The striking thing about Poland’s Oder Delta is its scale, it is vast, covering almost 250,000 hectares in both Poland and Germany.
It is blessed with large areas of riverine forest, wetlands, willow shrub and meadow, and is home to bison, beaver, wild boar, wolf and lynx. It is also has Europe’s highest breeding population of white tailed eagles. It is the eagles I have come to see.
After a two and a half hour journey north from Berlin travelling on a near pristine motorway, an inconspicuous turning leads into another world. The road is bumpy and jolting and soon overwhelms the drowsiness of the soporific motorway. It leads through an enveloping and dense forest, but it is far from claustrophobic or dark and there are glimpses of woodland glades and meadows. It is easy to imagine wolves and other wild things deep in the forest, out of sight, but not out of mind.
The little town of Stepnica is charming, situated on the banks of the Oder Delta with a wonderful vista and a harbour with a small number of fishing boats. The fishermen are turning their attention to supplementing their incomes by taking tourists and wildlife photographers out to watch the wildlife. The boats are small, the delta looks very big.
It is bitterly cold and there is snow on the ground. The light is sombre and the water whipped by an unforgiving easterly wind. It is far from ideal and the first eagle session is cancelled, too unsettled and the weather is worsening.
There is much checking of weather forecasts and peering out of windows for the briefest sign of improving light and easing winds.
We get the go ahead for the next day, more settled conditions and (hopefully) improving light.
It is choppy out on the water and we are all drenched by the spray as it sweeps over the prow of the boat to soak everything, protecting ourselves and our gear is a struggle. Pieces of bread and small fish are thrown to attract gulls and the raucous gathering stirs the eagles.
Juvenile gull with its prize of a slice of stale bread!
The first one appears out of the gloom, slow and stately, appearing not to advance but just swell in mass and volume. The fisherman throws a larger fish, one that the gulls just can’t quite manage despite their best efforts. The eagle probably spotted one of the smaller fish from a mile (or more) away, they have phenomenal eyesight. They know that the boats and gulls mean a relatively easy meal.
One eagle is joined by more and before long there are five circling in the sky above us, it’s difficult to judge which one might dive. We’re all poised with our cameras, desperately trying to remain steady on the persistently undulant boat. One comes in close, its sharply wild and intense stare, huge dark wings, bold yellow bill, white fan of tail feathers and pale feet (talons safely tucked away), all strikingly clear.
White tailed eagles come in fast when they feel confident. The tell-tale signs of the angle of the head, eyes fixed on the prize, then the twist and the fold of the wings and a lightning fast strike like a strafing fighter jet. It is an elemental thrill to witness, but blink and you will miss it.
Thankfully, the next day’s weather improved dramatically with clear skies, sunshine and lighter winds. We counted twenty five eagles up during a three hour session, one of the highest numbers ever, but fewer dives. It took until almost our final session to get to grips with the tricky technicalities (mixed with a lot of luck) of capturing these birds as they make their dramatic dives. Once the ISO, shutter speed and aperture were sorted, then it became a case of trial and error (lots of error) experimenting with focal points in order to get the most reliable focusing. It took some time to get a sharp shot shooting from a constantly wavering small boat.
Above all, it was the sheer pleasure of spending time in the eagle’s world, witnessing the eagle’s exhilarating dives and watching out for other inhabitants too (brief glimpses of wild boar and other fabulous birds), and being out in the boat on the vastness of the Oder delta that will stay with me. It is clear that the people of Stepnica and the wider region take great pride in their river delta. They have ambitious rewilding plans for the region to augment what is already there. It is a positive vision for all to learn from and follow.
Follow this link to discover more about rewilding Europe.