Nenets Autonomous Okrug

Photographing rare birds in the largest marshlands of Europe

Trip to the Nenets State Nature Reserve

05.10.2023 /// Birdwatching, a form of active tourism, has been growing in popularity both in Russia and overseas in recent years. Venturing to the farthest corners of the planet to witness their rare avian inhabitants firsthand is an exhilarating pursuit, albeit one that requires some preparation. In our country, the Nenets State Nature Reserve, home to Europe's largest wetlands, is one of the destinations for those seeking the splendours of the avian world.

The Russky Zavorot Peninsula in the Barents Sea is a truly unique place. This is the only place in Europe with untouched subarctic and arctic tundra plains. With no major industries in close proximity, the peninsula remains a pristine example of the Far North's natural beauty.

The red-listed plants and animals on the Russky Zavorot Peninsula are not endangered because people do not disturb them or change their habitat. The undisputed rulers of these polar territories are the polar bears. Atlantic walruses have wrested control of the shores from their fellow pinnipeds, while beluga whales and bowhead whales frolic fearlessly in the sea. From time to time, rare visitors, such as narwhals, high-billed bottlenose whales and northern fin whales make their way to the Arctic coasts.

Winter on the Russky Zavorot Peninsula lasts very long. Here, the land is covered by snow for 231 days a year. But as soon as the numerous lakes, rivers and swamps are freed from their ice captivity, thousands of birds arrive on the peninsula. The abundance of food in the local vegetation-rich water bodies makes it easy to feed the chicks, turning the peninsula into a massive bird nursery.

In spring, the number of prospective parents is so high that bird flocks can obscure the sun, resembling clouds.

In 1997, the Nenets State Nature Reserve was established here to keep Russky Zavorot a piece of the pristine Arctic. However, this does not mean that the peninsula is now inaccessible to birdwatching enthusiasts. On the contrary, the reserve employees will show amateur ornithologists the best spots for observing rare birds and tell them about their habits and preferences.

Species like the white-billed diver, lesser white-fronted goose, red-breasted goose and Bewick's swan can be spotted here not just in the Red Book but within an arm's reach.

The Nenets Nature Reserve is the first and so far the only nature reserve in the Nenets Autonomous Area. The conservation lands encompass not just the Russky Zavorot Peninsula but also the Zakhariynsky coast of Pechora Bay, the lower Pechora delta, a portion of the Vostochnaya Neruta River delta and the islands of Gulyaevskie Koshki, Matveev, Golets, Dolgiy, Bolshoy and Maly Zelentsy. The waters adjacent to these coasts are also under protection. The protected lands serve as a passage for the East Atlantic migratory route of birds that breed in the tundra and winter in countries of Europe and Africa. Hence, there is an immense diversity of birds here—125 species, with 15 of them listed in the Red Book of Russia and the Nenets Autonomous Area.

The protected area is home not only to natural wonders, but also to many historical and cultural monuments of the Nenets, the indigenous peoples of the Malozemelskaya tundra. For example, on Dolgiy Island you can visit the ancient sanctuaries and see the idols to which the indigenous inhabitants of these lands brought sacrificial animals.

Polar bear skulls and reindeer antlers have survived to this day. The Pomors have also left their mark on the protected area. This was the route to the gold-rich Mangazeya, and centuries-old Pomor settlements still exist on the island.

One can see what a Pomor earth house, a boat and even a salotopka—a special barrel for extracting fat from marine animals—looked like. Even today, the protected territory preserves the vow crosses of the Pomors.

The distance from Naryan-Mar to the reserve boundary is approximately 100 km. During winter, this distance is typically covered by snowmobile, while in summer, motorboats are used. The reserve features wooden cabins that provide comfortable accommodation. Nonetheless, one should be prepared for moderate physical activities, carry suitable clothing for the season and other essentials for wilderness survival. For example, during summer, mosquito headnets, repellent sprays and ointments can be very useful in combating bloodsucking insects. Swarms of gnats and mosquitoes are an inherent part of the reserve's pristine nature, which could potentially diminish the enjoyment of your trip.

To visit the reserve, two documents are required—a border pass and a permit from the reserve's administration. Throughout the year, access to certain parts of the reserve may be restricted to avoid disturbing the local wildlife. Information about accessible areas within the protected territory can be found on its website. By the way, the Nenets Nature Reserve organises its own tours.

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