from your antipodes

Subject: from your antipodes
From: Wim Vader <>
Date: Tue, 19 Aug 1997 14:49:46 +0200
This time my impressions are not from my home town of Tromsoe in N.Norway,
but from the rapublic of Karelia in NW Russia. I hope these notes from a
not too fanatic holidays (and amphipod study weeks) can give you the feel
of an area that is not visited by too many birders.

                                                        Wim Vader       

                SUMMER DAYS IN KARELIA

>From 14 July to 6 August I had the chance to visit the republic of Karelia,
an autonomous area within Russia, on amphipod business, and it was a most
interesting experience. As the area concerned will be completely unknown to
mostof you, I decided to write down some impressions, even though birds and
birding always took a backseat in my daily program.
Karelia stretches from the vast Ladoga  and Onega lakes NE of St Petersburg
in the south to the White Sea coast in the north; it is a quite thinly
populated area of lakes, mires and forests, and the capital, Petrozavodsk
on the Onega lake, has only 280 000 inhabitants, and is thus a small town
by Russian (though not Norwegian) standards.
I flew from Tromsoe to Murmansk, where the weather for once was warm and
sunny, with 22-24*C. This turned out to be an omen for the trip, as the
entire 3 weeks were blessed with warm to hot summer weather, with frequent
thunderstorms, and temperatures soaring some days to over 33*C. Swimming in
the White Sea turned under these circumstances out to be much more of a
pleasure than a challenge, contrary to the situation here in Tromsoe, where
14* is as warm as the sea ever gets.
The first week was spent at the Biological Station at Kartesch, at the West
coast of the White Sea ca on the Arctic Circle, 8 hrs train plus 2 hrs boat
from Murmansk.The station is a collection of wooden buildings connected by
wooden boardwalks in a predominately dry pine forest, with pockets of mixed
forests with more luxuriant undergrowth. A low-lying lake, connected to the
White Sea by a short rivulet, furnishes excellent drinking water.
Facilities are quite basic, but the atmosphere is very pleasant, with many
scientists bringing their families for the summer, so kids and dogs are
everywhere. We had a three days symposium these on White Sea Biology; this
was billed as international, but was entirely in Russian, a language I
greatly admire, but do not understand at all. Altogether the high language
barrier was the greatest problem I encountered these weeks.
The forest was mostly strangely silent, no doubt to a large degree because
of the "wrong season" for birding. Redstarts Phoenicurus phoenicurus were
much in evidence, alarming frenetically to protect the fledged, but still
quite clumsy young. White Wagtails Motacilla alba were very common in the
stations` clearings; I found this to be the most conspicuous bird of my
visit, with large numbers everywhere along roads, in villages and in town.
Few seabirds: Herring and Common Gulls Larus argentatus and L.canus
dominated along the shore, accompanied by smaller numbers of Great and
Lesser Black-backed Gulls L. marinus and f. fuscus. Also terns were common,
mostly Arctic Sterna paradisaea, but also a few Common S. hirundo. Very few
shorebirds, mostly Common Sandpipers Actitis hypoleuca and  Oystercatchers
Haematopus ostralegus, with a few Greenshanks Tringa nebularia and a lone
Green Sandpiper T.ochropus. Of ducks Red-throated Mergansers Mergus
serrator and Common Eiders Somateria mollissima (also with quite small
chicks) were most in evidence; at the rail head town of Chupa, at the head
of a long inlet, I watched both Red-throated and Arctic Loons Gavia
stellata and G. arctica. 
In the often alarmingly dry pine forest (several forest-fires nearby and on
two days everybody was commandeered out firefighting) Willow Warblers
Phylloscopus trochilus and Bramblings Fringilla montifringilla were least
oncommon, with a sprinkling of Chaffinches Fringilla coelebs, Chiffchaffs
Phylloscopus collybita, Robins Erithacus rubecula,Tree Pipits Anthus
trivialis, and Spotted and Pied Flycatchers Ficedula hypoleuca and
Muscicapa striata. No doubt I overlooked a lot: the birds had stopped
singing, I had little time, and the mosquitoes made standing still and
watching often a bit of an endurance test. Few titmouse: the drier areas
had mainly Siberian Tit Parus cinctus and fewer Willow Tits P. montanus,
while the latter seemed completely dominant in the more luxuriant
lower-lying areas. Here I also found a few families with fledged young of
Arctic Warblers Phulloscopus borealis, a bird that always makes a more
sturdy impression upon me than the Willow Warblers (like the Russian cars
are more geared to the Russian roads). Hazel Grouse Bonasa umbellus lived
in the drier areas, Black grouse Tetrao tetrix in the more humid ones.(I
saw no Willow Grouse Lagopus lagopus, but some signs of their presence here
and there). A pair of Bohemian Waxwings Bombycilla garrulus flew over one
day, a sign of all the birds I missed.
At Chupa and in the large and largely abandoned Pomor-village of
Keretj,extensive flower-rich haylands held large numbers of wagtails
Motacilla alba and M.flava, Meadow pipits Anthus pratensis, and Whinchats
Saxicola rubetra, with Swallows Hirundo rustica and Delichon urbica and (at
Keretj) Swifts Apus apus overhead. A single Rustic Bunting Emberiza rustica
was a nice surprise, and probably just "the tip of the iceberg"; this
should be a great area for buntings. As everywhere here north, Hooded Crows
Corvus corone cornix, Magpies Pica pica, and Ravens Corcus corax were in
evidence, the first two definitely in smaller numbers than in Tromsoe,
however. Very few birds of prey; I only noted Sparrow Hawk and Goshawk
Accipiter nisus and A. gentilis. No sparrows or Starlings at Kartesch!
Fifteen hours by train south brought us to Petrozavodsk, where we worked
for 5 days, and of course took the opportunity to visit the famous churches
and open-air museum on Kizhi Island (in Lake Omega, 140 km long EW).
Afterwards my host Valery Bryazgin took me to his datscha ca 100 km NW of
Petrozavodsk, in the village of Vendoyri (Again, largely abandoned, but
with many "summer people") at the end of an often alarmingly
three-dimensional sand track, winding through forests, and around large
lakes and mires. These datschas are now extremely important for most
Russians, as the economic situation is still very difficult and salaries
often are paid months too late or not at all. At the datscha there is a
large poptato-field, and a kitchen-garden full of vegetables and berries
(with a small greenhouse yielding tomatoes and cucumbers), as well as some
flowers. Furthermore, the forests and lakes give a rich bounty now in
summer, and people use most of their time in harvesting this: cloudberries
Rubus chamaemorus, Myrtleberries Vaccinium myrtillus, (and later in the
season  several other species), and mushrooms (now mostly Leccinum spp, but
the weather was really too fine and dry for mushrooms) from the forest, and
fish (mostly perch Perca fluviatilis and the "rjapuschka" Coregonus albula)
from the lake. The lake was medium (maybe 2 km long), shallow and full of
interesting water plants (no amphipods!), but with few birds. In the corner
near our sauna  a small flock of gulls always hung out. mostly Black-headed
Larus ridibundus with many young of the year, but also some Common and 2
Lesser Black-backed ; twice during the 6 days here I observed a single
Little Gull Larus minutus. All terns here were Common Terns S.hirundo. Late
in the evening broods of Mallards Anas platyrhynchos ventured out of the
reeds, and I also saw a few Teal A.crecca, Wigeons A.penelope, and
Goldeneyes Bucephala clangula. Otherwise the many lakes in the area seemed
strangely bird-poor (no doubt more apparent than real), but cackling Arctic
Loons Gavia arctica flew over several times. The muddy corner near the
sauna was always full of wagtails, and one day I followed up a strangely
familiar, but long not heard call and found a single young Citrine Wagtail
Motacilla citreola among the multitude of Whites M.alba. Barn swallows
nested in and on the datscha, so were always around, and the sandy road was
criscrossed with the tracks of White Wagtails, with now and then some
Wheatears Oenanthe oenanthe. As many places in Karelia, the meadows were
full of colourful flowers, but this is the wrong list for those. I had
quite lazy days here, and no doubt missed most of what little there was of
birdsong by not getting up in time; one early morning I heard the "PLEASE
to MEET you" of the Scarlet Rosefinch behind the datscha, but I never saw
the bird. This is probably symptomatic of the many things i (once again)
missed through laziness.

The forests here once more were a mixture of dry pine forest with
undergrowth of heather Calluna vulgaris (now in bloom), somewhat richer
pine forest ,often with an admixture of firs, with plentiful myrtleberries
Vaccinium myrtillus, and along the lakes richer forest with birch and often
alder. Here again the Black grouse were in the richer forest, and this time
I also scared up 2 Capercaillies Tetrao urogallus from young pines; really
enormous and very loud beasts! The small birds in the forest were much the
same as in Kartesch, but as a consequence of the differences in latitude
Siberian tits and Arctic Warblers were absent, Chaffinches were more common
than Bramblings, and there were more Sylvia warblers (mostly overlooked no
doubt): Garden Warbler S. borin, Lesser Whitethroat S. curruca, and in more
open areas Whitethroat S. communis. A lifebird was the Greenish warbler
Phylloscopus trochiloides, quite similar to the other small Phylloscopus,
but i.a. with a clear wing bar. I quite unexpectedly scored another (long
overdue) lifebird, when a commotion among the tits turned out to be caused
by the presence of a minuscule owl, my very first Pygmy Owl Glaucidium
passerinum at long last (They occur in Troms inland). Otherwise also here
few birds of prey, with a distant Osprey Pandion haliaetus the most
interesting. Nor were there many shorebirds around any more: a few
Temminck`s Stints in the muddy corner near the sauna, alarming Whimbrels
Numenius phaeopus on a large mire were about it. Also thrushes were
strangely litle in evidence, although there were berries galore everywhere:
just a few Fieldfares and redwings Turdus pilaris and T. iliacus. 
The most common tits here were Crested and Willow TitsP arus cristatus and
P. montanus, with far fewer Coal Tits P.ater than I had expected;
Goldcrests Regulus regulus were often found with the tits. The one bird
that was everywhere in evidence was the Great Spotted Woodpecker Picoides
major: the adults were already busy hammering pine cones for the winter,
while clumsy and confiding young were everywhere---some even had not
learned yet that a real woodpecker does not perch, but clings! Also Spotted
Flycatchers, still feeding newly fledged young, were very much to the fore
in the forest, while Siskins Carduelis spinus, Redpolls Acanthis flammea,
and Bullfinches Pyrrhula pyrrhula were less common than expected. A few
times I heard Crossbills Loxia curvirostra and Pin Grosbeaks Pinicola
I hope these impressions from unforgettable days from a not too often
visited area are of some interest. Hospitality in Russia is great and warm
everywhere, but I am especially grateful to Valery Bryazgin, and to his
wife and daughter Ludmilla and Ksenia, for putting up with a non-Russian
speaking guy, that always wanted to gaze at birds, for several weeks.

                                                        Tromsoe, 14-8-1997
                                                Wim Vader, Tromsoe Museum
                                                9037 Tromsoe, Norway

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