Travel to Bugrino
Kolguev, the island of geese, lies in the southeast of the Barents Sea. Bugrino is the only village on this island and probably one of the most difficult places in Europe to reach.
Our journey started at the Berlin airport and we flew via Moscow and Arkangelsk to Naryan-Mar, head of Autonomous Nenets Oblast. For necessary shopping, we planned a stay of one day there. When we arrived, we had bright sunshine and a temperature of 30°C. But the following day the weather changed and it started to rain heavily.
On 29-7-11 a regular commercial helicopter flight to Kolguev was planned and we had to be at the airport very early. Tickets were only sold directly at the airport. The helicopter has just 21 seats and often the number of interested passengers is always much higher. Thanks to our invitation from the Nenets administration we all got seats and started our flight to Kolguev Island at 10:30.
After a flight of 1,5 hours in the Mi8-MTB helicopter, we reached Bugrino. Kolguev island welcomed us with such dense clouds that we worried the helicopter might have to return to Naryan-Mar without landing. When we landed on the small wooden platform, we were surrounded by lots of inhabitants of the village. Although regular, the flight is only scheduled once every two weeks, so its arrival is always a great event.
We were welcomed at the airfield by Albert, an old friend of our team, who helped us a lot during previous expeditions. Fortified by a strong cup of tea, we approached the camp using a vestikhot, an allterrain vehicle build for the Arctic. It looks a bit like a small tank. In the front there are two seats. In the back is a large storage box. Passengers normally have to sit on the roof. Vestichots are only allowed to travel in the Arctic, and only on special roads, which are included on maps. These roads also can show slopes of up to 80%, deep water bodies, and river crossings.
For us, the vestikhot trip was a very special event., It rained most of time but we dried off quickly thanks to the heat; we sat above the large exhaust pipe. All the time we had to look in front, just watching for bumps. At the end of the 8-hour trip we were happy indeed to the reach the main camp.
Arrival at the camp
In contrast to our expeditions in 2006-2008, we did not have to use tents for the research camp;nstead, we were allowed to live in cabins normally used by reindeer herders. These cabins are usually are placed atop hills because of mosquitoes. Not all of the cabins were in the best of condition when the first crew arrived, but by the time of our arrival, most restoration work had been done . The largest hut originated from oil exploration on the island and was built on huge skids. Formerly this were transported by large tractors during winter . This cabin was the most important building in the camp, acting as both kitchen and living room. That is where we received a warm welcome, and given a warm meal before we pitched our tents in a sheltered area of the village.
Birds around the camp
During the following days we started our field research. All around the camp we encountered lots of birds. Down the hill near the Peschanka River 40 pairs of barnacle geese (Branta leucopsis) had founded a colony. Altogether 80 pairs were found around the camp. Some of the nests were placed directly along our paths for bathing, washing and getting our water from the river. With loud protesst the male moved slowly away from the nest, and if somebody came too close to the nest, the female also disappeared. Nevertheless, at distances greater than 5m we could pass the nests without any problems.
Inside our camp village the Temminck’s Stint (Calidris teminckii) was nesting under low willow bushes. So, the adults were constantly around us and took care that we didn’t threaten the clutch or the chicks.
Some 500m away from the camp a boggy plain began. Here barnacle geese were nesting close to glaucous gulls (Larus hyperboreus), and just on the border of bog and tundra we found the nest of an Eurasian golden p lover (Pluvialis apricaria). Even in breeding plumage the golden plover’s colour masks the bird very well in its breeding habitat. By contrast,males of grey plovers (P. squatarola) are much more striking, with their high-contrast black and white plumage. Adults "flash" over far distances as white dots on the tundra. And even at the appearance of humans at great distances, the adults start making alarm
Lots of willow bushes are growing on the camp hill. In the lea of the hill these bushes grow up to 30-60cm in height. This place is loved by several passerine species. The most colourful species is the Bluethroat (Luscinia svecica). For singing, it likes to choose high perches, from which its blue-red breast is clearly visible over long distances. The song of the male is quite lovely. Bluethroats are the nightingales of the North.
On bigger lakes breeds Kolguyev’s onlyt swan species: the Bewick’s Swan (Cygnus bewickii). Normally the nest is placed at the shore of the lake, but this year we also found a nest up the hill in open tundra far away from water bodies. Both adults incubate and rear the brood. In case of disturbance the swans fly to the water body. But, in general, a long walk over the tundra is common for swan families.
Everywhere on the tundra where boggy areas border hummocky tundra, dunlins (Calidris alpina) nest. On Kolguyev dunlins can be found at very high densities, despite having declined a lot since the middle of the 1990s. Brood-rearing Dunlins often approach very close to humans - just to fool them into moving away from the chicks.
The Little Stint (Calidris minuta) behaves less conspicuously. This species, too, nests on open tundra. It likes to fly to bogs of sphagnum moss and along the shore of small water bodies to feed. In contrast to other species, the Little Stint’s has low nest-site fidelity. Individuals normally build their nest at suitable sites along their migration route. Thus, breeding numbers on Kolguyev fluctuate regularly on Kolguev.
It's just a question of power...
Kolguyev is located in the Barents Sea. So normally a fresh breeze is blowing all the time. Calm days are abnormal and even not loved - in this moment you`ll realize how many mosquitoes live on the island! Because of this we decided to use a wind-generator to meet our power consumption. The small generator high above our cabin worked very well for four weeks, but then, surprisingly and suddenly, stopped working. We checked all possibilities and in the end called the builders in Germany. But unfortunately, it was then obvious that one of the electronic compartments had burnt out and we couldn`t repair it in the field. So we had to switch off the freezer and reduce the use of our laptop computers. We started to use our old gasoline generator. But this, too, ran into trouble after some days; this generator started to sputter and did not supply enough power for charging of our Internet radio, satellite phone, and laptops. So our self-reliant Russian colleagues decided to disassemble the whole machine. After three days work it was running again!
Kolguyev is one of the core breeding areas for geese in the Western Palearctic. Snow melt here starts earlier than in other parts of the Barents Sea. During the whole summer moderate spring temperatures dominate and the absence of lemmings makes predation more predictable than on the mainland. But what`s the influence of weather and climate on the breeding density and success of the geese? Starting in 2006 we studied nesting density, hatching date and success of white-fronted (Anser albifrons)and bean geese (A. fabalis) on Kolguev. We found a quite reseanable correlation between date of snow melt and peak date of egg-laying, as well as hatching date. In years of early snow melt, geese arrive on Kolguyev and start egg laying immediately, resulting in a very sharply peaked, hatching period. So predators cannot specialise on goslings and thus the risk of predation for each individual gosling is low. In years of late snow melt a big difference in the timing of hatching occurs between goose nests in the lowland and those on the uplands. The time span of hatching is great and predation has a much greater influence on breeding success.
To learn more about the fate of our breeding birds close to the camp we marked several birds with neckbands. During their migration this neckbands can be easily read with telescopes. So we get more information about Kolguev breeding birds migration routes, their wintering sites as well as their social status and body condition. Due to this information we hope to learn more about the effect of land use, disturbance and condition to the breeding success of arctic birds.
New problems by new neighbours?
At the end of the 1970s barnacle geese did not breed on Kolguyev. After some springs with strong easterly storms, barnacle geese, who originally just stopped here to roost, started to breed in the delta of the Peschanka River. In the middle of the 1990s, several thousand pairs were found there, and when we started our investigations in 2006 more than 60,000 pairs were estimated. But in the centre of the island only small colonies of barnacle geese were found, associated with the nests of raptors. In 2011 this had changed completely; in March most of the foxes had died from rabies and so barnacle geese started to nest on open tundra everywhere on the island. No doubt these colonies will continue to exist until fox density recovers to its former level.
But what consequences of this population increase are there for other bird species? At present we have no clear answer to this. More barnacle geese might cause additional food competition for other geese, and large colonies of these geese always attract additional predators. In the coming years we`ll focus especially on this question.
Our camp on Kolguyev lies north of the 69thparallel. Although the distance to the Pole is very far, there is no sunset on Kolguyev during the summer. Sometimes clouds can cause a kind of evening ambiance. For us all it`s a time of great experience. Inside the tent you never know the time without checking a timepiece. You have to be aware not to run out of the time schedule. But we benefit from the midnight sun as well; long distance walks can be done and you don’t have to fear being stuck somewhere in the dark before you can reach the camp. If rainy weather clears off late in the day, there’s no problem fitting in the field work even in the late evening.
Kolguev expedition 2011: our team
At the end of the hatching period we took a group photo of all participants
l to r: Alexander Kondratyev, Sonia Rozenfeld, Gerhard Nikolaus, Franziska Hillig, Dirk Hattermann, Olga Pokrovskaya, Alexander Dimitriev, Volker Blüml, Gundolf Reichert, Petr Glazov, Helmut Kruckenberg
For three weeks we studied goose, duck, and wader ecology. Our three colleagues from the Peschanka delta finished their work and returned to the main camp. So we celebrated the reunion and our farewell in a single evening, with fantastic food and songs. And, of course, we had a lot to tell each other. Since the beginning of June, parts of the crew had had contact only by CB radio connection. So we showed some pictures and explained what we had done during the past weeks.
Way back by vestikhot
On early morning of 12th July we started our return to Bugrino. At 10 o'clock all travellers met at the vestikhot and stored their luggage into that amazing vehicle. In the camp a small team of six people remained to continue the field work.
But this time we had bright sunshine and so our trip by vestikhot was realyl fun. The high position on the roof of the vehicle enabled us to check a wide area for birds. Often we saw goose and duck families, as well as waders with their chicks. From the northwest of the island we drove along the coast to Bugrino in the south.
Just one real village on Kolguyev exists: Bugrino. Here are living approximaetly 400 people, mainly Nenets. In early times, Kolguyev was unoccupied, but in the 19th century merchants from Arkhangelsk first sent Nenets people to breed reindeer on Kolguyev. In the 1950s l people were evacuated here from Novaya Zemlya because of the nuclear tests there. These families use the Russian language in public and speak their native Nenets language only within the family.