Monday, July 2, 2007

Expedition to the Bureya River (June 22-28, 2007)

Since 2000 the science department at Khingansky Zapovednik has been studying the effects of the Bureiskoye Hydroelectric Dam and Reservoir (built on the Bureya River, a tributary of the Amur) on surrounding ecosystems and on Khingansky Zapovednik. When I first started talking to Slava about visiting Khingansky, he agreed that the reserve’s science staff could take me on an expedition to the Bureiskoye Reservoir in June. On June 22, we left for this expedition. Our company: Slava, Lyosha, Marina, Vitaly, a technician at the zapovednik, me, Robin, and Olga, a student from Birobidzhan studying the potential for development of recreation on the reservoir. (Picture: the zapovednik van (uazik) that took us to the reservoir and all our stuff (unloaded) -- good thing we weren't backpacking!)

Khingansky Zapovednik studies the reservoir together with the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute for Aquatic and Ecological Studies, based out of Khabarovsk. There are 6 sites on the reservoir where scientific research is being done on the influence of the reservoir, and Khingansky zapovednik is responsible for work at three of these sites. (Unfortunately, right now there are problems with getting research done at the control point, so comparison is difficult. ) Khingansky scientists travel to the Bureiskoye Reservoir 3-4 times a year, in spring, fall and winter, and most of their work focuses on counts of animal species – birds, large mammals, rodents. A book of articles was recently published about the effects of the Bureiskoye Dam and Reservoir, and estimates were made of the environmental damage, to what extent animal populations would decline (very significant declines expected, i.e. disappearance of 2/3 of populations), and so on. (Pictures: cool plants)

This scientific monitoring work is funded by the company that owns the Bureiskoye Reservoir. Interestingly, however, this is a different company than the company that owns the dam (i.e., the huge concrete structure) itself. This can lead to some interesting situations (of the sort you only come across in Russia). For example, on June 22 we had to cross the dam in our car to get to our research site. The owners of the dam didn’t want to let us through. They don’t talk to the owners of the reservoir, who are funding the research. On the day of our departure back to Arkhara, June 28, our driver had to cross the dam again to pick us up on the shore of the reservoir. But the dam was now closed until July 6. Nobody told us! (And our driver had no cell phone! Ultimately Slava walked quite a ways to get to the dam from the reservoir, walked across and dam and found our driver, while we took the motor boat with all our stuff to be picked up at another inlet, where the driver and Slava met us.) (Picture: Bureiskoye Reservoir)

The dam on the Bureya has been a project ever since the 1970s, although due to financial and political difficulties during the end of the Soviet era and the 1990s, it is only being completed today. The dam first began producing electricity in 2003 or 2004. There is another dam in the Amur Region, on another tributary of the Amur, the Zeya, that was built in the 1970s. Generally there are plans for quite a number of hydroelectric dams to be built in the next 2 decades on tributaries of the Amur River. (Hopefully, none will be built on the Amur itself, as that could be quite disastrous for the river’s ecosystems.) (Picture left: Robin, Marina, Olga preparing lunch)

Unfortunately, the presence of hydropower in the Amur Region does not mean cheaper electricity prices for the region’s residents. While consumers in Irkutsk, for example, pay less for electricity (there is a dam right in town), residents of the Amur region pay some of Russia’s highest prices for electricity. There is a suspicion that the electricity being generated by dams in the Amur Region, current and future, is going to China.

The most immediately visible effect of the dam is a “dead” zone of dead trees and wood extending several meters up along all shores of the Bureiskoye reservoir. It is fairly rough on the eyes. This dead zone appeared because the shores of the Bureya River were not logged before the dam began working. Overall, it is planned that water in the Bureiskoye Reservoir will rise about 20 meters above the original level of the river when the dam is operating at full power. (The dam is not at full capacity yet, and the dam owners raise the water level a bit more each year.) Theoretically this means that all the trees up to an elevation of 20 m above the level of water in the river should have been logged and cleared out before construction of the dam. They weren’t, and when the water level began to rise, the trees got drowned. (Pictures: dead zone, Bureiskoye Reservoir)

But, the water level in the reservoir doesn’t stay the same height year-round. In the fall, after summer rains, the water reaches its highest level (drowning new trees each year). Then the dam draws water from the reservoir through the spring – and as it draws water, it exposes dead drowned trees). At this time of year, in June, the water level in the reservoir is pretty low – it will fill up again when summer rains begin.

There used to be about 1700 roe deer inhabiting the hills around the Bureya River. It is estimated that a third of this population – 500-600 deer – drowned this winter in the Bureiskoye Reservoir! Although, no one is sure – it could be more, could be less. Roe deer can’t handle snow more than 70 cm high, and the snow reaches that level at the tops of the hills around the reservoir. So the deer more to lower elevations, and usually they would migrate across the iced-over river – they can’t stay trapped in a narrow zone along the shore. However, the river doesn’t freeze as well now due to the reservoir, and this year a lot of deer fell through the ice and drowned. (Pictre: Bureiskoye Reservoir)

After driving to the dam from Arkhara (about a 2-hour drive) and finally getting permission to drive over the dam, we took a 2-hour motor boat ride on the reservoir and made a camp. Russians are really good at camping, so we were not roughing it too much, to be honest. We had 3 4-person tents, and the guys made a wooden structure to put a tarp over, making a big tent for our groceries. We even had a wooden table with stumps for chairs. And, of course, when there are plenty of dead trees all around, there is no shortage of firewood. (Picture: our camp)

Lyosha had the main work on this trip – counting birds. In the spring and the fall Lyosha sets 14 nets for catching birds (12 10-meter nets for small birds, and 2 30-m nets for larger birds). He puts most of the nets in the “dead zone” of dead trees, because it’s interesting to see what birds might be using that area – they are taking a risk, since their young have to learn to fly before the water level rises and drowns the trees again in the fall. He also puts nets in the forest, of course. Lyosha is also interested in finding out how changes in the shoreline (like those that occur when you build a dam) affect bird populations. (Picture: Marina untangling net to catch birds)

It takes a long time – most of a day – to put up all the nets, and then Lyosha checks them several times per day. When a bird gets caught, Lyosha untangles it, brings it back to camp and weighs it, determines its sex and body fat, measures its beak, wings, and so on. He also tags each bird by putting a tiny metal ring on it. Even though most of the birds he catches are small sparrow-like birds, they can live 6-7 years, and Lyosha might catch them again.

Lyosha also goes on hikes to do counts by call (Lyosha can recognize 50-60 different species by their calls, which he claims really isn’t much of an achievement) and to register birds he sees (визуальные встречи). The coolest bird he caught at the reservoir while we were there was a nightjar (козодой). This bird has an amazing and loud call. It has a huge mouth and at night it flies with its mouth wide-open in order to catch insects. (Pictures: above: Lyosha removing a bird from the net; Lyosha and Marine taking measurements and recording)

Slava also took us on a few hikes around the reservoir, counting mammals by their scat. He is, um, quite the scat expert – he call tell you the animal, its sex, how fresh the scat is, what the animal ate, and so on. So although we did not see any bears, deer, hares, grouse, or elk, we did see what they left behind. We also saw quite a lot of tracks and even learned to distinguish them. (Picture left: Slava inspecting some bear scat as Robin looks on)

Our trip was not without its fun and amusement, of course! Navigating a motor boat through lots of tangled, partially sunken dead wood provided amusement of sorts in and of itself. We got leg massages from minnows in the reservoir’s shallows and went swimming in the reservoir – I even made it past a lot of the dead wood – being careful not to knock your legs on an unseen log – that can be painful – and out into real open water, where I could really swim. We told jokes and anecdotes around the campfire. We did our best for Olga to think of ways to develop recreation. (Snorkeling in underwater forests! Seriously though, obviously, the dead zone of trees would be a major factor limiting reaction potential. Otherwise, it’s a fairly pretty setting. Although there aren’t too many people in the near vicinity to recreate here, either.) (Picture: Slava tries to navigate through the logs with Lyosha and Marina's help)

Vitaly took advantage of one current form of recreation on the reservoir pretty well. There are plenty of pike in the reservoir (a species that wasn’t around in such large numbers before the dam), and Vitaly spent most of his free time fishing. He caught a lot of pike! So he and Slava decided they should smoke the fish. Now, to smoke fish you need a big barrel, kind of like a steel drum. We didn’t have a big barrel. “Don’t worry, we’ll find one!” says Slava. Robin to me: “How are they going to find a barrel?” Good point; after all, we are on a reservoir absolutely in the middle of nowhere. But they did find a barrel! And a bunch of hooks to hang the fish on inside the barrel. Don’t ask me… But after two says of smoking fish, we had plenty to take home from the expedition. Pictures: Vitaly, Ogla, Robin and Slava around the campfire; Slava preparing fish to be smoked)

* * *

After we returned from the Bureya on July 28, I got to go back into Khingansky Zapovednik and spend another weekend at the ranger station on Lake Klyoshenskoye. This time I lived in a room in the ranger station, not in a tent. Robin was also there, doing her vet school work on parasites in cranes. It seemed the real summer had now set in, and it was HOT! However, it is really quite scenic at the ranger station. Robin and I hiked in the heat to the site of the environmental education camp organized by the zapovednik, a few kilometers away in the buffer zone of the zapovednik, on Lake Dolgoe (in translation, “Long Lake” – the longest lake in the Amur Region, at 18 km long). We also went swimming and rowed around Lake Klyoshenskoye in the evening (I even got to try my hand at some rowing in a row boat), and we saw a number of herons and cormorants in the grasses along the shore (plus the swans kept at the Reintroduction Center). I went back to Arkhara on Sunday, July 1, spent another evening with Lyosha and Marina, and then headed to Birobidzhan and the Jewish Autonomous Region the next day. Pictures: Cormorant landing on Lake Klyoshinskoye; me learning to row

No comments: