RUSSIAN FAR EAST, TRIP REPORT, JUNE-JULY 2019

WEDNESDAY 19 JUNE 

Touched down in Vladivostok after a 7½ flight from Moscow passing through 7 time zones, the temperature at 17° on an overcast, humid-looking morning. Met Adrian, Regine and our young driver Vladimir and made our way to the minibus. Spassk-Dalniy was 3 hours away to the north. After a couple of hours we made our first stop, somewhere at the side of the M60 dual carriageway, to stretch our legs and inspect the lush roadside vegetation. A Reverdin’s Blue (Plebejus argyrognomon), Marbled Fritillary (Brenthis daphne) and High Brown Fritillary (Argynnis adippe) variants and an ‘Emperor’ trying repeatedly to get itself killed on the road kept us occupied for a while.

Nearer to Spassk we stopped again to explore a wayleave in hot late afternoon sun, pestered by lots of little flies. Dark Green Fritillary (Argynnis aglaja) was common here, plus Black-veined White (Aporia crataegi), Large Chequered Skipper (Heteropterus morpheus), a brown and yellow Neptis thisbe and the same species of kamikaze Emperor (Athymodes nycteis). Around 6pm we arrived at our hotel, the Lotus, on the edge of the town square with its silver statue of Lenin. Check-in was a bit bureaucratic but as soon as that was done we met downstairs for a well-earned beer. At 7.30 we reassembled for dinner walking across the square in search of a restaurant and duly found one, the MACU, which had a good menu and efficient staff. 

THURSDAY 20 JUNE

Set off at 9.15 on a sunny but largely overcast morning, Vlad making a quick supermarket stop for lunch items. We headed south-east over the railway towards the row of distant hills. Having driven up a long gravel forest road we arrived at a working quarry where Vlad was advised by a guy in camouflage gear to try back down the forest road at a right junction. This was muddy from logging vehicles but as soon as we stopped a hairstreak Atara arata was spotted on the ground. Those little flies were about again, a real nuisance. Woodland Brown (Lopinga achine) were here, pleasing to see them more fully and in better condition than in Poland last year.

We decided to go back in the afternoon to a meadow we’d seen just before reaching the quarry and picked up an Ypthima, Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui), some Fritillaries, Large Copper (Lycaena dispar), Mazarine Blue (Cyaniris semiargus) and a skipper. By now I was feeling pretty ‘spent’ and as the cloud thickened we headed back eventually in rain and a thunderstorm reaching the hotel at 4.45, rain cascading from the faulty gutters. Beers and chat, then up to the room, met in lobby at 7.30 for dinner at MACU again, splashing our way across the square, enjoyed another dish. Back to the hotel 9.40 and to bed.

FRIDAY 21 JUNE

Up at 7 on a grey, cool morning, wandering out pre-breakfast to take some city shots. Avoided contact with a down and out who crossed the road towards me shouting loudly when I ignored what he was saying (didn’t understand it anyway!).  Away again at 9.15 via the supermarket going further south-east to the village of Merkushevka in steady rain. We stopped where a wayleave cut a broad swathe through the woodland. The ground here was very wet and muddy with little doing though we steadily found a Wood White (Leptidea sinapis), Large Chequered Skipper (Heteropterus morpheus) and Marbled Fritillary (Brenthis daphne).

 

After lunch we pushed on a bit further down the rough road stopping in a dip where a small stream ran under the road. This turvery ned out to be a good spot with Knapweed Fritillary (Melitaea phoebe), Woodland Brown (Lopinga achine), Parnassius stubbendorfi, Black-veined White (Aporia crataegi), a lovely Plebejus species, several Limenitis species and frogs in every puddle. Rain came again causing us to head back to town but as we neared Spassk the sun came out and Adrian was keen to make the most of it by trying out an unmetalled lane.

SATURDAY 22 JUNE

Overcast when I got up at 7.15. In the shower I discovered a tick on my back, like a small burr, which must have latched on yesterday, so I scratched and scraped it off as best I could making a bit of a mess, and in the process located a second, much smaller, invader and dealt with that too. We returned to yesterday’s stream but were unwelcome – barking dogs, loud ‘music’ and youths clearly preparing for some kind of social gathering right where we wanted to be. So after a while we left and stopped again at the wayleave.

The strange Neptis raddei was a bonus before returning to the now quiet stream site again adding Poplar Admiral (Limenitis populi) and other Limenitis and Neptis species on the road. The local variant of our Western Comma, the beautifully blue-spotted Polygonia c-aureum was the icing on the cake for me.

Dined again at the MACU and four of us shared a bottle of Serbian red, not bad either. Loud disco music greeted our stroll back to the hotel where a party was in full swing and loud thudding music blared from the square, but fireworks at 10 brought the event to a close.

SUNDAY 23 JUNE

Packed pre-breakfast, departing today for the 320km transit east to Dalnegorsk getting underway at 9.30, initially overcast but the sun soon broke through. After about an hour on a gravel road through lovely lush and dense woodland Adrian asked Vlad to stop as he liked the look of a clearing we’d just passed. A car had also stopped and the driver was chatting to Vlad to find out what our strange bunch were doing and he turned out to be the local Forest Warden who invited us to visit his nearby apiary and ‘butterfly meadow’. So, we followed his car along a muddy track through the woods to the clearing where his bee hives and wooden house were located. He showed us bear pug marks in the mud and pointed out the trip wire and mortars to scare them away. An idyllic spot. As we were preparing to get on our way the Warden produced a pot of tea, some biscuits and a container of white honey, so of course we had to stay a while longer. On my travels I often find this kind of hospitality from people who, relatively, have very little.

A couple of hours later we stopped for lunch at a roadside diner and after a further leg stretch somewhere arrived at our hotel in Dalnegorsk on Prospekt 50 at 5.45pm. Of the 320km journey the vast bulk of it had been made through rolling countryside, hilly ranges cloaked in dense deciduous woodland, the valleys and plains largely untouched by agriculture. The room was fine overlooking the main road. We made our rendezvous at 7 and went out in the vehicle looking for dinner, Vlad taking a couple of suggestions from the receptionist. A café/takeaway sufficed and was ok. Back at the hotel I struggled to get wifi on the laptop but for some reason my phone could pick it up. 

MONDAY 24 JUNE

Up at 6 to annotate my pics on a sunny morning with clouds. Vladimir took us to a location known as the Tayga Forest, previously visited in 2017 by Adrian, Nigel and Tony, to the west of the town. This was very promising! Species were not numerous though and density was low. Vladimir used his newly acquired burner to prepare lunch of frankfurter sausages, boiled eggs and coffee, good lad! Enjoyed the afternoon puzzling over the Euphydryas species. Returned to the hotel c 6.20, met in reception at 7.30 and waited for Vlad to get back from the supermarket before going back to last night’s venue. A good evening.

TUESDAY 25 JUNE

Two fried eggs on bread and cherry drizzle on a bleeney, plus coffee = a good breakfast! Off c 8.50 to Rudnaya Pristan on the coast on a warm and sunny day where we took the road across the estuary onto the south side duly making stop #1. Nice to smell the sea and take in the (hazy) view over the Sea of Japan. We continued around the headland making stop #2 in front of a row of cottages. Parnassius stubbendorfi was here, and a pristine Scarce Heath (Coenonympha hero) but otherwise it was rather quiet. We duly returned inland making a stop a short distance beyond the roped-off track of yesterday just in advance of where the road had collapsed into the river. We walked up through the woods seeing very little, a Plebejus and a small unidentified fritillary.

On the eastern outskirts of Dalnegorsk we took a right turn at the power station into the hills to revisit a 2017 site up a wide gravel forest road, stopping at a river crossing where a Poplar Admiral (Limenitis populi) basked on the bridge.

Tony kindly offered to buy us all dinner tonight and we had a fun evening in a café next to a pole dancing school in the town centre.

WEDNESDAY 26 JUNE

A very hot and sunny day. Back up to Tayga where butterfly volumes were much higher. We stopped on the way up through the woods attracted by a number of mint-condition  Poplar Admirals (Limenitis populi) – absolutely superb! In addition we had other Limenitis, Neptis, and a new species, Aporia hippia. The vegetation here contains actinidia and philadelphus familiar to us as garden plants. At the main site we parked as for Monday and found activity much increased, Black-veined Whites (Aporia crataegi) and Asian Fritillaries (Euphydryas intermedia) in big numbers, a solitary Scarce Fritillary (Euphydryas maturna) amongst the others. After lunch we went up to the main forest track, turned right and soon stopped, picking up Chequered Blue (Scolitantides orion), Pearl-bordered Fritillary (Boloria euphrosyne), amongst others but by now activity was beginning to slow in the late afternoon.

On the way back we pulled in again at the morning's Admiral spot which was still busy, even attracting a very tatty Camberwell Beauty (Nymphalis antiopa) not to mention a load of those pesky small flies. Dinner tonight was next door at the adjoining venue, a disco/ballroom venue showing pop videos. Nigel’s generous tip brought a surprised smile to the waitress' face! As we left the venue it was evident that the forecast cold front had arrived bringing a change to the weather and a sudden chilliness.

THURSDAY 27 JUNE

Up at 7.30, grey under misty hilltops, but dry. At 9am Vladimir went across to the Police Station to deal with our registration for the next destination at Anisimovka. Regine then assisted Vlad with the grocery shop, adding the benefit of a female hand. It would be back to Tayga today where, at 640m, it was cool and grey such that I donned my light Berghaus fleece. Butterflies had ‘gone’ and I saw only 3 individuals in the hours before lunch. Adrian and Regine had found a new meadow so we all trooped there after lunch but although it was lovely habitat butterflies were scarce – a Parnassius stubbendorfi, Heteropterus morpheus and a Melitaea phoebe. This had been an absorbing day despite the absence of butterfly activity. A tick bit my stomach and I quickly pulled it away, Regine reassuring me that borelia wasn’t a problem here.

Got back to the hotel at 5.15 meeting at 7 for dinner which would be back at Tuesday’s restaurant. Tonight we had loud disco music accompaniment and one of a merry group of middle-aged, 'jolly' women came to check us out. We were invited to join them on the dance floor and mercifully Adrian and Regine ‘took one for the team’. Back at the hotel, early around 9pm, I bought three samples of calcite for my daughters.

FRIDAY 28 JUNE

A long transit south to Anisimovka was in store for us today. The journey started at 9am on a cloudy but brighter day during which we’d stop a couple of times to stretch legs and at a couple of cafés for lunch and dinner eventually reaching our ski resort at 9.45pm having maybe stopped for a total of 3 hours. The last 6km was taken slowly in the dark up a very bumpy road. Vadim, Alexander, his wife Ira and daughter (whose name I never did get) welcomed us on arrival and showed us to our rooms. My initial impression was a good one. The small room had a velux and two ¾-sized beds, a shower and loo but no wash basin – that was on the ground floor, youth hostel-like. I emptied my case onto one of the beds and around 11pm went to bed.

SATURDAY 29 JUNE

Slept until almost 8am recovering from yesterday’s long haul. Breakfast was set for 8.30 and a bowl of porridge was a pleasing surprise! As expected, the hilltops were covered in low cloud and a steady light drizzle was falling. Popped out to inspect the remnants of Vadim’s moth trap and took some photos mainly of Japanese Moon Moths (Actias artemis) but soon went back indoors and spent the rest of the morning id’ing my earlier photos making use of Nigel’s source material. Around noon things seemed to be brightening up but it was still only about 12° so I put on my jacket and went onto the ski slope. Dark Green Fritillaries (Argynnis aglaja) were surprisingly active, and common, and Adrian showed us Lopinga deidama resting close to the ground.

Lunch was borscht, in these parts = vegetable soup rather than beetroot, plus a pasta salad followed by pancakes with honey. We went out again and encountered snakes galore, particularly the non-venomous Amur Rat Snake, a constrictor reaching at least 6 feet in length. Activity was still very slow but a lovely male and female ‘Spotted Fritillary’ both recently emerged and a pair of Dark Green Fritillaries occupied most of my attention.  Later, at 6.15, we said our farewells to Vladimir who was now heading to a Vladivostok hotel ahead of his return flight to Moscow in the morning and the rest of the evening was enjoyable. The lights went out unexpectedly at 9.10 so we all retired up to our rooms although the generator kicked in about 10 minutes later.

SUNDAY 30 JUNE

Heavy rain fell through the night, pattering on my velux, and though it eased around 6am it was still raining steadily when I got up at 7.30. This was disappointing since it seemed the sky was clearing yesterday evening. No porridge at breakfast – what a fuss I made jokily with Ira! Unfortunately, the rain continued all day, but at least it gave more opportunities to sort id’s and sort out the world’s problems between us. To my room 9.15, and in bed soon afterwards.

MONDAY 1 JULY

Woke at 6, snoozed for an hour, low cloud and misty drizzle outside, went down to the communal washbasins for a shave, Alex arrived at 8 to fire up the generator, Ira announced ‘no porridge’ again, chatted with the others about music likes etc until 9.45 when Olga, Vadim’s wife, arrived. In the misty drizzle we nevertheless set off at 10.30 down the bumpy track, through bits of the village, and onto the main road eastwards running parallel to the railway. After about 30 minutes we turned off and parked near a railway bridge somewhere between Anisimovka and the next town, Novonezhino. The meadows here were lush and soaking wet but at least the drizzle had stopped. Butterflies were scarce but slowly included Colias poliographa, Leptidea amurensis and Boloria daphne but the pick of the day was the hairstreak that Regine alerted me to - but which flew before I could raise my camera! Tony called me over for Papilio xuthus and a Neptis both down on or near the track. We had a light lunch at the back of the van and a short spell of sun raised spirits.

In light drizzle, again, we reluctantly called it a day and returned to the village stopping at one of the shack-shops for an ice cream, an orange-flavoured Magnum, new to me, and calling in at another for beers. Low cloud embraced us as we reached the lodge, boots and socks soaking wet. I accompanied Alex and Ira with the groups’ boots to dry them out on the pipes at their cottage nearby.

TUESDAY 2 JULY

Woken at 5am by the sound of heavy rain on the roof and velux. Dozed off finally waking again at 8. Still raining, though now reduced to drizzle. Ira proudly presented Adrian and I with porridge for breakfast and we all had a good laugh about it. Two fried eggs – introduced with a sizzling ‘ssssssssss’ sound by Ira – were a good accompaniment. Olga duly arrived to drive us but as the rain continued to fall we set 11am as decision time as to whether we'd venture out, but by then it was only fair to let her depart. I put my photos into alphabetic order by species onto a memory stick, being something useful for later. When I went to my room at 9pm it was encouraging to note that the rain had stopped.

WEDNESDAY 3 JULY

A starry night sky augured well for the day ahead and when day dawned the sky was blue with a few clouds. At 6.30 I ventured out up the ski slope, boots soon wet from the grass. Dark Green Fritillaries (Argynnis aglaja) were incredibly already on the wing at 7.15 and snake activity was fascinating, several already coiled in exposed spots to catch the early sun. Olga arrived at 8.50 and just after 9 we departed for ‘the montela site’ further east than yesterday and through the town of Novonezhino. But by the time we got there the sun had gone and a brief spell of drizzle had arrived. The site was a steep hillside that came down to the twin-track railway that carried 80-truck coal trains to and from the coast, hardly a great place to wander about for butterflies. Adrian suggested that we should go somewhere else at 11am as our target species, the exquisite Sericinus montela, hadn’t been seen. But he had a photo of a caterpillar and I asked him if he’d show me where it was. So, we delayed our departure, returned to the tracks, Adrian already ahead of Tony and I when I spotted a large white butterfly, mistaking it for a male montela – it was actually a very beaten up Parnassius nomion. Soon after I spotted another resting in the gully and this time it WAS a male Sericinus montela – great excitement scrambling down the slope through head-high vegetation, never mind the snakes, good photos, yeh! Then the sun came out along with more montela, the morning now salvaged. Everybody satisfied, we returned to the other railway bridge closer to Anisimovka for lunch. Activity was slow but a real treat was a pristine Freyer’s Purple Emperor (Apatura metis) which allowed us to take copious photos, but only individually.

Another visit to the ice cream shop on the way back, becoming a bit of an addiction, in the pleasant evening sunshine was in order and Olga dropped us off at 5.30. Washed a shirt and hung it up to dry in the shower. Split a bottle of red four ways at dinner to celebrate a good day.

THURSDAY 4 JULY

A heavy downpour woke me at 5am, followed by steady rain. By the time I got up at 7.15 it had stopped with a bit of sun pushing through so after breakfast we set off for the Anisimovka railway bridge again. We were met by almost constant and distant thunder getting steadily closer. Some 40 minutes after arriving we were heading back in the rain, arriving at the centre at 11.20 to be met by a flash, a bang and a downpour just as we exited the vehicle. Another day indoors was in prospect.

A shaft of sunlight broke through at 4pm so I ventured out up the slope where the Dark Green Fritillaries (Argynnis aglaja) were busy nectaring on bugle, but no other species were seen. Half an hour later the rain resumed. You just have to accept that there are some things that can’t be controlled, and rain is one of them.

FRIDAY 5 JULY

Another sparkly night sky seen through the velux. Up at 7, shaved, using my laptop screen as a mirror. An overcast but dry day. We’d explore a new venue today, the rough track up from Luk’yanovka fairly nearby. A couple of rivers had to be forded in the vehicle on the way up past a chicken farm shortly after which Olga parked up. We made our various ways up the muddy track until reaching the clearing and large hostel at the end. A version of Brimstone (Gonepteryx aspasia) made an interesting addition to the ‘collection’ on the way back. Ate a light lunch back at the car. In the first sun of the day I strolled down to the chicken farm and picked up a beautifully mint Peacock (Aglais io) and then spotted a Black Hairstreak (Satyrium pruni) in the hedge.

As the sun had disappeared we decided to return to ‘the montela site’ as any flight movements would be more subdued, but when we arrived the sun was shining! Nevertheless, I managed to get the shot I’d been hoping for, a stunning female Sericinus montela, albeit photographed on the ballast between the two railway tracks! The long rumbling freight trains were running quite frequently, announcing their presence with long distant blasts of the horn. On one occasion we received a sustained blast from a driver who was clearly very pissed off with our close proximity to his train, and to be fair, we shouldn’t have been there. Adrian and I tracked another female in flight and watched her laying eggs at ground level on the track-side aristolochia foodplant. Called in at the Anisimovka railway bridge on the way back but by now the day was over, and we left at 5.15 calling in for yet another ice cream and reaching the accommodation at 7pm with no time for a shower before dinner set for 7.15.

SATURDAY 6 JULY

Our last full day in the field. Up just gone 6 to play with photos etc. At 7 it was still overcast but dry. Visited the slope for about 10 minutes in dewy grass, nice to see sunshine at the top. The generator was playing up again keeping Alex busy. We returned to the Anisimovka railway bridge which was quiet in the overcast conditions, rendezvousing for lunch. A return to the Luk’yanovka track also turned out to be quiet. Mosquitos were irritatingly active though!  A final Magnum was deserved on the way back, arriving at the centre around 4.30. I spent some more time on the slope looking for a better shot of the ‘blue’ Glaucopsyche lycormas but to no avail. Called it a day at 5.30, went in for a shower, and started packing. After dinner returned to the room at 9pm.

SUNDAY 7 JULY

Slept fitfully, waking at 6 to a clear blue sky, though it didn’t last long. Case down to the vehicle for 6.45, breakfast at 7, off 7.20 for Vladivostok airport with Olga driving and Vadim in the front passenger seat. The journey was undertaken in mist, low cloud and overcast weather. We reached the airport just before 9, said our goodbyes to Olga and Vadim, and were quickly airside. I found 3 postcards for the grandkids and my sister but sadly there were no stamps! We had coffee in the Bistro in the quiet terminal.

The Boeing 777-300 was full with around 450 passengers on board for the 8-hour flight covering 4,000 miles back to Moscow. The central area between rows 4 and 8 contained no seats but had been turned into a meeting area, a really good innovation. We landed early despite making four doughnuts and it was 15° and raining as we touched down to Ryanair-style clapping. Passport Control was a new experience as it seemed our queue had been selected for random visa checks: this involved at least three examinations of my visa with an eye glass and a similar number of scans of my passport. No eye contact, questions, or information, and certainly best not to ask. The security scan was fine though. Said our farewells to Regine and after walking what seemed like several miles through shops parked ourselves in the Irish Bar where Adrian and I enjoyed a drink and a  burger. We had plenty of time, 2 hours at least, before our gate opened for the Aeroflot flight to Heathrow, and home.

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The trip had been a real experience culturally and it was pleasing to see so much natural habitat still in existence. We could do nothing about the rain other than make the most of our downtime. My lasting memory will be the fascinating acquaintances with the close cousins of some of our more familiar European species, and to find Poplar Admirals in such number, in mint condition and photographically compliant!