In 1994, I was lucky enough to be part of the first group of British bird ringers to visit the Biological Station of Rybachy on the Courish/Curonian Spit in the Kaliningrad region of Russia. Two members of the group have returned several times since, but for Bob & myself, it was the only visit.
Jerry and Lyndon had managed to get the required invitation from the director of Rybachy, and the next requirement was to obtain the visas. We filled in the forms, each provided a cheque for the stated amount, and Bob went off to the Russian Embassy in London. While he queued outside, the officials closed the Embassy for the day. Vociferous objections from the Russians in the queue elicited an agreement for it to be reopened after lunch.
Bob duly presented the papers and cheques, and was asked for a lot more money – why? Well what does it matter, your company is paying. No, we are paying ourselves. You aren’t going on business? No, What are you going for then? Well, we are studying bird . . . . . Ah – you are students? Er, YES!
Suddenly the fee was reduced, but still more than was stated on the forms. And they wanted cash. They took the forms and told Bob to come back next week with the cash, and he might get the visas.
A week later three of us waited in Bristol while Bob visited the Embassy. As soon as he phoned to say he had the visas, we set off, meeting him at Calais for the ferry across the channel.
The three guys took turns in driving through the night through France and Germany. Not being into big, expensive, powerful and/or new cars, I was happy to leave them to it.
Crossing into Poland at dawn, we stopped at a roadside café for breakfast. The only item we recognised on the menu was pizza, and we didn’t fancy that first thing in the morning. We were still wondering what to ask for when another customer was handed a steaming bowl – ok, we’d have some of that. Our meal duly arrived and we had to laugh - it was tripe stew.
We were stopped by the police once in Poland, and the vehicle documents thoroughly checked. Probably there were suspicions of black-market-dealing, but they allowed us to continue. Our first attempt at crossing the border into Russia was rejected – this particular crossing was for locals and officials only. It was a long way round to the correct crossing, and late afternoon when we joined the queue.
The cars inched forwards. An official gave us a piece of paper which we had to give to the next official in exchange for another piece of paper. Then it all ground to a stop. There were some interesting-looking wetlands nearby, but this was not a place to get out the binoculars.
The delay was a change in shift for the border guards. But as they were settling down, there was another delay as one of the guard dogs got loose and had to be rounded up. Eventually the traffic started moving again.
As we reached the front of the queue, a guy in a bomber jacket came towards us. “I speak a little English, maybe I can help you”. He went into the customs kiosk with Lyndon and the paperwork. We waited in the car with our fingers crossed. After five minutes or so, Lyndon returned with a big smile. The wife of this particular border guard was a fan of soap operas, but she had missed an episode (I think Hollyoaks was mentioned). Did Lyndon by any chance know what had happened? Fortunately he did, and the guard sent us on through.
The road in Russia was poor quality, with plenty of potholes. It went straight to Kaliningrad, leaving us the problem of getting through the city. It seemed from the road map that there might have been a ring road, but it was now dark, and the road signs, when we found them, were in Russian Cyrillic, which isn’t quite the same as Greek Cyrillic. Finding ourselves by the docks, we resorted to using a compass to navigate northwards in the dark. A bus ahead of us had huge tractor-size wheels – when it went into a flooded pothole, we understood why.
We asked the way in English and in German, as none of us knew any Russian, but were met with blank stares, or avoidance. Finally, there was someone who spoke some English, who seemed to know the way. He pushed his way into the back seat, and proceeded to give instructions. We should drop him off at his flat first. We could stay the night at his flat. I desperately looked through the phrase book to explain that people were waiting for us. Outside his flat, he again entreated us to stay the night, but with visions of wheels disappearing overnight, we declined, and continued in the direction he indicated.
A couple of hours later, we were relieved to find signs that we were in the right place. Military guards at the beginning of the Curonian Spit checked our papers. And later still, in the early hours of the morning, we were greeting by Viktor at the Rybachy Biological Station.
Viktor’s research involved spending nights on top of the building with a powerful searchlight, watching for bird migration. At least we hadn’t kept him up just waiting for us.
Arriving in the middle of the night meant we had no idea of the landscape or the buildings. By dawn we were ready to join the bird-ringing team, and discovered we were in a large, square institution with gardens and wet scrub where the nets had been set up. Finches, goldcrests and warblers were the main species caught.
After breakfast, Jerry and Lyndon were whisked off to the subsidiary field station at “Fringilla” for a few days, while Bob and I stayed at the main station. In between ringing sessions, we were shown the surrounding area, told about the importance of the area for bird migration, and shown some of the historical sights.
We were shown the work of the senior researchers, working on bird migration. One worked in a lab full of caged birds, I think looking at motivation, direction skills, etc, work similar to that done a decade or more earlier in the west. It was an example of the divide between east and west, that up until a only few years earlier there had been little or no information flow in many subjects. With the advent of the internet, and slightly easier movement of people, this must have changed in the last twenty years.
From a general nature point of view, there was more interest in the wet dune slacks, which had water deep enough for beavers to inhabit. Signs of beaver activity were pretty obvious – great mounds of wood in the water, and small trees cut down with characteristic teeth-marks. We did spend a couple of evenings watching these pools at dusk, and caught distant glimpses of the animals themselves swimming through the gloom. Elsewhere there was a huge heronry in the birch woodland.
Those first few days were spent in a blur of culture shock and cold. There seemed to be no heating, or hot water, in the building and late April required plenty of clothing. Had we known to do so, we would have happily taken boxes of groceries with us – it was still a time of food and cash shortages – to supplement everybody’s meals. The director and senior researcher did not eat with us – we were told later that it was because they didn’t want to let on how bad things were. Looking back now, I wonder if they went without to ensure their guests were fed.
The atmosphere at Fringilla was quite different to that at the main building. Accommodation was in a sparsely furnished bungalow. Meals were cooked by the two scientists – Micha and Vadim. And on one afternoon there was an option of a sauna. I was allowed to use it after the men had finished, and it was the only time during the visit that I actually felt warm!
The ringing was different too. Birds were caught in two huge Heligoland-style traps situated along the forest edge. These traps funnelled the birds into wire cubicles where they were caught by hand and taken to the “ringing hut” to be ringed, measured, weighed and released. This hut was like a huge cuckoo-clock that opened every hour to spew the ringers out to check the traps.
The winds were not good for large scale migration during our stay, which allowed time to explore the dunes and shore line. It was still too cold for much in the way of flowers, but there were plenty of mammal tracks in the sand, and birds flying north. One day we mentioned the pleasure of seeing a flock of twenty cranes flying past. “Oh,” said Micha, “that’s nothing. Most days there are two thousand”. Something that, at the time, we could not comprehend.
The week was soon over and it was time to return home. Micha made us sandwiches for the journey - filled with cheese and wild garlic leaves. The journey itself was uneventful - the only thing I remember was at the border between Poland and Germany where a small car ahead of us was being unloaded by customs officials - it’s amazing how many boxes of cigarettes and other contraband you can fit in a Fiat Panda!