Posted on Wednesday, February 10th, 2010
It is widely considered that the entire Saratov bustard population winter 1,000 km southwest in southern Ukraine, mainly in the Kherson Oblast and Crimea peninsula, where the resident 700 or so Great Bustards are joined in winter by a further 6,000-7,000 birds. Having been out to Saratov several times during spring, summer and autumn for surveys, egg rescuing and chick rearing tasks, winter is the last part of the life cycle of the Saratov Great Bustard population which I have not witnessed. So when the opportunity came up to assist with the annual winter census of Great Bustards in Ukraine, I jumped at the chance.
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I was joined by GBG volunteer and former editor of GBG’s newsletter, John Mackenzie-Grieve and Paul Goriup, Bustard expert, Chairman of the Great Bustard Consultative Committee and regular tour leader for Salix Nature Tours and most other bird tours in Ukraine. Together with Sergei Prokopenko, local ornithologist and provider of our 4x4, we formed one of nine teams of Bustard specialists from Ukraine, Germany and the UK, who met up in Askania Nova in southern Ukraine before heading off to survey as much of the Kherson and Crimea territories as possible within a week. Askania Nova is a 2,300 hectare biosphere reserve (see also this link) and Europe’s largest area of natural steppe. However, winter blizzards and temperatures below -25C probably aren’t the best conditions to try and glimpse rare Saiga Antelope and Przewalski’s Horses roaming the Reserve!
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Great Bustards fly southwest to Ukraine to escape the harsh Russian winter of -30C and deep snow cover which would otherwise prevent them from feeding. It can still be cold (-15C) in Ukraine but generally temperatures are above freezing on Crimea and most importantly even if temperatures are very low there is usually only a light dusting of snow so the birds can still find food. Our team had been tasked with surveying the very southeast tip of Ukraine, around Kerch, on the Crimea Peninsula. As luck would have it (!) we had chosen to visit during the hardest winter in Crimea in living memory, which had resulted in the entire peninsula being covered in a layer of inch-thick ice and a substantial covering of snow on top. Everything, including even the tiniest frond of exposed vegetation, was encased in thick ice. Whist being incredibly beautiful for us to admire this of course must have had strong repercussions for wildlife dependent on grazing vegetation, such as Great Bustards.
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Eager to get out and see whether there were any Great Bustards surviving in these unusually harsh conditions we were just 10 minutes into our first survey before we got dramatically stuck in the mud. Just hours after first meeting Sergei we were left in mild panic, watching him walk off into the blizzard to get help from somewhere. To our disbelief he returned within an hour with just the vehicle for the job – a crane which was out repairing powerlines broken by the ice. Once rescued, we turned around and set off for the hotel, tails between our legs. Thankfully the weather settled for the following few days and we were able to complete a couple of surveys of the southern tip of Kerch. However, pushing, pulling and digging the 4x4 out of the snow became something of a theme for the rest of the week.
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With better weather it wasn’t long before we managed to actually find some birds. We had been asked to record all species and numbers of birds which just made the whole census an even more pleasurable task for four birdwatchers! Despite the weather conditions the numbers of larks was simply astonishing with counts of flocks having to be estimated in the hundreds. There were huge numbers of Skylarks, large flocks of Calandra and even the odd Lesser Short-toed and Crested Larks, all concentrated next to the roads and tracks desperately picking at the tiniest morsels of seeds and grit disturbed by passing vehicles. With a total list of 82 species that included specialities such as Red-breasted Goose, thousands of White-fronted Goose, Pallas’ Gull and Pygmy Cormorant it was perhaps the sheer number and diversity of the raptors and owls that impressed the most: Fifteen species in all, including Imperial Eagle, over 50 Hen Harriers, 30 Rough-legged Buzzards, Long-legged Buzzards, Saker Falcons and nearly 150 Long-eared Owls! It seems raptors are one group of birds doing well this winter, no doubt taking advantage of all the weakened birds dependent on food covered by the ice and snow.
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Eventually we managed to find some Great Bustards and over the whole week we saw a total of nearly 700! We found several flocks of around 150 individuals but also some smaller flocks of around 50 birds. Interestingly, several of these flocks were found on areas of steppe grassland and often near to roads and tracks rather than on the vast 400 hectare (2km x 2km!) fields of winter wheat or oil seed rape which, according to the text books, is where one should expect to see them! All our sightings of Great Bustards, and for that matter numbers of all birds generally, were concentrated in the southern, less exposed part of the peninsula. Perhaps they had all flown as far south as possible without wanting, quite understandably, to make the 300 km crossing over the stormy Black Sea to Turkey.
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One potentially significant observation was the number of swans and geese flying high over head in a southwest direction. Were these birds that would normally stay the winter in Crimea moving on because of the hard weather? We even saw a flock of Great Bustards amongst them, flying high over a frozen Black Sea resort, eerily disserted for the winter season. It will be interesting to learn how many Great Bustards were counted in the entire Ukrainian survey and how this compares to numbers counted in milder winters. Hopefully they all manage to cope with this season’s unusual conditions and return safely to Saratov in the spring, especially those birds that decided to fly the extra mile in the hope of finding a milder winter.
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If you have enjoyed reading about the census, why not get involved next year? The Ukrainian team are always looking for people to help with the winter census so if you fancy getting cold but in the process seeing a fabulous number of wintering birds in a truly magnificent part of the world then get in touch. Or, if it all sounds too cool for you, why not join Paul Goriup on a spring trip with Salix Nature Tours and see displaying Great Bustards with a stellar supporting cast of summer birds in the Ukraine?
Sponsored link: Salix Nature Tours