Sochi, host of this year’s Olympic Games, has served for years as a getaway resort for Russia’s elite, but it’s been an important destination for birds for even longer.
The lowlands where the Olympic Park has been constructed is an Important Bird Area, a stopover site for migratory birds. The mountains where skiing and sliding events will take place are part of the Caucasian Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site once prowled by the endangered Persian leopard.
As many as 400 species of birds have been recorded in the region, including Caucasian Snowcock, Caucasian Grouse, and other endemic species. The grouse is near-threatened. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species includes 11 of the region’s bird species in all. Among them:
Siberian Crane (critically endangered): Only about 3,750 of the all-white cranes still remain in the world. Most breed in northeastern Siberia and winter along the Yangtze River in China. A remnant western population, estimated at no more than 10-20 individuals, winters along the south coast of the Caspian Sea in Iran.
Great Bustard (vulnerable): Huge, heavily built, and (when breeding, as in the video below) mustachioed Great Bustards can be found from Spain in the west to China in the east, but their distribution is highly fragmented and numbers are low. They are found in northern Iran and Turkey during migration as well as in the North Caucasus of Russia.
White-headed Duck (endangered): Gravely threatened by competition with dominant non-native Ruddy Duck, White-headed Duck is declining rapidly. Its global population, thought to be more than 100,000 early in the 20th century, is now around 8,000-13,000.
Red-breasted Goose (endangered): Most of these highly migratory, small geese congregate in winter in Bulgaria, on the Black Sea coast opposite Sochi, but small numbers spend the nonbreeding months in wetlands in Azerbaijan, Russia, and northern Iran and Turkey.
The Great Bustards in this video are displaying:
A version of this article appeared in the February 2014 issue of BirdWatching Magazine. Subscribe.