Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Shulgan Tash - Republic of Bashkortostan

The magnificent landscapes of the Shulgan-Tash Zapovednik, situated in the lolling hills of the southern Ural Mountains, boast exposed cliffs and thickly forested mountains, luscious green slopes and flowering meadows, pristine rivers and mysterious caves. Wildflowers and the sweet blossoms of the linden tree support wild populations of rare Burzyan honeybees. The Bashkirian people have upheld the tradition of wild-beekeeping in these mountain forests for centuries. Another natural treasure, the Kap Cave with its ancient drawings, stretches nearly three kilometers beneath the Earth's surface. Tourists come to the reserve each year to explore the cave and raft down the picturesque Belaya River, which winds along the southern border of the nature reserve.

The Shulgan-Tash Zapovednik provides refuge to wildlife from nearly all the biogeographical zones found in Eurasia and includes representatives of European, Mediterranean, Asian, and western Siberian fauna. Near the boundary of the steppe and forest-steppe biomes, grassy meadows, forests, and steppe ecosystems support this variety of wildlife.

Bears (Ursus arctos) are prevalent in the reserve, particularly in summertime when they feed in broadleaf forests. Badgers (Meles meles) roam these forests, using the cracks and crevices of caves as resting areas and for hibernation. Otters (Lutra lutra) can be seen frolicking in the numerous rivers in the reserve. Among ungulates, moose (Alces alces) often winter in the zapovednik, swimming across the Belaya River in the spring to larch forests to the west. Wild boar (Sus scrofa) is a more recent arrival, having gradually extended its range southward since the 1980s. Among insectivores, hedgehogs (Erinaceus concolor) are common in valleys and low mountains.

Rodents are the most numerous mammals in the reserve. Mountain hare (Lepus timidis) can be seen feeding in grassy meadows on mountain slopes. Red squirrels (Sciurus vulgaris), Russian flying squirrels (Pteromys volans), and Siberian chipmunks (Tamias sibiricus) nest in hollow trunks in oak and linden forests. Common shrews (Sorex aranues) live in forests and more rarely in dry meadows, while common and root voles (Microtus arvalis, M. oeconomus), prefer willow thickets near rivers. The golden dormouse (Eliomys quercinus), and wood and yellow-necked mice (Apodemus sylvaticus, A. flavicollis) inhabit oak forests.

Bats dwell in the hollow cavities of trees in broadleaf forests. Long-eared bats (Plecotus auritus) and northern bats (Vespertilo nillsoni) overwinter in niches of caves. In all there are 57 mammals in the zapovednik.

Of the 198 birds in the reserve, the Northern shoveler (Anas clypeata), tufted pochard (Aythya fuligula), common golden eye (Bucephala clangula), and greater greenshank (Tringa nebularia) are common along rivers in the spring and fall. The Eurasian dipper (Cinclus cinclus), which catches small invertebrates by running along the bottom of rivers, lives here year round. The little bird spends the winter near areas of open water, for example, where the warmer waters of the Shulgan River surge from underground into the Belaya. Common crane (Grus grus), common quail (Coturnix coturnix), and corn crake (Crex crex) nest in meadows in low mountains. The great spotted woodpecker (Dendrocopus major), capercaille (Tetrao urogallus), and woodcock (Scolopax rusticola) prefer broadleaf forests.

Tawny and great gray owl (Strix aluco, S. nebulosa), common buzzard (Buteo buteo), and Eurasian scops-owl (Otus scops) feed on mice and other small rodents found in meadows and broadleaf forests. Osprey (Pandion haliaëtus), peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus), white-tailed eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla), black stork (Ciconia nigra), and short-toed snake-eagle (Circaëtus gallicus) are among the endangered species of birds protected in the zapovednik.

The viviparous lizard (Lacerta vivipara) is ubiquitous in the reserve among reptiles. Amphibians include the moor frog (Rana terrestris) and common toad (Bufo bufo).

Fish are common in the dense network of rivers and streams in the zapovednik. Minnows (Phoxinus spp.) are the most common species, particularly in small streams. Siberian grayling (Thymallus arcticus), eelpout (Lota lota), pike (Esox lucius), and taimen (Hucho taimen) are common in larger rivers, such as the Belaya and Nugush.

Perhaps the most important species protected in the Shulgan-Tash Zapovednik is the wild Burzyan honeybee (Apis mellifera), listed in the Russian and Bashkirian Red Books of endangered species. The Burzyan honeybee differs from domestic bees in two ways: its darker coloring and its ability to survive in extremely cold weather. The bee is prized for its delicious golden honey and high productivity - in the short time that the linden tree blooms in summer, the busy Burzyan can produce enough honey to survive the winter. Wild beekeeping was at its peak in Bashkiria in the 18th century. By the 20th century, agriculture, industry, and logging resulted in the fall of wild beekeeping. The tradition was nearly lost, remaining only in the mountain forest areas of Bashkiria. The purebred Burzyan honeybee almost disappeared from the region altogether. Today, the Shulgan-Tash Zapovednik is the only place in the world where the wild bees are still found. Burzyan honeybees occupy natural cavities in trees but are also attracted to artificial dens carved out by humans. Ranger-beekeepers in the Shulgan-Tash Zapovednik have developed bear-like agility and skill to stabilize the threatened bee population. These rangers, all descendants of keepers of wild bees, employ instruments and skills that have been passed down in their families for centuries: how to select a tree and how to build a hive that would attract bees. With the help of these experienced beekeepers, the zapovednik carefully preserves this valuable genepool of the last bees native to central Russia, and with it the ancient tradition of beekeepers gathering wild honey.

The Shulgan-Tash Zapovednik is located near the boundary of forest and steppe biomes. Light coniferous and broadleaf forests with fragments of mountain steppe and meadows make up the majority of the terrain. The Ural Mountains, marking the border of Europe and Asia, have a high level of biological diversity. Forests and associated ecosystems cover more than 90 percent of the reserve, while rivers and other bodies of water occupy less than one percent. Old growth broadleaf forests interspersed with open clearings of tall grasses and wildflowers dominate the scenery in the zapovednik.

On lower mountain slopes, small-leaved linden (Tilia cordata) and English oak (Quercus robur) grow alongside birch (Betula spp.) and aspen (Populus tremula). European fly honeysuckle (Lonicera xylosteum), mountain ash (Sorbus aucuparia), and ground cherry (Cerasus fruticosa) are found in the understory. Higher slopes are occupied by sparse oak stands with small trees. Norway maple (Acer platanoides), Russian elm (Ulmus laevis), and Scotch elm (U. glabra) are also common here. Siberian spruce (Picea obovata), white alder (Alnus incana), and black poplar (Populus nigra) occur in places. Mountain steppe habitats are rare in the reserve, occupying only the high southern-facing slopes of river valleys and rocky areas. Rocky slopes and cliff faces are covered with lichens, creating a colorful background.

White birch (Betula pendula), weeping birch (B. pubescens), and aspen grow on the lower terraces of rivers and in canyons. Scotch pine (Pinus sylvestris) takes over the terrain in places. Wolfsbane (Aconitum septentrionale) and nettle-leaved bellflower (Campanula trachelium) are common in the understory and forest clearings. Small shade-tolerant species like European pyrola (Pyrola rotundifolia) and chickweed wintergreen (Trientalis europaea) grow close to the ground.

Alder buckthorn (Frangula alnus) is common in places near rivers. Medicinal angelica (Angelica archangelica) grows densely in open areas in the floodplains of streams. Willow (Salix spp.) thickets are found along the banks of the Belaya River, interspersed with grassy meadows.

At the end of June and early July, colorful wildflowers bloom in mountain meadows. The white flowers of oxeye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare) blanket slopes. Willow bell (Campanula persicifolia), yellow bedstraw (Galium verum), and rough-fruited cinquefoil (Potentilla recta) come into bloom. Small-flowered buttercup (Ranunculus parviflorus) with violet patches of pot marjoram (Origanum vulgare), blue speedwells (Veronica spp.), and the small white flowers of the lesser starwort (Stellaria graminea) create a rainbow of colors. The bright red Maltese cross (Lychnis chalcedonica) dots flowering meadows in places.

In all, there are 60 types of plant communities in the zapovednik made up of 789 species of vascular plants. Over 100 plant species are rare or endangered. Lathyrus litvinovii and Knautia tatarica are two species of endemics found in broadleaf forests in the Urals. These species are also relics from the pre-Iceage Pliocene Epoch, along with creeping juniper (Juniperus sabina), coltsfoot (Asarum europaeum), and giant fescue (Festuca gigantea).

The Shulgan-Tash Zapovednik is located in the western spurs of the southern Ural Mountains. The reserve is situated in the Burzyan administrative district, between the Belaya (White) and Nugush rivers. Numerous canyons and ridges, intersected by river valleys, cut through the narrow floodplain of the Belaya River. The highest point in the reserve is 600 meters above sea level.

The Belaya River flows along the southern border of the reserve in two places, while the Nugush River, the Belaya's largest tributary, hugs the reserve to the northwest. Many smaller rivers and streams flow into the Belaya.

The enormous Kap Cave stretches 2.8 kilometers underground. The cave was formed over millions of years by the erosive forces of the Shulgan River combined with karst processes. A grandiose arch-like formation marks the entrance of the cave, stretching 38 meters across and 28 meters high. Here, the Shulgan River surges up from the ground in a furious crystal clear column rising 30 meters from beneath the Earth's surface. The Kap Cave has three different levels, each with a labyrinth of corridors, halls, and galleries. Stalactites and stalagmites have formed over thousands of years in the controlled climate of the cave. The stable climate within has helped to preserve ancient cave drawings under trickles of calcite for nearly 15,000 years. Drawings depicting mammoths, rhinoceroses, early horses, and a number of puzzling symbols were discovered by reserve scientists in 1959, the year after the cave was placed under protection. The works of art are the most ancient cave drawings in Eastern Europe. Today, research is underway to determine the best way to preserve the drawings of the Kap Cave. The cave serves as a place of worship for Bashkirians to this day. Thousands of Bashkirians come to the reserve each summer to venture the cave's depths with a guide. A number of smaller caves are also found within the zapovednik, including one that used to connect to the upper reaches of the Kap Cave.

The average annual temperature in the Shulgan-Tash Zapovednik ranges from 1 to 2.9oC. The coldest month of the year is January, when temperatures average around -16oC. July is the warmest month of the year with average temperatures of 15 to 16oC.

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