The final push from Khabarovsk to Vladivostok wasn’t easy. Fatigue sets in at the end of a field season, when you can see the light at the end of the tunnel but you still have a lot of work to do before you can get there. Even though you really want to just be done and sleeping in a real bed (preferably past 6am), you need to keep focus and stay motivated to finish data collection. When we left Khabarovsk, we had only six days before we needed to be in Vladivostok, but nearly 800 km to cover and a lot more birds to catch. Slacking off was not an option.
After our unexpected discovery of Hirundo rustica gutturalis west of Chita, we said a sad fairwell to Yulia and put her on a train (she apparently had to work). Then Georgy, Liz, and I headed south to the border with Mongolia. We hoped to find the southern edge of the tytleri range, hoping that pure gutturalis could be found somewhere north of Mongolia. (Reminder: tytleri are dark with long tail feathers called streamers and gutturalis are small and pale, with short streamers) In fact, we found white birds, dark birds, and even a female who was very pale, with long streamers and a full collar, which was clearly a rustica. (This was DEFINITELY unexpected, based on range maps!) We spent 2 days sampling in this area, and on our way back, we managed to catch 29 swallows. Over half of these were at a site we named “Big Show,” where an old man and about 8 of his children (and/or grandchildren?) followed us around, transfixed on our every move, giggling mysteriously or spouting random words and numbers in English. (See this video)
I had a Plan for this field season. I made it last winter in front of my computer screen in Colorado, and I quite liked it. I used all the information I had available about the global distribution of barn swallows- range maps, museum specimens, word-of-mouth descriptions- and I came up with a way to collect samples from three subspecies and two hybrid zones across the biggest country in the world in a single summer. We would start in Moscow, collect samples from the first subspecies there, then take the train to Yekaterinburg, sample there, train to Novosibirsk, sample there, drive to Krasnoyarsk, sample there, find the first hybrid zone close to Krasnoyarsk, catch lots of birds in it, drive to Lake Baikal, sample the second subspecies there, drive east, find the second hybrid zone near Chita, catch lots of birds there, then get on a train, go to Vladivostok, and sample the third subspecies. I lined up collaborators in all of these places. I made a schedule- we would start May 15 and be done August 30. I was pretty proud of myself.
Well, I’m currently sitting in the back seat of the car, typing on my laptop at our campsite along the highway, approximately halfway between Krasnoyarsk and Irkutsk. We left Georgy’s place 8 days ago, his Toyota Carib packed to the gills with people and their stuff. Georgy is a researcher at the Institute of Systematics and Ecology of Animals in Novosibirsk who studies hybridization between two very cute bird subspecies, the white and masked wagtails (Motocilla alba alba and M. a. personata). Georgy has agreed to drive us something like 3000km, from Novosibirsk, to his place in Kamyshlov, on to Irkutsk (via a contact zone between the European and Siberian barn swallow subspecies), and hopefully to a contact zone between the Siberian and South Asian barn swallow subspecies on the other side of Lake Baikal. He has agreed to do this for free; following his own two month field season; and his wife, Yulia, has agreed to sacrifice her vacation time to come along, as well. Yeah! What amazing generosity!
Sunrise in Karasuk looks suspiciously similar to sunset
5AM in Karasuk was cold, with a beautiful sunrise (made more surreal by the similarly beautiful sunset only 7 hours before). Matt recorded songs while I watched to see if we could catch the 3 pairs of barn swallows nesting at the Karasuk research station. We were both stressed and worried- we had a day and a half to get at least 20 birds, and thus far we had found exactly one promising nest