kaztrip5

WINGS OVER KAZAKSTAN 98
AN ORNITHOLOGICAL SURVEY OF GLOBALLY THREATENED SPECIES

Summary

This was a joint expedition between staff of the RSPB of the United Kingdom and of the Institute of Zoology and Animal Genofund of the Ministry of Science - Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Kazakstan to assess the breeding populations of globally threatened birds in major wetlands in south east Kazakstan. The data gathered will be used to identify these wetlands as Important Bird Areas (IBAs) by BirdLife International.

The expedition concentrated on the Ile river delta and Lakes Alakol and Sasakol. A total of 30 days were deployed on the survey. The survey found significant populations of globally threatened birds at these sites particularly Dalmatian pelican, ferruginous duck and white-tailed eagle.

The survey only located a single white-headed duck and failed to locate any breeding colonies of relict gull despite comprehensive searching.

This report concludes that the areas surveyed should be identified as IBAs, and recommends further high priority areas for survey.

Expedition Participants

Dr. Altay Zhumakan-Uly Zhatkanbayev Institute of Zoology and Animal Genofund
Dr. Boris Gubin Institute of Zoology and Animal Genofund
Vladimir Pokachalov Guide
Nurlan Dosov Support
Simon Busuttil Royal Society for the Protection of Birds
Cliff Carson Royal Society for the Protection of Birds
Steve Rowland Royal Society for the Protection of Birds
Adam Rowlands Royal Society for the Protection of Birds
Nigel Symes Royal Society for the Protection of Birds
Chris Bradshaw Ornithologist

Acknowledgements

We especially thank Professor Amankul Bekenov the Director of the Institute of Zoology and Animal Genofund in Almaty for his support.

We acknowledge and thank Mrs Carol Kaye of BG plc, Steve Rowe of Austrian Airlines, Sherin of the Kazakstan Consulate in London, Viking Optics, Lonely Planet Books and Steve Rooke of Sunbird Holidays for their assistance in ensuring that the expedition achieved all of it’s objectives.

We gratefully acknowledge the financial support from British Gas plc, The Thriplow Charitable Trust, The Arthur Anderson Foundation, The Garnett Charitable Trust and the RSPB. Without it we could not have undertaken the expedition.

In Kazakstan the NGO zoological association the "Altai-Fund" promoted the organisation of this project.

We especially acknowledge and thank the local people of the Ile River delta, Alakol and Sasakol lakes: Pan and Zhakhan Amarzhanov, Yuriy Belousov, Serik Kopdykbayev and Boris Annenkov and also all unknown local people who helped the expedition.

Contents

1 Introduction

1.1 Aims and objectives

2 Background to the sites and species

2.1.1 Ile River delta

2.1.2 Lakes Alakol and Sasakol

2.2.1 White headed duck

2.2.2 Dalmatian pelican

2.2.3 Relict gull

3 Survey Methods

3.1 at the Ile River delta

3.2 at Lakes Alakol and Sasakol

4 Results

4.1 The Ile River delta

4.2 White-headed duck

4.3 Dalmatian pelican; Ile River delta

4.4 Dalmatian pelican; Lakes Alakol and Sasakol

4.5 Relict gull

5 Discussion

5.1 The Ile River delta

5.1.1 Water control through the Kapchagai system

5.1.2 Burning

5.1.3 Rice growing and the impact of pesticides

5.1.4 Human use of the delta including fishing

5.1.5 Ecological interactions

5.2 White headed duck

5.3 Dalmatian pelican

5.4 Relict gull

5.5 Other species

5.6 Lakes Alakol and Sasakol

6 Conclusions

7 Recommendations for further work

8 References and glossary

9 Tables

1. Total Ile River Delta

2. Upper Ile River Delta

3. Middle Ile River Delta

4. Lower Ile River Delta

5. Breeding raptors

6. Lake Alakol

7. Lake Sasakol

1 Introduction

Kazakstan is the ninth largest country in the world (2.7 million sq km) with a population of just 17 million. With a huge range of natural and semi-natural habitats ca 500 species of bird are to be found in Kazakstan. This community is made up of wetland, desert and steppe species and montane and sub-montane species in the Tien Shan mountain range which rise to over 7000m. The wetlands are of global importance supporting large colonies of breeding birds and huge populations of migratory birds en route to and from the vast breeding grounds in Siberia (Northern Asia).

Central Asia including Kazakstan currently lacks a list of Important Bird Areas (IBAs) which form the planning unit for the conservation of populations of wild birds. BirdLife International through the German partner NABU is beginning the inventory of IBA's for this region.

The expedition was a joint venture between staff of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (through BirdLife International) and the Institute of Zoology and Animal Genofund in Almaty, Kazakstan.

All the objectives set for the expedition were achieved.

1.1 The aims and objectives of the expedition

The aim of the expedition was to increase the knowledge of sites and species of conservation importance in Kazakstan and make this widely available to all those concerned with their conservation both in Kazakstan and abroad.

The objectives of the expedition were;

1. to carry out a complete breeding survey of wetland species in the Ile River delta to provide baseline ornithological data to contribute to the conservation of this area especially concerning its status as an Important Bird Area (IBA).

2. to survey the Ile River delta for breeding white-headed ducks (Oxyura leucocephala) and come to an estimate of the population present.

3. to survey the Ile River delta and Lakes Alakol and Sasakol for breeding colonies of the Dalmatian pelican (Pelecanus crispus).

4. to survey Lake Alakol for breeding colonies of relict gull (Larus relictus).

5. to publicise the results as widely as possible to raise the profile of the wetlands visited and provide a basis for further surveys to continue this process.

2 Background to sites and species

2.1.1 The Ile River delta

The Ile River enters Lake Balkash creating a delta across ca 817,000 hectares (Zhatkanbayev 1991, 1994a). This area consists of an extensive network of river channels, bordered by dense riparian scrub, lakes of standing and running water, reedbeds and desert areas. The wetland area of ca 168,000 hectares is the largest in Kazakstan (Zhatkanbayev 1991, 1994a). This almost completely natural area holds colonies of breeding Dalmatian and white pelicans (Pelecanus onocrotalus), spoonbills (Platalea leucorodia) common, little, black and white-winged black terns (Sterna hirundo, Sterna albifrons, Chlidonias niger and C. leucopterus), bitterns (Botaurus stellaris), white-headed ducks and white-tailed eagles (Haliaeetus albicilla).

2.1.2 Lakes Alakol and Sasakol

These adjacent large lakes and associated wetlands totalling an estimated 600 000 hectares, are situated in the extreme south east of Kazakstan close to the Zhonghar Alatau mountain range. Lake Alakol has several small low lying islands mainly in the north and west and three larger islands in the east. Several of these islands support major wetland bird colonies. The lakes are surrounded by semi-desert/steppe, and there is a significant area of reedbed between the two.

2 .1 White-headed duck

The white-headed duck is Globally Threatened and is included in the Red Data Book of Kazakstan (1996) in which it is described as "rapidly declining". The world population is estimated at 18,000 - 19,000 individuals (Collar et al 1994). There were estimated to be between 700 and 900 pairs in the whole of the former Soviet Union at the beginning of the 1980’s (The Red Data Book of USSR, 1985) with the bulk of these in Kazakstan. There is little data on this species for the Ile River delta.

2.2.2 Dalmatian pelican

The Dalmatian Pelican is Globally Threatened and is included in the Red Data Book of Kazakstan (1996). The total global breeding population is estimated to be between 3,200 and 4,300 pairs and is declining (Collar et al 1994). The population in Kazakstan has been variously estimated at 50% of this total and at a slightly lower level of between 1500 and 1800 pairs (Zhatkanbayev 1994b, 1994c, 1996). The species is declining in the Ile River delta.

2.2.3 Relict gull

This species is Globally Threatened and is included in the Red Data Book of Kazakstan (1996). Discovered only in 1970 the population for this poorly known species in Kazakstan is between 0 and 1200 pairs, all at the main colony at Lake Alakol and on one occasion on the eastern part of Lake Balkash (Auezov 1970, Auezov 1986, Zubakin 1988) which is at the western edge of its world range.

3 Survey Methods

3.1 Methods; the Ile River delta

The delta was surveyed in three sections; the ‘outer delta’, ‘middle’ delta and the ‘lower’ delta, the latter included the delta shoreline with Lake Balkash.

Between 26th May and 14th June 1998, daily counts were made throughout the Ile River delta. Counts in the upper delta area were made by stopping and viewing individual lakes with larger areas of open water and reedbed counted from vantage points. Access was by vehicle and on foot. Counts in the middle and lower delta were made from boats whilst moving along navigable channels with stops made to view colonies of nesting pelicans, spoonbills, herons and great cormorants or large concentrations of birds such as ducks. All wetland species and raptors were counted.

Routes were plotted using a Garmin 12XL Global Positioning System (GPS). The delta is a dynamic system and no maps are accurate but the extensive knowledge of our Kazak guides made this possible. The counts are shown in Tables 1 to 4.

Known Dalmatian pelican colonies were visited and adults, nests and young if any were counted. Altay Zhatkanbayev's knowledge of the delta and especially pelicans is extensive and sites were visited on the basis of his knowledge. Local people, especially fishermen, were interviewed to increase our knowledge of the situation.

The grid references of all white-tailed eagle nest sites and colonies of breeding spoonbills, herons and great cormorants were taken.

3.2 Methods; Lakes Alakol and Sasakol

Lake Sasakol was surveyed for Dalmatian pelicans by visiting one of two known colonies in the delta of the River Tentek which flows into the lake on 21 June 1998. Lake Alakol was surveyed for breeding relict gulls and Dalmatian pelicans between 18 and 20 June 1998 by visiting all islands where the species were known to have bred or potentially could breed. A count of all wetland species and raptors was carried out on part of Lake Alakol during this period (see Tables 6 - 8).

4 Results

4.1 The Ile River delta

Counts were made on 17 days in the Ile River delta between 26th May and 14th June. The results are presented in Tables 1 - 4.

Apart from the Dalmatian pelicans and white-headed duck populations (covered elsewhere - see below) the delta holds large breeding populations of the following species; cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo), little bittern (Ixobrychus minutus), night heron (Nyctycorax nycticorax), grey heron (Ardea cinerea), great white egret (Ardea alba), spoonbill, red-crested pochard (Netta rufina), ferruginous duck (Aythya nyroca), white-tailed eagle, common tern, little tern, black tern, lapwing (Vanellus vanellus), snipe (Gallinago gallinago) and black-winged stilt (Himantopus himantopus) and is an important breeding and feeding area for white pelicans (although none were breeding in 1998 see below section 5.1.2).

4.2 White-headed duck

At the beginning of the Century (1907-1921) white-headed ducks were widely distributed as a breeding species in the Ile River delta and were a common breeding duck in the Zhetisy area near Lake Balkash (Shnitnikov 1949). The species appeared to have declined by the 1950s (Dolgushin 1960) and the population of this species for the Ile River delta has recently been thought to be up to 20 pairs (A. Zhatkanbayev pers. comm.) although this estimate was not based on any survey.

We found just one individual, a female, on 27th May at 44o 57'N 75o 22' E on the south western edge of the upper delta, on a reed fringed lake in the desert. From local sources we learnt of a single bird having been shot in March 1998 which was said to be "unusual".

The scarcity of this species surprised us considering the amount of time we spent in the delta (20 days). But recognising that this species is secretive and that its breeding biology is not fully understood especially in relation to a system of fluctuating water levels, it would be wrong to make incautious conclusions. It may be that the bulk of females were brooding eggs during the time we were in the delta and the males were gathered on a waterbody not covered by our survey. It seems reasonable though to suggest that the former population estimate of 20 pairs is too high. Conversations with local fishermen and hunters suggest that numbers have declined since the construction of the Kapchagai hydro-electric on the Ile River upstream of the delta (see below).

The Red Data Book of Kazakstan (1996) shows this species as being no longer present in the area of the Ile River delta. Our survey suggests that if it remains as a breeding species in the Ile River delta it is present only in extremely small numbers and much lower than formerly estimated. We recommend that further survey work of the area is carried out to complete the picture of this species' status in the Ile River delta.

4.3 Dalmatian pelican; Ile River delta

Two breeding colonies were visited containing a total of 98 nests. Their grid references are given below;

colony 1 45o 19' N 74o 59' E - 64 nests

colony 2 45o 36'N 74o 21' E - 34 nests

A third colony in the delta, unrecorded before our visit, was confirmed through conversation with a local fisherman (M. Levitin pers. comm.). It was in use this breeding season but we were unable to visit it. Colony 1 is known to have had 150 - 200 nests in the 1980's whilst colony 2 is known to have held 200 - 350 nests in 1984 when up to 2500 pairs of white pelican were also present making it the largest known pelican colony in Eurasia. (Zhatkanbayev 1994c). This colony is that shown in fig 15 of Birds of Russia by A. Knystautus. There were no white pelicans present in 1998.

A known fourth colony on the Akkamys lakes system within the delta was inaccesible to this expedition but conversation with a local fisherman (A. Zuyev) suggested that this site has been abandoned since 1996.

In 1984 - 85 the population estimate for the delta was between 650 and 820 pairs in 5 colonies (Zhatkanbayev A. 1994b). The current situation appears to be that three colonies remain with just 98 pairs at two of them. These two colonies together formerly held 250 - 170 pairs in 1984 - 85 and up to 550 pairs between 1986 and 1989 (Zhatkanbayev 1991). Although the situation at the third unvisited colony is unknown, clearly the number of Dalmatian pelican nesting in the Ile River delta in 1998 is much lower than previously.

This finding backs up unpublished counts (A. Zhatkanbayev pers. comm.) made in recent years recording a substantial decline in the numbers of Dalmatian Pelicans breeding in the Ile River delta.

559 adult Dalmatian pelicans were counted in the delta suggesting that the potential breeding population is far higher than the actual breeding population and providing some evidence that some birds from the known colonies have moved elsewhere in the delta or further afield. It may be that there are undiscovered colonies in the delta but it is known that in recent years this species has begun nesting on islands in Lake Balkash. There is also a new colony at Sorbulak reservoir - an artificial site close to Almaty where ca 25 pairs nest.

Adult birds counted tended to be individuals feeding on channels within the delta or flocks of birds moving overhead. Almost all nests observed contained well grown young.

4.4 Dalmatian pelican; Lakes Alakol and Sasakol

The Dalmatian pelican colonies on Lake Sasakol are in the Tentek River delta on the south side of the lake. Only one colony was visited - at 46o 26' N 81o 01' E. This held 58 nests. 55 adult Dalmatian pelicans were counted and all nests appeared to contain two well grown young. This colony was previously a mixed colony containing both pelican species but no white pelicans were present this year. A similar number of pairs of Dalmatian pelican were present at this colony in 1987.

We were told of a second colony containing both species but it was inaccessible to us. In 1987 the Tentek River delta held up to 262 pairs of Dalmatian pelican (Zhatkanbayev 1994b).

On Lake Alakol a colony of Dalmatian pelicans of 34 nests with 63 well grown young was counted at 46o12' N 81o 28'E on one of a group of gravel islands off the west shore of the lake. 82 adult Dalmatian pelicans were counted on lake Alakol. This colony is larger than when previously counted in 1986 when just 8 pairs were present.

4.5 Relict Gull

The relict gull was confirmed as a valid species when it was discovered breeding on Lake Alakol in 1970 (Auezov 1970, Zubakin 1988). The number of pairs breeding at this site has varied between zero and 1200 (Duff et al 1991).

Breeding has taken place at two sites; on a small island 42km out from the accessible western shore at 46o 07'N 81o 51'E where this species was originally discovered in 1970 and which had not been surveyed since 1991, and on some of a group of smaller islands just off the western shore at 46o12' N 81o 28'E where the last proven breeding attempt took place (16 unsuccessful pairs in 1990 - Altay Zhatkanbayev pers. comm.).

The 1990 survey was not carried out until August so may have been too late. The most recent visit prior to this was in the early 1980’s.

We found no relict gulls on Lake Alakol in June 1998 despite visiting all islands where they are known to have bred in the past and almost all other islands on the lake, many of which are in fact unsuitable for relict gulls to breed. It is possible that this species attempted to breed at Lake Alakol this year but failed and that all the adult birds had left by the time we surveyed the area. This colony is on the western edge of this species' range.

5 Discussion

5.1 The Ile River delta

The Ile River delta supports huge populations of waterbirds. An extrapolation from the data collected to estimate the whole delta populations of waterbirds is presented in Table 5. Whilst these figures should be treated with caution it seems unlikely that any more accurate estimate of these species' breeding populations in this area exists or will be provided in the foreseeable future.

The Ile River delta is of the greatest importance for wetland bird species, particularly Dalmatian and white pelicans and white-tailed eagle and should be included as an IBA.

The delta faces a number of pressures. These are discussed below;

5.1.1 Water control through the Kapchagai system

The Ile River drains the mountains of the northern Tien Shan, consequently it was subject to major summer floods resulting from snow melt spates.

The effect of these spates on the delta has been reduced since the regulation of the Ile River's flow by the Kapchagai dam and hydroelectric system since 1969, and associated agricultural developments between the dam and the delta - mainly rice growing. These have resulted in a decrease in the size of the delta and associated damaging changes eg an increase in pesticide pollution.

The water table is estimated to have fallen by up to 2 metres and summer flooding no longer occurs regularly (A. Zhatkanbayev 1991, 1994a). This was evident on the ground where we were shown areas which were substantial wetlands several years ago according to local guides, but today are completely dry and showing signs of vegetation succession resulting from permanent lack of water. Caution must be exercised when observing these areas since parts of the delta have dried out previously, prior to the reservoir's construction. There is evidence of the former mobility of the delta resulting from the high energy of the river and the softness of the local geology, in maps which show that the modern delta has moved 80 to 100km to the west in recent years (Shtegman 1952).

The river carries a large quantity of sediment in suspension, and much of this is being deposited within the delta accentuating the effects of the lowering of the water table, causing the shallowing and re-routing of channels. Deposition is also taking place at the mouth of the delta and there is clear evidence of the delta extending into Lake Balkash.

The control of water through this means has facilitated certain man induced factors to further impact upon this ecosystem. These are covered further below.

5.1.2 Burning

This is probably the major factor affecting pelicans, other colonial nesting wetland species and white-tailed eagles. Local people (hunters, fishermen and farmers) burn areas of reed regularly (from every 3-4 years to annually or even more often) to destroy old growth and provide fresh areas for reasons such as grazing, hunting of muskrat (Ondatra zibetica) and fishing. The burning is uncontrolled and occurs throughout the delta even in the wetter parts. During our visit in June we observed burning being carried out on an almost daily basis. In some areas up to 80% of the reed had been burnt since the previous growing season.

Most burning is carried out after the winter and before the reed starts to grow which is when birds including pelicans are present at their colonies or nesting. This also applies to colonial nesting birds such as spoonbills and great cormorants. Furthermore, on the edges of the delta this burning destroys the mature Turanga trees which support nesting raptors especially white-tailed eagles aswell as a number of local passerines - Turkestan tit (Parus bokharensis), saxaul sparrow(Passer ammodendri), yellow-eyed stock dove (Columba eversmanni) and white-winged woodpecker(Dendrocopos leucopterus).

The impact of burning is not entirely negative. It holds back the succession to scrub, that is being accelerated by the lowering of the water table, and species apparently dependent at least in part on burnt areas in the delta include lapwing, snipe and black-headed wagtail (Motacilla (flava) feldegg) which make use of the open areas and sparse reed growth brought about through burning. However the current pattern of burning is having a significant negative impact in the Ile River delta.

The practise impacts in several ways; habitat is directly destroyed - one Dalmatian pelican colony has been reduced in size at least in part because fire has destroyed several of the clumps of reeds where previously nests were built; disturbance is caused at critical times in the breeding cycle and young are occasionally destroyed on the nest (we were shown a white-tailed eagle nest in a reedbed where this had occurred).

No white pelicans were found to be nesting in the Ile River delta in 1998. This species is thought to be far more susceptible to disturbance at its breeding colonies than the Dalmatian pelican (A. Zhatkanbayev pers. comm.) and its absence may reflect the serious amount of disturbance occurring in the delta as a result of the fires.

Much of the disturbance would be overcome if local people such as graziers could be encouraged to adjust their practices so as to avoid burning during the breeding season, however suggestions as to how this could be achieved are beyond the scope of this report.

5.1.3 Rice growing and the impact of pesticides

The rice growing area upstream of the delta at Bakhbakty and Akdala has decreased in size since the economic changes engendered by the break-up of the USSR. Prior to this large volumes of water were taken from the Ile River for irrigation and pesticide accumulation in pelicans was shown to be approaching lethal levels (A Zhatkanbayev 1990, 1994a). Pesticide usage appears to have fallen with the replacement of state collective farms by co-operatives formed by the farmers left economically stranded by the collapse of collective farming - apparently these individuals cannot afford pesticides. However this situation is based on anecdotal evidence and may change in future. It should be monitored.

5.1.4 Human use of the delta including fishing

Whilst there is no doubt that individual Dalmatian pelicans are occasionally shot and that there is direct disturbance to the colonies by fishermen and hunters our feeling was that illegal hunting of pelicans and deliberate disturbance or vandalism are not major problems especially compared to burning (see 5.1.2 above). We got the impression that despite the harsh conditions that the fishermen live under they did not view the pelicans as a threat. This seems borne out by the fact that the nests of those pelicans which had bred in the delta all contained well grown young and there was no sign of disturbance despite many people knowing where the pelicans were nesting.

The current extent of the commercial fishery in the delta is relatively small and shouldn’t therefore have a significant impact on prey availability for pelicans. However the fishery on Lake Balkash close to the delta is better developed and growing rapidly as a consequence of the opening up of the fishery to the newly developing private sector. Little information is available to us about its impact on the birds of the delta but one colony of Dalmatian pelican was destroyed in the 1993/94 at "Vos'merka" because of disturbance by local fishermen (A. Zhatkanbayev pers. comm.).

The continuing programme of education and contact with local users of the delta by Altay Zhatkanbayev and his colleagues has had and will have a vital role to play in reducing this factor further. Deliberate destruction of pelicans has been a factor in the past (eg up to the early 1980's) and vigilance must be maintained that this does not reoccur.

However the lack of white pelicans nesting in the Ile River delta in 1998 gives cause for concern. This species is far more prone to disturbance than the Dalmatian pelican. Its absence suggest a response to increased levels of disturbance either directly or as a direct result of burning (see also 5.1.2 above).

5.1.5 Ecological interactions

This is the area where least is known. Wels catfish (Siluris glanis) were introduced to the Ile River delta in the 1950’s to provide sport fishing. The full impact of any ecological changes in the ecosystem and on the pelicans in particular as a result of this introduction is unknown. However these fish grow to in excess of 80kg and 2m in length and are a significant predator. They have a catholic diet and take prey from the surface, and they are considered to have been responsible for the extirpation of the muskrat from all of the interconnected water bodies. It is therefore reasonable to assume that the catfish would have a direct impact on young pelicans at ca 0.5 - 1 month old swimming near their nests learning to fish when they are vulnerable to predation. The impact of this factor on pelican and other waterbird numbers is currently not quantified, but is potentially significant.

5.2 White-headed duck

This species is on the edge of its world range on the Ile River delta and may never have been numerous here, the only previous estimate (not based on fieldwork) being up to 20 pairs. If certain pressures on the delta are contributing to its decline (eg burning of reedbeds in the upper delta, lower summer water levels) it may disappear from this site. Certainly further observations are necessary.

5.3 Dalmatian pelican

This species is declining rapidly in the Ile River delta primarily due to destruction and disturbance from burning of reed. Other factors may be in operation but burning appears to be having the most immediate and damaging effect. Breeding birds may be relocating on Lake Balkash, in which case a survey of how many birds and where they are nesting is needed urgently. An integrated approach to land use and management in the delta is needed to protect the largest breeding colonies in the world including the designation of some sort of protected area. Resources must be made available to support those regional and local organisations and individuals in Kazakstan determined to protect this species and to tap into the inherent goodwill towards the pelicans that exists among people in the delta eg through education and encouraging wildlife tourism which could bring real economic benefits to the people of the delta.

At Lakes Alakol and Sasakol disturbance by humans also appears to be a problem. In the Tentek delta on Lake Sasakol white pelicans - more susceptible to disturbance than Dalmatians - appear to have abandoned sites where they previously nested alongside Dalmatians.

However here too all the nests appeared to contain well grown young suggesting that deliberate destruction of nests is not a problem. We also witnessed reed burning here.

The colony on Lake Alakol on an island at 46o12'N 81o 28'E has grown since it was last counted. This pattern of colonies declining in reedbeds and growing on islands further from the shore fits in well with the hypothesis that this change is as a result of disturbance at the former sites and is the same shift as is occurring on Lake Balkash.

5.4 Relict gull

This species was last surveyed in 1990 and although western birdwatching tour groups regularly report this species from Lake Alakol, we found no birds there in June 1998. This species is on the western edge of its world range in eastern Kazakstan and new breeding sites are being found in Mongolia and China (Zubakin 1988, Zhang et al 1992). The breeding sites already have the highest form of protection available in Kazakstan - that of "Zapovednik" or State Nature Reserve. Pressures on this species on Lake Alakol include fluctuating water levels and storms which wash away nests on the western islands at 46o12' N 81o 28'E. The middle islands at 46o 07'N 81o 51'E are ca 3 - 6m above the level of the lake and are unlikely to be affected by wave action arising from storms.

There appears to be little human disturbance on the islands at 46o 07'N 81o 51'E in the middle of Lake Alakol although there was evidence of a recent visit by humans. A family of foxes (Vulpes vulpes) was present on the largest of the three islands in June 1998 and had obviously predated the great black-headed gull (Larus ichthyaetus) colony present aswell as great cormorants, common terns and yellow-legged gulls. Of ca 300 pairs of gulls and terns only two pairs of great black-backed gull appeared to have any young. The foxes had presumably crossed the lake when it was frozen and have been present since the early 1980’s (A. Zhatkanbayev pers. comm.). Removal of foxes prior to the breeding season after the lakes are isolated from the shore following the ice melt would be of benefit to this species and other colonial nesting wetland species.

The islands at 46o12'N 81o 28'E hold colonies of great black-headed gulls, Caspian terns, Dalmatian pelicans and great cormorants (see Table 6). Human disturbance to this group of islands close to the western shore may be a problem (eg for egg collection for food) although when we visited these islands there was no evidence of this. This lack of disturbance appears to be the result of extreme poverty in the area combined with the lack of a sizeable fishing industry (people do not have boats and engines) as well as a reflection of the difficult weather conditions on the Lake. However these islands may be vulnerable to disturbance in the future.

Relict gulls are thought to breed relatively early (arriving at their colonies in the second half of April) and 1998 witnessed a late spring and hence ice melt in south east Kazakstan. It is possible that Relict gulls therefore failed to breed due to bad weather in the early part of the season, which meant that they would have moved from the lake by late June when the expedition was present. Relict gulls are thought to rely heavily on the mass emergence of flies (Chironomus spp) for feeding their young which was presumably delayed by the cold weather.

5.5 Other species

The reed dominated areas support high densities of breeding birds, including bittern and little bittern, acrocephaline warblers, bearded tits (Panurus biamarcus) and (black-headed) penduline tits (Remiz (pendulinus) macronyx). It is apparent that the areas of reed that hadn’t been recently burnt supported far higher densities of these species.

Great cormorant were often breeding in mixed colonies with Dalmatian pelicans, though one colony we visited in the outer delta (44o 58’ N 75o 25’ E) was tree nesting and was shared with night heron.

The areas of Turanga (Populus diversifolia) that occur in the outer Ile delta are a localised habitat with a specialised avifauna. They were the only areas to support breeding Eversmann’s stock dove. This species is classified as Vulnerable and is rare over most of its range. We visited one area of extensive Turanga where we saw 8+ Eversmann’s stock doves in a small area (5 ha) of well developed forest. Turanga trees commonly have trunk holes from a moderate age, hence there is no lack of nest sites for the doves.

We did not encounter any Mynahs - which have been identified as a potential competitor for nest sites and therefore a potential factor in the decline of the stock dove - in the areas of forest we visited, and only noted Mynahs close to settlements.

The Turanga forest is exploited for grazing of sheep and goats, hence natural regeneration is limited. Fire is used in this area to as management tool to provide fresh growth for grazing. This further damages old trees which appear to provide the nesting holes for the stock dove. Other species associated with this habitat were white-winged woodpecker and Turkestan tit. Saxaul sparrows were regularly encountered on the edges of the Turanga forests. t appears that areas of Saxaul scrub provide some protection from grazing for Turanga regeneration.

5.6 Lakes Alakol and Sasakol

The wetland bird breeding colonies on the islands in Lake Alakol have been protected through the mechanism of the Alakol State Sanctuary since 1977 - the highest level of protection in Kazakstan. Whilst we were present we carried out counts of all species on the wetlands along the north western shore of Lake Alakol. The results are presented in Table 6.

The reed dominated wetland created between this area and the southern shore of Lake Sasakol is clearly of great importance for wetland species and should be included as an IBA.

The north west shore of Alakol is also clearly of great importance for passage waterfowl and survey work there (and other shores that we didn’t visit) during spring and autumn would be of great value in further raising the knowledge and profile of this area.

It would be logical for the whole area to be considered as an IBA but more field work to determine the level of interchange of bird populations between the sites.

6 Conclusions

The surveys identified both the Ile River delta and Lakes Alakol and Sasakol as important areas for breeding populations of globally threatened birds. Both areas are also important migration stop-overs very a large number of migrating birds, both in spring and in autumn. Consequently both these areas should be designated as IBAs in their entirety.

The surveys failed to find evidence of white headed duck breeding in the Ile delta, only a single female was located despite an extensive search of apparently suitable habitat, local information also supports the suggestion that this species is rare in the delta.

The survey also failed to locate any relict gulls at their known breeding sites on Lake Alakol, it is considered therefore that this species did not breed here in 1998, but further survey is required earlier in the breeding season to determine the actual status of the species in Kazakstan.

More field survey work of these sites and species needs to be carried out. This is dependent upon funding especially from outside Kazakstan. The experienced and dedicated field ornithologists within the Institute of Zoology and Animal Genofund (Ministry of Science - Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Kazakstan) are a valuable resource who need to be supported financially to continue their work in this difficult transitional economic period for Kazakstan.

A start should be made on developing management plans for the areas, to promote an integrated system of land management which will benefit both the wildlife and the people who use the area.

Finally it is important to promote international scientific activity especially joint projects such as this within Kazakstan to further increase our knowledge of this country’s BirdLife.

7 Recommendations for further work

Several recommendations for further ornithological work in this small area of Kazakstan arise from Wings Over Kazakstan '98. It is hoped that the partnership between the RSPB and the Institute of Zoology and Animal Genofund can be continued to carry out some of the recommendations below. Funding will be sought to support the continuation of this project to achieve the recommendations set out below.

The recommendations are to carry out;

  • A full survey of all islands in Lake Balkash for colonies of breeding Dalmatian (and white) pelicans in 1999.
  • An aerial survey of Ile River delta for other colonies of Dalmatian pelicans in 2000.
  • A further survey of the Ile River delta for breeding white-headed ducks in 2000.
  • A resurvey of islands in Lake Alakol for breeding relict gulls in 1999 and 2000.
  • A full breeding bird survey of the wetland areas between lakes Alakol and Sasakol in 1999.
  • A survey of the quantity and quality of the Turanga forest habitat and the population of Eversmann’s stock doves which are dependent upon it in this area in 2000

8 References

Anon - The Red Data Book of USSR. Vol 1. Second Edition (1985). (In Russian).

Anon - The Book of Genetic Fund of Fauna of Kazak SSR. Part 1. (1989). Alma-Ata: Izdatyelstvo "Nauka" of Kazak SSR [Publishers of Science of Kazak SSR]. (In Russian.).

Anon - The Red Data Book of Kazakstan. Vol 1. Part 1. Third Edition (1996) (In Russian).

Auezov, E.M. (1970) [Discovery of a colony of Relict Gulls Larus relictus Lonnb.] Vestn. of Acad. Sci. of Kazak SSR. Alma-Ata 1970 (1): 59-60. (In Russian).

Auezov, E.M. (1977) [About biology of Relict Gull] Pp.119-130 in [Rare and vanishing mammals and birds of Kazakstan.] Alma-Ata: Izdatyelstvo "Nauka" of Kazak SSR [Publishers of Science of Kazak SSR]. (In Russian).

Auezov, E.M. (1986) [Lake Balkhash is a new place of breeding of Relict Gull Larus relictus Lonnb. in USSR] Izvestiya of Acad. Sci. of Kazak SSR, biological series. Alma-Ata 1986 (4): 81. (In Russian).

Collar, N.J., Crosby, M.J. and Stattersfield, A.J. (1994) - Birds to watch 2: the world list of threatened species

Dolgushin, I.A. (1960) [Birds of the Kazakstan. Vol 1] Alma-Ata: Izdatyelstvo Acad. Sci. of Kazak SSR [Publishers of Acad. Sci. of Kazak SSR]. (In Russian).

Duff D.G., Bakewell D.N. and Williams M.D. (1991) - The Relict Gull Larus relictus in China and elsewwhere in Forktail 6 (1991): 43 - 65

Knystautas, A. (1993) - Birds of Russia

Shnitnikov, V.N. (1949) [Birds of Semirech'e] Moscow - Leningrad: Izdatyelstvo of Acad. Sci. of USSR [Publishers of Acad. Sci. Of USSR]. (In Russian).

Shtegman, B.K. (1952) [The history of the creation of the Ile River delta] Geographical anthology. Moscow 1952 (1). (In Russian).

Tucker, G.M. and Heath, M.F.(1994) Birds in Europe: their conservation status

Zhang Yin-Sun, Ding Wen-Ning, Bu He and Tian Lu (1992) - Breeding ecology of Relict Gull Larus relictus in Ordos, Inner Mongolia, China in Forktail 7 (1992) 131 - 137

Zhatkanbayev, A.Zh. (1990) Persistent pesticides in the ecology of pelicans (Kazakstan, USSR). Pp.347 in Abstracts of the V International Congress of Ecology. Yokohama, August, 23-30, 1990, Japan.

Zhatkanbayev, A.Zh. (1991) [The ecology of Dalmatian and white pelicans in the Ile River Delta.] Pp.18-28. in [Rare birds and mammals of Kazakstan (Materials to the second edition of the Red Data Book of Kazak SSR).] Alma-Ata: Izdatyelstvo "Ghylym" of Kazak SSR [Publishers of Science of Kazak SSR]. (In Russian).

Zhatkanbayev, A.Zh. (1993a) The present state of pelican populations (Pelecanus onocrotalus and P. crispus) in Kazakstan in The Bulletin of the British Ornithologist's Club 1994 114(3)

Zhatkanbayev, A.Zh. (1994a) Some aspects of the ecology of Pelecanus crispus and P. onocrotalus in the Ile Delta,Kazakstan. Pp.91-95. in Pelicans in the former USSR. IWRB Publ.27 Ed A.J.Crivelli, V.G.Krivenko and V.G. Vinogradov

Zhatkanbayev, A.Zh. (1994b) The present state of pelican populations (Pelecanus onocrotalus and P. crispus) in Kazakstan. Pp. 202-205. In The Bulletin of the British Ornithologist's Club 1994 114(3)

Zhatkanbayev, A.Zh. (1994c) Present status of pelicans in the Ile Delta, Kazakstan pp 60 - 63 in Pelicans in the former USSR Ed A.J.Crivelli, V.G.Krivenko and V.G. Vinogradov

Zubakin, V.A. (1988) [Relict Gull - Larus relictus Lonnberg, 1931] Pp. 69-76 in [Birds of the USSR. Laridae.] Moscow: Izdatyelstvo "Nauka" [Publishers of Science]. (In Russian.)

Glossary

Globally Threatened. A species at risk of global extinction and classed as Critical, Endangered or Vulnerable under the IUCN criteria used by Collar et al (1994)

Vulnerable. A species whose population is small or is in large decline.

 

ERRATA

5.4 Relict Gull para 2 "Of ca 300 pairs of great black-backed gulls only two pairs appeared to have any young "should read

Of ca 300 pairs of gulls and terns only two pairs of great black-backed gull appeared to have any young.