An elegant Demoiselle Crane strides across Ukraine’s feathergrass steppes. Photo: Steve Rooke
Ukraine is one of those countries that most people have heard of, but many are still unsure of exactly where it is. Its recent fame stems from its breakaway from Soviet domination in 1991, but of course mere mention of the Crimea and one is immediately taken back to a much earlier period in history. Today, Ukraine is a fully democratic, stable, peaceful republic which is gaining more and more international recognition.
The country offers an amazing range of habitats and wealth of species thanks to its geographic position between the Black Sea and Russian taiga, the Carpathians and Caucasus, and featuring the Danube, Dneister and Dneiper Rivers. It is a key region in the West Palearctic for birders, botanists and indeed all nature-lovers.
Our tour visits a range of habitats in southern Ukraine and in particular the Crimean peninsula, including freshwater marshes, riverine forests, coastal lagoons, rolling steppes and rugged karstic mountains. Crimea occupies an area about one quarter larger than Wales and is bounded by the Black and Azov Seas. It is one of Ukraine’s three globally recognised hot spots for biodiversity (the other two are the Danube delta and lakes, and the Carpathian forests).
Some 300 species of birds have been recorded from Crimea, and during the trip as a whole we can expect to see over 170 of them, including hard to see Eastern species such as Demoiselle Crane, Saker, Broad-billed Sandpiper, Great Black-headed Gull, Paddyfield Warbler and Rose-coloured Starling. There are also endemic Crimean subspecies of Firecrest and Crossbill to see. Moreover, the sheer numbers of birds is hard to match anywhere else in Europe. Colony after colony of Red-footed Falcons, flocks of White Pelicans, swarms of Calandra Larks, and ranks of Corn Buntings, Lesser Grey Shrikes and Rollers will provide a really memorable trip.
Day 1: The tour starts in London airport with a flight to Odessa. We’ll transfer to a comfortable local hotel from where, if time allows, we’ll take a late afternoon walk through the Botanic Garden to Odessa bay. The garden is an area of old, mixed woodland with nesting Syrian Woodpecker, Golden Oriole, Common Redstart and Hobby. Migrants include Wood Warbler, Wryneck, and Collared and Red-breasted Flycatchers. Reaching the bay we should see Caspian Gulls, Common and Sandwich Terns and perhaps an over-summering Black-Throated Diver. We’ll end the day with our first taste of Ukrainian cuisine in a local restaurant. Night in Odessa.
Day 2: Today we travel across the steppes and wetlands of southern Ukraine. The region was the historical route for successive migrations of eastern peoples including Scythians, Bulgars and Tatars heading for western Europe, and the landscape is dotted with ‘kurgans’ – Iron Age burial mounds. From 1648, it was the stronghold of the autonomous Ukrainian Cossack Host or ‘sech’ which was eventually disbanded by Catherine the Great in 1764. The vast plains were settled from then on by Russians and other peoples – a political divide that persists to the present day.
After the Second World War, the steppe was mostly converted to farmland but the windbreaks and fallows still support a wide range of typical steppe species. Red-footed Falcon use the abundant rookeries established in the windbreaks for nesting sites and can sometimes be found in large numbers. Typical roadside birds include Roller, Red-backed and Lesser Grey Shrikes, Crested Lark, Eastern Jackdaw and Ortolan Bunting. We’ll make our first stop at Tiligul Liman, a coastal wetland where we should find a range of migratory shorebirds, Paddyfield Warblers and two or three races of Yellow Wagtails. We’ll then drive to the Dnipro River estuary, a vast area of marshes, inland sand dunes and woodlands that have persisted since the glacial period and support many endemic plants. Much of the area is protected in the Black Sea Biosphere Reserve, which was a passage site for Slender-billed Curlew; the reserve museum exhibits one of the finest remaining mounted specimens. We’ll have a typical Ukrainian lunch here before taking a silent battery-powered boat ride through the backwaters where we can find nesting Pygmy Cormorants, Night Herons, Whiskered Terns and Marsh Harriers; White-tailed Eagles also occur here. Later in the afternoon, we’ll make our way across the heath-like Dnipro inland dunes and the riverside town of Khahovka to Askania Nova Biosphere Reserve for the night. After dinner here, we’ll have a walk in the nearby arboretum to look for Scops and Long-eared Owls.
Day 3: We’ll start the day with a pre-breakfast walk to look for Thrush Nightingale, Collared Flycatcher and Wryneck. The present day Biosphere Reserve at Askania Nova was founded by a German settler, Friedrich Falz-Fein, when he set aside the first plot of virgin steppe in 1898. In 1919, the site was declared a national reserve – one of the first in Europe – and has been managed as a protected area ever since. In addition, the reserve has an important arboretum that dates from 1887 as well as a zoological park (where good numbers of Tree Sparrows nest).
After breakfast we’ll take a tour out into the huge steppe enclosures to see the collections of semi-wild Saiga Antelope and Przewalski’s Horse, used for reintroduction projects. Ruddy Shelducks are abundant, and we can see Common Cranes and perhaps Great Black-headed Gulls around the natural spring-fed pools. The muddy patches here also attract migrant waders such as Ruff in fine spring plumage and Wood Sandpipers while the grasslands should be alive with larks, quail and buntings as well as the odd Short-eared Owl. After this excursion, we travel to northeast Crimea, to spend the rest of the day exploring Sivash National Nature Reserve, in the company of our local guide from the Azov-Black Sea Ornithological Station. This vast area of lagoons and salt marshes is an Important Bird Area and includes two Ramsar Sites. Here we’ll look for a wide variety of waterbirds including Pygmy Cormorants, Purple Herons, Red-crested Pochards and waders such as Collared Pratincoles, Temminck’s Stints and Broad-billed Sandpipers, as well as Great Black-headed Gull, Mediterranean Gull, Slender-billed Gull, Gull-billed Tern and Caspian Tern. In addition, some of the reedbeds hold Paddyfield Warblers and, if weather conditions are right for migration, we may be treated to the sight of thousands of White-winged Black, Black and Whiskered Terns hawking insects over the pastures. In the evening we’ll proceed to Feodosia, a small historic resort town on the southern coast of Crimea, where we’ll spend the next three nights.
Days 4-5: We have two days to explore the lovely steppes of the Kerch Peninsula, which divides the Black and Azov Seas. One day we’ll travel along the southern shore of the Kerch peninsula to visit Opug Nature Reserve and Uzunlarskoe lake area. This is an area of sea cliffs and saline lakes set in wonderful, flower-strewn steppe. It is good raptor country (we should see Little Susliks, a favoured prey species) and we’ll look for Short-toed Eagle, Montagu’s Harrier, Long-legged Buzzard and Saker. Opug Mountain also holds a roost of Lesser Mouse-eared Bats and with luck we may also see some early-arriving Rose-coloured Starlings.
The feather-grass Bagerove steppes will be another destination where we can find a wide range of birds and reptiles, including Stone Curlew, Pied and Isabelline Wheatears, Calandra Lark, Tawny Pipit and Black-headed Bunting. However, the main highlights here are elegant Demoiselle Cranes and regal Great Bustards (the males should still be displaying). Steppe pools hold Red-necked Grebe, Great Bittern, Garganey and Savi’s Warblers. Flower enthusiasts should find much to entertain them with a fine array of flowers from purple Salvia, blue Muscari to red and yellow tulips possible. Nights in Feodosia.
Day 6: We’ll leave Feodosia and head west along the coast towards the famous town of Yalta, founded by Greek traders and scene of the Allied conference in February 1945 between Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill that decided the post-war geography of Central and Eastern Europe. Before arriving, we shall spend much of the day exploring the scrub and mountains en route, searching for birds such as Chukar, Griffon and Black Vultures, Short-toed Eagle, Eastern Steppe Buzzard, Peregrine, Alpine Swift, Barred Warbler and Rock Bunting. We will also inspect the sea-bays for Black-throated Divers, Arctic Skuas and three species of small cetaceans. We’ll spend the night in the delightful hotel of the Nikita Botanic Gardens, whose shady woods support Scops Owls and Nightingales while the seafront is a good place to look for Yelkouan Shearwaters and Mediterranean Shags.
Day 7: Most of today will be spent in the spectacular Yalta Forest Nature Reserve, which includes habitats ranging from lowland broadleaf forest, through conifers to the sub-alpine limestone plateau of Ai Petri which affords a stunning view over Yalta bay. We’ll begin before breakfast with a walk to the juniper reserve, looking for the Crimean endemic race of Firecrest as well as Nightingales and Redstarts.
We’ll call in at Livadia Palace where the 1945 Yalta Peace Conference took place and where postcards and a range of souvenirs can be purchased. Ascending the steep limestone cliff to the Ai Petri plateau, we’ll enrich our list with Wood Warbler, Tree Pipit, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Treecreeper, Hawfinch and perhaps Rock Thrush. We will enjoy a spectacular view from the top of the scarp and then search the plateau for vultures, Peregrine, Eastern Steppe Buzzard, Alpine Swift, and Woodlark; the meadows here can also spring surprises such as Red-throated Pipit or Corncrake. We’ll spend the night in Bakchyserai, which between 1530 and 1783 served as the capital of the Tatar Khanate that ruled Crimea and we’ll see the well-preserved Khan’s palace and have a Tatar-style dinner here before checking-in to our nearby hotel.
Day 8: Today we travel north through the western steppe zone of Crimea where Red-footed Falcons, Lesser Grey Shrikes and Calandra Larks will reappear and we’ll look for Eastern Imperial Eagle on our way to the coastal lagoons and rice paddies at Portovoye. This area holds large numbers of waders (including Black-winged Stilt, Kentish Plover, Temminck’s Stint and Curlew Sandpiper) as well as good numbers of Calandra, Crested, Sky and Short-toed Larks to test our ID skills. In the afternoon, we’ll proceed further north to the artesian freshwater lagoons around Krasnoperekopsk, where we should find a good range of grebes, ducks, herons and waders. We’ll spend the night in Gola Pristan, situated beside the Dnipro River.
Day 9: We will have another pre-breakfast boat trip and then make our way back to Odessa. We’ll pause at Tiligul Liman again for a final spot of birding and a picnic lunch. By now the Great White Pelicans should have arrived in numbers, and Common Tern colonies established. Early Icterine Warblers and other migrants will be flitting in the scrub. We’ll arrive at Odessa airport in good time for the flight back to London.
Updated: 28 November 2012
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