Counts of wintering birds of prey in the Crimea in 2010

From 25 January to 1st February founders of UBPRC took part in the Bustard census organized by the Azov-Black Sea Ornithological Station ( in zonal landscapes of South Ukraine. At the same time the data were collected on distribution and numbers of birds of prey.

Our team has covered with counts the following regions of the Crimea: Dzhankoy, Krasnohvardiiske, Nyzhn’ohirskyi, Bilohirsk and Simferopol. A car ‘Niva’ was used for investigations. A total length of transects equaled to 1300 km.
Weather conditions during fieldwork were not quite typical for the Crimea. According to information of local people, there was almost no frost in the steppe Crimea until the second decade of January. However several days before the counts the weather had dramatically changed: a cyclone caused rains, temperature decrease resulted in strong frosting-up, and after that snow fell. It was unusual to see this picture of the traditionally warm Crimea: ice-coated trees glimmering in the sun, ice-covered road as plain as glass, all dumped with snow… In some places in open terrain the snowdrifts reach more than 0.5 m, being a considerable obstacle to move outside the highways. Sometimes even on highways there were piles of snow hardly getting over by motor-cars. Night temperature amounted to -20oC! Only in last days of counts the warming came, small rain fell, and snow began quickly melting.

Main habitats in the region of our investigations consisted of agricultural landscapes separated by forest belts and irrigation canals, part of the area was occupied by vineyards and settlements. The areas of steppe sites were small. Since the count routes were long, we observed quite a high number of birds of prey. However, they distributed unevenly: sometimes there wasn’t any raptor for many km of ploughed fields. But fallows, field with unploughed stubble and also steppe sites held concentrations of raptors – sometimes up to 15 individuals of different species were visible from one point of observation. At this, distribution of species was also unequal: in different days different species dominated. A total of more than 700 individuals of 13 species of Falconiformes were counted and 300 individuals of 3 species of owls. Generally, the Rough-legged Buzzard prevailed, and 4 species simultaneously were subdominant: Common Buzzard, Long-legged Buzzard, Hen Harrier and Kestrel.

Hen Harrier (Cyrcus сyaneus) Though recorded in the Red Data Book of Ukraine, was quite normal on wintering in the Crimea. Total counted 95 ind. These raptors were almost never met over the ploughed fields and winter crops, concentrating exclusively on the areas of fallows, steppes and stubble. During the censuses of wintering birds in zonal landscapes of South Ukraine in February 2001, this species dominated among the birds of prey (Andryushchenko et al. 2006).

Marsh Harrier (C. aeruginosus) is a rare wintering species of South Ukraine. Therefore, a meeting of a single female was for us a pleasant surprise.

Goshawk (Accipiter gentilis) winters in the steppe in small quantities, although it has a good forage base – abundance of domestic pigeons, wood pigeons, stock doves and partridges. A total of 6 birds were recorded, they mainly kept to concentrations of the Wood Pigeon. There were registered remnants of two of these pigeons eaten by a goshawk.

Sparrowhawk (A. nisus) was one of the common species, 54 ind. were counted. Most often it was found in settlements. Although we often observed Sparrowhawks sitting on trees and shrubs among agricultural lands.

Rough-legged Buzzard (Buteo lagopus) was the dominant raptor among wintering birds – 160 ind. were counted. It’s rather high number in the Crimea can be explained by severe winter conditions in northward regions of Ukraine.

The situation with the Long-legged Buzzard (B. rufinus) deserves special attention because the species is listed in the Red Data Book of Ukraine. Apparently, in recent years in the south of the country this species has wintered regularly, although still about 10 years ago, its winter records were single. During the first large census of wintering birds in zonal landscapes of South Ukraine in February 2001 there were counted only 18 individuals (Andryushchenko et al. 2006). In a total, only on the surveyed the territory, we counted 98 Buzzards, which allows to consider it as a usual wintering species. Increase in the number of wintering birds, of course, is due to the increase in the total number of species on breeding. In the course of the expedition there were also found nests of 6 pairs which hadn’t been known previously. At some breeding areas there were adult birds during the census.

Common Buzzard (B. buteo) was one of the most abundant wintering species of raptors (109 birds were counted in a total), although regular wintering of this species in the Crimea began being recorded rather recently – only in the mid 1990’s. (Tzvelykh 2008). During the first large count of wintering birds in zonal landscapes of South Ukraine in February 2001 in the steppe part of the Crimean Peninsula it was counted only 5 individuals (Andryushchenko et al. 2006). Thus, we see that the Common Buzzard rapidly increasing its wintering number in the Crimea. Particular attention was paid to the definition of subspecies of wintering buzzards. But only once it was met the Buzzard of red color, which we had the opportunity to see thoroughly at the close distance, probably it belonged to the subspecies B. b. menetriesi. All other buzzards had a phenotype typical for the subspecies B. b. buteo both juveniles and old birds. There were also counted 54 ind. of Buteo birds of prey, not identified as a certain species because of the large distance or poor visibility.

Imperial Eagle (Aquila heliaca) in the steppe Crimea winters in small numbers. We have met only 4 birds: one immature and 3 adults. During the censuses, we visited one of the breeding sites, previously known, and found two new breeding sites. The two breeding areas hold adult Imperial Eagles; the third had fresh droppings, indicating that eagles visited the nest. These data complement our data of occupying forest belts of the steppe zone of Crimea by the Imperial Eagle, obtained in previous studies.

White-tailed Eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla). The fact that this species may winter in the steppe, away from water bodies, is long known. We have counted 7 individuals, among them were 2 adults kept together as a pair. All birds were recorded in the northern part of the study area. It is possible that the distribution of species was affected by weather conditions – all inland waters, including Sivash, were frozen, so eagles were distributed diffusely.

Saker Falcon (Falco cherrug) is a rare wintering species of the steppe Crimea. We observed 9 ind. Two birds stayed on the outskirts of settlements. In one case, we watched as a female of the Saker Falcon chasing an old male of the Peregrine with prey, apparently trying to seize it. Interestingly, in February 2001 by all the count teams it was met only two Saker Falcons (Andryushchenko et al. 2006).

Peregrine Falcon (F. peregrinus) is a rare wintering species in the steppe Crimea. We watched it twice. In one case, on the outskirts of the village there sat an old female, referring to the Crimean subspecies F. p. brookei, trying to seize a rook from the flock, flying to the site of night roost. This record is noteworthy because the Crimean subspecies of these birds is rare on wintering (Beskaravayny, Tsvelykh 2009).

Merlin (F. columbarius) was rather common during the counts, which is not an annual situation in the region. A total of 21 ind. were counted. Usually Merlins stayed near concentrations of larks. Twice we observed successful hunting of Merlins – in one case it was a Calandra Lark, in another – a small passerine bird. At another site we saw the Merlin sitting with a Chaffinch in its claws.

Kestrel (F. tinnunculus) turned to be a very common wintering species – 95 counted birds. Rather high density of the Kestrel was noted by us in the virgin lands in Prysyvashshia (Sivash area). Other places held 1-2 individuals of birds.

Long-eared Owl (Asio otus). As we have already mentioned in a previous material, the steppe zone of the Crimea is one of the places of mass wintering of the species. In the course of the census, we received some additional information. Thus, the two largest concentrations of these owls were found in Dzhankoy district. The first, numbering at least 100 individuals, was revealed in a group of coniferous trees in the vicinity of the village of Kondratovo. Other 70 birds were observed during the daylight on fir-trees in the village park of Zavet Leninskii. In addition, we have found in various places several small concentrations.

Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus) is a rare wintering bird, we met it only once.

Little Owl (Athene noctua) was observed by us quite regularly, 23 birds were counted. Most owls could be seen warming themselves in the sun on rooftops, on chimneys. However, rather unexpectedly several birds were met outside the settlements – often they were sitting on the concrete wells, located among agricultural lands. Probably, in these wells owls can hide during the day.

In conclusion, I would like to express special thanks to Yury Andryushchenko for organizing the large-scale census of birds in the south of Ukraine.

Maxim Gavrilyuk, Vitaliy Vetrov, Sergey Domashevsky

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