Poland: The Primeval Forests and Marshes of Eastern Europe

Poland has recently entered the birding fray; birders have now begun to discover the glories of birding Eastern Europe, where less intense farming practices have left swathes of habitat remaining, relative to some parts of Western Europe. Poland boasts two key zones for birds; the Primeval Forests of eastern Poland, and the vast marshes of the northeast. The woods at the time of our visit are alive with birds, many of which will be in the full swing of breeding. The woods are especially rich in woodpeckers with eight species breeding there, including Eurasian Three-toed, Black, White-backed and Middle-spotted. We’ll also prowl the woods at night for owls; Eurasian Pygmy-Owl and Boreal Owl occur; while more intensive searching during the day should also reveal Hazel Grouse and Hawfinch.


In stark contrast we’ll also bird the internationally famous Bierbza Marshes, which play host to large numbers of breeding plumage male Ruff in this season, while the displays of Great Snipe are also sure to be a highlight, along with a large colony of White-winged Terns, and plentiful raptors roaming the skies like Greater and Lesser Spotted Eagles and three species of harriers. For those on their first foray into Europe, the smashing Bearded Reedling will also provide a family first. The tour is timed for late spring when maximum diversity is expected; many birds will have, by then, established nesting sites (making them easier to track down), and some migrants will also still be on the move, offering the odd surprise or two.

Another aspect of this tour which will be appealing to many, is that we require only two bases to stay in, so that there is minimal unpacking required, with five nights at our first hotel, and four at the second (and only other hotel), we will be able to settle in well, without the usual need on some tours of constant need to move on to another site.

The woods in Bialowieza are home to splendid Common Redstarts
The woods in Bialowieza are home to splendid Common Redstarts (Marcin Kojtka)

Warsaw is steeped in the rich history of Eastern Europe, making this tour appealing for those with an interest in history too. The tour starts and ends in Warsaw, a city with a rich and vibrant history, making it easy to add on a few days either side of the bird tour, in order to explore the history and culture of it. Tropical Birding can set up full day and half-day tours for those interested in exploring for example, the monument of composer Chopin, within the Lazienki Park; the Old Town of Warsaw with its Royal Castle and Mermaid Monument; as well as the Palace of Culture and Science, arguably the city’s most famous landmark. Further afield is the sobering Treblinka Death Camp, a Nazi extermination camp second only to Auschwitz in terms of numbers of victims. If you wish to add on any extra activities please contact the Tropical Birding office who can assist with this.

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Day 1: Warsaw to Bialowieza. After arrival in Poland’s attractive capital (known as the city of parks, palaces and gardens); we’ll drive east towards the border of neighboring Belarus, where the primeval forest of Bialowieza lies. The next five nights will be spent in a comfortable hotel within village of Bialowieza, which is located within the attractive setting of Bialowieza National Park. The village is set right within the forest, and by springtime the trees will be verdant and leafed out. En-route we’ll have the chance to search for birds like Common Quail and Gray Partridge within the agricultural areas, and then, once we arrive we’ll take a walk in search of Corncrake, whose distinctive calls will be heard emanating from the surrounding countryside. The largest populations of this species have recently been found in Eastern Europe, where, until recently, comprehensive surveys had not been undertaken.

Black Woodpecker is Europe's largest woodpecker species
Black Woodpecker is Europe's largest woodpecker species (Marcin Karetta)

Days 2 – 4: Bialowieza National Park. Three full days will be spent within the park, chasing down some of Eastern Europe’s most wanted birds, in the Primeval Forests and the surrounding buffer zone, which supports different habitats. The forests are superb for woodpeckers, with an impressive diversity including Black, Eurasian Three-toed, Middle and Lesser-spotted, White-backed, and Gray-headed Woodpeckers, and Eurasian Wryneck. As this will be breeding season, many of these will be tracked down with local knowledge of their latest nesting holes. Another major target in this area will be the elusive Hazel Grouse, which is likely to require significant effort. Other must-see birds in Bialowieza include the hulking Hawfinch, dainty Firecrest, and Wood Warbler, whose rich songs will be heard echoing through the woods. Night time forays will be made in search of Eurasian Pygmy-Owl and Boreal Owl (known to European birders as Tengmalm’s Owl). With luck we may also run into one of the 400 or so European Bison which are still to be found in the area.

Long-tailed Tits have all white heads in this part of Europe
Long-tailed Tits have all white heads in this part of Europe (Lee Dingain)

Day 5: Knyszynska Forest. This is another forest complex to the north of Bialowieza. However, it is close enough that we can still access this from our base, and therefore do not need to change hotels. The forest is floristically diverse, and has a interesting mix of pines and spruces, which are especially good for owls and woodpeckers. While it has some of the same species as at the former site, it is the better place to track down both Black and Red Kites, Greenish Warbler, and European Nightjar. Other contenders for our day list from the site include Lesser Spotted Eagle and Eurasian Pygmy-Owl, for which this is a goo site too. At the end of a spellbinding day here, we’ll return to our familiar base near Bialowieza for a final, fifth, night.

The Eurasian Nutcracker inhabits Poland's primeval forests
The Eurasian Nutcracker inhabits Poland's primeval forests (Felix Felger)

Day 6: Siemianowka and Bialystok to Biebrza. This day will be a travel day as we move from the Primeval Forest of Bialowieza to the marshes of Bierbrza, where we enjoy a four-night stay. However, the journey is eventful and punctuated by prolonged birding stops.

The first stop will be at a large reservoir at Siemianowka. This artificial wetland and its periphery provide important breeding habitat for Citrine Wagtail, Common Rosefinch and the enormous White-tailed Eagle. As well as the banks and open water, there are sandy areas with juniper scrub, where we’ll search for breeders like Eurasian Turtle Dove, Eurasian Hoopoe, Ortolan Bunting, and Northern Wheatear. The general area around the reservoir may also provide the aquamarine European Roller.

The biggest target of the tour is the critically endangered European Bison
The biggest target of the tour is the critically endangered European Bison (Lee Dingain)

Another long stop will be made on our journey north, near the city of Bialystok, where a complex of fish ponds play host to a wide variety of European waterbirds. This is an amazing area, and even in just a short visit we are sure to rack up a great bird list. Five species of grebe occur, including Red-necked, as well as Whooper Swans, which breed at the site. The reedbeds provide habitat for the local Penduline Tits, Bearded Reedlings, Reed Buntings, and a host of warblers, including Savi’s, Reed, Great Reed and Marsh Warblers. The reedbeds are also the haunt of both Great and Little Bitterns, for which this is one of the prime sites in Poland.

The displays of Great Snipe are a big draw for visitors to Bierbza
The displays of Great Snipe are a big draw for visitors to Bierbza (Marcin Karetta)

Days 7 – 8: Bierbza Marshes. The marshes are enclosed within a valley and national park of the same name. They are located within a 100km-long depression within the valley, and are comprised of fens, bogs and wet woods. Wetland habitats have deteriorated massively on a global scale, and nowhere more than Europe; therefore Bierbza is a critical breeding area for many birds like Great Snipe and Ruff. A surefire highlight of our few days there will be a visit to see the Great Snipes displaying, when males pump their chests out and let rip, affording great views as they do so. Common Snipe and Eurasian Woodcock are also expected to be displaying during our visit. While the Ruff may not be displaying during the visit (they typically display before many of the migrant birds which are targeted on this tour have arrived), we are still sure to see many males in gaudy plumage, which comes in a variety of tones and colors. Around 270 birds, including 180 breeding species, have been recorded in the area, an incredibly high total for a European site, making this internationally, as well as regionally, important.

Bierbza Marshes is home to breeding Common Cranes
Bierbza Marshes is home to breeding Common Cranes (Marcin Kojtka)

Bierbza boasts a large colony of White-winged Terns, and burnt orange breeding plumage Black-tailed Godwits will be dotted about the marsh; while raptors like Great Spotted and Lesser Spotted Eagles, Montagu’s, Western Marsh and Hen Harriers also breed there. Reedbeds carpet the site and are home to many breeding songbirds like Bearded Reedling, a Eurasian-endemic monotypic family; the splendid Bluethroat; and a myriad of warblers, like Aquatic and River Warblers to name just a few. Common Cranes that nest in the area are expected, but occasionally Demoiselle Cranes turn up too. The marshes are also home to large variety of mammals, with more than 40 species listed for the area, including Beaver and Otter.

For the keen; night excursions will be made for owls
For the keen; night excursions will be made for owls (Lee Dingain)

Day 9: Narew Valley. We can visit this area from our base around Bierbza; it is close to Bierbza and offers up some of the same species with a few significant extras, allowing us a further back up site for some of the species in the area. While Bierbza is a strictly protected area, with restricted access to some parts of it, Narew is not, allowing us greater access to habitats for some key species. It is arguably the best site in the region for Ruff, which while we are likely to have seen in full breeding regalia at Bierbza, we might also get lucky to see some of them duelling at this site, where Ruff fights are more likely to be seen in the areas which are accessible. Furthermore, by adding this site we also get a shot at another woodpecker to add to an already impressive haul of these; Syrian Woodpecker is at the very edge of its range here, and we’ll make this a focus of our time in the valley. Narew is also a decent site for Black Stork (as well as further White Storks too), and is an excellent place to find one of Europe’s most beautiful birds, the European Bee-eater, and we’ll look for groups of this Technicolor birds on the wing, when their soft, bubbling calls often betray their presence in the area. At the end of the day we’ll return to our base near Bierbza for a final night.

Poland boasts the largest population of White Storks on the planet
Poland boasts the largest population of White Storks on the planet (Marcin Kojtka)

Day 10: Narew Valley to Warsaw (departure). In the morning we’ll leave the beautiful marshes of Northeast Poland behind, returning to the capital Warsaw to connect with international departures.

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

PACE: Moderate. Early starts are necessary on most days since the birding is almost always best early in the morning; on most days we will depart the hotel around 5-5:30am and have a field breakfast. Birding is a mixture of on foot and by vehicle. Driving between bases involves mostly short drives under 2 hours in length, though returning to Warsaw from Bialowieza is approximately 3.5 hours; these drives are often broken up with birding stops where and really aren’t very onerous. Once at our bases the driving distances between sites are much shorter. Lunches are likely to be packed or picnic style lunches on most days.

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Easy. Most of the birding will be on flat or slightly inclined roads or wide tracks and you can expect to walk around 2 miles (3.2 km) per day on average. The tour is suitable for anybody with a good general level of fitness.

CLIMATE: Particularly pleasant in late May and early June, with the temperature usually ranging between 44°-64°F (7°-18°C). The weather here is fickle, and we should expect warm sunshine much of the time but also some periods of rain.

ACCOMMODATION: Very good to excellent, all have private, en-suite bathrooms, full-time hot water, and 24h electricity.

PHOTOGRAPHY: This is a birding tour, but casual photographers should have chances to photograph some of the birds we see. As much of the tour is in forest, it is harder for bird photography than our other Europe tours.

OTHER INFO:

TRAVEL REQUIREMENTS: A valid passport is required; the passport must be valid for at least six months past your intended stay. Tourist visas are currently not required for citizens of the US, Canada, UK, Australia, New Zealand, all EU European countries, among others. Visas are currently required for citizens of a number of countries in Asia, Africa, South America, and the Middle East. Travel requirements are subject to change; if you are unsure, please check with the nearest embassy or consulate, or ask our office staff for help.

WHAT’S INCLUDED?: Accommodation from the night of day 1 to the night day 9; meals from dinner on day 1 to lunch on day 10; reasonable non-alcoholic drinks during meals; safe drinking water only between meals (tap water is safe and you will be expected to fill your bottles when able); Tropical Birding tour leader with scope and audio playback gear from the afternoon of day 1 to the afternoon of day 10; ground transport for the group to all sites in the itinerary from the afternoon of day 1 to the afternoon of day 7 in a suitable vehicle driven by the tour leader; entrance fees to sites mentioned in the itinerary; tips for included meals; a printed and bound checklist to keep track of your sightings (given to you at the start of the tour – only electronic copies can be provided in advance).

WHAT’S NOT INCLUDED?: Optional tips to the tour leader; tips for luggage porters in hotels (where available and if you require their services); flights; snacks; additional drinks apart from those included; alcoholic beverages; travel insurance; excursions not included in the tour itinerary; extras in hotels such as laundry service, minibar, room service, telephone calls, and personal items; medical fees; other items or services not specifically mentioned as being included.