At the end of May, three vans took off from The Netherlands for a study trip for the ARK Nature foundation team to the Oder Delta, an area at the very northern end of the border between Germany and Poland. Here, the Oder River flows out into the Baltic Sea via the Szczecin Lagoon and its surroundings are becoming wilder and wilder by the day.
To me, being on an ARK annual team journey for the first time, the drive was a bit like a school trip, full of excitement. But here the enthusiasts involved were slightly older, all armed with binoculars, and well equipped for serious outdoor activities. The twenty-two of us were ready to explore the Oder Delta region, nominated to become a new Rewilding Europe area. With a packed programme in place, we were about to see what it is that makes this place so very interesting.
After a drive of several hours, we started off by stretching our legs in an inland sand dune area, where our excellent guides Jonathan Rauhut and Stefan Schwill explained what we were seeing, and what we might be seeing in the future. Possibly wild horses, Eurasian elk, European bison? Eagerly following tracks of red deer and learning that grey wolves are already nearby, this was a promising start of the journey. We continued to Anklam where we camped in Kamp, while the sun set beautifully over the Peenestrom strait.
The next day, we worked out during a canoe trip on the Peene River, with the prevailing winds blowing from behind. While cruising along a river that we seemed to be having all for ourselves, for several times we spotted white-tailed eagles. Near Menzlin we took a break to enjoy the scenery by foot. For me, a perfect moment to walk around in the wetland area, where countless ducks and swans were floating around. All the time on alert for a Eurasian beaver to greet, as there were many signs of beaver families abundant.
In the next part of the canoe ride, we spotted a considerable-sized white-tailed eagle really close by in the riparian forest. He was so very kind to wait for all our canoes to gather and behold to see the massive bird sitting in the top of a tree. What brilliant birds they are, and it was amazing how well you can see them, whilst you are paddling along in this scenic setting.
In the afternoon, we went for a hike at the Anklamer Stadtbruch. Counting birds was pointless, already from scratch, there were just too many of them. We awed at seeing many thousands of cormorants. Their nesting sites looked almost surreal with tree silhouettes from the dead trees everywhere as a backdrop, a swampy surface, heavy clouds over our heads, a few broken birding beds scattered on the floor and lots of birds in the air and sitting in the trees. Next door, the ubiquitous signs of beaver presence were easy to see. It appears that they have quite an appetite along the same waterways where the birds retreat. For someone like myself who doesn’t come across beaver signs that often, it was a joy to see so many big teeth marks carved into some very recently felled tree stands. Not to mention the great fun I had to crawl along one of the beaver passages through the bushes, getting an idea about the animal’s perspective when it is out for some of its keen engineering work. Full of life, this recently re-flooded area! Yet it has a bit of a sinister sight to it, with big raptors at the other side of the beaver workplace. Over there, silence and then flapping of huge wings, from a pair of white-tailed eagles returning home.
Hiking further, we spotted signs of an otter, a moment I knew for sure it came in handy to travel with colleagues who can distinguish the freshness of an otter spraint… As if the enormous numbers of cormorants, swans, geese and ducks paddling along, and frequent sightings of eagles were not amazing enough, also a group of common cranes searched for food in an adjacent grassland. The final flock size is still an item for internal discussion, but 120 to130 would be a pretty exact number, I would say.
Into Poland, halfway through our trip, we visited the Polish Wolinski Park Narodowy (Wolin National Park). Here I found myself happily running down to the beach as it was on my check-list to taste some Baltic Sea side freshness. It ended up being more of a taste of sand stickiness, but what a view! After news about the grey seal population here, and rumours about harbour porpoise sightings in the river inwards, it made me wonder what else could be spotted when winds are less evidently present.
After a delicious dinner at Kopice, our second camp of the week, the programme pointed out a boat trip out of Stepnica, to watch for the white-tailed eagles. Exciting! Packed with several layers of clothing to combat wind and water, I was extremely satisfied of the package I made of myself, as I turned out to be one of the very few not being benumbed of cold. Meanwhile, awing at white-tailed eagles passing by very close, taking some fish snacks from the lagoon. An unforgettable experience!
A trip to the Gowienica River was next on our afternoon list where the friendly fish specialist Artur Furdyna told us in detail about fish migrations here. Then we stepped around in another beaver paradise in Goleniowska Forest. All the time in the great company of Iwona Krepic. Finally, as the sun pushed through, we stopped at a colourful, huge field of orchids with plants growing up to waist level. It was almost like in a painting: blue sky, roe deer ears popping up every once in a while, red deer in the bushy transition to the forest, and a group of happy nature lovers each and every one of them enjoying the moment in their very own manner. Some gazing into the forest to see more red deer backs appearing, making pictures of the scenery, looking into the sky for yet another flyby, sketching a way through this living herbarium, but most of them full into discussions with their heads at plant level, trying to identify the many different flower species. A nice setting to step into the vans again, very satisfied.
From a rewilding point of view, I could clearly see why this area has been nominated for the Rewilding Europe portfolio. The varied landscape houses many birds and the mammals flourish visibly. And with great efforts underway, more species that are already living close by like elk and bison could probably come to inhabit the region in the very near future. But not only nature does the trick here. In this natural world we met with great guides on both sides of the border, we were treated to home-made delicacies by very friendly people in Germany, and feasted upon Polish traditional dishes. Meaning enough of everything and more to come. I have never had so much soup, barszcz in Polish, in a few days. The one even tastier then the other!
Although there is still a serious amount of work to do in order to make the region more accessible for visitors from many places, the main ingredients for success are already here. With so many passionate people sharing a similar vision, it’s only a matter of time before visitors are beginning to come over for serious safari travel around the Szczecin Lagoon. Eager to spot the Big Seven here – Atlantic sturgeon, grey seal, beaver, white-tailed eagle, Konik horse, wolf and bison. The cooperation between people from both sides of the border here, is truly a wonderful way forward. For the benefit of nature and people alike.