We have known that Sociable Lapwings winter in Pakistan for almost a century, with reports as early as 1922. However, records are patchy and we still do not know the whereabouts of most of the population that uses the eastern flyway from Kazakhstan, across the Hindu Kush, and into Pakistan and beyond. Having followed tagged birds, surveys in February 2016 found that at least 200 birds winter in two flocks, one in Dadu in Sindh Province, the other in Usta Muhammad, Balochistan Province.
During late 2016 and early 2017, field staff working for the Saiban Development Foundation, in collaboration with RDS Conservation, Ahmad Khan and the RSPB, went to areas where birds had been seen in early 2016 or for which we had satellite tagging data, with visits to other areas identified as potential habitats and from where sightings of the species have been reported in the past. These included the back-waters of Taunsa, Rangla Complex wetlands, seepage ponds in Muzaffar Garh District, and water drainage ponds in Rahim Yar Khan in Punjab. These surveys were funded by the Mohammed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund and the RSPB (through Swarovski Optik and the BirdLife International Preventing Extinctions Programme).
The team carried out their surveys during December to March, focusing on wetlands and feeding sites. Local people also provided anecdotal information on behaviour, and timing of arrival and departure.
During the December surveys in Sindh, two sub-groups of Sociable Lapwings were found, possibly totalling as many as 500+ birds. Overall, 14 separate flocks were observed, ranging from 2 to 365 individuals, 365 being the largest flock recorded in Pakistan, and possibly anywhere in winter. Villagers explained that the birds arrive during November, and do not leave until the last week of March/first week of April, spending much of their time on freshly harvested and ploughed fields where they eat insects and seeds. In Balochistan, there were no sightings, but the local community reported 40 or so birds during November. They arrive late October/early November and stay only for a few weeks. They then return in February, leaving at the end of March. Throughout the season, a few birds remain in the area (not more than 10). Unlike in Sindh, the birds prefer dry and stony raised highlands away from the previously reported agricultural wintering site of Ahmedabad.
During the second survey in February, 12 flocks were recorded in Sindh (the largest being 290 individuals), and 40 birds in Balochistan. While none were found in the wheatfields at Balochistan, locals reported that the lapwing do visit them. The final surveys at the end of the wintering season found only small flocks (the largest being 20 birds).
The team in Pakistan not only carried out surveys, but focused on awareness-raising in an area where hunting is a real threat. Several one-day seminars were held for elders, hunters and school children, detailing the bird’s global status, how to identify it, and the important role of the local community in conserving the species. Local language posters were also distributed.
Owning guns and hunting is the norm in some of the areas surveyed, and local hunters reported that sociable lapwing are among the species that are killed. However, the community also showed a concern over the decreasing number of birds in general and Sociable Lapwing in particular
According to local people, there has been significant change in habitat features. The cropping system has altered, the timing of cropping has changed, and agricultural systems have been modified. Previously, the area maintained a shallow water level over a significant part of the year, particularly the winter months. Recent changes in water management, canal water regulation, and surface flow diversion, have reduced the time that this habitat is available. People have started sowing wheat on the land, where mustard was sown previously. The impact of these agricultural changes on Sociable Lapwings is unclear.
With up to 500 birds wintering in the study area, Pakistan is a key wintering range state for the species and further conservation effort is a high priority. Work with local communities and hunters to limit any impact of hunting on threatened species, including Sociable Lapwing, is crucial. Further surveys are needed to assess populations in other parts of Pakistan, and in north-western India – where are the rest of the 6,000- 8,000 birds that use this eastern flyway?
Blog based on Khan, M., S. Sheldon, R. Khan, A. (2017). Assessing the importance of Pakistan for wintering populations of the Critically Endangered Sociable Lapwing. Unpublished project report. Saiban Development Foundation, P/O Daira Din Panah, Tehsil Kot Addu ,District Muzaffar Garh, Pakistan.
The project team are grateful for the funding of the MBZ Species Conservation Fund and Swarovski Optik without whose support this work would not have been possible.
On a separate note, Maysa’s tag is still transmitting and we will follow her journey south this autumn. Her 2016 autumn and 2017 spring journeys can be seen here in red. Tesfaye (blue) made it back into Kazakhstan, but despite the occasional signal from his trasmitter, it does not appear to be moving.