Siberia 2011: Caterpillar trip in Chukotka

 

 

Chukotka 2011
The day after the Russian National Day, our driver Sasha was so drunk that he could hardly walk, but he insisted on driving the caterpillar anyway. Here he is crossing our first stream, continuously banging his head into the windscreen. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Danish artist Jens Gregersen, who for several years has been working on a book about the Arctic, asks me if I would be interested in participating in a mini expedition to Chukotka, in eastern-most Siberia. Naturally, I’m interested. Initially, Jens intended to include four members in the expedition, but we end up being only three – the third person is Max Nitschke, who, incidentally, speaks a bit of Russian.

The purpose of our trip is to count breeding birds in a specific area, which Jens has been monitoring for several years now, to detect, whether bird populations here are stable. Many Siberian bird species are declining drastically these years, mainly because many of their roosting and feeding sites in eastern Asia have been drained and converted into shrimp farms, salt pans, or rice fields.

As almost no roads are found in the area, which is called Zolotoi Khrebet (’Golden Ridge’), transportation will take place in a caterpillar, which Jens has hired through one of his contact persons in the town of Anadyr.

 

Sic transit gloria mundi
After spending a couple of days in Moscow, we fly east for ten hours, passing over the Ural Mountains and the vast Siberian tundra to Anadyr – almost as far east as you can get on the Asiatic Continent. Next to the airport is a small town, Anadyr Airport City, while Anadyr City proper is several kilometres away, on the other side of a long inlet.

Through another of his contact persons, Jens has rented an apartment in the airport city, in one of these huge, charmless concrete buildings, which the former Soviet government was so fond of building everywhere. During the heydays of the Soviet Union, Anadyr was an important town due to the presence of a gigantic missile launch a few kilometres north of the airport city, where several missiles, armed with nuclear weapons, were aimed at various targets in the U.S. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the whole business was covered with soil, and Anadyr’s importance vanished. Presently, only a few thousand people live here, making a living from God knows what.

Today, many of the apartment blocks are in an advanced stage of decay, but those which are still inhabited, have been somewhat beautified by being painted in bright colours. Otherwise, the whole area bears the marks of decay and indifference, in equal measures. Rubble, wires, iron pipes, oil drums, scrapped trucks, workmen’s huts, and a lot of other rubbish is ubiquitous, and nobody cares to clean up the mess. During the Soviet Era, you just did what you were told, which does not exactly encourage personal initiative. Today, when nobody is told to do anything, it seems that nobody wants to take the trouble to clear the mess, and thus beautify the area. Several places we notice that the insolating layer around the large metal pipes, which bring hot water to the housing areas, has peeled off, causing the heat to gush into the Siberian cold. This doesn’t seem to bother anyone, so it seems that there is no lack of oil or coals.

 

 

Chukotka 2011
Max (left) and Jens, standing in front of the housing block in Anadyr Airport City, in which we rented an apartment for a week while counting breeding birds in the area. Note the dilapidated building in the background. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Chukotka 2011 
It is not quite obvious to foreigners that this is a grocery store. – Anadyr Airport City. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Chukotka 2011
Abandoned buildings and inhabited houses, Anadyr Airport City. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Wildlife around Anadyr Airport
The birds, however, do not seem to care how ugly an area is, as long as the proper conditions are present. In swampy areas among the buildings, lots of waders are breeding, among these wood sandpiper (Tringa glareola), Temminck’s stint (Calidris temminckii), dunlin (Calidris alpina), red-necked phalarope (Phalaropus lobatus), and Pacific golden plover (Pluvialis fulva). There are also various duck species, such as long-tailed duck (Clangula hyemalis), wigeon (Anas penelope), and common teal (A. crecca). Around buildings, snow buntings (Calcarius nivalis) are often found, and in abandoned iron pipes or under heaps of rubbish live arctic ground squirrels (Spermophilus parryi), barking excitedly and disappearing into their den, when you pass by, only to re-appear a moment later to evaluate the danger.

In the tundra further out of town, we observe other birds, such as willow ptarmigan (Lagopus lagopus), whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus), long-toed stint (C. subminuta), tundra swan (Cygnus columbianus ssp. columbianus), long-tailed skua (Stercorarius longicaudus), and bluethroat (Luscinia svecica). A pair of peregrines (Falco peregrinus) scream their alarm call, when we pass by, soaring over a rock, on which their nest is situated. The Alaskan hare (Lepus othus) is rather common. We observe individuals in their white winter pelt, as well as brown-spotted individuals, changing into their summer pelt. Towards the end of our stay, most of them are wearing their brown summer pelt.

It is early June, and the tundra has just begun blooming. Among others, we encounter a lot of extremely hairy woolly louseworts (Pedicularis lanata), besides alpine azalea (Loiseleuria procumbens), Siberian diapensia (Diapensia obovata), Siberian pasque flower (Anemone patens var. multifida), a rock-jasmine, Androsace ochotensis (formerly called Douglasia ochotensis), and various species of willow (Salix).

 

 

Chukotka 2011
This female red-necked phalarope (Phalaropus lobatus) is feeding by whirling around in a small pond near Anadyr Airport City, snapping the tiny insects, which by this action are brought to the surface. The generic name Phalaropus, as well as the English name of this genus, means ’coot-foot’, from the Greek phalaris = coot, and pous = foot, referring to the fact that phalaropes, as opposed to most other small waders, has lobed toes, making them excellent swimmers. Incidentally, phalaris comes from phalios, which means ’with a white spot’. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Chukotka 2011
The arctic ground squirrel (Spermophilus parryi) is very common many places in Chukotka. This one lives in a scrap metal pipe in Anadyr Airport City. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Chukotka 2011 
We visited an abandoned reindeer slaughter house in the Volchya River Delta, not far from Anadyr Airport. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Chukotka 2011
Siberia in bloom. – Woolly lousewort (Pedicularis lanata) is very common. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Chukotka 2011 
This rock-jasmine, Androsace ochotensis (formerly called Douglasia ochotensis), belongs to the primrose family. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Chukotka 2011
Jens, drawing Siberian pasque flowers (Anemone patens var. multifida). (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Ominous start of caterpillar trip
Unfortunately, our trip into Zolotoi Khrebet is scheduled to start the day after the Russian National Day, on which everybody has their fair share of vodka. Our driver, Sasha, is so drunk that he can hardly walk, but he insists on driving the vestihud – caterpillar in Russian – anyway. Before our departure, he hands each of us some sort of ’medal’ – a small, flat tin item with hammer and sickle and a red star, signifying that you have distinguished yourself.

We take off at a tremendous speed, the vestihud lurching from one side of the narrow gravel road to the other. At the end of the road, Sasha manages to slow down, before we have an accident, and he also succeeds in crossing a stream, bordered by snow walls, albeit with some difficulty. Triumphantly, he holds up his thumb.

”When you embark on a trip, it is customary to celebrate the crossing of the first stream by enjoying a glass of vodka,” he says. As if he hasn’t already had enough! When he leaves the vestihud, he tumbles down on the metal belt, bending a rib. This doesn’t seem to bother him – Russians in this part of the world are a tough breed. We open one of our few bottles of vodka, which, incidentally, were supposed to be presented to some of Jens’ friends, who are employed at a lighthouse on the east coast. Now we empty a glass to celebrate our successful river crossing, whereupon Sasha, during the following fifteen minutes or so, empties the bottle entirely. We commence our journey, during which Sasha several times bangs his head into the windscreen, now bleeding from numerous small cuts. Arriving at the next stream, he places his head on his arms and falls asleep.

An hour later he awakes, and we continue our journey. Several of the streams are covered in snow, and we must make a detour to cross them. On a tall scaffold near an abandoned gold diggers’ camp, a pair of ravens (Corvus corax) have built their nest, which contains four small, naked chicks.

 

 

Chukotka 2011
Sasha told us that when you embark on a trip, it is customary to celebrate the crossing of the first stream by enjoying a glass of vodka. As if he hadn’t already had enough! From left Max, Sasha, and Jens. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Intermezzo on the Uglovaya Mountain
We decide to camp on a slope on the Uglovaya Mountain, which is level enough for our tents. ”I’ll get water for coffee,” says Sasha, leaving in the vestihud. Time goes, but he doesn’t return, and there is nothing else to do but go to bed. The following morning, we discuss what to do. We decide to give Sasha some more time, meanwhile walking up a nearby hilltop, where we find a few breeding pairs of great knot (Calidris tenuirostris). On a rockface, a pair of rough-legged buzzards (Buteo lagopus) have built their nest.

While we are up here, we spot the vestihud on the opposite side of the river, approaching our camp. Back in camp we learn that Sasha had fallen asleep in the caterpillar. Now he is suffering from a serious hangover, which can only be repaired with vodka. We only have three bottles left, and two of them are reserved for Jens’ friends out east. Somewhat hesitatingly, we hand him the third bottle.

We spend another day on the Uglovaya Mountain to give Sasha time to recover. Finally, when he becomes sober, he turns out to be a very pleasant and easy-going person, whom we all come to appreciate a lot.

The weather is lovely – sunny, but with a breeze to keep the mosquitos at bay. Near our camp, we find a nest of sandhill crane (Grus canadensis), and passerines here include red-throated pipit (Anthus cervinus) and Beringian yellow wagtail (Motacilla tschutschensis). In the evening, the cranes perform their courtship display, gliding after one another with dangling legs, trumpeting loudly.

Recently, the sandhill crane has expanded its range far west into Siberia, and the Russian population today may exceed 10,000 birds. Traditionally, Russian hunters do not shoot sandhill cranes, but in later years they have become so numerous that some hunting of the species takes place. The cranes are omnivorous, eating whatever they can find: roots, insects, mice, and eggs and young of numerous species of birds. Thus, the beautiful birds have become a threat to Siberian breeding waders, many of which are already in dire straits. (Read more about the sandhill crane on this website, see Animals: Sandhill cranes are a threat to Siberian breeding birds.)

 

 

Chukotka 2011
The following day, when Sasha finally got sober, he turned out to be a very pleasant and easy-going person, whom we all came to appreciate a lot. – Uglovaya Mountain, Zolotoi Khrebet. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Chukotka 2011
Enjoying our dinner in the open, Uglovaya Mountain. Throughout our stay in Zolotoi Khrebet, there was 24 hours of daylight. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Chukotka 2011
Sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis) in courtship display, Uglovaya Mountain. Emitting loud trumpeting calls, they glide after one another, legs dangling. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

A gold-digging camp
Our journey continues up the valley, which gradually gets more snow-covered. It is quite unbelievable, what the caterpillar can do – going up steep hills and across swamps, streams, and snow – only steep snow walls along the streams are a difficult obstacle. And, naturally, the materials are worn out quite fast. As we are driving through the gorgeous landscape, we suddenly hear a tremendous rattling noise. A link in one of the caterpillar’s belts has broken, and most of the belt is lying in the grass. Jens and Max carry the heavy belt back to the caterpillar, where Sasha repairs it in about half an hour.

At first sight, parts of the endless Arctic landscape seem completely virgin. But appearances are deceptive, and everywhere Man has left his stamp. Empty oil-drums lie scattered almost everywhere, and in many places, the remains of buildings or scaffolds point somewhat wantonly towards the sky. Rows of poles, with power lines dangling like spaghetti, are drawing lines across the landscape. One of the ugliest sights you can imagine is a deserted gold-digging camp – sheds built helter-skelter; enormous gravel heaps; broken-down machinery; tracks of caterpillars everywhere, like scars in the landscape. Above a camp, which has not yet been completely deserted, we find a level place to pitch our tents, with a fine view. It is too early in the year to dig for gold, so we have the whole area to ourselves.

Birdlife is rich here. We see more great knots, and a red-necked stint (Calidris ruficollis) returns to its nest, although we are standing only three or four metres away. Like the common sandpiper (Actitis hypoleucos), the grey-tailed tattler (Tringa brevipes) repeatedly wags the rear part of its body up and down. Among the rocks, we observe several northern pikas (Ochotona hyperborea). More than twenty species of these small, rabbit-like animals live in Central Asia, the Himalaya, and North America.

Our next camp is on a gorgeous spot, with a fine view over the Keimletkuulveem River. In the far distance, we can see the Pacific Ocean, where great icebergs have been washed ashore. Siberian anemone (Anemone sibirica) and mountain avens (Dryas octopetala) are common here, and short-horn steer’s-head (Dicentra peregrina) grows on gravelly spots. Observed birds include long-tailed skua, willow ptarmigan, and tundra bean goose (Anser serrirostris).

 

 

Chukotka 2011
A link in one of the caterpillar’s belts has broken. Jens and Max carry the heavy belt back to the caterpillar, where Sasha repairs it in about half an hour. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Chukotka 2011
One of the ugliest sights you can imagine is a deserted gold-digging camp. This is one of the less ugly ones, not yet completely deserted. However, it was too early in the year to dig for gold, so we had the whole area to ourselves. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Chukotka 2011
This red-necked stint (Calidris ruficollis) returned to its nest, although we were standing only three or four metres away. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Chukotka 2011 
The Siberian anemone (Anemone sibirica) is common around the Keimletkuulveem River. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Chukotka 2011
In gravelly areas, we found many short-horn steer’s-head (Dicentra peregrina). (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

The Russian Cat’s Tail
Our next goal is a great plain around the Izvilistaya River, where birdlife is abundant. Among others, we observe long-tailed duck, tundra bean goose, yellow-billed diver (Gavia adamsii), Pacific diver (G. pacifica), and grey plover (Pluvialis squatarola).

As we approach the coast, a brown bear (Ursus arctos) runs in front of the vestihud for some time, before jumping down a steep slope to the beach. Later we find its tracks in the sand, along the shore. A grey whale (Eschrichtius robustus), 12 metres long, has been washed ashore, a swarm of Vega gulls (Larus vegae) and glaucous gulls (L. hyperboreus) gathered on it. The carcass stinks awfully, but this doesn’t seem to bother the gulls.

This place is the beginning of a sandspit, named Kosa Ruskaya Koshka (‘The Russian Cat’s Tail’), stretching c. 20 kilometres southwest. We camp in an area, in which Jens a few years earlier had counted six or seven pairs of the rare spoon-billed sandpiper (Eurynorhynchus pygmeus), but this year we find only a single pair. The area is teeming with birds. We observe a pair of western sandpiper (Calidris mauri), which is quite rare in Siberia, besides Sabine’s gull (Xema sabini), emperor goose (Anser canagicus), bar-tailed godwit (Limosa lapponica) and many others. A barn swallow (Hirundo rustica) flies over – a rare bird in these parts. Most of the day, a house sparrow (Passer domesticus) sits on and around the vestihud, and Sasha enjoys himself, feeding it bits of bread.

An ice-cold fog drifts in from the sea, and to keep warm we make a huge fire from drift wood. In the embers, I bake chapatis, and we heat water for tea and coffee – the water is a bit ochre-coloured, but never mind!

 

 

Chukotka 2011
The meadows around the Izvilistaya River were teeming with birds, among others long-tailed duck (Clangula hyemalis). A strong wind raises the long tail feathers of this male. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Chukotka 2011
Tracks of a brown bear (Ursus arctos) on the beach. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Chukotka 2011
In our camp on Kosa Ruskaya Koshka (‘The Russian Cat’s Tail’), from left Jens, me, and Sasha. (Photo Max Nitschke, copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Chukotka 2011
Vega gulls (Larus vegae), resting on one of the last spring icebergs, Kosa Ruskaya Koshka. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Around the lighthouse
The following morning, the sky is overcast, with a slight drizzle. Even though there is no wind, the waves hit the ice along the shore, emitting hollow booms. On the icebergs, lots of Vega gulls are gathered.

At first, Kosa Ruskaya Koshka is very narrow, but towards the end it widens out, creating an area, c. 4 x 4 kilometres, comprising a surprising variety of habitats, e.g. heathland, dominated by crowberry; sandy areas, dominated by a grass, somewhat resembling lyme grass (Leymus arenarius); littoral meadows with channels and water holes; and sandy beaches. Near the tip is a cluster of houses around the lighthouse. We are received very courteously by the personnel, all of whom Jens has met on his earlier visits. Their boss is Andrei, an elderly man with a large, grey beard. Then there is Leonid, his wife, and a man with a disfigured face – the result of an encounter with an angry bear. After handing over the remaining bottles of vodka, we are invited for dinner. The dinner party is quite a gay affair, with lots of talking, eating and drinking – and we are also dragged outside to admire Andrei’s old motorbike.

During the following days, we count breeding birds in the area around the lighthouse. Besides several species of waders, we find Sabine’s gull, arctic skua (Stercorarius parasiticus), several colonies of arctic tern (Sterna paradisaea), and a few pairs of Aleutian tern (Onychoprion aleuticus), the call of which is rather peculiar, quite sparrow-like. A pair of ravens have built a nest in the radio tower. Max climbs up there to check the nest, while one of the ravens circles above him, calling raucously.

Max and I study the migration of seabirds along the shore. Huge gatherings of common eiders (Somateria mollissima) are resting on the sea, together with long-tailed ducks, Pacific divers, and a single harlequin duck (Histrionicus histrionicus). In the course of about an hour, c. 100 horned puffins (Fratercula corniculata) and c. 10 tufted puffins (Fratercula cirrhata) migrate west.

 

 

Chukotka 2011
Drinking vodka with the staff of the lighthouse on Kosa Ruskaya Koshka, from left Max (with an egg, which, according to the Russians, had to be eaten raw), Jens, Andrei, Sasha, Leonid, and a man, who had been mauled by an angry bear. Leonid’s wife didn’t want to be photographed. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Chukotka 2011
A raven (Corvus corax) is chased away from a colony of arctic terns (Sterna paradisaea), Kosa Ruskaya Koshka. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Chukotka 2011
A male snow bunting (Calcarius nivalis) takes off from an iron pipe, Kosa Ruskaya Koshka. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

A tough lady
We say goodbye to the lighthouse personnel, heading back the way we came. After crossing the Izvilistaya River, we head west towards another sandspit, Kosa Nikolaya. In former days, a lively town was found here, clustered around a harbour, from which supplies were brought to a huge gold diggers’ camp in the nearby mountains. Today, the buildings are empty and deserted, the huge oil tanks are slanting, and rusted machines, trucks, wires, and a collection of other items are scattered all over the landscape.

People have disappeared, and the area has been taken over by numerous birds, which do not at all mind breeding in this mess. Here are colonies of arctic terns and Aleutian terns, and also breeding Temminck’s stints, western sandpipers, and red-necked stints. In one of the tiny waterholes we observe a sub-adult Ross’s gull (Hydrocoloeus rosea), and around the tip of the spit around ten beluga whales (Delphinapterus leucas) swim back and forth, very close to the shore.

It is now time to return to the airport city, and Sasha strains the vestihud to its limits. Near town we say goodbye to Sasha, and a friend of his brings us to the airport hotel.

”She’s tough!” says Jens, referring to the female receptionist, whom he has met on his earlier trips. Max commences to negotiate with her – and today she is smiling and very helpful. We get a triple room, and later she brings tea and biscuits to our room.

”She has never done anything like that before!” says Jens, astonished. He and I agree that maybe she has a crush on Max, who is a handsome fellow.

”Nonsense!” says Max, a bit embarrassed.

 

 

Chukotka 2011
An abandoned truck in the abandoned mining town on Kosa Nikolaya. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Chukotka 2011
On Kosa Nikolaya, we found a small colony of Aleutian terns (Onychoprion aleuticus). (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

(Uploaded February 2016)

 

(Revised October 2017)