Unravelling the mysteries of the sociable lapwing

The complex story of this Critically Endangered species, and how international co-operation and long-term commitment are tackling its rapid decline.

Overview

The sociable lapwing is a Critically Endangered species that has undergone a rapid decline of more than 90% since the 1930s. The reason for this decline is most likely low adult and juvenile survival, probably due to hunting pressure on the migration route and possibly in some of the wintering range states. It is unclear as to whether or not the decline is ongoing, although recent work has shown that the population is substantially larger than previously feared, and may even have stabilised.

Conservation of Globally Threatened Species is rarely simple, and is always more complex when the target species is migratory. Range state borders lead to variable legislation and engagement with conservation along a flyway and expose migrants to a wide variety of local, national, and international threats. Long-distance travel makes it harder to know where birds are and what they are doing.

The sociable lapwing story has been particularly difficult to unravel. Birds breed in Kazakhstan and the central part of southern Russia and then follow one of at least two different routes to completely separate wintering areas across some of the most challenging locations, both geographically (traversing the Hindu Kush), and politically (travelling through and staging in conflict zones of the Middle East). However, the story has also been one of international co-operation and long-term commitment.

Since 2008, Swarovski Optik has provided funds for sociable lapwing work via the BirdLife Preventing Extinctions Programme (PEP), with the RSPB co-ordinating the work.

Objectives

  • To conserve the Critically Endangered sociable lapwing, reduce its decline and stabilise the population by tracking its migratory routes and better understanding the causes of its decline.

Progress

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.

Planned Work

While research into migration patterns, habitat use and population sizes are vitally important, we are also undertaking practical conservation activities with our partners. These include: protection of key sites from disturbance and habitat destruction; awareness raising in local communities to reduce illegal killing; local threat assessment and mitigation; developing local stakeholder networks to take responsibility for sociable lapwing conservation; engagement with National Governments to develop and implement national Action Plans to protect sociable lapwings; building capacity within partner organisations.

Many challenges remain, not least of which is to reduce illegal killing in the Middle East and Pakistan/India, as well as mitigating the effects of large-scale development, and understanding the role that new habitats such as pivot fields in Saudi Arabia are playing in the lifecycle of this enigmatic bird.

Results

Surveys in 2006 in Kazakhstan estimated 376 breeding pairs in an area of 145,000 km2. Extrapolating this population density across the breeding range yielded a possible total population size of 5,600 breeding pairs (11,200 mature individuals), roughly equivalent to 16,000-17,000 individuals in total. This was supported by counts of 3,200 individuals in Turkey in October 2007, and recent estimates of 6,000-8,000 individuals on the border between Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

The full story of the migrations of our sociable lapwings and the discoveries we have made (and continue to make) are detailed on The Amazing Journey website.

Partners

A strong international partnership of organisations and individuals is focusing on conservation efforts for this charismatic species:

ACBK (BirdLife in Kazakhstan),
African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbirds Agreement (AEWA),
Ahmad Khan,
BirdLife International Preventing Extinctions Programme,
The Darwin Initiative,
Doğa Derneği (BirdLife in Turkey)
Viktor Fedosov,
Johannes Kamp,
Maxim Koshkin,
Nature Iraq,
Ornithological Society of the Middle East (OSME),
RDS Conservation,
The Rufford Foundation,
Eldar Rustamov,
Saiban Development Foundation,
Sudanese Wildlife Society, 
Swarovski Optik,
Turkmenistan Government, 
UzSPB (BirdLife in Uzbekistan)

Funding

Since 2008, Swarovski Optik has provided funds for sociable lapwing work via the BirdLife Preventing Extinctions Programme (PEP), with the RSPB co-ordinating the work.

Contacts

Coast on a stormy day

Ian Fisher

International Information Manager, RSPB

ian.fisher@rspb.org.uk
Tagged with: Country: India Country: Iraq Country: Kazakhstan Country: Pakistan Country: Russian Federation Country: Saudi Arabia Country: Sudan Country: Turkey Country: Turkmenistan Country: Uzbekistan Habitat: Farmland Habitat: Grassland Habitat: Upland Habitat: Wetland Habitat: Woodland Species: Lapwing Project status: Project types: Research Project types: Species protection