Tuesday, 20 May 2014

The Republic of Belarus - Part One

At the 2012 Rutland Water Birdfair, I spoke to a chap promoting a trip to Belarus called 'The Great Belarus Experience'. Both Dawn and I were intrigued and penciled it down as a possible next adventure. For one reason or another we couldn't make the trip in 2013 (it didn't happen anyway), but during late 2013 we contacted Maciej (Mathew) Zimowski at Poland Bird Service and expressed our interest. On May 9th we flew to Warsaw in Poland where we were to meet Maciej. We spotted five of the other members of the party: Alan, Bill, Chris, Dave and Howard whilst we collected our luggage and made our way to the meet up point. We were all a little nervous about whether we would actually be met by someone and our leader gave us a fright by being a few minutes late, but in the end he didn't let us down.

After picking up Susan, the eighth member of the 'Belarus Team',  we headed away from Warsaw and made our way by mini-bus to the border between Poland and Belarus. Prior to leaving we had to apply for a visa at the Belarusian Embassy in London. Maciej arranged an invitation to visit Belarus, which was needed to apply for the visa and also we had to fill out an application form and send it to the embassy. The cost of the visa was £70.00.

At the border our visas and passports were inspected by a very pretty Belarusian border gaurd and she wished us a happy time in Belarus - not what I was expecting. We had to fill out paperwork in duplicate and carry one copy with us. This was stamped each night in the hotel we stayed in.

The first night of the trip was spent in a wooden cabin near the Bialoweieza Forest. We were the first 'Westerners' to stay there, but the lady made us feel very welcome. It was like being invited into someone's own house rather than just staying in a hotel. The food was very good and there was more than we could manage. The beer and the birch sap juice weren't bad either. This was just the first night and we had been shown a very warm welcome to Belarus.

Welcome to Belarus Meal
The First Accommodation

A Thrush Nightingale kept most of us awake with its exuberant singing and as it began to get light both a Golden Oriole and a Redstart joined in with the serenade. 

The plan for the first real morning's birding was to go to the Bialoweieza Forest. The Bialoweieza Forest spans the border of Poland and Belarus, but gaining access to the Belarusian side requires a permit and a guide, which Maciej had arranged. We picked up our guide, Anton, at the gate to the forest at 06:00 and drove to an area called the Oak Grove Reserve - one of the few things we saw written in English during the trip. 

Leaving the minibus we sauntered along a forest track. Imagine if you can, a forested avenue lined either side by singing Wood Warblers. Soon we heard a new song, which belonged to a fine male Collared Flycatcher. Other Collared Flycatchers showed well from low down in the massive oaks and we also heard two singing Red-breasted Flycatchers. These proved difficult to pin down, but eventually one was spotted and it gave excellent views as it sang from an exposed branch. For some of us this was the first summer-plumaged RBF that we had ever seen. We admired this bird for quite a long time as it sang out in the open.

Woodpeckers were top of the list of species wanted in this forest. Anton pointed out a woodpecker nest hole and after a bit of patient waiting we were rewarded with splendid views of a Middle-spotted Woodpecker. Moving on we came to a small pond and here a Firecrest showed well and just before we arrived at the pond some of us saw a male Hawfinch. 

A Three-toed Woodpecker was heard drumming in the distance, but we failed to locate it. Anton pick up a stick and began to drum on a tree trunk. Almost immediately a woodpecker arrived and a few of us managed to see it up in the canopy. I managed to get a good view and I could clearly see white on its back and it lacked white shoulder patches. I called White-backed Woodpecker and then panic broke out with everyone trying to get good views. To confuse matters a Great Spotted Woodpecker arrived as well. Some of the late comers struggled to get on to the White-backed, but instead saw the Great Spot. Those that saw the White-backed well agreed with the ID, but sadly a few failed to get good views. There was a plenty of evidence of the presence of Wild Boar and we saw the footprints of a European Bison, but we did fail to see the actual animals.

At the forest headquarters we followed up an unusual call and found two Black Woodpeckers in a dead tree. They gave the best views I've ever had of this species.

After a picnic in the forest we headed to a lake where Anton whistled up a female Grey-headed Woodpecker. We could hear it calling and all of a sudden it appeared at the top of a dead tree right in front of us. We enjoyed excellent and prolonged views of it. The area around the lake was alive with birds, which included three White-tailed Eagles.

The last stop of the day was at a small lake where we heard a couple of Little Crakes, but failed to see them.

To be continued...

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