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POLAND - OWLS AND WOODPECKERS IN THE CARPATHIAN MOUNTAINS - Friday 19th - Tuesday 23rd April 2013

Friday 19th April
We all met bright and early for our flight to Krakow in Poland. The flight was good and smooth apart from the pilot being told to use another runway just as we were coming to land!

After waiting for our luggage we met up with Felix, our guide for the tour and our driver Marek and after loading the minibus we headed the short distance to the Wolski Forest, where our first bird was a fine male WOOD WARBLER singing from beech woodland. After a bit of searching we came across a male MIDDLE SPOTTED WOODPECKER that gave good views as it fed in and amongst the trees. A BLACK WOODPECKER was heard and we soon got reasonable views as it flew in front of us before landing in the high part of tree.

Other birds in the area included CHAFFINCH, NUTHATCH, MARSH HARRIER and GREAT SPOTTED WOODPECKER. On the outskirts of Krakow, we stopped beside a railway line where we located a male SYRIAN WOODPECKER that had started excavating a nest hole before driving eastwards to the Niepolomicka Forest. Our first stop here gave us good views of a male URAL OWL as it flew though the forest and this was repeated several times before we decided to move onwards.

A few kilometres later we stopped at another forest track, where a pair of LESSER SPOTTED WOODPECKERS were seen feeding and calling in nearby trees. At least two pairs of COLLARED FLYCATCHER were seen on the opposite side of the track and overhead we saw several COMMON BUZZARDS and a male GOSHAWK.

Good numbers of wildflowers WOOD ANEMONES and BUTTERBUR before we took a return walk to the van. A short time later we arrived at our hotel and after checking in and enjoying a hot shower, met for a very enjoyable meal. When completing the bird list accompanied by a cold beer or vodka we agreed that it had been a great first day.

Saturday 20th April
After a good nights’ sleep we convened at 5.45am and drove back into the Niepolomicka Forest, where one of the birds we found was a male BLACK WOODPECKER, giving us several flyover views before perching in a distant tree. COLLARED FLYCATCHER was seen briefly in the trees and we heard the call of a GREY-HEADED WOODPECKER and eventually got brief views before it dropped from view.

A walk along the road produced calling CUCKOO, YELLOWHAMMER, BLACKCAP, WILLOW WARBLER and CHIFFCHAFF. Then suddenly we caught sight of a URAL OWL flying through the trees and it landed giving reasonable views through branches. Changing position, we had stunning views of this amazing bird as it perched in full view. After taking in the ID features of this sought after species, we wandered along the road finding a pair of PIED FLYCATCHERS before heading back to the hotel for breakfast.

After a very filling breakfast, we headed back to the forest to see if the Ural Owl was still there for those that didn't go on the early morning walk. Luckily it was still there and we had superb views once again of this magnificent owl. A pair of PIED FLYCATCHERS were seen along the road and a couple of HAWFINCH flew over calling.

We then left the area heading southwards and stopped at a large forest which contained a huge proportion of Beech trees. A male BLACK REDSTART was spotted along the road close to the van and we walked up the track into the forest. A GREAT SPOTTED WOODPECKER was seen in the trees and we admired many wildflowers, including Coltsfoot and the Carpathian endemic Dentaria glandulosa. Carrying onwards, we spotted a nest hole in a tree and a cracking male BLACK WOODPECKER flew out and after performing a lovely flyby it flew off into the woodland.

NUTHATCHES and a territorial dispute between three GREAT SPOTTED WOODPECKERS took place above our heads. A GREY-HEADED WOODPECKER called in the distance but didn't come any closer so we returned along the path, close to the nest hole and the BLACK WOODPECKER appeared, giving good views as it sat on the tree then disappeared inside. Eventually it stuck its head out and plenty of photographs were taken!

We took lunch at a roadside restaurant and enjoyed the Polish speciality Pierogi which fuelled the furnaces for the afternoon session.

As we drove to our next hotel we noted several CORMORANT, HOODED CROW and COMMON TERNS along the rivers and on a large lake we got drive by views of two pairs of TEAL. We reached the hotel and after checking in, had a break of an hour or so before going off to the forest.

A couple of LESSER WHITETHROAT were seen in a nearby tree, which along with at least two BLACKCAPS fed contently on insects. Marek then took us up to around 800 metres above sea level where we set off for a walk around the forest.

A RAVEN flew over and several YELLOWHAMMERS were seen including a male in a bush. As we climbed slightly, Felix said that he could hear RING OUZEL and eventually we had good scope views of a scaly plumaged male of the alpine race Alpestris. In the pine trees close to us we watched a CRESTED TIT, giving good views as it perched on top of a small conifer. We even managed to get the scopes on it!

Our walk then took us through forest tracks which were pretty muddy and wet due to the recent snow melt but we trudged onwards noting COAL and WILLOW TITS in the scrubby birches, while a little further on Felix pointed out Hazel Grouse droppings on the ground. As some of the group were watching WILLOW TIT, a call from Felix came through and on arrival we found him and the others watching a superb female THREE-TOED WOODPECKER feeding on a tree right in front of us.

Delighted by this sighting, we carried on and getting steadily weary, stopped for a break where Felix disturbed a couple of HAZEL GROUSE, but despite trying we had to be content with hearing the calls only.

Eventually our walk took us out of the woods and across meadows as the path dropped down to the village. After taking off muddy boots, we had time for a shower before dinner which again was more than welcome after a good walk.

Some of the group finished off in the bar where a survey of Polish vodka flavours was taken!

Sunday 21st April
We opted for breakfast at 8am which was an open table with plenty of variety and very good. Afterwards we drove the short distance to some open meadows and spent some time scanning. At least four ROUGH-LEGGED BUZZARDS hunted the area with their common cousins and allowed some scope views as they hovered in good light. A HOBBY perched on a pine tree and was mobbed by a GREAT GREY SHRIKE!

A distant BLACK STORK flew over us and quickly disappeared from view over a hill which was frustrating. Our next site gave us excellent views of the surrounding countryside and walking through an area of pinewoods, Felix said he could smell bear and there was a sweet yet musky aroma in the air. At the other side of the trees we came out onto open meadows overlooking hills and soon picked up a pair of GOLDEN EAGLES displaying, but this was soon overlooked when we heard the distinctive call of NUTCRACKER and a little while later, it was perched on top of a pine tree in good light. Also in the area we found Wolf droppings and a pair of RING OUZELS in the meadow.

Driving to several areas allowed us to see a pair of LESSER SPOTTED EAGLES perched in a field before they flew off and nearby, a male WHINCHAT sang from a weedy field. We then drove onwards to a restaurant in the hills and enjoyed a cold drink in the midday sun, whilst watching PEREGRINE and SPARROWHAWK over the crags. Five CASPIAN GULLS flew along the river before a delicious lunch was prepared for us.

With lunch behind us a stroll was taken up a track and we got into position before searching for Hazel Grouse. Felix set up on the other side of the stream and used his grouse whistle to attract any birds. Patiently we waited and then at the bottom of a tree was a young male HAZEL GROUSE! It quickly disappeared, but a few minutes later we had a second bite of the cherry as it was seen once again before crossing a gap and disappearing.

Whilst waiting for the grouse, a CAMBERWELL BEAUTY was seen basking in the sunshine before it flew off up the slope.

From here we drove to a town on the River Dunajec, where we walked over the bridge into Slovakia and strolled along the river banks. A few WHITE and GREY WAGTAILS were noted and a male LESSER WHITETHROAT sang from a nearby garden. Other species that were seen included NUTHATCH, COMMON SANDPIPER and plenty of CHAFFINCHES.

Late afternoon was spent at a couple of watchpoints, the first of which gave us good views of a male CRESTED TIT in the pines as well as OSPREY, BLACK STORK, WHINCHAT and BLACK REDSTART. Our last site of the day was another open meadow where a pair of RING OUZELS fed with FIELDFARES and SONG THRUSHES and a small party of BRAMBLING flew through.

Back at the hotel we had time for a shower before meeting for dinner and completing the bird list. Some of the group stayed for a few drinks with the owner of the hotel before going to bed.

Monday 22nd April
After breakfast we drove westwards to an area of peat bogs which we explored on foot in the warm sunshine. Small numbers of WHINCHAT, MEADOW and TREE PIPITS were seen whilst plenty of WILLOW WARBLERS could be heard singing in the birches. A male BLACK GROUSE was seen in flight and a GREAT GREY SHRIKE perched in a small tree.

Our return journey produced a pristine male REDSTART as well as SNIPE and another GREAT GREY SHRIKE on our return to the van.

Lunch was taken in a nearby restaurant and afterwards we drove to a large lake close to the Slovakian border, where the first bird we saw was a LONG-LEGGED BUZZARD perched in a tree before flying off over us. Further along the path, we came across plenty of COMMON TOADS crossing the area and heading towards a small pond. A MUTE SWAN and LITTLE GREBE were present on the pond before Steve spotted a male CITRINE WAGTAIL flying over and landing in full view for us all. After a while it flew off southwards never to be seen again.

On the pond were plenty of MOOR FROGS which turn blue during the breeding season and also MARSH FROGS. We took another walk around the area yielding COMMON CRANE and GADWALL although unfortunately they were not seen by everybody.

We wandered back to the van for a cold drink and Steve went to investigate the sound of scraping and discovered a WRYNECK which gave reasonable perched views in a small tree. Whilst here a butterfly was seen and after Felix caught it, it turned out to be a YELLOW-LEGGED TORTOISESHELL, a new butterfly for us all.

Back at the van, Jon struck gold when he called harrier and we got brief views of an adult male PALLID HARRIER drifting by. Whilst trying to relocate this bird, a male RED-FOOTED FALCON flew over.

A nearby service station was visited for a cold drink and snack and then we drove further west to overlook a large area of farmland and lake. We didn't get far when a raptor was seen flying towards us and after thinking that it may be a Honey Buzzard, it turned out to be a MARSH HARRIER. Whilst watching this, another harrier came into view which was a female MONTAGU'S HARRIER. A LESSER SPOTTED EAGLE was perched in the adjacent field.

From the watchpoint we found WHOOPER SWAN, COMMON CRANE and two female HEN HARRIERS, meaning we had seen all the European harriers in less than an hour!

Our last site for the day was a meadow surrounded by woodland, where we found WILLOW TIT, CUCKOO and a small number of RED DEER. A BROWN HARE was seen briefly in the meadow. Despite a good try by Felix, we failed to see any owls here, putting this down to the fact that it had been a very cold winter and the birds not yet on territory.

Arriving at the hotel later than planned, we had a quick change before dinner. After completing the bird list, we went to bed as we had an early start the following day.

Tuesday 23rd April
We had breakfast at 7.00am and soon after, loaded up the van for our journey back towards Krakow. We stopped in the Babia Góra National park where a brief stop produced a stunning CAMBERWELL BEAUTY that perched in full view for us all to enjoy. Moving on and after stopping for a drink we arrived to the west of Krakow and a vast area of fishponds.

This vast complex of fishponds produced some amazing birds within a few minutes of arriving including around 20 WOOD SANDPIPERS, 4 WHISKERED TERNS, SAVI'S and GREAT REED WARBLERS, 16 GREAT WHITE EGRETS and a few MARSH HARRIERS.

Some of the fishponds had different water levels meaning there was a wide diversity of species present. Although the light was bad, one pond held more WOOD SANDPIPERS and two LITTLE RINGED PLOVERS, whilst a PENDULINE TIT calling from nearby remained unseen.

Summer plumaged BLACK-NECKED GREBES looked dazzling in the sunshine and plenty of ducks were present with TUFTED and POCHARD being the predominant species. Further along we came across a lovely flock of 7 GARGANEY which even gave us a flyaround before coming back in to feed on the water. BITTERNS 'boomed' and GREY HERON and both LITTLE and GREAT WHITE EGRETS roosted distantly. Felix showed us an old Penduline Tits nest hanging from a Willow and we eventually had good views of some waders which included around 30 female RUFF, WOOD SANDPIPERS and a couple of REDSHANK.

At the next pond there was a male WHITE-SPOTTED BLUETHROAT singing from a dead tree although unfortunately it flew off before everybody could get onto it. With the sun now beating down, we took a walk back noting two flying BITTERNS along the way, as well as 9 BLACK TERNS and a few SEDGE WARBLERS. The air was alive with the sound of FIRE-BELLIED TOADS calling from the shallows.

Once back at the van we drove to the nearby town of Zator where a welcome cold drink was enjoyed before trying a nearby fishing lake that held a small nesting colony of CASPIAN GULLS and further inspection found an adult YELLOW-LEGGED GULL and two adult COMMON GULLS. Also on the island were around 15 pairs of NIGHT HERON.

Our last site of the tour was another large area of fishponds but time was against us. However, a small bird in the reeds looked good and after playing a call on the mp3, a male LITTLE CRAKE called back. Despite a thorough search, it failed to show. Two adult MEDITERRANEAN GULLS flew over calling and a few BLACK-NECKED GREBES were seen. Near to the van was a YELLOW-LEGGED TORTOISESHELL butterfly.

Sadly, we left the area and drove around 30 minutes back to Krakow Airport where we thanked Marek and Felix for a great tour. After checking in we relaxed in the airport whilst waiting for our flight. Slightly off putting was a large group of ladies who looked almost identical and like something out of a sci-fi movie!

After a good flight we landed at Stansted just ahead of schedule and after picking up our luggage we said goodbye after what had been an excellent tour with amazing birding and scenery as well as good company and good food.