The Critically Endangered Sociable Lapwing is one of the world’s rarest and most threatened birds. It breeds in Kazakhstan and southern Russia and winters from Sudan to Pakistan and India.
How it gets from its breeding grounds to its wintering areas is of great interest to conservationists, since hunting pressures along its migration routes is considered one of the main threats to the species’ population.
Very little is known about their path along the eastern flyway, from Kazakhstan to Pakistan and India.
So when UzSPB (BirdLife affiliate in Uzbekistan) found 400 Sociable Lapwings at a reservoir in southwestern Uzbekistan in 2012, and when a few of the birds fitted with satellite tracking devices in Kazakhstan turned up in the same area and in adjacent parts of Turkmenistan, experts’ interest was piqued. New research from last year shows that this area, known on both sides of the border as Tallymerdzhan – is used by possibly the species’ entire eastern flyway population and perhaps a third or more of its global population.
In October 2015, researchers from Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and the UK carried out coordinated surveys of the area in both countries, and found as many as 4.225 birds in Uzbekistan and 3.675 in Turkmenistan. The total number of birds using the area was estimated at between 6.000 and 8.000. Birds use this area for around two months while they fatten up for the crossing of the Hindu Kush mountains that takes them to their wintering grounds, one of the longest stopover periods ever recorded in a long-distance migrant.
The discovery of the large population of Sociable Lapwings in the area suggests that the eastern flyway is as important in terms of numbers as the much better studied western flyway (that goes from Kazakhstan south into Syria and Saudi Arabia), and that Tallymerdzhan is one of the most important sites for the species globally.
The Sociable Lapwing is already included in the Red Data Books of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, but there are no environmental protection measures in place in Tallymerdzhan. Much of the area used by Sociable Lapwings falls inside the two Important Birds and Biodiversity Areas (IBAs) in the area – Talimarzhan Reservoir and Tallymerjen – which were designated for other species (particularly wintering Common Crane Grus grus, Greylag Goose Anser anser and other waterbirds), but this does not confer legal protection.
The IBA in Uzbekistan needs to be expanded to include key steppes to the east and south of the reservoir, and both need recognition as sites vital to the survival of the Sociable Lapwing. The AEWA International Species Action Plan for Sociable Lapwing also needs updating in the light of the discovery that both Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are important range countries. The eastern flyway population is substantially larger than previously known, and more work is required in range countries along this flyway to ensure that threats are monitored and minimised.
A system of monitoring needs to be developed to track future changes along the flyway and, if necessary, protective measures will need to be drawn up. The spread of arable agriculture, and perhaps desertification, can be monitored from satellite imagery, but periodic field visits should be undertaken to assess trends in numbers and threats to birds using the site.
The work in Turkmenistan was carried out under the Memorandum of Understanding between the Ministry of Nature Protection of Turkmenistan and the RSPB to protect birds and other biodiversity in Turkmenistan.
This article was first published by BirdLIfe International on 12 Apr 2016.