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As more and more of the outstandingareas for wildlife in Europe arethreatened by the insatiable demandsof modern society, it is increasingly the casethat many of the best remaining habitats arenow to be found in the former SovietRepublics. A prime example of this is thewonderful Pripiatsky National Park, close tothe Ukraine border in southern Belarus,where a remarkable range of wetland andprimeval oak forest habitats are protected.Founded in 1969 to preserve the uniquenatural complexes of marshland draininginto the Pripiat River, the reserve has beensubsequently enlarged by the incorporationof adjacent areas and now embraces over64,000 hectares of floodplain, raised bogsand mixed forests, including 7,000 hectaresof wetland oak forest, the largest primevaloak forest in Europe. Thanks to the lack ofhuman interference, strict protection, andthe inaccessibility of the region for manymonths of the year due to flooding,Pripiatsky is a haven for wildlife and forms a key component of this outstanding spring tour.The independent Republic of Belarus wasdeclared in 1991, having previously beenpart of the Soviet Union when it was knownas Byelorussia meaning 'White Russia', areference to the fact that it was neverconquered by the Mongol invaders and thusremained 'pure' from their influences.Bordered by Poland, Ukraine and theRussian Federation, it is a land-lockedcountry which contains over a thousandlakes, and large tracts of forest which cloakover a third of the country's land mass.We begin our holiday with a flight fromLondon to Minsk, the modern capital ofBelarus, and travel south from there by roadto Pripiatsky National Park where we stay intwo comfortable hotels for seven nights. Ourbirding activities will take place both insidethe reserve and in other outstanding areasalong the Pripiat River including the floodedmeadows near one of our hotels whereTerek Sandpiper, lekking Great Snipe andcountless Spotted Crakes feature among thelocal attractions. Elsewhere, we will entermagnificent ancient oak forests whichresound to the torrent of spring birdsongand the drumming of woodpeckers, of whicheight species are possible on the tour.At this season the air is filled with the songsand calls of the phenomenal number ofbirds inhabiting the reserve and surroundingareas. Great Reed Warblers grate theirunmistakable jumble of notes, SedgeWarblers pour out excited bursts ofchattering from parachute display flightsand Savi's Warblers add their reelingcontributions from perches concealed in thereeds. Not all the vocalists are harmonious,but the evening rasping of Corncrakes, the'whiplash' sounds of numerous SpottedCrakes and the strange clicking noisesemitted by lekking Great Snipe, arewelcome sounds to British ears! Out in theflooded meadows and bogs both Black andWhite Storks wade in search of theabundant frogs and toads, which can rivalthe birds with the volume of their amphibianchorus, while flocks of White-winged Black,Whiskered and Black Terns dip and swoopin pursuit of insects. Pripiatsky is renowned for its largepopulation of raptors, boasting over 16breeding species of which White-tailed,Spotted and Lesser Spotted Eagles areamong the most noteworthy. The long list ofother birds which we also hope to seeduring our holiday includes Black-neckedGrebe, Smew, Marsh Sandpiper, lekkingRuff, Collared Flycatcher, ThrushNightingale, Bluethroat and both River andBarred Warblers. Special mention should begiven to Azure Tit, a species high on manyvisitors' 'wish list'. Although birds are the most conspicuousresidents, and consequently the principalfocus of this tour, Pripiatsky also harbours adiverse population of mammals. Wild Boar,European Beaver and Elk are allpossibilities on the holiday. The rich floraadds welcome colour to the spring scene,the carpets of flowers providing food fornewly emerged butterflies such asSwallowtails.After exploring the many facets of thisremarkable reserve we return to Minsk andcatch a homeward flight to London,reflecting on the wealth of sights andsounds experienced during our stay. Belarus in SpringAn 8-day birdwatching and natural history holiday exploring the wonderful primeval oakforests and wetlands of Pripiatsky Reserve and the Pripiat River in 'White Russia'.Sunday 5th May - Sunday 12th May Cost: £1,595Outline itineraryDay 1Fly Minsk; transfer toTurov.Day 2/7Pripiatsky River andNational Park.Day 8Transfer Minsk and flyLondon.AccommodationComfortable tourist hotel in Turov,each room with private facilities.FoodAll included in the price.Grading A. Gentle day walks, plus someevening spotlighting.Focus Birds, mammals and generalnatural history.LeaderAttila Steiner. Single room supplement£200.Web quick search: BLR0132Call now or visit your free Trip ItineraryBELARUSRUSSIALITHUANIAPOLANDUKRAINELATVIAPOLATSKORSHABABRUYSKBRESTMAZYRHRODNAPRIPIATSKYNATIONAL PARK MINSKBarred WarblerBlack TernAzureTitPripiatsky

Although renowned for its chocolate,beer and medieval cities, Belgium isalso home to some special birds.Amid the flat landscape bordering Hollandin the north of the country, the coastalreserve of the Zwin, an old estuary thatwas cut off from the sea a long time ago,is one of the best areas for wintering ducksand gulls, whilst the Damme and Uitkerksepolders near Bruges are better known forthe large numbers of geese that winterthere. From a historical point of view, theZwin estuary was also important in theMiddle Ages as it provided the only meansfor sea-going vessels to reach Bruges.In contrast to the northern part of Belgium,the Ardennes in the south is an attractivearea of hills, rolling forests and woodlandvalleys which are home to a number ofsought-after bird species. During our staywe will also be able to enjoy some ofBelgium's most important historical andarchitectural towns, including Bruges whichdelights millions of visitors each year withits medieval streets, meandering canalsand green ramparts and which, in 2002,acted as the Cultural Capital of Europe. Our holiday begins with a comfortableEurostar train ride through the ChannelTunnel to Lille in northern France. From herewe visit the Uitkerkse polders. Officiallyprotected since 1991, these offer a safehaven for many birds, in particular theflocks of geese that winter here in largenumbers. White-fronted and Pink-footedGeese are the species which are most oftenencountered, but we will search the mass ofgrey bodies for such vagrants as Red-breasted and Lesser White-fronted Geesethat turn up on an annual basis. Fromvantage points and hides we can scanother parts of the polders, looking for suchspecies as Bewick's Swan, EurasianWigeon, Hen Harrier and Short-eared Owl.A short distance away, the Spuikom, a largebrackish lake, usually holds a wide varietyof wintering ducks, grebes and divers. Alsoin the north, we will explore the coastalreserve of Het Zwin. Here the lagoons oftenteem with wildfowl and waders, whilst in thesurrounding coastal dunes and meadowsSnow and Lapland Buntings may be found,together with Avocet, Ruff and GoldenPlover; an avian extravaganza to appreciatebefore we opt for a change of scenery witha drive to the historic city of Bruges. After a night in Bruges we will have theopportunity to sample a little of itsexceptional artistic and cultural heritage.Our last stop in the north will be nearAntwerp, at the famous nature reserve ofBlokkersdijk. Although situated in a heavilyindustrialised area, this large reserveattracts masses of wildfowl in winter.Goosander, Gadwall, Eurasian Wigeon,Goldeneye and Smew are all regularly seenin large numbers, and rarer vagrants oftenappear among the rafts of duck.The last leg of our journey takes us to theArdennes. Here we will walk amongstsome of Belgium's finest woodlands insearch of woodpeckers, and inspect thecliffs of local quarries in the hope of findingan Eagle Owl. Our first stop will be in thefamous Hertogenwald where, near theBarrage de la Vesdre, we will listen for thedistinctive call of the Grey-headedWoodpecker, and search for Dippers alongthe small streams which tumble throughthe hills. Next, we ascend to the highestpoint in Belgium, Hautes Fagnes, whichlies at 694 metres. This region, consistingmainly of spruce forests andlarge open moorlands, isprotected within a very large naturereserve and, because of its high altitude,contains many plants and birds that arerestricted in their distribution such asCrossbill, Crested Tit and Nutcracker. Thearea also supports a small breedingpopulation of Black Grouse and, in good'rodent' years, there is an excellent chanceof finding the dapper Tengmalm's Owl,either during a spotlighting session in theevening or at one of the many nest-boxeserected especially for them. Returning towards the coast, we will visitthe Famenne region of the Ardennes. Herethe landscape is dominated by large tractsof beech and oak woodland and, walkingthrough these extensive woods, we willlook for both Middle Spotted and BlackWoodpeckers which are quite commonhere, as well as for Short-toed Treecreeper,Great Grey Shrike and Hawfinch. For thosewith an interest in mammals, the Ardennesalso boasts healthy populations of WildBoar, Red Squirrel, Red Fox, Pine Marten,and Roe and Red Deer.Our last morning will be spent in theArdennes but we will be fairly flexible,depending on what we have seen andthose species we have missed. Whateverwe see, it is likely to be a fitting finale to a satisfying and memorable holiday led by one of Belgium's top natural history tour guides.Belgium in WinterA 4-day winter exploration in search of wildfowl and Ardennes specialities. Friday 22nd February - Monday 25th February Cost: £595Book direct on 01962 733051or see page 284 for Booking InformationBELGIUMNETHERLANDSGERMANYLUXEMBOURGFRANCEENGLISH CHANNELBRUSSELSLILLEBRUGESHET ZWINANTWERPNAMURLIEGEFAMENNEHERTOGENFORESTOutline itineraryDay 1Eurostar train fromLondon St. Pancras toLille. Drive Bruges.Day 2Bruges and the polders. Day 3The Ardennes. Day 4Eurostar train from Lilleto London St. Pancras. AccommodationComfortable tourist hotels withprivate facilities. FoodAll included in the price, except formeals taken during Eurostarjourneys.GradingDay walks only. Grade A.FocusBirds, mammals and a little history!LeaderGerald Broddelez.Single room supplement£85.ExtensionsPre- or post-tour extensions inBruges or Brussels available onrequest.Web quick search: BEL0233Red-breasted GooseWhooper SwansBarnacle Geese