What is so interesting about the Baikal population of the Imperial Eagle? Over the enormous range of this species, stretching from the Balkans to the upper reaches of the river Amur, this is the easternmost and best studied. In Western Pribaikalye (Irkutsk Oblast) the ornithologist Vitalii Sonin (my scientific supervisor) carried out observations of the Imperial Eagle from the early 1960s. I discovered my first eagle’s nest in 1978, when I was studying at Irkutsk University.

Eagles are very special birds. They don’t only rivet one’s attention, but sometimes, as it were, they ‘capture’ the ornithologist himself. For something like 36 years the Imperial Eagle has meant much more to me that simply the main object of my research. I still take joy in first successful flight each eaglet, and the death of an adult or fledgling or the destruction of a nest causes keen distress. For me, the eagles are the ‘salt’ of the Siberian natural world. They are the living embodiment of the most interesting, valuable and enigmatic in the ‘wilderness’ that surrounds us.

The Baikal eagles are separated from their nearest relatives that breed in the Minusinsk Hollow, in Krasnoyarsk Krai, by 600 kilometres of taiga and the spurs of the Sayan Mountains. Our population inhabits the area around Lake Baikal, in Irkutsk Oblast (the western shore), and the Republic of Buryatia (largely in the east). It would seem that the wide Mongolian and Zabaikalian forest-steppe would be no less attractive to the eagles than those of Pribaikalye. However, only a few pairs breed in the forest-steppe of the valley of the river Onon (Zaibaikalye) and in the Mongolian part of the Selenga basin.

Photo 1. The range of the Baikal Imperial Eagle population.

     In the 1980s, my main observations of birds of prey were carried out in the forest steppe around the river Angara (the Priangarskii forest steppe) and at Baikal. The Tangutskii permanent observation point, with an area of some 60 square kilometres, is in the first of these areas.

Photo 1. Examining an eagle’s nest, 1997.

      The Imperial Eagle inhabits areas where steppe and meadows inhabited by sousliks alternate with sections of forest. The souslik can’t live in areas of arable land. The characteristic alternating landscape of the Baikal region was conducive to the preservation of eagle habitat.

                In spring, in the second half of March, migrating Imperial Eagles appear at the southern border of the region; at the beginning of April, it is already possible to make sightings of the bird at breeding sites.

         Over the period 1978-1983, I travelled a considerable amount of the steppe in Irkutsk region and conducted surveys at observation areas (permanent sites for observation). We found that there were 36 inhabited eagle nests and 20 uninhabited nests. On the basis of this data, I received an overall assessment for the western part of the Baikal region: 150-200 pairs (Ryabtsev, 1984). The large range of figures are the result of the fact that not every area of the steppe was surveyed.

Photo 1. Priangarye, Jule 1981.

In the area of the Tangutskii observation point, the main reason for the fall in eagle numbers could be the ploughing up of the land. At the beginning of the 1980s, nests remained only near un-ploughed slopes, while formerly they were distributed evenly everywhere at the forest edge bordering on the steppe. At Baikal, however, over these years, habitat area has practically not decreased. The eagles have disappeared from here for some other reason.

In Western Pribaikalye, ploughing up of the land continued through the 1980s though somewhat slower than in the two previous decades. Erosion cut up the steppe slopes that had undergone serious overgrazing.

Photo 1. Slope erosion as a result of overgrazing.