Where Birds Rule the Earth

In Russia’s vast far east, most of the people are gone, but feathered inhabitants are abundant

Images by the author

The ship made its way toward the Russian port city of Provideniya, the water smooth as glass. On one side of the fjord, abandoned low-slung gray apartment buildings almost blended in with the low hills. On the other side, someone had painted many of the occupied buildings in blazing colors: pink, yellow, and minty green—a jarring sight in the washed-out landscape.

This is the part of Russia that Sarah Palin could see if she had super-binocular powers; it lies just across the Bering Strait from Alaska.

Russia’s Far Eastern Federal District is huge—2.4 million square miles, roughly twice the size of India—and takes up one-third of the country, but only 6.7 million people populate that vast space. (The district’s biggest city is Vladivostok—best known for being the last stop on the Trans-Siberian Railroad and home to the Russian Pacific fleet.) Provideniya was once a thriving military town with a population as high as 10,000; today the population is about 2,000. Most of the ethnic Russians have left, ceding the city to the region’s indigenous people. Now the government is struggling to stem the tide of people leaving the desolate Far East.

It was precisely this lack of people that brought me here.

I came to see the birds. Because there are few humans—fewer than three per square mile—the birds of the Russian Far East are, well, fairly unsuspicious. And although birders can see some of these Russian species in Alaska, in the Aleutians or in a place like Gambell on St. Lawrence Island (a few dozen birders go there every year to see birds that have been blown across the Bering Strait), when you walk across the tundra and come upon a little Asian songbird, you know you’re seeing it in the very same habitat where it has existed for thousands of years. The experience is exhilarating.

We sailed south from Provideniya in the choppy waters of the Bering Sea, toward the Kamchatka Peninsula, intent on looking for birds along the coast. Although it was mid-July, the air temperature was only in the 30s, and the sea spray was joined by spitting rain. As the boat neared an island, birds began taking off, flying in circles near the cliffs. More and more birds lifted from the land, the ruckus they made growing into a din. Dainty black-legged kittiwakes and glaucous gulls flew in swirling clouds overhead while black-and-white thick-billed and common murres skimmed low across the water, looking like tuxedo-clad squadrons on maneuvers. Thousands of murres stood on narrow ledges, faces to the wall, each protecting its one egg. Occasionally we’d spy small groups of horned puffins near their nests on the cliffs, or a tufted puffin, with its clownlike face and long feathers swept back in a coif as if the bird were a vain maestro.

Suddenly, one of the glaucous gulls—a huge white-and-gray predatory bird—snatched a young murre from a ledge, swallowing it whole. In the commotion, the egg of another murre fell and smashed on the rocks below. Murres lay one egg every summer; if something happens to that egg or that chick, the chances of laying another egg the same year are slim.

It’s easy to delude yourself into thinking you’re completely alone with nature in the wild Bering Sea, but every so often, around a bend, a ghostly abandoned Soviet-era building rises from the cliffs. We passed a weather station high on a hillside, and a derelict fox farm, with its concrete barn and rows of collapsing cages that used to hold the animals, raised for their fur.

One foggy morning we went ashore. On the beach, ravens were picking at the carcass of a young gray whale. Huge ribs and jawbones were scattered everywhere. As we walked on the tundra beyond the beach, I almost fell into a small circular hole, and then realized I was surrounded by low, hummock-like food-storage shelters made of whale ribs covered with sod. We had come across a hunting camp where Yupiks have been butchering their massive catch for hundreds of years.

A distant, loud kakakakak sound broke the quiet. As we strained to see through the heavy mist, a large bird—a sandhill crane—dropped over the top of a hill and glided in, long legs trailing, to land at the edge of a small lake in front of us. The crane cried again, kakakakak. An answer came from across the water. Calling back and forth, the gray beauties flew toward each other, meeting above the water then turning and flying in tandem over a nearby hill. It began to rain as we slogged back toward the boat; at my feet were dainty, miniaturized dogwoods, rhododendrons, and azaleas growing in the spongy sod. I thought about the cranes and their balletic flight, and the ravens pecking away at the whale carcass, and how the beauty and desolation of the Russian Far East converges in this spot on the tundra, at the edge of the frigid Bering Sea.