Belarus: Unspoiled Europe

In recent years, Eastern Europe has rapidly risen to the fore among European birders, and Belarus has recently entered into mainstream European birding circles. However, it remains relatively unknown among American birders looking for their next destination in the region. While many Western European countries have undergone significant change brought on by widespread development, many countries to the east are relatively underdeveloped, and still have large areas of natural habitat and dense populations of birds and other animals. Belarus is a prime example of this. Sitting east of Poland and south of Lithuania, this often overlooked country boasts extensive, bird-rich marshes, substantial tracts of ancient woodland, and floodplain forests. The tour starts out by exploring the extensive wetland areas in the southeastern part of the country, which hold breeding birds like Great Snipe (usually encountered at traditional display sites), Ruff (with males at the peak of their breeding finery), Terek Sandpiper, and Black-tailed Godwit. The willow-laden banks of the Pripyat River are home to one of Europe’s most wanted birds, the colorful Azure Tit, and Belarus is one of the most reliable places to find this species. Other major targets in the marshes include Citrine Wagtail and Corn Crake, while various ponds and lakes nearby support a host of waterfowl including the elegant Smew. On the fringes of the marshes and ponds lie extensive reedbeds, which offer a chance to see the elegant Bearded Reedling, a monotypic family, and we’ll also make an effort to see the threatened Aquatic Warbler; a significant portion of the population breeds in Belarus. At the end of the trip, we will visit extensive forest, where woodpeckers will be a major highlight. Among these could be Europe’s largest woodpecker species, Black, along with Middle-spotted, White-backed, Eurasian Three-toed Woodpeckers, and others. In some years, local rangers have one or more owls nests staked out. Belarus also holds significant populations of mammals too, and we also have a chance at seeing European Bison, Red Deer, and several others.


Day 1: Arrival in Minsk. Flights arrive this afternoon in Minsk. You will be transferred to an excellent hotel close to the airport, which is located in forest with good birding on the grounds.

Day 2: Minsk to Turov. After breakfast, we’ll have a few hours of easy birding to get to know some of Belarus’s more common species such as Common Chaffinch, Fieldfare, European Goldfinch, European Greenfinch, Spotted Flycatcher, White Wagtail and more. Numerous less common species are also possible such as the kinglet-like Goldcrest, Willow Tit, and several woodpeckers ranging from the diminutive Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, the odd Eurasian Wryneck, to the impressive Black Woodpecker. After a quick lunch, we’ll meet up with a local guide and then drive about four hours south of the Belarusian capital. Four nights will be spent in the quiet, tidy village of Turov, on the banks of the Pripyat River.

The odd Wryneck is one of TEN woodpecker species possible on the tour!
The odd Wryneck is one of TEN woodpecker species possible on the tour! (Lisle Gwynn)

Days 3 – 5: Turov area. We will use Turov as our base to explore this fascinating area. The Pripyat river system is home to extensive marshes and a multitude of lakes, but also possesses woods too for songbirds, as well as a swathe of wetland birds that are likely to feature. One of our main goals here will be to visit the lek site of Great Snipe in the evening, where several males come to display, which is sure to be a major tour highlight. The other main avian attraction n this area is the Azure Tit, which occurs in willow stands along the Pripyat River. Belarus is a haven for woodpeckers, and this site may kickstart our list of these, with Syrian, White-backed, and Gray-headed all occurring in the area.

The colorful Azure Tit is always a tour favorite
The colorful Azure Tit is always a tour favorite (Nick Athanas)

The wetland areas and fishponds are home to thousands of waterbirds, including Smew, Ruff, Common Redshank, Terek Sandpiper, White Stork, and immaculate White-winged Terns, at this time in full breeding dress. Large tracts of bird-packed marshlands inevitably attract an attendant horde of raptors too, and we’ll be on the lookout for Common and European Honey Buzzards, Northern Goshawk, and Short-toed, Lesser Spotted, Greater Spotted, and White-tailed Eagles, among others. The edges of the wetlands hold significant populations of songbirds including Bluethroat, Western Yellow and Citrine Wagtails, Thrush Nightingale, and Eurasian Penduline Tit. Wooded areas are home to Red-breasted, Collared and Pied Flycatchers, and Eurasian Golden Orioles. This area is also home to 51 species of mammal, a very high number for Europe, and we hope to encounter some of these, which may include European Mink, Elk, and Eurasian Beaver.

White Storks are very common, and nest near our hotel in Turov
White Storks are very common, and nest near our hotel in Turov (Nick Athanas)

Day 6: Turov to Byelaazyorsk. Our plan for this morning is somewhat flexible. It’s about a four-hour drive to Byelaazyorsk, where we may visit a forest reserve where rangers sometimes have owl nests staked out. There is no way to know in advance, but if we have news that an owl is showing well, we will definitely work a visit into the itinerary – Great Gray Owl is the most likely, but Long-eared and Boreal are also small but distinct possibilities. After arriving in the town of Byelaazyorsk, where we spend a single night in a good hotel, we’ll head out to the nearby Sporovo Reserve. This protected wetland holds one of the largest populations of Aquatic Warbler, Europe’s rarest and most threatened passerine, and we stand a good chance of finding one singing atop a bush. Other birds of interest here include Savi’s Warbler, Wood Lark, and Meadow Pipit.

With luck, there will be a Great Gray Owl staked out during our visit
With luck, there will be a Great Gray Owl staked out during our visit (Sam Woods)

Day 7: Byelaazyorsk to Belovezhskaya Pushcha National Park. We’ll spend the morning at various wetland sites near Byelaazyorsk; if we missed Aquatic Warbler yesterday, we’ll try to get it at the crack of dawn today before heading to a vast array of fishponds north of town. These ponds can be packed with waterfowl, migrant shorebirds and other waterbirds, and are fringed with dense reedbeds that offer us a decent chance to see the striking Bearded Reedling, a monotypic family, along with other reed-loving species. Later in the morning, we will head west to Belovezhskaya Pushcha National Park, where we spend three nights in a hotel just inside the park gates.

Days 8-9: Belovezhskaya Pushcha National Park and surroundings. Belovezhskaya Pushcha lays claim to being the oldest park in Europe, established in 1932, 80% of which is covered in forest, comprised of mixed oak, birch and spruce. This massive park spans the border with Poland, and contains some of th last primeval forest in Europe. It is famed for its substantial population of European Bison, the heaviest mammal in Europe (bulls occasionally weighing up to 1000kg/2200lbs!); and we have a good chance of finding them while birding in the area.

Belovezhskaya Pushcha offers a good chance to see European Bison
Belovezhskaya Pushcha offers a good chance to see European Bison (Lee Dingain)

The forests here hold every single breeding woodpecker species in Europe, ten species in total, including Syrian, White-backed, Middle-spotted, Eurasian Three-toed, and Black Woodpecker, as well as the aberrant Eurasian Wryneck. In the damper woods within the park we’ll also be on the lookout for the elusive Hazel Grouse and as well as Firecrest and Eurasian Nutcracker. Owls are also well-represented in this park, and we stand a decent chance of finding Europe’s smallest, the tiny Eurasian Pygmy-Owl, along with other species including Tawny and Boreal Owls. At dusk, while also looking for owls, we can also search for Eurasian Nightjars and European Woodcocks on the wing at dusk.

Day 10: Belovezhskaya Pushcha to Minsk and departure. We should have a bit of time for some final birding before breakfast, then we will drive about four hours back to Minsk and catch mid-afternoon flights home. We should arrive at the airport by about 12:45 pm. If your flight schedule requires an overnight stay, we can assist in booking the airport hotel for the night.

Ponds host a variety of waterfowl, including Tufted Duck
Ponds host a variety of waterfowl, including Tufted Duck (Lisle Gwynn)

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

PACE: Moderate. Hotels typically start serving breakfast at 8:00am (occasionally 7:00am), and on some days there will be an hour or so of pre-breakfast birding. After breakfast, much of the rest of the day will be spent in the field with a picnic lunch, returning to the hotel for dinner in early evening. On two or three days there will be optional post-dinner excursions (for example, to see Great Snipe near Turov or to do nightbirding at Belovezhskaya Pushcha).

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Easy to moderate. There is quite a bit of walking involved, typically around 3-4 miles (4.8-6.4 km) per day, however it is done at a fairly slow pace, and the terrain is almost completely flat with no significant hills at all.

CLIMATE: In the spring, the weather in Belarus is highly variable, with great temperature fluctuations possible in a single day. In general, the mornings are expected to be chilly (down into the 40s F (around 7 C), and daytime temperatures up into the 60s or 70s F (16-25 C). Rain and wind can also be expected at times, so it is important to come prepared.

ACCOMMODATION: Good; all hotels have typical amenities like private bathrooms, hot water, 24h electricity, and wifi.

OTHER INFO:

TRAVEL REQUIREMENTS: A valid passport is required for entry into Belarus, which must be valid for at least six months beyond your departure. Citizens of most countries need to get a visa to visit Belarus, which should be done well in advance of the tour; one of the requirements for obtaining a visa is to provide proof of medical insurance that is valid in Belarus – this is easily obtainable online for reasonable cost.

WHAT’S INCLUDED?: Tips to drivers and local guides; accommodation from night of day 1 though to night of day 9; meals from dinner on day 1 to breakfast on day 10; some drinks (safe drinking water will always be provided, and some meals will also include tea or coffee); Tropical Birding tour leader with scope and audio gear from the evening of day 1 to the afternoon of day 10; local guide/translator from the afternoon of day 2 to the afternoon of day 10; ground transportation to the sites listed on the itinerary from the afternoon of day 2 to the afternoon of day 10; one arrival airport transfer per person; entrance fees to all birding sites mentioned in the itinerary; a printed and bound checklist to keep track of your sightings (given to you at the start of the tour – only electronic copies can be provided in advance).

WHAT’S NOT INCLUDED?: Optional tips to the Tropical Birding tour leader; flights; excess baggage fees; snacks; additional drinks apart from those included; alcoholic beverages; travel insurance; excursions not included in the tour itinerary; extras in hotels such as laundry service, minibar, room service, telephone calls, and personal items; medical fees; other items or services not specifically mentioned as being included.