Collaborative ornithological researches in the Caucasus

June 14th, 2009 Posted in Field researches, Photos
In early May 2009 the third Russian-Ukrainian expedition across the Northern Caucasus took place. The first expedition of this kind was in late May-early June 2004 along the Eastern Azov area and Taman. The second expedition in early May 2008 covered the Eastern Azov area and the Western Caucasus till Elbrus area, also Stavropolje and Kalmykia were investigated on the way. The last, most prolonged and effective route, from 1 to 10 May went across six regions of Russia: Rostov region, Kalmykia, Stavropol Territory (Stavropolje), plains and mountains of Daghestan, Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachai-Cherkesia. The total length of this over Russia rally comprised about 3,300 km.

The expeditions were mainly aimed at searching for birds of prey and counting their numbers, especially rare, strictly protected ones: eagles, griffons, the Lammergeier, Egyptian Vulture, Long-legged Buzzard, Lesser Kestrel, etc. At the same time we studied their ecology, phenology of breeding, behaviour and the limiting factors, which determine dynamics of their ranges and populations. Also we gathered faunistic materials, counted small species of birds at our camping sites, searched for nests and carry out other investigation.

Materials of first two expeditions have been reflected in seven collaborative publications (Belik et al. 2004-2008) and in a number of other works. Very interesting results were received during the last travel as well. Thus, in Kalmykia and surrounded areas there was traced a pattern of current distribution of the Steppe Eagle and Long-legged Buzzard. The Steppe Eagle almost disappeared during last years, only preserved in small refuges with colonies of the little souslik, while the Long-legged Buzzard gradually increases its numbers and distributes to the west, mastering substituting food and new habitats, namely the poles of power lines where Steppe Eagles once nested, forest belts in fields, solitary trees and bushes in sand areas. During last years a separate population has been formed in mountains of Daghestan with birds began nesting on rocks (Bukreev et al., 2007). Now the Long-legged Buzzard there intensively penetrates in the depth of dry mountain villages and its breeding sites we have already found near the auls of Paraul, Arkas, etc. (aul- local name of the village in the Caucasus).

In Daghestan and Stavropolje the Lesser Kestrel continues increasing number and goes on dispersing. Concentrations of hundreds of these birds have been, for instance, discovered among Nogaiski steppes in Lenin-aul and Kalinin-aul. There, under roofs of small one-storeyed houses, often nested 5-10 pairs at one time. Also, individual pairs and small settlements of the Lesser Kestrels were traced west until auls of Boranchi and Karagas in Daghestan and villages of Abram-Tyube and Zunkar’ in Stavropol Territory.

Current tendencies in populations of the Imperial Eagle striked the most. Thus, in plains and foothills of Daghestan, where a total number of this species had been estimated as 12-15 pairs (Dzhamirzoev et al., 2000), we discovered about 20 new nests (12 nests in the plain; 1 nest on slopes of the biggest in Europe fantastic sand dune Sarykum in the reserved area in the foothills near Makhachkala; the rest located in an intermountain trench). Already for one day of the 5th March in Daghestan we have found 7 occupied nests of Imperial Eagles. Two new nests of these birds were discovered in forest belts in Stavropol Territory, an old nest was registered on Kabardinskaya foothill plain. Also 9th May under cuestas of Skalisty Ridge in the interfluve of Chegem and Baksan, having passed only 30 km of our route, we counted already 11 nests of the Imperial Eagle, only 4 of them previously known (Belik, Telpov 2007). At this, 2 other nesting sites of this bird remained uninvestigated because of the time deficit.

Golden Eagles also turned out to be a common species in Daghestan mountains. Already for two days, having passed 400 km of our car route across Daghestan mountains, we had up to 8 records of Golden Eagles, most of them obviously kept in nesting sites. Previously it had been known only 4-5 sites of their nesting (Dzhamirzoev et al. 2000; Bukreev et al. 2007). Now 2 nests with chicks located 3 km apart were found 6th May on a small ridge in surroundings of the town of Buinaksk and another nest in the ravine of the Khalagork River near the aul of Levashi. At the same time, the old nesting site of the Golden Eagle on a huge White Rock, inspected in 2002 in the Orota depression at the Avarskoe Koisu River (Belik et al., 2002), now is abandoned as poachers took out the chicks

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Totally, during our trip we observed 25 species of birds of prey and 5 species of owls. However, this time we also did not manage to gain the main aim of our travel to the Caucasus: unfortunately we did not find at least one nesting site of the Saker Falcon. In the regions of last known observations in Buinakskaya trench (Belik et al. 2002; Bukreev et al. 2007) we could not even see these birds though habitats on some ridges were quite fit for their nesting. Obviously, the cause of our fail lies only in the deficit of time, and probably in bad weather conditions which followed us this time almost all our travel, or maybe we just were not lucky.

However, two days is almost nothing for the automobile route in Daghestan, so huge and unique according to its natural characteristics! For thorough investigation and search of rare bird species weeks and months of tedious work are needed. Only then any conclusions can be made!
Still, using the opportunity we would like to thank Doctor of Biology Evgeny Pisanets (Head of Zoological Museum of National Nature History of National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine) who shared with us all hardships of the travel for his friendly participation in our work, interesting talks, lectures and discussions covered the most diverse topics, and especially for the cold beer always arisen on our table in the evenings.

We are also sincerely grateful to the Russian Bird Conservation Union for assistance in organization of our expedition.

V.Belik, Yu.Milobog, V.Vetrov

Belik V.P., Vetrov V.V., Milobog Yu.V. 2004. Distribution and current numbers of the Raven in the Western pre-Caucasia. Strepet 2 (1): 138-142 [in Russian]

Belik V.P., Vetrov V.V., Milobog Yu.V., Gugueva E.V. 2008. The White-tailed Eagle inhabiting shelterbelt forests in the Don basin and pre-Caucasia. Strepet 6 (1): 113-117 [in Russian]

Belik, V. P., Milobog, Yu. V., Vetrov, V. V., Malovichko, L. V. 2008. Breeding of the White-tailed Plover in Eastern Manych and Kalmykia. Strepet 6 (1): 118-121 [in Russian]

Belik, V. P., Vetrov, V. V., Milobog, Yu. V., Malovichko, L. V. 2008. Breeding of the Imperial Eagle (Aquila heliaca Sav.) in steppe Stavropolje. In: Latest studies on Birds of Prey and Owls. Proceedings of the 3d International Scientific Conference “Birds of Prey of Ukraine”, Kryvyi Rih, 24-25 October 2008. (eds. M.N.Gavrilyuk, G.V. Fesenko). – Kryvyi Rih, pp. 25-27. [in Russian]

Belik, V. P., Milobog, Yu. V., Vetrov, V. V, Gugueva, E. V. 2008. Materials for assessing numbers of the Lesser Spotted Eagle (Aquila pomarina C.L. Brehm) in Krasnodar Territory and Adygei. In: Latest studies on Birds of Prey and Owls. Proceedings of the 3d International Scientific Conference “Birds of Prey of Ukraine”, Kryvyi Rih, 24-25 October 2008. (eds. M.N.Gavrilyuk, G.V. Fesenko). – Kryvyi Rih, pp. 28-32. [in Russian]

Belik, V. P., Vetrov, V. V., Milobog, Yu. V. 2008. New adaptive traits in breeding ecology of the Common Buzzard in the North Caucasus. Strepet 6 (2): 41-46 [in Russian]

Belik, V. P., Vetrov, V. V., Milobog, Yu. V. Materials on ornithofauna of Taman Peninsula. Branta (in press) [in Russian]

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