The Volga Delta is the largest inland delta in Europe, and occurs where Europe's largest river system, the Volga River, drains into the Caspian Sea in Russia. The delta drains into the Caspian approximately 60 km downstream from the city of Astrakhan. This south-easternmost corner of Europe combines the largest river and the only sand desert in Europe. The Volga delta is of special interest due to its unique mix of species associated with European, Caucasian and Asian ecosystems. Here, extensive pastures are crisscrossed by broad waterways and fast running streams, which turn into well developed floodplain forests with vast areas of willows, poplars and alders. Despite having been protected since the early twentieth century, much of the local fauna is rare or endangered, with many species logged in Red Data Books of Russian Federation.
The ecosystems of the Astrakhan region are well preserved in the Astrakhansky Zapovednik, one of Russia’s oldest nature reserves. With more than 250 avian species recorded in the reserve, Astrakhansky Zapovednik has earned its reputation as a true sanctuary for birds. Typical birds of this area are: Great Blackheaded Gull, White-tailed Eagle, Caspian Tern, Dalmatian Pelican, Penduline Tit, Night Heron, Cetti’s Warbler, the elegant Demoiselle Crane and Black-winged Pratincole. To the west and east of the delta there are extensive steppes which are the territories for Steppe Eagle and Calandra Lark. Where the local lakes are bordered by reed-fields and forests, colonies of breeding Red-footed Falcons can be seen. In early spring, many waders can also be spotted.
ASTRAKHANSKY STATE NATURE RESERVE
Founded in 1919 to protect the rapidly disappearing delta ecosystems, the Reserve is now famous as a kingdom of birds. Year-round the skies and shoreline forests are filled with white-tailed sea-eagles (Haliaeetus albicilla), one of 27 endangered species of birds found in the Reserve. Other endangered birds of prey include osprey (Pandion haliaetus) and Saker falcon (Falco cherrug). Mute swans (Cygnus olor), once nearly extinct in the region, have made a remarkable comeback in the 20th century, such that now thousands nest in the Volga delta, and hundreds in the Reserve. Dalmatian pelicans (Pelicanus crispus), recognizable by the curl-like tufts of feathers on their heads, can regularly be seen skimming the surface of the water.
The Volga delta offers one of the world’s most important nesting grounds for water birds. Great cormorants (Phalacrocorah carbo) build large, noisy colonies in willow trees along the riverbanks. Colonies of gulls (Chlidonias hybrida, C. niger, C.hirundo) attract carnivorous fish such as Wels catfish (Silurus glanis), which swim to the banks in the hope of making a meal of baby birds that have fallen from their nests. Sharing of nesting sites, an unusual phenomenon in nature, is characteristic in the Reserve, where great white herons and little egrets (Egretta alba, E. garzetta), glossy ibises (Plegadis falcinellus), black-crowned night herons (Nycticorax nycticorax), Eurasian spoonbills (Platalea leucorodia) and pond herons (Ardeola ralloides) frequently build nests in the same colonies.
Summer is a particularly colorful season in the Reserve, where more than 25,000 ducks spend their molting period. Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) are the first to arrive in June, followed by northern pintails (A. acuta), green-winged teals (A. crecca), garganeys (A. querquedula), and gadwalls (A. strepera). Northern shovelers (A. clypeata) and wigeons (A. penelope) complete this annual gathering of ducks which nest deep in the wildest regions of the reserve before heading to the outer reaches of the delta near the close of August.
Away from the water, forest birds are dominant. Great titmice (Parus parus), wood pigeons (Columba palumbus), golden orioles (Oriolus oriolus), and tree sparrows (Passer montanus) nest in willows. Reed buntings (Emberiza schoeniclus), Savi’s warbler (Locustella luscinioides), and bearded tits (Panurus biarmicus) prefer to build their nests in the thick reeds. Meanwhile cuckoos (Cuculus canorus) are spread throughout the reserve, laying their eggs in unguarded nests of warblers (Acrocephalus spp.) and then abandoning them.