Trip report - north east Poland

30th May 2013
Dates: 18th to 29th May 2013

Destination: north east Poland



Purpose of trip:

The purpose of my trip was to visit 2 of the top wildlife watching locations in Europe, namely the Biebrza and Białowieża areas of north east Poland.

Primary target areas:

The primary target areas for wildlife watching were:

Biebrza river valley and marshes



The Biebrza marshes are a complex series of habitats located in the Biebrza river valley. The area encompasses river channels, lakes, extensive marshes, fenland, reed beds, peat bogs and fields and meadows with woods and forests on higher ground. The Biebrza National Park, which covers much of the area, is the largest of Poland’s 23 National Parks and was created in 1993. Covering a total area of 228 square miles, it protects the vast and relatively untouched habitats with their unique variety of several communities of plants and species of wetland birds and mammals.

Białowieża forest



The Białowieża forest is an ancient mixed forest that straddles the border between Poland and Belarus. It is one of the largest remaining parts of the immense primaeval forest that once stretched across the Great European Plain. On the Polish side, the central part of the Białowieża forest is protected as the Białowieża National Park with an area of about 39 square miles. The National Park, created in 1932, is under strict preservation and has been declared by UNESCO a World Biosphere Reserve and put on the World Heritage List. The Białowieża forest is home to many species of forest birds plus large mammals such as Wolf, Lynx, Moose and European Bison.

Siemianówka area

The Siemianówka lake is a large reservoir on the upper Narew river with vast reedbeds surrounded by old woods and wet meadows. The lake extends from north west to south east, crossed at its eastern part by a railway track (reaching the most remote railway station in Poland) that divides the reservoir into two parts. To the south, the lake touches the northern edges of the Bialowieza Forest.

Getting there:

I flew from London Heathrow to Warszawa Chopin with LOT.

The cost of return flights including baggage and taxes was £94.35.

The schedule was as follows:

18th May: London Heathrow to Warszawa Chopin – depart 06:35 a.m. and arrive 10:05 a.m. (local time GMT+1)

29th May: Warszawa Chopin to London Heathrow – depart 15:05 a.m. and arrive 16:50 p.m. (local time UK)

Both flights departed and arrived slightly late but this did not cause any significant delays to my plans.

Getting around:

At Warszawa Chopin airport, I hired a Suzuki Swift for 11 days from Budget Car Rental booked in advance via Holiday Autos.

The cost of car hire was £195.50 reduced by Quidco cashback to £183.77 .... less than £17 per day!

The car proved to be very reliable and economical returning around 62 mpg and with petrol at an equivalent £1.08 per litre compared with £1.37 per litre in the UK the cost of driving in Poland at just over £120 for the whole trip was significantly less than I had expected.

During my trip, I drove 1947 km (1209 miles) and driving in Poland proved to be a generally enjoyable experience other than the congestion in and around the city of Warsaw and the heavy traffic and sometimes aggressive and mindless drivers on the 125 mile major route between Warsaw and Białystok. The rural roads of north east Poland were very quiet although the road quality with frequent potholes and subsidence meant careful navigation on occasions.

I traveled independently following thorough research and preparing an itinerary before leaving the UK

18th May: outward flight, pick up rental car, Treblinka, Białystok

19th to 21st May: Biebrza river valley and marshes

22nd to 27th May: Białowieża forest and Siemianówka area

28th May: Warsaw

29th May: Raszyn fishponds, return rental car, return flight

Accommodation:

Prior to my trip, I had pre-booked the following accommodation via booking.com.

18th May – Białystok: Hotel Aristo – £36.21 per night

19th to 21st May – Dobarz: Dwór Dobarz – £26.15 per night

22nd to 26th May – Białowieża: Gawra Bialowieza – £18 per night

27th and 28th May – Teresin: Hotel Chabrowy Dworek – £30.17 per night

All of the accommodation that I stayed in was of an exceptional quality and provided excellent value for money.

Research and planning:

Prior to my trip, I had undertaken a significant amount of research and planning and therefore had a detailed itinerary which I largely kept to.

North east Poland has been visited by birders for many years and as a result there is a wealth of information available.

Apart from a large number of Internet trip reports provided by others, Łukasz Mazurek’s Wild Poland website proved to be an excellent source of information .... well done Łukasz!

From Wild Poland, I bought the following guides and maps which were invaluable when planning my trip and whilst I was actually away. For anyone considering a trip to north east Poland, they are an essential resource and highly recommended.



The following books are also recommended:

“Birding in Eastern Europe” by Gerald Gorman

“Central and Eastern European Wildlife” by Gerald Gorman

Unfortunately the following book was still at pre-publication stage prior to my trip:

“Crossbill Guide - North-east Poland.”

The “DVD guide to birdwatching in Europe” by Paul Doherty also has a section on north-east Poland.

I also used Michelin regional map 555 covering north east Poland in addition to my trusty TomTom satnav.

Impressions, experiences and memories:

The overwhelming memory from this trip is the staggering diversity and abundance of wildlife in a wide variety of habitats which appear in many respects to be unchanged and undamaged by human impacts in a very long time. I felt the same when I returned from my trip to Extremadura in Spain in April 2012. Such experiences also suggest how impoverished much of the UK environment and countryside has become in recent decades.

However, the wildlife also included an abundance of biting insects! Although I went prepared with appropriate clothing and insect repellent, I did not remain unscathed and duly gave my donation of blood!

Another very different and incredibly overpowering experience was the reminder of the horrific events in Poland during World War 2. En route from Warsaw to north east Poland, I visited the site of the Treblinka death camp and on return to Warsaw, I visited several locations associated with the Warsaw Ghetto including the remaining fragments of the Ghetto wall.

The Treblinka site was a very atmospheric and thought provoking location. I was the only person there when I visited. It was a very warm and sunny day with blue skies with many birds singing in the adjacent forest, a beautiful area just as it would have been for some of the time between July 1942 and October 1943 when anything up to 1 million people, mostly Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto and other Jewish communities in Poland and other parts of Europe, were killed by the Nazis.









Weather:

For the first half of my trip, the days were sunny and very hot with temperatures of up to 27 degrees, a welcome change from the absence of spring and summer in the UK! The remaining days were also bright or sunny but with temperatures around 21 degrees.

On one morning, it rained continuously until lunchtime which was slightly disappointing since the best time for wildlife watching was from dawn at around 4 a.m. until midday.

My return journey to Warsaw was undertaken in rain and my final full day in Warsaw saw temperatures of just 10 degrees with very heavy rain.

Wildlife highlights:

During my trip, I was able to record 125 species of birds.

Trip records - north east Poland

Of these, I saw 12 species that I had not seen before.

In addition, I saw 28 notable species i.e. birds seen before either as a single UK vagrant or on a few occasions in the UK plus birds seen before elsewhere in Europe.

The 12 “lifers” were:

Lesser Spotted Eagle
Grey-headed Woodpecker (heard only)
Middle Spotted Woodpecker
White-backed Woodpecker
Tawny Pipit
Blue-headed Wagtail
Aquatic Warbler
Icterine Warbler
Barred Warbler
Red-breasted Flycatcher
Collared Flycatcher
Nutcracker

The 28 other notable species were:

Great White Egret
Black Stork
White Stork
Honey Buzzard
White-tailed Eagle
Montagu’s Harrier
Corncrake
Crane
Whiskered Tern
Black Tern
White-winged Black Tern
Hoopoe
Wryneck
Black Woodpecker (heard only)
Thrush Nightingale
Bluethroat
River Warbler
Savi’s Warbler
Marsh Warbler
Great Reed Warbler
Crested Tit
Penduline Tit
Golden Oriole
Red-backed Shrike
Great Grey Shrike
Common Rosefinch
Hawfinch
Ortolan

Apart from individual species, the "wall of birdsong", particularly at dawn and dusk, in the marshes and forests was amazing.

During my trip, I was also able to record 8 mammal species, 1 reptile species and 1 amphibian species:

European Bison
Elk
Red Deer
Roe Deer
Red Squirrel
Fox
Brown Hare
Water Vole

Grass Snake

Pool Frog

I was particularly pleased to see European Bison for the first time (a mammal for which the Białowieża forest is well known) and also Elk.

Pool Frog was also a new species for me and very abundant and vocal and, whilst I have seen Grass Snake many times, I have never seen one so large!

Disappointments:

As far as birds are concerned, there were several target species that I missed:

Greater Spotted Eagle
Hazel Grouse
Spotted and Little Crake
Great Snipe
Owl species
Three-toed Woodpecker and sightings of Grey-headed and Black Woodpeckers (both heard)
Citrine Wagtail

With regard to mammals, I failed to see Beaver, Wild Boar and Wolf although I did see plenty of signs of Beaver activity and also possibly Wolf scat.

Tips

From my own experience, I have several tips for anyone considering a trip to north-east Poland.

Get up early! Dawn is around 4 a.m. but the best wildlife watching experiences are at this time and for the following few hours. Evenings and dusk are also a very good time.

Take appropriate clothing and plenty of insect repellent. If you have been to the Scottish Highlands and experienced the midges, north east Poland is a lot worse! Going prepared significantly reduces but does not entirely eliminate this unavoidable nuisance.

When out and about, always carry your passport, driving licence and vehicle registration documents. Given the close proximity of the Białowieża forest and the Siemianówka area in particular to the sensitive border with Belarus, the Straż Graniczna or Polish Border Guards do undertake vehicle stops and document checks.

In addition, when driving ensure that car headlights are always on (this is a legal requirement) and keep a careful eye on the road and try to avoid the frequent potholes on some of the rural roads or forest tracks if you want to avoid damaging wheels and tyres.

I am not sure if this is a tip or not! Learning a few words of Polish may be an advantage but it can be challenging!



Photos

Photos from my trip can be found in the European trips gallery



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