Our time spent exploring the area around Turov was simply fantastic again! Early morning started with showy Thrush Nightingales, singing in full view and collecting nest material. It is always more extrovert than its thicket-loving Common relative and its rich but slightly discordant song (more Jimi Hendrix than Eric Clapton to my ear) and is a common sound of the Belarusian spring countryside. Other welcome migrants seen on the edge of the small village included: Red-backed Shrike, the first of many; Golden Orioles including a pair building a nest high in a willow; Icterine Warbler (with its song full of loud buzzing and wheezing notes); European Pied, Spotted and Red-breasted Flycatchers; Common Rosefinch (a red songster) and a gorgeous nest-building female Serin. The bird that most folks wanted to see more than any other on this trip was the gorgeous Azure Tit, breeding at the western limit of its range in Belarus, and sure enough one appeared in the usual place, feeding on phragmites reed heads. Although we enjoyed some nice views, we were not able to find a nest in one of the rickety houses here this year, the female probably incubating rather than feeding young like last time. We got the impression that most birds were breeding a little later than in 2014.
However, Terek Sandpiper is the emblematic bird of Turov and we were lucky to enjoy some nice views of a couple on the banks of an ox-bow lake, reminiscent of the Common Sandpipers. Exploring a little further into the myriad channels and marshes along the Pripyat we found more waterbirds, which included: Terek Sandpiper (another two pairs); Northern Shoveler; Garganey; Common Goldeneye; Common Oystercatcher; Northern Lapwing; Common Ringed Plover; Black-tailed Godwit; Common Redshank; Wood Sandpiper; Temminck’s Stint; Curlew Sandpiper (a brick red bird); Dunlin and Ruff but the star of the show was probably a young Northern Goshawk, which zoomed past us chasing shorebirds, Quentin could even hear the rush of air(!). Later another goshawk, this time an adult was hunting low over the meadow, they must find rich pickings during spring migration here. Less interesting and much less common was the second calendar year Greater White-fronted Goose feeding quietly by the hordes of feral geese out on the marsh, presumably a lingering wild bird. Soaring overhead were our first Black Storks, Lesser Spotted Eagle, Black Kite, Common Kestrel as well as plenty of Western Marsh Harriers and Common Buzzards and a Common Raven. A Stock Dove flew over the meadow, an uncommon bird here. Sedge Warblers buzzed away nearby and ‘Dombrowski’ form Yellow Wagtails were a common sight on the meadow. Whinchat and Meadow Pipit were also new for the tour and in the middle of town a pair of lovely Syrian Woodpeckers delighted near their nest hole as we passed pretty wooden village houses, most of which are smallholdings with cultivated fields for back gardens.
After lunch we made our way to an area of open country bordering the forest of Pripyatsky National Park that is usually good for raptor watching. We had not been in position long when a fine adult Greater Spotted Eagle soared into view, this time showing all the requisite features without any hybrid anomalies: seven obvious fingered primaries; suffuse pale base to primaries on the upper wing and no double comma below; darker coverts than flight feathers and particularly, very dark brown, almost back plumage (it is called Black Eagle in Hungarian). Five Black Storks were also up soaring over the forest here as well as a Lesser Spotted Eagle for Dima and several Common Buzzards. Three Common Cranes had flown in from the forest to feed on the agricultural fields and a nearby reed-filled ditch produced our only Marsh Warbler of the trip, singing away in the open and allowing us to see such as its pale claws and silvery-tipped primaries. They also appeared to be a little late in arriving this year. Nearby we checked the same area of flooded oak forest as last year, where White-backed and Grey-headed Woodpeckers and also Collared Flycatcher showed up very nicely in the afternoon sunshine. A Garganey was disturbed from a ditch, a Wryneck also showed briefly, forest-breeding Green Sandpipers flew around calling loudly and a pair of Grey Partridges was our only sighting of the tour. Smart Red-backed Shrikes hawked for insects and a Great Grey Shrike was nearby – these two shrikes breed side-by-side here.
The grand finale to a superb day’s birding was an evening visit to a Great Snipe lek by the River Pripyat near Turov. The main act here also did not disappoint on a sunny evening we were able to watch the snipes arriving at their display ground. I have visited the Narew Valley lek in Poland several times and have always been a bit disappointed by poor views of the birds in long grass so it was a pleasure to be able to watch the snipes here in much shorter grass and at closer range once again. Their display starts with a clicking of the bill and then the birds eventually fluff up their plumage and throw back their heads, while making peculiar popping sounds, ending with a flash of their striking wing markings and their bright white outer tail feathers. We counted nine birds here dotted around the lekking area. Many of the males are ringed and also carry geolocators that have tracked them to their wintering grounds in the DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo), taking a mere two days from Turov, one of the fastest migrating bird journeys! The supporting cast this evening included Black-tailed Godwits flying around but Corn Crakes were strangely almost absent with one bird calling where we had around eight last time. They also appeared to be late this year or maybe simply absent? Nevertheless this was another classic birding day that few of us will forget.
We followed up this success with our first walk in the woods. Turov lies on the edge of the vast Pripyatsky National Park, much of which consists of pine forest bog. We enjoyed a very productive walk through mixed deciduous and pine forest, interspersed with pretty dammed bogs, the work of the local beavers. The forest floor itself had a lovely flora with many ancient woodland indicators such as Toothwort and Herb Paris. The walk got off to a good start with a Red-breasted Flycatcher singing, complete with red breast (some songsters are first year birds in female type plumage). Collared and European Pied Flycatchers were also present, the latter included a couple of grey-brown variant males, which are apparently commoner in eastern Europe. A huge Black Woodpecker nest hole was located in an area of flooded forest, the adults feeding their hungry youngsters. We also added Eurasian Nuthatch and ‘Northern’ Treecreeper here – both with bright white flanks unlike their western counterparts and as the walk came to an end several Hawfinches were feeding in roadside trees.
Departing from our usual schedule, after breakfast we made a visit to Beloe Fishponds, located around 45 minutes drive north of Turov, where we found a good concentration of water birds on the southern ponds. Gadwall, Mallard, Common Pochard, Tufted Duck and Common Goldeneye were numerous and amongst them we were pleased to find at least 7 pairs of Smew, which breed here at the westernmost limit of their range. Beloe is designated BirdLife International’s IBA BY019 ‘Bielaje fish farm’ in recognition of its waterbird breeding populations, particularly its c.20 pairs of Smew, it is the sole breeding site for this smart duck in Belarus. Dima had a fly-by Ferruginous Duck and around four White-tailed Eagles soared overhead, a handful of shorebirds included Wood Sandpipers and Little Ringed Plover. A few Eurasian Bitterns boomed from distant reed beds and there were a few large gulls around, mostly Caspian and a handful of Commons but one large white-headed second year gull, which had a heavy pale based bill, advanced head and body, pale under wings and dark slate grey adult feathers emerging in its mantle was presumably heuglini = ‘Siberian Gull’. In between heavy rain showers, passerines on the fringes of the fishponds included some smart Red-backed Shrikes, a lovely white-spotted male Bluethroat and plenty of Great Reed Warblers. We then switched our attention to the northern collection of ponds, where we were treated to a marsh tern spectacle. Hundreds of White-winged Terns were hawking low over a large marsh, with smaller numbers of Black and Whiskered also present. Eared Grebes frequented a colony of Black-headed Gulls for protection and on a nearby drained fish pond at least 12 Black Storks were feeding on fish in the shallows, a similar number of Great Egrets was also here and shorebirds included Wood, Green and Common Sandpipers but unfortunately not the hoped-for Marsh. Four rusty-necked Whooper Swans and some very instructive views of second calendar year Caspian Gulls followed before it was time to head back south to Turov.
The following morning was cold and windy but again not windy enough to stop us from enjoying some nice views of Great Reed Warbler and Savi’s Warbler at another regular site at a dyke beyond the fields containing endless cucumber greenhouses at Alshany. A Eurasian Penduline Tit also afforded some excellent views, as ever like a miniature Red-backed Shrike while a northern Long-tailed Tit flitted past. From the same spot a River Warbler started up its crazy sewing machine-like song and afforded some great views as its whole body shivered. Another star attraction here was a pair of Azure Tits in riverside willows, which stayed put taking in the morning sunshine and allowing some ridiculously close views, the male occasionally feeding the female. Presumably they had also not nested yet. A Eurasian Hoopoe was searching for ants along the sandy path atop the dyke and to our surprise a huge Elk broke from cover in the reeds and galloped north over the farmland.