Watching Wolves in Europe

Seeing wolves in the wild in Europe isn’t easy. Mostly, we have to make do with finding signs of their presence.

Wolves are now protected in most European countries.

Eurasian wolf packs and individuals have now been spotted as far west as the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg, although their strongholds are still in the north and east. In total, the grey wolf population in Europe is estimated to be around 12,000 animals (excluding Belarus, Ukraine and Western Russia) in 28 countries. (Info from Rewilding Europe)

Top photo © Christels/Pixnio Creative Commons Licence, bottom photo Photo User:Mas3cf, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Magura National Park in southern Poland was our best bet for seeing wolves. It was an informal trip, organised by someone who had been there several times, and had seen wolves a couple of times. But, as with all wildlife, there were no guarantees. It was a new place for us, so somewhere to be enjoyed, regardless.

We set up trail-cams. One for each member of the group, variously overlooking ponds and wallows – wild boar were another possibility here. We took long walks, looking at birds, plants, reptiles, and anything else. We had hot scorching days, we had terrific downpours.

One day, we (just the two of us) walked along the Poland/Slovakia border – once a no-man’s land with fences and border guards, now part of a long-distance trail through the forest. We were told to stick to the trail because there were probably still land-mines in some areas of the woods. But even so, we were still vulnerable. Bears and wolves were known to be in the area, even if they were infrequently encountered. What should we do if we did encounter them? Bears were usually solitary, or mother and cubs. Wolves were pack animals, and we could be surrounded without realising it. We kept going, sort of hoping not to see any.

What we did see from time to time, were large carnivore scats – piles of droppings that were too big and coarse for domestic dog, but too small for bear. And always these scats were surrounded by butterflies and other insects, mining the scats for minerals and salts they needed to survive and produce eggs. Perhaps not what you expect of beautiful insects, but part of their survival strategy anyway.

At the end of the week, the trail-cam results were disappointing. Between us, we had the odd wild boar, deer, owls, and a badger. At least the beavers living in the stream near the village obliged every evening.


Improving your chances

So, are there any way of improving your chances of seeing wolves? I’ve scoured the internet, and found the following ‘wolf-watching’ trips. Generally, you will be tracking wolves and learning about them and their interactions with other animals and the environment. Actually seeing a wolf, or even hearing one, is the icing on the cake. The exception is the Norway trip, where you are taken to meet a semi-wild pack in a very large enclosure.

I have not used any of these companies, and have no affiliation with them. This is simply a round-up of possibilities. The brief comments are taken from the company websites.


Bulgaria

It is now possible to organize unique tailor-made wolf tracking holidays in Bulgaria. These wolf tracking holidays are particularly rewarding during the winter months when the mountains are covered in snow, and the wolves and their ungulate prey can be tracked on foot, often with the aid of snowshoes.


Finland

Responsible Travel: With a 100% success rate in photographing wild brown bears & wolverines and over 80% chance of photographing wolves, this is the best tour for anyone wanting to see and photograph some of Europe’s largest and top predators.

Wildlifeworldwide: Join award winning wildlife photographer Bret Charman or Emma Healey on a five-night tour to northern Finland’s remote boreal forest in search of Europe’s large predators.

Wildlifeworldwide: You stay at two carefully selected locations equipped with purpose-built hides, where you keep a night vigil with a local guide to see brown bears, wolverines and wolves lured by carrion. In the day there are nature walks in the vicinity or optional trips further afield.

Finnature: In Finland, it is possible to see wild Wolves at special wildlife watching sites. At these sites, predators are attracted in front of viewing hides with food. Comfortable viewing hides are excellent places to watch Wolves safely. While Brown Bears and Wolverines are regular visitors at these sites, Wolves come around more rarely. This is because Wolves avoid conflicts with other carnivores, but also because they have larger territories. We at Finnature can help you to choose the best sites for Wolf watching. The best time for Wolf watching is from spring to autumn.

WildTaiga: Overnight stays in a photographic hide watching for carnivores


France

Undiscoveredmountains: Your high mountain guide and tracker, Bernard has been following the colonisation of the wolves in the French Alps for 20 years. With a wealth of local knowledge and access to a network of other local wolf enthusiasts, you won’t get a much better insight into these elusive animals. He will take you on a 4 day adventure following tracks and signs of wolf activity in the area and give you a rare insight in to the lives and behaviour of the other animals as they live under the threat of the wolf. This is a tracking holiday so we will be following signs of wolves and spending some time wildlife watching and interpreting what we see. However, it isn’t a wolf park and the territory of each pack or solitary wolf is enormous. So, please be aware that although you may be lucky and find signs straight away, you may not find anything and there is no guarantee you will see or hear a wolf.  


Germany

Biosphere Expeditions: wolf conservation expedition. Elaine gives an account of her experience here


Norway

Arctic holiday: This arctic animal-orientated journey packs in the mesmerising Northern Lights and a thrilling dog sledding ride. You will also visit the Polar Park and meet the local wildlife, like lynx and reindeer, and last but not least; Arctic Wolves! All this, while travelling through stunning arctic landscapes and enjoying local food along the way.

Polar Park is the world’s northernmost animal park & arctic wildlife centre. Animals you’ll see include wolves, lynx, moose, bears, wolverines, and muskox. They look especially great in their natural habitat with thick coats in winter! These predators live in wilderness enclosures with massive spaces to roam, so you may need all day to see all of them.

Photo User:Mas3cf, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons


Poland

Responsibletravel: Bieszczady belongs to the lowest mountain ranges of Carpathians (max. 1346 m/4416 feet). Scarcely populated and largely forested these mountains are now teeming with wildlife and have become the most important Polish refuge for Brown Bears, Wolves, Lynx and even Wild Cats. Moreover, there is a large herd of wild European Bison living here as well as plenty of Beavers and we will aim to see them all.

Naturetrek: This unique winter wildlife holiday focuses on the large mammals that are rare or extinct in western Europe, but still flourish in the remoter eastern corners of the continent. This holiday explores the meandering rivers of the Biebrza Marshes and the extensive forests of Bialowieza, including the primeval ‘Strict Reserve’. Within this snowy landscape live Elk (Moose), Red Deer, Beaver and a variety of birds, along with the impressive European Bison. There will also be the opportunity to listen for wolves howling in the forest.   


Portugal

European Safari Company: Faia Brava reserve is the first privately owned natural reserve in Portugal. It is bordered by the Côa River, and it is part of the Archeological Park of the Côa Valley, a UNESCO world heritage site. Oak forests and former cropland returning to nature are home to griffons, Egyptian and black vultures, golden and Bonelli’s eagles. In this experience you will learn how to track wolves, enjoy hikes around the private reserve of Faia Brava, and get to know the rich cultural and historical heritage of the Côa Valley. The accommodations are charming family-owned guesthouses in which you will feel like home sitting with a glass of some of Portugal’s finest wines and enjoying delicious local cuisine and a beautiful view.


Romania

Responsible Travel: A 6-day long private trip in Transylvania, with 4 days (morning and evening) focusing on wolf watching and tracking with a wildlife researcher. We’ll also take the opportunity to visit Bran Castle (aka Dracula’s Castle), enjoy the medieval town of Brasov with the most Eastern Gothic church, the Black Church, as well as the unforgettable sceneries of the Carpathian mountains in search of wolf tracks. Wolves are very shy animals due to the numerous persecutions from people, who learned the art of camouflage the hard way. This trip gives you the opportunity to look for wolves in their natural habitat, at safe distance to minimize the negative impact of our activities on these magnificent carnivores.


Spain

Naturetrek: This tour offers a chance to look for three of Europe’s most iconic mammals in contrasting habitats in northern Spain – the Bay of Biscay, Somiedo Natural Park in the western Cantabrian Mountains and the rolling hills of Zamora Province. Our holiday begins with a ferry trip to Santander across the Bay of Biscay, where we’ll watch for whales, dolphins and seabirds. On arrival in northern Spain we head to the heart of Somiedo in search of bears, before transferring to our second base in Zamora for two days of wolf-scanning. There’ll be some special birds too, including plenty of raptors, bustards and other mountain and steppe birds. We finish the tour with a little light culture in Santander.

Wild Wolf Experience: The Sierra de la Culebra hosts the highest density of wild wolves in Spain, but any sighting has to be regarded as a bonus when spending time in this area of wolf country. We do have a high success rate of sightings of these iconic predators, but at least be assured, if you haven’t seen them… they have seen you! Our Watching for Wolves tour operates throughout the year and is based in our home area of the Sierra de la Culebra in the far north west of Spain. The Sierra de la Culebra has recently been declared a Biosphere Reserve, which also includes the Duero Gorge.

Wildside Holidays website provides information about the Iberian Wolf and the Iberian Wolf Visitor Centre in La Garganta, as well as links to the Wild Wolf Experience mentioned above.

Visit Andalucia gives some hints about the best places to see wolves in the province


Sweden

Responsible Travel: Join a tracker for a day out in wolf territory. Tracking wolves is always exciting! During this trip we travel together by foot and by van in small groups in one of Sweden´s wolf territories. You will have good chances to track Wolves and feel their presence.

Responsible Travel: Sweden wildlife tours over a long weekend uncover an inordinate amount of animal life with moose, beavers, foxes and red squirrels all to be found if you know where to look. Following a guide on a four day Sweden wildlife tour lets you learn as you explore with bird calls deciphered and animal tracks uncovered, especially when tracking through the realm of the wolf.

Naturetrek: In the beautiful forests of central Sweden some of Europe’s larger mammal species, long since extinct in the British Isles, still outnumber the human population. On this short break we’ll search for Elk, Beaver and learn how to track Wolves amidst the scenic lakes and dense forests of Sweden’s Bergslagen region. Based in a lakeside guesthouse, inside a forest, we’ll make evening excursions to look for Elk and Beaver. We’ll track Wolves and our guide may even demonstrate how to attract their attention – by howling! 


Photo (c) Malene Thyssen, CC BY-SA 3.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/, via Wikimedia Commons


Wolf distribution and population in Europe 2019.

Wolves have now been found in low (often very low) density across much of Europe. The brown areas on the map show where they (or signs of them) are most frequent.

A larger version of the map can be seen here

© Sciencia58, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons


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Bear-watching

A round-up of opportunities for watching and photographing bears in Europe

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Winter birdwatching in Bulgaria

Why Bulgaria in Winter

Bulgaria in winter tends to be cold, with temperatures often a few degrees below freezing for days on end, and snow more likely than rain.  The climate along the Black Sea coast, however, tends to be less severe. So tens of thousands of geese and other wildfowl spend the winter here.

The greatest numbers of geese are seen in January and February, but January is still the hunting season, and the birds are often unsettled.  So, February is a better time for a visit.

The northern-most part of the Black Sea coast (near Romania) has been dubbed Bulgaria’s ‘Geeseland’. This is where the main roosts of the geese, the lakes of Shabla and Durankulak, are located. The southern Bulgarian Black Sea also provides wintering grounds for Dalmatian pelicans, pygmy cormorants, various species of ducks, shorebirds, gulls, raptors, owls, woodpeckers, and many smaller birds.

The less severe climate on the southern Bulgarian Black Sea also provides wintering grounds for Dalmatian Pelicans, Pygmy Cormorants, various species of ducks, shorebirds, gulls, raptors, owls, woodpeckers and many smaller birds.

Red-breasted Goose

Shabla Lake complex

Located on the northern part of the Black Sea coast, the Shabla Lake complex is of  European importance for the conservation of rare and endangered habitats.  The coastal freshwater and brackish lakes, sandy beaches and reedbeds are used by thousands of birds as roosts during migration or while wintering.

Located on the Via Pontica – a major bird migration route in Europe – the lake complex attracts a huge number of migratory waterfowl. It is famous for the huge concentrations of red-breasted geese and greater white-fronted geese. These come from the tundra of Europe and Asia to overwinter. The mild winters, coupled with safe roosting lakes and large arable areas where they can feed, bring in about three-quarters of the global population of red-breasted geese (up to 30,000) for the season.

The migration of red-breasted geese is currently being studied by satellite tracking. Several birds have been fitted with GPS devices that transmit information every day. This allows their movements to be followed in detail – through Georgia, Kazakhstan, and then north to the Russian Arctic coast. This also encourages interest in local wildlife in schools etc en route. For more information, check the project website.

For more information, see Shabla Lake – Important Bird Area

Geese flying out to their feeding grounds at sunrise

Lake Durankulak

Like Shabla, Lake Durankulak is a haven for thousands of migratory birds passing each year on the way to their breeding territories or remaining to spend the winter. In winter the variety of waterfowl is incredible: Black-necked Grebes, Pygmy Cormorants, Mute and Whooper Swans, Pochards, Tufted Ducks, Red-breasted Mergansers, Yellow-legged Gulls etc. but especially the tens of thousands of mostly White-fronted and Red-breasted Geese.  But the top attraction is the flocks of many thousands of wild geese flying off the lake at sunrise. 

For more information, see Durankulak Lake – Important Bird Area

White-headed Duck

Burgas

The wetlands around the city of Burgas form one of Europe’s richest bird areas. One of the biggest attractions in winter however, are the flocks of Pygmy Cormorants and Dalmatian Pelicans resident there, and the hundreds of White-headed Ducks wintering almost every winter on Vaya Lake. Some of the other species expected there are Whooper Swan, Tundra Swan (ssp. bewickii), White-tailed Eagle, Bearded Reedling, Smew, Pallas’s Gull, Slender-billed Gull, Mediterranean Gull and other more common wintering waterbirds. Nearby there are coastal riverine forests and the Eastern Balkan oak forests, which are very good sites for Grey-headed Woodpecker, Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, Middle Spotted Woodpecker, Short-toed Treecreeper, Hawfinch, Cirl Bunting and Sombre Tit.

The Bulgarian Society for the Protection of Birds manages a small reserve and visitor centre at the Poda Reserve where there are trails and hides.

Cinereous (Eurasian Black) Vulture

Eastern Rhodopes

The Eastern part of the Rhodope Mountains is locked between the valleys of the big rivers Arda and Maritsa in southern Bulgaria, near the border with Greece. This area hosts exceptional biodiversity – a result of the mixture of Mediterranean and continental climates. This is the realm of the wolf packs, as one of the densest populations of the Wolf in Bulgaria is found here. The most spectacular birds of the region in winter are the vultures – Eurasian Griffon and Cinereous (Eurasian Black) vultures, which are attracted to a feeding station in the Potochnitsa Hills.


Visiting the area

While Bulgaria is fairly easily accessible, the main problem for the independent traveller is that road signs are in the Cyrillic alphabet (although on major roads, some may have Latin script too). And then you have to remember that a shake of the head means ‘yes’ and a nod means ‘no’.

Finding wildlife, especially if you have limited time, may therefore be best achieved by joining an organised tour.

Neophron Tours provides a bird-guide service to these sites in Bulgaria. I haven’t used them myself, but they were recommended by friends.

Birdwatching Bulgaria is a branch of a Danish tour operator, and offers a limited range of tours.

Branta Tours is another company based in Eastern Europe. It also operates the Branta Bird Lodge and conservation centre close to the Durankulak Lake Protected Area.

Wild Echo is a Bulgarian company that has been operating for 15 years, and provide a variety of standard trips as well as tailor-made trips.

Many nature tour companies based outside of Bulgaria also use guides provided by one of these companies.

Wikitravel provides a lot of information for the independent traveller to Bulgaria, and includes a section on the Black Sea Coast


Bookshop

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Malcolm Rymer’s fascination with waterfowl draws him to coastal Bulgaria each February to study the geese on their wintering grounds.

Many thousands of European White-fronted geese, wintering wildfowl, grebes, divers, larks, woodpeckers, owls, swans, pelicans, buzzards and eagles all feature in these videos.

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Bear-watching

Bear necessities

It was only a footprint, but it was BIG. I felt the hairs on the back of my neck rise, and the adrenalin starting to pump. The only animal I knew of that size was bear, and bears certainly lived in the area, though at low density and rarely seen.

A second look told me the prints were not that fresh – maybe during the night, or even yesterday. The bear probably was NOT still close by. But we couldn’t help looking around, just in case. And talking loudly – bears usually avoid humans, so best to let them know you are around.

Bob tried to convince me that it was some human pulling a joke, but I think he was actually quite worried about it. Was it coincidence that, while trying to photograph the footprint, I managed to knock the tripod over and damage the camera – beyond repair as it turned out.

We were hiking along a public trail through the Urho Kekkonen in the Saariselka Wilderness area of Finland – a few kilometres from the visitor centre at Tankavaara. The same few kilometres from the road where we were expecting to get the bus back to Saariselka. We arrived back at the bus stop with 45 minutes to spare.

We certainly felt vulnerable – out in the open on foot. I had previously met black bears in America, but then I had been on horseback. A horse can outrun a bear on flat ground, a human can’t outrun a bear on any terrain – the bear has four legs and a low centre of gravity.

But it would be nice to see a bear properly – the bear in the wild, the humans in a relaxed/safe situation. It had taken years to see just the footprint, so what is the best way to see the actual bear?

The most obvious answer is to join a bear-watching holiday. These come in several sizes. Note that I have no connection with any of these places/companies. This is just a round-up of bear-watching opportunities advertised on the internet.

Eco-volunteering –

You’ll learn about bears and their environment from people studying them, and also contribute to conservation in that country. Greece, Romania, Bulgaria and Finland are good destinations, and Responsible Travel a good company to use.  There is a lot of information about watching bears on their website. 

Romania – volunteering at a bear sanctuary (see here for an account of visiting a bear sanctuary in Romania)

Greece – Bear conservation tour

Bear-watching trips –

A specialist trip, (or part of a more general nature trip) usually of a few days, designed to put you (with your camera if desired) in a hide for one or more nights in the expectation of seeing a bear at dawn or dusk. Usually, you are taken by vehicle to within a short distance of the hide, then on foot for the last fifteen minutes or so. For overnight stays, the hide will have bunk beds, basic toilet facilities, and perhaps a means of heating food (but not proper cooking facilities). In the morning, or at a pre-arranged time, you are collected, walk back to the vehicle, and driven to your accommodation, or the nearest town, etc. While nothing is guaranteed, a few nights in a hide is probably the best opportunity to see a bear, or two or three, plus some other passing wildlife.

Downloadable leaflet – How to behave in bear country

Finland

Martinselkonen Nature Reserve, located in Eastern Finland, is one of the best places in Europe to photograph brown bears. This tranquil wilderness location is highly recommended – on occasion up to 20 bears and eight cubs have been seen in a single night! And there is plenty of other wildlife to be seen. The location is popular with holiday companies and is included in many of the following tours.

Bear Centre – 29 hides for watching and photography – April – September

Brown bears near Kuusamo – May – October – further north than the centres listed above.

Bears and other mammals – suggestions from Visit Finland

Finland guided tours

Bears, wolves and Wolverines – April – August, self-drive trip – On this unique wildlife adventure in the boreal forest of Finland you self-drive between lodges, allowing you to explore the wildlife of the taiga at your own pace. We have selected three lodges with a network of outstanding hides from which to watch and photograph such iconic inhabitants of the far north as brown bear, wolf, wolverine and white-tailed eagle. Throughout spring and summer these overnight hides offer mammal-watching which is unrivalled in northern Europe.

Wildlife Worldwide holidays will also organise a bespoke tour, and many other companies provide something similar, perhaps especially for photographers.  

Just brown bears – summer –  a long weekend Brown Bear-watching holiday amongst the fine taiga forests that straddle Finland’s border with Russia.

Brown bear explorer June & July – Long evenings and early dawns allow incomparable opportunities to watch and photograph the wildlife of the forest on this 8-day tour in Finland. Staying at purpose built hides, night vigils with a naturalist guide reward you with close-ups of brown bears, wolverines and occasionally wolves.

Brown bears in Finland – May-August – An ideal short-haul break to a wonderful location for sighting brown bears in the Finnish wilderness.

Brown bear and elk adventure – May – September

Bear photography – June – Join wildlife photographer Tom Mason on a midsummer trip to photograph brown bears and wolverines, with four nights in specialist hides in the taiga forest of Finland.

Sweden

Bear watching in Sweden – A 4-day holiday to an idyllic, rolling land of forests and lakes where we will look for Brown Bears from a luxurious purpose-built hide, and enjoy the natural history, beauty and extraordinary tranquillity of a magical place just five hours away

South-eastern Europe

BulgariaBears and wolves

RomaniaBear-watching and Transylvanian castles – May – September

SloveniaHiking & bear-watching. Two perfect days to dive into the area of Kočevsko forest. Spend time in nature in search of wildlife and enjoy local delicacies. May – October

Slovenia –

Greece

Brown bear tracking in the northern Pindos – May – October – Track wild bears in a pristine mountainous corner of Greece: Northern Pindos. Back to nature with the friendly guides of wildlife charity CALLISTO to hear about bear research methods, walk in the wilderness, and witness traces of wild bears. Note – this is basically the same as the bear conservation tour listed under eco-volunteering, but with a different company.

Spain

Watching bears in northern Spain

A year in the life of a bear

March-April: bears emerge from hibernation, including cubs taking their first look at the outside world. All they want to do in spring is eat, to rebuild the reserves lost through the long winter sleep.

May to July: mating season, when males persistently follow females everywhere.

August-October: it is eating season again, as bears fatten up in preparation for hibernation.

More information about bears on the Euronatur website

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