Wild Poland: Tracking Poland’s Majestic Animals
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full-width, rgba(28, 179, 255, 0), Bisons in Białowieża Forest, photo: Adam Wajrak/AG, zubr_adam_wajrak_miniatura.jpg
Through the thin layer of snow, I spotted a footprint of a big dog with huge claws. Its tracks trotted along the old oaks and elm and at the base of one tree trunk, a yellow streak marked the animal’s territory…
‘That’s a wolf’, said our guide as we continued trekking deeper into the Białowieża National Park on the very eastern edge of Poland.
Footprints in the snow
I’ve always loved imprinting my own footprints on the fresh, unspoiled snow, but apparently, I wasn’t the only one. I couldn’t believe the number of footprints around us. It was the first snow of the season, it fell the day before, leaving just a couple of centimetres of white powder on top of the park’s moist soil.
Here, among the mangle of trees that make up the last piece of Europe’s primordial forest, creatures large and small had been busy running their own animal errands. Though I hadn’t yet seen any of them, the vast network of tracks made it clear that this forest teemed with invisible activity. Overnight, the entire forest seemed to have been crisscrossed not just by wolves, but by all the other animals who call this place home: boar, fox, moose, lynx, wildcat and – most famously – the European bison that helped earn this park a rare double-designation as UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and World Heritage Site.
The Białowieża forest, which spans parts of both Poland and Belarus, is the country’s prime spot for spotting wildlife. In fact, for those looking for a unique adventure, wildlife tour operator Wild Poland offers multi-day trekking tours to track bison, wolves and elk in the local woods.
While it takes skills of an experienced guide as well as some luck to spot a wolf trotting through the forest, you usually don’t need a guide’s assistance to see a bison. Białowieża houses the world’s largest free-roaming population of this impressive beast – about 900. However, that wasn’t always the case. The bison went extinct here during World War I, but the population was since carefully restored from zoo-kept specimen.
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Wolves in the Białowieża National Forest, photo: Adam Wajrak/Agencja Gazeta
Since the bison aren’t restricted to the forest’s perimeter, they often wander out onto the fields around the neighboring Białowieża village. In fact, it is here that we came across a bison in a clearing peacefully chewing on a hay stack put out by villagers eager to protect their crop. Its brown silhouette was easily visible against the white field. But that also meant it would be able to see us as well if we approached. As these huge animals tend to be quite shy, we avoided the open field and watched it from a grove a way’s away so as not to scare it off.
According to Łukasz Mazurek, a nature guide and the founder of Wild Poland, we came here in the right season – January and February are the best months to see European bison and track wolves. However, Białowieża is an impressive sight in any season, which is why his company offers a variety of other wildlife safari tours from April through November. In autumn, you can see the red deer beginning to rut – a spectacle not to be missed.
While Poland is the place to see bison, it is also home to good numbers of moose, beaver, wolf, lynx, and brown bear as well as birds that have become rare or even extinct in Europe such as the aquatic warbler, corncrake, spotted eagle and white-backed woodpecker.
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Białowieża is of course not the only place to see these creatures. In Poland’s northeast corner, wildlife enthusiasts can visit the Biebrza Marshes, one of Europe’s last natural lowland river valleys that are home to hundreds of rare species of birds as well as elk and beavers. Saved from drainage by non-intensive local farming, the Biebrza Marshes also shelter 700 butterfly species, 500 beetle species and 450 spider species.
Here too, Mazurek’s company leads tours during all four seasons and some with an interesting twist, such as the Beaver & Balloon tour, where guests get to follow a family of beavers on a boat cruise and then get a bird’s eye view from a hot air balloon.
Narew Valley, sometimes called the Polish Amazon, is another worthwhile eastern destination for nature lovers. The best way to experience the wildlife of Narew National Park is by kayak, which will help you to see beavers, otters and over 200 species of birds that nest here.
But wild animals don’t just roam the east of the country. Those who want to immerse themselves in the wild get a choice of the forests of northern Poland, the Carpathians and Sudetes in the south, and the river valleys in the west. Mazurek explains:
We have some of the best wildlife in Europe. We haven’t destroyed that much of our countryside and forests yet, in comparison to western Europe.
There are several historical reasons for Poland’s unique wildlife offering, he explained.
The forestry remained in the hands of the state, while farming remained mostly in private hands, which saved us from the large-scale collective farming that is so destructive to nature and wildlife.
However, not all is well in Poland, he warns.
We are losing the diversity and abundance of wildlife, which is an irreversible process. While the numbers of bison or wolves and many birds have increased in the last years, the overall wildflower and bird richness in the countryside is dropping down due to more intensive farming in the countryside. The increased logging in the forests in the last years will also have a tremendous impact on wildlife abundance and diversity.
Mazurek said that the process is slower in the wildest, southeastern part of Poland – the Bieszczady Mountains – but it is still evident to birdwatchers who keep track.
Nature will find you
The Carpathians, which the Bieszczady range is part of, is Poland’s other most popular destination for being in the wild. The mountain range attracts visitors with its pristine nature, dense natural forests and fantastic landscapes. There is rich birdlife as well as several species of large predators like the brown bear, wolf, lynx, wild cat as well as bison. Mazurek’s company takes groups tracking them all. However, unlike the flat marshes and forests of the east, the terrain here is much more difficult, so if you’re planning to immerse yourself in the wilderness here, be ready for a more physically demanding experience.
The good news is that Poland abounds in wild animals that you’re bound to come across even if you don’t go looking. Just drive through the country and you’ll spot white storks roosting in huge nests on top of roofs, telephone poles and specially constructed nest towers. Elegant roe deer hang around the fields and wild boar often cross the road, especially after dusk (drivers, watch out!). You may also cross paths with the white-tailed eagle, which is iconic for Poland – this huge bird with a wing span of up to eight feet crowns the Polish flag. And if you’re camping in any of Poland’s parks, take a close look and you’re bound to find a wild hedgehog rummaging through the leaves.
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You don’t even need to go far from the country’s capital to see some of Poland’s main mammal species. If you live in (or are visiting) Warsaw, take a trip to the nearby Kampinos National Park, which is on the UNESCO’s list of biosphere reserves. Here, nature lovers can see the largest inland dunes and if you’re lucky, perhaps even spot some wild animals including moose, otter, beaver, red deer, wolves and Eurasian lynx with its gorgeous coat. If you don’t happen to come across one, you can learn more about these species at the Kampinos Museum (Muzeum Puszczy Kampinoskiej) on the southern edge of the park.
And in Warsaw itself, don’t be surprised if you come across some birdwatchers in the very centre of the city: some falcons nest in the Palace of Science and Culture.
One Polish wildlife site that’s unfortunately closed to the public is the Nietoperek Bat Reserve, a huge bunker system known as the Miedzyrzecz Underground Fortifications on the border with Germany, which is a hibernation site for more than 12 different species of bats. International researchers regularly gather here to survey the population and have estimated that this site is home to more than 30,000 bats. How is that for a wildlife sanctuary?
While you may not be able to check out Nietoperek’s incredible bat cave, Poland doesn’t lack in easily accessible wilderness. Even its main highway A2 is crisscrossed by nature corridors that make it easy for local animals to roam without ending up as roadkill. So whether you’re driving, hiking, kayaking or ballooning, Poland’s Its vast network of forests, river valleys and mountains offer nature lovers a wide choice of experiences to go wild. In all seasons.
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Author: Sasha Vasilyuk, 15 Mar 2018