Naliboki Forest, February 1st – 10th

 When our plane takes off from Brussels South Airport it’s snowing. We are wondering what the weather would be like in Belarus. What would Belarus be like? We - Sam&Erica, Bernd, Laura, Pepijn from Wild Naliboki and Hans&Els – are very excited to leave!

We are welcomed in Minsk by Vadim, Ira and their adorable son Vincent. Soon we’re on our way to Naust Eco Station. There are fresh tracks of wolf when we enter the forest. This is already promising!

We will stay in a separate guest house, built by Vadim. We’ll have breakfast and dinner in the kitchen/dining room. All rooms are heated by stoves. There’s even a sauna!

 

Friday 2

 It’s still dark when we leave. Some are still a little bit sleepy, but after a hearty breakfast prepared by Ira everybody is eager to go out. Vadim is driving the first car, Bernd is driving the other car. The first animal we see is a mountain hare running through the forest like a white ghost. We see our first roe deer and a group of red deer. The main goal for this morning is finding bison, and we succeed! Four bison are walking on a field. They are truly impressive beasts. A few black grouse are feeding in the top of some birch trees. A flock of yellowhammers is showing well. On our first walk in the forest we already find tracks of wolf, lynx, bison, raccoon dog, fox, all on the same forest path!

Lunch is in the middle of the forest. There are even fresh tracks of lynx. Vadim orders us to collect dry branches to make a fire. Not easy to find in a wet forest! But soon we enjoy scrambled eggs, bread, cheese, sausage, cookies and hot tea/coffee. Delicious, Vadim is truly a great outdoor cook!

After lunch we go for a hike to check some camera traps Vadim has put earlier. He’s showing us resting places of wolves and lynx. One camera is located at a spot where two elk were already killed by wolf. A few bones of the unfortunate elk are silent witnesses. Vadim is hoping to register an attack of wolves here one day on camera. Today we have to cross our first channel, the only one today, but it’s a rather wide one. There is almost no ice so we’re using a fallen birch tree to cross. A little bit nervous and uncertain, but we get to the other side safe (and dry). We check another camera trap at a spot which was used by lynx as a viewpoint/ambush. There is evidence of lynx nearby (a footprint at a resting site) but the animal had not shown up in front of the camera unfortunately. Two calling whooper swans are flying over, a splendid male bullfinch shows up and some get to see a white-backed woodpecker.

When we drive back to the station, a male elk with antlers is watching us from between the trees, playing hide and seek: if I can’t see you, you can’t see me. But we see his antlers at two sides of the tree. Wow, what a day…

The stoves in the guest house are heated when we get back. It’s nice to put on other clothes and to enjoy dinner. A tawny owl is calling in the dark forest.

 

 

Saturday 3

On our second day we’re hiking in an area which is used by a pack of five wolves during winter. Still, no wolf or lynx on the cameras we check. Vadim shows us a few old dens which were dug and used by wolves. Apparently they like to den not far from a road or path. Wolves often use the same road network we humans do to travel. That is why chances to spot a wolf are highest when driving these roads.

We try another spot to find bison, but they’re nowhere to be seen. A fox is hiding in a field, close to the car, but flies when we stop. Vadim explains that foxes are more often seen in open areas nowadays, because lynx numbers are growing. Lynx is an important predator of foxes, so it’s safer for them to stay out of the forest. Late afternoon one bison is spotted and two elk are walking in an open field. Unlike the one we saw yesterday these are showing well.

In the evening Erica joins the group. She just arrived today after her exams.

 

 

  

Sunday 4

Temperatures have dropped and there’s a strong and chilly wind. The morning starts with a few elk in the forest: a group of three, then a female with calf and finally a lone male elk without antlers. Elk are really strange creatures with their high legs, big head and silly walk. A beautiful male capercaillie is a very nice surprise. It’s a lot easier to look for them in spring.

Today’s plan is to hike in old growth forest. Nearby is an open valley where there used to be many whooper swans and a few white-tailed eagles as well. But today the place looks quite abandoned. There are only a few swans and the wind is too cold to stay long, so we start our hike to the forest. We’re walking on the partly frozen channels. It’s literally walking on thin ice. Sometimes creaking noises sound. There are many signs of beaver activity. We use one of their logs to cross the last meters to higher ground.

The forest is really beautiful: old trees with mosses, big trunks lying on the ground. The forest is coming to life when Vadim starts sharing his experiences. A curious owl looks out from his resting place and flies away. Not sure if it was a tawny owl or Ural owl. Before we get back to the car we have to cross a few small channels. When there is no tree to cross, Vadim takes down a suitable tree. Unfortunately, on one of these crossings Laura loses her balance and falls into the water. So this is why Vadim said to take dry socks and plastic bags in our backpacks. A little bit further Vadim bags through the ice of another channel. A extra pair of pants are useful too.

After dinner Laura enjoys a relaxing sauna to get warm again.

 

 Monday 5

 

We’re a little bit late today, so our chances to spot something have decreased… Nevertheless we stay focused. One of the first tracks we cross when driving are fresh tracks from a wolf at the side of the road. Suddenly Els spots a dark animal moving away from the road in front of the car. Not really sure what it was we drive closer. There are no other tracks than those of the wolf… Wow, Els just saw a wolf! According to Vadim it’s a lone wolf, a rather dark one indeed, that lives in this area. Last time he saw this one, was in November.

Today we’ll be hiking in Kazimir’s place to check some camera traps. Temperatures have dropped even more, so it should be easier to walk on the frozen channels. It’s fun to see so many tracks in the snow: a weasel had caught a vole or mouse and was carrying it, a pine marten walked on a fallen tree, there were fresh tracks of an otter that came out of the water, … Really interesting. You can imagine what they were doing.

We’re still hiking when darkness falls. There’s no wind, the forest is silent, so we ask Vadim if it’s a good time to howl. It’s very impressive to hear and see this. Far, far away there might have been a pack responding, but it’s hard to tell. It’s been a long day, hiking more than 20 km in this remote wilderness.

A calling Ural owl near the field station is a very nice end of today.

 

Tuesday 6

Last night had brought some more snowfall. Conditions were good for Pepijn to do some snow tracking. The rest of the group is joining Vadim to check and install a few camera traps. We’re visiting a deciduous forest patch that is a good spot for lynxes in spring and autumn.

 

 Wednesday 7

 Wednesday morning looks like a fairy tale: fresh powder snow from the previous day, sun rising in a blue sky. First we check some fields near the station. A fox is sleeping in the meadow, an American Mink crosses our path, there are tracks of fox (probably the same) on the bridge going back and forth the homestead nearby.

The conditions are perfect today, so Pepijn will do some snow tracking in the area where Veronica and two kittens (plus previously one subadult) live. Fresh lynx tracks cross the road. These tracks weren’t here yesterday evening, so it’s unlikely we’ll find better ones!

We leave Pepijn, imagining what it would be like: all alone in the forest, only accompanied by the silence and sounds of this big wilderness. Maybe a meeting with elk or deer, … It would be great to join him or do some snow tracking ourselves one day.

Pepijn is following the tracks in the opposite direction. One moment, Vadim stops the car and asks if someone wants to follow the tracks in the other direction? Yes, of course we want to!

A little bit unprepared (both in equipment and in mind) but excited, we put some bread, cheese and sausage in our backpacks, take some matches in case we get wet and receive some last instructions from Vadim. We agree to meet again at 6 pm. We mark our position in our smartphone and off we go. The phone is our only GPS, but it’s probably best to rely on our own footsteps to get back to the car.

The tracks of Veronica and the kittens are clearly visible and near the road we see a few small marking places from the mother (rubbing small trees). It seems one of the kittens is more adventurous and regularly splits from the others for short times. But every time, the tracks come together again.

 

 Lynxes don’t always follow the easiest path for people: they walk on ice where we bag through, they crawl through low bushes and jump over canals we can’t jump. But it’s all very enjoyable to see where these lynxes have passed before us. And this track is not that difficult. We use small beaver dams, humps of grass, …

After a while wolf tracks appear from the opposite direction and close to the lynx track. It’s difficult to count them, because they are going back and forth. It’s also quite swampy terrain so it’s difficult to follow the right tracks. But Hans persists and we eventually find the lynx track again.

One moment we are on a small elevation in the terrain. We already heard and saw two raven hanging around for a while. Suddenly Els whispers: “Hans, straight ahead, something is standing there…” One hundred meters in front of us, partly hidden between the birch trees, we see a red-brown back and the base of a bushy tail. It’s not like a deer and it’s certainly not an elk. It takes a few seconds before Els whispers the words we could only dream of: “It’s a wolf…”

The animal lifts up his head and looks around. Wow, what a big wolf with a massive head and thick hair! “There are two!” A few meters to the right another back is visible through the trees. He lifts his head as well. We try to be like a salt pillar, because sometimes they seem to look straight into our eyes/binoculars. We’re looking at wild wolves, this is truly unbelievable. One wolf is carrying and eating a blood-red piece of meat. The ribs are clearly visible. Incredible, we just found a recent kill!

Was it because of a noise we made (Hans was trying to take out his camera as quiet as possible)? Or was it the breeze coming from behind us? But the wolves lift their head again, look in our direction, smell the air and fly.

How many time had passed? Three of four minutes at least. We squeeze each other’s arm and realize  this was a once in a lifetime experience! What a thrill!

At the kill site, we feel like real crime scene investigators: what happened? The tracks of the wolves are clearly visible, but there are also lynx tracks at the carcass. It’s a roe deer, eaten to a great extent. The hind legs and one of the forelegs is still present as well as part of the chest, but the head is nowhere to be found. A few meters from the carcass, we find the place where the roe deer was killed and eaten: a lot of greyish hair, blood on a little spruce and on the ground, remnants from an intestine,… There’s also a resting place nearby with a lot of lynx tracks. Between the place from where we watched the wolves and the kill, the lynx tracks had split. One was going around, the two others stayed together. We suppose the rode deer was killed by Veronica, while the kittens stayed aside.

We send a message to Vadim. They might want to see this as well. It’s a pity that we couldn’t share this experience with the whole group, but it would have been very difficult to stay unnoticed.

We try to pick up the traces from the lynx family again, but it’s very complicated. The terrain with small bushes and bad prints isn’t in our favour, tracks that seem to go back and forth, interfering with wolf tracks and red fox, tracks ending at a channel, … not easy. We finally find one lynx track on the other side of the channel and decide to follow this. There is marking with urine and after a while, a second lynx track join. But we have to leave the track, because Vadim is returning earlier to put a camera trap near the carcass.

We meet again at the car and lead Vadim to the site. First he gives his interpretation of the scene. Pepijn found another place where a lynx had been lying under the dense canopy of a spruce. According to Vadim this was used by Veronica as an ambush. Somehow the wolves were led to this place. Did they follow the raven when these scavengers found the carcass? Or did they hear the roe deer screaming when it was chased?

A pygmy owl starts calling nearby. The camera trap Vadim is installing is not the best one and it seems not to be functioning properly, but Vadim persists to make it work. This case is too interesting to miss a thing! Who would come back tonight? What would happen? We are all highly interested!

While we were snow tracking today the others checked some camera traps with very cool pictures of a jumping lynx, they bumped on tracks of a huge wolf (this must be the biggest wolf in the entire Naliboki forest!) and they went to check a bison carcass.