Amazing American Songbirds or American Warblers

At the end of April – May, the migration of small songbirds begins in Ontario. By their small size and tinny graceful beaks, they resemble the warblers of the Old World. Warblers of the Old World belong to the Phylloscopus genus and include small insectivorous birds found in Europe, Asia, and Africa. Most of the American small songbird species, occupying similar ecological niches and specializing in insect hunting,  are also called “warblers”. However, taxonomists distinguish warblers of the Old and New World. They place the American species in the family Parulidae or New World Wood Warblers. American “wood” warblers are very different from “true” warblers and have just some morphological similarities, related to adaptation and life to comparable environmental conditions. New World wood-warblers are small passerines that are also mostly insectivorous. During migration and at breeding sites, they vigorously examine trees and shrubs, skillfully extracting insects and arachnids from foliage and inflorescences, from the bark of trees and shrubs, and from other hidden places.

The Latin name of the New World wood warblers’ family – Parulidae – is associated with tits. The Old World tits belong to the genus Parus, described by Carl Linnaeus in 1758. Linnaeus, however, described one of the North American wood warblers – as the “American tit” – Parus americanus. The bird’s Latin name was soon slightly changed, retaining the root. This bird recently still was called Parula americana or Northern Parula and just recently was moved by taxonomists in another genus. Its Latin name now is Setophaga americana. However, the common name “Parula” is originated from the title given to this species by Carl Linnaeus. The entire wood-warbler family name – Parulidae – comes also from a Latin name designating tits – Parus and may be interpreted as “tit-like”. Obviously, both the species and the entire family have nothing to do with either tits or Old World warblers. However, our perception of passerine birds connects these unrelated taxonomic groups. Taxonomists consolidated the name of the family in 1947, highlighting the genus Parula as a type. It is noteworthy that the parula really looks somewhat like a tit: it has a slightly bluish color and when examining trees, especially birches, it can hang upside down, deftly clinging to thin twigs with its long fingers.

The New World Warblers – representatives of this family – occur entirely in the Americas. The family unites small insectivorous birds, many of which are brightly colored, especially males. All American warblers are rather small birds. The smallest species is Lucy’s Warbler (Oreothlypis luciae), weighing about 6.5 g with a length of a little more than 10 cm. Relatively large songbirds are Ovenbird (Seiurus aurocapilla) and Northern Waterthrush (Parkensia noveboracensis) with weight up to 25-28 g and length up to 15-16 cm. Most part of the birds from Parulidae family is associated with forest and shrub communities, nesting in shrub branches and in tree crowns. But there are also species that prefer to settle the nests on the ground, camouflaging them among the roots of trees.

Currently, 119 species of songbirds, belonging to 18 genera, have been listed to the family. It is believed that American warblers were originated and evolved in the northern part of Central America, where even now their species diversity is very great. During the interglacial periods, they spread far to the north, forming a group of long-distant seasonal migrants that fly to nest far beyond the tropical zones in the forested-tundra and taiga of North America.

These birds are found on migration in the Ottawa River Valley on their way to nesting sites in the northern boreal forests. The first migrants arrive in the Ottawa area in late April – early May. It is remarkable that some of the northernmost migrants appear in the northern latitude in late spring-early summer, they can be observed in the parks of Toronto or Ottawa only in late May-early June; they also begin to fly back prompt as early or mid-August. Thus, these birds have adapted to breed in a relatively short nesting season – one and a half to two months. In this period, they need to form pairs, find nesting territories, lay clutches, hatch, and raise chicks. Therefore, the size of clutches in migratory American warblers is quite large, they incubate up to 6-7 eggs and then feed large broods. For comparison, the tropical warblers from the same family usually have clutches with 2-3 eggs.

From May to early June, about 30 species of American warblers migrate through Ontario. Many of them stay for breeding in the orchards, parks, fields, and wetlands around large and small towns. But most migrants fly to the central and northern parts of the province and beyond its territory for nesting in boreal forests. Some the migratory songbirds, such as the Myrtle or Yellow-rumped Warbler (Setophaga coronata), American Yellow Warbler (Setophaga petechia), or Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas), are abundant and highly visible, while others are not always easy to spot even by a skilled naturalist. They migrate invisibly and quickly, trying to get to nesting places in northern latitudes as soon as possible. Many of those songbirds are characterized by a narrow food specialization. In nesting places, they hunt certain types of insect pests and caterpillars. In years when outbreaks of insect pests are observed, the populations of species-“specialists” also increases, then gradually reducing in accordance with the available natural resources.

It is not easy to spot many songbirds in the breeding places. Even having the bright color of plumage, they dissolve among the leaves of trees in the changeable play of light and shadow. But the presence of many species can be recognized by listening to their characteristic song. Some bird count techniques are based on the knowledge of bird songs and calls. For example, the famous “point count” method includes the identification of all birds around by their songs and calls from one point. The monitoring of breeding birds in North America has been conducted for over 50 years. Any citizen who has an interest in birds and their conservation may contribute his or her “two cents” to one of the bird monitoring programs by joining one of the environmental programs of Birds Canada, for example to the program on the Breeding Bird Survey or Ontario Breeding Bird Atlas. You also can contribute your bird knowledge to the citizen science program on birds survey – ebird, which holds the global database, collecting bird observation data from all naturalists.

Magnificent Zonotrichia-American Sparrow Species

In the spring, noticeable small “sparrows” appear on forest paths in the green belt of Ottawa. They often stay on the ground among the grass, collecting seeds of cereals and small weeds. Their modest variegated striped brownish coloration resembles sparrows. However, these passerines have only external similarities to real sparrows. For a long time, they belonged to Emberizidae (bunting) Family, and only recently they, together with other American sparrows, were singled out into a new family, which is called the Passerellidae or New World Sparrows. Five representatives of this vast family belong to the genus Zonotrichia or American sparrows. All birds from this genus have brown backs with black stripes and streaks and heads with distinctive markings – white, yellow, or black. Four of five species are North American dwellers and one – the rufous-collared sparrow – inhabits highlands from southeast of Mexico to Tierra del Fuego in the extreme south of South America.

White-throated Sparrow during migration in Ottawa area

The white-throated sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) is a Canadian patriot. If you enter the forest and hear whistles coming from the tree crowns resembling melodic and solemn “Oh! Canada! Sweet Canada, Canada, Canada“, then know that the singer lurking in the branches is a white-throated sparrow. This bird is widespread in the forest zone of North America. Small portion of the species population nests in the northeastern part of the United States, but nevertheless, the main breeding range of this sparrow covers the boreal forests of Canada. Some pairs of white-throated sparrows stay for nesting in Ottawa’s Greenbelt, but most of the birds fly for breeding to the north in boreal and taiga regions. For example, in Algonquin Park, the white-throated sparrow is one of the most abundant passerine birds. Its songs pour from almost every corner of the forest in the quiet morning from late spring to mid-summer. This sparrow begins to sing first at dawn – even before sunrise. On migration, the white-throated sparrow is also very widely distributed. It loves to visit bird feeders in green areas around towns and cities. And for the winter, most part white-throated sparrows migrate to the United States, where wintering birds can be seen even in Central Park in New York. More information about this bird you will find on pages of the Cornell Lab “All about birds”.

The white-crowned sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys) is a bird that breeds in the northern latitudes of North America – in the northern boreal forests, taiga, and forested tundra of Canada and Alaska. This sparrow inhabits shrub thickets and other bushy areas. In the migration season, the white-crowned sparrows may be observed in temperate zones of North America. They are often observed along trails, on grassy lawns, and in meadows in the green areas in mid-latitudes, where they collect small seeds of weeds and cereals, as well as small insects and other invertebrates. However, even during migration, they prefer to stay close to forests and can be spotted in many provincial parks of Ontario. In autumn, this sparrow does not appear early; it is a late migrant, which passage takes place in October. It migrates for wintering to the southern United States, sometimes reaching Mexico and Central America. Back migration in Southern Ontario takes place in early-mid May. At this time, white-crowned sparrows sometimes combine with white-throated, which also return to their breeding areas. Their joint flocks of both species can be seen feeding in dandelion meadows, under bird feeders on forest paths, and near houses. Near Ottawa, the first white-crowned sparrows appear at the end of April, and at the end of May, they already fly further north. The presence of white-crowned sparrows in the forest also gives out a characteristic melodic song. Males of this sparrow learn the songs in the places where they grow up (All about birds), they usually come back for breeding in the same places and therefore they have diverse local dialects of song and need to learn several dialects when living at the edge of the population range.

While hiking in one of the parks in Vancouver, my attention was attracted by small birds, which resembled females of the white-crowned sparrows, both in appearance and in behavior. But looking closer, I noticed “golden” caps – yellow spots in the center of the head and wide black “eyebrows” attaching from both sides to the yellow caps. These birds were immediately identified as the golden-crowned sparrows (Zonotrichia atricapilla), which inhabit the taiga forests in the uplands of the western edge of North America. The breeding grounds of these sparrows are stretched from northern Alaska and the Aleutian Islands to the central regions of the Yukon province in Canada. In fall, golden-crowned sparrows migrate along the Pacific Coast to the south of British Columbia, western United States reaching on wintering southern California. The white-crowned sparrow inhabits dense shrubs and other brushy areas. These sparrows are often found in many parks of Vancouver, where they, like other species of this genus, gather to feed under bird feeders. Just like their relatives, golden-crowned sparrows prefer to feed on the ground, collecting small seeds of cereals and other plants. Song mnemonics of this species are described in “Dendroica” as whistles “Oh! Deer me” or “ Teeeewwww twee twee”. Although miners from the Yukon hear their song as “No gold here” (All about birds). This species is also known for its vagrant behavior: individual birds during periods of seasonal migrations reach the Far East in Russia and Japan. Also, a small number of sparrows sometimes roam along the eastern coasts of North America, where they are observed from Nova Scotia to Florida.

My daughter and I were walking with heavy backpacks through the streets of the town of Banos in the province of Tungurahua in Ecuador. The town is adjacent to the northern foot of the active volcano Tungurahua in the Andes at an altitude of about 1800 m above sea level. Several “sparrows” with a melodious voice were jumping along the narrow streets of the town. We could see them only when we reached the hotel and dropped our backpacks. The remarkable features of the external appearance made it possible to quickly identify the species. These were the rufous-collared or “Andean” sparrows (Zonotrichia capensis) – a species that inhabit South America. This sparrow is distributed from Mexico in North America to the Tierra del Fuego archipelago on the southern tip of the continent. In July, when we voyaged and had a chance to observe these birds, rufous-collared sparrows roamed. They begin to nest in the Andes in December-January. Traveling in summer, we saw rufous-collared sparrows only in mountainous areas. Small flocks of sparrows were found both in their natural environment and in the vicinity of human habitation. However, they were most abundant in the streets of small mountain settlements. Like their northern relatives, the rufous-collared sparrows justify their recognition as the “plantain finches”, vigorously looking for food – seeds of plants and invertebrates – along the roadsides and among the grass on the meadows of mountain slopes. Their energetic song is reminiscent of the voices of their articulated fellows from North America.

Harris’s sparrow (Zonotrichia querula) is the largest species among Zonotrichia genus. The breeding habitats of this species are known in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut, therefore, it is the only endemic breeding bird in Canada. Harris’s sparrow occurs in low-growing, stunted coniferous forests with adjoining shrubs in the forest-tundra regions. Because of its remote breeding areas, the first nest of Harris’s sparrow was found only in 1931 in Churchill, Manitoba by George M. Sutton (All about birds). This species overwinters in the United States, flying south in October over the prairies and mountainous regions of central Canada. They usually return back at the end of April-May, preferring to travel across the mountainous valleys to flying among the open prairies. Perhaps, the mountains allow better orientation in space and facilitate the return back to the beginning of the breeding season. In the nesting places, Harris’s sparrows feed on the ground, eating small berries, buds, and flowers, as well as small invertebrates. During migration and wintering, they also feed on the ground, collecting the seeds of herbaceous plants. The species can be recognized by its vivid whistling song. Harris’s sparrow is classified as Near Threatened by IUCN due to declining population that could be associated with climate change impact on the restricted habitats of this species.

One day in October I saw this species near one of the trails in the Ottawa Greenbelt. It was a bright adult male, but while I was preparing the camera, the sparrow disappeared and I could not take a photo of this species. It could be an individual that accidentally drifted from his usual route. Without documentation, I did not even include the species in the list of birds observed that day online in ebird.

It is the time now when two of the five listed species have already appeared in the Ottawa Greenbelt and around other settlements and parks of southern Ontario. This is a wonderful time for bird watching and wildlife photography. Have you been lucky enough to observe the “Zonotrichia” species during your hikes and travels?

“Remez” Newspaper in Kazakhstan

Newsletter Remez in Kazakhstan
“Remez” or Penduline Tit that gave the name to the Newspaper . Photo by Sergey Kulagin

Kazakhstan Ornithological Society

In March 1997, in Almaty, city of Kazakhstan, the initiative group of naturalists and bird study enthusiasts established the Kazakhstan Ornithological Society (KOS). This voluntary community organization of citizens of the Republic of Kazakhstan unites professional ornithologists and amateurs – bird lovers. The Society is engaged in the study, protection and sustainable use of wild and ornamental birds, as well as in public awareness campaigns and dissemination of bird conservation ideas among the citizen communities. Passion for bird studies and protection links various people – from school-children to professors, from students and laborers to businessmen and public officials. The Society currently has dozens of members from several cities in Kazakhstan, of which three quarters are amateurs. During one of the first meetings, the members of the society decided to name it “Remez” (after a Russian name of small passerine birds inhabiting woody ecosystems in Kazakhstan). Once a year, in December, the members of the Society gather for an annual general meeting, at which the chairman of the society reports on the work done. Besides, every three years the members of the society organize the new election meeting with reports of the members of board about work carried out during last three years. Many Almaty members of the KOS meet at the “Bird Market” on weekends.

Bird Fauna in Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan ornithological fauna contains over 500 bird species, inhabiting various natural landscapes and occurring in deserts, steppes, forests and mountains. Some information about bird fauna of Kazakhstan can be found on the website of BirdLife International. This website says about finding of 438 bird species in Kazakhstan. However, in the book of the well-known ornithologist Dr. Edward Gavrilov “Fauna and distribution of birds in Kazakhstan” (Almaty, 1999), 495 bird species were indicated; in his “Handbook of Birds of the Republic of Kazakhstan” (Almaty, 2000) already 512 species have been mentioned. In the “Field guide to birds of Kazakhstan” (Ryabitsev V.K., Kovshar A.F., Kovshar V.A., Berezovikov N.N., Almaty, 2014) 500 species were listed. The website “Birds of Kazakhstan” – contains the images of 520 species. It is appropriate to say that 21 new species have been found in the Republic of Kazakhstan in recent years. And the “Remez” newspapers repeatedly writes about new species, found in the Republic.

Emblem of the Kazakhstan Ornithological Society

There is no endemic bird species in Kazakhstan; however, 27 species have been listed as globally threatened by IUCN including 4 Critically Endangered, 5 Endangered and 18 Vulnerable species. Besides, 19 bird species occurring in Kazakhstan have been considered as Near-threatened at the global level.  The bird fauna of the Republic is very diverse and attracts many birdwatchers and bird amateurs to visit the country. The members of “Remez” Society gather and disseminate information about bird fauna in the republic, about interesting findings and places to visit. The emblem of the Kazakhstan Ornithological Society – Remez – was chosen not by chance. This tiny bird, a typical inhabitant of reed beds in river floodplains, is an incomparable builder. It’s amazing how, with the help of a miniature beak and paws, this small passerine weaves a cozy fist-sized nest out of plant fluff, resembling a mitten with the entrance as a thumb. Such a nest is hanging on thin branches of a willow or poplar above the water.

In spring, upon arrival, males (they arrive one – two weeks earlier than females), occupy the breeding territory and begin to build a nest. At the same time, they sing a lot, attracting females. The females join to the construction at the final stage, they are assigned the role of making an entrance pipe – corridor. Construction of nest takes about twenty days. Males do not take part in hatching the clutch, but sometimes they help in feeding the chicks. The female, laying five to seven white pea-sized eggs, incubates them for twenty days. Remez’ nests are always dry, clean and warm. On the fifteenth – twentieth day, the chicks begin to fly out of the nest, but for a long time they return to it to spend the night.

Remiz species in Kazakhstan

Three from four species from “Remiz” genus occur in Kazakhstan. These are: the Eurasian Penduline Tit (Remiz pendulinus), Black-headed or Macronix Penduline Tit (R. macronix) and White-crowned Penduline Tit (R. coronatus). The Black-headed Penduline Tit can be found only in Central Asia, showing resident patterns. In warm winters, the Black-headed and White-crowned penduline tits can be observed in the southern regions of the country.

“Remez” Electronic Newspaper

Since 2005, the KOS has been publishing the “Remez” electronic newspaper. In 2020, the hundred issues were released. The volume of the newspaper over the past fifteen years has increased from eight to twelve or fourteen pages, and starting from the hundredth issue it began to appear in color. The main headings of the newspaper include: “Interesting bird findings”, “Notes of a naturalist”, “The work of ornithologists”, “Curious facts from scientific publications of ornithologists”, “Kaleidoscope of interesting, unusual, amusing information”, “Anecdotes” and others. Remez has a lot of current bird information, including conferences and meetings, new books on bird watching, bird festivals, conservation activities, and more. The frequency of the newspaper’s publication changed from three to four issues per year to monthly in 2020. The editors of the newspaper are Valery Khrokov and Vladimir Dvoryanov.

The newspaper is written in Russian language. All issues of newspapers have been posted on the website of the Association for the Conservation Biodiversity in Kazakhstan (ACBK), in the “Library” section: www.acbk.kz E-mail of “Remez” Newspaper is vkh.remez@mail.ru. In addition to Kazakhstan, the newspaper is distributed in eight countries of near and far abroad: Russia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Germany, England, Canada, USA, New Zealand. The audience of readers consists of approximately 300 people. The Society is open for new members and readers.

Newsletter Remez in Kazakhstan
Dr. Valery Khrokov with several issues of Remez Newspaper

            It is impossible to tell about rich diversity of birds of Kazakhstan in one small essay, the introduction to birdwatching in Kazakhstan will be provided in another essay. Hope that we will have also chance to highlight some stories about bird observation and bird conservation issues in Kazakhstan on Holarctic Bridge platform.

The “Bird of the Year 2021” in Kyrgyzstan

The Bearded Vulture’ portrait: an adult bird. Photo by Alexander Zhdanko

The Kyrgyzstan Wildlife Conservation Society looks for support to publish the new calendar of 2021 with the new selected “Bird of the Year-2021”. The Society publishes its annual calendars with bird images since 2006. Every year the members of the Society select one species of birds occurring in Kyrgyzstan as a symbol of the year. The bird selected serves also as a symbol of conservation campaign providing by KWCS members. Calendars are free of charge. They are disseminated by KWCS among schools, public organizations, NGOs and communities that to highlight the problems of birds and other wildlife conservation in Kyrgyzstan and engage society in the conservation. 

The last 2020 calendar was published with an image of the White-browed Tit-Warbler (Leptopoecile sophia), occurring in the montane juniper forests of Kyrgyzstan. The sponsor of this calendar was a Kyrgyz Express Post, issued last year the post stamp with an image of this fluffy and bright-painted passerine.

The Bearded Vulture or Lammergeier (Gypaetus barbatus) was selected as a bird of 2021. The Bearded Vulture is an amazing bird inhabiting the mountains of Kyrgyzstan. The bearded vulture is a species of scavenger bird that plays a specific role in ecosystems. Birds literally feed on the bones of dead animals and their guts – bone marrow. The bearded vulture has the ability to digest bones due to the high acidity of gastric juice. This scavenger cannot completely swallow large bones, so it picks up the bones of dead animals, flies with them into the air and throws them down onto the rocks. After several such throws, the bone breaks and the bearded vulture can swallow small pieces of bones with their nutritious content. Undigested bone remains are regurgitated by bearded vulture like pellets in owls – as small bone balls. And the bone marrow allows these scavengers to receive high-calorie nutrition, ensuring their survival in the hard mountain conditions. Specialization in feeding on the bones and other remains of dead animals has determined specific biological characteristics of this species. Bearded vultures nest at the end of the winter and in early spring. In January – March, they lay one or two eggs in a nest located on the ledges of steep cliffs, usually in hard-to-reach habitats. Mostly, the female incubates eggs; she spends about two months (52-55 days) in the nest before the chicks appear. Usually only one of them survives, since it can be difficult to feed two chicks in winter. Chicks appear at the end of February – March. But in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan, this is a time when the chances of finding food – the corpses and bones of dead animals – are highest.

The chick of bearded vulture is born completely naked, but quickly it overgrows with dark fluffy down, which protects it from a significant drop in day and night temperatures in the mountains. At first, caring parents do not leave the chick for a long time, warming it with their feathers and feeding it with semi-digested bone concentrate. By the end of winter – the beginning of spring, the chick is fully fledged and begins to fly out of the nest, accompanying the parents. It differs from adult birds in its very dark, almost completely black plumage. Bearded vultures glide low over the slopes of the mountains, looking out for the corpses and bones of animals killed or died in winter. They lift large bones high into the air and thrown down onto rocks to break them and gain access to internal soft content. In search of food, the bearded vultures make long flights low over the mountain slopes, precisely following montane relief.

In Kyrgyzstan, the bearded vulture is found in all large ridges of the Tien Shan and Pamir-Alai mountains. It prefers to inhabit in high-mountainous and mid-mountainous areas, often occurring in the narrow gorges with steep inaccessible wall-slopes. This is a resident bird in the mountains of Central Asia. The bearded vulture is included in the Red Book of Kyrgyzstan as a rare species. It is also included in the IUCN Red List as a Near-Threatened (NT) species. The Bearded Vulture historically occurred within the large area of mountain ranges in Eurasia and Africa. However, currently it is extinct in many past habitats. Its populations are highly fragmented and the bird is relatively rare in all remained range’ areas. There are no exact data about population numbers and current distribution of bearded vultures in Kyrgyzstan. The species is protected by law. Conservation measures should include also the protection of breeding areas and public awareness campaigns about this species among the local communities.

This autumn the Kyrgyzstan’s people fight against the new political crisis to build a more democratic state. Arising political problems masked the conservation issues. But wildlife protection is also very important for this country, where the living natural resources and biodiversity provide valuable assets to human communities. The Calendar with the Bearded Vulture as a bird of 2021 will help to the KWCS’ conservation and public awareness campaign. The Society plans to print 2000 copies, for which it is necessary to raise less than a 1000 US$. The KWCS’ members look for support from civil society and caring people. Please, help their conservation efforts with your donation. They send you a copy of our small pocket calendar and information about their conservation activities.   

Bird Migration on Mud Lake in Ottawa (Ontario, Canada)

A very common Song Sparrow near Mud Lake during fall migration

In Ottawa there is an amazing place called Mud Lake. Mud Lake is located not far from the central part of the city, close to the Ottawa River. This area is truly unusually rich in a variety of all kinds of animals: from amphibians, snakes and turtles to a remarkable diversity of mammals. The lake is also part of a protected area called the Britannia Conservation Area. It is managed by National Capital Commission (NCC).

But this territory has become special fame as a transit corridor for a great number of birds that make regular migrations from their breeding habitats in the northern forests to wintering sites in the southern hemisphere. Mud Lake is part of the Lac-Deschenes – Ottawa River Important Bird Area (IBA). This important bird area is really exceptional because it serves as a stopover place for a very intensive migration of birds nesting in the Canadian taiga, both in spring and autumn.

Throughout the year, naturalists love to visit the Mud Lake area as a place to observe many types of wildlife in a city setting. But especially many people – naturalists, birdwatchers and photographers – gather here during the periods of bird migration: in spring – from April to early June, and in autumn from mid-August to October. Thousands of naturalists come to Mud Lake to watch one of the most amazing natural phenomena – the seasonal bird migration.  

Now one of the migration peaks of small passerine birds is observed – when long-distant neotropical migrants which fly from the northern forests into the jungles of Central and South America to spend time there, when the northern forests will be covered with winter frosts and sheltered with dense snowdrifts. Migratory birds have not yet molted and wear unsightly faded plumage, but some of them are already sporting mating attire.

The small ridge separating the lake from the Ottawa River is exactly where many waves of migrating birds stop. For an hour of observation, on some days, you can see from 30-40 to 70-90 bird species. The birds hide and feed in the bushes growing on the slopes of the ridge that rolling to the banks of the Ottawa River, in the crowns of tall trees, as well as among the needles of pines, firs and spruce trees growing around the lake. There are especially many birds after rains and winds, when harsh weather push brave migrants wait out the bad conditions in the bushes. Birds are not only wait they inspect all vegetation around searching for diverse insects and other invertebrates hidden in the branches and under the bark of trees.

Every naturalist will be “rewarded” with unique moments of observation of migratory species, gathered in one place… Hurry up to say goodbye to the brave passengers flying away for the winter and wish them all to come back to their breeding grounds in spring …

The Birds of Pamirs, Hissar, Alai and Tien Shan

Just published: Sergey Toropov with the second part of the book.

The book about birds of the mountains of Central Asia was just published by Sergei A. Toropov. The second part calls” The birds of Pamirs, Hissar, Alai and Tien Shan. Vol. 1. Non-passerines”. It includes the essays, distribution maps and excellent photos of 75 bird species breeding in the region and 61 non-breeding bird species found in the region during migrations and wintering. This part covers bird species from orders Gruiformes, Otidiformes, Charadriiformes, Cuculiformes, Columbiformes, Pterocliformes, Caprimulgiformes, Apodiformes, Strigiformes, Bucerotiformes, Coraciiformes, and Piciformes. The book was published in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. It contains


This book combines characters of scientific edition and photo-book and it is the second one from a series devoted to the birds of remarkable mountain area. Bird names for each species are listed in Latin, English, Kyrgyz, Kazakh, Tajik and Uzbek languages. The maps with distribution and places of bird occurrence are presented for each species. The book contains 464 pages and 589 illustrations. Each bird essay includes data on species distribution and regional status, typical habitats, life-history, general abundance, measurements of mature birds, and resident subspecies. All essays are illustrated with colour photographs of birds in a natural setting and typical habitats. Some essays also provide pictures of chicks, juveniles and nests with eggs. Information about distribution of species or subspecies is presented on colour relief-shaded map. The book also contains references and alphabetical indices for Latin, Russian, and English bird names, errata and some corrections to the 1st part of Volume 1, and selected photos highlighted field expeditions of project participants. The book is a good source of information about scenic nature of mountain regions of Central Asia. It can be of interest for zoologists, birdwatchers, specialists working in the area of nature conservation, naturalists and all other people, who interested to know more about birds in mountains of Central Asia.

Director of the project; idea of the book; expeditions, photos, text, maps, design is Mr. Sergei A. Toropov (Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan); English translation: Dr. Elena A. Kreuzberg-Mukhina (Ottawa, Canada) and Mr. Shamil F. Gareev (Tashkent, Uzbekistan). Scientific corrector/editor of Rus./Eng. content: Dmitry A. Milko (Kyrgyz Academy of Science); Original maps: Roman R. Nurgaleev (Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan); Computer photo-design & making-up: Elena V. Garina (Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan) and Sergei A. Toropov.

You can order this book: Volume 1: part 1 and part 2 through our website. At present the delivery of the book is complicated due to COVID-19 situation, but we’ll explore the opportunity to deliver the number of copies to North America as soon as possible.

Burnt Lands near Ottawa

Burnt Land alvar

If you are driving from Ottawa to the west in the direction of Almonte, Ontario, taking March Rd. (Regional Road #49), you will spot the sign of Burnt Land Road at right side along the highway and fence along the road, surrounding a large piece of land, mostly empty, which is unusual in the forested areas around Ottawa. This is the Burnt Land Provincial Park with area of 516 hectares, which supports unique alvar vegetation community. Alvars have been recognized as globally vanishing ecosystems.   

The Park’s name – “Burnt Lands” – is originated from old forest fires during the time of first European settlers. However, the large patches of area with scanty vegetation formed by limestone bedrock, black in the hot summer season, could also initiate the name of the area. The Burnt Lands consists of a mosaic diverse habitats, represented by wetland and swampy area, mixed and coniferous forests and grassland meadow. The area is surrounded by developed agricultural fields and forest concessions. In spite of development around, the small patch of the open landscape can support the diversity of prairie species, including many plants and animals. The land of Burnt Provincial Park is owned by Nature Conservancy Canada and managed by Ontario Parks under a lease agreement (Brdar, 2000). It is one of protected areas identified as a Nature Reserve provincial park since 2003.

The use of the area of the Park is limited, due to fragile nature of unique habitat. There are no special facilities in the Park; it is closed for visit by large groups. There is no special parking and rare visitors usually park on the road-sides. Although some limited activities are allowed. The park is attractive for birdwatching and plant-watching by small groups of naturalists. Hikes and excursions have been sometimes organized by Ottawa Field Naturalist Club. There are no official trails in the Park, although there are some incidental trails. The information about alvar is presented in several nature-guides (Brunton, 1996; Wake, 1997). It also can be found in internet with direction link: https://www.alltrails.com/trail/canada/ontario/burnt-lands-provincial-park-trail

Alvar plant community is distinguished from surrounding landscape. It is rich with many unique species of open plains, including some rare plants. The Park provides habitat for many vascular plants, including one Globally Threatened species, three provincially rare and around 20 regionally rare species. Since spring until end of summer, the Park is attractive for plant-watchers who can find many interesting species in the area. Some of them are common in Ontario, but infrequent in Ottawa area. Others are typical only for calcareous areas or prairies. The visitors should pay attention to presence of Eastern Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron radicans). This plant actively colonizes all appropriate habitats. It can be found abundant on the alvar and on openings in the forest areas. The Eastern Poison Ivy can burn the skin even after visit of Burnt Lands. It is recommended to change clothes after visit of the area, especially in wet morning, and thoroughly wash hands with soap. It is not recommended to visit the area with open legs to avoid severe burns.

In the end of May, the site provides opportunity to see two blooming species of lady slippers: Yellow Lady’s Slipper (Cypripedium parviflorum) and Rum’s head Lady’s Slipper (Cypripedium arietinum) as well as other spring flowers. Later, in June and July plant-watchers can find blue eyed grass (Sisyrinchium albium), columbine (Aquilegia canadensis), hairy beardtongue (Penstomen hirsutus), spotted knapweed (Centaurea maculosa), milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), yellow goat’s beard (Tragopogon dubius), wood lily (Lilium phyladelphicum) and many-many others.

White-tailed deer, coyotes, skunks, American red squirrels often visit alvar grasslands and marshy forest in the Burnt Land area.  However, the area is mostly settled by diversity of bird species typical for open and forest landscapes. Birdwatchers will find in the area upland sandpiper (Bartramia longicaudata) and killdeer (Charadrius vociferus), brown thrasher (Toxostoma rufum) and eastern kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus). Several “sparrow” species nest in the area including clay-colored (Spizella pallida), grasshopper (Ammodramus svannarum), savannah (Passerculus sandwichensis) and most abundant field sparrow (Spizella pusilla). The black-billed cuckoo (Coccyzus erhytropthalmus) usually arrives later than other birds, when hairy caterpillars attack trees. The cedar waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum) is one of the common and abundant due to good harvest of creeping juniper and many other berries. More than 50 birds can be found in the area during spring morning with good conditions for bird observation.  

The best time to visit park is from the end of April until October. This time is good for naturalist hikes to observe diversity of plants and animals, which typical for alvar communities and surrounding landscapes.

The Black Grouse in Kyrgyzstan

A cock of black grouse on the lek. By Alexander Zhdanko

The Black Grouse (Lyrurus tetrix) is well known and widely distributed in the forests of Eurasia. This species usually inhabits the forest openings and edges of wooded lands, suitable for leks, where males display group dancing or courtship behaviour each spring in dusk hours (early morning), attracting females. Usually the Black Grouse is associated with large plain forests of Europe and Russia. However, it also occurs in the mountain forests of Central Asia: in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

In Kyrgyz language, the spruce grouse has a simple name: “Kara Kur” or “black hen”. The distribution of black grouse in Kyrgyzstan is limited to the Tien-Shan spruce forests of the eastern part of the Issyk-Kul Region and Chon-Kemin Mountain Range. The species is found only in few places, which are isolated from other populations of this species in Kazakhstan. It is surprising how the small populations of this species survive in Kyrgyzstan in the conditions of long-term isolation. Due to its rarity the black grouse is listed in the Red Data Book of Kyrgyzstan since 1985 and protected by law.

Habitats of Black Grouse in Kyrgyzstan. By Elena Kreuzberg

This grouse is a large resident bird of a typical “hen” or “chicken” look. Males and females differ by size and color. Males are larger and wait from 900 g to 1.5 kg; they have glossy iridescent black plumage, bright red eyebrow and white under-tail feathers. Females have camouflage plumage, helping them to stay invisible on the forest floor during hatching eggs in breeding season.

Dancing rooster. By Alexander Zhdanko

In mountains of Kyrgyzstan, the black grouses prefer to stay in spruce forests with understory of mountain ash, barberry and other shrubs. In the breeding season – since end of March until early May – males gather on edges, open meadows and glades with dispersed juniper trees, serving as lek places. At the dawn of the morning, breeding males demonstrate spectacular dances and other elements of courtship behaviour, attracting females. Usually, the leks are located in the same places every year and up to 15 males can gather together during one morning tournament. Sometimes cocks fight, sometimes they flight in the air on 1-1.5 m loudly flapping by wings. Females come to the leks for mating, attracted by specific muttering of roosters.

Only females hatch eggs and raise offspring. They build a nest on the ground under the bushes, lining it with dry grass and moss. Females lay in the nest 5-6 eggs, which they incubate 19-25 days. Chicks after hatching are covered with thick down and leave the nest after a few hours, following the female. Chicks try to re-fly already after 10 days and begin to fly in a month. Grouses feed on insects, leaves and seeds of herbs, fruits, berries. In winter they can eat needle of coniferous (spruce and juniper). The main enemies of the black grouse in the mountains are the wolf, fox, golden eagle, goshawk, as well as shepherd dogs. Small predators, magpies and crows destroy eggs and hunt chicks.   The Black Grouse enriches mountain ecosystems with its presence. In order to attract public attention to the conservation of this rare species, the Kyrgyzstan Wildlife Society declared the black grouse as the bird of the year in 2015 and issued a calendar for distribution in schools and other public places in the Issyk-Kul region. The black grouse distribution sites should undoubtedly be protected in order to preserve these amazing birds for future generations.

Calendar: Bird of the Year – 2015. By Sergei Kulagin

Winter counts of waterfowls on Issyk-Kul Lake in 2020

Issyk-Kul Lake even in summer time is surrounded by snowy peaks

Issyk-Kul is the lake, located in Kyrgyzstan in the Northern Tien Shan mountains on the altitude of 1600 m above sea level. “Issyk-Kul” is translated from Kyrgyz language as a “Hot-Lake”. It is named as this, because in spite of sever conditions in the mountains (the lake even during summer is surrounded by mountain peaks with snowy caps), the lake remains unfrozen even in winter time. This circumstance makes the Issyk-Kul Lake attractive not only for migratory, but also for wintering water-birds. Issyk-Kul Lake is the second largest saline lake in the world after the Caspian Sea, and it is also seventh deepest lake in the world. The lake is a part of the Issyk-Kul Biosphere Reserve. Since 1976, it is included in the list of the Ramsar Convention as a wetland of international importance especially for migratory waterfowls.  In 2002, the Government of Kyrgyzstan ratified the Ramsar agreement, which took into account the global importance of the natural complexes of the Issyk-Kul basin and the international importance of Issyk-Kul Lake as a wintering place for waterfowls.

Issyk-Kul Lake serve as a wintering site for many waterfowls species, including common coot (Fulica atra)

Our organization, the Kyrgyzstan Wildlife Conservation Society, together with the Issyk-Kul Biosphere Territory and the Issyk-Kul Nature Reserve, conduct annual winter water-bird surveys on Issyk-Kul Lake for many years. Winter survey data are regularly transferred to the State Environmental Protection Agency and Wetlands International, international NGO supporting such surveys since early 2000s.

Winter water-bird count on Issyk-Kul Lake

So in 2020, the winter survey was carried out from January 21 to 25. The entire water area of Issyk-Kul Lake was covered by team efforts, as well as the Orto-Tokoi reservoir, located near the lake. In the result of survey, there were recorded 56,758 individuals of 30 species of waterfowls and water-birds. Among them, there were observed several rare and threatened species included in IUCN Red List and in the Red Book of Kyrgyzstan. We observed several individuals of the White-headed Duck (Oxyura leucocephapa) – globally endangered species, which usually occurs on Issyk-Kul Lake during migration. We also counted 1790 individuals of the Common Pochard (Aythya ferina), which is globally vulnerable, because decline of many populations, especially in European countries. However, the most abundant were common species such as the Eurasian Coot (Fulica atra) with 38,600 individuals, mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) with 9,240 counted ducks and Red-crested Pochard (Netta rufina) with 2,340 individuals. Besides, we counted 17 white-tailed eagles (Haliaeetus albicilla), 615 whooper swans (Cygnus cygnus) and 1 Pallas’s gull (Ichthyaetus ichthyaetus), which are rare migratory and wintering species and included in national Red Book. We observed also 39 common shelducks (Tadorna tadorna), species, which usually migrate to south for wintering, and several other interesting species. The data of long-term surveys show that the main places of aggregations of wintering waterfowl are still represented by shallow water in the western part of the Lake and bays of its eastern part, which were recognized as Important Bird Areas and covered by protection within the area of Issyk-Kul Nature Reserve. The average annual number of waterfowls in the winter on Issyk-Kul Lake fluctuates from 40 to 70 thousands, confirming its role as a Ramsar site or wetlands of international importance for migratory waterfowls.

Whooper Swan (Cygnus cygnus) on Issyk-Kul Lake