Belarus trip 1-10 april: spring in Naliboki

As a group of 7 nature fanatic friends we wanted to spend a week in Belarus, Naliboki forest. Maarten and Pepijn, who had been there before, were very enthusiastic about this vast forest, one of the last real wilderness areas in Europe. We aimed to see several species of rare woodpeckers, grouses and owls and silently hoped for an encounter with one of the big mammals that secretly live in the forest: bison or maybe even wolf or lynx. We spent a week in the Naust eco station, where professor Vadim Sidorovich and his family hosted us. Vadim has a very impressive scientific record on all kinds of predators and was the best guide we could imagine. On forehand, Pepijn and Maarten had extensively praised Vadim’s ability to read tracks and to truly understand the ecology of these animals. Along the trip we all had the pleasure to see him at work and our admiration and respect only grew along the way. Below we wrote a chronological report of our trip to give an idea about what we did (and to fuel the hunger of the reader to go there and to plunge in the wilderness him/herself).

Saturday 02/04

We departed from Ghent, Belgium on Friday night around 21h and had a smooth ride to reach the border between Poland and Belarus in the early afternoon on Saturday. We only spent two hours for the border crossing (thanks to the excellent preparations by Ira and Pepijn) and reached the verge of Naliboki forest at sunset. We left the asphalt road and followed a sandy track that would lead us to the field station. After a few kilometres we saw three pair of eyes on the track, reflecting the headlights. We approached and had a clear view on an elk mother with two kits . The animals seemed not scared at all and offered us the opportunity to watch them and even to take some photographs. What a welcome to the forest! A few kilometres further we saw the headlights of Vadim’s car approaching to lead us the last bit to the field station. On the way we had another very nice observation, two playful American minks were crossing the road just in front of our car. Upon arrival at the field station we were welcomed by Vadim’s family, Ira and their two kids. We left the long trip behind us with some fresh beers and a delicious evening meal.

Sunday 03/04

After a short night of very steady sleep we started early the next morning. After a hearty breakfast we went for a morning excursion by car. We visited an abandoned agricultural field nearby the field station and saw several roe deer and red deer. We also made a stop at the leftovers of an elk that was killed by wolf only a week ago, according to Vadim. Vadim decided to try our luck on a place where capercaillie were often lecking. We were very lucky and spotted a huge displaying male, parading through the forest with the beak up in the air while shaking his white back. We made a third stop at a small marshy lake with sandy shores surrounded by pine stands. We noted several tracks of lynx and wolf here and Vadim showed us a camera trap he placed there and an observation platform he recently installed. From the pictures of the camera we knew that lynx had passed this spot several times during the previous days. An overnight stay on the platform would thus maybe offer a small but reasonable chance to catch a glimpse of a lynx. We returned to the field station after a very successful morning and had a relaxed afternoon (which was very welcome after our long ride of the previous day). While sun basking in the soft grass at the field station we observed a middle spotted woodpecker in a nearby tree and a migrating pallid harrier (!) flying over.

In the later afternoon we split up: Maarten and Bart would try their luck on the “lynx platform” while the other five would go with Vadim for a lynx related walk. We enjoyed an afternoon in the forest studying the different tracks of lynx and crisscrossing pine stands, alder swamps and sedge marshes. Nearby a place where lynx often stayed we saw a male three toed woodpecker for a short while. We learned a lot about the behaviour of lynxes and found several more pictures at camera traps along the track. The experience to be on the same spot where a lynx had passed less than 12 hours before was very exciting. We were all impressed by Vadim’s incredible knowledge on the big predators and his ability to translate a simple footprint to a whole story about the size or pace of the wolf or lynx involved. After the return to the field station we had supper, sauna and a beer next to the fireplace.

Monday 04/04

Breakfast at 4:30, not exactly the relaxed time schedule most people would call holidays. However, the coffee and mainly the thought that we were going after bison made up for the early hour. With two cars we drove to a big opening with agricultural fields and after some red deer and roe deer, Vadim spotted two bulls of European bison on a rye field. It was a wonderful experience to observe these powerful animals, even from a large range. We drove on, hoping to see more. Along the way, we were held up by a male black grouse that was displaying at a distance of about ten metres from the first car. After gently posing for a few pictures it flew away and we continued our search, crossing some very fresh wolf tracks, that raised the tension in the car. Then we bumped in to another, much bigger group of bison, including a few calves. It was a very photogenic view, with the sun on the reminders of an early morning fog. After the fortunate morning excursion we went to pick up Maarten and Bart at the lynx platform and we were very curious to hear their story.

Maarten and Bart had really enjoyed the night alone in the wild and had seen several smaller birds (such as hawfinch, woodcock and common snipe); however no wolf or lynx observation. However, Vadim found some fresh lynx tracks in the sand at the far side of the lake, so possibly a lynx had passed overnight or during an inattentive moment!

After a lunch in the wild, involving many deliciously baked eggs on an open fire, we put on our rubber boots for a lynx-wolf related walk. We passed several places where wolf had been denning last year and found some fresh digging tracks. On a camera trap aimed at a wolf den, that had not been used by wolf last year, we found again pictures of a female lynx that looked pregnant. She seemed to be observing the surroundings, feeding Vadims’ hypothesis that lynx might give birth in unused wolf dens in forested areas. This would be a very interesting finding (never described before), so we were all very excited. We are very curious about the continuation of this research on lynx breeding! In a magnificent part of old growth forest with many spruces we found a few more old wolf dens, a grass snake and … an owl. Maarten was scratching the bark of a hollow tree to provoke a possible inhabitant to come outside to have a look. However, this owl flew away immediately. Partly because of the tree in which it was nesting Maarten guessed that this could well be an ural owl. We waited for half an hour, without a sign of the owl and decided to come back later.

After this magnificent walk, Vadim brought Anton and me to the lynx platform for an overnight stay. We spent the evening quietly observing the surroundings of t