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Birding In a Warfare Zone: How Ukraine’s High eBirder Pursues His Ardour Amid Tragedy


    One yr in the past, Oleksandr Nastachenko traveled to the southern Ukrainian province of Kherson Oblast, along with his 14-year-old nephew, Igor, seeking a Rustic Bunting. The migratory passerine is a uncommon customer to Ukraine, and one of many comparatively few birds in his residence nation Nastachenko hadn’t but noticed.

    Throughout five-plus hours trekking the marshlands exterior the territorial capital of Kherson, uncle and nephew logged 59 species: geese, geese, and cormorants; three forms of woodpeckers; a dozen Bearded Reedlings; and, Nastachenko proudly advised me, a Nice Black-backed Gull, an unusual sight in far japanese Europe. However, in a narrative acquainted to any birder, the pair missed out on the one they’d journeyed practically 200 miles to see.

    Again in his hometown of Dnipro the next week, on the morning of February 24, Nastachenko woke to the information of airstrikes throughout his nation. Russia’s most up-to-date invasion of Ukraine had begun. 

    Final summer time, a couple of months after the struggle started, I began to surprise if Ukraine’s birders have been nonetheless lively. It might appear to be an inconsequential factor to think about, given the entire invasion’s horrors, however I considered how a lot birding has meant to me since I took it up early within the pandemic. I’ve turn into a resolute life lister over the previous couple of years, particularly because of eBird, the place Ive spent numerous hours scouring maps and lists from international scorching spots Ill probably by no means go to.

    That’s how I first discovered Nastachenko, who goes by Sasha. On eBird, he has logged extra species than anybody else in his nation. And never solely was he importing checklists, I used to be shocked to find, however he was posting from Dnipropetrovsk Oblast, the province straight adjoining the Donbas area of japanese Ukraine, which has been occupied by pro-Russian forces since 2014. Each few days all through the summer time of 2022, I’d sift by means of his sightings, struggling to think about the hazards of birding in a fight zone, filling with anxiousness when no new checklists would seem for days at a time, fearing the worst when these quiet stretches went on for weeks. However, in the end, the lists stored coming.

    I ultimately reached out to Nastachenko through Fb, and we developed the form of friendship that kinds between birders dwelling in reverse corners of the world. We traded tales and, after all, loads of photographs: A flock of Bohemian Waxwings circling his residence on the northern fringes of Dnipro, Ukraines fourth-largest metropolis. A pair of nesting Bald Eagles close to my very own in New Orleans. A Nice Kiskadee begging for crumbs at arm’s size throughout a vacation I took to Colombia. A spectacular shot of a Spoon-billed Sandpiper he took whereas volunteering on a 2015 analysis journey to Chukotka, Russias remoted, northeasternmost territory.

    Nastachenko remembers, from the age of 4, finding out his grandfather’s copy of the Purple Information Ebook of the Russian Federation, a Soviet-era compendium of uncommon and endangered plant and animal species. “It was the birds that enchanted me probably the most,” he says. He recollects being notably drawn to painted illustrations of Siberian Cranes and Bustards, Little and Nice. At 15, he obtained a youngsters’s encyclopedia of birds that included a CD containing the vocalizations of 98 japanese European species, which he memorized. There have been no skilled fowl guides, he says, no high quality subject guides to Ukraine. Completely self-taught, he discovered to establish avifauna just by likelihood discovery, matching what he discovered within the encyclopedia to what he noticed and heard across the household’s home, fishing along with his father, on walks in native parks.  

    He quickly started scouring native antiquarian markets for books, pamphlets, something referring to birdlife. The acquisition of his first digicam, in 2008, pushed him to wander exterior his metropolis’s limits. His “decisive and breakthrough yr,” as he calls it, got here in 2010, with the arrival of the web to Dnipro. Now, ornithologists might be contacted, blogs scoured, unfamiliar corners of the nation researched, expeditions deliberate. Nastachenko grew to become a life lister, totaling 374 species at current. He’s “pushed by an crucial, by a necessity to fowl,” within the phrases of his shut pal and mentor Paul Bradbeer, a local Londoner who has taught English to Dnipro college students since 1995. “I don’t suppose he might perform if he wasn’t birding.”

    In January I scheduled a time to speak through Zoom with Bradbeer, who stays in Dnipro along with his Ukrainian spouse and daughter, and Nastachenko, now 34 years outdated. The joys of lastly chatting face-to-face after exchanging messages and photographs made up for the expectedly terrible connection—{the electrical} and telecommunications grid had been hammered by latest Russian assaults. We greeted one another like lengthy misplaced birding associates, eager to share information of latest sightings. However inside quarter-hour, as they have been describing Nastachenko’s yard, the place he has tallied 120 species, their video feed light to black. As soon as once more, I feared the worst. A information alert quickly offered the reason: A protracted-range missile had struck an condo advanced in central Dnipro, simply six miles from his residence. Whereas Bradbeer and Nastachenko have been unhurt, it ranks among the many deadliest assaults on civilians because the struggle started, with a minimum of 45 killed, together with 6 youngsters, and dozens injured. 

    The disruptions and destruction of struggle stay inescapable for all Ukrainians, and Russia’s invasion got here at an inauspicious time for the nation’s small, casual, however quickly creating birding community. Nastachenko and Bradbeer estimate that there are simply 400 lively birders in Ukraine, with fewer than 40 representing their residence area of Dnipropetrovsk Oblast. Twitching was on the rise—the looks of an Iceland Gull despatched Nastachenko dashing to Odessa in early January 2022—earlier than the struggle rendered journey unfeasible. He participated in native Huge Day fowl counts and led a survey of Eurasian Curlews at an ornithological reserve simply south of Mariupol—now occupied territory.


    Russia’s invasion got here at an inauspicious time for the nation’s small, casual, however quickly creating birding community.


    Now Ukraine’s fledgling birding group lies fractured. An estimated 16 million Ukrainians have been displaced from their houses. Over 20,000 have been killed, together with Oleg Snitsar, a distinguished Kyiv-area birder and pal of Nastachenko’s. Simply earlier than the struggle, a nationwide public broadcast report adopted Snitsar on a forest bird-walk; within the video, out there on YouTube, he’s jovial, humble, desperate to introduce Ukrainians to birdwatching. Following Russia’s invasion, he joined the volunteer armed forces. His fellow troopers nicknamed him Vegan, for his love of animals. Snitsar died after his car hit a landmine on the frontlines in November, simply days earlier than his forty third birthday.

    On the struggle’s starting, sequestered in his residence, Nastachenko didn’t fowl for 2 weeks and two days, a interval he describes as “loopy anxious.” He longed to be in nature, he advised me, “to see one fowl, two birds—something fowl.” He finally started exploring his yard once more. In the future, he watched as a Nice Tit amassing nesting materials all of the sudden started to dart about erratically, as if “in panic,” he says, earlier than flying off. Three seconds later, an airstrike landed close by. “This incident is seared into my reminiscence,” he wrote in an e mail. “I dread to suppose what stress the struggle is bringing to Ukraines animals.”

    A brown bird with a gray head, orange eye, and black streak down its face is perched, clinging to two reeds.
    Bearded Reedling in Dnipropetrovsk Oblast. Photograph: Oleksandr Nastachenko

    On March 12, only a day after Russian missiles struck Dnipro for the primary time, he ventured, additionally for the primary time because the invasion, to an area woodland park, to see different folks, different birds. Although he hardly ever travels exterior his metropolis’s boundaries lately, he has sometimes ranged farther from residence, regardless of the risks. In October he visited the Petrykivka fishponds, a favourite hotspot exterior of Dnipro, the place he counted the area’s first Moustached Warbler. One other time, he visited associates north of the town, and fortuitously witnessed a migration of 10 raptor species. Remarkably, he tallied 215 species in Dnipropetrovsk Oblast in 2022, solely 10 under his annual common.

    Birding, although, has not come with out challenges. When questioned by police—optical devices like binoculars and cameras are additionally used, after all, as wartime surveillance gear—he flashes his Ukrainian Society for the Safety of Birds membership card. Avian hotspots, just like the close by Dnieprostroi Dam, usually double as key navy targets and stay off-limits. “Dropping entry to so many birding websites,” he advised me, “is like shedding the one that is dearest to me,” he tells me. “I can see that I reside to journey to observe birds.” On the one-year anniversary of Russias invasion, he yearns to return to that life: I’m, above all else, a birder.”

    I’ve principally stopped checking Nastachenko’s lists on eBird. Now we message and e mail each few days. And although I not fear about his checklists, I worry for a pal midway internationally.