Understanding the migration routes of threatened migratory species is key to supporting declining populations.
Targeted help for the critically endangered Sociable Lapwing has come another step closer, thanks to the publication of a paper by Paul Donald and colleagues in the Journal of Ornithology. In it, they describe how satellite tracking, colour-ringing, studies of historical records and flock counts have combined to give a much clearer picture of the main sites used by Sociable Lapwings during migration and in the winter. In addition, the research team’s work has produced a more robust estimate of the world population of the species. Given the threats that Sociable Lapwings face when they are away from their breeding sites – particularly from hunting – this is all crucial information for their conservation.
The Sociable Lapwing
Sociable Lapwings once bred from Ukraine through to western China. There still may be a small population in southern Russia but the breeding range is now almost entirely restricted to the steppes of central and northern Kazakhstan (Sheldon et al 2012). For centuries, Sociable Lapwings have relied upon grazing by herds of Saiga Antelopes, which created open areas in which to nest. As natural grazing systems have broken down, Sociable Lapwings have become increasingly restricted to grazed land around villages (Kamp et al. 2009). Given that current productivity levels appear sufficient to maintain this small population in a viable state, low adult survival is thought to be the most likely driver of recent population declines (Sheldon et al. 2013).
Prior to this study, little was known about the wintering areas used by Sociable Lapwings. There had been some reports of flocks in eastern Africa but most information from countries such as Sudan was several decades out of date. Further east, sightings in Pakistan and India accounted for only small numbers of the known population. Did birds travel straight from breeding areas to winter sites or were there key stop-over sites that were missing from the map? Did birds in the western part of the breeding range head southwest to East Africa, with those in the east heading south to Pakistan and India? It was time to track some birds!
Paul Donald and colleagues undertook a long-term study of the movements of Sociable Lapwings, using satellite tagging, colour-ringing, targeted field surveys and a database of historical and recent sightings. The collation of this database involved a huge amount of painstaking work, with researchers checking museum collections, searching through unpublished literature, liaising with local birdwatching organisations and looking for bird lists and images, via the Internet.
Studies of breeding birds were mainly focused upon an area around Korgalzhyn, in central Kazakhstan where, between 2004 and 2015, 150 adult Sociable Lapwings and 1473 chicks were colour-ringed. The main aim was to estimate survival rates but some of these marked individuals provided valuable data when seen during visits to potential wintering and passage sites. Most of this fieldwork outside of the breeding season was undertaken by local conservationists and ornithologists, with their efforts being coordinated by the BirdLife International Social Lapwing Project.
Detailed information on movement patterns was collected with the assistance of 29 satellite-tracked adult birds, caught in the breeding grounds between 2007 and 2015. Most were tagged near Korgalzhyn, in central Kazakhstan but five were tagged in an area about 800 km further east. Of these 29 birds, 21 were female. Technical developments by Microwave Telemetry Inc. meant that early 9 g solar-powered tags could be replaced by 5 g tags in later years.
The paper by Donald et al contains detailed information about the movements of individual birds and how they were tracked. Anyone contemplating a similar study may want to read about how data were filtered and ‘clusters’ and ‘transit points’ were defined.
Early (larger) tags did not produce as much information as later (smaller) tags. The fact that one of the early-tagged birds was seen back on the breeding grounds without its harness and tag suggests that harness failures may have been an issue early on. 16 of the 29 tags provided data that enabled the research team to plot 27 complete autumn migration journeys and 13 complete spring journeys. Some birds were tracked for longer periods, producing data for two or more autumn (7 birds) and spring (3 birds) migrations. Birds followed for more than one year repeated almost exactly the same autumn and spring journeys.
The tracked birds set off on one of two routes at the end of the breeding season, either heading west and south to northeast Africa and the Arabian Peninsula (the western route) or due south to Pakistan and India (the eastern route):
- Seventeen birds used the longer western route, west across Kazakhstan, across or around the western Caspian Sea, then south through the Caucasus and the Levant, before reaching wintering areas in Saudi Arabia and eastern Sudan (map below).
- Seven birds set off on the shorter eastern route, due south to Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, then over or around the mountains of northern Afghanistan to wintering areas in Pakistan and north-western India.
- Migration direction was ascertained for 22 birds from the central Kazakhstan group: 16 birds took the westerly route and 6 used the eastern route. Only two of the birds that were marked further east produced usable tracks, with one bird following the eastern route and one following the western route.
- Birds using the eastern route travelled an average of 2839 km, with birds on the western route travelling 5199 km – nearly twice as far. Birds on both flyways departed their breeding grounds and arrived on their wintering ground at around the same time. Key stop-over areas were identified (see paper).
- In autumn, birds on the eastern route stopped only once, at Tallymarzhan (on the border of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan), remaining in the area for between 29 and 48 days. Western birds stopped more often and generally for much shorter periods.
- Central Azerbaijan and northern Afghanistan seem to be important spring staging sites for birds on the western and eastern routes, respectively, but these sites have yet to be surveyed.
- The timing, direction and use of stopover areas of birds tracked in more than one year were highly consistent but there was much variation between individuals.
Only eight of the Sociable Lapwings colour-ringed as chicks on the breeding grounds in central Kazakhstan were subsequently seen outside Kazakhstan: five at the Kuma-Manych Depression in Stavropol (on the western route) and three at Tallymarzhan in Uzbekistan (eastern).
Chicks and adults gather in mixed flocks prior to migration and it is thought that they migrate together. Perhaps circumstances and the adult birds with which young birds happen to associate determine the direction of the first migration south. If it is still alive, why should a young bird migrate in a different direction in a subsequent year?
Adults used up to three different areas during the course of a winter and, as far as could be determined from the small number of multi-year tracks, did the same thing in subsequent years. An analysis of the sites used by wintering birds emphasised the importance of arable habitats – most stopover sites are in areas that have been under cultivation for over 2000 years.
There was little evidence of strong breeding site fidelity, with adult birds moving up to 300 km from the site of tagging in the next year. For a species that may need to search for nesting sites in recently-grazed or burnt-off grassland, within a relatively homogeneous steppe habitat, it is perhaps unsurprising that there appears to be less of a tendency for birds to be site-faithful than seen in many other species of wader.
Finding the flocks
The research team found that their database of historical and recent records of flocks of migrating and wintering Sociable Lapwing identified the same two major migration routes that appeared from traces of tracked birds. There is a strong suggestion that there is a third, central route that takes birds to Oman, parts of eastern Saudi Arabia and to sites around the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman. None of the 29 tagged birds happened to end up in these areas. See update below.
Counts on both sides of the border between Uzbekistan-Turkmenistan, in the autumn of 2015, suggested that between 6000 and 8000 Sociable Lapwings may use this area when migrating along the eastern route. Using information on the proportion of tagged birds that visited this area, and for how long, the research team estimate that the global population of Sociable Lapwings is about 24,000 individuals, although the 95% confidence interval is broad (13,700 to 55,560 birds). The estimate is the most robust so far and the methodology can be repeated in the future, in order to monitor population change.
The bigger picture
In Palaearctic species with intercontinental flyways to both Africa and Asia, individuals breeding in the western part of the range usually take the western flyway and those in the eastern part of the breeding range migrate along an eastern flyway, with a clear migratory divide within the breeding range. This is the case for species as diverse as waders, bustards and bee-eaters. Discovering that Sociable Lapwings are not so similarly constrained was a surprise, with the route used being independent of the longitude of the tagging site.
During migration and on the wintering grounds, Sociable Lapwings are strongly associated with areas of agriculture, particularly along rivers. Only in northern Syria and and Tallymarzhan were birds found in more natural steppe grasslands. Birds are now using irrigated areas of the Arabian Peninsula, where agricultural land has been created in former deserts. It appears that new generations of Sociable Lapwings, taking advantage of these novel opportunities, now undertake shorter migratory journeys and have perhaps established new pathways. This form of Generational Change is the subject of a WaderTales blog about Black-tailed Godwits.
Sociable Lapwings are widely dispersed over huge and often inaccessible areas on both the breeding and wintering grounds. Their concentration in a small number of predictable staging areas, during migration, offers the best opportunity to gather information on population trends. Birds using the western route appear to have more available options than birds in the east, making numbers harder to monitor.
Birds using the western route, particularly in Syria and Iraq, are targeted by hunters in the autumn and there is no protection for any of the stopover sites identified in this study. The authors suggest that it is particularly important to know more about spring staging areas in Azerbaijan, as this is a focal area for returning birds using the western route and potentially an area in which hunting takes a significant toll. Birds using the eastern route appear not to be hunted – or at least not in the same sort of numbers as in the west. Sociable Lapwings that use the less well-understood central route and that winter in the Arabian Peninsula may be vulnerable, as they share irrigated fields with species that are popular with hunters.
To learn more
The authors, and everyone else who has contributed to decades of Sociable Lapwing research, are to be commended for the work they have done. Now that key sites have been identified, it is to be hoped that there is political will to provide protection for this critically endangered species. Actions will need to include site designation, local involvement in conservation action and concerted efforts to curb illegal hunting.
The paper upon which this blog is based is:
Migration strategy, site fidelity and population size of the globally threatened Sociable Lapwing Paul F. Donald, Johannes Kamp,Rhys E. Green, Ruslan Urazaliyev, Maxim Koshkin & Robert D. Sheldon. Journal of Ornithology.
Other WaderTales blogs about tracking projects that help to identify migratory hot-spots used by threatened waders include:
Spoon-billed Sandpipers: Track and Trace (finding wintering and passage sites)
Black-tailed Godwits are on their way home (Tagus Estuary airport plan)
Teenage Waders (Hudsonian Godwits in the Pampa wetlands of Argentina)
ACBK, the BirdLife partner in Kazakhstan, published an updated map for tracked Sociable Lapwings in October 2021 (see below). This includes the first bird that used the new central migration route, due south from the Kazakhstan breeding grounds.
WaderTales blogs are written by Graham Appleton (@GrahamFAppleton) to celebrate waders and wader research. Many of the articles are based on published papers, with the aim of making shorebird science available to a broader audience.