Trip report: Belarus custom tour (May 2018) by Tropical Birding

Guided by Lisle Gwynn. This was a custom tour.

Europe has, for far too long a time, been relatively overlooked by non-European birders. So, where does one go when one finally decides to assault this surprisingly diverse continent for its birds? Spain is usually the first choice, followed by France, perhaps the UK, maybe Italy for a little vino in tandem, perhaps the sub-Arctic climes of Finland and Norway, and then Belarus of course, followed by… hang on… Belarus? Yes, the ex-Soviet state of Belarus. It’s not small, but it has long escaped the gaze of foreigners, normal and bird-inclined alike, and also escaped many of the modern issues of the rest of Europe. Overgrazing, heavy pesticide and herbicide use, over cultivation, habitat destruction on an almost 100% scale, are all issues that Belarus hasn’t succumbed to.
So, what is it like to bird in an ex-Soviet state? I have spent many months of my life actually in Russia, and in its many current and previous enclaves, and I feel particularly qualified to give an opinion here. It is as though the ‘Soviet’ sphere developed to reach the same, or at least a very similar place, but did so by very different means and methods. It’s divergent evolution for political states.This means that sometimes things are overly complicated, often things aren’t as promised or even as they seem, and nothing is allowed, but everything is possible. All of this equates to an unadulterated, untouched and relatively unexplored birding destination, which to my mind makes for an exciting trip, as well as often humorous. Couple this with some of Eastern Europe’s most special and stunning birds, and a string of comfortable hotels and pleasant restaurants, and it makes for an ideal short trip a little out of the ‘norm’.

Our tour began on the outskirts of the modern capital city of Minsk in a comfortable hotel with adjacent excellent bakery (an important factor in hotel choice).We began in earnest in the town of Turov, exploring the Pripyatsky National Park and its surroundings where we encountered our first Eastern European staple species as well as sought after highlights like the incomparable Azure Tit, Great Snipe in full lek mode, various raptors, Grey-headed Woodpecker, Thrush Nightingale, River Warbler, a bevy of waterfowl and shorebirds, including full breeding plumage Ruff, as well as the stunning Smew, one of the world’s best ducks. From here we headed west to spend a night in Byelaazyorsk, our base of exploration for finding several sought after birds, including the monotypic Bearded Reedling, Aquatic Warbler and Great Grey Owl. Our final stop of the tour was a 3 night stay within the Belovezhskaya Pushca National Park, a stunningly beautiful forest park with some of the best ancient oak forest I have ever seen. Here we had a woodpecker party with a full 10 species (including 2 heard-only), as well as Eurasian Pygmy Owl, Northern Goshawk, Collared Flycatcher, Red-breasted Flycatcher, Golden Oriole, Greenish Warbler and so much more.
If you’re looking for a European birding trip a little off of the normal, well-beaten path, Belarus is the destination for you. We had an absolutely fantastic time with quantity as well as exceptional quality, and a lot of pleasurable ‘general birding’ along the way. Birding and travel in this quirky state is truly fun, humorous and a pleasure – we encountered warm welcomes, friendliness and smiles everywhere we went.

Full Tropical Birding Belarus Trip Report May 2018 (pdf format, 3.4 MB file).