The steppes of Kazakhstan was where the current research and conservation effort for the Critically Endangered Sociable Lapwing began. A pilot study in 2004 suggested that the main driver behind the population decline was low breeding success due to nest trampling. However, subsequent work by ACBK (Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity in Kazakhstan), RSPB and BirdLife International has shown that it is actually low annual survival during migration that is the most likely explanation for the decline.
Between 2005 and 2012 more than 1000 nests were located and monitored, 1310 chicks and 132 adults colour-ringed, and numerous other ecological parameters measured. All these data enabled us to show that both nest and chick survival fluctuated between years and that low adult was much lower than similar species such as Northern Lapwing. This work was published in Journal of Ornithology and the abstract is here.
A study of habitat suitability by Johannes Kamp showed a strong preference for Sociable Lapwings to nest within 2km of villages. This was linked to the grazing density of livestock associated with villages that created the right short grazed sward required for nesting. The continued low intensity grazing of the Kazakh steppes will be crucial to the future of the Sociable Lapwing.
An analysis of the satellite tracking data, colour ringing information and historical records led by Dr Paul Donald has also led to a much greater understanding of the migration routes and key staging sites for the migrating Sociable Lapwing. The research paper is currently in peer review but the key finding can be summarised in the figure below. There are two migratory routes – a longer western route (c. 5200 km) taking birds west to southern Russia, then south through the Caucasus and the Levant to wintering areas in Saudi Arabia and eastern Sudan. And a shorter eastern route (c. 2800 km) taking birds south to Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, then over the mountains of northern Afghanistan to wintering areas in Pakistan and north-western India.
Recent repeat surveys led by Ruslan Urazaliyev have shown that the breeding population of Sociable Lapwings studied since 2005 has declined significantly. In 2018 and 2019 only 9 and 15 nesting females were located compared to between 36-126 nests in the same area from 2005-2012. The reasons behind this decline are unclear but may be related to changes in local weather patterns or the impact of recent flood events on vegetation structure.
All of these pieces of research have led to a much greater understanding of the requirements of the Sociable Lapwing which have been incorporated into the most recent International Species Action Plan under the auspices of AEWA and CMS. What is clear is that international collaboration will be key to saving the Critically Endangered Sociable Lapwing.
As part of the Global Bird Weekend Ruslan Urazaliyev and Timur Iskakov will be checking areas within the long-term project area, including Korgalzhyn, Shalkar and Amangeldy, all of which have previously held good numbers of nesting birds. They will also check the lakes near the villages of Mayshukyr and Arakty, the latter being a hugely important site for pre-migratory flocks – with 856 Sociable Lapwings counted there in June 2018. Sociable Lapwings will almost certainly have left the area and they will be en route to the wintering grounds, but Ruslan and Timur will take this opportunity to promote the importance of these area for Sociable Lapwings to local communities and shepherds.
The work in Kazakhstan and the migration studies would not have been possible without the collaboration of literally 100s of people who provided records and took part in numerous surveys. Over the years the various strands of the Sociable Lapwing research, monitoring and conservation efforts have received funding from a wide-range of sources including the RSPB, the UK Government’s Darwin Initiative (here and here), Swarovski Optik (the BirdLife Species Champion for Sociable Lapwing) through the BirdLife Preventing Extinctions Programme, the African-Eurasian Waterbird Agreement (AEWA) and the German Ornithological Society (DO-G), the Mohammed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund (MBZ) and the Ornithological Society of the Middle East, the Caucasus and Central Asia (OSME).