The Sociable Enigma

Sociable Lapwing on plains in Extremadura (Martin Kelsey)

Nearly 6000 km from where it had hatched, this bird was spending its first winter on what is commonly called the steppes of Extremadura. Now if anything knows what real steppes are like, it would be this species, the Sociable Lapwing. Formerly breeding across much of the Central Asian steppes, it is now considered as Critically Endangered, with a global population (according to Wiersma et al 2020) of perhaps 16,000 individuals. It has declined greatly,  its breeding range now pretty much restricted to an area in northern Kazakhstan. Unlike the natural steppe habitat on its breeding range (although that is becoming degraded by agriculture), the open plains of Extremadura are ecologically better described as pseudosteppe. Originally oak forest, these vast tracts of land were cleared by people over many centuries for farming. The open landscape thus created has brought with it steppic species, like Calandra Larks, bustards, sandgrouse and harriers. This soft grey-brown plumaged plover, with whitish underparts, some gentle streaking on the breast, rather long black legs and Dotterel-like broad pale supercilium circumnavigating its dark-capped-head, would have felt at home here.

Looking at eBird winter records (December-February) in the last ten years, something striking emerges. There are wintering records in Gujarat, Rajasthan and central Pakistan, Iran, the Gulf states, the Red Sea coast and Israel. Sudan used to be a known-wintering area, but eBird shows no recent records there (although coverage will be minimal). The only other region with clusters of sightings is the Iberian Peninsula. Interestingly, as the number of records of vagrant Sociable Lapwings in Western Europe has declined (there has not been any recorded in the UK since 2008), the numbers seen in Iberia have been sustained. Since the winter of 2011/2012, there have been at least two overwintering Sociable Lapwings in the region each year, and most recently, at least four or five individuals. I estimate that there have been about wintering 25 Sociable Lapwings seen since 2010 (although some may have been birds recorded in more than one winter, i.e. returning birds).

Sociable Lapwing (Martin Kelsey)

What is even more revealing is that of these 25 individuals, ten were seen in Extremadura. Indeed in the winter of 2018/2019, there were at least three  in Extremadura, and the same happened last winter (2019/2020). This makes Extremadura the best place in Europe to look for Sociable Lapwing in winter and possibly the region may hold a tiny, regular wintering population.

Presumably Sociable Lapwings arrive and depart with flocks of its common wintering congener, the Northern Lapwing. The latter species also is a summer visitor to the steppes of Central Asia and whilst some will migrate south to India, perhaps others head westwards into Europe. Northern Lapwings are called "Cold Birds" or "Snow Birds" in Spanish because of their association with winter. However, once established on its winter patch, the Sociable Lapwings I have seen in Extremadura become decidedly anti-sociable. They tend to be amazingly faithful to a particular area, even to just the corner of a single field,  and whilst Northern Lapwings come and go, the Sociable Lapwing appears indifferent. This changes by late February when the Northern Lapwings are forming pre-migratory flocks and sightings of their much rarer eastern cousin tend to be in concert with them.

Sociable Lapwing on passage late February in Extremadura, with Northern Lapwing (Martin Kelsey)

The most recent Sociable Lapwing I have seen in Extremadura was a first-winter bird found by a friend of mine, Neil Renwick, whilst out walking his dog. For several weeks it stayed close to patches of fodder put out for the local breed of beef cattle, the Retinto. Sometimes out of  view in the folds of the terrain, it would sooner or later return to forage there. In typical plover fashon, its long legs make a few paces before a pause, followed by a few more paces, often tangentially. The straw on the ground was clearly a haven for invertebrates on which it fed. It was invariably alone and during many hours of watching it, I never ever saw it fly. I saw it there for the last time on 5th February.

First winter Sociable Lapwing showing pale and dark tipped covert feathers (Martin Kelsey)

Nearly three weeks later, I was birding with a group of international guests who had been invited to attend the Extremadura Bird Fair. The famous bird artist, Lars Jonsson, was in the group and I knew that he was especially keen to see Sociable Lapwing - it would have been a lifer for him. But I and several other people had checked the site since 5th February for the bird, but to no avail. We were convinced that it had gone.

A day in Extremadura - from left: Martin Kelsey, Tim Appleton, David Lindo, Lars Jonsson

I was driving the first vehicle, with Tim Appleton beside me and Lars was in the vehicle behind, along with David Lindo and Vanesa Palacios. We had spent a rewarding day on the plains, seeing everything that we had hoped for. It was late afternoon and we were heading back towards the hotel, along a road about a kilometre and half from the field where the Sociable Lapwing had been present. A party of Griffon Vultures were standing on rocky dog's teeth to the right of the road and we slowed down to look at them. As we continued, a small flock of Northern Lapwing flew across the road in front of me. And there, amongst them, was a vivid pattern of white, black and pale brown. It was the Sociable Lapwing! We managed to pull-off safely and everyone got out. We were elated as we watched the bird fly across the field to our left and settle briefly. For Tim, it was the first time he had seen the species away from Kazakhstan. For the rest of my group, it was a lifer. Hugs and high-fives all round! I looked back to check the car behind, stopped a good hundred metres away, and to my aghast, they were all looking to the right, at the vultures. They had not seen the Sociable Lapwing......I sprinted up the road and shouted the news. They looked at me in utter disbelief and I waved in the direction the bird had gone. To Lars' relief (and actually to my enormous relief as well), the bird flew up again and settled. In the minutes that followed we all had reasonable views of this enigmatic bird, and a rather contented Swedish bird artist slept well that night.

Wiersma, P., G. M. Kirwan, and C.J. Sharpe (2020). Sociable Lapwing (Vanellus gregarius), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (J. del Hoyo, A. Elliott, J. Sargatal, D. A. Christie, and E. de Juana, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.


Anonymous said…
This blog brought back happy memories of the time, in December 2011 when my husband Les and I were birding down a cinder track north of Castuera, when we happened upon “our” Sociable Lapwing. Thinking about it now, brings back the thrill we felt when we identified it. We wanted to tell the whole world what we’d found, but there was no-one for miles! Thank goodness I managed to take a photo of it, to keep forever. Les passed away 5 years ago, but that day remains the highlight of our birding life together! Jan Hill
Dear Jan,

I am glad you liked it. I remember you and Les telling me about your sighting! Take care and best wishes, Martin

Popular posts from this blog

Big Year 2022 Part Three: More special moments - November to December

Big Year 2022 Part 2: Windows of Opportunity - April to October

Big Year 2022: Part One The rising curve - January to March