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New Europe

Day Ninety-four: Nida to Kaliningrad

The bird trap at Rybachiy 
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Inside the bird trap at Rybachiy bird-ringing centre, on the way to Kaliningrad.
Michael Palin - New EuropeFrom the jetty at the little fishing town of Nida, I look out across the water to what looks like an outpost of the Sahara. A wall of sand capped with pine forest rising sheer from the lagoon and curving south to a distant horizon.

This is the Curonian Spit, the longest and most impressive of the filigree of sandbars strung along the Baltic coast by the tides and winds that scour the unprotected shore. The sun shines brightly on these immense dunes, patterned with the elongated shadows of circling sea birds. Perhaps as curious as a desert on the Baltic coast is the fact that it leads us west, into Russia.

Nearly 62 miles long and never more than two and half miles wide, the Curonian Spit connects Lithuania with a curious political anomaly, a part of the old German province of East Prussia, ceded to the USSR in 1945 in response to Stalin's demands for an ice-free port. It's now known, after the city at its heart, as Kaliningrad. So it is that, only a few miles south of Nida, we emerge from a corridor of trees to find a sign, half-covered by silver birch scrub, reading 'Welcome to Russia'.

Not a lot changes immediately. The combination of willow, birch and pine planted to prevent further erosion makes the straight road into an arboreal tunnel and the few buildings we glimpse between the trees all bear the same style of rustic red brick from the days when the whole Spit was part of Prussia. Every year vast numbers of migrating birds stop off on the sandbar, and in the 1880s an energetic and committed German ornithologist by the name of Johannes Thienemann set up an observation point at the village of Rossitten, which became one of the pioneering sites for the new technique of ringing birds. Renamed Rybachiy by the Russians, it has survived political change to become one of Europe's most important centres for studying bird migration.

A huge structure rises in a clearing amongst the pines. Developed at Rybachiy some fifty years ago, it's a mammoth bird trap. An entrance 100 feet wide and 50 feet high leads into a 200-foot long net which funnels down to a line of cages. The trap is aligned with the prevailing winds and, during the spring or autumn migrations, can catch as many as 50,000 birds. Mischa, the bird-man who's showing me round, says they once caught 4,000 in a day. This is early summer and there's less activity, but there are a number of crossbills fluttering in the cages, lured by the pine nuts, and Mischa has to ring as many as he can in the hour or so that the birds are kept.

The ringing takes only a few seconds but whilst the bird is restrained they check species, sex, wing measurement, and, by blowing on the breast of each female, they can see from the brood-patch whether it has young or not. While they write up these observations the bird is dumped unceremoniously upside down into a cone-shaped tube with its legs sticking up in the air.

Mischa and his team and their colossal net have had their successes. A swallow ringed at Rybachiy ended up in Durban, South Africa, siskins in Ireland, owls in Central Asia, chiffchaffs in Norway. They've learnt lessons about bird behaviour, as well as conservation, navigation and, more recently, global warming, noting many birds returning much earlier in the spring than they did fifty years ago.

I quite forget I've just crossed a border until I ask Mischa what information a bird carries in its ring.

'Ah,' he says, 'just a code and a number to ring in Moscow.'
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  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day Ninety-four: Nida to Kaliningrad
  • Country/sea: Lithuania
  • Place: Nida
  • Book page no: 221

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