by Karina Sitnik
What can you expect from birdwatching in Belarus? A great number of unique species, untouched nature and still-unspoilt countryside. Here is a selection of birdwatching activities available in Minsk and other regions of Belarus.
APB-BirdLife Belarus is the largest environmental organization in Belarus. For more than 19 years now, it has been protecting biodiversity and preventing bird species from extinction. APB’s mission is to engage people in environmentally friendly activities aimed at saving birds and biodiversity. So, if you are environmentally conscious, you might be interested in meeting like-minded people in Belarus. Go on a free tour in one of Minsk parks, volunteer with APB or take a birdwatching tour around the whole country!
Free birdwatching tours in Minsk
Almost every Wednesday, APB organizes Free Walking Tours in one of Minsk parks. The pay-what-you-wish tour is guided by a professional ornithologist. The main focus of these events is to promote birdwatching among locals, so that is why they are held in Belarusian or Russian language. However, there is always a chance you will meet an English-speaking participant in a group who will help you identify the species you would see. So pack your binoculars and go city birdwatching with APB! Check out the dates of the next tour here (registration is mandatory).
Belarusian birds might need your help
Gomel region, located in the south of Belarus, is home to the Turov Meadow biological reserve, named after the nearby city of Turov. The willows that grow here at the Pripyat floodplain, need thorough cutting a few times a year. It is important to maintain this natural area, which is a favourite spot for river birds and other water birds during their migration and nesting.
Local ornithologists always try to organize interesting tours around the area for groups of volunteers. During time periods when the reserve does not have many birds, for example, in mid-autumn, the guides will bring the group to another area nearby, where you will be able spot the white-tailed eagle!
Volunteers. Photos from ptushki.org
Another option for volunteering is counting cranes at the Yelnya bog. This reserve serves as a “crane airport”: during migration, you can count several thousand birds here! Enjoy the sunset over the magnificence that is the biggest upland bog in Belarus, with dozens of cranes swooshing above. In case you want to go deeper into the bog, have a look at the bog hikes, which we write about here.
In addition to the cranes counting, help might be required with hanging nests for ducks like the common goldeneye and the merganser, as well as for raptors, like the tawny owl.
Cranes. Photo by Ivan Borok
Convenient five-day birdwatching tour
Last year, APB-BirdLife opened the APB Wetland Centre, which organizes tours around the country. We have asked Lera Sashko, who is a tour coordinator for foreign groups, to give us some more details. Let’s take a look at the fully supported five-day birdwatching tour.
This tour will take you through three main locations: Turov Meadow, Vygonaschanskoe and Sporovsky biological reserves. Or, presenting the areas by birds that inhabit it: the azure tit, the aquatic warbler and the great grey owl.
It starts in the south, in the Turov Meadow, which is a real mecca for birdwatchers. The Pripyat, which runs through the reserve, is a large river; in fact, it is the last European river that has maintained its natural state. It is also an ideal spot for waders: they are basically migratory birds that stop here for feeding from the end of April to the end of May. The Turov Meadow is the only Belarusian reserve given to an NGO (APB) under a long-term lease for nature protection projects. That is why, as described above, APB monitors its condition by organizing volunteer camps aimed at improving the territory to be more suitable for waders.
Turov Meadow. Photo by Alla Shebeko
Turov also has a bird ringing station, operated by ornithologists from the Academy of Science. You can also come here as a volunteer: send them a message Facebook. Hundreds of waders are caught in the area every spring. After catching a wader, ornithologists take measurements, ring the bird and safely release it. This data helps scientists to monitor the dynamics of the species.
Bird ringing. Photo by Karina Sitnik
You can also spot azure tits in Turov area. Belarus is the westernmost point on their migration route.
Then we go to Vygonoshchanskoye Reserve, which is one of the largest existing marsh natural systems in Belarus and Europe on the watershed of rivers flowing into the Black and Baltic Sea. This place has been notoriously hard to reach, so there are a lot of rare species here now. It is home to one of the last populations of the great grey owl and some Western European subspecies of the capercaillie. Several white-tailed eagles also regularly nest here. The local bog is home to many species, like the aquatic warbler, the spotted eagle, the great snip, the Eurasian curlew and the black-tailed godwit.
Aquatic warbler. Photo from greenbelarus.info
This biological reserve has one of the largest populations of the moose and the viper in Belarus.
Finally, we visit the Sporovsky reserve, which is the second most prominent place for the aquatic warbler in Belarus. It has about 9% of its world population, and it has the highest nesting density for this bird. In the local bog, you can encounter a whole range of rare and endangered bird species, like the corncrake or the great snip.
Can beginner birdwatchers take part in this tour?
The groups that come for this tour have different level of experience. There can be experienced birdwatchers, who are “hunting” for certain species, as well as beginners who have only recently been hooked by this hobby and decided to travel. Belarus is a great choice for your first birdwatching experience, because the prices are really reasonable when compared with Europe.
But if you are an experienced birdwatcher, you might want to go deeper into our nature to spot all the rare and unique European species. Nastya Kuzmenkova, professional ornithologist and birdwathing tour guide, gave us a detailed description of a tour like this.
Why do birdwatchers choose Belarus?
The reasons are quite simple: you can see some unique species and the tours here are inexpensive in comparison with similar options offered in Europe. The country is small, and you can spot all the unique species in one go. As I can see from the feedback of our tourists, Belarus can really surprise you: most foreign tourists don’t expect much when they travel here. After the tour, however, they are pleasantly surprised by everything: from living conditions to the level of expertise demonstrated by tour guides.
What tours do you recommend for professional birdwatchers?
Every tour focuses on a relatively small number of species: the terek sandpiper, the azure tit, the three-toed woodpecker, the great grey owl, the aquatic warbler, the red-breasted flycatcher, the greater spotted eagle, the citrine wagtail, the Blyth’s reed warbler, the common rosefinch, the Eurasian pygmy, the boreal, the Ural owl, etc. Other, more common species we can spot along the way, as it is not difficult to see them.
So, if tourists want to spot all the major unique species and enjoy the sights of local ecosystems, it will take them about 10-12 days. This tour tour will start from the very north of Belarus and end in Belovezhskaya Pushcha. Here is a detailed route:
We usually start from the North of Belarus, in the Krasny Bor biological reserve. What is so remarkable about this place? You can find a real taiga forest here, so expect to find some typical taiga species, like the capercaillie, the Ural owl, the Tengmalm’s owl, the three-toed woodpecker, the hazel grouse or the white-backed woodpecker. First two days of the tour we spend in the reserve, where, in addition to birdwatching, we hike across a typical upland bog, a great spot to encounter the whimbrel and the common greenshank. Also, the north of Belarus is the area to spot predatory birds, like the osprey, the lesser-spotted eagle, the short-toed snake eagle and the white-tailed eagle.
White-tailed eagle. Photo by Bohus Cicel
Then we move a little bit to the south, to the Berezinsky biosphere reserve. This biosphere reserve has the highest protection status in Belarus, so any human activity here is strictly regulated in order to maintain the natural state of the ecosystem. It has a large massive of bogs, which really impress with its scale. Unique species in the reserve we can spot include the Ural owl, the Tengmalm’s owl and the great grey owl.
Tengmalm’s owl. Photo from birdsonline.cz
After exploring the north we are moving to the south, to Turov Meadow reserve. There is no better place to observe waders in Belarus! In addition to waders, we spot small passerines such as white azure, common rosefinch, icterine warbler, red-breasted flycatcher, greenish warbler, wood warbler, red-breasted flycatcher. We usually stay for a couple of days in Turov.
Azure tit. Photo by Krzysztof Blachowiak
Rosefinch. Photo by Dmitry Yakubovich
Next stop is the Pripyatskiy National Park. This place is unique because of its flooded oak forests, which are located in the river floodplain. We go on a tour round these oak forests, and among these great trees we spot the collared flycatcher, the middle spotted woodpecker, the green sandpiper and others. In this national park, we normally go for a landscape tour on a boat along the Pripyat River. This tour can bring us to the terek sandpiper and the common kingfisher, and it is also a great opportunity to watch beavers.
Terek sandpiper. Photo from birdwatch.by
After that we move to Beloe Fish Farm, the only place in Belarus where smews come for nesting. In addition to spotting this rare creature, we can also meet other water birds.
And now we go to the Vygonoshchansky reserve. This place is a real magnet for birdwatchers because of the great grey owl. It nests here, so you can spot and photograph this bird.
Grey owl. Photo from ptushki.org
In the evening, we move to Sporovsky reserve to hear the aquatic warbler vocalizing before the sunset. It sings at night, so the best time to see it is twilight. This reserve also has the citrine wagtail and the bluethroat.
Bluethroat. Photo by Paweł Wacławik
The last spot of our tour is Belovezhskaya Pushcha national park. The territory has been under protection for a long time, which is why today we can see unique biotopes and untouched wildlife. Here we can go on a tour around the national park to see its remarkable oak forests, which have been preserved in their natural state, and to try and spot the European bison, which has become a symbol of Belovezhskaya Pushcha. The birds you can meet here include the corn bunting, the nutcracker, the Eurasian pygmy and the Tengmalm’s owl, as well as various kinds of woodpeckers.
Woodpecker. Photo by Alexander Pekatch