St Petersburg University ornithologists have discovered that the lower reaches of the Volkhov River are the largest of the spring sites of a rare protected species of waders – the Eurasian curlew. Tatiana Rymkevich, Senior Research Associate in the Department of Applied Ecology and Candidate of Biology at St Petersburg University, told us why the territory around St Petersburg and the Leningrad Region is unique for migratory birds and how to protect the sites where birds recuperate.

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Eurasian whimbrels on the staging site in the Leningrad region. Photo by Sergei Kuznetsov

The area surrounding St Petersburg is the key site on the White Sea-Baltic migration route. It connects the wintering grounds of birds in southwest and western Europe with their nesting sites in the northwest and north of European Russia. This is the route along which water birds and shorebirds migrate. Among them are swans; geese; anas; dabbling and sea ducks; waders; and gulls.

The University experts are monitoring the migratory stopover habitats of birds. Last August, they examined the current state of and development prospects for conservation area ‘Morie’ that was planned to be protected, according to the order by the Committee on Natural Resources of the Leningrad Region. Construction and building in this zone can cause irreparable harm to migrant birds, including those from the Red Data Book of the Leningrad Region and the Red Data Book of Russia, the study revealed.

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A whooper swan on the staging site in the Leningrad region. Photo by Anna Rychkova

The area around St Petersburg has the richest food for thousands of birds to accumulate fat reserves before the next migratory flight (for example, in the spring from the shores of the Gulf of Finland and Lake Ladoga to the White Sea and beyond). The second important factor to ensure the well-being of the staging site is absence of anxiety.

For example, when geese and migrating curlews stop between migratory flight, they congregate in large raised bogs where they can spend nights quietly, while during daytime they feed on hay meadows and fields.

Tatiana Rymkevich, Senior Research Associate in the Department of Applied Ecology at St Petersburg University and Candidate of Biology

‘The southern Ladoga area, the lower reaches of the Volkhov River, has the optimal combination of such factors. The largest spring staging site of such a rare protected species as the Eurasian curlew was found in our region. Sometimes, over a thousand birds can be found on the site,’ said Tatiana Rymkevich.

As a rule, the sites of water birds and shore birds are located in shallow coastal areas, mainly in the Gulf of Finland and Lake Ladoga, and in large swamp areas of the Leningrad region. In the Gulf of Finland, these are shallow waters around the Kurgalsky Peninsula, near the settlement of Bolshaya Izhora and the settlement of Lebyazhye. Yet the main staging sites during seasonal migrations are the coastal areas of the Neva Bay and the south-western, southern and south-eastern shores of Lake Ladoga.

However, as the expert said, many of these sites are now under the threat of extinction. Birds are negatively affected by the destruction of their natural habitats, for example, construction on coastal areas, or by disturbance. If animals cannot find a shelter on a crowded shore or shallow water, they move to where they can store the necessary amount of energy for further migration.

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Red knots and dunlins on the staging site in the Leningrad region. Photo by Anna Rychkova

The birds arrive late at their nesting sites or arrive exhausted and unable to nest, as the expert explains.  This leads to a decline in the number of species. The most vulnerable species today are plovers, sandpipers, and other birds that feed at the water's edge. This is because sandy and pebble beaches are overcrowded and consequently are not suitable for using as staging sites.

The sites of water birds and shorebirds in the Kurgalsky reserve, reservation areas ‘Morie’ and ‘South Ladoga’ on the western and southern shores of Lake Ladoga are under threat.

Tatiana Rymkevich, Senior Research Associate in the Department of Applied Ecology at St Petersburg University and Candidate of Biology

‘The key negative factor is a factor of anxiety and excessive recreational load, including an abundance of motor boats,’ said Tatiana Rymkevich.

The staging sites in our region, as the expert said, are essential to ensure the welfare of birds in the entire North-West region in Russia. Yet there are few efforts to monitor and preserve them, according to the expert. ‘Preserving these unique places calls for developing specially protected natural areas, which include reserves, natural monuments and wildlife sanctuaries, where the disturbance factor is absent or minimised. Additionally, learning how to take care of the environment is essential for all of us. I think that effective nature protection is impossible without moral culture,’ said Tatiana Rymkevich.