I peer out the window of my guesthouse to see if the driver has arrived. Not yet. It’s still a few minutes until the pre-arranged pick-up time of 5:30am. I check my phone – minus 10° Celsius. I wonder if I am wearing enough layers to stay comfortable for the next 11 hours.
I’m in Białowieża, a small town in Eastern Poland right along Belarus’ border. This town is perhaps most known for the famous Białowieża Forest (Puszcza Białowieska), the last remnant of Europe’s sprawling primeval forest.
Most people visit Białowieża for a more mammal-centric bit of wildlife. I’m speaking of course of the exceedingly heavy European Bison. Known in Poland as the Zubr, the European Bison is the heaviest land animal on the continent. A bison safari is the main draw to this oft unknown little border town.
But today I’m doing a different sort of wildlife activity. I’ve rented a hide in the forest to observe and photograph the White-tailed Eagle. Sometimes called a White-tailed sea-eagle as it is more common along northern coastal regions like Norway and Greenland.
However these majestic eagles do make their home in Białowieża Forest, and the best way to spot them is in a hide. A hide, being a small wooden shack in which to observe animals, isn’t known for its comfort…so I had to make sure I was bundled up properly so I shan’t freeze in the frigid weather.
Most hides are privately owned and managed, and this one by Marek from WildForest was no different. A full day’s rental is 150€ for a private or 130€ p.p. if you share. Fortunately there was a nice German man who happened to be going the same day I wanted to go, which saved me 20€.
I awoke about 15 minutes before my alarm, which tends to happen in days where I have to set an alarm. I took a quick, hot shower and brushed my teeth before putting on layer after layer of clothes.
Thin socks and underwear followed by a layer of thermal leggings. Next a pair of thick socks and another layer of thermal leggings. Lastly a pair of even thicker wool socks and heavy jeans. Up top I had a t-shirt, thin sweater, and thick turtleneck. Outerwear included fur lined leather boots, a fox parka with hood, gloves, and a simple knit beanie. Some might say I was overcompensating…but it’s best not to play fast and loose with weather.
I had packed my gear and food the night before so a minute before I was to be picked up I grabbed my stuff walked down to the front of the guesthouse. On the dot the van arrived and in a got, for a short drive to the drop-off point.
Marian, Marek’s guide, drove just 10 minutes outside the town and stopped the car in a snow covered field. As it was pre-dawn we used flashlights and headlamps to walk the 15 minutes to the hide.
I will say this is one of the nicer hides I have stayed at. It had one way glass so your camera adjustments don’t scare the animals, and it even had a gas powered space heater! Okay, the heater didn’t work all that well, but with my layers I was fairly comfortable. There was even a chemical toilet so you don’t need to leave the hide to do your business.
Speaking of leaving the hide, you actually can’t! Well, at least during daylight hours. You arrive before dawn and you depart after dusk because if birds see people around the area they will not show up for days, or even weeks.
After opening the hide for us, Marian went out to the field to lay down tracts of raw meat. I know there’s the whole “you don’t talk about baiting in wildlife photography” unspoken rule, but I find it dumb and prefer to be completely upfront with people.
Not to mention, during winter the primary food source of White-tailed Eagles is carrion, or dead animals. So to me there’s really no difference between them eating a dead deer in one location or a dead pig in another. But I’m not particularly trying to justify it – we baited and got great photos, it’s up to others to determine their own ethics with it.
As the sun started to creep higher and higher in the sky we started to spot some activity. A couple common buzzards landed in the snow to see what pickings we’re available. Soon after a dozen or so ravens swooped in to get their share.
Photographing The White-Tailed Eagles In Poland
We didn’t see the first White-tailed Eagle for about 30 minutes after sun-up, but it didn’t matter as it still wasn’t bright enough for good photos. All of a sudden a juvenile swooped down from the trees and shoved the ravens out of the way. Followed by two adults, it became apparent that we had more than enough activity for eagle photography.
The White-tailed Eagles stayed active until around noon, flying back and forth to the trees every so often. However around 11am a massive snowstorm started and it made for some very dramatic photography. My new German friend recommended lowering my shutter speed while one of the eagles was perched on a close naked branch and we both had fun trying to see how low we could get without shooting blurry photos.
I have never been good at action shots, and it wasn’t until an Amazon rainforest trip where I started practicing on a Yellow-headed Caracara that I started to feel more confident in spending time and money to photograph birds of prey. It also doesn’t hurt that my camera has the wonderful ability to lock on and track as bird’s eye (as well as mammals and humans under different settings).
The low angle and the fact the birds were flying down from the trees afforded me the ability to get a variety of angles, from head on to wings arched, and even one that looks like the eagle is coming in for the kill – while it was really just getting ready to grip a branch.
Large ravens were around from dawn ’til dusk, and seemed to show no fear around both the eagles and the buzzards. In fact, it often seemed like the buzzards were more afraid of the eagles than the ravens were, which surprised me quite a bit.
When the White-tailed Eagles left around noon we figured that was it for the day. We had about 4 more hours in the hide, but both of us discussed the fact their might not be anything left to photograph. Boy were we wrong!
The Common Buzzards began to show up; there were about 4 different adults. As with the eagles we both got some great shots of them sitting on perches with a low shutter speed. However as much fun as it was seeing buzzards, it did not compare to what came next!
A Surprise Encounter
The snowstorm was in full effect and it almost felt like a whiteout. We didn’t really think any more of photographing – we had both gotten all the shots we came for. And then I saw it…a gray wolf! It was running through the snow right across our hide, and with all of my effort I tried to lock focus on it. Unfortunately the snow had other ideas and I unfortunately was not able to get a sharp photo. To be honest, I didn’t even care. Seeing a wolf out in the open like that was a phenomenal experience and to have even a blurry snowstorm photo to look back on is all I need.
Twilight followed soon after and the lack of animals meant packing up all the gear. It was only 3pm so we still had another hour in the hide before the guide was to come back and lead us out. My new German friend and I exchanged contact info and shared some stories of other wildlife trips we had taken. In fact, we both overlapped on quite a few trips, like seeing the Iberian Lynx in Spain, or doing the full gamut of animals in Komodo National Park.
Bartek, Marek’s son, arrived to the hide around 4pm and began to clean up the grounds. He shuttered the windows and turned off the space heater before locking up. Then it was just the trek back to the car and back to Bialowieza town.
Final Thoughts About Seeing The White-tailed Eagles In Poland
Going to Białowieża Forest in Poland to photograph White-tailed Eagles was something that I’d wanted to do for a while. As I live in neighboring Ukraine it was a convenient and economical wildlife trip – and one I won’t soon forget. Renting a hide is clearly the best way to see these animals, and while it did seem pricy at first, there’s really no other option if you want to do the best White-tailed Eagle photography in Poland.
Animal Spotting Review
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.
Hiding From White-tailed Eagles In Poland
White-Tailed Eagles Fun Facts!
Here are 10 fun facts about the White-tailed Eagle:
1. White-tailed Eagles have the largest median wingspan out of all eagles.
2. Like most animal species found in Europe, the White-tailed Eagle was first formally described by Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus.
3. White-tailed Eagles can be found as far west as Greenland, and as far east as Japan. They tend to prefer staying along coasts, but have been known to make their way inland for old-growth forests.
4. It is the largest eagle by weight, wingspan, and height found in Europe.
5. This eagle primarily feeds on fish, however in winter many of them only survive on carrion.
6. Vagrants (birds found far from their usual locations) have been found as far away as the Hawaiian Islands!
7. White-tailed Eagles are known of course for their signature white tailfeathers, however they don’t grow in completely until they reach full adulthood around 4 years of age.
8. Unlike other sea eagles, the White-tailed Eagles do not have waterproofing oils on their feathers. This means they tend to avoid getting their feathers wet when catching fish. However if the fish is a large enough prize, they will lock onto it in the water and swim it to shore, paddling with their wings.
9. The incubation period is 40 days, but the young eaglets will take their first flight around 70 days after hatching (Bald eagles for example average around 80 days).
10. The oldest White-tailed Eagle in the wild was observed to live for 33.1 years. In captivity there have been many recordings of over 40 year old eagles.
One thought on “Hiding From White-tailed Eagles In Poland”
Comments are closed.