How to spot a wild European bison

Seeing a wild European bison is the highlight of many people’s trip to Bialowieza Primeval Forest: Poland’s national animal is the icon of the forest, and has a truly epic history. But despite their large size, finding one can often pose somewhat of a problem. They can be rather shy, and spend the majority of their time in the forest depths. As a result, one of the most common questions is, where can I see a bison?

Generally speaking, the bison inhabit the whole Białowieża Forest area. But to narrow down your search there are a couple of facts to bear in mind. Most important, is that bison are a refugee species: back in prehistoric times, bison inhabited open habitats – plains and meadows. But nowadays, as these types of habitat are scarce, bison spend most of their time inside the forest. The thing is though – open habitats are in their genes, so they frequently emerge from the forest by night to forage, and return to the forest by day. Dusk and dawn on the various meadows in and around the forest are thus your best bet for seeing the bison.

A herd of bison on the meadows behind Białowieża village.

The second most important point, is that there is great seasonality in bison behaviour; this changes their distributions throughout the forest. In winter there is little food available to bison in the forest. As a result, the chances of seeing them randomly in the forest decreases. Bison herds gather around supplementary feeding points and spend more time out on the meadows. Unfortunately, the feeding sites are out of bounds to tourists – except for the one at Kosy Most, which has a viewing area. I’ve never checked this out in winter, so can’t comment of the probability of seeing bison there. But it’s potentially also a good spot.

Where to see a European bison?

In general, all year around (and particularly in winter), I think the meadows behind Białowieża Village are the easiest and best places to see a wild bison. They often come out here to forage, emerging from the forest just before sunset and returning just after sunrise. So head up to the meadows around these times. See the map below for where I’ve seen bison over the past year.

The map shows the meadows behind Białowieża Village. The stars are the locations where I’ve seen bison over the past year.

The shaded areas on the map above show the general area that bison like to utilise during the night. To get there, cycle or drive up at sunset or sunrise to Kamienne Bagno street. The bison sometimes graze on the plots next to this street, but can more often be found closer to the forest, particularly if there is still daylight. I haven’t found any particular part of the meadows better than others. I’ve found them in the west, near the gate to the national park, but also to the east, behind the national park fences – so just explore this area and hopefully you will stumble upon one (or an entire herd!). A bonus of the meadow bison is that they are often more confident than the individuals you can meet in the forest. They’re somewhat accustomed to the presence of humans and usually don’t run away at the first sign of us. Just remember to not pass the fence marking the start of the national park, as it’s not allowed.

How to behave when you meet a European bison

Wild bison are generally good natured and harmless. If you keep a comfortable distance, the meadow bison will more often than not, be more curious than scared or aggressive. Nevertheless, there are still some precautions to be aware of.

Observe a bison’s body language. Like many animals, a bison’s mood can be gauged by the way it’s holding itself. If it’s becoming noticeably agitated, by appearing restless or stomping its feet, then stop approaching and back away. This will almost always defuse the situation and you can continue to observe from a distance. If the bison returns to eating then you know he is feeling comfortable again.

There are another two options when a bison feels uncomfortable: either it runs away, or charges at you. Thankfully the latter has only happened a handful of times over the past years, and usually not to tourists. It’s usually locals trying to move a bison on from their property. This type of situation is prevented by simply following the above advice: just keep your distance, and back away if a bison appears agitated. Most often however, if you get too close, bison simply run away (this happens very often). Cows with young calves are particularly sensitive, and often run away at the first sight of humans. This is unfortunate, as they often dissapear before you can get photos. But you can at least enjoy the fact that you have caught a brief glimpse of Europe’s largest mammal!

Seeing a European bison in the forest
Bison tracks in the snow. Look out for big hoof prints 10ish centimetres wide.

The forest and glades around Budy, Narewkowska Road and Narewka at dusk and dawn are your best bet for seeing a bison in the forest. Although I haven’t had much luck with this option – I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve stumbled upon a bison in the forest accidentally. In winter though, it’s a slightly different story, as you can easily find their fresh tracks in the snow. Look for the 10+cm hoof marks in the snow. Usually, if you follow these for a while, you’ll stumble into some bison (and often an entire herd) chilling out in the forest.

Generally, I don’t recommend going into the forest specifically to see any animal: it’s always a lottery as to what you meet. Go into the forest to see the forest, and if you’re lucky enough to spot some wild animals, then that’s a great bonus :).

Good luck bison spotting!

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