16 Jun 2021

Global research uncovers mysteries of rare Sociable Lapwing

Thanks to extensive research over the last 15 years, the Sociable Lapwing has gone from one of the world’s more obscure waders to one of its most studied, and it is now widely regarded as a flagship species for the conservation of the Central Asian steppes. We take a look at the work that has uncovered its mysteries and begun to conserve it.

The enigmatic Sociable Lapwing has been the focus of international research and conservation efforts since 2005 © Rob Sheldon
The Sociable Lapwing has been the focus of international research since 2005 © Rob Sheldon
By Rob Sheldon

Its breeding grounds once stretched from Ukraine in the west to as far east as Xinjiang in China, and north into southern Siberia. But with the loss of much of the natural steppe in Ukraine in the nineteenth century through conversion to cereal production, and profound changes to agricultural management during the Soviet period, the breeding range of the Sociable Lapwing Vanellus gregarius contracted to an increasingly small area of Kazakhstan. In 2004, BirdLife uplisted the species to Critically Endangered following severe population declines, with some reports suggesting that just a few hundred breeding pairs may survive.

But why was the Sociable Lapwing teetering on the brink of extinction? Under the auspices of the Agreement on the Conservation of African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbirds (AEWA), an international species action plan was developed by collaborating experts on the species and its habitats to help determine the reasons. In the same year, a pilot study suggested that low breeding success due to trampling of nests by livestock could be a primary factor. All this culminated in the establishment of a comprehensive research project based around the small town of Korgalzhyn, some 130 km south-west of Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan’s capital.

In May 2005, scientists from the Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity in Kazakhstan (ACBK, BirdLife Partner), the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB, BirdLife in the UK) and research students from Germany and Kazakhstan set out to locate as many Sociable Lapwing colonies as possible. As population size was considered critically low and breeding success poor, the team aimed to collect vital data on the species and also look at potential emergency conservation measures.


Researchers use any available vantage points to scan the vast steppe landscape © Rob Sheldon


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The first few weeks were spent locating Sociable Lapwings and trialling the idea of using nest protectors to reduce livestock trampling. Real nests were far too precious to test this on, so experimental nests using quails’ eggs were established. The project team purchased what seemed to be the whole season’s supply of quail eggs from the capital, and when those ran out, resorted to painting chicken eggs! However, by mid-May the research was starting to reveal that breeding success wasn’t as bad as first thought, and many of the Sociable Lapwing nests that the team had found were hatching.

The next research phase involved catching and fitting chicks with unique combinations of colour rings so that they could be observed to estimate their survival rates. The teams spent hours in the field monitoring chicks as they tried to hide in the steppe vegetation, but it became clear that the number surviving through to fledging was also reasonably high.

Around the end of June, Sociable Lapwings start to form post-breeding flocks and many of these included a high proportion of colour-ringed birds. The same relatively high levels of breeding success were replicated in subsequent years, but the results began to show that adult survival was low. With nothing indicating a source of high mortality on the breeding grounds, it became clear that to find the cause of the population decline, the researchers needed to look elsewhere.


Migration mysteries

Winter in Kazakhstan can be harsh, and Sociable Lapwings migrate south to escape snow-covered steppes and sub-zero temperatures. Historical sightings from north-east Africa, the Middle East and India suggested that the species has more than one migratory population, but little was known about the different routes they took.

As international awareness of the plight of the species grew, many organisations and individuals helped to look for migrating flocks. A Dutch team working with Syrian ornithologists with support from the Syrian Society for the Conservation of Wildlife (SSCW, BirdLife Partner) undertook surveys across Syria in February and March 2007. This team made several key discoveries, not only recording up to 2,000 individuals – suggesting some global population estimates at the time were too pessimistic – but also that Sociable Lapwings may be targeted illegally by hunters. This was confirmed the following spring by an RSPB team surveying in the country, as well as by images appearing on social media with Sociable Lapwings being displayed across hunters’ car bonnets.

Three birds were fitted with satellite tags on the breeding grounds in May 2007, and these led to a number of breakthroughs in the understanding of key sites and migratory routes. In October 2007, ornithologists at Doğa Derneği (BirdLife in Turkey) made the amazing discovery of some 3,200 Sociable Lapwings in the Ceylanpinar area on the Syrian border, again demonstrating that the population was not as low as first feared.


Satellite tags were crucial in identifying migration routes and key stopover sites © Rob Sheldon


Subsequent surveys confirmed that this area on both sides of the Turkey-Syria border is a key stopover site for the species in both spring and autumn. Two of the satellite-tagged birds continued their journeys south and were eventually tracked to Sudan, where they spent the winter months; one returned to the same area for two additional winters. These were the first records of Sociable Lapwings in Sudan for more than 80 years.

Surveys by the Sudanese Wildlife Society located several small wintering flocks, including one of the satellite-tagged individuals. The largest group was 38 birds in January 2009. It is thought that once Sociable Lapwings reach their wintering grounds they disperse into smaller flocks, making them less conspicuous.

“Sociable Lapwings require closely-cropped sward so they can have a good view of predators; it’s like nesting on a billiard table. Finding them in the unspeakably vast Central Steppes of Asia is a challenge. When partners in Sudan found our tagged birds we were over the moon. This work, of over a decade, is a fantastic example of international collaboration within and beyond the BirdLife Partnership,” says Paul Donald, Senior Researcher, BirdLife International (and previously RSPB).

More birds were tagged in Kazakhstan in 2010, and again birds were tracked through the Middle East and into Africa. A further significant discovery was made when satellite-tagged birds spent the winter in northern Saudi Arabia. Additional surveys in the Tabuk area of northern Saudi and Haradh in the Eastern Province have confirmed that small numbers are now wintering in the country.

The vast majority of Sociable Lapwing sightings in the Arabian Peninsula are on irrigated fields. The artificial habitat that these fields provide is a relatively recent phenomenon, and it could be that their presence has changed the migratory behaviour of Sociable Lapwings – why continue migrating south to Africa when new food-rich sources are available?


The Sociable Lapwing’s migratory routes (brown in spring, blue in autumn). Map © Paul Donald


A passage to India

A big gap in our knowledge was understanding the importance of the eastern migratory route, where birds head from the Kazakh breeding grounds towards India. From 2010-2015, seven tagged birds took this route and consistently stopped on the Turkmenistan-Uzbekistan border, suggesting the presence of a regular stopover site. A survey in October 2014 by the Uzbekistan Society for the Protection of Birds (UzSPB, BirdLife in Uzbekistan) recorded up to 400 Sociable Lapwings using the area known as Talimarzhan, an Important Bird & Biodiversity Area, which at the time was the largest count of the species made in Uzbekistan, or indeed anywhere on the southern route.

In autumn 2015 an expedition involving teams on both sides of this border recorded a single day maximum count of 4,225 birds, and the total number estimated to be using the area was between 6,000-8,000. This amazing discovery again highlighted that the global population of Sociable Lapwings was much higher than previously thought, and also suggested that the eastern migratory route was just as important, if not more so, than the western flyway.

Of all the countries in which Sociable Lapwings are known to winter, India has the most records, mainly in the north-west (especially Gujarat and Rajasthan). In December 2010, 90 birds were counted near Ahmedabad – one of the largest wintering flocks ever recorded. Satellite tracking also highlighted the importance of Pakistan as a wintering site, and this was again confirmed by ground-based surveys. In early 2016, a team from the Saiban Development Organisation located a record flock of 200 Sociable Lapwings along the Indus river valley, and the following winter over 500 birds were found in Sindh, including a single flock of 365 birds which (there’s a theme here) was the largest wintering flock ever recorded in Pakistan.


Sociable Lapwings in Baluchistan, Pakistan: satellite-tagged bird, "Maysa", in centre © Saiban Development Foundation


“The Sociable Lapwing lives up to its name not only because it is gregarious, but also because it has brought together so many professionals and experts from different countries. Our international team is an example of a long-term and sustainable partnership aimed at conserving this unique species,” says Ruslan Urazaliyev, Research fellow, ACBK, who has worked on the Sociable Lapwing project since 2008.


Ongoing threats

With records of hunting from several countries along the western flyway, combined with low annual survival estimated from long-term survival data, it seems very likely that the key threat to the Sociable Lapwing is illegal killing. Hunting has not been recorded along the eastern route but can’t be discounted as a threat.

Changes in land use may also be a significant threat. A survey in Sudan in December 2018 didn’t locate any Sociable Lapwings in an area where tagged birds had previously been recorded. The main crop under cultivation was sorghum, which grows too tall to be used by Sociable Lapwings, and the stubble remaining once harvested is too dense. In recent years concerns have been raised about the sustainability of extensive areas of irrigated pivot fields in parts of the Middle East, and it is likely that restrictions will be put in place to limit this type of agricultural management in the future. This will almost certainly mean Sociable Lapwings will have to continue south in search of suitable wintering grounds.


Images on social media suggested that illegal killing was a key threat in parts of the Middle East


On the breeding grounds in Kazakhstan we know that Sociable Lapwings are strongly associated with villages, as these are where domestic livestock are concentrated. Grazing cattle and sheep create the short swards required for their nests. Any changes in how livestock are managed could have profound impacts, both positive and negative, on the suitability of the steppes for breeding.

Satellite tracking and field surveys have shown that migrating Sociable Lapwings are reliant on just a small number of key sites, especially those that take the eastern route, where probably the whole flyway population spends at least a month each year at Talimerzhan. Protection of these sites will clearly be crucial to the long-term survival of the species.

The situation for the Sociable Lapwing is not as dire as it was in 2004. The global population may be in the region of 24,000 individuals, but whether there is an ongoing decline is less clear. The Manych Depression in south-west Russia is the only key stopover site for which there is long-term monitoring data. In September 2010 the maximum single day count was 1,070 birds, with a steady annual decline to just four birds in 2019. On the breeding grounds of Kazakhstan, repeat surveys in 2018-2019 found a maximum of 15 nests compared to between 83-126 nests from the same study area in 2005-2011. It is not clear how these declines on the breeding grounds and the western migration route are representative of the global population, but they are a cause for concern. It seems that this enigmatic steppe wanderer faces pressures in all parts of its vast range, and its story is far from over.


Locating and monitoring nests was vital to help understand breeding success © Rob Sheldon

This work was partly funded by grants from the Darwin Initiative of the UK Government. Additional funding was provided through the BirdLife Preventing Extinctions Programme by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and Swarovski Optik; plus the African-Eurasian Waterbird Agreement, the German Ornithological Society, the Mohammed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund, and the Ornithological Society of the Middle East, the Caucasus & Central Asia.