The for­mer Soviet state of Be­larus is an im­por­tant habi­tat for Aquatic War­bler and is home to lots of other birds and wildlife, too

Bird Watching (UK) - - Contents - WORDS: BAR­RIE COOPER

This for­mer Soviet state is a true se­cret wilder­ness home to lots of great birds

DID YOU KNOW that there is a coun­try in Europe where the EU’S agri­cul­tural poli­cies have not im­pacted on wildlife? Be­larus is po­si­tioned be­tween Poland and Rus­sia, and this for­mer Soviet state still has large ar­eas of an­cient for­est, mead­ows, bogs and wet­lands that are rich in wildlife. It still has places where na­ture seems to be left to fol­low its nat­u­ral course. More than 70% of the 9.5 mil­lion pop­u­la­tion live in ur­ban ar­eas and large ar­eas of the coun­try are sparsely pop­u­lated, al­low­ing wildlife to thrive – in some places it seems that beavers, not peo­ple, are manag­ing the coun­try­side. Be­larus is one of the few coun­tries where Euro­pean Bi­son still live and is one of the best places to find Eurasian Lynx and Euro­pean Beaver. Birdlife is in­cred­i­ble with marsh­lands full of breed­ing terns, wild­fowl and waders such as Great Snipe and Terek Sandpiper. A long list of breed­ing rap­tors in­cludes White-tailed Ea­gle, Mon­tagu’s Har­rier, Greater and Lesser Spot­ted Ea­gles. Be­larus is also the most re­li­able place in Europe to see the beau­ti­ful Azure Tit. Get­ting into Be­larus for in­de­pen­dent hol­i­days is not easy and the ma­jor­ity of bird­watch­ers prob­a­bly go with an or­gan­ised group. I’ve been for­tu­nate to have vis­ited there about 20 times, ow­ing to be­ing heav­ily in­volved in con­ser­va­tion pro­grammes with APB, the Birdlife part­ner for Be­larus. My reg­u­lar vis­its have en­abled me to ap­pre­ci­ate just how wildlife-rich this coun­try is and it’s why I will never stop telling peo­ple just how good I think it is.

Im­por­tance of Turov mead­ows

Af­ter fly­ing in to Minsk, most groups head south on a four-hour road jour­ney to Turov. This small town is sit­u­ated on the flood­plain of the Pripyat River, next to some bird-rich habi­tats. Be­hind the town hall, with its nest­ing White Storks and Black Red­starts, are the won­der­ful Turov mead­ows – in­ter­na­tion­ally im­por­tant for breed­ing and mi­grat­ing waders. It is now one of Europe’s key sites for mi­grat­ing Ruff, with tens of thou­sands pass­ing through on their way to Rus­sian breed­ing grounds – up to 80,000 have been counted dur­ing a sin­gle day. Long-term stud­ies have re­vealed that num­bers of mi­grat­ing Ruff have in­creased in Be­larus, while num­bers have de­creased in West­ern Europe. Ac­cord­ing to the lo­cal sci­en­tists, this is due to chang­ing habi­tat con­di­tions across Europe, and em­pha­sises just how im­por­tant Turov mead­ows are for Ruff and other waders. In spring, you can see the full panoply of breed­ing plumages of male Ruff, but your eye may be dis­tracted by Marsh and Wood Sand­pipers, Black-tailed God­wits and the splen­did Gar­ganey. One of the prize waders here is Terek Sandpiper, and the Pripyat flood­plain is Europe’s most southerly breed­ing area for this dis­tinc­tive bird. An­other tar­get on Turov mead­ows is Great Snipe, and there is a lek where this rare wader can be watched with­out dis­tur­bance. Spring 2015 was rather dry, and con­se­quently grass was shorter than usual, en­abling even bet­ter views of the charis­matic dis­play of Great Snipe. When con­di­tions are right in spring, Turov mead­ows must be one of the best bird­watch­ing sites in Europe. On one day in 2014, 200,000 waders and wild­fowl were es­ti­mated as be­ing on the mead­ows. One of my favourite birds is Yel­low Wag­tail, and a walk across Turov mead­ows in spring is a pure joy for any­one who ap­pre­ci­ates this bird. Blue-headed Wag­tail (ie the nom­i­nate flava sub­species of Yel­low Wag­tail) is the lo­cal breeder but on some days other races may be seen, par­tic­u­larly Grey-headed Wag­tail (thun­bergi) as they pass through on their way to Scan­di­navia. Five species of tern can be seen on the mead­ows, in­clud­ing all three marsh terns and Lit­tle, while the sounds of singing Whin­chat or Fire-bel­lied Toads or a soar­ing White-tailed Ea­gle may grab your at­ten­tion.

A great bird to see

The Pripyat flood­plain is prob­a­bly the best place in Europe to find breed­ing Azure Tit (be­low). These won­der­ful birds breed in old wil­lows or nest­boxes in gar­dens, although in 2015, when lead­ing a group, we were for­tu­nate to find a pair build­ing a nest in a metal con­tainer next to where we had parked. Maybe I’m bi­ased, but surely Azure Tit must be one of Europe’s most wanted birds for many bird­watch­ers. They re­ally are lovely and I al­ways get ex­cited when I see them.

When in an area that has Azure Tits, there are in­evitably other good birds com­pet­ing for at­ten­tion, in­clud­ing Lesser Spot­ted Wood­pecker, Ic­ter­ine and Wood War­blers, Thrush Nightin­gale, Golden Ori­ole, Red-backed and Great Grey Shrikes, Cuckoo, nest­ing Field­fare, Black Red­start, Serin, Wil­low and Pen­du­line Tits. But­ter­flies in­clude Map, Queen of Spain Fritillary and Swal­low­tail. In ad­di­tion to White­tailed Ea­gle, other rap­tors in this area can in­clude Goshawk, and Greater and Lesser Spot­ted Ea­gles. Not far from Turov are the forests and wet­lands of Pripyat Na­tional Park. This is a fine ex­am­ple of Be­larus’ im­por­tance for wildlife. Mam­mals in­clude Elk, Wolf, Wild Boar and Euro­pean Beaver. The birdlife is very im­pres­sive with Col­lared and Pied Fly­catch­ers, Crested Tit, Black Stork, Black Kite and Honey Buz­zard. On some morn­ings, I’ve recorded six species of wood­pecker, in­clud­ing Three-toed, Grey-headed, Black and Wry­neck – per­haps this gives you an inkling of how im­pres­sive the forests of Be­larus can be. An­other high­light is hear­ing the calls of Cranes as their sounds res­onate around the trees, mak­ing the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end. Be­larus has many fish­ponds and it’s a good idea to visit some while you are there. Breed­ing birds can in­clude Smew, Black-necked and Red-necked Grebes, Great Reed War­bler and Bluethroat. You may also find Caspian Gull and Caspian Tern at a fish­pond in spring. Mov­ing on from the Pripyat flood­plain, an­other im­por­tant area com­prises the an­cient forests and mead­ows of the Belovezh­skaya Pushcha Na­tional Park. The park shares the bor­der with Poland and is one of the strongholds for Euro­pean Bi­son. Not an easy an­i­mal to see de­spite its size, they tend to be keep­ing a low pro­file in the for­est dur­ing the day­time. The best time to see them is dur­ing the evening, when they come out onto the mead­ows. I was with a tour group in 2014 at a spot where we have of­ten seen bi­son, but un­for­tu­nately on this oc­ca­sion they failed to ap­pear so we re­luc­tantly had to drive back to our ho­tel. Soon af­ter mak­ing the de­ci­sion to leave, some­one shouted that there was a Fox in a field. Not quite as good as bi­son, but it was worth a quick stop to have a look be­cause Foxes are quite at­trac­tive an­i­mals. The beast had its back to us

The high­lights are what make a trip to Be­larus so worth­while. Some peo­ple choose the wood­peck­ers, oth­ers owls or rap­tors, or it could be the waders or the mam­mals

and was about two or three hun­dred yards away from us. When I got my binoc­u­lars on it, the first thing I no­ticed was the ears and im­me­di­ately re­alised this wasn’t a Fox, “It’s a Lynx! It’s a Lynx!” I cried in a style and tone sim­i­lar to Baron Franken­stein in the clas­sic 1931 movie. I couldn’t believe our luck, par­tic­u­larly as this fan­tas­tic preda­tor re­mained sit­ting in the meadow for 15 min­utes to al­low the group once-in-al­ife­time pro­longed views of one of Europe’s most dif­fi­cult-to-see an­i­mals. What a bril­liant way to end the day. In the hour prior to see­ing the Lynx we had been watch­ing 21 wild boar, and singing Wry­neck and River War­bler, so it was quite a good evening de­spite the fact we failed to see the bi­son!

A trip of many bird­ing high­lights

The for­est in the na­tional park is huge and there is a won­der­ful sense of an­tic­i­pa­tion within it. Some­times you may find Wolf drop­pings and, on one oc­ca­sion, a Wolf walked in front of our ve­hi­cle in the mid­dle of the day. Black and Mid­dle Spot­ted Wood­peck­ers are com­mon, as are Hawfinch. This for­est also has White-backed Wood­pecker, and Grey-headed Wood­pecker may be found in the gar­dens near the ho­tel, along with Red Squir­rel. Four species of fly­catcher breed here – Red­breasted, Col­lared, Pied and Spot­ted; hope­fully they have some im­pact on the mos­quito pop­u­la­tion. In good years, Great Grey Owl and Pygmy Owl are pos­si­ble. How­ever, lo­cal as­sis­tance is re­quired to help to see these charis­matic birds. Be­larus is in­ter­na­tion­ally im­por­tant for Aquatic War­bler and may hold more than 50% of Europe’s breed­ing pop­u­la­tion. Aquatic War­blers need fen mire for breed­ing. This damp grass­land is made up mainly of sedges that the birds use as song­posts, as well as for nest­ing in. This is a threat­ened habi­tat that needs pro­tec­tion and man­age­ment. For­tu­nately, APB have done some tremen­dous work by en­sur­ing that the im­por­tance of the sites is recog­nised by the gov­ern­ment and, as a re­sult, Aquatic War­blers are hold­ing their own. How­ever, dry springs leave their nests vul­ner­a­ble to pre­da­tion by Foxes and other mam­mals. Sporovo re­serve is one of the key sites, but the singing males can be dif­fi­cult to see from their low song­posts. How­ever, with per­sis­tent scan­ning you can be lucky. Savi’s War­blers are also here to pro­vide a com­par­i­son of song and plumage. Citrine Wag­tail is an­other of the spe­cial breed­ing birds here and a male in its breed­ing re­fin­ery is one of the high­lights of any trip. The high­lights are what make a trip to Be­larus so worth­while – there are just so many. Some peo­ple choose the wood­peck­ers, oth­ers owls or rap­tors, or it could be the waders or the mam­mals. Na­ture still dom­i­nates large ar­eas of this coun­try, which has a pop­u­la­tion less than that of London. Eco­tourism has been de­vel­op­ing in Be­larus, and I’m proud that I’ve had a role to play in that through work­ing with gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials, na­ture re­serve staff and con­ser­va­tion­ists. I’ve no­ticed the tourism in­fras­truc­ture im­prov­ing every year and there’s recog­ni­tion that na­ture is one of Be­larus’ spe­cial fea­tures. I hope that the coun­try can hold onto the rich habi­tats that make it so spe­cial. It’s an ex­cep­tional coun­try.

The an­cient wood­lands shared with Poland are the last strong­hold of the Euro­pean Bi­son

PYGMY OWL Lo­cal help is usu­ally needed to find this for­est spe­cial­ist

PRIPYAT FLOOD­PLAIN  The flood­plain of the Pripyat River has some of the most bird-rich mead­ows in Europe USSR In 2015, the grass was short enough to see the lekking birds clearly GREAT SNIPE

BIRD­ING BE­LARUS Could this lo­ca­tion be on your ‘must visit’ list soon? FE­MALE MON­TAGU’S HAR­RIER One of the many rap­tor species which breed in the for­mer Soviet coun­try

GREY-HEADED WOOD­PECKER These wood­peck­ers can even be found in gar­dens near the ho­tel Bar­rie has used

BLUE-HEADED WAG­TAIL The nom­i­nate sub­species is the race that breeds in Be­larus

BLUETHROAT White-spot­ted Bluethroats breed in Be­larus

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