This was a wildlife viewing trip to Northern Poland organised by a well-known specialist travel company. It was limited to 12 persons; in practice it was 10 as two people pulled out at the last moment. In addition to us like-minded people, there was a full-time guide /naturalist and a driver, who both did their best in difficult conditions.
The initial brochure and itinerary advertised a variety of wildlife including a number of mammals and a potential large number of bird species. The headline animals were ‘European Bison, Elk, Wolves in Winter’, with a possibility of the Eurasian Lynx. The sub heading included otters, beavers, pine marten, wild boar, stoat, weasel, fox and racoon dog.
The majority of us were seasoned travellers and wildlife enthusiasts, so of course our expectations of seeing some of the smaller mammals on the species checklist, were laced with realism. True wildlife does not appear to order. If that were the case none of us would travel around the world as we do….zoos and game parks provide that sort of experience. Thus, we never expected that the proposed itinerary would be adhered to rigidly either and nor the timescales for travelling from one area to another; to an extent you move around according to where the animals are likely to be, and that can vary from day-to-day. One has to rely on a good guide who has thorough knowledge of habitat, particular animal behaviour, and has a good network of fellow guides who share information on daily sightings.
Our trip started with a flight from LHR to Warsaw, which is just in the top half of Poland. By the time we landed, and transferred to our min-bus and got away from the airport, it was fairly obvious from the distance we had to travel to get out of the metropolis, there would be little if any wildlife to be seen enroute to our first lodge in the Biebrza Marshes. This proved to be the case, and after a vain attempt to view animals in the dark with aid of a powerful spotlight, we finally arrived some 4 hours later. Our lodge, the Manor Dobarz, is one of a few such places catering for groups such as ourselves in the area. It is quite comfortable and the food adequate, but the packed lunches for the following day consisted of two cheese rolls; not quite up to the standard we expected.
Day 2 consisted of driving around the marsh and swamp land, with occasional stops to stretch legs and try to view what little wildlife that was around. We did see, well let us say stumbled across by chance, two small groups of Elks, which we were able to photograph. Additionally we did see fleeting glimpses of many small birds, which frankly many of us would see in our own back gardens, There was a passing Rough Legged Buzzard and a couple of distant Hen Harriers, but little else. We stayed overnight at the same lodge. Breakfast was of the continental variety as expected and quite adequate.
Day 3 was spent mainly in the mini bus driving goodness knows how many miles to get to the Bialowieza Forest National Park. This is a relatively small part of the overall Forest which spans into neighbouring Belarus. Of course we stopped enroute to stretch legs, have toilet breaks, etc, but the primary objective was never met. Very little wildlife. Our next lodge, when we finally arrived after many hours of driving, was somewhat superior in all respects; the Wejmutka, Kolejowa. We noted that there was a railway station directly across the road. The accommodation and food at this place was excellent; chicken and soup dishes that you would ask the recipe for, and the packed lunches were superior as well. The comfort of a big log burning stove and lounge area was very welcome for after dinner relaxation and review of the day’s events. Unfortunately, the first evening there was little on the wildlife experience to discuss.
Day 4 saw us spend our time searching for the elusive European Bison. We saw a large herd over one mile away, and then a pair of males at an artificial feeding station at a distance of some 30 yds. We were able to get some reasonable photographs here. Another sighting of Bison in a small herd at some distance did give us the satisfaction that we had seen and enjoyed one of the prime animal objectives.
Another good meal and pleasant evening was spent in the company of our fellow travellers who all lamented that, apart from our own company and the quality of the accommodation, the trip overall had been disappointing.
Winter wildlife watching is always going to be difficult, and with the abundance of snow and very cold weather, which we were expecting, our sightings were scarce. Yes, we did see two of the primary species, i.e. the Bison and Elk, plus a few garden birds, but that did not justify the time or expense. The trip was ill planned, with too much travel which was always going to be slow in such difficult conditions, and simply because of those conditions, there was virtually no chance of encountering any of the other animals on the species checklist.
The Polish landscape in Winter snowy conditions is quite stunning, and we are quite sure it would have equal appeal in the warmer months in these beautiful forest areas…. and a lot more likely to see wild animals as well.