Blakiston's Fish Owl

Sikhote-Alin: A Place Unparalleled for Experiencing the Birds of East Asia

by Elena Govorova, Ph.D.
Senior Ornithologist, Sikhote-Alin Nature Reserve
for shanghaibirding.com

Govorova
Govorova

For birdwatchers, the main reason to visit Sikhote-Alin Nature Reserve is its rich collection of East Asian birds, among them Blakiston’s Fish Owl (above), Siberian Grouse, and Scaly-sided Merganser. In addition to being a world-class birding destination, Sikhote-Alin is a vast, pristine wilderness that is home to Amur (Siberian) Tiger. Birders who dream of experiencing East Asian birds in their historical habitats should visit Sikhote-Alin.

LOCATION & BASIC INFORMATION

Sikhote-Alin Nature Reserve (45.293056, 136.678889) is in Ussuriland (Primorsky Krai) in the Russian Far East. The reserve is 760 km (470 mi.) east of Harbin, Heilongjiang and 2020 km (1,260 mi.) northeast of Shanghai. The reserve extends 90 km (56 mi.) inland from the Sea of Japan and covers an area of 401,600 hectares (1,551 sq. mi.).

Ninety-five percent of the reserve lies within the densely forested Sikhote-Alin Mountains, which in the reserve rise to an elevation of 1598 m (5,240 ft.). Rivers traverse the valleys, and along the coast are marshy lakes. Sikhote-Alin provides habitat for 389 species of bird, 60 species of mammal, 5 species of amphibian, 7 species of reptile, and 64 species of fish.

The reserve was established in 1935 to protect Sable Martes zibellina. Today, its most famous object of protection is Amur Tiger Panthera tigris altaica.

BIRDS OF THE RESERVE

Birds are present year-round at Sikhote-Alin. During breeding season you can see up to 50 species a day and at other times of the year more than 20.

Classic Eurasian spruce-fir forests cover the northwestern part of the reserve. Siberian Grouse Falcipennis falcipennis, endemic to the Russian Far East, is common here. Sikhote-Alin is one of the few places in the world where birders have a good chance of seeing Siberian Grouse.

Hooded Crane Grus monacha and Lanceolated Warbler Locustella lanceolata nest in marshes in the spruce-fir forests. Other spruce-fir species are Eurasian Three-toed Woodpecker Picoides tridactylus, Black Woodpecker Dryocopus martius, Siberian Jay Perisoreus infaustus, Red-flanked Bluetail Tarsiger cyanurus, Mugimaki Flycatcher Ficedula mugimaki, and Coal Tit Periparus ater.

AN ABUNDANCE OF EAST ASIAN SPECIES

Coniferous-broadleaf forests make up a large part of the reserve. The variety of birds here is comparable to that of a tropical forest. Key East Asian birds abound. Yellow-throated Bunting Emberiza elegans and Siberian Blue Robin Larvivora cyane nest on the ground. The undergrowth is occupied by Asian Stubtail Urosphena squameiceps, Rufous-tailed Robin Larvivora sibilans, and Tristram’s Bunting Emberiza tristrami. The trees are filled with Northern Boobook Ninox japonica, Japanese Scops Owl Otus semitorques, Oriental Scops Owl O. sunia, Pale Thrush Turdus pallidus, Siberian Thrush Zoothera sibirica, and White’s Thrush Z. aurea.

Blue-and-white Flycatcher Cyanoptila cyanomelana serenades under the tree crowns, while in the crowns feed Pallas’s Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus proregulus and Eastern Crowned Warbler P. coronatus. Nesting in these forests is a representative of the Asian subtropics: Ashy Minivet Pericrocotus divaricatus. Oriental Cuckoo Cuculus optatus and Rufous Hawk-Cuckoo Hierococcyx hyperythrus also visit the coniferous-broadleaf forests. The rocky cliffs are inhabited by White-throated Rock Thrush Monticola gularis and the glades and edges by Black-faced Bunting Emberiza spodocephala and Radde’s Warbler Phylloscopus schwarzi. Nesting along the rivers are Oriental Dollarbird Eurystomus orientalis, Pale-legged Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus tenellipes, and Chestnut-flanked White-eye Zosterops erythropleurus.

The wooded river banks are also the breeding grounds of two endangered East Asian birds: Blakiston’s Fish Owl Bubo blakistoni and Scaly-sided Merganser Mergus squamatus. You can find Blakiston’s in the winter on the non-freezing sections of the rivers, though views are not guaranteed. Birders visiting in July and August have a good chance of seeing Scaly-sided Merganser. During those months, birders commonly find females with their broods on the rivers. Also breeding on the rivers is Mandarin Duck Aix galericulata. Long-billed Plover Charadrius placidus nests on the pebbly banks.

BIRDS OF COAST & SEA

Oak forests cover the seaside slopes and are inhabited by various woodpeckers: Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker Yungipicus canicapillus, Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker Y. kizuki, White-backed Woodpecker Dendrocopos leucotos, Great Spotted Woodpecker D. major, and Lesser Spotted Woodpecker Dryobates minor. Also found here are Eurasian Wryneck Jynx torquilla and Chestnut-cheeked Starling Agropsar philippensis. Thick-billed Warbler Arundinax aedon is found in the meadows near the oak forests. The bottomlands are inextricably linked with Grey-backed Thrush Turdus hortulorum, Yellow-rumped Flycatcher Ficedula zanthopygia, and Azure-winged Magpie Cyanopica cyanus.

Along the coast, observers have noted Harlequin Duck Histrionicus histrionicus, White-winged Scoter Melanitta deglandi, Spectacled Guillemot Cepphus carbo, Japanese Cormorant Phalacrocorax capillatus, Pelagic Cormorant P. pelagicus, Long-billed Murrelet Brachyramphus perdix, and Ancient Murrelet Synthliboramphus antiquus. Pacific Swift Apus pacificus, Asian House Martin Delichon dasypus, and Blue Rock Thrush Monticola solitarius nest on the rocks by the water.

Around the seaside lakes as well as on the lower reaches of the rivers breeds Latham’s Snipe Gallinago hardwickii. Other species in these habitats are Band-bellied Crake Porzana paykullii, Baillon’s Crake Porzana pusilla and Brown-cheeked Rail Rallus indicus. During migratory season, birders can note Oriental Stork Ciconia boyciana.

MIGRANTS & WINTERING BIRDS

The skies of the reserve are patrolled by Eastern Buzzard Buteo japonicus, Northern Goshawk Accipiter gentilis, Eurasian Sparrowhawk A. nisus, Japanese Sparrowhawk A. gularis, and White-tailed Eagle Haliaeetus albicilla.

Researchers have recorded forty species of waterfowl in the reserve, among them East Asian specialties Baikal Teal Sibirionetta formosa and Falcated Duck Mareca falcata as well as Whooper Swan Cygnus cygnus and Tundra Swan C. columbianus bewickii. Twice a year, around 53 tundra-nesting species pass through the reserve.

Researchers in winter have recorded 97 species at Sikhote-Alin. Among them are Steller’s Sea Eagle Haliaeetus pelagicus, Snowy Owl Bubo scandiacus, Gyrfalcon Falco rusticolus, Lapland Longspur Calcarius lapponicus, Snow Bunting Plectrophenax nivalis, Pine Bunting Emberiza leucocephalos, Pallas’s Reed Bunting E. pallasi, Asian Rosy Finch Leucosticte arctoa, and Pallas’s Rosefinch Carpodacus roseus.

CONTACT INFORMATION

To visit Sikhote-Alin, please apply by email. State the purpose and intended duration of your visit, the itineraries you wish to follow (see below), and the number of persons in your group.

Email: sikhote@inbox.ru
Address: 692150, Partizanskaya St., 44, Terney, Terney District, Primorsky Area, Russia
Web: www.sikhote-zap.ru
Phone: +7 (42374) 31-5-59

A representative of Sikhote-Alin will accompany you throughout your visit. Some staff members speak English.

TRANSPORTATION

There are daily flights from Vladivostok to Terney (45.048999, 136.620361), the village where the headquarters of the reserve is located. Usually going by plane to Terney is the fastest option (about 1.5 hours), but bad weather causes many flights to be canceled. Don’t make your schedule too tight, and have a backup plan.

If your flight is canceled, then you can wait a day and try to catch the next flight or take an uncomfortable 14-hour bus ride 670 km (416 mi.) from Vladivostok to Terney. You can also drive to Terney from Vladivostok (10 hours).

Terney has grocery stores, a hotel, post office, cafe, and clinic.

ITINERARIES

There are two main itineraries:

Blagodatnoye

Blagodatnoye is 18 km (11 mi.) south of Terney. It is the starting point for the Northern Cape, Lake Blagodatnoye, and Golubichnaya Bay trails. These are easy routes that birders can complete in a day. At Blagodatnoye you can observe the birds of the oak forests and meadows and waterfowl and shorebirds on the lake and the sea. There are two observation towers and a hide on Lake Blagodatnoye. Guests can stay in a cabin near the sea. Two- or four-bed rooms are available with kitchen (gas stove, refrigerator, and cookware) and banya (Russian sauna).

Arsenyev Trail

The Arsenyev Trail traces part of the expedition conducted in 1906 by the Russian explorer of the Far East, Vladimir Arsenyev. The trail leads from the eastern slopes through a pass in the Sikhote-Alin ridge to the western slopes, passing through the coniferous-broadleaf and spruce-fir forests. The route is for experienced walkers. It takes walkers six days to cover the 56 km (35 mi.) path. Birders may wish to take even more time. There is a hide near the Kaplanovsky Salt Licks. Spaced along the trail are five cabins with bunks and stoves. Users of the trail must carry their own sleeping bag and personal items. Food is transported to the cabin by employees of the reserve.

Please note that the managers sometimes prohibit entry to portions of the reserve. Note also that travelers to Sikhote-Alin, especially those who visit in May and June, should consider getting a vaccination against tick-borne encephalitis.

Reach us: info@shanghaibirding.com

WHEN TO VISIT

Experts say the best time to visit Sikhote-Alin is autumn (late August to mid-October). The monsoon rains have stopped, there are fewer ticks and blood-sucking insects, and the temperature of the air and water is still comfortable.

For birders, the best time to visit falls outside autumn. Migratory ducks and other waterfowl gather on Lake Blagodatnoye in April, when the weather can be cold and windy. The breeding season for most passerines is May through July, a time when midges and ticks are most bothersome. By August, when the weather and insect situation have begun to improve, the birds have already begun to depart.

For birders willing to accept the challenges, Sikhote-Alin offers an unusually rich environment in which to experience the birds of East Asia. Although no one can guarantee you tiger sightings, the birds definitely will be there!

MAP & PHOTOS

sikhote-alin-map
Sikhote-Alin Nature Reserve is in Ussuriland in the Russian Far East. The reserve is 760 km (470 mi.) east of Harbin, Heilongjiang and 2020 km (1,260 mi.) northeast of Shanghai. (Google Maps)
Sikhote-Alinsky Zapovednik
Sikhote-Alin Nature Reserve stretches from the Sea of Japan inland to the Sikhote-Alin Mountains. With an area of 4016 sq. km (1,551 sq. mi.), the reserve is larger than the state of Rhode Island in the United States. Coastal sites near Terney, such as Lake Blagodatnoye, are readily accessible, while the mountainous interior is harder to reach, for logistical as well as administrative reasons. Sikhote-Alin is a zapovednik—a word meaning wilderness area or nature sanctuary, but in many cases denoting the protection of cultural or biological riches (in this case, Amur Tiger) and not just the land itself. As a zapovednik, the reserve enjoys the highest level of protection afforded by the Russian state. (Sikhote-Alinsky Zapovednik/Craig Brelsford)
Siberian Grouse
For birders, the attraction of Sikhote-Alin is its East Asian birds, in particular its rarities. One of the best-known is Siberian Grouse Falcipennis falcipennis, a resident of the vast, nearly untouched spruce-fir forests of the reserve. This is the male. (Konstantin Maslovsky)
Siberian Grouse
Siberian Grouse (female, above) is closely related to North America’s Spruce Grouse Falcipennis canadensis. Endemic to the Russian Far East, Siberian Grouse once occurred in the Lesser Khingan Mountains of Heilongjiang but has likely been extirpated from China. Its numbers are stable at Sikhote-Alin. (Peter Mametyev)
merganser
Scaly-sided Merganser Mergus squamatus, male. An endangered species, Scaly-sided Merganser breeds on clear-flowing rivers lined with tall trees, which it uses for nest-holes. Sikhote-Alin is among the most important areas within the merganser’s breeding range. (Valery Shokhrin)
merganser
Scaly-sided Merganser, female. In July and August, birders find female Scaly-sided Merganser and their broods in the rivers of Sikhote-Alin. (Valery Shokhrin)
owl
Japanese Scops Owl Otus semitorques ussuriensis (above) and Oriental Scops Owl O. sunia are summer visitors to the forests of Sikhote-Alin. (Valery Shokhrin)
sikhote-forest-birds
Birds of the forests of Sikhote-Alin. Clockwise from top: Lanceolated Warbler Locustella lanceolata, Radde’s Warbler Phylloscopus schwarzi, and Eurasian Three-toed Woodpecker Picoides tridactylus. During breeding season, Sikhote-Alin resounds with birdsong. On a good day out, birders can note up to 50 species. (Elena Govorova)
Blagodatnoye
In April, after the melting of the ice on Lake Blagodatnoye (44.934793, 136.537586), migrating ducks begin to appear, forming flocks numbering in the thousands. Among the most numerous are Eurasian Wigeon Mareca penelope and Red-breasted Merganser Mergus serrator. Present in smaller numbers are East Asian specialties Falcated Duck Mareca falcata and Mandarin Duck Aix galericulata. Numerous species of shorebird also use the lake, and Latham’s Snipe Gallinago hardwickii breeds in the surrounding meadows. (Elena Govorova)
Blagodatnoye
One of the more accessible areas of the reserve, Lake Blagodatnoye has two observation towers and a hide. A day’s walk in the area gives birders views of shorebirds on the coast, waterfowl on the lake, and passerines in the oak forests and meadows. (Evgeny Tabalykin)
Golubichnoye
Bay on Sea of Japan (L) and Lake Golubichnoye (44.915594, 136.525149). Around the lake, birders find Band-bellied Crake Porzana paykullii and Chestnut-eared Bunting Emberiza fucata. The sandy shore of the bay attracts migrating peeps such as Long-toed Stint Calidris subminuta and Broad-billed Sandpiper C. falcinellus. (Evgeny Tabalykin)
yasnaya
At Sikhote-Alin, the mixed coniferous-broadleaf forest, as seen here in the Yasnaya Valley (45.114277, 135.866303), is a showcase of East Asian birds. Rufous-tailed Robin Larvivora sibilans breeds in dense undergrowth along the streams, and Siberian Thrush Zoothera sibirica sings its fluty song from the treetops. At dawn White’s Thrush Z. aurea whistles mournfully. (Evgeny Tabalykin)
Columbe
Spruce-fir forest covers the Columbe Valley in the northwestern sector of the reserve. Siberian Grouse occurs here along with summer breeders Red-flanked Bluetail Tarsiger cyanurus and Mugimaki Flycatcher Ficedula mugimaki. (Evgeny Tabalykin)
coast
In the oak forests on the slopes above the Sea of Japan live Grey-headed Woodpecker Picus canus and Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker Yungipicus kizuki. In the sea below, birders in winter can find Pelagic Cormorant Phalacrocorax pelagicus and Ancient Murrelet Synthliboramphus antiquus. (Evgeny Tabalykin)
Zabolochennaya
October, Zabolochennaya Valley (45.236287, 136.509562). Though not prime birding season, autumn offers fall color, brisk weather, and a respite from ticks and blood-sucking insects. (Evgeny Tabalykin)
Zabolochennaya
Zabolochennaya Valley in the snow. At Sikhote-Alin in winter, researchers have recorded 97 species, among them Snowy Owl Bubo scandiacus, Asian Rosy Finch Leucosticte arctoa, and Pallas’s Rosefinch Carpodacus roseus. (Evgeny Tabalykin)

EDITOR’S NOTE

This post is part of a series on birding in Manchuria and the Russian Far East. For a comparison of the birds of Sikhote-Alin with those of Xidaquan National Forest, 500 km (310 mi.) to the west in Heilongjiang, China, see the following report:

Boli, Heilongjiang at the Height of Breeding Season

See also:

Northeast China

Birding Northern Inner Mongolia and Eastern Heilongjiang
Birding Northeast China in April & May

Russian Far East

Sikhote-Alin: A Place Unparalleled for Experiencing the Birds of East Asia

Featured image: Blakiston’s Fish Owl Bubo blakistoni requires dense, old-growth forest near lakes and rivers that do not freeze in winter. Sikhote-Alin Nature Reserve preserves in abundance this type of habitat, and for this reason it is a stronghold for the endangered owl. (Peter Mametyev)
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Published by

Elena Govorova

Dr. Elena Govorova is Senior Ornithologist at Sikhote-Alin Nature Reserve in the Russian Far East. A 1998 graduate of the Moscow Medical Academy, Govorova was a medical doctor for 17 years. In 2009 Govorova turned birding into her profession, pursuing a degree in ecology at Moscow State University. Govorova has worked at Sikhote-Alin since 2015. She is the author of A Field Guide to the Birds of Sikhote-Alin Nature Reserve, to be published in 2020.

One thought on “Sikhote-Alin: A Place Unparalleled for Experiencing the Birds of East Asia”

  1. This was a very fascinating read. The pictures are absolutely stunning. The reserve truly has been overlooked as a birdwatching destination. You’ve opened up a new world for me! Thank you.

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