://www.bbc.co.uk/weather and predicted temperatures to reach the mid-20°C by Tuesday. We had continuous sunshine from Saturday to the following Friday, with hot weather for four days Monday–Thursday, when sun blocker was a useful part of the kit. Estimated daily maximum temperatures (Saturday-Saturday) were as follows: 17°, 22°, 24°, 26°, 30°, 28°, 22°, and 17°C on the last day when the weather had cooled down and there was some rain in the morning. The sunshine was ideal for soaring raptors, and butterflies also appeared in good numbers. The whole region had undergone a prolonged, hot dry period of weather prior to our visit and conditions underfoot were dry; the wellies we all brought were never used. In normal years parts of the forest are very boggy and the marshes extensively flooded in May.

The Countryside of Eastern Poland

The rural landscape has an old-fashioned look with small agricultural fields. Wooden carts and horse-drawn ploughs were seen working the land, although new farm machinery was also occasionally being used. Scattered trees and woods take up a large part of a landscape unspoilt by modern eyesores. Together, the patchwork of traditional, flower-rich hay meadows, strip farmed crops, settlements and woodlands offers a wonderful place for birds. At Bialowieza village we had Serin in trees outside our hotel and pairs of Common Redstart and Black Redstart nearby, with Golden Oriole and Grasshopper Warbler singing. Roadsides and farm tracks near Progale west of Hajnowka revealed Ortolan Bunting, Whinchat, Blue-headed Wagtail, Northern Wheatear and Lesser Spotted Eagle.

Bialowieza Forest and its National Park

The famous Bialowieza Forest holds the largest remaining remnant of primeval forest in Europe. Polish kings and Imperial Russian czars ensured its early protection, not for wildlife conservation, but for hunting game. The Polish part of this lowland forest covers about 620 square kilometres, of which, 47.5 km2 are national park and better known as the ‘Strict Reserve’. Bialowieza National Park is one of the longest established reserves on the continent and has been accredited with UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and World Heritage Site status. Being on the extreme east of Poland, the forest extends into the former Soviet Union, and at the closest point, our group was less than one kilometre from the Belarussian border.

The whole forest is complete with open glades, meadows and river valleys, and its dominant trees are oak, hornbeam, lime, maple, alder and ash, mixed with spruce and pine. Some of the ancient trees are over 500 years old and reach a height of 50 metres. A pristine site like this is, of course, ecologically very rich and access to the ‘Strict Reserve’ is only allowed with a licensed guide. Elsewhere, the forest is more accessible and includes secondary woodland and plantations, often as a result of extensive felling of the virgin woodland. Russian and British exploitation of outlying parts of the forest has taken place in the past, and in particular, by Germany during its wartime occupation. Our Polish guide also explained how the ‘Strict Reserve’ was a grave for the many Bialowieza villagers who had been marched into the forest and shot during the Second World War.

Migrants were in and the breeding season was in full swing for our six-hour visit to the ‘Strict Reserve’ on 14th May. White-backed Woodpecker visiting a nest site was the group’s first ‘mega’ bird to be listed. Many Wood Warblers sang and displayed, as did Pied, Collared and Red-breasted Flycatchers. Middle Spotted Woodpecker showed well before a Black Woodpecker was tracked down to a treetop perch. Goldcrests sang and large numbers of Song Thrushes were present. Spruce cones had been wedged in some tree trunks by woodpeckers as a method of extracting the seeds.

Palace Park (Park Palacowy)

This park was only a short walk from our accommodation at Bialowieza and was an excellent site for birds, including prized eastern European passerines. Habitat includes woodland, coarse grassy lawns, a lake with reedbeds, and is bordered by open countryside. To everyone's relief an elusive Grey-headed Woodpecker was discovered excavating a nest hole and giving good views, and Wryneck was seen at a nest site near the Park entrance.

Singing Great Reed Warblers were seen well in the reedbeds and in the open woodland Spotted and Collared Flycatchers, Great and Middle Spotted Woodpeckers, Common Redstart, Siskin, Nuthatch, Tree Sparrow, Marsh Tit, Hawfinch and Icterine Warbler. Thrush Nightingales sang from scrub cover, but when carefully approached, gave good views. An open space between the Palace Park and ‘Strict Reserve’ made an exciting raptor watchpoint, with Hobby, Honey Buzzard, Common Buzzard and Montagu’s Harrier sightings surpassed with stunning views of Lesser Spotted Eagle. Also, Raven, Hooded Crow, White Wagtail, Whinchat, Stonechat, Red-backed Shrike, Common Crane, a pair of Golden Orioles, and a Northern Grey Shrike sat on wires for us. White Storks included a flight of ten.

Zebra Zubra

We followed this ramshackled woodland boardwalk trail near Zastowa looking for the elusive Hazel Grouse. Wing beating was heard by some in the group, but only one observer had a brief view. Also, Three-toed Woodpecker, another difficult to find species, was seen by a single member of the group, and found nowhere else. Nuthatch, Wood Warbler, Red-breasted Flycatcher and drumming Black Woodpecker were recorded at this site. Hawfinches fed on hornbeam seeds and other birds of interest here were Golden Oriole, Treecreeper, Chiffchaff, Siskin, Cuckoo and Lesser Spotted Woodpecker.

Podolany

An interesting site where a roadbridge crosses a river. White-backed Woodpecker was found here and two pairs of Barred Warblers nearby. The same small area produced churring Nightjar, Woodcock, Corncrake, Thrush Nightingale, Grasshopper Warbler, Wryneck at the nest, Raven, Marsh Harrier, Spotted Flycatcher, nesting White Stork, Golden Oriole, Spotted Flycatcher and a pair of Red-backed Shrikes. Adult Lesser Spotted Eagle gave close views here as well. After pinpointing where exactly it was perched singing, we eventually had lasting views of River Warbler.

Other sites around the Forest included NAREWKA where Grey Partridge, Common Buzzard, Whinchat, Northern Wheatear and Black Redstart were noted, while KOSY MOST gave us Red-backed Shrike, Golden Oriole, White Wagtail, Fieldfare, Corncrake, River Warbler, Montagu’s Harrier, Barred Warbler, Honey Buzzard, Lesser Spotted Eagle, and Green Sandpiper on the river. While at a coniferous stand of trees looking for Hazel Grouse (seen by one observer here), Red-breasted Flycatcher, Bullfinch, Nuthatch, Tree Pipit, Raven, Goshawk and a pair of Crested Tits showed. DABROWA near Teremiski was visited by half the group on 16th May and produced Wryneck, Black Stork, Lesser Spotted Eagle, Icterine Warbler, Scarlet Rosefinch, Thrush Nightingale, Hazel Grouse (heard), and Nutcracker was heard and seen flying across a path. GLEBOKI KAT reserve produced Collared Flycatcher, Green Sandpiper and calling Nutcracker, with white-headed Long-tailed Tit A. c. caudatus also noted. CZERLONKA was visited for speciality owls, but before dusk we saw Black Woodpecker, Common Crossbill and Hobby, and with the onset of darkness Tawny Owl called.

As an almost full moon climbed above pine trees in a star-studded sky on 15th May, there was an awesome silence, only disturbed by mosquitoes buzzing around my ears. Our guide began to imitate the call of Pygmy Owl, and with his keen sense of hearing, was able to locate a response. We followed him into the pines and as he called once more, a Pygmy called and flew above our heads. The group gathered below a tall pine tree where it had landed and in the moonlight, to everyone’s astonishment, the tiny owl was perched at the very end of a straight branch. We all had a look before the beam of a powerful torch further illuminated this esteemed species. After a short while the bird flew off to join its mate in a nearby tree and both continued to call as we moved away to leave them to their nocturnal forest world.

It was now time to go for Tengmalm’s Owl, which was tracked down once again by imitating the unique call. We all arrived under the very tree from which it was calling – an unforgettable moment. Unfortunately, the top of this pine was so dense with needles that the owl could not be seen and after several minutes flew off. Next evening we returned, only for the Tengmalm's to get the better of us once more, with just its tremendous call and other enigmatic sounds to remember that night. However, as we left the forest a Nightjar was settled on one of the dirt roads and everyone had very good views of it while lit by car headlights.

Siemianowka Reservoir (Lake Siemianowka)

This large area of open water was formed when the River Narew was dammed, and includes areas of marshland. During our visit the water level was lower than usual, but ideal for passage waders. We followed a sandy track running alongside railway lines for a return walking distance of ten kilometres, in hot sunshine. A colony of 30 Sand Martin nest holes were in use and Fieldfares flew past carrying food. Great Crested Grebes and Grey Herons were on the reservoir alongside Great White Egrets. Great Reed and Savi’s Warblers were also in this area. Common and White-winged Black Terns were outnumbered by over 40 Black Terns. A good variety of waders were found here including Ruff, Wood Sandpiper, Little Stint, Temminck’s Stint, Turnstone, Greenshank, Redshank, Spotted Redshank, Black-tailed Godwit, Ringed and Little Ringed Plovers. Common and Herring Gulls shared the site with yellow-legged gulls. A number of ducks were seen, including nine Garganey, Tufted Duck and Shoveler. The site also rewarded us with an adult White-tailed Eagle, Red-backed Shrike, Montagu’s Harrier, Hoopoe and five Black Storks in flight, but the most sought-after species here was Citrine Wagtail, of which we watched a pair.

Biebrza Marshes

Biebrza Marshes stretch for many kilometres along the River Biebrza and cover 140,000 ha to form one of Europe’s largest and most valuable inland wetlands. A vast area, as far as the eye can see in all directions, is covered by pools, reedbeds, sedge marshes, flood meadows, peat bogs, willow carr, flower-rich hay meadows, swamp woodland and riverine marshes. This pristine wetland habitat is internationally important for its wetland birds, including endangered Aquatic Warbler and fast declining Great Snipe. The usual annual flooding was not evident during our visit, but this made little difference to the number of species present in the southern river basin, where we spent two full days. One of the highlights here was a Greater Spotted Eagle, identified as it drifted over the marshes.

Further Information

The middle of May is the peak of Polish spring and probably the best time to visit for birding. Early morning starts at around 5.30 were necessary to get the most out of each day. One of the features not emphasised earlier was the fact that birds were not only in breeding plumage but many were in full song. It was great to hear Thrush Nightingale, River Warbler, Icterine Warbler, Great Reed Warbler, Collared Flycatcher, Ortolan Bunting, Scarlet Rosefinch, Red-breasted Flycatcher and Golden Oriole singing. Numbers were not given in the site summaries, but the checklist shows impressive daily counts for some species. For example, on 18th May, 220 White-winged Black Terns were seen.

Three of the group had been to the same region before and their experience was put to good use during the week. We all helped each other like a team, ensuring that everyone in the group eventually had good views of the majority of species, and shared 'scopes if necessary. Our two expert local guides were able to take us to sites of some of the speciality species and also to show us their ‘patch’, albeit enormous by our standards. Otherwise, bird finding was left entirely to the group’s field skills. Both guides were skilled ornithologists, Arkadiusz for instance had co-written a scientific paper on Common Buzzard reproduction and prey species taken in the Bialowieza National Park. We were in a part of Poland where English is not needed as a second language, but our guides were the exception and this proved extremely helpful.

Other birding groups were present during our stay, including Naturetrek, sharing the hotel at Bialowieza, and a large Wild Wings tour. However, we rarely met other birders, except at the Great Snipe watchpoint which was fully occupied on both the nights we visited. As with most evening birding here, insect repellent was needed, and exposed to the mid-day heat we found ourselves needing to carry a bottle of water everywhere.

Roads were generally in good conditon, even in the forest sections where they were just dirt tracks. A good map of Bialowieza Forest for birdwatchers was available for about £1.60. Polish food was wholesome and of good quality, and though evening meals were enjoyable, breakfasts were not very appealing. Currency exchange rate at the time of our visit was very good, so each Polish Zloty was worth about 16p. Prices were low, with a half litre of beer or large Vodka costing three Zlotys and a large icecream just two Zlotys. At the end of the holiday the list of ‘lifers’ for many in the group was excellent, but the sights and sounds of the whole range of habitats and wealth of birdlife also made a lasting impression.

The Last Day

Our last few hours of birding on the final day were spent watching Garganey, displaying Black-tailed Godwits and 50 White-winged Black Terns amongst other birds on the marshes at ZAJKI. Peregrine Falcon was added to the trip list, as was Mediterranean Gull. A Lesser Spotted Eagle was the penultimate bird recorded in my log and a fabulous Hobby speeding past was the last. We headed for Warsaw at 11.30 am, tired but very satisfied with a great week’s birding.

Acknowledgements

Nick Whitehouse and Lance Degnan are given a big thank you for organising this successful trip. We are indebted to Mariusz Ostanski from Gliwice for making all the necessary trip arrangements in Poland, and many thanks go to our Polish guides Arkadiusz Szymura at Bialowieza Forest, and Jan Kowalski at Biebrza Marshes who were both very helpful.

e-mail David Carroll

For a complete trip list click here

(Collared Flycatcher illustration by Andy Birch)


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