Bewick's Swan: (Photo: Paul Bowerman.)
In February this year, I stood shivering in a Gloucestershire clearing, hoping to catch a glimpse of a Little Bunting that had decided to winter there. Eventually I did get some unsatisfactory views, but little did I know that within six months I'd be watching them on their Arctic breeding grounds together with a mouth-watering selection of Russian birds.
It all began in May with an idea for Radio 4. I work with the BBC Natural History Unit and we'd had a series of programmes commissioned to celebrate bird migration. The problem was how to make it different and the solution came in the beautifully proportioned form of the Bewick's Swan. Scientists from the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust had been studying the birds on their breeding territories in Arctic Russia for many years and were really keen to discover the routes that the birds chose when they returned to western Europe. Why not send two radio folk with an expedition to catch swans and fit them with satellite transmitters? Well, it sounded easy, but in practice, organising the trip proved to be a bureaucratic nightmare. The study area, north of a small frontier town called Nar'Yan Mar, was open tundra in a state nature reserve (zapovednik) and required special permissions for visitors. We also had to explain why we were taking large quantities of recording and ringing equipment through customs and in particular why we were leaving six transmitters in the Russian Arctic. "How", said the beaurocrats, "would these the coming back to England?" "On the backs of swans" we replied. No, I wouldn't have believed them either.
Nevertheless on the morning of August 6th as the weather forecasters were predicting the UK's hottest day on record, a select team set off for Heathrow Airport for the flight to Moscow. In addition to me and fellow producer Simon Roberts, we were Dr Eileen Rees, head of the WWT's waterfowl research unit, Dave Paynter who manages the reserve at Slimbridge, and Professor Colin Pennycuick, architect of the transmitters and an expert in bird migration. Dave went through customs at Heathrow armed with what he called his "Gandalf stick", a 2-metre contraption embalmed in masking tape. Its dark purpose would be revealed when we reached our destination.
We'd been warned about jobsworths in Moscow, so I'll skip the five hours it took to get through customs, and the hair-raising money changes in dark alleys at midnight. Early next morning , having collected our translator, we set off through the Moscow suburbs to fly north to Archangel and then Nar'Yan Mar.
Before the trip was confirmed I'd never heard of Nar'Yan Mar. It was on the map though, a tiny dot on the Pechora Delta and well inside the Arctic Circle. According to the limited information I could find through searching the Internet, it had a population of 28,000, someone was studying Reindeer nearby and there'd been an air crash there in 1997. None of this was very encouraging, so I tried to think about the birds rather than the one-armed Leninists who were no doubt lurking behind every concrete tenement. Even the birds were hard to anticipate because the maps in my field guides were a bit vague in this north-east extremity of the Western Palearctic, and I had the suspicion that the cartographers might have guessed at species distribution up here.
So, when we landed I was keen to see my first Arctic Russian birds. Predictably they were Feral Pigeons (aren't they always anywhere?), but the town was a revelation. There were concrete blocks, there was still a statue of Lenin, but there were also neat wooden houses in green and blue clapperboard, encircled by picket fences straight out of the Wizard of Oz. The sandy roads leading to our hotel were fringed with willows and everyone seemed to have a full set of limbs. It was all very encouraging.
After a meeting with the Russian nature reserve staff , Dave and I explored the banks of the Pechora for a tantalisingly brief hour. Among the wooden houses, there were scraps of low willows and from these came a series of sharp "zit" calls, followed by tantalising glimpses of wings and tails. They sounded like Dippers, and it wasn't long before we had our first brief views of a family group of Arctic Warblers, which according to the Collins Bird Guide, should sound like Dippers. With them was an immature Little Bunting, giving a Robin-like ticking call, but with no sign of the chestnut face. Several White Wagtails and Yellow Wagtails of the thunbergi race bounded around the rooftops of town houses….everyday birding in Arctic Russia.
On day two we had to wait until the helicopter was ready to take us to the tundra, so Dave, Eileen and I planned a walk out of town into the scrubby taiga beyond the river channel. This would be our only chance to do any woodland birding on the whole trip, so we didn't want to waste the opportunity. Besides, Dave was a man with a mission. Previously one of his colleagues had found the nest of a Black-throated Accentor in these woods, and had seen the birds. As this was an extralimital record we were keen to support the details with sightings of our own, especially as some ornithologists had suggested that the species involved might have been Siberian Accentor, also on the very western edge of its range.
So, with high hopes, we set off, each of us trailing a cloud of whining mosquitoes. In the stiller parts of the forest they became almost unbearable, and we aborted our attempts to examine a patch of twinflower (Linnaea borealis). Out of the woods there were Sedge Warblers and Arctic Warblers in the willows and lots of newly-fledged Little Buntings. A Wood Sandpiper jinked up from a pathside ditch and the grating calls of Arctic Terns filtered across from a secluded lake. Shortly, we were back among the trees, following a narrow ride between spruces. The occasional Redwing or Fieldfare darted ahead of us when we were stopped in our tracks by what sounded very like a Willow Tit. We soon found the birds responsible calling low down in a tangle of spruce and willows, but they had longer tails than Willow Tits and looked scruffier with brownish grey crowns…Siberian Tits, a first for all of us. My Collins Guide suggested chestnut flanks, but these had just a hint of it. Luckily, Lars Jonsson came to the rescue with his illustrations of worn birds in summer.
As we progressed down the ride, escorted by ever-present clouds of mosquitoes, the temperature rose to around 18 degrees and unnameable (by me at least) dragonflies flitted beside us. A large group of dark finches resolved themselves into Common Redpolls, and among them a few furtive Bramblings were feeding in burnt-out patches of spruce. More surprising were the groups of Yellow Wagtails flying among the conifers and perching on their topmost branches. No Waxwings or Pine Grosbeaks today, but we did see an immaculate Bluethroat feeding young and bouncing onto fence posts to flash a sapphire gorget at us. On rosebay willowherb, we found the fat brown caterpillars of the Spurge Hawk moth, way north of its usual range.
But so far, though we scrutinised the moss-draped branches of the spruces, we hadn't seen our accentor. That is, until Dave spotted a pale-breasted bird feeding in grass ahead of us on the ride. Before Eileen and I get onto it had vanished into the scrub and I had a brief tantalising view of a small cream-fronted bird, with a pale yellow throat and prominent dark ear coverts. It posed head-on for a few seconds and was gone into the forest. We searched for a frustrating half hour or so, but never saw it again. We were agreed that it was an accentor, but which species? It wasn't adult Black-throated, but could it have been a first winter? Alternatively Siberian Accentor fitted the bill, but that was contrary to reports we've had of Black-throated in the area previously. The mystery remains, and as both species have the potential to breed here, either would fit the bill. Maybe someone can help us shed light on the problem?
Whooper Swan: (Photo: Sue and Andy Tranter.)
The next morning we boarded the Mi8 helicopter which would be taking us out to the tundra. Our journey took us across the Pechora Delta, over countless braided channels, leaving the taiga behind and replacing it with waving green carpets of sedge. This baize landscape was dotted with pools and channels, and tiny flecks of white scattered across them were our first swans…Whooper Swans to begin with and further out into the tundra, pairs of Bewick's Swans, some with cygnets. Huge flocks of duck took off beneath us as we circled over a finger of land jutting out into the vast freshwater lake known as the Gulf of Korovinskaiaya. On the very nail tip of this peninsula was a small cross-shaped wooden hut…our home for the next ten days with the staff of the Nenetskyi State Nature Reserve.
We landed on a carpet of dwarf birch, Labrador tea and Arctic bilberry and birds were taking flight all around us. As we unloaded our supplies, Red-throated Pipits bounded overhead, calling loudly and though I'd never seen or heard one before, they were instantly recognisable from the call at least. On the ground, they were browner, darker, more heavily-streaked than Meadow Pipits, but the tramlines mentioned in all the field guides were difficult to see on most birds. Even birds in the hand, caught conveniently by the reserve cats, weren't easy to identify. With the pipits were Lapland Buntings, Little Buntings, Wheatears and lots of immature White and Yellow Wagtails. Sand Martins were a surprise too, apparently breeding still in the low sandy cliffs around the peninsula. We stowed our luggage and grabbed a bowl of fish-flavoured hot water for lunch. Mine had a miserable-looking and inedible head floating in it, obviously as impressed with its circumstances as I was. Mosquitoes bloated with blood climbed the filthy window panes; they'd fed better than we had and at our expense.
Still, there were birds to see and catch. While Eileen and Dave set off to bring in their first Bewick's Swans for ringing, I wandered round the sandy shorelines. Small dark waders few up from every little inlet, giving a tittering call….Temminck's Stints with an occasional Little Stint. Young Bluethroats "trak-trakked" from beneath the fringing willows and Sedge Warblers skulked in their branches, not much more than a metre high. There were very large numbers of wagtails, mostly immature Yellow Wagtails, but the odd sharp slurred call betrayed an occasional immature Citrine Wagtail. Everywhere there were Willow Warblers, hunting round the log-piles, foraging on the shore and even feeding on mosquitoes from the window panes around the hut. One warbler amazed us by taking mosquitoes from our shoulders. As we got to know the rhythms of the tundra, we realised that the land surrounding the hut was a natural funnel for hundreds of migrants which poured down each day, before launching themselves across the freshwater gulf. These tiny Willow Warblers had possibly never seen a human before and were on the first leg of an epic journey to sub-Saharan Africa. Unlike the Bewick's Swans we'd come to study, they would be making their migration alone.
At 11pm, in the rays of the setting sun, Dave and Eileen returned with the first boatload of swans. These had been hooked by their necks and brought deftly into the boat by Dave's mysterious Gandalf stick, otherwise revealed as a swan hook. All were moulting, non-breeders, and they waited silent and astonishingly calm, in their plastic swan-jackets, unless it was time to process them. Dave sexed each bird, after which it was ringed twice (metal and Darvic) and photographed for a record of the unique bill pattern. Eileen took vital statistics such as tarsus length, skull length and length of first primary, to show development of moult. She weighed each bird and we selected a 7kg male to carry the first of our satellite transmitters.
The transmitters have been designed by Colin Penncuick and we recorded the process of fitting one onto our first swan. Each transmitter is roughly the size of a cigarette packet with a small aerial protruding from one end and has to be glued to a neoprene harness which Colin prepares for each individual bird. It's not a good idea to glue directly onto the swan's back feathers since these are likely to be moulted, shedding the transmitter. The device is pre-programmed to send information via a satellite which beams it down to a French computer, from which information on the bird's whereabouts, body temperature and flight speed can be deduced. As we record our programmes about the act of migration we'll be following our transmitted birds as they travel back towards western Europe in late October/early November.
Once all the birds had been ringed and processed, we released them together and they paddled off bugling softly into the Arctic sunset.
That first day set the standard for the rest of the trip. In all we ringed 110 swans, including two Whooper Swans, and fitted the cob Whooper with a transmitter. This is the first Russian Whooper to carry a tracking device, and we have no idea where it will spend the winter. Another four male Bewick's Swans also received transmitters. The purpose of following their migration in detail is to determine their resting places en-route. Bewick's Swans are well-protected at each end of their voyage, but face threats in between. The information from the transmitters will help to safeguard the regular "service stations" that they use when travelling.
As the days progressed, more and more migrants poured through the area of the camp. Red-necked Phalaropes and Ruff were regular, though waders generally in short supply. A Grey Plover near the hut was holding territory and a pair of Red-throated Divers had two well-grown young on a tiny pool nearby. Black-throated Divers and Red-throated Divers were remarkably common in the gulf, feeding on the vast numbers of fish, including Pike, Salmon and delicious Whitefish.
The land was fairly flat and distances deceptive. Our main focal point on the monotonous tundra was a wooden trig point less than 10 metres high on which a White-tailed Eagle had built its nest. This vast mass of driftwood was irresistible and so the day before we left, we trekked out to it and Dave climbed up to look for evidence of breeding. I remained on the ground and was startled to see a large grey bird launch itself out of the nest at close range…a female Gyrfalcon. She sped off mobbed by a couple of young Merlins and came to rest on a small hummock on the other side of the lake where Common Scoters and Long-tailed Ducks had broods. We'd seen Peregrine earlier, but nothing prepared me for the sheer bulk of this impressive falcon – definitely the bird of the trip.
Now though, in late October, I'm following the progress of the Bewick's Swans and the Whooper called HUC, after his ring. At the time of writing three of the Bewick's are heading southwest towards Estonia and are sitting out the weather on Lake Peipsi. Will they make it to Britain, or will they stay in Denmark or the Netherlands? Time will tell, but following their journey has been an unforgettable experience. If knowledge of how "our" birds migrate can help to protect the birds on their flyways, then it will have all been worthwhile.
And, who knows, one day we might solve the accentor problem too!