Welcome to the Belarus diary. Together with Hans Schouten and Richard Peters, i will be photographing migrating waders in Belarus from the 28th of April till the 5th of May.
We will be spending a week in the largest wetland of Europe: The Prypjat estuaria. Belarus is an important stop-over for many bird species on their way to their breeding grounds in Siberia. We will be able to photograph the beautiful Ruff, who will be looking splendid in their breeding plumages. Other birds that we hopefully will be able to photograph are various Tern species, Great snipe and Terek sandpiper.
Photography will be mainly done for specially erected hides in and along the Prypjat estuaria. I will update my Belarus diary every day, so please check in from time to time.
Saturday 28th of April
An early start! The taxi picked me up very early in the morning. At Heathrow i met up with Richard Peters, who had too much money burning in his pocket as he bought a Nikon D800 at Heathrow! Our flight to Amsterdam Schiphol left promptly. We needed to fly over Amsterdam to Minsk as Belavia (the Belarus carrier) doesn''t carry out flight from Gatwick on Saturday.
At Schiphol airport we met Hans and Marius, the other two photographers going on this tour. Our flight to Minsk left with a 30 minutes delay and we arrived at Minsk around 16.00 hours. After buying a mandatory Health insurance and having our passport and visum checked, we met Dima our guide for the week. The weather was superb! 26 degrees and sunny.
After a 4 hour mini bus journey driving over the most uneven tarmac in the world, we arrived in Turov, a small village on the edge of the river Prypjat. We checked into our hotel, met up with Edo, the Dutch guide for the week and we had a quickbite to eat. We were all very tired and as we would be out and about every morning at 04.30, we decided to call it a day.
Our hotel in Turov
Sunday 29th of April
Out and about by 05.00. A gorgeous day! We are split in pairs of 2. Hans is with me and Richard is with Marius. We are off to one of the hides put up for the Ruff and other wader species. The Prypjat is an important stop over for these birds and thousands of Ruff hang around for a few weeks to refuel before flying onwards to their breeding grounds in Siberia. Many of the male birds also start displaying. The river Pryjat's water levels constantly change, which means that the surrounding wetlands can be dry one day and very wet and boggy the next!.Ideal for waders!. it goes without saying that boots are a mandatory item here.
After a 10 minute stroll we arrive at the hide. Every day we will be photographing from dawn till around 09.30 hours, followed by breakfast, a rest, an early diner and out again by 16.00 till dusk for a second session. After we set up our kit we notice that the hide is facing into the light and on top of that we are sitting in 30 centimeters of water. Not ideal and it makes you very wary of changing lenses, converters and camera's! We do manage some images of Ruff and Redshankbut nothing too exciting.
By 09.00 we are being picked up and then we hear that Richard and Marius had a worse "hide experience" then us: their hide was almost floating and was full of bugs. Richard told us that he was surprised that there were no life vests in the hide! We explained to Dima and Edo that we would prefer the hides on dry land. Birds can't be guaranteed but at least a comfortable hide will make a lengthy stay a bit more pleasant. Edo and Dima were very pro-active and the hides were moved on dry land and they also changed the way the hides were positioned. We now had the sun coming from behind.
By 16.00 Hans and myself are in hide nr. 2 on the shore of a wetland. Within 30 minutes we have all kind of birds in front of the hide. Ruff, Redshank, the rare Terek sandipoer and a variation of terns. We are happily snapping away. Hans with his 500mm and myself wit a 600mm. Maybe the birds are a tiny bit too far out. A converter is a must! We are back at the hotel around 20.30 hours.
The Prypjat wetlands
Monday 30th of April
Another fine morning. Hans and myself will be spending time in hide nr 2. This time the hide is moved slightly, so we have the morning light coming from behind us. The hide is facing a muddy river bank and soon the first birds arrive. They are not as plenty as yesterday but most wader species appear, giving us good photographic opportunities. Also the Spotted Redshank makes it's first appearance. In my opinion the most beautiful and elegant of wader species. Because of the bright sunlight, by 08.00, it becomes more difficult to take good images and because of the unusual high temperatures the hides become sauna's!
Richard and Marius had a great morning and Richard is TOTALLY over his depression. He spent time in a low hide, giving him the possibility to photograph the birds from an eye level. Marius spent time in hide nr 1 and took some spectacular Ruff images.
In the evening Hans and myself make our way to the Great snipe lek. It is quite a trek and after a 30 minute walk we arrive. Soon we are in our hide and wait for things to come. Soon we are surrounded by 25 Great snipes. they call and display right in front of our hide. Sometimes as close as one meter. This is, without a shadow of a doubt, the BEST place in Europe to photograph this secretive snipe specie. We take many images and also see a White tailed eagle flying over.
Back in the hotel, Richard and Marius, tell us that their afternoon session was not so successful. They spent time in hide nr 2 and the birds didn't really show. After a shower and a beer ,it is off to bed. Tomorrow another early start!
Great snipe displaying
Tuesday 1st of May
The next early start. Because of the unusual warm weather, the mosquitos have come out in force! Hans and Marius have decided to go out later this morning to try their luck with the Azur tit and Wryneck. Richard wants to spend time in the low hide again which is close to Hide nr 1, where i will be spending my morning.
The hide has become rather uncomfortable due to the mosquitos but i soldier on. The Ruff are out in force but they are all feeding and preening in the direction of the light making it impossible to take any images. Soon they move to the other side of the hide and i can start to take my images. There are many females and also a number of beautiful male Ruff's. They even start to display in front of the hide and the males look very spectacular. To top it all off i am also able to take images of the Terek sandpiper. Unfortunately most Terek sandpiper in the Prypjat are ringed. There are just 20 breeding pairs left in this vast area and it is their most westerly breeding ground
We are picked up and on the way back to the car we manage to take some nice images of yellow wagtail. Richard had moved his hide slightly but unfortunately it didn't result in many images. The others tried their luck with the Azur tit and Wryneck also didn't have a great morning. the birds did show but were too far off for any decent images.
The afternoon session Hans and myself will be spending in hide nr 2. Marius and Richard will try their luck with the Great snipes. There are many Ruff by hide nr 2 ad we take many images of displaying and fighting birds. We also manage some great images of the Spotted redshank. There is also a slight breeze, so the mosquitos don't really show this evening. We also take some images of a Curlew sandpiper, quite a rarity for the Prypjat. When we are back at the hotel, we have to wait for Marius and Richard to return from their Great snipe experience. When they arrive, they tell us that they had a great time with the birds!
Wednesday 2nd of May
The weather remains beautiful. it is not as warm as previous days, wich makes staying in the hides a little bit more comfortable. Hans and Marius have decided to stay in hide nr 1, while Richard will try his luck again with the low hide.
I have decided to take a break this morning and go out a bit later to try my luck with Yellow wagtails. Around 07.00 hours i am walking around with my 600mm in the wetlands along the river. it is just a little stroll from Turov. Turov looks really like Russia in the fifties. It is like time has stood still and only the passing by of a big Audi or BMW tells you that things have moved on since then!
I take some decent images of the wagtails and return to the hotel, shortly followed by the other's. They seem to have had a great morning with hundred's of Ruff in front of their hides.
In the evening Hans and myself will try the Great snipe hide again. Water levels have changed and while wading through a stream my wellies take in water. Rather unpleasant to sit in wet wellies in a hide! The Great snipes show well but unfortunately after 15 minutes the birds are spooked by 4 guys passing the path behind the lek. The Pryjat is NOT a national park, it is more like a large area of natural beauty and everyone is allowed to use it. Either for swimming, fishing or birdwatching. it is a shame that they take so little care of this area. Human pollution is noticeable everywhere you look. The plastic bottles and waste are everywhere. it is high time that this area gets the protection it deserves.
That evening the Great snipes return, but not till very late. The last hour we are finally able to get our mages but not as good as the first session. We are both covered in mosquito bites. Marius has managed to get some nice images of Tern species like Little tern and Whiskered tern. Edo and Dima had found this tiny beach which is frequently used by the terns. Unfortunately it is also used by the locals to fish, swim and drink Vodka. Richard is feeling rough and skips a session. He has suffered quite a bit with all the mosquitoes around.
Thursday 3rd of May
Same routine a the previous days! I think we are all starting to feel the strain of the early mornings even though i had a break yesterday morning. Hans and myself are in hide nr 1, we do see Ruff but it looks like the first large groups have decided to move north. We do have a great time with various Tern species fishing in front of our hide. We take nice images of Whiskered tern, Little tern, White winged tern and Common tern.
Richard has recovered a bit after yesterday and wants to go out with Marius to the Great snipe hide. Hans and myself will be spending time on the beach with the terns. The weather has changed a little. There are more clouds which makes a nice chance from the harsh sunlight we have encountered during the week. After we settle in our beach hide, the first Little terns appear. We take nice images of these beautiful birds. We also photograph Ringed plover, Ruff and Common tern.
After a good hour of undisturbed photography a local on a bike simply ignores the hide and starts to fish right in front of us. He simply doesn't care! He must be one of the most ignorant people i have ever met and to prove it i took photographic evidence.
We SMS Dima and he pick us up. We found a great spot for singing Yellow wagtails and we ask Dima to take us there. We take some lovely mages of these beautiful birds before returning to the hotel. Richard and Marius time with the Great snipes wasn't as god as their first session but they still came back with some nice shots.
The Belarussian culprit
Friday 4th of May
The last morning session of our trip. Hans, Marius and myself will be spending time in hide nr 1. i have managed to get hold of some "anti mosquito" spray and it helps to make life in the hide a bit more comfortable. it turns out to be a disappointing morning. As i stated earlier many Ruff have started the final leg of their migration and the lapwings have young. They behave very hostile towards the remaining Ruff, constantly dive bombing them and chasing them off. The only noticeable mages we take are images of a Spotted redshank wich sits in front of the hide.
In the afternoon Hans, Richard and myself will try our luck in the beach hide for the terns. Marius will go to a specially erected hide for terns, which he can only reach in commando style through rather deep water!
The beach hide is rather uneventful. I do get some nice images of Little tern with fish but after the first half hour everything turns rather quiet. Richard has his low level hide but it turns into a sauna and very uncomfortable for him so he spends his time sipping water in our tent!
The highlight must be the young Belarussian who approached our hide, opens it up and offers us a zip from his bottle of Vodka! Although tempting we kindly refuse the booze.
Back in the hotel we pack up as we have to leave in the middle of the night to get to Minsk airport for our early morning flight back to Amsterdam.
The trip to Belarus was good. I would not say it was my best trip ever and if you expect to take images of many different bird species then this is NOT the trip for you. On the other hand if you would like to take images of very special birds like Ruff, Terek sandpiper and Great snipe then i can recommend this trip! Edo and Dima went out of their way to get the hides in the right position, ferried us from one hide to the other and i can honestly say that they were great guides and hosts!
One of the hides at sunrise
Factsheet Belarus trip April-May 2012
The trip was organized through Centrum voor Natuurfotografie ( http://www.centrumvoornatuurfotografie.nl/ ) Edo van Uchelen has often visited Belarus and knows the area very well. He works closely with Dmirty Shamovich. Dmitry runs a company called Green man tours and specializes in Wildlife tours for nature photographers in Belarus. Dmitry does not have a website yet but he can be reached through email. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
The cost for the trip including flight (from Schiphol with Belavia) was approximately EURO 1200. This includes accomodation, all food, use of hides and transportation). Cost does not include alcoholic drinks but cost for these items in Belarus is extremely low. The hotel acomodation was comfortable and the rooms were big! To enter Belarus one needs a visum. Cost is approximately £125.
Belarus has a land climate. Weather is dry and sunny in May. We encountered high temperatures and mosquitos which apparently were rare for the time of year.
Equipment used: Nikon D4/D7000 with 600mm and 1.4 converter. 500mm will do but you will need a 1.4 converter at times. From the hides you would always use a tripod and from the low level hide a beanbag.