Unusually for our spring tour of Poland, it was cold and wet as our plane touched down in Warsaw. Despite the inclement weather we were soon heading south-west towards the Carpathian Mountains. The writing was ‘on the wall’ for a successful trip when our first stop for lunch produced immature White-tailed Eagle, Hobby and Black Stork soaring over the roadside restaurant – common roadside birds! On our arrival in the south, Golden Oriole, Thrush Nightingale and Serin sang loudly whilst several migrant Honey Buzzards soared overhead. Nearby in a stand of fruiting trees we enjoyed great views of Syrian Woodpecker and the first of many Wrynecks. A stop on the banks of the River San produced a resting group of Greenshank on their way north, a superbly confiding Thrush Nightingale and several Goosanders swimming upstream.
As we travelled through the picturesque Bieszczady National Park, Black Storks were seen feeding along a shallow stony river bed and also soaring overhead. Our stop at the aptly named ‘Eagle Valley’ produced sensational views of a perched adult Golden Eagle, three Lesser Spotted Eagles, Goshawk and several Common Buzzards. Also here Corncrakes ‘crexxed’ from the meadows and Grey-headed Woodpecker calls rang out, echoing through the valley. In the mixed coniferous woodlands several Nutcrackers were seen, as were a superb family party of Crossbills, a wonderfully confiding Firecrest, and the awesome sight of two hooting Ural Owls made a memorable evening.
This area also produced Collared Flycatcher and its drabber cousin, the Spotted Flycatcher was noted in good numbers. Also singing Treecreeper, Redstart, Black Redstart and Willow Tit gave a wonderful show as did Hoopoe, Middle Spotted and Lesser-spotted Woodpeckers. Early morning walks build up your appetite and every morning there was a superb spread awaiting us for breakfast including home made Wild Boar sausages, tasty fruit smoothies, fruit pancakes and pierogi.
Our journey north produced some superb sights and sounds too, including ‘yaffling’ Green Woodpecker, singing Short-toed Treecreeper and a very active family of Tawny Owls; the sight of elegant male Montagu’s Harriers sailing over roadside fields, no less than twenty-four Red-footed Falcons hunting flying insects over the fishponds whilst hundreds of Black, Whiskered and White-winged Black Terns zipped low over the reeds. The evocative Bittern was booming from the reed beds at several sites whilst its smaller cousin the Little Bittern tried hard to stay invisible but eventually gave itself up for all to see. The avian cacophony continued unabated with the mechanical sounding Savi’s Warbler reeling, Great Reed Warbler ‘crunching’ and Little Crake ‘laughing’ in the background. Early morning walks in traditional parkland habitat produced superb views of Wryneck, Icterine Warbler, Golden Oriole and the wonderfully cute Red Squirrel.
Other sights on our way north included numerous Golden Orioles, dapper male Bearded and Penduline Tits, ‘sky dancing’ Marsh Harriers and at one particular site we enjoyed a fly-over Osprey. Aquatic Warbler was seen at two locations and gave good views perched out in the open. Nearby, a Savi’s Warbler sang out in the open from a small bush allowing close study and a superb male Barred Warbler chattered from the base of a small bush; although a very elusive species we could make out the barred underparts and the distinctive bright yellow iris.
We arrived in Bialowieza Forest and our three-day stay here allowed us to explore the forest in greater detail, observing species such as Pygmy Owl, Honey Buzzard, Lesser Spotted Eagle, River Warbler, Crested Tit, nesting Hawfinch and many woodpeckers including five Black, two White-backed, Lesser-spotted, nesting Three-toed, 10+ Great-spotted and several Wrynecks. The warm weather was producing plenty of flying insects, thus attracting large numbers of Collared Flycatchers and handfuls of Pied, Spotted and a single dapper Red-breasted. One morning our ‘extra early’ start also produced a Beaver swimming along a stretch of the River Narew – a lovely surprise!
We were greeted with a warm sunny evening when we visited an area known to hold lekking Great Snipe, not only did we see Great Snipe here we were also treated to the weird bubbling of distant lekking Black Grouse, reeling Grasshopper Warbler, ‘crexxing’ Corncrake, singing Whinchat, calling Black Woodpecker and a chorus of croaking Marsh Frogs; sounds so evocative of Poland in spring.
Our visit to Siemianowka Lake on the Belarus border produced Blue-headed Wagtail, numerous Thrush Nightingales, no less than seven Great White Egrets, superb adult White-tailed Eagles, many Whiskered Terns, a fantastic close view of an immature Goshawk, several Hoopoes, three Great Grey Shrikes and several fly-by Montagu’s Harriers.
Heavy rain and the earlier spring snow fall had resulted in much higher water levels than usual, but warm weather prior to our arrival had reduced many flooded areas to shallow mud and, as a result, a good selection of waders were present with many Ruff seen on the Narew River floodplain along with Ringed Plover, Black-tailed Godwit, Dunlin, two Curlew Sandpipers in bright red summer plumage, the wonderfully elegant Spotted Redshank in its dusky black summer dress, Redshank, Greenshank, three Temminck’s Stints, and many Wood Sandpipers, not to mention lots of Garganey, Little Gulls and a single Little Tern.
Other sites within the Biebrza Marshes produced a beautiful singing male Bluethroat, over 300 Common Cranes, up to 2000 White-winged Black Terns, many Black Storks, singing Ortolan Buntings and no less than eight magnificent impressive White-tailed Eagles together with two of the rare and elusive Greater Spotted Eagle. Four magnificent Elk were seen from various viewpoints across the marshes with other mammals including Red Fox and Roe Deer.
As we prepared to head towards Warsaw on our final day, we had a wonderful surprise when we stopped off to check out an area where, in the past, three pairs of Bee-eaters have nested. Imagine our reaction when not six but fourteen Bee-eaters were hawking insects from roadside wires in bright sunshine. Nearby we got great looks at a freshly arrived Marsh Warbler as well as nine migrant Whooper Swans.
The bird of the trip? This year it was totally unanimous that the superb male Bluethroat seen near the end of the tour was the best bird; who could ask for more? A blue-throated male which sang in full view at eye-level, even at one stage fanning its tail to show the reddish patches at the base, affording tremendous close up views and a wonderful experience for the whole group. Second place was taken by the wonderful male Corncrake which did a great impersonation of a lawn mower as it carved through the grass, and third was the family of Crossbills; the bright red males contrasting with the streaky youngsters. As in previous years we left with some wonderful memories of the sites and sounds of Poland.