“For such a large animal, the zubr is surprisingly difficult to spot.” my guide tells me as we drive from my guesthouse to the forest. “Luckily you are here in winter where they stay close together in white, snow-covered fields – so we won’t have any trouble seeing them today.”
A bison safari in Poland is one of the top touristic activities for visitors to do. In fact, it is one of the most popular wildlife activities in all of Europe! These gentle giants make their home in the primeval Bialowieza Forest which spans part of the border between Poland and Belarus.
My research told me the best time to see the European Bison in Poland is during winter. This is because the animals are easier to spot due to the low tree cover and the contrasting white snow. In fact, every guide would tell me they are actually quite difficult to see in spring/summer as they are light on their feet and can easily hide among the trees.
There are many guides and tour agencies that offer bison safari excursions in Poland, and many of them will even do day trips from Warsaw for those looking for full convenience. However, I decided to stay in Bialowieza because I also wanted to rent a hide and see White-tailed Eagles.
Around 6:30 am I was picked up at my guesthouse in Bialowieza by Roman, a local guide who was taking me, a Polish girl, and a guy from Spain on our Bison safari. As they were staying in his parents guesthouse it was a convenient and affordable trip for all of us.
Bison Safari In Poland Prices
The prices for a Bison safari in Poland range from very affordable to quite expensive. It depends on three factors: solo vs group, starting location, and general vs specific purpose.
Solo vs Group: It makes sense that doing a solo tour would be more expensive than a group just because you are still taking up a guides time. Prices for a group tour start from $40 if you are already in Bialowieza. If you want a solo tour you’re looking at around $100 starting, but that can vary depending on availability.
Starting Location: Most people arrange bison safari tours before they even get to Poland. So you will notice that many agencies offer airport or hotel pickup from Warsaw. This of course adds an expense on your excursion. A group excursion from Warsaw is around $150 depending on the agency. If you want to do it solo I’ve seen it go $300 and up.
General vs Specific: While most people who want to do a bison safari in Poland just want to see these massive animals, some people come for a specific purpose. That purpose usually being professional wildlife photography. While it is possible to get amazing photos in a general group, a professional photography guide is extremely helpful for someone trying to get that perfect shot. These guides will usually go above and beyond to find the perfect bison/herd to photograph. Not to mention they know their way around a camera so you can get great tips specific to bison photography in all kinds of Bialowieza weather. The prices for these types of tours are usually pre-arranged between yourself and the agency and depend on too many factors to write about. Expect a minimum of $250 if you are already in Bialowieza.
Looking For Bison
Roman drove his Land Rover outside of town to start the safari. We progressed slowly as we were looking out the windows of the vehicle at the forest’s edge for bison. As anyone who enjoys looking at wildlife will tell you, there are no guarantees of seeing the animals, no matter how much you want to.
Yet after just 20 minutes we spotted a couple of bison nearby the tree line. They were quite far away from the car so we exited and carried our gear about a hundred meters through the snow to get closer. The bison are not afraid of people, nor are they prone to charging, but it is best to be cautious all the same.
In winter the bison tend to congregate in open fields where there are still grasses peeking through the snow. Sometimes you will see just a few, although Roman did say there are herds 50 animals large that roam around the forest and fields.
After getting a few photos we hopped back in the car to look for more animals. Luckily it only took a few kilometers and we found a perfect location. A herd in an open field, next to the forest, about 50 meters from a lookout tower.
The tower was great because it gave us an even footing to set up our tripods. The bison noticed us, but did not seem to care and went about their day. It seemed like we could wait here as long as we wanted, taking photos and observing these animals.
After taking a few hundred photos I asked Roman if it would be possible to get even closer. I mainly wanted to get some more detailed face shots, as well as shooting at a lower angle for more dramatic effect. He said of course and instructed me where to stand while keeping a safe distance.
As soon as I gathered my stuff and turned to head down the stairs, my new Spanish friend grabbed my shoulder to show me two bison were fighting. I swung around, turned on the camera, and snapped the shot – happy I was able to get some action.
I continued to get closer to the bison herd and set up my tripod about 25 meters away. The bison didn’t act skittish, and in fact many of them just stared and then went about their business. However I did love when they looked right at me because it made for more dramatic photos.
The only negative of the day was that the weather was very overcast so there was little natural light shining on the subjects. I knew I’d have to do a bit of post in Lightroom when I got back to the guesthouse, but I did try to open up the aperture and reduce the shutter as much as possible to reduce the amount of noise in the final photos.
It was finally time to head back. A normal bison safari in Poland takes around 3-4 hours if you are already in Bialowieza. However, if you want a longer one, or are coming from another city then those are also available.
Roman offered to take me back to his parents guesthouse in Narewka, about 20 minutes away for breakfast with the other two safari-goers. While this wasn’t in the pre-agreed tour, I was quite hungry so happily accepted. We began the drive there when all of a sudden there was some traffic blocking the road.
I suppose when you live in a place known for their wildlife, you really can see them anywhere. About 50 bison from another herd were crossing the main road, in single file no less. This was so cool to see because they would go in batches of 5-10 animals and when they crossed, another group would line up and head over.
Even the car on the opposite side of the street had its people get out for some spontaneous bison photography. I loved seeing the baby bison cross the street most of all – they have such an unusual gait as they meander over the snowy banks.
A Satisfying Post-Bison Safari Breakfast
Roman’s grandfather runs another guesthouse in the area so once we were able to cross the street (about 20 minutes later) we began the drive. I spent most of the time talking to the other people in the car, and we all happily passed around our cameras to show our favorite shots on the viewscreen.
Breakfast was more than I expected. A large samovar held hot water and tea for us to drink and warm ourselves. The table had bread and butter and cured meats and cheeses. While this was more than enough, the hot food started appearing. Fried eggs and omelets, more than we actually needed to fill up, came out one after the other. After the meal we were served hot coffee with milk and some fresh fruit.
As breakfast wound down we talked and talked, before Roman said it’s time to head back to Bialowieza. I have to say I got much more than I expected from this bison safari and highly recommend all visitors to Poland try to do one. Even if you aren’t a wildlife lover, seeing these animals in their natural habitat in the middle of winter is a magical experience.
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How To Get To Bialowieza From Warsaw
There are a few different ways to get to Bialowieza from Warsaw, so regardless of if you are seeing some White-tailed Eagles, the famous Bison, or just looking for a tranquil forest getaway there will be a method that suits your needs.
Many people drive from Warsaw to Bialowieza themselves as it offers the most convenience in regards to one’s schedule. The S8 (North Warsaw) and DK22 (South Warsaw) highways both go to Bialowieza and take roughly the same amount of time. Total trip time is around 3-3.5 hours.
The direct train from Warsaw to Bialowieza is actually very comfortable and convenient. The problem is the train stops at Hajnowka (continuing to Bialystock), a city about 10 miles from Bialowieza town. So you will have to grab a taxi at the train station for the last leg of the trip. This is actually what I did as I don’t drive. Total trip time was 3 hours 45 minutes.
There is a direct bus from Warsaw to Bialowieza once a day. The convenient part is it’s direct to Bialowieza with no changes, the negative is it leaves at 4:50 am. So unless you arrive to Warsaw in the wee hours of the morning, you have to get a hotel room overnight. This makes it less economical for many people. The bus from Warsaw to Bialowieza takes roughly 4 hours 30 minutes.