Birding In a War Zone: How Ukraine’s Top eBirder Pursues His Passion Amid Tragedy
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Nastachenko still birds near his Dnipro home, but he yearns for favorite places that Russia’s invasion made too dangerous to visit. “I live to travel to watch birds,” he says. Photo: Courtesy of Oleksandr Nastachenko
One year ago, Oleksandr Nastachenko traveled to the southern Ukrainian province of Kherson Oblast, with his 14-year-old nephew, Igor, in search of a Rustic Bunting. The migratory passerine is a rare visitor to Ukraine, and one of the relatively few birds in his home country Nastachenko hadn’t yet spotted.
During five-plus hours trekking the marshlands outside the territorial capital of Kherson, uncle and nephew logged 59 species: geese, ducks, and cormorants; three types of woodpeckers; a dozen Bearded Reedlings; and, Nastachenko proudly told me, a Great Black-backed Gull, an uncommon sight in far eastern Europe. But, in a story familiar to any birder, the pair missed out on the one they had journeyed nearly 200 miles to see.
Back in his hometown of Dnipro the following week, on the morning of February 24, Nastachenko woke to the news of airstrikes across his country. Russia’s most recent invasion of Ukraine had begun.
Last summer, a few months after the war began, I started to wonder if Ukraine’s birders were still active. It may seem like an inconsequential thing to consider, given all of the invasion’s horrors, but I thought about how much birding has meant to me since I took it up early in the pandemic. I’ve become a resolute life lister over the past couple of years, especially thanks to eBird, where I’ve spent countless hours scouring maps and lists from global hot spots I’ll likely never visit.
That’s how I first found Nastachenko, who goes by Sasha. On eBird, he has logged more species than anyone else in his country. And not only was he uploading checklists, I was shocked to discover, but he was posting from Dnipropetrovsk Oblast, the province directly adjoining the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, parts of which have been occupied by pro-Russian forces since 2014. Every few days throughout the summer of 2022, I’d sift through his sightings, struggling to imagine the hazards of birding in a combat zone, filling with anxiety when no new checklists would appear for days at a time, fearing the worst when those quiet stretches went on for weeks. But, sooner or later, the lists kept coming.
I eventually reached out to Nastachenko via Facebook, and we developed the sort of friendship that forms between birders living in opposite corners of the world. We traded tales and, of course, plenty of photos: A flock of Bohemian Waxwings circling his home on the northern fringes of Dnipro, Ukraine’s fourth-largest city. A pair of nesting Bald Eagles near my own in New Orleans. A Great Kiskadee begging for crumbs at arm’s length during a holiday I took to Colombia. A spectacular shot of a Spoon-billed Sandpiper he took while volunteering on a 2015 research trip to Chukotka, Russia’s isolated, northeasternmost territory.
Nastachenko remembers, from the age of four, studying his grandfather’s copy of the Red Data Book of the Russian Federation, a Soviet-era compendium of rare and endangered plant and animal species. “It was the birds that enchanted me the most,” he says. He recalls being particularly drawn to painted illustrations of Siberian Cranes and Bustards, Little and Great. At 15, he received a children’s encyclopedia of birds that included a CD containing the vocalizations of 98 eastern European species, which he memorized. There were no professional bird guides, he says, no quality field guides to Ukraine. Entirely self-taught, he learned to identify avifauna simply by chance discovery, matching what he found in the encyclopedia to what he saw and heard around the family’s house, fishing with his father, on walks in local parks.
A Eurasian Scops-Owl in Dnipropetrovsk Oblast, Nastachenko’s home province. Photo: Oleksandr Nastachenko
He soon began scouring local antiquarian markets for books, pamphlets, anything relating to birdlife. The purchase of his first camera, in 2008, pushed him to wander outside his city’s limits. His “decisive and breakthrough year,” as he calls it, came in 2010, with the arrival of the internet to Dnipro. Now, ornithologists could be contacted, blogs scoured, unfamiliar corners of the country researched, expeditions planned. Nastachenko became a life lister, totaling 374 species at present. He is “driven by an imperative, by a necessity to bird,” in the words of his close friend and mentor Paul Bradbeer, a native Londoner who has taught English to Dnipro students since 1995. “I don’t think he could function if he wasn’t birding.”
In January I scheduled a time to talk via Zoom with Bradbeer, who remains in Dnipro with his Ukrainian wife and daughter, and Nastachenko, now 34 years old. The thrill of finally chatting face-to-face after exchanging messages and photos made up for the expectedly awful connection–the electrical and telecommunications grid had been hammered by recent Russian attacks. We greeted each other like long lost birding friends, keen to share news of recent sightings. But within 15 minutes, as they were describing Nastachenko’s yard, where he has tallied 120 species, their video feed faded to black. Once again, I feared the worst. A news alert soon provided the explanation: A long-range missile had struck an apartment complex in central Dnipro, just six miles from his home. While Bradbeer and Nastachenko were unharmed, it ranks among the deadliest attacks on civilians since the war began, with at least 45 killed, including 6 children, and dozens injured.
The disruptions and destruction of war remain inescapable for all Ukrainians, and Russia’s invasion came at an inauspicious time for the nation’s small, informal, but rapidly developing birding network. Nastachenko and Bradbeer estimate that there are just 400 active birders in Ukraine, with fewer than 40 representing their home region of Dnipropetrovsk Oblast. Twitching was on the rise–the appearance of an Iceland Gull sent Nastachenko rushing to Odessa in early January 2022–before the war rendered travel unfeasible. He participated in local Big Day bird counts and led a survey of Eurasian Curlews at an ornithological reserve just south of Mariupol–now occupied territory.
Russia’s invasion came at an inauspicious time for the nation’s small, informal, but rapidly developing birding network.
Now Ukraine’s fledgling birding community lies fractured. An estimated 16 million Ukrainians have been displaced from their homes. Over 20,000 have been killed, including Oleg Snitsar, a prominent Kyiv-area birder and friend of Nastachenko’s. Just before the war, a national public broadcast report followed Snitsar on a forest bird-walk; in the video, available on YouTube, he’s jovial, humble, eager to introduce Ukrainians to birdwatching. Following Russia’s invasion, he joined the volunteer armed forces. His fellow soldiers nicknamed him Vegan, for his love of animals. Snitsar died after his vehicle hit a landmine on the frontlines in November, just days before his 43rd birthday.
At the war’s beginning, sequestered in his home, Nastachenko did not bird for two weeks and two days, a period he describes as “crazy stressful.” He longed to be in nature, he told me, “to see one bird, two birds–anything bird.” He eventually began exploring his yard again. One day, he watched as a Great Tit collecting nesting material suddenly began to dart about erratically, as if “in panic,” he says, before flying off. Three seconds later, an airstrike landed nearby. “This incident is seared into my memory,” he wrote in an email. “I dread to think what stress the war is bringing to Ukraine’s animals.”
Bearded Reedling in Dnipropetrovsk Oblast. Photo: Oleksandr Nastachenko
On March 12, just a day after Russian missiles struck Dnipro for the first time, he ventured, also for the first time since the invasion, to a local woodland park, to see other people, other birds. Though he rarely travels outside his city’s boundaries these days, he has occasionally ranged farther from home, despite the dangers. In October he visited the Petrykivka fishponds, a favorite hotspot outside of Dnipro, where he counted the region’s first Moustached Warbler. Another time, he visited friends north of the city, and fortuitously witnessed a migration of 10 raptor species. Remarkably, he tallied 215 species in Dnipropetrovsk Oblast in 2022, only 10 below his annual average.
Birding, though, has not come without challenges. When questioned by police–optical instruments like binoculars and cameras are also used, of course, as wartime surveillance gear–he flashes his Ukrainian Society for the Protection of Birds membership card. Avian hotspots, like the nearby Dnieprostroi Dam, often double as key military targets and remain off-limits. “Losing access to so many birding sites,” he told me, “is like losing the person who is dearest to me,” he tells me. “I can see that I live to travel to watch birds.” At the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion, he yearns to return to that life: “I am, above all else, a birder.”
I’ve mostly stopped checking Nastachenko’s lists on eBird. Now we message and email every few days. And though I no longer worry about his checklists, I fear for a friend halfway across the world.