The open steppe near Lake Tengiz is home to some of the world’s rarest birds – one of them is an elusive creature known as the sociable lapwing, which also goes by the name of the sociable plover. Specialists have long sought to reveal the secrets of this unusual little bird, which is such a lively, chirpy inhabitant of the dusty steppe.

Staring into the distance …

Armed with binoculars and a walkie-talkie, Maksim Koshkin sits in an old Niva. Albert Salengereyev is standing nearby; like his colleague, he’s staring intently into the distance. They are both ornithologists, and the subject of their research is one of the rarest birds to be found in Kazakhstan, the sociable lapwing. Just two years ago scientists thought there were only 200 pairs of this endangered species left in the world. Today, however, researchers are convinced that there are no less than 4,000, but it’s difficult to locate and count them in the vast Kazakh steppe, where they are so skilful at concealing themselves. It’s here that these birds find the right conditions to survive and reproduce.

“Stop!” Koshkin barks into his walkie- talkie. “Slow down!” Salengereyev immediately adjusts his pace, advancing carefully. “A bit further and turn left,” Koshkin continues. “A bit further – yes, right there. I’m coming!” He jumps out of the vehicle, grabs his equipment and runs to join his colleague.

Collaboration of international conservation scientists

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It’s thanks to Koshkin and Salengereyev that flawed estimates of the sociable lapwing’s population were corrected. The Association to Preserve Kazakhstan’s Biodiversity – one of the largest nature- conservation organisations in the country – is now working to safeguard the bird. The work of Kazakh ornithologists has for the last four years been funded by the British Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and the Darwin Initiative, a UK government grant scheme which seeks to preserve biodiversity. Every summer ornithologists head out to the steppe to register colonies of sociable lapwings. Scientists catch the birds, put rings on them and then release them. This makes it possible to track their movements; often lapwings ringed here are later spotted in places such as Siberia and Egypt.

Last year scientists found about 130 sociable plovers near the shore of Lake Tengiz; the birds nest near small villages, keeping a safe distance of a few kilometres. Lapwings make their nests in low grass and they need the assistance of cattle, which graze overgrown grassland and thus allow the birds to make their homes there. Out in the wild the sociable plover can usually be found alongside the saiga antelope and the zeren gazelle, which eat high grass and so provide excellent conditions for lapwing nests. However, since saiga and zeren numbers have been sadly depleted in recent years, lapwings have adapted to living near humans.

Best defense strategy: Scare the enemy

As a result of their foray, Koshkin and Salengereyev have found a whole group of lapwings: two females and three males. These human invasions present no danger to the birds. The ornithologists know how to distract them, using their knowledge of the birds’ behaviour. When the female suspects danger is approaching, she rockets up into the sky and flies around the nest trying to scare the enemy away. Meanwhile, the chicks – instead of running away – press themselves to the earth. Koshkin and Salengereyev seek to take the birds by surprise, though they are circumspect as they do so. Both ornithologists are highly experienced in dealing with lapwing chicks and they know that sometimes even the best camouflage doesn’t work – these birds are very cautious.

The ornithologists find five chicks in the nest. Koshkin takes out a ruler, a logbook and a set of scales. He thoroughly measures their legs and beaks, weighs them and checks for the presence of down and feathers, which identify the age of the chicks. “These babies are about two weeks old,” he concludes.

The chicks are marked for life, with two different-coloured plastic rings on each leg. When the procedure is complete, the ornithologists release the babies and return to their vehicle. As soon as they are far enough away, the mothers of the young sociable plovers go down to their chicks and gather them together.

Working in the steppe is a dream job

For Koshkin and Salengereyev this is a dream job which has become reality. They both grew up in the steppe. Twenty-five year old Koshkin, with his tanned face and three-day stubble, is an English teacher, but birds are his passion. He was a volunteer for many years, helping ornithologists and taking part in small projects. As a result the Association to Preserve Kazakhstan’s Biodiversity offered him a post heading a major new project to preserve rare bird species.

“For the whole summer I stay in the steppe, sleeping in a tent. It’s the ideal workplace for me,” says Koshkin. He loves birds, he adds, because you “can never guess what they’ll do next”. Salengereyev is a biology student who dreams of working in a Kazakh national park. “I’m not interested in office work, even if it’s well-paid,” he says. “The most important thing is that you should derive pleasure from your work.” Salengereyev is from Kostanay Region in northern Kazakhstan, and he says there may be some sociable lapwings waiting to be found there. “It’s speculation at the moment, but who knows?” he smiles. “I may find new colonies of this rare bird next summer.”

Tengri Inflight Magazin of Air Astana, 2008-02

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