In this blog post, I’ll take you on my wildlife watching experience to the High Tatras in Slovakia. First of all, just a little background story on how a Belgian guy ends up in the Slovakian nature. It all started back in 2012. I participated in a snow tracking project looking for wildlife tracks. After some years I asked myself the question “How would Slovakia be in summer?” The next summer, I was on my way... In this blog I take you on my wildlife watching adventure in the High Tatras of Slovakia.
High Tatra Mountains and wildlife
The High Tatra Mountain range is the highest range of the Carpathian Mountains and are situated along the border of Slovakia and Poland. The higher elevations of the Tatra Mountains are characterized by alpine meadows. Besides the rich flora, these mountains are home to chamois and marmots, but also brown bears, wolves and lynx. Red deer and roe deer can be found in the lower elevations.
Wildlife watching in the High Tatras
I had a couple of goals during this wildlife watching trip in the High Tatras. I wanted to search for chamois and marmots. The chamois in the Tatra Mountains is a special one. The Tatra chamois (Rupicapra rupicapra tatrica) is a subspecies only occurring in the High Tatras. They are mostly found above the treeline in the alpine zone. I did put my visit to Slovakia a little later in the summer in an effort to see bears as well. During berry season, some bears are coming to these alpine zones to feed on the berries. Let’s take you on my journey...
Chamois and marmots in the High Tatras
Chamois and marmots are living at a higher elevation of the High Tatras. My walk focused on the Beliansky Tatry area. I started of in the forest, going through the mountain pine zone (1500-1800m) to end up in the alpine meadow zone. I did this first part of the walk without much resting, as I wanted to spend as much time as possible higher up in the mountains.
As soon as I got to the open area, I craved for a rest. I took out my binoculars and started looking around. Soon I had found a group of 8 chamois, even with a little one. I felt relieved and I actually spent quite some time there. I might have pushed myself too hard getting up the mountain, so take your time climbing up the trail to the alpine zone. I took some pictures and just enjoyed the presence of the chamois. After a while, I spotted more chamois. They were higher up on the saddle, but they were closer to the path.
On my way to this next group of chamois, I could also hear some very high-pitched yells. I guessed it must have been the alarm calls of marmots. I was in my element surrounded by all these animals. The second group of chamois was much larger. I counted 20 individuals. They didn’t care about the tourist path and continued doing their things: grazing or just chilling. The group also included some younger individuals. Once in a while they were running after each other, preparing for the rutting season later in the year.
The chamois had my full attention. But suddenly I saw some other movement close to the group of chamois. A marmot came cautiously looking out of its burrow. How could I have missed them! Now the marmots got my attention and when I was looking around more carefully, I could see at least three marmots sitting outside their burrows. I could observe one marmot on the meadow eating some plants. It was a great observation.
As I had spent already a lot of time sitting and watching, probably all people I took over on the way up had passed me by now. I guess we all had different goals in the end.
Tip: Take your time once you are in the alpine zone. Scan with your binoculars and listen to sounds to improve your chances of finding both chamois and marmots.
On my way down, I continued stopping once in a while to scan the meadows at a higher elevation. I could spot a couple more groups of chamois, but they were very high up. Quite some hikers passed me with a strange look, as they had no clue where I was looking at. One guy was fascinated by my efforts of ‘finding little dots’ on the slopes far away. I told him I was a tourist from Belgium. I triggered his need to explain me some history of the place I was. Apparently, this part of the High Tatras was a historical hunting ground for rich people. According to stories, they had even brought in lions at some point. He directly made it clear that’s not the case anymore… Near my end point, Tantraská Javorina, there is still a hunting lodge ‘Hohenlohe’. There should be an exhibition of a lot of these historical trophies, but I didn’t visit it myself.
What a day! I was happy with my sightings, but I was eager to see more of this area.
Going for bear watching in the High Tatras
The chamois and the marmots were a warm-up for my next adventure and part two of my wildlife watching in the High Tatras experience. I wanted to try some bear watching. My friend told me about a valley where we should have a high chance of finding bears. It was already late August, which is one of the best times to see bears. September would be even better. During this time of year, bears are preparing for hibernation and are focussing on eating a lot of berries.
My friend is also a nature guide, so this was basically a test trip to see how it went. He is very knowledgeable about bears and he wanted the trip to focus on information and stories about bears and their habits. Of course, seeing a bear would be a huge plus to the tour.
We had the great idea to rent e-bikes so we could totally focus on our nature and wildlife experience. It started off as a crazy idea, but soon enough we had e-bikes on a trailer. We were on our way to a place called Podbanské, on the foothills of the High Tatras.
We jumped on our e-bikes, already happy and satisfied with our ‘new way’ of nature exploration. We had high hopes for seeing a bear. Early on we already had a first bear sign on the road. We found a bear scat. It can’t be mistaken for anything else, it’s just a pile of dark blue material and undigested berries.
Along the way we were stopping at some look-out points in the valley. From these points we had a good view on the alpine zone. We were armed with binoculars and a telescope. It took some time, but we spotted something high up on a slope. It was a large brown creature... It came out in the open and started foraging for berries, it was a huge brown bear.
I was still enjoying the view of this bear high up on the slope. I really like this kind of observations as you are not disturbing the animals. Suddenly my friend whispered, “Sam, there is a second bear, much closer”. My smile on my face only grew. There was a second bear, almost at the bottom of the valley. Probably the bear could smell us, but it didn’t put any attention towards us and it was just continuing its search for food.
Darkness was entering the valley fast. We didn’t want to bike down in total darkness, so we decided to call it a day and went down during twilight. We didn’t feel like encountering a bear in the total darkness. Safety first during our wildlife watching adventures.
Tip: Talking about safety: if you are walking in bear country, just talking is already enough to let the bears know in advance you are there and they will avoid you. Carrying a bear spray might be a good precaution as well if you find yourself in bear country regularly.
The brown bear
The European brown bear (Ursus arctos) is one of the three large carnivores living in Slovakia (with wolf and lynx being the other two). Before they go into hibernation in winter, bears need to feed a lot in order to gain weight. During autumn, the (semi) alpine zones are covered in berries. In this time of year, bears are mostly vegetarian and a can be found foraging on these mountain slopes. The Tatra Mountains are a stronghold for the bear population in Slovakia.
Practical information for wildlife watching
Where to stay?
During my latest trips to Slovakia, I stayed at the Bear Tracker Inn, a guesthouse managed by my friend and biologist Jan Barilla. From this guesthouse you are in close proximity of various national parks, including the High Tatras, but also Slovak Paradise. Jan is offering some guiding trips, including this bear tour.
How to get there?
I prefer to travel the more ecological way. Poprad is the easiest place to get to with public transport. There are plenty of options. Last time I took the night train Brussels - Vienna (with an additional train to get to Poprad). The most cost-effective way is probably by bus using RegioJet or Flixbus. They both have connections straight to Poprad.
I’m Sam Puls, a Belgian biologist. On my website Wildlife Impulse I share travel blogs and create awareness around wildlife conservation (blogs and videos). In Belgium, I give workshops around camera traps and tracks and signs of animals. I work together with a Slovak NGO to combine nature tourism with research (nature trips in Slovakia). If you want to stay up to date with wildlife news and my own work, feel free to check out my Facebook page.
Thank you very much Sam for your wildlife watching impressions! If you are also interested to share some of your wildlife encounters, feel free to contact me. You can reach me via firstname.lastname@example.org or the contact form.