Russian Far East to the Arctic: Spoon-billed Sandpiper & Wrangle Island
This summer I spent nearly six weeks on the Eastern Frontier of Russia along the Kamchatka Peninsula and the Siberian coast above the Arctic Circle. This was my first expedition in these northern latitudes. Initially I was there to search for the habitat of the very rare and endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper for The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) of Slimbridge and the London Zoo under the auspices of Bird Life International and the Academy of Sciences, Russia. My fellow searchers and I walked dawn to dusk on sections of the Kamchatka tundra that had been identified as potential habitat by satellite searches of the region. We walked in a line across the landscape over hills; through streams and around snow melt marshes for days without finding a single encouraging sign of the birds. Later we did visit the one known nesting area near the village of Meinypil’gyno (spelling) that serves the only few birds known in the region. Even there I only glimpsed two of these three-inche tall birds on the fly from a distance. Maybe I will be more successful next summer. Getting to these sites requires a ship and lots of time to walk miles across the tundra. There are no roads in the entire country except around the two towns that are separated by approximately 1,100 miles, as the Stellar Sea Eagle would fly, with some of the most rugged and beautiful landscape in the world. Getting to and from the potential “Spoonie Sites” gave us great opportunities to see some of the other wildlife and habitats. For example, I had my first encounters with colorful Puffins along this coast.
While on the Zhupanova River I saw a number of Steller’s Sea Eagles. This large Eagle often weighs up to 20 pounds. We observed an eagle as it caught a salmon and returned to its nest high in a tree next to the river where we were in our zodiacs searching for birds and bears to photograph. Our guide told us that the Stellar Eagles were in decline along the entire 1,200 miles of Kamchakta coast, where they once had been more numerous. I found them very impressive with their enormous beaks and fierce eyes to powerful giant talons.
We stopped to visit a small fishing village on the river. The men in this village are there to capture the spawning salmon that would be arriving about a week after we were on the river. The village fisherman invited us to lunch where in the cook building large bowls of fresh salmon caviar were waiting and grilled salmon from the fast moving river had been prepared for us. The packing and cooling facilities were rather new but the living conditions were from another time and place to me. Old truck caravan bodies without the trucks and ancient-leaning shacks were the accommodations for these hard working and grim-looking men. They had large dogs to spread the alarm if bears happened to come near the village. I was from another culture and felt concern for their lives. Recently the Kamchatka Rivers accounted for 25% of the ocean’s salmon. Extensive roe collecting from these illegal fishing camps has greatly reduced the salmon populations to less than 10% of the former numbers annually and they could easily become nearly non-existent statistically in the near future. Helicopters fly in regularly from Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy (PK) or special ships to haul out thousands of pounds of roe on a regular basis. The roe is more valued worldwide than the salmon and more easily transported.
On the way up the coast we crossed over to the Commander Islands where we landed. During Vitus Bering’s explorations he and his crew were shipwrecked here and survived in large measure eating the local version of the sea cow, elsewhere called a Dugong and in the United States a Manatee. Eventually the inhabitants of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy (PK) and other Russian outposts killed all of these sea cows for their “beef-like” meat. I was surprised to find many people living on these islands in medium size two story communist-era buildings with a few cows walking around the village. We walked to the museum and saw a sea cow skeleton, stuffed birds and photographs from their past. At one time there appeared to be much trading with companies from San Francisco.
On the Commander Islands I also saw my first Stellar Sea Lions. I had read that the Stellar Sea Lion was the largest of the eared seals and inferior in size only to Elephant Seals. The male Stellar is very impressive with a voice that can travel for miles. I saw them on the beach next to the fur seals and was a little surprised how large they were. As far as I know it is still not known why the populations of the Stellar Sea Lion is shrinking around its entire range. We did not see any more Stellar Seal Lions.
In the days of the Russian Empire and later the Soviet Union, people were sent to this region to live in gulags, a kind of prison camp. Since these places were hundreds if not thousands of miles from towns, over very difficult country and terrible weather, few ever escaped or departed alive. We visited one such camp that had been filled with about 400 women who were sent there for reasons we will never know. They fished and as we found piles of fur seal bones we assumed they also survived on the meat. The empty camp had a particularly unhappy feeling about it. We walked the surrounding area as one of the potential locations to find the Spoon-billed Sandpipers.
Our group visited the village of Meinypil’gyno where the Chukchi people greeted us with traditional dancing and showed us their uranga huts. This small village had previously been a reindeer-herding group but the reindeer had been “socialized” under the previous government and the herds eaten during those difficult times. After the Soviets took control and started to manage the people they made life very difficult for the Chukchi people. Today there was hope to have reindeer again within the next year and return to this part of their culture. At the present time they were fishing salmon. The native populations were forced to move from their villages and reindeer herds to assimilate in the late 50’s. Most were moved out of their villages into two or three coastal towns thereby diminishing their languages, customs and traditional occupations. It was easier for the authorities to monitor their activities and supply them with marginal provisions.
I did not know we would not be seeing very many walruses as we moved above the Arctic Circle on the way to Wrangle Island, but it turned out that we did come upon a “haul-out” of several thousand walruses before we got to Anadyr. Our guide cautioned us to be silent as we launched the zodiacs because the walruses are hunted and exhibit great wariness when it comes to humans. We nestled down in the zodiacs as to not present outlines that they might identify as “hunters.” We did not want to frighten them while on land that might have caused them to stampede and possibly hurt one another with their tusks. However our silence and slow movement did attract their curiosity. The outboard motors were turned off and we drifted for a long time and then heads began popping up not very far from our zodiacs and their small eyes were peering at us just above the water line. We continued to sit quietly while more and more heads joined the raft of heads and whiskers and long shinning white tusks. They apparently decided we were harmless and we were treated to “Walruses Everywhere.”
After several hours with the walruses we headed back to the ship and were surrounded by Grey Whales breaching and showing us their flukes. These are the same Grey Whales that birth their young in Baja, Mexico and work their way up and down the California coast every year on their way to these northern waters. Later we sailed up through the Bering Sea between Russia and the US and in the process passed through the feeding location for the Grey Whales. They are hunted in this region and their behaviors are stealthier. They only surface to blow and gulp in air and they did not flash their flukes or fins out of the water. I have often seen them near the California coast because of their flukes and fins.
We went ashore to visit historical and archeological sites when they were present. “Whale Bone Alley” on Yttygran Island and Cape Dezhnev overlooking the Bering Straits were 2 of my favorites. I walked through the remains of the Eskimo villages and former, now abandoned, Russian border patrol buildings next to one another high on the cliffs overlooking the sea. At Uelen Village, known for their ivory carving, we arrived the day of their festival on the beach. The children happily greeted us and we participated with their games: rope tug, weight lifting and wrestling, and watched the traditional dancing and drumming. The Chukchi Villagers named our teams “The Touristas.” Our woman’s “rope pull team” did very well pulling over the village woman a number of times until they had “met their match” but our men’s team did not do as well, but you can imagine the strength of these maritime hunters.
As we encountered the ice fields above Russia we entered into dense fog with little visibility and had to stop for our safety a number of times and then “zig zag” through the ice. I was disappointed at being in this fog as I thought this area would be our first opportunity to see Polar Bears. When the weather cleared we did start to see Polar Bears but not in the numbers that I had hoped. Often the bears were swimming at some distance away from us.
The coast of Wrangel Island had the remains of a number of settlements and weather stations. Each was littered with rusty oil barrels and falling down buildings. A few rangers live on the island and I believe 2 researchers, one for polar bears and one for snowy owls. Since the animals are hunted in these areas whenever we saw a polar bear, owl, snow goose or musk ox it would turn and run from us. We did see a number of mammoth bones and tusks, as this was the last island on earth where these animals lived after the Late Pleistocene.