Following on from the initial post about survey work in Kazakhstan this year, this brief update tells the story so far from the team in the field.
Cold weather and strong northerly winds persisted into late May with heavy storms on the 22-23rd, and even rain with snow on the 27th! The weather has definitely influenced bird numbers so far. There are fewer migrants of all species, with common birds such as Booted Warbler in very small numbers until the 3rd week of May, and shorebirds such as Ruff not arriving in big numbers until the 19th. Sociable Lapwing numbers are significantly lower than expected, with 53 individuals recorded, and only 8 nests located. The satellite tagged bird Maysa remained south-east of Karaganda until the 20th May, possibly influenced by the strong winds from the north. We expected that Maysa was going to stay in the Karaganda area and were planning a five-day trip to see if other Sociable Lapwings had established a breeding colony further south. However, on the 24th May signals were received from the area 140 km north-west from Karaganda and she remains very mobile.
This really is turning out to be an unusual year. Usually we would have expected Maysa to have had chicks by now, not still be prospecting for a nesting place. It is still too early to reach any conclusions about the breeding population this year, and survey work will continue into June and beyond. The weather is undoubtedly a factor that is influencing Sociable Lapwings and other species. There has also been a recent run of wet years and significant flooding which may be changing vegetation structure and composition.
Our general observations are that at some villages the vegetation is longer and lusher than when we started working in the area in 2005. RSPB Conservation Scientist Dr Graeme Buchanan has had an initial look at NDVI (Normalised Difference Vegetation Index) and EVI (Enhanced Vegetation Index), both measures of ‘greenness’ that might provide some evidence to support our observations. Initial investigations are not clear-cut, but there is some indication that in the last couple of years the vegetation is greener. Further investigation is required to look at data at the village level and the most recent NDVI data. We will also look at climate data, especially rainfall and temperature to see if there is any evidence to support vegetation change influencing Sociable Lapwing distribution. In the meantime, our surveys will continue during June and there will be a focus on post-breeding and pre-migration flocks in July and August.
Another aspect of our work this year has been discussing the importance of Sociable Lapwings with local shepherds and livestock owners. While undertaking survey work we are often approached by shepherds enquiring as to what we are doing, and we always take the opportunity to show them the bird and ask them if they know the species. Many of them do and describe locations where they have seen them in the past and can recollect seeing them in small flocks once the breeding period is complete. One local shepherd has become a kind of Sociable Lapwing ‘guardian’ and often contacts Ruslan Urazaliyev if he has news about birds turning up to breed, and one year reported bird photographers getting too close to a nest. Survey work isn’t just about counting birds – it can also be a great way to build relationships with local communities.
The survey work is funded by ACBK, Tengizchevroil, RSPB and Swarovski Optik through the BirdLife International Preventing Extinctions Programme.