Belarus is fast becoming one of the prime birding destinations in Europe. Formerly a part of the USSR known as 'White Russia', this eastern neighbour of Poland boasts an extraordinary variety of rare breeding birds, including the beautiful Azure Tit, Aquatic Warbler, lekking Great Snipe and Terek Sandpiper, not to mention seldom seen mammals such as the endangered European Bison, Eurasian Lynx, Eurasian Beaver and Wolf - all of which we have recorded 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 some of 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 resting overnight near 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 the Sporava Mire Reserve. Savi’s Warblers and Bluethroats sing from the banks of the Yaselda River - and Citrine Wagtail, also nests here. Most importantly, Sporava is a vital stronghold of the 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 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, wide tracts of inundated oak woodland and broad-leaved forests.
Birdlife is rich, with many breeding and migrant waders including Marsh and Terek Sandpipers, and displaying Ruff. We will take an evening walk into the marshes here, to see Great Snipe leaping in display at their lek and listen to their strange '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 bird in its breeding habitat, among 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 is not the easiest of European destinations to get 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!