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Biological Station Rybachy


The Courish Spit on the Baltic Sea (Kurische Nehrung in German) has been known since the end of the last century for its large concentration of migrating birds, unique in Europe. The spit is a strip of sandy terrain, 97 km in length and 0.4 to 3.6 km in width separating the Courish Lagoon from the Baltic Sea.

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The chain of sand dunes up to 68 m in height stretches from the north-east to the south-west which corresponds to the main direction of bird migration in this part of Europe. Annually during autumn migration, over 10 million landbirds of various species that avoid sea crossings during daytime, use the Courish Spit as a bridge for their flight.

On some autumn days the number of birds flying along the spit may reach maxima of 1-2 million, with an average of 250 000 per day. There is also mass migration of waterfowl, shorebirds, and waders (swans, geese, ducks, waders, gulls, rails, coots) over the spit and the neighbouring parts of the Baltic Sea and Courish Lagoon. This is especially so in spring. Nocturnal migration of different taxa over this area takes place on a broad front and has in autumn seen up to 2.2 million birds over a front of 1 km. Up to 160-170 bird species that are known to migrate at night have been recorded.

History of research

The importance of the Courish Spit for bird migration research became obvious before the end of the 19th century, when it was first visited by Johanness Thienemann, a famous German ornithologist. In 1901 he established "Vogelwarte Rossitten", the world's first ornithological station, in Rossitten, now Rybachy, for the study of bird migration. J.Thienemann was the head of the station until 1929, followed by Prof. Ernst Schüz.

"Vogelwarte Rossitten" was the world's first institution to start the large scale ringing of birds. E.Schüz and O.Weigold published the first atlas of bird migration as early as 1931. World War II interrupted the ornithological studies on the Courish Spit.

They did not recommence until 1956 when Prof. Lev Belopolsky established at Rybachy the Biological Station of the Zoological Institute. The station was created by a special decision of the Board of the Academy of Sciences with the sole purpose to study the bird migration and to continue the research tradition started by German ornithologists.

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Under the leadership of Prof. Lev Belopolsky who was enthusiastic about trapping and ringing large numbers of birds, Janis Jakšis built in 1957 the first large Rybachy trap. It was made on the same principle as the Heligoland trap, but differs from the latter in having a non-rigid body and by its huge size (entrance up to 30 m, height up to 15 m). The large Rybachy trap resembles a huge fishing trawl fixed on the ground and open to migrating birds. Due to the large size of the trap birds do not perceive it as a source of danger. They enter the trap and in most cases reach its end chamber by themselves, from where then they may be extracted by hand. Up to several thousand birds can be trapped by one standard Rybachy trap a day. Over 2 million individuals of 186 species have been trapped and ringed during the 41 years from 1957 to 1998. On average 50 000 to 100 000 are trapped and ringed by this method annually. Passerines are most commonly caught, e.g. Chaffinch, Siskin, Goldcrest, Willow Warbler, Great Tit, Starling, etc. The most numerous non-passerines are Sparrowhawk, Long-eared Owl, Great Spotted Woodpecker and Cuckoo. Each year the traps are open 24 hours a day from April 1st till November 1st. This allows a unique monitoring of diversity, numbers, timing of migration, as well as sex/age structure, and condition of different birds arriving from northern and north-eastern Europe.

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Apart from migrating birds, local breeders also get into the traps. Many of them are repeatedly trapped throughout the year or in subsequent years, which permit the regular monitoring of local populations. We have so far obtained 7000 long-distance recoveries and 20 000 recaptures from our birds ringed. Mass bird trapping in large traps, taking biometrical data and ringing is still one of working fields of the Biological Station Rybachy. The principal aim is to study various aspects of the avian annual cycle, primarily the migration. Over 85% of the publications by the station's members are based on the trapping data.
Various field and experimental studies in the ecophysiology of migration, avian energetics, avian population ecology were done in 1967-1989 under the supervision of Prof. Victor Dolnik. The following long-term projects were conducted:
1. Avian bioenergetics.
2. Physiology of bird migration.
3. Temporal regulation of migration.
4. Orientation and navigation.
5. Site fidelity and dispersal in birds.
6. Avian demography.
7. Population ecology of the Chaffinch.
8. The Experiment project: comparison of different survey methods of bird migration.
9. The Asia project: strategies of migration in the arid and highland zones of western Central Asia.
10. Computerization of the ornithological data.
11. Trends in passerine populations.
12. Long-term monitoring of the timing of spring migration in passerines.
13. Nocturnal migration in birds.

Some projects are still in progress. The following monographs summarize the most important research results.
Dolnik V.R. 1975. Migratory dispostion in birds. Moscow, Nauka Publishers.
Payevsky V.A. 1985. Demography of birds. Leningrad, Nauka Publishers.
Sokolov L.V. 1991. Philoparty and dispersal in birds. Leningrad.

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The present situation