Connections and reconnections

Pygmy Owl in Belavejskaya Puscha (Martin Kelsey)

Extremadura lies in the south-western corner of Europe, with depopulated rural communities and an extraordinary diversity of habitats, many with the dimensions of landscapes, holding globally important populations of certain species of birds. Last week, I visited Belarus in the north-eastern corner of Europe, thinly populated too, with landscape-scale ecosystems, also critically important for certain species. It was a journey which became almost a pilgrimage, a discovery of connections and significant personal reconnections.
Water meadows of Pripyat River, Belarus (Martin Kelsey)

My visit focused on three landscapes, all very different from anything I can encounter on my home turf in Spain. The first was the extensive water meadows of the Pripyat River, close to the small town of Turov in southern Belarus. Sometimes the river was visible, sometimes not, but always water was in view. Earlier in the year the river will have spilled over, creating a vast shallow lake, but now at the start of June, the waters had retreated to the meandering braids of the river, to old drainage channels and to shallow patches in the low-lying fields. What the river had left behind were lush water meadows. These used to be cut for hay later in the year and used as a grazing marsh, but many have suffered degrees of encroachment by willow scrub as farming practices slowly change. The conservation organisation, APB-BirdLife Belarus, organises volunteer camps to keep the meadows open, as the habitat they provide is home to a host of evocative species. I stood with Dzmitry Vintchevski on a small raised bank, looking towards meadows, just across from the muddy-sided channel in front of me. There was a constant sound and a visual sensation of waves as everywhere I looked birds were rising and falling, a medley of motion. Black-tailed Godwits and Common Redshanks were bustling in the sky. In the middle distance, White-winged, Black and Whiskered Terns lolled up and down like gentle lapping water and gave me the only clue that another channel lay beyond this body of lush grass. Common and Little Terns took more purposeful direct flight. From time to time there were more intense flurries of activity as waders mobbed a passing Hooded Crow. On the muddy margin close to us, a Terek Sandpiper bobbed its way along the water's edge, appearing lop-sided and unbalanced with its long, slightly up-turned bill but rather short legs. Closing my eyes, I absorbed the sounds: a rasping Corncrake pitched against the strident, clean calls of the waders.
Azure Tit (Martin Kelsey)

Along an embankment, we entered the shade of some willows. A Thrush Nightingale sang from a tangle below us, whilst beside a small, wooden house and its vegetable plot with rows of potatoes and strawberries a Common Rosefinch gave long, tuneful notes. This was where I had one of the top encounters of my visit. As a child, looking through the plates in a bird book, certain species caught the imagination more than others. Close to a very familiar species, a Blue Tit, was an extraordinarily exotic-looking bird. With broadly similar patterning as a Blue Tit, its plumage was essentially reduced to pure white and different shades of blue, giving its name - the Azure Tit. It became a dream bird, unattainable as its range lay beyond the Iron Curtain. Now, on a slender willow twig arrived this breathtakingly stunning bird, my first Azure Tit. It was far more strikingly beautiful than the book illustrations suggested. Much of the body was the purest of white, which marked too the outer feathers of the tail, which spread like a vivid beacon. Much of the blue was the tone of a summer sky, darkening on the wings and there forming a white-bordered panel. Longer-tailed than a Blue Tit, its wings shimmered as its mate approached. We had stumbled across these mythical birds and so doing, discovered that they were building a nest, entering a narrow crevice in a fruit tree bordering the cottage garden. We stood for more than an hour watching them, as they seemed completely oblivious to our presence. Indeed the only interspecific behaviour we saw is when they drove off a comparatively dowdy-looking Blue Tit.
Azure Tit (Martin Kelsey)

The next landscape was also wet, but mire habitat rather than water meadow. Here, at the Sporovsky Reserve, I stood with Viktar Fenchuk as the sun was setting, The short sedge growth barely reached our knees. Scattered across the expanse of this sedge fenland were iris stems, bearing their yellow flag flowers. We started to hear a short rattling sound, culminating with squeaky flourishes. I had waited many years to hear this...the song of Aquatic Warbler. As darkness fell, so others started to sing. I was anxious to get a view of the bird itself, and it did not take me long to find one close by, singing from an iris stem high above the sedge layer. It perched bolt upright, its bill wide open as it produced its rattle, its distinctive head pattern with a pale crown stripe and boldly marked back. Soon I had found another, also using a clump of irises to lift it into view. This is a compellingly fascinating bird on so many levels. Of the Acrocephalus group of warblers, it is remarkable in having no pair bond at all.  Females alone  care for the young, which may well have been sired by several different males. Females will be choosing males not on the basis of their performance as diligent fathers, but rather hoping to ensure sexy sons.

Aquatic Warblers were once so common in central Europe that they were called the sparrows of the fens in Germany, but are now probably the rarest and most threatened European passerine. Their stronghold is Belarus, but remarkably it was not until about twenty years ago that they were even known to be breeding in the country. Their conservation has been spearheaded by APB BirdLife Belarus and indeed the species has been the driver of much conservation effort there. Scrub encroachment was traditionally kept at bay by the cutting of the sedge as forage, but now to ensure survival of the open sedge mire, APB bought a special sedge-cutting tractor.
Song time for Aquatic Warblers: dusk at Sporovsky (Martin Kelsey)

As the light faded, the Aquatic Warbler song increased in intensity, the vibrations of Common Snipe drumming overhead soothed like a massage, a Corncrake scraped. We then started hearing a quiet crackling sound, like paper rustling, along with a bizarre, high-pitched disembodied wavering. Suddenly two birds flew up from the sedge in a vertical head-to-head and then flew a short circuit in pursuit. Their white tail corners seemed charged with brilliance as they banked ahead of us. They were lekking Great Snipe - choosing like the Aquatic Warblers nightfall for their seduction.

Great Grey Owl at Vyanaschanski Forest (Martin Kelsey)

My journey culminated in the great forest of the Belavejskaya Puscha on the border with Poland, extending into the neighbouring country under the name Bialowieza Forest. The Belavejskaya Puscha National Park itself covers over 150,000 ha, although the Biosphere Reserve covers a full 216,000 ha (40% of Belarus is forest-covered). It is described as the last remaining primeval forest in Europe, but human activities (selective felling, hunting) have created some impact over the centuries. My childhood awareness of this forest came from documentaries about this sole refuge of European Bison and then as a graduate student I knew the great Polish ornithologist Tomasz Wesolowski who has spent his career studying the bird community of the forest there. I became fascinated with the differences between bird ecology in that great forest compared with the well-studied English woodlands. In terms of species diversity and the role of predation it was more akin to the bird communities in tropical forests.

Giant oak tree in Belavejskaya Puscha (Martin Kelsey)

My two and half days of exploring the Belavejskaya Puscha bestowed many impressions. First, the forest was much more varied than I had imagined. I moon-walked on the bouncy surface of a raised bog, fringed by birch. There were forests dominated by huge spruces, others by pines whose bark had the texture of pangolin scales, hornbeams were the survivalists against browsing deer. Most breathtaking were the huge oaks, well over a hundred feet in height and centuries old, whose trunks were as straight as pillars. But equally significant was the amount of dead wood, moss-covered trunks lying criss-crossed on the forest floor and leaning against brethren. A million niches for invertebrates and vertebrates alike. I had never seen tree gaps like this away from tropical forest, where a forest giant had fallen, bringing down other trees with it, gashing open the canopy to bring in light. A whole micro-community of saplings and shrubs rush to fill the gap. The oak groves were especially rich in bird life: a constant sound of song from Wood Warblers, Collared and Red-breasted Flycatchers. I was there when the Great Spotted Woodpeckers (one of the arch predators of woodland birds) had noisy young in their hole nests and the density of this species was extraordinary. But we also came across nest sites of Three-toed and Middle Spotted Woodpeckers, as well as watching White-backed and Grey-headed Woodpeckers with the thumping drumming of Black Woodpeckers within earshot.

Natural tree gap in Belavejskaya Puscha (Martin Kelsey) 

In open glades we came across groups of Bison, often accompanied by Red Deer and such places were wonderful to pause by simply to wait for birds to appear, be they a hunting Lesser Spotted Eagle or a pair of Common Cranes.

Bison and Red Deer Deer in Belavejskaya Puscha (Martin Kelsey)

On my last evening, I stood at dusk at the edge of small lake with the forest behind me. Viktar was with me, with his son Sacha and colleague Nicolay. On a makeshift table there was some rye bread, tomatoes, cucumber, cheese and sausages, with a bottle of local vodka. A pair of Whooper Swans with five cygnets sidled away from us and a roding Woodcock passed overhead. At the forest border a River Warbler buzzed, but closer to me an anarchic yet coherent song caused me to stop still in my tracks. I closed my eyes and let my memory intertwine with this fluid improvisation. I had spent three years of my life studying Marsh Warblers (over thirty years ago) but I was carried even further back, to childhood on my grandparents' small farm in Germany and the sound of this song from the willows and nettles beside the reed-filled boundary ditch.

This visit to Belarus had made me think about connections: perhaps the Common Cranes and Song Thrushes I had seen in the forest spend the winter in Extremadura, as do the Lapwings of the Pripyat water meadows. We know that Aquatic Warblers pass through Spain on their way to their newly-discovered winter quarters in West Africa, and friends of mine trapped one in Extremadura last year. In both Belarus and Extremadura habitats fill landscapes and have changed but slowly over the centuries. Even more profoundly, I also became reconnected to vivid moments of childhood and to early dreams. Longings had been satiated in this visit, even a reconnection to some lost folk memory perhaps, embraced by the song of waders and Corncrakes, to a time when all places seemed full of birds.

I am indebted to APB BirdLife Belarus for making the arrangements for my visit and finding me truly excellent and knowledgeable local guides and experts. For anyone thinking of visiting this wonderful country, I would strongly recommend contacting APB and asking them to organise a tour for you. Not only will you benefit from the best local knowledge, but you will be directly contributing to the work that APB does to protect the birds and habitats of Belarus. If you are interested, please contact Valeryia Sashko or  


Anonymous said…
How did the numbers of birds (not species diversity) compare to Extremadura Martin?

That azure tit does look smart!

Brian Banks.
Jane W said…
what a fantastic trip, I am deeply envious
Miriam said…
I loved reading this Martin, and quite envious - but the beautiful descriptions really brought it alive, thank you.
Paul Roberts said…
A wonderfully evocative post, Martin. Thanks for sharing.
GRSshoes said…
Great!!Thanks for posting such a nice and beautiful blog...

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