Belarus is without doubt the best place in Eastern Europe to see Azure Tit. Photo: Steve Rooke
Lying to the east of Poland, the landlocked country of Belarus has had a turbulent history. However since its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 it has developed into a thriving country in its own right, and one blessed with an outstanding and unique natural environment.
Our tour will take us to some of the country’s superb national parks. We’ll begin amongst woodlands and rich forests of the Berezinsky National Park. We’ll travel to the Belovezhskaya Puscha which straddles the Polish border and forms the largest remaining tract of primeval forest in Europe. Originally a hunting reserve until 1991 when hunting was stopped, the Puscha quickly became a UNESCO World Heritage Site and then a Biosphere Reserve. Here stalk rare mammals such as European Bison, and special birds such as the ghostly Great Grey Owl.
From there we’ll travel to Pripyatsky, where the Pripyat river creates a huge flood plain full of wildlife and where the endangered Great Snipe has a stronghold.
Days 1-2: Our tour begins in the early afternoon in ancient city of Minsk, the capital of Belarus. From here we’ll begin our journey to Berezinsky National Park. The reserve was established 90 years ago and since then it has gained international recognition. It’s listed in the World Network of Biosphere Reserves as a Ramsar Area and an International Bird Area. Particularly common here are pine groves with an emerald-like moss carpet and a variety of bilberry, blueberry and heather shrub.
Amongst a mix of mature deciduous and damp spruce forest we’ll look for woodpeckers such as Three-toed and White-backed, and flycatchers including Red-breasted and Collared. These forests are home to Black Grouse, Hazel Grouse, and Capercaillie, and we may, with luck, encounter one or more of these species in and around the area.
In the early morning the forest will be alive with birdsong from such melodic songsters as Wood and Icterine Warblers, and Thrush Nightingales. In the evenings, Woodcock can be observed roding overhead. Nights in Berezinsky.
Days 3-5: This morning we travel to the Belovezhskaya Pushcha, a renowned World Natural Heritage Site. Although the forest on the Polish side of the border is perhaps better known, this ancient primeval forest on the Belarus side is larger, more intact, and not as regularly visited.
This solitude should make it easy to see herds of European Bison as well as Wild Boar, and Red and Roe Deer. Sometimes, and with great luck, it’s possible to encounter Wolf or Lynx. Following good trails we’ll search for the many birds that make this vast forest their home. Black, Grey-headed, and Middle Spotted Woodpeckers, Crested Tit, Common Crossbill, and numerous Hawfinches are all possible. We’ll stay out late to look for Pygmy Owl too, but the real prize will be a sighting of a Great Grey Owl – a few pairs breed in this forest – or a Tengmalm’s Owl, and our local guides will do their best to show these to us. Another special bird of the region that we’ll look for here is Aquatic Warbler. This rare species is restricted to the wetlands and marshes of central eastern Europe and we’ll make a special effort to find it.
We’ll also make a visit to Lake Liadskoye where we should find breeding Whooper Swan, Wood Sandpiper, and Savi’s and River Warblers, while raptors could include White-tailed Eagles and Honey Buzzards. Nights in Puscha.
Days 6-8: Moving south from Belovezhskaya Pushcha we’ll head to Pripyatsky National Park where we’ll spend three nights in the old Slavic town of Turov in a comfortable hotel located on the banks of the river. The vast flood plain of the River Pripyat provides a habitat that is sadly lost from much of Western Europe. The 200,000 acre National Park encompass a rich mosaic of meandering rivers, lakes, small pools, wet grasslands, and patches of mixed forest, all of which provide a wild environment where nature is very much in control and where we’ll spend our time exploring.
During spring evenings, the meadows provide a gathering place for migrating waders as hundreds of Black-tailed Godwits and Ruff assemble, including many extremely colourful males. Elegant Spotted Redshanks are also found in good numbers, their snappy calls echoing in the evening air. These wet marshes are the perfect breeding grounds for one of Europe’s rarest waders, Great Snipe, and we’ll hope for good views of this elusive bird when we visit a lek to witness the remarkable and strange behaviour of the males vying for the attention of the females. We’ll also search for two other rare breeding waders, Terek and Marsh Sandpiper, and listening especially for the distinctive fluting call of the latter. The riparian willow forests here are home to another sought-after bird, the smart Azure Tit, and we’ll have a good chance of finding this little gem at probably the only place in Europe where it can be reliably seen. Not far from our hotel is a ringing station and we hope to pay this a visit during our stay.
Other woodland in the area includes ancient forests of oak, spruce, and birch. Here Elk and Bison roam and we’ll have a reasonable chance of seeing both, while a chance encounter with a European Beaver is possible at any time. Wolves are also present although much more difficult to see. Woodland birds we’ll search for include a variety of woodpeckers, Golden Oriole, Short-toed Treecreeper, Thrush Nightingale, and Common Rosefinch, while mixed open areas within the forest can hold Bluethroat and Citrine Wagtail. Nights in Turov.
Day 9: We’ll head back to Minsk where the tour ends at the airport at mid-morning.
Updated: 28 June 2019