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A Report from

A short visit to the Volga Delta Biosphere reserve 26th – 29th June 2006,

Paul Mollatt

On finishing my job in Finland I decided to satisfy a long-held curiosity to travel in Russia and decided to make the Volga Delta my goal. I had little time to plan and make contacts for birding so the majority of my four-week trip in Russia from St Petersburg to Volgograd was tourism/backpacking. However, I did manage to find Ecological Travel Center in Moscow (, e-mail: and they very kindly put me in contact with their local agents in Astrakhan, the closest city to the Delta.

The people from the Volga Delta biosphere reserve came round to my hotel in Astrakhan, soon informed me of what was possible to visit and arranged a visit of 3 nights and 4 days.  The following day they took me down to the biosphere reserve (2 hours, across two ferries) with an American tourist.

Included in the price is one excursion per day and on the first day we went by boat down one of the arms of the river where White-tailed Eagle (Haliaetus albicilla) were surprisingly common.  We passed very close to where they were perching on trees at the side of the river and even saw a few nests. We were told that there were about 50 White-tailed Eagle nests in the delta and that so many of the best nesting trees had been taken that they had even found one nest in the reeds! We were also treated to the sight of an Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) dive-bombing a pair of the eagles and another one carrying off a fish. Apparently the relationship between these two large raptors is conflictive there, as the Ospreys have a problem when returning from their migration because the White-tailed Eagles have stolen their nesting material and they have to start building again. Other raptors were Hobby (Falco subbuteo), Red-footed Falcon (Falco vespertinus) and Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus), all seen most days.  We went as far as the avant-delta, where the river spreads out into a huge open expanse of water.  There we saw large numbers of Mute Swan (Cygnus olor) and many marsh terns, with good numbers of Black Tern (Chlidonias niger), White-winged Black Tern (Chlidonias leucoptera) and Whiskered Tern (Chlidonias hybridus), which we saw at close quarters, and some of which were nesting on the extensive rafts of water lilies.

During the four days we heard Penduline Tit (Remis pendulinus) very often, but only saw one (building a nest), heard many Cetti’s Warbler (Cettia cetti) and saw several small parties of Bearded Tit (Panurus biarmicus).  We saw several Purple and Grey Heron (Ardea purpurea and cinerea) and Little Bittern (Ixobrychus minutus) in flight plus a few Great White Egret (Egretta alba) and one Night Heron (Nyctocorax nycticorax).  Smew (Mergus albellus), which surprisingly breed in the delta, were seen twice and one Ferruginous Duck (Aythya nyroca).  Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) was incredibly common, probably parasitizing the huge number of Great Reed Warbler (Acrocephalus arundinaceus), the only Acrocephalus species we heard.  Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis) was seen once but heard several times by the centre.

At and around the centre Lesser Grey Shrike (Lanius minor) and Swallow (Hirundo rustica) were nesting, Golden Oriole (Oriolus oriolus) were plentiful in the poplar trees bordering the river, Great Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopus major) were common and Grey-headed Woodpecker was seen a few times.  Five or six Hoopoe (Upupa epops) were around all the time, as were Tree Sparrows (Passer montanus), Great Tits (Parus major) and White Wagtails (Motacilla alba).

In the fields around the centre Roller (Coracias garrulus) was common and Rook (Corvus frugilegus) very common.

In the dryer areas on the approach to the reserve Bee-eater (Merops apiaster) was frequently seen.

We had another boat trip and two guided walks (it isn’t allowed to go anywhere on your own).  There was also a tour round the museum at the centre, which had a good diorama of animals and birds of the region and some stuffed specimens of huge fish found in the Volga river.

The area was also a very good place to see snakes.  We saw several at fairly close quarters every time we went out and saw many swimming across the arms of the river.  They were nearly all Grass Snakes (Natrix natrix) and the staff at the reserve told us that they didn’t have poisonous snakes there.

The staff at the centre and the administrative staff were all very helpful, cooperative and friendly.  I also had an interpreter (Lena) for the last 2 days, who was very enthusiastic and did an excellent job.  The price included meals and the service was very good, with 3 excellent, home-cooked meals per day and a friendly chef.  The accommodation was adequate and thankfully the sitting room had air-conditioning, as it was extremely hot in late June so we didn’t try to do much in the middle of the day. I can’t remember the exact price but it was good value by western standards.

Obviously, late June in a heat wave isn’t the best time to visit, but we can’t always have time off when we want.  The biosphere reserve is only a small part of the delta and the organised tour groups can cover much more than this and the areas around, which have a good deal of other species.  Two days would be enough for birders or non-birders, as any more time there is just more of the same, unless you are able to arrange trips to other parts of the area outside of the reserve.

Also, the Lower Volga region has many other places of great interest to western birders, as the steppe has many species that aren’t found further west, and in between Astrakhan and Volgograd the area around Manych is very highly rated (see Jeff Gordon’s descriptions/trip reports).  Therefore, it would be better to be better prepared than I was and probably best to go with an organised group in the Spring or Autumn.  Ecological Tours arrange these and they are detailed on their website. A web search may also reveal other companies who do the same.

Travel in Russia

Having grown up during the cold war period and having been subjected to all the propaganda of that era, I was somewhat apprehensive on entering Russia. Also I spoke no Russian and most Russians I met spoke no English, so communication was quite difficult at times. However, I really got to like Russian people, who were invariably very kind, patient and helpful.  They were so warm and friendly that I eventually felt quite relaxed and at home. Also, travelling on Russian trains is one of the world’s great travel experiences (for the experienced traveller – it might be a little too challenging for inexperienced travellers).

Finding information can be quite difficult, as there are virtually no tourist offices in Russia, so a good guidebook is essential.  I used the Lonely Planet guide ‘Russia and Belarus’, which was very good.

A note of caution.  Independent travel in Russia is a great experience but unfortunately, from time to time, you may run up against corruption in the form of searches by the police, who may then demand money.  In Astrakhan it happened to me on arrival (6 am) at the railway station and on departure, again at the railway station. Being body searched and relieved of money at the same time is a bit scary.   This didn’t happen to me anywhere else in Russia but, according to the Lonely Planet guide, it can happen in Moscow and St Petersburg.

Contact details

Ecological Travel Center– website:, e-mail:
Jeff Gordon – better to do a Google search.  I used ‘Jeff Gordon Manych’, which found several interesting accounts of the Manych area.
Hotel Lotus, Astrakhan – fairly modern with good, English-speaking receptionists and not too expensive.

The following bird species list is a fairly modest one, as it is a little difficult to be sure of identification of distant wildfowl, for example, from a moving boat at a distance.  Also they said that the river hadn’t been very high in the Spring, so some of the fields were dry, whereas in some years they can hold large numbers of nesting birds.


26th-29th June 2006

Cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo)
Little Bittern (Ixobrychus minutus)
Night Heron (Nyticorax nycticorax)
Great White Egret (Egretta alba)
Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea)
Purple Heron (Ardea purpurea)
Glossy Ibis (Plegadis falcinellus)
Mute Swan (Cygnus olor)
Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos)
Shoveler (Anas clypeata)
Ferruginous Duck (Aythya nyroca)
Smew (Mergus albellus)
White-tailed Eagle (Haliaetus albicilla)
Osprey (Pandion haliaetus)
Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus)
Red-footed Falcon (Falco vespertinus)
Hobby (Falco subbuteo)
Pheasant (Phasianus colchicus)
Moorhen (Gallinula chloropos)
Common Sandpiper (Actitis hypoleucos)
Large Gull sp (cachinnans group) – surprisingly few gulls in the reserve at this time
Caspian Tern (Sterna caspia)
Common Tern (Sterna hirundo)
Whiskered Tern (Chlidonias hybridus)
Black Tern (Chlidonias niger)
White-winged Tern (Chlidonias leucopterus)
Wood Pigeon (Columba palumbus)
Turtle Dove (Streptopelia turtur)
Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus)
Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis)
Bee-eater (Merops apiaster)
Roller (Coracias garrulus)
Hoopoe (Upupa epops)
Grey-headed Woodpecker (Picus canus)
Great Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopus major)
Sand Martin (Riparia riparia)
Swallow (Hirundo rustica)
White Wagtail (Motacilla alba)
Blackbird (Turdus merula)
Cetti’s Warbler (Cettia cetti)
Great Reed Warbler (Acrocephalus arundinaceus)
Olivaceous Warbler (Hippolais pallida)
Bearded Tit (Panurus biarmicus)
Great Tit (Parus major)
Penduline Tit (Remis pendulinus)
Golden Oriole (Oriolus oriolus)
Lesser Grey Shrike (Lanius minor)
Magpie (Pica pica)
Rook (Corvus frugilegus)
Hooded Crow (Corvus corone cornix)
Starling (Sturnus vulgaris)
Tree Sparrow (Passer montanus)
Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs)

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