Siberia 2011: Caterpillar trip in Chukotka



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. Of course 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 specific areas, 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 Zolotoi Khrebet (’Golden Ridge’), transportation is going to take place in a caterpillar, which Jens has hired through one of his contact persons in the town of Anadyr.



One of the purposes of the trip was to count breeding birds in the tundra around Anadyr Airport City. In this picture, Jens (left) and Max make notes on a nest of Pacific golden plover (Pluvialis fulva). (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




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.



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)



Our spartan apartment in the airport city. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



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



Abandoned buildings and inhabited houses in the airport city. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Dilapidated monument at an abandoned house in the airport city. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




Wildlife around Anadyr Airport
The birds, however, do not seem to care about the lack of beauty of an area, as long as the proper conditions are present. Lots of waders are breeding in swampy areas among the buildings, including wood sandpiper (Tringa glareola), Temminck’s stint (Calidris temminckii), dunlin (Calidris alpina), common snipe (Gallinago gallinago), Pacific golden plover (Pluvialis fulva), and red-necked phalarope (Phalaropus lobatus).

The generic and common names of the genus Phalaropus means ’coot-foot’, derived from the Greek phalaris (’coot’) and pous (’foot’), alluding to the fact that phalaropes, as opposed to most other small waders, has lobed toes, making them excellent swimmers. Incidentally, phalaris is derived from phalios (’with a white spot’).

Various duck species are also present, including long-tailed duck (Clangula hyemalis), wigeon (Mareca penelope), and common teal (Anas crecca). Snow buntings (Plectrophenax nivalis) are often found around buildings, and vega gulls (Larus vegae) use rooftops as lookout points. Previously, this species was considered a subspecies of the herring gull (L. argentatus), but today most authorities regard it as a separate species.

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).

Soaring over a rock, on which their nest is situated, a pair of peregrines (Falco peregrinus) emit their alarm call, when we pass by.

Abandoned iron pipes or heaps of rubbish are often home to arctic ground squirrels (Urocitellus parryii), which bark excitedly and disappear into their den, when you pass by, only to re-appear a few moments later to evaluate if the danger is over.

In the vicinity, 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, the majority display their brown summer pelt.



The wood sandpiper is very common in marshy areas around the airport city. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Another common wader is common snipe. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



This female red-necked phalarope is feeding by whirling around in a small pond, snapping the tiny insects that the whirling brings to the surface. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



The commonest duck around the airport city is the wigeon. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Vega gulls used rooftops as lookout points. Note the different colour of the iris, a common trait in this species. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Male bluethroat. The birds in Chukotka belong to the widespread nominate subspecies svecica. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



The raven (Corvus corax) is widespread in Siberia. This one is calling from a rail on an abandoned factory building tower in the airport city. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



The arctic ground squirrel is very common many places in Chukotka. These were living in scrap metal pipes in the airport city. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Some Alaskan hares still displayed the white winter pelt, whereas others were changing into the brown summer pelt. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



The snow was melting fast around the airport city. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



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



The staff quarters of the slaughter house had been invaded by snow. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



This long-tailed skua in the Volchya River Delta feints an attack. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




Tundra in bloom
It is early June, and flowers of the tundra have just begun blooming. We encounter an abundance of extremely hairy woolly louseworts (Pedicularis lanata), and other flowering plants include Siberian pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens var. multifida), alpine azalea (Kalmia procumbens, formerly named Loiseleuria procumbens), Lapland rhododendron (Rhododendron lapponicum ssp. parviflorum), Siberian diapensia (Diapensia obovata), and a rock-jasmine, Androsace ochotensis (formerly called Douglasia ochotensis).

Various species of willow (Salix) are ubiquitous in the tundra. On several occasions, we observe arctic bumblebees (Bombus polaris) feeding in the flowers. Incidentally, this bumblebee plays an essential role in the pollination of the woolly lousewort. It is adapted in a way that allows it to work the spikes from the bottom towards the top (Kevan 1972).



Woolly lousewort is very common around the airport city. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Jens, drawing Siberian pasque flowers. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Alpine azalea. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Lapland rhododendron. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Siberian diapensia. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



This rock-jasmine, Androsace ochotensis, was formerly known as Douglasia ochotensis. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Flowering willows. In the lower picture, an arctic bumblebee is feeding in the flowers. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Spore-bearing shoots of field horsetail (Equisetum arvense). (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 (Russian for caterpillar) 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, was 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.

When we continue our journey, Sasha bangs his head into the windscreen several times and is 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 carry on with 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 have built their nest, which contains four small, naked chicks.



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)



Sasha and Max in the vestihud. (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, and in the meantime we ascend a nearby hill, 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 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 may today 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.

Further information on this crane is found on the page Animals – Birds: Sandhill cranes are a threat to breeding birds.



In our camp on Uglovaya Mountain, waiting for Sasha to return. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



While waiting, we counted birds on a nearby hill, where we encountered a few pairs of the great knot. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



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. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



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)



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



We soon found the nest of the cranes. (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.

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 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 in the Schirnaya Mountains, which has not yet been completely abandoned, 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.



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)



A deserted gold-digging camp is indeed an ugly site. This picture shows a less ugly one in the Schirnaya Mountains, which has not yet been completely abandoned. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



I make chapatis (flat loaves), using an empty vodka bottle to roll out the dough, Schirnaya Mountains. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




Wildlife around the camp
Birdlife is rich in this area. We encounter more great knots, and a red-necked stint (Calidris ruficollis) returns to its nest, although we are standing only a few 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).



This red-necked stint returned to its nest, although we were standing only a few metres away. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



In summer plumage, the grey-tailed tattler has a finely striped underside. In winter plumage, it is a uniform grey. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Northern pika, Schirnaya Mountains. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



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



In gravelly areas, we found many short-horn steer’s-head. (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 m 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 km 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, and other birds include 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!



The long-tailed duck was common around the Izvilistaya River. A strong wind raises the long tail feathers of this male. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Tracks of brown bear on the beach. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



In our camp on Kosa Ruskaya Koshka (‘The Russian Cat’s Tail’). (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Only a single pair of the rare spoon-billed sandpiper was present in the area. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Western sandpiper male in courtship display. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



We found a small breeding colony of Sabine’s gull. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



In our camp, we were paid a visit by a house sparrow, and Sasha enjoyed himself feeding it bits of bread. (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.

Initially, Kosa Ruskaya Koshka is very narrow, but towards the end it widens out, creating an area, c. 4 x 4 km, comprising a surprising variety of habitats, including heathland, dominated by crowberry (Empetrum nigrum), sandy areas, dominated by a grass, which somewhat resembles lyme grass (Leymus arenarius), littoral meadows with channels and water holes, and finally sandy beaches.

Near the tip of the spit 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 their nest in the radio tower. When Max climbs up to check the nest, 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 (F. cirrhata) migrate west.



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



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)



When Max climbed up in the radio tower to check the raven’s nest, one of them circled above him, calling raucously. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



One of the ravens is chased away from a colony of arctic terns. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Male snow bunting, taking off from an iron pipe, Kosa Ruskaya Koshka. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Beringian yellow wagtail, Kosa Ruskaya Koshka. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Several pairs of arctic skua were nesting near the lighthouse. (Photos 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.

A collection of pictures, depicting this decay, may be studied on the page Decay.

The former human population has moved, 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 tern and Aleutian tern, and we also observe breeding Temminck’s stint, western sandpiper, red-necked stint, and ringed plover (Charadrius hiaticula).

In one of the tiny waterholes, we observe a sub-adult Ross’s gull (Hydrocoloeus rosea), and around the tip of the spit about 10 beluga whales (Delphinapterus leucas) are swimming back and forth, very close to the shore.

It is now time to return to the airport city, and the vestihud is strained to its limits. Back in 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 negotiating 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.



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



Rust, creating patterns on a blue oil drum. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Oysterleaf (Mertensia maritima) is common along the coasts of Chukotka, here photographed on Kosa Nikolaya. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Ringed plover, Kosa Nikolaya. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Arctic tern is very common in Chukotka. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



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




Kevan, P.G. 1972. Insect Pollination of High Arctic Flowers. Journal of Ecology 60 (3): 831-847




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(Latest update February 2022)