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BELARUS

9–16 May 2014

This exciting new tour to one of the least-known eastern European destinations visits several beautiful National Parks including Pripyatsky, a famous World Heritage Site, and Sporovo Reserve, home to 90% of the world's Aquatic Warblers. We will also have an excellent chance of finding one of Europe's most difficult birds: Azure Tit. All of this will be experienced with friendly people in beautiful surroundings

Day 1 Flight from London to Minsk with an afternoon arrival followed by a four-hour drive to Hlupinskaja Buda in the Pripyatsky National Park, where we will stay for three nights.

Day 2 The Pripyat River floods vast areas of meadows and forests in spring. The endless water-covered areas of the floodplain hold thousands of waterbirds, among them several highly sought-after breeding waders. After breakfast we will sail in a comfortable boat for an introductory excursion across the Pripyat River floodplain. Exposed grassy islands slowly emerging from the receding river waters will provide us with a unique opportunity to view wader activity with many birds already settling to nest including Terek Sandpiper, our target species for today. Numerous Common Snipes, Black-tailed Godwits, Eurasian Oystercatchers, Common Redshanks and Common Ringed Plovers characterise this magnificent wetland ecosystem. Slowly cruising between these grassy islands we may find one of Europe's rarest waders, Great Snipe, which breeds in large numbers in the park. Numerous passerines also occur including Thrush Nightingale, Savi's, Sedge and Wood Warblers, Eurasian Reed-warbler, Eurasian Golden Oriole, Bluethroat, and Collared and Pied Flycatchers.

Day 3 After a leisurely breakfast we will board our boat again for a relaxing half-day cruise. Endless thickets of riverside willows, flooded pastures and ancient stands of flooded oak forest create favourable conditions for Greater Spotted Eagle, which is quite common here despite its vulnerable status in the rest of Europe, and we will keep a lookout for this majestic raptor. At our riverside picnic spot our cook will prepare lunch over an open fire while we explore water meadows and groves of old-age willows looking for Azure Tit, which inhabits this area. Lesser Spotted Eagle, Eurasian Penduline-tit, Western Marsh-harrier, Gadwall, Green Sandpiper, Great Grey Shrike, Eurasian Hoopoe and Fieldfare are also found here. We will depart mid-afternoon and continue down the river. The region holds extensive oak forests with huge trees and we will explore an area looking for woodland species. Easy walks can produce many of the European woodpeckers including Black, Eurasian Three-toed, Grey-faced, Middle Spotted, Syrian and White-backed Woodpeckers as well as Eurasian Wryneck. Other target species will include Red-breasted Flycatcher, Eurasian River Warbler and Short-toed Treecreeper. Adjacent open fields are excellent spots to see Black Stork, hunting Eurasian Hobby, Short-toed Eagle, White-tailed Eagle and European Honey-buzzard. Other birds may include Common Crane and Hawfinch. If we are lucky, we may also see some typical riparian mammals, among them European Beaver, American Mink and European Otter. Small predators, including Pine Marten and Raccoon Dog, can also be found. European Bison and Elk are quite common in the area, although they are incredibly shy and there is only an outside chance of seeing them, most likely at dusk. Our cruise will conclude at a wonderful area of ancient flooded oak forest where our bus will be waiting to return us to our base at Hlupinskaja Buda. On the way back we will visit several dry habitats where Barred Warbler will be our main target. After dinner we will make a short journey to a broad forest-ride to look for owls, specifically for Eurasian Eagle-owl, Eurasian Pygmy-owl and Tawny Owl. Spotted Crake and Eurasian Woodcock will create a pleasant background of spring sounds during our time here.

Day 4 After breakfast, we will set off to visit another superb area of the Pripyat River floodplain close to the ancient town of Turov. The floodplain here is about 5–7 km wide with a mixture of water meadows, small islands, willow beds, flooded oak forests, pastures and dikes. We will spend the day walking along dikes where thousands of Ruffs can be watched on their spring migration; a few pairs even stay to breed. Terek Sandpiper is a well-known symbol of the area and other waders not yet seen may include Spotted Redshank, Common Greenshank, Wood and Marsh Sandpipers, Grey Plover and Ruddy Turnstone. Several terns also feature including Black, White-winged, Little, Common and Whiskered Terns, all of which breed in huge colonies on meadow islands and floating vegetation. Caspian Terns can also be seen on migration. The area holds numerous small passerines including Citrine and Western Yellow (Blue-headed) Wagtails. Next we will cross to a scenic local village situated just on the edge of floodplain meadows to look for one of the rarest European birds: Azure Tit. This elusive resident bird breeds every year in wooden buildings and natural holes in trees. In the evening we plan to watch one of the most exciting events of Pripyat marshes: displaying Great Snipe. More than thirty males gather at dusk at a lek in a dry meadow some two kilometres downstream from Turov and we will use a boat to reach their displaying ground. We will observe an impressive evening/night show that includes jumping, calling, running and fighting. Territorial calls of Corn and Spotted Crakes are common sounds of the area. Two nights in Turov.

Day 5 A short pre-breakfast walk to the banks of the Pripyat River will give us the opportunity to see Great Egret, White Stork, Garganey, Common Teal, Tufted Duck, Northern Shoveler, Little Gull, Sky Lark, Black Redstart, European Greenfinch and European Goldfinch. The rest of the day will be spent leisurely exploring this stunningly beautiful area. In the evening we will visit a spot to listen for, and hopefully to see, Little Crake, to the symphony of accompanying Tree Frogs and Fire-bellied Toads.

Days 6–7 After breakfast we will leave Turov and head west to Beloe fishponds. This IBA area is one of the region's largest breeding sites for many waterbirds. Eared and Red-necked Grebes, Great Bittern, Common Goldeneye, Smew and Great Reed-warbler can all be found as can many passage migrants. Continuing westwards we will finally arrive at the Sporovo Reserve, home to 90% of the world's Aquatic Warblers. The forest close to our accommodation also holds several breeding pairs of Great Grey Owls and we hope to find this magnificent, very confiding owl. Little, Spotted and Corn Crakes are all very vocal at this time of the year, and this gives us the chance to see these elusive birds. The evenings, however, will be spent admiring the characteristic song-flight of Europe's rarest songbird, Aquatic Warbler, and this is the easiest place in the world to see it. Northern Goshawk, Hen and Montagu's Harriers, Bearded Tit and Common Rosefinch are all common here and Black, Whiskered and White-winged Terns will be hawking insects over the marshes. Two nights in Sporovo.

Day 8 We drive back to the airport to catch a morning flight back to London.

General Information The climate can be highly variable at this time of year ranging from very warm to cold and wet. There will be a moderate amount of walking over easy terrain. There are no special medical requirements and insects are not a problem. Visas are required. Driving distances are quite long but the roads between sites are good. Accommodation will be in twin rooms with shared facilities in Pripyatsky National Park and Sporovo Reserve and en-suite twin rooms in Turov. Single rooms are available only in Turov.

Group Size Minimum number for tour to go ahead: 8; maximum group size: 10 with 1 leader, 12 with 2 leaders.

Azure Tit

Azure Tit