Reacquaintance with an old girlfriend in Kazakhstan

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This summer, scientists from ACBK (BirdLife in Kazakhstan) have been monitoring Sociable Lapwings again at their main study site in central Kazakhstan for the seventh year of a long term research project supported by RSPB, BirdLife International, Swarovski Optik and The UK Governments’ Darwin Initiative. This year’s breeding surveys have again been conducted in partnership with colleagues from the Korgalzhyn State Nature Reserve.

ACBK’s resident conservationist at Korgalzhyn is Ruslan Urazaliyev – a young local scientist supported by BirdLife’s Conservation Leadership Programme, who has dedicated his last four summers to studying the species. He took over as ACBK’s project leader from pioneering Sociable Lapwing scientist Maxim Koshkin in 2010, when Maxim moved to the UK to escalate studies for his PHD.

Ruslan releasing a colour-ringed and satellite-tagged Sociable Lapwing in May 2011

One of the research methods Ruslan and colleagues have been using at Korgalzhyn is the colour-ringing of chicks so they can later be individually identified in the field, at distance, without disturbance. This has proved an extremely effective technique and enables the gathering of insights into the birds’ age, how site-faithful they are, and their movements within breeding territories.

This year, seven previously colour-ringed birds were observed during summer surveys but Ruslan and his colleagues were particularly surprised and delighted when they ‘scoped’ a bird carrying the unique colour combination – Red, Red, White, Pink.

Seen every year apart from last, the adult female carrying this particular identity bracelet was first ringed as a chick at Kulanotpes in 2006. This makes RRWP the oldest Sociable Lapwing ever recorded and – for the study team – the sighting was a remarkable reacquaintance with an old girlfriend and worthy of celebration.

The oldest Sociable Lapwing ever recorded, carrying colour ring combination red, red, white, pink.

Another finding from the ongoing study is that many returning Sociable Lapwings are not particularly site faithful and will move to different breeding locations each year. RRWP has been extremely site faithful returning to either Aktubek or Kulanotpes each year other than in 2011 when she was not seen at all and was feared deceased.

The long-term study at Korgalzhyn has also discovered that Sociable Lapwings have a typical adult survival rate of 0.66 per year, so only eight percent of birds are ever likely to reach the grand old age of six. Clearly our bird carrying RRWP is a quite remarkable and tenacious lady.

Colour-ringed chick

The breeding survey this year took place between 20th April and 20th August and was conducted, as always, within an area known as the Tengiz-Korgalzhyn depression. In addition to monitoring the absolute numbers of birds present and colour ringing chicks, Ruslan and his colleague Timur Iskakov – from KSNR – evaluated the condition of the breeding population and the gathering of birds into large flocks prior to migration. 46 chicks were successfully ringed with unique colour combinations again this year.

Unfortunately 2012 was a difficult breeding season with uncharacteristic weather variances contributing to the birds’ relative lack of success compared to usual. During the last ten days of April the daytime temperature was very hot at around  30° Centigrade. During May it became much colder – dropping to just 10° Centigrade. It was also then very windy. The first week of May brought consistent and torrential rain – a combination of successive conditions hardly ideal for ground nesting species.

In parallel to the breeding fortunes of Sociable Lapwings other species suffered equally. Usually, four large colonies of Black-winged Pratincoles are found inside the study area whereas this year just one was present. The number of chicks produced by geese and swans was also down with just 2-3 chicks the norm as opposed to the more normal five plus. Breeding pairs of Demoiselle Crane were also lower than normal and local people even reported a significant reduction in the laying rate of domestic poultry.

Only 44 nests were found this year compared to 105 in 2011. Of these just over half (23) were successful, with losses of 13 to predators, one trampled by horses and seven to unknown causes.

While this is a significant decrease in nesting birds within the study area, it is not possible to say for sure that this indicates fewer breeding birds overall. It is quite possible some birds were forced to nest in other parts of Kazakhstan, as weather conditions had rendered the vegetation at many of the usual study area breeding sites unsuitable. The conditions also meant there was a lack of grasshoppers to feed on.

The situation was most extreme in the northern part of the study area. Sociable Lapwings prefer to nest in pastures of short grass near human settlements where domestic cattle keep the grass cropped short. Last year heavy rains promoted significant growth with the result that this year much of the usual breeding area was covered in high dead vegetation and unsuitable for either grasshoppers or provide breeding habitat. 38 of the 44 nests found were in more suitable areas in the south of the study area.

Sociable Lapwings staging in Kazakhstan pre-migration in September 2012

During the post-breeding / pre-migration phase, substantial flocks were however found gathering as usual at regular staging sites. It is this gregarious behaviour that ‘Sociable’ Lapwings are named after. In the south a maximum flock of 189 birds had gathered at a former riverbed near Aktyubek village and to the north a much larger flock of 383 birds was recorded in the shallow margins of Lake Zhanibekshalkar. These flocks are quite typical of the size of gatherings found during more successful breeding seasons.

In May 2013 we plan to conduct a comprehensive breeding survey throughout Kazakhstan. The primary purpose of this study will be to evaluate the true scale of the breeding population. The undertaking will be considerable and requires six study teams to conduct the necessary research for one month. Such an undertaking places a significant additional financial burden on the project budget next year and we are now hoping to raise the necessary funds to make this additional study possible. If you would like to contribute to this important study please make an online donation here.