PRIPYATSKY NATIONAL PARK, BELARUS

Eurasian Three-toed Woodpecker, Pripyatsky National Park (female).

After our introduction to the forest of Pripyatsky national park we were looking forward to heading deeper into it! After breakfast it was time to head east towards our next accommodation. Not far from Turov a male Hen Harrier flew by, an uncommon bird in Belarus and another one new for the Birdquest Belarus list. We made several stops along the way, seeing a Lesser Spotted Eagle following the plough and as we watched it another goshawk flew over. Another regular stop produced a fine Barred Warbler in almost the same bush as in 2014 but this time a much nicer view of its intricately barred plumage and evil orange eye. We stopped again to investigate some more nice flooded oak forest, seeing the dark tide marks around the trunks of the trees that marked the highest extent of previous floods. A pair of Terek Sandpipers was on the bank of a creek and Middle Spotted Woodpecker was new for our list here. At a large clearing we added Short-toed Snake Eagle to the Birdquest BY list, while more Black Storks flew overhead along with a European Honey Buzzard and a couple of White-tailed Eagles. After another nice picnic lunch in lovely surroundings we reached the River Pripyat shore at Doroshevichy. The ferry was waiting for us and a short crossing took us to the northern bank of the river and our wonderful wooden lodge, home for the next couple of nights.

Corn Crake, Pripyatsky National Park.

The surrounding area of mostly forest with river valley scrub and marshes and small villages dotted here and there is very birdy and we explored a couple of villages, finding a pair of Azure Tits building a nest in a fence post at one and a couple of very co-operative Corn Crakes at another, where we also enjoyed some very nice views of a singing (if you can call it that) wryneck. They are always a real pleasure to hear singing as well as to see. Deeper into the forest we had a superb encounter with a pair of Eurasian Three-toed Woodpeckers in a flooded pine bog. This was a relief for those on the main tour only but took our tally to five this time round! At this time in spring when they are busy feeding young they can be unresponsive and tricky to find.

Corn Crake, Pripyatsky National Park.

In between excursions we did some river watching from the sandy bluff above the Pripyat in the grounds of the lodge. I fancied this as a good visible migration watch point and we started to back this theory up with some evidence. Looking south across the river it is possible to scan a very wide area of countryside for birds following the course of the Pripyat, which should represent a major flyway for migration between the Baltic and Black Seas. The best sessions were around lunchtime and in the late afternoon and produced a total of 21 European Honey Buzzards heading northwest across the river in less than two hours, OK not exactly Eilat or Batumi but still interesting inland in Eastern Europe. Frequent Black Storks, White-tailed Eagles and Western Marsh Harriers also livened up the sessions but these were no doubt local birds. There was a small eastward passage of Caspian Gulls one evening and I think that earlier in the season when there is more migration taking place things could be very interesting indeed if someone fancies staying at a very nice lodge with birding on the doorstep.

European Honey-Buzzard (male), Doroshevichy riverwatch, Pripyatsky National Park.

The village itself and its surrounding meadows and riverside willows is picturesque and an early morning pre-breakfast walk produced a very showy Corn Crake calling from wild boar diggings, singing River Warbler and Azure Tit as well as a pair of Terek Sandpipers on the riverbank. Wonderful stuff! Our evening spotlighting drives in the Pripyatsky National Park produced a couple of nice encounters with Eurasian Pygmy Owl, which can sometimes be a tricky bird to see at this time of year as well as some good views of Tawny Owl and Eurasian Woodcock. A couple of Corn Crakes were attracted to a recording of their song landing right next to us in the dark! Brown Hare, a wild boar and Red Fox were other notable sightings.

During our time here we also made a very enjoyable afternoon river cruise for several hours along the River Pripyat, seeing the lovely riverine habitat and some of its inhabitants from a different perspective. The highlight was at least 34(!) Terek Sandpipers along the riverbank to the west of Doroshevichy. Impossible to tell whether these birds were all holding territory or on passage as they were accompanied by Ruffs, Common Greenshank, Wood Sandpipers and Temminck’s Stints but some were engaging in courtship behavior and this is a very impressive count in Europe regardless! Five species of terns (Little, Common, White-winged, Black and Whiskered) were present along the river, Thrush Nightingales sang from the shadows, River Warblers belted out their weird sewing machine reeling songs, another Azure Tit flashed its snazzy blue-and-white plumage in an old willow and towards evening family parties of Wild Boars emerged to drink at the water’s edge.

Terek Sandpipers, Pripyat River.

As I watched news coverage of the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl back in 1986, now only around sixty miles downstream of us, I never imagined that in less than 30 years I would be quite so close to it. The radiation levels of the core zone are now such that the entombed reactor has even become a tourist attraction. It has also become a haven for wildlife, which thrives undisturbed there, particularly wolves and elk. Obviously a nuclear disaster is preferable to human habitation from a wildlife point of view.

Pripyat River just upstream from Doroshevichy.

Ancient willows at Doroshevichy, Pripyatsky National Park.