© Fabian Weiss

The bird connection

  • TEXT MARTIN THEIS
  • PHOTOS FABIAN WEISS

A German naturalist set up the world’s first ornithological station in what used to be East Prussia in 1901. Today, Russian scientists band hundreds of thousands of birds at the site. Tourism greatly helps to fund their work

The trap should contain the first birds by now. It’s 8 a.m. and Professor Leonid Sokolov, 69, is striding through the pinewoods. The chirruping swells to a crescendo as the track reaches the dunes and a large construction made of fishing net, at its entrance, 15 meters high and 30 meters wide, and 70 meters long. Sokolov steps inside the funnel-shaped trap that narrows as it leads into a cage where some two dozen birds are fluttering about. “Chaffinches and robins,” he says. “They can fly 400 kilometers in a single night.” Circling, catlike, he plucks the birds from the walls and gently places them in a mesh box.

Professor ­Leonid Sokolov checks the funnel traps every hour; some days, the scientists band as many as 9000 birds

Professor ­Leonid Sokolov checks the funnel traps every hour; some days, the scientists band as many as 9000 birds

© Fabian Weiss
This little robin will soon be set free again

This little robin will soon be set free again

© Fabian Weiss

  The birds are en route from their winter quarters in southern Europe to their breeding grounds in the Baltic region. This trap on the Curonian Spit, a peninsula in the Baltic Sea west of Lithuania and Kaliningrad Oblast, Russia, lies right in their path, and the birds stop here to rest and feed on insects in preparation for the next stage of their journey. In 1901, when the area was part of East Prussia, the German ornithologist Johannes Thienemann set up the world’s first ornithological station in the coastal village of Rossitten. After World War II, this territory was ceded to Russia, and Rossitten became Rybachy. Russian scientists opened a new station on the old site in 1956.

Today, Professor Sokolov is on duty at the Fringilla field station. He carries the birds he has caught into a wooden hut. For the past 43 years, Sokolov has been coming here in the migration season from St. Petersburg. He lifts the first chaffinch out of the box and bends a numbered aluminum band around its leg. “We have banded roughly three million birds here in the past 60 years,” he says, “sometimes 9000 in a day.” With nimble fingers, he pops the chaffinch head-first into a small tube on a digital scale and notes down its weight, band number, gender, and whether it’s a young bird. Then he blows the feathers on its belly to one side and checks the fat reserve at its neck. One gram provides energy enough for a nonstop flight of 200 to 300 kilometers. Sokolov releases the bird through the open window.

The German station was already experimenting with banding at the beginning of the 20th century, but Johannes Thienemann, the son of a pastor, studied theology first. It was his scientific curiosity that drew him to the Curonian Spit. He was thrilled by the species diversity he discovered there, but the flocks of departing birds also created feelings of resentment, too: “Because the question rises unbidden to our lips: Where do you come from? Where do you go? The moment the birds disappear from view, there’s nothing left to study.” Hence the numbered bands.

Thienemann’s scheme was ambitious: Each time a banded bird was found anywhere in the world and reported to the scientists, they would know just that little bit more about the flight routes of its species. Today, these routes are well documented. Nevertheless, the old method still provides valuable information: The ornithologists learn, for instance, how bird populations are changing and how climate change is influencing their numbers and flight behavior. Of course, not every bird that’s banded is later found and reported – far from it: Of three million, only 12 000 have been documented to date.

Doctoral student Anna Anashina keeps an eye out for flocks of birds

Doctoral student Anna Anashina keeps an eye out for flocks of birds

© Fabian Weiss
This group of school students is visiting from Siberia

This group of school students is visiting from Siberia

© Fabian Weiss
In a moss-covered bird feeder, exhausted birds can eat their fill before continuing their migration

In a moss-covered bird feeder, exhausted birds can eat their fill before continuing their migration

© Fabian Weiss
The main observatory building in Rybachy was originally built as a sanatorium. Today, ornithologists live and work here

The main observatory building in Rybachy was originally built as a sanatorium. Today, ornithologists live and work here

© Fabian Weiss

  Leonid Sokolov checks the trap every hour. During the course of a spring day, coal tits, blackcaps and goldcrests as well as any number of tourists arrive here. Every year, up to 30 000 people visit the field station, most of them Russians. “I’m putting on my uniform for them now,” says Professor Sokolov as the first bus pulls up. He’s referring to his chain with the long-eared owl pendant and his fisherman’s hat sporting a feather from a rare sea eagle. The school group now on its way over has come all the way from Irkutsk, 5000 kilometers away in Siberia. Sokolov shows the students the squeaky mouse he uses to attract owls and explains the chirping of a male chaffinch by comparing it to a Russian rock star: “What he’s saying is that he’s moved into a great apartment. The better he sings, the more females will want to mate with him.”

Even if scientists are now asking different questions, bird migration continues to fascinate experts and amateurs alike. They are amazed by the cuckoo from Kamchatka in eastern Russia that flies some 35 000 kilometers from there to South Africa and back again every year, traveling nonstop for three days and nights across the Mediterranean Sea or through the Sahara Desert after gaining 100 percent of its body weight in extra fat for the journey. The main puzzle for us humans is still how the birds are able to navigate so precisely: After flying thousands of kilometers from their home, some land right on the same tree as they did the winter before.

Director Nikita Chernetsov is happy ...

Director Nikita Chernetsov is happy ...

© Fabian Weiss
... to see so many paying visitors

... to see so many paying visitors

© Fabian Weiss

  Inside the bird station’s main building, Director Nikita Chernetsov, 46, is attempting to get to the bottom of the navigation mystery. He and his research team are aided by the robins sitting on old weather maps in their cages upstairs, pecking at a salad of eggs, carrots, cheese and worms. “Migratory birds follow an inner compass and an inner map,” says Chernetsov, “so they take their bearings from two separate processes.” Birds navigate by the sun, stars and the earth’s magnetic fields. They likely also gauge space by the magnetic fields and their sense of smell. “How birds’ sensory perception of magnetic fields works at all is still an open question,” says Chernetsov. Maybe the answer will once day be found in Rybachy.

The flow of visitors to the Fringilla field station is vital to its survival and research even if it means that on sunny days, the scientists’ work is palpably hindered by up to 800 tourists. Director Chernetsov has the tourists to thank for some 20 percent of his budget. “Most of them are not particularly interested in birds; they come here to go swimming,” he says. But the growing popularity of the Curonian Spit surprises him a little bit. “It’s only happened over the past 15 years.” He does have a possible explanation, though: The falling value of the ruble has made EU vacations too expensive for many Russians. “Some people regard this region as a little bit of Western Europe within Russia.” He grins: “I don’t think that’s quite true.” But luckily, he adds, on this matter his opinion is not important. The main thing is that for now at least, the future of ornithological research in Rybachy is assured.

KGD

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Great species diversity on the Curonian Spit: Over three million birds belonging to 200 species have been banded there over the last 60 years

© Fabian Weiss
wagtail
© Fabian Weiss
coal tit
© Fabian Weiss
robin
© Fabian Weiss
long-eared owl

getting there

Lufthansa has up to four daily flights from Frankfurt (FRA) and three from Munich (MUC) to Warsaw (WAW) in June. Continue on to Kaliningrad (KGD) with Star Alliance partner LOT Polish Airlines. Use the app to calculate your miles. Download here:
miles-and-more.com/app