On the 12th February I returned from 6 days in Eastern Poland photographing bison, birds and the primeval forest of Bialowieza. This was not my first visit, that was some 8 years ago when I visited alone and, with the aid of a guide, photographed bison for the first time. For some years thereafter I was determined to run a tour, to give others the opportunity to experience what I had and, after coming across renowned Polish nature photographer Marek Kosinski, this was to come to fruition!
After months of exchanging emails, we eventually came up with what we considered to be the perfect itinerary for the all-round nature photographer – 2 days bison photography, 1 day in Marek’s garden hide photographing birds and the other in the Special Protected Area of Bialowieza forest.
Joining me was Phil (who had already attended several of my workshops) and Paul (member of Malling Photographic Society) and we were eager for snow! The previous week had been exceptionally cold with temperatures plummeting to -30 and below and over 20cm had fallen. What we didn’t need was an overnight thaw!
On arrival, we were greeted by Marek’s driver, Stanislav, who would drive the 4hrs to Bialowieza village, where we would be staying. It was 3pm and as we stepped into the open at Warsaw airport, there was a real nip in the air, to say the least! Stanislav was a jolly fellow but unfortunately didn’t speak any English! No problem, the word toilet is a fairly international word! 🙂 As we headed east, we kept track of the outside temperature on Stanislav’s dashboard….-7, -9, -10, -11. The snow became more and more prominent which buoyed our moods further.
We were greeted by Marek at the guest house, a lovely wooden building, and as we were the only ones staying there, we had the place to ourselves with a large double room each. It was warm and homely with tea and coffee making facilities. Perfect!
Our Guest House in Bialowieza
Those of you joining me next year will be relieved to hear that this is no longer in use! At -20C you wouldn’t hang about, that’s for sure!!
Shortly after arriving, we headed across the street, in crunching snow, to where we would have our evening meals and, also, breakfast on days 4-6. Breakfast for tomorrow and the day after would be packed so that we didn’t waste any time fussing over formalities. The days were short and we were eager to make the most of the conditions. Dinner was superb, as it was on all the evenings with our host making a special effort to give us something different each time. This was washed down with hot, fruity tea and at the end of the meal (after a cheeky request from yours truly) we had a glass, or two, of vodka! When in Rome we thought. The lady, Vera, had “improved” upon it by adding spices and the like and was far thicker and sweeter than normal vodka. Very moreish! As we tried to communicate with her I noticed how many of the words were similar to Czech and since I knew a spattering (my girlfriend of the last 7 years is Czech) we were able to get by and understood how pleased she was that we had asked for it. Usually, Viera said, when people come here they ask for wine or beer and I say no, I do not have wine or beer. This is Poland, we drink vodka! And so, every morning, after breakfast and after the evening meal, a small glass was poured for us and it’s true what they say, it really does help with the digestion! 🙂 Vera prepared our packed breakfast and lunch at our evening meal so we were able to take it with us. Marek would be providing the hot tea and coffee.
Days 2 and 3 – Bison
Sunrise was at 7 so we arranged for Marek to pick us up at 6, incase of wonderful, early morning light. Although Bison are huge animals (Europe’s largest) they are free to wander where they please and so sightings are not guaranteed. However, Marek lives here and knows the area better than any other and has, pretty much, 100% success. In the summer they are incredibly difficult to locate as they spend the majority of their time in the forest. In winter, however, high quality hay is put out for them in woodland clearings and fields to supplement their feeding in order to limit the natural death rate of the population and to reduce their impact on the forest vegetation.
Hay put out for bison
Due to the snow and cold (on average, -15 C) Marek had little problem in locating them in the fields and meadows, but were, for the most part, absent from the woodland clearings.
Our first morning was greeted with a fabulous sunrise
Bison tracks leading to the herd
Phil and Paul
Bison tracks at sunrise
It’s not possible to get that close to them, (they are wild, after all) with the exception of lone bulls, so a lens of at least 300mm was needed and a 1.4x teleconverter pulled them in further. We were lucky to have a range of lighting conditions from sunshine and cloud to colourful sunsets and in the case of the latter, hand-holding a 70-200mm enabled us to show the bison in relation to it’s surroundings.
Marek noticed the herd were making their way to the railway line, which they often crossed, so a a bit of a route-march was in order if we were to capture this unique moment. Fortunately, they paused long enough prior to climbing the embankment to the track, for all of us to get into position.
Bison crossing railway line
Very few trains use the line and the drivers are well used to keeping a look out
A herd of red deer appeared and so it was nice to get both species in the same shot
I then noticed a roe deer making it’s way across the meadow, back into the forest.
Taken from Marek’s vehicle, we had a few moments to get this close-up before it headed off.
With the sun setting and the light becoming more and more interesting, we spent a rather frantic 20 minutes or so getting various compositions with the day culminating in a beautiful sunset.
An alternative view, looking through reeds.
Bison at sunset
Our coldest morning, at -17C, made photographing a little tricky, at times. There was a bit of a breeze too which probably brought the temperature down closer to -20 and so, for a while, I would don a balaclava. The conditions and the bison made it very much worthwhile, however.
Needless to say, due to the cold conditions, clothing is an important factor to keep yourself warm and dry and a layering system of technical clothing, certainly works best. You don’t cut corners in these temperatures! Here’s a list of what I took.
Thermal base layer – Woolpower Merino leggins and top. The best. Quite pricey but you stay warm and dry and importantly, body-odour free!
Trousers – Winter lined Craghoppers. I practically live in these in the winter in the UK anyway! Windproof and partially waterproof and extremely quick drying.
Fleece top – Regatta, full-length zip winter fleece.
Jacket – Jack Pyke Hunter jacket. Wind and waterproof and a good length, preventing your back from getting cold. Silent too.
Footwear – Leather walking boots with thermal liner and 3 season walking socks. Feet stayed warm except during long periods of inactivity when cold would set in a little. It’s avery much a compromise between mobility and warmth and even Marek (who was wearing German made winter boots) was suffering from cold feet on a few occasions! Nothing serious though, you just stomp your feet and move a bit 🙂
Gloves – Arh, the age-old problem of keeping your hands warm but at the same time being able to adjust your camera’s controls. I wore tight-fitting thermal liners with Helly Henson mittens over the top which have a slit in the palm and thumb. You can’t beat mitts for warmth!
Hat – Just a standard thermal hat. it wasm’t windy at all, which made a huge difference. I took the balaclava with me and did wear it once. On the 2nd bison day when there was a bit of a breeze at -17. Very cold indeed when numb-face would set in!
Nikon D300 x 2
12-24mm, 28-105mm, 70-200mm f2.8, 300mm f2.8, 1.4x tele-converter, SB800 fllash-unit (never used), polarising filter, Nodal Ninja panoramic head (forest scenes), cable release, Manfrotto 055 CL tripod with either Manfrotto B&S or video head.
I climbed the watch-tower to get this perspective of Marek “working” the bison.
Marek, Phil and Paul, photographing.
Your’s truly, taken by Marek!
A red deer then appeared from the forest
Marek managed to find a herd in the forest which gave us a fabulous opportunity to photograph them within this habitat.
Day 4 – Marek’s garden bird hide
No need for an early start today so we did the civilised thing and ate breakfast at Vera’s house. And, what a treat! Pancake rolls, bread with cheese and meat washed down with tea and coffee and, er, vodka! What a perfect start to the day 🙂
Marek’s hide is roomy enough for 3 persons with camera bags and nothing quite prepares you for the sheer quantity and diversity of birds that come down to feed. Marek has put up lots of attractive perches and the whole spectacle can be viewed through large panels of one-way glass. Much better than squinting through mesh. There was also a heater which made the whole experience that much more comfortable and enjoyable.
Marek’s garden bird hide
We had our fair-share of these!
Time just flew by! At first it must have sounded like rapid machine gun fire coming from this camouflaged wooden box but, after an hour or so, we all began to be more selective. Light was excellent throughout the day with most areas bathed in sunlight. My most used lens combination was a 300mm with 1.4x tele-converter attached which, with the D300’s crop factor taken into account, gave me a 630mm lens. Phil had the same set-up as me and Paul had a zoom which he found to be really useful as very often, jays would make an appearance. Here’s a list of what we saw.
Hawfinch (the star of the show as far as I was concerned!)
Sparrowhawk (flew through twice)
Mid-way through, Marek, invited us into his home for a coffee which also gave us the opportunity to look through his new coffee-table book – Poland Nature. The book is a testament to his patience, determination and skill as a nature photographer and even a quick browse will give you an idea as to why he is one of Poland’s most respected photographers in this field. We each bought a signed copy as a memento of our stay (and to help Marek pay for the many kilo’s of bird food!) and I suggest if you don’t want those poor little birdies to starve, you will do the same! Also, the pictures are REALLY good! 🙂 After coffee, we returned to the hide and continued for a further couple of hours until the light was too low to continue. A thoroughly enjoyable day and a nice break from bison tracking.
After dinner, we strolled around the village. It was -20, or thereabouts, so all layers were once again necessary! Bialowieza is a delightful village made up, for the most part, of small wooden houses, typical of that area. Quiet and unassuming. This is all part of it’s charm. One thing you do notice is that even though the roads are compacted snow and ice, everyone still gets around. Cars don’t doodle. Everything carries on as normal. It was quite a shock coming from a country where a centimetre of snow creates havoc and becomes the number 1 news story! we looked around and photographed the Russian orthodox church and then a walk into the park led us to it’s lakes where we couldn’t resist taking pictures as the sun set.
Russian Orthodox church
The ice was thick enough to walk on, which Phil and I tested!
Day 5 – Strictly Protected Area
Aside from the bison, my defining memory from my first visit was of The Strictly Protected Area or SPA. Although Bialowieza National Park covers an area of about 105 km.sq; much of this is managed with smaller protected areas within. The finest part is the SPA, a truly spectacular forest covering an area of 57 sq.km. An untouched, primeval forest, the largest and finest of it’s kind in lowland Europe. Massive, several hundred year old oaks and spruce stand 50 metres plus tall as a result of the nutrient rich soil. A stunningly beautiful, yet eerie, place where no forest management takes place and the only means of transport within the forest is horse and cart. Where trees fall, they remain and, should one fall across a path, it is cut by handsaw and dragged aside by horse. Among the tangled vegetation and fallen, decaying trees, wolves, lynx, boar and bison roam. Black storks, lesser-spotted eagles and all 10 species of woodpecker exist within this area, not to mention the endless list of flowers, fungi and insects.
Entrance to the Bialowieza Special Protected Area
A full day was set aside for this. There is no way you can appreciate and do the forest justice with your camera in a couple of hours. We had uninterrupted blue sky all day. In total we walked in the region of 7 km but with frequent stops for photography, we barely noticed it at all. The silence was deafening, occasionally punctuated by the sound of a woodpecker drumming on the enormous trees which echoed through the forest. The highlight was when Marek took out his bird call recorder and played that of a middle-spotted woodpecker. Within moments it flew to the top a nearby tree and bagan drumming which it did with such intensity that it caused the snow on it’s branches to fall! A really funny and wonderful sight.
The size of the trees was quite staggering!
Yet to be identified. Snow acts as the perfect reflector!
Taken using a Nodal Ninja panoramic head. Five upright images were then stitched together using Ptgui software.
Marek and Phil. Phil described the forest as “like a fairytale.”
The gang! Infront of Bialowieza’s tallest pine.
Spot the guide!
The sun was still shining as we left the forest and so we took the opportunity to shoot the snowy landscape and distant birches.
Our day and, indeed, the trip, ended with Marek taking us to a local restaurant where we enjoyed a relaxing meal washed down with a glass of cold Zubr (bison) beer. Warm and friendly, it was the perfect way to round up an exceptional 6 days.
I am leading two back-to-back tours next year, with the same itinerary. The first is already full but I have vacancies on the second, being February 9th to 14th. For more information, please see here.
Here’s what Phil and Paul had to say about it…..
“If you are interested in photographing Wild Bison, numerous bird species, in an unspoilt, rural and remote location then a photographic tour to Eastern Poland with Robert Canis is the place to go.
I have just returned from a six day tour with Robert to this wonderful area. The tour included primeval forests, which have been untouched for around 150 years where you can experience total silence. Here you will find giant Oak, Spruce and Hornbeam; when they eventually die and fall this is where they lay, so providing decaying matter for insect life and small animals on which to live.
Organized by renowned UK based wildlife and nature photographer, Robert Canis, the trip was very well run, with maximum photographic time spent on various locations. For this tour Robert teamed up with Polish photographer and botanist, Marek Kosinski whose guidance and expert local knowledge of the areas visited ensured the best photographic opportunities. Finding wild Bison in vast meadows or inside the forest is no mean feat, but with Marek as a guide we were soon able to find and photograph these magnificent animals.
Once again many thanks, my memories of Bialowieza will remain with me.”
“Just a few lines to say how much I enjoyed the 2012 Bison workshop in Poland.
Organisation in both countries, by Rob and Marek, faultless, everything through flights / accommodation / meal arrangements to our local expert / guide / photographer in Marek Kosinski – I would find it difficult to propose any changes that would improve the experience. The only problem (or challenge if you refer) being getting photo kit through the carry on check in limits!!
Every location visited resulted in an opportunity for capturing either the Bison or some stunning winterscapes – a testament to Mareks’ knowledge of both the Bison and area.
Jumped in feet first with this workshop – not having attended a previous workshop, or spent a serious amount of time doing wildlife photography, but will almost certainly book some future workshops.
Nothing was too much trouble for either Rob or Marek. Be warned tho’, Robs enthusiasm can be infectious……..”
, european bison
, marek kosinski
, photo tour poland
, photographing bison
, robert canis
, special protected area