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Poland 2016: Białowieża Forest

Ever since I read about the Białowieża Forest and the European Bison (Bison bonasus) in a magazine I wanted to visit this place. To explain why this place is special I first need to write down a little history from Wikipedia. If you just want to see the photos, feel free to scroll down of course, but I will keep it short.

The Białowieża Forest (inside the national park) is one of the last and largest remaining parts of the immense primeval forest that once stretched across the European Plain. In this pristine forest many very old ecological relationships are still intact. I wish that all forests in Central- and Western Europe looked like that, but it will take hundreds or thousands of years to come close.

After centuries of decline in habitat and numbers Białowieża Forest was the European Bison’s (Bison bonasus) last stand, thanks to Polish kings who protected them. During World War I, occupying German troops killed 600 of the European Bison in the Białowieża Forest. A German scientist informed army officers that the European bison were facing imminent extinction, but at the very end of the war, retreating German soldiers shot all but nine animals. The last wild European Bison in Białowieża Forest was killed in 1921.
Since then they have been reintroduced from captivity (zoos). All wild European Bisons are descendants of the Białowieża- or lowland European Bison.
In the Netherlands we also have European Bisons (Bison bonasus) roaming the dunes, but that does not feel as wild and special as the European Bisons in Białowieża, Poland.

Most of my reports are about amphibians and reptiles. Birding and mammals were the main focus of this trip, but at some places also beautiful amphibians and reptiles occurred. Besides the European Bison I also wanted to photograph a different subspecies of Sand Lizard (Lacerta agilis argus), European Fire-bellied Toad (Bombina bombina) and maybe a Green Toad (Bufo viridis).
This trip was also a great opportunity to try out my new gear. I recently bought a Canon 5D Mark III and EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM lens. I wanted to go full frame, and I loved the ergonomics, colors and lenses of Canon. For the telelens photos I still used my Pentax K-3 with DA* 300mm F4 lens. New gear is always exciting!

After a 17 hour drive we arrived in Białowieża. It was time to see and photograph wildlife!

First morning

In the first morning we went to the garden of the museum of the national park. This cultivated place was a very good place for birding. The birders had their first ‘birdgasms’ here. My first photo is of an amphibian eating bastard, the White Stork (Ciconia ciconia).

White Stork (Ciconia ciconia)

After scaring away the White Stork I found my first amphibian. It was a wounded Common Toad (Bufo bufo). Some of the insides came out of the toad’s cloaca. Poor toad!

Common Toad (Bufo Bufo)

On this first morning I was also doing some birding. I did not make a lot of photos that I really like, but a small selection with a (very) Common Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs) and Grey-headed Woodpecker (Picus canus) made it to this report.

Common Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs) Grey-headed Woodpecker (Picus canus) Grey-headed Woodpecker (Picus canus)

After some birding I restored my good karma by rescuing some toads from a well. After the rescue and some photographs I build some kind of stairs so the amphibians could climb out themselves.

Common Toad (Bufo Bufo) Common Toad (Bufo Bufo)

Białowieski Park Narodowy

After the very cultivated outing in the morning we went to the edge of the protected area. One side of the road was the protected forest and the other side an old production forest. I do not know what Jasper did in the bushes, but he came back with a big Eastern Slow Worm (Anguis colchica).

Eastern Slow Worm (Anguis colchica) Eastern Slow Worm (Anguis colchica)

In a side road in the old production forest there was a small meadow with very shy Viviparous Lizards (Zootoca vivipara). I also wanted to photograph this species in mating colors, but here they were too shy to photograph in situ (which is the best for lizards).
Bart saw a Grass Snake (Natrix natrix) escaping. After a while I saw another (or the same) Grass Snake. Time for a photo session. The snake felt threatened and pulled off a defensive great display. After shitting on my hand the smell was awful. The smell was not enough, the snake also fainted dead.

Grass Snake (Natrix natrix) Grass Snake (Natrix natrix) Grass Snake (Natrix natrix) Grass Snake (Natrix natrix) Grass Snake (Natrix natrix)

Budy and Kosy Most

In the morning we went to a different part of the forest near the small village called Budy. Besides a beautiful forest I was able to make a nice action photo of the Eurasian Red Squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris).

PolandBialowieza20160502-15 Eurasian Red Squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris)

In Kosy Most the surroundings were great, but besides a Three-toed Woodpecker (Picoides tridactylus) and a  Bank Vole (Myodes glareolus) we did not see much. Just a lot of hikers.

Three-toed Woodpecker (Picoides tridactylus) Three-toed Woodpecker (Picoides tridactylus)

When we were on our way to Narewka to have diner, nobody was busy watching wildlife, but Thijs spotted two European Bisons from the backseat of the car. After some doubts and Thijs being very persuasive we drove back and saw our first European Bisons!
It was in the evening and they were out of the forest to eat the grass on someones private land. It was like photographing cows in someone’s backyard, but still very special! We were able to make some photos from close distance. It was getting darker and darker, so I had to push the ISO (sensitivity of my camera) high.

European Bison (Bison bonasus) European Bison (Bison bonasus) European Bison (Bison bonasus)

Biebrza National Park

At the Biebrza National Park there were some places to spot Sand Lizard (Lacerta agilis argus). That is a different subspecies as in the Netherlands. I wanted to photograph them, because I love Sand Lizards. Someone of the staff pointed at some place were they were very common. On my way to that place I spotted an European Polecat (Mustela putorius)! I went for the better angle, but had no luck. The European Polecat was gone.

European Polecat (Mustela putorius)

When I arrived at the place where the Sand Lizards should be I saw nothing suitable and no lizards. Looking at the time I had not enough time to go to the other spot provided by the Crossbill Guide. It was too far, and too little time to make photos. I decided to go back to the entrance of the park where I also saw Sand Lizards next to the toilet. Not really the most beautiful place of the park, but a good spot to make ‘in situ’ (not handling the lizards) photos of Sand Lizards.

Sand Lizard (Lacerta agilis argus) Sand Lizard (Lacerta agilis argus) Sand Lizard (Lacerta agilis argus) Sand Lizard (Lacerta agilis argus) Sand Lizard (Lacerta agilis argus)

Zalew Siemianówka

Around the Zalew Siemianówka, a big lake, there were also some good spots for amphibians. I was a very good place for European Fire-bellied Toads (Bombina bombina). They were very present in the shallow waters around the lake. Besides the  European Fire-bellied Toads there were also Sand Lizards, Viviparous Lizard (Zootoca vivipara), and Edible Frogs (Pelophylax kl. esculentus).

European Fire-bellied Toad (Bombina bombina) European Fire-bellied Toad (Bombina bombina)

While looking for the European Fire-bellied Toads (Bombina bombina) I found another nice surprise. There was an Eastern Tree Frog (Hyla orientalis) at the shallow pool. I love tree frogs! I have photographed this beautiful frog with my new Canon gear.

Eastern Tree Frog (Hyla orientalis) Eastern Tree Frog (Hyla orientalis) Eastern Tree Frog (Hyla orientalis) Eastern Tree Frog (Hyla orientalis)

Just before leaving I saw a young male Sand Lizard without dorsal pattern. I was not able to make a great photo, but this photo is a nice memory.

Sand Lizard (Lacerta agilis argus)

On the other side of the lake there was a dam. I found only one Viviparous Lizard and some Sand Lizards.
The Viviparous Lizards were too shy to make nice ‘in situ’ photos.

Viviparous Lizard (Zootoca vivipara) Sand Lizard (Lacerta agilis argus)

Near a lookout over the lake the birders had a good time. I saw a ‘leaf’ blinking too much. Another Eastern Tree Frog! I photographed this frog ‘in situ’ which means that I did not touch or handle the frog to get a better photo. The frog was already in a great position and a bit out of reach (sitting on a branch hanging over the water).

Eastern Tree Frog (Hyla orientalis) in situ

Bialowieski Park Narodowy

On Thursday 5 May we went inside the most protected area of the national park. To enter this protected area you need a guide, who also needs extra paperwork. We decided to have a guide specialized in birds to do a six hour hike.
We started the walk very early in the morning. We saw European Bison in the field near the entrance.
I must say that the forrest looked stunning. So many flowers in bloom, fallen trees in different stages of decay, many birds.

Another ‘birdgasm’ was when we found a Collared Flycatcher (Ficedula albicollis) flying in and out a nesting hole. I am still amazed how they can use their binoculars with no hands. Joking aside, the bird was flying in and out very quick on a short distance for a long period (until we left). The photos with movement (on purpose) where shot at a shutter speed of 1/320. That is not extremely fast, but most of the time enough to get sharp photos with a 300mm telelens. I tried to keep the movement in the photo to make it come alive.

Collared Flycatcher (Ficedula albicollis) Collared Flycatcher (Ficedula albicollis) Collared Flycatcher (Ficedula albicollis) Collared Flycatcher (Ficedula albicollis)

After this six hour walk we were very tired. In the afternoon I rented a bike, but I did not find something nice to photograph.

Kosy Most and Zalew Siemianówka

On 6 May we went to Kosy Most again. I did not see much. I enjoyed the surroundings. This White Wagtail (Motacilla alba) was posing for me.

White Wagtail (Motacilla alba)

After Kosy Most we went back to the European Fire-bellied Toad (Bombina bombina) spot. I wanted to make more photos of this beautiful species. I had learned from a mistake I made during my trip to Bulgaria. When you touch and handle European Fire-bellied Toads you can get some poison on your hands. When you touch your face afterwards the feeling is something between rubbing a mix of Tabasco and tooth paste in your face. The feeling will only go away after a good face wash or shower.

European Fire-bellied Toad (Bombina bombina) European Fire-bellied Toad (Bombina bombina) European Fire-bellied Toad (Bombina bombina)

On our way back, to have dinner, we saw more European Bisons in a field. One of the bisons posed very nicely during this sunset. The sky had pink colors as you can see on the photo. On the photo you can also see the typical silhouette of the bison.

European Bison (Bison bonasus) European Bison (Bison bonasus)

After following the bison, at safe distance, I got a stare for a short moment. After the short stare the bison went back to grazing.

European Bison (Bison bonasus)

On the last day we rented a bike to go to some interesting locations. Besides some Grass Snakes, an Eastern Slow Worm and Edible Frogs we did not find any interesting amphibians and reptiles. Well we could have possibly found an Adder (Vipera berus) but I went to the wrong rail crossing. When we were at the right crossing the weather and time were not ideal.
The adventure was great. I got a flat tire, so we had to continue the trip with one less bike. Dieuwertje on the carrier and Jasper and I having turns of taking the bike with the flat tire with us. After returning the very kind owner of our hotel Gawra did not believe that we did it that way. We should have called him so he could picked us up. He even gave us a discount on the rental price.

Grass Snake (Natrix natrix) Grass Snake (Natrix natrix) Eastern Slow Worm (Anguis colchica)

Białowieża is not the ‘herpers dream’. You can find many amphibians and reptiles, but not many different species. That does not mean that you should not go there. I must admit it is a better place if you are a birder, mammal watcher, general nature lover, or someone who loves to do activities in the forest like hiking and biking. It is a very good place to observe and photograph European wildlife! The company of the group was great and the European Bisons were the highlights of the trip!
If you want to enjoy this pristine forest, be quick. Sadly the current Polish government is not really into conserving the forest. To them logging is more important than the conservation of one of the most beautiful places in Europe. A beautiful forrest with European Bison, European Lynx, and Wolves is not something that will return easily when it is gone. The loggers are ready to start.
I am also very pleased with the results with my new Canon 5D Mark III and EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM combination. All amphibian and reptile photos, except the in situ shot of the Eastern Tree Frog, were created with the Canon. All other photos, except for one bison photo, were still created with my Pentax K-3.

Please let me know if you liked this report by writing a reply or ‘Like’ this report with the like button.
My next report will probably be about all my spring observations and photos in the Netherlands. Please follow me on social media to stay up-to-date and see my latest photos first.

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© 2017 Nature & Wildlife Photography by Ronald Zimmerman

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