Heading further west we spotted a pair of Crested Larks by the roadside, a bird we had missed last time. One of them was busily collecting nesting material, including a piece of string! Eventually we stopped in a small village to pick up our local guide, who devotes his life to, amongst other things, studying the population of Great Grey Owls in the forests of Vygonoshansky. He took us straight to one of his six nest sites this season. An encounter with a Great Grey Owl is a very moving experience for anyone, not just birders so you can imagine the excitement amongst those of us who had waited their whole lives for this moment. The massive female owl of the pair stared down at us while we stood not far from where her young were hiding for half an hour or so, her partner was somewhere not far away but we did not search for him or their youngsters, keeping our disturbance of their secret lives to a minimum. The concentric barring of her huge round face is like no other owl and although I have seen many in captivity there is nothing like seeing Great Grey Owl in its natural forest home. The owls in southern Belarus are found far to the south of the true Taiga zone and are birds of mixed Alder and pine forest bogs, specializing in preying on hydrophilus vole species. Also in this area we visited a Tawny Owl nest box, where a couple of well grown fluffy chicks poked their heads out to take a look at us. Their parent was nearby but did not show well for anyone, the mobbing of Blackbirds and jays marking its position. A very nice surprise here was a Hazel Grouse next that we were taken too, complete with a female sitting on it, tucked in close to the trunk of a birch tree. This was a great ‘pickup’ for those on the main tour only but also a better look for those not. The woodland here is particularly lovely with carpets of Lily of the Valley. A group of 38 Common Cranes were in roadside fields outside the forest and we also stopped to take a quick look at the German WWI fortifications. This area also marked the front line between German and Russian forces in 1918 and some of the bunkers have proved difficult to remove for developments almost 100 years later. Apparently a road was planned to go through the site of one but all attempts to destroy it failed. Owing to the sandy soil, the Germans had sunk very deep foundations into the ground and eventually the road builders gave up, buried the bunker and built the road over the top of it!
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