Recently it has been discovered that Black Larks, living on the Eurasian steppes in Kazakhstan, transport dung to their nests to build large 'pavements' . Weird and almost dirty behaviour, but what is the use of it? This spring a team of researchers from the Universities of Wageningen and M√ľnster and the Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity in Kazakhstan (ACBK) will try to answer this question, doing fieldwork in the Korgalzhyn area in Kazakhstan. On this blog we will post on our findings and adventures.

Saturday, 15 June 2013

Nests in all sizes and colours

We are approaching the end of our field season here in Kazakhstan. Most Black Larks are feeding fledged chicks or have given up nesting after several failed attempts. However, we still have a couple of nests active and even sometimes find more nests. We are now at 92 nests, not our target, but still not bad at all. Also, we repeated the trampling experiment a couple of times. Not a clear pattern in that yet, but we will try it some more times, we also like to work with the cows!

Not only Black Larks are nesting here in the vast amount of steppe. Numerous species, in Dutch many with ‘Steppe’ in their names, benefit from the huge amounts of insects dwelling on the floor or flying in the air. On their turn, raptors love to hunt on those species. It is therefore not surprising that we incidentally find nests of other species than Black Lark.

Already a time ago we found a miniature Black Lark nest, it belonged to a Greater Short-toed Lark. Although it was the only nest that we found (we are not really looking for them), it was surprising that also around this nest we found some pieces of horse and cattle dung! Not only the nest looked like a miniature Black Lark nest, but also the eggs and the chicks were minor versions of their bigger black brothers. We checked the nest a couple of times and it was eventually successful. We also found two Skylark nests. The chicks were not yellow-sandy brown as in Black and Greater Short-toed Larks, but black. Around these nests we didn’t find collected pieces of dung, but pieces of wood and dry clumps of earth were scattered around the nests. Collection behaviour is certainly not new in larks, for example Shore Larks collect small stones. Therefore, results of our project are very likely to hold for a broader spectrum of species than only Black Larks.

On a free afternoon we went to a large lake close to Korgalzhyn. There we found a pair of Pallid Merlins flying around us. There were only two trees, or more to say tall bushes, in the close vicinity so finding the nest wasn’t that difficult. We both agreed, we would like to have a nest there as well: on the border of a cliff on the edge of a large lake with views to beautiful sunsets every day! That day we found two eggs and later we found four eggs.


Today we went south, just south was the aim. At our picknick location (well.. just on the track) a pair of Steppe Eagles was present. Sometimes we could see white balls of fluff peeking over the edge of a shrub. Three beautiful youngsters were watching us whilst a stock of four Little Ground Squirels were waiting on the edge of the nest to be eaten. Both of the parents were watching us from the high sky, so we took some pictures and left again. Amazing how these birds are so exposed to the changeable weather here (we had some severe thunderstorms yesterday and last night). 

Nest of Greater Short-toed Lark. It is basically a miniature Black Lark nest. On the left side of the nest some collected dung is visible. The extent Black Larks collect dung seems however to be unique.
Nest with view on the lake. Merlins often use old nests of Hooded Crows.
Nests of Steppe Eagles are often as exposed as this one. Height of the nest, barely to the knee.. On the edge a fresh stock of Little Ground Squirels. 

Friday, 7 June 2013

The silvery sea: steppe in June

With the start of the month of June, summer has officially started in Kazakhstan with temperatures nearing the 30C. The steppe is now a waving sea of silvery feather grass, with a colourful mix of different flowers in between. Grasshoppers and cicades are chirping in the grass, but above all this is the loud high pitch buzz of a million mosquitoes.

Most of the Black Lark nests we found in May are now successful, which means that the chicks have fledged. Although we don’t always encounter the fledged chicks around the nest, it becomes clear that the nest is successful when it is sort of trampled by the big chicks and fledgling droppings lie in and around the nest. Sometimes we also see the fledglings themselves, jumping between the grass and making short gliding flights low over the ground. While driving over the steppe, we see many of these fledglings, of Black Larks as well as Skylarks and Greater Short-toed Larks.

In this region the Black Larks prefer abandoned arable fields to breed in. In these areas there is a large heterogeneity in microclimates: large tufts of grass give shade and shelter, bare patches serve as insect hotspots. In Soviet times large extents of steppe, not comparable to European standards, have been ploughed and turned into arable land. After Kazakhstan became an independent country these fields were more and more abandoned and are slowly turning back in steppe again. As said, these fields are preferred by Black Larks, so it is not necessarily a bad thing. Recently some of these abandoned fields are being used again. Last autumn a formerly abandoned field (5 by 2.5 km) has been ploughed in preparation for this spring sowing season. However, the Black Larks kept trying to nest here. As the season was cold and wet, the fields were only ploughed and sowed from the beginning of June, hereby destroying the current nests. Of course this is a sad thing, but it is also the harsh reality and a result of a higher demand of wheat for bread. On the other hand, this field will be essential in the survival of the male Black Larks that stay here in winter and maybe the field will once be abandoned again. We hope that the larks will try to make a new nest, but it might be that the breeding season is already too short for another breeding attempt. We will see how it goes!


Bird migration is coming to an end, but there are still many interesting birds around. Thousands and thousands of Red-necked Phalaropes can be seen on the small lakes in the area, looking like small flies on the water. The lakes contain many interesting breeding birds, including White-headed Ducks, Dalmatian Pelicans and Flamingo’s, but also smaller birds such as Paddyfield and Great Reed Warblers. On the shore of one of the lakes we found a nest of a Merlin, of which the very pale subspecies pallidus occurs here. We also saw another nice vagrant bird for the area, a Corn Bunting singing on one of the power lines. 

Black Lark chick hiding in the grass. They will be fed by their parents for approximately another 2 weeks after being fledged.
This is what we call 'the valley of 1000 males'. It appears that many bachelor males stay here to forage, show off and take a sun bath. Unfortunately very few females here..

Flowering feather grass  (stipa) has a typical silyery colour. Currently they start to flower and turns the steppe in a silvery sea.

A fledged Skylark

Saturday, 1 June 2013

Watch your step!



Do cows look where they put their foot, and will they avoid their own dung? And might this be a reason for Black Larks to use dung around their nests, to save it from trampling? These are the questions we want to answer by doing our so-called ‘trampling experiment’. As we showed in our last blog post, we made over 200 clay ‘cookies’ to be put in and outside dung piles in a grid, after which we let a herd of cattle graze in the grid.

With the help of the local Kolya on horseback, we managed to let a herd of cattle (91 cows) graze in our 1 hectare grid. Instead of driving them trough the grid, we wanted the cattle to take their time in the grid. We expected that in this way they will be more attentive where they step. The cows took their time in the grid while we waited, relaxing in the grass. After an hour we slowly drove the cows out of the grid and counted the result. About 10% of the cookies had been trampled, and by far most of the trampled cookies were the ones places on bare soil, so not in dung piles. We will definitely repeat this experiment, but for now it seems that cows are careful not to step in their own dung!

Already for some time we are placing temperature loggers in and outside empty nests (either predated or successful) to compare the nest temperature with the outside temperature. This week we took this one step further by adding dung pieces to the side of the nest and repeating the measurements. In this way we hope to get a better idea of the effect dung has on the nest microclimate.

During May we were lucky to have Gera with us one the project, who was an enthousiastic field worker and provided us with essential help for contact with locals. Yesterday she went back home, to continue working on a project on bird victims due to power lines. Thank you very much, Gera! Thijs and Thomas still have a month to work on experiments and find nests – up to the 100!

Most nests have 3 to 4 eggs, but this nest surprised us with 5 eggs!
While the cattle grazed, we could relax

Cowboy Thijs
Kolya helped us with getting the cattle into the grid, many thanks!
And another team picture :)