Two sociable lapwings, satellite tagged in Kazakhstan last summer, have flown more than 5,000 miles to central Sudan where they are spending the winter before their return flight to breeding grounds in the central Asian republic.
The species is one of the smallest birds ever to carry a tracking device and its journey has revealed far more about its migration than scientists expected.
Only now are conservationists realising how important African countries are to sociable lapwings. There are few recent records of the birds in Africa but new surveys could find more. The last sighting of sociable lapwings so far south in Africa was by the RSPB’s Dr Mark Avery, who saw a small flock in Kenya 20 years ago.
The tagging project began last year when scientists from the RSPB and Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity of Kazakhstan fitted satellite-tracking devices to three birds on their breeding grounds on the barren steppe expanses of central Kazakhstan.
Dr Rob Sheldon, an RSPB ecologist, said: “The fact that these birds have reached Sudan is remarkable because we had no idea that they would fly that far."
“A Sudanese team is going out to find them this week and if they see more birds, our efforts to help them will become more complicated but also more gratifying. Their appearance in Sudan is fantastic news and has turned the whole tracking project into a hugely exciting conundrum.”
The sociable lapwing, closely related to the northern lapwing seen in the UK, was given the highest threat status by the World Conservation Union (IUCN) in 2003, after numbers fell 95 per cent to just 200 pairs.
A flock of more than 3,000 in Turkey last October was the largest seen for more than 100 years and a huge boost to efforts to reverse the bird’s fortunes.
Conservationists from the Sudanese Wildlife Society, part funded by the UK government’s Darwin Initiative, will try to locate the Sudanese birds, count them and find out more about the sites they are using.
Dr Sheldon said: “The more we know, the easier it will be to improve their protection and help them increase their numbers.”
Dr Avery saw eight sociable lapwings near the Kenyan coast in 1988. He said: “I had stopped by a water hole in the middle of no-where and the birds were just standing there. It was fantastic to see them but it’s only now that I’m appreciating how lucky I was.”
Ibrahim Hashim, a Research Professor at the Sudanese Wildlife Society, said: “Finding these birds will not be easy because they are in a remote region where few people go. But that will benefit them because it means they should suffer little disturbance.
“We feel privileged to have these birds in Sudan and are very happy that we can play a part in increasing their numbers. These birds are now being protected on their breeding grounds in Kazakhstan and we hope very much to give them equal protection in Sudan.”
Sociable lapwings last bred in Europe in the 1980s. They continue to breed in the Asian Russian regions of Orenburg and Chelyabinsk although about 95 per cent of the world’s population is thought to breed in Kazakhstan.
The level of threat for the sociable lapwing is graded by the IUCN World Conservation Union as CRITICALLY ENDANGERED - the highest level of threat there is. You can find more details at http://www.iucnredlist.org/ and http://rspb.org.uk