Cambs Birders in Eastern Poland: May 1996

After many months of planning the time had come – At Last!  We left Cambridge at 2000hrs and headed to catch the midnight ferry from Ramsgate to Oostende.

We docked at Oostende on time at 0445 and headed east on the E-40 towards Antwerp & Eindhoven and eventually crossed the German border at Venlo. Our first stop was at Rynnern services on the E-34 just east of Dortmund.  We had our breakfast here and saw our first birds of the trip.

Hawfinch2 showing well in car park
Common Buzzard3-4 soaring overhead
We carried on for about 150 miles then another stop in a lay-by produced 10 minutes of quality birding!
Black Kite2+
Red Kite1
Serin1 male singing
Tree Pipit2
Goshawkpair displaying overhead
Black Woodpecker1 flew over road as we pulled away but was only
seen by 4 of the group and I wasn’t one of them!
After a few more hours on the road we spent 45 minutes stationary in a traffic jam.  We used the time wisely and it produced the following species:
Black Stork1 elusive adult feeding in a ditch 300 yds from road
Red Kite1 overhead
Montagu’s Harrier1 female hunting over nearby fields
We had planned to cross the Polish border at Frankfurt-am-Oder but due to the horrendous traffic jam (3 solid miles) we decided to cross at Kostrzyn, about 5 miles further north.  We entered Poland at 1800hrs, just over 13 hours from when we left the ferry port at Oostende.
We found our first place easily and set up our tents in a field adjacent to the Polish Nature Reserve of Slonsk.  We were all shattered and after a tinned Chicken Curry we had a well earned nights sleep.  Early start tomorrow!
DAY 2warm & sunny
We awoke at 0500 to the incessant calling of nearby Hoopoes and the distant trumpeting of Common Cranes.  I think we’re gonna like this place!!!
HoopoeAt least 5 calling and showing well
White-tailed Eagle4+ perched on small islands on the main lake
Red-necked Grebe20+
Wryneck1 seen very well and watched calling
Tawny Pipit2+
White StorkAt least 25 
Great Grey Shrike1
Garganey3 males 2 females
Lesser Spotted Woodpecker2
Wood Sandpiper2 flew over calling
Nightingale1 singing in small willow
Marsh HarrierAt least 30 
Hawfinch2+ birds present, picked up on call
Marsh Tit2 pairs
Red Kite2 over reserve boundary
Long-tailed Tit1 of the white headed “northern” race caudatus
Queen of Spain FritillaryAt least 3
If the rest of Poland is like this we’re in for a hell of a trip!
We tore ourselves away from Slonsk at 1020 and headed east on the E-30 through a very grey and depressing Warsaw on to Hjanowka.  The only birds seen en route were many White Storks and 30+ “eastern” Jackdaws.
We eventually arrived at our destination, the Hotel Iwa at 2230, a total of 1175 miles from Cambridge and approximately 3 miles from the Russian border.  We were all very tired but exited as well.  All the talk that night was of what we might see tomorrow!
DAY 3   overcast with a light drizzle
Hotel Iwa grounds and nearby wood.
The Hotel Iwa will be our base for the next 3 days. It is situated in the heart of the Bialowieza (pronounced be-ol-vee-ay-jer) Forest which is a huge expanse of very important ancient woodland habitat, approx 750 square kilometres in area.  Birds seen on our pre breakfast walk included:
Wood Warbler20+ the commonest songbird
White Stork6+
Wryneck1 calling
Serin1 male singing
COLLARED FLYCATCHER: 2+ males seen really well. My first new bird of the trip!  A really cracking bird with glossy black plumage with fluffy white underparts, rump, hindneck collar and wing panel. Also small white patch on forehead noted. These excellent birds nest in numbered nest boxes in the hotel grounds.
After breakfast we had another look at the Collared Flycatchers before setting out for the oldest part of the forest, in search of more Eastern specialities!
We arrived at Porgozelce at 0930, Richard immediately picked up an eagle over the forest.  After a couple of minutes its identity was agreed.  Another new bird!
LESSER-SPOTTED EAGLE:  Watched for over 20 minutes at fairly close range, when joined by a second bird. They were obviously a pair.  A large raptor, about Osprey size with squared wings, obvious pale primary shafts and marked contrast on upper wing.  From underneath the wing coverts appeared paler than the flight feathers.  The tail was wholly dark.  Upper wing coverts much paler than rest of upper parts, the rump was thin and whitish as were the narrow primary shafts.
With the enthusiasm to find more new birds we set off on a trail through the forest at Porgozelce.  There was a raised boardwalk through the wettest areas:
Hawfinch4+ very vocal
Wood Warbleramazingly common
Crested Tit1 showed very well
Great Grey Shrike1 singing from the top of a conifer
MIDDLE SPOTTED WOODPECKER:  1 landed on a low tree only 20 yards from us.  This bird just had to be a male, the resplendent bright red crown, pinkish under parts with thin blackish streaking on flanks contrasted with the open faced appearance.  Intermediate in size, between Great and Lesser spotted, but more chunky in shape than either of the last mentioned species:
Montagu’s Harrier1 male perched on a fence
Garganey2 pairs on a wet field
Redstart1 male singing
Savi’s Warbler3 males singing from a wet area nearby
Golden Oriolepair seen briefly
White Storka pair nesting on the farmhouse roof
Today despite the damp weather we managed 3 Lifers.  Tomorrow we are going into the Park Palacowy.  This area is only accessible with a recognised guide as the ecosystem is very fragile.  Night at Hotel Iwa.
DAY 4damp with slight mist
Park Palacowy
We met our guide, Mich Krajnic, at the huge carved wooden gates by the entrance to the Park Palacowy.  After introducing himself he gave us a detailed insight into the Bialowieza Forest and what we might see.  He did give us cause for concern, as he had no binoculars.  He told us that he didn’t need any – we were amazed!
Wood Warblervery common, at least 40 singing
Collared Flycatcherat least 7 pairs
Lesser Spotted Woodpecker1
Hawfinch20+ picked up on flight call 
Wryneckat least 2 
We arrived at a clearing where Mich explained to us the way the Germans had committed large-scale atrocities here in World War II, hence the many mass graves at clearings in the forest.  This made me feel uneasy and very emotional as we saw these monuments at several clearings.  Some monuments had 300+ names inscribed on them.  It was totally unbelievable and very moving.  I will never forget it!
As we were standing there, Mich said he could hear a woodpecker calling nearby.  Within 2 minutes we were all staring opposite us at eye-level, speechless, as the next new bird of the trip revealed itself:
WHITE BACKED WOODPECKER:  1 adult male clinging to the side of a tree only 10 yards away!  Much larger than Great-spotted with longer thicker neck, more angular head shape, longer bill, light flank streaking and the diagnostic barred black & white patterning on the mantle, reminding me of a giant Lesser Spotted from behind.  This is one of the real specialities of the forest.  The species is classed as endangered in Europe. 
As the other areas of the park were too wet for us to enter we parted company with Mich in the early afternoon.  He had recommended a site nearby where we might stand a chance of finding the very elusive Three-toed Woodpecker, so we drove the 20 or so miles to the site, full of enthusiasm.
Stara Bialowieza
Middle Spotted Woodpecker3+
Lesser Spotted Woodpecker1 drumming and calling at close range
Long-tailed Tit2 of the white headed “northern” race caudatus
Wood Warblertoo many to count
Hawfinchat least 30, with one group of 8 in one tree!
GREY-HEADED WOODPECKER: 1 heard calling but despite our efforts it remained unseen.  10 minutes later Mark saw what he thought to be this species in flight about 200 yards from where we heard it calling.  Very frustrating!
We walked for about 3 miles to the Reservat Zubrow, the only site we had any chance of seeing Hazel Grouse or Pygmy Owl.  The constant rain put pay to our efforts to see either species but we did stumble upon a species that none of us had even dreamt of seeing, EUROPEAN BISON, and what’s more it was only 100 yards away on the track.  It was huge!  We felt really privileged to see this beast as they are only found here in Poland; there are no other wild populations of Bison left in Europe! 
We spent the rest of the afternoon looking very carefully for Three- toed Woodpecker in Grudki Forest on the Belarus border, but we were coming to terms with the fact that we probably wouldn’t see one on this trip.
DAY 5bright & sunny – in the field at dawn!
Hotel Iwa grounds
Middle Spotted Woodpecker1 seen very well
Collared Flycatcher3+ males
Thrush Nightingale1 singing
White Storkat least 7
Wryneckseveral calling
Przewlowka Plantation
Great Spotted Woodpecker4
Collared Flycatcher6 males
White Stork3
Crossbill2 flew over calling
Goshawkpair displaying overhead
Montagu’s Harrier1 adult male
Wryneck1+ calling
Nutcracker1 on path briefly
Hobby2 overhead
Lesser Spotted Eagle2 soaring overhead
Black Stork2+
White Storkat least 17
Honey Buzzard1
Lesser Spotted Eagle a 3rd bird perched in a tree, but distant
Redstart1 male
Grey-headed Woodpecker1 heard calling but again unseen
Woodlark2 singing
Crested Tit1 found by Jill
Wood Warblervery common again
Wolfa possible seen near the village but very briefly
BLACK WOODPECKER:  Wow, What a bird!  Seen initially in flight but then watched for over 20 minutes on a nearby tree.  Huge!  Larger than a crow, with hammer-headed appearance, pale claws and bill, and the bright red crown indicative of an adult male.  The ringing laughing call is so distinctive and the regular drumming is loud and far carrying.  After putting on a show for everyone it flew off into the forest, calling as it went, the deeply undulating flight on long rounded wings also noted.  Fantastic! 
We were all really chuffed with this excellent bird as only 4 of the party had seen the one fly over the road in Germany on day 1.  Today has produced some superb birds but as we’ve walked at least 5 miles so far it has been hard work.  The other non-avian highlight of this site was at least 4 Camberwell Beauty butterflies. We left this area at 1230 and started the100 mile journey north towards Siemianowka Reservoir.
Tanica dolna
Black-tailed Godwit1 adult male displaying
Montagu’s Harrier1
Black Redstartpair
White Storkmany
Our main reason for visiting this site was to look for Eagle Owl.  A friend of ours who had seen a pair here last May had given us the site.  They hadn’t returned to the same place this year but it was worth a try!
Siemianowka Reservoir
We arrived here at 1600 and checked into our rooms in the Hotel Bondary, a monstrous concrete hotel overlooking the Reservoir.
We had an hour birding before our meal.  It produced a few birds:
Hoopoe1 by car park
Lesser Spotted Eagle1
Black Stork1, superb views feeding at close range
White Stork10+
Having been up since dawn we all needed food and a good nights sleep!
DAY 6bright & sunny
Siemianowka Reservoir
As we were all keen as mustard, we started at 0500 today.  The first hour in the field was absolutely mind-blowing; the sheer variety was amazing, as follows:
White Stork2 on nest
Jay34 flying along edge of reservoir - migrants?
Bittern1 booming
Thrush Nightingale1
Whiskered Tern4+
White Wagtailscattered widely, but the largest group was 7
Waxwing1 flew over calling
Common Sandpiper1
Common Crane2 flew over calling
Golden Oriole1 male singing
Garganey3 males 1 female
Red-backed Shrike1 singing
Hoopoe1 particularly showy bird
Jayanother 38 flew along the southern edge
Black Woodpeckergood prolonged views perched in tree, calling
Black Tern6 adults over water
Marsh Harrierat least 8
Hoopoe2 more flying along southern shoreline
Black Woodpeckeranother flew across the reservoir
Montagu’s Harrier2 males
Whinchat 2 near hotel
Common Buzzard3
Hoopoeanother in a farmhouse garden
Whinchat 4 more
Black Redstart1 male
Black Stork1 soaring overhead at 1105
Blue-headed Wagtail1
Wryneck1 gave excellent views at a nest hole
Camberwell Beauty5+
After 7 hours in the area we packed up and headed north at midday, aiming to get to Biebrza Marshes by late afternoon.  A few White Storks and Common Cranes provided roadside birding interest. 
Budy, Biebrza Marshes  
Lesser Spotted Eagle2 adults overhead
White Storkat least 30
Common Crane4
Montagu’s Harrier1 male
Woodcock4 + roding
Spotted Crake3 males calling
Green Sandpiper1
Citrine Wagtail1 male
White-tailed Eagle2 adults
Tawny Owl1 calling
Great Snipe1 seen but poorly in fading light
Slow Worm1 seen really well at camp-site
Large Tortoiseshell1
DAY 7bright & sunny
Budy, Biebzra Marshes
We were woken by Owen, at 0540, banging on our tent.  We were surprised to be woken so early.  What was all the fuss about?  Two Nutcrackers were preening each other in a tree about 15 yards from the tents.  The views were wonderful and they enthralled everyone for 10 minutes.  A memorable sight and a very good start to the day.  Jill was particularly pleased as she missed the one seen briefly on the path at Przewlowka!
Woodlark3 males singing
White Stork10+
Montagu’s Harrier1 male
Savi’s Warbler1 singing
As we were watching the Savi’s Warbler, Richard picked up a raptor overhead and after a few seconds observation shouted:
SHORT-TOED EAGLE!  We all looked up, and sure enough, it was.  A totally unexpected bird and a “lifer” for all of us.  Fantastic!  Size about the same as Red Kite.  Wings broad with obvious black primary tips.  Whole of underwings and tail faintly barred blackish.  Head dark.  General tone of underparts very pale.  The dark barring on the underwing coverts only visible through a ‘scope.  The bird was watched for about 2 minutes during which time it hovered 3 times.
Laskowiec Marshes
A really excellent place with literally hundreds of birds seen:  
White-winged Black Tern30+ adults in full summer plumage
Wood Sandpiperat least 50
Common Craneat least 30
Garganey23 including 16 males
Black-tailed Godwit100+ displaying pairs
Bitternseveral ‘booming’ males
Ruffseveral large ‘leks’
Black-necked Grebe5 pairs in full breeding plumage
White-fronted Goose11 flew overhead
Blue-headed Wagtail1 male
Pintail3 pairs
Spotted Redshank1 adult
Smew2 females
Greenshank2 adults
Red-necked Grebea pair displaying
Camberwell Beauty3
Wykowic Marshes
Goshawkmale soaring overhead
Common Crane2 by the river
Penduline Tita pair at the nest, the male sealing the entrance
Goniadz Marshes
White-winged Black Ternat least 30
Whiskered Tern2 adults
White-tailed Eagle1 immature soaring overhead
SPOTTED EAGLE:  Richard picked up 2 adults soaring alongside a Lesser Spotted Eagle.  Huge squared wings.  Lack of contrast to coverts.  Pale primary flashes and short tail, all firm ID features.  Good to compare with Lesser Spotted Eagle.  Overall jizz suggests small White-tailed Eagle due to squared wings.
Little Gull4 x 1st summer, 2 x 2nd summer, 3 x adults
White-tailed Eagle1 adult with gleaming white tail
Goshawk1 immature hunting over marshes
Elkadult and calf wading in water
Budy, Biebrza Marshes
We returned to Budy Campsite late afternoon and after tea we headed for the marshes.  This was our last chance to see lekking Great Snipe.  The previous evening was damp and fairly cold but tonight was dry and much warmer and we hoped for much better views of this rare and mysterious bird:
Spotted Crake3 males calling
Corncrake2 males calling
Bluethroat2 males singing
Common Crane7,3,1,3,2
Woodcock1 male roding near car park
Nightjar1 male calling at campsite
Great Snipesuperb views of 3 lekking birds
DAY 8bright & sunny
Budy, Biebzra Marshes
White Stork7,1,2,1,6,3,4
Woodlark2 males singing near campsite
Green Woodpecker1 calling
Wood Warblerat least 8 singing males
Monki, Narew River Valley
White Stork2,4,1,2,1
Lesser Whitethroat1
Gora Goniadz, Narew River Valley
Great Grey Shrike1 male singing on roadside wires
Spotted Eagleimmature over main road for 1-2 minutes
White Stork12,2,1,2,3,6,2,1
Laskowiec Marsh
White-winged Black Tern20 adults all in full summer plumage
Little Gull1 first-summer
Little Tern1 adult fishing by roadside
Wood Sandpiper30+
Ruffat least 500 summer plumage adults
Blue-headed Wagtail20+
Large Tortoiseshell1
Wykowiec Marsh
Wood Sandpiperat least 25
Temminck’s Stint1 adult in full summer plumage
White winged Black Tern4 adults all in pristine condition
We left the Wykowic area at 1300hrs and headed back across Poland towards Slonsk Nature Reserve near the German Border.  We only got as far as Poznan, we were all shattered and stayed the night in a motel.
DAY 9bright & sunny
Slonsk NR
White-tailed Eagle2 adults, 1 caught and ate a Coot!  Very impressive
Tawny Pipit1
Wood Sandpiper100+
Common Crane200+ feeding in a wet field
Red-necked Grebe30+ pairs, mostly settled on nests
White-fronted Goose100+
Snow Goose1 adult blue phase – surprising to say the least
Black-necked Grebe20+ pairs
Common Swift2
Smew2 male 1 female
Goldeneye1 male
Thrush Nightingale1 male singing
Garganey10+ males
Spotted Redshank1 adult in full summer plumage
Red Kite2 
Map Butterflybrilliant
Frankfurt-am-Oder, Germany
Red Kite1
Black Kite3
Common Buzzard1
As we approached a road junction after the border post, the traffic lights changed to red and as we sat in the queue of traffic Monica calmly announced to everybody “there’s a Crested Lark on the pavement here” WHAT???
Sure enough she was right and there at the side of the road was a CRESTED LARK, a fairly common bird in Europe, which would be a mega in Britain.  For the next few frantic minutes I watched this large stocky lark as it fed almost starling-like on the roadside, the erect crest and powerful looking bill noted, as was pale eye-ring and reddish outer tail feathers.  I can never recall praying for traffic lights NOT to change before!
As we were on our way home I was really chuffed to get another unexpected lifer so close to the end of the trip.
The journey across Germany didn’t take that long really.  We stayed in a hotel in Dortmund for our final night, leaving an easy drive to Oostend the following morning.
DAY 10bright & sunny
Journey home
We caught the 1300hrs ferry to Ramsgate and the journey produced more species for the holiday list:
Great Northern Diver1 adult in summer plumage
Sandwich Tern2,1,2,2,1
Gannetat least 30
We arrived back in England at 1700hrs on 6th May.  We had a good holiday with very few bad moments.
We saw a total of 179 species, 8 of which were new for me.  We travelled a total of 2700+ miles.  This holiday represented excellent value for money as we had planned absolutely everything ourselves.  The average cost was approx £300 per person.

Sample from Cambs Birders in Eastern Poland: May 1996