SoLa male Ruslan2

Since 2005 I’ve been fortunate enough to have worked on the Critically Endangered Sociable Lapwing, initially whilst working for the RSPB and now as a freelance consultant. We’ve learnt a lot about the ecology of the species and what might have caused the population decline during the 1990s and early 2000s. During the breeding season we know that the species has a preference for short-grazed vegetation in which to nest, especially steppe grassland dominated by artemesia. This short grazed habitat is primarily found in close proximity to villages throughout the central steppe grasslands of Kazakhstan. Livestock are taken out into the steppe during the day by a communal shepherd and then bought back to the village each night. Inevitably, as we surveyed and monitored Sociable Lapwing numbers we came into regular contact with shepherds. Shepherding must be a rather lonely job in the vast steppes for about 12 hours each day, and I guess any chance to break up the monotony of watching sheep or cattle graze must be welcome. Whilst observing Sociable Lapwings we would often be approached out of curiosity or to ensure we weren’t hatching a plan to rustle some livestock! Many of the fieldworkers were Russian and/or Kazakh speakers, but I certainly wasn’t, with a limited vocabulary that doesn’t stretch to discussing the finer points of Sociable Lapwing ecology. Engaging with the shepherds did occasionally produce some useful information as some of them recognised the species and could sometimes provide us with additional information about current locations or where they may have occurred in the past. Typically we would use a local field guide to show them what the bird looked like. Sometimes there would be genuine interest in our work and mobile telephone numbers would be exchanged in case there were any future sightings. One local shepherd often called Ruslan Urazaliyev, the current Sociable Lapwing project leader, if he saw tour groups getting close to a reasonably well-known breeding site.

Talking to shepherds1

Ruslan Urazaliyev, Sociable Lapwing project leader for ACBK, in discussion with local shepherds in 2018.

This year, rather than relying on our field guides to base any Sociable Lapwing conversations on, Ruslan produced a series of five photographs that helped tell a story about the bird and its ecology. These have been an excellent development in engaging local shepherds, as well as raising awareness about the species. They have been especially useful for me as I was mainly working by myself this year, and the images combined with a few basic words have helped bridge the language barrier.


The five photographs used during fieldwork in 2019 to ‘tell the story’ of Sociable Lapwing ecology.

Three images focus on the identification of the Sociable Lapwing and point out that males and females are slightly different, and also the distinct wing markings in flight – often this helps tease out any possible confusion with Northern Lapwings, or indeed other more common shorebird species. A fourth image shows Sociable Lapwings with livestock in the background which tells the story of the need for short vegetation for nesting and why they occur near villages. A final image shows a small flock of Sociable Lapwings in flight which leads to a discussion about how they gather into flocks after breeding and migrate for the winter. The stories around each image have often led on to more in-depth conversations. Using these simple photographs to tell the story of our study species, often by fieldworkers who don’t speak the local language, has been a useful tool for communicating our science and conservation efforts to local people. A picture really can say a thousand words.


Fieldworker, Dennis Urazaliyev, discussing the Sociable Lapwing with a local shepherd.


The survey work is funded by ACBKTengizchevroilRSPB and Swarovski Optikthrough the BirdLife International Preventing Extinctions Programme.

For further information on the Sociable Lapwing project, visit the Amazing Journey website.

Photo credits: Male Sociable Lapwing (Ruslan Urazaliyev). Fieldworker Dennis Urazaliyev with a local shepherd (Timur Iskakov). Other images by Rob Sheldon.