Wildlife holiday in Naliboki Forest
It was the perspective of lynx observation that made me decide for a wildlife holiday in Naliboki forest (Belarus). Besides a very nice sighting of this elusive cat, my stay at the Naust Field Station was a real discovery: fantastic wildlife, an almost untouched boreal forest and last but not least an authentic way of living. Vadim, who accompanied this wildlife tour, shared his unrivaled experience on wildlife with us during our walks and drives through the endless forests of the reserve comprising bogs, primeval forest, riverine forests, pine covered sandy elevations and some open plains (drained peat bogs where plans to further develop have been largely abandoned). The loneliness of this fantastic area and its wildlife, although more secretive, can withstand the comparison with any African safari.
Upon arrival at Minsk International Airport on March 5th, we were welcomed by Vadim. After a 2,5 hours’ drive we arrived at the field station and met Vadim’s family, his wife Irina and their children. After having installed ourselves in the peat/wood heated accommodation, we enjoyed a nice meal and went to sleep early.
Sunday morning, temperature was around minus 3°C. Something between minus 10°C and minus 15°C is more normal early March but snow was still covering the forest roads. We decided for some “free discovery” in the morning, but not to wait too long to go tracking lynx and wolf as higher temperatures were announced from Tuesday onwards. With snow disappearing, tracking of our predators would certainly become an even harder challenge than we already had expected. In the morning we made our first sightings of elk and whooper swan in nice beaver habitat.
We spent the afternoon walking through forests and bogs whilst checking the camera traps that Vadim had installed at some interesting spots regularly visited by lynx. At one place a male lynx had even been spotted by 2 observers earlier this year while it was resting on a fallen tree. Vadim showed us signs of lynx presence such as marks on trees, hair / fur and territorial markings. The camera traps provided “hard evidence” with snaps of different individuals. Not surprising, we had seen plenty of tracks (also of wolves) on the roads previously. Sightings however were not for us today until …
Vadim suddenly stopped during our drive back to the forest house. He had seen wolves in the cars’ spotlights crossing well ahead of the car. Although I was sitting in the front, I missed them. A matter of experience, I guess. When observing the tracks in the snow, we noticed that the wolves had been coming into our direction when we were approaching and had returned on their steps when they heard our car.
Vadim explained us that wolves are indeed most frequently observed when crossing roads, on the plains (the abandoned drained bogs where cranes breed) or in the surroundings of their dens. Their shyness is explained by the fact that they are heavily prosecuted in Belarus. From the 1 500 to 1 700 Belarus population, around 1 000 animals are killed every year. Vadim is continuously fighting to keep the reserve as a safe haven for these (and other) animals. Between 40 and 50 wolves live in the reserve.
After the sighting we returned back to the lodge for a welcome sauna and again a nice meal.
Monday morning we started our tracking at 6.30 AM to the east of the field station. The forest roads in this area are well cleared at the sides, increasing chances to spot crossing animals. Fresh wolf tracks leaving for the forest, made Vadim change direction to where a pack might leave the forest again and show up. At the crossing we picked up wolf footprints again, brand fresh this time. We immediately headed forward to where a pack might cross and waited some time … Just too late, the wolves had crossed already. Or were just hiding in the forest. No sightings.
After this thrilling morning, we decided to go for a somewhat “easier” animal during the afternoon: bison. We drove southwards through pine forest where a male capercallie crossed the road and arrived at an area of extensively farmed but mostly abandoned drained peatland (reminding me of “the Groote Peel” in the Netherlands or the “Hautes Fagnes” in Belgium, yet at a totally other scale). We observed two cranes before arriving at the forest edge where bison are regularly observed. We stayed till dark. One fox, no bison.
By Tuesday the snow had disappeared and the temperature risen to well above zero. We persisted in our attempts to find bison but by the time we arrived, they had already disappeared into the forest (bisons mainly feed on grassland during the night and return to the forest by early morning). With two of our group we decided to test our physical condition and launched the tracking in the forest under guidance of Vadim. Our endeavours paid off. After some time we saw one bison flushing and located a small herd. We could observe the animals in the dense forest until the moment they decided to move further. “A lifer!” For the brave.
During our walk back to the cars yellow buntings, thrushes and one tree pipit were all singing whilst waxwings and siskins passed overhead. What a contrast with the almost “bird-less” frozen forests of the days before. After a nice picnic where Vadim demonstrated again his skills as a forest expert, we went for a new round of checking the camera traps in an area with both dens of wolf and lynx. Vadim draw our attention to footprints of badger feeding on toads hibernating in “shafts” previously dug by voles. Grey headed woodpecker calls and the partridge like noise of flushing hazel grouse, accompanied our walk along and over small canals. This trip in the footprints of Vadim probably was the endeavor that made Vioarr decide to unveil one of his biggest secrets … a magnificent cat, called Lynx!
Yes! Driving back to the field station, we were granted a minutes long view of this elusive cat!
“Mission accomplished” in rather material terms and “time for new discoveries”.
After the lynx sighting, we shifted to a more relaxed mode of observation on Wednesday. We helped Vadim in placing carrion at two feeding places: one for eagles and one for brown bear. Naliboki forest hosts some 7 bears with numbers increasing. As one female was denning in the surroundings, Vadim convinced me not to go further as she might be around with her cubs. We however could notice bear presence: a beaver skull (this mother bear is the only meat eating bear in the forest, feeding on beaver primarily) and an ants nest destroyed by bear. The area also showed presence of wild boar (camera trap) and a gathering place for wolf, witnessed by the presence of plenty of wolf excrements.
This area also produced following sightings: hazelhen, white backed woodpecker, elk, greylag goose, black woodpecker, white fronted goose and goldeneye. Goldeneye landed at a spot where we tried beaver and otter. The absence of sightings was largely compensated by the observation of a beaver on our way back to the field station.
Thursday morning we finally encountered another elusive animal, we had failed to observe so far. Driving in the dark towards the ”bison area” eyes lit up in the headlights of our car: reflecting less than cats’ eyes, high legged … and hopping once running away. Wolf! A glimpse.
Upon arrival at the bison hotspot, we noticed 3 bison that slowly made their way back to the forest. Rough legged buzzard, great grey shrike and calling grey headed woodpecker completed our morning drive.
In the afternoon Vadim persuaded me to go for another check of his camera traps in the lynx habitat we had been exploring on Sunday. Although on Sunday we had found plenty of signs of lynx presence, no lynx had been photographed by the cameras since then. The area however unveiled some other nice surprises. We observed three toed woodpecker at close distance and a flushed hazel grouse landed in a nearby tree.
A diving beaver on the way back to the field station, reminded us that only five days in this fantastic area were needed for encounters with specious of “Wild Europe” such as bison, lynx and wolf and inhabitants of old forests such as grouse and woodpeckers.
Friday morning bison was again on the program and our drive to the south definitely provided our best sighting: a huge bull in open field moving slowly towards the forest. Black grouse (7), cranes and great grey shrike were also observed. Numbers of cranes were growing day by day as they were returning to their breeding grounds (it is nesting commonly in Naliboki). On our way back to the field station a female capercallie was flushed but could be nicely observed sitting in a tree. Vadim inserted a stop to check his camera traps. I took the opportunity to discover the surroundings of the clearing where we had left our car, made some excellent observations of white backed woodpecker and nutcracker. And believe it or not … almost got lost in my enthusiasm to get closer to these magnificent birds. Other sightings included elk, linnet, and bullfinch.
We decided to spend our last afternoon at a lake close to the field station. At the other side of the lake a feeding place for eagles is situated. A nice adult white tailed eagle, some whooper swans and a goshawk flew over whilst marsh tit and long tailed tit (white headed) were calling in the nearby swamp forest. An evening walk before dinner, provided sighting of beaver and calling pigmy owls. We went to sleep early as most of us needed to reach the airport around 8 AM on Saturday.
As my flight was somewhat later, I had some time left on Saturday for a last walk around the field station with nice views of (calling) black and grey headed woodpeckers.
I would like to thank Vadim for this fantastic wildlife experience in “his” forest. I had the opportunity to meet this passionate man who wanted nothing than share his passion for this vast and virtually unspoilt boreal forest and its biodiversity, witnessed by the enigmatic cat and plenty of other mammals and bird species. A destination I will personally put on my list for one of my next spring discoveries!
I would also like to thank my French fellow travellers (Bernard Fournier, Robert Bousrez, Fabien Bruggmann and Séverin Rochet) for the pleasant company and the numerous exchanges on our wildlife experiences. Thanks especially to Bernard for sharing his pictures of lynx and white tailed eagle.