Belarus_________________________________________________

 

 

Belarus 2013

...with Attila Steiner

April 27th - May 5th

For this tour we have departed from our usual policy of publishing a trip report from our own leader and on this occasion have pleasure in presenting the thoughts of one of the tour participants. So, many thanks to Vernon Lundy for allowing us to use his report.

Belarus is a landlocked country in Eastern Europe bordered by Russia to the northeast, Ukraine to the south, Poland to the west, and Lithuania and Latvia to the northwest. There are a wide range of wildlife habitats that are threatened or do not exist elsewhere in Europe that are home to the most diverse wildlife on the continent. Vast ancient woodlands, thousands of hectares of floodplains and raised bogs are all protected within National Parks.

Following a flight from Heathrow to the Belarus capital, Minsk we were driven south-west 340 km to Belavezhskaya Pushcha National Park. After a two night stay in this area we drove the relatively short distance to Beloazersk and the marshes and fish ponds of Sporovo Reserve for two nights. The trip concluded with four nights in the Pripyatsky National Park at Doroshevichi before driving north, 250 km to Minsk for our flight back to the UK.

While this trip did not provide many new species to my life-list the prolonged views of eight species of woodpeckers and mammals including bison and pine marten, more than compensated. The accommodation and food were better than we had been led to believe and the small group good company. Our leader Attila Steiner and his interpreter Julia worked hard to make our trip as memorable and comfortable as possible, making it a pleasurable and informative experience.

April 27th

Arriving at Heathrow early we spent an uncomfortable 3 hours waiting for the gates to open at 4.30 am. We met our co-clients Jean Clarke of London, with whom we had travelled three times previously and Jonathan Ross (fortunately not his more famous namesake) of East Grinstead. Our 6.30 am scheduled take-off was inevitably delayed 20 min. – this is of course Heathrow! Landing at Vienna we had little time to reach our gate for the onward flight to Minsk. The weather was close and warm as we were bussed to the waiting aircraft. It was no little relief to see our cases waiting to be loaded. During the flight we were required to fill in an entry form. We landed a little before schedule and collected our bags after our passports and visas had been examined. Part of the entry form was put into our passports and we were required to retain it for the duration of the trip to be stamped at each hotel. Moving through customs into the Arrivals Hall I was first to see our waiting guide, Attila Steiner, and our interpreter Julia. When we had assembled and changed some money to Belarus rubles where we discovered we were now ruble millionaires. We loaded the waiting bus and were soon leaving the airport and ticking our first Belarus birds.

The road south-west to our first destination was good and we made rapid progress to the Polish border near Brest. The day remained fine but a strong wind from the south-west kept the temperature down. Vast meadows and arable fields alternated with immense mixed forest of mainly pine and birch. Belarus had suffered heavy precipitation and vast areas of this flat country lay under water. The more memorable species noted were Common Crane, White Stork, Marsh and Montagu’s Harriers, White-tailed Eagle and Woodlark. Eventually we turned off the highway and entered the delightful grounds of our hotel, the ‘No Problem’ with its restaurant the ‘Big Fish’. Soon we sat down to our first meal and welcome beer. The log followed where I discovered I had noted 37 species. After little sleep last night we had no problem sleeping, though the bedding was too small for the bed.

April 28th

Heavy overnight rain had slackened by the time we woke but the morning remained cloudy with more rain threatening. In the hotel grounds Thrush Nightingale sang lustily while Great Spotted Woodpecker and Common Redstart fed in the lush vegetation. The sounds of Golden Oriole calling were later dismissed by Attila as an extremely talented Starling, though I remained convinced that it was genuine. Following breakfast we donned wet weather gear and left for the National Park. En route we noted new species in Great Grey Shrike, Corn Bunting and a migrating flock of 150 Common Crane. Bialowieza Forest is an ancient woodland that straddles the border between Belarus and Poland. The park protects a part of the last and one of the largest surviving areas of European primeval lowland mixed forest: pine, beech, oak, alder and spruce. The forest dates back to 8000 BC and is the only remaining example of the original forests, which once covered much of Europe. It is known as Bielavezhskaya Pushcha in Belarussian, and as Puszcza Bialowieska in Polish. It is 152.2 km² in area, 90% of it in Belarus. The Belarus headquarters are impressive with extensive buildings, including headquarters, a hotel, Zoological Gardens and formal gardens. Julia informed us that there are 4 forest zones within the park, pristine forest, traditional forestry, traditional farming and lastly modern forestry. In the car park we saw our first Hawfinch. We were to see 50 during the day!

A park guide, Anton, accompanied us and he took us firstly to the Oak Grove Reserve, a 4 km² area, untouched for more than 50 years. Fallen and standing dead trees littered the magnificent stands of oak and pine. Wood Warbler and the pale eastern race of European Nuthatch showed themselves before a purple patch of sightings gave us Great, Middle and Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers, Collared Flycatcher, Firecrest and a showy Pygmy Owl. Leaving the magnificent pristine forest we investigated the surrounding farmland and working forest, picnic lunching on the way. Lesser Spotted Eagle, Fieldfare and Lesser Whitethroat were new to my list on the fields while Grey-headed Woodpecker, Crested Tit, Wryneck and Black Redstart were among the woodland birds noted. Mammals seen included Roe and Red Deer, Wild Boar and an impressive herd of European Bison. It was 9.30 pm and dark when we returned to the hotel for supper and we were soon eating and celebrating our new birds with well-earned beers. We now had 87 species for the trip and I had seen my first ‘lifer’, the Pygmy Owl. It was well past our bedtime and we were soon tucked up and resting for tomorrow.

April 29th

The weather at dawn was fine and it continued so for the rest of the day. Before breakfast we explored the hotel grounds, noting the same species as yesterday. Following breakfast we left for the NP again, having heard that another group had seen Black Woodpecker close to the zoo. Our only reward for the vigil was Serin, Pied Flycatcher and Sparrowhawk. On the way to the park we stopped to see among other species, Woodlark, Tawny Pipit and Linnet, all new birds for the trip. A hare loped away from the roadside, across the vast fields. It was time to leave the area for Sporovo Reserve, only a short distance by road but we diverted to visit the the Kamyanets Tower, a monument of defence architecture, situated in the town of Kamyanets, Brest Province. It was erected between 1276-1288 by architect Oleksa as the basic element in the defence system at the western border of the Volyn Principality. The tower was erected within a circular rampart and dominated the wooden fortifications. The Kamyanets Tower is the only surviving monument of this kind in the territory of Belarus. From the base of the 29 metre structure we had a commanding view of a reedy lake and surrounding fields. Marsh and Montagu’s Harriers haunted the reeds while a Rough-legged Buzzard soared over the fields. A pair of Garganey was found on the lake, while Black-tailed Godwit and White-winged Tern dropped in to feed. Around the town we saw Jackdaws of the race soemmerringi, with their
distinctive white collar.

Our next destination was Sielets Fish Ponds, a series of interconnected lakes where among the many species were Shoveler, Tufted Duck, Great Cormorant, Black Stork, Little Plover, Spotted Redshank, Common Greenshank, Ruff, Caspian, Little and Common Gull and Reed Bunting, all new for the trip list. The sky had clouded over as we headed for our hotel in Beloazersk. Our route to our final birding destination was on a poorly graded surface. To ensure that we were aware of the uncomfortable road Attila missed his ‘stake-out’ and we were forced to turn round and return part of the way. Ironically our target bird, Aquatic Warbler was not visible and we were scantily rewarded with views of Meadow Pipit, Marsh Harrier and ‘drumming’ Common snipe. We reached our destination the ‘Energy Hotel’ in the
centre of the town in rapidly descending dusk. It is a modern, well-equipped building with immense rooms and the best plumbing we experienced in Belarus. With little preparation we were soon settled for supper and the log. Our trip total had risen to 109. We did not need to toast any new species but we did

April 30th

After breakfast we drove to the Sporovo Reserve based on the Yaselda River. Lake Sporovo and the surrounding marshes are productive birding areas. We took the small hand-propelled ferry across the river to reach some superb marshes and fishponds. A board walk across the marsh demonstrated the unprecedented rainfall experienced here. Most of it was underwater but for the brave (or foolish) it made an excellent viewpoint to look for the marsh's breeding Citrine Wagtails. We strung ourselves across those parts not underwater and scanned the reeds and scrub. Before long we had seen two male wagtails, albeit distant with Whinchat, Bearded Tit and Reed Bunting. As all but Attila and I had wet feet we left the boardwalk and scanned from the raised path. Savi’s Warbler reeled from the reed bed and a Bluethroat. Hoopoe, Ruff and Wood Sandpiper flew over before we left for our second visit to Sielets Fish Ponds. White-tailed Eagle was again present, Great Egret in breeding and winter plumage. Hundreds of Ruff in various stages of summer plumage. Below us we caught sight of Great Reed Warbler and Thrush Nightingale on the shoreline reeds and scrub. Driving along the levees we searched the more remote stretches, looking for Beavers, which we did not see but saw ample signs of their activity, a Kingfisher perched on tree roots and a male Penduline Tit weaving its delicate and intricate nest in the glorious setting sun was a fitting finale to our visit. We drove to another area of the reserve, looking for the Aquatic Warbler. Our only reward for our long vigil here was a booming Bittern. A ’phone call to Attila had us scurrying for the bus and we sped to an area where birders were scanning a marsh from the road. Warblers had been seen but after scanning until it was dark only Theresa caught a glimpse – the hoped for display flights had yet to begin.

We returned to our hotel and following supper enjoyed a beer while we read the log. Our trip total was now 129 species and we had added some quality birds to the list.

May 1st

Continuous rain greeted us as we woke. Following breakfast we loaded the bus for our final destination. We called at Shani Lake close to the town of Liaskavichy. On the choppy waters a splendid Summerplumaged Black-throated Diver was the highlight. In the town we underwent an over-complicated procedure to pick up our local guide. He was accompanied by a policeman who drove to a house and vanished inside. He was then replaced by another driver who then took us to an area known as Vyanishi Forest. There followed a discussion when apparently they were deciding on our route over farmland. Recently a vehicle had got stuck on the fine sandy track. Our party was joined by another Ecotours party led by Dominic Couzens and Ecotours proprietor Balazs Szigeti. Three of the leaders vanished into the forest to reconnoitre the ‘stake-out’ – quite why eluded me. Impatient to see our quarry, a Great Grey Owl, I followed them. For some reason known only to him Dominic wanted to keep the bird as a surprise for his party. By the time I reached the site the bird had flown and I was left exasperated that my target bird was denied me. There followed what seemed to be an eternity before I saw the massive female return to the nest, shake off the rain and click her bill as she settled. Her fearsome yellow eyes pierced the gloom and both our and the Dominic party were treated to superb views of this magnificent bird.

Leaving this patch of woodland Attila heard and then showed us an Icterine Warbler. The buses sank into the sand when we attempted to leave the area but the combined effort of all the able men had us on the road again for a short time until we took the wrong track and down we sank again! Once more with a heroic effort we moved again and we followed the track to another patch of forest where Attila and Balazs played tracks of Hazel Grouse. I managed to miss all but a flurry of wings and I was taken by Attila back into the trees where I had fly-past views of a male. It was time for our long drive to Doroshevichi and our hotel close to the Priapitsky NP. It is is situated in the very centre of the Belarusian Polesie. The protected territory in the Pripiat area was set up in 1969, and the National Park was established here in 1996. The total area of the park is more than 83,000 hectares. Based on the banks of the untamed Pripyat River there are vast areas of meadows and forests flooded here in spring. For about 50 km we drove on a concrete apron skimmed with tarmac which was breaking up. It was an uncomfortable ride but we eventually drew up at the superb hotel, the ‘By the Pripiat’. We had reached our hotel before dark for the first time on the trip. We were indeed on the banks and our room overlooked the flooding river.

We dined and then took the log. Although our trip total had only increased by 6 to 135 I had seen two prized ‘lifers’ and beers were called for.

May 2nd

With the sun streaming through our bedroom window Theresa and I dressed quickly and spent a few minutes before breakfast walking along the river. From some nearby willows a Wryneck called and we eventually saw it as it flew. A Spotted Flycatcher hawked from a tree across the river, Yellow Wagtail posed for us on an upturned boat and a Hoopoe flew over before an Oriole called but eluded us. Following breakfast the rest of the group joined us and we walked further along the river bank. Common and Little Tern flew by, Black Redstart, Icterine Warbler, Northern Wheatear and Bluethroat flitted around before a Terek Sandpiper was found feeding on a flooded patch of meadow. A thunbergi Yellow Wagtail appeared among more familiar flava types. Attlla’s keen hearing picked up the contact call of Azure Tit and a pair was seen by all of us across the river. We drove then to Bechanskya Buva, west of the town where the swollen river passed through vast fields and dense forest. A Black Kite, an unusual bird in Belarus, posed on a trackside tree while a Hoopoe bounced across the field. White-tailed Eagle and Black Stork soared above us before we reached a wide stretch of the river where floating vegetation provided resting places for at least 200 hawking White-winged Tern, amongst which were the odd Whiskered and Black Terns. Wood Sandpiper perched warily close to the near bank. A goshawk displayed above us while above the forest 10 Hobby hawked for dragonflies. Before we left this area a Lesser Spotted Eagle flew over. We lunched at a roadside picnic area before travelling to Beloe Fish Ponds. Our main interest here was the breeding Smew, far south of their normal breeding lakes. In total we saw 25 birds among more familiar Goldeneye, Teal, Common Pochard, and Tufted Duck. Black-necked and Little Grebes were the first for the trip. We drove to a different part of the fish farm where of interest was the summer-plumaged Great Egret of the eastern race with red upper legs, Red-backed Shrike were newly in and a Common Ringed Plover was a new trip bird. Although still light and the weather fine we returned to our hotel which was still bathed in sunshine. We dined on the simply cooked but delicious local pork before reading the log. Our total had now reached 154 species – another reason if one were needed to quaff a beer or two.

May 3rd

Theresa and I took an early walk round the nearby cemetery on a fresh, sunny morning. A Wryneck called and made its way along the trees lining the graveyard, a Serin called from the higher branches and a vocal Thrush Nightingale eventually gave stunning views. After breakfast we were joined by a local guide so that we could enter the forest at Bechanskya Buva. After noting all the species seen yesterday on the river we penetrated further downstream until we encountered a flooded stretch of track where a Black Woodpecker gave both flight and perched views. A Middle-spotted Woodpecker appeared and then we looked across the flooded track where 2 Green Sandpipers fed. A sandy coloured mammal loping away proved to be a Pine Marten, the first Theresa and I had seen. We were treated to prolonged views as it tried to escape into the forest but the floods proved too much. It hopped from fallen trunk to fallen trunk desperately seeking dry ground. We eventually left it in peace and drove further into the forest. A Honey Buzzard and Garden Warbler were new to our list and our second Kingfisher fished from the roadside scrub. The flood became worse and we were forced to return. The marten was still seeking dry forest as we passed. Back in the open fields the tern flock had increased dramatically, double yesterday’s number rested on the track. As we left the river another Pine Marten loped along a wooden fence, pausing occasionally to watch us. The local guide was dropped off at the NP headquarters opposite our hotel and we drove to the picnic site for our lunch. Black Stork and Hooded Crow rose on thermals and a Woodlark sang from a nearby birch. Our next destination was the Azerani Forest, south-west of Turov. The pristine forest had hundreds of standing decaying trees which supported the full suite of woodland woodpeckers. Although we saw Lesser and Greater Spotted and heard Black only Theresa saw briefly White-backed Woodpeckers. The boardwalk we were stood on gave a loud crack and I lurched towards the deep stream. It was time to leave! We drove many miles along country tracks to end up where Julia informed us was the cucumber capital of Belarus. It was a derelict village with no facilities inhabited only by older people, the young not prepared to suffer the privations of the lack of mains services - the fate of many remote areas of the country. We scanned the tree tops hoping to see Spotted Eagles which breed in the forest but we had no luck today. It was growing very gloomy as we drove back to Turov and the ringing station close to Turov Meadow. Rough pastures held hobbled horses and little else as we were led by one of the ringers to the lekking area of Great Snipe. Four birds listlessly wandered through the deep grass, one of them attempting to display but the gloomy weather no doubt deterring them from the expected spectacular aerial display. Loud peels of thunder and bolts of lightning sent us scurrying back to the vehicle which we reached as heavy rain fell. We ate that night at a local restaurant, our hotel being booked for a private function, later the Dominic party came in and there was a predominately British influence to the clientele. Not having our paperwork with us we left the log until tomorrow. It was still raining heavily as we left for our hotel.

May 5th: Sporovo area

Weather: sun, some cloud, calm, 25 C

High cloud greeted us this morning as we took a pre-breakfast stroll. Nothing new presented itself so we returned to the hotel. Following breakfast we drove to Turov again to pick up a park guide. To our amazement Turov Meadow was underwater. Overnight the torrential rain had breached the levee protecting the floodplain and the snipe lek had gone. We had been fortunate to see the snipe last night even though the spectacle had left us disappointed. There were many wader species by the road including lekking Ruff. With our lady guide we walked into the Azerani Forest with high hopes of completing our woodpecker list. Recordings brought Lesser Spotted and Three-toed Woodpeckers into sight but White-backed managed to remain hidden. Crossing the rickety boardwalk we entered a drier patch of forest where a beautifully marked Redbreasted Flycatcher entertained us with his sweet song.

We left the forest and returned the guide to Turov before visiting the levee, a known breeding site of Azure Tit. There was a continuous stream of lorries laden with ballast filling the breach after last night’s storm and the disturbance undoubtedly caused the tits to move on. We moved on to yesterday’s ‘cucumber capital’. A Greater Spotted Eagle soared above the forest and bonuses came when Goshawk and Short-toed Eagle appeared. Nearby a Barred Warbler associated with Red-backed Shrike. We returned to Azerani to have another try for woodpeckers. A call from Balazs had us scurrying to the side of a flooded area of forest and our dedication was rewarded when not one but two female White-backed Woodpeckers responded to recordings. We thought this was a fitting end to our day in the field and we returned to the hotel contented with our lot.

Our final meal was washed down with the excellent local beer before we settled down to the serious business of two days of the log. Our total had increased to158 yesterday and by a further 4 to 162 today. We had seen most of the species expected and had enjoyed a convivial and busy trip to Belarus. Tomorrow we must rise early for the 250 km. drive to Minsk for the flight home.

May 5th

By 7.30 am we had breakfasted and loaded the bus ready for the airport. The weather was fair and it looked as if it would continue so. Soon the poor surfaces of the minor roads were left behind and we made swift progress north. We passed the huge Potash Mining complex at Soligorsk where the spoil heap was the highest point we had seen all week! We reached the airport before 11.30 am and bade farewell to our hosts Attila and Julia. The flight to Vienna was on time and we then had a wait of 2½ hours for our flight to Heathrow. Landing ahead of schedule and the arrangements for the return to the car park going smoothly we were on the road before 8.00 pm. reaching home at 11.00pm.

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 enquiries@birdwatchingbreaks.com.


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