Biking around Bielowieza

The best way to see the forest and prairie scenery in Bielowieza is to grab bikes and tour the countryside.  Many roads to some of the small villages are less traveled by car and perfect for birding bikers.  Here are a few of the things we saw.

House in the village of Teremiski

 Farm House in the village of Teremiski

Forest road near Bielowieza

Forest road near Bielowieza

Prairie near Bielowieza

Prairie near Bielowieza, patch of a kind of thistle ?

Prairie orchid, Bielowieza prairie

A rare Prairie orchid, Bielowieza prairie

Lunch stop, farm museum, Budy

Lunch stop, farm museum, Budy

Kvass with bread and cheese

Kvass (beer made from fermented rye bread) with bread and cheese

Red deer stag, bison reserve, Bielowieza, Poland

Red deer stag, bison reserve, Bielowieza,

Wild European horse, like the extinct tarpan

Wild Eurasian horse, similar to the extinct tarpan, at the bison reserve. Tarpan went extinct in the early 1900s, but breeding experiments attempt to restore this ancient horse lineage.

Roe deer fawn

Tiny Roe deer fawn is dwarfed by the tall grass in its pen at the bison reserve near Bielowieza.

the wisent isn’t extinct…completely

The Wisent, or European bison, is a look-alike of the American bison, but its genetics tell a different story.

Wisent, European forest bison

Wisent, European forest bison, is really a grassland animal that takes refuge in the forest.

As the story goes, once upon a time between ice ages, steppe bison wandered the grasslands of Europe, Asia, and North America, traversing the Bering land bridge during glaciated times.  Cut off from Asia when sea levels rose, the steppe bison in North America underwent moderate changes to become the buffalo we recognize today, but then suffered huge declines in numbers when railroads through the central plains brought hunters that killed off huge numbers of them.

American bison

American bison in Wyoming

The steppe bison was also hunted extensively, and may have gone extinct from overhunting about 11,000 years ago.  But aurochs (European progenitor of cattle) and Steppe bison matings in Europe produced hybrids (now known as Wisent) that survived the hunting pressure, perhaps by retreating deep into the primeval forest.
European bison, Wisent

Wisent numbers also declined precipitously with settlement and expansion of agriculture in Europe, but a few remained in the small forest fragments, like the one near Bielowieza.

European bison, Wisent

Hybrids usually are less fit than their ancestors, largely because they are less fertile (e.g., mules), but in the case of the European bison hybrid, they appear to have survived both hunting pressure and the extreme cold of the interglacial periods better than their steppe bison ancestors, and retreated to the forest for protection.

How do we know this?  A fascinating study compared animals in cave art paintings with DNA fragments from bison remains of 15-50,000 years ago and found transitions in the DNA that coincided with animals represented in the cave art.  The animals represented during the coldest periods were the short horned, less humped at the shoulder, Wisent.**

Bison reserve, Bielowieza, Poland

The Bison reserve near Bielowieza has expansive enclosures for its animals, and lots of natural prairie grass for forage.

Captive breeding of Wisent at the Bison reserve just outside Bielowieza attempts to track genetic ancestry and propagate animals that could be released to the wild, but wild Wisent exist in small herds through the forest-grassland spaces in eastern Poland.  They are mighty hard to spot — judging from our early morning explorations of the area.

Bison reserve, Bielowieza, Poland

Bison reserve, Bielowieza, Poland


Legacy of the Warsaw zoo

The Warsaw zoo occupies almost 100 acres of forested land across the Vistula river from the Old Town of Warsaw.  Although the city, including the zoo, was largely destroyed by the Germans during World War II, it has literally risen from the ashes, to become one of the most beautiful European capitols.

Warsaw looking toward the Old City

A Warsaw boulevard on a Sunday afternoon, looking toward the Old City. No litter, no cars, no homeless, just people out enjoying a summer day.

Warsaw zoo landscape across the Vistula river

Warsaw zoo landscape across the Vistula river

I was particularly interested to see the zoo after reading “the Zookeeper’s Wife” by Diane Ackerman.  Zoo director Jan Zabinski’s pioneering efforts to provide spacious housing with natural habitat for his zoo inhabitants have again been realized.  The enclosures for gorillas and chimps far surpasses those I’ve seen at other zoos.

Male silverback Gorilla at the Warsaw zoo

Male silverback Gorilla at the Warsaw zoo.

The "villa" occupied by the Zabinsky family at the Warsaw zoo

The “villa” occupied by the Zabinski family at the Warsaw zoo has been converted to a museum to showcase the role the family played in hiding hundreds of Jews fleeing the Warsaw ghetto.

Entry to the tunnels at the Warsaw zoo

Entrance to one of the many underground tunnels between the villa and the animal enclosures.

Jan brought “workmen” to the zoo from the ghetto to help rebuild enclosures, and they were subsequently hidden in small rooms under animal enclosures, until they could be moved from the zoo to outlying farms, and eventually to hopefully escape from the Germans.

The monkey house at the Warsaw zoo

The monkey house at the Warsaw zoo was one of the many places Jews were hidden, sometimes for weeks, in cramped, freezing cold quarters underground.

Today, you wouldn’t know all that transpired here 70 years ago, because it is as peaceful and scenic a place as any you could visit.

Lion, Warsaw zoo

One of the lions at the Warsaw zoo in a large, natural enclosure.

Indian rhinos, Warsaw zoo

I felt kind of sorry for the Indian rhinos that were trying to socialize despite being separated by an electrical barrier, presumably for good reason.

European bison, Warsaw zoo

The animals we were most interested to see were the European bison, which unlike its North American cousin is a forest animal. Unfortunately it was nap time, and they were uninterested in showing off.  It’s hard to judge from an animal lying down, but they seem a bit smaller than buffalo.

read more about Warsaw in my other blog, Traveling Two:

another muskrat morning

It’s rare (for me) to see a muskrat out and about in the morning, but this one was not at all shy about foraging in a shallow pond right next to the road.  So, lazy me, I just sat in the car and took photos out the window.  What a set-up for nature photography!

muskrat swimming-

munching on tender new shoots

nothing like a good scratch after swimming around in stagnant water…

muskrat swimming-

the way I usually see muskrats — without heads or tails

Muskrats are excellent swimmers, with two layers of fur to protect them from getting chilled, as well as terrific lung capacity that allows them to swim underwater for 15-20 minutes at a time.  They sort of resemble a cross between a beaver and a rat, but the naked (scaly) tail is compressed side to side (vertically) rather than top to bottom (horizontally) like the beaver’s.

Despite having webbed hind feet, muskrats use their tails for propulsion while swimming, and happily chug along at 3 mph or so through their marshy homes. Presumably, the tail is also used as a rudder for steering while swimming, but then you see actions like this.

muskrat swimming-

Muskrats may swim with their tail snaking behind them, but can carry it up above their bodies as well.  Is this for leverage, while the muskrat chews on submerged vegetation?

muskrat swimming-

Swimming along, with its tail in the air.  It did this repeatedly while swimming around this small pond.

So, why does the muskrat elevate its tail while swimming — is it marking its territory, signalling other muskrats, or just waving it in the breeze??

Not a pig

what would you call this little animal?

Javelina, southeastern Arizona

It looks like a wild pig, right?

However, the pig family, all 16 some known species, are native to Europe, Asia, and Africa.  Until humans brought them to North America, there were no pigs in the Americas.

But there is a group of four species that filled the pig role (niche) in the Americas, and that is the javelina, or peccary, shown above.  They comprise their own family, completely separate from the pig family, and are found primarily in central and South America.  Only one species, the javelina, or collared peccary, makes it into the southwestern U.S.

Javelina root around in the litter and soil, like a pig would, looking for tubers, seeds, insect larvae, etc., and are especially fond of prickly pear pads which they have learned to eat without getting spines up their noses.

Javelina, southeastern Arizona

Their eyesight is poor but their sense of smell is superb and leads them to find the buried delicacies in their diet.

Peccaries once had a world-wide distribution, and fossils of extinct peccaries can be found on all continents except Antarctica and Australia, so why are they only found in the Americas today?  It is thought that competition with the later evolving members of the pig family in Europe, Africa, and Asia may have led to their extinction there, leaving the American species as the only representatives of the peccary family.

Old friends in new places

Cave Creek ranch in the Chiricahua mountains near the New Mexico border is an idyllic haven for birders and hikers.  The scenery is pretty incredible too.

Cave creek near Portal, AZ

The view from my porch looks out over the creek and up into the rocks.

Cave creek near Portal, AZ

We’re set for an early morning hike up Cave Creek, to see if we can find some new birds we haven’t seen before.

Cave creek near Portal, AZ

Like the creek in Madera Canyon, sycamores line the banks of Cave Creek, stretching their limbs far and wide to create wonderful shade.

Sycamores can grow to be giants, but occasionally a limb snaps off, and we find animals taking advantage of the nook created by the amputated limb.

Great Horned Owl

This Great Horned Owl created a nest cavity in one of the huge clefts left after a limb dropped.  We also found a western Screech Owl seeking refuge during the daytime in a similar cavity in another sycamore.

Desert animals are often pale in comparison to others of their kind in other climates, as this Great Horned Owl is.  But there is more to the story than just differences in color.

Animals in this part of the U.S. seem to be entirely different geographic races of their parent species, and the extent of differences in their DNA, their color, their song, and their behavior have led scientists to begin splitting the southwestern desert species off from their representatives in other parts of the U.S. and Mexico.  That’s great for birders that like adding species to their life lists!

Coue's white-tailed deer

The white-tailed deer are much smaller than their relatives in my backyard in MN. In fact, they are technically known as Coue’s white-tailed deer, a dwarfed race, or is it a different species?

Hairy woodpecker, Cave Creek, AZ

Here’s a familiar bird, a male Hairy Woodpecker, but it looks quite different from the MN variety, as it lacks the spots on the wings, and has a broad white stripe down its back.  Would a MN female Hairy Woodpecker refuse to mate with this bird?  If so, then they would be considered separate species.

Brown Creeper, Cave Creek, AZ

Brown Creepers have been divided into four groups now, one in Mexico, and three others in the U.S. divided into eastern, Rocky Mt, and Pacific races.  Differences in song and plumage have been known for some time, but recent DNA analysis has confirmed the separations.

We met some new friends along the Cave Creek trail, but apparently our “old friends” may be new as well.

the bud eater

We think of Spring as a wonderful time of rejuvenation and regrowth, but until leaves and flowers actually start appearing on plants and grass begins to green up and grow, plant eaters are still faced with barely anything to eat.  Having eaten through their stored food and consumed anything that was half way edible over a long winter, animals could be faced with a starvation diet just as lakes are thawing, temperatures are warming, and days are getting longer.

But here’s the solution a little Red Squirrel found today — eating the buds of the buckeye tree outside my porch window.  I saw him nipping off buds and tearing into them, peeling back the outer layer and dining on the juicy interior of the little embryonic leaves within.  And he saw me watching him…

red squirrel eating buckeye buds

Yes, I see you eating those tree buds.

And then I watched as he nipped off another bud and devoured it as well.

red squirrel eating buckeye buds

He/she spots another delectable bud up above on the branch to the right (highlighted)

red squirrel eating buckeye buds

Yes, this one!

red squirrel eating buckeye buds

Biting it right off — good thing the squirrel has those sharp teeth. Plant tissue can be tough.

red squirrel eating buckeye buds


red squirrel eating buckeye buds

He/she is watching me watching him/her.

Young buds probably have higher nitrogen and mineral content per unit weight than more mature leaves would, nutrition meant of course for the development of new leaves.  So this is a pretty smart choice for a Red Squirrel that might be down to its last acorn in the larder.

lazy fox

“the quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog” (a typist’s challenge), but the lazy red fox napped all afternoon in my neighbor’s backyard.  I bet it was a hard night hunting enough food for a litter of fox kits somewhere in the neighborhood.

red fox nap-

There was just enough sun to take the chill out of the sub-freezing temps today, so Red Fox curled up in the litter for a snooze.

red fox nap

At one point, fox got up to have a good scratch, change position, and find a more comfortable resting place.

red fox nap-


red fox nap-


red fox nap-

stretch some more while smelling out a new resting spot

red fox nap-

settling in again…

red fox nap-

the fox wasn’t really all that close, and it does sort of blend in to the color of the litter

As usual, watching the fox made me wonder about the yawning behavior. What is it, really, and why do we do it?

Yawning is contagious — even thinking about yawning makes me want to do it.  And a huge variety of different animals have been observed to engage in yawning, usually in association with resting or sleeping.

yawning animals

Yawning animals from a Google image search

Dogs supposedly will yawn when they see their owners yawning; try it on your pet and see if this works.

Some people claim that the contagion of yawning is related to the empathy between animals or between animals and humans.  Others claim the primary function of yawning and the deep inhalation of breath that accompanies the yawn is to increase oxygenation to the brain, or perhaps to cool the brain, by bringing increased blood flow from the cooler facial areas that are stretched during yawning.  No one really knows for sure.

a trio of bucks

Back in the Minnesota backyard, where the temperatures have climbed into the 60s (F), the snow has melted, and the deer can now forage on new grass shoots.  A herd of six does wandered through the backyard early this morning for a snack of bird seed, and a trio of young bucks ambled by later in the afternoon.  They still haven’t shed their antlers, but it looks like they have been losing portions of the tines.  Their unique antler growth makes them easy to recognize.


This is Studly; not only is his rack the most symmetrical (so far), but he has a nice white neck patch, and has the most regal posture of the three.


Studly’s regal posture!  Isn’t he handsome?


This is Lopside; he has lost most of the right side of his rack. He has the darkest face of the three bucks (is that a sign of age?)


This is Slurpy; he does a lot of licking. He is somewhat assymetric, with the left side tines larger than the right. He also has a dirty neck — it must be a hard place to clean.

The rut is over, and these three bachelors roam the backyard together, usually apart from the does.  I would love to find their cast-off antlers to add to my collection.

Feeling frisky

A light snow yesterday morning brought the local deer herd by the backyard to clean up all the spills under the bird feeders.  First, a small group of does wandered through the yard, and then a couple of young bucks, who were too cool to feed on fallen bird seed but felt frisky enough to put on a shoving match instead.


“Big brother” shoved “little brother” (no doubt they are completely unrelated) several feet, repeatedly bumping heads.


Kind of unfair that one young buck has antlers and the other doesn’t in this shoving match. But ouch, this looks like a good way to get your eye poked by an antler tip.


Junior has had enough of this.


Completely disinterested in each other now, they went their separate ways. It must be lonely being a young buck in the winter… nobody to hang out with.