From our conservation holiday volunteering with lynx, wolves, bears and wildcats in the Carpathian mountains of Slovakia (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/slovakia)

Tracking wolf, bear and lynx in Slovakia’s Vel’ka Fatra National Park

This is the fifth year that Biosphere Expeditions has run its winter lynx, wolf and bear conservation research project in the Vel’ka Fatra National Park, located in the Western Carpathian Mountains of Slovakia. The study site in the Lubochnianska valley, where the expedition operates, continues to support large carnivores, which have disappeared from most of their former ranges across Europe due to hunting and habitat destruction.

Although designated as a national park, the Vel‘ka Fatra, is still subject to logging and hunting. Biosphere Expeditions is working with local scientist and wildlife filmmaker Tomas Hulik to collect scientific data on the numbers and distribution of large carnivores in Lubochnianska valley.

Each year the expedition runs for two weeks in February when the valley slopes and trails are usually covered in snow, providing a canvas on which the tracks and trails of the large carnivores are painted. Data are collected by citizen scientist volunteers walking the forest trails on snow shoes, recording evidence of large carnivores and their prey. This includes recording tracks, scats and prey remains. Cameras are also left out on trails to record passing animals and identify them by their coat patterns. Although the weather this year was unusually mild, there has still been sufficient snow to collect significant amounts of data on the large carnivores using the valley.

Expedition scientist Hulik explains: “We do not expect expedition participants to have any scientific background. The expedition leader and scientist provide all the training necessary to recognise field signs and collect meaningful data.”

Participants this year came from many countries including Germany, Sweden, Switzerland, Australia, UK and the USA. The expedition also offers placement opportunities for local people committed to wildlife conservation. This year the expedition was joined by Karolina Skrivankova, a Slovakian student hoping to pursue a career in biology. Karolina says she “liked the cooperation between participants and expedition leader, group leaders and scientist” and “thank you for the chance to participate, it was amazing”.

The youngest participant this year was thirteen year old Samantha from the USA, with ambitions to be a wolf biologist. Samantha joined the expedition with her mother, Tiffany, who described the experience as “a once in a lifetime trip that Samantha and I will always remember with great memories of the food, people and tracks. We both learned so much!”.

All evidence collected is carefully measured, photographed and its location recorded using GPS devices. As the expedition progresses, a picture develops of the numbers and distribution of large carnivores in the valley. The study site is divided into grid cells (2.5 x 2.5 km), which allows for the expedition’s large carnivore data to be entered into an internationally recognised database. The results help to inform population estimates for wolf, bear and lynx numbers in the valley and changes between years to be monitored. This year the expedition participants walked a total of 460 km along 33 transects, covering 26 grid cells. Hulik describes this as “a really great effort, which resulted in the recording of 32 wolf signs, 5 lynx signs and 4 bear signs, as well as the collection of 6 wolf scat and urine samples which can be used for DNA analysis”.

The scientific data collected during the expedition are reported each year in a full expedition report. The findings are presented to the government’s national park and national forestry departments and help inform estimates of large carnivore numbers in the Vel’ka Fatra National Park. The data also contribute towards realistic estimates of population sizes, which inform conservation measures and therefore increase the long-term survival changes of these iconic predators in the Vel’ka Fatra.

This year’s Biosphere Expeditions leader Paul Franklin says: ‘‘We have had another very successful year surveying large carnivores in the Lubochnianska valley. The team has worked hard to survey the transect trails each day in all weathers and these data are valuable to enable us to monitor population changes of large carnivores between years. The financial contribution from participants makes it all possible by funding the research, expedition logistics and local scientist. This research will make a meaningful contribution to wildlife conservation in Slovakia”.

Tomas Hulik, the expedition scientist, adds: ‘‘This was another very successful year with volunteers from Biosphere Expeditions. We collected a lot of data on the presence of wolf and lynx in the valley, including locating all three resident wolf packs and at least two resident lynx with an additional individual likely to have migrated into the valley for mating. The mild conditions and relatively thin snow cover enabled us to achieve our second highest coverage of the study area transects in the five years that the expedition has been running”.


Below is selection of pictures from the expedition (also mirrored on Facebook).

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From our conservation holiday volunteering with lynx, wolves, bears and wildcats in the Carpathian mountains of Slovakia (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/slovakia)

Today we said farewell to the Slot 2 participants at the train station in Kralovany. It’s a wet, rainy day and would not have been good for transect walks anyway, as the rain has washed away much of the remaining snow, making tracks hard to find. This emphasises how lucky we have been with the weather over the last week: Although we have had no fresh snow, the snow from the previous week has remained on the higher slopes in the valley and enabled us to collect important data.

Samantha, our youngest participant at 13, from the USA, has managed to find wolf tracks on each day she has been out. This should provide plenty of inspiration to pursue a potential career as a wolf biologist in the future. Yesterday we also found fresh lynx tracks in the Jabalinska side valley, the tracks headed off down a ridge in one direction while an older set of tracks from a wolf pack were heading up the ridge. Tomas installed a camera trap at this great location and we have a further four camera traps installed in the valley, which will be left in place for another month and then collected by Tomas to add to the dataset collected on this year’s expedition.

Thanks to all our participants’ hard work this year, we have walked a total of 460 km on 33 transects through 26 survey cells (each cell is 2.5 x 2.5 km). In total we recorded 32 wolf signs, 5 lynx signs and 4 bear signs. We also collected 5 wolf scats and 1 wolf urine sample, which will be DNA-analysed to confirm our suppositions. In addition to the large carnivores, we recorded tracks of pine marten, badger, otter, squirrel, stoat, wild boar, red deer and roe deer. Sightings included roe deer, red deer, black woodpecker, three-toed woodpecker, nutcracker, dipper, rose finch, hazel grouse, raven, golden eagle, buzzard, fire salamander and red squirrel.

Phil and Paul will spend the rest of today packing up the equipment and Tomas is on his way back to Bratislava with all the samples and datasheets, which will be carefully analysed before the final expedition report is produced later in the year. We hope that everyone has a safe journey home and hope to see some of you again on future expeditions. Once again many thanks for your dedicated efforts in the collection of scientific data and for your time and money contributions, which have made the whole expedition and science work possible. Dovidenia, until next time!

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From our conservation holiday volunteering with lynx, wolves, bears and wildcats in the Carpathian mountains of Slovakia (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/slovakia)

Slot 2 participants arrived on the train from Bratislava on Saturday and had a busy afternoon with safety and science briefings. In addition to Katie, who has stayed on from slot 1, we now have Tiffany and daughter Samantha from the USA, Voja from Australia/UK, Vincent from Sweden, Yvonne from Switzerland and Nadine from the UK. On Sunday Tomas, Paul and Phil ran the equipment and data collection training including some navigation and GPS skills. In the afternoon we hiked the transect up to Lake Blatna under a blue sky and sunshine, a rare opportunity to bring out the sunglasses. We reset our camera traps at Lake Blatna and were lucky enough to see a pair of roe deer, although, unlike last week, no lynx or wolf tracks could be found near the lake.

The heavy snowfall that we had near the end of last week seems to have brought the red deer lower down into the valley as indicated by an increased number of tracks. It is likely that the wolves follow the red deer, their main prey item and today’s Transect 2 group with Paul, Tiffany, Samantha and Vincent found tracks of a five-strong wolf pack close to the main valley road towards the middle section of the valley. No sunshine today, although the temperature is relatively mild with some rain in the night that has removed snow cover from the lowest parts of the valley. Tomas and Katie came back today from there transect with some pictures of black woodpecker and red deer. Noro and Yvonne came back from their transect with an empty flask of Noro’s famous ‘plum juice’.

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From our conservation holiday volunteering with lynx, wolves, bears and wildcats in the Carpathian mountains of Slovakia (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/slovakia)

Yesterday we undertook three transects in the valley through fresh snowfall, which had covered all but the most recent tracks. This was a good opportunity to use the snow shoes and hike through a white wilderness. We also retrieved the photo SD cards from the camera traps. At the debrief yesterday evening Tomas summarised the findings from the week and our pin board showing data recorded in each of the study cells is now looking nice and full with 22 cells surveyed and wolf recorded in 12 cells, lynx in 3 cells, bear in 7 cells and golden eagle in 3 cells. We had a great result on one of the camera traps which had filmed both a fox and a wolf, although the images were blurred by the rapid movement of the animals it clearly shows the difference in size of these two canine inhabitants of the valley.

Blurred wolf camera trap picture

Blurred wolf camera trap picture

The evening evolved into an end of slot party with Frantishek playing his guitar including a fine rendition of Yellow Submarine, which we were able to sing along with some other Slovakian tunes that were also appreciated.

Today we said a sad farewell to Louise, Chrissy, Jac, Edward, Georg, Doris and Lawrence at the train station in Kralovany. Katie, our most experienced Slovakia expeditioner is staying on for Slot 2. Karolina, our Slovakian student placement, has also headed home, but told me that she wished she was able to stay on for the second slot and her experience will help her talk with her friends and hopefully pursue a career in biology and wildlife conservation in her beautiful and diverse country.

Phil is heading to Bratislava with Tomas where Phil will meet the Slot 2 participants in the main hall of Bratislava train station at 09:00 tomorrow. His mobile number in Slovakia is 0918 748 291 if you need to contact him. Paul (0915 512 437) is remaining at base to prepare for Slot 2 and is looking forward to meeting everyone tomorrow when you arrive in Kralovany around 13:00.

A big thank you to Slot 1 for all your hard work collecting such important data over the last week! We look forward to Slot 2 providing a further week’s data, which combined will enable Tomas to produce another robust report concerning the status of large carnivores in our Lubochnianska valley study site.

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From our conservation holiday volunteering with lynx, wolves, bears and wildcats in the Carpathian mountains of Slovakia (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/slovakia)

Over the last couple of days our map pin board of lynx, wolf & bear signs has been steadily growing. On Tuesday our four groups roamed all over the study site from the green, lush and snow-free valley floor up to the snowy heights of the ridges and mountain tops, where the killer squirrel is found. On Wednesday Scottish weather moved in and we were rained out by noon, when Tomáš called it a day and organised an afternoon excursion to nearby Orava castle of 1922 silent classic “Nosferatu” fame. Scottish rain has now turned to Slovakian snow and we are hoping for a white, clean sheet to work from tomorrow.

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From our conservation holiday volunteering with lynx, wolves, bears and wildcats in the Carpathian mountains of Slovakia (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/slovakia)

Today we split into four groups and covered various part of our study site.

Survey group 2 - from left: Tessa, Louise, Paul & Lawrence

Survey group 2 – from left: Tessa, Louise, Paul & Lawrence

It is warm (around 4 degrees) and the bears are still about. We tracked them and wolves on almost every group. Backwards only, we hasten to add 😉 , so everyone is safely back at base.

At the end of the day we enter the data collected into the computer and Tomáš, our scientist, downloads our trip data into Google Earth to visualise our survey routes and waypoints of things we have found, such as tracks of wolf, lynx and bear, as well as their prey such as wild boar, roe and red deer, and more. As each survey group recounts their walk and findings, we also create a permanent record of the expedition’s main findings through colour-coded pins on a map, so that everyone can see the expedition’s progress and achievements at any time. The study site is divided into 24 coded 2.5 x 2.5 km cells and what we find in each cell, and how often we have surveyed it, is recorded by pins. The de-brief is shown below, as well as an explanation of our cell methodology (also used on our Tien Shan and many other terrestrial expeditions). The manual that the methodology video below refers to is available here.

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From our conservation holiday volunteering with lynx, wolves, bears and wildcats in the Carpathian mountains of Slovakia (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/slovakia)

Day two is the last training day of the expedition. And what a day it was. Within a gentle stroll of around 6 km up to picturesque Blatná lake, we found wolf tracks twice, lynx tracks of large, medium and small animals (we presume a family), as well as otter tracks by the side of a brook. Not bad at all for our first day out in the field and of course excellent training for recognising and recording tracks.

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From our conservation holiday volunteering with lynx, wolves, bears and wildcats in the Carpathian mountains of Slovakia (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/slovakia)

Team 1 arrived safely at the Švošov expedition base and just as they did, Slovakian carnival celebrations interrupted.

These celebrations are about chasing out winter and welcoming spring, being merrily disruptive to passers-by and a whole lot more besides. And as you can see on the video, the snow has indeed gone for now.

So after dancing and merrymaking and having to drink cherry schnaps before our cars were allowed to pass, there was lunch, introductions, lectures, dinner and going to bed. Welcome to Slovakia and the 2016 wolf, lynx and bear expedition to Veľká Fatra National Park.

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From our conservation holiday volunteering with lynx, wolves, bears and wildcats in the Carpathian mountains of Slovakia (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/slovakia)

After everyone met up at base yesterday, we went for dinner at a local restaurant. It started snowing and snowed through the night, so now everything is white.

Today we are setting up, so all the equipment is unpacked and being sorted, GPSs are being reset, the menu is being sorted, snow shoes and poles made ready, etc.

Paul is meeting group 1 at 09:00 at Bratislava train station. He’ll be in the main hall, which is not very large, so look for a group of people. You have his mobile number, if there is a problem.

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From our conservation holiday volunteering with lynx, wolves, bears and wildcats in the Carpathian mountains of Slovakia (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/slovakia)

Paul and Phil left England at 06:00 yesterday on he Dover to Dunkirk ferry.

Ferry ride

Ferry ride

Last night was spent in Linz, Austria after a 1,400 km drive though Belgium and Germany. Today we will arrive at the expedition base in Švošov and meet up with Matthias, Tomas and Noro this afternoon to prepare the expedition kit and set up the base. Paul will meet the slot 1 expeditioners in Bratislava on Saturday morning and we are all looking forward to an interesting, fun and productive expedition.

It’s snowing on the higher ground, but not in the valleys (see this webcam). The forecast (lower down on the webcam site) is for sunshine and sub-zero weather.

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