Only one place to start when talking about the birds of Białowieża forest – the woodpeckers. I’ve never seen so many in one place before. Two of the British species were easy to find – Great and Lesser Spotted. The Middle Spotted was also very common, although getting a good photo was not easy.
The others were quite a bit harder. Black Woodpeckers are impressively large and we got great views in the restricted area of the forest watching one chiselling out a nest hole. Grey-headed were heard calling quite regularly, but we only got good views once – this was on the day where Tom walked around 10 miles and I think seeing the woodpecker gave him the extra energy needed to get back to the car. The prettiest were the Three-toed Woodpeckers (below) – we saw these several times and on one memorable occasion we had three on the same tree!
White-backed proved quite hard but we got there eventually, and Green (the third British species) we only saw once. That just left the Syrian Woodpecker to complete the set. On the way back to Warsaw, Piotr took a short detour to a nearby town (having spent a bit of time the day before on the phone with birding friends), and amazingly found us one on a willow by a canal. It was only his third Syrian, which gives you an idea of how good a find this was.
When were in Spain, White Storks were everywhere, but I didn’t realise that the country with the highest number of White Stork in Europe is actually Poland. One great thing about these birds is that they stand still to be photographed.
Towards the end of the holiday, our guide Piotr pulled off one of the most ridiculous “bird spotting from a fast-moving car” feats that I’ve ever seen. Black Storks are big birds, but the one he found for us was two fields away and partially hidden under a tree in the corner of a field with dark woodland behind. When I first looked at it through binoculars I wasn’t even sure it was a bird!
Ducks, Grebes, Waders and other water birds
The stand-out duck was the Garganey – plenty of these around in the flooded fields of the Biebrza and Narew rivers, but we also had Smew and plenty of the more usual ducks. The most frequently encountered goose was the White-fronted, closely followed by Bean.
At the “fish ponds” (a series of seven large fishing lakes) on the edge of Bialystok we were treated to stunning views of Red-necked Grebes in full summer plumage (later in Biebrza, we also got Black-necked Grebes in similar garb). These lakes also hosted a large Black-headed Gull colony which was memorable for the noise they made. Tom found us an Osprey here, and we also got to watch a Great Crested Grebe’s “weed dance” – my first ever. If you’ve never heard of this before, there is a lovely video on YouTube (the bit with the weed comes around the 1 minute mark): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HN5bThgJhX4
There weren’t many waders around (a couple of weeks earlier and we’d have got a lot more water birds in general, but many had left for their breeding grounds). Ruff were the exception, and there were quite a few Redshank, plus a few Godwit and a solitary Greenshank.
We got to see plenty of Common Cranes though – both on the ground and in the air. The trumpeting call of a Crane is an extraordinarily loud sound, and hearing it was one of the stand-out experiences of the holiday (especially as we were watching Bison when we first heard it). Turn up the volume, plug in the sub-woofer and listen to it here.
For any non-birding friends that may be reading this, the wagtail family is one of the more complex in terms of subspecies. In the UK we have three species – Pied, Grey and Yellow. In Europe, the Pied Wagtail (Motacilla yarrellii) is replaced by a related subspecies – the White Wagtail (Motacilla alba). The main difference is the much lighter grey back.
The Yellow Wagtail (Motacilla flava flavissima) in the UK is a subspecies – the nominative form (Motacilla flava) is the one found in Poland – known as the Blue-headed Wagtail. In another “spot from a fast-moving car”, Piotr managed to find us a couple of these in a newly ploughed field. These are migratory birds, and the two Piotr found were the first reported in Poland this year.
So that’s the Yellow Wagtail subspecies all wrapped up then right? Well – apart from Spanish Wagtail, Ashy-headed Wagtail, Grey-headed Wagtail, Black-headed Wagtail ….
Birds of Prey
Buzzards and Marsh Harriers were seen almost constantly, and Goshawk, Kestrel, Hen Harrier and Sparrowhawk were all encountered, but the really exciting birds of prey that we were hoping to see were the eagles. And we got all three species over the same reservoir in the same hour! At one point, there were 18 White-tailed Eagles sitting on a grassy bank, but the best view was when a White-tailed was joined by a Greater Spotted Eagle as they circled up and up over the water. The third species was the Lesser Spotted Eagle which we saw several times over the second half of the holiday.
The panoramic shot below gives an idea of the sort of habitat you could be scanning for ducks and waders and over which a White-tailed Eagle would be regularly seen. There is actually one sitting in a tree in the middle of this shot, but I defy anyone to find it!
Those of you who have read Part 1 of this blog are probably wondering whether we saw the Pygmy Owl at 5am. Well – we didn’t. But we did hear Tengmalm’s Owl instead, and a couple of days later we went out in the evening and our guide did manage to whistle in a Pygmy. I couldn’t believe how tiny this owl was – honestly, a large vole would probably be able to fight it off. In flight, it looked the size of a Robin!
Birds Dave’s not seen
Most of you won’t know Dave. He is one of our best friends and has seen in the region of 6,000 of the world’s birds. He also reads this blog. If I remember correctly, he’s not seen Hazel Grouse yet – and this was the only bird missing from our list of expected species as we collected the camera trap during the last 30 minutes of our stay in Białowieża. Then we looked behind us, and watched as two Hazel Grouse crossed the track and disappeared into the undergrowth. Mission accomplished!
Hard to see in Britain
On each trip we make, we always notice one bird that is hard to see in Britain, but is really easy to find in whatever country we are visiting. In Spain it was the Corn Bunting; in southern France, the Black Redstart. In Białowieża it was the Hawfinch and in Biebrza it was the Ruff (we must have seen well over a thousand). In both places, there were also plenty of Tree Sparrows which were a lot easier to photograph than Hawfinch or Ruff.
One of the problems in going birdwatching with one of the best guides in Europe is that they will nearly always find the birds before you do. It is a really good feeling to be the first in a group to find an interesting bird, so I decided that the only way to do it was to sneak out on my own before dinner. I was standing in a doorway of a outdoor dining area at the Biebrza hotel, when a Hoopoe walked around the corner and stayed within 2 yards of me for several seconds before he saw me. Needless to say, I had to run back to the room to get Tom and Piotr – fortunately the bird hung around long enough for everyone to see it. Again we got lucky as this is another migratory species, and this was only the second record for Poland this year.
Note to self – always take camera when sneaking off birding before dinner. You’ll all have to make do with a picture of a friendly Song Thrush instead.
My best moment
Given that I’m a birder, my best moment was always going to involve a bird. But what was it? One of the woodpeckers perhaps? An eagle? For quite a while I thought it was going to be the Penduline Tit (a bird I’ve long wanted to see) which Piotr found for us – especially as we got to watch it starting to build its nest. Unfortunately the direction of the light meant that all the photos came out as silhouettes, but below is a picture of what its finished nest would eventually look like.
In the end, my best moment involved a bird that is common in Britain. On the early morning on which we saw the Elk crossing the road (see Part 1), we also walked out along a long boardwalk to a wooden platform in the middle of the marsh. We were surrounded by reeds, and one species of bird was zipping about in the sky all around us making its crazy call and making an even crazier sound with its tail feathers. Snipe! I’ve never properly heard snipe drumming before. They make the sound by changing the angle of their tail feathers and diving downwards so that the air through the feathers makes a sound that I can’t describe in English – the tail feathers were clearly visible in the binoculars as several birds came very close. To have so many of them (around a hundred at a guess) drumming and calling all around us was truly magical.
Guess the bird
And finally – I spent quite a bit of time trying to get photographs of birds that aren’t common in the UK in order to challenge your identification skills. See if you can work out the two below. In the first I had to pretend to fumble with the camera whilst the bird sat out in the open so that I could get a shot of the bird partly obscured by a branch.
And in this second shot, the hardest part was making sure I didn’t press the camera button on time.
In Part 3 – amphibians, reptiles, butterflies and how Jessica has changed …