Ural Owl - a female peers down at us near its nest site in Krasny Bor.
SOSNOVY MEANS 'VILLAGE MADE FROM PINE' and originally consisted of around 20 homesteads, which were burned to the ground by the Germans in 1943. Some folks returned but when our Belarusian guide Dima moved in around eight years ago there was only one old lady living there and she is now no longer with us. A few homes that are still vaguely habitable are used during the summer and the general area consists of a mosaic of abandoned hay meadows, marshes and pine wood lots and is full of wildlife. Eurasian Beavers have a lodge at the bottom of his ‘garden’ and we could see them from the dining table each evening as they emerged from their lodge to feed on waterside vegetation. Green Sandpiper breeds along the stream below the lodge and there was a nest box occupied by a female goldeneye. We also saw the recent tracks of wolf, hazel grouse and cranes as we crossed a small field used by hunters to lure deer and elk into the open during the autumn. Each evening we attempted to see Dima’s local pygmy owl, however, we did not have any luck. It was probably preoccupied with its nest rather than defending its territory? Whilst we did not have any luck with the owl, our evening excursions featured numerous encounters with roding woodcock against a chorus of Thrush Nightingales, cuckoos and the blood curdling howling of Dima’s tamed wolf pack. No wonder he does not have any neighbours! A short distance from the lodge we saw an impressive female Ural Owl at her nest site, a large species with a nasty reputation but this individual was fortunately rather docile. The Collins guide describes its big, pale, flat face and small dark eyes as giving it a ‘deceptively gentle look’ but it is well known for attacking intruders near its nest. We also had a good look for Tengmalm’s Owl after dark on our second evening here, in Dima’s Soviet-built UAZ 452 (= Ulyanovsky Avtomobilny Zavod), known as the ‘bread loaf’, which promptly broke down deep in the forest. However, they are renowned for their simplicity and Dima was able to fix the problem, which involved sawing a section of tree trunk from a fallen tree and jacking up the entire front and then the rear axles in succession, an incredible sight! There was no sound of Tengmalm’s Owl unfortunately as Mike’s biggest bogey bird continued to elude him but we were all simply relieved to avoid a couple of hours walk home in the dark.
Scots pine forest in Krasny Bor.
We had two full days plus an evening and a morning in the Krasny Bor reserve. The mornings were spent looking for grouse and our first venture deep into the forest produced all three species we were looking for: Western Capercaillie, Black Grouse and Hazel Grouse. Black Grouse emerge from the forest to lek in open fields and clearings and we easily saw some, very conspicuous against a plain green background, their peculiar bubbling calls filling the air. With the help of Dima’s radio-collars we tracked down some male capercaillies and got a brief view of them, massive black shapes crashing through the branches of the trees. However, we did get a very good view of a cryptic-plumaged female perched in a pine tree and on our last evening we also had a good view of a male that flew across a clearing, its inner primaries being replaced now. The trickiest of the trio is usually Hazel Grouse and this proved to be the case again. After hearing one calling and then another’s wings whirring as it flew away from us we saw a male fly across a forest track and then make off away through the understory. A small pile of feathers suggested that one of the local birds had succumbed to a predator as we searched for a nest one afternoon. Finally, on our last morning at Krasny Bor, an extensive drive on forest tracks resulted in two males flying across the road in front of us, one of which perched up for a while, visible through a small gap in branches for Mike only.
Eurasian Three-toed Woodpecker, Krasny Bor
Our first morning’s birding of the tour also included Eurasian Three-toed Woodpecker, a male zooming in to inspect us in an area of flooded birch forest that also held goldeneye, Green Sandpiper, Black Woodpecker, Pied and Spotted Flycatchers, the cute northern, white-headed form of Long-tailed Tit and Red Crossbill. The surrounding forests were full of Tree Pipits, Mistle Thrushes and Common Chaffinches. We did well for woodpeckers at Krasny Bor, as well as three-toed and Black we also saw White-backed easily, finding a bird feeding young at a nest hole in a birch stump in a flooded area of forest – a great site for a picnic! The flooded forest was the work of beavers, damming a small stream, which drowned the trees and provided numerous nest sites for woodpeckers. There is a strong association between beaver and woodpecker populations here. Lesser Spotted, Great Spotted and Grey-headed Woodpeckers were also noted here. Nearby glacial lakes were quite productive, with breeding Whooper Swan, Garganey, Western Osprey, Northern Goshawk, White-tailed Eagle, Black and White-winged Terns, Little Gull, Great Reed and Savi’s Warblers as well as some large Grass Snakes. We also made a visit to a vast raised acid bog, accessed by a precarious dilapidated wooden boardwalk, sometimes partly submerged it was a challenge to place your boot in the right place at times, however, the result of a mistake was just a boot full of muddy water rather than a dangerous fall. Once out on the wide-open bog the view of the surrounding area was wonderful, with shorebirds calling all around us. Mostly Black-tailed Godwit but I was surprised to see Eurasian Whimbrel (alongside Curlew) song-flighting here, well to the south of its main breeding range. A Common Greenshank was also calling and Dima had a Citrine Wagtail on his more extensive exploration of the bog. There were at least two Great Grey Shrikes, presumably breeding here as well as three Eurasian Hobbies overhead – an unfamiliar combination of birds that we see on UK raised bogs in opposite seasons.
Raised bog at Krasny Bor.
During our stay at Dima’s lodge, which comprises a modern extension to an original village house with recovered parts of other wooden properties, we saw a variety of birds from the veranda including: European Honey Buzzard; Common Whitethroat; Common Grasshopper Warbler; Common Redstart; Whinchat; Red-backed Shrike; Eurasian Siskin and Yellowhammer. It would make a good place for a big sit we thought. A Corn Crake finally called for the first time from the meadow by the lodge on our last day, the first of the year and arriving much later than usual but it did not show itself. Olga’s superb traditional style Belarusian cooking was also a real highlight of our stay at Krasny Bor as was the feeling of isolation in the forest, where we saw few other vehicles on the dirt roads and of course no other birders! Our last evening produced a fantastic nocturnal encounter with a Tengmalm’s Owl perching in the open for us numerous times in an open pine canopy on the edge of a forest clearing. A noisy badger snuffled his way past us here not seeing us until the last moment and the hares in the north are Mountain Hares that turn white in winter. We saw four live ones in total, plus a couple of dead ones. All too soon it was time to say goodbye to Krasny Bor and Olga as we made our way south to Minsk airport to meet the rest of the group for the main tour. We paused at the Berezina River, near the site of the famous 1812 battle during Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow where he and his army narrowly avoided being trapped and annihilated. They suffered massive losses of maybe as many as 45,000 of their number, roughly 50%, at the hands of the Russians but they managed to cross the river and escape. The word Bérézina has been a French synonym for a disaster ever since.