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Southern Poland, Owls and Woodpeckers, 22 May-1June 2003,
Andrew Pearson and Garry Messenbird
Most people who go birding in Poland usually head straight for the well-documented sites at Bialowieza and Biebrza, but with a week free at the end of May I thought I would try something different and visit the southern part of the country for owls and woodpeckers. We hired a guide, Felix Felger, who proved very knowledgeable and who was able to get us most of our target species, and a lot more besides. (Details about how to contact Felix can be found at the end of this report.) It should be noted that the end of May is a little late in the breeding season to expect to score with all the mountain and forest species: Hazelhen becomes very secretive once the female is sitting on eggs, for example, and woodpeckers are less responsive to tapes. We arrived with the onset of summer temperatures, which meant that things went very quiet during the heat of the day. The first half of May had been very cold and wet, and as a result some of the target species - such as Ural Owl - had either delayed breeding or stopped altogether, which caused additional difficulties. April, of course, is best for owls, woodpeckers and grouse, but at this time of the year it is much colder and hiking through snow may be required to get to the sites.
We had a gruelling twenty-eight hour trip by coach from London Victoria to Krakow, and despite the return ticket only costing £79 I was left with the distinct feeling that I might be getting too old for this sort of caper. (I had been unable to get a direct flight from London to Krakow at short notice, but a flight to Warsaw and then a train to Krakow would have been possible.) The birding highlight before we reached Poland was 25 Mediterranean Gulls in and around Calais harbour, all either first or second summers. At the main halt in Poland (about an hour or so from the border), we found two Thrush Nightingales and a Firecrest singing in a wood next to the road. From the coach itself, we had the expected White Storks on their nests or feeding in fields, as well as a few raptors: good numbers of Common Buzzards, two Red Kites and a single male Montagu's Harrier.
Saturday, 24 May
After meeting up with Felix, we went to the Wolski Forest just outside Krakow, a popular area with the locals and one which is also good for birds, particularly woodpeckers. We had several Middle Spotted Woodpeckers and a single Grey-headed Woodpecker, but Black Woodpecker is also present. Collared Flycatchers seemed quite common here, and we had excellent views of a pair using a nest box.
We took a few hours off before the afternoon excursion to rest up after the long coach journey. The Planty is a narrow ribbon of open parkland that encircles the Old Jewish Quarter, and it gets very busy during the day. Nevertheless, it is well worth a look as Fieldfares and Icterine Warblers are easy to see here, as are "eastern race" Jackdaws with more extensive, silvery-grey collars than the birds we see back in Britain.
In the afternoon, we drove to a forest north of Krakow that has good numbers of Ural Owls. These large owls require surprisingly small territories and are expanding their range rapidly. They can also be extremely aggressive towards other species, including humans. The nest site that Felix had been intending to show us had been abandoned due to the cold weather earlier in May, so we tried a few areas and then staked out a clear fell area with specially designed perches, from which the birds hunt. I had a glimpse of a Ural Owl flying over a track (they look like grey coloured Buzzards in flight), but it looked as though better views were going to elude us. Just before dark, Felix heard a young bird calling close by and we obtained good views by torchlight of a two-week old Ural Owl chick still covered in down. On the walk back, we had a Ural Owl calling (it could be passed off as a distant dog barking), and saw the silhouette of the bird in flight, with the long tail a noticeable feature.
Sunday, 25 May
We had a late start this morning, and the heat was probably why we dipped Wryneck and Barred Warbler. (The latter was breeding at the bottom of the garden of one of Felix's friends!) We had great views of a pair of Syrian Woodpeckers visiting their nest hole in a tree close to Felix's parents' house, where we later enjoyed Sunday lunch. A Marsh Warbler sang and showed intermittently in an overgrown meadow behind the house.
In the afternoon we tried for Tengmalm's Owl at a nest hole stakeout. The "scratching the tree trunk to simulate a climbing Pine Martin" technique did not work on this female and she refused to come to the entrance to investigate. Again, this could have been as a result of the heat and/or the time of day. It took a further visit later in the evening for the bird to show well at the entrance before she shuffled back into the nest hole. Felix had a Black Woodpecker nest site very close by, and after a short wait the female arrived and left silently. A visit to a nearby arboretum produced displaying Serin, another Marsh Warbler and brief views of a couple of Golden Orioles.
The Gorce Mountains attract fewer tourists then the Pieniny or Tatra ranges, and other than a few foresters we saw no one else the whole time we were here. It was a long hike up to where we would be spending the night, and on the way we found evidence of White-backed Woodpecker activity on the plentiful dead beech wood, but the birds themselves remained elusive. Felix had a fleeting glimpse of a male Hazelhen in flight, but we had no luck relocating either it or the sitting female. Two singing Red-breasted Flycatchers seemed to be immature males given the extent and brightness of the throat colouring and their brown heads. Ring Ouzels were quite common here and we also had a female Pygmy Owl in flight giving its distinctive, "si, si, si" call. (It was probably collecting food from the "larder" left by the hunting male, which did not respond during the day to Felix giving the usual Bullfinch-like call.)
While resting up in the afternoon, we spotted a distant Three-toed Woodpecker on a dead spruce. In the cool of the evening, we had closer and much more satisfactory views of a male Three-toed Woodpecker near a felled area. (They are easier to see in the early morning and late evening when they are actively engaged in feeding.) At last light, as Woodcocks started to appear, a Pygmy Owl began calling at the edge of the meadow. It took us a few nerve-wracking minutes to get on to the bird sitting at the top of a spruce. The Pygmy Owl stopped calling soon after dark, but several Tengmalm's Owls - whose call resembles a distant calling Hoopoe - were more vocal. Ural Owls were also heard calling, but none came to hunt over the meadow where we would be sleeping in a restored log cabin. It was a beautiful location, and as we warmed ourselves around the fire we watched a storm break over the mountains to the south and lightning flicker on the horizon.
Tuesday, 27 May
A male Golden Oriole was calling at the end of the meadow at first light, and unusually it showed well right out in the open. We spent the morning hiking the trails through the forest in the hope of flushing a Hazelhen, but with no luck. We did find some beautiful black and gold Fire Salamanders, however.
In the afternoon, we drove to the Pieniny Mountains, an area known for its flowers and butterflies. The meadows and fields here are also good for Corncrakes, and several birds were calling in a relatively small area. (2003 was a good year for Corncrakes in Poland, with numbers substantially up on recent years.) In the evening a calling bird came closer and closer, and then proceeded to clamber up onto a large bundle of sticks, where it stayed in full view for several minutes. Unfortunately, the Eagle Owls that often come down from the mountains to hunt in the same area did not oblige on this occasion.
Wednesday, 28 May
In the morning, we decided to head straight for Zakopane in the Tatra Mountains and were faced with the decision of whether to try for Wallcreeper in one of the nearby valleys (dolinas in Polish) or go up to the high tops in search of alpine species. As the weather seemed to be closing in and we would have a two or three hour wait to get on the cable car, we chose the former option. We went with the touristy and relatively inexpensive option - once Felix had bargained down the price with the driver - of a horse-drawn carriage trip up the valley. It saved us an hour's walk, and after a stiff climb up the side of the dolina we were rewarded with great views of a male Wallcreeper fluttering around the limestone rock face, with the female also seen briefly in flight.
Thursday, 29 May
Garry had three Nutcrackers fly over the meadow outside our guesthouse before we rushed off to catch the first - 0730 - cable car to the high tops. Cloud and mist clung stubbornly around the peaks, but this didn't seem to discourage the Alpine Accentors, with at least two males in song close to the cable car station itself. One bird repeatedly flew onto the path right in front of me and gave excellent views, but the hordes of holidaying Polish schoolchildren soon pushed it off. A slight break in the murk encouraged us to go for a walk, which gave us a Water Pipit, but as the mist came down again we agreed that our best option was to descend and try our luck at various sites on the drive back to Krakow. It was a shame we didn't have time to go to Morskie Oko in the western Tatras as the Nutcrackers there are very tame and attend the picnic tables.
An early stop provided a Black Stork in flight, and further on as we were watching a singing Common Rosefinch, we located a Lesser Spotted Eagle flying over a nearby ridge. We settled in for some raptor watching on higher ground (where the territories of three pairs of Lesser Spotted Eagles intersect), and quickly had three soaring Black Storks. A distant eagle was identified as an immature Golden Eagle, and it dwarfed a Honey Buzzard that was mobbing it. Finally, a Lesser Spotted Eagle showed well and we were able to appreciate the diagnostic way this species holds its wings in flight.
We did not have time to stop to explore the peat bogs at Podhale for species such as Black Grouse and Crane, and Babia Gora National Park would definitely be worth a look as it has all the forest species as well as alpine habitat in a relatively small area. We pushed on to the complex of fish farms in the Upper Wisla river valley, many of which are managed with birds in mind. A lot of species were added to the trip list here, although the afternoon heat meant that the egrets and bitterns were keeping low. Black-necked Grebes were quite common and we had one Red-necked Grebe. Amongst the commoner ducks, I found a single drake Garganey. Marsh Harriers were on view continuously, and Black and Whiskered Terns were also present in good numbers. A bit of patience allowed us to get decent views of a singing Great Reed Warbler while a male Penduline Tit posed obligingly on some reed mace.
The last site we visited was a flooded lake in a working quarry not far from Auschwitz. There was a colony of Black-headed and Caspian Gulls breeding on the island in the middle of the lake, as well as a few Night Herons, although we only saw one adult in flight. The Caspian Gulls only arrived a few years ago and a lot of research is currently being carried out both here and at other breeding sites in Poland, which should help establish them as a full species. One surprise was the chrome yellow of the bills and legs of these birds in summer plumage, as back home we are used to the dull bare parts of winter adults.
This was a very enjoyable trip where we not only saw the owls and woodpeckers we wanted as new species for the Western Palaearctic, but also had good views of other desirable species such as Corncrake and Wallcreeper. We are indebted to out guide, Felix, for showing us how good Poland is for birds and wildlife in general away from the better-known sites in the north east of the country. Compared with Finland, for example, this is a very affordable and virtually guaranteed way of seeing all the European woodpeckers and a good selection of owls - Pygmy, Tengmalm's, Ural and Eagle - especially if you visit earlier in the year than we did. We paid 20 euros a day for Felix's guiding services, although in reality it was less than that as he gave us a free day. His father drove us to all the sites in his own car for petrol money only, which was a great deal, though I suspect it was a one-off. Even with a hire car, petrol currently remains very cheap in Poland. Felix organizes his own trips but can arrange personalized itineraries to suit your birding needs, and will also act as a guide to see mammals, butterflies and flowers.
Felix Felger can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Black-necked Grebe, 10 at fishponds
Little Grebe, Present at fishponds
Great Crested Grebe, Present at fishponds
Red-necked Grebe, One at fishponds
Fulmar, Several on Channel crossing
Gannet, A few in the Channel
Cormorant, Recorded at fishponds
Night Heron, One adult in flight at gull colony site
Grey Heron, Several seen
White Stork, Not as common as I'd expected
Black Stork, Four birds in flight between Zakopane and Podhale
Mute Swan, Good numbers at fishponds
Greylag Goose, Two at fishponds
Mallard, Common at fishponds
Gadwall, Recorded at fishponds
Shoveler, Recorded at fishponds
Garganey, One drake at fishponds
Pochard, Recorded at fishponds
Tufted Duck, Recorded at fishponds
Golden Eagle, One first year between Zakopane and Podhale
Lesser Spotted Eagle, Two adults between Zakopane and Podhale
Red Kite, Two birds seen from the coach
Marsh Harrier, Several pairs at fishponds
Montagu's Harrier, One male seen from the coach
Common Buzzard, Most frequently recorded raptor
Honey Buzzard, One mobbing the Golden Eagle between Zakopane and Podhale
Kestrel, A few seen
Corncrake, Heard frequently in suitable habitat. Several in Pieniny Mountains, with one seen out in the open
Coot, , Common at fishponds
Lapwing, A few recorded
Woodcock, Several "roding" in Gorce Mountains
Black-headed Gull, Seen at fishponds and at breeding colony on quarry lake
Mediterranean Gull, 25 around Calais Harbour (all first and second summers)
Herring Gull, Many at Dover
Caspian Gull, Two at fishponds and at breeding colony on quarry lake
Black Tern, Common at fishponds
Whiskered Tern, Common at fishponds
Feral Pigeon, Common
Stock Dove, Recorded
Collared Dove, Common
Ural Owl, Young bird seen by torchlight in forest near Krakow, also two adults seen briefly in flight. Heard calling in Gorce Mountains. ("Macroura" race)
Tengmalm's Owl, Female seen at entrance of nest hole in pine forest near Krakow. Several calling in Gorce Mountains
Pygmy Owl, Female seen and heard calling in flight in sub alpine spruce forest in Gorce Mountains. Male seen calling at dusk at edge of meadow.
Common Swift, Good numbers in Krakow
Black Woodpecker, Female seen at nest hole in pine forest near Krakow
Green Woodpecker, One heard calling in Pieniny Mountains
Grey-headed Woodpecker, Male seen in Wolski Forest
Great Spotted Woodpecker Commonest woodpecker
Syrian Woodpecker, Pair seen at nest hole in village outside Krakow
Middle Spotted Woodpecker Several in Wolski Forest, also recorded at Ural Owl site
Three-toed Woodpecker, Two males seen in Gorce Mountains. One in flight in Pieniny Mountains. ("Alpinus" race)
Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, One heard calling and seen in flight near arboretum
House Martin, Fairly common
Water Pipit, One on high tops in Tatra Mountains
Tree Pipit, Several seen in forested areas
White Wagtail, Common
Grey Wagtail, Common around mountain streams
Dipper, Two in Gorce Mountains and two in Dolina Koscieliska
Alpine Accentor, Two males singing on high tops in Tatra Mountains. Several seen, including a confiding bird near the cable car station
Thrush Nightingale , Two in song at coach halt
Black Redstart, Fairly common in towns and villages. We found a nest above our table in a restaurant close to the arboretum
Whinchat, Several seen in meadow areas
Song Thrush, Uncommon
Mistle Thrush, Uncommon
Fieldfare, Commonest thrush, even breeding in the centre of Krakow
Blackbird, Fairly common
Ring Ouzel, Common at tree line in Gorce Mountains. ("Alpestris" race)
Garden Warbler, A few heard singing
Lesser Whitethroat, A few heard singing
Common Whitethroat, Fairly common
Grasshopper Warbler, One "reeling" in meadows in Pieniny Mountains
Marsh Warbler, One seen and heard near Felix's parents' house. Singing birds in wet area in arboretum and by the river in Pieniny Mountains
Great Reed Warbler, Several singing at fishponds, one seen well
Icterine Warbler, Common, even in the centre of Krakow
Willow Warbler, Recorded
Wood Warbler, Common in low-level wooded areas
Firecrest, A few heard singing or calling
Spotted Flycatcher, Several seen in various locations
Red-breasted Flycatcher, Two 2nd summer males on territory in Gorce Mountains
Collared Flycatcher, Pair using nest box in Wolski Forest, also tow other males here
Great Tit, Recorded
Coal Tit, Fairly common
Blue Tit, Recorded
Penduline Tit, Male seen well at fishponds
Wallcreeper, Pair at the top of one of the dolinas in Tatra Mountains
Red-backed Shrike, Several recorded, with a pair building a nest near the Black Woodpecker stakeout
Great Grey Shrike, One seen from the coach
Nutcracker, Three flying over meadow outside hotel in Zakopane
Jackdaw, "Eastern" race birds fairly common, best seen in The Planty in Krakow
Rook, , Recorded
Hooded Crow, Recorded
Raven, Fairly common
Golden Oriole, Heard frequently in appropriate habitat, seen from the coach, at the arboretum and in Gorce Mountains
House Sparrow, Recorded
Tree Sparrow, Seen in several localities
Serin, , Uncommon
Bullfinch, Seen outside hotel in Zakopane
Crossbill, One heard calling from cable car station
Common Rosefinch, First summer male seen between Zakopane and Podhale, another singing and seen in flight at fishponds