Birding In a Battle Zone: How Ukraine’s Prime eBirder Pursues His Ardour Amid Tragedy

One 12 months in the past, Oleksandr Nastachenko traveled to the southern Ukrainian province of Kherson Oblast, together with his 14-year-old nephew, Igor, in quest of 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 outdoors the territorial capital of Kherson, uncle and nephew logged 59 species: geese, geese, and cormorants; three kinds of woodpeckers; a dozen Bearded Reedlings; and, Nastachenko proudly advised me, a Nice Black-backed Gull, an unusual sight in far jap Europe. However, in a narrative acquainted to any birder, the pair missed out on the one they’d journeyed almost 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, just a few months after the conflict started, I began to marvel if Ukraine’s birders had been nonetheless energetic. It could look like an inconsequential factor to contemplate, given all the 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 out to be a resolute life lister over the previous couple of years, particularly due to eBird, the place Ive spent numerous hours scouring maps and lists from world scorching spots Ill doubtless 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 instantly adjoining the Donbas area of jap 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 nervousness when no new checklists would seem for days at a time, fearing the worst when these quiet stretches went on for weeks. However, ultimately, the lists saved coming.

I finally 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, in fact, 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, learning his grandfather’s copy of the Crimson Knowledge 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 remembers 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 jap European species, which he memorized. There have been no skilled hen guides, he says, no high quality discipline guides to Ukraine. Completely self-taught, he realized 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 together 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 outdoors his metropolis’s limits. His “decisive and breakthrough 12 months,” as he calls it, got here in 2010, with the arrival of the web to Dnipro. Now, ornithologists may very well be contacted, blogs scoured, unfamiliar corners of the nation researched, expeditions deliberate. Nastachenko turned a life lister, totaling 374 species at current. He’s “pushed by an crucial, by a necessity to hen,” within the phrases of his shut good friend 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 together with his Ukrainian spouse and daughter, and Nastachenko, now 34 years outdated. The fun 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 current Russian assaults. We greeted one another like lengthy misplaced birding buddies, eager to share information of current sightings. However inside quarter-hour, as they had been describing Nastachenko’s yard, the place he has tallied 120 species, their video feed pale to black. As soon as once more, I feared the worst. A information alert quickly offered the reason: An extended-range missile had struck an residence complicated in central Dnipro, simply six miles from his residence. Whereas Bradbeer and Nastachenko had been unhurt, it ranks among the many deadliest assaults on civilians for the reason that conflict started, with no less than 45 killed, together with 6 youngsters, and dozens injured. 

The disruptions and destruction of conflict stay inescapable for all Ukrainians, and Russia’s invasion got here at an inauspicious time for the nation’s small, casual, however quickly growing birding community. Nastachenko and Bradbeer estimate that there are simply 400 energetic 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 speeding to Odessa in early January 2022—earlier than the conflict rendered journey unfeasible. He participated in native Massive Day hen 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 growing birding community.


Now Ukraine’s fledgling birding neighborhood lies fractured. An estimated 16 million Ukrainians have been displaced from their properties. Over 20,000 have been killed, together with Oleg Snitsar, a distinguished Kyiv-area birder and good friend of Nastachenko’s. Simply earlier than the conflict, 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 conflict’s starting, sequestered in his residence, Nastachenko didn’t hen for 2 weeks and two days, a interval he describes as “loopy nerve-racking.” He longed to be in nature, he advised me, “to see one hen, two birds—something hen.” 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 electronic mail. “I dread to suppose what stress the conflict 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 for the reason that invasion, to a neighborhood woodland park, to see different individuals, different birds. Although he not often travels outdoors his metropolis’s boundaries lately, he has often ranged farther from residence, regardless of the risks. In October he visited the Petrykivka fishponds, a favourite hotspot outdoors of Dnipro, the place he counted the area’s first Moustached Warbler. One other time, he visited buddies north of town, and fortuitously witnessed a migration of 10 raptor species. Remarkably, he tallied 215 species in Dnipropetrovsk Oblast in 2022, solely 10 beneath his annual common.

Birding, although, has not come with out challenges. When questioned by police—optical devices like binoculars and cameras are additionally used, in fact, 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. “Shedding entry to so many birding websites,” he advised me, “is like dropping the one that is dearest to me,” he tells me. “I can see that I stay 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 largely stopped checking Nastachenko’s lists on eBird. Now we message and electronic mail each few days. And although I now not fear about his checklists, I concern for a good friend midway the world over.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *