Caught by the River

The Kazakhstan Diaries

7th December 2013

SoLa1aSociable Lapwing © Jim Lawrence

A Bird Effect update by Ceri Levy.

To complete his film Ceri has travelled to the Kazakhstan Steppe to see the critically endangered Sociable Lapwing on its breeding ground. This is the second diary entry from that trip, the first can be found here.

Day 3

Six o’clock alarm and into the main house for our first Kazakh breakfast. Fried eggs, spam, toast, a huge bowl of homemade cream, served with jam and chai. The cat and Irena again prepare the food. Oddly, a portrait of the feline is stuck to the front of the oven. Fully fed, we are off to a known breeding ground that already has a colony of Sociables nesting upon it.

As we approach the site we witness a Sociable Lapwing flying and calling overhead. This is what I came here for and I feel privileged to be listening to its calls for the first time. Rob and Ruslan show us a couple of nests that have eggs in them. These are the future for this species and when the adult birds leave the nests the team moves in quickly, quietly and assuredly, measuring and weighing the eggs so they can mathematically predict when they will hatch and get an overview of the health and success of the breeding that is taking place. We move rapidly as the nests need to be tended by the birds. All is over in moments and we leave the eggs to their parents.

758C5966Sociable Lapwing Eggs © Jim Lawrence

Rob tells me about the plight of the Sociable Lapwing and that the project has been going for nigh on ten years now. The initial feeling was that the reason for the bird’s rapid decline was an issue on the breeding grounds on the Steppe, possibly a result of trampling by livestock and the destruction of eggs. But it now appears that this is not the case at all. One of the main issues is the hunting of the bird along the Middle Eastern corridor. Yet again, my main bugbear, hunting, appears. I detest it in all forms and since my time on Malta and seeing it at extremely close quarters I am determined to spread the word and do whatever I can to help deal with this subject. The project here has many partners from countries along the birds’ flight path, and they are working in tandem to save this charming bird from extinction. It is a difficult job as the Sociable Lapwing visits many countries, all with differing opinions on how conservation should be carried out. But progress is being made.

Electric Robot

I am struck by how the landscape and villages conjure up a medieval and yet post apocalyptic feel. Wooden buildings and farmyard animals line the villages that are scattered across the terrain and strange robots guard the electricity. Abandoned farm equipment, rotting cars and lumps of metal are strewn across the land. It is a reminder of just how quickly the Communist state broke down leaving Kazakhstan to become independent and self-sufficient. Huge Russian state farms closed down overnight and left everything where it stood. The Chinese moved in, removed and sold a lot of the machinery and scrap but have gone for now and it looks like there is still money to be made. For a moment I entertain the thought of what it would be like to be the Steppetoe & Son of Kazakhstan, buying and selling scrap metal and machinery. Apparently, on an abandoned state farm there sit twelve unused combine harvesters, which must be worth a pretty penny. It’s just moving them on to a buyer. Perhaps it could be a way to earn money for conservation. Scrap the crap and save bird lives.

Great Car Static from 'Untitled5-8'

Day 4

We arrive at a new vantage point searching for overnight arrivals. All the team are using binoculars and scopes made by Swarovski Optik, the BirdLife Species Champion for the Sociable Lapwing. This means Swarovski annually provide money and equipment to help the project’s work with the bird. As we sit on top of a rare hillock in this flat land I watch Rob as he scans 360 degrees for Sociable Lapwings. He picks up three birds coming in to land by their flight call, which appear and then disappear again but I am sure this dedicated group will relocate them later. It dawns on me the enormity of the task at hand for this team of people, Kazakhstan is the size of Western Europe and trying to find the birds is a relentless job that takes a huge amount of time and effort. But through their dedication birds are found, studied and watched over. Every new egg is important in the potential fight for the bird’s survival. Extinction seems so much more possible when faced by the relentless, often bleak, landscape that spreads ever outwards in front of us. And this is what conservation on the ground is all about in the 21st century. Small groups of dedicated people fighting a fight that the majority of people neither know of, nor care about. Thankfully there are organisations like BirdLife International who work tirelessly to support the work that is being carried out in so many parts of the world. And in this country we have to be grateful that the RSPB sees the value in working abroad as well as in the UK. After all as Tim Appleton, the Reserve Manager at Rutland Water and co-curator of Birdfair would say, “A pound spent abroad buys you so much more than a pound spent in the UK.”

What I can do to help the work out in Kazakhstan is to report the situation by writing about what I see, film and document the project and hope this helps these true freedom fighters as they search to find a way to stave off the threats that face the Sociable Lapwing.

Rob, Ruslan and Jim 3

Day 5

Our last morning in the Steppe is spent out with Ruslan and Timor as Rob is off elsewhere. We are on the lookout for new arrivals and although we don’t find any there are quite a few Sociables to see. We get some great footage and photos and we move on. Then we see a dead bird below the electric cables and Ruslan explains that this is a common sight due to the lack of insulation on the cables. This is a Steppe Eagle, a magnificent bird, which looks so wrong, lying in state on the floor. Large birds with wider wingspans are particularly in trouble as they can touch two cables at the same time, causing the electricity to course through them and voila, one dead bird. We also see a fried Hooded Crow and a Steppe Buzzard in the same area, which makes me wonder just how many birds lie dead underneath these cables that run throughout this vast landscape.

Time to catch a plane to Almaty. We get a lift back to Astana and stop off and wonder at the sight of thousands of Ruffs in full plumage by the side of the road. No two look alike and it is a truly magnificent sight.

RuffRuff © Jim Lawrence

Almaty is a very green city and seems a world away from where we have been for the last few days. We arrive at our hotel, the 5 star Dostyk Hotel, and I spend the next hour and a half in the bathroom with a normal toilet and fantastic shower. This is luxury and I now feel so clean.

Check out The Amazing Journey website to follow the story of the Sociable Lapwing Project.
Donations can be made to the project here.

The Bird Effect archive.