Wednesday, June 23, 2021

ABP 2021 - Back in Siberia


Putting up a mist-net amidst the Yenisei river ice and broken trees, June 2021. Photos by Wieland Heim

Back in Russia, finally! Fieldwork had not been possible for the Amur Bird Project team in 2020, and so I was really happy when the unexpected news came that getting a Russian visa is possible again. The plan was to continue our work on the migration ecology of Siberian songbirds, with the help of light-level geolocators and new multisensor loggers and in cooperation with Oleg Bourski and Katya Demidova at the Mirnoye research station, the Swiss Ornithological Institute, Lund University as well as Tianhao Zhao and Barbara Helm (University of Groningen).

However, first, one must get there – being located close to the geographical center of Russia, Mirnoye at the Yenisey river is not an easy-to-reach destination. Our team consisted of Vera, an ornithologist and biology teacher from Moscow, Moritz and Johannes, students of Landscape Ecology at Münster University, and me.

A small propeller-plane brought us from Krasnoyarsk to the village of Bor, where we stayed for one night in an overcrowded hostel. The helicopter flight further north was scheduled for the next day, but one cannot book tickets in advance, and the decision who will be on the flight fells only a few hours before departure. Luckily, all four of us got a ticket in the end.

We jumped off the helicopter in the village of Bakhta, where we had to stay another night, as the waves on the Yenisey river were too high for the small boat that should take us to Mirnoye research station. Luckily, the very nice head of Bakhta village (with golden teeth and a handshake like a bear) offered us to sleep in the office of the village administration and provided us with mattresses. Cold northerly wind made us wear all the clothes we brought, which were unfortunately not too many, since we could only take 10kg of luggage with us in the helicopter.

Birding around Bakhta village is always great, and despite being already mid-June, migration was in full swing. We could see lots of ducks in the wetlands near the helicopter landing place, and raptors such as Merlin, Hen Harrier and Hobby were heading northward. Flocks of Waxwings, Common Rosefinches and Hawfinches were on the move, as well as Shore Larks and Yellow Wagtails. We were especially surprised to meet several shorebird species (2000km away from the sea!) migrating along the gigantic river, such as Oystercatcher, Turnstone, Dunlin, Common Ringed Plover (subspecies tundrae) and Red-breasted Merganser. In the taiga forest, lots of Pallas´s Leaf Warblers were singing, as well as Dark-sided Flycatchers and Olive-backed Pipits. In the evening, a Short-eared Owl was chasing Temminck´s Stints and Ruffs, and dozens of Little Ringed Plovers were displaying on the muddy roads in the village.

On the next day, when the wind had calmed down, we were picked up by two boats and finally reached Mirnoye research station, hidden in the middle of nowhere. We immediately started to put up nets in the floodplain forest. We were astonished to see the extreme damage caused by floating ice some weeks earlier: the willow forest of the lower floodplain was completely mown down. According to our local partners, this happens only every 30 years. The lack of standing trees allowed us a nice view on the Yenisey river, but also severely decimated the habitats for our target species. Furthermore, stumbling across the countless horizontal stems and the remaining ice shields made our work not easier. Big thanks to our partners on site, who had already cleaned a path towards our study area.

Our main target species was again the Siberian Rubythroat. This year, we equipped only adult males with data loggers, as they have the highest probability of being recaptured. We were especially happy to retrieve one geolocator of a Rubythroat tagged in 2019 – with some luck, two years of data might be stored on this 0.7 g device.

Furthermore, we had light-level geolocators for Siberian Thrushes and Bluethroats, and our Russian partners had furthermore received ICARUS satellite tags to study the migration of Common and Oriental Cuckoos as part of a Russia-wide project.

To get enough individuals of all our target species, we trapped birds in all nights between 22:00 and 6:00. Being at a latitude of 62°, nights were never completely dark, with only a few hours of twilight – the time when our target species would be most active. We used up to 14 nets simultaneously, including lots of “bycatch” such as Blyth´s Reed Warblers, Arctic and Dusky Warblers. Among the rarer species, we also caught Tengmalm´s Owl and European Nightjar. The mixture of eastern and western birds always amazes me, as the Yenisey river marks the border of the distribution for numerous species. And so, we caught European Robin alongside Siberian Blue Robin, found Common Whitethroats close to Brown Shrikes, and heard singing Chaffinches next to Swinhoe´s Robins.

After one week, we had tagged all the Rubythroats we needed, and it was time for Vera and me to leave, while Johannes and Moritz would stay to catch more Bluethroats.

This time, we took the ship – the first southbound ferry arrives in Bakhta only at the end of June, when the Yenisey river is finally clear of floating ice and logs. Upstream, its usually a three-day journey to Krasnoyarsk, most of the time through seemingly untouched taiga forest – really relaxing. However, due to unusual high water levels, our ship was late by several hours. We therefore decided to leave the ship already on the second day at Jeniseissk, the first town connected with a road. From here, we took the bus to Krasnoyarsk, to be in time for our plane. Many of the passengers had the same idea, and so the bus was overcrowded. At every small village, the bus made a short cigarette stop, and countless mosquitoes and blackflies joined us. How lucky we had been in the north, where the nights were still bitterly cold and therefore almost free of bloodsucking insects.

What would the second week of the remaining team in Mirnoye bring? We will report here soon. Many thanks to everyone involved!

// Wieland

The 2021 team in the "airport shuttle".

Yenisei river from the helicopter.

Jumping off the helicopter in Bakhta.

Wetlands near Bakhta village.

Driving through the floodplain forest to Mirnoye research station.

Mirnoye research station.

Multisensor loggers awaiting their deployment on Rubythroats.

Nice bycatch: adult male Red-flanked Bluetail

Former floodplain forest, cut down by the river ice.

The nights were freezing cold, but luckily there was endless firewood.

Siberian Rubythroat with multisensor logger on its back.

Ever seen a triple rainbow?

Adult male Siberian Thrush with data logger.

Boarding the ferry in Baktha.

Most relaxing: three days up the Yenisei river.