Expedition to southern regions of Ukraine

An expedition was undertaken during the last decade of May 2009 in the framework of the project supported by the Falcon Research Centre (United Kingdom). The aim was to reveal the sites, suitable to set up nest boxes for Saker Falcons on poles of power lines.

The participants of the expeditions were Vitaly Vetrov, Sergey Domashevsky and Elena Vetrova. In the first place they investigated the power lines adjoined the sites with good food resource (colonies of small sousliks, rooks, gulls and other species of birds) and with absence of territorial pairs of ravens (main suppliers of nests for falcons) or human disturbance factor.

Territories of Kherson region, Zaporizhzhya region and Crimean Autonomous Republic were studied by car ‘Niva’. The route crossed both virgin steppes and agricultural landscapes. The points interested for the project were fixed with GPS. A total of 49 points, prospective for further setting up of nest boxes, were identified.
Steppes and agrocoenoses of the Central and North Crimea, south areas of Kherson region and Zaporizhzhya region were rather thoroughly investigated. In a total, the expedition covered over 2,500 km.

In spite we had to escape frequent rains, especially intensively followed us on the Crimean Peninsula (fortunately, in the steppe you can see everything from one skyline to another), spring landscapes of the flowering steppe enjoyed us and gave no reason for melancholy. We intensively study the points which interested us, at the same time counting birds of prey and searching for their nests.

Number of Red-footed Falcons nesting in forest belts was striking. In the place they are common inhabitants of Corvidae nests, especially rookery. In this period these small falcons still had incomplete clutches, therefore they sat near nests or sort out their relationships with neighbours. In one concentration of hunting Red-footed Falcons we counted at least 100 individuals. In Corvidae nests located both on trees and poles of power lines we observed quite a lot of Kestrel pairs. Clay cliffs of Sivash sheltered even small colonies of these birds 10 to 20 pairs, inhabited ledges and niches of cliffs in the neighborhood with the Little Owls and Rollers. It is interesting that some pairs already had fledglings (two cases), but mostly small chicks and clutches occurred. We found nests of Hobby Falcons in forest belts, in Corvidae nests, on poles of power lines. As for other raptors, Marsh Harriers were observed the most frequently, though a part of them obviously did not breed (vagrant individuals). There were only two records of Montagu’s Harrier (late migrant and immature bird). There were found 4 nests of Long-legged Buzzard, three of them we managed to investigate. The nests contained 3, 4 and 3 chicks respectively, which we ringed. Also there were discovered 2 unoccupied nests of Long-legged Buzzard, which were easily distinguished by presence of anthropogenic garbage in their construction (cellophane, rags, paper). We also discovered 14 territorial birds of this species, unknown before. The Common Buzzard was more frequently recorded in Zaporizhzhya region, several meetings were in the north of Kherson region.
We checked the known nest of the Imperial Eagle, built by birds in a forest belt. After fire all trees have shriveled, and a construction of birds was easily seen from a distance. Adult birds kept at a new nest, the old construction had disappeared. In a tray we found remains of a small hare and a souslik. The grass trampled under the nest tree and broken twigs were clear evidence that lately the nest had been visited by someone. Later, a local birdwatcher said to us that there were 3 chicks in the nest on the other day.
One of the most prominent events of the expedition was a meeting of feeding scavengers. Between the villages of Gvardeiskoye and Novy Sad over 50 Black and Griffon Vultures were feeding on a large dump of entrails of domestic animals, about the same quantity were hovering above the place. Some birds were flying away with food toward the mountains and it was uneasy to count all of them. In the end, about 110 Griffon Vultures and 25 Black Vultures were counted at the place. This is one of the largest concentrations of scavengers known in the Crimea for the current century. Here we also have met the Black Kite – the only record during this expedition. The White-tailed Eagle was also observed once – a young bird at North Sivash.
Our main hero, the Saker Falcon, did not avoid us either. We have found 7 nests not known before and met 2 pairs. In one of the days we discovered at once 5 occupied nests of this falcon. One pair already led good-flying chicks, other birds had completely or partly feathered chicks, the rest had birds in the first or second downy plumage. The Saker’s diet contained sousliks, small murine rodents, Calandra Larks, Mediterranean Gulls, Slender-billed Gulls and small waders. Under nests of some pairs we found up to 15 pairs of gull wings. The closest nests of falcons were only 1.5 km apart.
Of nocturnal birds of prey the most common species was the Long-eared Owl. Broods and females, incubating repeated (or even the second?) clutches were easily discovered in forest belts. The Little Owl was frequently observed. These birds kept near the human buildings, also many Little Owls we saw on clay cliffs of Sivash. This breeding season in comparison with the previous ones was rich in records of the Short-eared Owl. However, the Scops Owls were rather scanty.

We have recorded a total of:

Red-footed Falcon – at least 754 pairs;
Common Kestrel – at least 444 pairs;
Hobby Falcon10 pairs;
Marsh Harrier61 individuals;
Montagu’s Harrier2 individuals;
Common Buzzard10 pairs;
Long-legged Buzzard4 occupied nests, 2 – unoccupied nests and 14 territorial birds;
White-tailed Eagle1 individuals;
Black Kite1 individuals;
Griffon Vulture110 individuals;
Black Vulture25 individuals;
Imperial Eagle1 pairs;
Saker Falcon8 occupied nests and 2 pairs;
Long-eared Owl, Short-eared Owl, Little Owl, Scops Owl.

136 bird species have been registered in overall.

There were also recorded species listed in the Red Data Book of Ukraine (1994): White Pelican, Glossy Ibis, Ruddy Shelduck, Long-legged Buzzard, Imperial Eagle, White-tailed Eagle, Griffon Vulture, Black Vulture, Saker Falcon, Common Crane and Demoiselle Crane, Great Bustard, Stone Curlew, Kentish Plover, Black-winged Stilt, Avocet, Oystercatcher, Collared Pratincole, Great Black-headed Gull, Caspian Tern and Black-headed Bunting.

In this travel we were sorrowed with information of continuing poaching connected with exploitation of birds of prey and other rare bird species. During recent years the poaching is increasing in the south of Ukraine. Two species of large falcons breeding in Ukraine are transported for falconry into some Asian countries. Chicks are taken out of their nests, inexperienced fledglings are caught the same as young birds just learnt to hunt. Chicks of the Imperial Eagle are also taken intensively. Eagles are used by photographers in recreation zones to attract holidaymakers. We were confidentially informed that one of local poachers in the Crimea supplied photographers with 19 eagles.

Naturally such scale of taking birds from nature threatens the existence of some species in the whole region. The group of the Imperial Eagle, inhabiting hard-to-reach mountains, does not suffer so much from poacher’s press, but the steppe group can vanish in the nearest time or be constantly at the critical level of population.

What real actions are undertaken nature conservation departments and agencies of the Crimea? The birds taken from nature are constantly seen by everybody (we mean those using by photographers). It is known that in Kyiv this problem was arranged with participation of the director of Kyiv Ecologic-Naturalistic Centre Vladimir Boreiko who managed to solve the question about not using animals by photographers. In the Crimea the situation is different, and we all should think how we can solve the arisen problem and do our best.

Sergey Domashevsky, Vitaly Vetrov

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