The word “elegant” was coined for the Demoiselle Crane, an inhabitant of Ukraine’s feathergrass steppes. Photo: Steve Rooke
Occupying 230,000 square miles between Poland and the Black Sea, Ukraine is the largest democratic state in Europe. Since attaining independence in 1991, this peaceful and politically stable country has increasingly drawn the attention of birders, botanists, and natural historians of all kinds, who recognize in the area’s amazing range of habitats one of the key biogeographic regions in the Western Palearctic. Thanks to its advantageous position between the Black Sea and the Russian taiga, the Carpathians and the Caucasus, Ukraine—drained by the mighty Danube, Dniester, and Dnieper Rivers—hosts a spectacular range of species, many of them difficult to find elsewhere in Europe.
This tour visits a variety 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 twice the size of Connecticut and is bounded by the Black and Azov Seas.It is one of Ukraine’s three globally recognized 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 and the sheer number can be impressive: 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.
Day 1: The tour begins this evening in Odessa. Those who arrive early may have time for 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, Redstart, and Hobby. Migrants might 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.
“Paul and Natasha are brilliant - hardworking, competent, fun, thoughtful - you had to be there to know all they do, from lunches to arrangements to planning. Natasha is an extraordinary woman, fluent in Ukrainian and English, handling all the local contacts (some of which are difficult in the Ukraine). Paul knows every bird and its habitat, is quick to spot and point out birds, has a phenomenal memory, and a great sense of humor.
Great to see the varied habitat, from the steppes to the mountains. Loved hearing the history of Ukraine from Natasha, and this was as well an exceptionally good and interesting group to travel with, which made it even more pleasurable.”
Doris Stoner May 2013
Day 2: Today we’ll 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. Beginning in 1648, it was the stronghold of the autonomous Ukrainian Cossack Host, or “Sich,” which was eventually disbanded by Catherine the Great in 1764. The vast plains were settled from then on by Russians and other peoples, creating 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 Falcons 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 Dnieper 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 the presumed extinct 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’ll look for 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 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 (33,300 ha) 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 it has been managed as a protected area ever since. In addition, the reserve has an impressive 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 of 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’ll find 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’ll travel to northeast Crimea to Sivash National Nature Reserve, which we’ll spend the rest of the day exploring with our local guide from the Azov–Black Sea Ornithological Station. In this vast area of lagoons and salt marshes we’ll look for a wide variety of waterbirds, including Pygmy Cormorant, Purple Heron, Red-crested Pochard, and waders such as Collared Pratincole, Temminck’s Stint, and Broad-billed Sandpiper, as well as Great Black-headed, Mediterranean, and Slender-billed Gulls and Gull-billed and Caspian Terns. 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’ll 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 peninsula to visit Opug Nature Reserve and the Uzunlarskoe lake area. This is an area of sea cliffs and saline lakes set in a wonderful, flower-strewn steppe. It is good raptor country (we should see Little Susliks, a favored 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 see some early-arriving Rose-colored Starlings as well. The feather-grass Bagerove steppes will be another destination where we can find a wide range of birds, including Stone Curlew, Pied and Isabelline Wheatears, Calandra Lark, Tawny Pipit, and Black-headed Bunting. However, the main highlights here are the elegant Demoiselle Crane and the regal Great Bustard (the males should still be displaying). Steppe pools hold Red-necked Grebe, Great Bittern, and Garganey and Savi’s Warblers. Flower enthusiasts should find much to entertain them with a fine array of flowers possible, from purple salvia and blue muscari to red and yellow tulips. Nights in Feodosia.
Day 6: We’ll leave Feodosia and head west along the coast toward the famous town of Yalta, founded by Greek traders and scene of the 1945 Allied conference between Roosevelt, Stalin, and Churchill that decided the postwar geography of central and eastern Europe. Before arriving, we’ll 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’ll also inspect the sea bays for Black-throated Diver, Arctic Skua, 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: We’ll spend most of today in the spectacular Yalta Forest Nature Reserve, which includes habitats ranging from lowland broadleaf forest to conifers to the subalpine 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. Then we’ll stop at Livadia Palace, where the Yalta Peace Conference took place. Ascending the steep limestone cliff to the Ai Petri plateau, we’ll enrich our birdlist with Wood Warbler, Tree Pipit, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Treecreeper, Hawfinch, and perhaps Rock Thrush. We’ll take in a spectacular vista 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. We’ll see the khan’s palace and have a Tatar-style dinner here before checking into our nearby hotel.
Day 8: Today we’ll travel north through the western steppe zone of Crimea, where Red-footed Falcons, Lesser Grey Shrikes, and Calandra Larks will reappear. 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 identification skills. In the afternoon we’ll proceed farther 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, beside the Dnieper River.
Day 9: We will have another pre-breakfast boat trip and then make our way back to Odessa. We’ll pause again at Tiligul Liman for a final spot of birding and a picnic lunch. By now the Great White Pelicans should have arrived in numbers and the Common Tern colonies should be established. Early Icterine Warblers and other migrants will be flitting in the scrub. We’ll arrive in Odessa in mid-afternoon, when the tour concludes.
Updated: 11 August 2012
- 2013 Tour Price : $2,850
- Single Occupancy Supplement : $240
* Tour invoices paid by check carry a modest discount. Details here.
* This tour is organized by our British company, Sunbird. Please review the explanation of our Sunbird pricing here.
Maximum group size 10 with two leaders.
Participants wishing extra nights in Odessa should contact the WINGS office.