The Natural Wonders of Poland…

I met my Polish partner 6 years ago, and at the time I knew very little about the country and its natural environment. Having no close family over there, it was three years into our relationship before we visited the country; after saving all our pennies and wrangling 3 weeks off work, we made it a trip to remember!

We set off from our little first floor flat in Yorkshire and drove down to Harwich ferry point where we boarded with our trusty steed ‘Ken’ the Toyota. We crossed to Holland overnight and in the morning we were woken by Bobby McFerrin ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’ at full volume over the Tannoy system in typical laid back Netherlands style.

After navigating through a small part of the Netherlands, we reached the German Autoban, many stretches of which were blockaded along the margins with high metal fencing to prevent large mammals access, but these fences were often laden with green climbing plants, some purposefully planted and some self-seeded. There were also clusters of wind turbines alongside parts of the motorway, representing the dominance of clean energy utilised in the country . The Autoban took us swiftly to our first stop in Poland, Swinoujscie, on the north-western edge of the country, a Baltic sea-side town, where we rested briefly before heading on to Leba.

E. Skinner wind turbines on AutobahnWind turbines along a stretch of the Autobahn (E. Skinner, 2014).

Camping Rafael in Leba turned out to be the best campsite location, and we had arrived in early September so had missed the crowds of the main holiday season, though we still enjoyed temperatures well in excess of 20°C. We were able to get a pitch alongside the River Leba, just a mile from the white sands of the Baltic coastline.

Once we got our tent pitched and our gear sorted it was a pleasure to sit out on a camping chair beside the river. I was able to spend one whole morning sitting by the river and during this period a small warbler landed on my head (which was adorned by my straw hat, so maybe it thought I was a shrub!), I also spotted a water vole swimming across the river just a few metres from where I was sitting, and following that the campsite cat strolled past me with a lizards’ tail still twitching in its mouth: a clever decoy. One certainly couldn’t get bored here.

E. Skinner, Leba beachBaltic beach close to Leba with conifer border (E. Skinner, 2014).

It was a short walk to the beach from our Leba campsite, and upon reaching it we strolled along the sandy shore, heading west for a few kilometres. There were a host of small jellyfish along the margins where sea and sand met and so I didn’t dip my toes for long. After about an hour of walking we reached the ‘moving sand dunes’ in the Slowinski National Park. Unique to Europe, the dunes move around 10 metres a year, creating a spectacle with their height of up to 42 metres, sparkling white sand, and a scattering of birch trees and stumps, showing signs of former woodland overtaken by mountains of sand; it masquerades as a beautiful yet eerie desert.E. Skinner, Leba dunesPart of the expanse of the moving dunes, with dead standing birch wood (E. Skinner,2014).

As we walked back from the moving dunes to our campsite, we passed through deciduous woodland. We saw a great-spotted woodpecker swoop overhead and then we were caught by surprise when a pair of red squirrels zipped past us, low in the tree branches, one chasing the other; they stopped momentarily to gawp at us, and we could clearly see that the one doing the chasing had a cheeky expression on its little face, and then they continued on their escapade.

On leaving Leba, we drove to the north-central part of the country to visit a small, rural town called Malbork. There stands an impressive Gothic-style brick castle, on the bank on the River Nogat. The castle began life in the 13th Century under the control of the Teutonic Order, and is now a popular attraction for tourists, offering historic tours of the castle and the coin and armoury museums.

E. Skinner, Malbork CastlePart of the Malbork Castle complex (E. Skinner, 2014).

Outside the castle walls is a bridge across the River Nogat, and when standing on this bridge it is possible to take in the beautiful view over the shimmering, blue water, covered in part by dense sedges, lily pads and pondweeds, with the castle forming a magnificent backdrop. Just a few miles to the south-west the River Nogat feeds into the Vistula, the longest and largest river in Poland {1}.

E. Skinner, Malbork River Nogat      View from the bridge, showing some dense aquatic vegetation on the River Nogat (E. Skinner, 2014).

On departing from Malbork we headed east on a 3-hour journey to Novy Most (translated as New Bridge): a remote settlement in the centre of ancient woodland. Novy Most lies deep in the southern part of the Mazury region, which is host to over 2000 lakes, as well an extensive network of rivers and dense woodland cover; an excellent sanctuary for wildlife. It took us a while to find our destination and we arrived just after dusk. On entering our temporary living area – a moderate woodland clearing, interspersed with small wooden camping huts – there was a definite sense that many of the living creatures in the woods around us were becoming active for their nightly exploits.

E. Skinner, Mazuri cabinCosy little wooden cabin in the woodland clearing at New Bridge, Mazury (E. Skinner, 2014).

The valley surrounding us echoed with the rutting bellows of red deer Cervus elaphus, competing for priority among the hinds. The howling of a pack of grey wolves Canis lupus bounced down the valley from perhaps less than 2km away; their calls awakening a feeling of ancient connectivity between man and beast, as well as the sense of pleasure in knowing that there are still areas of wilderness substantial enough to support this species in the wild, with Poland now host to an estimated 1,200 individuals {2}.

The camp we had chosen to stay at in Novy Most was ideally situated for kayaking trips; bordering the River Krutynia and offering equipment hire and transport up-river. We spent a few hours out on the water; quietly making our way back to the campsite through our natural surroundings of willow, alder and reeds, and listening out for signs of wildlife.

E. Skinner, River Krutynia MazuryKayaking on the River Krutynia (E. Skinner, 2014).

The quality of the aquatic system was evident through the sheer clarity of the water and the abundance of flora and fauna, including a variety of pondweeds and many shoals of small fish.

E. Skinner River Krutynia MazuryClear water & abundant flora in River Krutynia (E. Skinner, 2014).

There were signs of activity on a number of trunks of alder along the river banks, where substantial sections of bark had been removed, and we heard the reason for this before we saw it. It was a loud drumming that seemed to reverberate around us in the otherwise quiet surroundings, and was produced by a bird affirming its territory whilst also searching for food by chipping away at the bark and peeling it away using its strong beak to reach the invertebrates beneath.

E. Skinner alder damaged by black woodpecker KrutyniaAlder trees along the margin of the River Krutynia showing signs of damaged bark due to black woodpecker feeding (E. Skinner, 2014).

The culprit was the black woodpecker Dryocopus martius; twice the size of the greater-spotted woodpecker {3}, this is a species seems to embody the link between avian life and dinosaurs, particularly when it voices its primal sounding call, an extraordinary screech. We were within a couple of metres of the bird, and due to our unthreatening appearance on the kayak, it stayed perched and just turned its head to follow us with its intense eyes as we quietly passed by.

On leaving Novy Most, we headed for Gizycko, another part of the Mazury region, where we would spend a couple of days relaxing and exploring the lakes. On the way there we passed a group of Eurasian crane Grus grus feeding in a large, marshy grassland field, about 30m from the road; we also spotted the carcass of a racoon dog Nyctereutes procyonoides at the side of the road and stopped to get a closer look.

E. Skinner, racoon dog GizickoRacoon Dog Nyctereutes procyonoides: unfortunate road-kill in Gizycko region (E. Skinner, 2014).

The racoon dog does resemble a racoon but is in the canine family; it is native to Asia but has been widely introduced throughout mainland Europe {4}. It prefers to inhabit woodland areas close to rivers and marshes {5}, and so the Mazury region provides ideal conditions. Being good at tree climbing, they will feed on birds and their eggs, as well as amphibians, fish, invertebrates, rodents, reptiles, carrion and berries {5}. They become dormant throughout the winter when food is less prevalent {5}. Their mainpredator is the wolf {5}.

Following our rest stop in Gizycko, we headed south, on narrow roads created through dense woodland, to Bialowieza National Park: the largest remaining part of primeval woodland in Europe, which spans the border of Poland and Belarus {6}. We were able to encounter young European bison Bison bonasus, Eurasian elk Alces alces and European wild boar Sus scrofa at a wildlife refuge.

Wild boar is a native species that is present across much of mainland Europe. Figures show that the wild boar population in Poland increased steadily between 2000 and 2013; hunting is permitted all year round – excluding females during the breeding/weaning period – with a target for maintaining 50% of the total adult population {7}.

E. Skinner, wild boar BialowiezaYoung wild boar in Bialowieza (E. Skinner, 2014).

In 2013, part of the wild boar population in Poland were identified as being infected with African Swine Fever, which is likely to have been introduced through contact with infected boars on the eastern border (the disease had already been identified in Belarus and Lithuanian populations) {7}. This viral disease is highly contagious and is often fatal for wild boar; it can also infect domestic pigs {8}. Increased targets for hunting have not been set as it is thought that this would increase the risk of contamination, but controls that have been implemented include destroying carcases of infected animals, restricting transport of wild boar meat and training hunters to test boar for the infection {7}. However, when we spoke to a local landowner about this issue his findings were that hunters were avoiding shooting boar as they felt uncomfortable with the additional requirements and lack of incentive.

E. Skinner, elk Bialowieza

Elk Alces alces at a wildlife refuge, Bialowieza (E. Skinner, 2014).

Eurasian Elk Alces alces are a charismatic, native species in Poland; their population in the country is estimated at 2,800 individuals {9}. They are found predominantly in Bialowieza National Park and Biebrza National Park, both situated on the eastern border of the country {10}. Elk are the largest species in the deer family Cervidae, and a fully grown adult can measure over 2m at shoulder height {11}. Elk generally inhabit areas that are host to a mosaic of woodland and wetland habitats (such as marshland) {9}. Elk feed mainly on leaves and twigs; in Poland, components of trees and shrubs constitute 87% of their diet, with Scots Pine Pinus sylvestris being their favoured species {11}. Wolves are the main predator of the Elk, and target them more frequently in the winter months, when deep snow impedes their movement; however, elk are equipped to vigorously defend themselves and their young using their antlers and hooves {11}.

E. Skinner, bison Bialowieza

Bison at a wildlife refuge in Bialowieza (E. Skinner, 2014).

European bison are the classic, iconic species of the Bialowieza forest area, which is host to approximately 800 individuals {6}. The European bison is slightly smaller than the American bison, and yet it is the heaviest land mammal in Europe; a fully grown adult can weigh up to 1000kg {12}. The European bison became extinct in the wild in the early 1900s due to over hunting, and the last remaining individuals of the Bialowieza forest were shot dead in 1921 {13}. Fortunately, this was not the end of this story, and several decades later the captive descendants of the wild Bialowieza population were re-introduced into favourable locations in a number of European countries, including Poland {13}. The European bison lives in herds and has become a forest dwelling species; they are grazers feeding predominantly on grass, but also on shoots and leaves {13}. The modern Bialowieza bison population is largely free-ranging; we drove past road warning signs that displayed the image of an adult bison; it would certainly be disastrous to collide with a bison on the road!

On leaving Bialowieza, we experienced an extraordinary downpour that lasted around 20 minutes and during this period the amount of amphibians that emerged was amazing, they were almost completely covering the ground surface; this really highlights the quality of the natural ecosystem. We were on route to the mountainous area of Bieszczady: a mountain range that covers part of south-east Poland and spans across parts of Ukraine (known as the Ukrainian Carpathians) and Slovakia (known as the Eastern Beskids).

E. Skinner traditional farmhouse BieszczadyTraditional wooden farmer’s house in the Bieszczady region (E. Skinner, 2014).

Whist driving through the mountain region of Bieszczady, there was an evident change, not just in landscape but also in the way of life. This was the most rural and traditional landscape that we had encountered. Outside of the few developed towns, there was little development and the hills were scattered sparsely with small, traditional wooden houses. These houses each lie within a smallholding that enables the residents to live in a largely self-sufficient way. We drove past one farmer who was ploughing his field by utilising a pair of horses that were harnessed to a traditional plough. The method of stacking hay in the fields was also vastly different to the bales that I am familiar with in England: the hay is formed into a much taller and narrower, cylindrical shape with a rounded top.

E. Skinner haystacks southern PolandHaystacks in the south of Poland (E. Skinner, 2014).

 

Our time in Bieszczady was short, due to the dense fog that settled on the mountains, meaning that any plans we had for walking and cycling in the area were scuppered, so we set off for Zakopany, a town in another mountain range to the west:  the Tatra Mountains. On our way to Bieszczady we spotted a golden eagle Aquila chrysaetos in a grassland field, right beside the mountain road we were driving on, with a rabbit clutched in its large talons: what a majestic sight.

E. Skinner white stork nest PolandWhite stork nest on telegraph pole near Solina, Bieszczady (E. Skinner, 2014).

We also spotted many white stork Ciconia ciconia nests on the journey between Bieszczady and Zakopany. The nests were built both on top of telegraph poles as well as on top of specifically installed stork nesting platforms. The adult birds are about 1m tall and their nests are massive, deep structures formed using twigs and lined with grasses {14}. White stork is migratory and spends its winters spread across the African continent. Poland is host to approximately 25% of the European breeding population of white stork {14}. Unfortunately for us, the vast majority of white stork had already vacated their nests to undertake the journey back to their wintering grounds, but it was fascinating to see the impressive structures that they leave behind as a striking reminder that they will return again in the spring.

E. Skinner Tatry style building

Tatra mountains style architecture (E. Skinner, 2014).

Upon entering the Tatra region, there was an obvious shift in the style of architecture, with many attractively houses build with sturdy looking planks of wood, and sharply peaked roofs and turrets above the windows to allow snow to slide off and prevent excessive build-up. The Tatra Mountains are part of the Carpathian mountain range and span the border of Poland and Slovakia. The area is the highest elevation in Poland and is designated as a national park, being host to a diverse range of botanical species, as well as Eurasian lynx Lynx lynx, brown/grizzly bear Ursus arctos , grey wolf Canis lupus and the endemic Tatra chamois Rupicapra rupicapra tatrica and Tatra marmot Marmota marmota latirostris.

E. Skinner Pinus mugo TatryMountain pine Pinus mugo scrub habitat covering the lower stretches of the Tatra Mountains (E. Skinner, 2014).

We chose to ascend one of the mountains, Kasprovy, using the cable-cars in operation, from which you we alighted close to the summit. Walking down was hard going on the knees but we took it steady and that provided me time to view and photograph some of the plant life, including mountain sorrel Oxyria digyna, cowberry/lingonberry Vaccinium vitis-idaea and mountain pine Pinus mugo, which was carpeting much of the lower part of the mountains, providing dense scrub cover for fauna. Over 1000 species of vascular plant have been recorded in the Tatra Mountains, as well as 900 species of fungi {15}. Exploring some of the less visited parts of the mountains would have been next on our list if time permitted but we needed to push on to the city part of our trip, so we spent the following day on a trip in the adjacent Pieniny Mountain range and then set off to the west and headed for Krakow.

E. Skinner Pienini National ParkRafting through the gorge of the Dunajec River in the Pieniny National Park (E. Skinner, 2014).

The Pieniny Mountain range is a lower lying range, located directly to the east of the Tatra Mountains, and its highest peak reaches to just below 1000m. We spent an afternoon river rafting through the Dunajec gorge, within the Pieniny National Park, on a traditional style raft piloted by two local men. The Dunajec is a tributary of the Vistula; the gorge is a beautiful, natural formation that is host to many species of flora and fauna. There are 14 species of bat that inhabit this area, including the common bent-wing bat Miniopterus schreibersii; a species of sub-tropical origins that is distributed across parts of Asia, the Middle East and Europe {16}. The golden eagle Aguila chryaetos is regularly seen in the vicinity, and there is also a host of butterfly species, including the Apollo butterfly Parnassius apollo.

It seemed a shame to depart from the natural parts of Poland and head for the city, but we forged on westward towards Krakow. It was initially quite a mental shock being back in a busy, metropolitan city after numerous consecutive days spent in quiet and natural surroundings, but once we had adjusted we were able to enjoy all that the city has to offer: excellent food, bustling markets, and beautiful architecture including the Wawel Castle and Cathedral.

E. Skinner salt carving WieliczkaSalt carving in an underground chapel, part of Wieliczka Salt Mine, Poland (E. Skinner, 2014).

We visited a huge, old salt mine just outside the city, in Wieliczka, for an underground tour. The mine began life in the 1200s and has been a tourist attraction for over 300 years. It is host to an underground lake and extensive salt sculptures carved by past miners, including intricate decoration in four chapels and salt carved chandeliers adorning the large ballroom, which collectively provide the setting for weddings and other events.

Wroclaw was our final destination before starting the journey homeward, via the Owl Mountains, and on to Amsterdam. Wroclaw is host to stunning architecture, broad avenues and a great deal of history. It is situated on the River Oder, which dissects the city in to 12 islands, providing good opportunities for spotting wildlife whilst walking/cycling on the network of riverside pathways.

In summary, I would wholeheartedly recommend exploring Poland’s natural wonders – in a respectful, low impact manner – any wildlife enthusiast is sure to find it a memorable experience with many highlights, and the warmth of Polish hospitality really added to the success our trip.

 

References

{1}Vistula. Wikipedia, 2016 (viewed on 13/05/2016). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vistula

{2}Wolves in Poland. The Association for Nature ‘Wolf’, 2015 (viewed on 02/06/2016). http://www.polishwolf.org.pl/wolf

{3}Hume, 2006. RSPB Birds of Britain and Europe, DK London, 2nd Edition.

{4}Nyctereutes procyonoides, IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. IUCN, 2015 (viewed on 17/05/2016). http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/full/14925/0

{5}Raccoon Dog. Wikipedia, 2016 (viewed on 17/05/2016). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raccoon_dog

{6}Bialowieza. Wikipedia, 2016 (viewed on 22/05/2016). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bia%C5%82owie%C5%BCa_Forest

{7}African Swine Fever in Poland Management of Wild Boar Population. General Veterinary Inspectorate, 2013 (viewed on 28/05/2016). http://web.oie.int/RR-Europe/eng/Regprog/docs/docs/SGE1%20-%20Poland%20situation.pdf

{8}African Swine Fever. The Centre for Food Security & Public Health (Iowa State University), 2015 (viewed on 28/05/2016). http://www.cfsph.iastate.edu/Factsheets/pdfs/african_swine_fever.pdf

{9}Alces Alces, Red List. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, 2015 (viewed on 28/05/2016). http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/41782/0

{10}Moose. Wikipedia, 2016 (viewed on 17/05/2016). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moose

{11}Alces alces Eurasian Elk, Animal Diversity Web. University of Michigan, 2014 (viewed on 28/05/2016). http://animaldiversity.org/accounts/Alces_alces/

{12}European Bison. The Animal Files, 2014 (viewed on 28/05/2016). http://www.theanimalfiles.com/mammals/hoofed_mammals/bison_european.html

{13}European Bison. Wikipedia, 2016 (viewed on 28/05/2016). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/European_bison

{14}Every Fourth Stork is Polish. Polish Culture Site, 2006 (viewed on 28/05/2016). http://culture.polishsite.us/articles/art348.html

{15}Tatra Mountains. Wikipedia, 2016 (viewed on 29/05/2016). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tatra_Mountains

{16}Common Bent-wing Bat. Wikipedia, 2016 (viewed on 05/06/2016). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Common_bent-wing_bat

 

 

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ESKINNER

I grew up in the Devonshire countryside, where I developed a great passion and respect for nature and the environment. I completed a BSc degree in Environmental Studies in 2006, and following that I gained practical skills in a countryside ranger apprenticeship, worked in the organic farming and growing sector for over 3 years, and as an ecological surveyor for 5 years. My partner and I moved back to Devon last year, and I have been re-connecting with many of the natural spaces that I grew up with down here. I have been writing wildlife and environmental pieces for a local organic farm, which have been successful, and I am keen to explore the world of wildlife writing further: this looked like a good place to start.

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