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Birding trip to NE-Poland 23 - 27 May 2001,
Biebrza Marshes, Siemianówka Reservoir and Białowieüa Forest
Johan Staelens, Jan Feryn, Yves Decneudt, Ignaas Robbe
Birding in Poland in the month of May is a must for every European birder. There is a big variety of species and different species which have become scarce in Western Europe, can still be seen here in good numbers. The Polish countryside is still authentic and full of birds, wildlife and wildflowers.
We decided to visit three of Poland's best birding sites in a 5-day period. They can be found in the NE of Poland, roughly 180 km from the capital Warsaw. All three sites can be described with superlatives ;
The Biebrza Marshes near the town of Łomza is the last remaining natural flowing lowlandriver with vast floodplains in Europe and holds considerable breeding populations of different Central and East-European specialities like Aquatic Warbler (Acrocephalus paludicola), Great Snipe (Gallinago media) and Spotted Eagle (Aquila Clanga), to name but a few.
Siemianówka Reservoir towards the border of Belarus is a big artificial lake with reedbeds, meadows, and open water surrounded by vast woods and is considered by some birders as one of the best birdwatching spots in Poland. The area is best known as a breeding place for Citrine Wagtail (Motacilla citreola). It is also a very good birding area during migration periods. White-tailed Eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla) is quite easy to see here. Noteworthy are also the migrating waterfowl and waders. There are a lot of terns and gulls as well. The railwaytrack near the town of Cisówka is probably the most visited spot by birders. Good habitat can be found along the shores of the lake as well.
The Białowieża Forest near the city of Białystok is the richest forest in the whole of Europe with centuries old trees and different types of wood thus extremely rich in birds and good populations of e.g. Hazel Grouse (Bonasa bonasa), White-backed Woodpecker (Dendrocopus leucotus), Red-breasted Flycatcher (Ficedula parva) and Collared Flycatcher (Ficedula albicollis). The productionwoods can be freely explored, the reserve itself is only accesible with a guide.
Day 1 - Wednesday, May 23rd 2001
We took the Lufthansa flight from Düsseldorf to Warsaw at 7:00 a.m. We arrived in Warsaw around 08:45 a.m. We picked up our rented car and drove to Łomza (Warsaw -> Ostrow - Mazowiecka -> Łomża). Just after the bridge crossing the Narew in Łomza we took to the right direction Białystok (road N° 64) following this road only about 100m and then we took the first street to the right direction Wizna. This small road alongside the Narew river links Łomża with Wizna over 29 km. We started birding here around noon.
We stopped near the villages of Krzewo and Niwkowo, overlooking the floodplains of the Narew river. We noted White Storks (Ciconia ciconia) breeding on rooftops in the villages, a Black Stork (Ciconia nigra) flying over, our first Lesser Spotted Eagle (Aquila pomarina) for the trip (a very nice raptor indeed !), at least 5 Marsh Harriers (Circus aeroginosus) mostly males, different Common Buzzards (Buteo buteo), a Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus) and a hunting Hobby (Falco subbuteo), 2 Wood Sandpipers (Tringa glareola), about 15 Black-tailed Godwits (Limosa limosa) and displaying Redshanks (Tringa totanus). 2 Little Terns (Sterna albifrons) were sitting on the river bank and about 15 Black Terns (Chlidonias niger) were hunting insects above the Narew river. We saw also a Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis), lots of Whinchats (Saxicola rubetra) and numerous Sedge Warblers (Acrocephalus schoenobaenus), some singing Grashopper Warblers (Locustella naevia), a few singing Marsh Warblers (Acrocephalus palustris), Icterine Warbler (Hippolais ictirina), at least 3 males Red-backed Shrike (Lanius collurio) and numerous Yellowhammers (Emberiza citrinella) and Common Rosefinches (Carpodacus erythrinus).
We had lunch in the small restaurant near the Wizna bridge. From the terrace of the restaurant we saw another Lesser Spotted Eagle (Aquila pomarina) and a big colonie of Housemartins (Delicon urbica) under the Wizna bridge. A good spot to see Ortolan Bunting (Emberiza hortulana) is the beginning of the road from Wizna to Radziłow (just W of the Wizna bridge). We noted 3 singing males there. The population of this Emberiza species has decreased a lot in all West-European countries (and almost totally disappeared in Belgium for instance) but Poland still holds a healthy breeding population.
The area around the town of Laskowiec is always interesting. Never before I have had such a nice observation of about 30 White-winged Tern (Chlidonias leucopterus) in full summer plumage flying over the Narew just south of the village. We were standing on the bridge and the birds came as close as 10 meter ! (when the birds are not around Laskowiec, there's always a good chance to see them on the road between Laskowiec and Zajki, NE from Laskowiec). To the north of the village we saw a small colony of Black Tern (Chlidonias niger), some hunting Marsh Harriers (Circus aeroginosus) and Black-tailed Godwits (Limosa limosa) and we heard the typical song of Corncrake (Crex crex) The meadows around Laskowiec were very dry, I remember a visit to this area in early May 1999 when we saw on the wet meadows a lot of waders and other spring migrants (e.g. 150 lekking Ruffs (Philomachus pugnax) and about 6 Yellow Wagtails of the "thunbergi" subspecies (Motacilla flava thunbergi) ).
We drove further on the "Tsar Road" which lies to the E of the reserve and stopped at the observation tower near "Krynicka Biel". Apart from some commoner species and the amazing landscape, we noted a Curlew ( Numenius arquata) flying over.
A few kilometers further along this "Tsar Road" starts the famous track into the PTOP reserve "Wodniczka". This reserve is one of the best places in the Western Palearctic to see the rare Aquatic Warbler (Acrocephalus paludicola). After a long walk (about an hour) we arrived at a newly built observation tower and platform overlooking the area with a sedge-dominated vegetation, the typical and rare breeding habitat of this species. 3 singing males came very close and we had good views. The typical song was heard too. Other species here were different Marsh harriers (Circus aeroginosus), Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo), a calling Corncrake (Crex crex), calling Cranes (Grus grus), a calling Golden plover (Pluvialis apricaria) flying over (does this species breed here ??), displaying Snipes (Gallinago gallinago), 2 wonderful Short-eared Owls ( Asio flammeus), a lot of Meadow Pipits (Anthus pratensis), singing Thrush Nightingales (Luscinia luscinia), Lesser Whitethroats (Sylvia curruca), Whitethroats (Sylvia communis), Sedge Warblers (Acrocephalus schoenobaenus), Grashopper Warbler (Locustella naevia), Reed Warblers (Acrocephalus scirpaceus). Two Elks were grazing near a forest edge.
Unfortunately our visit to this area was disturbed by a noisy birding tour group with an even noisier local guide. We think there is not a problem to watch birds with a lot of people together, as nature is there for everybody to be enjoyed, but some basic "birdwatchingrules" should be obeyed. To our surprise, also the rules of the naturereserve did not apply to this group as they drove their vans into the area. At the beginning of the track is clearly stated that cars are forbidden into the reserve !
In the evening we camped at the camping site near "Barwik" foresthouse and walked to the platform near the Great Snipe - lek . This is the most famous spot in the Western Palearctic to see the Great Snipe (Gallinago media). I was there on June 1st, 2000 as well, and no birds were seen or heard then (the area was extremely dry then), so it was a delight to hear now the clicking, bubbling sound of this rare bird. We saw a minimum of 7 displaying birds at dusk. Different Thrush Nightinghales (Luscinia luscinia) and Grashopper Warblers (Locustella naevia) provided an additional soundtrack to the mysterious spectacle of lekking Great Snipes. A great experience!
The Polish man and/or organisation who bought this terrain in order to protect this lek and who allows birders into it to watch these birds deserves a chapter in the Golden Book of Natureconservation !! It is also a good thing that most visiting birders go to the same lek, other leks have a maximum of tranquillity then, something this species needs.
At night we heard a male and female Tawny Owl (Strix aluco) in the woods around Barwik.
Day 2 - Thursday May 24th 2001
During an early morning walk around the campisite we noted Black Woodpecker (Dryocopus martius), a Hoopoo (Upupa epops) singing Woodlarks (Lullula arborea) and Woodwarblers (Phylloscopus sibilatrix) and some Crested Tits (Parus cristatus).
At breakfast we were greeted by a Honey Buzzard (Pernis apivorus) which circled very low over Barwik.
Around 8:00 a.m. we left for the town of Gugny, not so far from the camping site. This pittoresque village and the area around offers a varied landscape with meadows, woods and fens and is very interesting to see a lot of different kinds of species.
Around the village we had very nice views of Woodlarks (Lullula arborea), two couples of Red-backed Shrikes (Lanius collurio) and a Wryneck (Jynx torquila). From Gugny a trail leads towards an observation tower. This observation tower proved to be very good for raptorwatching ; we saw another Lesser Spotted Eagle (Aquila pomarina) which came very close, at least 3 Common Buzzards (Buteo buteo), a Honey Buzzard (Pernis apivorus), 2 Marsh Harriers (Circus aeroginosus) and a Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus).
The afternoon was spent around the towns of Goniądz and Osowiec. In the reedbeds alongside the Biebrza river near Goniadz we observed 3 Cormorants (Phalacrocorax carbo), we heard Bittern (Botaurus stellaris), saw different Gadwalls (Anas strepera), at least 2 males Garganey (Anas querquedela), the always present Marsh Harriers (Circus aeroginosus), a hunting Hobby (Falco subbuteo), 3 Cranes (Grus grus), Common Terns (Sterna hirundo) and Black Terns (Chlidonias niger) singing Thrush Nightingales (Luscinia Luscinia) and Great Reed Warblers (Acrocephalus arundinaceus), singing Savi's Warbler (Locustella luscinoides) and different Penduline Tits (Remiz pendulinus).
A visit to the observation tower near Osowiec produced more Penduline Tits (Remis pendulinus) and a newly built nest of this species near the tower. A female Montagu's Harrier (Circus pygargus), different White Storks (Ciconia ciconia) and a Black Stork (Ciconia nigra), 3 males Garganey (Anas querquedela), a Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis), Common sandpiper (Actitis hypoleucos) and Green sandpiper (Tringa ochropus), 2 Common Terns (Sterna hirundunacea) and different Black Terns (Chlidonias niger) and at least 2 singing Savi's Warbler (Locustella luscinoides).
Across the bridge over the Biebrza river in Goniądz is another observation tower. We had very good views of displaying Snipes (Gallinago gallinago) and 2 Elks. We spent the night at the "Szybsko" hotel in Goniądz. We heard Serin (Serinus serinus) singing near the hotel.
Day 3 - Friday May 25th, 2001
From Goniądz, we drove direction Białystok . In the newly built "Auchan" supermarket in Białystok we stocked up with food and drink (+ meat for a barbecue!) before we travelled further direction the Siemianówka reservoir.
En route we saw different Great Grey Shrikes (Lanius excubitor). We halted near the village of Bachury. We wanted to see Rollers (Goracias garrulus ) but no birds were present apparently. On the same spot I observed in on June 2nd 2000 a displaying couple of this wonderful species.
Some small ponds to the NE (also near the village of Bachury) of the lake produced very good birds ; an adult White-tailed Eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla), a Black Stork (Ciconia nigra) - both birds offered us extremely good views, a Lesser Spotted Eagle (Aquila pomarina) a couple Marsh Harriers (Circus aeroginosus), a Herring Gull (Larus argentatus), 2 males Garganey (Anas querquedela) about 5 Gadwalls (Anas crecca), 4 Tufted Ducks (Aythya fuligula), a Little Grebe (Podiceps rufficolis), Litte Ringed Plovers (Charadrius dubius) and different songposts of Great Reed Warbler (Acrocephalus arundinaceus).
We tried our luck to see the Citrine Wagtail (Motacilla citreola) between the first and second pupmingstation near the town of Cisówka. We did not see the species. We did not want to go into the dried up parts of the lake in order not to disturb eventual breeding birds. I tried to see the species here in early June 2000 as well , but also without succes.
On a meadow just opposite the first pumpingstation we had an unforgettable observation of 2 Lesser Spotted Eagles (Aquila pomarina). One bird was hunting and came very close allowing us to see all featherdetails, another bird was sitting on a haystack. There was also a Hoopoo (Upupa epops) and a Wryneck (Jynx torquila) to be seen and a splendid Black Stork (Ciconia nigra). The pumpingstation housed big colony of Housemartin (Delichon urbica).
We wanted to spend the afternoon and evening on the dyke linking Cisówka and Siemianówka on the other side of the lake.
We met some local birders and they showed us a raptor perched on a dead tree to the east of the dyke. "Aquila clanga" said the man to us. Through our telescopes we could not see all the necesaary details to identify this species, plus, the bird had a confusing creamy-like, light head. The result of moult or a parasitic disease we have been told. We waited until the bird went on the wings. First, we could see the upperwing with the two white patches and after some minutes the eagle flew above our heads and we could easily see all the details of the underwing ; the contrast between the darker underwingcoverts and the lighter flight feathers convinced us that this was an adult Spotted Eagle (Aquila clanga). We also noted the difference in shape and color ("Aquila clanga" gave a darker , greyer impression) with the Lesser Spotted Eagles (Aquila pomarina) we had seen half an hour before. We had been looking around the Biebrza for this species, but we were a bit disappointed we didn't see it. This observation at Siemianówka was a relief as 3 members of our party had never seen this species before and they had put this species on top of their "want-to-see-list" for our trip to Poland. The Siemianówka reservoir is not a traditional place to see this eagle, but we had learned from an internetnewsgroup that a Spotted Eagle (most likely the same bird we saw today) had been seen there a week prior to our visit.
The bird flew west and we thought we would not see it again. 2 hours later we spotted the bird again hunting above the eastern part of the lake. It sat on the ground close to the dyke for some minutes and gave excellent views! A once-in-a-lifetime observation of one of Europe's rarest raptors!
We noted also ; Great Crested Grebes (Podiceps cristatus), a minimum of 15 Great Egrets (Egretta alba), 3 Black Storks (Ciconia nigra), 3 Greylag Goose (Anser anser), 2 couples of Shovelers (Anas clypeata), 2 males Wigeon (Anas penelope), another adult and a juvenile White-tailed Eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla) - we saw a minum of 3 different White-tailed Eagles during our visit to Semianówka reservoir - Marsh Harriers (Circus aeroginosus), a female Montagu's Harrier (Circus pygargus), a single Ruff (Philomachus pugnax), a breeding colony of Black-headed Gulls (Larus ridibundus), Common Gull (Larus canus) - we think there is at least one breeding couple of Common Gull in the Black-headed Gull colony - at least 2 Little Terns (Sterna albifrons), Common Terns (Sterna hirundo), 2 Whiskered Terns (Chlidonias hybridus), a male Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe), a lot of Sedge Warblers (Acrocephalus schoenobaenus) and Whinchats (Saxicola rubetra) - this species is surprisingly common in Poland. We saw a Fox (Vulpes vulpes) hunting on the fields on the eastern part of the lake.
We camped in a field near Cisówka and celebrated an unforgettable birdwatching day with a delicious barbecue and some good Polish beer (Zywiec !). At night we noted singing Nightjar (Caprimulgus europeus) and a Quail (Coturnix coturnix).
Day 4 - Saturday May 26th, 2001
The northern part of the Białowieża forest lies only 20 min by car from the Siemianówka reservoir. A lot of tracks and passable roads run through the forest and make a lot of different forest-habitats easily accesible.
We entered the forest through the village of Świnoroje. Now and then we stopped to listen to the songbirds as we were looking for some specific species which occur in the Białowieża Forest. We were welcomed by an adult Lesser Spotted Eagle (Aquila pomarina) which sat in an oak tree very close to the road near the village of Świnoroje and offered us spectacular views.
A splendid singing full adult male Red-breasted Flycatcher (Ficedula parva) could be observed for more than 20 minutes. There were also Pied Flycatchers (Ficedula hypoleuca) and Collared Flycatchers (Ficedula albicollis) ; both species may be described as "common" in the Białowieża Forest ! We had very nice views of Woodwarbler (Phylloscopus sibilatrix) and an Eurasian Treecreeper (Certhia familiaries) (the Short-toed Treecreeper (Certhia brachydactyla) is supposed to be more common here) and Great Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopus major) and Nuthatch (Sitta europaea).
Near an opener, wet area, not too far from the village of Budy, we heard our first River Warbler (Locustella fluviatilis) for the trip and another Corncrake (Crex crex). An English birdwatcher we met there told us he had seen a singing Barred Warbler (Sylvia nisoria) near the town of Teremiski. We decided to go and try to find the bird back. After a few moments we heard the typical song and after some time we saw the bird sitting in small tree. The bird's territory was in his typical habitat : an open area with scattered trees, some flowing water and a couple of Red-backed Shrikes (Lanius collurio) around.
We lunched in the town of Teremiski. We planned to spend the afternoon around the town of Białowieża and the Palace Park (Park Palacowy). In Teremiski we heard the song of Redstart (Phoenicurus phoenicurus).
A walk around the Palace Park produced ; a Lesser Spotted Eagle (Aquila pomarina), a Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo), a Honey Buzzard (Pernis apivorus), Great Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopus major), Middle Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopus medius),
Wryneck (Jynx Torquilla), Fieldfares (Turdus pilaris) - Fieldfares are common breeders in the NE of Poland - Great Reed Warblers (Acrocephalus arundinaceus), Icterine Warbler (Hippolais icterina), Wood Warblers (Phylloscopus trochilus) and a possible Greenish Warbler (Phylloscopus trochiloides) - nobody of our party has field-experience with the song of this species. We heard a bird singing which could have been Greenish Warbler, but we were not sure. There were Spotted Flycatchers (Musciapa striata) and Collared Flycatchers (Ficedula albicollis) too.
We checked in into the Bed & Breakfast and went to the "Zebra Zubra" path. The path leads into a wet forest with Alder, Birch and Oak and with a lot of dead trees, the ideal habitat for woodpeckers and other typical species.
Near the entrance was a singing Redwing (Turdus iliacus) (this species is common in Belgium in winter, but it is the first time we heard its wonderful song) and a River Warbler (Lucustella fluviatilis). We found also Great Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopus major) and the species we really hoped for on this trail ; White Backed Woodpecker (Dendrocopus leucotos) - a fantastic observation of a male (with red on the head) on a Birch tree. We found some marks in trees of Three-toed Woodpecker (Picoides tridactylus) but we did not see it.
Day 5 - Sunday May 27th, 2001
We planned an early morning trip in the woods near Zwierzyniec and hoped to see some mammals. There are a lot of Deer, Boar and Wisent in the woods, as well as Lynx, Wolf and other species. They are very very hard to see, but we wanted to give it try. We were not succesfull, but some good species of birds compensated for this. We heard Grey-headed Woodpecker (Picus canus), Red-breasted Flycatcher (Ficedula parva) was seen and a Corncrake (Crex crex) heard and 6 Ravens (Corvus corax) seen.
Around noon we returned to Warsaw and flew back home via Frankfurt.
We counted 150 species on the 5- day trip (in comparison with 1-4 June 2000 : 156 species)
When to go
Between half May and half June is probably the best time to visit the area when most summerspecies have returned. A lot of migrators can still be seen in the last 2 weeks of May. The weather is usually sunny and dry then, but it can be chilly at night.
Good maps of Poland can be purchased in the airport Okęcie in Warsaw or at service stations.
The "PTOP" (North-Podlasie Society for Birdprotection) published two maps of the Biebrza area (South and Middle-North basin) and two maps of the Białowieża area (Polish and Belarussian part of the forest). These maps are an absolute must while visiting these reserves. The maps are in great detail, user-friendly and there is an indication where to look for typical species of birds. Organisations in the rest of Europe might take these maps as the best example or standard for producing maps for other birding-area's. They can be purchased in bookstores in Białystok or in hotels in the Biebrza area. The stalls selling souvenirs at the entrance of the Palace park in Białowieża sometimes stock these PTOP maps.
I found a very detailed touristic map of the Siemianówka reservoir and the area around it in a bookstore in Białystok. This map is extremely useful when birding around Siemianówka.
Places to stay
Biebrza - camping is allowed in Barwik and in Gugny (and some other places marked on the PTOP maps). Do not forget to purchase an entranceticket to the reserve at the parkdirection in Osowiec (tel 00 48 272 06 20 fax 0048 86 272 06 21).
In Goniądz we stayed at hotel "Zbyszko" (ul. Św. Rozalli - Goniądz - tel 00 48 86 72 00 74). Some English and/or German spoken at the reception and there is a good restaurant.
Siemianówka - We camped in a field near the village of Cisówka. Take care not to camp too close to the Belorussian border, and this for security reasons.
Białowieża - We stayed in Bed & Breakfast "Eko-Sen" - ul. Tropinka 51 - Białowieża (tel 00 48 85 68 12 735 - only Polish Spoken).
Camping near the village of Gródek (3 kilometers SE from Białowieza) is also possible - this campground has a shower with hot water. Other places to camp can be found around Białowieża - village.
Ignaas Robbe - Harelbeke - Belgium