Posted: 18.06.2024 17:56:24

‘Passports’ upon arrival for our feathered friends

Changing plumage, gaining weight — the Turovsky Meadow is like a sanatorium for thousands of waders

Head of the Turov bird ringing station Pavel Pinchuk releases the wood sandpiper after ringing   

One of Belarus’ major bird ringing stations providing birds with ‘passports’ is located on the outskirts of Turov with a picturesque view of the flood meadow, where the water surface reflects miscellaneous herbs and migrating birds are engaged in their active flight programme. 
Pavel Pinchuk, a research fellow at the Pripyatsky National Park, shared the details of the bird ringing process while checking the morning feathered candidates for getting ‘passports’. The traps set in the meadow along the bird feeder, on the border of water and land, caught ruffs and wood sandpipers — types of waders. The ornithologist extracted the first candidate from a special box and introduced it closer, “This ruff is a female. It is grey in colour and quite inconspicuous. The thing is that it needs to sit on the nest without standing out so as not to become prey to a predator. Male ruffs, however, look stunning — after changing their plumage for a breeding one, they have brightly coloured collars… Ruffs usually arrive at the Turovsky Meadow in March after wintering in Africa. In May, they fly to the tundra, from Norway to Chukotka, where it is relatively comfortable and there is a lot of food at this time.” 
According to scientists, the Turovsky Meadow is like a sanatorium for migratory birds, where they can change plumage, gain weight — get in shape, in a word. After all, this place virtually turns into islands during a flood period, with no people, dogs, or predators. This is exactly what is needed for a great rest. According to experts of the Pripyatsky National Park, the current migration season at the Turovsky Meadow is good in all aspects. It started on time and is developing in stages. Lapwings and redshanks were the first to arrive, followed by ruffs and wood sandpipers... During the mass flight, up to fifty birds are ringed per day. Bird traps are checked every three hours, seven days per week.

Unique record 

The oldest bird ringed at the Turov bird ringing station is the black-tailed godwit. It was given a ring in 2006. At that time, the black-tailed godwit was already an adult bird. Recently, it has been photographed near the station again. According to conservative estimates, the male is as many as 18 years old.

Black-tailed godwit       

The ornithologist continued telling interesting bird-related stories while checking the bird. The female ruff did not even move in his hands, only squinting its eyes. Judging by the plumage, it turned out that the bird was young, in its second year. The procedure of measuring its biometric parameters includes measurements of the head, beak, and tarsus. After that, it is necessary to weigh the bird in a paper bag, write the data to the logbook, and then ring the bird. “Each ring has a unique number. It is a kind of bird passport that allows determining where birds fly, how much time they need to cover the distance, how their migration routes change, and how long they live,” the expert explained.
A wader’s ‘passport’ is a tiny steel ring with an ID number on it. The rings used to be aluminium ones. The ornithologists clarified why they had opted for steel, “This species of birds spend a lot of time on the sea coasts, which makes aluminium rings collapse rapidly. The ring is tightly clamped so that it does not fall on the joint, there should be no gaps.”
Male ruff

In order to put a ring on a bird’s foot, it is important to have experience and a trained eye so as not to hurt a bird. Anna Ufimtseva, an ornithologist from St. Petersburg and a volunteer at the Pripyatsky National Park, confirmed that no two birds were alike and each species required skill, “I worked at the Ladoga Ornithological Station in the Nizhne-Svirsky State Nature Reserve, where I was engaged in ringing sparrows. Last year, I went on an excursion to the Pripyatsky National Park and visited the Turov bird ringing station. Now I have come here as a volunteer in order to learn how to do it on my own. Of course, there is a difference between ringing sparrows and waders. Ringing waders is a completely new experience for me. Everything strikes me as unusual — the way a wader lies in the palm of my hand, and how the ring is clamped.” 
The next client for getting a ‘passport’ was a wood sandpiper, which is a small wader. It makes its way to Scandinavia and Karelia from Africa through the Turovsky Meadow. However, there are also local wood sandpipers that nest in Belarus. After examining the plumage, the conclusion followed — it was also a young bird, in its second year. The bird was quite well-fed weighing as much as 70 grammes, while they usually weigh about 50 grammes. The wood sandpiper was completely calm, and that silence during the ringing process was really surprising. That is not always the case, though, as the scientists admitted with a smile,  
“If there were woodpeckers or starlings here, they would be giving some ear-splitting screams. Despite the fact that our station specialises in waders, we ring all birds that get into our traps and nets. Tits are very active. During the migration season, which is September – October, we ring about 400 tits per day. They peck our hands till they bleed, but we just do not pay attention to this anymore.” 
After the morning batch of feathered creatures was ringed, the birds were set free. The ruff flew away directly to the meadow in the blink of an eye. The wood sandpiper, in contrast, lingered on the hand, posing and chirping merrily as if to thank for a new ‘passport’ with its signature high-pitched ‘chiff-iff-iff’.
In order to bring the next batch of feathered candidates for ringing, a kayak was required. In fact, it is only possible to get to the meadow by boat. As rubber boots splash in the water, every step has to be taken with care. After all, there may be bird clutches underfoot. Among birds in the trap boxes was a male ruff with a well-defined luxurious collar, just about to get its splendid breeding plumage.
Over the decades of the station’s operation, there have been changes in bird diversity, as experts noted. New species have appeared. Thus, black-winged stilts and avocets have begun to nest in the south of Turov. Migration routes and wintering sites are changing, too. However, the general number of waders is decreasing. It is almost impossible now to meet a Terek sandpiper, a monument to which has been erected in Turov. Last year, only one pair of Terek sandpiper was observed... Therefore, the protection of bird migration sites is among the priorities of the Pripyatsky National Park, as emphasised Andrei Bespaly, Deputy General Director for Research, “First of all, it is about the maintenance of the Turovsky Meadow in proper condition. It is also planned to implement a project to restore the meadow near the village of Pererovsky Mlynok, a once nesting site for waders. We plan to launch the first phase of the work already this season so as to ensure that one more comfortable place for birds’ rest and nesting will appear in Polesie in the coming years.”  

By the way

In 2016, about 120,000 ruffs were observed simultaneously on the Turovsky Meadow, which is a kind of record. Over the past 20 years, ideas about the migration routes and wintering sites of Turov waders have expanded. Now the list of their geographic routes features more than 70 countries, including England, Ireland, Senegal, Malawi and even Iran.

By Violetta Dralyuk

Photos by Ivan Yarivanovich