First year as member of the staff
After taking part in the White Wilderness Project of the Slovak Wildlife Society in 2012, I manage to get back out there as part of the staff. I was going to be the Volunteer Team Leader (VLT). This meant I was going to pick up and drop off volunteers in Bratislava, taking care of equipment, and overall looking after the volunteers. The week before the project started I was already on site to check the equipment and make an inventory to see what else we needed to make it through this next field season.
It was quite cold and a lot of snow around. During my stay in Bratislava, I managed to see some waxwings near the train station. For more info on getting to Slovakia and some tips where to stay, check out this page). During this field season, I had to go on the train to Bratislava about 4 times. Excited for the project to start, I went on the train to Bratislava to meet up my first volunteers and have dinner on Friday evening. But there was a lot of snow and coldness in Slovakia, and when I got about half an hour away from Bratislava, my train stopped… apparently the rails were frozen and we had to continue by bus, which took me another 2 hours or so.
I was too late for my meeting up with the new volunteers, which I had informed about my delays. Strangely I made it to the Slovak pub first and suddenly a couple of volunteers showed up, all affected by the weather. So, in the end, we were all too late but on more or less the same time. It worked out well. That evening I focused on looking up on the internet some back up plans on how to get to Liptovsky Mikulas, in case the trains still had problems… Luckily, I didn’t need a back-up plan and we all got on the train and made it to the study area on time. We all were ready for our briefing on activities of the week, the science we are doing, and some safety stuff.
The weather was not on our side
We had a lot of fun walking through the deep snow, searching for tracks. We found quite some tracks, but some days you are just unlucky. For example, when it has been snowing all night, and it’s just stopped in the morning or it is still snowing, most tracks will be gone under the new snow layer. On these days, you can’t get too much science stuff done. But you get creative with entertaining yourself and others. Making crazy tracks of giant creatures, or building a snow bunny, … Although in these circumstances, when you come across a track, it’s definitely clear and very fresh.
One day I was lucky to find very nice wolf tracks. I was out with 2 volunteers, a young guy, and his future father in law (the later wasn’t so good in talking English). They both got super excited and we all started to figure out more of the story. Suddenly those wolves went uphill in a dense conifer forest area, which was difficult to follow. On the map, we could see there was an easy road circling around up the hill and we thought these wolves will probably cross that road again. We left the wolf tracks, but it didn’t take long for us to find them again. The dad was on his cross-country skis, and in all the excitement, he destroyed a bit of the tracks. But all our effort and excitement got rewarded. At the end of the day, we found a kill site of a red deer. We could see the tracks of the wolves following the deer and they had taken it down around a small river stream on the hill.
I didn’t need to understand all the Slovak to see my two companions/volunteers were happy and will remember this day for a long time.
We were very lucky to spot a Ural Owl on the field almost next to our guesthouse. This Ural Owl had been there for at least 4 days and after a day of fieldwork, we could observe the owl in the evening. A very nice addition to the experience.
Furthermore, once in a while you come across small rodent tracks in the snow. Something you could see some wing marks next to it, which indicated a predator (owl or raptor) had tried to catch the rodent. When the rodent tracks ended around the wing marks, the hunt was successful, even some red snow drops could give you another clue…
Sometimes you need to do some decision-making during your trip. Here we came across a river, and we all felt safe to go and try to cross it… on barefoot. The key element is here to keep your boots dry (and the rest of your body) and be able to dry your feet afterwards. Overall it wasn’t too deep and armed with hiking poles we were able to cross. Although it’s a could experience, and again not too much contribution to the science part, it’s definitely a nice experience to feel the blood pumping through your veins.
Too Much Snow?
We managed to get out in the field pretty well. However, the last day of fieldwork was too much. We woke up in the morning and could see the cars covered in a lot of snow. As it was not worth it doing proper transects, we decided the volunteers could decide what to do. Some went for a walk to the little village nearby, others went for a walk/transect around the guesthouse, and others build an igloo… It was a great experience, but I was exhausted after these 3 weeks.