Two of the five satellite tags we had hoped to deploy in Kazakhstan in June 2015 were unused, but our successful at catching birds with nooses made us think about trying to catch more birds just after the breeding season when they gather in flocks to moult and prepare for migration. We were able to obtain three more tags, giving us a total of five to deploy, and we returned with more nooses in late July to try again.
We found four flocks of lapwings with between 58 and 177 birds in them. The birds were feeding on mowed hayfields and short steppe. When the day was hot, they moved to rest on patches of fallow land next to wheat fields, burned areas of the hayfields, and the edges of lakes where cattle and sheep had trampled the ground bare when coming to drink. Having watched for a while to find their favourite resting places and get the birds used to our presence, we slipped out of the passenger door of the car, with the vehicle between us and the birds. While hidden from the flock, we set the nooses. When we had finished a section of the noose-line as long as the car, we signalled the driver to move it a little so as to keep us hidden as we moved to set the next part. When we had laid a 12 metre line of nooses, we crawled back into the car and started to edge the birds slowly towards them. Sometimes this took three hours but, except once when a herd of cattle spoiled our plans by walking through the flock and frightening them away, we were always successful. We trapped and tagged five birds in six days. All five birds were adults: four males and one female. Only about 15% of the birds in the flocks were juveniles hatched in 2015, so it is not surprising that we did not catch any. This is a lower proportion than usual and may indicate low breeding success because of the unusually wet conditions and resulting poor habitat.
We only captured one bird at each attempt, which was because we were very cautious about the possible risk to the trapped bird. We always moved in quickly if it started to struggle, which flushed the rest of the flock. We removed each bird from the noose within about one minute of it beginning to struggle and none of the birds was harmed. They were all tagged quickly and flew away strongly. We returned to one flock after making a successful catch to try again. While driving the flock towards the noose-line, we saw the bird we had tagged three days before. He was back in the flock and behaving normally, often bullying other birds to get a favoured sitting or feeding place.
After a second successful catch, we had two tagged birds in this flock, but also found that another of the flocks from which we noosed a bird included the female we had trapped on the nest in June. So two flocks have two tagged birds in them and two other flocks each have one tagged bird. It will be interesting to see whether or not tagged birds from the same post-breeding flock migrate together. All the birds we tagged were adults just finishing their wing moult. We knew from satellite data that the other two birds we tagged in June, a male and a female, had moved to another area with many large cereal fields. We searched there unsuccessfully one afternoon and found only large flocks of migrating ruffs feeding on open fields that had been ploughed up after the wheat had been harvested. Probably there were also flocks of sociable lapwings feeding on these fields somewhere, but we did not find them.
The purpose of satellite tagging is to track the migration routes taken by the lapwings to and from their wintering grounds in Sudan and India. We hope that the eight birds we tagged in 2015 and Shirin, a female we nest-trapped and tagged in 2014, will continue to teach us more about the hazards faced by sociable lapwings on their amazing journeys.[Watch this space for more news of flock movements, and find out the names of the eight new birds who will set out on their Amazing Journey very soon.