RUSSIA: towns of the Ural Region
(7/5 - 7/6 1998) by Roberto Garavaglia
During a business trip to Russia, I had plenty of spare time, which I spent birding. I visited three towns in the Ural Region: Perm, Ekaterinburg, and Chelyabinsk. They are located in the central part of the Urals. Perm is the northernmost at 58°00' N and, being on the west side of the Urals, it is still part of Europe. Ekaterinburg is some 400 km south-east of Perm and it represents the very boundary between Europe and Asia (a stone pillar in the town actually marks the border). Chelyabinsk is a further 300 km to the south, close to 55°00' N and 61°30' E, definitely within the Eastern Palearctic. The Urals are very old mountains (in geological terms); they are much eroded nowadays. True mountain ranges are only left at their north and south ends, with peaks up to 1500 meters. The central part, which I visited, is mostly gentle rolling hills, with maximum altitude about 450 meters. The region is vastly forested, with countless rivers and lakes. Taiga (coniferous forest) dominates to the north, as in the Perm's province, birch forest is the main feature in the surroundings of Chelyabinsk. Despite being limited to urban birdwatching, I everywhere found birds plentiful and extremely tame. At the end of the month, the trip checklist reached 111 species, and I was also rewarded by a host of interesting species of mainly northern/oriental distribution, including 11 lifers.
I had no chances for a private car; taxies are unreliable and, for foreigners, very expensive (the fare unit is 50 $ or multiples) thus, I could only resort to public transportation. Do not expect anyone to be able to speak English. Luckily enough, all three towns have huge, magnificent forest parks, which are integral part of the surrounding forests, and they often include ponds, bogs, lakes, rivers, and much varied habitats. They can easily be reached by public buses or trams and, what is most important, they teem with very confident birds. As for personal safety, I had absolutely no troubles. I went walking wherever I wished, my binocular hanging from my neck, with my evident 'European' looking (and presumably well-replenished wallet in my pocket) without any hint of being unsafe. No one ever minded me going around and never considered me worth a second look. Of course, a ëscope on a tripod would have been more eye-catching. Anyway, I was also warned that after dark a less friendly local fauna inhabits the streets. Walking in the forests, ticks might be a real problem. They are not simply unpleasant bloodsucking arachnids, they may transmit infectious encephalitis, an extremely dangerous disease. Ticks activity peaks during May and June months. In some European country a specific inoculation is available (not in Italy), but it is said not to be 100% safe. I was advised to bring antibiotics, just in case of a bite. Every evening, back in the hotel, I carefully checked my whole body, looking for any possible hidden tick. As a matter of fact, I had no encounters at all with such unwelcome guests: perhaps they don't like Italian food. From beginning of June, mosquitoes appeared. Early morning and late afternoon birding became off-limits; substantial number of mosquitoes were active in the central hours of the day, as well. Russian people usually love nature. They do not understand what birdwatching is, but they often feed birds and they fixed millions of nestboxes, in every village.
Perm, 7-23 May
During my first week in Perm, the last winter snow had still to melt, and ice floes glided downstream on the river (this did not deter the locals from having a swimming contest in the icy waters). Along the second week, the climate suddenly changed, trees bloomed, leaves quickly developed and, the day I left, temperature reached 28°C. The main birding area in Perm is the forest park to the west of the town centre, along the road to the airport. It consists of a fine example of taiga, with some mixed deciduous trees, in places. Birdwise, the most interesting parts are the eastern tip (deciduous, with some open area and shrubbery) and the northernmost half of the park (mixed, moist, mature forest). The south side is pure coniferous where birds are few and scattered. The most evident birds in the forest are Fieldfare, Redwing, Siskin, Chaffinch, Tree Pipit and Great Spotted Woodpecker, they are not only abundant, but also noisy and very tame. The most remarkable sighting was by far White-backed Woodpecker, seen several times, while drumming or foraging on low stumps. Until 17 May, Brambling were abundant, any clearings had Meadow Pipits and boldly singing Willow Warblers were ubiquitous. By day 23 the latter were apparently disappeared (only a few seen while bringing nest material, very wary), their song replaced by that of Greenish Warbler; Common Rosefinch and Greenfinch also arrived. Other remarkable sightings in the park include: Olive-backed Pipit, Waxwing, Thrush Nightingale, Icterine Warbler, Wood Warbler, Arctic Warbler, Pied Flycatcher, the all-white head race of Long-tailed Tit, Hawfinch, Redpoll, Crossbill. The northern bank of the river Kama, east of the only one bridge, offers some ponds, reedbeds and meadows, and the river itself with its shores. Along the river, visible migration of Little Gull, Common Tern, Tufted Duck, Pochard, Garganey, and Yellow Wagtail of the thunbergi ssp. was impressive on days 16-18. Other species were: Green Sandpiper, Siberian Stonechat, Winchat, Rustic Bunting.
Ekaterinburg, 24-31 May and 6-7 June
Ekaterinburg has several parks. The most interesting to me was that along the shore of Sharmash lake, to the east of the town centre. The western shore has much varied habitats, from forest to willow stands, ponds, and small reedbeds. Blyht's Reed Warbler started singing around 28 May, and proved to be extremely common. River Warbler was also singing and displayed well. Two small patches of sparse reeds and cattails offered Paddyfield Warbler, together with Sedge Warbler and Reed Bunting. The forest had the usual birds plus Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, the asiatica ssp. of Nuthatch (with all-white underparts), Olive-backed Pipit, Greenish Warbler, Garden Warbler, and Redpoll. Shrubbery hosted Scarlet Rosefinch, Yellowhammer, Whitethroat, Lesser Whitethroat, tristis Chiffchaff, and Thrush Nightingale. Adjacent the south-western tip of the Sharmash lake, a shallow pond was just being filled by caterpillars; the nesting pair of Slavonian Greebe is going to face hard future. A park to the north-west of the town comprises a shallow lake, surrounded by huge reedbeds. The water level made almost impossible to get close to it, but the booming of the many Bitterns was outstanding. I got distant views of Marsh Harrier, Common Tern, ducks and Black-headed Gull. To the south, the Isem river widens into a lake, whose western shore has bushes, scattered trees, and shrubbery. A pair of tame Booted Warblers was the highlight there. A mystery owl went unnoticed until flushed, to disappear in a couple of seconds within a stand of trees. The light straw colour and dark carpal patches were reminiscent of Short-eared Owl.
Chelyabinsk, 1-5 June
Just like the other towns, Chelyabinsk is also crossed by a river. At the north side of the Central Park, the river originates a marshy lagoon with small reed patches along its northern shore. This spot was simply stunning: within a few hundred meters range, Reed, Great Reed, Sedge, Marsh, Paddyfield, Blyth's and Booted Warblers, Citrine Wagtail, Bluethroat, beema Yellow Wagtail, tristis Chiffchaff, Withethroat, Scarlet Rosefinch and Reed Bunting were all singing. Supporting cast were Tufted Duck, Pochard, Garganey, Gadwall, Goldeneye, Little Ringed Plover, Common and Black Tern, chachinnans Yellow-legged Gull, Red-backed Shrike. I did not enter the forest park, most deterred by mosquitoes, despite Golden Oriole persistently calling.