Exploring Nature in the Tatra Region, Slovakia (April 2017)
April 2017 – I have been to Slovakia several times during winter (White Wilderness 2012-2017) and I figured out I haven’t seen Slovakia in spring or summer. During winter, the High Tatras are all covered in snow and inaccessible. In April (2017), I and a couple of friends explored the Tatra area around Poprad, Slovakia. During this trip, we visited the High Tatras, the Low Tatras, Slovak Paradise and Poloniny National Park. Although the High Tatras were still quite inaccessible, we had some great sightings and adventures, from early morning starts to observations of wolf and bison. In what follows I describe a couple of our adventures and sightings.
In search of the Capercaillie, but got wolves instead
My friend told me about a ridge where Capercaillies are potentially lekking (See Capercaillie box). So it didn’t take long before we put these crazy ideas into practice. Anyway, the best time is early mornings in late spring, so we figured out we should arrive at the spot around 5 a.m. This meant we had to get up at 3 a.m. It seemed like a good decision the day before… The next ‘morning’ we finally got our energy together and got up, drove to our parking spot, and started walking with our head torches. It was a quite tough experience hiking in the dark, with a lack of sleep, and the time pressure to not be late at the ridge. After a while, we reached to saddle, from here it should be already possible to hear and maybe see the capercaillies. We started to walk a bit slower and pay attention to every little noise. It was early morning, the sun started to wake up in this mountainous environment. Although it was nice to see the sun rising, it also started to give us some pressure, as soon these birds might call it a day (or a morning) and leave to a quiet spot for the rest of the day. We had a great scenery, but no signs of capercaillie or anything basically. We started to acknowledge the fact that this wasn’t ‘the morning’, and if we would like to see them, we have to do it again a bit later in the month.
Capercaillie – Tetrao urogallus
Capercaillies are the biggest member of the grouse family in Europe. They prefer mature coniferous forest. They are almost the size of a turkey and the males are black with a bit of white. The females are dark brown. In April, males are gathering at so-called lekking sites, where they display in order to impress females. They have their typical sound in combination with a wide openly displayed tail. They can become very aggressive in this time of the year.
After our unsuccessful early morning, I guess you could imagine our mood wasn’t great. We continued our walk, it was about 6:45 a.m. or so, (already getting late for us). We gave up on the capercaillies and we were going to make our way to a little cabin for some rest. We also gave up being quiet and we were just discussing the plans for the rest of the day, as we approached a little meadow. Suddenly I saw something on the meadow. I knew it immediately, it was a wolf, wandering around, looking into little vole holes before it noticed us. We were about 70m away from it. Well, this was great, but I couldn’t believe what happened next. This one wolf ran over the ridge to the other side and disappeared in the forest edge. At that moment, a second wolf came up to that part of the meadow, running towards the other one. And a third wolf came into the scene as well, both running in the direction of the forest edge where the first wolf disappeared. The last wolf stopped at the forest edge, looked one last time at us, and off it went. A huge smile came on all our faces and nothing could stop us now. We couldn’t care less we didn’t saw any capercaillies, we just saw a pack of 3 wolves!
A flashback – 5 mins before the sighting. My friend asked if she had to put away her camera, as we thought it was all over. But for some reason, we didn’t put the camera away, lucky us. Enjoy the results:
Wolf – Canis lupus
The grey wolf is an inhabitant of almost the whole northern hemisphere. They are part of the canid or dog-like family. Wolves are highly social and living in packs. The pack size can vary according to location, prey hunted, time of year, … Together with the European brown bear and the lynx, the wolf is one of the 3 large predators roaming around in Europe.
Slovak Paradise, also known as Slovenský raj, is a mountain range in eastern Slovakia. This National Park is situated south of Poprad. We went exploring on its adventurous trails. Some of the trails have fixed ladders and other iron structures to explore the beauty of its gorges and waterfalls. Not all tracks are this adventurous, but most of these ‘equipped’ gorge trails are one-way trails. It was a great experience and definitely worth a visit if you like some more adventurous routes. We only found a couple of red and roe deer tracks, but we have found otter scat and tracks along the rivers and other wildlife is definitely around.
Poloniny National Park
During the Easter break, we went to one of Slovakia’s most beautiful and authentic nature. The region is called Poloniny and is situated on the border of Slovakia with Poland and Ukraine. It’s a very remote place, but according to stories, it ‘s full of wildlife. So we didn’t need much more to go and check it out. It was also known for its very dark skies, so we took a telescope as well to look at some stars and galaxies. Poloniny is an area close to Bieszczady, Poland, and it also has European bison. They even had some bison introduced there in the early 2000s. The bison was one of our goals, but Poloniny is an intact ecosystem, so they also have the carnivores and more.
Valley of a lone wolf
Crazy plan – We heard about a valley that could be good for European bison. One problem with this valley, it’s not reachable by car and it’s about 10 km one way. So we had a plan, armed with our head torches, we left at 15:00 (3 p.m.) for our 10 km hike into the valley (one way). Our plan was to get to the meadow/valley around dusk, which is the time animals are most active.
Which meadow to choose?
After this long walk with some up and downs (and far too much equipment), we finally reached our destination, now we had to find a good spot to observe as many meadows as possible. We had binoculars and spotting scopes with us to scan the area. We did find a good spot at first, but we just spotted some red deer.
As it was getting colder and we are not the best waiters, we decided to move on and explore a bit more of the valley. We were getting very close to the Polish border, actually I could see on my GPS I was only a couple of 100m away from a spot I had found tracks during my trip to Bieszczady (2016). So far we couldn’t see signs of European bison. We had some suspicious scats, but they could have been from cattle as well.
We were getting to the end of the valley and decided to climb a little slope from a meadow to reach a nice viewing point. We warmed up a bit, so we took our last chances and sat down for a while to scan all the surrounding meadows. First without great success. We spotted a couple of red deer and roe deer on the edge of a meadow far away. Suddenly my friend said “Wolf”, and yes, there it was… On the opposite side of the valley, we could see the wolf coming towards us, trotting down the meadow. The wolf had no clue we were there, although the wind was not in our favour. It was an amazing sighting, but it was soon going to end as the wolf approached the river down in the valley. This area was more forested and hard to follow. Soon we lost the wolf out of the side, but it was heading straight towards us prior to it disappearing into the dal. With excitement, we were all looking in different directions to try and spot the wolf again. We failed. The wolf had disappeared like a ghost. Full of unbelieve that we saw another wolf, it was getting darker. We were satisfied and decided to start our long way back. And yes, in the dark it felt even longer. We managed to do a hiking trip of 23 km in total, but it was all worth it.
The next morning my friend was enlightened and spoke the memorable words “Maybe we were in the wrong valley”. Suddenly we had a plan for the day, checking out a different valley that matched the description of the ‘bison valley’ better. Not a long walk this time. My Slovak friends figured out a way to get close to this spot with the car. It was day-time though, and some of my friends had to leave in the evening, so we knew we couldn’t stay until the evening. We started exploring the area, and soon we found what we came for, a lot of bison scat, signs of damage on trees, tracks, … Satisfied and happy with the findings, we left this area to return later on.
Some of us were staying longer, so we decided to go back one evening. Again, we had found a nice spot on a little hill in the valley, where we could look over a lot of different meadows. We installed ourselves with binoculars and telescopes… Soon we spotted the first red deer coming out on the meadows. Groups of 2-3 on different meadows, and a group of about 15 at a meadow nearby. We kept scanning the meadows and spotted a red fox a bit later on. Suddenly 2 large, dark brown, creatures came onto the field with the large group of red deer. Yes, two European bison were slowly walking up the field while grazing. They were super relaxed and didn’t notice us either, they lay down on the meadow for ages and we could observe them well.
As if that was not everything, a bit later, 2 other European bison appeared on a field further away. So in total, we spotted 4 European bison. It was getting dark, so we called it a day and returned to the car. As night-time is a good time to spot wildlife, we were driving carefully and looking around for any shiny eyes in the headlights of the car. We were lucky to spot a badger crossing the road, and further on a large dog-like creature crossed the road. We had just spotted another wolf, it was a very large one. It crossed the road just 2 meters in front of our car. It was a great feeling, first of all, because we didn’t hit it, and secondly, Poloniny didn’t disappoint regarding being a ‘wild place’ with a lot of animals. The next day, it was time to go back to the Tatra area and explore more over there.
European bison – Bison bonasus
The European bison is also called ‘wisent’ or lowland bison. The most well-known place for these European giants is the Białowieża Forest in Poland. They were extinct in the wild in early 1900 but kept alive in captivity. From 1951, they have been reintroduced in the wild. Nowadays, the European bison can be found in a variety of countries and areas, including Slovakia. More info on Wikipedia.
We also found some beaver activity on a couple of occasions. beavers are magnificent animals and real ecosystem engineers. Here are just a couple of pictures of their work.
We also returned to one of the valleys I’ve been in winter. This valley path is not exposed to a lot of sunlight, so there was still a lot of snow left. We found some bear tracks and even a fresh scat.
Learn More about Slovakia and other Nature Stories