Belarus is without doubt the best place in Eastern Europe to see Azure Tit. Photo: Stuart Elsom
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 begin at 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 travel to Pripyatsky, where the Pripyat river creates a huge flood plain full of wildlife and where the endangered Great Snipe has a stronghold. We then visit Sporovo in search of another rare European species, Aquatic Warbler, a bird restricted to flooded grasslands of a small part of Eastern Europe.
Days 1 - 2: Our tour begins in the early afternoon in ancient city of Minsk, the capital of Belarus. From here we begin our two hour journey to Berezinsky National Park. The reserve was established 90 years ago and since then it has gained international recognition. It is 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.
Here amongst a mix of mature deciduous and damp spruce forest we will look for woodpeckers, such as Three-toed and White-backed; flycatchers including Red-breasted and Collared; and owls, which hopefully will include Great Grey, Pygmy, and if we’re really lucky, the enigmatic Tengmalm’s Owl. The forests here are home to Black Grouse, Hazel Grouse, and Capercaillie. We may, with luck, encounter one or more of these species in and around the forest.
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, the ancient primeval forest on our side is larger, more intact, and not as heavily 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 is possible to encounter a Wolf or Lynx. Following good trails we’ll search for the many birds that make this vast forest their home. Hazel Grouse, Pygmy Owl, Black, White-backed, Grey-headed, Three-toed, and Middle Spotted Woodpeckers, Thrush Nightingale, Crested Tit, Collared and Red-breasted Flycatchers, Common Crossbill, and numerous Hawfinches are all possible. We’ll stay out late to look for Pygmy Owl but the real prize will be a sighting of a Great Grey Owl – a few pairs breed in the forest and our local guides will do their best to show one to us.
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 massive 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, where our comfortable hotel and our last base on the tour, is 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 acres of the 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 hope for good views of this elusive bird when we visit a lek to witness the remarkable and strange behaviour as the males vie for the attention of the females. We’ll also be searching for two other rare breeding waders, Terek and Marsh Sandpiper, 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 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 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, Collared and Red-breasted Flycatchers, Thrush Nightingale, and Common Rosefinch, while mixed open areas within the forest can hold Bluethroat and Citrine Wagtail. Nights in Turov.
Day 9: Today we head back to Minsk where the tour ends at the airport at mid-morning.
Updated: 13 May 2019