Kazakhstan's latest winter census sees fewer waterbirds in more wetlands
Waterbirds (birds that live in freshwater habitats) cover tens of thousands of kilometres every year during their annual migration to warmer climates. To help determine their population status and trends, every January over 20 million waterbirds are counted in the Western Palearctic region, and up to 10 million in Sub-Saharan Africa by a network of about 15,000 volunteers for the International Waterbird Census.
The census, which began in 1967 in Europe and Asia, turns 50 this year. Coordinated by Wetlands International, today it covers more than 25.000 sites in more than 100 countries, making it one of the largest global monitoring schemes largely based on citizen science. The data it provides helps conservationists advocate for the right international and national policies to conserve waterbird populations and key wetland sites.
Kazakhstan began conducting its winter census in the central, southern and western parts of the country in 2004. Lead by the Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity of Kazakhstan (ACBK, BirdLife in Kazakhstan), the data of the winter census is used to identify changes in waterbird numbers and for monitoring key ornithological areas. This year, ornithologists surveyed 15 wetlands and counted more than 130.000 wintering birds from 80 species, including the Mallard, the Eurasian Wigeon, the Common Teal, the Ruddy Shelduck and the Greylag Goose.
The distribution of the species seen was unlike the previous years because of a warmer-than-usual winter that even brought out the crocuses. Wetlands in southern Kazakhstan were not frozen, leading to more sites being available for the birds than usual. For example, in the south, waterbirds were found not just at the Chardara reservoir, but also at the Koksaray, Badam reservoirs and Shohkakol lakes, which normally freeze over in the winter. More birds were also seen in the more northern reaches of the Caspian Sea.
“The weather was… mild and without precipitation. [Only] 40-60% of smaller water bodies in the southern region were covered in ice and birds were recorded on almost all of them, even if not in great numbers,” said Valeriy Khrokov, an ACBK board member. Counts are conducted in January because this is when many waterbird species congregate conspicuously at a relatively small number of sites where they can be readily counted.
Despite overall numbers being within the range of the last few years, some species did see a drop in population, owing mostly to the warm winter, according to experts. In the south, the population of the Mallard (56.800) was half that of 2012-2014, and the population of the Greylag Goose (2.530) was lower than four years ago. On Karakol Lake, the number of Mute Swans dropped from 3.500 to 2.000 between January 12 and January 16, which was much lower than the 14.000 recorded here in previous years.
However, there were some bright spots: the numbers of the Ruddy Shelduck doubled to 10.500 and volunteers counted 1.000 Greater Flamingos as well.
This year was also special for another reason: For the first time, students participated in this important task together with ornithologists. Around 30 students surveyed water bodies with 14 qualified recorders and learned to identify species. As a result, ACBK was able to cover the biggest number of wetlands ever, including all the really important sites.