There are few places left in Europe that can claim to be largely untouched by the stampede of human kind. The Bialowieza Forest in Poland is one such place, tucked away on the easternmost fringes of Europe and straddling Poland’s border with Belorussia. Within this vast tract of mixed forest lie 47.5 square kilometres of untouched primeval woodland, the largest remaining tract left on the continent and a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve. Outside the Strict Reserve, as it is known locally, the managed portion of Bialowieza covers a further 580 square kilometres, a mosaic of mature and young woodland, riverine marshes, willow thickets and wet meadows that combine to create one of Europe’s most important bird habitats.
Many of Europe’s wildlife-rich areas are synonymous with particular families or species of animals and birds. The Spanish Steppes have their bustards, the Pyrenees are famous for Wallcreepers and for the birdwatcher, thoughts of the Bialowieza Forest immediately bring to mind the carpenters of the bird world, the woodpeckers. Here, all 10 of Europe’s woodpecker species can be found with varying ease and, with the invaluable help of the local birdwatchers who scour the forests each spring, we will endeavour to track down as many as we can during this exciting Naturetrek weekend.
We begin our holiday with a flight to Warsaw, the historic capital of Poland. From here we drive north-east to the small village of Bialowieza, where we will be based for three nights in a comfortable hotel on the edge of the village. During our time here we will explore the forests and marshes of the Bialowieza Forest, walking the trails that criss-cross this magnificent mixed woodland. By early May the forests will be alive with bird song as wave after wave of returning migrants stake their claims for the year. Collared, Pied and Red-breasted Flycatchers all breed here, along with Thrush Nightingale, Redstart, and both Icterine and Wood Warbler. Within this chorus of sound we will be listening out for the characteristic notes of the woodpeckers, from the explosive laugh of the mighty Black Woodpecker to the falcon-like chittering of the Lesser-spotted Woodpecker. White-backed Woodpeckers are early nesters and may already be feeding large young, and we hope to be able to locate the most elusive and sought-after of the Picidae family, the unobtrusive Three-toed Woodpecker. A sudden flurry of wings and leaves may herald an escaping Hazel Grouse, while other birds to look for, in and over trees, include Nutcracker, Crossbill, Hawfinch, White Stork, Lesser Spotted Eagle, and even perhaps Pygmy Owl on an evening foray. Outside the true forest lies the ‘Palace Park’, another very productive area to explore. Here a patchwork of open woodlands, grassy lawns and small lakes provides habitat for Middle Spotted and Grey-headed Woodpeckers and Wryneck. The park is also the one place to search for the Syrian Woodpecker, the most difficult of the bunch to find and, although expanding north, on the very edge of its breeding range.
Early one morning we will be escorted into the Strict Reserve, Bialowieza’s true primeval forest. Here we will have a unique opportunity to explore a habitat largely untouched by human hands. Indeed, a walk amongst the swampy alder woods and ancient Limes, Hornbeams, Oaks and Spruces, with our guide talking through the ecology en route, is a truly magical experience and, for some, will be the undoubted highlight of this short tour.
If time permits we may also drive north to explore the woodlands and marshes in the vicinity of Siemianówka Reservoir. Lake Siemianówka is a superb area of open water and marsh, formed by the damming of the Narew River, and holds a rich assemblage of resident and migrant bird species, including White-tailed Eagle, Citrine Wagtail, passage waders, marsh terns and grebes. The surrounding forests are also another excellent place in which to look for a few more woodpeckers, in particular Three-toed.
Back in Bialowieza, and if fortunate, we may find one of the forest’s most famous inhabitants, the European Bison or Wisent. This magnificent mammal became extinct in the wild in the 1920s, but was successfully reintroduced into the forest 30 years later. Today the Bialowieza Forest contains one of Europe’s last remaining herds, with approximately 250 Bison ranging freely within the Polish section. If we are lucky enough to come across one during our time here, it will undoubtedly provide yet another highlight, and an added bonus, to our short but varied birdwatching weekend.
First met Richard a few years ago when he led our Morocco trip. He was first class then and was still first class for this trip to Poland. Another wonderful adventure that Naturetrek has managed to create. Loved every minute of it! Our local guide was excellent, the accommodation was perfect and the minibus was very comfortable too. We managed to see a good range of birds and even some bison too; what a treat that was. One of our group was on her 27th Naturetrek tour - I can see why. I'm now into double figures because I can't see a reason why I would travel with anyone else. Keep up the great work.
This was my third Naturetrek trip and I have always rated the trip leaders very highly and Richard is no exception. He was thoughtful to all the participants, taking time with everybody, both experienced and less so. Likewise, local guide Tomasz, went out of his way to try and provide for all the participants' 'wanted' birds and the bison. Without both (and Pawel the local driver), so much in this wonderful short break could have been missed. A wonderful setting and a fabulous holiday.
I really enjoyed this trip, the highlights being the European Bison and the Three-toed Woodpecker.
M. & J.D.
We very much enjoyed the Easter weekend. The organisation was excellent and, combined with the superb weather, it was an excellent wildlife holiday. All in all we had an unforgettable time. Thank you.
Richard Bashford did everything to make our holiday successful, a few days seemed like a week. Our thanks to all at Naturetrek for a very memorable holiday.