Elegant demoiselle cranes with snowy head-plumes return every year to perform elaborate courtship rituals with the same mates they have joined for life—only one of the rare, endangered species protected on the plains of this 73-square-mile (189-km2) U.N. Biosphere Reserve.
Thousands of saiga antelopes, with translucent amber horns and outsize noses that can swell to grotesque proportions during rut, travel in migration through this semidesert where broad, dry steppes east of the Volga River enter Russia. Here in the shadow of Mount Bolshoye Bogdo, rising nearly 600 feet (200 m) from surrounding grassland, is 47-square-mile (121-km2) Lake Baskunchak, largest saline lake in Russia, noted for caves and rock formations and, with the region’s many freshwater lakes and pools, important habitat for many wildlife species, both migratory and resident.
Engaging little hamsters, gerbils, and jerboas of several species—popular pets around the world, native here—thrive, with ground squirrels and other small rodents, in this arid habitat and attract a large range of species that prey on them. These include red foxes and taller Corsac foxes; golden jackals; reddish-brown Siberian polecats (subject of intense poaching); handsome, endangered marbled polecats and their relatives, ermines and weasels; a few wildcats; and numerous birds of prey.
Endangered steppe and golden eagles and Saker falcons nest, as do rare black-winged stilts, avocets and stone curlews. Fruit-tree groves planted years ago are now wooded areas where longeared owls and woodpeckers find homes and moose and roe deer browse. Gnome-like long-eared hedgehogs dig for millipedes but gladly take any large insect that comes along.