Born in Bulgaria, Boris Belchev fell in love with birds way before he heard of the word “ornithology”. In his childhood, he had a pet pigeon instead of a dog, and now he can spend hours talking about nature. Boris came to Lithuania 15 years ago, and this is where his career as a nature photographer, guide, and ornithologist began. Now, by his own example, he makes other people discover nature and fall in love with it.
One of the very first childhood memories about nature takes me to my grandfather’s summer house when I was five or six. There was a steep scarp where Europe’s most colorful birds – bee-eaters – were hatching, and my sister and I were watching them. My sister had this strange wish to catch them, to pet them, so I went along. I remember this adventure as my first fascination with nature.
Later, a few unsuccessful tries to nurture wild birds followed. Luckily, this stage is long gone, and among all the tries, the best experience I had was with a pigeon. When I was still very little, my father brought a very young baby pigeon – still without any feathers – home. I took care of it and raised it. Later, when he grew up, I would go for walks in the park, and the bird would always follow me.
It seems like you are telling a story that only happens in the movies! Was it back then, when you were still a child in elementary school, that you decided to devote your future to nature?
This realization came slightly later. In school year four or five, I had a marvelous Biology teacher who planted this strong love for nature in me. Then, I started thinking about the future more. Also, at a similar time, we got cable TV, and I remember watching “Animal Planet” and deciding that I wanted to be a vet who saves wild animals.
This stage has also passed, but the goal to stay close to nature has remained. After year six, I decided to change schools because the one I went to was focused on English, Russian, and Math, and I wanted Biology. However, I had to pass the exams to get into the school I wanted, which wasn’t easy. My parents couldn’t pay for private lessons, so I had to prepare on my own – I would go to the park, cast a fishing rod, and start learning. I had a year to prepare for the exams, passed them, and finally got into the school with a strong focus on Biology.
Even though we started our conversation with memories about birds, you haven’t mentioned ornithology yet. How did it come to your life?
Birds have been around the entire time, but I didn’t know anything about ornithology itself at the time. It only came to my life in the last year of high school. Since our school focused on Biology, we were invited to record the white storks. The recording takes place every decade on the same day in the whole of Europe to make sure the calculations match. There, I saw the fateful book about birds, and I got my very first chance to look at them through binoculars. That’s when I realized that it was my field. And even though the thoughts about veterinary did not go away yet, I started focusing on biology more because you must be an exceptional biologist to get to ornithology.
Can you tell us a little bit more about ornithology? What do ornithologists do on a daily basis?
Throughout history, ornithology has been very diverse and changed a lot. The old ornithology was very primitive; one would even need a gun – an ornithologist would shoot a bird and then study it. This way, new species and their natural habitats would be discovered.
The changes began in the seventies when environmental aspects became more and more important for ornithologists. People started noticing that certain populations of usual birds are shrinking. A little earlier than that, bird ringing – or banding – has begun, which we also consider a part of ornithology. Scientists would ring birds of various species, ages, and sexes to determine how far they really fly. Have you heard the story about a white stork found in Germany with an injured wing? The injury comes from a spear only used by one African tribe. This allowed us to confirm that storks go all the way to Central Africa to spend their winter.
And how does your day look now? Perhaps, you are not ringing the birds yourself all the time?
Even though I did ring a tiny goldcrest yesterday – as he didn’t want to leave us – usually I don’t ring birds. Each day, I try to wake up as early as possible and go outside. Currently, we are birdwatching and counting all the birds that fly by – now is their migration time. People think that it ends by November, but here, at the seaside, there are even more birds than usual. We watch them for as long as we can until we remember that we should eat. After a quick snack, we continue looking for birds, sometimes we stay until late at night, and now when I have thermal vision binoculars, I don’t have time to sleep at all.
The hardest part of my job is the dead and injured birds. I love them very much, thus each time I come across a deceased one, I feel extremely hurt. Especially in the events where you can obviously see that the incident occurred because of something humans did, perhaps because of lack of education or greed when money becomes more important than nature.
Until now, I have only just heard of these technologies as they were mostly used in hunting. Now, when there are devices created for nature lovers and scientists, I am really happy to take advantage of them. Before that, no matter what kind of equipment or optics I had, I couldn’t always see a bird upon looking at a tree, and now I can clearly see each one of them. This has fundamentally changed my vision of nature and helped me see how much there is going on around us.
I cannot wait to try my binoculars during the migration of long-eared owls – it is just about to start. Usually, we only catch a few of them for ringing, but we miss a lot of chances because we cannot see what’s going on in the darkness. And with a thermal imager, not a single owl will be able to escape.
I also organize owl watching, and Pulsar binoculars are extremely useful for this, too. With them, I can show my guests so much more – until now, I would have to drive around the forest, use a flashlight, and hope that the owl’s eyes will reflect the light at some point. Now, I can find them without disturbing them at all, use my phone screen to show people where they are, and then allow my guests to watch the birds themselves.
And how could, in your opinion, thermal vision and modern technology, in general, can contribute to protecting nature and biodiversity?
I would say that one of the most important applications of thermal vision could be in farming equipment. Say, there’s a bird’s nest or some sleeping roedeers on the ground. Farmers use automated harvesting equipment that cannot see the animals and thus leave them with no chance to escape. If we had drones with thermal imaging, we could scan the fields, mark the spots where the animals are, and thus save them.
Could you tell us a little about the less fun side of your job? About the biggest challenges you face?
The biggest challenge and the hardest part of my job are the dead and injured birds. I love them very much, thus each time I come across a deceased one, I feel extremely hurt. Especially in the events where you can obviously see that the incident occurred because of something humans did, perhaps because of lack of education or greed when money becomes more important than nature. Then I get really frustrated that we do so much harm to nature. For example, we build houses with as many mirrored glass windows as possible but forget to make sure that birds won’t hit them. Or the homeless cats – we love them, we feed them, but hardly ever consider how much harm they do for the birds. Sometimes, I get furious, and it feels like I want to do something for those cats. However, it is not them; it is us – us who make them live on the streets, us who fail to take care of them, castrate them, and find owners.
During the quarantine, I couldn’t partake in educational activities or host tours, so I did scientific work next to the electricity windmills. In one week, I found two lesser spotted eagles, which are a protected species. One of them had a broken spine, and the other had its wing cut-off, which was laying 10 meters away from the bird itself. From the outside, it seems like we try to make eco-friendly energy, but our understanding of ecology is so twisted that our windmills actually harm birds and bats. So, many of them die because the windmills are built in locations where the winds are favorable. And the most favorable locations usually happen to be on the routes of bird migration.
While talking to you, it is impossible not to see the love you have for your job. It is also obvious you see real meaning in it. Do you have any goals for the upcoming decade, or perhaps even longer?
My goal is to educate people, and I do this every day. I try to change the presumptions that were forced on the people. A good example is the negative public opinion about cormorants. This negativity was spread by commercial fishermen, who needed to find a reason why fish resources were decreasing. They managed to turn the tables so much that it would seem like nature was harming them.
During my tours, I always provide information through the lens of the scientists and do my best to showcase the situation the way it really is because everything else is speculation.
We could learn to adjust to the changing conditions from birds. Take sand martins as an example – they used to hatch on river flanks, outcrops. When people concreted them for fortification, the martins found some holes in the concrete slabs and started hatching there. When, due to massive deforestation, the common swifts didn’t have old trees with hollows for hatching, they moved to our buildings, cracks, and nesting boxes. Another example I like comes from the white-tailed eagle – on its 5th year of life, the eagle finds a partner and spends the rest of its time with them, protecting its territory and paying no attention to others.
Even though we did speak about deforestation and the decrease of fish and bird populations, ecology has become more popular. Do you feel a positive change in your daily activities?
I can happily say that people started becoming more interested in nature. And yes, there are positive changes in my daily activities. Nowadays, all of us can recycle waste; I personally use an electric four-wheeler to reduce noise and pollution, more and more people go for electric cars. It is hard to tell yet if we won’t have to pay for this in the future, but we should really celebrate trying to eliminate fossil fuels. I am also happy that it is forbidden to build electricity windmills in the protected areas. And even though we are still far from Scandinavian countries, the awareness is increasing significantly.
Despite the increasing awareness, natural disasters increase, too. Once you hear about them, don’t you ever want to quit because it seems like there is nothing that can be done?
Perhaps all of us understand that our efforts towards climate change are very late and that we had to do everything yesterday. But we still must make an effort; otherwise, we will get extinct, just like dinosaurs (laughs). Myself, I always try to stay positive and start from myself, so even if I see that others don’t try, at least I know I’m setting an example with my own behavior. For example, I don’t travel to countries far away – I feel like there is enough nature here in Lithuania. And when I choose from which countries to invite people to my tours, I always pay attention to our closest neighbors; I don’t invite Americans or Australians. Swedes or Germans can get on a ferry and come here, they don’t need to burn huge amounts of fuel to drive or fly here. I think that water transport is one of the most ecological choices.
What does it really mean to you to love nature?
To me, it is the feeling when you wake up in the morning without thinking how you must get to work or how many problems you’ve got. I wake up with a desire to live, and I always know that I’ll spend my day in nature and recharge. When I’m outdoors, I forget about food and sleep. Nature, to me, is like a charger, I never come back tired or upset from it – on the contrary, I’m full of excitement. I believe that love for nature is also love for oneself, and when a person truly loves nature, they contribute to the well-being of themselves and future generations.
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I believe that love for nature is also love for oneself, and when a person truly loves nature, they contribute to the well-being of themselves and future generations.
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