28th April 1997 - 11th May 1997.
A filming and sound recording trip with Natural History film producer Dan Freeman and cameraman James Gray for the grasslands programme in the 8 part series called 'Living Europe' made by Green Umbrella Productions in Bristol.
On the drive from Kiev Airport to our hotel in the centre of the city there were lots of Rooks and Hooded Crows, around the hotel there were Greenfinches and Great Tits singing and I heard a Syrian Woodpecker. New species for me will be in bold.
In the morning we set out in two vehicals, Dan and James in a Land Rover with interpreter Yuri and driver Alexander, me in a car with driver Anatoly who spoke excellent English.
We headed south, where the dominent sounds in the towns and villages were of Great Tit song. Because spring was almost two weeks late there were few summer migrants, many of the trees had no leaves even in the south, also until three days ago it had been very cold with temperatures just above freezing.
Further south we started seeing Swallows, House Martins and Starlings, for most of the way on both sides of the road there were massive fields, many without hedgerows or trees, where there were, especially in the south, there were large rookeries with attendant Lesser Kestrels and Red-footed Falcons.
During the 10 hour drive we also saw Buzzards, a Marsh Harrier, 5 Purple Herons, a Great White Egret, Crested Larks, Skylarks, Yellow and Pied Wagtails, Collared Doves, Black Terns, Black-headed and Yellow-legged Gulls, a Hoopoe, 2 Syrian Woodpeckers, a White Stork, 2 Curlew and lots of Corn Buntings.
Finally we turned off the main road and drove west to Askania-Nova, the road on the northern side was lined with trees no higher than 10-15 metres and full of Rooks' nests, some only a few metres off the ground, behind mainly farmland. On the southern side was open steppe grassland, the habitat we had come to film and record in.
There was only one hotel and on arrival we were met by some of the scientists from the research station that we would be working with. From the outside the hotel looked OK, inside it had seen much better days, we were shown to our rooms, mine was a large room at the back, with a metal bed, a wash stand and a bath, then, someone brough a mattress, a couple of pillows and some sheets and blankets and left! After making the bed I tried the taps, both sink and bath ran a rusty red colour, but luckily, near the room there was a shower room and that seemed to work, with cleanish water. The rooms Dan and James had were similar, and they pointed out to me that at least my door closed!
There was no functioning kitchen, so our evening meal was provided by a nearby local family, in their home, whoses cooking was excellent, they also prepared packed lunches for us during our stay.
Returning from our meal I found bottled water in the room, so at least I could clean my teeth and wash in the morning.
Now I see there is a modern, high quality hotel in Askania-Nova.
Hotel at Askania-Nova
In the morning we loaded up the vehicles for the day, in the trees around the car park there were lots of tits, Goldfinches and Collared Doves singing, and we saw a Wood Warbler.
Then we drove back along the approach road and had a walk out onto the steppe, the area was full of song, there were larks everywhere, Skylarks and Calandra Larks all singing against each other, at times chasing and fighting over territory.
The Skylarks were the dominant sound with only slight variation between the songs of different birds, but there was a lot of variation and mimicry from the Calandra Larks.
Being so open the steppe always had a slight wind blowing across it, which became gusty at times, especially in the afternoon at the hottest part of the day.
Across the grassland there were points of colour from Pygmy Irises and Schrenk's Tulips, and, there were numerous holes from what we called steppe voles, which were either Social or Southern Voles.
As we walked through the area European Green Toads were common, and we saw 6 Orsini's Vipers, they were only just emerging, now the weather was warmer.
Further onto the steppe we saw at least 6 Steppe Marmots, one of the species we had come to film and record, and we found a pair of Shelducks using an old marmot burrow. While we were there a Booted Eagle flew over and in the distance, above the woodland, we saw a Spotted Eagle.
Steppe at Askania-Nova
Roadside rookery by the steppe
In the line of trees, by the side of the road, alongside the steppe were hundreds of Rook nests, most of them with chicks, when the parents came in to feed them the noise was intense.
By several nests there were pairs of Lesser Kestrels, but, many more were guarded by Red-footed Falcons, both species do this, waiting by selected nests, guarding them until the Rooks depart and they can use them to lay their own eggs.
Later, to the west of the village we were shown the zoo, behind the small group of pens and cages, there were large enclosures with with larger animals and herds of endangered species. We only had time to view the closest paddock where there was a herd of Saiga Antelopes, also a flock of about 600 wild Common Cranes, a Grey Partridge, a Hoopoe, a Turtle Dove, several Whinchats and Corn Buntings, 2 Gull-billed Terns, 3 Brown Hares and 2 Foxes.
In the village, on the way back to the hotel, I heard a Little Owl.
Lesser Kestrel pair, nest guarding.
An early start out on the steppe to record larks, Dan and James were helping the scientists move the hide they had constructed closer to a Steppe Marmot burrow. During this time I also saw Black-headed Wagtails, Ravens, 2 Short-eared Owls, a Montagu's Harrier, Yellow-legged Gulls, 2 Shelducks and a herd of Red Deer.
Later I went to the roadside rookery to record Red-footed Falcons and Lesser Kestrels, the kestrels hardly ever called, but the falcons called now and again, especially when a rival bird or pair tried to take over the nest they were guarding.
Above, calls from a female, then from the pair as another pair tries to land in the same tree.
After lunch I had a walk through the 'Arboretum' which was close to and north of the hotel, which I see is now called the Botanical Gardens on modern maps.
In the tall trees there were many Rooks' nests, which were mainly quiet at this time of day, but there was still a lot of song from the numerous Great Tits, Goldfinches and Collared Doves. I also saw a Golden Oriole, a Chaffinch, a Wood Warbler, a Willow Warbler, a Syrian Woodpecker, 2 Tree Sparrows, a Red Squirrel and 6 Avocets flying over calling.
From there I returned to the steppe where I saw the Red Deer herd again, there were lots of voles moving in the grass and I found 2 Sand Lizards which I watched for sometime. There were also a few wagtails, a male Montagu's Harrier, a Whinchat, an adult Fox with a cub and I heard several Quail.
In the evening I returned to the Arboretum where the sounds of the Rooks almost drowned out everything else. I saw 2 Long-eared Owls and heard 2 more, I also heard owl chicks which were calling from a Rook's nest at the top of a tall tree. There were lots of tits and finches, 3 Syrian Woodpeckers and I heard a Cuckoo.
Female Red-footed Falcon nest guarding
An early morning visit to the Arboretum where I saw 2 male Golden Orioles, 4 Willow Warblers, a Cuckoo, heard and saw a Thrush Nightingale, there were lots of Blue and Great Tits, Goldfinches, Collared Doves and Rooks, also 3 Blackcaps, 3 Syrian Woodpeckers, a Semi-collared Flycatcher and 2 Red Squirrels, one was sat in a tree gnawing on a pine cone and although they didn't move when I approached them, they gave a series of calls and alarms.
Most of the time the songs of Great Tits were very familiar, but many of them sang what is probably a regional song, one I had not heard before.
It was still early, but there was lots of noise from farm vehicles today, so I decided with Anatoly to look for another location and habitat. We drove south hoping to find an area along the Black Sea coast, on the way seeing lots of Red-footed Falcons, Lesser Kestrels and a Lesser Grey Shrike. Finding the coast wasn't as easy as we had thought as the whole area was farmland with main roads going east or west, in a village Anatoly asked for directions and we headed southwest on a minor road. After a few miles we found a reed-fringed pool by the side of the road, from it a wall of sound of Marsh Frogs and European Green Toads, there were lots of Black-headed Wagtails coming to drink, also Short-toed Larks, Crested Larks, Corn Buntings, an Ortolan Bunting and we heard several Quail in the crop behind the pool.
Lake between Vasylyvka and Druzhelyubyvka
A bit further along the road we came to a village called Vasylyvka and between it and the next village of Druzhelyubyvka was a large lake, teeming with birds.
Although the lake looked large to us, it was in fact small by comparison to the other lakes which flow into the Syvash Sea and then the Sea of Azov.
I estimated that there were around 10,000 Little Gulls on the lake and at least 2,000 Black and White-winged Black Terns, about 50 Gull-billed Terns, 3 Great Black-headed Gulls, 14 Slender-billed Gulls, 10+ Mediterranean Gulls and a colony of Yellow-legged Gulls.
There were 100+ Avocets, 20+ Black-winged Stilts, 50+ Wood Sandpipers, 2 Black-winged Pratincoles, 4 Lapwing, 500+ Ruff, several Redshank, a Greenshank and a Spotted Redshank. Also 14 Great White Egrets, 10 Little Egrets, 20+ Grey Herons, 2 Purple Herons and I heard 3 Bitterns.
On the water were 20+ Mute Swans, Coot, 20+ Shoveler, 6 Shelduck, 10+ Mallard, 4 Garganey, 30+ Pochard and a Great Crested Grebe.
Around the lake and in the reedbeds were lots of Great Reed Warblers singing although I only saw one, also seen was a Willow Warbler, lots of Sand Martins, 3 Marsh Harriers, Crested Larks, Black-headed Wagtails and I heard a Grasshopper Warbler. Accompanying calls from all the birds was a chorus of Marsh Frogs and European Green Toads.
White-winged Black Tern.
Little Gulls with Black and White-winged Black Terns
Most of the day spent out on the steppe where I saw several Steppe Marmots, Hooded Crows, a Wheatear and a Hoopoe, or by the roadside rookery where I waited to record Red-footed Falcons, when they called.
Also seeing Lesser Kestrels, Tree Sparrows and in one of the Rook nests a Long-eared Owl chick, these owls also use the nests, but have to compete with the returning Rooks.
Calls from male Red-footed Falcon with female in background.
Towards evening I visited the Arboretum where there were 3 Long-eared Owl chicks calling from high up in the trees and an adult hooting, which came from much lower down.
Male Red-footed Falcon
Female Red-footed Falcon
Male Red-footed Falcon
Today I was allowed to use the hide at the Steppe Marmot burrow, while Dan and the team tried to catch voles. Everyone on the steppe had to be careful where they walked, as there were now Orsini's Vipers everywhere.
I set up the microphones and it wasn't long before the marmots appeared from their burrow, a pair with 6 pups, and during the time I was there I saw another 4 adults.
The adult pair took turns sitting outside the burrow while the other went to feed, ocassionally they sat together, later the cubs appeared and fed close to the burrow. I heard no difference between the male and female calls and couldn't pick up any sounds from the pups.
After an hour or so the wind picked up and started blowing strongly across the steppe, so I gave up and returned to the car.
Male Steppe Marmot
Female Steppe Marmot
Dan & team vole catching
Male Steppe Marmot with cubs
It was only mid morning and although it was windy there was the rest of the day to go, so Anatoly and I decided to explore a different area to the south. On the drive we saw a House Martin, a Lesser Grey Shrike, Crested Larks, 5 Gull-billed Terns, a few Red-footed Falcons and Lesser Kestrels, Rooks, Magpies and lots of Yellow-legged Gulls. In a ploughed field there were around 80 Mediterranean Gulls and in another field about 50 Ruff.
We reached the village of Syvash where there was a causeway across the Syvash or Syvash Sea to the Crimean Peninsula, we stopped part way across seeing 200+ Cormorants, a Greenshank, a Curlew, 600+ Ruff, 11 Avocets, 3 Lapwings, a Raven, 150+ Mediterranean Gulls, 50+ Shelduck, about 40 White-winged Black Terns, about 150 Dunlin, 6 Gull-billed Terns, lots of Yellow-legged Gulls and an Oystercatcher.
We continued into Crimea, but found mainly farmland so stopped to decide what to do, from the car I heard high pitched calls coming from the field alongside, the calls were coming from Speckled Ground Sqirrels or Spotted Sousliks and there were several of them spread out across the field calling at or to each other.
We returned across the causeway and tried to find a spot to view more of the coast, we found one place where there was an Osprey and a Little Tern, but most of the coastal margin was farmland.
We travelled back to Askania-Nova where we learned that there had been an incident with the team on the steppe, one of the scientists with Dan and James had been bitten by an Orsini's Viper while trying to catch voles and needed hospital treatment, the venom from these vipers is a lot more powerful than our Adder.
A day spent in the enclosures, as we left the hotel a Levant Sparrowhawk flew over.
Kulan at Askania-Nova
At the zoo we transfered into a horse and cart, then passed through a couple of large paddocks until we reached a massive paddock, here there were around 200 Saiga Antelopes, a small herd of Kulan and a herd of Przewalski's Horses, the animals we had come to film and record.
The horses didn't make much noise so the best I recorded were a few snorts, the same sound as the horse pulling the cart, but I did get the herd running through water in a marshy area in the paddock.
This marsh held lots of birds and we saw around 100 Ruff, 3 Gull-billed Terns, 200+ Wood Sandpipers, Shelduck and Ruddy Shelduck.
In the grassland were lots of Skylarks and Calandra Larks, 4 Ravens, Meadow Pipits and Black-headed Wagtails, there were Red-footed Falcons flying around feeding, a flock of 400+ Common Cranes and an immature White-tailed Eagle flew over.
Dan and team in paddock.
Przewalski's Horses at Askania-Nova
An early start in the arboretum, again there were lots of Blue and Great Tits, Rooks, Magpies, Goldfinches and Collared Doves, I also saw an adult Long-eared Owl and 2 chicks, a Thrush Nightingale hearing 4 more, 2 Blackcaps, a Willow Warbler, a Syrian Woodpecker and heard 2 Golden Orioles.
I was going to go to the steppe, but it became very windy again, so I decided with Anatoly to return to the lake with no name between the villages of Vasylyvka and Druzhelyubyvka, I hoped that the wind may have dropped by the time we got there.
On the drive south we saw Crested Larks, Skylarks, Corn Buntings, Rooks, Magpies, Jackdaws, Red-footed Falcons, Lesser Kestrels, a Syrian Woodpecker, 21 Gull-billed Terns and at two different points a Quail flew across the road infront of the car.
When we reached the lake it was still very windy, but with lots of birds, so I spent the time counting the species, seeing 40+ Avocets, 60+ Black-winged Stilts, 300+ Dunlin, about 10 Curlew Sandpipers, 2 Greenshank, 2,000+ Ruff, 6 Redshank, 8 Black-winged Pratincoles, 30+ Wood Sandpipers, 8 Lapwing and at the southern end of the lake a Spur-winged Plover, a new European bird for me.
There were around 3,000 Little Gulls, 50+ Gull-billed Terns, 700+ White-winged Black Terns, 800+ Black Terns, 10+ Common Terns, a Little Tern, 20+ Mediterranean Gulls, 15+ Slender-billed Gulls, 40+ Yellow-legged Gulls with more sat behind the islands.
Also 6 Great White Egrets, 9 Grey Herons, 5 Purple Herons, 6 Little Egrets and 3 Glossy Ibises.
In the water were 6 Cormorants, 50 Mute Swans, 60+ Shelducks, 10 Garganey, 3 Shoveler, 50+ Coot, 4 Gadwall, 14 Mallard and 2 Little Grebes.
Along the lake margins I saw 2 Great Reed Warblers and heard lots more, several Black-headed Wagtails, Meadow Pipits and Lesser Short-toed Larks, 5 Marsh Harriers, about 50 Sand Martins, 2 Water Rails, several Bearded Tits, a Willow Warbler, an Isabelline Wheatear and in a reedbed more sheltered from the wind I saw a Paddyfield Warbler and heard several more.
Later, we drove to a peninsula south of the lake, where there were lots of Calandra Larks, several Short-toed Larks, lots of Swallows, several Corn Buntings, 3 Slender-billed Gulls, 8 Wheatears and 5 Rollers.
We returned to Askania-Nova and on the approach road stopped to watch a Long-eared Owl flying over the steppe.
Lake between Vasylyvka and Druzhelyubyvka
Long-eared Owl at Askania-Nova
Another very windy day, nevertheless I made another atempt to record the Steppe Marmots, it wasn't too windy to start with, but soon became very gusty and I gave up that idea.
On the steppe Skylarks and Calandra Larks were trying to sing in the wind, although the song was much reduced, I also saw Black-headed Wagtails, 2 Ravens and there was a slight passage of Swallows moving through, and my first Swallowtail Butterfly of the trip. There were lots of voles running around in the grass and I saw 2 Orsini's Vipers.
In the roadside rookery many of the Rooks were staying, hunkered down, close to their nests and the Red-footed Falcons and Lesser Kestrels were quiet.
Male and female Steppe Marmot.
Overnight the wind had dropped, in the morning, over the car park, there was a Bee-eater flying around.
My first stop was the roadside rookery to record Rooks, Red-footed Falcons and Lesser Kestrels. There was a lot of calling to begin with, but by mid morning the rookery became quiet with most of the adult Rooks away feeding.
So, I had a walk across the steppe, there were lots of Swallows going north and a few House Martins, I heard a Quail, saw the Steppe Marmots again, also a Sand Lizard, a female Montagu's Harrier and 16 Swallowtail Butterflies, I counted the deer in the Red Deer herd, there were 54 and saw a flock of 13 Common Cranes fly over.
After lunch I spent the rest of the day in the arboretum where I saw another group of 5 Common Cranes flying over, a Turtle Dove, an adult Long-eared Owl and 2 chicks, a Spotted Flycatcher plus the usual woodland birds.
My main focus was trying to get close enough to a pair of Golden Orioles to record them, which wasn't easy as they were moving around in the thickets on the edge of the wood.
Song from the male was often followed by the shorter song of the female, almost dueting at times, the 'cat-like' calls appeared to come from the male.
Towards evening there were several Thrush Nightingales singing and I managed to find one in bushes I could get close to, only seeing it briefly as it moved around inside the bushes, but I was close enough to record it.
Photos: Roadside rookery.
Female Red-footed Falcon.
Our last day at Askania-Nova and I started off in the arboretum where there were several Red Squirrels of red, grey and black phases, also around 8 Spotted Flycatchers, 4 Willow Warblers, lots of Blue and Great Tits, Rooks, Chaffinches, Goldfinches, a Blackcap and 2 Long-eared Owl chicks. I heard 2 Golden Orioles and 2 Hoopoes, also there were 2 Thrush Nightingales singing.
I followed a pair of Syrian Woodpeckers and eventually found their nest hole, the male called as he entered, indicating there were chicks inside, the female flew in later to releave the male who flew to a nearby tree.
During this time there was a lot of 'drumming' and tapping on trees from the male, at various distances, and I only heard calls from the male.
Later I joined Dan and James at the roadside rookery, they were filming a female Long-eared Owl sat in an old Rook's nest, the male was sat in a nearby tree, they said that the owl had very young chicks.
I left them to their filming and walked along the line of trees, seeing lots of Rooks, Magpies - many with nests, 7 Lesser Grey Shrikes, a Whitethroat, 2 Icterine Warblers, a pair of Red-backed Shrikes, Tree Sparrows, lots of Red-footed Falcons - one female was sat on an old Rook's nest, then flew off carrying a vole and flew around being chased by other falcons.
On the steppe lots of Skylarks and Calandra Larks, Black-headed Wagtails, an Ortolan Bunting, 2 Yellow-legged Gulls, a Raven, 2 Hooded Crows, a female Montagu's Harrier and quite a few Swallows and House Martins moving north.
Then I went to a wooded area near the main road where I saw 4 large Long-eared Owl chicks perched in the trees, an adult flew off as I approached and the chicks sat still staring at me. I took a few photos and left, not wanting to disturb them too much.
Later, I returned to the arboretum where I heard a Hoopoe calling from the top of a tall tree, a second bird flew in which I presumed was a female, the presumed male's calls then became deeper and both birds gave rasping calls as they flew off.
Towards evening I went back to the area where I had recorded the Thrush Nightingale yesterday, it was still there.
Photos: Right & below: Long-eared Owl chicks.
Female Long-eared Owl in old Rook's nest.
We left Askania-Nova early for the long drive back to Kiev, about 20 kilometres north there were about 50 Common Cranes in one field, on the wires alongside the road lots of Lesser Grey Shrikes. When we reached the dam crossing the River Prypiat we saw our first Swifts of the trip, about 30 birds, also about 40 House Martins and 3 Hoopoes.
North of the river we only saw small numbers of Red-footed Falcons, even though there were large rookerys for the next 20 kilometres or so. There were a few Lesser Kestrels, mainly sat guarding Magpie's nests, also a White Stork, a Raven, a Marsh Harrier and I heard lots of Thrush Nightingales. At one of our stops in a group of trees in a small village I saw a Syrian and a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker.
A day sight-seeing in the centre of Kiev.
St Sophia Cathedral, Kiev
Street market, Kiev