bialowieza national park photos
Eight years ago I travelled to the Bialowieza Forest in eastern Poland to photograph Europe’s largest free roaming bison population. I decided to go in the winter since locating them is made easier by following their tracks in the snow, visiting their feeding places and also, bison stand out much more clearly against a snowy backdrop rather than a dark, green one. Bialowieza Forest is a huge area covering 1500 sq.km where roughly, one third lies in Poland and two thirds in Belarus. The bison or wisent were reintroduced in 1929 where they had been hunted to extinction in 1919, largely by the occupying German army. Now, on the Polish side, there are 456 and including Belarus, 800.
I arranged a guide to help me on my quest and was duly met at Warsaw airport. I had my camera gear with me as carry on but that sinking feeling emerged when my hold luggage didn’t turn up. My guide spoke to the baggage handlers (who didn’t speak any English) and when they searched the rear of the conveyor belt, they found my bag which had fallen off the belt! Thank goodness for that. Inside the bag was all my warm clothing, insulated boots etc. It was February and as opposed to arriving in a snow laden Poland, El Nino had risen it’s head and instead, it was raining, though blisteringly cold. The forecast was for snow in the next couple of days and so our finger’s were crossed. We settled into our simple but comfortable Pension and awoke at dawn to be greeted with falling snow.
For the next 3 days, myself and Andrew, trekked for miles through deep snow within the forest but had no luck. At this time of the year their feeding is supplemented with hay and also as a means of deterring them from feeding on the vegetation so most years they can be found relatively easily. We found tracks and footprints of bison along with those of boar and wolf. For such a huge animal, Europe’s largest, they were proving incredibly difficult to find.
My guide then suggested to enlist (hire) the help of an elderly chap from the village who, for over 40 years, was a Park Ranger in Bialowieza. A tall, wiry man, he led us into the forest and within 3 hours found a herd. They are near to impossible to get close too, which is often the case when they are together like this, cows with calves and with poor visibility and a blizzard, this was the best I could get.
Over the next few days my luck grew and was confronted with a bull that was wondering, solitary, through the forest. We kept a respectful distance (who wouldn’t?!) and I obtained clearer portraits using a 500mm lens.
On the day of departure the temperature increased a few degrees and the snow began to melt. On that final morning, arrangements were made for me to enter the Protected Area, a must for anyone going t0 Bialowieza.
You have to obtain special permission from the Park’s authorities after which you are met by one of only a handful of guides permitted to lead you around. An untouched, primeval forest, the largest and finest of it’s kind in lowland Europe, where massive, several hundred year old oaks stand 50 metres tall as a result of the nutrient rich soil. It was a stunningly beautiful yet eerie place where no forest management has ever been carried out. The only means of transport within the forest is horse and cart. Where trees fall, they remain and among the tangled vegetation and fallen, decaying trees, wolves, lynx, boar and bison roam. Black storks, booted eagles and all 10 species of woodpecker exist within Bialowieza National Park, not to mention the endless list of plants and insects.
Three hours wasn’t nearly enough time to do it justice but it was all the time I had. Looking back on these images and recounting my experiences, I remember what a great trip it was. Highs and lows with lots and lots of walking!
About Robert Canis
Robert Canis is a professional photographer specialising in the natural world.
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