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Belarus EXTENDED! Wild 'White Russia'

A 9-day, small group birdwatching tour to Belarus

Belarus returns to our programme in spring 2019, with a much improved itinerary now extended to 9 days... Imagine a land that's home to sought-after specialities such as Azure Tit, the rare Aquatic Warbler and ancient forests where European Bison still roam; a land of myriad meandering rivers that drain some of the continent's biggest marshes and fens; and of roads where even today one meets very little traffic. Lying between Poland to the west and Moscow and the Russian Federation to the east, this is the wild and unspoilt country of Belarus! Travel there with Limosa and discover a fantastic destination for spring birding and wildlife, where around 90% of the landscape is still natural and undeveloped.

Tour Dates

2019

Spaces
0

Leaders
Colin Bushell
local guides

Max Group Size: 10
Duration: 9 Days

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Cost: £2295

inc flights from London Heathrow to Minsk, with LOT Polish Airlines

Deposit: £400

Single Supp: £225
Land Only: £2095

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Azure Tit crop 142 Belarus 1705 Colin Bradshaw copy resized

'Top trumps' in Belarus, the rare and beautiful Azure Tit at Pripyatsky National Park © kind permission Colin Bradshaw

Belarus is fast becoming one of the prime birding destinations in Europe. Formerly a part of the old USSR known as 'White Russia', this eastern neighbour of Poland boasts an extraordinary variety of rare breeding birds - including the beautiful Azure Tit, declining Aquatic Warbler, lekking Great Snipe and the bent-billed Terek Sandpiper... not to mention seldom seen mammals such as the endangered European Bison, Eurasian Lynx, Eurasian Beaver and Eurasian Wolf. Remarkably, our groups have recorded all of these rare mammals on our four previous tours to Belarus, although not on every one!

As the countries of Eastern Europe go through rapid agricultural development, they are sadly losing their traditional, low-intensity systems of agriculture and prime untouched wilderness areas. Yet, thankfully, in Belarus these still survive - and this extended tour will introduce you to three of the very best areas for threatened wildlife species.

After arriving in Minsk, we head southwest to Belarus’s western border. Here lies the World Heritage Site of Belowezhskaya Pushcha ancient forest, a much larger and wilder continuation of the more famous Bialowieza Forest in Poland. These fairy-tale woodlands hold elusive Great Grey and Eurasian Pygmy Owls, while Collared Flycatcher and ten of Europe’s woodpeckers - including Wryneck, White-backed and Three-toed - breed. But the most famous inhabitant of the forest here is a mammal: the majestic European Bison. We will search for them in some of their favourite glades and meadows, although the great beasts can be surprisingly difficult to spot amongst the old growth trees!         

Our second stop is Sporava Mire Reserve. Savi’s Warblers and Bluethroats sing from the banks of the Yaselda River here - and Citrine Wagtail also breeds. Most importantly, Sporava is a vital stronghold of the declining and globally threatened Aquatic Warbler and we hope to admire the characteristic song flight of this, Europe’s rarest songbird. Nearby fishponds are home to Whiskered, Black and White-winged Black Terns, and Caspian and Little Gulls, while Corn, Little and Spotted Crakes should all be arriving in early May and in full voice now.

For our grand finale, we head east to the fabled marshes of Pripyatsky National Park along the meandering Pripyat River. This region in the south of Belarus boasts a unique geography and is sometimes called the ‘Belarusian Amazon’ - being an immense and pristine wilderness that's home an impressive variety of flora and fauna, vast swamps and wide tracts of inundated oak woodland and broad-leaved forests.

Birdlife here is rich, with many breeding and migrant waders including Marsh and Terek Sandpipers, and displaying Ruff. We will take an evening trip into the marshes, to see Great Snipe leaping in display at their lek and listen to their peculiar 'symphony of icicles' song.

One of the most sought-after birds of the trip is the rare Azure Tit. Belarus is the only place in Europe where we have a realistic chance of finding this stunning little bird in its breeding habitat, amidst the riparian willow forests of the Pripyat. Greater and Lesser Spotted Eagles, Common Crane and Black Stork can be seen soaring above the ancient woodlands of oak, spruce and birch, and Thrush Nightingale, Bluethroat, Common Rosefinch, Golden Oriole and Hawfinch also frequent this magical place.

Belarus may not be the easiest of European destinations to travel to - but the wildlife rewards of this unspoilt country make it an experience not to be missed. Our advice is go now, before the inexorable march of “progress” starts to take its toll!

STOP PRESS! Good news ... Visa not required by British national passport holders - see our Tour Info Pack for details!

B11P2803 crop Great Snipe GSmall copy resized

We pay an evening visit to Turov marshes specially to see Great Snipe at the lek - hearing their strange bubbling calls and seeing them jump into the air as if looking out for visiting birdwatchers! © tour participant Gordon Small, wildlifeimagesgs.com

Day 1                                                             
FLY LONDON TO MINSK, TRANSFER TO BELOWEZHSKAYA PUSHCHA FOREST

Our birdwatching tour to Belarus commences with a morning flight from London Heathrow to Warsaw and onward connection to Minsk. We'll be met on arrival in the Belarusian capital this afternoon by our English-speaking co-leader - an expert on the birds and wildlife of Belarus - and head southwest towards the border with Poland.

Our destination this evening hotel is a rural hotel set right beside the remarkable ancient forest of Belowezhskaya Pushcha, where we shall spend the first three nights of our holiday. Night Belowezhskaya Pushcha

Days 2 - 3                                                   
BELOWEZHSKAYA PUSHCHA FOREST

Belowezhskaya Pushcha ancient forest is a World Heritage Site and much larger extension of the more famous Białowieża Forest that straddles the border with Poland. Here we walk amidst the ancient trees and focus on woodland species. These fairy-tale woods hold Eurasian Pygmy Owl and, in some years, Tengmalm’s Owl and the magnificent Great Grey Owl, too. Hazel Grouse are resident, but remain characteristically elusive; we can sometimes locate one by its distinctive ‘dog whistle’ call.

In spring, ten European woodpeckers, Wood Warbler, Crested Tit, Red Crossbill and both Red-breasted and Collared Flycatchers are breeding here. Along Lake Liadskoye, we may hear the rhythmic 'chuffing' of River Warblers and raptors to watch out for include Eurasian Honey Buzzard, Northern Goshawk, Montagu’s Harrier, and White-tailed and Lesser Spotted Eagles as well as Short-toed Snake Eagle and the rarer Greater Spotted Eagle.

We will want to stay alert for the presence of mammals in these ancient woodlands. Eurasian Elk and Wild Boar are relatively numerous, but the most famous mammal of the forest is the majestic European Bison. We will search for them in some of their favourite meadows and glades within the great forest - but please be aware that these very rare and impressive beasts can be incredibly difficult to find amongst the trees, and despite their size and the best efforts of our experienced local guides they are not always seen. There is also a chance of seeing Eurasian Wolf here - and on one occasion our group even enjoyed superb views of a Eurasian Lynx, which astonishingly remained in view for 15 minutes! Two further nights Belowezhskaya Pushcha

Day 4                                                                                     
SPORAVA MIRE

From Belowezhskaya, we next head east to Sporava Mire Reserve (near Beloozersk), where we stay for one night. En route we have the chance to pause at a complex of fishponds that offers a wide variety of waders and wildfowl, plus several species of tern including Little and Whiskered. Depending on water levels, Ringed and Little Ringed Plovers should be about and this can be a good place to see White-tailed Eagle and Black Stork as well.

After a picnic at the fishponds we arrive at Beloozersk. We will check in to our lodge, refresh ourselves and then pay a visit to Sporava Reserve. Amazingly, Belarus is home to some 40% of the world’s breeding Aquatic Warblers, and Sporava’s remarkable wetlands are a major stronghold for this declining species. The birds arrive from late April and are often active in the late afternoon, when we will hope to enjoy good views of this handsomely striped warbler, to a soundtrack of booming Bittern and drumming Common Snipe.

Sporava also holds Barred Warbler and Red-backed Shrike along with classic ‘wet woodland’ species such as Common Rosefinch and Golden Oriole. Hen and Montagu’s Harriers, Great Grey Shrike, and Penduline and Bearded Tits are present too and (if we haven't already seen them) we have chances of Common Crane, Short-eared Owl and Citrine Wagtail. Elusive Corn, Little and Spotted Crakes should all be arriving in Belarus about now and territorial males should be in full voice - although actually getting to see any of these legendary ‘night singers’ remains difficult as ever! Evening is also the best time to get to grips with another of Sporava’s elusive inhabitants - the crepuscular Eurasian Beaver. Night Beloozersk

Day 5
TO PRIPYATSKY NATIONAL PARK

We may take the chance to get out early at Sporava this morning, but our main aim today is to continue east to Turov for a four-night stay at our final hotel of the tour, which is located on the banks of the Pripyat, at Turov Meadow.

Depending on what we have seen during the previous days, we may break the journey with a small detour to an area that offers a second chance to look for the scarce Great Grey Owl, plus Long-eared Owl and any other species we may have missed along the way. Night Turov

Days 6-8
TUROV MEADOWS, PRIPYAT RIVER & PRIPYATSKY NATIONAL PARK

The rare and sought-after Terek Sandpiper breeds on the banks of the untamed Pripyat River, that still floods vast areas of meadows and forests in spring. There is even a statue of a pair in the main square in front of the hotel!

On wet meadows near Turov we may experience spectacular gatherings of hundreds of migrating Black-tailed Godwits and Ruff, including many colourful males, while elegant Spotted Redshanks, resplendent in velvet-black breeding plumage, also occur in good numbers.

We’ll return to the marshes one evening to watch for Great Snipe strutting their stuff at the lek, listening out for their strange bubbling calls and watching for them jumping into the air as if looking out for visiting birdwatchers! Little and Spotted Crakes are most vocal at night - and Corncrakes might also be calling loudly, giving us a fighting chance to locate and see them too!

One of the most sought-after birds of the trip will be the beautiful Azure Tit. Belarus is the only place in Europe where we have a realistic chance to find this stunning bird in its breeding habitat amidst the riparian willow forests of the Pripyat River. It's one of the continent’s rarest and most difficult species to see. However, although elusive, this delightful resident nests every year, favouring wooden buildings and natural cavities in the oldest trees. Acrobatic Penduline Tits nest here too, hanging their distinctive bottle nests in the waterside trees.

We will have some time to discover the ancient forests of oak, spruce and birch forests, the domain of Black Stork, Common Crane, and Greater and Lesser Spotted Eagles - all of which are to be looked for soaring above the woodland canopy. Pripyat is woodpecker country par excellence and inside the forest we’ll look for Wryneck and White-backed Woodpecker, and might also come across Grey-headed, Black, Middle Spotted, Lesser Spotted and Three-toed Woodpeckers! Collared Flycatchers will just have arrived and the likes of Thrush Nightingale, Bluethroat, Golden Oriole, Scarlet Rosefinch and Hawfinch are regularly encountered in this magical place.

Nearby, the Beloe Fishponds are home to breeding birds such as Whooper Swan, Smew (the only Belarus location), Red-necked Grebe, Bittern and White-tailed Eagle. Many wildfowl and waders pass this way on migration, and Caspian Terns could be seen beside Caspian Gulls here. Three further nights Turov

Day 9                                                           
RETURN TO MINSK, FLY LONDON

After an early breakfast we leave Turov and return north once more to Minsk. Bidding farewell to our local guide, we board an afternoon flight to Warsaw and onward connection to London Heathrow, where our spring birding tour to Belarus concludes.

2EUR Aquatic Warbler B11P3537 G Small Belarus 2014 wildlifeimagesgs.com

Belarus safeguards 40% of the world population of Aquatic Warbler, for which Sporava Mire is a vital stronghold. We hope to admire the characteristic song flight of this, Europe’s rarest songbird © tour participant Gordon Small, wildlifeimagesgs.com

What To Expect

Belarus returns to our programme in spring 2019, with a much improved itinerary now extended to 9 days...

Imagine a land that's home to sought-after specialities such as Azure Tit, the rare Aquatic Warbler and ancient forests where European Bison still roam; a land of myriad meandering rivers that drain some of the continent's biggest marshes and fens; and of roads where even today one meets very little traffic. Lying between Poland to the west and Moscow and the Russian Federation to the east, this is the wild and unspoilt country of Belarus!

Travel there with Limosa and discover a fantastic destination for spring birding and wildlife, where around 90% of the landscape is still natural and undeveloped.

In May, we can expect a mix of sunshine and showers, cool to quite warm with daily temperatures at Minsk typically in the range 7-19C (45-66F). Cooler around dusk.

Insects: We purposely visit early in the season, which is generally before Belarus’s mosquitoes become bothersome. If it has been a particularly warm spring however, mosquitoes can be a local nuisance (e.g. around dusk in the wetlands), even in early May. As a precaution, we do recommend you pack some repellent and wear long trousers and long-sleeved shirts, just in case! There is no malaria risk in Belarus.

Birds

140-160 species

Mammals

5-15 species. As elsewhere in Europe, large mammals are seldom easy to find in Belarus. While our groups have done well over the years, please be aware that mammal sightings can never be guaranteed or expected.

Accommodation

8 nights accommodation in Belarus. Note that Belarus is well off the beaten tourist trail and the infrastructure and standards of hotels there fall below those we are generally accustomed to in Western Europe. Nonetheless the accommodations we use are of reasonable quality, chosen for their proximity to the key birding sites. All rooms have private facilities.

[Please note there are no hairdryers or coffee-making facilities in the rooms.]

Meals

All main meals are included in the tour price, commencing with dinner on the evening of Day 1 and concluding with breakfast in Turov on Day 10. Lunches will usually be picnics.

Walking

Easy, other than when looking for Great Grey Owl, which can sometimes require going ‘off piste’ into the forests to find them. Mainly short walks over flat terrain. At Belowezhskaya, our walks are mostly along forest tracks.

Wear stout walking shoes or boots with sturdy corrugated soles for grip. Good waterproof wellington boots (or wet feet!) are essential most years (though not every year) as getting to see some of the birds in undeveloped Belarus often involves walking through marshy country and lank vegetation underfoot that can soon become soaked in dew or after rain.

Travel

We fly from London Heathrow to Minsk with LOT Polish Airlines, with a change of planes required in Warsaw.

Ground Transport  Minibus with local driver.

2EUR Lynx B11P3314 G Small Belarus 2014 wildlifeimagesgs.com

We've done well for large mammals in Belarus over the years. Our May 2014 group enjoyed superb views of this magnificent Eurasian Lynx at Belowezhskaya, which remained in view for 15 minutes! © tour participant Gordon Small, wildlifeimagesgs.com

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1 GM, Belarus tour ...Long days, but worth it!... A Wolf crosses the track in front of us, and then within the hour, after a short walk through fantastic semi-flooded forest, we are looking at Great Grey Owl - it doesn’t get much better than that! ... [empty string]
2 JM, Belarus tour ... All leaders excellent! All staff worked their socks off!!... Azure Tit, Aquatic Warbler, Great Snipe dancing, Great Grey Owl and 9 out of 10 possible woodpeckers, not just seen but super views. Add to this Bison, Beaver and Wild Boar - how do you select the best moment?... [empty string]
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