This was my first visit to Poland for 3 years. It is fair to say that yes, the country has changed but definitely for the better. A much improved road network speeded up our journey down to the south east corner of Poland and allowed us more time than in previous trips for roadside birding. Leaving Warsaw we saw our first Eastern Jackdaws feeding on the verges and the first of many White Storks. Our stop for lunch near Lublin produced a cracking male Little Bittern in low vegetation behind the restaurant, and a few miles down the road a fuel stop resulted in crippling views of River Warbler singing at point blank range, Corncrake ‘crexxing’ on the roadside and Golden Orioles giving their rich fluty song.
Our first pre-breakfast walk of the tour produced a male Red-footed Falcon, a couple of superbly confiding Wrynecks and wonderful views of Red-backed Shrike. Nearby a handsome male Barred Warbler showed well in song-flight in the company of several Red-backed Shrikes – just as depicted in the field guide!
As we travelled through the picturesque Bieszczady National Park, Black Storks were seen soaring overhead and our visit to the aptly named ‘Eagle Valley’ produced sensational views of a very close adult Golden Eagle, three Lesser Spotted Eagles, Hobby, dark-morph Honey Buzzard and several Common Buzzards. Also here Corncrakes ‘crexxed’ from the meadows and numerous River Warblers were heard, their sewing-machine like song echoing through the valley. In the mixed coniferous woodlands several Nutcrackers were seen, as were a tight group of six Whinchat; a wonderfully confiding Firecrest and a very approachable pair of Long-tailed Tits but the awesome sight of a Ural Owl right in front of the bus was far too brief, although those at the front of the vehicle did see it for a few seconds, it vanished into the night.
This area also produced Collared Flycatcher and its drabber cousin, the Spotted Flycatcher was noted in very good numbers. Also singing Treecreeper, Redstart, Black Redstart and Willow Tit gave a wonderful show as did feeding White-backed Woodpeckers. Early morning walks around the hotel produced wonderful views of Ring Ouzel; that skulking forest bird, the Dunnock, and brief sightings of Wren and Robin; all three species much more shy and retiring than we are used to in the UK, whilst Hawfinches showed well quietly feeding in the shade. In this mountainous area the early morning walks certainly 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 several vocal Icterine Warblers, a handful of immature Little Gulls were amongst the hundreds of Black, Whiskered and White-winged Black Terns. The evocative Bittern was booming from the reed beds at virtually every wetland site whilst its smaller cousin the Little Bittern tried hard to stay invisible but eventually gave itself up for all to see at two sites. The avian cacophony continued unabated with the mechanical sounding Savi’s Warbler reeling, Great Reed Warbler ‘crunching’ and Scarlet Rosefinches were noted singing ‘pleased to see you’ with increasing frequency as we made our way towards the forest.
Other sights on our way north included numerous Golden Orioles, dapper male Penduline Tits, ‘sky dancing’ Marsh Harriers and a single Green Sandpiper; and at one particular site we enjoyed the bonus of a soaring Red Kite. Aquatic Warbler was seen at two locations and gave adequate views perched out in the open at the first site. 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. One species which did its best to evade detection on this trip was Syrian Woodpecker. After visiting our tenth stake-out Przemek and I had resigned ourselves to the possibility that the very cold winter had wiped them out, however a territorial male in a roadside garden soon resulted in a few smiles!
Our three-day stay in Bialowieza Forest allowed us to explore the forest in greater detail, observing species such as Honey Buzzard, Lesser Spotted Eagle, River Warbler, Crested Tit, Thrush Nightingale, nesting Hawfinch and many woodpeckers including two Black, four each of White-backed and Middle Spotted, Lesser Spotted, nesting Grey-headed and a superb 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 singing in mature Beech Forest.
The evening that we visited an area known to hold lekking Great Snipe was not kind to us with torrential rain being the order of the day, however not only did we see Great Snipe here we were also treated to the overhead displays of Black-tailed Godwits and Common Snipes, reeling Grasshopper Warbler, ‘crexxing’ Corncrake, singing Whinchat, calling Black Woodpecker and a chorus of croaking Marsh Frogs; sounds so evocative of Poland in spring, but how it did rain, and rain and rain!
Well they say every cloud has a silver lining and this one did! Our wet evening at the Great Snipes meant that the following night our attempt to see Pygmy Owl was one of the warmest still nights of the trip; so much so that when we arrived at the ‘spot’ for the Pygmy Owl it was already perched out in the open in nothing short of broad daylight. We enjoyed tremendous views of this super little bird for over half an hour, also nice was the roding Woodcock overhead.
Our visit to Siemianowka Lake on the Belarus border produced many marsh terns, over a dozen Great White Egrets and several White-tailed Eagles, many Whiskered Terns, a fantastic close view of an adult male Honey Buzzard, several Hoopoes, three Great Grey Shrikes, a singing Ortolan Bunting and several fly-by Montagu’s Harriers. The icing on the cake here was the beautiful singing male Redwing located in a stand of trees just along from the main viewing area.
Our arrival in the Biebrza Marshes saw some torrential downpours and some of the most spectacular flooding of the Narew River Valley that I’ve seen in eleven previous visits. As a result, waders were present but in lower numbers than we’ve encountered in the past and we had to work hard to find them. Only a handful of Ruff seen on the Narew River floodplain along with Ringed Plover, displaying Black-tailed Godwit and Redshank, a few Greenshank were seen along with two Temminck’s Stints in a flooded field, and most incredibly not a single Wood Sandpiper on the whole trip. On the plus side there were lots of Garganey, Little Gulls, and Little Terns, many ducks including Wigeon and Teal and an all-too-brief bonus species in the immaculate form of an adult Mediterranean Gull in full summer plumage.
Other sites within the Biebrza Marshes produced singing Penduline Tit, Scarlet Rosefinch and, over 300 Common Cranes, up to 2000 White-winged Black Terns (or possibly even more!), many Black Storks, singing Ortolan Buntings and no less than six magnificent impressive White-tailed Eagles together with a single Greater Spotted Eagle. Our biggest surprise was whilst watching a storm close in out on the marshes; the sandy track we were parked on was rapidly reduced to a mini river in less than twenty minutes, however just before we got in the bus to avoid yet another soaking, a Red-throated Diver flew overhead – wow! To put that into context, at that point you are still at least 100 miles from the coast!
Mammals were well represented on this trip with at least ten magnificent Elk seen from various viewpoints across the marshes with other mammals noted including Eastern Hedgehog, Red Squirrel, Red Fox, Red Deer and Roe Deer.
The bird of the trip? This year it was totally unanimous that the Aquatic Warbler which gave us wonderful prolonged views near the end of the tour was the best bird; who could ask for more? Europe’s rarest warbler, normally difficult to see, often singing in full view at eye-level. Second place was taken by the surreal experience of watching Great Snipe lekking in heavy rain and third place went to the obliging Pygmy Owl which graced us with its presence for half an hour in Bialowieza Forest.
So, despite the unsettled and at times downright frustrating weather, our spring tour of Poland had delivered another quality birding experience with many highlights.