It is notoriously difficult to assess population size and trends accurately because of the bird's ecology. Sturdy survey results would normally be obtained from either the breeding or wintering grounds, and for many species one or the other of these would be suitable for such counts. However, the sociable lapwing sets up its breeding territory opportunistically, historically following the large herds of grazers across the steppe. Because birds do not return to the same area, getting a reliable estimate of breeding numbers is not easy. In contrast, sociable lapwings are faithful to their wintering grounds, returning to the same place each year. However, this does not help with the assessments as the overall population splits into many small groups, sometimes of only a few birds, scattering their wintering grounds over a very wide area in either the Middle East/North Africa or Pakistan/India, making the whereabouts of the majority of birds during winter unknown. To complicate matters, birds breeding in the east do not necessarily take the eastern flyway, and those breeding in the west don't automatically take the western flyway.
In order to better understand the puzzle of the sociable lapwing, Swarovski Optik began funding work on the species, building on the April 2006 to March 2009 Darwin Project Conserving a flagship steppe species: the Critically Endangered Sociable Lapwing. That project began to piece together the movement patterns of sociable lapwings using satellite transmitters attached to birds and established the historic and current breeding range in the east and west. It identified that the breeding habitats were likely to be safe, at least in the short-term, with poor grazing unlikely to be the key driver in declines. The project also discovered that the species was more widespread and numerous than previously thought. The sociable lapwing had gone from one of the least understood wader species to one of the most, but still only the surface had been scratched - information on migration routes and wintering areas was scarce.
From early on, it became clear that technology would be a critical tool in unravelling the mystery of where birds went during the year. Platform Transmitter Terminals (PTTs) are powered by an internal battery that is charged by a solar panel and sits comfortably on the back of the birds using a soft, light, and strong harness made of Teflon. While the tag is being fitted, a dark hood is placed over the bird’s head to keep it calm, and the process is completed in a matter of just a few minutes. Tagged birds are typically incubating adults caught on the nest and they resume incubation and normal behavioural patterns immediately, the tags not having any measurable effect. The PTT transmits a signal periodically, and as a recording satellite passes over, it records the frequency and wavelength of the transmission and estimates the position of the tag to within just a few kilometres.
Having co-ordinates for tagged birds not only enables their routes to be mapped as they migrate, but also helps researchers on the ground to pinpoint where individuals are and search for congregations by locating a tagged bird. Since 2007, 29 birds have been tagged.