Luton Airport may be the boil on the bottom of UK air travel and EasyJet the Asda of the skies, but the flight is ridiculously cheap. At least this is the fact that Victoria and I keep reminding ourselves of, as we sip our early morning coffee and watch the ‘all-inclusives’ file past in the departure lounge. Boarding has the finesse of a rugby scrum and the stewardesses possess the eloquence of checkout girls, but it is ridiculously cheap.
It takes just £41.00 and two-and-a-quarter hours to reach Warsaw, where we touch the tarmac at 09.30. A ‘Budget’ Opel Astra awaits and soon we are heading east, out of the rather grim communist-grey concrete suburbs and into the warm and humid greenery of the Polish countryside.
The further east we travel the less intensive the agricultural practices become, as fields grow progressively smaller and wild flowers begin to proliferate amongst the cereals and hay. Crops are grown using a strip-farming technique and an aesthetically pleasing patchwork of vegetation colour blankets the flat landscape below huge blue horizons.
Extensive blocks of birch and pine forest interrupt arable fields, with much of the area clearly managed as a timber resource, and we stop in one such shaded woodland for a picnic lunch and our first encounter with the bane of the next seven days, the hungry Polish mosquito!
The rural architecture is a sharply contrasting mixture of ageing bungalows constructed of faded, greying timber and modern two-storey houses built from pale concrete blocks occasionally finished in brightly painted render; all rather haphazard and not an overly-attractive combination.
We have actually travelled some way east of the capital before we encounter our first of the soon-to-be ubiquitous White Stork nests. Most nests are secured atop purpose-built steel platforms placed strategically above electricity supply poles. As the intensiveness of the farming reduces, so the numbers of nesting White Storks increases, with tiny villages often supporting two or three pairs as one travels further north and east. This species, at the top of the food chain, is a fantastic indicator of the health of the rural ecosystem; it’s not surprising that there is not a stork to be seen in the heavily sprayed and fertilized prairie-like arable monocultures of the UK.
The final twenty kilometres of the journey takes us along a road that cuts a path through the towering limes and hornbeams of the legendary Bialowieza Forest. The first thing that becomes apparent to a visitor to this amazing habitat is the immense height of the trees; Bialowieza is more akin to a high-latitude rainforest than the temperate woodlands which can be found in the UK!
After a little searching we find our pre-booked pension, which has been specifically chosen as the proprietor speaks English (URL: www.park.bialowieza.com/park/eng/home). At least that is what it says on the Bialowieza website; Jan Buszko doesn’t actually speak a single word of English! A little sign-language and liberal use of the Polish phrase book soon smoothes over our difficulties and we are delighted to find that we have been allotted a superb first-floor flat in a converted outbuilding, complete with veranda giving views over the meadows and woodlands to the rear. Over the next few days our ‘garden list’ is to include such stars as Corncrake, White Stork, Red-backed Shrike, Common Rosefinch, Black Redstart and Lesser Spotted Eagle!
Beside our room an elderly lady tends her plot of potato plants, whilst a neighbour of a similar age fills a metal bucket with water extracted from the garden well by a hand pump. This really is a different world from our pampered and materialistic western culture. Values in life are vastly different from the ones to which we are accustomed and such a tough existence has created an extremely hard –working and resilient race of people.
Next stop is the museum, where we have arranged to meet Mateusz Szymura at 16.30, in order to discuss our birding strategy for the next few days. Mateusz is a park guide and the son of the well-regarded Arek Szymura who has helped birders in the park for many years. Mateusz does not appear as arranged and proves to be one of the most unreliable guides we have ever had the displeasure to meet. I cannot speak for Arek, who carries a fine reputation, but would strongly advise any visitors to Bialowieza to give Mateusz a very wide berth.
After a second abortive rendezvous with Mateusz, which has caused us to waste a large chunk of the evening, we find consolation in an excellent little family-run restaurant beside the Narewka River. The proprietor cannot be more helpful and a Zubra Beer to wash down the pierogi, a mushroom and wild boar ravioli, restores our faith in Polish hospitality.
A late evening walk along the lanes to the west of the town gives us the first opportunity to officially air our binoculars and serves to reveal the true potential of the area, both in terms of bird and mosquito populations! A Wryneck perches on a nearby fence-post, Red-backed Shrikes vie with Whinchats for the ideal meadow hunting-perches, while in the background Corncrakes and Thrush Nightingale provide a sunset serenade.
A twilight ‘mammal drive’ gives respite from the biting insects, but no mammals whatsoever and after a brief but good-humoured brush with the Polish Army at a military checkpoint we return to our spacious apartment and the first real sleep for two days.
Thursday 17th June
At 04.30 we emerge from the room and are both surprised and relieved to find Mateusz waiting for us at the agreed hour. We proceed by car to the edge of the National Park just northwest of Bialowieza village and then walk through an orchid and Corncrake infested meadow to enter the forest via an imposing timber gate. A winding trail and system of boardwalks then takes us amongst the mighty oaks, limes, maples, hornbeams and spruces and through patches of alder-dominated swamp-forest. The woodland is of a relatively open nature and one big surprise is the presence of the nettle beds that dominate the ground flora; apparently this is a function of the large quantities of rotting timber that provide nutrients to the forest floor.
To give him his due, Mateusz has a great depth of knowledge of the park’s natural history, but its delivery is made in a very mechanical and rehearsed manner, with a set rendition given at a set point on the walk that has clearly been recited hundreds of times before. He shows very little enthusiasm and his attitude serves to takes the shine off what is undoubtedly a wonderful area.
Typically of forest birding, species are few and far between. Singing Wood Warblers appear to be amongst the most numerous residents, with a family of Middle Spotted Woodpeckers, a male Red-breasted Flycatcher and a couple of Red Squirrels being the only other highlights.
We part company with Mateusz at around 07.30, being left with directions to an active Three-toed Woodpecker nest close to the eastern end of the village, and agree to speak later about plans for the rest of our time in Bialowieza. The long walk to the nest site takes us through some seriously mosquito-infested spruce forest whose low canopy gives a very different atmosphere to the gloomy depths of the deciduous forest visited earlier.
As we approach the ‘x’ on the map we hear what has to be Three-toed Woodpecker calling, but can we find it?! After fifteen minutes of frustrated wanderings and intermittent calls we look upwards to find the head of a young Three-toed Woodpecker peeping from its nest-hole in a bare spruce just four metres above the ground! Interestingly, the bird can already be sexed as a male due to the lemon-yellow patch on his crown. We settle into an ideal photographic vantage-point and do not have to suffer the bloodthirsty mosquitoes for too long before the male bird returns to feed his offspring and display his finery including the spectacular lemon crown and white back of the north European tridactylus race. The young are clearly almost ready to fledge and are highly vocal as both adults make regular feeding visits to the nest.
After donating a full pint of blood to the local mosquitoes we beat a hasty retreat and head for our favoured dining location close to the river, where a large bacon omelette with fresh bread and copious quantities of coffee set us up for the rest of the day. Back at our digs a couple of juvenile Common Rosefinches feed in the fruit tree right next to the veranda and across the meadows, a Lesser Spotted Eagle begins to circle on the rising thermals. It doesn’t circle for long, however, as billowing storm clouds soon open to unleash a torrential downpour.
Heavy showers are the order of the next couple of hours so I explore the mosquito-ridden Bison’s Ribs trail while Vic sleeps off the early start. My efforts get me prolonged views of a singing Thrush Nightingale, a nice male Black Woodpecker and a thoroughly waterlogged camera. Great!
When the rain begins to subside we take a drive out of the forest to Hajnowka and then Dubiny, where we try to gain access to Pojedynacki Tryb, Richard Webb’s recommended site for European Bison. After narrowly avoiding the loss of the hire car along a seriously rutted and muddy farm track and finding just Corn Bunting and Variable Damselfly for our troubles we give up, realising that we must be approaching the track from the wrong end; it is starting to feel like one of those days!
Our route back to Bialowieza takes us along the scenic route, via the village of Budy. Stopping at the bridge mid-way between Budy and Teremisk we spend some time in the marshy roadside forest and the boggy meadow just to the east. Golden Orioles flute out their song whilst above the meadow numerous Common Snipe circle, calling, then swooping to create an incredible drumming with outstretched tail feathers.
Venturing through swathes of sedges and numerous colourful wild flowers, we make our way through a meadow alive with birds. Red-backed Shrikes top every vantage point and a Barred Warbler hops through the undergrowth in a typically ungainly manner. A Great Grey Shrike chooses a higher lookout atop a dead alder, with a calling Common Snipe perching almost shoulder-to-shoulder! A River Warbler reels his mechanical call close by and a rasping Corncrake all adds to what is an incredibly atmospheric setting, with a low sun now casting long shadows across the forest clearing.
In the dead alders which surround the meadow a family party of superb White-backed Woodpeckers is located, finally giving an opportunity to study this extremely scare Western Palearctic breeder in great detail. Further back the distinctive shape of Nutcracker tops a lofty spruce, completing a mouth-watering hour at the end of the day. With the two target woodpeckers under the belt the pressure is off on the birding front, though we still have some big mammals to pursue!
A phone call to Mateusz confirms that he will not be taking us to look for Pygmy Owl this evening and that he will not be meeting us in the morning, in spite of the fact that he assured us of his availability by e-mail some months before! A meeting with him at the Best Western Hotel reveals that he is dining in luxury with two Italian birders, who clearly have a much greater potential to cross his palm with gold than us lowly Brits. Had we not already seen every bird we were hoping for, and had we not taken a growing dislike to the deceitful and greedy young man, we would be rather p*ssed off! As it turns out we just begrudgingly pay him his due and leave him with his affluent new mates; do not book Mateusz Szymura to guide you!
Tonight’s dinner consists of an extremely tasty bigos (slow-cooked polish stew) and potato cakes, which are rather hastily consumed before we head to the Pojedynacki Tryb clearing for the last hour of daylight. Approaching from the east is clearly the way to do it and before long we are perched in the watchtower beside a large forest clearing from which mist is starting to rise above the tall grass. Sadly our bovine quarry fails to materialise and neither do any other furry beasts on our drive back to base.
Friday 18th June
A 03.30 alarm and a forty-five minute blurry-eyed drive through the forest delivers us at Kosy Most on the northern edge of the Park. Within a second of vacating the car one is literally covered in mosquitoes at what must surely be their most prolific stronghold in Bialowieza!
A brisk half-hour walk through spruce forest gives the biting insects ample opportunity to add to the misery of yesterday’s fiercely itching bumps and welts, before we find ourselves beside a wonderful forest clearing which is overlooked by a twenty metre high timber observation tower. To our joy we discover that mosquitoes don’t like heights and that the upper platform of the tower is virtually free from buzzing irritation!
The outlook from the tower is over a boreal-type landscape, with a large grassy clearing bounded by birch and spruce forest. Clumps of scrub dot the meadow, from which River Warblers buzz and Thrush Nightingales deliver their rich song. Marshy pools are home to Great Reed Warblers and numerous loudly calling frogs. Fieldfares perch up beside Red-backed Shrikes while Hawfinch and Golden Oriole fly past. Although the hoped-for mammals fail to materialise we cannot but be impressed with what has to be one of the most breathtaking vistas in the whole of Bialowieza National Park.
As we drive north from Kosy Most towards Siemianowka Reservoir the heavens open and torrential rain confines us to the car for a couple of hours, which at least allows us to catch up on missing sleep. With the mid-morning sun trying to peep through the grey clouds we procure a bread and cheese picnic breakfast and take the straight cobbled road that cuts through poplar then pine forest to deliver us to the south shore of the huge man-made Siemianowka Reservoir.
A series of tiny dirt tracks cut through the pines to the boggy eastern margins where numerous marsh terns dance over the water and vast reedbeds. A seemingly endless procession of summer-plumaged Black, White-winged Black and Whiskered Terns skirt the shoreline in an east-to-west direction, plucking unseen morsels from the water and passing within touching distance of our in-car vantage point from which we shelter from the windy squalls.
As we perform a clockwise circuit of the reservoir, soaking up Common Cranes, Great White Egret, Gargany and some particularly obliging Hoopoes as we go, so the weather brightens. By the time we reach the railway causeway in the northeast corner the sun has broken through and we are treated to an interesting display of odonata which includes Willow Emerald, Small Red-eyed and Variable Damselflies, a mass emergence of Yellow-winged Darters and a single copulating pair of Leuchorrhinia pectoralis. The latter is a close relative of our familiar White-faced Dragonfly, being somewhat bulkier and with a distinctive yellow sub-terminal abdominal band.
After securing a picnic supper at a local shop we set off back to Kosy Most, for an evening vigil in the company of the mosquitoes. Thankfully the sturdy watchtower is still relatively free from these relentless vampires and we are free to chomp on cheese salad sandwiches in peace as the sun bathes the wonderful boreal scene in soft orange light. Corncrakes are crexing below and roding Woodcock chipping above to create one of the most exhilarating settings of the whole trip.
A male Montagu’s Harrier drifts airily past, towards his evening roost, before some ripples on the otherwise glass-smooth surface of one of the lakes below the tower betrays the presence of our evening’s quarry. It is 20.15 when we first spot the flat and rather angular head of a European Beaver, followed by low back and distinctive paddle-like tail. Through the telescope we can count his long eyebrows as he performs three or four circuits of his favoured pool before diving with a leisurely forward-roll. What an awesome finale to the day! An hour later he returns to follow exactly the same routine for another four or five minutes and then dives, never to be seen again.
This is our cue to depart and in the course of our drive back to Bialowieza village we notch up both Red and Roe Deer, a couple of Brown Hares which seem rather out-of-place in a forest setting and a brief view of a large mustelid which is almost certainly a Pine Martin.
Saturday 19th June
The alarm rings at a ludicrously early 03.15, yet it is already daylight as we drive to the Pojedynacki Tryb clearing. Positioning ourselves in the northernmost watchtower we are able to savour a couple of Roe Deer that feed in the misty dew-soaked grass, but again no large bovines move in to join them.
While Vic gets some supplementary shuteye I spend a final couple of hours wandering through the depths of the forest with just a set of Wild Boar footprints for my troubles; looks like a return winter mammal trip is on the cards!
Although Jan doesn’t speak a word of English we manage to convey the fact that have enjoyed our time in his pension immensely, after which we head west and out of the forest. Before we have reached the edge of the woodland an emergency stop is required, however, to admire the superb Poplar Admiral butterflies that are descending to the road and apparently taking minerals from a strip of tar!
A fast road takes us northwest to the city of Bialystok in around an hour-and-a-half, where we track down the Dojlidy Fishponds, our pre-arranged rendezvous site with Tomek Kulakowski (url: www.avestrom.republika.pl, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org). Tomek has been extremely helpful in the preceding weeks, answering various e-mailed queries and ultimately offering to meet us for an afternoon of birding around Bialystok.
The order of the afternoon is a tour around some superb low-intensity agricultural habitat and tiny villages to the south of the city in order to carry out an annual survey of breeding European Rollers. Tomek is a veritable mine of fascinating information and never seems to tire of our relentless questioning as we discuss all manner of subjects from Polish religion, politics, local village life and pressing conservation issues. He is deeply involved in various nature conservation projects and we hear how the source of our afternoon’s study, the European Roller, is in a serious state of decline in Poland. There appears to be no shortage of nesting sites and large insects so Tomek suspects that hunting pressures in the Mediterranean may be to blame; this species’ global decline is reflected in its recent uplisting in the ‘Red List’ classification made by Birdlife International.
Tomek's knowledge of the species’ breeding sites affords us mouth-watering views of this dazzling species, in some outstandingly picturesque settings of beautiful and unspoilt countryside. Large Copper butterflies nectar on the lush flora which lines the banks of crystal-clear dykes over which Brilliant Emerald dragonflies hunt. Skylarks sing in profusion above the tiny hay meadows from which Quail utter their ‘wet-my-lips’ call. Cattle are tethered in small groups and it is amazing to see three legged milking stools and milk churns beside some such groups.
Many of the tiny villages through which we pass have cobbled streets, and Tomek informs us that the large rounded cobblestones are known as ‘cats’ heads’! It also seems that the entire populations of most villages have turned out in their best attire to attend Mass in what is clearly a deeply religious country. Our host explains how to distinguish Greek Orthodox churches, with their distinctive ‘onion tops’, from the Roman Catholic variety!
It’s been a fascinating afternoon and we part company with an arrangement to meet in the early evening to try for some night birds. The Best Western Hotel seems rather over-the-top and certainly lacking in atmosphere after our stint in the country, but it is still relatively inexpensive by Western European standards. A fine pizza is followed by a quick tour of the town centre where another huge gathering of worshippers are descending upon the huge Roman Catholic cathedral which is so full that that an overspill congregation is gathered on the steps outside.
Tomek returns at 20.00 and we travel northeast to Budzisk Nature Reserve, part of the Krajobrazowy Forest, where both Pygmy and Tengmalm's Owl are relatively easy to find at the right time of year. And that time of year certainly isn’t the back end of June! We draw a blank on the owl front but it’s interesting to see another forest type and glean some more from Tomek’s vast store of knowledge.
After bidding warm farewells to our new friend in Bialystok, Vic and I manage to find an excellent late-night bar and while away a few hours under the stars with glass in hand; it’s almost like being on holiday!
Sunday 20th June
The Best Western Hotel breakfast-time is an event of mammoth proportions and we fill ourselves with enough cheese, meat and fruity delights to last us for the rest of the trip! Our route west from Bialystok takes us initially through more intensively farmed land but as we leave the main road and head towards Tykocin, in the Narew Valley, we return to a scene of tiny fields and numerous White Storks. The small town of Tykocin is probably the most picturesque of our entire tour, with ‘cats’ head’ cobbles, whitewashed walls and red terracotta tiles.
An imposing twin-spired church backs the central square and while Vic gets out her sketchpad and pencils I check out the odonata on the adjacent Narew River. On a reed-fringed dyke adjacent to the main waterway Hairy Dragonfly, Norfolk Hawker plus Broad-bodied and Four-spotted Chasers all hunt, as Marsh Warbler and Common Rosefinch sing from the nearby scrub.
Moving on to a sand quarry just south of Tykocin, which has been recommended by Tomek, we are immediately greeted by a singing male Ortolan Bunting low down in a roadside ash tree. A couple of European Bee-Eaters hawk insects over the small quarry, in which hundreds of Sand Martins and a pair of Northern Wheatear are nesting.
Geranium Argus butterflies favour the wild flowers surrounding the deep cuttings whilst conspicuous brown-and-yellow tiger beetles hunt actively on the bare sand patches. The shallow pools at the base of the quarry appear ideal Scarce Blue-tailed Damselfly breeding sites and we locate several males and a distinctive orange aurantiaca phase female of this species. We also come to appreciate the difficulties of European amphibian identification as we debate the familiar "Is it a Pool Frog or is it an Edible Frog?" question!
We continue our travels east along the minor roads that follow the Narew Valley to the north of the river, winding through some of the most attractive rural scenery yet. Tiny linear villages consist of a few faded wooden bungalows lining cobbled streets, each with an obligatory stork nest or three. Most of the population appears to be hard at work on the land, mowing and turning hay in miniature rusting tractors or even by hand scythe and rake.
The Neresl River, just east of Paski, is a minor tributary of the Narew whose crystal-clear waters cut through a flat expanse of hay fields. In places the surface of the Neresl is completely covered with flowering Yellow Water Lilies that make a stunning spectacle below the wide blue horizon. Numerous Banded Demoiselles alight on the lilies, though Downy Emeralds patrol their beat relentlessly without ever stopping to rest. Black-tailed Skimmers and White-legged damselflies also find the watercourse to their liking, along with a few attractive Common Clubtails.
Close by is a small area of sandy Juniper-dominated heathland, above which a Woodlark sings. Hoopoes oblige but the resident fritillaries just won’t alight for long enough to allow identification in the intense heat of the day.
Arriving at our destination of Wizna, we set about the search for our accommodation in the form of Zenek Borawski’s pension (URL: www.biebrzan.prv.pl, e-mail: email@example.com). After a number of circuits of the large village, numerous bewildered stares from the local populous and some serious use of the phrase book we locate the spot. But surely the rather shabby looking house which lies before us cannot be the location about which so many have raved?
A quick phone call to Zenek reveals that it is and we let ourselves through the open door to find that a superbly furnished upstairs room has been prepared for our arrival. We just have time for a quick tour of the spacious dining room, complete with its own wildlife art collection and natural history library, before heading out to the marshes.
Our chosen spot are some wetlands just west of Zajki, where a straight track takes us through hayfields and lush green wetlands. Drumming Common Snipe are again out in force and we discover that our chosen route cuts through a White-winged Black Tern colony where these wonderful birds hover right overhead. With great fortune I find that my camera is now working again for the first time in three days, thanks to a good cooking in the back window of the car, and reel off numerous tern shots in the superb evening light.
A Common Crane circles low overhead, then a Black Kite passes through pursued by a flock of mobbing corvids. At ground level we note another mass emergence of colourful Yellow-winged Darter dragonflies and numerous Willow Emerald damselflies that, in places, cover the trackside vegetation.
Unable to resist an evening foray into the famous Biebrza Marshes, we head north to the watchtower at Bagno Lawki. A male Montagu’s Harrier passes low over the car, as does the first of many Marsh Harriers, as we travel first through low-lying farmland, then Sallow and Poplar woodland, before entering the vast swathes of reedy marsh for which the reserve is renowned.
At the first available gap in the roadside scrub we stop to scan the wetlands and are instantly greeted by the large brown form of a grazing Elk, standing out in stark contrast to the pale green reeds. A few hundred metres further down the road we dodge the mosquitoes to ascend the sturdy timber watchtower overlooking the huge wet plains of the Bagno Lawki marsh. From here we count at least twelve dark brown beasts dotted about the expanse of greenery in a scene not greatly dissimilar to a panorama across the African savannah; although some of the Elk are close enough to make out distinctive high shoulders and Roman nose, many are so distant that they really could be grazing buffalo or even elephants on a Masai Mara plain!
With appetites for better views of these magnificent artiodactyls sufficiently whetted, we set off back to Wizna to satisfy the next most important appetite, and we are not to be disappointed! Zenek’s Mother, together with his girlfriend Barbara have prepared the finest cuisine we are to taste in Poland. Tomato and pasta soup is followed by a main course of meatballs, potatoes and beetroot chutney, with slices of wonderful home-baked cake to conclude.
After dinner the extremely likeable young farmer-turned-ecotourism guide and hotelier provides a wealth of information on the best areas to search for the birds and other wildlife of this incredible region. It’s hard to tear ones self away from Zenek’s infectious enthusiasm but we manage to slip off just in time for a session of sunset stork photography and then an incredibly atmospheric moonlit walk on the east bank of the Narew River, with Corncrakes calling on one side of the road and Spotted Crakes on the other!
Last act of the day is a beer at the local bar whose veranda overlooks the river valley, illuminated by the bright moonlight, and then it’s bedtime in readiness for another early start.
Monday 21st June
By 04.30 I am in position on the eastern bank of the Narew River, where marsh terns are already hovering above mist-hung pools formed by oxbows set in riverine grassland. The dew is heavy and the ground flora is turned to a golden carpet by great swards of flowering Yellow Rattle.
The very first bird I encounter is a Black Stork that flies low up the valley from its roost site, and seconds later it is followed by an immense adult White-tailed Eagle. Marsh Warblers and Thrush Nightingales sing from the scrub lining the road and on a small dead tree a pair of Middle Spotted Woodpeckers feed in the open.
Many small tracks cut a grid into the wonderful little hay meadows of Bago Wizna, where calling Corncrakes abound. Avenues of tall poplars line the tracks and from the leafy cover Icterine Warblers and Golden Orioles deliver their song. A Lesser Spotted Woodpecker moves through the trees at low level and a pair of Hoopoes feed on the dirt track. Both River and Grasshopper Warblers reel from an area of scrub, a Turtle Dove purrs and a male Goshawk flies low overhead, carrying prey to his nest in an adjoining plantation. Add to this the omnipresent Red-backed Shrikes and Fieldfares and one is in a veritable Western Palearctic birding heaven!
Beyond the village of Grady-Wonieko a track runs west through more mature scrub that is home to an obliging Wryneck and a number of Barred Warblers including a yellow-eyed mature male. Closer to the river the scene returns to open meadows and it is here that a male Penduline Tit hunts franticly for insects to feed a growing brood amongst the mass of roadside umbelifers. Little tractors are pulling mowers through the flower-rich grassland and most seem to be accompanied by a pair of White Storks who snap up any unfortunate frog or vole disturbed by the whirling blades.
The track leads on past hay stooks, each crowned by a calling Blue-headed Wagtail, and eventually over a rickety old timber bridge spanning the beautifully clear waters of the Narew River. Driving back north, with the fantastic riverine scenery now on my right, the road passes through the quaint little villages of Bronowo and Niwkowo to deliver me back at Wizna. Here Vic has been assisting Zenek and Barbara with their early-morning horse-tending duties on the smallholding that backs onto the pension. Both suitably hungry, we dine at 08.00 on a spread of incredible size and quality and then set off north again, under a cloudless blue sky, to explore more deeply into the Biebrza Marshes.
First port of call is Barwik, home of the most famous Great Snipe lek in the World. Great Snipe lekking is, however, an evening phenomenon that is best experienced in May before the grass is so high; apparently by June the lekking birds cannot jump above the tall grass during their display and therefore can only be heard!
At Barwik a grassy footpath leads out beyond the pine forest, through willow scrub and then out onto the marshland proper. Heath Fritillaries and common, with an occasional Dark Green fritillary and Duke of Burgundy also noted. Downy Emerald dragonflies are particularly abundant and these strangely inquisitive creatures regularly hover in front of ones face to reveal huge metallic green eyes and a distinctive yellow pattern on the frons.
Although it’s not getting decidedly warm there is still much avian interest along the trail. Bright red male Common Rosefinches sing from a number of the low sallows, Marsh Warblers mimic away from deeper cover and a Woodlark puts in a brief appearance. Stars of the show are undoubtedly a family party of Long-tailed Tits, which in Poland are represented by the stunning white-headed caudatus race.
The trail terminates at another lofty tower hide giving views across a different but equally vast tract of marshland. Initially all looks quiet but then we notice a somewhat closer Elk, this time with a young calf in tow. The calf is a much lighter shade of brown than its mother and is scarcely able to hold its head above the tall reeds in which the pair feed. This time we manage a few digital photographs through the telescope but they really are still too distant to fully appreciate. It is also interesting to note how the pair eventually disappear completely into what must be just a marginally taller growth of reeds; one is left wondering how many more of these great beasts are actually hiding from view in the immediate vicinity?!
The stroll back to the car produces a few frustratingly agile fritillaries and blues, but a splendid female Black Woodpecker is much more obliging in the pinewoods when tempted by a brief snippet of taped playback. A packed lunch is hardly necessary when one has consumed a breakfast of such huge proportions, but it would be rude to waste anything and we tuck in amongst the shade of the tall coniferous trees.
Early afternoon sees a stop to check out the very odd park headquarters and small tourist information hut just east of the crossing point of the Narew River, which offers all the comforts and charm of Cold War communism! Moving back in a southerly direction along the western flank of the reserve we stop at Klimaszewnica, for me to sleep off the early start, and for Vic to sketch some of the charismatic village architecture, much to the bemusement of the local populous.
Moving south we pass through a string of sleepy little villages, each with a liberal sprinkling of White Stork nests. Elderly inhabitants sit on benches at the roadside, sombrely clad, watching tiny tractors chug through the cobbled streets towing trailers barely visible under mountains of new-mown hay.
At Brzostowe we drive between houses and across a farmyard to reach the Biebrza River, forming the western boundary of the reserve at this point. Another tall watchtower gives panoramic views over the incredibly lush, green marshland and the wide river that snakes its way through the grazing marshes and reedbeds. As ever, marsh terns are the most numerous birds though it seems odd to see the diminutive form of a Little Tern joining them to hover over pools so far from the coastline. At least fifty Ruff feed on nearby pools whose margins have been poached by the grazing cattle, a Great White Egret fishes amongst the reeds and more distantly a loose gathering of a dozen Common Cranes feed on a plot of grassland.
We note that a dozen cattle have gathered on the far shore and at 18.00 a boatman punts out into the river from below our viewpoint and heads straight for the herd. After shouting a couple of Polish words of encouragement the lead cow takes to the water and is soon followed by his congeners; the sight of a heard of cows swimming strongly across a substantial river is not an everyday occurrence! Zenek has actually made reference to this strange phenomenon during an earlier discussion; apparently the cattle graze the marsh by day, as part of the habitat management regime, and then make a watery return to the farm in the evening.
Another superb meal is followed by a long and entertaining chat with Zenek and Barbara, before we head back out to Bagno Lawki for the last hour of daylight. As the sun retreats to leave a fiery orange glow over the huge western horizon, the marsh echoes to the haunting calls of Common Cranes. Aquatic and Savi’s Warblers sing from the reeds, a squadron of Common Snipe drum overhead and a Spotted Crake begins its rhythmic whistling.
Below a huge orange-tinted Moon, which hangs low in the purple-blue sky, we continue our drive north through the open coniferous woodland and twice have to brake sharply as Beech Martins scamper onto the tarmac! Both stay around in the headlights to allow the diagnostic dark dividing line, cutting the pale throat patch, to be noted; time for a celebratory beer!
Tuesday 22nd June
As we cross east over the Narew River, at 04.30, the newly-risen sun cuts through the dense low-lying mist to sparkle off the still waters in a dazzling display of early morning beauty. From the Bagno Lawki watchtower six Elk can be counted out on the marsh, but again rather too distantly to be fully appreciated and we have to admit a little disappointment with our views of this species as we set off back towards Wizna.
The most dramatic emergency-stop of the whole trip occurs soon afterwards, when we suddenly become aware of the huge dark form of an adult female Elk, which is standing on the narrow grass verge, casually consuming a willow tree! The great beast is clearly unafraid of cars and allows our approach to within a matter of metres before casually stepping off the road and into the marsh. Here we see that she is actually accompanied by a small calf and we enjoy unrivalled views of the rather comical and ungainly mother and tremendously endearing youngster as they graze on the lush wetland vegetation. Eventually, after a few rolls of film are exposed, they tire of our company and the female trots off across the road. Baby Elk is not so sure, however, and gingerly pads across the tarmac as if it is its first encounter with anything other than a reedbed!
Suitably exhilarated by what is easily one of the highlights of our trip we head back to the eastern Narew Valley, south of Wizna, for the rest of our time before breakfast. As yesterday, the area is a hive of avian activity, with Montagu’s Harrier and Goshawk overhead while Marsh and River Warblers plus Golden Oriole provide the backing track. The area is also a hive of harvesting activity, as farmers frantically work to bring in a harvest from the wonderfully natural little hay meadows before the fine weather breaks. Tiny tractors cut and turn the flower-loaded hay, amongst an army of Skylarks and Blue-headed Wagtails. In one meadow beside the Narew River we take a step back in time as we watch two ageing farmers load hay with pitchforks onto an ancient timber trailer pulled by a chestnut mare with a flowing blond mane; reflected in the slow-flowing river, this unforgettable scene seems a perfect snap-shot from a magnificent Constable canvas.
Breakfast time beckons and back at Wizna we enjoy the usual vast spread including some superb deep-fried apple pancakes. Sadly we must say our goodbyes to Zenek and Barbara, the perfect Polish hosts, but we depart vowing to return for longer in the future.
With an evening flight to catch time is precious and we divide our remaining hours between a brief stop at the very odd ‘Stork Village’ of Pentowo and a return visit to Tykocin. Pentowo consists of a group of houses and barns on which twenty or more White Storks have chosen to nest, though we have to question our sanity in paying 30p for the privilege of viewing yet more storks when we have been photographing them for free for a week! Green Woodpecker brings our week’s ‘woodpecker list’ to eight, Pied Flycatcher is another ‘trip tick’ and a lawn-feeding Red Squirrel is a wonderful mammalian diversion.
The cobbled streets of Tykocin are as picturesque as ever, but we soon have to curtail our enjoyment in favour of the main road south to Warsaw. And that is pretty much it for our whistle-stop tour of northeast Poland. Our time spent in the wonderful countryside has been unforgettable and our only complaint is that one week has been nowhere near enough to fully savour the delights of this unspoilt time capsule of a nation.
Discovering countless unspoilt, sleepy villages and wandering through hay meadows packed with wild flowers that are farmed in the same way that they have been for centuries is a pleasure of unequalled proportions in the European Union. The phenomenal birdlife is surely amongst the most prolific in the Western Palearctic and can only serve to remind us of what things could be like if we practised farming in a sustainable manner, free of ridiculous EU subsidies and incentivisation. One can only hope that Poland’s recent EU membership will not lead this superb country down the ecologically disastrous avenue that has befallen its Western European counterparts. My advice is to go to Poland as soon as you can and enjoy it while it is still as it should be!
July 2005 firstname.lastname@example.org