Roland has sent another bulletin through the ether from Russia, updating us on happenings from earlier in the month. Sadly no photos for now.
Today was a good day as Roman had serviced and repaired the blue-black quad bikes, meaning we could now visit areas much further afield. My choice was the marshes and western shoreline of Lake Angavie. Pavel and Egor had visited it a couple of days ago, whilst I had been surveying Overwash Spit. The environment looks perfect, but the waders had not yet appeared as this area is always a few days behind the other areas to the north and west of Meino.
I started at the southern end, where Angavie enters the First River, and was greeted by an encouraging glimpse of a small wader the size and colour of a spoon-billed sandpiper. However, when I got full view of it ten minutes later, I could see it was in fact a red-necked stint; my first of the year and very handsome in its breeding plumage, but not a spoonie.
I decided to head a bit further west along the Third River as far as the ice had cleared, as good numbers of sea ducks were now appearing. As I neared the point at which the river was still frozen, I came across a pair of red knot feeding in a pool along the edge of a thawing patch of snow. This was my first chance to spend a little time watching these birds in their stunning breeding plumage. However, the Marshes and spits around Angavie are a lot ground to cover and it was time to get on and survey them, so I left the knots, having first taken a GPS reading for Pavel and Egor.
Otherwise, Angavie could best be described as a bird desert (albeit a rather wet one). Apart from a few displaying dunlin and some pairs of emperor geese, the only other highlight came at the end of the day when a pair of stunning white-billed divers flew quite low over me, heading NW out over Angavie, uttering the most incredible flight calls, like loud, insanely manic laughter.
Today’s quest was to the western marsh along the edge of the Pants Peninsula. Previously it’s been possible to cross the Third River to this marsh wearing waders, but with the rapid thaw now in progress this is no longer possible. To add to matters, the nearest bridge (a few kilometres to the east) is broken and not safe to drive the quad over. With no other options available, it was time for another long walk.
After eight largely uneventful kilometres (with the exception of a singing blue-throat and a Mongolian plover behaving suspiciously like it had a nest close by), I had surveyed the foot of the moraine hills, along the shore of a small lake and crossed back across some deserted tundra to a marshy area that looked very promising. I sat down to eat a late lunch and watch a pair of Pacific golden plovers, when I heard the distinctive call of a male spoon-billed sandpiper about one hundred metres to the north.
I followed the sound along the pools at the base of a bank of melting snow and ice and there he was – another male spoonie, looking very calm and relaxed and well fed on the numerous large mosquitoes that had become stuck to the ice and immobilised (that is those that were not eating me).
His behaviour was very different to that of the male I had seen along the Overwash Spit and to the male previously seen here by Pavel and Egor. This kind of behaviour was indicative of a male settled in a territory, but also one with a mate. I retired to a safe distance and watched this male feeding and occasionally calling for quite a while, but there was no sign of a female. Eventually, as time ticked away, and with a long walk ahead of me and no mosquito repellent, it was time to head home.
Whilst I had been trudging around the edge of the moraine hills to the west, yesterday Pavel and Egor had headed north along the shore of Lake Pikul’ney to the foot hills of the mountains. They had seen good numbers of dusky warblers and bluethroats, as well as a lone male spoon-billed sandpiper who, for the last few years has made his territory right on the far edge of the breeding grounds where there’s no real chance of ever attracting a female and has been reduced to chasing around red-necked stints.
They also checked the area known as The Cross, known to have previously held spoonies, but didn’t find any. They had, however, observed large numbers of greyling entering one of the streams that feed into the lake and, knowing that I was a keen (although not very proficient) fisherman, suggested I re-check the area more thoroughly and also have a chance for a little bit of fishing as well.
The morning got off to a flying start with me coming across a gyrfalcon, hunting around the monument and along the, now ice-free, shores of the lake. As I headed north along the lake shore to The Cross, the track was still blocked in a number of places and a number of the stream crossings on the way were still iced over. This meant a lot of off-roading up into the moraine hills and down along the lake shore, in order to get to my destination without getting the quad bike stuck. I have to say I was very impressed with the off-road abilities of the quad bike, especially using the low gear ratio and I was able to travel the 10km or so to the survey area with no trouble at all.
Once there, I started to survey the marshy shoreline of the lake and the moraine hills along its periphery. As with many of my experiences here, it was a fairly quiet affair with just a few dunlin in the hills; though there were good numbers of Pacific eiders on the ice of the lake, which was now thawing rapidly, and red-necked phalarope feeding along its edges.
The highlight of the morning came when I arrived at a lake at the northern end of the area, both full of very active greyling and with a pair of stunning white-billed divers, probably the same pair I had observed earlier in the week flying over Angavie. I met one of the local Chukchi fishermen whose name was Egor and who also spoke quite a bit of English. I stopped for a cup of tea and a chat with him. He was both interested in my fishing rod, as the locals tend to take a more no nonsense and practical approach to fishing, and also in the spoon-billed sandpipers, as we have become pretty well known for our project over the last few years. I showed him some of my photos of the birds and then spent a particularly enjoyable couple of hours fishing with him. I ended up with a respectable fish, although my method was far less efficient than his and in the same time he caught many more fish than me. It was also interesting watching him head out onto the ice to fish in the lake itself. I would never have dared to venture out onto the ice now that it was melting. He was however, half my size and could read the ice. He clearly knew where he could go safely and never at any time looked in any danger. He also managed to catch a couple of short-spined scorpion fish that he fed to his dog and, although very spiny, the dog seemed to have no problem dealing with them.
After an extremely enjoyable break, I decided to try to survey the marshes and moraine hills to the south again, as they looked very promising and something could have easily turned up whilst I had been fishing in the lake. I headed south again along the shoreline and after about a kilometre I again heard that wonderful buzzing call of a displaying male spoonie. However, this time it was different to the other times I had heard it – it was more intense and as if the bird in question was putting far more effort into it. It was also being performed on the wing and I was hearing it over quite a wide area. I headed towards the rough area where the calls were coming from most frequently and, as I reached the southern corner of the marsh, I caught my first sight of a male spoon-billed sandpiper in full song flight. And very impressive it was too, flying up to around two hundred feet and really singing its little heart out, before dropping again after a minute or two. This performance carried on for around half an hour before the bird moved away from the area. It was an amazing spectacle and made a really exciting end to a great day.
When I later spoke with Pavel and the rest of the Russian team about this, they told me that this particular behaviour was indicative of unpaired males searching for a female and certainly, there was an element of desperation in this male’s call compared to the others I had heard. So fingers crossed this little male would have some success this year. From the effort he was putting into his display, he certainly deserved it.
Back to Angavie again today, although this time to concentrate on the areas where spoon-billed sandpipers had previously bred and were known to congregate to feed, and with the added bonus of another potential spot of fishing, this time for the both more sporting and tastier Arctic char.
However, work first as always and I started at a small lake to the west of Angavie, well known as a feeding area for spoonies. Given that they always return to Angavie later than the other areas, this was the most likely place to find them. The lake was however, rather on the quiet side, with just some dunlin and a dead and rather decayed bear being the only real points of interest.
Just after leaving the lake to head for the western shore of Angavie proper, I noticed a very interesting looking wader. I stopped and checked through my binoculars and saw that it was another lifer for me and a really stunning one at that – a female red phalarope in full breeding plumage. The western shore of Angavie was also fairly quiet, although I could see a lot of the ice had now melted and there was a channel flowing right through the lake.
Once at the entrance to Pikul’ney, I at least had the chance of casting a line. However that was soon scuppered by the nevertheless impressive sight of around three hundred well-fed larhga seals hauled out on the ice around one kilometre out on the lake. It was not really a case that there were no fish, more that they were not hanging around at the entrance, given that those that did were ending up down the throats of the seals and pacific divers that had congregated there.
Driving back in the evening I had a bizarre and somewhat ludicrous encounter with a bear. Around two to three hundred metres away, one of the numerous oil drums that scatter the tundra here suddenly stood up on its hind legs! Given the distance, I stopped the quad to get a better view through my binoculars. Brown bears have very poor eyesight but maybe the animal recognised a change in the sound of the quad bike’s engine, because it certainly felt something was wrong and dropped like a stone into the vegetation on the tundra. Unfortunately for the bear the vegetation in this particular area consisted of sparse crowberry and lichens, with nothing higher than five centimetres, so the unfortunate animal looked rather silly, attempting to hide there for another minute or so, before the tension of the situation became too much and it broke cover heading off towards the shore of Lake Pikul’ney.
I was again surveying the area along the South Eastern shore of Pikul’ney. First, quickly checking the spit that goes out across from the marsh around Angavie (not a good place for spoonies). I saw lots of geese and Pavel was particularly interested to hear if the five pairs of emperor geese had settled there and were likely to breed, but there were fewer geese now and only three pairs of emperors.
I had yet another lifer though – when counting a group of black brants I noticed a pair of cackling Canada geese amongst them. These were cracking little birds, perfect miniatures of the feral canada geese we’re used to seeing in the UK.
Moving west towards the Overwash Spit, I saw a male red phalarope – not as bright as the female, but still a handsome chap. As I started surveying the Overwash Spit the wind really started to pick up in strength and what had been a lovely sunny day started to become really cold. Apart from a group of 20 scaup on one of the larger pools, the whole place was deserted.
When surveying areas like this, or any area around Meino, I always remind myself that the area is known for high diversity of species, but low densities of birds. Given how low the density of spoon-billed sandpipers is, it is always important to keep going and keep focussed.
This paid off when I decided to check some of the more sheltered areas along the shore of the lake, rather than the marshy pools where I had found birds previously, and I came across a pair of spoonies feeding in the shallows. I watched them for as long as I could, keeping back a safe distance as the male in particular seemed a bit more nervous than previous birds I had observed. The pair was clearly just feeding and not displaying any nesting behaviour. As it became late and I became cold, I headed back to the village and arrived to hear the great news from Nikolai that the first pair of spoonies had made a nest and started to lay eggs! Keeping our fingers crossed, we could be collecting our first clutch of eggs after the weekend.