Unfortunately, the weather was dicey as we left Khabarovsk, and it stayed that way for the next six days. Unlike the continental climate of Siberia, with its extreme hot and cold swings, the Pacific-influenced Far East is milder and much, much wetter, especially during the summer typhoon season. The good news about that wet weather is that there are TONS of barn swallows. We’d spent the days leading up to Khabarovsk in a virtual barn swallow desert- past Chita, the dry climate, dense forests, and little agriculture meant there weren’t many places for swallows to nest and probably not many insects for them to eat. When we did find them, they were industrial garages and mechanic shops rather than barns. But as soon as we crossed the Zeya river, a bit before reaching Khabarovsk, everything changed: the forest transitioned from birch and pine into broad-leaved Siberian oaks, the sky became gray and misty, bright green agricultural fields stretched out for miles along the highway, and around each of the many, many bridges was a swarm of barn swallows. If the rain would hold off for long enough to catch them, we’d be golden.
And for the most part it did. Half an hour outside of Khabarovsk we found ourselves on familiar territory: a huge dairy farm with dozens of swallow nests. After a week of stumbling around trying to chase birds out of garages with 40-foot-high roofs, it was a relief to be back on a low-ceilinged, small-windowed farm, piles of cow shit and all. We quickly caught 20 birds, finishing up just as the rain began to pour. We got lucky again, finding a café with good pelmeni and a hotel with good beer a short way down the road. One site down, two to go.
Of course, none of those promising-looking buildings panned out the next day, and it was 3 hours and one accidental visit to a horror-movie-ready psychiatric hospital before we found a suitable site. The pig farm was a small, private affair, and the owner and his wife checked our documents before letting us into their barn. Fortunately, the place was stuffed to the gills with barn swallows. Matt set up his parabolic microphone and recorder and went off to record songs, while Georgy and I dodged piglets, chickens, and pig slop to set up nets in the barn. Soon we had 17 birds- all we needed!- and started cranking away on processing. As we measured birds and took blood samples, we noticed a military helicopter flying nearby, apparently doing flight exercises of some sort. “Oh yeah,” I thought to myself. “I think there are lots of military installations around Vladivostok.” In fact, as Russia’s most easterly city, Vladivostok is the home of Russia’s Pacific Fleet and has only been open to foreigners since 1992. I did not know these details as we watched the helicopter from the pig farm.
Now, it’s important to note here that we were not doing anything illegal. We had the necessary permits to catch birds and collect blood, Georgy is employed by a large research institute in Novosibirsk, and we’d been given permission by the owners to work on this farm. Still, Russia’s attitude towards foreigners is cool and inconsistent on the best day, and aggressive, paranoid, and intolerant on the worst. In the months leading up to our visit, a controversial law had been passed branding NGOs engaged in political activity and receiving foreign funding as “foreign agents”- i.e., spies. We weren’t engaged in political activity, of course, but the climate towards foreigners was not particularly welcoming. Plus, the Russian police aren’t exactly known for their scrupulous morals. As one of the officers started copying down our passport information into a big ledger, all I could think was “please don’t take our samples. We’re almost done, please don’t take our samples…”
“What did they say to you?” we asked once they were gone. Georgy was shaking a little bit. “Oh,” he said. “They told me that we were clearly not doing anything illegal. Then they asked if you guys wanted to come to the base and take photos of their helicopter fueling stations. They were joking, but I said we definitely did not want to.” He paused. “That was the commander of the entire military base. I really thought they were going to put us in jail while they sorted all this stuff out.” “I think I need some new pants,” said Matt.
We finished our last birds as quickly as possible and got back on the road. We stopped for lunch, and Matt and I drank beers to calm our still-jittery nerves. Back in the car, it finally dawned on us that we were done, finished, had caught all the birds we needed. 542. We had caught 542 birds over 5,600 miles of the world’s biggest country. We were too tired to get really excited. Now all that lay between us and the Pacific was a last 35 miles of road.