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Rybachy Biological Station

Title: Rybachy Biological Station
Continent: Europe
Country: Russia
State / Province: Courish Spit
Date: October 1999
Participants: Andy Welch, Bob Gifford and Rich Mooney
By Rich Mooney

During October 1999, Bob Gifford, Andy Welch and Richard Mooney traveled to Rybachy, the biological station situated on the Courish Spit, and spent a week helping with their ringing studies. Here is a brief summary of our activities during that time.

Rich, Andy, some German bloke and Andrei
The Courish Spit is a strip of sandy land, 97 km in length and 0.4 to 3.6km in width separating the Courish Bay from the Baltic Sea. There is a chain of dunes with a height of 68m that stretches from northeast to southwest, which coincides with the direction of the main migration routes of birds in the Baltic region. During peak migration more than a million birds can pass through this area in one day. These are particularly forest species that avoid flying over the water during the day.

The station was first opened in 1901 and is the oldest ornithological station in the world, although it was closed during the Second World War and was not re-opened until 1956. Ten scientists and several technicians man the station, plus there are many Germans who assist and fund many of the projects. Since 1956 over 2 million birds have been ringed of 191 species at the main Rybachy site and the nearby Fringilla station combined. The most commonly ringed birds have been: Chaffinch (653 thousand), Goldcrest (288 thousand), Siskin (174 thousand), Great Tit (156 thousand), Willow Warbler (132 thousand) and Robin (102 thousand).


Penduline Tit
At the main ringing site at Rybachy there are about 70-mist nets set-up through woodland and reed bed. These are checked on the hour from dusk till dawn.  The high nets, which are about 10 meters high, are erected on a pulley system at dusk and checked through the night on the hour in a study of night migration. There is a box set of nets, which are used, in a specific study of night migration of Skylark or any other species they target with tapes.

The daily ringing is well organised, with a team working from dawn until one o’clock and then another team until dusk. Two people ringing, two people scribing plus a team of extractors checking the nets. This is obviously flexible depending on the number of birds. During our time there we controlled most of the extracting.

The food and accommodation are fairly basic with a dormitory system of 3-5 beds per room. There are three meals a day. Breakfast is usually bread and jam, Soup for lunch and a main meal in the evening.

As with lots of observatories the permanent staffs sees many new faces come and go. At Rybachy most of the visitors are German, plus there are German scientists based here. They have a slight advantage as they are used to processing the birds in the same manner, taking the third primary measurement and measuring all primaries on most all of the Acrocephalus warblers. Communication can be a problem but fortunately for us the Germans speak to the Russians in English. 


Near the main station of Rybachy is the second ringing site called Fringilla. There were two huge traps being used at the time of our visit. One set within the pine woodland and another set on the sand dunes next to the woods. The mouths of the traps are about 15 meters high, 20 meters wide and about 35 meters long, similar to Helgoland traps. The traps are controlled every hour.  Birds are collected from the aviary traps and placed into holding boxes then taken to the ringing hut for processing.

We spent five days in Rybachy then travelled to Fringilla for two days. We arrived in Fringilla at about 0730am after catching a ride on the mini-bus and were greeted by Mikhail Markovets the scientist who runs the station. We were shown to our accommodation so we could drop off our gear and were then introduced to Paul, another Brit who was staying there. This was Paul’s seventh trip out to Fringilla so he really knew the system and helped us settle in.  Within minutes we were taken to a holding pen and presented with three Long-eared Owls to ring that had been caught at about three o’clock in the morning.  Oh well, someone’s got to do it!

What a start to our first day, anyhow, after the euphoria of the Owls, we were shown around the site. After the morning rush was over and we were familiar with the processing logistics, we were left to run the traps on our own. We ringed over 1,200 birds on our first day.

Long-eared Owls
We did attempt to catch some Owls that night but the weather was not on our side and after an hour squeaking a “Mickey Mouse” (trying to attract the Owls) toy we retired to our beds. We ringed all the next day and were again left very much to our own devices. The bulk of the birds were Chaffinch plus lots of thrushes, Brambling, tits and Meadow Pipits. We returned back to Rybachy at about 1900 that night, as we say our goodbyes.

The highlights of the trip for me were birding in the fields next to Rybachy in the evening, working the traps in Fringilla and ringing some different species such as Penduline Tit, Long-eared Owl, Fieldfare and Woodlark.

Rybachy is very regimented and organised, and although we didn’t ring that many birds other than the occasional ringing tick, I am sure we could have done if we had been there for another week. Extracting was just great. Fringilla, though very well organized, is not as regimented and the permanent staff are happy for you to ring as many birds as you like.  The atmosphere here is much more relaxed though still professional. Overall the trip was very educational and a great experience; I would certainly like to return next year.

Species recorded during the visit:
Great Crested Grebe, Cormorant, Herring Gull, Great Black-backed Gull, Golden Plover, Great Snipe, Common Snipe, Heron, Mute Swan, White-fronted Goose, Mallard, Water Rail, Coot, White-tailed Eagle, Honey Buzzard, Buzzard, Marsh Harrier, Goshawk, Sparrowhawk, Merlin, Kestrel, Long-eared Owl, Woodpigeon, Swift, Swallow, Lesser-spotted Woodpecker, Great-spotted Woodpecker, Treecreeper, Willow Tit, Marsh Tit, Coal Tit, Blue Tit, Great Tit, Long-tailed Tit, Penduline Tit, Garden Warbler, Chiffchaff, Goldcrest, Reed Warbler, Sedge Warbler, Whitethroat, Blackcap, Wren, Robin, Stonechat, Black Redstart, Redstart, Ring Ouzel, Blackbird, Starling, Fieldfare, Redwing, Song Thrush, Mistle Thrush, Red-backed Shrike, Great Grey Shrike, Spotted Flycatcher, White Wagtail, Skylark, Meadow Pipit, Rock Pipit, Woodlark, Linnet, Redpoll. Goldfinch, Brambling, Chaffinch, Bullfinch, Hawfinch, Siskin, Serin, Greenfinch, Yellowhammer, House Sparrow, Tree Sparrow, Dunnock, Reed Bunting, Hooded Crow, Jackdaw, Rook, Raven, Jay, Magpie, Nutcracker.


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