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Day 1 Saturday 29th May
Henryk and I met the group in Warsaw at 2.00pm and we were soon on our way. A coffee break gave an indication of what could be expect when we saw Fieldfare, Blue-headed Wagtail, Common Redstart and Icterine Warbler in the cafe garden. Before reaching our first hotel we had also notched up White Stork and Montagu's Harrier from the bus. Once we had settled in and had dinner we reassembled for an evening walk by the nearby river Narew, where the European Beavers put on a splendid show delighting everyone, particularly Janet and Karen. When we eventually left these engaging mammals we soon started to find birds. Woodlark and Tree Pipit were in evidence and then Yvonne found the Black Woodpecker we had been hoping for. Everyone had good views through the scopes as the bird obligingly sat on telegraph poles. This was shortly followed by a Barred Warbler which sang from nearby bushes, eventually giving everyone a good view although the light was poor. We strolled slowly back to the hotel thinking the birding was over for the evening, when from the car park I noticed a Kestrel and drew people's attention to it, as we had only seen one Common Kestrel the week before. As I watched it I noticed its slim build and particularly graduated looking tail. Then it started to catch insects and pass them to its bill in much the same way as a Eurasian Hobby. The light was too poor to see plumage features and the bird disappeared behind the hotel, leaving us in the position where we knew what it was but could not confirm it. Mercifully it came back and soon landed on telegraph wires where all the features of a male Lesser Kestrel could be seen through the telescope. This constitutes the seventh Polish record since 1970 and there have probably been less than 15 in total. What a way to start the tour! We went to bed feeling particularly pleased with ourselves.
Day 2 Sunday 30th May
The early birds got the worm in the form of the Lesser Kestrel which was present on the wires in good light for half an hour or so first thing in the morning. It could not be relocated later so had presumably moved off along the valley. However we did well with Corn Bunting, Eurasian Golden Oriole, Hawfinch, Red-backed Shrike and Common Redstart before breakfast. Moving on after breakfast it was not long before we made our first stop, and Henryk soon found our target bird, a stunning European Roller. The bird was some distance away and not in good light but walking down the track towards it we were distracted by one thing after another. A pair of Crested Tits and a close Black Woodpecker feeding on the floor of the adjacent woodland, followed a Eurasian Hoopoe. As if this was not enough, a stop for a pair of Black Redstarts produced a Eurasian Wryneck, and whilst we watched this, a pair of Eurasian Golden Orioles flew into the trees behind. There had also been a number of butterflies including Wood White, Green Hairstreak, Queen of Spain Fritillary and Camberwell Beauty. Henryk had been down the track, relocated the Roller and returned only to find us working our way through this flurry of activity. When we eventually reached the spot the bird had gone but we had enjoyed a superb hour or so in the morning sunshine. Stopping off at Ruz, European Serin, Black Stork, Marsh Warbler, White-winged Tern, Black Tern, and Whiskered Tern were soon found. After an ice cream stop lunch was taken overlooking the marshes where we found Garganey, Northern Shoveler, Eurasian Wigeon, Common Teal and Red-necked Grebe. We reached our next hotel late in the afternoon. Situated on the edge of the famous Biebrza National Park this excellent hotel had only been open for one month. With meadows and forest all around us we were in a brilliant situation and set out to make the most of it. A post dinner stroll in the meadows yielded Little Ringed Plover, Northern Lapwing and Green Sandpiper on some pools behind the hotel, but little else. Whilst we were talking to a fellow guest he dived in to the grass and caught a Northern Birch Mouse, a beautiful little creature with a dark stripe along the centre of its back. As we said goodnight outside the hotel entrance 5 Common Cranes flew low over the roof, a perfect end to an amazing day.
Day 3 Monday 31st May
An exploratory drive paid off when we stopped for a Common Raven and found a Red Kite. There was also Eurasian Curlew, a scarce bird in Poland, which seems strange as there are so many marshes and meadows. Having picked up our guide Arthur, the head of education and tourism in the National Park, we moved on and soon found Greater Spotted Eagle. This bird gave good views allowing us to study all the identification criteria which we could then test when we found a Lesser Spotted Eagle ten minutes later. Although some excellent birds had been seen it was nice to leave the bus and do some walking when we reached our first 'proper' stop. Parking the bus near a ruined Russian fort, Edible Frogs were vocal in a nearby canal and easily seen, and then we found a Eurasian Penduline Tit building a nest, an incredible piece of engineering skill. There were also breeding Montagu's Harrier, and Eurasian Reed and Sedge Warblers. Alan and Jeff found a Thrush Nightingale and everyone saw the first Common Rosefinch, though unfortunately it was a brown bird. A short drive to another locality for lunch and a very smart White-spotted Bluethroat was quickly found. Another bird with a completely blue throat was of the eastern form magna, our second rarity. Walking on into the marsh we had nice views of Common Crane and Western Marsh Harrier but little else and decided to call it a day. In the meantime Henryk had discovered a Northern Grey Shrike, and as we stopped the bus to look at it Henryk noticed some waders on a nearby pool. One was a Common Redshank and there was also a Green Sandpiper, but through the hazy bus window I was sure I could see a phalarope. The name triggered a rapid exit from the bus and sure enough, swimming around on the same small pool was a superb summer plumaged male Red-necked Phalarope. Whilst we watched it, and I tried vainly to obtain photographs for this was yet another rare species, particularly inland in spring, Karen turned round to discover an Elk crossing the road right behind us. Later an after dinner walk began very quietly. As I walked along feeling we were wasting our time there was the most terrific noise. It was the unmistakable trumpeting of Common Cranes and they were very close. Creeping forwards we were treated to a 30 minute display by a pair of dancing cranes at a distance of some 150 metres, a rare privilege indeed. This meadow was also home to a couple of pairs of Black-tailed Godwits in their wonderful summer plumage. With the mosquitoes in full attack mode we retired to the hotel where Clive, Linda and Terry, Trevor and Yvonne continued their quest to try every flavour of Polish Vodka!
Day 4 Tuesday 1st June
A return visit to the boardwalk, the first of yesterday's stops, produced our first red Common Rosefinch and good views of Thrush Nightingale for everyone. Nice views of Garganey and Marsh Warbler were also had here. Moving on to another marsh several Camberwell Beauty and Map butterflies were seen as we walked out through the woods. A magnificent adult White-tailed Eagle flew over low, the large White-winged Tern colony was quite a spectacle and other birds seen on the edge of the nearby woods included Eurasian Golden Oriole and a Willow Tit of the pale North European form (borealis). We then made a short drive to the nearby river for lunch in a hide overlooking the adjacent marshy fields. Ruff in full summer plumage were found here alongside Black-tailed Godwits, Garganey and Little Tern. All this and homemade cheesecake kindly provided by the local farmer, a friend of our guide Arthur. Eventually we had to leave this idyllic spot and make an hour long drive to our next destination. Walking out to the marsh through carr woodland we encountered a flock of Long-tailed Tits, which included at least one bird of the white headed, North European form (caudatus). Shortly after this a Savi's Warbler began singing and in the end everyone ended up getting excellent views of this species which can be difficult. Out on the marsh we had excellent views of our target species, Aquatic Warbler. At least 5 birds were seen and our visit here was a highlight of the tour. Aquatic Warbler is considered vulnerable having suffered a 40% decline in its habitat in the last 10 years and the Polish marshes are one of its strongholds.
However numbers vary and it is not always easy to find. Common Snipe displayed around us as we took our time watching the warblers in the late afternoon sun, a splendid way to end the day. After dinner Karen and I went out to the pool behind the hotel to see European Tree Frog, an excellent opportunity to see this species as the newly created pool had no vegetation growing around it.
Day 5 Wednesday 2nd June
After breakfast we drove a short distance to a large lake where several White-tailed Eagles gave good views. Our next stop, at a quarry, was for European Bee-eater, which were seen well and Ortolan Bunting was tracked down singing from the roadside trees. After a short break in Baiałystok, where we changed money and did some shopping, we had lunch at some nearby fishponds. Great Reed Warbler was quickly added to the holiday list and this species proved to be common around the ponds. During lunch a Great Bittern got up from the reeds in front of us and flew across the ponds, another excellent addition to the holiday list. A superb summer plumaged Red-necked Grebe was found with one stripy youngster in attendance. This was followed by several lovely Black-necked Grebes giving very close views. We then stopped to watch a Eurasian Penduline Tit nest and whilst watching this super little bird two White-tailed Eagles flew in and began fishing on the next pond. After several strikes each of the eagles caught a fish and flew up onto a tree at the back of the pond to eat them. I thought this was a spectacular show but as we walked back to the bus the adult White-tailed Eagle flew across the ponds with two Western Marsh Harriers mobbing it for all they were worth. It was quite something to see a bird which can make a Western Marsh Harrier look so small! That evening we settled in to our hotel at Bialowieza.
Day 6 Thursday 3rd June
There was a very early start today as we visited the protected forest with our friend Arek, a teacher from the local college who has unparalleled knowledge of this area. Common Quail called from the meadows as we walked out to the forest in the early light. Once inside the forest a Collared Flycatcher nest was found right by the main track, allowing us to get excellent views of this very attractive bird. Next we found a small flock of Red Crossbills but they remained too mobile for good views. Middle Spotted Woodpecker was seen well at the nest and White-backed Woodpecker was also tracked down before we had to leave the forest. Walking back through the park Wood Warbler and Eurasian Nuthatch were common birds and Yvonne finally got her Icterine Warbler. After breakfast we drove to the edge of town and were treated to excellent views of Thrush Nightingale as it delivered food to its young. Here all the group finally managed to get good views of a perched Hawfinch, and seeing Lesser Spotted Woodpecker at the nest allowed us to get unusually good views of this secretive species. Nearby we had quite a bit of trouble with a Red-breasted Flycatcher which everyone eventually saw well; although unfortunately it did not have a red throat (I think Marion was particularly keen to see a brighter bird). Another bird which gave us a bit of trouble was River Warbler but shortly after lunch we all got excellent views of a bird by the side of the road.
The afternoon was rounded off nicely with superb views of Three-toed Woodpecker at the nest. After dinner and a rest we drove back into the forest. After some excellent imitations by Henryk a Eurasian Pygmy Owl was seen, reasonably low and in good light. Eurasian Woodcock were common here but we were soon off bumping our way down the sandy forest tracks. As we bounced along there was a European Nightjar on the track in front of us and we were treated to stunning views as the bird sat tight in the headlights just a few feet away. A long walk followed and it nearly paid off when a distant Tengmalm's Owl approached us, but just wouldn't come close enough.
Day 7 Friday 4th June
After a good night's sleep and a leisurely breakfast we headed off to the Siemienowka Reservoir. A very smart, male Citrine Wagtail was soon found, a species Ted had been particularly keen to catch up with, and a brightly coloured male Sand Lizard was another nice find here. As we approached our second stop a male Northern Goshawk flew past us but unfortunately several people on the wrong side of the bus missed it. Stopping for a pair of European Rollers perched on a telegraph wire, we were distracted by an Ortolan Bunting at the roadside, before moving closer to the Rollers and getting good views of these spectacular birds. A nice bonus here was a Tawny Pipit which is a scarce bird in Poland. At our final stopping place we found a Common Gull, looking so neat in its summer plumage, and a rather scruffy first summer Little Gull. An immature White-tailed Eagle landed on a fence post in the nearby marsh giving quite a good view and then it was time to leave. After a fairly long drive and a 30 minute walk we reached our final destination for the day. After 30 minutes or so we found our target bird, a Great Snipe. The birds started calling shortly after we arrived and the wait had been tense, but we were rewarded with some very good views of this much sought after species. As with our visit the previous week the birds were lekking. They puffed themselves up, threw their heads back, and made their strange accelerating call, like a ping-pong ball left to bounce on a table. This display provided excellent opportunities to view the heavily barred belly and distinctive wing panel. In the midst of all this another male Northern Goshawk flew right across the marsh in front of us, a just recompense for those who had missed the earlier one from the bus. Although we heard Common Grasshopper Warbler, unfortunately (especially for Margaret and Ted) we didn't have much time to look for it. We left the marsh at sunset and returned to the hotel where Henryk had made arrangements for the staff to kindly organize a barbecue for our final night.
Day 8 Saturday 5th June
Our final morning's birding was the culmination of a quest. Throughout the holiday one bird had eluded us, and for several days now the entire group had been engaged in mass imitations of this species, wandering the Polish highways, whistling forlornly at trees. After a bit of a run around, this morning the Grey-headed Woodpecker finally gave itself up. As often happens once everyone had seen one we duly found another and this made for a very satisfying end to a stunning tour. All that remained was to make the 4 hour journey back to Warsaw, with a brief stop on the Bug River valley for lunch.
On behalf of Henryk and myself I would like to thank everyone who took part in this tour for making it such a success and so much fun to lead.