In 2020, a year that the vast majority of us hope to forget and put behind us, a remarkable observation of the sociable kind took Cornwall’s birding community by storm. After a gruelling year of lockdowns, tiers and isolation, hardened birders were starting to feel deflated and inpatient and needed a pick me up in the form of a real mega rarity. Thankfully, they were not to be disappointed and were delighted by the presence of a first winter Sociable Lapwing. It was found by local patch stalwart David Flumm at Crows-an-Wra in the far west of the county at the end of November. It stayed in the locality until 6th December but then went missing and had presumably departed with the accompanying Lapwing flock. Much to the joy of birders near and far it was relocated some 20 days later, around 80 miles north on Bude Marsh on 26th December and stayed into the new year, allowing all to get a glimpse of this fantastic avian rarity. There are multiple factors as to why this delighted so many birders and twitchers, but how could a member of the Lapwing family cause such a stir? To answer that question we need to look at the species and its history in a little more detail.
Species Account and Distribution
What does it look like? At first glance you would be forgiven for thinking that this is a rather nondescript medium-sized wading bird with dull sandy-brown plumage. It is slightly shorter than the Northern Lapwing that we are all so used to seeing and has longish black legs and a short black bill. However, the head has a striking pattern, with a black crown and eye stripe, the latter being bordered above and below with white and this becomes even more prominent as it is nestled on a speckled, ochre-coloured, upper neck. Its longish black legs, white tail with a black terminal band and distinctive brown, white and grey wings make it almost unmistakable in flight where it really does come into its own. So, all in all it is a pretty attractive species that brings even more visual joy to any Lapwing flock.
What is even more incredible is its journey here. The species once bred from Ukraine through to western China. There are the remnants of a population in southern Russia but the breeding range is now almost entirely restricted to the steppes of central and northern Kazakhstan. For centuries, Sociable Lapwings have relied upon grazing by herds of Saiga antelopes, which created open areas in which to nest. When breeding has finished, they disperse through Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey and Egypt, to key wintering sites in Sudan, Pakistan and India. So, as you can see it was almost 4,000 miles from its intended wintering grounds when it first arrived in Cornwall. Even more remarkable is the rarity of the Sociable Plover throughout its entire range and not just in Cornwall. In northern Kazakhstan, a decline of 40% between 1930 and 1960 was followed by a further halving of numbers between 1960 and 1987. Although recent surveys suggest the population is larger than once feared (an estimated 11,000 mature individuals), it is clear that the species has suffered a very rapid decline and range contraction. Current threats are hard to identify, but it is thought that illegal hunting during migration and on the wintering grounds may be of primary concern and like many other species habitat loss is also a driving factor. Conservation of Globally Threatened Species is rarely simple and is always more complex when the target species is migratory. State borders across its range lead to variable legislation and engagement with conservation along a flyway and expose migrants to a wide variety of local, national, and international threats. The long-distance travel makes it harder to know where birds are and what they are doing. However, there has been some promising headway made for the Sociable Lapwing population and early signs of recovery are fuelling the effort made to protect and conserve the species.
There have been forty previous observations of this species throughout the UK which may seem like a lot, but we must bear in mind that the Cornish individual was the first to grace British soil for twelve years, the last being found on the Isles of Scilly at Old Town Bay, St Mary’s on 12th October 2008. Perhaps the period between UK sightings really does highlight the plight that this species finds itself in today. Indeed, when a healthier global population did exist there were more frequent records in the UK and between 1970 and the millennium a total of twenty-seven were encountered with the largest period of absence being three years between 1981 and 1983. However, since the turn of the century only six have been found in the UK. Even more exciting for the avid Cornish lister was the fact it was the first to appear in the county for 33 years, when in 1987 an immature was found at Davidstow on Bodmin Moor on 19th October. Prior to this there is only one other record from 1978 when another immature was observed on Hayle Estuary and stayed between 11th and16th October.
Any bird that you see that you have not had the pleasure of seeing first-hand in the past is an exciting event. Admittedly this does not always have to be a mega rarity. But if we combine some of the factors discussed above such as the appealing aesthetics, the rarity factor both on a global and local scale as well as just how far the species is away from its normal range, it really does add to the elation and glamour of a species. The 2020 Sociable Lapwing ticks all those boxes for me and I hope the conservation efforts remain successful. I wouldn’t mind finding one myself in the near future!