Spring surveys and community engagement in Iraq

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Each spring since April 2009, Nature Iraq has conducted ornithological survey expeditions in and around the vast arid western and central deserts of Iraq, hoping to find Sociable Lapwings that might be passing through the country on their northerly migration back to Kazakhstan.

During these expeditions Nature Iraq takes the opportunity to meet with individuals in the local rural communities they encounter, to help them engage in a deeper understanding of their environment and teach them about the special wildlife that they share this part of the world with.

This year’s survey activities began on April 14th when several experienced staff members from Nature Iraq and their colleagues from the Iraqi Ministry of Environment (IMOE) joined forces and set off for western Iraq. The core team participating were Ali Ne’ema Slaman (Ornithologist) from IMoE, Haithem N. Al-Alwani (Trainee) IMoE – Anbar Directorate, Ali Haloob (Botanist) from Nature Iraq and Omar F. Al-Sheikhly (Ornithologist and Sociable Lapwing Team Leader) from Nature Iraq.

Omar Fadhil – Nature Iraq Sociable Lapwing Survey Team Leader

Surveys conducted in previous years have helped establish a considerable amount of useful information about the sites the team planned to visit in 2012. In addition to establishing a solid database of the habitats and sites the lapwings use when they are passing through Iraq, important social information about the clan structures of the local communities that live in the search areas had also been gathered.

As regular followers of The Amazing Journey blog will already be aware, surveying remote areas in Iraq is not a simple matter. Getting special permission to visit these normally restricted and dangerous areas is just a start point and earning the trust, support and goodwill of local people is also key to success. The expeditions conducted over the last four years have enabled Nature Iraq to carefully build a respectful and cooperative relationship with several Sheiks (heads of the clans) in the areas they have previously visited. This year the survey team were rewarded to discover that in addition to the Sheikhs, several local farmers, fishermen, hunters and even police officers recognized the team when they arrived and welcomed them – keen to help support their mission and enabling smooth operations throughout.

In previous years one of the priority advocacy activities has been to educate the hunting community about the rarity and protected status of Sociable Lapwings. Another has been to engage with local communities by tapping in to the natural interest and enthusiasm shown in the environment by school children. For the 2012 expedition the conservation team had decided to formalise this approach and target second and third year classes in school.  Two remote schools in the western desert areas of Iraq, where Sociable Lapwings have previously been reported, were chosen and during visits to the primary schools at Al Hussayniyatt and Al Ga’ara, the expedition team made an introductory lecture to the children showing them pictures and teaching them how to recognise Sociable Lapwings, as well as distributing information leaflets about the species to the students.

School children with Sociable Lapwing leaflets - April 2011.

To help stimulate a greater interest in and awareness of the importance of protecting their environment, the children were also taken outside to look at and identify some of the more commonly occurring species in the school grounds. During these sessions the children were allowed to use the Swarovski binoculars and spotting scope that had been previously provided by BirdLife Species Champion Swarovski Optik to Nature Iraq to help with their field studies.  This created considerable excitement and sparked great enthusiasm among the children who had never used optical equipment to look at wildlife in close up before. To round off the school visits, each student was given a Sociable Lapwing lapel pin as a memento.

Egyptian Vultures circle a nest site at the Al Afaeaf Rocky Mountains, Al Ga'ara.

The surveys conducted in previous years have established that 13 main survey sites occur along the migration rout of the Sociable Lapwing in the two Iraqi provinces of Al-Anbar and Salah-ad-Din. This year several of the historical sites in both provinces were visited and the team also added a new location “Al Ga’ara” (see header photo) which is in the western Badya (aridland) of Al-Anbar near the Iraq border with Syria and Jordan.

Despite the fact that Sociable Lapwings were not found at any of the survey sites during the 2012 expedition, a number of other interesting and important observations were made by the team during this year’s surveys and the outreach work with school children and local communities was considered a great success.

The new site at Al Ga’ara will be nominated as a new Important Bird Area (IBA) as at least 12 pairs of Endangered Egyptian Vultures Neophron percnopterus were recorded displaying at nest sites on rocky cliffs at the Al Afaeaf Rocky Mountains there.

At another survey site near Haditah in Anbar, 18 Steppe Buzzards Buteo b. vulpinus, three Booted Eagles Aquila pennata, two Steppe Eagles Aquila nipalensis, one European Honey Buzzard Pernis apivorus, and an incredible flock c. 215 Lesser Kestrels Falco naumanni were recorded on passage.

Migrating 2nd winter male Montagu's Harrier - one of 48 individuals encountered.

Raptor migration in Salah-ad-Din province was also in full flow, including a particularly heavy movement of migrating Montagu’s Harriers Circus pygargus. During surveys there, 48 individuals were observed at two different sites.

Adult male Semi-collared Flycatcher at Makhool.

Another exciting observation was of good numbers of Near Threatened Semi–collared Flycatchers Ficedula semitorquata with 11 individuals recorded at two sites in Salah-ad-Din province and one male observed foraging in low shrubs in the western desert of Anbar.