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?

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 …

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.

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

Mountains of Central Asia as a touristic destination by Sergey Toropov

Summer day in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan
Mountains around Chon-Kemin River, Kyrgyzstan

The majestic mountain systems of Dzhungar, Tien Shan and Pamir-Alai, ridges covered with dazzling white glaciers, and emerald meadows of mountain valleys with sapphire eyes of lakes, seething streams and waterfalls of fast mountain rivers carrying their crystal waters into deserts, languishing from the heat. All this diversity of ecological landscapes and climatic zones is the “Mecca” for tourists, scientists and travelers to Central Asia!

Issyk-Kul Lake is one of the largest mountain lakes in the world

Summer in mountains of Kyrgyzstan

Abandoned field before rain

Such a variety of natural landscapes creates unique conditions for the numerous representatives of the animal world, including many insects, the vivid representatives of which are butterflies – natural flowers of nature. More than 300 species of diurnal butterflies live in various ecosystems of Central Asia. Attracting magnets of this region are species such as swallowtails Parnassius loxias, an inhabitant of the rocky canyons of the Central Tien Shan in the Sary-Jaz river basin, and Parnassius autocrator, which is the dream of any lepidopterologist, the inhabitant of screes among the rocky massifs of the Pamirs. The habitats of these two species of Apollo butterflies are very local and almost inaccessible. In 2006, the entomological world was shocked by a sensation. In the unexplored places of the Inner Tien Shan, in the system of the Moldo-Too ridge, a new species of Apollo was described by the Russian entomologist S. Churkin. It was named as Parnassius davydovi. This is the first such discovery in a hundred years.

Papilio apollo merzbacheri, Kichi-Kemin, Kyrgyzstan

In addition to the 18 species of Apollos, occurring in this region, 14 species of “sulphurs” butterflies (Colias) are of particular interest to travelers – entomologists. Not one region of the world has such a diversity of species of this genus. Entomologists can find in the region the carrot-scarlet Colias draconis, an inhabitant of the steppe slopes of the Western Tien Shan, and the scarlet fiery red Colias regia, the endemic of Tien Shan. Other species include unusually painted in the ash-brown tones Colias christophi helialaica is an inhabitant of the Alai mountain range, persistently closed by fogs and the legendary, very rare Colias erschoffi, an inhabitant of the harsh middle mountains of the Dzhungar Range.

The fiery red blue-butterfly from Lycaenidae family –  Thersamonia solskyi attila – inhabits the mountain systems of eastern Alai. Endemic blues Plebejus lycaenidae with brilliant eyes on the lower wings inhabit buckthorn bushes along the banks of mountain rivers. Numerous species from satyr family – Hyponephele, Pseudochazara, Chazara, Karanasa and other satyrs inhabit dry foothills and high mountain steppes of various ranges.

All this sparkling and shimmering in the sun variety of diurnal butterflies cannot leave indifferent ecological tourists, entomologists and respectable scientists who are happy to plunge into the world of butterflies, during visits of Central Asia.

And when the daytime colors fade, the more modestly colored representatives of the night butterflies begin to dance near the daylight lamps. These are the nimble owlet moths (Noctuidae) with interesting genus Cuculia and swift hawk-moths with a rare species of Rhethera komarovi, and of course the peacock-eyed Neoris that amazes everyone with their large eye-spots on wings. Brightly colored tiger-moths inhabit high mountain valleys. Almost all species of this group of butterflies are endemic to Central Asia, including such genera and species as Oroncus, Acerbia, Arctia ruckbeili and numerous representatives of Palearctia genus.

This natural variety of mountain landscapes is inhabited by 318 breeding bird species. Besides, another 108 bird species appear in the region during migrations and wintering. Many birdwatchers have been attracted to the region by opportunity to observe such species as Ibisbill (Ibidorhyncha struthersii), an inhabitant of pebble floodplains of high mountain rivers. Other species of particular interest are a large Bearded Vulture or Lammergeier (Gypaetus barbatus hemachalanus), with a wingspan of about three meters, which makes nests in niches of inaccessible cliffs, and tiny White-browed Tit-warbler (Leptopoecile sophiae) with sapphire plumage, a small inhabitant of juniper dwarf. During trip to mountain valleys tourists will have chance to spot the cautious Pallas’s Sandgrouse (Syrrhaptes paradoxus), nesting in rocky deserts along the shores of the beautiful Issyk-Kul Lake, a rare high-altitude bird Lesser Sand Plover (Charadrius mongolus pamirensis), alpine White-winged Snowfinch (Montifringilla nivalis alpicola), flashing when flying with snow-white wings, and the legendary Blue Whistling Thrush (Myophonus caeruleus turcestanicus), with an amazing flute song, competing with the roar of the waterfall.

Posing rufous-naped tit
Rufous-naped Tit
Bright male of white-browed tit-warbler
White-browed Tit-warbler

Of the 86 species of mammals that live in Kyrgyzstan, the most famous is the fabulous Snow Leopard (Uncia uncia), a resident of rocky gorges. Snow leopards prey on unsurpassed mountain climbers – Ibexes (Capra sibirica), with horns reaches one-and-a-half-meter size. The Marco Polo Argali (Ovis ammon polii) also occur in high mountain valleys, whose horns are also not small. In older males, the length of the horn can reach 165 centimeters. A very beautiful and rare Pallas’s cat (Otocolobus manul) also lives on the alpine wet meadows (“syrts”).

Preparing to hunt...
Least Weasel (Mustela nivalis) in Kegety, Kyrgyzstan

April in Ottawa area by Elena Kreuzberg

Golden-crowned kinglets arrive one of the first from winter mgrants

Yesterday it seemed that this winter would never end … The beginning of April in Ottawa, capital of Canada (known as one of the coldest capitals in the World) was accompanied by severe frosts and not only at night. Frosts were changed by heavy snowfalls. However, the first thawed patches appeared in the first decade of April. Woodpeckers drummed on dry trees, notifying everyone that spring and a time of nature rebirth were on the verge … The first skunks woke up, checking at night the availability of foodstuffs in garbage cans next to a residential houses. Those of them who live far away in the forest, do not hesitate to appear during the day, checking rodents’ holes, dug under the snow in winter, these winter pathways still kept among the old grass, and what if any of these moves leads to a living hole? The Snowshoe Hare began shedding, replacing the winter white coats on the summer brownish pelt. Mammals after a long harsh winter are not very shy; for them the cold and especially hunger are much worse than the proximity to humans. Flocks of bird migrants stretched from south to north. Canadian and snow geese arrived to the open fields and water-reservoirs among the first, some northern ducks followed them on migratory routes. With the warming other migrants will begin to arrive: migratory woodpeckers – Northern Flicker and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Belted Kingfisher, passerines – wrens, swallows, vireo, sparrows, thrushes, warblers and many others…

Canada is one of the few countries where the diversity of wild species is quite large, thanks to significant little-developed areas located mainly in the north and thanks to laws that ensure the protection and sustainable use of rich wildlife resources. However, in many other countries, especially in developing countries, the situation with the protection of biological diversity is critical. Therefore, this year the International Earth Day is held under the slogan “We don’t have time”, denoting that measures to conserve wildlife should be taken now, and not in the distant future…

Striped Skunk just woke up and looking for food
Snowshoe Hares after winter

Starting our blog in April, we hope to be able to talk about Ottawa Greenbelt and other natural areas around us… We also hope to talk about biodiversity and wildlife in other countries, discussing and sharing the experience of wildlife conservation and management …

Wildlife in April

The Persian Leopard in Kazakhstan: new observations

Landscapes of Ustyurt Biosphere Nature Reserve provide good conditions for surviving of wildlife, adapted to arid environment

New fact of Persian Leopard observation in Kazakhstan was confirmed in May 2020 due to camera-trap video taken in Ustyurt Biosphere Nature Reserve.   You can find here the short video about Leopard in the reserve:

The Leopard – Panthera pardus – is included on the IUCN international red list as a vulnerable species (VU) .  The Persian Leopard – P. p. saxicolor or P.p. ciscaucasica is a Central-Asian subspecies. It is even more rare and globally endangered (EN). The range of this species covers the Caucasus Mountains (eastern Turkey, southern Russia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia). It is also found in Iraq, northern Iran, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

Until recent, the Persian Leopard did not occur in Kazakhstan. It was known from southern Turkmenistan, mostly from Kopetdag and Badkhyz Mountains. Besides, it was found in southern Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. But to the end of XX century, the leopard was almost extinct in both these countries. The distance from Kopetdag Nature Reserve in Turkmenistan to Usyurt Nature Reserve in Kazakhstan is 600 km, and from Badkhyz Nature Reserve to Usyurt Nature Reserve is around 1,000 km (976 km). Leopards needed to cross deserts and populated areas that to reach Kazakhstan. It is surprising that it could happen relatively recently – during last decades. 

First reports about findings and observation of Persian Leopard in Kazakhstan looked anecdotical. Time to time shepherds and people living in remote areas reported about observation of large spotted cat, which they called “kaplon” (the name of large cats, like, for example, cheetah). The leopard was not even included in the list of Kazakhstan fauna. However, in 2007 and 2015, the presence of leopard in Kazakhstan was confirmed by skins of two large cats. Shepherds shot the first leopard in the Mangystau region and showed its skin. Another leopard was captured in a trap set for wolves and also killed. More recently, during fall 2018, an alive leopard was fixed on a camera-trap set in the Ustyurt State Nature Reserve in the framework of the project for feeding scavengers (vultures), conducted with the support of the Rufford Foundation.

Cinereous vultures found scavenge. Photo by Mark Pestov

The leopard is not even officially included in the list of of the fauna of vertebrate animals in Kazakhstan.  Accordingly, this species is not listed in the  Red Book of Republic, which provides legal protection status for rare, vulnerable and endangered species. The last findings allow to make the necessary amendments in Kazakhstan that will provide both legislative and territorial protection of the leopard in the country.

Photo of leopard from camera-trap in Ustyurt Biosphere Nature Reserve

Not only leopard, but the presence of other interesting fauna was confirmed due to projects, organized last years, and camera-traps placed in the valleys of Ustyurt. Other interesting animals, found there, are the grey wolf, Central-Asian caracal, goitered gazelle and many others, adapted to severe conditions of life in arid environment.

Mr. Zhaskayrat Nurmukhambetov,  Deputy Director of the Ustyurt State Nature Reserve and coordinator of the project on feeding of scavengers can provide additional information about this finding.

Studies of fauna in remote corners of Central Asia should be continued and more likely that more secrets of wildlife adaptation and resilience will be discovered in the future.