© Clive Tully

Paws For Thought: Extreme Wildlife Watching in the Low Tatras Mountains

Adventure travel writer Clive Tully forges off on the trail of wolves, bears and chamois in remotest Slovakia with award-winning volunteering organisation Biosphere Expeditions.

It’s late in the afternoon, and after several hours bush-whacking through dense forest while traversing steep slopes, suddenly an excited shout comes from the front of the group.

“Wolf scat!”

Scat is not a term I’ve found myself using previously, although its more common alternative, another four-letter word beginning and ending with the same letters, may have passed my lips in extremis on the odd occasion. For the purposes of a family publication, what we’re talking here is poo, or droppings. Indeed, it takes a certain kind of person to get worked up about what most would cross the street to avoid – even if the item in question is evidence of the recent passing of a beautiful wild animal – and it is with a group of just such people that I am in the company of for the next few days.

I’m in the Nizké Tatry (Low Tatras) National Park high up in the mountains of Slovakia, taking part in a scientific project run by Biosphere Expeditions. Indeed, as is pointed out on my first day, what I’ve joined is no holiday. It’s not even a trip. It’s an expedition, and the purpose is to assist local scientist Dr Slavomír Findó – Slavo, for short – to document the movements of wild animals including not only wolves but also bears, lynx and chamois.

And so it is that we photograph said wolf poo with a compass lying next to it to provide scale, log its location on a data sheet using a GPS receiver, and bag it up to take back to base for Slavo to analyse. It joins several other bags of poo, including bear and a possible lynx. Today is something of a warm-up, getting expedition members used to logging both scats and tracks of wild animals, using two-way radios and GPS receivers, not to mention an enlightening return to traditional navigation techniques using map and compass.

Animals such as wolf, bear and lynx typically can typically be found in areas within the forest-covered mountain slopes. But it is the region just above the tree line that holds what we’re all particularly excited about: the chance to observe the endangered chamois, a type of mountain goat.

Once upon a time, the closest you might get to a chamois would be when drying off your car after it’s been washed, but while in other mountain areas of Europe they’re quite plentiful, here their numbers are declining – a result of human pressure on their habitats, and climate change. But predators have an impact on their numbers as well, and that’s the purpose of the study – to establish the relationship between chamois and other animals, as well as humans in the form of hikers on the trails that run along the main east/west ridge which they inhabit.

© Clive Tully

Research has illustrated that enthusiastic volunteers are every bit as good as scientists when it comes to making these kind of observations. If anything, they’re better because they’re rather more motivated – but it does all hinge on their being properly trained. The spread of participants in my expedition is certainly pretty wide, both in age and what made them decide to join. In general, the profile tends to be someone in their 30s and older – people who’ve had a chance to live life a little, and decide there’s more to it than just self-gratification. It was having three months available and a wish to do something of a voluntary nature that led business consultant Pierre from Belgium to sign up. By contrast, Lauren, in her early 20s, is studying for an animal science degree, so what we’re doing ties in rather nicely. Others have come to escape their everyday lives, but still with the motivation to do something which will be of real use. The oldest member of the group is John from Israel, whose past hiking experiences include wandering into a minefield while out walking in the Middle East’s Golan Heights.

The hazards of the Tatras mountains aren’t to be underestimated, either, as we discover when expedition leader Melanie Schröder delivers our risk assessment on the first evening. I’m amazed to hear that statistically, going on an expedition is less dangerous than indulging in a spot of home DIY. And while the greatest risk in Slovakia is coming to a sticky end at the hands of lunatic drivers, the wildlife has been a particular problem of late. Here they have the highest density of bears in the world, and some years have seen several attacks on humans by brown bears (seven were recorded in 2007). And what are we advised to do if we suddenly find ourselves face to face with a bear? Keep still, apparently: then slowly and gradually back off, avoiding the natural instinct to run like hell.

“Bears can run much faster,” we’re told, “and they can climb trees. If it comes to it, lie face down on the ground, hands over the back of your head and neck, and elbows out to prevent the bear from rolling you over.”

It’s this advice that races through my mind on our first night, spent near the isolated hamlet of Krpáčvo in the southern part of the national park south of the high point of Chopok. I’ve opted to relieve the pressure on bed space in our base house by sleeping in a tent out in the garden. At night, the surrounding forest is replete with strange sounds, occasionally featuring the noise of breaking branches. It matters not one jot that I’ve been reassured no bear has ever come this far down into the valley. Lying in the tent in a semi-stupor, my only thought is to roll over, elbows spread wide as my over-active imagination pictures marauding bears about to slice their claws through my sleeping bag.

And so I survive the night ready for the next day, which involves some basic training. We have our maps and GPS receivers to plot our positions, and we also have compasses – used to provide a bearing for any animal sightings. We have laser rangefinders to give us distance, and radios to communicate with each other. And when things are going less than swimmingly, we have flares to indicate we have a problem, red for life-threatening, and white for non-critical emergencies.

Our first little foray into the forest above Krpáčvo with Slavo reveals a “bear tree”. This is where the bear has ripped the bark off the trunk to get at insects underneath. It could have been damage caused by a passing forestry vehicle, but the evidence of hairs stuck to the oozing sap provides the confirmation.

RELATED POST: A WONDERFUL NEW WILDLIFE DOCUMENTARY SET IN SLOVAKIA’S WILD FAR EAST

Getting to and from the study areas isn’t all about slogging up and down hills on foot, although there’s plenty of that anyway. Biosphere Expeditions is one of the few organisations, along with the Royal Geographical Society, to be sponsored by Land Rover under their Fragile Earth Policy, so we have a couple of smart Land Rover Discoveries to get us about. As a non-profit organisation, Biosphere values any help it gets, and of course the less money it has to spend on equipment means more of the income from expedition team members goes into the scientific research.

During the fortnight, expedition members pay two visits up onto the main mountain ridge, the Hrebenovka, staying overnight in mountain huts. And while the hikers sharing the huts with them are still happily snoring away, they’re up at 4am to ready for heading to their observation sites. And this is where your typical hill walker might see the difference. Instead of keeping up a BRISK pace, you have to be prepared to sit still for hours at a time with binoculars or a telescope on a tripod, so a good range of clothing is essential.

During the day, the chamois tend to keep out of the sun on north-facing slopes, but then at sunset they come up onto the ridge. Get up early enough in the morning, and that’s where you see them. The training also includes identification – male and female chamois have different shaped horns, and the males tend to wander around on their own, while females and kids will stay in groups.

Unfortunately, my flying visit of just a few days means that while I do get to climb up onto the ridge and sample its spectacular views, I don’t get to stay there overnight, but some of my fellow team members strike gold the following day. One group led by expedition leader Melanie spots two red deer heading for a stream to drink, followed by a group of eight chamois resting on cliffs. Then just as they are about to pack up and go, they see a female bear and her cub ambling up to the same stream. A shame then that the other team led by Slavo, who hiked several kilometres further to stay at Chopok and the mountain hut there were foiled by windy conditions which made observations difficult.

But while my wildlife spotting is confined to a small snake, a few piles of poo – sorry, scats – and the odd clump of fur, I’ve come away with the firm view that if you want to do something for conservation, doing something like this is far better than simply writing out a cheque for your chosen charity. This way you can provide scientists with the manpower to enable them to make a difference – in this case, the outcome will be a scientific paper – and have an unforgettable experience at the same time.

Further information:

Biosphere Expeditions (tel 0870-446-0801) promotes sustainable conservation of the planet’s wildlife by involving the public with scientists across the globe on real hands-on wildlife research and conservation expeditions, with several projects operating in Slovakia.

Outdoors and travel writer/photographer Clive Tully is former equipment editor of four walking magazines, and consultant/contributor to many more. His mainly outdoors-related travel features have been published in the majority of UK national newspapers. In 2017, he’s also going to be part of the team striving to beat the world record for circumnavigation of the world in a powerboat.

MAP LINK:

GETTING THERE: It’s possible to get to any of the places mentioned in this article, but for the experience you will need to sign up for a volunteer expedition with Biosphere Expeditions.

PRICES: Volunteers are asked to contribute towards expeditions around £1300 (for Slovakia expeditions).

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From a Low Tatras wildlife sojourn around Krpáčvo it’s only 13km north to Hotel Srdiečko and the route up Chopok (the less-known-about-way).

 

© Clive Tully

© Clive Tully

Tours: Tatras Adventure Trips with Adventoura

Adventoura runs some of the coolest organised tours of the Slovakian Tatras around. It’s based out of Poprad. Here www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk talks to the founder to give you an idea of what you can see and do with the company… 

Adventoura on tour in the Tatras

Question One: What inspired you to set up Adventoura? And why in Poprad?

At the time Adventoura went on market there was a big gap that needed filling with the inbound travel agencies in Poprad and the Tatras mountains. As I grew up in Poprad I knew what this region needed. I believe that Adventoura with its services will make more options for tourists who visit us here. And I am happy to make clients happy!

Simply put, if a visitor came to the Tatras there never used to be anything for them to do outside of their accommodation and beyond the activities of skiing, snow-boarding or trekking. As I have lived and travelled in New Zealand, South Africa and in California, I have seen the potential wildernesses have for outdoor activities and I had a lot of ideas that I am now bringing to our region.

Question Two: Tell us something about the different tours you offer?

People are just discovering Slovakia. We were closed for many years to new explorers. And as I actually guide my groups and have experience with many international clients, it’s nice to see their respective reactions while travelling through Slovakia. A good example: a client from New Zealand during his stay in Poprad told me “why to travel to New Zealand? You have New Zealand here!!!” I guess it is getting the chance to see just how special other nationalities find Slovakia that motivates me to do tours mainly around Poprad and Tatras.

My summer is busy with tours in the mountains. One of my most popular is called “Hut to Hut”. Basically I spent 5 full days with my clients on the walks through the High Tatras staying in the fabulous mountain houses there.  Another popular summer tour is cycling across the Tatras within a week! We do 270 km in 6 days – of course a service car is also provided

The winter season is also very popular. Almost any skiing package you want is available through my website. Another fun option are two tours called “Summer Active” and “Winter Active.” Again based in Slovakia, they are essentially weeks full of fun. The summer option can involve hiking, beginners down hill biking, rafting, rock climbing etc. The winter one has skiing, snowshoeing, horse sleigh ride, dog sledding, geo caching and the like. All those sports I also do in my free time: like we say in Slovakia: “you are having it from first hand!” :)

Adventoura in action

Question Three: What can tourists do this winter with Adventoura, and where can they do it?

I mentioned many of the winter activities we do above, but also very popular is a day trip we call “Become a musher in a one day.” It is a 2-hours program with huskies, refreshment and barbecue. We will teach you how to put a pulling harness on a dog, how to attach him to the pulling rope and finally how to ride with a Slovakian dog sled! People who are waiting for their turn can be at the fire cooking some sausage :) It’s worth noting that we are likely to be able to do this activity close to your hotel (of course it depends where do you stay). If there is no place for it, we are happy to transfer you to our “base camp” :)

Then there is snowshoeing. Basically, I will take you to the places with untouched snow and you will get to try walking with snowshoes in deep snow.

A more relaxing day trip is a horse sleigh ride: we are providing it in evening hours in a sleigh pulled by two horses. The ride is torch-lit and finished with an barbecue, and traditional Slovak music in the forest.

Question Four: What’s your favourite place in the Tatras? And do you have any tips for how to get away from the crowds in the Tatras?

This sounds a simple question, but it’s not! Tatra is full of steep walls, deep valleys and forests, and really any one would deserve to be called the favourite!

Every valley has something nice. In the western Tatras you could climb the peak of Kriváň, and you will get impressive view from it. In the central area, try visiting some mountain hut and stay overnight: you can have a beer and meet great people from all around the world talking about interesting stories from their travels :) And check out the eastern region too: especially Biele Pleso (White lake). In the valleys here you will be there almost by yourself; there’s nobody around. You might even meet a brown bear or to see our mountain goat, the Chamoix…

Question Five: The actual town of Poprad is often overlooked in favour of the mountains nearby. What’s the best thing to do in the city itself?

Poprad is great place for explorers who love to come to the Tatras by train, bus or even, these days, by aeroplane, with flights several times per week to London. It has a straight train connection from Prague (the journey takes about 8 hours, and the night train is very comfortable and safe) as well as Slovakia’s two main cities, Bratislava and Košice.

What I would say about Poprad itself is that I am happy to live and have my office there.

It has everything you need, right by some of the best mountain scenery in Slovakia – supermarkets, shopping malls, a nice historical medieval main square, lots of concerts and theatre performances – and a great traditional Christmas market in winter.

The most special thing about Poprad is that it lies on hot geothermal springs. One of them is used for second biggest aquapark in Slovakia: Aquacity. Here there are slides and outdoor pools – and it runs all year round, even in the winter.

NB: Adventoura are the winners in the tour operator category in 2017’s Europe-wide Luxury Travel Awards, truly putting the High Tatras on the international stage as a travel destination! Read more about it on their Facebook Page

woodpecker-1186209_1280 - kopie

Bratislava – A Birdwatching Haven

For our 150th post on Englishmaninslovakia.com we are honoured to have a guest article on birdwatching in and around Bratislava from one of the city’s most experienced birdwatchers, Tomáš Novák. A keen birdwatcher, nature lover, and “bike birder”, his particular passion is urban birding (spotting the birdlife that inhabits urban areas) and owing to the variety of terrains around Bratislava, there is rather a large amount of bird diversity…

Birdwatchers… ©Tomas Novak

Birdwatchers near Bratislava ©Tomáš Novák

It may be that birdwatching in Slovakia is not as popular a pastime as it is in the UK or U.S. Yet Bratislava definitely offers great opportunities to explore the world of birds. There are various habitats on offer: from open fields in the Pannonian lowlands to the forests of the Small Carpathians; from the Danube and its wet floodplain meadows to vineyards and forest steppe. We should not omit, in the city itself, urban parks, bodies of water or high-rise buildings. So where in Bratislava is best to enjoy birdwatching?

Danube

Hrušovská zdrž water reservoir below Bratislava is a large water body that attracts plenty of bird species. It is one of the most important wintering site for some species of waterbirds in Central Europe. Beside thousands of wintering Tufted Ducks, Goldeneyes, Pochards or Mallards, you can spot some more unusual species such as the Pygmy Cormorant, Greater Scaup, Velvet Scoter, Long-tailed Duck, Smew or Red-breasted Merganser. During migration season it is possible to observe various species of waders and Marsh Terns as well – and, to name just some of the others – the Dunlin, Ringed Plover, Curlew or Black Tern. It is one of the last refuges of breeding Mediterranean Gulls in Slovakia. And last but not least I need to mention the uncrowned king of the Danube’s sky. The majestic White-tailed Eagle breeds here and the numbers swell every winter with birds that come from Northern Europe to spend the winter months by the Danube.

© Tomas Novak

© Tomáš Novák

 

How to get there: Bus 91 to Čunovo, bus 90 to Areál vodných športov or by bike from Petržalka along the seepage canal MAP

 

 

Železná studnička Area

Bratislava lies in the foothills of Small Carpathians. You can dive into the 1500 km long arc of Carpathian beech forests, which begins right above the city. At the entrance to the Bratislava Mestske Lesy (which leads you up into the Small Carpathians from Železná studnička railway station in western Bratislava) the proximity of these forests brings a handful of interesting bird species. I’ll start with woodpeckers. In Slovakia you can find all ten species that live in Europe. Nine of them can be spotted in or next to the forests around Bratislava – the Middle Spotted, Great Spotted, Syrian, White-backed, Green, Grey-headed, Black, Lesser Spotted Woodpecker and Wryneck. For all save the last two, you have to go a little way into the forests, for the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker you’ll find them on the edge of forest vegetation and for the Wryneck focus your attentions on the border between the forest and vineyard-covered slopes – where it might breed in old orchards or small clumps of trees. The Wood Warbler, Collared and Red-breasted Flycatchers breed in the Bratislava forests as well. Have you tried birding during the night? You need to try it – and one of the rewards is the call of the Tawny Owl, which can also be found here.

How to get there: Bus 43 from Patrónka (once you’re up in the forests, any stop will do to get out and start exploring) MAP

Sandberg and Devínska Kobyla

The old sandstone quarry in Devínska Nová Ves, easily accessible by walk, is one of the top natural sites in Bratislava. From early May you can find here colony of breeding European Bee-eaters, the most colourful Slovak bird. A stunning surrounding landscape

Sandberg, above Devínska Nová Ves ©englishmaninslovakia.com

Sandberg, above Devínska Nová Ves ©englishmaninslovakia.com

comprising Marchfeld, the Morava River and iconic Devín castle is a good motive for a walk. The hunting Red-backed Shrike, the singing Chiffchaff, soaring Red Kites, White Storks and, if you are lucky, the Imperial Eagle could be spotted. This is a forgotten world of steppe habitats, orchid meadows, rare insects, endemic animal and plant species, and high diversity of snakes, butterflies and flowers. Need more be said? Definitely a must if you are a nature lover.

How to get there: Buses 21 or 28 to Devínska Nová Ves MAP

Morava River floodplain

A classic (and, by foreigners, rarely visited) natural treasure is the greenbelt of the Morava River, the former “iron curtain” area. You can find here a mosaic of wet meadows, oxbow lakes, alluvial forests and agricultural land. This beautiful landscape is a shelter for the breeding of water birds and a roosting site for migrating geese. Various birds of prey – the Marsh Harrier, Red Kite, White-tailed Eagle or Imperial Eagle – could be observed here. Even Black Storks are searching for the food in the moist meadows. Not enough? The Barred Warbler, Corncrake or Golden Oriole may convince you. In addition the bike path is lined with the old military bunkers. Discover a green paradise no further away than the northern outskirts of a Capital city!

How to get there: Train to Devínske Jazero, by bike from Devínska Nová Ves following the marked trail to Vysoká pro Morave MAP

Cycling out to the River Morava floodplain on a birding trip © Tomáš Novák.

Cycling out to the River Morava floodplain on a birding trip © Tomáš Novák.

Urban Bratislava

One could complain that busy people do not have enough time to explore the nature around the city. But when you take a closer look at the fine birding spots right in the city centre, you have to concede that nature is so close in Bratislava, you barely have to do more than glance up to see it! During a lunch break, a walk in the Medická záhrada public garden and nearby Ondrejský cintorín cemetery could reveal a Green Woodpecker, Nuthatch, Wood Pigeon, Chaffinch, Greenfinch, Spotted Flycatcher or Icterine Warbler. Similar and more diverse list can be observed in Sad Janka Kráľa public park, across the other side of the Danube from Most SNP. The water bodies of Štrkovec, Kuchajda and Zlaté Piesky offer you a nice walk after work with good views of Black-headed Gulls, Common Terns, Coots, Mute Swans or just lovely Mallards. So does the Chorvátske rameno canal and Veľký Draždiak in Petržalka. Kingfishers in Bratislava? Yes, at Karloveské rameno – an arm of the Danube next to Karlová Ves. And the very fortunate can spot Beavers as well. Large flocks of wintering Rooks and Jackdaws can be spied flying over the city center around sunset. And did you know that Peregrine Falcon use to roost on the top of the Incheba Exhibition Centre highrise building in the winter?

This is not, by any means, a complete list of birdwatching spots in Bratislava. Many more posts would be needed to fully showcase them all. I just tried to provide here a taster of the natural diversity of the Slovak capital. Would you like to have a birdwatching guided walk or bike trip? Feel free to contact me on e-mail (tomas.novak@ymail.com) or Twitter (@titodaking). It’s easy. Just grab your binoculars, camera and backpack and let’s go exploring the nature of Bratislava.