Poland, May 22nd - 27th 2001

Published by Surfbirds Admin (surfbirds AT surfbirds.com)


by Barnaby Briggs


We arrived at 3pm, but Ania only met us at 5pm, after some confusion about flight times. This was the only hitch in an otherwise perfectly arranged trip by Marek Borkowksi and his team of guides. Driving across Warsaw meant lots of traffic, but we did also see several families of Fieldfares. These turned out to be one of the commonest birds of the trip - looking smart in summer plumage. We saw our first White Storks, and they were walking which apparently means that we will have a lazy year.

We stopped at a fishpond on a busy road and heard our first Great Reed Warbler, saw a Black Stork fly over the car and found a very squashed pine marten. After a large meal, I added another bird to the list by hearing the strange nocturnal flight call of a Coot. We met a group from the Sussex Wildlife Trust who were having a very good time while also being looked after Marek and his team.

Day One - 102 species - Hotel/Southern Biebrza Marsh

The day's birdwatching started at five from our hotel room, when a Pied Flycatcher showed itself briefly in the tree outside the window. Shortly afterwards we were shivering in the morning dew. Badly underdressed, we soon were hearing unfamiliar songs which led us to an Icterine Warbler, Woodlark, and revising the differences between Blackcap and Garden Warblers. The Chaffinches kept us interested too, as they seemed to have a Great Spotted Woodpecker "kick" at the end of their song. Cranes called in the distance. A Treecreeper was feeding young behind the entrance sign to the hotel, a pair of Marsh Tits were feeding young in a pipe. A rufous phase female Cuckoo suddenly dropped to the ground and grabbed a huge worm before flying off.

After breakfast we started on our longest day trip of the visit, in which we made a slow circuit of the southern half of the Biebrza marshes. It was probably ten hours, covering perhaps 150 miles, stopping frequently. But at the end, we felt that we had only just started to understand the scale and nature of the marshes.

One of the first stops was a watchtower over the marsh near a railway line. A Thrush Nightingale sang noisily from thick cover, and a pair of Scarlet Rosefinches appeared briefly at the top of the low scrub - the first of many views of this species.

Later we stopped at an embankment with a view over miles of colourful marsh, as every wide open field was thick with flowers. White-winged Black Terns hawked up and down the marsh in small groups. Frogs called, and a horse and cart rolled slowly past. In one field a Fieldfare family hopped under a huge oak, while a Red-backed Shrike hunted from the fence-posts, Yellowhammers called from the treetops and a pair of Black-tailed Godwits panicked about every passer by.

At another embankment viewpoint a small colony of Black Terns was busily and noisily camped on floating vegetation, while Marsh Harriers hunted in the background. Storks nested on the top of almost every available nest pole, usually with one adult and young in the nest and another adult nearby on the marsh. A Lesser Spotted Eagle floated slowly past, spiralling on a thermal, looking very large and dark.

We stopped at a riverbank where Sand Martins were nesting in a steep little sandbank, Common Terns and Wood Sandpipers sat on the opposite bank, and a Golden Oriole called from some poplars further away. Behind us over the forest, a Black Stork and family of Ravens soared over the pines. The peace and quiet of the wide river winding slowly through the flood meadows made us think that this is what some parts of Britain would once have looked like.

We stopped on a viewpoint on the edge of a dusty quiet village, and looked over the marsh. A Snipe drummed over the reedbeds while some cows were brought up the hill - we found a Tree Sparrow. At another viewpoint another Thrush Nightingale sang loudly, but did not show. Ania first spotted an elk a very long way away, we subsequently found three or four others closer.

Finally at a high watchtower overlooking the marshes, we saw Little Terns passing quickly, while in the background two Ruffs danced for a collection of Reeves. One was mainly black and one mainly white, and they pranced around each other raising their collars for a moment, before moving off and feeding.

After supper we went to a patch of forest where a track led between old and new forest. We stood there, getting increasingly cold, just able to hear a Nightjar in the far distance. We all got a shock - Ania in particular - when a badger came trotting up the path.

Day Two - 96 species - Kuligi, northern Biebzra marshes, Great Snipe lek

We started early with a visit to Marek's farm and nearby marshes. We started with a (cold) visit to a marsh with little vegetation, and only a few higher shrubs. In one sang an Aquatic Warbler, not a great song, and looking very big headed. We could also hear a Grasshopper Warbler. In a large bush nearby a Barred Warbler sang, showing a bright yellow eye, and occasionally fluttering into a song flight.

A Hawfinch was nesting very openly in an alder, while a Thrush Nightingale showed well and sang loudly nearby.

At Marek's house we had a (welcomely hot) cup of tea, having been taken to see White-backed Woodpeckers feeding young in a nest low in an alder. Marek's tarpan pedigree horses grazed in the woods and fields around the house.

We then drove around the northern end of the marsh, which did not result in finding many more birds. We stopped in one big open meadow where we meant to see Spotted Eagle, but found an Osprey and many many Hawfinches. We managed to encourage a pair of Golden Orioles to fly across the meadow.

After lunch we went to some fish ponds near the hotel where huge numbers of frogs and toads called loudly, especially the toads that said "oom". We found a pair of Temminck's Stints, managed to walk past a Penduline Tit's nest and only found it on the way back. But then the adult showed well for a few minutes. Savi's Warblers churred alongside Grasshopper Warblers so the difference was clear. A male Honey Buzzard passed really close by, giving us rather a shock.

That evening, we were taken to Marek's Great Snipe reserve, where the lek came to life as the light faded. Bibbling away the birds primped, pumped up their chests, flicked their white tails and leapt - apparently all trying to get closer to the middle of the lek. In the background Roe Deer fought, several Cuckoos called, males and females, a couple of glow worms shone in the grass and a Bluethroat sang from low cover.

Day Three - 109 species - Biebzra marshes, Dojlidy fish ponds, Siemianowka Reservoir, Szymki village, Bialoweiza forest

Another early start to look for any remaining Blackcock, without success, although the marsh was filled with Cuckoo, Whitethroat, Blackcap and Garden Warbler song. On a stop on the way back we found River Warblers singing noisily from alders on the edge of the marsh. As we waited for the warblers to show better, two or three Corncrakes started calling from very close to us. One of the group we were with that morning played a Corncrake tape back to them, and one came closer and closer as we watched the River Warbler, and we laughed that we really might even see it. Suddenly one of the group said that he could see the bird, and we watched a Corncrake calling loudly from the base of an alder for several minutes.

We drove back for breakfast through a landscape of a Europe of thirty years or more ago, small hay meadows, unkempt marsh grazing covered with flowers and horses pulling carts.

Driving to Bialoweiza, we stopped at some fish ponds at Dolidy. Four species of grebe were breeding in the reeds, resplendent in summer plumage. A Marsh Warbler sang fast and furious from a tree, interspersed with excellent mimicry of Swallow and Great Tit.

We also stopped at the Siemianowka. reservoir. Here we had lunch on the railway line to Minsk and waited to be joined by Swavek. As he arrived we found a large raptor on a post. No-one could decide what it was, though it had a pale head, so Swavek ran across the dried-up reservoir bed for most of the kilometre or so that it was away, so it would fly. It was very large, dark, and had markedly bowed wings - a Spotted Eagle.

As we went off to try and find a Citrine Wagtail, a German in a high state of alarm came up to ask about eagles and wagtails. We felt pleased to have our own guides and not to have reduced ourselves to that same state.

A large grass snake sunned itself on a concrete slab, but no Citrine Wagtails were to be seen. Eventually we were directed towards some sticks a long way off on the old reservoir bed. Stunningly yellow, a male Citrine Wagtail carrying food appeared and posed on a stump to give great views. Strangely the other bird our here in the sightly desolate scenery were Wheatears - for which the Polish seemed to be 'white arse' also.

A row of poplars with a telegraph wire was a known site for Rollers nearby, but none were around. Instead, and rather more exotic, was a Lesser Grey Shrike, very neat and pinky underneath - more like a Masked Shrike than I had expected. Soon afterwards a splendid male Montagu's Harrier sailed past.

Finally we made our way to Bialoweiza, and were left outside the nest hole of a Middle-spotted Woodpecker with very noisy young very close to the newly built, and unfinished, Hotel Iwa. Nesting in the nest tree was a pair of Hawfinches, and a Lesser-spotted Woodpecker fed in another great oak.

Day Four - 77 species - Palace park, Bison Ribs, Narewka River, High marsh, owling

There was frost on the ground in the morning, and it was a very cold first hour or two. A pair of Collared Flycatchers was feeding young in a nest box just outside the newly rebuilt hotel. The rest of the Palace Park was very quiet, possibly because of the temperature. As the day warmed up, a few more birds sang, particularly an Icterine Warbler, which showed well in the sun, and often sounded very like a rubber duck. A Thrush Nightingale sang from an exposed perch, allowing us to get telescope views.

After breakfast we walked along a path called Bison ribs. This was picturesque, but quiet other than a few Pied Flycatchers. Almost at the end, near the area where bison and other animals are on display, we heard an unfamiliar song - which Ania quickly identified as a Red-breasted Flycatcher. After some time we caught a few glimpses of the bird itself. The middle of the day was windy and rather quiet birdwatching, although the landscape of forest, rivers, reedbeds and sun was beautiful. A Nutcracker flew over the road, and was briefly seen by those who most needed to see it.

After lunch we were taken by Arek Szymura to a Three-toed Woodpecker hole. Walking to the tree, we saw bison tracks in a particularly pretty piece of forest threaded through by a meandering stream and with pink cow parsley. As we got to the hole, Arek explained that the adults were sitting, so would be very hard to see. He would make a quiet tapping on a nearby tree, and the sitting adult would poke its head out of the hole, go back in when it saw us, then fly out and see exactly what the tapping was, and then disappear back into the hole. It did. We had to applaud Arek, and the woodpecker. It was the male with a smart yellow head, and white chevrons on his wings. On the way back, a confusing flycatcher song was identified by Arek as a pied/collared hybrid.

After not finding any Hazel Grouse in a perfect-looking patch of habitat - although we did see a red deer and spotty fawn - we walked in the so-called High Marsh, very close to the Byelorussian border. At one point we were about 300 metres from the border fence. This fence was put up by the Communists, and is still maintained by the Byelorussians, effectively stopping large mammal movements in the forest.

On a little bridge over the river, Marsh and River Warblers sang loudly, only outdone by Thrush Nightingales. A Green Sandpiper and Kingfisher flicked away, the sandpiper climbing high above us, calling. Near the bridge, a grey phase Pied Flycatcher sang from the mid-canopy.

After a large supper, we went owling. About 45 people, all organised by Marek and his team, stood quietly on a cross-roads in the forest. Cars driving past must have had a strange view of massed Goretex and fleece. Arek called Owls

Day Five - 60 species - Bialowieza Forest strict reserve

An early start to get into the strict reserve at dawn. The reserve was everything that it is meant to be, with huge oak, hornbeam and small-leaved lime trees. There was a family of wild boar and red squirrels were numerous. Arek talked in detail about the complexity of the ecosystem, which was as intricate as any in the tropics. In fact the forest was much more like tropical forest than I had expected, but all the trees and birds were familiar. Blackbirds and Song Thrushes instead of pittas and ant-thrushes. Oaks and limes instead of teak and mahogany. Strangely, although this was wonderful, and you were able to see a real European habitat in full glory, it was also rather sad, given that this meant the English habitats that we are used to are really poor!

Arek showed us a large hole very high up - above the canopy. We waited only a few minutes and a male Black Woodpecker came to the hole, and four noisy heads came out. We walked slowly through the forest, occasionally coming across bison tracks, towards an open reed bed. Here a Marsh Warbler mimicked a Swallow and Grey-headed Woodpecker. A Redwing chattered uneasily in the alders, and we eventually saw that it was not concerned about us but a Jay that appeared to be robbing its nest.

Pied, Collared and Red-breasted Flycatchers sang from the mid-canopy, Blackbirds and Song Thrushes fed on the forest floor, and Chaffinches sang from every tree. The density of birds put any other European forest that I have been to shame.

As we left the reserve - Arek had to get back to church to play the organ - a Grey-headed Woodpecker showed briefly on the edge of the forest. As we crossed the meadow, first a Lesser Spotted Eagle flew over, then a Honey Buzzard. Fine birds to end the trip with.

Click here for trip list