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