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I spent 5 days in Belarus in late August 2006. My first trip to Eastern Europe.
Minsk, the capital, might be the most dismal city I've ever visited (and I've been to Wolverhampton). And perhaps that is why some of the Minskers seem so hostile. I have thought of many possible reasons to explain this. It may be because Belarus is still being run as a command economy. It may be because it isn't as much of a command economy as it once was. It may be because people eat cabbage for breakfast. Who knows? But the Minsk architecture - drab 1960s low rise tower blocks - cannot help lift people's spirits.
Having said that, things were a lot more pleasant outside the capital. Some people smiled now and again in the country and there didn't seem to be such a total absence of trust. Food and lodging outside of Minsk were also very cheap - I fulfilled a life's ambition by announcing in the Berezinsky hotel bar -come-nightclub that I'd shout everyone a drink on Friday night. It was admittedly a tiny bar and the nightclub was in fact a small stereo system and a space between some tables. But at least I got to say ' the drinks are on me'. And the seventeen beers cost me less than 15 euros. The food, other than breakfast, was also surprisingly good. And if you like cold frankfurters, cold rice or spaghetti, and cabbage for brekky then you'll enjoy that too (though on the last day we got some outstanding pancakey things which were much better - I wish I'd learnt of them sooner).
In late August, Belarus is a nation obsessed with mushrooming. Everywhere I went I saw swarms of people entering into, or emerging from, the forest carrying baskets and bags respectively empty or full of fungus.
Berezinsky Biosphere Reserve
Berezinsky is 800 square kilometres of swamp and mainly coniferous forest that harbours 56 mammal species including most of the 'best' stuff from central Europe. There's a small population of European Bison there, along with Brown Bears, Wolves, Lynxes, European Beavers and European Mink to name just a few. There's also an ugly but comfortable hotel at the park HQ which serves good food. And various guides/scientists are able to help you find the animals you want to find.
Alexander Kastalian, the reserves chief mammalogist, was assigned to look after me. He's a real expert, knows lots about the bats and small mammals in the park as well as the larger stuff and went out of his way to try to show me some of the things I wanted. I definitely recommend you arrange to see Alexander if you visit the park.
Unfortunately I discovered when I had arrived that it was a bad time of year to see mammals - the 'half dead' season. Great. And the weather was abysmal. It started raining half an hour before I reached the park on Wednesday afternoon. It didn't stop until Friday evening. So the first couple of days were not the best. Trudging through ankle deep pools of water, underlain with deeper mud, in the pouring rain, through clouds of heavy duty mosquitoes (I've only seen bigger ones around Kakadu) could have been tolerable if there were any animals around. There weren't.
I spent a wet evening on a boat trip along the Berezina river and saw at least 3 European Beavers and not a lot else. European Mink are seen occasionally along the river - apparently early winter is a good time to look when the ice is forming. Mink tend to frequent the few remaining spots of open water.
On my second evening the rain slowed to a drizzle for an hour or two so Andrew and I went out for short spotlight drive near the park HQ. We saw a Water Vole on the road, a couple of Hares, a Red Fox and also found a Northern White-bellied Hedgehog (Erinaceus roumanicus). These are apparently easy to spot in better weather but we were quite lucky to see one in the rain.
There are some nest boxes up in the park for Forest Dormice. I'd thought before I arrived that the boxes had been up for a while and would be stuffed full of animals. But they'd only gone up in May and none had been occupied yet. I guess it will take another few months for them to become attractive lodgings. So Friday morning was spent checking the boxes. many for the first time, which again involved trudging through mud and mosquitoes with the added bonus of carrying a ladder and listening to Alexander climb up the ladder 40 times, open the box and say "Nothing" 40 times.
But its always darkest before the dawn. Later that afternoon the sun came out and Berezinsky was transformed. The mosquitoes disappeared and the place looked wonderful. And the weather was at last good enough to set some traps so Alexander stuck out 50 of his wooden traps baited with bread and I stuck out a dozen elliot metal box traps, baited with peanut butter and oats.
That evening we took a spotlight drive again and saw some Red Deer near Nivke village. At the Park HQ there were several Liesler's Bats buzzing around the street lamps easily identifiable from their echolocation calls using a bat detector, with a very loud call. My second new mammal of the trip. There were some Common Pipistrelles and a Myotis species (maybe Whiskered Bat, Myotis mystacinus) near Nivke village.
The traps next morning were productive. Over half the traps I'd set had Yellow-necked Mice and Bank Voles. Meanwhile Alexander caught a stack of Common Voles at one site (new for me) and, at another site near the Park HQ, he got more Yellow-necked Mice plus a Northern Birch Mouse (an exciting find for both of us - he has only caught one I think in 10 years of trapping though that first capture was last month) and in the very last trap he caught a fabulous Forest Dormouse, one of the key animals I wanted to see.
We returned to the southern bit of the park to have a half-hearted look for European Bison. But it was noon and we only had a few hours. There are fewer than 40 animals in the park and they are hard to track down at this time of year and harder at that time of day. Saw one in the dismal park zoo though.
I'd like to go back to give Berezinsky another shot a better time of year in better weather. It would be good to catch up with Alexander again too.
What to see and when to see it
Small mammals are at their most plentiful in September and early October. Shrew populations are cyclic and 2006 was a 'low' year. On top of the stuff we trapped, the small mammal fauna includes Masked (Laxman's) Shrew Sorex caecutiens, Common and Miller's Water Shrew (the latter quite uncommon), and Pygmy Shrew (rare). There are also Field Voles (uncommon), Striped Field Mice (trappable at a few spots I think), and Root Voles (not sure how often these are caught).
The park has some excellent carnivores. Lynxes and Wolves are hard to find at any time of the year. Smaller carnivores, including Racoon Dogs (a feral population) and Polecats are best found from May to early July apparently.
Brown Bears are around but again quite difficult to see. Elk (i.e Moose) are more watchable as are Wild Boar but there are easier places to see them.