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).
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.
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.
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 the marsh, but did not catch a sign of an animal larger than a moorfrog or a common snipe. From the moment it turned dark we would sleep until the first light, half an hour before sunset. However, we woke up already a bit earlier, because at 04h40 we heard a wolf howling at short distance (100 metres we estimated, but behind the trees, so out of sight even with a strong flashlight). The sound of this howling wolf was strong, deep and powerful and made us feel somehow futile compared to this climax of wilderness. Goosebumps!!!
When Vadim picked us up we had a look at the fresh wolf traces around (a fresh scat, no less than 30 metres from the sleeping platform). He told us that this wolf was a big alpha male that had smelled us and wanted to mark his terrain and walked on a bit further before howling to let us know it was there.
We returned to the others who had spent a heroic evening extinguishing a wildfire that had run out of control and a lazy morning. Except for Pepijn, who went with Vadim on a morning walk and was rewarded with capercaillie, white-backed woodpecker and a badger killed by a lynx.
After lunch Vadim dropped us off at some old growth stands next to the meandering Berezina river. We strolled between the majestic trees and through the magnificent spring flora. We saw a white-backed, a lesser spotted and a middle spotted woodpecker. Along the way we also saw a dog that had been seen with a wolf on a camera trap. The behaviour of the dog was of course very interesting for Vadim’s research, so we tried to take some pictures, but the animal proved shy from the moment we left the car.
Upon arrival on the field station we had a quick supper and packed our stuff for an overnight stay near to a place where Vadim had heard a great grey owl earlier that month. We started the evening walking around and listening carefully to any owl sound and finished around a cosy campfire with a good bottle of wodka to celebrate Pepijn’s birthday.
After breakfast and a little later than we planned for, we split up to increase the chance to hear the great grey owl. Anton, Simon and I walked into a swampy area, while the others walked in the other direction. After half an hour we received a phone call from Bart, they heard great grey owl calling! So we returned on our steps and hurried in the direction of the others. When we arrived there, however, the great grey owl was no longer calling and proved impossible to find in the vast pine stands. So we packed our stuff and walked back to the field station.
There we enjoyed lunch, a nice sauna and Pepijn’s birthday cake. Afterwards Vadim gave a small lecture on the ecological structure and history of the Naliboki forest and the people living there.
Another early morning looking for bison (specially for Maarten & Bart, who missed the first encounter), however, with less luck than the first time. A thick morning fog layer made it impossible to scan the fields as we did the last time and also a small walk in the forest edge did not result in the hoped for bison sighting.
We took the cars to another open spot, where we lunched and had a magnificent view on a hunting lesser spotted eagle. In the afternoon we made a walk to another impressive patch of old growth forest with again different tracks of wolf and an interesting badger den inside a hollow tree.
After returning to the car, we decided not to waste time, and we headed for a colony of white storks on century old oaks, a magnificent scenery. Just before sunset we scanned another abandoned agricultural area, hoping to catch a glimpse of bison, but we ‘only’ saw several black grouse, roe and red deer and a rough-legged buzzard. After putting up the tents and an excellent supper, cooked on the campfire, we made an evening walk. We searched for owls, but the forest remained silent. Due to the excellent spring weather the owls probably already had started breeding (and thus kept silent). Vadim gave us a very impressive wolf howling session to finish an exhausting day, full of impressions.
The bravest ones amongst us went again on a morning walk and were rewarded with excellent sighting of two bison bulls, a three toed woodpecker and a calling pygmy owl (at least one owl that was still noisy and another target from our list). Afterwards we decided to go back to the place where Maarten discovered the owl in a hollow tree on Tuesday. We waited on a safe distance, while Maarten cautiously scratched the tree. First, nothing happened but then in the owl flew out suddenly. It went very fast, so after all we were still not sure, but based on the size we more or less agreed that it was probably a tawny owl and not the ural owl we had hoped for. Gradually we returned to the field station. We had a relaxed afternoon in and around the sauna and enjoyed a magnificent last evening meal and we toasted on the successful trip that was now almost over.
Saturday was the day of returning home, but before that we tried our luck for the last time in the forest. We split up and Pepijn, Bart and I decided to go back in the direction of the place where we heard the great grey owl. However, apart from some red deer (really nearby) and some strange clicking bird noise (maybe great grey owl?) it was a very quiet morning in the forest. Around 9:30 Vadim and Maurits picked us up and we drove towards a peatery where Anton, Maarten and Simon had spent the morning. On the way we saw the capercaillie where we had been searching for all morning just next to the car. We enjoyed the nice landscape of the peatery with numerous lecking snipes above our heads. Maarten surprised us again with a very nice goodbye present from Naliboki forest, he had found two enormous antlers of an old elk somewhere in the marshes. A very nice treasure that inspired us to also search a little bit and with success: Pepijn found a skull with two antlers of a red deer. What an end of our trip!
After a wonderful lunch and the emotional goodbyes and see you soon’s, we headed back for Belgium with a very satisfied feeling about our trip. We want to thank again Vadim for being our fabulous guide, Irina for all the assistance during our the whole week and Ira and the kids for fixing all administration and the happy moments (it was a joy to watch Vintses and have him with us on some trips).