Guest post by Barrie Cooper
Belarus: Easiest European country to see a little gem
Some countries that are great for wildlife go under the radar of all but the most enthusiastic wildlife watchers – Belarus is one of those countries. Nestled between Poland and Russia it has some of Europe’s most fascinating wildlife including Eurasian Lynx, Grey Wolf, Brown Bear, and a range of birdlife including the delightful Azure Tit.
Belarus is probably the easiest European country to see this little gem, Azure Tits loves old willow trees on the banks of slow flowing rivers. Unlike much of Europe, the farming isn’t too intensive and this factor combined with ancient forest, bogs and wetland systems has resulted in a rich biodiversity.
The most important European country for breeding Aquatic Warbler
A long list of breeding raptors includes White-tailed Eagle, Montagu’s Harrier, and Greater and Lesser-spotted Eagles. All ten European species of woodpecker are found with Black, White-backed, and Grey-headed fairly easy to see if you know where to go. Songbirds bring the countryside to life in spring with Thrush Nightingale, four species of flycatcher, and warblers such as Icterine, River, Barred, and Wood being some of the prizes. But it’s the migrant Aquatic Warbler that gives Belarus international status in terms of conservation interest; it holds approximately 70% of the European population.
Turov – a place where 80,000 Ruff have been recorded in one day
Most birders visit Belarus in April and May and there are three key areas that provide the regular route and all are in the south of the country. The first area is Turov meadows are a four hour drive from the capital Minsk and provided there hasn’t been a dry winter and spring is thriving with breeding and migrant birds, particularly shorebirds. Lekking Great Snipe, Terek Sandpiper, Black-tailed Godwit, and Garganey are just some of the species that vie for attention amongst the thousands of Ruff with their varied breeding finery. Meanwhile all three European marsh terns plus Common and Little Terns have arrived for nesting in this rich area. The floodplain in this area is one of the strongholds for Azure Tit and its neighbours may include White-backed Woodpecker, Thrush Nightingale, Golden Oriole, and Penduline Tit. A few kilometres away is a national park with ancient forest providing home for woodpeckers, warblers, flycatchers, and mammals.
Ancient forests and wonderful wetlands
The second popular area is Belovezhskaya Pushcha National Park in the southwest of the country. This is another large area of ancient forest that holds a healthy population of lynx, is the stronghold for bison, and has a good range of birdlife. The third popular area is Sporovo nature reserve that has the fen mire required by Aquatic Warbler. Other birds in this area include Citrine Wagtail and Woodlark. Belarus has many fishponds and it’s a good idea to visit some during a visit. Breeding birds can include Smew, Black-necked and Red-necked Grebes, Great Reed Warbler, and Bluethroat. You may also find Caspian Gull and Caspian Tern at a fishpond in spring. The countryside in Belarus is one of the richest in Europe and any visit there switches your senses onto the magic of nature.
Visiting Europe’s secret wildlife wilderness
Visitors to Belarus usually require a visa. However, a new system has been introduced where visitors of five days or less do not require a visa. Although a visit to Belarus can be done independently, most birders tend to visit as part of an organised group. Ecotourism has been developing in Belarus and I’m proud that I’ve had a role to play in that through advising and training government officials, nature reserve staff and conservationists. I’ve noticed the tourism infrastructure improving every year and there’s recognition that nature is one of Belarus’ special features. Hopefully more visitors will discover the wonderful secrets of Belarus.
Barrie Cooper now works as a wildlife tour leader. He previously worked twenty-six years in nature conservation for RSPB and BirdLife International developing programmes linked to education, communication and ecotourism. He’s had a lifelong love of nature and is known for his endless enthusiasm and passion for the wonders of the natural world. He now shares his love for nature on wildlife tours, giving lectures, and writing articles for magazines such as Bird Watching and Bird Watchers Digest.