Within the Russian Federation, the Common starling (Sturnus vulgaris) is distributed from the east towards the western Transbaikal (Stepanyan, 1990). The species was not recorded in China (on the border with the Upper Pri-Amur in Russia) until the end of the 1980s. Single individuals and small groups of Common starlings have been documented in a number of locations in the Russian Far East since the end of the 20th century: Sakhalin Island (Nechaev, 1991; 2005; Tiunov and Blokhin, 2012; Sotnikov et al., 2013), Kamchatka (Rozhdestvenskii and Kuryakova, 2012), Magadanskaya Oblast (Dorogoi, 2011), Khabarovskii Krai (Babenko, 2000; Pronkevich, 2001; Pronkevich et al., 2011), Primorskii Krai (Glushchenko and Shibnev, 1977; Glushchenko et al. 2006; Sotnikov and Akulinkin, 2007), and in the Middle Pri-Amur (Smirenskii, 1986). The number of sightings has increased significantly since the beginning of this century with a concomitant geographical expansion.
The vast majority of detections are categorized by observers as “rare vagrants;” the only circumstantial evidence of breeding comes from the city of Nikolaevsk-na-Amure (in Khabarovskii Krai) by Pronkevich et al. (2011). These authors suggest these starlings bred in Russia based on an encounter with a group of birds in which “adults fed fledgling chicks.” This fact suggests that the species is not only colonizing new territory but also expanding its breeding range as well.
The Common starling has been recorded in my study area in the Upper Pri-Amur since the early 1990s (S.M. Smirenskii, unpubl. data). The first encounter was towards the end of August 1983, when eight birds were seen at the Muraviovka Park for Sustainable Land Use (49°52’26” N, 127°42’10” E). The species has been seen annually during autumn migration around the village of Muraviovka (49°50’03” N, 127°43’23” E), and in the park itself since the late 1990s. Flocks have included up to 200-300 birds. As of 2014, the species has never been seen at Muraviovka in spring (S.M. Smirenski, pers. comm.). The Common starling was formally added to the list of local avifauna by (Stein (2011), who conducted a survey of Muraviovka Nature Park (Tambovskii County, Amurskaya Oblast) in 2009-2010.
I first detected Common starlings in the southern Upper Pri-Amur on 06 October, 2007, when I saw seven birds sitting on an electrical wire in the village of Grodekovo (50°07’15” N, 127°34’39” E), just before sunset, not far from a cattle farm. Near the same village the following year (28 September 2008) I observed a flock numbering 12 birds flying in a southwesterly direction.
There were a series of detections made in 2012. In spring (27 March), 8 individuals were seen in the village of Volkovo (50°14’58” N, 127°46’40” E); these birds spent every night in the village until early-mid April (Vl. Dugintsov, pers. comm.). They roosted in the crown of a tall, dense spruce adjacent to a residential building. Each morning, shortly after sunrise, they roused and flew out from the village. On 01 April, a flock of up to 12 individuals was seen at the Volkovo village dump (I.V. Ishchenko, pers. comm.); a detection verified by photographs.
It was at this very location and in the adjacent field on 06 April 2012 that I simultaneously observed four separate flocks (totaling 150 individuals). One of the flocks focused on the landfill and mixed with White-cheeked starlings (Sturnus cineraceus). The plumage of birds of both species was dirty as the birds were filthy from garbage. The starlings allowed close approach—18-20 m—as they were busy searching for food. Once flushed, the two single-species flocks merged and the birds flew to a fallow soybean field, which bordered the dump. At the same time, three other flocks fed in a field of soy shoots overgrown with weeds. These birds were wary and did not allow human approach of < 50 m. After an attempt to get closer, they flushed and flew to a different location. The plumage of these birds was soiled, which indicated they had also foraged at the dump.
I observed a flock of 76 Common starlings on 09 September, 2012 near the village of Novopetrovka (49°34’29” N, 128°15’42” E). These starlings were among a loose group of carrion crows (Corvus corone), where they fed on a harvested corn field. They stayed in a tight group and did not allow human approach < 70 m. I observed 15 birds later that same day sitting on power lines in the village of Kuropatino (49°59’52” N, 127°40’00” E) within the territory of Muraviovka Nature Park. On 21 October 2012, I observed 8 Common starlings in the village of Kositsin (50°03’34” N, 128°01’44” E), where they fed on corn silage along with Common magpies (Pica pica), Rock doves (Columba livia), and Eurasian collared doves (Streptopelia decaocto; Dugintsov, 2012). A flock of 28 individuals were observed by me rooting through garbage at the Volkovo village dump on 18 April 2013. Nearly an even year later (10 April 2014) I saw two flocks of Common starlings (of 12 and 14 individuals, respectively) in farmland near the village of Kuropatino. I also observed a flock of 36 birds in the village of Konstantinovka (49°37’07” N, 127°59’10” E) and ca. 50 birds in the village of Novopetrovka.
Based on the copious number of encounters with Common starlings in the southern Upper Pri-Amur in the spring and autumn seasons over the past 30 years, as well as a significant increase in sightings and flock size over the last decade, I conclude that this region is part of a migration route for these birds.
The spring migration of these Common starlings is well defined. Based on observations around the village of Volkovo, starlings fly to the west and northwest. During the early part of their autumn migration (i.e., late August – early September) the observed starling flocks move chaotically and without a clear direction of flight, and seem to “wander” along harvested agricultural fields. In late September to early October the starlings then depart the Upper Pri-Amur for China. According to observations in the villages and Kuropatino and Novopetrovka, these birds migrate is in a southern and southwestern direction. These autumn encounters can be seen as extensive post-nesting nomadism inherent in this species. The focused movements in spring might be an indication that the extreme southeastern regions of the Upper Pri-Amur are gradually becoming a regular migration route for this species. This is facilitated by the existence of the vast, open spaces in the agricultural zone of the south Zeisko-Bureinskii Plain, which includes human-populated areas and relatively plentiful feeding areas for migrants.
A pair of unanswered questions remain: where do these birds spend the winter, and where in Russia are these Common starlings breeding—the ones that have been observed regularly migrating through the southern parts of the Upper Pri-Amur? There are no records of their nesting there; this is either due to a true absence of breeding or to insufficient survey effort.
I thank S.M. Smirenskii. Vladimir.A. Dugin-tsov, I.V, Ishchenko for kindly sharing information about their observations of Common starlings.