Our foray into one of Europe’s few relatively underexplored areas resulted in excellent sightings of virtually all of our target species, including Azure Tit, Great Snipe, Aquatic Warbler, Hazel Grouse, Great Grey and Pygmy Owls, Collared Flycatcher, Citrine Wagtail and Marsh and Terek Sandpipers. Add to that thousands of lekking Ruffs, hundreds of marsh terns of all three species, countless White and Black Storks, displaying Montagu’s Harriers and all of Europe’s breeding woodpecker species except Green, and you have the recipe for a memorable trip.
Our experience was enhanced by hearty meals and staying in good accommodation, usually in the centre of fantastic birding areas: not least during our four-night stay on a boat hotel on the Pripyat River in which our captain (a former Soviet submariner!) was only too happy to sail us to prime birding spots.
Azure Tit was the narrow winner of the bird of the trip vote, with a very showy Corncrake in second place, Eurasian Pygmy Owl in third and Great Grey Owl and Hazel Grouse tied for fourth. All in all this was an exceptional tour and Belarus is set to become one of Europe’s birding hot-spots, so it was wonderful to be in the vanguard.
April 28th: Warsaw to Belovezhskaya Pushcha.
Following an on-time flight from London Heathrow we were watching Fieldfares and Hooded Crows on the avenues of Warsaw by late morning. The long drive to the Belarus border and then on to Belovezhskaya Pushcha was punctuated by stops for a fine pizza and a number of good birds. Of the latter, highlights included Common and Black Redstarts, Eurasian Marsh Harrier, male Montagu’s Harrier, and upwards of 80 White Storks, many of them on roadside nests.
At the border itself we logged our first European Serin, Hawfinch, Common Kingfisher, Common Cuckoo and Grey Heron, as well as singing Thrush Nightingale, before arriving at the hotel in time for dinner.
29th: Belovezhskaya Pushcha.
A pre-breakfast walk enabled us to familiarise ourselves with some of the birds around the forest centre, including Wood Warbler, Common Redstart, European Pied Flycatcher, Hawfinch, Willow Tit, European Serin, Eurasian Siskin and Great Spotted Woodpecker, while Black Woodpecker and Eurasian Golden Oriole were heard.
Next we ventured into the national park, making impromptu stops for the likes of Lesser Spotted Eagle, Wood Lark and a female Hazel Grouse that gave exceptional views while perched low in a roadside willow. More good birds were inevitably found each time we stopped and by late morning our list included Grey-headed Woodpecker, Eurasian Wryneck, Tree Pipit, Black Kite and Black Stork.
Some good local knowledge led us to the nest of a Great Grey Owl, where the adult stared at as with piercing yellow eyes while panting to keep cool in the unseasonably warm weather. A smart male Collared Flycatcher was a bonus at this site.
After a lunch stop where we had good views of Great Reed Warbler we visited a large marsh where we found Garganey, Common Crane (a pair which were temporarily spooked by some passing Red Deer), Black-tailed Godwit, Common Snipe and Sedge and Savi’s Warblers.
We then ended the day in an area of mature woodland where Middle Spotted and White-backed Woodpeckers were seen, Three-toed Woodpecker was heard drumming and Green Sandpipers were prospecting for nests in the tops of tall trees.
30th: Belovezhskaya Pushcha to Turov.
Wonderful close views of Grey-headed and Middle Spotted Woodpeckers in the hotel grounds were a great start to the day. We also saw a pair of Red Crossbills courtship-feeding, a Black Woodpecker flying past, Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, Willow Tit, Common Raven, Black Kite, Black and Common Redstarts, Spotted and European Pied Flycatchers, Wood Warblers singing and displaying for all they were worth and a bizarre-looking tail-less Lesser Whitethroat which resembled a sunbird in silhouette but quickly betrayed its identity away with its rattling song. And all this before breakfast!
Our first stop of the day was in an area of woodland which has been left to regenerate for the past 40 years. Hear we were lucky to be able to watch a very alert Eurasian Pygmy Owl perched right above our heads. We also found Black Stork, male Collared Flycatcher and Red Squirrel.
Back on the road we saw Eurasian Hoopoe, Whinchat, Wood Lark, Tree Pipit and many White Storks. A roadside stop for lunch boosted the trip-list with the addition of an adult White-tailed Eagle and a pair of Sand Martins. In the afternoon we drove to Turov, seeing many raptors and other birds along the way. Highlights included Common Crane, Black Stork, 20+ Eurasian Marsh Harriers, male Montagu’s Harrier, a pair of Short-toed Eagles and a Northern Shrike. In Turov itself, a taste of the coming days was had from our floating ‘boat hotel’ with Black, White-winged, Whiskered and Little Terns and Ruff visible on the Pripyat River.
1st: Pripyat River around Turov.
Waders carpeted every available area of wet riverside meadow near our hotel, with hundreds of lekking Ruffs coming in all sizes and colours, along with dozens of Wood Sandpipers, Common and Spotted Redshanks, Black-tailed Godwits and Northern Lapwings. All three species of marsh terns, along with Little and Common Terns, hawked over the river in good numbers and wildfowl included many Garganey and Northern Shoveler, four Tufted Ducks and a pair of Gadwall. A walk along the river produced many Western Yellow Wagtails, some Eurasian Tree Sparrows and an obliging drumming Syrian Woodpecker.
After breakfast we headed to an old lady’s garden on the outskirts of the town. A pair of Eurasian Wrynecks showed remarkably well upon our arrival, and within minutes we were watching the star prize: a stunning pair of Azure Tits, which remained in the area for the best part of an hour and were watched feeding, displaying and even mating. The supporting cast include Eurasian Penduline Tit and Eurasian Golden Oriole.
Next we took a walk back along the river in the direction of Turov town centre, seeing thousands more waders and wildfowl along the way with highlights including several Terek Sandpipers, eight Common Cranes migrating, a fishing Osprey and a White-tailed Eagle. Two interesting mammal sightings were Stoat and Muskrat. After lunch a visit to a busy ringing station was insightful and enabled us to see Ruff and Common Redshank in the hand.
After spending some more time watching the masses of waterbirds we stopped for fine views of a roosting Long-eared Owl. Then it was back to the boat hotel, which we took out for a sail on the river – a useful benefit of being the only guests! We watched White-tailed Eagle and Terek Sandpiper en route to a Great Snipe lek at which we enjoyed good views of up to 20 displaying males. We drank beer on deck on the way home, watching the sun set and seeing a bonus of seven Wild Boars running across a meadow. A four-course potato-fest (comprising salad, fritters, soup and mashed with fish) rounded off a memorable day.
2nd: Pripyat River and Beloe Fish-ponds.
Alongside a chorus of ‘Happy Birthday to You’ for Dorothy, excellent views of two species of Luscinia was our opening excitement for the day, with both white-spotted Bluethroat and Thrush Nightingale seen well singing in a small marsh near the bridge over the Pripyat River. Also here were white-headed Long-tailed Tit, Eurasian Penduline Tit, Garden Warbler and a fly-past by four Whiskered and eight White-winged Terns.
An unscheduled roadside stop yielded good views of Northern Shrike, and we made another for a hepatic female Common Cuckoo that flew in front of us which resulted in Eurasian Hoopoe and Wood Lark being heard and sightings of Sand Lizard and Grass Snake. Beloe Fish-ponds instantly produced about 10 Black-necked Grebes, many Great Crested Grebes and several Eurasian Coots and Great Cormorants. The next pond held a pair of Smew, here at their most south-westerly breeding site, and in total we logged about 15 of these beautiful ducks during our visit. Other highlights included five or more White-tailed Eagles, a Black Kite and 80 or more Common Goldeneyes.
In the afternoon we crossed the main road and visited another area of fish-ponds, including many drained ones, that proved very attractive to waders, as well as several Black Storks which came to feed on stranded fish. An immaculate breeding-plumaged Marsh Sandpiper and three Temminck’s Stints were the highlights, and other new species for the trip included Sanderling, Curlew Sandpiper and Eurasian Curlew.
3rd: Pripyat River cruise, including Pripyat National Park
The captain of our floating hotel set sail at 4.30am, so by first light we were in prime habitat along the Pripyat River, watching the likes of lekking Ruffs and a host of other waders, plus White-winged, Whiskered, Black and Little Terns. The riverside vegetation held Hawfinch, Eurasian Golden Oriole and many singing Thrush Nightingales. As we approached the national park centre things got even more interesting, with several close White-tailed Eagles, a Terek Sandpiper and splendid close views of a Eurasian Beaver that swam in front of the boat and then alongside us before shuffling off up the bank.
From the park centre we took a short minibus ride to an area of forest, seeing a close pair of Lesser Spotted Eagles along the way, although one of the pair was possibly a hybrid Lesser x Greater Spotted Eagle. In the woods we found Spotted Flycatcher, Tree Pipit, Eurasian Nuthatch, Eurasian Treecreeper and Great Spotted Woodpecker. Black Woodpeckers were much in evidence with plenty of signs of feeding, a couple of males drumming and a female seen. Close by a Wild Boar crossed the path in front of us. The leisurely boat ride back to Turov offered luxury birding from the sun deck with waterbirds galore viewed with beer or coffee in hand, and some staggeringly close views of a pair of White-tailed Eagles.
We made a final stop at the Great Snipe lek which resulted in good views of several males, a fly-past Peregrine Falcon and an extremely obliging territorial Corncrake singing out in the open on a grassy track as the sun went down.
4th: Turov to Beloazersk
An early morning visit to an area of woodland near Turov resulted in close sightings of several thousand voracious mosquitoes! Two Common Snipe perched in the treetops were interesting: studies have shown that forest-breeders of this species are genetically different from their marshland cousins and that they breed a month or two earlier. Three-toed Woodpecker was heard before we retreated to a nearby village and in a mosquito-free environment enjoyed excellent views of a pair of Barred Warblers, a pair of Eurasian Golden Orioles and a white-headed Long-tailed Tit, while a White-backed Woodpecker and a pair of Eurasian Wrynecks were heard.
We reluctantly said our goodbyes to the captain and staff of our boat hotel and did some final birding around Turov, with White-winged and Black Terns, nesting White Storks, lekking Ruffs and a Syrian Woodpecker among the highlights.
Next we visited a meadow surrounded by forest en route to Pinsk, where both Lesser and Greater Spotted Eagles gave good views, as did at least three Common Cuckoos and a male Hen Harrier having an altercation with a male Eurasian Marsh Harrier. The remainder of the journey to Sporovo was punctuated by stops for another Lesser Spotted Eagle, a pair of displaying Montagu’s Harriers and coffee and cakes in Pinsk.
At Sporovo we had almost instant success with a singing male Aquatic Warbler which afforded great views, while a first-summer male Citrine Wagtail showed well just metres away to round off another very good day.
5th: Sporovo area
Our first port of call in the morning was the Sporovo reserve where a manually operated ferry/pontoon crossed the river into some interesting habitat which held at least one male Citrine Wagtail, male Bluethroat, Little Tern, Wood Sandpiper, Great Reed Warbler, booming Great Bittern, squealing Water Rail and reeling Savi’s Warbler. A pair of Crested Tits and a Great Spotted Woodpecker were in the nearby pines.
A short way down the road an innocuous-looking derelict farm cum sewage works produced two male and one female Montagu’s Harriers engaged in display, along with Northern Wheatear, Wood Lark, Whinchat, Tawny Pipit and many Western Yellow and White Wagtails and Yellowhammers. After coffee and lunch back at the hotel we headed for Selec Reservoir and Fish-ponds, where our first stop produced at least three Barred Warblers, two male Red-backed Shrikes, White-backed Woodpecker, three White-tailed Eagles, many Caspian Gulls, all three species of marsh terns and a Little Ringed Plover patting its feet on the sand to find food.
A little further along the causeway several Eurasian Penduline Tits were seen and heard, a flock of Ruffs contained a single Curlew Sandpiper, and further out on the reservoir we found between 80-100 Great Egrets, 100+ Great Crested Grebes, a Red-throated Diver, several Gadwall, a pair of Common Pochard and hundreds of Great Cormorants and Mute Swans. Several more Eurasian Penduline Tits and Great Reed Warblers were seen, along with Savi’s Warbler and Camberwell Beauty butterfly, which both gave excellent views. We ended the day back at yesterday evening’s Aquatic Warbler site, where two birds were heard but none seen this time and a Grasshopper Warbler showed well as it reeled.
6th: Beloazersk to Warsaw
We made an early start on our homeward journey, watching a setting ‘super moon’, a spectacular sunrise and seeing a few interesting roadside birds along the way, including a number of White Storks and a pair of Black Terns. In the border area we saw and/or heard Thrush Nightingale, Eurasian Golden Oriole and Eurasian Sparrowhawk, while on the Polish side highlights included several Common Buzzards and Eurasian Marsh Harriers and four Common Cranes, before we arrived at Warsaw airport to catch our flight back to Heathrow.
Finally, we must say a huge thank you to our ground agents, Balasz and Attila, for arranging such a wonderful tour.
For details of the full species list or to request further information about the next time we will be offering this trip. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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