BELARUS BIRDING TOUR: DETAILED ITINERARY
Belarus: Day 1 Our Belarus birding tour begins in the afternoon in Minsk, from where we will drive north to the Krasny Bor Reserve on the Russian border, where we will spend three nights at a private, traditional-style wooden guesthouse located deep in the heart of the reserve by the Nischa River.
This evening we will begin our exploration of this wonderful forest reserve with a visit to a Ural Owl territory, where we should enjoy an encounter with these saturnine yet fearsome owls.
Belarus: Days 2-3 The Krasny Bor Reserve has one of the lowest population densities of the country at around 3-4 persons per square kilometre. Boreal forest covers around 80% of the landscape here, with a further 5% consisting of lakes and bogs. Together with the adjacent Osveya Reserve to the west and the Russian Sebezh National Park to the north, they combine to form a vast protected area. The north of the country is characterised by glacial forms such as kames and moraine hills, pingo lakes and inland sand dunes cloaked with mixed boreal forest, dominated by spruce and Scots Pine with Aspen and Black Alder in the wetter areas.
Our early morning walks will feature visits to nearby Black Grouse and Western Capercaillie leks, just a few kilometres from our lodge, places where Hazel Grouse and Eurasian Three-toed Woodpeckers can also be found.
After breakfast, we will venture further into the forest in search of White-backed Woodpecker, Spotted Nutcracker and other forest species. Raptors are represented here by Golden, White-tailed and Short-toed Eagles as well as Western Osprey and Merlin. Evenings will include searching for both Eurasian Pygmy and Tengmalm’s (or Boreal) Owls and the forests here also hold healthy populations of Lynx, Wolf and Brown Bear, although we will have to be very lucky to see even one of these.
A vast raised bog in the Krasny Bor reserve holds colonies of shorebirds such as European Golden Plover, Common Greenshanks, Black-tailed Godwits, Eurasian Curlews and Whimbrels (the latter is found breeding here surprisingly far south). Eurasian Hobbies hunt the area and stately Great Grey Shrikes breed.
Belarus: Day 4 Today we have a long drive south to the Slavic town of Turov, situated close to the Pripyatsky National Park, where we will stay for two nights at a comfortable hotel.
Turov is the oldest Belorusian town and formerly part of the Duchy of Turov and Pinsk it grew in importance on the ancient trade route from the Baltic to the Black Sea. The Vikings also knew of Turov, and one can imagine their longboats passing by on the Pripyat River, on their long journey to the Black Sea and beyond to raid Constantinople. The town has an interesting history but it has suffered terribly over the centuries, being destroyed by the Tartars in 1521 and again during the wars with Muscovy in 1648, when three-quarters of its homes were razed to the ground. Turov’s Jewish community was also wiped out in World War II and only a handful of families have since returned. In fact, Belarus lost a truly staggering one-third of its population during the Second World War. If time allows we will make our first excursion in the surrounding marshes this evening.
Belarus: Day 5 We will spend our time exploring the marshes, ox-bow lakes and flooded woodlands along the course of the Pripyat River, an area of pretty traditional villages.
The vast marshes support around 150 pairs of Great Snipe and an evening visit to one of their leks will be an undoubted highlight of our stay in Belarus. Here we will gather at dusk as the birds begin to arrive and commence standing erect with their bills pointed upwards whilst flashing the conspicuous area of white in their outer tail feathers, all the while making strange little clicks, grunts, whistles and whooshing sounds as they move around their arena. From time to time they hurl themselves into the air and as the light dims they begin to chase each other, flying low over the marshes.
Two of our other targets here, Terek Sandpiper and the beautiful Azure Tit, can be found breeding at the western limit of their ranges, the latter sometimes nesting in the walls of rickety old wooden houses. The Turov area is also home to a small population of Greater Spotted Eagles and we should encounter this threatened raptor during our stay, as well as its smaller and more common cousin the Lesser Spotted Eagle.
Other birds we will search for include Great Bittern, Great Egret, Greylag Goose, Gadwall, Garganey, White and Black Storks, Marsh, Hen and Montagu’s Harriers, White-tailed Eagle, Northern Goshawk, Eurasian Hobby, Corn Crake, Common Crane, Common Oystercatcher, Common Ringed Plover, Black-tailed Godwit, Spotted and Common Redshanks, Common Greenshank, Wood and Green Sandpipers, the handsome Ruff, Little Gull, Whiskered, Black and White-winged (in their smart breeding plumage), Little and Caspian Terns, Eurasian Hoopoe, the huge Black (no doubt seeing the latter only after hearing its almost electronic ‘bleep’ call or its loud rattling cry), Middle Spotted, Syrian, Grey-headed and Eurasian Three-toed Woodpeckers, Eurasian Golden Oriole, Grey-headed (of the form dombrowski) and Blue-headed Wagtails, the westward-spreading Citrine Wagtail, Thrush Nightingale, the stunning Bluethroat (the white-spotted here), Fieldfare, Common Grasshopper, Savi’s, Great Reed, Sedge, Icterine, Barred, Willow and Wood Warblers, Collared, Pied and Red-breasted Flycatchers, Crested Tit, the delightful little Eurasian Penduline Tit, Great Grey Shrike and Hawfinch.
Belarus: Day 6 Today we will travel to Doroshevichy deep inside the Pripyatsky National Park for a two nights stay. We will have plenty of time for birding today, mostly inside the park.
Belarus: Day 7 The wonderful Pripyatsky National Park is one of four national parks in Belarus and Birdlife International’s Important Bird Area BY036. Established in 1996 it protects an area of more than 80,000 hectares of floodplain of the Pripyat river, at the confluence of two its tributaries, the Stviga and Ubort. There are more than 40 small lakes within the park, part of a bygone landscape, relatively untouched by man but sculpted by beavers. The avifauna inside the park overlaps strongly with that of the Turov area and we will have additional chances for trickier species such as Eurasian Three-toed Woodpecker.
During our stay at Doroshevichy, we will make a very pleasant boat trip along the Pripyat River, seeing the landscape from a different perspective and admiring the Terek Sandpipers that nest along its banks, as well as a variety of raptors and migrant shorebirds.
In the evenings, night birding possibilities include Eurasian Eagle-Owl, Northern Pygmy-Owl, Spotted and Little Crakes, and Eurasian Woodcock, although the crakes may not be present in any given spring.
A small number of European Bison was introduced here in 1987 and other mammals present in the park include Elk (or Moose), Brown Bear, Grey Wolf, European Beaver, Eurasian Lynx, European and American (escaped) Mink, European Otter, Pine Marten and the introduced Raccoon Dog. We will try some spot-lighting after dark in the park and with luck we will see some of these creatures.
Belarus: Day 8 Today we will drive west to Bereza (or Bjaroza) near the Sporovsky Biological Reserve for an overnight stay. We may have time to start our exploration on arrival, and we will also stop off along the way at Beloe Fishponds, a breeding site of Smew and Ferruginous Duck, where we may well also see Little Grebe, Great Cormorant, Great Bittern, Great Egret, Black Stork, Common Goldeneye, Tufted Duck and Great Reed Warbler. A forest reserve en route has breeding Great Grey Owls and we should enjoy an encounter today with this wonderful bird, which is probably the most impressive of all the owls. Our local guide will have been hard at work to locate nest sites as part of his ongoing research.
The Sporovsky Biological Reserve (or Sporauskaje Balota) is a RAMSAR site of international importance and covers an area of around 20,000 hectares. It is home to Europe’s largest complex of natural floodplain fen mires, which comprise some 75% of its area, the largest extent outside the Arctic and within this very special habitat more than 20% of the world’s population of Aquatic Warblers breed. This is now perhaps the best place in the world to see this restricted-range and increasingly uncommon species as it disappears from its peripheral haunts. Aquatic Warblers will be in full song at the time of our visit, trilling and chirping away from the tops of the sedges in the drier parts of the marshes.
The marshes and fish ponds here are also home to Great Bittern, Great and Common Snipes, all three ‘marsh’ terns, Little Tern, Little Gull, Citrine Wagtail, Eurasian Reed Warbler and pinging Bearded Reedlings, as well as Spotted, Little and Corn Crakes. We have a good chance of seeing the latter and may hear the other two (seeing either is not likely).
Belarus: Day 9 After spending the morning at Sporovsky we will leave the marshes behind as we drive further west to the Polish border and the primeval forest of Belowezhskaya Pushcha for a two nights stay.
Belarus: Day 10 Belowezhskaya Pushcha is the eastern part of the forest known on the Polish side of the border as Bialowieza. However, it is larger than the portion remaining on the other side of the border and it also has a less well-developed infrastructure. The forest, with its 500-year-old, named oak trees is all that remains of the once vast wildwood that stretched from the Baltic Sea to the Buh River in Ukraine. Originally it was kept as a hunting ground of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania and then the Polish Kings and Russian Czars, but latterly it suffered badly as a battleground and also from timber extraction during the Napoleonic and two World Wars. However, the infamous Nazi minister Hermann Göring played a small part in its survival, sparing it further exploitation during World War II, as he wanted to turn it into a model hunting reserve for the Third Reich. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1992 its future is now a little more secure. Several species of owl breed in the area and we have a good chance of observing the tiny Eurasian Pygmy Owl, pound for pound one of the most vicious avian predators.
Although we should already have seen most of the special forest birds by the time we reach Belowezhskaya Pushcha, there may be a few gaps. All but one of the European species of woodpecker occur here, including the uncommon White-backed, Eurasian Three-toed (so quiet that one can pass only a few metres from a feeding bird without noticing it) and the curious Eurasian Wryneck. The forest also provides a home for the uncommon Black Stork and the shy Hazel Grouse. There is a good selection of raptors including White-tailed, Short-toed and Lesser Spotted Eagles, European Honey Buzzard and Northern Goshawk
The forests and damp thickets contain a number of other interesting species including Barred Warblers, the smart Collared Flycatcher and the pretty Red-breasted Flycatcher, Wood Larks and if we are in luck we will also encounter Spotted Nutcracker. Black Redstarts frequent the vicinity of local buildings whilst amongst the hornbeams we are likely to encounter Hawfinches. We may also find an early returning migrant songster like a Marsh or River Warbler, or a Common Rosefinch.
Also present are European Crested Tit and Common Crossbill and more widespread European species include Common Buzzard, Stock Dove, Eurasian Wren, Dunnock, Meadow Pipit, Common Redstart, Whinchat, European Robin, Song Thrush, Redwing, Goldcrest, Marsh Tit, Common Whitethroat, Eurasian Tree Sparrow, European Greenfinch, Eurasian Siskin, European Serin, Eurasian Bullfinch and Hooded Crow.
The main reason to visit this wonderful forest is for its most conspicuous large mammal, the European Bison (or Wisent) and we have a good chance of seeing some lumbering along, browsing leaves at head height as they slip away into the forest. Other herbivores include Elk (or Moose) and Wild Boar. Although bears were extirpated from Belowezhskaya Pushcha in the eighteenth century during the reign of Catherine the Great, predators like Eurasian Lynx and Grey Wolf still haunt this wonderful forest and we have a slim chance of seeing one here.
On our final evening we will mark the end of the tour with a celebratory dinner.
Belarus: Day 11 Today we will make our way back to Minsk airport, where our Belarus birding tour will end in the early afternoon.