Remote Area Mixes Rare Birds And Struggling Frontier Towns

ON the morning of July 6 we set out from the town of Amurzet on an expedition to band storks. In the midst of a field of chest-high grass, the top of an old wooden survey tower has been transformed into a stork's nest, where two chicks are being raised. Sergei Smirenski, a Russian naturalist, climbs the tower and hangs precariously near the nest. He hopes to scare the fledglings out and to the ground, where they can be caught and tagged.

Suddenly a stork erupts from the nest, climbing and pushing off the side of the pile of twigs, flapping its black-lined wings. Three more follow, including the two young ones who have already learned to fly. "We're a little too late," says Jim Harris, a member of the International Crane Foundation (ICF), with a smile.

I encounter George Archibald, the founder of the ICF, trudging back, binoculars in hand, from a search for cranes, seemingly oblivious to the mosquitoes circling his bare knees. A bird sings from the grass. "If I had to guess, I'd say that was a black-browed reed warbler," he offers enthusiastically.

"Birders are crazy people," the National Audubon Society's Pat Waak observes as we bounce back down a dirt road. "They'll go for hours to see one bird, stay a half-hour, and then leave."

Our ship, the three-deck riverboat V. Poyarkov, pulls out at 1 o'clock in the afternoon, and by 3 o'clock we have exited the low flood plains and enter the Khingan Gorge, a 170-kilometer (105-mile) passage where mountains meet the river in a breathtaking series of tree-covered ridges. The current quickens, forming a foaming wave against a buoy marking the river channel.

The afternoon conference session focuses on how to find a balance between development and nature conservation in the Amur River Basin. It concludes with Mr. Smirenski's impassioned argument against a joint Chinese-Russian hydroelectric proposal to build 12 dams on the Amur and its tributaries, the first of them right in this gorge.

I walk out to watch the sun set over the river as the boat chugs slowly along, alone in the pristine wilderness. Two large brown falcons wheel and chase each other along a rocky shore. It is a rare convergence - to emerge from a lecture to see the very object of Sergei Smirenski's eloquently expressed love. July 7: town life

I get up at dawn to watch birds, only to find that the terrain has disappointingly returned to flat lands, broken by a few hills.

We arrive in the afternoon at the posyolok, or village, of Innokentievka, where our able captain angles the boat into the shore and drops a plank to the rocky beach. The village is one of the oldest in the Amur River region - in June it celebrated the 135th anniversary of its founding - and is named after Bishop Innokenti, an Orthodox priest.

The settlement consists of the inhabitants of the Primorski Border Guard Collective Farm, about 1,000 people. It boasts a dairy, a bakery, and a store that stands up the dirt road from our makeshift dock. The one-room establishment offers a variety of goods, from toothpaste, shampoo, and clothing to aluminum pots, paint, screwdrivers, and nails.

Half of our group heads off to the Khinganski Nature Reserve by bus and helicopter. I wander, accompanying many of our Chinese delegates as they scour the local store for bargains and then on to next door, a one-story building that houses the local soviet, or council.

There, in an office with her assistant, I encounter Natalia Green. She is a no-nonsense Ukrainian who moved up from a job taking care of the animals on the farm to deputy head and, finally, to chairman of the local government.

The village basically takes care of itself, she explains. They have problems with supplies, she acknowledges, but the harvest will be good this year. How do all the changes in Moscow affect life so far away, I ask?

"The result of those changes is that you are here," Ms. Green snaps back with a hint of a smile. "There is a wave from Moscow that eventually reaches here."

She exhibits an old-style caution when asked about Russian President Boris Yeltsin. "Neither good nor bad," Green says. "We don't know him personally. After he finishes with his reform, we will be able to say. We voted for him, so we trust him."

A mural celebrating the achievements of the Communist Party fills the building's anteroom. I tell her I like the modernistic portrait of Lenin. "Not for sale," Natalia says wryly.

A group of children run through the dust to catch up to me as I explore the village roads. "Uncle, uncle," they call to me, "where are you from?" America, I answer. "It is nice there?" Like here. "Do you have anything for us?" they inquire. I disappoint them, because I have no chewing gum, but they quickly exhaust my supply of pens and notebooks. July 8: cranes

The next morning, we board a helicopter that is sitting on the beach to see the wetlands and hills of the Khinganski Nature Reserve from the air. I sit at a window behind Sergei Smirenski, who organized the reserve in the early 1960s as part of the Soviet Union's unique system of zapovedniki, wilderness areas open only to researchers.

We rise and move quickly out of the village onto the open plains. Soon we are above vast wetlands, low swamps of tall grasses, broken here and there by stands of silver birch trees.

Sergei gestures out the window: "roe deer." The large brown bucks are leaping across the swamp, leaving trails of flattened grass behind them. We follow the course of a winding stream. Sergei points again: A large white-napped crane, only about 5,000 of which are left in the world, moves like a giraffe on the run, a stately sprint in response to our helicopter as we swing back for another look. A smile crosses Sergei's usually serious face. He gives me a thumbs up.

Next, we hover over a stork nest. The parents and three fledglings are lying in a massive crown of twigs atop the broken trunk of a birch tree. We see two other nests, one guarded by a standing stork, its feathers blown by the chopper's wash.

We land and head to the edge of a quiet lake that marks the boundary of the zapovednik. Two rowboats take us to the crane station, a charming two-story wooden cabin where the staff and rangers run a crane-breeding program aimed at introducing cranes into areas closer to humans.

A red-crowned crane, or as it is more widely known, Japanese crane, its long neck extended, issues his throaty cry to greet us. This elegant bird is the symbol of Japan, celebrated in countless paintings and poems. But it is now the second-rarest crane in the world, after the North American whooping crane, with only an estimated 1,500 in existence.

Russian ornithologist Sergei Vinter, a longtime collaborator of Smirenski's, scrambles down a slope to catch crickets in the grass, turning to feed them to a stubby-winged red-crown chick, which is covered in the light brown feathers of youth and standing expectantly nearby. In the reeds beyond, two more red-crowns are nesting. For a few minutes, the cranes do their unique dance, spinning about each other, dipping up and down, their huge black-edged white wings extended and flapping slowly like fans. July 9: Poyarkovo

During the night, the captain's fears of a dropping water level are realized as we strike a sandbar, causing him to turn back short of our final destination of Korfovo. We dock at the shore of Poyarkovo, a town where coal barges come to load up from a mine inland. Many barges are anchored offshore, some filled and awaiting a tug. Russian traffic is heavy here, a sign of the approach of the river city of Blagoveshchensk some 150 kilometers (95 miles) away.

While the scientists settle in to finish their work, I head into town, a bustling home to 15,000 people. Chinese workmen are here, building a brick factory on contract. A "commercial shop," as the new de facto private stores are called, offers Chinese consumer goods, clothes, and sneakers among its stock.

Next door, two white-smocked ladies stand guard over the bare counters of a state-run grocery store. A few jars of fruit juice, pickled tomatoes, canned fish, and macaroni sit on the shelves. Shopkeeper Tatyana Mazurova rails against Yeltsin. "He spoke beautifully about what he would bring, but look at our life," she says. "We don't trust him."

Ms. Mazurova grumbles as well about the Chinese visitors who started coming across last year, along with North Korean contract laborers. "Life would be good if those dirty Chinese and Koreans weren't here buying up everything in our stores," she snarls.

Out in front of the town's univermag, or department store, a couple of Armenian traders sit at a stand selling Turkish tea, Russian cigarettes, and sports clothes emblazoned with pictures of Mickey Mouse. The Armenians, as their Azeri neighbors, wander from town to town for months before returning home, not unlike the peddlers of 19th-century America. "Life is bad here," Sergei Grigorian reports. "Everything is expensive and there is nothing to buy."

Down Sovietskaya Street, the main road, local youths try their hand at business, selling drinks from a stand and consumer goods from a small kiosk outside a sausage store. Around the corner is the town bookstore, its shelves largely filled with dusty communist tomes. A shelf marked "Marxism-Leninism" offers pamphlets by Lenin, Marx, and Engles; another provides books on "Atheism and Religion."

That evening, we gather for a final banquet aboard ship, followed by our concluding session. Russians, Chinese, Americans, Japanese, and a lone South Korean line up to sign the final documents and declarations, including a call to protect the Amur River Basin's precious wildlife habitat.

The setting sun turns the sky red over the horizon. The river's glistening surface breaks apart in patterns rough and smooth. As swallows twist and turn over the water pursuing an evening meal of flying insects, the hills dissolve into gentle purple shapes.

Last of a two-part series. Part 1 appeared Aug. 24.

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