The Amazing Journey begins…

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May 31st 2010 – In many ways the day starts just as any other day of Sociable Lapwing Project fieldwork in Kazakhstan. Our Lada Niva is fully loaded with camping equipment, food, water canisters, optics and all the many other things one might need when spending a few days in the remote steppes.

My colleague Rob Sheldon project leader for the RSPB, and I have done similar field trips before – however, this time it feels different, even more exciting than usual. We have a very important and a very exciting task ahead of us over the next ten days – to drive into Central and Eastern Kazakhstan to catch eight Sociable Lapwings and fit them with tracking devices that will be monitored by satellites as the next phase of our international Sociable Lapwing Conservation project. No small task for us to achieve, as one of the target areas is located about 1,000 km away from Astana, where we are at the moment…

Amongst all our usual equipment we have eight amazing little things in the car with us – the new satellite transmitters. These are 50% lighter than the ones we’ve used before. Our plan this year is to fit half of them to Lapwings breeding in Eastern Kazakhstan. Sociable Lapwings previously tagged in Central Kazakhstan have all taken westerly migration routes out of Kazakhstan before turning south, but we think that birds breeding in the east of the country might take a different route and head south to winter in India. Rob has already surveyed this easterly breeding area in 2008, and found lapwings nesting on short-grazed pastures close to settlements. On this trip we are planning to go back to catch adult birds by visiting the same eastern breeding colonies.

So here we are, Rob and I, on the road again!

Half of our first day is spent on a detour bumping across the country trying to find Erzhan, the now famous satellite-tagged male we trapped in 2007, a bird that has been providing us with valuable data for three full years! According to the latest report he has stopped close to a town in central Kazhakstan. After a rather short and dusty drive we come to a point defined by the GPS coordinates received from the satellite tag. No sign of Erzhan (even with the transmitter sending us signals single birds are not easy to find in such a huge area), but we do find a nice new breeding colony with several females on nests and with chicks.

First camp on the way to the east

We drive on towards the eastern colonies and, after an overnight camp en route, we arrive at sunset the next day at a small village called Zharma. What a beautiful place to stop after a long, hot drive of 600 km! We put our tents up on the bank of a little stream in a green valley, surrounded by picturesque hills with rocky peaks. The only disadvantage of this campsite, as we soon realize, is the unbelievable amount of sand flies, which all arrived next morning to spoil our breakfast. From this moment on we almost always have biting insects with us – and always in huge numbers.

After spending the day making preparations for catching the Lapwings and charging the satellite tags we are finally ready to start our search the next morning.

SVETLANA, Kyzylzhulduz

The following two days are very successful. We find several nests and catch one female in Zharma (a bird later named Lena) and another near the village of Kyzylzhulduz (a bird later named Svetlana). Two tags fitted already, six to go!

After these first successes we decide to leave Zharma and check some areas further south. Next day we reach Ayagoz and turn east. Here though we are unlucky – not a single Sociable Lapwing! After three days spent searching in vain we turn back which gives us the chance to catch two more birds in another village around 80 km north of Zharma. Both birds are female (Tatyana and Raushan). Four Lapwings tagged, four more transmitters still to be fitted…

Our plan has been to put four tags on birds from the eastern breeding areas and four on birds from the central colonies, so with the first part of the mission successful we head hundreds of kms back towards the central Korgalzhyn area where the Sociable Lapwing project team has been working for more than 6 years. As we know where birds are breeding in this part of Kazakhstan it doesn’t take too long to put transmitters on the next four birds. Three are attached to females (who are later named Alia, Dinara, and Jibek) and one to our only male who is caught near Zhanteke and later called Abaj, a name which means ‘Eternity’ in Kazakh.

Rob with Lena just prior to release

Our job is done and we can return home!

Driving across Kazakhstan looking for Sociable Lapwings was a perfect way to spend a week, but there is much more here to see as well. We also saw many interesting and unusual things on the way (unusual anyway for someone coming from the flat, rockless and treeless steppes of Central Kazakhstan). One morning by one of the campsites I found some petroglyphs when I was climbing up some nearby rocks trying to get a cellular phone connection. Another camp Rob and I will remember was distinguished not only by the masses of mosquitoes we encountered at sunset, but also for the little mounds of snow we found under the trees which had been there since April after an extremely snowy winter.

Bobak Marmot

At the easternmost campsite we were met with a strange whistling sound, which turned out to be a local species of marmot. The area was also interesting for both of us from an ornithological point of view. We saw huge numbers of Rose-coloured Starlings, breeding Ruddy Shelducks, Saker Falcons and a White-backed Woodpecker.

Studying Sociable Lapwing has always been very exciting for me and I hope that the satellite tags will give us even more information in the next few years! Let ‘The Amazing Journey’ begin…