Hunt for the Żubry (Bison)
Our quest to find the European bison in their natural habitat in the ancient forest of Białowieza was scheduled for 3 am or pre-dawn. We were ready and waiting for our guide in the desolate hotel lobby in the little village, also called Białowieza (Bee-owl-veh-za). Our guide, Mateusz, came in the door from the pitch black of the parking lot. He was energetically carrying some impressive photographic gear on his shoulder and he had a big smile on his face. “Ready to go?” The four of us were yawning. Mateusz explained that we had to be on the road before dawn because breakfast is the bison’s favorite meal and they eat a lot of it. Which means they will be at it for a long time and so our chances for finding them were greater. At first dawn’s light, they would be out foraging on their favorite herbs in the meadows that border the perimeters of this old-growth forest. We piled into the car to drive the misty and dark deserted country roads to find bison or żubry (zoo-br-ee) in Polish. The sky was ever so slightly showing signs of dawn.
We stopped at one meadow but no bison only a lot of fog. Drove around and explored at another meadow, still no bison and it was quickly becoming lighter. Then we made a mad rush to another location and parked near some old railroad tracks to begin a trek to the meadow while walking parallel to the old narrow-gauge railroad tracks. I was the last and quickly fell behind. I was still suffering with my new knee and using walking sticks to navigate the tall wet grasses and tripping stones. At times the group was lost from my vision as they traipsed far ahead in the fog. Then suddenly they stopped and at last, I caught up to find the four of them staring out into a meadow completely covered in fog. Mateusz explained that they, the bison, were out there, a very large herd of about 30 with youngsters in tow. How did he know? He was texting with his friend, another guide, and they were already standing below us in the field. He was also tracking them on a thermal image gadget. When I looked at the thermal imaging, I saw the big and little dark blobs in the thick mist. We stood and waited as the mist ever so slowly lifted, like a theatrical curtain to reveal the bison just a little at a time. We did not talk much and mostly in whispers so as not to bolt them back into the woods. Mateusz told us it was much harder to find and observe the bison in the forest as they meld into the trees and scatter when they smell humans. I looked around, the dawn was with us and the bison were enjoying their breakfast. It was serenity with butterflies.
So, who are the special bison living in a Polish forest? They are the European bison, considerably smaller than their North American counterpart. After WWII and years of aggressive hunting, only 9 adult bison remained in Europe. All of the 9 were living in the Białowieza forest. They were taken into captivity; their reproduction was managed and they thrived even with in-breeding. Now there are more than 6,000 animals spread over different locations in Central and Eastern Europe. At present, there are about 550 bison in the Polish end of the Białowieża forest and another 500 in the Belarusian part. There is a reserve nearby where we could see a bison in captivity. But there is something about the hunt to find a herd in the wild in the early morning, in the wet grass and foggy meadows.
Mateusz was our guide from the “Arek Szymura Pygmy Owl Nature Tours” https://bialowiezaforest.eu/
What and Where is the Białowieza Forest?
In Polish: Puszcza Białowieska (Push-cha Bee-owl-vay-scaw)
The Białowieża forest straddles the border between Poland and Belarus. It is the last remaining primeval forest in Europe which is generally defined as an old-growth forest or virgin forest that has not had significant intervention by humans. Left in this undisturbed state, these forests have unique ecological features. The romantic idea that virgin forests were not impacted by humans is a misconception. Humans were living in the forest from the Stone Age. The Polish village of Białowieza is located in the middle of the forest and was probably one of the first settlements in the area. Ancient human bone fragments, jewelry, and tools have been found here by archeologists. There are dozens of barrows all over the woods constructed as burial sites by the Goths.
Hunting has been conducted in the forest throughout the centuries right up until the time of the last Russian czar, Alexander, who built an elaborate hunting manor right in Białowieza. This magnificent estate is now a park. The original manor house has been destroyed but the man-made pond and some of the buildings still remain.
The modern tourist information center for the Białowieża forest is also located in the Palace Park. It is a nature center with educational exhibits on the flora, fauna and their ecology constructed as very interesting and dramatic dioramas. There are some unique animals that live in Białowieża like the endangered Pygmy owls and the three-toed woodpecker. There are rare black storks who prefer to be forest dwellers, and over 250 bird species as well as moose, deer, elk, wolves, and boar. There are only 15 lynxes remaining and of course, there are the 550 or so bison. Ancient oaks, some over 700 years old, still stand in the preserve. This ancient, diverse, wild forest is very dear. At one time in the past, primeval forest covered most of Europe. We can only hope that it will endure for future generations.
The Strange Case of the Białowieżan Spa Tourist
Our trip to the village of Białowieza started with a 5-hour bus ride from Warsaw which in itself was an adventure. Our hotel was advertised as a spa. Arriving on a Saturday, the hotel was full of tourists from Poland and Belarus. The front-desk staff were welcoming and helpful. But our two-night stay was a little weird. Not one guest made eye contact with us nor would they greet us with the cheery “dzien dobry” that we were so accustomed to hearing in Poland. We were ignored at the breakfast buffet to the point that folk would walk in front of us as if we were not there at all. If we met them in the hall, they did not see us and kept walking. When we shared the dining room, I was looking in the mirrors to see if these guests had reflections. It was a strange cold experience. We were very happy when our fun upbeat friends, Piotr and Ela, joined us on the last night for our safari.
Perhaps there was something we missed like a password or a hand signal. Maybe we had garlic breath. We were in the Eastern reaches of the country in a little village tucked near the Belarusian border surrounded by ancient forests with aura and history. The hotel, the guests, the village; I think I have seen that movie. Was it The Returned or maybe it was The Leftovers?
“Why Poland?” is a blog written and produced by Grace Nagiecka with photos by Gregory Spring. Kraków, Poland 2018.
We invite you to visit our other blog pages, “Wanderlusting Dreams” at https://www.wanderlustingdreams.com
and “Greg Spring Photography” at https://gregoryspring.com
Logging in the Białowieza Forest: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/may/23/worst-nightmare-europes-last-primeval-forest-brink-collapse-logging