Kazakhstan: Stronghold for Sociable Lapwing

Kazakhstan is well-known as a massive, land-locked former Soviet nation in the middle of nowhere. Surely, it can’t be any good for birds. You’ve got to be kidding, writes Mike Weedon

Two summers ago was with a delegation of birders and optics experts from Europe and America visiting the mighty former Soviet state of more than a million square miles, courtesy of Swarovski Optik.

Out in the steppe we saw: probably more than 100 Pallid Harriers, nearly all ghostly pale grey males (the females presumably already on nests in May when we were there), and more Red-footed Falcons than I have ever seen. In some damper grassy areas we watched the dazzlingly exotic Demoiselle Crane and dozens of gorgeous Black Larks.

We passed families of Steppe Marmots, large, golden rodents which squeak out barks to warn you away from their burrows. We drove by Steppe Gulls, Steppe Eagles – you name a bird and stuff Steppe in front of it and we saw it - and we stopped at marshy lakes where the numbers of birds defied belief.

In the heart of Korgalzhyn State National Reserve, a massive area of grass and marsh and reed-fringed lakes of variable size, covering an area bigger than Cambridgeshire, every small cluster of isolated bushes was giving shelter to passing songbirds such as Booted Warblers, Greenish Warblers and Spotted Flycatchers.

Overhead went parties of 30 Black-winged Stilts, 50 Wood Sandpipers, half a dozen Greenshanks and 100 Ruff at a time, spasmodic waves of migrants passing all day. We found the reserve’s second ever Rock Thrush and there were Ortolans and Cuckoos.

The reeds bordering the lakes and the trees within them resonated with the songs of Savi’s Warblers, Paddyfield Warblers and Bluethroats. There were gorgeous, lemon-headed Citrine Wagtails and even a couple of massive black-headed Pallas’s Gulls around.

A pair of Merlins were nesting in a tree near our huts, both male and female anomalously light grey like tiny Gyrs – pale and washed out like many birds of the open pale steppe.

Gatherings of thousands of male Ruff warmed us up for the most startling sights which came on and above the open water. Here, migration had reached starling proportions, where strangely familiar birds had multiplied to numbers which I didn’t imagine were possible. One medium-sized lake’s surface was black with what looked like flies but which turned out to be 20,000 Red-necked Phalaropes. Above them, the apparent swarms of mosquitoes were actually 10,000 White-winged Black Terns.

Sociable Lapwings

The next day we were taken to see Sociable Lapwings by the researchers who are protecting them in their stronghold. Back in their glory days I remember seeing two Sociable Lapwings in a day at two sites in Kent. But, since 2004, they have been categorised as Critically Endangered because of loss of habitat and threat of hunting on their wintering grounds.

Scary estimates of only 600-1,800 remaining adults were made in 2006. Luckily, wintering flocks of 3,000 plus have since been found, so there is hope. Many birds live in close association with cattle, and it was in a vast field with cows that we were privileged to watch Sociable Lapwings at the breeding site. We were determined not to scare the birds unduly. So, picture if you will, the bizarre scene of 30-odd Western birders lined up crocodile style attempting to present the smallest possible front to the birds, as we left our vehicles and entered their territory.

Our strategy was successful, as the birds fed nonchalantly around the grazing cattle. A mighty Pallas’s Gull drifted by just to add an extra soupçon of magic to the whole atmosphere. It was surely the best cow field I’ve ever birded in!


The reason for the trip, Sociable Lapwing

Watching Sociable Lapwing

Paddyfield Warbler

Steppe Marmot