Belarus: April 2014

We came into land at the very compact, shiny and neat Minsk Airport set out in the open countryside. On our approach we’d flown over vast swathes of woodland, be it Birch, Beech, mixed deciduous or coniferous there was lots of it and we couldn’t wait to go birding! We were soon on our way south and although brief, our first birding stop along the river in Turov produced White Stork, Great White Egret, lots of Ruff, a few Wood Sandpipers, Little Ringed Plover and Common Tern - the waders setting the scene for what was to come around the Turov area.

The flood-plain opposite our hotel was very busy indeed as we embarked on the first of several early morning walks. Hundreds of Ruff, many in full summer plumage were busy in their courtship battles and the air was filled with the ‘chiff- if if’ of migrant Wood Sandpipers whilst Lapwings guarded their young against marauding Hooded Crows and Ravens. 

Nearby, summer plumage Whiskered and White-winged Black Terns showed well as did several groups of Garganey, Pintail and Teal which were joined briefly by 6 Taiga Bean Geese. One morning we were also treated to views of a European Beaver swimming across the river!

The trees within reach of the hotel held Wood Warbler, Pied and Spotted Flycatchers with both Common and Black Redstart on roofs and chimney pots, several Hoopoes feeding on open ground, whilst a very smart male Golden Oriole sang from the grounds of the nearby farm. A nearby marsh echoed to the song of several Bluethroats most mornings and there was normally a Wryneck or two to be found - and all this before breakfast which included hearty local sausages and delicious strawberry pancakes!

One of the avian highlights of Belarus is undoubtedly the Azure Tit. During our early morning visit we enjoyed great views of at least 4 birds, busying themselves along the river feeding in catkins, quite unconcerned as they fed sometimes at only a few yards range. A Cuckoo was also most obliging, flying into some low trees opposite and a Wryneck gave great views as he perched and sang on an open branch. A pair of Penduline Tits eventually gave very good close views as they held onto the reed-mace in strengthening winds along the river bank. A little further along, a Savi’s Warbler reeled away in the reeds and a Thrush Nightingale gave great views singing from a dead tree.

The Turov area is in the centre of Pipriyatski National Park, which is home to two very special waders; Great Snipe and Terek Sandpiper. On two consecutive evenings we watched Great Snipe flying in, displaying and calling as the lek progressed. At one stage we had at least 10 birds in full view - some showing the white in the wings and tail especially well as they attempted to jump higher than their competitors. Terek Sandpipers led us a merry dance with two flight views of a yodelling bird leading us to a lush riverside, only to find the bird had slipped out of view unbeknown to us. Overhead, the ‘wacka wacka’ displaying call of Black-tailed Godwit was a constant background noise as were ;chewit’ Spotted Redshank, ‘drumming’ Common Snipe and thousands of Whiskered and White-winged Black Terns, uttering their very harsh grating flight call. On our way back to the bus at dusk up to 5 Spotted Crakes started calling.

Raptors were well represented in this area with several massive White-tailed Eagles, a couple of Greater Spotted Eagle (small by comparison!), Peregrine, Hobby, lots of Marsh Harriers together with smaller numbers of both Montagu’s and Hen Harrier. One evening whilst watching the Great Snipe a superb male Goshawk hammered across the floodplain at head height - what a sight for the group standing only 50 yards away!

Turov forest is a mixture of deciduous, coniferous and mature Beech, Birch and Oak forest. This combination proves irresistible to woodpeckers and our early morning visit here produced great views of Black, Great Spotted, Grey-headed and an ultra confiding Three-toed. Flycatchers were also well represented here with singing male Spotted, Pied, Collared and a stonking male Red-breasted entertaining us. In the wetter areas, Four-spotted Chaser dragonflies and European Tree Frogs provided extra interest together with many woodland plants such as May Lily, Touch-me-not Balsam, Lesser Celandine and Bilberry

Beloveshkaya Pushka is the Belarussian part of the Bialowieza Forest, the other half of which lies across the border in Poland. This magnificent primeval forest straddling the border with Poland holds high densities of woodland species including all four flycatchers and lots of woodpeckers. Our first early morning walk producing no less than 5 Black, 3 Middle Spotted, 2 Grey-headed, White-backed, Lesser Spotted and at least a couple of Three-toed. Nearby Treecreepers and Nuthatches showed well as did Firecrest, Hawfinch and numerous Wood Warblers. 

Whilst searching for Hazelhen and Pygmy Owl we found several Crested Tit and a displaying Green Sandpiper perched in the Spruce trees, which on several occasions treated us to its spectacular territorial display flight - an added bonus! Nearby the more open woodland gave great views of Lesser Spotted Eagle, several Black Storks, Osprey and a few Honey Buzzards. 

Spring can be a tricky time to see large mammals on account of the foliage but this year we had great views of a herd of European Bison as they fed in the forest and also of a young Wild Boar feeding on the edge of a meadow early morning. En route to some fishponds we (and the driver coming the opposite way!) were somewhat surprised by two Elk which ran across the main road - the expression on the other driver’s face said it all - that was very close, very close indeed! Other mammals noted during the tour were Serotine Bat, Red Fox and Red Squirrel. Notable butterflies included Map, Small Heath, Pearl-bordered and Queen of Spain Fritillaries, Green Hairstreak, Large Tortoiseshell, Grizzled Skipper and European Swallowtail whilst moths included Common Heath and the spectacular Tau Emperor, one of which was seen in the hand thanks to James!

Having got superb views of Azure Tit on our first morning, the second of Belarus’ mouth-watering target species were the Great Grey Owls. On our arrival, we were taken (in silence!) on a gentle mile long walk through beautiful deciduous forest which itself was full of birdsong. A short while later we arrived at a bend in the track, and there in full view only 30 feet away was a magnificent male Great Grey Owl, staring down at us as we got binoculars, scopes and cameras focussed on him - what a fabulous bird! 

Admiring his subtle delicate grey and brown plumage tones and the bright yellow eyes set in those huge facial disks we watched as he turned from watching us to occasionally snoozing, often keeping one eye on us standing below. It’s hard to believe that this huge owl feeds on voles - such a small prey item for a bird than from head to tail is approaching 3 feet long! After enjoying prolonged views of the male with female sat low on the nearby nest we headed off to our next stop - full of ‘owl talk’ the bus was buzzing - without a doubt we had just witnessed one the superstars of the avian world! Nearby a dazzling male Sand Lizard showed well as did two Long-eared Owl chicks as they peered over the nest sides.

Another species which Eastern Europe is famed for is the Aquatic Warbler. Belarus in addition to Poland is the species stronghold, however this year’s cold spring had resulted in fewer numbers than would normally be expected. Nevertheless we persevered and eventually early one morning we got good looks at a male singing from low vegetation. Also here was a male Citrine Wagtail, several Great Grey Shrikes on the wires and a good scattering of Whinchat, the first of many to come.

As our tour progressed we still managed to find new birds at every stop. A large lake at Pinsk produced Little Gull and a flock of Common Cranes whilst some very productive fishponds produced nesting Smew, many Goldeneye, Black-necked Grebe and a brief Little Crake. Our tour ended up at a wetland dominated by reeds. Savi’s Warbler and Bittern were heard with the former showing very well perched atop a reed as he churned out his mechanical reeling song. Also here was a very obliging male Bearded Tit, several hundred Sand Martins and a very handsome male Citrine Wagtail; our third of the trip. 

At the end of the tour, Stuart asked the group to nominate their bird of the trip, which with all the great birds we’d seen proved a little tricky, but the undoubted winner were the stunning Azure Tits, closely followed in second place by the magnificent Great Grey Owls.

The difficulty of deciding which bird is best, when there were so many wonderful sightings to choose from, underlines the fact that Belarus in spring is a superb birding tour with many highlights for all participants. The birds are wonderful but combine it with great butterflies, moths, mammals, reptiles, amphibians and countless wild flowers you will see why Belarus is proving itself to be one of the best European destinations to watch wildlife! 

Stuart Elsom

May 2014

Sample from Belarus: April 2014