When it comes to knowledge of bird populations, a large part of continental Europe is off the map. Now, ornithologists and enthusiasts in Russia are working to fill the information gap by creating a bird atlas.
Anyone who has ever taken a plane inside Russia has some idea of how vast this country actually is. Flying from west to east takes about ten hours. The larger part of Russia is situated east of the Ural Mountains, in Asia. The European part of the country, west of the Urals, still covers more than one third of Europe's landmass. And this is the area where a handful of ornithologists and birdwatchers have just started a daring and unique undertaking: a full investigation of its breeding bird population.
"Russia is, well, fairly large," chuckles Mikhail Kalyakin, with a twinkling in his eyes. As the director of the Zoological Museum of Moscow State University the ornithologist is the main coordinator of the survey, which will be carried out by hundreds of both professional and amateur observers over the next five years.
The results will be published in the first ever atlas of the breeding birds of European Russia. But they will also be included in a new all-European atlas which is expected to see the light around 2020.
Birding on the rise
The first European breeding bird atlas was published in 1997, an impressive volume presenting the results of atlas field work carried out in most European countries. The former Soviet Union, however, largely remained a grey area at the time, with only scant data available for most species.
"Data for the first European atlas were mainly collected at the end of the nineteen eighties and the beginning of the nineties," says Kalyakin. "It was a time of great change in the Soviet Union, which in the end ceased to exist. For scientists, it was a very difficult time. It was a time when it was unclear even how to earn your daily bread, so seriously taking part in such large projects was simply out of the question."
Since the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991, bird watching as a pastime has gradually gained popularity in Russia. Today, hundreds of amateurs take part in various research projects, mostly in and around Moscow, providing valuable information on status and numbers of birds. Still, the number of birders in Russia is much, much lower than in countries like Great Britain, the Netherlands or the United States.
"Traditionally their number has always been very low in the Soviet Union and now in Russia," says Mikhail Kalyakin. "As a rule, bird watching is linked to the level of prosperity in a country. Only people who are financially well off can afford to take on such a hobby."
The results of the Russian efforts are eagerly awaited in other European countries also because such data may have consequences for conservation policies. Take the corncrake, a small rail inhabiting tall grasslands in summer. In Western Europe it has always been regarded as a rare and threatened species.
"The key question is: is it only rare in the western part of Europe, with its intensive agriculture, or not? And then it turns out that here in Russia there's plenty of them," says Kalyakin.
"It is a very common species of open areas, and so it appears that this species is not as globally threatened as many thought it was. We have 40 percent of Europe's landmass within our borders, so it is important to know what is going on here. For birds do not know any boundaries, and there is exchange between various populations."
A herculean task
For the purpose of the survey, European Russia has been divided into 1,800 squares measuring 50 kilometers by 50 kilometers (around 1550 square miles). Ideally, each square must be visited in the course of five years to establish what species of birds are present there.
But, many remote areas are uninhabited or hardly accessible, and must be travelled on foot, by canoe or on horseback. After the first official field work season in the summer of 2013, 185 squares have been explored in detail, which amounts to about ten percent of the total area. The squares covered are scattered from the arctic tundra to the Caucasus Mountains in the south, and from the Baltic Sea to the Urals. The coordinators consider this a success and, with four more years to go, they are optimistic.
"Of course, producing an atlas of such a large area is very difficult," Kalyakin admits. "We lack the necessary experience and the density of ornithologists is so low, that even together with all the enthusiasts who will certainly join the project, we are still faced with an enormous imbalance."
That also means that Russian ornithologists are hoping for help from foreign birdwatchers willing to take the plunge and explore some part of what has so long been an ornithological terra incognita in Europe.
"On the one hand the project is doomed to fail, because it is likely that we will not succeed in covering all 1,800 squares," says Kalyakin.
"But even then we will collect an enormous amount of information," he says. "So it will be an invaluable base for further research."
Geert Groot Koerkamp was involved in the compilation of the Moscow Bird Atlas, information from which will likely be incorporated into the breeding bird atlas for European Russia.