Ural had long been a dream destination for us. Many birds that are rare in Finland are common there and of course there are also some species that we haven’t got yet. In a couple of last years some groups had managed to visit Urals and they had really did well. In summer 2014 some groups used a local company to arrange almost everything and then one independent group visited also southern steppes and found some very interesting species which made the trip even more interesting. We had planned to make our trip to Urals after a couple of years but our friend Paul French wanted to go sooner and so already in autumn 2014 we contacted the local company and started to plan a trip for summer 2015. Everything was well prepared already in spring 2015 but only disappointment was that the 4th participant had to cancel the plans to join us. We tried to find a new participant but after all decided that it might even be better if there were only 3 of us as then we could fit easily in one car. So after all there were three of us, Hanna and Janne Aalto and Paul French.
On the 5th of June we drove from Parikkala to Kirkkonummi. We were there at 7:25 p.m. and after we had eaten well we continued to Helsinki-Vantaa airport.
While we were taking our luggage from my father’s car, I realized that I had forgotten to take any jacket with me. I had planned to wear my gore-tex jacket during the flight as my luggage was already very heavy, but it had been so warm in Parikkala that I had just forgotten to take it with me. It was too late now, but I started to worry that how I could survive in Ural Mountain without a jacket.
Our flight left at 11:55 p.m. and we fell asleep immediately. We woke up when the plane started to land to Ekaterinburg. We landed to Koltsovo airport at 04:20 a.m. which was 1.5 hours earlier than we had thought to land.
After we had found our luggage and after standing in several queues where we had to collect different kind of stamps to our papers, we finally got out from the airport. As we were out much earlier than we had thought, we walked straight to Lainer hotel. Our friend Paul was coming after a couple of hours so we had some time to rest.
It was only a couple of hundreds of meters walk to Lainer but in the reception there was a little bit hassle before we realized that our rooms were booked by Ural Expeditions & Tours Oleg Demyanenko. Finally we got into our room and I sent an SMS to Paul that he comes to wake us up when he is ready.
I woke up when Paul sent me an SMS that he will come after 10 minutes. At 7:15 a.m. he knocked to our door and it was good to see Paul again! He was tired after a long travelling but ready to go to do some birding anyway!
We walked to the airport and took a taxi that probably wasn’t official one but the driver “Hazi” seemed to be reliable. He didn’t speak almost any words of English but agreed to drive us to the place that we showed from googlemaps and also agreed to get us back after 4 hours. So soon we were driving towards Bolshoy Istok village and Airport marshes that opened behind the village.
Hazi promised to be back at 12 a.m. and of course didn’t take any money yet. Soon we were wearing our wellingtons and walking towards north the marsh.
The meadow was full of nice birds: Booted Warblers were everywhere and also Blyth’s Reed Warbler was very common. Some couples of Siberian Stonechats were active and soon we heard a singing Siberian Chiffchaff. We followed a path on the western side of the river but after some 45 minutes walking the river turned in front of us and it was impossible to continue towards the bushy area that we wanted to go. Anyway we saw more and more birds like Yellow and Citrine Wagtails, Penduline Tits, Bluethroats, Common Rosefinches and so on. Some Steppe Gulls flew over us and a couple of Black Kites were soaring on the sky, a Corn Crake was calling and Grasshopper and River Warbler singing.
But we had to walk to the place where we had started and there I managed to cross the river along a dam, but it was too dangerous because of the stream and almost broken dam. So Hanna and Paul had to try to find a better way and after all they had to walk to the village where they finally managed to cross the river. But finally we were together on the eastern side of the river and walking towards the bushy area.
Soon we heard a Greenish Warbler singing and then Paul saw the first male Long-tailed Rosefinch but only briefly. It dropped to the bushes too soon for me and Hanna. But after a short wait, it finally flew again and did some kind of display flight over the bushes. And soon after that we found it perched on the top of a bush and finally I could celebrate my WP-tick number 700!
We were still pretty far from the bird so we walked a little bit closer. But the terrain changed to most difficult I had ever walked! It also came wetter so after all we stopped close to a reedbed where at least a couple of Paddyfield Warblers were singing. Soon we found the rosefinch again and it landed very close to us to a top of a bush but it was behind some reeds so Hanna and Paul couldn’t get good pictures. And soon it was gone again.
After some waiting we saw a Long-tailed Rosefinch flying pretty far behind us and soon after that two males chasing each others over the bushes – so there were probably 3 different males.
Soon we realized that it was time to start walking back. It was a long way to walk as Hanna and Paul had really had to make a big loop to cross the ditch. We were in the starting place a couple of minutes before the midday and Hazi was already there waiting for us.
Once we were back at hotel we went to sleep right away. At 5 p.m. we had a good dinner at hotel restaurant but as it was raining pretty hard outside, we decided to take it easy for the rest of the evening. Luckily WiFi was working well but then we also found out that the weather wasn’t going to get any better for the next day either. So I spent most of the night watching Champions League final where Barcelona won Juventus 3-1.
On the 7th of June it wasn’t that rainy during the night, so I woke up before 7 a.m. and even though I hadn’t been sleeping too much because of the football match and some noisy work outside in the hotel backyard, I wanted to go birding. So I woke up Hanna and then went to wake up Paul too. He didn’t hear me knocking the door so I opened the door walked in. It really wasn’t easy to wake him up and he got so scared when it finally worked! And I wasn’t ever cruel at all… Anyway Paul, who had been working too much recently, was still too tired to do anything yet and decided to stay in bed. So together with Hanna we did only a couple of hours morning walk near the airport.
We heard several Greenish Warblers, Siberian Chiffchaffs, Bluethroats and a Thrush Nightingale, a Sedge Warbler, a couple of Common Cuckoos, an Icterine Warbler, a River Warbler, a Corn Crake and saw a Long-tailed tit. But then it started to rain again and we hurried back to hotel to sleep more.
At 11:40 a.m. we walked down to the lobby where Paul was already with his luggage. We still ordered borsch-soup with Hanna and luckily got them in a couple of minutes. Soon Oleg Demyanenko from Ural Tours & Expedition arrived and we filled his 4-wheel drive with our luggage and started to drive through 1.5 million inhabitants Ekaterinburg.
We drove to Ural Tours and Exhibitions office where we did all the paper-work, checked all the gear that we were loaning and of course paid everything to Oleg and then visited an ATM and a shop and then Oleg drove us to the railway station. With help of carriers we managed to get our luggage, which included now also tents, mattresses, tables, stools and all the kitchen stuff, to our cabin and somehow managed to pack them all so that there was still room for 4th person that was already there too. Then at 4:10 p.m. our train left towards south and Orsk.
In the beginning of the long train-trip we were talking and wondering how few birds we saw from the window even though the landscape changed from pine forests to really good looking leaf-tree forests. Finally about at 9 p.m. when we were in Cheljabinsk, we started to sleep. Luckily the train was moving very slowly and steady so we slept very well.
Orsk – lifers
On the 8th of June I woke up early and just watched the landscape from the train window. There still weren’t many birds but it really looked like we were going to see lots of steppes. Some Turtle Doves, Hoopoes and a Red-footed Falcon were seen before we finally were at Orsk at 06:37 a.m. Our driver Alexander was already there together with a group of local journalists that wanted to make some stories about “famous foreign ornithologists birding in Orsk”. Luckily these journalists gave us a hand and helped us to carry everything to Alexander’s Niva which had a handy back-box for the luggage.
After visiting a shop we were soon driving to highlands eastern side of Gaynulino. After some driving we found the first good looking spot which we had also some GPS-spots as the British group that had visited this area last summer had seen some White-winged Larks in this place. Journalists wanted to see us in action and they were filming and photographing when I got my scope ready and almost the first bird I found from the northern side of the road was a stunning male Red-headed Bunting perched on the top of a bush! Journalists wanted to do some interviewing too, but I had done enough and left to see the bunting closer. So Hanna and Paul were giving the interviews…
One of the journalists followed me and videoed me watching and digiscoping my new WP-tick. Soon Hanna and Paul were following me and they got some pictures too. Unfortunately very hard wind made this bird move a lot and even though we soon found at least another male and a female too, we couldn’t get very good pictures. So we planned to walk and check a bigger area before coming back to try to find these birds again.
After we had first found a Siberian Roe Deer and a funny looking Corsak Fox, I found a couple of White-winged Larks flying on the sky. But these birds flew almost immediately very far to the other side of the road. The fox was still chasing some Skylarks and then we noticed that there was still one more White-winged Lark following it. We tried to get closer but even the fox was gone, we heard only the wall of many Skylarks singing. We walked around for quite a long time and saw 7 Black-winged Pratincoles, a Booted Warbler that was in a totally wrong biotope, Ortolan Buntings, Siberian Stonechats, Tree Sparrows, Northern Wheatears, Tawny Pipits, Bee-eaters and so on. When we had decided to walk back to see the buntings, we saw Alexander driving towards us – so we decided to continue somewhere else.
Alexander didn’t speak many words English but he was a funny guy anyway! Unfortunately he was driving like a lunatic and even though we tried to slow him down a little bit, it didn’t help. Anyway next we asked Alexander to find us a good place to make a camp. We started to feel hungry and we really needed to stop and plan what to do the next 5 days as we had already seen 2 most important species in Orsk area!
We drove to southern side of Gaynulino and from the western side of the river we found a perfect place for camping. While we were putting up the tents, Alexander was cooking a lunch. After a really good food we were ready to go to sleep a little bit at 3:30 p.m.
We slept a bit more than an hour and soon we were walking along the river towards south. There were big meadows on the both side of the river and lots of birds: Ortolan Bunting was very common, some Booted Warblers and Bluethroats were singing a Quail calling and we also found a couple of Red-backed Shrikes, Barred Warblers, Marsh Warblers, Cetti’s Warblers, a Honey Buzzard and a Hobby. The wind was still getting stronger but then we found a Demoiselle Crane landing to a meadow far to the other side of the river. Luckily it was flying again soon and flew over us to the field and there was another Demoiselle Crane too – they were nesting there on the field!
The wind died in the late evening so soon we got some insects, but luckily not too many yet. We ate a good dinner and went to sleep before 10 p.m.
On the 9th of June I woke up after 4 a.m. and walked a little bit along the river north towards the village and recorded some Barred, Marsh and Cetti’s Warblers. Hanna and Paul woke up at 5:30 a.m. and soon we were walking towards the Demoiselle Cranes again. We had planned to try to hide to the bushes along the river to a place where Demoiselle Crane had been flying over to the other side of the river for a couple of times in the evening, but after an hour waiting the cranes were still just standing and feeding on their nesting place. So we walked along the old field towards the cranes until we thought we were close enough and took some pictures. Unfortunately there was lots of haze in the air, so the pictures weren’t too good. In the same place there was a colony of Steppe Marmots and we of course took some pictures of these funny mammals too. The young marmots were wrestling almost all the time they were visible. But once we got closer they all disappeared into their holes. Luckily one bigger marmot stayed visible.
We had the breakfast at 9 a.m. and soon we had packed our luggage and driving towards a place that Hanna and Paul had chose from the maps. It was much longer way than we had expected to the steppe area so we made one stop on the way on a rocky hill near a mining area on the southern side of Novorudnyy. Paul saw briefly an owl that probably was a Short-eared Owl and then I flushed a Grey Partridge. On a small pool behind the hill we saw a couple of Ruddy Shelducks and an Eastern Imperial Eagle was soaring on the sky.
We continued to a sandy steppe that we had thought to be good for a Black Lark which we were dreaming to find. Once we had started to walk, we immediately flushed a couple of White-winged Larks! But again these birds were extremely shy and mobile so we couldn’t get good pictures. We were chasing these larks for some time and found another pair too, but still they were too mobile.
Soon we continued to a lake nearby on the western side of Novonikolaevka and drove around it even though there weren’t any roads at all. We saw a couple of stunning Pallas Gulls, 2 Steppe Gulls, Great Crested Grebes, a Garganey, a Turnstone, a Ringed Plover, 2 Common Snipes and again 2 nice Demoiselle Cranes. This time we managed to get good pictures of the cranes as they weren’t far from our car.
After all we decided to put up the camp along the lake and after some searching we found a good spot. While putting up the tents and cooking our lunch we saw a couple of Red-footed Falcons that had a nest very close to our camp, a Golden Oriole, Siskins, very southern Fieldfares, a Red-breasted Merganser, Black Terns and so on. We also saw a Steppe Polecat briefly. At 5 p.m. it was time for a nap again.
At 7:30 p.m. we were walking towards the western end of the lake and from the bay we found a Common Teal and a Gadwall but the cranes were much further on the fields. We also saw lots of Musk Rats and the common songbirds were singing well even in the evening.
Once we were back in our camp Alexander had prepared a good dinner and while eating Hanna noticed international space-station flying over us. It was very well visible with a scope. In the evening we were listening to the Red-footed Falcons calling from their nest, Demoiselle Cranes calling further, saw a White-winged Black Tern with Black Terns and then noticed a strange call from the lake. It took some time to realize that the callers were the Steppe Marmots that were chasing a Corsak Fox away from their nest on the other side of the lake! Frogs started to get noisy too and a Bittern was booming when we went to sleep pretty late at 11 p.m.
A couple of lakes
On the 10th of June it was raining during the night and also in the morning. I went to walk towards the eastern side of the lake, but heard only a Greenish Warbler, saw 6 Pallas Gulls and so on, but then the rain got worse and I hurried back to the tent. After a short break the rain stopped and soon we were all walking to the same place where I had already been. We saw a Eurasian Wigeon and Hanna saw a couple of Black-winged Pratincoles and while we were already walking back towards the camp, we found a couple of White-backed Woodpeckers. After the breakfast we packed everything and continued to the next place.
Surprisingly we drove the same road that we had come and in the place where we had seen White-winged Larks, we saw a White-backed Woodpecker, a couple of Steppe Buzzards and 2 flying Ruddy Shelducks. While we were driving towards Malokhalilovo, Alexander told we were on his hunting grounds and he asked if we wanted to see minks, foxes or hares. We were interested to visit the hare place as it was a good looking lake anyway. The lake was on the north-eastern side of Malokhalilovo. Surprisingly Alexander made a U-turn to a deep ditch and we got completely stuck! The situation was so absurd that we didn’t hesitate to take any pictures. There was a turning place 50 meters from us. Somehow Alexander got the car up but then the back-box got stuck and car and the box were in a nice V-letter shape on the bottom of the ditch. But Niva is an amazing car and somehow Alexander drove it up and we could continue to the lake.
We didn’t find any hares on the lake but we saw a Great White-fronted Goose, a Goldeneye, a Pochard, a Smew and a Little Ringed Plover.
Once we got to Malokhalilovo we started to walk along the river on the village, but soon we realized that we were on the wrong side of the river. On the southern side we found much better looking biotope while walking north-east and also the GPS-points started to get closer. After the heavy rains at night the steppe was extremely muddy, so walking was very difficult. The day was also getting really hot so soon we were sweating a lot. We saw an Eastern Imperial Eagle, Gold Finches, Yellowhammers and heard a Song Thrush, 4 Siberian Lesser Whitethroats and a Grasshopper Warbler and when we were going to turn back towards the village we found a beautiful male Red-headed Bunting! But it flew very far away before we got almost any pictures.
When we had walked back to our car, we decided to drive back to the bunting place and put up the camp somewhere there. And luckily we found a good spot along the river.
When we had got the tents up, the fish-soup was also ready. The rest of the evening we were just sitting on the camp and watching White-backed Woodpeckers and Greater Spotted Woodpeckers flying over and listening Golden Orioles singing and calling. In the late evening a fire kept insects away. Anyway we went to sleep already at 9 p.m. and at night we got some good thunderstorms.
On the 11th of June I woke up at 5:30 a.m. and walked to record the Red-headed Bunting. Unfortunately my wellingtons were too deep in the too well closed back-box, so I had to go to wet grass with my boots and soon my feet were completely wet. On a small pool I recorded frogs and saw a Redhank, but soon I found the Red-headed Bunting and got extremely good recordings as the bird let me to less than 5 meters. But soon it started to rain again and I hurried back to tent.
When the rain stopped I managed to get my wellingtons and soon we all went back to the bunting place and there it was still. Hanna and Paul got some ok pictures but somehow the bird wasn’t that easy to get close anymore. And again it started to rain so we walked back to the camp.
After the breakfast we packed everything again and then left towards a place that we had found to be good-looking in googlemaps. Again the roads weren’t as easy as they had looked, and soon we were driving in the middle of the steppe and trying to cross a railroad. Alexander was driving like a crazy again and I must say that I was really scared at times! After many kilometres we had to give up as the railroad wasn’t possible to cross. So we had to drive back to a bigger road which was just good I think.
When the road got bigger it was again possible to look through the windows again and we saw 2 flying Ruddy Shelducks on the northern side of Gay and a couple of male Little Bustards south and south-east from Novorodnyy, but got only some flight shots of them. Probably the same Eastern Imperial Eagle was again seen close to the mining area again. We stopped on one small lake west from Gay on the way but there were only some gulls and Coots and some Black Kites on a rubbish tip nearby.
Finally we were on the area that we had tried to get south from Kolpakskoye, but it was a disappointment, it was farming land all over. So we decided to skip this place and continued to Kolpakskoye and to Ural River that was nearby. On the way we saw a couple of cute Rufous Susliks. Then on the bridge between Europe (also WP) and Asia we saw an Oystercatcher, a Pallas Gull and also a Levant Sparrowhawk! We walked a little bit in a forest on the WP-side of the border but saw only Bee-eaters and found a nest of a Great Spotted Woodpecker. Then we decided to drive cross the river and go to Asia! We wanted to check if the Asia looked better. We were hoping to find much better steppes for larks.
It really started to look better almost right away and we saw much more Red-footed Falcons and Bee-eaters than on European side of the river. We continued through Novoorsk and south of the city we saw the first Montagu’s Harrier (and the only ring-tail harrier of the trip) and continued until eastern side of Luzhki and Kemak River where we found again a good place to put up the camp. While a Little Tern was wishing and an Oystercatcher was swimming (yep, you read correct), we put up the tents and soon it was time to eat again.
The rest of the evening we took it easy and stayed close the camp. I even went to swim to the river. We saw a couple of Red-headed Buntings flying over us and the first Curlew of the trip – strange, there had been good biotope everywhere. We also saw a Turtle Dove species in flight but it was too brief to identify. Several thunderstorms were around us but luckily none of them came too close. We went to sleep at 10 p.m.
On the 12th of June we woke up later, just before 7 a.m. when Black-winged Pratincoles were calling while flying over our tent. First we just walked around the camp and saw a Levant Sparrowhawk.
After the omelette-breakfast we packed our car again and started to drive along the road north towards the endless steppe. After about 200 meters driving we found a Red-headed Bunting perched on the top of the bush right next to the track and finally we got some good pictures!
On the first stop we made, Hanna and Paul saw a Little Bustard and if in European side we had seen 1 White-winged Lark to 100 Skylarks, now about every fifth lark was a white-winged. But still they were extremely difficult to see well and photograph. They either got up to the blue sky and disappeared or then landed hundreds of meters from where they had been flushed. We also saw 4 to 6 Demoiselle Cranes, a young White-tailed Eagle, a flock of Lapwings that had one leucistic bird which really was thought to be something else first, an Eastern Imperial Eagle, a Long-legged Buzzard, a Caspian Tern, a Lesser Grey Shrike, Red-footed Falcons and so on.
When we were once again walking in one good looking area Paul noticed a big lark flying over us. It was flying straight away but then once turned and showed itself – it was completely greyish without any white on the tail or trailing edge of the wing – it must have been a female Black Lark. It landed a couple of kilometres from us and we walked there but never found it again. After all only good thing in this observation was that we were outside the Western Palearctic. We really would have wanted to see the bird better.
After seeing about 25 White-winged Larks, we decided to turn back. This steppe would have ended somewhere in China, but as we were in Asia anyway, we weren’t too keen to keep on going… We still stopped along the river to cook lunch and there were plenty of people swimming and having fun as it was Russia day and people had a long weekend holiday.
After we had eaten we decided to drive south-east over the steppes to see one lake nearby. But again it was much longer way than we had thought and Alexander was driving faster than ever! We really lost the road a couple of times and drove through tens of water-pools that were quite deep, but somehow managed to get close to the lake alive. I had once seen a black lark looking bird from the window but I had been too scared to say anything. Finally we stopped near the lake on the western side of Akzharskoye, when there was a first small pool with a flock of White-winged Terns and a Marsh Sandpiper.
Even though it was extremely hot and humid, we walked to see the lake which was really good indeed. 6 Great White Egrets, a family of Black-necked Grebes, 2 Red-necked Grebes, a Gadwall, 2 Pochards, Bitterns calling and also flying, a Little Bittern seen in flight very briefly, Savi’s Warbler, Paddyfield and Great Reed Warbler singing. A couple of Citrine Wagtails were also seen and together with Hanna we saw a male Isabelline Wheatear.
But it was soon absolutely too hot to continue and as we had no more ideas what to do, we asked Alexander to drive to Orsk. After some shopping Alexander dropped us to the railway-station and then it was time to say goodbye to Alexander. Then we had 5 hours before our train was leaving.
At 11:48 p.m. our train left towards Ekaterinburg and after we had managed to squeeze our luggage into our cabin, we were soon ready to sleep.
On the 13th of June I woke up just before 10 a.m. and we had still a long way to go. While talking we saw some Black Kites and Steppe Buzzards and then suddenly on the top of a bush in the middle of a small bog there was an Azure Tit! Paul started to celebrate, but then realized that we were on the wrong side of the border again – but anyway Hanna and Paul got a world-tick. Later we still saw a Greater Spotted Eagle briefly but then the rest of the trip went without any observations.
Relaxing in Ekaterinburg
At 2:11 p.m. we were in Ekaterinburg and Oleg was on the station with carriers. Soon we had everything packed into Oleg’s car and driving towards the Hotel Fort that was close to the city.
The reception didn’t speak any English but otherwise the hotel was pretty good. Unfortunately I didn’t know how to get hot water from the shower but it was good to get even cold water wash done.
We loaded all our batteries and just relaxed for a couple of hours. Then we decided to go to eat but there was nothing in English in hotel restaurant, so we decided to walk to a pizzeria that we had seen near the railway-station. Hanna ordered chicken but with Paul we took big pizzas. Once we got them, they were really too big! We had been wondering if the pizzas were eatable at all as there was potato and mayonnaise in all of them – and soon we found out that they hardly were. Anyway we were too hungry so we really tried our best, but it was the first time ever that I had to stop eating after half of the pizza!
We took some of the leftovers with us and walked back to the hotel. There we planned the next couple of days program and then finally went to sleep. And soft beds felt so good after several nights in tent and on very thin mattresses.
On the 14th of June we woke up a bit too early and at 7 a.m. we were having the breakfast. Then we packed everything again and at 8 a.m. Oleg arrived and we packed his car full again. Soon we were driving towards north-east and Monetnyy. After some shopping in a tiny shop, we tried to find a road or a track that lead east to marshes about 6 kilometers from the main road. We found one good road but it ended to a horse pasture surrounded by big fences. After some trying to get around the fence we gave up and decided to start walking. Oleg stayed by the car and we promised to get back in some hours.
After all it was clear that we had made a bad decision as the forest came very wet. But after several kilometers walking we just kept on going towards the GPS-points that we had. We heard plenty of Siberian Chiffchaffs and Greenish Warblers and some Green Sandpipers, Long-tailed Tits, Robins, Spotted and Pied Flycatchers, Willow Tits, a Common Crossbill and saw a Jay. After 3 hours walking we decided to take a shortcut and walked to a canal and hoped that it’d be easier to walk along it. But it wasn’t a canal at all but a road! Already in the morning Paul had suggested Oleg to take that road, but Oleg had said it was a canal.
This was the road that British group had used a year before and there was pretty much traffic as several cars, tractors and even a group of motor-cyclist passed us. So soon we were in the right area where the Movetnyy marshes started. But it was already afternoon and very hot, so we didn’t do much birding anymore. We called to Oleg if he could try to find the road and come to pick us up, but after an hour trying he called us back and told that he couldn’t find the way.
So it meant that we had to start walking 6 kilometers towards the main road. Luckily I had the pizza-leftovers with me and we got some energy to start walking again. It was a long and extremely sweaty walk but finally we found the cemetery from where Oleg had called us. But he had been on the wrong side of it and he hadn’t noticed a small track that went to the backside of it and continued then 6 kilometers almost straight to the marshes.
Finally we found Oleg and decided to go shopping and then drive back to marshes to camp. We really didn’t want to give up with this place. So after buying cold drinks, ice-cream and also some real food, we were driving back. In the village we saw an Eastern Hedgehog. The road was in pretty bad shape and it took almost 40 minutes to drive that 6 kilometers but finally we were there and putting up the camp. It wasn’t an ideal place to camp as there wasn’t really clean water at all, but we needed only birds to be satisfied – and also some food, we were really hungry.
In the afternoon we found a stunning Long-tailed Rosefinch very close to our camp but once again it flew away too soon and no recording or pictures were taken. While we were relaxing and sitting in our camp, we heard one very close series of calls of an Oriental Cuckoo!
After the late lunch, we still did a walk nearby and crossed a ditch by a beaver-dam. The road there was in so bad condition that even wellingtons weren’t enough. Luckily the dam was strong enough. We heard some Icterine Warblers, a River Warbler, a Siberian Lesser Whitethroat, a Golden Oriole, some Common Cranes and a couple of Oriental Cuckoos that were now calling very well. Once we were back in the camp a Woodcock was flying around and a couple of Turtle Dove species flew briefly over us but again too briefly to identify them. Finally at 11 p.m. we were ready to sleep.
On the 15th of June it started to rain at 3 a.m. but luckily the rain ended at 4:30 and we were able to go birding. It was a nice morning with a drumming Black Woodpecker, a singing River Warbler and a Lanceolated Warbler just 100 meters from our camp. After a little walk we heard a call of an Oriental Turtle Dove and luckily found the bird perched on the top of a dead tree. Of course it was the first time that I wasn’t carrying my telescope but we could see the bird pretty well with binoculars. We also heard Bullfinches and saw a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker. When we were walking back towards our tent, we heard promising calls of a tit nearby and then saw a pale tit landing to a tree over us. It really looked promising, but right away we realized there was something wrong – the bird had a blue cap and overall the structure was exactly like a Blue Tit – but it had no yellow at all – it was a Pleske’s Tit, a hybrid between Blue and Azure Tit! So Hanna and Paul still didn’t get a WP-tick. Unfortunately the bird was too quick and we got no pictures.
Near the camp I heard flight calls of a Two-barred Crossbill and soon we found a calling Long-tailed Rosefinch on the top of a tree nearby, but again it was too fast and flew away too soon to get pictures or recordings.
Hanna decided to stay near the camp and wait if the Long-tailed Rosefinch would come back while I and Paul started to walk towards a couple of pools a couple of kilometers north from the camp. The track was in very bad shape after motorcycles and other all-terrain vehicles, and there weren’t many birds on the way but on the pools we found some Tufted Ducks and a couple of Slavonian Grebes. Soon we heard again promising song of a tit in front of us and soon found the bird and this time it was a real Azure Tit! Paul celebrated the WP-tick and then we started to get pictures, videos and recordings as the bird was still singing. Soon I radioed with walkie-talkie to Hanna that we had finally found an Azure Tit, but Hanna was still very far but luckily she had already been walking towards us for some time.
We could watch the tit cleaning itself and singing for more than 5 minutes but all the time it was climbing higher and higher on the trees and once it reached the top, it flew far away along the pool. And of course Hanna arrived only a little bit late. We had promised to Oleg that we would have breakfast at 10 a.m. so Paul decided to start walking back, but with Hanna we had to give some time for the tit. I saw first a Honey Buzzard flying over me and after maybe 5 minutes we heard a promising call and soon Hanna saw an Azure Tit in flight. I played a little bit tape and then the bird landed to a tree pretty far from us, but soon continued and flew straight over us and disappeared. But we were happy as Hanna had got a WP-tick too! When we started to walk back towards the camp, a male Long-tailed Rosefinch flew just in front of us very beautifully!
After 45 minutes later we were in a camp and having breakfast. After that we needed to get some sleep and we agreed that Oleg could go to do some work that he had to do to his office and come back when he is ready. But before we could sleep, we had to kill a hundred mosquitoes in our tent as we had forgotten the zipper 5 centimeters open. But soon the day was warming up too much and it came extremely hot inside the tents! After having a couple of hour’s sauna, some local idiots parked their car just 2 meters from our tent and started to argue about something. Luckily they left soon when I got out and gave them an angry eye and told some English words that everybody understands. But after that I just couldn’t get into the tent anymore.
So we spent the afternoon near the tents as it is not ok to leave anything without a guard in Russia. We just enjoyed a fire that kept mosquitoes and horseflies away a little but until Oleg arrived at 6 p.m. Soon we had packed everything again and were driving along the bad road again.
Searching for new places
We had once again found a good looking spot from the maps north from Kedrovoye and drove towards it. But even though we tried and tried we never found a road towards this place, even though there were supposed to many. We even asked from several locals but nobody could help us. So after all we gave up and decided to drive towards another not that good looking, but ok area pretty near southern side of Lake Shitvskoye. It was again a longer way as the roads were very poor, but finally we were close enough to stop and put up the camp in the middle of the forest. We planned to walk to the area in the morning.
It was already late and we were extremely hungry but soon raviolis were ready. Mistle Thrushes, a Red-breasted Flycatcher and a couple of Oriental Cuckoos were singing but soon we were listening to them inside the tent. Finally we got to sleep after 11 p.m.
On the 16th of June we slept a little bit too long with Hanna but Paul was still waiting for us near the tent at 5:15. After listening to a Red-breasted Flycatcher and a Brambling we left to walk towards our destination. The track towards the place was horrible, but the forests around were really good-looking. We heard several Oriental Cuckoos while walking and after 15 minutes we were in the place which wasn’t as good as we had hoped as there were no pools but only old abandoned fields. We walked around the area for a couple of hours and found a couple of Long-tailed Rosefinches and finally Hanna managed to get some good pictures! Once again a turtle dove species was seen in flight, we also heard and even saw a couple of Corn Crakes and Booted Warblers and heard quite a few Oriental Cuckoos, but of course the only cuckoo we saw was the only Common Cuckoo of the day.
While we were walking back, I stopped to record one Siberian Lesser Whitethroat and while I was recording an Oriental Cuckoo started to call right behind it. We carefully walked to see it through the trees and managed to find it calling from the top of a tree behind the opening. So finally also Paul could count it as a WP-tick.
I tried to walk along the forest closer to record the cuckoo, but it was too shy and stopped calling when I was still hundreds of meters away. A female Hazel Hen was panicking as I flushed it from the nest, so I gave up and walked back to the road. We still heard a Dunnock and soon we were having porridge in the camp.
After we had packed the car full again, we still decided to go to see the Lake Shitovskoye but it was really difficult to find a way to the shore. So Oleg asked a permit to walk through one fenced garden to see the lake. There were only some Heuglin’s Gulls, 2 Common Sandpipers and a couple of White-tailed Eagles close to their nest but nothing else. We also heard an Olive-backed Pipit singing, which we thought was pretty far south.
After all we started to drive towards Ekaterinburg and we all except Oleg felt asleep on the way. We then spent a couple of hours in Oleg’s office and even visited a sauna that was nearby. At 4:35 our train towards north and Serov finally left.
It was a long train trip to Serov and we didn’t see almost any new birds on the way. But we were all the time again outside the WP anyway. Luckily we managed to sleep a little even though it was very light and hot in the cabin. After 7 hours we finally were in Serov and carried our luggage to the parking place of the station but surprisingly there was nobody picking us up. After 30 minutes waiting I called to Oleg and he promised that there should be someone very soon. And luckily only after some minutes we met Stanislav and a new Oleg who helped us to carry everything to Oleg’s big car and then got a ride to a hotel nearby.
We got very comfortable rooms and because Paul was loading some maps to his phone through WiFi, the internet connection jammed so badly that we weren’t able to do anything, so soon we were sleeping.
To Ural Mountains
On the 17th of June we woke up at 7 a.m. and somehow managed to order breakfast with our 120 rubles tickets. At 8 a.m. Oleg had arrived and we packed his car and after visiting a shop we started to drive towards the village of Pokrovsk Uralskiy near Severouralsk. After an hour or so we arrived to the garden of our driver Leonid, but there was nobody home. Leonid and our cook Galina were still finishing the last shopping. After an hour waiting and a couple of Booted Warblers and Siberian Stonechats and a flock of 7 Nutcrackers, they finally arrived and we started to pack everything into their smaller 4-wheel van. We had more stuff than ever as we had tables and stools that a Polish group had already brought as they had been in Urals just before us. But somehow we managed to squeeze everything including ourselves in and started a slowly drive west towards the mountains.
Earlier groups had been using a bigger 4-wheel van and the journey had taken 5 hours, but we were so small group that we made it with a smaller car which was quicker. After an hour driving we saw the first mountains and stopped to take some pictures. Some Olive-backed Pipits and Red-flanked Bluetails were singing and we saw a flock of 25 Common Crossbills with 2 Two-barred Crossbills. When we continued the road got worse and we soon saw the first Grey Wagtails. When the mountains came closer we stopped again to take some more pictures, then we heard first Arctic Warblers too.
After a long drive we crossed the border the Europe and Western Palearctic again and finally after 3.5 hours driving we were finally at our Kvarkush camping place. There we met German Felix Timmermann who had been staying in Urals already for a week. It was good to meet this young birder who was working in Helgoland.
While we were putting up the camp we heard an Olive-backed Pipit, a Red-flanked Bluetail, a Brambling, some Greenish and Arctic Warblers, a Hazel Hen and shortly a Three-toed Woodpecker too. We were really in good mood as everything had gone well. Soon Galina had prepared us soup and after the dinner we were ready to go to sleep as we had planned to wake up very early!
On the 18th of June we woke up very early at 00:40 a.m. when a White’s Thrush started to sing! It was a WP-tick for Hanna. And as we had planned to start early, we got out from the tent and found out that Paul and Felix were already having the breakfast.
At 1 a.m. we started to climb up towards the mountain following Felix who already knew the way up. We were climbing along a track that was actually now a river as snow was melting on the mountain and lots of water was coming down. Felix told us how there had been more than a hundred Russians during the Russian-day holidays driving up and down the mountain with their 4-, 6- and 8-wheeldrive vehicles! This rally had made even the Ravens leave the mountain and they had started to come back on the last days.
Finally we had climbed up to the snowy hillside where the “river” started and it was easier to climb up along the snow. When the snow ended there was a bushy area and soon we heard a Bluethroat singing but behind it there was something else singing as beautifully – it was a Siberian Rubythroat! I soon found the bird singing on the top of a bush and I walked closer to take some recordings. We all had seen the species before, so the rest stayed further as they wanted to come to see the bird when it was lighter. It was still so dark that it was impossible to take any pictures anyway. I had soon got some ok recordings so we continued climbing towards the top.
We continued west over the top into where we heard a couple of Booted Warblers in strange biotope again and towards a valley that was in the middle of the tops. While we were walking down towards the river, that still had big layers of snow on the other side of it, we heard a Golden Plover, flushed a Willow Grouse and finally saw a couple of Black-throated Thrushes that we had only heard calling before. Soon we heard also a Lanceolated Warbler and decided to try to get some pictures as the sun had already got up behind the mountain. After some photographing we continued lower down to the bottom of the valley but Felix decided to turn back and go to photograph the Siberian Rubythroat.
Soon we found more Lanceolated Warblers and there were even 3 of them singing close to each others. We also heard a Corn Crake calling and a couple of Blyth’s Reed Warblers were singing. We turned towards south and kept on going towards a forest in distance and soon heard a familiar song – another Siberian Rubythroat! We tried to get some pictures for some time but even though this bird came very close to sing, it stayed behind the vegetation almost all the time. Anyway I got perfect recordings!
Soon the ground became very wet but we kept on going and finding more Lanceolated Warblers and continued towards the forest as we hoped to find a Black-throated Accentor there.
When we finally got into the forest, it started to rain. There were several real thunder-clouds coming towards us so even though birds were still singing pretty actively, we had to start walking back towards the camp.
While we were hurrying we heard some singing Yellow-browed Warblers and soon already our 10th Lanceolated Warbler of the morning. We were almost running through the highest peak which was the last place we wanted to be during the thunderstorm and then we heard a couple of displaying Great Snipes on one meadow.
Finally we started to walk down along the snow again and arrived to the Siberian Rubythroat place. Right then the rain stopped and sun started to shine very warm, but we couldn’t see or hear the rubythroat. Then Paul found a snipe in display-flight on the sky but we couldn’t hear anything. Unfortunately it was just a Common Snipe and probably so wet that there was no sound coming from its tail-feathers. And then we saw more clouds coming towards us and decided to start walking down along the river again.
Finally we were back in the camp and we had really been walking a lot! Galina had soon prepared us the lunch and soon it was time to get some sleep.
In the afternoon we did only a short walk along the road with Hanna but found only one new bluetail, Olive-backed Pipits and some Greenish and Arctic Warblers. In the evening Paul saw briefly a hybrid between Chaffinch and Brambling in front of his tent, but the rest of us only heard it calling as it moved further and further. It was calling like a “Karelian” Chaffinch that we have in South-Eastern Finland – “hrrry, hrrry”, but the call was stronger.
While a Mistle Thrush was beginning to sing, we were ready to go to sleep after 9 p.m. A Greenish Warbler did its best to keep us awake as it was singing right above our tent, but we were too tired to listen.
On the 19th of June I woke up once in the middle of the night to record a White’s Thrush that was singing very close to our tent. I didn’t even go out from the tent but recorded it through the roof while lying down in my sleeping bag – at least mosquitoes couldn’t ruin the recording.
Finally I woke up at 3 a.m. and Felix was already having some cold breakfast and soon heading up to photograph the rubythroat again. I recorded some Olive-backed Pipits and tried to get close to the White’s Thrush and managed to get really good recordings but couldn’t see the bird at all. At 3:30 a.m. Galina had prepared us early breakfast. After 4 a.m. we were already climbing up. Paul had still something to do so he was going to follow us soon.
We had walked less than 100 meters when we found the hybrid finch that Paul had seen on the previous evening. It was feeding along the track and calling both “hvit” and “hrrry” calls. Even though it was still not enough light, Hanna managed to get some kind of pictures before the bird moved further above the rapids. There it started to sing and its song was the same “hrrry” but much stronger. Because of the rapids the recordings were pretty poor.
While we were climbing we heard a couple of Blackcaps and saw a few Black-throated Thrushes. Paul had overtaken us while we had been chasing the finch, so Hanna decided to follow him up until the rubythroat place as they hoped to get finally some pictures. I stayed under the snow-level and took some recording of a Grey Wagtail, Olive-backed Pipits and so on.
I managed to get some recordings and climbed up to rubythroat place where Hanna and Paul had finally managed to get some good pictures! There had been at least 2 males. So soon we continued up towards northern tops.
After some walking we flushed 3 Great Snipes on one wet meadow and after we had passed them, they started to display. We also saw quite a few Common Redpolls, Greenish Warblers and Olive-backed Pipits and also some Yellow-browed Warblers and Little Buntings, even one pair with a nest.
While walking in a small forest I heard 5 tones of a Pine Grosbeak song but we couldn’t find the bird. Even though the day was getting very hot again, we decided to climb up to the rocky top to get some landscape pictures. After some photographing we were getting back down along the rocky hillside and then I heard a Pine Grosbeak again. This time we found a male singing on the top of a spruce and it was good that Paul saw this nice male bird too – unfortunately it wasn’t very close. Soon the bird flew away and we continued down to the valley.
We continued to walk down along the snowy area and after that I noticed a Golden Eagle flying over us. Unfortunately Hanna was walking a little bit after me, so she missed really nice pictures.
We were back at the camp at 11 a.m. and after an hour we ate well again. Then we started to pack the camp and after 1 p.m. we started to drive towards Ural ridge that was about an hour backwards towards Severouralsk. There wasn’t much room in our van as Felix was also with us, but luckily we had already eaten a lot, so we managed to get everything in. We stopped once to take some group-photos in the place where was a border-sign between Europe (also WP) and Asia. While driving we saw a couple of White’s Thrushes flushed along the road, nicely one in Europe and one in Asia. Soon we were in our camping place which was a couple of kilometers on the Asian side of the borders.
While a Red-flanked Bluetail, an Olive-backed Pipit and so on were singing on the background, we put up the camp again and soon Galina had prepared something to eat again. Then an Oriental Cuckoo started to call right next to us, but again it stopped too soon to get any recordings. We saw a Sparrowhawk as a trip-tick and then climbed a little bit along the path towards the mountain and heard a couple of Asian Nuthatches. When we were back at the camp we heard a Three-toed Woodpecker drumming but Felix couldn’t find it even though he tried.
At 7 p.m. we ate dinner and after 8 p.m. we were in our sleeping-bags again.
The morning of the 20th of June was extremely cold! I was for once hoping that I’d have taken any jacket with me! Luckily Felix had extra jacket so I could eat the breakfast-porridge without freezing at 3:30 a.m.
After 4 a.m. it was a little bit warmer already and it soon came warm as we started to climb up towards the top of the mountain. After some climbing there was a rocky top in front of us and as we had no idea which was the best way to go, we decided to climb straight towards the top. After some hard climbing we got to the plateau and in the midway of that we knew that we were back in the Western Palearctic again.
Soon we were climbing down towards a big forest area. Greenish, Arctic, Willow and Yellow-browed Warblers were singing and we saw quite a few flocks of Common Crossbills and Redpolls and soon heard the first Dunnock singing. Our project-species here was a Black-throated Accentor that some groups had found in this area in the previous summer. It was the last possible lifer for Hanna and Paul. I had this species already from Finland.
We walked along the forest slowly towards the GPS-points we had and finally at 7 a.m. we were in the right place which was clearly the best looking area. We had heard some more Dunnocks and here we found a couple of them more but we couldn’t find any Black-throated Accentors. We knew that neither the Polish group had found any, but we still needed to try harder.
Finally we had to give up and start a long walk back towards the camp as we had ordered the lunch at midday. Luckily we found a track to follow and while we were walking along it, we didn’t need to go up to the rocky area at all. Only better bird we saw on the way back was a female Black Grouse and finally we were at the camp at 11:30 a.m.
The rest of the day we just relaxed. Luckily finally we got some Oriental Cuckoos visible as 2 females were calling actively and a male was following them like a crazy. Hanna and Paul managed to get some pictures and I got some recording even though the birds were very flighty!
Other birds we observed were a family of Nutcrackers and the youngsters were calling almost exactly like a Nightjar, a Great Spotted and Three-toed Woodpecker in flight and of course a bluetail and an Olive-backed Pipit that were singing almost around the clock. After the dinner we were ready to go to sleep at 8 p.m.
On the 21st of June we woke up at 3 a.m. and Galina was already preparing us some breakfast. An Oriental Cuckoo was calling now further so I walked a little bit closer to get some recordings, but it stayed too far to get anything else than some “landscape-recordings”.
The breakfast was ready at 3:30 a.m. and soon we were all walking over the mountain to Europe again. We now used the faster track and soon we were landing towards the forest. Common Crossbills and Siskins were on the move and also other birds were more visible than on the previous morning. Some Nutcrackers were seen and Little Buntings and Yellow-browed Warblers were singing. We also found a couple of Lanceolated Warblers and soon heard the first Dunnock of the morning.
After all we walked around the forest for several hours and concentrated mostly to an area where the Black-throated Accentor records were made in the previous summer, but we didn’t find any.
We were absolutely tired when we started to walk back towards the camp. We still saw a couple of Black-throated Thrushes and a Honey Buzzard and finally were at the camp at midday. Galina started to prepare lunch right away and we started to pack our luggage.
After the lunch we packed the rest of the stuff to the van and then it was time to say goodbye to Felix, who was still going to stay in this area for a couple of days. Soon we were on our way towards Severouralsk.
After more than a couple of hours we were in Leonid’s backyard again and Oleg was already there waiting for us. We said goodbyes and thanks to Leonid and Galina and were soon driving towards Serov.
After an hour sleeping in a cool car we were in Serov, where we drove straight to the railway station. Stanislav was there helping us to carry everything to the lobby of the station and now we had all the things that Polish team had brought with us too. We agreed that Stanislav will come back when the train comes and said goodbye to Oleg and then we had 5 hours wait until the train was coming. So we started to delete bad pictures, write trip-reports and so on.
The time was moving surprisingly fast and when the train arrived, Stanislav was there with probably his son and helped us to carry everything into the cabin. There was already the 4th passenger too, but this man was speaking a little bit English and was a very nice guy, so we managed to squeeze everything in pretty easily. Finally at 00:47 a.m. our train left towards Ekaterinburg and soon after we had got our linnets, we were all ready to get some sleep.
At Ekaterinburg again
On the 22nd of June we were in Ekaterinburg at 8:21 a.m. and Julia from Oleg’s office was already there in the station. Oleg was out of the city. With the carriers we managed to get our stuff to the parking place where a big taxi was ready to pick us up. Then we drove to the office where we left all the stuff we had loaned and after we had said goodbye to Julia, the taxi drove us to our hotel Lainer but first we stopped in a shop on the way.
After we had got our room it was already so warm outside and too late to go birding anyway, so we forgot the idea to go to the Airport marshes and took showers and went to soft beds to sleep. Our rooms were too hot too but somehow we managed to sleep. When we woke up, we just took it easy.
During the afternoon and evening we ate twice in the hotel restaurant and about at 8 p.m. we said goodbyes and thanks to Paul who had his flight already early on the next morning.
On the 23rd of June we woke up at 3:30 a.m. with Hanna and after 4 o’clock took a taxi in front of the airport. This time we got a former taxi so we couldn’t order it to come back to pick us up later from Bolshoy Istok where we were dropped. We got a phone-number to the office where we should get a taxi.
Soon we were walking towards the Airport marshes and the rubbish tip there. This time it was much quieter than more than 2 weeks earlier. Some Siberian Stonechats, a couple of Grasshopper Warblers, a Lanceolated Warbler, only some Booted Warblers and a few Yellow Wagtails were seen and heard. We walked towards the bushy area and there through the bumpy terrain close to the bushes that the Long-tailed Rosefinch had used on our last visit.
But in more than an hour we didn’t see anything else than some Reed Buntings and a Paddyfield Warbler. Then I walked to the rubbish tip and there I heard a familiar call and soon saw a male Long-tailed Rosefinch perched on a bush. But once again it disappeared too soon and when Hanna arrived, we couldn’t find it anymore.
A couple of Citrine Wagtails were posing well but then we made a mistake and started to walk around the rubbish tip. There was so much glass and other waste that soon we just walked through all the rubbish back to the track.
The day was warming up very quickly and soon I was sweating too much even though we were walking very slowly. At 8 a.m. we had to stop birding as the heat and the humidity were far too high to keep on going! So we walked back to the main road.
We had planned to walk to a shop along the road to call the taxi, but while we were walking along the main road, a car stopped in front of us and a man came out with binoculars – it was Rami Mizrachi, an Israeli birder that had joined the Polish group on their tour and was still around and birding by himself. Rami had also been in Airport marshes but in some other area and he was now driving back to his hotel which was luckily Lainer. So we got a ride and after all found out that Rami was staying in our neighbour room. I had been wondering why there had been someone up very early in the morning when we had woken up.
So soon I was having a late breakfast in our hotel restaurant and then the rest of the day we just relaxed. In the evening we ate very well in the restaurant and then packed our luggage. At 10 p.m. we were ready to sleep.
On the 24th of June we woke up in the normal time at 3 a.m. and at 3:40 we were walking with our luggage to the airport. Next hour or so we were queuing, showing our passport, getting different kind of stamps, queuing again, showing passport, getting stamps and so on, until we finally got to our gate. An hour later at 5:50 a.m. our Finnair plane left towards Helsinki-Vantaa.
The flight was over soon as we were sleeping most of the time and at 6:55 we landed to Helsinki-Vantaa. My father was there already waiting for us and after we had found our luggage we were soon driving away from the airport. As we had no more clean clothes, we decided to start driving towards Parikkala right away. So we dropped my father to Tikkurila railway-station and started a long drive to home. In Lappeenranta we stopped in Askola pools but soon we were driving again. After all we were at home very tired but happy – we had once again had a great journey!
Altogether we had seen 188 bird-species and for me and Paul 4 of them were WP-ticks while Hanna got 8 new ticks. Some of the species we saw only in Asia. Surprisingly we had no problems at all during our trip even though I really had expected some, it was Russia anyway. The schedule had worked perfectly! The biggest thanks go to Oleg Demyanenko and Julia to Ural Expeditions & Tours and of course to our old friend Paul French who was dealing with Oleg and planning everything! Big thanks also to everyone else who helped us: Alexander, Oleg, Stanislav, Leonid and Galina! It was really nice to meet Felix too and do some birding together.