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.

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

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