I have to admit, despite being to some pretty cool places, sitting in a hide, in a field, deep in the Belarusian countryside with Great Snipe lekking all around me, is certainly one of my most memorable experiences so far. Having these small birds walk around the hide just feet away and watching and listening to their spectacular call and display was one of those moments that reminded why I love being a wildlife photographer. It’s not just about getting the shot. It’s about being out in nature and being fortunate enough to see things first hand that others may never see, or only ever see on television.
But as well as the great snipe, Belarus certainly sticks in my mind for other reasons too. It’s a little cut off from the rest of Europe and in the deepest parts of the countryside, where we were, it’s also a bit like stepping back in time. For example, when you’re told not to drink the tap water, you find yourself very glad you paid attention when later in the week someone in the group spots a local throw their waste in a stretch of one of the nearby water ways – the same stretch of water another local is washing their clothes in. Thankfully our hotel was quite modern (we even had air conditioning) but the surrounding area was mostly quite old and as such many of the poorer parts of town and old wooden houses do not have working sewage. It may sound like something out of the middle ages, but it’s not all like that and if you do visit, you are rewarded by a large range of wildlife which varies depending on the area you’re in. We spent our time down south, with ruff and great snipe the main target species. In fact, we saw several large groups of tourists on bird watching holidays whilst we were there too.
TRAVELLING TO BELARUS, A LONG SHORT JOURNEY
Before you can even get on the plane to Belarus you must first purchase a visa ahead of time, which in itself requires lots of paper work and proof of travel, accommodation etc to be sent the the Belarusian embassy, along with your passport and a fee (£125 at the time of my travel). Once paperwork was sorted and the day of departure arrived, the journey took us from Heathrow to Amsterdam and from there on to Minsk. Once we arrived we were greeted with an unseasonably hot and humid 30+ degree heatwave and the discovery that special health insurance must be purchased at the airport, regardless of if you have travel insurance, before you are allowed through immigration (although I discovered once I got to the front of the line, if you’re a UK resident, you do not need this). Once through, from Minsk we had a 3 1/2 hour drive in a transit van south towards the Ukraine border to our final destination, the village of Turov, deep in the countryside. After two planes and lots of waiting in lines, this proved to be a very hot and tiring journey as the roads are not highly maintained. The best I can describe it is driving along a cobbled street for 3 1/2 hours that has the occasional pot hole and bump in it.
We certainly appreciated the first cold drink of the week when we finally arrived at our hotel, followed by an evening meal and unpack ahead of our first nights sleep before our first morning shoot the next day.
EARLY STARTS, AFTERNOON NAPS AND DRUNK LOCALS
The week itself consisted of getting up at 430am each morning in order to leave the hotel for 5am to drive out to the marshes and wetlands around the Pryjat river. Here we would walk out close to the rivers edge and set up the hides, spending 3 or 4 hours concentrating on photographing the ruff until the sun was too bright and high in the sky. The ruff were great to watch with lots of displaying and attempted mating. Most of the time, to see this the hides were very wet with some of them being placed in anywhere from 2″ to 8″ of what, at times, smelt like stagnant water in order to get the positions deemed best. This made setting up and switching lenses/bodies/teleconverters quite a daunting task once we were in, as our bags were tied up off the floor to keep them out of the water. In part due to this, and in part because I wanted to be low to the ground, I opted to spend much of my time in one of the dryer ground hides, although this placed me further away from the action meaning the birds would often be out of reach of even my 600mm with a 1.4 attached. At times, reaching for the 2x teleconverter was even needed. Personally, I’m not too bothered about moderate cropping of images, and in some situations such as this, you have no choice. So, although it may not be a huge increase in resolution, having the 16mp of the Nikon D4 was certainly welcome over my old D3s as I knew it would be slightly more forgiving if crops were called for.
Once our morning sessions were over we’d head back to the hotel for breakfast, followed by a sleep. Then get up in the afternoon to have an early dinner, head out again for the evening light, before returning back to the hotel around 9 to 930pm. One of our choices for the evening sessions was a beanbag hide lifted off the floor by placing it on some palettes. I was the only one brave (read as foolish) enough to get in this. And with good reason. When it’s 30 degrees out with no breeze, getting inside a beanbag that’s sat out in the sun all afternoon isn’t the best idea!
The next 3 hours were beyond hot, and whether it paints you a good mental image or not I don’t mind telling you I had to strip off practically to my underwear! Although it did offer me very good close, low level views of the birds…until a group of Belarusian’s nearby got their car stuck in mud at the bank of the lake I was bedside and scared the birds off to the far shore. This wasn’t the only time we would have interruptions during the week as a fond past time of many of the locals is to fish around the waters of the river. The problem we encountered is that they are not used to seeing hides plonked along the river so would at times come and sit right near or in front of us, in fact on our last evening some friendly young locals opened our hide up and stuck their head, held up a 2 litre bottle of vodka and asked if we’d like to have a drink with them. It’s fair to say that may be one of the strangest interruptions from hide photography I’ve ever witnessed!
THE GREAT, GREAT SNIPE
The highlight of the week for me, without a doubt was, the great snipe. They not only proved to be my favorite subject to photograph, but also doing so involved shooting on the driest land of the week. Bonus! We spent two evenings with them with the first being more productive than the second but both were very enjoyable none the less. The two mile walk out to the fields was quite easy with the exception of a couple of fairly deep areas of water that needed to be carefully navigated in order for the water level to not rise up above our wellies (I should point out, we wore welly boots the entire trip as so much time was spent walking and wading through high water levels – so if you think of going, make sure you pack some. As our guide Dmitry pointed out “Belarus is welly country!”). The key to our success with the snipe though, was to be in position before they returned to the fields for the evening. We needed to be in position with hides up, before 6pm, so we could make use of the evening light until the 830pm sunset. Once set up it was simply a case of waiting for the snipe to arrive, which they would promptly do around 645pm – 7pm. The first signs of arrival always signified by the distant clicking as the first few snipe would call out to one another. The sound would get louder and more frequent until eventually we would start to spot these tiny birds walking through the grass and could see them tilt their heads back and ruffle their feathers as they called out to one another.
Opting for the slightly more risky approach of shooting from low level, top marks went to Edo our group leader, as my hide had no low level hole to work from so he allowed me to cut one out! What a champ, and the true sign of someone running a workshop who puts the client first! This allowed me to try and get intimate habitat type images. The reason this was a risk is because these birds are tiny, and the grass is very tall, meaning my view of them was often blocked, even when they were very close. I went for this view though as I felt looking down at the birds from a height made them look like they were sitting on a lawn somewhere, despite being much easier to spot and photograph by doing so. This did result in far fewer images than the rest of the group, but for my personal taste I like seeing how surrounded in their grassy habitat the snipe are and the intimate feel this point of view can bring to an image.
Watching the snipe interact with one another was a real treat. With the birds calling out in the long grass and walking around until two would find each other. At which point they face off and begin bobbing heads up and down before one of them jumps up in the air to attack the other. With the grass being quite high, we often would just see the head and shoulders of a snipe appear briefly in the distance as it jumped, accompanied with some quick wing flapping. Edo informed us that had we arrived much later in the season the grass would be too tall to see the snipe and eventually all you can do is hear them and not see them at all. So it was a great result to witness this behavior. A truly spectacular wild encounter and even though the mosquitoes tried to eat us alive as we made our way back to the van, it was one I’d experience again in a heartbeat.
For me, the great snipe made the trip for me. The ruff were spectacular to watch, although most often too distant to get any great images of and so the week generally wasn’t as productive photographically as I would have liked. But the snipe were a real pleasure to be around and photograph. Being completely surrounding by them and watching and listening at such close quarters as they blissfully went about their natural behaviour was simply fantastic.
The week was also spent in great company too with fellow wildlife photographers Rene de Heer and Hans Schouten, who you may remember from my Winter Yellowstone trip. They’re always a laugh to be around on trips with lots of good willed banter being knocked about.
I’d also like to say a quick thank you to our guides Edo van Uchelen and Dmitry Shamovich, who did their best to make sure we enjoyed our stay. You can also find out more about the trips they run at Centrum voor Natuurfotografie.