Astrakhansky Zapovednik

World-renowned bird congregations fill Astrakhansky Zapovednik where the Volga River splits into a fan of hundreds of channels and islands before emptying into the Caspian Sea. More than 250 avian species have been recorded in this 258-square-mile (668-km2) reserve, one of Russia’s oldest, where trees, skies, and waters are filled with birds and their songs and wild calls—a U.N. World Biosphere Reserve and designated Ramsar Wetland of World Importance.

White-tailed sea eagles, ospreys, and Saker falcons are among 27 endangered species. Thousands of mute swans, once nearly extinct in the region, nest. Endangered Dalmatian pelicans with curly head-tufts skim water’s surfaces for small fish. Great cormorants gather in noisy colonies in riverside willows. Large numbers of diverse wading birds—great white herons, little egrets, glossy ibises, black-crowned night herons, endangered Eurasian spoonbills and pond herons— share colonies.

Gull and tern colonies attract carnivorous catfish hoping to make a meal of chicks fallen or strayed from nests.

More than 25,000 ducks spend a quiet time moulting here in August, many after nesting deep in the reserve’s wild interior—mallards, pintails, green-winged teals, garganeys, gadwalls, wigeons, northern shovelers.

Golden orioles weave hanging nest-baskets in willows. Reed buntings, Savi’s warblers, and bearded tits nest in thick reeds. Inconspicuous Eurasian cuckoos stealthily lay eggs in other species’ nests, especially warblers’; the young are then abandoned to be raised by their hosts.

Wild boars are largest among 30 mammal species. Smallest are tiny harvest mice, nesting on tall plant stems. Major predators are foxes, raccoon dogs, weasels, and mink. Beavers and muskrats are on every water’s edge, as are frogs, filling night air from April on with their musical chimes (and croaks), resting on pads of blossoming water lilies and endangered sacred lotuses. Among 61 fish species are important migrants such as endangered herring and, occasionally, sturgeon.

Problems are many. Volga power plants have altered water flow and fish migrations. Poaching and overfishing have brought sturgeon species to the brink of extinction. Deliberate fire-setting has destroyed bird-nesting and fish-spawning grounds, and unregulated tourism has disturbed all wildlife. Conservationists in local communities and fisheries are attempting to help.