Thursday, April 29, 2010

Only steppe is everywhere around... (ending)

Originally posted by  at Степь да степь кругом... (окончание)
and at Wild Wonders of Europe Blog.

<-Beginning of this story at the link.

By the second part of May most of the female saigas in the Kalmykian herd gave birth to their young in the safety of the Cherniye Zemly Nature Reserve and are now tied to the area for a few days until the young can move with the herd. It is a miracle – in the course of one week, the saiga population has doubled! Each female had one or two calves. Over an area of several dozen square kilometres, the saigas created an enormous kindergarten, with at least 10,000 adults and their young – making up most of the European population.

Twenty thousand saiga eyes watch the steppe warily, but wolves, foxes, eagles, and vultures take their share of the bounty. In the daytime, together with the reserve staff, we helped count the saiga calves, which hide in the steppe as they can’t flee in their first few days of life. We pick them up, record their measurements and weigh them, and put them back. These conditions will last only a few days, but this is my chance to get close enough to photograph the shy animals.

In the middle of the night, we drove without headlights into the midst of the saiga herd, carrying our tent, food, and equipment. Petya and Khongar helped set up the tent near the ruins of an old shepherd’s dwelling and then departed for the ranger station. I stayed behind under the bright stars of the southern skies. The car would return to get me in 24 hours. Well before dawn I heard the baaing of thousands of saiga calves and their mothers, looking for each other for a morning feeding. The steppe came alive. Through an opening in the hide, I saw hundreds of dim silhouettes of the antelopes passing by. Some of them were followed by their calves.

The place I had picked for my hide couldn’t have been better – the saiga trails passed right by my tent. Finally, I could shoot in the early morning light. I wrapped my Nikon D3 in a sweater to muffle the sound of the shutter, but it still seemed deafening. The animals didn’t seem to mind, however, except the ones that passed within five steps of the tent.
Many of the saigas lingered near the ruins. The walls of the shelter were built several decades ago of salty clay, and now the animals ate the clay, filling out their diet with needed minerals.

Of the thousand saigas which passed the tent in the course of the 24 hours I was there, I only saw fewer than two dozen males. The deficit of males, which poachers shoot for their horns, is the biggest threat to the population. In the winter, during the mating season, the outnumbered males aren’t able to mate with all the females in a short time period, and therefore the birthing season is drawn out over longer periods and many females remain barren.

During the day a strong wind picked up the dry sand, covering my lenses. I put them away, closing all the openings in the tent, but the dust still managed to penetrate into the tent, getting in my eyes, nose, and ears, and I felt grit on my teeth. Dust is one of the reasons that the saiga need the trunk-like nose as a filter. Even in the absence of wind, running at 70 kilometres an hour, a herd of saigas kicks up clouds of dust in the dry steppe, visible from afar. Furthermore, the saiga’s nose helps their calls resonate loudly across the vast steppe.

The wind suddenly died down a couple of hours before sundown, and I got another chance to continue my observations and photography. Then it grew dark. The stars emerged over the steppe. Exciting smell of sagebrush filled the air. I packed up the tent and my equipment. In the darkness I heard the sound of the car approaching to fetch me. Mission accomplished. Then it finally dawned on me that for a whole month I hadn’t had a decent bath, eaten a decent meal, or seen my family (except Petya). Farewell steppe! Farewell saigas! Tomorrow I’m going home…

Saiga's neighbors in the steppe: ground-squirrel

... and demoiselle crane by the nest.

You can find out more about saiga antelope here:

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Only steppe is everywhere around…

Originally posted by  at Степь да степь кругом...
and at Wild Wonders of Europe Blog.

It is time for my readers to take a little break from bears and visit new places, where the bears do not live.

Exactly a year ago my son, Petr, and I went to Kalmykiya steppe to find and photograph the saiga antelope, the only antelope in Europe, for international photo-project Wild Wonders of Europe ( WWE). . And today I'm publishing the story from this trip (also you can view my report on WWE website).

Abandoned farm-house in the middle of steppe.

Morning white frost on wild tulip.

Another species of wild toulips.

Dwarf irises in the steppes.

Also dwarf irises, but of different color.

Evening feathergrass Stipa spp. Feathergrass glows in the sunset in the steppes

Only steppe is everywhere around us… We are in Kalmykia, at the southeastern edge of Europe – just under 2,000 km from Moscow and about 100 km from the Caspian Sea. The Kalmykian steppes were once the bottom of the Caspian Sea.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, saiga still inhabited the vast steppes of Europe from the Volga to the Dniester river. By the middle of last century, saiga remained only where wild steppes were preserved, in the lowlands near the Caspian Sea on the bank of the Volga River. But at the time, their numbers – up to 800,000 – was not yet cause for alarm to ensure a viable population and sustainable future for the animals.

But the fall of the Soviet Union turned out to be catastrophic for saiga’s wellbeing. The iron curtain opened, borders were relaxed. Poaching became a serious threat to the saiga – sought for for their horns, and used in traditional Chinese medicine. Today, the number of the entire European population does not exceed 18,000, and because most of the poachers target males, male saigas make up only 1-10% of the population These numbers are too low to guarantee their survival. The saiga antelope is on the verge of extinction.

It is not easy to photograph an animal whose population is depressed. We wheel about the Caspian steppes for the second week in a row and have so far only once seen a herd of 12 saigas two kilometres away running from us at full speed. And saigas are fast. They can run at speeds up to 60 km/hour across the flat steppe. Naturally, we worry – will we be able to fulfill the Wild Wonders of Europe mission? Will we find a large number of antelopes? Will we be able to get close enough to them to photograph them?

Saigas are our mail goal. But the spring steppe is more than just saigas. We were lucky, as we got here in time for the spring bloom of Wild Tulips (Tulipa schrenkii) and Dwarf Iris (Iris pumila). An unforgettable experience! Millions of bright flowers scattered around the steppe. Most of them are bright red, but sometimes we find white, yellow, and purple flowers. The climate is dry continental here; it is cold in the morning, can go down to 10 degrees C below zero and the tulips cover in frost, their tender stalks freeze. We freeze too, as we spend most of our nights out in the steppe, in the car or a tent. But by noon, the sun warms the steppe to 15-20 degrees above zero and the tulips thaw out. So do we.

The birds are in their mating season. Thousands of larks are singing, Little Bustards (Otis tetrax) dance their mating rituals, and Common- and Ruddy Shelducks (Tadorna todorna, T. ferruginea) rest outside abandoned fox dens. Each day we see several dozens of pairs of Demoiselle Crane, which are now occupying their nesting territories.

A European brown hare in the morning steppe.


Steppe eagle on its nest

Steppe eagle chicks.

Demoiselle crane in the evening light.

A few days ago, we settled into the ranger cabin at Atsan-Khuduk in the Cherniye Zemly (Black Lands) Nature Reserve, from where we will continue our search for the saiga...

When we departed on Our Wild Wonders of Europe mission to Kalmykia, my son Petya forgot to pack a travel mug and only realized it when already in the remote steppe. In the beginning, Petya and I had to drink tea from one cup. But even in the remote steppe, Petya managed to win a set of six teacups!

On May 9, a scientist at the nature reserve named Khongor Mandzhiev invited us to his Kalmykian native town of Adyk, about 100 kms from our field camp via steppe roads.
There was double cause for celebration in Adyk – it was Victory Day, when the Russians mark the end of WWII and it was also the 400-year anniversary of Kalmykia’s decision to become part of the Russian Empire. The Kalmyk people arrived here to Europe from Central Asia to the Volga River more than 400 years ago, but have managed to preserve not only their original culture and Mongolian features, but their traditional Buddhist beliefs as well.

Petya amoung Kalmyks at the celebration in Adyk.

The festivities took place at the edge of the village, where several hundred people were gathered. We arrived to find a theatrical presentation underway about the joint history of the Kalmykian and Russian people. There was ethnic dancing and songs, as well as horse races and wrestling contests. Then they announced a weightlifting contest. The participants had to lift a 30-kilo weight. The first place prize was a set of crystal wine glasses, the second place prize was a set of regular wine glasses, and for third place – a set of tea cups.

Tea cups were exactly what Petya needed! I told him – this is your chance to drink tea out of your own cup! He tried to refuse, but Khongor and I pushed him toward the weight.
Kalmykian girls began to applaud encouragingly. Petya couldn’t back down now, but he also didn’t want the first or second place prizes – he had no need for wine glasses in the steppe. He lifted the 30-kilo weight 40 times, calculating exactly how many times he needed to win third place. A minute later, he was holding a set of six tea cups.

On the evening of May 9, we are returning from the festival in Adyk. When we are about 20 kms from the preserve, our car ascends a low sandy ridge and a green valley opens before us, lit by the soft evening sun. Our eyes immediately fall on a herd of about 100 saigas, which are racing at top speed with three motorcycles in close pursuit. Poachers! They notice our car atop the hill and, without letting up speed, turn in different directions, just like market thieves.

The saigas continue their fatal run out of the preserve, top the ridge we are standing on, and run along the highway between Elista and Astrakhan, as though they are running head to head with the cars racing down the highway.

I take several shots of the saiga antelopes racing along the road. I see through the 300 mm lens that they are males with horns. Horns are what the poachers are after. Khongor is able to contact the ranger patrol by cell phone, who are in ambush on the northern border of the reserve buffer zone, and the rangers arrive about 10 minutes later. We examine the tracks in the grass. One set of tracks leads to a shepherd’s dwelling, where a sport bike is standing and the engine is still hot.

A young dusty man from the Caucasus heartily milks a cow and says “I just herded the cows in from the steppe, that’s why the bike is still warm.” Unfortunately, the rights of the rangers end at the border of the buffer zone. They call the local police officer, but he was indisposed at the time, having left for the district centre over 100 kms away. The tracks of another motorcycle lead to the gates of another shepherd ‘s dwelling, and the third emerges onto the paved road from the steppe near the village of Kholkhuta.
So, ironic as though it may be, poachers helped me to take my first photograph of the saigas. And hopefully, my presence at the scene was enough to win them enough time to get back to the safety of the Cherniye Zemly Nature Reserve.

Continued here->

Monday, April 5, 2010

A place to experience in the Northern Russia.

I first visited Kenozyorsky National Park almost by accident. Ten years ago I went into a photo expedition driving away from my home in Bryansky forest towards Karelia, where I wanted to see Lake Vodlozero.
I was driving custom-made motor home that I specifically prepared for this type of expeditions. And by the time of the third sunset on the road I was somewhere on a historic route between old Russian towns Kargopol (in Arkhangelsk Oblast) and Pudozh (in Republic of Karelia). It was not far from my final destination, only four hours of driving, but it was getting late, so I opened my road map to see where I can stop for the night.

As it turned out my current location was very close to Kenozyorsky National Park - I stopped almost on its border. In several minutes I drove into a historic village Orlovo on the banks of the Lake Lekshmozero. Bright sunset colors reflecting in a mirrorlike calm waters of huge lake... large, ancient fur trees on the banks... Northern peasant houses build from logs, naturally blending with the environment... It was the first "white night" I have ever experienced - so I was overwhelmed with new emotions. (White night, a night of the midnight sun, on which it never gets completely dark, in these latitudes it was twilight all through the night).

Of course, as a result, I never made it to my original destination, Lake Vodlozero, till now. And I do regret that. But on the other hand I discovered the land of Kenozyorje. The fairytale like land of northern forests and lakes, where in the first part of XIX century many of the traditional Russian oral epic narrative poems (Byliny) were recorded. Here there still live people who remember those poems, learned not from books but from their grand parents.

Kenozyorsky National Park is located in the south-west of Arkhangelsk region. There are appoximately 300 lakes in the park, the largest of which are Kenozero with surface area 35 sq mi (9,000 ha) and Lekshmozero - 21 sq mi (5,400 ha). Humans have been living on the shores of these lakes for long time. Kenozero, despite its large surface area, does not feel like a huge lake. Its surface is covered with tens of large and small islands and the shoreline is sinuous - therefore it is not perceived as a single lake, but rather several connected. The second, smaller in size, Leshkmozero really looks just like a sea - the opposite shore is barely visible even on a clear day.

Slavic people appeared in this area almost a thousand years ago. Here they met Finno-Ugric tribes and Scandinavians, whom they called Chudi, that meant queer and strange people. Novgorodians came across the Ken Portage on their path to the North; this portage connected basins of Baltic and White seas. Slavs brought agriculture to this northern region, and the current landscape was formed: cozy villages at the waterfront, large crop and hay fields on the surrounding hills, dark-green silhouettes of “sacred” groves, heritage of the pagan times, pine forests on the numerous capes, ancient road crosses at the road intersections… And, famous wooden chapels…

Nikolskaya chapel (beginning of XIX century) in Vershnino.

Chapels are different from churches. They don't have altar, so the liturgy cannot be served there. The chapels are intended for reading of “hours”, the prayers and psalms tied to a specific time of day. Anyone, who has sufficient resources, can build a chapel; there is no need for permission from the bishop as it is needed for the church construction. Most of the chapels in Kenozero region are built in XVIII-XIX centuries “by the will of the local people”. Up to this day local people exhibit similar will: there is a new chapel in Misa village build less than 10 years ago. Nowhere in Russia can you find such a concentration and variety of wooden chapels as in Kenozerje. There are 35 ancient chapels saved in the region, but there used to be 65!

Chapels remain active spiritual centers of the villages of Kenozerje up to this day; this is what helped them to survive the harsh XX century. Local people were secretly renewing rotten roofs and were protecting the interior objects. In 1970s the government started a program of transporting the most interesting landmarks of wooden architecture to the museum of Malye Kareli near Archangelsk. It was ruining the chapels; they were taken away from the landscape they were built for, from the people who served in them, from “sacred” groves that surrounded them over centuries. These chapels were converted to soulless museum pieces.

People of Zikhnovo village managed to save their John the Apostle chapel, build in XVII by their ancestors, from the museum workers: “Even the helicopter landed that was supposed to transport the church, but we defended it”. In 1998-1999 this chapel was carefully restored by national park. The last resident of Mamont island, 100 years old Nikolay Fillipovich Nozhkin, was the churchwarden of the Elijah the Prophet chapel over the course of fourty years. He tried to fight for his chapel to be left in its original place, but it was moved and the old churchwarden died soon afterwards. Now his daughter, Pelageya Nikonalevna Nozhkina, is a churchwarden of Nikolskaya chapel in Verchinino.

Pelageya Nikonalevna Nozhkina.

Chapels were not favored not only during the Soviet times: in 1707, during Peter the Great reign, the building of wooden chapels was forbidden. However, in faraway northern lands, where chapels often replaced churches, these bans were not readily abided by. Chapels were constructed on different occasions, in honor of religious holidays and others.

Vershinino during the "white night".

Vershinino village is a «capital» of the Kenozero Park. Nikolskaya chapel is set on the top of the hill in the village that is considered to be sacred by the natives. The builders have found a perfect form, such a shape for the roof top that you feel the urge to take off your hat and look towards the northern sky when you are near this chapel. For me it is difficult to take my eyes away from it, I can spend hours walking around and admiring it from every angle. The purity and perfection of the Nikolskaya chapel is one of the main reasons that Kenozero area has attracted me so much. This chapel spreads its beauty all around to many villages across the lake and on islands: it is visible as far as from 10 miles away. Thirty years ago the chapel was literally saved from collapsing by students of Archangelsk Pedagogic University – they replaced rotten wood in the roof and rows of beams. Thanks to their, maybe not the most proficient effort, the chapel was able to hold up until the first professional restoration in 1995. It is interesting that during the restoration work in the interior of the chapel a white piece of cloth with embroidered cross was found between the walls, as if it was a present from the masters who build the chapel around 200 years ago.

Kenozero national park was born in difficult times, in the middle of collapse of USSR. If the park did not have such an energetic and efficient director as Elena Flegontovna Shatkovskaya, the list of cultural losses of Kenozero region would have been growing exponentially. As a principal keeper of the national park she was able to pass a tremendous energy and dedication to her team, unite locals in order to preserve the richest heritage of the North. Restoration is not cheap, but through the years of park efforts many chapels, churches, peasant houses and traditional landscapes were restored.

Kenozero chapels are not museums up to this day. The prays are heard in them and the candles are lit. Near the village of Tirishkino, in the chapel of Paraskevy Pyatnitsy, the patroness of all women, I have seen new scarves, towels and baby clothes – this is a traditional way people worship God in this area. In road chapel Kirika and Ulity, which is passed by tens of cars every day, I have seen a metal dish filled with donations – and even the drunkest people do not attempt to steal this money.

Porzhensky churchyard. XVII century.

Glazovo village with the chapel of Holy Spirit, XIX century.

Glazovo in winter.

Glazovo in Spring.

Glazovo in Summer.

Glazovo in Fall.

Ancient granary in Guzhevo village.

One of the coves on Kenozero lake..


A fisherman on Lekshmozero lake.

Kenozerje is a place definitely worth experiencing!