BIRD WATCH: A Russian adventure begins

ONE HUNDRED AND twenty years ago, in 1898, my maternal grandparents left Russia.

They traveled by rail from Saratov, Russia, to Hamburg, Germany.

From there they boarded the steamship Moravia to Ellis Island in New York.

The ocean crossing took three weeks.

My sister and I recently traveled to Russia and joined a river cruise from St. Petersburg to Moscow.

Our trip from SeaTac to Paris to St. Petersburg took almost 17 hours.

We couldn’t help but think of what grandma would have said about what was to be the adventure of a lifetime.

Of course we birded.

Even as the plane taxied toward the final terminal, white wagtails were spotted on the grassy areas between runways.

From where the Viking Rurick was moored in St. Petersburg we sorted the gulls, ducks and terns and used my new field guide, “Birds of the USSR.”

The tern population in Russia is huge.

They were everywhere we traveled, flying up or down the river.

Common terns, Arctic terns and equally large numbers of mew gulls and black kittiwakes accompanied us on all the lakes and rivers.

They were a mob scene around the 17 locks we passed through.

The year’s young were a large part of these populations and gave us an opportunity to study different plumage stages.

Hooded crows and jackdaws were common throughout the parks and elaborate grounds of the many castles and churches we visited. Just like at home, so were the house sparrows.

After about four days, to say we were a bit disappointed regarding the birdlife is an understatement.

Everything else exceeded our expectations.

Ancient cities and small villages hugged the river banks.

Traveling on what is called the Waterways of the Tsars allows you to enjoy the magnificence of St. Petersburg and the bustling city of Moscow.

It gave us the opportunity to see humble small towns and attractive rural areas.

As our boat ventured into these rural areas, we saw a small part of Russia’s vast wilderness regions.

Fishing and camping beside the rivers is a popular summer pastime.

We passed through wetlands that will see millions of migrating waterfowl and shorebirds this fall.

We had to work very hard to turn up species other than the terns and gulls, but there were places where the boat was so close to the shore that the possibility of getting stuck in the mud occurred to us.

That’s when we spotted wading birds such as the gray heron (similar to our great blue heron) and the little egret (much like our snowy egret but with green, not yellow feet).

Seeing birds that were different species, but that were lookalikes to birds at home was almost as frustrating as the lack of new birds.

However, there were rare surprises.

The first of these was paddling about in a small stream on the grounds of Katherine’s Palace.

At this point in the trip, my sister fell in with the wrong group. Perfectly fine people but not the group we were assigned to.

They [and she] went one way. The rest of us continued along the stream.

Mixed emotions is something that happens when you realize you might have lost your youngest sister in Russia and that a bird you have never seen before is only 8 or 10 feet away from you.

Of course I had to run to our guide and tell her what no guide ever wants to hear, “I think we’ve lost my sister.”

That’s when we both heard, “I’m here. I’m here.”

I’ll never see another red-throated dabchick without remembering the wave of relief that flooded over me when I spotted Jeanne running toward our group.

Instead of thinking about what grandma would have thought of our making the trip to Russia, I could only think of what my late parents would have said if I returned from this trip without my sister.

Next week — some Russian surprises.


Joan Carson’s column appears every Sunday. Contact her at P.O. Box 532, Poulsbo, WA 98370, with a self-addressed, stamped envelope for a reply. Email: [email protected]

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