The Ural, known as Yaik before 1775, is a river flowing through Russia and Kazakhstan. It arises in the southern Ural Mountains and ends at the Caspian Sea. Its total length is 1,511 mi (2,428 km) making it the third longest river in Europe after the Volga and the Danube. Along with the Volga, the Ural River is one of the major rivers feeding the Caspian Sea. The Ural River rises nearby the Mount Kruglayain in the Ural Mountains, flows south parallel and west of the north-flowing Tobol River, through Magnitogorsk, and around the southern end of the Urals, through Orsk where it turns west for about 300 km, to Orenburg, when the Sakmara River joins.
From Orenburg it continues west, passing into Kazakhstan, then turning south again at Oral, and meandering through a broad flat plain until it reaches the Caspian a few miles below Atyrau, where it forms a fine digitate delta.
The river begins at the slopes of the Kruglaya Mountain of the Uraltau mountain ridge in South Ural, on the territory of the Uchalinsky District of Bashkortostan. There it has an average width of 60–80 m and flows as a typical mountain river. It then falls into the Yaik Swamp and after exiting it widens up to 5 km. Below Verkhneuralsk, its flow is characteristic of a flatland river; there it enters Chelyabinsk and Orenburg Oblasts. From Magnitogorsk to Orsk its banks are steep and rocky and the bottom has many rifts. After Orsk, the river abruptly turns west and flows through a 45 km long canyon in the Guberlinsk Mountains.
After Uralsk, it flows from north to south, through the territory of West Kazakhstan Province and Atyrau Province of Kazakhstan. There, the river widens and has many lakes and ducts. Near the mouth, it splits into the Yaik and Zolotoy distributaries and forms vast wetlands. The Yaik distributary is shallow, with almost no trees on the shores, and is rich in fish; whereas Zolotoy is deeper and is navigable. Ural River has a spectacular tree-like (or “digitate”) shape of the delta. This type of delta forms naturally in the slow rivers which bring much sediments and flow into a quiet sea. In the delta, 13.5 km from the mouth of the Zolotoy distributary lies Shalyga Island having the length of 2.5 km, heights of 1–2 and maximum widths of 0.3 km.
The river is mostly fed by melting snow (60–70%); the contribution of precipitation is relatively minor. Most of its annual discharge (65%) occurs during the spring floods, which occur in March–April near the mouth and in late April–June upstream; 30% drain during the summer-autumn and 5% in winter. During the floods, the river widens to above 10 km near Uralsk and to several tens kilometers near the mouth. Water level is highest in later April upstream and in May downstream. Its fluctuation is 3–4 m in the upper stream, 9–10 m in the middle of the river and about 3 m in the delta.
The average water discharge is 104 m3/s near Orenburg, 400 m3/s at the Kushum village (76.5 km from the mouth); maximum discharge is 14,000 m3/s and the lowest is 1.62 m3/s. Average turbidity is 280 g/m3 at Orenburg and 290 g/m3 near Kushum 290. The river freezes at the source in early November and in the middle and lower reaches in late November. It opens in the lower reaches in late March and in early April in the upper reaches. The ice drift is relatively short.
The wetlands at and near the delta of the Ural River are especially important to migrating birds as an important stop-over along the Asian flyway. They host many endemic and endangered species, such as Great White Pelican, Dalmatian Pelican, Pygmy Cormorant, Cattle Egret, Little Egret, Greater Flamingo, White-headed Duck, Ferruginous Duck, Eurasian Spoonbill, Glossy Ibis, Houbara Bustard, Great Black-headed Gull, Slender-billed Gull, Squacco Heron, Common Crane, Demoiselle Crane, Slender-billed Curlew, Black Stork, Red-breasted Goose, Lesser White-fronted Goose, Lesser Kestrel, Whooper Swan, Tundra Swan, Osprey, Pallid Harrier, Short-toed Eagle and many others.
The Pygmy Cormorant was observed sporadically before 1999 and more regularly after that. Cattle Egret is observed since 1990 between April and September (as most other migratory birds in this area), with the total population of several dozen couples. It feeds on frogs, mollusks and small fish. Upstream, there are more of the stationary bird species, such as grouse, wild pigeon and partridge.Ural River is also important for many fish species of the Caspian Sea which visit its delta and migrate upstream for spawning. In the lower reaches of the river there are 47 species from 13 families. The family Cyprinidae account for 40%, sturgeon and herring make up 11%, perch and herring 9% and salmon 4.4%. The main commercial species are sturgeon, roach, bream, carp, perch, carp, asp catfish. The rare species include Caspian salmon, sterlet, white salmon and kutum.