Remarkable Bird Discovery in Russia

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Nordmann’s greenshank on the nest, the first time this has been seen in more than forty years. Photo courtesy Philipp Maleko

I’ve been quite busy the last year working on my fish owl book for Farrar, Straus, & Giroux (and Penguin in the UK), so have been a little quiet on these pages.  Popping my head up to share some remarkable bird news out of Russia.

It was just reported that a Russian-American team of biologists found the nest of a globally-endangered Nordmann’s greenshank (Tringa guttifer).  What’s amazing about this find is that, until June 2019, only a single person in the entire world had ever seen one of these nests. Dr. Vitalii Nechaev found five nests in 1976, but not a one had been seen since then.

Nordmann’s greenshank, one of the most endangered shorebirds in the world, is thought to have a population of fewer than 2000 individuals, and they nest only in Russia. They have experienced a steep population decline in recent decades, linked largely to habitat destruction and illegal hunting in Southeast Asia where they spend their winters.

Their nesting habitat is quite remote, which is one of the reasons it’s taken more than four decades for a nest to be rediscovered. To reach the site, the ornithologists took a motorboat along the Sea of Okhotsk coast, then walked inland several kilometers through coastal wetland teeming with bears.

Please see the recent New York Times article for more details. Let’s hope this discovery will lead to more revelations about this endangered species that can help protect it from extinction.

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Goral on the Cliffs

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Long-tailed goral. Photograph (c) WCS Russia/Sikhote-Alin Reserve

The Khuntami Cliffs are a cathedral of rock. They rise slowly from inland to crest like an enormous wave frozen just before crashing into the Sea of Japan. It’s been a favorite spot of mine in the Sikhote-Alin Reserve for years now; I’ve seen everything from nesting Eurasian eagle owls to Pacific swifts here, watched Minke whales in the sea, and seen tracks of wild boar, Asiatic black bears, and Amur tiger in the sand along Khuntami Bay below.

It was these latter beasts—the bears and the tigers—that were on my mind a few autumns ago, when I neared the top of the cliffs and something big and unseen exploded in movement from the nearby vegetation.

The mystery creature had only been a few meters away in a stunted, chest-high oak grove before it flushed and, given the wind that day, apparently had not heard or smelled me until I almost kicked it. Instead of a predator, however, I saw prey. A long-tailed goral burst from the bushes to clamber onto a vantage point to assess me as friend or foe, its hooves clicking like high heels on the rock.

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A Spoon-Billed Curiosity

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A Spoon-billed sandpiper skin from the Yelsukov Collection in Russia. Photograph © Jonathan C. Slaght

This Spoon-billed sandpiper hatched somewhere in the Arctic of northeastern Russia, in the spring of 1988, a diminutive fluff camouflaged among the tundra vegetation. A few months later she flew south for her first winter, aiming instinctively for the intertidal mudflats of Southeast Asia.

About two thousand miles into her journey—still in Russia—she found herself on a wide, sandy beach washed by the Sea of Japan. It was the first day of September, and she was mixed in with other migrating shorebirds, some possibly making this trip for the first time as she was. Someone else was on that beach that day: a young boy named Anton, and Anton had a slingshot.

The sandpiper never made it further south.

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