Wednesday, 1 June 2016


Białowieża forest (Eastern Poland) 
14th - 20th May 2016

Trip report & ecology lesson
photos by Domen Stanič & Sara Cernich

Białowieża forest is the only natural lowland forest in the temperate zone. It encompasses the largest patch of untouched, primeval (virgin) forest in Europe and hosts an exceptionally high biodiversity. It is set in north-east Poland and stretches across the border into Belarus. A large part of the forest is protected under the Białowieża National Park and smaller forest nature reserve. To biologists and scientists, the most interesting part is the Strict Reserve - the core area of the national park (approx. 6,059 ha) which can be accessed only with a licensed guide. In the Strict Reserve one can observe primeval forest formed by the powers of nature, such as: competition between species, fires, wind-storms and bark beetle outbreaks.
For more concise info about Białowieża see this very interesting site and learn about the current threats to this precious forest.


Białowieża is known worldwide for its population of wild European Bisons Bison bonasus. They are the last representative of the large herbivores that used to roam across Europe 10,000 years ago. After their extermination in the 20th century, they were re-introduced to the forest and today there are more than 500 Bisons living in the wild in Białowieża. The European Bison is mostly a forest dweller and uses open areas (meadows, fields ect.) to feed.
On one day, during our stay in the forest, our guide (Arek Szymura) took us to see them at dawn, close to Białowieża village. After very little effort (apart from the 3.00 am wake up!) we found 3 different Bisons feeding in the meadows, out of Białowieża forest. We watched them feeding and slowly moving around, while the sun was rising from above the forest (video). A roding Woodcock Scolopax rusticola above our heads and meadow birds singing in the dawn chorus added atmosphere to this unforgettable spectacle.

European Bison Bison bonasus


Next, after the Bisons, comes the primeval forest (Strict Reserve). This was probably the most enjoyable visit of the whole trip and allowed us to learn a lot from the local guide (Arek). Ecology lessons were on every step through the forest, while very interesting birds were performing all around. In the next photos I'm presenting some views of the primeval forest, with a special focus on the abundance of dead wood in various forms (dead or decaying trees - either standing or fallen). The predominant forest type in the Strict Reserve is an oak-lime-hornbeam association: Tilio-Carpinetum (Tilio cordaetae-Carpinetum betuli stachyetosum to be precise). The commonest trees include: Quercus robur, Tilia cordata, Carpinus betulus, Ulmus glabra, Fraxinus excelsior and Picea abies

Some views of the Białowieża primeval forest (Strict Reserve) with large quantities of dead wood.
Carpet of Allium ursinum in the Białowieża primeval forest.
Some parts of the forest are flooded during the rainy season.
Birding from a boardwalk in the Białowieża forest.


The primeval forest, with its lush deciduous tree-stands was very rich with interesting bird species. On a couple of occasions we managed to see very well some White-backed Woodpeckers Dendrocopos leucotos, of the nominate subspecies leucotos. In Slovenia the predominant subspecies of White-backed is the south European one - lilfordi. Thus we were very keen to see the northern subspecies and notice the differences with "ours" lilfordi. As the first picture (below) shows, we even managed to see a male White-back while it was carrying a large beetle larvae in its beak. In the primeval forest we had 3 different White-backed Woodpeckers, while outside the Strict Reserve, we watched another pair. In the primeval forest, the feeding signs of White-back where almost on every dead tree. It was also interesting to compare the forest types where the species lives: in mountainous Slovenia in exclusively old beech stands (Abieti-Fagetum), while in Białowieża in oak-lime-hornbeam (Tilio-Carpinetum) and wet alluvial forest (with Alnus glutinosa). 
Middle Spotted Woodpecker Dendrocopos medius was also seen on several occasions, but the best views we had, where close to a nest hole, while the pair was delivering food to the young. 
Black Woodpecker Dryocopus martius was also heard a few times and its signs were seen quite frequently as well. Great Spotted Dendrocopos major was very common. Scarcer woodpecker species we had in Białowieża were also Grey-headed Picus canus, Green Picus viridis (one in Białowieża village - the rarest woodpecker here!), Lesser Spotted Dendrocopos minor and Wryneck Jynx torquilla. Three-toed Woodpecker Picoides tridactylus was also seen, but that's another story (see below).

White-backed Woodpecker Dendrocopos leucotos ssp. leucotos - male.
Feeding signs of White-backed Woodpecker Dendrocopos leucotos.
Middle Spotted Woodpecker Dendrocopos medius by the nest-hole.
Feeding signs of Black Woodpecker Dryocopus martius on a dead spruce Picea abies.


Białowieża forest is also home to all the European flycatchers and it's not very difficult to see them all, if you know their songs. Red-breasted Flycatcher Ficedula parva for us, was the most interesting. We had them on a daily basis around the forest and even heard them singing from the car, while driving on local roads. It was interesting to notice that the great majority of singing birds were first-winter males, so basically "little brown jobs" with no red on the throat. Thus, we needed to look carefully every singing Red-breast to find one with the red throat. In the primeval forest (Strict Reserve) we succeeded and had great views of at least one adult bird.
Collared Flycatcher Ficedula albicollis was very common, especially in swampy alder forest. Several pairs were also seen in the Palace Park in Białowieża village - those were the most confiding ones.
Interesting was the presence of a few Pied Flycatchers Ficedula hypoleuca - a species we are not used to see as a breeding bird in Slovenia, where they only stop by on migration. Thus we had the opportunity to learn a new song. Even with this species, we noticed that most singing birds were grey-brown coloured first-winters.
Common birds in the Białowieża forest included also Wood Warbler Phylloscopus sibilatrix (one of the commonest birds at all), Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs, Song Thrush Turdus philomelos, Golden Oriole Oriolus oriolus, Hawfinch Coccothraustes coccothraustes, Woodpigeon Columba palumbus, Treecreeper Certhia familiaris and others.

Red-breasted Flycatcher Ficedula parva - adult male.
Red-breasted Flycatcher Ficedula parva - 1st winter male.
Collared Flycatcher Ficedula albicollis - adult male.
Wood Warbler Phylloscopus sibilatrix


Wherever we were in Białowieża forest, dead and decaying wood was a constant presence. Fallen and standing trees are usually infested with a large variety of fungi. On our guided visit to the primeval forest we could observe some very interesting fungi formations and learn some new names.
On some large oaks, our guide made us notice the rare lichen Lobaria pulmonaria, which is an indicator of unpolluted air (we also have it in Slovenia in some forests).
The understorey was composed of many different species of plants, which mostly were not in flower, except for the very common Allium ursinum, Galium odoratum, Ranunculus lanuginosus ect. - most of these species are also found in Slovenian forests.  

The importance of dead wood - on the info board.
Fomes fomentarius (right) & Fungus sp.
Laetiporus sulphureus
Fomitopsis pinicola
Probably Fomitopsis pinicola too.
Fungus sp.
Gyromitra sp. ("brain fungus")
Lobaria pulmonaria (lichen)


One of the greatest things we experienced in Białowieża is the large variety of forest types present there. Stands of oak-lime-hornbeam forest mix with conifer stands (dry & swampy spruce forest, pine bog forest) and alder carr (swampy alder forest). An interesting habitat is the coniferous forest (of different types) with predominant species being Norway spruce Picea abies and Scots Pine Pinus sylvestris. These forests have a strong boreal character and the animals & plants that inhabit it belong to that biogeographical type as well. The most interesting bird we observed here was the Three-toed Woodpecker Picoides tridactylus of the nominate subspecies tridactylus. As for White-backed, in Slovenia we have a different subspecies of Three-toed Woodpecker - ssp. alpinus, which has a barred back. The north European race tridactylus has a large patch of white on the back and that was clearly visible in the field. We observed two different pairs: one having an active nest, the other probably close to one. Both pairs were seen on conifer stands of spruce Picea abies, infested with bark beetles (Scolytinae). These beetles are very important for the survival of Three-toed Woodpeckers and for the forest ecosystem as a whole. In commercial forests trees affected by bark beetles (considered as pests) are being removed. In some protected areas of Białowieża we noticed quite large stands of spruce dying for bark beetle outbreaks - but these areas where the most rich with woodpeckers!
Another interesting bird we had in conifer forests was the Hazel Grouse Bonasa bonasia. May is not the best time to see one, so we were lucky to hear two singing. But our guides said it is a very common bird in Białowieża and far easier to see in early spring.
Of the plant species, the most interesting was Trientalis europaea - a small white flower, typical of boreal regions through Europe and Asia. It is an indicator species of boreal conifer forest on acidic soils.

Three-toed Woodpecker Picoides tridactylus ssp. tridactylus - male.
Three-toed Woodpecker Picoides tridactylus ssp. tridactylus - female in the nest-hole.
Three-toed Woodpecker Picoides tridactylus ssp. tridactylus - male by the nest-hole.
Some views on the conifer stands in the central and western part of Białowieża forest.
Conifer stands infested with bark beetles - good sites for Three-toed Woodpecker Picoides tridactylus.
Watching Three-toed Woodpecker Picoides tridactylus visiting the nest.
Norway spruce Picea abies - flowers in full bloom.
Anthills are common in Białowieża forest - some of them are fenced.
Tree height comparison in conifer forest.
Jagiellonska Droga - one of the many roads through the Białowieża forest.
Trientalis europaea
Primula veris
Paris quadrifolia
Thesium ebracteatum


Many parts of the Białowieża forest are crisscrossed by rivers, small streams and oxbows. Thus the soil is permanently wet and hosts an interesting diversity of wet forest ecosystems. The commonest is alder carr or bog alder forest (with black alder Alnus glutinosa), but in some areas wet coniferous forests can be found as well (spruce bog or pine bog forest with Picea abies & Pinus sylvestris). Additionally, some areas host birch boreal forest with predominant tree species being silver birch Betula pendula & downy birch Betula pubescens and cotton-grass Eriophorum vaginatum in the understorey.
The bird fauna in these habitats is more or less the same as in other areas, except for a greater density of Collared Flycatcher Ficedula albicollis and woodpeckers. In a bog alder forest we were amazed to see a Green Sandpiper Tringa ochropus perched on the top of a tree snag. Here this species breeds, whereas at our latitudes (in Slovenia & Italy) it is only a passage migrant or winterer and thus rarely seen away from open wetland habitats.
While visiting one of such areas of bog alder, we were also lucky to see a Pine Marten Martes martes hopping on fallen trees in complete daylight.
This habitat is also home to several pairs of Black Stork Ciconia nigra. We only saw one during our stay in Białowieża, as it was flying above a wet conifer forest.

Spruce bog forest where spruce Picea abies and alder Alnus glutinosa mix.
Some views on bog alder forest.
Green Sandpiper Tringa ochropus in its breeding habitat in bog alder forest.
Hottonia palustris
Birch boreal forest with Betula pubescens and B. pendula.


Białowieża's main river is the Narewka which flows across the forest as well as through Białowieża village. In the surroundings of the village it forms a river valley, where man shaped the landscape, creating open meadows, fields, small woodlands and hedges. In this habitat, close to the river, we enjoyed many birds typical of open wetland areas, farmland, grasslands ect. Thrush Nightingale Luscinia luscinia was quite common here, although was usually only heard singing (especially at night!). Corncrakes Crex crex can be also frequently heard singing - both by night and day. An interesting presence were breeding Cranes Grus grus, which could be frequently heard (and sometimes seen) in the river valleys. They are a common bird in north-east Poland. Reedbeds hostes good numbers of Reed Buntings Emberiza schoeniclus, Sedge Acrocephalus schoenobaenus & Great Reed Warblers A. arundinaceus. All three European Locustellas where also present: Savi's Warbler Locustella luscinioides being the commonest (in reedbeds), followed by River Warbler L. fluviatilis (at the edges of bog alder forests) and Grasshopeer Warbler L. naevia (in bushes on wet meadows). Open meadows with bushes were full of birds like Yellowhammer Emberiza citrinella, Red-backed Shrike Lanius collurio, White Stork Ciconia ciconia (Poland's national bird!), Common Rosefinch Carpodacus erythrinus, Barred Warbler Sylvia nisoria, Garden Warbler Sylvia borin, Icterine Warbler Hippolais icterina, Snipe Gallinago gallinago, Lapwing Vanellus vanellus and others.
But the true star of the river is the Beaver Castor fiber. This animal is quite common in Białowieża, although only active at night and quite difficult to see. However the signs of its presence are visible a bit everywhere (teeth-marks on trees, dens ect.). We were lucky to glimpse one, diving loudly into the Narewka river and swimming away, one evening near the Palace Park in Białowieża village.

Narewka river in Białowieża village.
Narewka river in the middle of Białowieża forest.
River Warbler Locustella fluviatilis
Reed Bunting Emberiza schoeniclus - male.
Feeding signs of Beaver Castor fiber on the Narewka river.
One of the many abandoned railway tracks through Białowieża forest.
Part of Białowieża forest as seen from the Palace Park watchtower.

Open areas around the Białowieża village are the hunting ground of 3-4 pairs of Lesser Spotted Eagles Aquila pomarina, which nest in the forest. We managed to see this bird on a daily basis, although it was always flying somewhere far. But on the last day, we were lucky as an adult landed on a small tree in front of us and gave spectacular views. In north-east Poland this is a common bird, but not so in Slovenia, where a pair used to breed years ago, but then disappeared. After seeing this eagle hunting a few times, we noticed that the species has a very characteristic silhouette: stiff, down-curved wings, short tail and small head pointing downwards (visible in the photos below).
On the open meadows of the Narewka valley we were also greeted by the presence of a Short-toed Eagle Circaetus gallicus (rare species in the area) and a Great Grey Shrike Lanius excubitor (present in Slovenia & Italy only in winter).

Lesser Spotted Eagle Aquila pomarina
Open meadows in the Narewka river valley.
Dactylorhiza sp.
Meadows by the Narewka river with Białowieża village in the back.


Our stay in Białowieża coincided with Wild Poland's event: Wildlife Watching Festival. Daily trips were organised and guided by the very enthusiastic and professional Lukasz and Tomasz. We happily joined a few trips and one evening we visited a Great Snipe lek, not far from Białowieża. Great Snipe Gallinago media is a rare bird on an international level and even so in Poland. The Biebrza marshes used to be a reliable site to see this species, but now the breeding leks are not accessible anymore. It is a species in constant decline, but the Narew river valley is still a good area for them. In the late afternoon we arrived on site (extensive wet meadows with sedges) and waited for the spectacle to begin. Great Snipes perform a very characteristic courtship display in groups of more individuals. A tickling "song" accompanies the dances, jumps and flights of the birds. At first the birds were only heard singing; only later, when the sun set, about 7 birds began to perform, jumping in the air, flapping the wings and showing off the white sides of the tail-feathers. Some stages of the display are pictured in the image below - took at an information board placed at the site. Unfortunately the light was too poor to take any shots of the birds, but we had great scope views nevertheless.

Great Snipe information board (see bird's display).
Lekking ground of Great Snipe Gallinago media in the Narew river valley.


Few words... this was the best trip of our lives. It was so full of wildlife and wild places that we permanently fell in love with this forest. The things we enjoyed the most were walking through untouched forest with large quantities of dead wood, seeing woodpecker holes everywhere, experiencing biodiversity and learning ecology lessons all the way. All this made us aware of why is  this place so special and different from other forests around Europe. 
Hope to see you soon, Białowieża!

Sign the petition to protect the forest here.