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Bialowieza forest in the eyes of Val Standen and Tom Kirby

Only four intrepid fungus seekers set off from Warsaw for the Bialowieska forest last month as the fifth, Gordon, was unable to make it to Poland in time.  My entomologist friend and erstwhile colleague, Dr Tusi Butterfield, and myself had spent a couple of days in historic Warsaw before we were collected by our guide Bozena Summers and driver Bogdan who had already picked up Tom and Bernard from the airport.  I had been told the food in Poland was pretty grim but after a couple of hours we stopped – in a rain storm – at a road side cafe for excellent soup and pierogi (referred to as dumplings, but more like filled pasta). The countryside is flat and at this time of year there were a few white storks lingering on their cartwheel nests and people at the roadside selling either wild mushrooms or - unfortunately - themselves! Our accommodation was a small comfortable hotel next to the forest where the food was again excellent and preceded always by toasts to absent friends with different sorts of vodka.

Next day we set off on foot with Bozena and a local guide, Arec, for the most protected part of the forest. The forest exists because it was preserved for hunting in medieval times and we first passed through the grounds of the old royal palace/hunting lodge. This in itself was interesting with fine trees and lots of chicken of the woods, but our first view of the forest itself, in the strict nature reserve, was absolutely lovely – carpets of fungi beneath hornbeam, small-leaved lime and oak. Arec explained that we should only stray a few metres from the path and not remove anything – so cameras to the fore to try to record the wealth of species there. I had been 'nominated' as recorder and was thus in the middle of any dispute between Tom and Bernard (e.g. you are absolutely wrong Tom/Bernard) which may account for the difficulty I had interpreting my field notes to produce a species list later in the day. That day we heard rutting red deer in the distance and saw two species of woodpeckers. These birds, Bozena explained, play a significant role in forest ecology as they damage the trees in their search for insects and so let in a variety of other species including fungi. We had lunch at the hotel, but altogether we had eight hours in the field sustained by the occasional chocolate covered plum provided by Bernard and Bozena.

We were up at 5am the next day to pick up a retired forester who took us to a forest clearing where we saw a group of male bison in the mist. Tom's poem captures this best. We walked to find another group of females with young but they had been disturbed (we saw the marks on the path). However, as compensation, we did hear wolves howling in the distance.  Back for a rest, then off again with another guide, Karol, to an area of forest which is partly managed and where we were allowed to wander off the track and pick up specimens for identification.  Although managed, there was a great deal of fallen and standing dead trees and consequently, again, great abundance and species richness.  Picnic lunch (plus great doughnuts from Bozena), then through a wetter area of forest traversed by a sometimes treacherous boardwalk.  There were different species here and Karol was able to collect some for identification later.  That evening Bozena had organized a campfire in the forest with soup, sausages toasted in the fire – and vodka.  There were stars too.

The next day we set off with Arec, for a region of forest to the north east. A longish drive but well worth the effort as here we saw the effects of the re-introduction of beavers to the forest - the gnawed bases of the trees felled by the beavers, the dams created by fallen trees and the lakes which form behind the dams flooding and killing pockets of standing trees.  Altogether a more varied forest-scape and with a different range of fungi - and as a bonus we had a good view of a white tailed eagle which flew over our heads.  After we returned to the hotel we hired bikes and set off for a last look at the protected forest and especially at a vast specimen of coral root almost covering a fallen tree.

The Bialowieska forest is a magic place to be in and we were very fortunate in our guide Bozena who is a great naturalist and now well on the way to becoming a fungi enthusiast – the sort of organizer who arranges transport, guides and chocolate covered plums at exactly the right moment but never seems hassled.  Abiding memories are – first sight of the forest floor, howling wolves, bison and cycling through ancient woodland with old and new friends.

About the same effort was made in the protected and the managed forest in the first 2 days. The total species count was 130 with 82 in the protected and 75 in the managed parts. There were approximately a quarter of species in common between the two. Wouldn't it be interesting to do more work on the ways management influences fungus diversity and abundance?!

Val Standen


More about Bialowieza National Park


In Bison Breath
Tom Kirby

In Bison breath the bursting bronze of early sun
Shafts glowing fingers through the boughs of  beech.
This is the double dawn; of time itself, a course begun,
And of each day. A million  dawns proclaimed by Eagle's screech.

In Bison breath  here lay the beast, upon the beaded grass, and there
He stalked to cover  lest the stirring mists  dispersed, and clear
Would be. The dark shade hides, so in to shaftless forest with the Bear,
And Beaver, Boar, the Lynx and timid, trembling Deer.

In Bison breath a silence falls and shifts the air, re-balancing the day.
And all the scents of night are layered, still; and telling signs appear
To those who hunt and those who would be hunted. Prey
To nature's sweet and cunning curse of  need and fear.

In Bison breath hear through the warming air, far triumph tamed,
An echoed roar. Another darkness lost to dawn’s pale light;
Another day, another sun, another battle and a victory claimed
O’er wild and wooded BiaƂowieska’s cold primeval night.

In Bison breath the bright hoar frost  quick melts, and green  the  grass
Once more. And where he lay and where he slept will soon spring true
To wave in winds that carry off the scents of night. So as we pass
We, too, become one transient spirit in this land; they are many, we are but a few.

October 2010

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Bilowieza forest a group

photographing fungi




fire in the forest

photographing fungi