My cousin has a summer house near a small town of Dresna about 2hr drive south east from Moscow. I visited them there for a weekend in early July and took the chance of wildlife watching in Russian countryside. Being away from big cities I expected to see some critters that have long disappeared from Moscow’s parks.
I wasn’t disappointed. On my first night there we all saw a hedgehog in our backyard. It was a very brief encounter – the animal tore across the path and hid in the bushes. But it was good to know that they are there.
The following day I went to check out the local waterway that is something between a pond and a peat bog. I noticed that the algae covering the surface of the pond were cris-crossed with little tracks – something has been swimming back and forth. I came back later in the afternoon and there it was – a Muskrat or Ондатра (Ondatra zibethicus). It turned out to be quite a large animal, almost twice as big as a water rat.
Introduction of Muskrat in Europe
This species is native to North America and it has been artificially introduced in Europe in 1905. It quickly colonized most of Europe’s waterways and is well established now across the continent. In the former Soviet Union, Muskrat was prized for its fur and over 80 000 animals were released into areas of appropriate habitat. The species quickly established a population many times exceeding that of Europe. It has become a common part of Russia’s fauna.
The success of muskrat in Europe and Russia is attributed to its high reproductive rate and to the fact that it managed to fill an empty niche (rather than to the lack of natural predators). The only species that occupy similar habitats are a water rat and a beaver. First one is much smaller and the other one is much bigger and it switches to a different diet in winter.
The animal I was watching was feeding on the surface collecting weed and blades of grass and ferrying them over to its burrow under the bank of the pond. I watched it for at least half an hour. Every time it got disturbed it dove under and swam towards the bank. As usual, most people visiting the pond didn’t know the animal existed.
Birds of the countryside
Birdlife, on the other hand, was surprisingly uninspiring. Apart from usual Moscow birds, there were quite a few European magpie or Сорока (Pica pica) and I spotted a few Marsh Warblers or Болотная камышевка (Acrocephalus palustris) on the property in the late afternoon. Eurasian pygmy owl or Воробьевый сыч (Glaucidium passerinum) could be heard every night, through the birds were quite far away.
One great find was a male Bluethroat or Варакуша(Luscinia svecica). It is probably one of Russia’s best-looking passerines. The peat bogs next door to the village attracted a good number of breeding Black-headed gulls (Chroicocephalus ridibundus), Mew or Common gulls or Сизая чайка (Larus canus) and Common terns (Sterna hirundo).