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 inexplicably overlooked among American birders looking for their next birding destination in the region. Many people are on the lookout for new or “hot” birding destinations, and Belarus is undoubtedly that. Whilst many Western European countries have undergone significant change brought on by widespread development, many countries to the east are relatively underdeveloped, and still have vast areas of natural habitat and large 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, in addition to substantial tracts of ancient woodland and floodplain forests. The tour takes two distinct stages; starting out by exploring the extensive wetland areas to the south of the capital Minsk that hold breeding birds like Great Snipe (usually encountered at traditional display sites), male Ruff at the peak of their breeding refinery, Spotted Redshank and Black-tailed Godwit. On the fringes of the marshes lie extensive reedbeds, which are home to the endangered Aquatic Warbler; 70% of the population is found in Belarus. They share the habitat with abundant Bearded Tits, a monotypic family, while the willow-laden banks of the Pripyat River are home to one of Europe’s most wanted birds, the spectacular, and undeniably cute, Azure Tit. Belarus is the most reliable place to find this species. Other major targets in the marshes include Citrine Wagtail and the endangered Corncrake, while boggy forests nearby host Hazel Grouse, Western Capercaillie, and Crested Tit.

The second stage involves visiting ancient forests, where birds like woodpeckers and owls take over. Among these could be Europe’s largest woodpecker species, Black, and the World’s largest owl species, Eurasian Eagle Owl. Other targets include Middle-spotted, White-backed and Eurasian Three-toed Woodpeckers, and Ural, Tawny, Great Gray, Boreal, and Eurasian Pygmy Owls. Belarus also holds significant populations of mammals too, and we also have a chance at seeing European Bison, Eastern Hedgehog, Racoon Dog, and Eurasian Beaver too.

Large tracts of ancient woodlands are home to Collared Flycatcher
Large tracts of ancient woodlands are home to Collared Flycatcher (Gabor)

This tour visits the three premier birding sites in the country, which are now being recognised as some of the very best in Europe: Pripyatsky National Park, Sporovo Reserve and Belowezhskaya Pushcha ancient forest. Although Belarus is largely unspoiled, the tour is undertaken in comfort, with good accommodations now available everywhere, as a result of a growing European ecotourism market having recently discovered the country’s considerable riches.

Day 1: Arrival in Minsk; transfer to Pripyatsky NP. After meeting at Minsk airport we will drive to this park, 260km south of the Belarusian capital. Four nights will be spent in Turov, in close contact with the myriad wetlands in and around this huge park.

Extensive wetlands host thousands of waterbirds, like Common Crane
Extensive wetlands host thousands of waterbirds, like Common Crane (Marcin Kojtka)

Days 2 – 4: Pripyatsky National Park. This park 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, when dozens of 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 Great Spotted, Lesser Spotted, and Gray-headed all occurring in the area.

White Storks nest around some of the Belarusian villages we shall visit
White Storks nest around some of the Belarusian villages we shall visit (Marcin Kojtka)

The vast wetland areas of the park are home to thousands of waterbirds, including Spotted Crake, Spotted Redshank, Terek and Marsh Sandpipers, White and Black Storks, Eurasian Bittern, 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 Honey Buzzard, Northern Goshawk, Short-toed, Lesser and Greater Spotted, and White-tailed Eagles, among others. The edges of the wetlands hold significant populations of songbirds too, including Bluethroat, Western Yellow and Citrine Wagtails, Thrush Nightingale, and Eastern Penduline Tit. Wooded areas are also present, and are home to Red-breasted, Collared and Pied Flycatchers, and Eurasian Golden Orioles. The nights will be spent in nearby Turov, which is close to Turov Meadows, one of the key birding sites in the area, and often touted as one of the most exciting birding sites in the country. This park is also home to 51 species of mammal, a very high number for Europe, and we are sure to experience some of these along the way, which may include European Mink, Elk, and Eurasian Beaver.

Tawny Owl is among a long list of owls possible in Belarus
Tawny Owl is among a long list of owls possible in Belarus (Lee Dingain)

Day 5: Turov to Sporovo Reserve. This wetland is famed as holding one of the largest populations of Aquatic Warblers, which will be the major focus of our time there. These same reedbeds though also hold good numbers of Bearded Tit, a monotypic family, which is typically easily found. Other reed bed dwellers include Eastern Penduline Tit, and Savi’s and River Warblers. Corncrake is also abundant in the area, and at least easy to hear, although considerable effort will be made to see one too! Ducks are well represented, and we will be on the lookout for Garganey there too. Wherever there are such high concentrations of birds come raptors too, and this is often a good site to find Montagu’s Harrier among other birds of prey. A single night will be spent nearby, in a hotel that is close to an area where sometimes Great Gray Owls can also be found.

White-backed Woodpecker, along with Great-spotted, Lesser Spotted, Middle-spotted and Syrian Woodpeckers are all targets in the unspoilt Belarusian forests
White-backed Woodpecker, along with Great-spotted, Lesser Spotted, Middle-spotted and Syrian Woodpeckers are all targets in the unspoilt Belarusian forests (Gabor)

Day 6: Sporovo to Belovezhskaya Pushcha Biosphere Reserve. After some further time in the wetlands of Sporovo, we will head west to Belovezhskaya Pushcha Biosphere Reserve for a three-night stay. We will be based right in the middle of this fantastic wilderness area.

Days 7-8: Belovezhskaya Pushcha Biosphere Reserve. Until this point the extensive, bird-rich marshes of southern Belarus will have largely held center stage. However, from this day forward the focus will be on the large tracts of ancient woodland in the western side of the country. Belovezhskaya Pushcha Biosphere Reserve 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 is the largest remaining tract of 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 are famed for their richness in terms of woodpeckers and owls in particular. The woods 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. Owls in this vast park include Europe’s largest-Eurasian Eagle Owl (indeed the largest in the World), and Europe’s smallest, the tiny Eurasian Pygmy-Owl; in addition to Ural, Great Gray, Tawny and Boreal Owls. In the damper woods within the park we’ll also be on the lookout for the elusive Hazel Grouse and Western Capercaillie, as well as Crested Tit and Eurasian Nutcracker. At night, while also searching for owls that could not be found at daytime stakeouts, we can also search for Eurasian Nightjars on the wing at dusk.

Day 9: Belovezhskaya Pushcha Biosphere Reserve to Minsk for Departure. After some further time in the park we shall return to Minsk for departures.

A stunning Male Eurasian Bullfinch; a common species
A stunning Male Eurasian Bullfinch; a common species (Marcin Kojtka)

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

PACE: Moderate. As dawn is around 5:30am our days will typically start with breakfast shortly before then; most of the days will be spent out in the field for much of the day, although the physical difficulty of these days is easy. We will typically take packed lunch in the field with us for most days, but eat dinner at a restaurant. There will also be some optional nightbirding activities for owls and nightjars. There will be a couple of longer drives, up to 4 hours, on two days of the tour. There will be some limited traveling on dirt roads during the tour.

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Easy. While there will be some trail walking involved, all of this is easy and done at a slow pace. There may be several miles or more walked in a day, but this will be done over a lengthy period of time, at a reasonable pace.

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 cold (sometimes as cold as 32 Fahrenheit/0 Celsius), and daytime temperatures up to 77 Fahrenheit/25 Celsius. Overcast, wet and sunny days are all possible at this time, so rain gear needs to be included, but also cold and warm weather!

ACCOMMODATION: The accommodations in Belarus have improved markedly in recent years, so that all those used are of a good standard and comfortable, with full time electricity and en-suite facilities. Internet is limited to only a few places, however. One of he joys of this tour, is that the accommodations used are all close to the birding sites.

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 prior to arrival in Belarus. There is also a requirement to have medical insurance for most visitors, which is checked at the airport on arrival. Although, you may already have this, there may also be a need to purchase further insurance at the point of entry, although this usually costs only the equivalent a few Euros.

WHAT’S INCLUDED?: Tips to local guides; accommodation from night of day 1 though to night of day 8; meals from dinner on day 1 to breakfast on day 9; safe drinking water between meals; Tropical Birding tour leader with scope and audio gear from the afternoon of day 1 to the morning of day 9; airport transfers on the official arrival and departure days; 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; international flights; any 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, internet, minibar, room service, telephone calls, and personal items; medical fees; other items or services not specifically mentioned as being included.