Birders’ reports help conservation effort

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In addition to submitting important new sightings records, Birders’ contributions to The Amazing Journey website are also providing extremely valuable information about Sociable Lapwing behaviour and habitat association. These are an important aid to conservation planning.

The outstanding photograph at the head of this post was contributed by Gaurav Bhatnagar and is the first of its kind showing direct evidence of Sociable Lapwings associating with wild ungulates away from their breeding grounds. In the picture a male Sociable Lapwing can be seen on a heavily grazed area of land with a male Blackbuck (Antilope cervicapra) in the background.

Gaurav took this picture a week ago, on November 14th at  the Tal Chhapar WildLife Sanctuary in Churu, Rajasthan, India. He reports that four Sociable Lapwings were present and were part of a mixed flock including c16 Indian Courser and 1 Desert Courser. They were foraging on the ground in the male Blackbuck  colony in the sanctuary. The birds were only seen in patches where the grass was very short and were shy on approach. You can see more of Gaurav’s great pictures on his flickr feed here.

The fact that the Sociable Lapwings in Tal Chhapar were found feeding in a Blackbuck colony fuels the theory that, in earlier times, the species’ distribution was closely connected with the distribution of wild ungulates.

While the reasons for the decline in the Sociable Lapwings’ population in the second half of the 20th century are most likely to be primarily habitat destruction on the breeding grounds and hunting on passage, the decline of wild ungulate herds in wintering areas is also likely to have contributed. In India Blackbuck have declined massively. They used to be one of the most abundant hoofed mammals in the Indian subcontinent and as recently as the early 1900s, naturalist Richard Lydekker mentions herds of hundreds in his writings. Regrettably today, only small herds are seen inside reserves.

Sociable Lapwing clutch in cattle dung.

The vast majority of information we have about Sociable Lapwing behaviour has been gleaned from studies on the breeding grounds in Kazakhstan. Here, we know Sociable Lapwings also have a strong association with grazing livestock and almost exclusively breed in overgrazed grassland where nests are often made in the dung piles of cattle and horses. We believe the grazed habitat is primarily chosen because it provides good visibility to help avoid predators and also an abundant insect food supply.

Nesting in dung piles helps camouflage nests and also isolates the clutch from the (often freezing) cold ground beneath.

Away from the breeding grounds our knowledge of Sociable Lapwing behaviour and habitat usage is very sparse and based on only a very few records. After Erzhan was tracked to the Sudan in 2007, marking the first record for the country, members of the Sudanese Society for the Conservation of Wildlife were alerted to go out and search for wintering birds. Using coordinates provided by RSPB scientists, they found Erzhan and the wintering flock he was part of and discovered the birds feeding there in areas overgrazed by cattle.

Typical modern breeding habitat in Kazakhstan

Ecologists call this association between wild animals and man synanthropy and the term certainly applies to Sociable Lapwings today but it raises the fascinating question – what did Sociable Lapwings do before local tribes started to domesticate livestock?

The synanthropy in Kazakhstan can be traced back to 1875, when German zoologist A.E. Brehm reported in his notes that he “always met Sociable Lapwings close to the herds of nomads”.

Prior to association with domestic animals in Kazakhstan, the birds probably followed wild ungulates, especially Kulan and Saiga antelope when these still numbered in their millions.

At the moment, Saiga probably don’t create sufficient suitable habitat for breeding Sociable Lapwings because the population has been decimated with a decline of 90% since the 1990s. However, in the area of the Altyn Dala Conservation Initiative single birds have recently been found in the wake of accumulations of calving females and last year, a breeding pair was found in a mass calving area.

Saiga Antelope - Altyn Dala Plain, Kazakhstan 2009

In addition to Gaurav Bhatnagar’s report we are also very grateful for all the other records of Sociable Lapwings that are now being provided by Birders from around the world.

Other recent reports include a record of 20 Sociable Plovers on November 11th in the Banni Desert close to the Great Rann of Kutch in Gujarat.