Azure Tit (Paul Marshall)
As more and more of the outstanding areas for wildlife in Europe are threatened by the insatiable demands of modern society, it is increasingly the case that many of the best remaining habitats are now to be found in the former Soviet Republics. A prime example of this is the wonderful Pripiatsky National Park, close to the Ukraine border in southern Belarus, where a remarkable range of wetland and primeval oak forest habitats are protected. Founded in 1969 to preserve the unique natural complexes of marshland draining into the Pripiat River, the reserve has been subsequently enlarged by the incorporation of adjacent areas and now embraces over 64,000 hectares of floodplain, raised bogs and mixed forests, including 7,000 hectares of wetland oak forest, the largest primeval oak forest in Europe. Thanks to the lack of human interference, strict protection, and the inaccessibility of the region for many months of the year due to flooding, Pripiatsky is a haven for wildlife and forms a key component of this outstanding spring tour.
The independent Republic of Belarus was declared in 1991, having previously been part of the Soviet Union when it was known as Byelorussia meaning ‘White Russia’, a reference to the fact that it was never conquered by the Mongol invaders and thus remained ‘pure’ from their influences. Bordered by Poland, Ukraine and the Russian Federation, it is a land-locked country which contains over a thousand lakes, and large tracts of forest which cloak over a third of the country’s land mass.
We begin our holiday with a flight from London to Minsk, the modern capital of Belarus, and travel south from there by road to Pripiatsky National Park and the town of Turov, where we stay in a comfortable hotel for three nights. Our birding activities will take place both inside the reserve and in other outstanding areas along the Pripiat River, including the flooded meadows near our hotel where Terek Sandpiper, lekking Great Snipe and countless Spotted Crakes feature among the local attractions. Elsewhere, we will enter magnificent ancient oak forests which resound to the torrent of spring birdsong and the drumming of woodpeckers, of which eight species are possible on the tour.
At this season the air is filled with the songs and calls of the phenomenal number of birds inhabiting the reserve and surrounding areas. Great Reed Warblers grate their unmistakable jumble of notes, Sedge Warblers pour out excited bursts of chattering from parachute display flights and Savi’s Warblers add their reeling contributions from perches concealed in the reeds. Not all the vocalists are harmonious, but the evening rasping of Corncrakes, the ‘whiplash’ sounds of numerous Spotted Crakes and the strange clicking noises emitted by lekking Great Snipe, are welcome sounds to British ears! Out in the flooded meadows and bogs both Black and White Storks wade in search of the abundant frogs and toads, which can rival the birds with the volume of their amphibian chorus, while flocks of White-winged Black, Whiskered and Black Terns dip and swoop in pursuit of insects.
Pripiatsky is renowned for its large population of raptors, boasting over 16 breeding species of which White-tailed, Spotted and Lesser Spotted Eagles are among the most noteworthy. The long list of other birds which we also hope to see during our holiday includes Black-necked Grebe, Smew, Marsh Sandpiper, lekking Ruff, Collared Flycatcher, Thrush Nightingale, Bluethroat and both River and Barred Warblers. Special mention should be given to Azure Tit, a species high on many visitors’ ‘wish list’.
Continuing our journey west, we next visit Belowezhskaya Pushcha National Park, a World Heritage Site harbouring the largest remaining tracts of primeval forest in Europe. The ancient forest is a stronghold for the magnificent European Bison as well as Elk, Red Deer, Wild Boar and even Wolves. The area is also home to an impressive array of raptors, owls and woodpeckers. Lesser Spotted, Greater Spotted and White-tailed Eagles, Honey Buzzard and Goshawk all breed here, and the forest holds several pairs of Great Grey Owl which are frequently encountered, as well as Pygmy Owl. Hazel Grouse may be encountered, with a little luck, while White-backed, Grey-headed, Black and Middle Spotted Woodpeckers are all found in the woodlands. Collared and Red-breasted Flycatcher, Icterine Warbler, Crested and Willow Tits, and Hawfinch form an impressive supporting cast.
We conclude our tour in the Sporovo Reserve, where we spend our final evening admiring the characteristic song flight of the rarest songbird in Europe, the Aquatic Warbler: a magical experience that is a fitting conclusion to our stay in this beautiful country.