Day 1: Sat 4 May Arrival and Transfer to Turau
We fly to Minsk and after meeting our local guide drive southwards to Turau (about 3.5 hours). As we go, it will be apparent that the countryside of Belarus is very different from the often over-managed landscapes of western Europe, this is a land that is still mostly worked in slow-paced and traditional ways. There are few vehicles on rural roads and many people still cultivate by hand and plough with horses. Turau is one of the most important bird reserves in Belarus, a wonderful wet meadows and a mosaic of oxbow lakes, channels, pools, fens and pastures in the floodplain of the River Prypiat. This area, part of the vast Pripet Marshes, is an important stop-over site for numerous birds. On this our very first day, for example, we may well also see all three ‘marsh’ terns, Whiskered, Black and arguably the most attractive of all, White-winged Black Tern. Overnight in Turau.
Day 2: Sun 5 May The Wetland of Turau
Today we will explore some magnificent habitats around Turau, including wet-meadows the likes of which have long gone from western Europe. We will go by vehicle and on foot, with the walking mostly on the flat and being relatively easy (as indeed it will be throughout the tour). Waders including Ruff, which will be in varied breeding plumages, noisy displaying Black-tailed Godwits, Marsh Sandpiper and even the much sought after Terek Sandpiper, an eastern bird found here in its most westerly breeding population.
Besides the ‘marsh’ terns, there are also Common and Little Terns. In addition to wetland birds, we will also look in the riverine willow forests along the Prypiat for what will certainly be one of the highlight birds of our tour, the adorable little Azure Tit. Belarus is the number one country to see this avian gem as it is home to the westernmost breeding population. In the evening, we visit the fens again to observe the remarkable leaping lekking of Great Snipe and listen to their strange tingling calls. Overnight in Turau.
Day 3: Mon 6 May Pripiatsky National Park
This morning we will visit the Pripiatsky National Park and its very special floodplain woodlands of oak, alder and birch. This is the home of another key species, Greater Spotted Eagle and its close relative Lesser Spotted Eagle – this is an ideal place to compare these similar raptors. There will probably be bugling Common Cranes, booming Bitterns and rasping Corncrakes, too. White Storks nest in many villages and Black Storks and White-tailed Eagles often soar above the woodlands. We will also look for the often tricky to see Hazel Grouse. On the songbird front, River, Grasshopper, Marsh and Barred Warblers, Thrush Nightingale, Bluethroat (white-spotted race) and Common Rosefinch are also here, the latter doing their ‘pleased-to-meet-you’ song. Possible woodpeckers today include White-backed, Lesser Spotted, Grey-headed and Wryneck, and there are both Collared and Red-breasted Flycatchers. If all this is not enough, we will have more chances of seeing Azure Tit today and another specialty, Citrine Wagtail, is also likely. Overnight in Turau.
Day 4: Tue 7 May Vyhanaščanski Reserve and on to Sporaŭski Reserve
After breakfast, we move on from Turau. First, to the Bielaje fish-farm where we hope to see Smew, which breeds here in a very southerly population, Ferruginous Duck, more terns, Caspian and Little Gulls, Common Bittern, a range of “reedy” warblers and Bearded and Penduline Tits. Next up will be the impressive and vast mixed forests of the Vyhanaščanski Reserve. Here alder stands and a mosaic of marshes and meadows are ideal for small mammals such as voles and hence several pairs of Great Grey Owls breed here. We have high hopes and seeing these magnificent birds (the most southerly in Europe) here with the help of a local expert.
We might add Black and Three-toed Woodpeckers to our picid list, and perhaps Black Grouse and Short-toed Eagle, too. Our final scheduled stop today will be at the Sporaŭski Reserve by Lake Sporovo. Savi’s Warblers should be reeling in the reeds along the banks of the River Yaselda and Little Bittern and Short-eared Owl are also hereabouts. A convenient boardwalk across the bog and marsh will enable us to get into the habitat of Corncrake and Little and Spotted Crakes, which should all be calling. This is also another great area for Citrine Wagtail. However, Sporaŭski is most famed, and important, as an area for the globally threatened Aquatic Warbler: indeed, the sedge marshes of Belarus host about half of the world breeding population. Overnight in Belaazersk.
Day 5: Wed 8 May Sporaŭski and on to Bielaviežškaja Pušča
We will probably spend a little more time this morning around the diverse, bird-rich habitats of Sporaŭski, before moving on to another tremendous wildlife area, Bielaviežškaja Pušča. On the way, we will pass vast fens, wild meandering rivers, and note the slow-paced village life, before stopping at the Sieliec fish-farm, another of Belarus’s “Important Bird Areas”. A wealth of wetland birds here includes several grebes, wildfowl, waders, both bitterns, many warblers and raptors such as White-tailed Eagle. Indeed, throughout the tour such sites offer us repeated opportunities to catch up with any species we may have missed so far, or to get better views. In the late afternoon, we will arrive at our next base. Overnight in Bielaviežškaja Pušča.
Day 6: Thu 9 May Bielaviežškaja Pušča
Our final days will be spent in the World Heritage Site of Bielaviežškaja Pušča. This is the Belarusian part, which is much larger and wilder in fact, of the old forest known as Bialowieza Forest in adjacent Poland. The legendary forests here are home to a few more mighty Great Grey Owls, and Ural, Tengmalm’s and Europe’s smallest of the family, Pygmy Owl. There are more warblers, tits, and four species of flycatcher - Spotted, Pied, Collared and Red-breasted. Ten species of woodpeckers are possible here, including the sometimes difficult White-backed and Three-toed. There will also be yet more chances of seeing Hazel Grouse here, if we need to! As well as birds, a range of mammals, including Elk, Racoon Dog, Beaver, Lynx, Wolf, and the huge Wisent, or European Bison, also dwell in these mystical old forests. Some of these mammals can be very elusive, but we will enlist local expertise to try to track some of them down. Overnight in Bielaviežškaja Pušča.
Day 7: Fri 10 May Bielaviežškaja Forest and Dzikaje Marsh
Our final full day sees us continuing our exploration of the magical old-growth forests at Bielaviežškaja Pušča. There is great birding around our accommodation here, as well as at nearby sites such as the Dzikaje marsh which is another key breeding area for Aquatic Warbler – as other European populations have sadly declined, Belarus is now the European stronghold for this superb but rare bird.
Raptors here include Montagu’s Harrier, Goshawk, Honey Buzzard, and both Lesser and Greater Spotted Eagles. Indeed, from about 20 breeding sites in Belarus of Greater Spotted Eagle, on this tour we visit what are arguably the best two, Dzikaje and Bielaviežškaja Pušča. Overnight in Bielaviežškaja Pušča.
Day 8: Sat 11 May Depart for Minsk and Head Home
After breakfast, we depart for Minsk and the airport and our flight back to the UK.