BELARUS - EUROPE'S UNSPOILT WILDERNESSThursday 7th May 2015
Thursday 7th - Wednesday 13th May 2015
The group met at 4am at Heathrow for our flight to Vienna and although taking off late, it arrived in good time and we went on to the next gate for our onward flight to Minsk in Belarus. We arrived to find it raining hard and quite chilly.
Once the formalities of immigration were passed, we retrieved our luggage and met up with our guides, Felix and Sergiej and our driver Sergeij.
It was then off for a long drive south which produced quite a few MARSH HARRIERS, KESTREL, COMMON BUZZARD and a single LESSER SPOTTED EAGLE which drifted over woodland close to the road.
Other species seen included COMMON TERN, FIELDFARE, GREAT WHITE EGRET and the very numerous WHITE STORK amongst others.
After around three hours we made a stop at a woodland to look for woodpeckers in the now bright sunshine and although it was quiet on the woodpecker front we did have good views of a lone NORTHERN LONG-TAILED TIT plus we heard several WOOD WARBLERS trilling from the forest.
After a stop for water and to change money we visited a park in Pruzany where many FIELDFARES were seen including a nice juvenile plus a brief HAWFINCH.
TREE SPARROWS, GOLDFINCHES and GREENFINCHES were common and after a brief walk, we could hear a SYRIAN WOODPECKER tapping on a tree but despite a good search, we just couldn't find this elusive bird.
We did however have some compensation with a beautiful singing ICTERINE WARBLER that put on a real show in the trees above us.
It was then a short drive to our lovely hotel which produced more FIELDFARE, WHITE WAGTAIL and a BLACK REDSTART for one couple.
We met a short time later for our evening meal which started very well until a local group of people celebrating their anniversary started dancing to loud disco music which drowned out everything. Luckily it only lasted until dessert but by now we were all so tired after being up since the early hours that we headed off to bed for some rest.
Friday 8th May 2015
We met at 5.30am outside the hotel and whilst waiting, were treated to a chorus from a THRUSH NIGHTINGALE whilst COMMON BUZZARD, GREY HERON and WHITE WAGTAIL were seen from the terrace.
We had only driven a few hundred metres when in the road was a fine male MONTAGU'S HARRIER that flew off as we got closer. As the sun was rising we noticed several large shapes in a field which as we got closer turned out to be five EUROPEAN BISON and they gave great views as they just stood in the field watching us!
Delighted by this, we carried on only to find another three EUROPEAN BISON a few miles further on. Other species noted on our journey included COMMON CRANE, MARSH HARRIER and COMMON BUZZARD before we arrived at the entrance to the Belovezhskaya Pushcha National Park.
We got out of the van whilst our permits were being sorted and we could hear a splendid THRUSH NIGHTINGALE belting out its loud song from the woodland. After meeting our park guide Anton, we drove deep into the forest and along a track when a PINE MARTEN was seen briefly and after parking along a forest ride we could hear a male COLLARED FLYCATCHER singing which was visiting a nesting hole above us. The whole wood was alive with the sounds of either WOOD WARBLER or HAWFINCH of which several of the latter were seen in tree tops.
Along the track we caught a glimpse of our first woodpecker, a male MIDDLE-SPOTTED which gave reasonable views to everyone as it climbed a tree before vanishing into the forest. A WHITE-BACKED WOODPECKER and BLACK WOODPECKER could be heard but they remained elusive with only the WHITE-BACKED seen briefly by one of the group.
WOOD WARBLERS showed incredibly well as they flitted around the canopy and a male FIRECREST sang from trees above us. Further along the track we could hear a singing male RED-BREASTED FLYCATCHER but apart from a few seconds of movement in the trees, he remained elusive.
The return route to the van saw us find a very confiding WOOD WARBLER that loved to have an audience and really put on a great show, whilst a male GOLDEN ORIOLE showed briefly and was heard singing from the canopy.
Back at the van we had really good views of a perched COLLARED FLYCATCHER low down, before we headed off for breakfast in a small village. Whilst breakfast was being prepared we wandered around the garden noting COMMON WHITETHROAT, ICTERINE WARBLER, WHITE WAGTAIL and a flyby CUCKOO amongst others.
After such an early start, it was excellent to have some food and we really appreciated the local fare which went down very well indeed with many empty plates! From here we headed to another part of the forest and on our way, stopped at a large lake that produced a few BLACK TERNS amongst summer-plumaged WHITE-WINGED BLACK TERNS and up to ten HOBBIES hawking over the reed-beds.
Two adult WHITE-TAILED EAGLES flew about and through the scope we could see a male MARSH HARRIER trying to mob the eagle which absolutely dwarfed the harrier and a HOBBY flew through which looked like a tiny bird in comparison.
Other species on the lake included a female GOLDENEYE, WIGEON and MUTE SWAN whilst a male GREAT REED WARBLER gave brief flight views as it flew along the reeds bordering the lake.
From here we carried on and parked at an area of wet forest which meant donning our Wellington Boots for a walk through an area that had recently been flooded by a BEAVER. It took some patience and time to cross the wet and muddy areas but we eventually reached dry land and had flight views of a WHITE-BACKED WOODPECKER and a EURASIAN TREECREEPER.
Eventually we reached our destination and there in a tree was a superb female GREAT GREY OWL on the nest. Although views were only of its head, we had amazing scope views of this sought-after bird as it snoozed, unaware of its admirers below!
After getting our fill with this bird we left her in peace and retraced our steps back to the van where we had lunch and a drink before moving to another part of the forest. This time the walk was much drier although traversing a lot of fallen trees was good exercise.
Setting up our scopes on a nest hole soon reaped dividends with a cracking female TENGMALM'S OWL looking out of a nest hole. We enjoyed excellent views of her as she looked at us for a long time before we left her to tend to her eggs in the tree. On the way back we saw a CRESTED TIT above us whilst LESSER WHITETHROAT and COAL TIT sang from the woodland.
With another owl in the bag we tried for our hat trick and took a long walk through the forest which produced BULLFINCH, WHITE-BACKED WOODPECKER and the ubiquitous WOOD WARBLER. Once again we set up at a nest hole and a few minutes later a female PYGMY OWL looked out glaringly and although views were not ideal with lots of foliage obstructing a clear view, we all managed to see this tiny owl reasonably well.
Our day in the forest concluded with a large group of WILD BOAR crossing the road in front of us including at least 15 piglets! The journey back produced several COMMON CRANES, GREAT GREY SHRIKE, WHITE STORK and a pair of MONTAGU'S HARRIERS close to the hotel.
After a brief time to change we met for our evening meal which was very welcome and then washed down with a cold beer which was a great end to the day!
Saturday 9th May 2015
We met for a 7.00am breakfast and afterwards headed south in a new minibus, this one driven by Alexei. Along the road we noted MONTAGU'S HARRIER and both YELLOW WAGTAIL and a brief GREAT GREY SHRIKE before making a return visit to Pruzany city park. A SPOTTED FLYCATCHER greeted us at the entrance whilst another showed really well inside and a male SERIN jangled atop a small pine whilst a pair of HAWFINCH flew and landed in long grass.
The real highlight was a pair of SYRIAN WOODPECKERS which put on a show in a tree above us and even mated on a bare branch! After our previous miss, it was great to see this lovely woodpecker and to have such good views.
A short time later we made a visit to an area of farm buildings where TREE SPARROWS are very common and a male GOLDEN ORIOLE sang in the distance. A LITTLE OWL was seen briefly in flight as it flew from farm buildings before disappearing round the back of the cattle sheds. Several CORN BUNTINGS sang from overhead wires and WHITE STORKS circled on the morning thermals.
It was then off into the woods and marshes and a stop was made by the roadside which was very productive with WHITE-TAILED and LESSER SPOTTED EAGLE, MARSH HARRIER, COMMON CRANE, RED-BACKED SHRIKE, WHINCHAT, REED BUNTING, drumming COMMON SNIPE but best of all, at least two AQUATIC WARBLERS singing from small willows out on the marsh.
In roadside willows we saw WILLOW WARBLER, THRUSH NIGHTINGALE and had brief views of a PENDULINE TIT.
With the morning warming up nicely we visited Sergiej one’s house and took a walk around the gardens. We were treated to great views of a WRYNECK in an apple tree plus COMMON REDSTART, TREE SPARROW, WHITE STORK and many butterflies which included MAP, BRIMSTONE, QUEEN OF SPAIN FRITILLARY and SMALL HEATH.
We then took a short drive into the forest and had a walk along a sandy forest ride where lots of GREEN HAIRSTREAKS enjoyed the sunshine. At the far end, we walked across a field and could see three female and 21 WILD BOAR piglets that seemed totally unaware of our presence.
A male LESSER SPOTTED WOODPECKER called from the woods but remained hidden and a little further on we had great views of a male GREY-HEADED WOODPECKER which poked its head out of a nest hole with such a disdainful look and then perched high in a tree.
It was then back for lunch in the garden which turned out to be a real feast, the food was absolutely delicious and we certainly didn't go hungry! After a bit of a break, we carried on further into the forest and walked out to another pair of GREAT GREY OWLS, the female of which was sat on an artificial nest platform made out of an old wooden packing case.
Other birds in the area included WILLOW WARBLER, COLLARED FLYCATCHER and lots of WOOD WARBLERS.
After a chance to buy some souvenirs we revisited the marsh where lots of COMMON SNIPE were seen drumming and although we could hear at least four male AQUATIC WARBLERS, they remained unseen.
Another highlight was a female ELK with the cutest twin calves that galloped across wet meadows and were a real treat to see.
A short while later we were back at the hotel with time for a shower and brush up before having another good evening meal. We were also lucky to have entertainment from some locals with dancing and singing on a day when Belarus celebrated 70 years after World War 2.
Sunday 10th May 2015
Some of the group took a pre-breakfast stroll at 6.00am around the village where the highlights included three MONTAGU'S HARRIER, CRESTED LARK, SPARROWHAWK, YELLOW WAGTAILS and good views of a perched WRYNECK.
It was then back for a 7.00am breakfast and afterwards we began the long journey eastwards towards Turov. During our journey we added BROWN HARE and FOX to our ever growing mammal list and birds seen included lots of MONTAGU'S HARRIER, MARSH HARRIER, COMMON BUZZARD, SKYLARK, BLACK-TAILED GODWIT and YELLOW WAGTAILS of the nominate blue-headed race.
Our first main stop was at a large lake which produced lots of BLACK TERNS with a few WHITE-WINGED, WHISKERED and COMMON TERNS amongst them and a couple of summer-plumaged LITTLE GULLS hawking insects over the water. Up to 5 WHITE-TAILED EAGLES could be seen dotted around the edge of the shallow part and although the light wasn't great, we did find quite a large flock of RUFF.
The more open water yielded a pair of a BLACK-NECKED GREBES, GREAT CRESTED GREBES, CORMORANTS, GREAT WHITE EGRETS and our first COOTS of the tour!
A lunch stop was made in Pinsk and then it wasn't long afterwards that we arrived in the marshes bordering the Prypriat River.
We were then back in the van to continue our journey which produced a male HEN HARRIER, WHINCHAT and displaying MONTAGU'S HARRIER.
At our first main site we took a walk up onto a raised bank and from here we had excellent views of a singing THRUSH NIGHTINGALE perched on top of a bush which was unusual as they are normally skulking birds. The real highlight was the discovery of a male AZURE TIT singing from an area of birches close by!
Over the next twenty minutes, we were treated to amazing views of this sought-after bird as it glided occasionally across the track before singing once again right in front of us. It was also seen feeding on reed heads, similar to Penduline Tit.
After a while we left the bird in peace and walked the opposite way along the embankment which was simply alive with birds. We first saw a PENDULINE TIT feeding low down, then a pair of NORTHERN LONG-TAILED TITS came past calling and stopping briefly and a male LESSER SPOTTED WOODPECKER came flying to a nearby tree and began calling. This then started a WRYNECK off and on the opposite bank we watched at least three GREAT REED WARBLERS, two YELLOWHAMMERS and distant WHITE-TAILED and LESSER SPOTTED EAGLES.
A mixed flock of BLACK and WHITE STORKS flew overhead and back close to the van as the THRUSH NIGHTINGALE continued to sing.
It was then back to the van to continue our journey which only took around 30 minutes. We checked in, changed into our wellies and drove out of the town which has a statue of Terek Sandpipers in the main square!
Taking a walk along the riverbank produced WOOD SANDPIPER, BLACK-TAILED GODWIT, REDSHANK and lots of YELLOW WAGTAILS. Reaching a small pool we flushed a snipe that looked very good for Great Snipe but views were brief and better views were required.
We tried a lot of areas where Great Snipe had been seen in the past but it was rather dry on what should have been flooded fields! We did have some compensation with a male RED-BACKED SHRIKE, LITTLE TERNS and a singing CORNCRAKE which although very close failed to show itself.
In the distance we located at least three TEREK SANDPIPERS on a sand bar and although views were not great in the evening light, it was great to at least see these birds and we would hopefully get better views the following day.
With the light going, Felix and Sergiej tried one other area and suddenly Felix could hear GREAT SNIPE calling and we spotted a lek in front of us! We had great views of these wonderful birds lekking as they threw their heads back and leapt into the air whilst making clicking noises with their bills. It was simply magical to hear and watch these birds whilst a chorus of FIRE-BELLIED and GREEN TOADS called in the background!
By now it was getting late so we headed back towards the van noting GRASSHOPPER WARBLER and SAVI'S WARBLERS reeling from the scrub, plus a small flock of WHITE-WINGED BLACK TERNS which flew over with TEREK SANDPIPER singing in the dark. Jupiter and Venus shone above us and we could see at least three WOODCOCK flying over the marshes.
There was a slight mix-up with which way to get back in the dark but we all got back eventually and it was straight in for dinner and a well-deserved cold beer to wash it down, before heading off to bed to get some rest after what had been a brilliant day.
Monday 11th May 2015
We had a 7.00am breakfast and soon afterwards, headed to a small village bordering Turov meadows where ICTERINE WARBLERS were very confiding, as were THRUSH NIGHTINGALES which gave some very good views, especially one that was collecting nesting material close to the path.
It wasn't long before a pair of AZURE TIT were found close to a nest hole in a small willow and these delightful birds really put on a show for us. GOLDEN ORIOLES sang and the male was seen flying from a nest in a riverside tree. The warm weather encouraged lots of dragonflies including DOWNY EMERALD and HAIRY HAWKER.
We headed back towards the village and on the opposite bank had excellent views of a TEREK SANDPIPER feeding along the shoreline with other waders nearby including WOOD SANDPIPER, RUFF, BLACK-TAILED GODWIT and REDSHANK.
Further along we found another pair of TEREK SANDPIPERS that put on a show and even were seen mating in front of us! A RINGED PLOVER was another addition to the list as we continued our walk.
An open marshy area produced a Thunbergi GREY-HEADED WAGTAIL plus QUEEN OF SPAIN FRITLLARIES, PALE CLOUDED YELLOW and MAP BUTTERFLIES with large numbers of COCKCHAFERS enjoying the hot sunshine. After a brief stop back at the van where we had a drink, we walked to Turov ringing station where Pavel, a local ringer explained about the area and the ringing that occurred there. This included the fact that a few of the Great Snipe that we had seen the previous evening had been fitted with geo-locators and had returned from their wintering grounds in the Democratic Republic of Congo to Belarus in two days, meaning an average speed of 100km an hour!
We wandered around the gardens and were delighted once more to see three AZURE TITS that showed really well for us in the sunshine. A search was made for Long-eared Owl in the surrounding willows but to no avail.
Back at the ringing station we were treated to a ringing demonstration of WOOD SANDPIPER and a couple of REDSHANK before heading off for lunch. In Turov, an important Bishop was in town so a lot of the roads were blocked off, meaning our proposed lunch venue was closed so we had lunch back at the hotel.
Afterwards we drove for around an hour to a large open area of meadows and grassland bordering a small tributary of the Prypriat River which is a good area for raptors. A GREAT GREY SHRIKE perched on wires and COMMON BUZZARDS and RAVEN were seen nearby. Eventually we located two eagles which on closer inspection, turned out to be LESSER SPOTTED and a SPOTTED EAGLE which offered good views.
It was quite a drive back and after picking up our fleeces we walked back out to Turov meadows in good light. The usual waders were seen and YELLOW WAGTAILS were very common and glowed in the early evening light. After a good walk, we reached the lek spot and immediately could pick out at least four GREAT SNIPE sitting out on the marsh and as the evening wore on, there were at least 25 birds that really put on a show for us.
WHITE-WINGED BLACK and BLACK TERNS could be seen flying over a distant pool with LITTLE and COMMON TERNS among them and as we started the walk back, a CORNCRAKE called very close to the path and we had excellent views as it was seen calling and scuttling across the path.
A few of the group were ahead of us and they missed this but when we caught up, they too had seen another CORNCRAKE nearby! A GRASSHOPPER WARBLER was reeling out on the marsh but remained hidden and as the light was going, a pair of MUSKRAT were watched in a small pool close to the van which rounded off another excellent day.
Dinner was taken in a local restaurant and was very welcome after a long day in the field.
Tuesday 12th May 2015
We had a slightly later breakfast and afterwards we took a walk directly from the hotel to an area adjacent to the river which immediately started well with WHITE-WINGED, BLACK, WHISKERED, COMMON and LITTLE TERNS feeding in front of us whilst small groups of RUFF, REDSHANK, WOOD SANDPIPER plus a good flock of summer-plumaged DUNLIN were seen down the river.
A good scan of the river bank produced four distant TEMMINCK'S STINTS creeping along the water’s edge and luckily either they or another three flew over us and eventually landed on the opposite shore where they gave good views. Other species noted included WHITE-TAILED EAGLE, OYSTERCATCHER, BLACK-TAILED GODWIT and lots of YELLOW WAGTAILS.
We reached an area of woodland that had recently succumbed to a grass fire, although new shoots were already starting to appear on this area that is normally under water, but with lack of rain during the winter we were able to wander freely.
A RAVEN nest was found with a recently fledged juvenile sitting close by whilst the adult flew around calling. Not wanting to disturb the birds we carried on and had good views of around four GOLDEN ORIOLES as they flew around calling and some were seen perched. A GREAT GREY SHRIKE was seen briefly but the real highlight was a family of LONG-EARED OWLS that Sergiej found. The female sat with three juveniles whilst constantly keeping an eye on us.
A group of BLACK STORKS circled over us and both WHITE-TAILED and LESSER SPOTTED EAGLE were seen together over the woods.
It was then back to the hotel and a short drive to the ringing station, although birds were very quiet here so we cut our losses and headed to the hotel for lunch. Afterwards, we loaded up the van and drove towards Minsk, making a stop after one hour at a large area of fishponds.
On the first pond we found a couple of redhead SMEW which are the most southerly breeding Smew in Europe. Other goodies included WHOOPER SWANS, WHITE-TAILED EAGLE, GREENSHANK and TEAL amongst others.
Another adjacent fishpond held even more SMEW including lots of drakes plus booming BITTERN, KINGFISHER, CASPIAN GULL and a GRASS SNAKE in a small drainage channel.
With time getting on, we carried on northwards and again after a couple of hours, stopped for a comfort break and ice-cream. Whilst enjoying this we could hear a BLACK WOODPECKER calling and eventually it came over the trees and flew right past us into an area of woodland, where it was joined by another before disappearing into the wood.
We arrived in the capital of Minsk early evening and after checking into the hotel, met for a drink and enjoyed a delicious evening meal before heading off to bed.
Wednesday 13th May 2015
We had breakfast at 7.00am and loaded the bags in the van. Good number of FIELDFARES and soemmerringii JACKDAWS were seen in the park adjacent to the hotel and whilst photographing them, Steve found a male BARRED WARBLER close by in a bush.
Unfortunately the bird had vanished by the time everyone had got out of the van but there was some compensation with a LESSER WHITETHROAT in a small pine tree.
We left the middle of Minsk and drove around the ring road until we reached a small area of woodland. In a small clearing we found at least three TREE PIPITS and a SPARROWHAWK which was seen mobbing a COMMON BUZZARD overhead. GARDEN and WOOD WARBLERS and MISTLE THRUSH were heard singing from the Pine plantation.
A short while later we arrived at Minsk airport in time to change our currency and have a drink before checking in for our flight to Vienna. We took off on time and landed in Vienna early afternoon. After a five hour wait, which for some was filled with a spot of shopping and taking refreshments, we took off for our flight back to London Heathrow.
Our luggage arrived and we said our goodbyes after what had been an absolutely fantastic tour with so many highlights plus a great group who made the trip very enjoyable indeed!