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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Belarus

2015 Tour Narrative

It’s fair to say that Eastern Europe was having a cold spring when we arrived. This did not deter us from looking for them but it did mean that many of the hoped-for spring migrants were still yet to arrive. Although on our arrival Minsk felt warm and sunny, and actually a lot more comfortable than the Heathrow Airport, which we’d left some seven hours earlier, the birds were still well behind schedule.

At our first stop for a picnic lunch as we headed south, a roadside field produced around 100 Ruff, several Black-tailed Godwits and numerous Lapwings. Skylarks sang overhead and our first White Storks were seen, either soaring lazily in the sky, feeding in grassy fields and meadows or on their huge stick nest perched atop poles and pylons. A little further south was the first of 4 Black Kites, a good bird for the tour and by no means common in Belarus.

The flood plain opposite our hotel was very busy indeed, as we embarked on the first of several early morning walks. Both Whiskered and Black Tern were present in small numbers as were Common and Little. Most mornings a Bluethroat could be heard singing, Whinchat perched on prominent bushes and the air was filled with the ‘chiff- if if’ of migrant Wood Sandpipers whilst Lapwings guarded their young against marauding Hooded Crows and Ravens.

The flood plain was dry compared with last year and this was no doubt responsible for the lack of White-winged Black Terns and Ruff. Small numbers of Garganey, Pochard and Gadwall were joined briefly by a pair of Red-breasted Mergansers and one morning we were also briefly treated to an adult White-tailed Eagle flying up the river!

The trees within reach of the hotel held several Pied Flycatchers with Black Redstart on the roofs and chimney pots, Thrush Nightingale singing from thick cover and Syrian Woodpecker in the orchards and gardens on the edge of the village, also most mornings and there was normally a Wryneck or two to be found and a few Serins - and all this before breakfast which included hearty local sausages and delicious strawberry pancakes!

Working our way west, we headed for the damp riparian willow scrub, the preferred habitat of the much wanted Azure Tit, where it is right on the western edge of its range. A wonderful mix of clean white and deep azure blue this is surely one of the avian highlights of Belarus. During our early morning visit we enjoyed great views of at least 6 birds - probably 3 pairs but what was most interesting was a pair of Blue Tits investigating the nest hole apparently occupied by the Azures - watch this space as next year’s tour might record Pleske’s Tit; the result of recorded hybridisation of the two species - although deep down, I really hope not.

Nearby a Wryneck gave great views as he perched and sang on an open branch, as did a male White-spotted Bluethroat. A pair of Penduline Tits eventually gave very good close views as they held onto the reed-mace in strengthening winds along the river bank. A little further along, a Savi’s Warbler reeled away in the reeds and a couple of Black Storks (the first of many) drifted overhead with yet another Black Kite. A handful of Ruffs flew along the valley but the numbers were well down on last year - well, so far!

Black-tailed Godwit, Lapwing, Redshank, Snipe and Oystercatcher are common birds of the Turov area in the centre of Pipriyatski National Park. However, this area is also home to two very special waders; Great Snipe and Terek Sandpiper. On our first visit we watched a Terek Sandpiper doing his yodelling display flight which is almost a cross between Redshank and Snipe.

Over the coming days we enjoyed views of at least 5 more Tereks or ‘Dereks’ as they became known, including a displaying pair. Our second visit took us across to the Great Snipe lekking area. Even as we arrived in very good daylight early evening, Great Snipe were flying in, sitting down, displaying and calling as the lek progressed. At the height of activity there were at least 24 birds present and the views of them jumping, calling and flying were superb! Everyone marvelled at the display as the birds attempted to jump higher than their competitors, flashing the extensive white in the wings and tail. Overhead, the ‘wacka wacka wacka’ displaying call of Black-tailed Godwit was a constant background noise as were ‘drumming’ Common Snipe and calling Blue-headed Wagtails.

As with the Black Kites already mentioned, raptors were well represented on this tour with multiple White-tailed Eagles - including many full white-tailed adults, a couple of Greater Spotted Eagle (small by comparison!), a good handful of Lesser Spotted Eagle, Peregrine, Hobby, lots of Marsh Harriers together with smaller numbers of Montagu’s and a single Pallid Harrier which was probably a first-summer female.

Meanwhile the hunt for Ruffs culminated with the finding of a vast flock in fields opposite the petrol station on the main road. We estimated that there were at least 2,000 birds in this flock and the full spectrum of Ruff plumage was on show. Males with black, brown, rich chestnut, buff, and even white ruffs were noted with a couple of almost wholly-white males too. We watched as the birds moved between the fields, feeding busily and then taking flight. They were easily spooked by traffic, Redshanks or Lapwings, and were constantly on the move.

Turov forest is only a 20-minute drive from the floodplain and is a mixture of deciduous, coniferous and mature Beech, Birch and Oak forest. This combination proves irresistible to woodpeckers and this year on our early morning visit, we had 3 Grey-headed and a Black in the area adjacent to where we’d parked – before we’d actually got out of the van! The following 3 hours produced great views of Middle Spotted, another Black, several Great Spotted, more Grey-headed and an ultra-confiding pair of Three-toed. Flycatchers were also well represented here with singing male Pied and Collared, although Red-breasteds had yet to return.

The forest at Turov simply echoed to the songs of Chiffchaff, Willow and Wood Warbler, Tree Pipit and Nuthatch, whilst on the richly vegetated edges, a couple of striking white-headed Northern Long-tailed Tits were seen. Jays were present in reasonable numbers as were Hawfinch; their metallic ‘spik’ call giving their location away before they disappeared into Hornbeams further along the track and into the forest. Whilst searching for Hazelhen and Pygmy Owl (which managed to elude us this year) we found several Crested Tit, Mistle Thrush and several displaying Green Sandpiper perched briefly in the Spruce trees. Nearby the more open woodland edge gave great views of Great Grey Shrike, Lesser Spotted Eagle, several Black Storks and a few Cranes.

Beloveshkaya Pushka is the Belarussian part of the Bialowieza Forest, the other half of which lies across the border in Poland. This magnificent primeval forest straddling the border with Poland holds high densities of woodland species, including all four flycatchers, and lots of woodpeckers. Our first early morning walk in the old Oak forest producing drumming Black, Three-toed and Great Spotted with singing Treecreeper and Firecrest also present. Grey-headed and Lesser Spotted were heard but not seen, and Collared Flycatchers gave their ‘wheep!’ territorial call. Nearby Treecreepers and Nuthatches showed well as did Firecrest, Hawfinch and numerous Wood Warblers. In the afternoon we went to another area of forest where there were many Hawfinches in the Hornbeams, and a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker performed beautifully for us at close range.

Working our way across the country, we still managed to find new birds at every stop as the tour progressed. A large lake at Pinsk produced a nest-building Penduline Tit, 2 Great Grey Shrikes and numerous Great White Egrets. Some very productive fishponds produced nesting Smew and Whooper Swan, a few Goldeneye, 7 Black-necked Grebe, Great Reed Warbler and the amazing sight and sound of 5 White-tailed Eagles circling together, constantly calling their Black Woodpecker like ‘kyaaah’ from high up. The unsung hero of these fishponds however, was the major catch-up bird for one participant: the elusive and sometimes downright invisible ‘Toofted Dook’.

Spring can be a tricky time to see large mammals on account of the foliage, and this year whilst searching for Bison we had great views of Red and Roe Deer, a family party of Wild Boar (including tiny hoglets) feeding on the edge of a meadow early evening, Serotine Bat, Red Fox and Red Squirrel. Notable butterflies included Map, Green Hairstreak, Large Tortoiseshell, Orange Tip and several European Swallowtail whilst moths included Square Spot, Scorched Wing and the spectacular but oh so brief Tau Emperor, whizzing along as usual and never looking like stopping. Reptiles and Amphibians were in evidence with Green and Fire-bellied Toads, Pool, Marsh and Bullfrog as well as several Grass Snakes.

Belarus has many star birds and with the superb views of Azure Tit on our first morning under our belt, the second of Belarus’ mouth-watering target species was the Great Grey Owl. Bog forest, spot fly on our arrival, we were taken to the edge of a scenic but rather watery beautiful Birch bog forest which itself was full of birdsong.

The 2km walk out to the nest was through the wet bog, where although the water was only ankle deep (for some), we enjoyed great views of displaying Green Sandpiper, bugling Cranes, and an early Spotted Flycatcher. Add drumming Three-toed Woodpecker and Lesser Spotted Eagle soaring overhead - such a tremendous setting for such a great bird. Once at the nest we watched her for 40 minutes and there were smiles all round!

Atop her huge nest, the female sat glaring down at us. Her enormous domed head with those piercing yellow eyes, we admiring her subtle delicate grey and brown plumage tones. We watched her bright yellow eyes set in those huge facial disks as she turned from watching us to turning the eggs and then occasionally snoozing, It’s hard to believe that this huge owl feeds on voles - such a small prey item for a bird that from head to tail is approaching 3’ long!

The penultimate day was spent at a wetland dominated by reeds. Reed Bunting, Penduline Tit and Savi’s Warbler were heard with the Penduline Tit’s high pitched ‘pseoooo’ call leading us to his beautifully constructed pendulous nest. In the nearby meadows two very handsome male Citrine Wagtails, probably recently arrived, were on territory. Bitterns boomed in the distance and our first White-winged Black Terns floated by.

At the end of the tour, Stuart asked the group, as always, to nominate their bird of the trip, which proved a little tricky, mainly down to the quality of the birds we’d seen. The eventual conclusion was a three-way split for first place between the stunning Azure Tit, the displaying Great Snipe and the magnificent Great Grey Owl. All are worthy winners of bird of the trip so a three-way tie seemed very fair.

The birds and wildlife of Belarus in Spring are wonderful and the combination of great butterflies, moths, mammals, reptiles, amphibians and countless wild flowers definitely contribute to the fact that Belarus is proving itself to be one of the best European destinations to watch wildlife!

Updated: May 2015