Naliboki Winter trip 2016

To give a representative idea about our journey during the winter of 2016, we wrote this report with all members of our group. Every one of us experienced this journey in his/her own way and sometimes we split up in several smaller groups and witnessed other adventures. Anyhow we tried to write everything down as a whole. Enjoy!

We left Belgium with a group of 8 friends and fellow scientists, on the 25th of January early in the morning, towards the Naliboki Forest, Belarus. Looking out from the airplane window during the landing in Minsk we saw a forested landscape completely covered in snow, what a contradiction to the Belgian landscape! But this was only the beginning of a journey that brought us one amazement after another.

Vadim awaited us in the airport, it was a happy encounter and for some of us a happy reunion as well. After a short drive we were welcomed in his house nearby Minsk, were we enjoyed a warm tasty meal and met with his robust lifestyle – self-made house and furniture, impressive. Then a two hour drive towards the Naliboki Forest, to stay there for the rest of our journey.

Tuesday 26/01 – Bison and wolf kill day

running bison herd

After a good night sleep and a generous, tasty breakfast, we left the Field station for a day in the wild. During the morning, Vadim wanted to try to find a group of Bison of which he knew their core-area. Driving there through a beautiful landscape covered with a thick layer of snow, we spotted several elk on our way, some of them really close by. Driving by an open field, we saw six big Black grouses in the top of a birch tree. A bit further, the contours of majestic birds came into our field of vision: several Ravens, two White-tailed eagles and a Golden eagle were gathered around the left overs of a fresh Wolf kill and took off gracefully while we were watching. A bit further we left the cars and went on towards the ‘Bison area’ by foot. Soon we found fresh tracks, and continued our walk in the forest, being quiet and looking around us: the forest was beautifully covered with a snow white layer. Suddenly, over there! A group of 11 Bison came into our sight… they started running and we started chasing them. Adrenalin!! In an open spot in the forest, the flock stopped running and gathered around two little calves. We could watch the big animals several seconds to minutes before they took off – their muscles, their colours… How impressive.

In the afternoon, after a tasty lunch, we headed towards the ‘house plot’ of a lynx with three kits. Vadim already observed this family for several weeks, and we went checking the camera traps and crossed this area. There were no fresh tracks, the family had moved towards another house plot. We walked for several hours, through the snow, with no sounds but those from our footsteps…. What a day.

Wednesday 27/01 – Old growth

Leaving the Field station early for Wolf tracking: looking for fresh tracks of one of the large packs in the forest, so we could follow them. However, no fresh tracks next to the road… so we kept on driving. Not easy to drive on the deeply grooved roads masked with snow! One of the Lada Niva’s got stuck. But no problem at all: Vadim always is equipped for every occasion. He started jacking the car while we collected straight, long branches to place underneath the four wheels. Pulling with a chain attached to the other car combined with some of us pushing the car, the Niva got free and we continued our road. Shortly after noon we walked towards a patch of Old Growth forest. Over frozen canals we approached, while a White-tailed eagle took off from the forest edge and made a long, graceful flight. In the Old Growth we were impressed by gigantic oaks, which contrasted in the snowy forest as giants coloured in bright green and orange; their stems are covered with lichens and the cracks in their bark reveal orange coloured decayed sapwood. The abundant dead wood makes the forest floor an interesting and biodiverse place. After this satisfying afternoon walk, Vadim took us to several places for howling.

But considering the local pack was not near, we soon drove back to the Field station. On our way home we saw a badger running in front of us. Very strange this time of year, since they should be in hibernation. Vadim managed to take some pictures of the animal after chasing it, where after it ran off deep in the forest. In the Field station, after a delicious meal, we got a lecture in our guesthouse about the Naliboki Forest as a preview of the ‘Naliboki Book’ Vadim is writing. It was a very interesting presentation: about the Forest’s rich history and with a very well documented overview about the fauna and flora.

Thursday 28/01 – Hides

white-tailed eagle

This day we left very early, walking under cover of darkness, to reach the hides in time so the timid eagles and other carnivores would not see us approach. Frederik and Stephanie stayed at the first hide: ‘the river hide’, baited with a calf and a cow head by the river side. On the camera trap installed over there we saw pictures of rough-legged buzzard, so hopefully this team would see the buzzard return to the bait. After a solid paced walk over a frozen floodplain, we reached the second hide: ‘the island hide’, build several meters above the ground in between strong spruces. It gives a panoramic overview over the floodplain, baited with a calf. No animals on the camera trap over there, but anyhow Maxime, Sanne R and Jan tried their luck and stayed in this hide for the whole day. Stien and Sanne VDB walked a morning walk with Vadim around a big sand dune, through the snowy and foggy forest, over canals, in the fresh footsteps of many animals. On the sand dune a couple of Ravens was parading on a cow head a Wolf had stolen from the fieldstation. Afterwards Arnout, Stien, Sanne VDB and Vadim went tracking for traces of the badger we saw yesterday: where did it come from? But apparently the animal came from a seriously large distance and had followed the road a long time, so it was hard to find its tracks. We had to stop our search to go back for lunch. Stephanie and Frederik joined us, after a romantic morning in the hide… with a wedding proposal! Under the watching eye of a White-Tailed eagle Stephanie said ‘yes’ to Frederik. The five of us left for a beautiful evening walk with Vadim in a dense, hilly spruce forest. The evening was concluded by Howling on the top of a hill. Back in the Field station the whole group was united again. Maxime, Jan and Sanne R only saw a couple of Jay on the bait at the island hide. But it seemed that everybody had a nice day, and we shared our stories with several pints of beer.

Friday 29/01 – Lynx day

Starting the day with a good long walk through rich and poorer forest patches, where we found fresh bear tracks! It seemed that another creature had awaken from its hibernation. Really unexpected to find these tracks, so it was exciting to follow them for a while during our walk.

With the first bright sun rays of our journey shining on our backs, we crossed a gigantic swamp in the middle of the forest. What a panoramic view. Here the silence and beauty of the area was breathtaking. After a tasty lunch in the forest with eggs and bacon we headed towards ‘Lynx territory’, where we soon found rather old tracks of a big male. Vadim knows this animal and its territory very well… Continuing our walk in the house plot of this lynx we suddenly found really fresh tracks. Kazimir, as Vadim names this individual, only jumped out of a tree several moments before we came across! We decided to split up to increase the chances of seeing Kazimir. Here we refer to the Lynx story of Jan Gouwy. Maxime and Jan experienced a magical encounter…

After this successful and satisfying day, Vadim suggested we could have a Lynx lecture in the Field station, allowing us to call this day the ‘Lynx day’. Again we witnessed a very interesting lecture, about the Lynx population in the Naliboki Forest, their habits and their needs. Again, what a day…

Saturday 30/01 – Mysterious animal day

wolf hybrid tracks

That morning we made a long and varied walk: through forests with White-backed and Little spotted woodpeckers and endless abandoned open fields with Great grey shrikes, where the cold wind kept us wide awake. In the beginning of our walk, we found very odd tracks; individual prints too small for Wolf and too big for Fox, the stride too large for fox and the whole track too linear for stray dog. Could these be the tracks of a Jackal?? That would be the first time Vadim found this animals’ track. Clearly impressed by this ‘mysterious animal’, he placed a camera trap close to the road. Exciting to wait for the pictures it will take! Further during our walk we saw several Roe deer and a Fox hunting in the open field. After a tasty lunch in the forest, we went for a walk in young birch forest on former drained land, now returning to swamp again thanks to the beavers.

Here we found beautiful and fresh tracks of both Wolf and Lynx on the frozen canals! We decided to split up again. Jan, Stephanie and Sanne R saw a large group of Waxwings very close by, Maxime, Stien, Vadim and Sanne VDB saw a big male Fox crossing the swamp at several meters distance. It was a beautiful walk. Even if you don’t get to see Wolf or Lynx, it is amazing to be aware of their presence and to walk in their footsteps. We met back at the cars, and on our way to an Old growth forest we saw a big group of Black grouse, an impressive observation. In the spectacular Old growth we walked along the big Biarezina river bank, under age-old oaks and next to several tracks of Otter, Beaver, Lynx and Wolf, until it was dark.

Sunday 31/01 – Mysterious animal day 2 & Otter day

That morning Jan, Frederik, Arnout and Sanne R woke up early for a morning walk with Vadim while Stephanie, Maxime, Stien and Sanne VDB were sleeping late. The morning walk was directed towards a very wild area, but the on-going thaw and rising water levels made the black alder swamps impenetrable… Nonetheless the walk led the group to beautiful old spruce stands where they looked at former wolf dens in the cavities underneath the roots of old spruce and black alder trees.

Fresh tracks of a lone female wolf (her mate was killed) and another male lynx were found, as were the tracks of the mystery-animal! When the walk was finished Vadim went to pick up the car a bit further along a forest road. While doing so, he caught a glimpse of our mystery animal. A large canine with wolf coloured fur, quite big ears and without prominent tail features…A jackal or a wolf-dog hybrid? The observation was too short and the animal stays undetermined until - hopefully- Vadim gets it on the camera trap!

In the afternoon we decided to split up to wait at several strategic points along the Volka river and its tributaries, hoping to see Otter. Sanne VDB and Stephanie waited along a small river and Arnout waited at a bridge further on. Sanne R and Stien took post at a platform attached to two thick pines, with a good overview on the river. Jan and Frederik kept post at a spot a bit further along the confluents of several waterways. Meanwhile Vadim and Maxime went to the territory of Kazimir the lynx to place another camera trap and took an evening walk. Afterwards, during a cosy vodka tasting evening, we heard each other’s stories: Sanne R and Stien saw a big male Otter very well! Also Arnout had seen Otter, jumping into the river and diving to the deep. Impressed by this success, we decided to take another chance tomorrow.

Monday 01/02 – Otter day 2 & local Wolf pack back on track

Since it was strange that we hadn’t find any fresh tracks of the local Wolf pack, we decided to focus on finding their tracks. We drove several roads, but no tracks on our way. Near the territory of lone wolf Kushma (slowly-walking-Wolf), we had our morning walk. Two big Elk ran in front of us along a small canal for several seconds. We found the print of the rest place of an Elk – as we saw already so many times – but this time there was a lot of blood spilled around this place. Apparently this animal had survived a Wolf attack! We split up again, and held post on several spots, but no observations. After a tasty lunch back in the Field station, we prepared ourselves for another Otter spotting trial, while Jan and Vadim had an evening walk in the swamps along the tributaries of the Volka river catchment. Maybe they could find more tracks of the bear that awoke from his hibernation, or from the lynx mother with her three kits that visited this area quite often…

Two big male elk and two hazel grouse were seen during their walk. On a sand dune amidst