"Many thanks for the Belarus trip report. I have enjoyed reading through it, noting your comments and thinking about all the different birds etc which we saw....
The Azure Tit was special and certainly for me the 'Bird of the Trip'."...... Mr G. East Sussex. June 2013
click here for a pdf version of this destination write-up - easier to print - no photos
Belarus kept many ornithological secrets locked away during the Cold War years. A generation of western birders were deprived of one of Europe’s greatest treasures. While travellers admired the ancient forests and vast expanse of marshes in neighbouring Poland, even greater delights were tantalizingly off limits just next door.
Imagine roads that take you through scenic rural countryside dotted with painted wooden houses and flower-rich meadows that echo to the sound of the Corncrake. There are hundreds of meandering rivers and seemingly endless marshes and fens greater than anywhere else on the continent.
Ancient forests that have never seen the axe arealive with owls and woodpeckers. Belarus is both welcoming and safe, yet you can experience the taste of an era now largely gone from many parts of Europe. Places where you hardly meet any traffic or people are almost unknown in Europe so Belarus is very special in this respect.
Great Grey Owl and Terek Sandpipers are absent further south, but breed in Belarus. Although the sight of these would undoubtedly be a highlight, the real prize must go to the beautiful Azure Tit. This sprite remains almost mythical as it has been unavailable to birders for so long. It can be found nesting beside the rivers here and we will make a special effort to track them down.
Our journey takes us to the wetlands of Lake Sporovo and Pripyatsky National Park in search of Aquatic Warbler, Terek Sandpiper, Corncrake, Bluethroat and Great Snipe, while the UNESCO designated ancient forest of Belowezhskaya holds good numbers of owls, woodpeckers and herds of European Bison. Red-breasted Flycatchers and Hazelhen hug the shadows of the forest to provide a magical experience that few places in Europe still retain.
Belarus is truly an unbeatable European paradise remaining intact and wild. As well as superb birding, we have a reasonable chance of encountering several mammal species. These include Bison, Elk, Beaver, Otter, Red Deer, Wild Boar, Eastern Hedgehog, Pine Marten and Raccoon Dog.
After landing at Minsk Airport we head to the famous Belowezhskaya Pushcha ancient forest for three nights. Situated in the National Park, our hotel offers birding on the doorstep. Hawfinch, Wryneck and Black Redstart are garden birds and our first woodpeckers may include White-backed, Lesser and Middle Spotted. These fairy tale woods hold Great Grey, Ural, Eagle, Pygmy and Tengmalm’s Owls as well as all the European woodpeckers, Crested Tit, Common Crossbill, Red-breasted and Collared Flycatcher. Local help will aid us in finding many of these. Along the shore of Lake Liadskoye, there is the chance to see Whooper Swan, Wood Sandpiper, Savi’s and River Warbler as they all breed here. All birds are watchful for the mighty White-tailed Eagle that rules the skies here. Other raptors include Short-toed and Lesser Spotted Eagles, Goshawk and Hen and Montagu’s Harriers with a good possibility of seeing the strange wing-quivering display of the Honey Buzzard. Due to the high population densities, there is a reasonable chance of seeing a Hazelhen.
On the afternoon of our fourth day, we travel to Sporovo Reserve, where we will stay for two nights. Lake Sporovo and the surrounding marshes are productive birding areas. Little Crakes, Spotted Crakes and Corncrake are vocal at this time of year, giving us the chance to spot these skulkers. We will visit the main breeding area of Europe’s rarest songbird, the Aquatic Warbler, where 70% of the world’s population lives. Reedbeds are alive with the sound of pinging Bearded Tits, booming Bitterns, teeeze-ing Penduline Tits and the scratchy-rattle of the gaudy Bluethroat.
Common birds include Barred Warbler, Northern Grey Shrike and Common Rosefinch, and the fluty call of the Golden Oriole echoes from stands of poplar and alder.
More raptors can be found here and with luck, we may spot the rare Greater Spotted Eagle. This bird is becoming increasingly hard to find in Europe, but the large number of frogs in the region provides its main prey in abundance. As a result, it remains a major stronghold for them. Separating them from the numerous and similar Lesser Spotted Eagles will keep raptor fans occupied here.
The forest close to our accommodation holds a few breeding pairs of Great Grey Owl and in good vole years they can be easy to find. Few owls can be as impressive as this and any encounter with the ‘Ghost of the forest’ is always a highlight. If we fail to find it here then we will try another reserve on the way to Pripyatsky.
PRIPYATSKY NATIONAL PARK
Our final base will be near the famous Pripyatsky National Park, spending three nights in Turov. Our hotel is close to the action, and several sought-after shorebirds such as Great Snipe and Terek and Marsh Sandpipers breed on the banks of the untamed Pripyat River. Vast areas of meadows and forests flood here in spring. During migration the evenings often produce spectacular gatherings of Black-tailed Godwit and Ruff. The flamboyant male Ruffs are always fun to watch as they manically run around impressing the ladies. Elegant, coal-black Spotted Redshanks pass through in good numbers and the various terns searching for food include Little, Whiskered, White-winged and Black Terns.
Every visit to a Great Snipe lek is special. On one evening we shall listen to their pop, pop, popping and hopefully see their acrobatic jumps! Each visit brings surprises as dusk brings out the songster in many birds. Other waders such as Wood Sandpiper or Black-tailed Godwit give a final show before retiring and a rasping Corncrake or sweet-sounding Thrush Nightingale may just be about to join the concerto. Of course, this is the best time to see mammals and the last glimmers of daylight may bring our best sightings of Wild Boar and Elk before the darkness itself increases the chance of Lynx or Raccoon Dog.
A strong candidate for bird of the trip is found along the Pripyat River. The Azure Tit breeds in riparian willow forests here. Belarus is the only place in Europe where we have a good chance to find this stunning bird. The pretty Penduline Tit shares this habitat too.
Although we will concentrate on seeing the Azure Tit, we will also have time to discover the ancient oak, spruce and birch forests too. Easy walks can produce several Wrynecks as they are common and quite vocal at this time. Other woodpeckers include Europe’s most-wanted: White-backed, Black, Lesser, Middle Spotted, Grey-headed and even Three-toed Woodpecker.
We will listen for calls that may lead us to Short-toed Treecreeper and Collared and Red-breasted Flycatchers. The scrubby riverside vegetation holds Barred Warbler, complete with the bold stripes of summer plumage. That accomplished songster, the Marsh Warbler, will be mimicking its close neighbours, Thrush Nightingale, Bluethroat, Common Rosefinch and Golden Oriole. These nest here too, together with small but increasing numbers of the stunning Citrine Wagtail and Black Stork.
On day nine, we head for the airport, perhaps spotting a Smew, Red-necked Grebe or Black-necked Grebe en route.
Breakfast will be taken at about 7am most mornings. Basic fitness is all that is required. Full days will be spent in the field and medium length walks on the flat will be undertaken regularly. There will not be any uphill walking of significant distance. The walk to the Great Snipe lek is on wet, uneven ground.
ACCOMMODATION AND FOOD
Full-board accommodation is provided, with three nights at the Belowezhskaya Pushcha, two night at the Sporovo Reserve and three nights at Pripyatsky National Park. All rooms have en suite bathrooms. Packed lunches will be taken every day.
PRICE INCLUDES …..
All birdwatching excursions with expert leader and local guide, full-board accommodation (starting with dinner on 4th, ending with breakfast on 12th), soft drinks at meal times, local transport by mini-coach, international flights and airport taxes.
WHAT IS NOT INCLUDED
Travel insurance. Personal items, alcoholic drinks, laundry. Cost of tourist visa (approx. £80).
Return flight with LOT Airlines from London Heathrow to Minsk (via Warsaw). Outbound flight departs early morning, return flight arrives back mid-evening. Domestic flights from Manchester and other UK airports are available on this tour. Due to flight times it may be necessary to stay overnight at Heathrow. See booking form for details.
Go to our Tour Photo Album click here
Azure Tit, by Gabor Orban
Bison taken during our 2012 tour by Phil Palmer
Great Grey Owl taken during our 2012 tour by Phil Palmer
This Terek Sandpiper was found by Phil during an expedition to Russia but you don't have to trek hours across frozen tundra to see one.
Belarus has probably the most accessible breeding sites for Terek Sandpiper in Europe and on our last tour we found it by just stepping out of our hotel each morning!
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