Trip Report: Summer Days in Karelia (Russia), July 14 - August 6, 1997

Wim Vader, Tromsø Museum, 9037 Tromsø, Norway;

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 most of you, I decided to write down some impressions, even though birds and birding always took a back seat 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 Tromsø 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 Tromsø, 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 predominantly 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-day symposium there 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 station's 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 L. 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-breasted 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 uncommon, 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 Phylloscopus 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 Corvus corax were in evidence, the first two definitely in smaller numbers than in Tromsø, 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 Onega, 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 potato-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 crisscrossed with the tracks of White Wagtails, with now and then some Wheatears Oenanthe oenanthe. As in 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, and alarming Whimbrels Numenius phaeopus on a large mire were about it. Also thrushes were strangely little 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 Tits Parus 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 cling! 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 Pine Grosbeaks Pinicola enucleator.

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.

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This page served by Urs Geiser;; September 5, 1997