Reports from the field in Central Asia

During October, two teams of field experts once again went to the Tallymerjan area to resurvey for Sociable Lapwings staging before tackling the arduous trip across the high mountains to Pakistan and beyond.

We have two reports from the field…

 

Petar Iankov on the Turkmenistan side of the border

On the 7th October, Juma Saparmuradov, Shirin Karriyeva, Atamyrad Veiysov, Shanyaz Menliew, a journalist from Neutral Turkmenistan, and I arrived at the Tallymerjen area and set up base at the town of Dovletli, to be joined by Eldar Rustamov on the 9th.

We were lucky to spot Sociable Lapwings on the first morning in Dovletli, and later to find them at a previously unknown area – it appeared that the birds this autumn had one large daylight feeding area in hilly pasture terrain SE of Dovletli, from where up to about 2300 birds flew every evening to their night roost in arable lands NW of the town.

Petar Iankov surveying the steppe

Petar Iankov surveying the steppe (Atamyrat Veyisov)

 

On the steppe where birds were found last year (NE from Tallymerjan/Sardoba) there was another daylight and night-time feeding area, supporting at least 1300 birds.

The flight behaviour of the birds from this site and the data from our Uzbekistan colleagues (with whom we had perfect communication and coordination throughout) enabled us to determine the existence of a third feeding and roosting site, most probably within an area where both teams had no access because of the border controls.

Data collected show that the pattern of use of agriculture fields by Sociable Lapwing are similar to cranes and geese, albeit at different time of day, which supports an integrated protection approach. While we did not observe any direct threats, the entire area is under quite significant development – gas survey constructions, gravel extraction, new roads, etc. A small plane was seen regularly flying over the night roost of the lapwings.

The work in Turkmenistan was carried out under the Memorandum of Understanding between the State Committee for Nature Protection and Land Resources and the RSPB to protect birds and other biodiversity in Turkmenistan.

Sociable Lapwing on the Turkmen side of the border

Sociable Lapwing on the Turkmen side of the border (Atamyrat Veyisov)

 

Maxim Koshkin on the Uzbekistan side of the border

Our team of four – Anna Ten, Nodyr Azimov, Valentin Soldatov all from the Uzbek BirdLife Partner Uzbekistan Society for Protection of Birds – and myself – reached outskirts of Karshi town late at night on the 8th of October. Tesfaye, the same satellite-tagged bird that helped us to discover large flocks around the Tallymerjan reservoir in 2015, was known to be using an area east of the town since his arrival in September. The team was lucky to discover around 450 Sociable Lapwings during the first 2 hours of searching the next morning. In the afternoon we decided to carry on to the reservoir located 50 km south of Karshi, and discovered another flock of around 450 birds gathering at a night roost site in a valley with heavily grazed vegetation, near the one used in 2015. As both sites were found to host important numbers of birds, the team split its effort during the remaining days of survey to cover both areas. Fresh GPS locations of both tagged birds were checked 2-3 times a day, downloaded from Movebank using mobile internet and shared with the Turkmen team.

The use of the Tallymerjan area in 2016 differed significantly from 2015. Unlike 2015, this year birds only used it for roosting and feeding at night, completely leaving the area just after sunrise and returned only at sunset. Any attempt to find birds feeding on pastures to the north or on arable fields to the west of the reservoir or resting close to water (a common daily pattern in 2015) failed. However, the team could follow the birds leaving the night roosts almost up to the border with Turkmenistan, where virtually all the birds were heading. This evidence, as well as data from the Turkmen colleagues, suggests that there was a major feeding area close to the border, which is not accessible for either team due to border regime restrictions. In October 2015, similar behaviour was shown by flocks in Turkmenistan, heading towards the same inaccessible location.

The Karshi area was a completely new staging site extensively used for the first time by any of the satellite tagged birds followed since 2010. Unlike the large area of grazed clay desert around night roosts at Tallymerjan, this is a smaller patch of clay desert, largely ploughed in the past, with fields at different stage of abandonment. It is surrounded by intensively used irrigated fields, and the area is generally more populated and disturbed. Here the pattern of Sociable Lapwing activity was completely different. Unfortunately, the main night roost site for the local flocks could not be found, as it was probably located outside of the area of clay desert and access to the irrigated fields and beyond was very difficult. However, on some days flocks were seen feeding and resting on abandoned fields and pastures, but were never found on active arable fields due to the huge potential survey area and limited access.

Sociable Lapwings and grazing sheep

Sociable Lapwings and grazing sheep (Maxim Koshkin)

Our observation of current land use and preliminary assessment of habitat quality and threats at both sites suggest that the change in daily activity pattern is likely related to change in food availability, rather than to changes in grazing regimes or levels of disturbance. Further comparison of climatic data is still to be done, but it seems that due to a dry winter the areas of clay desert that were the main feeding sites in 2015 had less vegetation this year, which could affect prey density. Observations at Karshi showed that birds were likely feeding on small moths and ants, with both types of prey present in abundance.

We found no evidence of any direct threats to Sociable Lapwings. They were little affected by disturbance from people, and as human population density was very low and area of potentially suitable habitat large, this was never high. Birds were relatively easily approached by vehicle, which indicates that there is no widespread hunting in the region, or anywhere between the breeding grounds and these staging sites. Numerous conversations with shepherds and fishermen support these conclusions. However, changes in land use and grazing pressure may change these seemingly favourable conditions. Large areas visited by the team showed significant degradation due to overgrazing, and other areas on higher ground unsuitable for irrigation and which have been previously ploughed for rain-fed spring crops, now show clear signs of degradation due to wind erosion.

A particularly interesting observation relates to the change in night activity of birds with approaching full moon. Roosting birds usually seen in relatively tight groups in the evening, on moon lit nights were found scattered across larger areas, with some missing at first morning light. This could indicate night feeding and even night flight movements between sites.

A large proportion birds in roosting flocks were checked for colour rings, but the only observation was of Tesfaye on 12 October in a flock of 210 birds at Karshi.

Except for Sociable Lapwings, no significant congregations of other species were recorded, with the exception of large (up to ten thousand birds) flocks of Bimaculated Larks Melanocorypha bimaculata.

Uzbekistan survey team - Nodyr Azimov, Maxim Koshkin, Valentin Soldatov, Anna Ten (Maxim Koshkin)

Uzbekistan survey team – Nodyr Azimov, Maxim Koshkin, Valentin Soldatov, Anna Ten (Maxim Koshkin)