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Mirages of Kizil-Kum - Following Birds of Passage

THE MIRAGES OF KIZIL-KUM -  FOLLOWING BIRDS OF PASSAGE
by Oleg Kashkarov

“The torrid heat is here. The wind takes away the rest of the moisture. It looks like a sea of quick sand instead of water and innumerable sand dunes instead of waves stretches around. Bare red-yellow sand is everywhere you can observe. Feet sink in it, a caravan is hardly moving ahead…”.
One of the first researchers of Turkistan at the beginning of the twentieth century, professor D.N.Kashkarov, described the Kizil-Kum desert thus. He was struck by vast expanse of the desert, with both its still and moving sands, steppes and takirs where the dust storms and scorching sun reign…  The Kizil-Kum desert is one of the biggest deserts in the world. Everything here is so peculiar, so unique, and so grandiose that sometimes you can observe all four seasons in a day. Living conditions in the desert are certainly difficult and extreme. But nevertheless you can't say that the desert is lifeless. All the animals here have adapted to the air dryness and lack of water. These inhabitants of the desert can be really considered inimitable. They practically don't drink water. The water they do get comes from eating the plants growing in the desert or each other and is quite enough for them. Lizards and snakes, without which you can't imagine any desert, have distinct biological structures to minimize the loss of water through evaporation. Wild hoofed animals, like the saiga (a sheep-like antelope), koulan (an Asiatic wild ass), and gazelles have unbelievable endurance, power and rapidity. They can cover the many kilometers of the desert in very short time and get to the next watering place quickly.
                You can also meet people in the desert, but only where you find wells with fresh water or artesian wells. It seems as though the severe climatic conditions and lack of water has protected the animals and birds living in the desert from the negative influence of human beings. But civilization managed to survive in many places in the Kizil-Kum desert. Trying to discover the most common passages used by birds in the Kizil-Kum desert, the first republican student ornithology expedition entitled, “Following the birds of passage”, was organized in the middle of September, 2007. Under the «Important Bird Areas of Uzbekistan» (IBAs) initiative, with the support of the State Biology Control of State Committee of Natural Resources of the Republic of Uzbekistan, members and tutors of student club “Phasianus” left for a scientific expedition to the Kizil-Kum desert.

                In spring, when the steppe is blossoming, and in autumn, when the desert ceases to be lifeless, the desert is revived by innumerable flocks of passage-birds. Having passed through the central part of the Kizil-Kum under the aerial power lines, we managed to find the places where birds such as the golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos), tawny eagle (Aquila nipalensis), griffon vulture (Gyps fulvus), and houbara bustard (Chlamydotis undulata) have often died. All these birds are entered in The Red Book. They died because of collisions with the aerial power lines. You can see huge nests in poles and big shrubs of saxaul (haloxylon) in the Kizil-Kum desert. From year to year the nest is recreated and sometimes it is up to 2 m in diameter. It is the pride of the golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos), a big dark brown eagle with a wingspan of about 2 m. The golden eagle lives among rocky mounts and in deserts, where there are cliffs, high saxauls, or ruins. Local people use golden eagles for hunting for foxes and wolves.
                Incredibly quickly, running from bush to bush with its stretched neck, helped on its way by its flapping wings, the sand Pander's ground-jay (Podoces panderi) runs. It is no higher than a thrush. It is black with a green tint, like a magpie. On its head it has a noticeable black stripe stretching from a beak to eye. Local people call this bird “hadja-saudagar” that in translation from Kyrgyz means holy merchant. According to one of the legends, a merchant, after whom the bird was named, turned into a ground-jay because of his unhappy love to the daughter of a rich Bukhara merchant. Trying to obtain her love he did something disgraceful and since then “hadja-saudagar” has been hidden from human beings into the sands of Kizil-Kum desert.
                Not every animal is able to survive in the desert. Only those that can move quickly over the sinking sand, burrow there or cope with long, unfavourable periods can survive there. The skills of mimicry are also necessary. Gazelles, gophers, gerbils, foxes, sand cats, larks, and grouses are coloured like the sand. It helps them to be less noticeable. The Kizil-Kum desert is a real kingdom of rodents and reptiles.
                When you are in the desert you can't but notice the innumerable tracks and burrows in the sand. They are the vestiges of rodents, who, like reptiles, are the most numerous “native inhabitants” of the desert. You may see here an agama (a Central Asian turtle), gerbils, and gophers during the day. The rodent that jumps across the desert, looking like a rat with a tassel of long hair at the end of its tail, is a gerbil. At mid-day you can hear its whistle sounding like a marmot's whistle. Having got out of its burrow, the gerbil surveys its surroundings standing on its hind pads. Being hungry it goes to the saxaul, climbs it and gnaws a succulent twig, bringing it back to the burrow.
                When it gets dark, the heat is changed by the coolness of night and the sun burns out under the sand dunes, the Kizil-Kum seems to fall asleep. But nevertheless, such inhabitants of the desert as the sand gecko, the jerboa, the long-eared hedgehog, corsac fox, and the sound cat, which are active by night, leave the safety of their burrows under the cover of darkness. Like a kangaroo, a jerboa is jumps on its hind pads across the desert. The jerboa is easily defined from any other rodents by its very long hind pads and very short forepaws, its big eyes and long protruding ears.
 
                Under the aerial power lines the most numerous migrants of the desert, the lesser short-toed larks (Calandrella rufescens), died. They are the most noticeable and encountered birds in the desert, livening the atmosphere with their singing in the solitude. The lark can be recognized by its short thick beak and yellow-grey desert tint. Larks aren't afraid of people; they often reside near the stands of shepherds and welcome visitors with joyful singing. Being very trustful birds, larks very often become a prey for foxes, hedgehogs, harriers, ravens and other carnivores. Having felt some danger the lark hugs the earth. Protective colouring camouflages it. As we found out from our expedition, birds in the desert need protection. First of all it is necessary to decrease the possibility of birds' dying in the central part of the Kizil-Kum desert where Navoi Hydrometallurgical and Mining Plant is situated. To solve this problem we suggest displacing the poles of power lines by 100  150 m so that the power lines will be more noticeable for traversing birds. To avoid further unnecessary bird deaths protective wire brushes, intended for birds to land in can also help. But so far only a few the wire brushes have been positioned.

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