Monday, 14 May 2012

Belarus


I'm recently back from a nine-day Ornitholidays tour to Belarus, concentrating on two excellent habitats and their wildlife. After the flight to Minsk, we started in the Belovezkaja Forest, on the Polish border. This huge forest continues on the Poland side too, (where it is called Bialowieza). Many trees are 500+ years old; and the forest is hugely varied, much of it mixed broadleaf-evergreen. Much of it is damp bog-forest (as in the photo top left - click to enlarge). It is home to all the European woodpeckers, Hazel Grouse, Black Stork, many raptor species, and owls such as this nesting Great Grey Owl (top right). This owl is often photographed in the snow in Arctic Russia or Canada, but we saw it at the southern edge of its range - on the same latitude as Birmingham. We had a spring heat-wave for our visit, and watched it 'gular-fluttering:' losing heat by panting. Here these magnificent owls eat squirrels and birds (including other owls). 
 
The other main habitat we explored was marshes and flooded meadows, along the Pripyat River (left). The Pripyat is a tributary of the Dnieper, which flows south through Ukraine into the Black Sea. The marshes are a breeding ground for Terek Sandpiper, Great Snipe and masses of Black-tailed Godwit, Lapwing, Common Snipe and Common Redshank. Other waders in superb breeding plumage, such as Ruff and Spotted Redshank, call in here for a few weeks in spring on their migration to the Arctic. Near Turov, we watched a young European Beaver (above right) practising building a lodge, and observed the biologists at a ringing station as they ringed and released a number of waders. They gave me a Common Redshank to release (below left).


One of the major highlights of the trip was watching an impressive male European Bison (right) as it came out of a forest at dusk to graze in a meadow. In some villages horses and carts outnumbered tractors, and the gardens of every wooden house had cherry trees in full blossom. But is it paradise? We also heard of illegal hunting and logging in national parks, and read of a terrible lack of human rights or democracy in the government. And after the heat-wave, the mosquitoes were starting to bite....


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