Surprise report from troubled Syria

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During the current Syrian Uprising, travelling even short distances around the country has become very difficult and is in many cases extremely dangerous. Vehicles are subject to frequent spot checks by security forces and, with tensions running high, travel has been heavily curtailed. Making a journey carrying the usual paraphernalia necessary to monitor birds such as binoculars, telescope and cameras creates additional complications and risks suspicion of anti-government behaviour, instant confiscation of equipment and, potentially, much worse.

Accordingly we have been assuming no records of migrating Sociable Lapwings or hunting mitigation activity would be recorded in the country this spring leaving a gap in the usual regular information we receive from the country.

Ahmad Aidek searching for Sociable Lapwings in 2011.

Undaunted by the considerable associated personal risks, intrepid conservationist Ahmad Aidek was determined to make an unofficial trip into the field to try to find migrating flocks at some of the Syrian sites where Sociable Lapwings have previously been recorded on passage.

Like the Sociable Lapwings drawn instinctively to their migration, Ahmad was also answering a powerful ‘call of duty’ and couldn’t resist the urge to get out into the field again to look for the birds he has become so committed to protecting.

Making arrangements was very difficult, as all the drivers he initially approached were afraid to drive into the Steppe in case they encountered hostility. Unable to find transport, Ahmad was becoming increasingly concerned that all the migrating flocks would have passed through the country by the time he could secure a driver to accompany him.

Eventually, on March 28th, (a full month later than the usual Syrian surveys take place), Ahmad convinced a friend to take a two hour drive to one of the nearest and most regular stop-over sites at Al-Hjeifat where he and colleagues from the Sociable Lapwing International Working Group (SLIWG) had found birds present on passage in February 2010 and he had also found birds in 2008 and 2009.

Location of 13 Sociable Lapwings at Al Hjeifat

Al-Hjeifat is a large area comprising three small hills (Hjeifs) about 25 km north of Deir ez-Zor. The area contains a protected sheep grazing area where many ‘Feidhas’ or low lying areas where winter rains are retained as small patches of open water occur. In the spring the Feidhas grow lush with vegetation and it is around these fertile areas that Sociable Lapwings and many other species are attracted.

For the previous few weeks the weather had been quite cold and passage had been quite slow but on the day Ahmad ventured into the field the weather had warmed up and despite a few patches of rain the temperature was already 22 degrees C.

During the journey it was a relief that the only security encountered was on the main road and check points were passed without incident. Arriving at the Feidhas, many sheep were present taking advantage of the emergent vegetation and fresh water. Even without binoculars Ahmad was soon encountering typical familiar Steppe species. Singing larks were in abundance including Crested, Short-toed, Lesser Short-toed, Skylark and Hoopoe Lark.  A flock of c.200 Common Starlings were taking advantage of the habitat along with many other species including Hoopoes, several White Wagtails and 13 Pin-tailed Sandgrouse. Raptors encountered in the area included Kestrel and Lesser Kestrel, Black Kite and Montagu’s Harrier.

Without binoculars, scanning for Sociable Lapwings was understandably quite difficult but to his surprise and delight Ahmad actually found 13 Sociable Lapwings close-by at Al-Hjeifat in three small flocks. A photograph of one of the birds taken by Ahmad with his compact camera is at the top of this post. It is a tribute to his experience and field craft that he was not only able to get close enough to record these as five males and eight females but also to be able to confirm none were carryings rings from the ongoing breeding study.

In 2008 and again in 2011 Swarovski Optik presented several top-of-the-range binoculars and telescopes to the lead conservationists taking part in the international conservation effort coordinated by RSPB – BirdLife International’s UK Partner. This vital equipment was provided as part of Swarovski’s ongoing support as a Species Champion for Sociable Lapwing, through the BirdLife Preventing Extinctions Programme and has been an invaluable aid to help monitoring, awareness raising and importantly hunting mitigation throughout the species’ extensive range.

Ahmad was one of the first scientists to receive one of the pairs of binoculars to help his work and, since he first received his Swarovski 10 X 40 ELs in 2008, they have hardly left his side. On this occasion it was quite a wrench for Ahmad to go into the field without his ‘trusted Swarovskis’ but as he explained, better that, than have them confiscated and lose them forever.

During the current political unrest, it is even more dangerous to carry a gun than optical equipment, so the usual widespread hunting that goes on in Syria has been very restricted this year, presumably benefitting both resident and passage species. Despite this, Ahmad did meet some local hunters who suggested some restricted local hunting was still occurring.