Belarus in Spring

Iris de Carteret travelled on our 'Belarus in Spring' holiday and submitted this entry to our writing competition.

Azure tit by Baz Scampion

We didn't need our wellies this year. Water levels were a lot down on last May, allowing birds greater areas to nest on; but for us humans, unfortunately, there was still plenty of water for the bugs and mozzies to breed. Good bird food, I kept telling myself.

Belarus is flat - think Russian Steppes, Hungarian Putsza but mixed with agriculture, ancient forests, fish lakes and watery floodplains. The large sweeping cultivated fields are dotted with small villages where the rural wooden houses are identical in size and design, their gardens full of potato furrows and lines of onions - plus somewhere on the property, a big, healthy sized wood store. The mix of large state-run farms and local village fields, many still cultivated using horse-power, give a bucolic air to the countryside. Bigger towns are bleakly industrial with solid, unimaginative housing blocks and Stalin statues.

Belarus hotels transport you back to the 1950s but not necessarily in a good way - lifts out of action, advertised WiFi not working, creaky wooden bedsteads and slow service. I'm sure it'll improve with more tourism, and in Minsk there must be some decent hotels? The local cuisine consisted of good salads and brilliant homemade soups, and their rye bread was a bit like our sourdough, albeit darker. Plentiful eggs and yet more eggs for breakfast!  Sliced plastic cheese and plastic, sliced meat. Oh, and pancakes - they seem to love pancakes in a myriad of forms: savoury, sweet, for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Belarus is almost litter free. If I had taken a black rubbish sack to collect all available 'litter', it would still only have been half full by the end of the week. To be totally honest, however, there were discarded drink bottles and fag packets in some of the open spaces, but nothing in the towns and villages. Each morning the local ladies were out sweeping and tidying, planting and weeding to improve their neighbourhood. Civic pride - tick! There's a rich heritage of Russian music, but late at night it seems loud music 'borrowed' from the West is more popular with the young. A pity.

A phrase in the Naturetrek brochure that captured my imagination was 'ancient forests' but the trees weren't old, gnarled and misshapen by age, they were straight and neck-breakingly tall with relatively few lateral branches except at the very top. Mainly pines but Silver Birch, Hornbeam and Oak are all present. Trees compete and strive for the sunlight, way up high. As you can imagine, woodpeckers and owls enjoy those tall trees. The boringly named Middle Spotted Woodpecker was a bit black, a bit white, rosy pink and very, very pretty. The Black Woodpecker was fast and unsportingly elusive. Every day, wherever we were, we heard Cuckoos calling and saw them too. No Turtle Dove calls, though.

On a large open plain, edged with forest, we were lucky to see a 20-strong herd of Bison.  Dim, but oozing strength, they seemed completely leaderless! They ran a bit to the left, stopped, turned, then ran a bit to the right, all the while making dusty clouds. We wondered who was the leader; they obviously wondered too. No one, came the answer!  After a final dither, they ran off towards the trees and with a last 'stop and check' disappeared into the ancient forest.

So, what of the avian highlights (for me) on this short trip? Perfect views of Azure Tits, small enchanting blue and white bundles of energy; a pair of Penduline Tits focused on making a complex hanging nest; elegant White-winged Terns cruising and switching their way across the water levels; a Great Grey Owl on its nest peering at us with grey headlight ‘discs’ and watching a dainty Wood Sandpiper being ringed. Oh, and a 'little grey job’, a Barred Warbler. I never thought I'd wax lyrical about a small ‘LGJ’ but he sang his heart out with the fluffiest, most beautiful pale, grey barred chest imaginable. I was disappointed by Great Snipe 'lekking' efforts, but I should have realised that with such short legs, their very best efforts at jumping were going to be feeble. With deep black eyes and long bills they angled their heads towards rivals, but somehow it wasn't ‘The Greatest Lekking Show on Earth’.

Our naturalist guide, Istvan, was committed, keen and really intent on making sure we had a good holiday. He is a fine birder who so obviously puts his clients’ welfare high on his list of priorities. I don't think he relaxed at all during the week. He organised lunch picnics, our itinerary to see birds, scope views for those of us without a scope and evening meals. He also managed to organise a rain-free week which was why we didn't need the wellies!

Read more about our 'Belarus in Spring' tour.