Recently I had the great honour of accompanying my partner Masha to visit her parents and family way out in Eastern Siberia in the region known as Sakha (Yakutia) on what turned out to be another amazing birding adventure in a truly amazing and welcoming place. Please read on if you are interested particularly as many of the birds we saw are rare 'Sibes' that you may stumble across this autumn on the British coast if you are lucky! But its a big blog, so you can read at your leisure and dip in and out, or Just look at the pictures, or ignore and look at the last recent sightings blog if you prefer, its up to you!
To start with Sakha is a semi autonomous region of Russia but it is simply vast, as big as India in fact and stretching from north of Lake Baikal right up to the high Arctic and with a population of only about 1 million people. The region we visited is one that few English people visit and was centered on the main city of Yakutsk but with the help of Masha's father Mikhail we managed to venture out of the city North, East, South and West to some relatively remote areas along the magnificent river Lena. Many of the local people including Masha’s family are from the indigenous Sakha people and as I found out were warm and welcoming despite the fact that my language skills were somewhat to be desired.
This picture of the river Lena gives you some idea of the scale of the landscape - it makes the Humber look like a stream!
Before we set off I have to admit I was a little apprehensive about what we were going to see bird wise, there isn't a great deal of information about birding in this part of Siberia as people tend to go either to the Arctic or down toward lake Baikal or Kamchatka where there is often a greater number of species and abundance of birds to see. It was also mid-summer when migration has finished and the birds are busy breeding within the vast areas of taiga forest that cover the region which I suspected could present a bit of a challenge when you haven't got a guide to show you where the birds are.
Eastern race of common tern (longipennis) - would you overlook this if it was on a lake near you?
But that was of course part of the adventure and what made it exciting, what were we going to discover and how were we going to cope with new habitats, huge distances, unfamiliar species, mosquitoes, midges and also the fact that temperatures can often reach over 35 degrees in the summer! Yes strange to think that by December the temperatures would start returning to minus 45 degrees with the chance of the first snows in September/October, Sakha can be one of the coldest places on earth but we would be going when it was almost at the other end of the temperature spectrum!
There were some familiar birds like these Starlings
What immediately struck me was that the abundance of species was low but many of the species present were there in large numbers. Breeding waders in particular were everywhere, even around Lake Saysar in the middle of Yakutsk where there were common, marsh and wood sandpipers but also a few pairs of Terek sandpipers too. The lake was also full of breeding black headed gulls and white-winged black terns that mobbed the eastern marsh harriers and bitterns that were trying to raid the colony.
Terek sandpiper on guard duty
And white-winged black terns at the nest by the side of a busy town road!
On our first visit to Lake Saysar we were amazed to discover a leg flagged Terek sandpiper which I managed to get a few photos of. Imagine our surprise when we managed to read the ring and see that it said China on it! A bit of investigation revealed that it was in fact ringed in April 2014 near to Shanghai, 3800km away! There was even more to this as on a later visit to the lake I relocated the bird with the chick below, suggesting that the adult was a male who tend to stay with the chicks until fledged.
Amazing what you can discover even in the middle of Siberia, this bird really amazed many of the family and freinds
Good to see too that many of the waders were having a good breeding season and rearing young
And so were the white-winged black terns who were raising up to three young in a brood
Passerines where not as abundant around the reedbeds as in the UK for some reason, although it was great to find the only ashy headed yellow wagtails of the trip and the first of what turned out to be the most common reedbed bird pallas-grasshopper warbler.
Ashy headed wagtail - very smart but not abundant in this area despite large numbers of livestock
PG tips -they could be camera shy but we did get better views
A trip out with the family to a fantastic Sakha summer festival also provided some great views of waders and the interesting observation that many of them hid their chicks in the reedbeds around the lakes which were grazed by the horses that are the main livestock in this part of Siberia.
Sakha horses are very hardy and can survive temperatures down to minus sixty
Marsh sandpipers were very common and often vocal sounding like redshank, now I know where all the marsh sands came from that we saw in Thailand
Alongside the sandpipers were good numbers of nesting lapwings, apparently from talking to people lapwings had only colonised the region 30 years ago but had now spread and from what I saw breeding very successfully in most suitable places. It really was comforting to see a species that is struggling in Europe doing so well in Sakha.
It was also the first introduction to large numbers of black kites and Richards pipits that nested alongside skylarks in the grassland.
Another species that we were to become familiar with was Siberian stonechat, stunning looking males were often present in open areas alongside the ocularis race of white wagtail.
Siberian stonechat - these should in theory be Stejinegeri
White wagtail - ocularis race
After a few days we were taken out to stay in the countryside calling in on a family friend called Prokopiy Romanovich Nogovitsyn who is a teacher and naturalist but also a real local hero in what he does to promote conservation of the local habitats and species. We really struck it lucky as he introduced us to Researcher Ruslan Kirillin who was about to visit a local golden eagle nest!
Well grown golden eagle chicks
And as you do Prokopiy also showed us the mammoth skeleton he had in his back yard and the largest ice age bison horns ever found!
Our destination of the village of Bulgunnyakhtaakh south along the river Lena was where we were based for a few days and this allowed us to explore the Taiga woodland a little more and get to grips with how to find breeding passerines in such a dense and vast mainly coniferous woodland.
These birch/willow areas were often hot-spots within the vast coniferous stands
Eventually we started to get to grips with the field craft needed to see some superb Siberian specialties.
Olive backed pipits were incredibly common in just about every habitat and place and we'd already found plenty of these.
This seemed to be one of the reasons why there were so many cuckoos, although I only heard oriental cuckoo once and then only briefly and distant.
The pine buntings sang just like yellowhammers, superb birds though!
And we found our first rustic buntings, although in some other areas this species was much more common through the woodlands towards the town of Churapcha, east of Yakutsk.
Yellow browed buntings were so shy and were to be found around areas of birch and willow scrub. This was a juvenile.
And the adult male but I couldn’t manage to get a really good shot unfortunately! Birding in thick taiga woodland ain't easy
In the same area of deciduous scrub there was also these little beauties - Siberian rubythroats which with a bit of a whistle you could get to come a little closer.
Around the conifers birding could be tough but there were a few yellow-browed warblers
And also a good bit of fortune with the odd pair of grey-streaked flycatcher
Taiga flycatchers were much more common though and many were just fledging young
Red-flanked bluetails were also relatively common and were also feeding young.
While two-barred crossbills were busy singing and feeding in the tops of the trees. The males were in superb plumage
And a bird we usually associate with winter was a common breeding bird - brambling
Nesting waders again featured with many small pools holding green sandpipers and almost uncountable numbers of common sandpipers.
A trip out to see a breeding and re-introduction of forest bison was interesting as the rest of the family fished the river for pike I birded.
This escarpment turned out to be particularly good for birds of prey with peregrine, hobby, buzzard and a very out of range male crested honey buzzard.
A three hour trip down the river Lena took us to stay in a small hunting cabin in the tiny settlement of Batamai where Masha’s mother's family were originally from. The cabin was opposite the outstandingly beautiful World UNESCO site of the Lena Pillars but it was also particularly good for mosquitos and midges. But the local area provided some great birds even though I was accompanied by a local hunting dog (whom I named Mutley) who had taken upon himself to protect me from harm and generally chase all the birds away. However, judging by his size it was maybe for the best that he was my friend. I should say at this point that unfortunately Masha had got tendinitis brought on while helping me to weed her family’s potato patch back in Bulgunnyakhtaakh, so couldn’t come out birding!!!
This beach was filled with nesting little ringed plovers who were in fact a pretty common nesting species in many suitable places around the countryside.
The river level had only dropped within the last week or so and it seemed like the LRP'S were just starting to display before nesting
It was great to find the first arctic warblers of the trip singing
And the Siberian race of lesser whitethroat also feeding young
Nesting fieldfare were quite common but here there was also nesting redwing with fledged young
And common rosefinch were busy singing and raising young
There were lots of Richards pipits feeding young and I was lucky to find this nest near to the house with young in it. I had to find it to help ensure it didn’t get walked over as it was near the path to the house.
Richards pipit nest with young and unhatched egg
And in the meadow there were plenty of beautiful Siberian lillies
On the other side of the river the Lena Pillars were more mountainous and this provided the chance of a different suite of birds, however we didn’t manage to arrive that early in the day and it was a blisteringly hot climb to the top of the rock face.
The views were worth it and along the slope there was also singing greenish warbler that just evaded my camera. But on the way down I was fortunate enough to find a three-toed woodpecker nest site, and despite a bit of a scramble I eventually managed to get some great views of this burnt woodland specialist.
And one of the many plant highlights of the trip, this was one of a small patch of slipper orchids. (the plants and butterflies is a whole blog in itself!)
I'm still trying to find which species this is, if anyone knows then please let me know!
It was only a short stay in this fantastic area so I’m not sure I really did it full justice but we only had so much time as we had other commitments!
Re-fueling on the 3 hr boat ride back!
On the way back to Yakutsk we again called in to see Prokopiy and this time some of the staff and students from the Institute for Biological problems of the Cryolithozone to discuss if we could initiate some joint working between the RSPB and Sakha. The team are a fantastic bunch of dedicated conservationists and are working on many of the bird species of the region. Also interesting to hear that Sakha has just about the largest protected area in the world with some of the reserves larger than the UK! I really think we’ve got a lot to learn from each other.
Picture of the team and the ‘bread van’ their all-terrain vehicle - you may get to meet Vyacheslav and Evgeniy on the reserve in the future if they come over as part of their studies
In the valley areas around this area the soil was a little siltier rather than sandy and these areas seemed to be good for breeding greenshank and wood sandpiper. The roads we were using though were even a little too much for our 4 x 4 and we had to turn around at this point!
This greenshank had young at the roadside
Back in the city for a short while a trip out to a large floodplain alongside the city allowed us to discover a breeding pair of yellow breasted buntings, this species has the unfortunate accolade as one of the fastest declining birds in the world due to it being eaten in parts of its wintering range. Once a very common bird I had the feeling that it was now a difficult species to locate.
I also managed to get a couple of visits to the city park where I happened to find a few new birds including a just fledged brood of pin-tailed snipe that I flushed.
There were also abundant brown shrikes who seemed to be nesting in loose colonies
And another one of the target birds a family party of Siberian tits which provided some great views, note the chocolate coloured cap that helps separate them out from willow tits. They also had a very distinctive and endearing musical sub song that they gave between their willow tit like calls.
A trip back into the countryside to a family wedding allowed a bit more time for birding although the experience of the wedding, particularly the blessing ceremony, was very special.
A stop off along the way at Lake Tumul gave a good example of a large reedy lake which again had hundreds of nesting white-winged black terns but also the only colony of little gulls of the holiday. It also had a good population of bitterns that particularly liked to feed along the grazed edges of the lake out in the open.
The lake was huge but only part of a series of lakes that spanned over hundreds of square Kilometers
Bittern showing out in the open
The little town of Churapcha was particularly good for getting excellent views of pacific swift, while the woodlands around gave some superb views of nesting wryneck and at last a good view of Naumann’s thrush. On the way back I managed to catch up with Siberian jay as it flew across the road, however many of the resident species were difficult to find possibly because they had bred earlier in the year and were moulting.
Pacific swift's - best enlarged!
Wryneck at the nest site
Juvenile Nauman's thrush, the adults were almost impossible to get close to
Eventually the end of the holiday approached but not before a final late evening trip out into a more birch dominated taiga, somewhere where we would have liked to have spent a little more time especially as we at last caught up with black woodpecker and got great views of dusky warbler.
But of course great holidays have to come to an end and so it was with a sad heart that we left Sakha. But we will be back, it would be just fantastic to be able to see migration in full swing or go to the North of the country to see the arctic tundra, but that will be for another time…………
Marsh sandpiper alarming over one of the main roads next to Lake Saysar in the middle of Yakutsk - the word on the sign behind says Moscow!
Special thanks to Natalia and Mikhail for looking after us and particularly me as a guest with such hospitality and generosity and to Gosha for my lift out into the middle of the forest where I found so many good birds early in the morning, and of course to everyone else for their amazing Sakha hospitality.
Fermented mares milk - a traditional welcome drink - surprisingly nice, you'll have to drink it if you visit!
The view from the flight back of the vast Russian Tundra where many of our passage and wintering birds breed, what a landscape!