Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Khingansky Zapovednik (June 15 – July 2, 2007)

On Friday, June 15 I left Muraviovka for Blagoveschensk, and from Blagoveschensk took a 5-hour afternoon and evening bus ride to the town of Arkhara, near Khingansky Zapovednik. (Arkhara is a town of about 9000 people, and Khingansky’s main office is located there.) It was hot! No trip in Russia is without adventure, and we changed busses halfway through. The bus we took on the second half of the road to Arkhara was actually air-conditioned! This was a very good thing, because not all roads are well-paved, and there can be a lot of dust flying around – not so pleasant with open windows. (Picture: Lake Klyoshenskoye, Antonovskoye Lesnichestvo, Khingansky Zapovednik)

I arrived to Arkhara at 9 pm and was met by the director of Khingansky Zapovednik’s science department, Slava. I had been corresponding with him over email for 2 months already and was really, really looking forward to my trip to Khingansky. Slava has been working at Khingansky Zapovednik since the early 1990s. He is a really enthusiastic and talkative guy, ready to show you everything, and to give you a detailed answer to any question about the zapovednik, science and more, with stories to go along. I have to say he taught me a lot about Khingansky, and I am so glad he made it possible for me to come visit and learn about the reserve’s work and its science department.

Slava decided we would go straight to the zapovednik – no need to spend the weekend in Arkhara. So he grabbed his backpack, we bought some groceries, and at about 9:30 we hopped into one of the zapovednik’s vans and headed out to the zapovednik’s ranger station on Lake Klyoshenskoye, about a 45-minute drive away. Khingansky zapovednik is divided into two parts, or clusters (see map left), and Lake Klyoshenskoye is located in the smaller and more western of these two clusters, which founded in 1978 and is called Antonovskoye Lesnichestvo. The other, larger cluster was the original territory of the zapovednik, created in 1963. The ranger station on Lake Klyoshenskoye is by far the nicest ranger station in Khingansky Zapovednik, with a fairly new two-story house with a kitchen and 4 bedrooms for guests. Lake Klyoshenskoye is also home to the Station for Reintroduction of Rare Birds, just a few dozen meters this two-story house. At the Station there is also a kitchen and housing for the Station’s staff, plus pens for breeding and rehabilitating rare Far-Eastern storks, red-crowned and white-naped cranes, plus swans. Of course, there is no electricity here. (There is actually an underground refrigerator for keeping food in! You put the food in a plastic bag, tie it to the end of a 10-foot long rope, and lower it down into a hole.) (Picture: Robin using the underground fridge.)

The road does not go all the way to the ranger station, though. It ends on the opposite side of Lake Klyoshenskoye. So we got out, I put on my track pants on over my shorts (plenty of mosquitos here), we piled our stuff into a row boat, and Slava rowed us across the lake to the ranger station. We didn’t stay in the station, though – we camped in a tent. Slava told me a world of information about Khingansky Zapovednik, probably until about 2 in the morning or some ridiculous hour, especially considering we would get up at 5:30 the next day to take a hike through the Antonovskoye Lesnichestvo! (Picture: ranger station at Lake Klyoshenskoye)

Actually, getting up early in the Amur Region at this time of year is definitely not a bad thing. The sun is already up. There are fewer bugs, and it is not nearly as hot. This is a very good thing, because even though there are fewer bugs, there are still lots of bugs in the field (mosquitoes, horseflies and ticks), which means you need to wear long pants and long sleeves no matter the temperature. Plus when it is cooler the animals are more active. And although Slava has so much energy that I was almost frightened of the treks through the wilderness that may lie ahead of me, exploring in the morning and the evening means you can relax and sleep in the heat in the afternoon. (Picture: swan from Station for Reintroduction)

So on my second day at Khingansky Slava and I set out at 6 am on a 3-4-hour hike through the Antonovskoye Lesnichestvo. The Antonovskoye Lesnichestvo is all lowlands, about 50% of it is marsh, another 10-15% is birch and oak forest. For this hike we stayed mostly in the forest. (The second cluster of Khingansky Zapovednik, about three times as big and further east, is about ½ small hills (300-400 m high) and half wetlands.)

We headed out through the woods (Slava pointing out or talking about something interesting the whole way) until we reached a spot with a view over a marshy meadow. From here we could look out through binoculars over the meadow to find roe deer, cranes and storks, and from this spot we saw 6 roe deer, 2 Far Eastern storks, and 1 pair of white-naped cranes. Not bad! Later on while walking through the woods and a bit of marsh we saw one roe deer fairly close-up (he bounded away from us), hawks, and all kinds of flowers (lilies and orchids.) There were so many caterpillars in the woods that they were falling on us constantly! I think both of us probably had 2-3 caterpillars attached to our clothes at all times. (Pictures: Slava checking for deer and birds (above); orchid bashmachok -- ladies' slipper (below))

In the evening we headed out on another hike, going the opposite direction. This time we were mostly in the marsh, which can make for some difficult walking. Although the marsh does not smell, and is not too wet in June (you can get by with some short rubber boots (galoshes)), there are lots of round bumpy tufts of earth that stick out of a marsh, about a foot high or more, with lots of tall grass growing on top. In between these mounds are little shallow channels of water, say about 4 inches wide. This is pretty uneven ground to walk on! You can either try to walk from tuft top to tuft top – but the tufts are pretty uneven themselves – or walk in between the tufts – almost impossible. Apparently, you get better with practice, but I felt pretty clumsy and jounced around, and was glad when we reached a wooden-plank trail that the zapovednik laid this year to make it easier to move about when fighting fires. We followed that trail out to a spot where four wolves had killed a roe deer a couple of weeks ago. While Slava searched for the few tufts of fur the wolves had left behind, I marveled at the size and number of fat reddish mosquitoes flying all around me in the heat. Oh, adventures! (Picture: A roe deer scratched his antlers on this little tree - a common picture)

That evening I met another visitor to the ranger station at Klyoshenskoye – a governmental official from Rosprirodnadzor, the agency that oversees the zapovedniks. He had just returned to Russia from a 20-day trip to Oregon and Washington, where, among other places, he had visited the Wild Salmon Center…small world!

On Monday I left the ranger station at Lake Klyoshenskoye and spent the week in Arkhara, where I got to meet 3 other science department staff, Lyosha, Marina and Misha, and spend a lot of time exploring the zapovednik’s publications and library, learning more about both Khingansky and the Russian PA system. Lyosha and Marina are married, and they took me in while I was in Arkhara, letting me live with them for a few days. They were just wonderful! I am so lucky to have met so many kind, generous, smart and thoughtful people at Khingansky. They really made it a special place for me. (Picture: me dressed to protect against bugs in the hear, in front of zapovednik buffer zone sign)

Khingansky Zapovednik Activities

Like all zapovedniks, Khingansky has 3 departments: science, education and protection; plus it also has the Station for Reintroduction of Rare Birds.

I spent almost all of my time at Khingansky with the staff in the science department. In addition to coordinating long-term monitoring of zapovednik ecosystems for the annual “Nature Chronicles,” like all zapovedniks, Khingansky also organizes scientific work related to a number of different topics, such as conservation of stork and sandpiper populations (Lyosha and Misha are the zapovednik’s 2 ornithologists – Lyosha studies shorebirds, Misha studies storks and cranes); the influence of fires and fire management; the influence of climate change; productivity of small bodies of water, and so on. (Pictures: above: Lake Klyoshenskoye; below: Slava preparing a raft for a scientific expedition to the Bureya River)

Some of the coolest work the science department does are winter counts of ungulate (hooved) species (deer, wild boar, etc). Each December and February they work in teams to ski on huge wide wooden and furry skis over 250 km (!) of routes through both clusters of the zapovednik, counting tracks. And they love it! Slava claims that one year they did these counts on a day that is was 50 below zero. (The Amur Region has a fairly extreme climate.) Khingansky is also unique in its use of GIS technology for science in the zapovednik – for example, they can map fires and also the sites of preventive burns. And they have a satellite system for monitoring fires in the zapovednik, thanks to a grant from US Fish and Wildlife Service.

I have to say that I thought all of the scientists that I met at Khingansky were fantastic. They were all very enthusiastic about what they’re doing, and the fact that they do a lot of work together, on expeditions, really makes it seem like they are a united group. In the words of Lyosha, “ As Sergei Ignatenko [the former science director] says – a team.” (Picture: Heron takes off on Lake Klyoshenskoye)

The main threats in the zapovednik are fires (by far number 1 – there can be very serious fires in the Amur Region), and most of the efforts of the nature protection department are focused on fire fighting and prevention. In the spring and winter both the rangers in the reserve and the science staff do preventative burns in set areas. Last year Khingansky also held a seminar for local farmers (who often are suspected of setting fires to improve soil fertility, that then rage out of control) about burning, and has plans to work with local residents around the Arkharinsky District who set fires, so that they will do so responsibly. Another threat, particularly to bird populations, is the Bureiskoye Dam and Reservoir, on the Bureya River. The dam decreases natural flooding and can lead to the drying out of wetlands needed by cranes, for example. Of course, there is also the threat of poaching for fish and deer, boar, etc on the territory of the reserve. Back in the 1990s the inspectors here used to set spikes behind the cars of poachers who drove into the zapovednik in the winter illegally to hunt deer and boar – once your tires get popped, you might think again about hunting in the reserve. Slava noted that boars today in the reserve versus outside of the reserve demonstrate interesting behavior: boars in the reserve forage for food in the day and sleep at night – obviously, they feel comfortable walking around in broad daylight without fear that they’ll get shot – but boars in neighboring unprotected territories do the opposite – they sleep during the day and forage at night. (Pictures: above: Lake Klyoshenskoye as sun goes down; to left: sign for Khingansky's environmental education camp, "Khingan Country")

The education department at Khingansky has been running annual environmental education camps on Lake Dolgoe in the buffer zone of the Antonovskoye Lesnichestvo since 1996. They also have a kids scientific conference for the Amur Region, for which participants design their own scientific research projects in the field (the winners go to camp for free); Khingansky has involved kids in counting birds (cranes, storks, etc) in the zapovednik, planting trees and conducting fire prevention measures; and they have held various artistic contests, and more.

The Station for Reintroduction of Rare Birds has been around since 1988 and breeds red-crowned and white-naped cranes for release into the zapovednik. It is very difficult to breed and release these birds successfully into the wild – they may not fly away south on winter migrations, for example, or they might just keep coming back to the place they hatched, rather than finding their own spot in nature. Most reintroduction stations release chicks into the wild in the fall (the chicks hatch in the spring and migrate south in the fall), but the station at Khingansky waits until the chicks are a year old and release them the next spring, reasoning that several month-old chicks can’t find their way south to migrate their first fall – they don’t have the usual help from their parents, since they were born in captivity. (Picture above: Lena washing basins at pier at Station for Reintroduction of Rare Birds)

The station also keeps swans and Far Eastern storks. When I was there, there were 2 month-old storks there who had fallen out of their nest in a strong wind storm in early June (pictured above). (Last picture (to right): Lake Klyoshenskoye)

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