Testing new capture methods

[In a guest blog,  Ruslan Urazaliyev, Paul Donald and Rhys Green tell us more about the tagging trip to Kazakhstan in June (previously summarised here).  Next week we’ll learn more about the follow-on work in July. ]

In early June 2015, we travelled to Korgalzhyn in Kazakhstan to fit five more 5 gram satellite PTT tags to breeding adult sociable lapwings.   It was clear immediately that 2015 was an unusual year.  The steppe vegetation was much taller and lusher than usual because of outwash and heavy spring rainfall.  The lapwings prefer short vegetation for foraging and nesting, so conditions in the region were far from ideal and there were many fewer nests than usual.  In addition, there was widespread flooding of roads and tracks that made it impossible to travel far afield to look for more breeding birds.

Our previous method for catching birds for tagging has always been to cage-trap the parent bird, usually the female, on the nest late in incubation, but we were only able to capture one female this way in 2015.

Releasing a tagged bird

Releasing a tagged bird

We had five tags available and had only managed to deploy one by nest trapping, so we tried two other catching methods.  Chicks were just hatching out of the four eggs of a female lapwing as we arrived.  We think that it is too risky to cage-trap the bird on the nest at this stage, so we returned two days later to try something else.  We had made a model of an owl from papier mâché, with feathers from a road-killed pheasant glued onto the outside to make it look more realistic.  We captured the four chicks and hid them in the grass in a cloth bag near to the model owl. We set up a mistnet on poles next to the owl and waited nearby in the car to see what would happen.  The female lapwing returned immediately and was clearly convinced that the model owl was a threat to her young.  She swooped at it twice, but could obviously see the mistnet and jinked past it at each swoop.  However, her enthusiasm to drive the owl away then made her careless and suddenly there she was, entangled in the net.  We quickly tagged and released her, having first released her chicks and showed them to her nestled together in the grass.  The next day, we returned to find her just 40 m away, guarding the chicks as if nothing unusual had happened.

Brookie the owl

“Brookie” the owl

We had now deployed two of our five tags but could not find any more females with nests or chicks. We could only find a flock of twelve adult males courting six females. We decided to try catching some of these using a method we had learned from the bird catchers of the Bombay Natural History Society in India.  We made nooses of fine thread and tied them to nails.  The nails were pushed into the ground at intervals to make a line of nooses at ground level.  Then we used our car to move the flock carefully and slowly towards the noose-line.  It was a hot afternoon and the birds eventually got so accustomed to the car that they were reluctant to move even when we drove to within a few metres.  In the end, we left the car and pushed the flock towards the noose-line on foot, by bending over and looking at the ground so that the birds thought we were a strange and harmless new kind of cattle, not really interested in lapwings.  Suddenly there was a white flash of wings and an alarm call and the flock took flight – except for one bird which only fluttered for a few seconds before we ran to him and removed the noose from just above his foot.  It was one of the adult males and we fitted our third tag. Within a few minutes, we watched him fly away.

Flying off with a new transmitter attached

Flying off with a new transmitter attached

Three tags deployed, with two remaining for our next trip.