More on the Tallymerjan expedition

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Our western birds are still mostly making their way southwards, with Kiryl lagging behind in southern Russia. Sanjar has set up his wintering grounds in Saudi Arabia, with Nikoo currently in Iraq.  Three of the other birds are moving around the Turkish/Syrian border (Shirin, Vyan and Canan), while Ajaz remains in eastern Turkey.

Western route birds 28th October 2015
Western route birds 28th October 2015

To the east, Tesfaye is in Afghanistan, and Maysa in Turkmenistan.

Eastern route birds 28th October 2015
Eastern route birds 28th October 2015

Paul Donald has provided us with a summary of the work carried out recently on the Turkmenistan/Uzbekistan border – the results are incredible…

Back in 2010, an Environmental Impact Assessment recorded a flock of around 200 Sociable Lapwings near Tallymerjan Reservoir in south-western Uzbekistan, and since then, the small number of satellite tagged birds that have been followed on the eastern flyway have stopped there.  In September 2012, 400 birds were recorded, and in response to the apparent importance of this site, we arranged co-ordinated field counts on either side of the border in late September and early October of this year.

Many birds move regularly across the border but the largest numbers were recorded in Turkmenistan, with counts consistently indicating the presence of around 3,300-3,400 birds, the largest number recorded anywhere since the nineteenth century. A further 1,000 birds were recorded in Uzbekistan at the same time, so the eastern flyway population is likely to be in the region of 4,400 birds, perhaps around half the world population – a completely unexpected result.

The field team in Turkmenistan found during surveys at dawn that birds were spread out over large areas and feeding, suggesting that they feed throughout the night night. Faecal samples were collected for dietary analysis. Birds were recorded only in heavily grazed, flat, almost bare steppe with no taller plants, a habitat type that was fairly restricted in the areas surveyed. Sandy areas were avoided.

From dawn, birds moved north in small groups and by 07:30, no birds were left. The destination of these groups could not be ascertained because it took them into areas close to a sensitive border with much military surveillance. However, at least some of them seem to have moved to Tallymerjan Reservoir in Uzbekistan, since numbers there peaked after birds left the site in Turkmenistan and fell when birds started to arrive back in Turkmenistan.

Sociable lapwings and grazing sheep
Sociable lapwings and grazing sheep (Paul Donald)

The Tallymerjan area is clearly one of the most important sites in the world for this species, both in terms of the numbers present and the length of time birds spend there. Perhaps half the world population of the species uses a few relatively small sites for up to two months of the year, presumably fattening for the crossing of the Hindu Kush needed to take them to wintering grounds in Pakistan and India.  Fortunately, there was no evidence of hunting, and birds were unwary of cars. The heavy military presence in the area is likely to act as a deterrent to hunting.

Large areas of apparently suitable habitat, including some used by tagged birds in previous years, were not occupied. However, the area of bare, open steppe has greatly declined in recent times, due to the spread of irrigated agriculture. Overgrazing has led to massive desertification, with extensive areas of sand dunes appearing in recent years. Evidence of recent road construction presumably linked with newly opened gas fields could further degrade important habitats.

Survey teams:

Turkmenistan (in alphabetical order): Liz Ball, Paul Donald, Aman Kurbanov, Eldar Rustamov, Jumamurad Saparmuradov, Reg Thorpe, Mark Underhill, Atamyrad Veyisov

Uzbekistan: Nodir Azimov, Roman Kashkarov, Valentin Soldatov, Anna Ten

[This work was carried out under the Memorandum of Understanding between the Ministry of Nature Protection of Turkmenistan and the RSPB to protect birds and other biodiversity in Turkmenistan.]