CURONIAN SPIT & RYBACHY ORNITHOLOGICAL STATION
A visit to the Curonian spit was a big part of the reason I applied for this residency. As I wrote in a previous post, I visited the Lithuanian side of the spit 10 years ago to watch migrating birds fly the Baltic flyway during the autumn. On this visit, it wasn’t really the right time of year for bird watching, but it still felt very significant to visit the Kaliningrad side of the Curonian lagoon. There is an Ornithological station there and Danil Akimov from the NCCA had kindly arranged for me to meet some of the scientists there!
We began our journey by train to our first stop at Zelenogradsk, a town on the Baltic coast, which, in the summer is a popular tourist destination. The town has also recently re-branded itself as a ‘cat town'(!) and employed a ‘Cat Chief’ to look after all the strays, (my dream job!). There are many little features that embrace the new feline theme…
We continued our journey on the bus along the Curonian spit to make a stop at Rybachy Biological station Fringella. Andrey Mukhin, acting Director of the station met us and showed us around. We went out onto the roof to look out over the lagoon and see the Curonian Spit in the distance (a huge sand dune connecting Kaliningrad to Lithuania). Many migrating birds use the spit as ‘bridge’ as a lot of passerine birds don’t like flying over forest or over open water, so this is an ideal route, and also why it is a good spot for an ornithological station. A lot of bird-ringing happens at Rybachy to track migrating birds, and they have a records from the 1970’s until the present day. 180 different species of migratory birds pass along Curonian Spit.
Andrey tells me a bit about changes to bird behaviour due to climate change. These changes are not necessarily direct, and can be two-tier. For example, climate change effects the hatching times of particular kinds of caterpillars. The Great Tit needs to re-time its arrival and breeding to fit this change in the availability of its most nutritional food source. This happens over time, as the behaviour of the birds adapt to coincide with the arrival of the caterpillars. Andrey’s main area of research is to do with the circadian rhythms of birds, which is absolutely fascinating. They need to adapt their rhythms gradually as they migrate through different time zones.
I also met Dmitry Kishkinev who researches the navigational sense of migrating birds, with a particular focus on their ability to sense the magnetic field of the earth. This is something I am particularly interested in and Dmitry kindly gave me a lot of his time to explain many aspects of his research (in perfect English). Studies in the 1970’s proved that birds use the earth’s magnetic field to navigate, but scientists are yet to discover their method of sensing it. One theory speculates that birds have receptors in the photocells of their eyes, presenting them with a visual ‘overlay’ indicating the magnetic field; another theory is that the lympha liquid in the semi circular canals of birds ear contains charged particles; and a further hypothesis is based on some kind of crystalline sensors in the beak. I’m particularly interested in the magnetic sense phenomena and will continue to read about it.
The earliest reference to magnetism being used by migrating birds during navigation was made over 150 years ago (Von Middendorf 1855), although strong experimental evidence supporting the theory did not materialize until the 1960s and 1970s (reviewed in Wiltschko & Wiltschko 1995. Von Middendorff was born in St Petersburg, Russia, the son of Baltic (Estonian) German father and Estonian mother. Von Middendorf also wrote Die Isepiptesen Russlands (1855), an account of bird migration in Russia.
Andrey is also an audiophile and he has made a huge sub woofer speaker and two bespoke record players. I can’t help being slightly amused by the fact that I’m really into bird-watching, especially studying bird migration, and I have also made a huge sub woofer speaker and a set of bespoke record players for an installation. I think Andrey’s is more impressive though.
I spent the day with Alexei and Danil, and it was great to get to know them both better and share this experience. It was a beautiful sunny, windy day.