BUBO in POLAND - part 2
After our breakfast we didn't waste any time and headed straight back into Bialowieza Forest. We asked Bogdan to take us somewhere which was good for woodpeckers, as we still had three of our four targets to tick off. So we parked up by the roadside somewhere (haven't a clue where exactly) and headed on down a track through the trees (see photo below). As with any walk through the middle of a forest, birds were not exactly everywhere you looked, but we soon came across a superb Wood Warbler singing from low down, giving stunning views. Usually, I've had to crane my neck up and see singing Wood Warblers up against the sky, but this was perfect.
We had walked quite a way down the track when suddenly there was a movement and one of us picked up a Three-toed Woodpecker on the trunk of a tree to our right. I frantically tried to see it through the trees, but I just couldn't get on it at all. Then, quick as a flash, it flew off again, across the track in front of us, and at speed. I managed to see it now but only had poor unsatisfactory flight views. It was identifiable to species but we wanted to see it again of course. Apparently Three-toeds have been difficult to find this year because of the spruce beetle infestation that has been happening. This has caused many of the forest's spruce trees to lose their outer bark, which means that the species has a lot more opportunities for feeding compared to what it usually has. So they are more spread out, rather than concentrated in certain favoured areas.
So, of course we headed sideways into the woodland to where we saw the Three-toed fly. We were quite confident of seeing it again as it didn't go far. However, we saw it flush again from low down and fly further away, and that was it - no more sign. It was very disappointing but at least we saw one well enough for the tick, and we knew we would have time to look for more. Whilst searching for this bird we split up a little bit and I was lucky to see two Firecrests moving through the trees, the only ones that were recorded on the whole trip.
We wandered back again along the track and, not too far away, one of the guys picked up a woodpecker high in the trees which appeared to be a Middle Spotted Woodpecker. I managed to get a good look at it high above me and then even better when I moved slightly to the side. As is typical of the species, it seemed to prefer feeding near the top branches of the trees and was usually difficult to see. That was three out of five ticks for me and it wasn't even midday of day one! I suppose that this was my number one tart species since it breeds less than 40 miles from my house, although I've never really had a serious chance of finding one before now.
With two new woodpeckers for me in just one short walk, I was cock-a-hoop by the time we returned to the car. We had parked next to a fenced-off garden with large trees, and just as I had put my stuff in the boot, I saw something largish fly low across the carpet of anenomes. "I've got a green woodpecker-type thing here!" I called out and, of course, being in the middle of the forest, it was not really ever going to be an actual Green Woodpecker. So, after a few seconds of re-finding, we were watching a terrific Grey-headed Woodpecker feeding at the bases of the large trees. My third woodpecker tick in just one walk! ker-ching!! It was showing beautifully, on and off, and we soon realised that we had two birds - a male and a female. And as we were watching these, another Middle Spotted Woodpecker flew in and perched on the same tree as the Grey-headed, and I had terrific views of it down the 'scope. We were in woodpecker heaven! I was punching the air.
This fenced off area where the trees had been deliberately thinned-out by the home owner was a real hot-spot. It shows you that it is often the edges of a forest where the biggest concentration of birds are. As well as the aforementioned woodpeckers, I had the best views of the trip of a couple of Treecreepers by the car. These were of the eastern/northern race and were definitely greyer than British birds, with whiter white bits. At one point I got a little excited and claimed a Collared Flycatcher, but I may have made a mistake with that, as it was quite a way away in the back corner and we couldn't relocate it. But searching for it, we came across a couple of Marsh Tits and also a lovely white-headed Long-tailed Tit. Whilst we were in this corner, one of the Grey-headeds came close to us and I managed to snap a single decent photo (above).
So we were well ahead with our targets - 5 out of the 6 main objectives achieved. We still needed to find Pygmy Owl, but this was going to be difficult, and also very unlikely in the middle of the day. So we headed to a different part of the forest, slightly to the south, where it was a little bit higher, which was a decent spot for Nutcracker. This slight change in altitude changed the look of the forest as it was drier and more conifer-heavy, more like the forest I am used to in the UK. And it was heavy going, especially with our high levels of fatigue, with very little to look at. We couldn't find any Nutcrackers and we also failed to see Black Woodpeckers - it was quite birdless although we were pleased to find a Camberwell Beauty butterfly flying around the birch trees.
The last third of the circular walk did produce some decent sightings though. As we rounded a corner, we flushed a Hazel Grouse ahead of us on the track, and creeping round that corner, we saw another one walking along the road ahead of us, albeit quite far away. Although the species is quite numerous in the forest, it is difficult to find, so two sightings in one day was excellent. Also, we had a Willow Tit which was of one of the pale eastern races, plus a few Crested Tits in the conifers.
It had become rather sunny, and upon returning to the car we found out we were more than a little exhausted after a full day in the field on an hour's sleep. So we decided to take a break from birding and head back into the town to get checked in at the hotel and get our feet up for an hour or so. Our hotel was a great little place called Stoczek 1929 and I thoroughly recommend it. In the picture below, the red-roofed building on the left is the restaurant, and the blue cottage on the right is a small 3-room guest house. Great quality for a very cheap price. Parking up the car in the car park there, we had a singing Black Redstart on a roof - quite a common bird in the villages round here.
After a rest, we joined up again with Bogdan in the evening, who had been making some phone calls and arranged a owl-hunting session for us with a local guy who does surveying in the forest. So we all met up in a car park by a railway line and followed behind the Poles to our first destination. It was getting quite dusky now and it was very dark under the trees. As we trudged along, suddenly Ian shouts out "Three-toed Woodpecker" and one lands on a tree right in front of us! Right alongside the path! It was incredible views, as we watched it search for food on the tree trunks, and it certainly made up for the poor sighting earlier in the day.
We pushed on until we reached a hole in a tree which was a possible Tengmalm's Owl nest site. We all set up our scopes on the hole ready, and the guy walked up to the trunk of the tree and scratched it with a branch. We were not unduly disturbing any nesting birds since this was how the surveyors check the nest sites are occupied, and they would be doing this anyway as part of their usual surveying methods. If you scratch the trunk, an owl sitting in the nest will pop its head out and look down to see if a predator is climbing up. However, at this hole, nothing appeared.
We walked on through the trees again, to a second hole and we set up our scopes. The guy did the same, scratched the trunk, and immediately a Tengmalm's Owl peered out of the hole! Superb. It looked around for a minute to check we were not about to raid its nest, and when satisfied it was OK, returned into the hole. We couldn't have asked for better views - the bird filled the scope. However, I did not have time to set up my camera on the tripod, so I was unable to get a decent photo. It was too dark for anything hand-held (see below!). I have seen Tengmalm's once before, in Sweden, but those views were very poor, mainly in silhouette, so although this wasn't a tick, it felt like it.
Chuffed with this bonus bird - we never really expected to see Tengmalm's on this trip - we made our way back through the trees. When we reached the surveyor's car, he pulled out a tiny ghetto-blaster and played the call of Pygmy Owl into the half-light. We waited and waited on the track, then quick as a flash, this tiny bird flew right past me, from over my right shoulder, and into the tree in front. It couldn't be that easy could it? But I soon found it in my bins and was looking at a Pygmy Owl perched on a branch which was looking at me! It was so small, unbelievably small, even though I knew how small they are, it's ony when you see one you realise. It stayed where it was and I was able to get my scope on it. It then flew back across the path and perched right at the top of a tree. It looked rather odd there, pretending to be a pine cone, before it flew back from where it came.
And that was that. We'd hit all of our 6 pre-trip priority targets in just the first day - 4 woodpeckers, Pygmy Owl & Bison - we couldn't believe it. There were no realistic lifers that we still had to search for, so we looked forward to a few days of more relaxed birding. Our plan was to have one more day in the Bialowieza Forest area, then a couple of days further north in the marshes.
We returned to the guest house and had our dinner in the restaurant next door. I had vegetables and "dumplings" - which was to become a bit of a theme, since vegetarianism does not seem to be high on the agenda in this corner of Europe. A couple of beers later we were zonked out on our beds with the alarm set for another early start in the morning.