We were very excited to see some wild bison roaming in the forest of Białowieża. A big part of the Białowieski National Park is off-limits to park visitors unless you are guided by a licensed guide. Guided tours are usually not “our thing”, so we looked into the possibility of finding the bison on our own. We asked at the information desk of the “demonstration preserve” for the map of the park and while studying the map we chatted with the lady working at the desk. She told us that during harsh winter months bison often come into town to scavenge for food (e.g. apples not collected from the ground under apple trees that are ample in the town). Also the rangers established 3 sites where they bring hay for the bison during really cold periods in the winter. As it was summer, we thought our chances to see bison at one of these “feeding stations” were small, but we wanted to give it a try anyway. We visited the feeding station right on the border with Belarus that same day in the late afternoon- knowing that animals usually feed in early morning or around dusk. Just as we expected – we didn’t see a single bison, but we found a big chunk of salt that was left by the rangers for the animals to lick (to add minerals to their diet).
There were many tracks left in the mud surrounding the post with a chunk of salt on it, some belonged to the bison. We knew that the bison come to this spot, at least sometimes.
As our hunt continued the next day, we chose to hike the trail right on the border of the “off-limit” area. The trail, called Carska Tropina leads north-south, along a small river bed.
About halfway through the hike we saw a very distinctive pile of fresh dung on the ground, right next to the trail. It looked a lot like cow dung, but we knew there were no cows in this forest. The conclusion was that bison had used this same trail in the last day or even in the last few hours. That reinforced our determination to be as quiet and as sneaky as possible. Then, after about half an hour of hiking very quietly, when we stopped to have a little rest near a wooden boardwalk (part of the trail was very swampy so park authorities built them for the convenience of hikers), I heard a loud snap of a breaking branch in the distance and ignored it as it is natural for branches to sometimes break off trees on their own. Within 20 seconds I heard another “snap” coming from the same direction and I froze. This was not another branch breaking coincidently on its own.
I told Steve that I think there is a large animal about 30-50 yards from us in the direction of the river. The forest was very dense there so we couldn’t see anything except trees. Steve quickly scanned the forest with our binoculars in the direction I was pointing. He kept looking and looking and then… he saw something! He waved at me to come to the spot he was standing and look through binoculars. He saw it first- a dark brown hide of the bison and a tail flicking in the air, very much like a cows tail. The animal was no more than 35 yards from us but very well hidden in all the vegetation. Steve made out his horns and head, but then the bison shifted his body and all we could see was this massive body and tail end. A big trunk of a tree obstructed our view of the bison’s head, but we could still see leaves from a plant he was chewing on as they moved rhythmically right in front of the assumed head. We watched the scene in awe, very quietly for some time. When the bison moved a few steps north we moved slowly parallel to him. We felt very grateful and completely rewarded for our efforts to see “the king of the forest”. We stood there watching the bison grazing on some fresh leaves for about 30 minutes. It was rather late in the afternoon and we knew that with the sun going down the forest will become a very dark place and it might be hard to walk confidently back to the parking lot. Also we didn’t know exactly what plans Mr. Bison had. We certainly didn’t want to have him walk out in front of us, blocking our path to the car. We didn’t know how temperamental these animals are and decided it was prudent to stay near the boardwalk, which we could dive underneath and hide under in case of a charge. Then when the darkness was inevitably approaching Steve had a good idea of making some noise and watching the reaction of our Big Companion. If the bison started charging us we had a relatively safe place to hide (underneath the boardwalk). Then Steve loudly said: “Hello Mr. Bison. It was a pleasure to meet you! Thank you for hanging out and letting us watch you!”. Just as he got half way through his “speech” I could see through binoculars the giant hind legs of the bison jump up in the air and instantaneously he was GONE! Still cautious but a bit relieved we started our way back to the car. We were both ecstatic about the whole experience and decided to come back again two days later, but this time early in the morning to the same hiking trail. Next day we walked around town, made some friends at the guest house (people come from all over Europe to visit this place) and barbequed. We packed all our gear to be ready for an early start in the morning. We got up at 3.30 am and still in darkness drove the car to the parking lot of Carska Tropina trail. We took off on the trail just as the first beams of sunlight were piercing the darkness between the trees. We climbed the look-out tower but saw nothing.
Then we hiked down the familiar north-south trail in the southern direction. We moved super slowly, stepping each foot super quietly and precisely onto the ground. Our progress through the forest was very slow, but we knew that even the slightest noise and we will alarm any animals in the neighborhood. Animals have amazing hearing, much better than humans. Trying to make no noise while going on a trail covered with dry leaves and sticks is not an easy task. But only about 30 or 40 minutes after we left the car I saw a group of bison ahead of us, approximately 80 yards away in a more open part of the forest (no shrubbery, only big trees). I counted 4 maybe 5. But as soon as I pointed them out to Steve they must have heard us (or noticed us) and they trotted quickly away from us. They crossed a line of dense shrubbery that was on the edge of the forest. Moving swiftly we crossed the shrubbery too and came out on a big field, but there were no bison in sight. They vanished. The whole experience lasted no more than 1 minute.
We were happy that we had found some wild bison totally on our own! As we continued hiking through the forest we spotted a Red Deer stag and two does. Later on we also saw what we think was a pine marten. It had been a very pleasant day in the forest. We felt amazingly grateful for being able to spot all these wild animals.