Croatia – The Badger to Bear Upgrade
Ever since I can remember I’ve loved Badgers – in fact my childhood cuddly toy that went everywhere with me was Bill the Badger and I still have him now, although I’ve long since given up the need to cuddle him at bed time… honest. Whenever I’m out walking my dog or working in the woods I still smile every time I see Badger track and sign of any kind.
This awareness of what to look for has increased in recent years through short tracking courses in the UK and the extensive training gained through going on the South Africa Game Ranger and CyberTracker experience. Being lucky enough to meet and be tutored by Colin Patrick really opened my eyes to the little stories that can be interpreted if you know where to look and the special animal behaviour language in which it’s been written.
As great as the South Africa trip was what was lacking for me was to take the knowledge learnt out there but apply it to species that are familiar to me. Now you could argue that you can do this by yourself whenever you go out but there’s nothing quite like a trip and the chance of a bit of danger to really hone the skills and focus the mind. So with that as the approach getting out on the Wildlife Tracking trip to Croatia was the obvious choice.
I’d never been to Croatia before so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect but I’d seen footage from previous trips and had read up on the wildlife that we might encounter. After a short flight we landed in Zagreb where one of our hosts, Ana, met us to take the group to the small village of Crni Lug on the edge of Risnjak National Park. That first day went in a bit of a whirlwind as no sooner than we’d settled and had a safety briefing we were straight out for a wander around and an evening sit spot with sighting of roe deer and lots of bird activity. A sit spot really helps to slow down the mind, change the focus and tune in to the new surroundings so after a busy day of travel it was a very welcome end to the day.
Over the next couple of days we continued to explore on foot around Crni Lug and increase our exposure to as many tracks as possible to boost knowledge and the way we could start to interpret what was in front of us. This process very quickly takes you from simple species identification to suddenly understanding direction, left or right foot, front or back foot, what was it doing, how old was the animal… and whole host of other facts. Like I said it really is like having a story unfold in front of you. Not only this but thanks to interpreting the bird calls and behaviour of two wrens we got eyes on with a massive eagle owl as it took off from only a few metres away. And yes, by this point we’d seen loads of badger tracks along with red deer, fox, beech marten, red squirrel, wild boar and lots more.
With this base knowledge in place it was time to go higher into the national park and stay in the mountain hut. Although the exposure to species would remain the same it certainly changed the feel. It’s hard to quantify but suddenly you became very aware that wolves, bears and lynx really were out there and it wasn’t long before sign to prove this was found. Wolf scat was dotted around the meadow, bear sign emerged just round the corner with favoured trees for scratching posts complete with bear claw marks and trapped hair. With trail cameras setup we had a late night sit spot and then retired for the first night in the hut ready for a long day. (Photo 5 – Mountains) (Photo 6 – Bear tree) (Photo 7 – Bear hair)
The weather closed in a bit but despite rain, sleet and then snow we decided a push to the summit of Mount Risnjak was a must and we were so pleased we did. Sightings of Chamois (Rupicapra rupicapra) and an amazing visit from a fox (Vulpes vulpes) at the summit were memories that I’m sure will stay with us all forever.
The real highlight for me was what can only be described as the biggest print I have ever seen and this time it was definitely not a badger… it was the brown bear upgrade (Ursus arctos arctos) we’d all been hoping to see. This sealed the deal it was time for an all-day, solo sit spot to reduce our impact of moving around in a group and increase our chances of sightings. The experience of roaming a national park wilderness, on your own and on the lookout for bear and wolves is an exhilarating experience. Armed with the technology of WhatsApp enabling us to pinpoint sightings on a shared map we all split up and disappeared into the meadows and forests. Everyone came away with their own special moments that will make lasting memories but for me it was a “what the hell am I doing?” kind of feeling followed by “I’m going on a bear hunt!” bravado to push on. A member of the group had spotted fresh bear prints on a track and when I looked at the map I realised I was sat at the end of that very track. Without a moment’s thought I leapt up and swiftly but quietly headed towards the sighting… and then a few paces in the sensible bit kicked in with the little voice in my head saying “if those tracks are coming this way and your walking towards them you may well meet a bear round that next corner”. But hey what a story that would be so on I went safe in the knowledge we’d been briefed well on what to do in such situations. Sadly the bear wasn’t found but boy were the prints impressive and so worth the time and effort.
I’ll always love badgers and I couldn’t leave Crni Lug without a memento to that affect but I can now add the memory of my first bear print to that of hyena, lion, rhino, leopard, giraffe and elephant from my trips to Africa. All I need to do now is go back to Croatia again to try and get eyes on… and then maybe again…