Visiting Bieszczady Mountains (Poland)

This is Poland! How it began

With a seven-headed strong team, we left Belgium in a mini-van. Our destination was Bieszczady National Park in Poland. Bieszczady region is part of the Carpathian Mountains and is found in the border area between Poland, Slovakia and Ukraine. We were all biologists/nature minded people, so our goal was to enjoy the nature and snow, and put some effort in seeing some of the local wildlife. We definitely succeeded in our mission…

After driving all night (changing drivers obviously), we finally arrived in Bieszczady. We booked a couple of rooms in ‘Pensjonat Antos’, located in Baligrod. It was a great place witch sanitary, kitchen, nice rooms, a room with facilities for air hockey, pool, etc. … but this room wasn’t heated.

When: 10 days in December 2016. 

Finding tracks

But we were not here for the luxury life, so soon enough we prepared ourselves for a trip around the area. We decided to go and explore the area where often wolf sightings were recorded in the past. There was a nice layer of snow, so perfect for searching for some tracks in the snow. We started off along a river, which would lead us to a more meadow-like area. Soon enough we came across tracks of the biggest land mammal of Europe, the European bison. Bieszczady is one of the few places these animals are still roaming freely. Furthermore, we found tracks of red deer and row deer, so at least the prey species are around.

Suddenly, there were some conspicuous footprints on the trail. There were a couple of days old, but after a thorough investigation, it was very likely those footprints were from a lone wolf. We were all super enthusiastic and tired at the same time, but we pursuit our trip and got to the meadows. There was a lot of snow on the meadows, and no fresh tracks or signs. Besides the beautiful scenery, the meadows were empty and quiet… In order to return to our car, we went up a hillside to arrive at a little forest road which would lead us to our car. The winter sun was descending and it was getting later. But to our luck, we first spotted a couple of male red deer on the hillside, at least 6, of which a couple with very impressive antlers. A bit further on the route, we found some big holes in the snow… and tracks. I could count three holes and a lot of big herbivore tracks, this must have been a site where European bison had taken a rest, at it looked quite fresh. We were already happy to know these creatures are really living in the area and we were at the same place as them, at a different time though. Moving on, suddenly I saw some dark brown figure on the top of a little slope, and yes, there they were… Three European bisons. It was a quick sighting before they disappeared on the other side of the slope into the dense forest. We had a good enough look to figure out it was probably a female with 2 mid-sized calves. Euphorically we continued our walk and made it back to the car just before dark. We returned happily to our accommodation for some food and well-earned rest…

Roe deer
Roe deer

Following wolf tracks

With a decent amount of 30-40cm of snow, we decided to go and hike on a forestry road. The sun was shining and the blue sky was also present. Another great start of the day, although we started off with a bit of trouble in the snow as our car was not entirely made for snow conditions. Our trip today was planned to pass by a platform where you could possibly observe beavers… but when we finally reached it, the pond was full of ice, with one indication of something which had made a hole in the ice, but not too much going on… until we found a wolf track close to the platform. After some more investigation, it turned into a pack of at least 4-5 wolves travelling through the Polish forest. We decided to have a look where they were heading to. This brought us to some steeper climbs and river crossings, but the story was continuing to tell itself. It was clear the wolves were splitting up and re-joining a lot. Wolves tend to follow each other’s footsteps, definitely when there is deep snow, in order to minimize their energy consumption. It’s always nice to walk in the others’ footsteps. But these wolves were different, they seemed to be looking for something, investigating every little place. Soon these wolf tracks were leading us up the hill where there were numerous signs of red deer. It was even difficult to follow the wolf tracks at some points. The ground was covered with red deer tracks, urine, faeces, sleeping places, etc. So, it was clear those wolves were hungry and searching for something to eat, preferably a tasty weak red deer. Unfortunately, no sign of close interaction between the wolves and the red deer, and the wolves continued over a slope which had been exposed to the wind, and tracking became difficult. Time flies when you are having fun and it was time to call it a day and return from another fruitful day of experiencing nature. On the way back we also found tracks of lynx.

Go Birding

One day we decided to go back to the place near the beaver platform where we followed the wolf tracks earlier. We didn’t find super clear tracks, but suddenly I saw something big leaving a tree, gliding into the distance, landing in another tree. I was pretty sure it was an owl, but which one… I got a visual with my binoculars, but the owl was facing his back towards us and took off again. In the flight, I had a good visual and I was pretty sure it was a Ural owl, one of the larger owls of Europe. Too bad it flew uphill again… so that’s where we went as well. We followed it for a bit, had a couple of good sights, and sooner than we wanted the owl disappeared into the forest to be never seen again.

During our search, we also got distracted by a sweet noise in the air. Swans flew over and the noise of their wings is just amazing. The silence stroke over the forest again, and we decided to enjoy a fallen tree for a needed group picture…

While continuing our loop, we almost reached the place again where we first spotted the Ural owl, it must be a kind of magical place, as we spotted something else… this time it was a woodpecker species, a Grey-headed woodpecker. Quite special for birders, just an ordinary greenish woodpecker for others…

The waiting game - the golden morning - the wolf sighting

It was about time to go back to the area we went the first day. This time we decided to get up early in the morning and position us at a viewpoint, scanning for animals on the meadows. It’s a beautiful viewpoint with views over the river, the meadows and the surrounding hills. Soon enough we spotted 2 otters on the ice in the river. It was a great sighting of a mother teaching her cub the rules of life, but it struggled a lot when mum brought him a fish… To make it even better, a white-tailed eagle flew into the scenery, potentially aiming for the otters, or just stealing the fish of the otters. We could enjoy them for a long time. But we shouldn’t lose our focus on the rest of the landscape, waiting for something to move. Suddenly we saw some creatures just on the other side of the river, some excitement and a shout ‘Bison!’, but they were just wild boars. Still a very nice sighting to our already successful morning. But we had no idea the best had yet to come…

On the far sight of the meadows, we spotted some row deer, nothing special at first. Suddenly a change in their behaviour was noticed… and so it happened, we spotted a wolf trotting in the forest edge, it had something in its mouth. We couldn’t identify which prey it had taken down, but we all were stunned and full of unbelieve about what just happened…

View over valley
Scanning at the viewpoint

The waiting game - part 2

Just for the experience, and hoping to see some cool wildlife, we decided to take our ‘waiting game’ strategy to the next level and hired an observation hide. It was all well prepared with a bit of bait in front of the hide. Although there have been sightings of wolf and other wildlife in front of the hide, we were unlucky and a night of watching a meadow from the observation hide wasn’t too successful, a buzzard came and checked out the meat, some ravens flew over, furthermore a couple of jays, Hawfinch and Bullfinch in the surrounding bushes. It was a great experience (trying) to be quiet for a long time hoping for this one moment. On the other hand, there was a lot of snow up there, so probably most animals were down in the valley. Nevertheless, it was a great experience and we all extended our boundaries….

Jays
sunrise

Following European bison tracks...

On our second last day, we decided to try and find some European bison. The local guy, who was our contact for the observation hide, told us about a place he had seen a lot of bison tracks lately. So we went to check out that area. Soon after we started our walk we could confirm he was right, lots of tracks all over the forest track, disappearing into the forest once in a while. About 20 minutes in, we found some fresh tracks and decided to give it a try to see where they end up. This adventure led us down a slope, over a river, ending up in a slightly more open area in the forest. We all were following our own set of fresh tracks, keeping an eye on each other. By the looks of it, the tracks went away from each other, but always tend to re-join. Looking at the tracks, we suddenly found ourselves close to a hurt of bison, but they hadn’t spotted us yet. We all could have a good view between the bushes and we definitely could see some calves and one very big bull. We also spotted a fox joining the hurt. When they finally did spot us, they disappeared into the forest. We had a good luck, so we were not going to follow them more. We now set our attention to the fox, which still was wondering around. When finally the fox disappeared, we went to check out the tracks, and to our surprise, we found other tracks. We stumbled on bear tracks. They were definitely older than all those bison tracks, which made it hard to investigate. After a while we figured out it was most likely a female bear with 2 cubs, waking up from hibernation, or still awake. We followed those tracks and explored the forest from a bear’s point of view, hoping to come across fresher tracks, but besides some red deer and roe deer, no success and we left the bear tracks when they crossed a meadow on top of the hill.

Final Goodbye

On our last morning, we went to our lucky viewpoint again. Not too much was happening this time. Although 1 of us saw a very fast glimpse of what was probably a wolf. Happy and satisfied, we took on our Journey back home, to Belgium.

Bear scat
Bear scat
Scanning the landscape for wildlife
Scanning the landscape for wildlife

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