Sunday, 7 June 2009

Working for Birdlife Belarus

Leaving Warsaw on the night train to Minsk was exciting. We had heard that the border crossing can be really difficult and the guard dogs barking outside the carriage and the flickering bulbs in the dim 1am light did make for an eerie atmosphere but the border guards were two very smiley Belarussian ladies who checked our passports and asked us what we would be doing in Belarus and that was about it. After border control the train pulls into a hanger for 4hrs where it has its wheels changed to fit russian tracks (apparently this is to defend against invading forces who might try to sneak in by train... cunning).

Minsk is a really interesting city. It was levelled during the war and rebuilt to be the perfect soviet city with wide boulevards, loads of parks and lots of monuments. A small army of orange clad people scour the streets for every last peice of litter so it is amazingly clean. The crime rate is very low... could be something to do with all the soldiers, poilce and plain clothes police that are present. Oh and the KGB HQ opposite the presidents gaff.

GUM - the state owned department store, complete with marble pillars. You can buy almost anything here but it can take a while - everthing is behind separate counters and you have to ask a salesperson in order to get it.

We left Minsk for our first assignment with APB Belarus (The Bridlife partner in Belarus). We were to go to Turov Meadow - a flooded meadow leased by APB for the purposes of nature conservation. This is the first private nature reserve in Belarus and we were to be its first wardens - and wow, what a place!!! This picture is the house owned by APB. It had no furniture and had been unoccupied (except for mice) for a year but its all about location, location, location!!!

Our street

One careful former resident...

We built a table and a bench and a bed.

...and improvised for washing... occasionally... when we REALLY needed it.

The loo with the vieeeeeeeew!

Running water and mega muscle workout combined (see fig 1a - big biceps).
The wildlife in the loo....
We had some visitors while we were there, bringing various quantities of vodka. Thankfully our belgian friends bought beer and chocolate! They were easier company than the 3 Belarussian birwatchers who brought vodka, pigtrotter-jelly and ensuing carnage!


The reserve is a bustling place in spring with thousands of breeding waders. The river floods to make small islands where birds breed. These are ruffs displaying on their lek sites.

Wood sandpiper

Terek sandpiper taking a bath with whiskered terns.

A terek sandpiper nest (infront of the car in foreground of picture). They seem to like building their nests fron rubbish.

Worst nest in the world competition: 1st prize to Black tern who basically lay their eggs on floating grass - good one guys.

Great Snipe lek here too
Azure tit breeds not far away

White Stork

White winged terns, blck terns, whiskered terns and little terns all nest here.

The reserve is grazed by local animals and this grazing is one of the factors that has made the site so good for breeding birds as the cows and horses keep vegetation low and help make islands in the flooded meadow. The reserve is still very much used in the way it has always been but recently the number of cows and horses has fallen as people prefer to sell their cow and buy milk from the shop.
The grazing animals inevitably cause some losses of eggs and chicks through trampling but without the grazers the whole habitat would be unfavourable for breeding. The main cause of losses was in fact not trampling but seemed to be predation by crows, American mink, and hedgehogs.

A good way to get about on the reserve

...and the wrong way to get about on the reserve!

Neil shows how wading is really done... (i.e. with caution).

Turov meadow is a good place to live if you are a frog or toad. They sing all day and all night.

Its also a good place to be a fish and the shallow water teems with fry.

...its also a good place to be a midge, mosquito, blackfly or any other blood sucking insect!

Some more pictures from around the reserve:

Some areas of the reserve have not been grazed properly in recent years and the grass has grown long which makes it unfavourable habitat for nesting waders... APB is on the case and has arranged grazing of the area with the local cooperative farm.

Neil gives in to curiosity and drinks his.... cream soda.

The town of Turov - city hall.

Russian Orthodox Church

In Turov there is a small museum showing some of the special natural history of the area... the taxidermy is amusingly bad... here is a better example.

Belarus is truely the land of 1000 uses for plastic bottles - here is a good design of drainpipe. . The old tradition of throwing your waste into the river remains but the materials have changed and the reserve has quite a lot of plastic litter lying around.

Belarussians live close to the land and have a deep understanding of its ecology. Turov kids fishing with willow poles.

...and fishing and swimming on a hot day.

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