Turn of seasons, terns of the sea


Ornithologist: Decades spent at a remote nature reserve have left a scientist more in tune with Arctic birds than with the tourists the Russian government wants to send him.

November 04, 2001|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN STAFF

KANDALAKSHA, Russia - It has been 50 years since Vitaly Vitalyevich Bianki first traveled to the islands of Kandalaksha Bay, and over the intervening decades he has made his mark so strongly on the Arctic bird sanctuary here that it is now impossible to think of it without thinking of him.

He is the man to see if you want to know about the Arctic tern, which flocks here by the thousands in a yearly migration that stretches from the Antarctic to the Arctic. And goldeneyes? There's nowhere else to go but to the island headquarters of the refined and intellectual ornithologist who at 75 still makes them his life's work.

Kandalaksha, in the northwest corner of the White Sea, plays host every year to hundreds of thousands of birds - not only terns and goldeneyes but also eiders, oystercatchers, guillemots, sandpipers, white-tailed sea-eagles, ospreys, peregrine falcons, great cormorants, willow ptarmigans, black grouse and herring gulls.

It is home to some, a summer way station for others. It was the Soviet Union's first nature reserve. And, for the past half-century, it provided a refuge of another sort for a man like Bianki.

For 40 years he worked here out of harm's way while the Soviet experiment flared and collapsed. For 10 years he kept on working while a peculiarly criminal form of free enterprise gripped the rest of the country.

In 1951, when the slender graduate student first rowed himself out to the little island of Devichya Luda, Soviet biology was still in thrall to Trofim Lysenko, a favorite of Josef Stalin whose theories contradicted the generally held scientific belief in heredity.

Stalin still had two more years to live. Russian universities were stuffed with Communist Party theorists and were settings for Communist Party interference in professors' time and studies - and that didn't change until the end of the 1980s.

Academic life, particularly in biology, consisted of a great deal of what the Russians call yerunda - nonsense.

So Bianki, the son of a beloved illustrator of nature books and the grandson of pre-revolutionary Russia's foremost ornithologist and entomologist, took himself far to the north, to a place of quick, cold currents, where hundreds of islands - some in forest, some in tundra - sprout carpets of berries.

In Kandalaksha this old-fashioned St. Petersburg intellectual found hills rolling down to the clean waters of the bay, fish jumping and mosquitoes biting - and he found very few people and no commissars at all.

Having a background like Bianki's could be dangerous in proletarian Russia, especially considering that, as he puts it, he somehow missed out on the Komsomol, or Young Communist League, and never came close to joining the party. Kandalaksha took him in.

Today Bianki is white-haired, still slender, spry, courtly, hospitable but impatient when he senses that time is being wasted. That might come from living in a part of the world where the tide runs strong and can drop nine feet, where procrastinators and slowpokes who visit other islands run a real risk of getting stranded.

Summers, Bianki directs groups of students from his command post at the "white house," a two-story wooden cottage on Ryazhkov Island. The wind blows in off the harbor, scooting up under the pines. The sun circles lazily overhead, never setting at all for a good part of June and July.

"My scientific interests," Bianki is saying, "are satisfied much better here than they could have been anywhere else." Winters, he lives ashore, in town.

He came here originally from Leningrad while working for a biologist named Valentina Kulachkova who was studying parasites of the common eider. His job was to get the eider - with a shotgun.

"That was when the rules here were much less strict," he says.

He continued to come here summers, and in 1955, with his degree in hand, he moved up here for good with his wife. At that time the nature reserve had one boat available - a rowboat. So Bianki began his studies on Devichya Luda, a little sweep of an island, because it was only slightly more than a mile away. But it also happens to have the most diverse population of birds in the White Sea.

Bianki wrote what became a famous monograph on sandpipers, seagulls and black guillemots of Kandalaksha Bay, and eventually he got a motorboat.

Life has always been Spartan here, because governments have come and gone but none has ever devoted many resources to out-of-the-way nature reserves that no one ever sees.

It has been a life of constant scrimping and improvisation, but not loneliness. Year after year, graduate students came up to work with him, and undergraduates, even high school students.

Bianki's task, as he saw it, was to compile long-term data, to watch populations in flux, to try to see what was going on.

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