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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Migrating Cranes to Draw Crowds

The cranes are flying -- and this time they're not just part of a Mikhail Kalatozov film about love and death during World War II.

On Saturday, bird lovers will get their annual chance to observe the largest gathering of cranes in European Russia before the birds migrate south for the winter.

The crane festival, organized by the National Parks Fund, will take participants 175 kilometers northwest of Moscow to the Taldom nature reserve, where every year from August to October as many as 3,000 Eurasian cranes rest with their young, gathering their strength before the long flight to warmer climates in Turkey or North Africa.

The reserve is located in Russia's largest wetlands area, where the pre-Ice Age Volga River once flowed. Taldom has been under watch by conservationists since the 1920s and was officially put under government protection in 1979. A special volunteer organization called The Homeland of the Cranes Project was created three years ago to protect the cranes that make their nests in the area's swamps.

Despite conservationists' efforts, the cranes' numbers have fallen in recent years, according to Tatyana Konovalova, acting director of the cranes project. She said that in the past an average of 1,000 birds would gather in the area at one time; experts have estimated this year's population at only 600.

Konovalova attributes the decline to the practices of local farmers, who she said have been planting more profitable types of grain instead of the types the cranes eat.

But food availability is not the biggest problem facing the birds: Work is scheduled to begin next year on a wetlands drainage system to supply drinking water to Moscow, said Mikhail Kreindin, a specialist with the Russian State Ecology Committee.

Kreindin said draining the swamps, a project of the Moscow region's administration, would pose serious danger not only to the cranes, which would then have nowhere to rest before migrating, but to the wetlands' fragile ecosystem. The wetlands, a major source of oxygen and a natural filter for the groundwater that flows into nearby rivers, is home to many rare plant and animal species.

Kreindin said he hopes preconstruction surveys of the area will expose the projected drainage system as too great a threat to the environment. For now, conservationists have little means of fighting the project other than submitting petitions to local administrators. The Homeland of the Cranes Project, with an annual budget of around $20,000, has received no funding, private or public, this year, according to Konovalova.

But projects like this weekend's festival may draw the attention of environmentally concerned individuals to the plight of the cranes, which have long been a rich source of folklore and object of near-reverence among locals.

The festival, now in its second year, was organized with the help of the Homeland of the Cranes Project, which for the last three years has provided similar excursions for local schoolchildren.

The National Parks Fund is a nongovernmental, nonprofit organization dedicated to raising funds for the protection of nature in Russia. Founded earlier this year through the initiative of the Biodiversity Conservation Center, the Fund is supported by Independent Media, ING Barings and professional fund-raiser Jan van der Lee.

Participation in this weekend's event, which starts at metro station Vladykino at 11:30 a.m. Saturday, costs $25 for members of the European Business Club, $50 for non-members, and $30 for children under 12. To register, contact Suzanna Jensen at the National Parks Fund, tel. 257-3879.

All fees for the excursion go towards covering excursion costs. Though the National Parks Fund pays members of the Homeland of the Cranes Project for the excursions, it does not make direct contributions to the Taldom reserve, since that does not fall within the Fund's areas of protection.