Reporting on the final game of the Champions League in May, The Times sports reporter Simon Barnes was leaving Luzhniki Stadium at 3 a.m. when suddenly he heard the "strong and marvelously sweet" song of a thrush nightingale. "This glorious voice sang out," he wrote, "utterly undismayed by Chelsea's defeat or by the jubilation of the Manchester United Supporters." This small brown bird is just one of the 273 species that can be found in the Moscow region, according to research by Lomonosov Moscow State University. Their bird "Atlas" summarizes six years of observational data from over 400 ornithologists. More than a thousand volunteers have helped to count the number of thrush nightingales in surveys organized by the Russian Bird Conservation Union. This effort has cumulated in detailed maps prove that these birds were singing over Moscow during May and June. "I've even heard them on Red Square," says Nicholas Connolly, a 22-year-old Oxford student and amateur birdwatcher who has lived in Moscow for the past year.
You don't necessarily need to travel far to see interesting birds; there are wild goldeneyes nesting in the trees of the Moscow Zoo, and the ruddy shelducks (orange ducks with a white head) that originated in the Zoo have spread out over the city's lakes and rivers. Woodpeckers are almost tame in many of the parks, and their drumming during mating season in March and April is a regular herald of spring, as is the commotion of the grey-headed fieldfares. The striking black and white pied flycatchers, which arrive in April, are also surprisingly common in places like Izmailovsky or Bittsevsky Parks - even in Sparrow Hills if you walk away from the main paths.
Connolly says that it is precisely the dirtier, less sanitized areas of Moscow that produce such a rich and varied population of birds. "The problem is that everything's being tidied up," he says. "Parks are losing their undergrowth," he says, "and when houses are renovated, there is no room for swifts to nest in the eaves." Of course, you can see and hear birds in any green area of Moscow, but some of the best places to go birdwatching are not the most conventionally picturesque: the Mnevniki area, a derelict island in the Moscow river, for instance, accessible by marshrutka from Molodyozhnaya Metro, or the "scrubland between the oil refinery and the sewage works" near Marino. In these areas you can see rosefinches, bluethroats and even bitterns.
For outsiders, there are even greater rewards: white-tailed sea eagles soar over Bisrevo ponds, while it is possible to find the hanging nests of penduline tits. There are several out-of-town trips on a website Connolly has helped translate into English, complete with interactive maps. See www.birdsmoscow.net.ru/english for more info. "The landscape round most of these places is not classically beautiful," he says, and there are "no carparks, hides, cafes or anything like that," but for birdwatchers there is "lots to see."