Birds of prey of the Kazakh Upland – indicators of steppe well-being

Authors


Corresponding author.

Email: yazula@yandex.ru

Background

The East Kazakhstan Upland is poorly studied by ornithologists, although this is a large steppe territory of great importance for raptors. We studied birds of prey in Kalba Altai (the area east of the Kazakh Upland) in 2006 and investigated the easternmost part of the Kazakh Upland in 2007 within the framework of the Important Bird Area (IBA) identification project (Association for Conservation of Biodiversity of Kazakhstan) (Smelansky et al. 2006, 2008, Sklyarenko et al. 2008). There is virtually no raptor research being undertaken in the Kazakh Upland, the few ornithologists working in this region choosing to study other bird species. The studies of Kazakhstan ornithologist Anatoly Levin are devoted to the post-nesting period and relate only to a small part of the Kazakh Upland (Levin & Karpov 2005). This steppe area is an important habitat for rare and endangered birds of prey such as Saker Falcon Falco cherrug, Lesser Kestrel Falco naumanni, Imperial Eagle Aquila heliaca, Steppe Eagle Aquila nipalensis, Golden Eagle Aquila chrysaetos, Pallid Harrier Circus macrourus and European Eagle Owl Bubo bubo (IUCN 2009).

The project aimed to investigate birds of prey of the Kazakh Upland including studying raptor number and distribution in different habitats and identifying places of high conservation value for the target species in the area investigated.

Implementation and findings

The field survey in some typical parts of the Kazakh Upland (its southeastern part) was carried out in June 2009. The route traversed the northern Balkhash Lake region, some granite outcrops and low hills north of Balkhash Lake (Emeltau, Arkat, etc.), and the southern slopes of the Chingiztau Ridge. The whole working route covered about 2000 km.

The main techniques were as follows:

  • Searching for nests and perching sites along the vehicle routes. The routes followed river valleys and went through the plains’ watershed areas (with walked routes to the ridges and other places of difficult access), using regular stops for observation of slopes and birds in flight.
  • The non-fixed-width strip-transect count method was used, in which all observed birds are recorded with a line distance to them (independently of angle) and the surveyed area is calculated as route length multiplied by average distance to birds.
  • Surveying of lakes.
  • Interviewing local people and visitors (herders, geologists, biologists, etc.).

Density was estimated by extrapolating habitat-specific estimates of density to the whole region. All analyses were conducted using GIS (ArcView 3.2, ArcGIS 9.3, envi and erdas; ESRI, Redlands, CA, USA). The field research focused on raptors but all other species were also recorded.

Besides staff of the NGO Siberian Environmental Center (Novosibirsk, Russia), the team included a local graduate student (from the East Kazakhstan State University) who was trained in surveying raptors.

We recorded 15 species of birds of prey and four species of owls: Steppe Eagle, Golden Eagle, Imperial Eagle, Cinereous Vulture Aegypius monachus, Long-legged Buzzard Buteo rufinus, Pallid Harrier, Hen Harrier Circus cyaneus, Short-Toed Eagle Circaetus gallicus, Black-Eared Kite Milvus migrans lineatus, Saker Falcon, Lesser Kestrel, Common Kestrel Falco tinnunculus, Merlin Falco columbarius, Eurasian Hobby Falco subbuteo, Eurasian Sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus, Short-Eared Owl Asio flammeus, Long-Eared Owl Asio otus, European Eagle Owl and Scops Owl Otus scops.

Some of the more noteworthy observations were:

  • We found more than 30 nesting areas of Steppe Eagle (43 nests were located, 15 of them observed were occupied). There were 1.9 ± 0.5 eggs or chicks on average in occupied nests.
  • We found two nesting sites of Golden Eagle. One occupied nest was observed (with 2 chicks).
  • The only nest of the Imperial Eagle was situated on a power line pylon.
  • We recorded more than 25 nesting areas of Long-legged Buzzard (53 nests were located, 12 of them observed were occupied). There were 2.3 ± 1.1 eggs or chicks on average in occupied nests.
  • Pallid Harriers were recorded at seven sites.
  • We found nine nesting areas of Saker Falcon (seven nests were found, five were occupied). There were 3.6 ± 0.9 chicks or fledglings on average in occupied nests. Around half the nests were situated on rocks and half on power line pylons.
  • We found 36 breeding pairs of Lesser Kestrel, most of them on the south slopes and bottom of the Chingiztau Ridge.
  • European Eagle Owl was found in the granite massifs and hilly area in the Northern Balkhash area.
  • We identified a number of sites of particular importance for raptors.

Implications

The southeastern part of the Kazakh Upland is sparsely populated. Only a few small towns and villages are situated in a territory of about 50 000 km2. The whole area is used as a vast rangeland for livestock breeding. Pastoralism is the principal occupation of local people there. Herders’ camps and bases are found throughout the area but their density is low and grazing pressure is on average low as well. One of our study plots was 2500 km2 in area and held only a single herders’ settlement. Thus the area investigated is an extremely vast tract of hills and plains covered with almost virgin steppe grassland.

Some of the focal species are of special interest because they serve as indicators of steppe integrity. They are Steppe Eagle, Pallid Harrier, Saker Falcon and Lesser Kestrel. The East Kazakhstan Upland is an important refuge for these steppe raptors.

The main nesting areas of the Saker in the region comprise granite outcrops and other rocks. All known nesting populations of the Saker in the area have been declining for years (Levin 2008), probably due to poaching. Some years ago this species started successfully nesting on power line pylons. We recorded one such nesting place; the nests occupied by the Sakers were found an average of 8 km apart. All nests were successful, with mean brood size of four. We agree with Dr. A. Levin (2008) that the success of nests on electric pylons is due to protection from poachers.

The Imperial Eagle also nested on power line pylons as there are not many trees suitable for nesting in the Kazakh Upland; this species is therefore extremely rare here and is forced to use the pylons for nesting.

At present, the low hills and ridges of Eastern Kazakhstan – from Chingiztau in the west to the western Kalba foothills in the east and to the eastern part of the Northern Balkhash Lake (the northern edge probably is in the Altai region in Russia) – provide an important zone for the Steppe Eagle, where the highest densities of this raptor occur. Most of this territory is formed by the Kazakh Upland. This is confirmed by our previous research in the easternmost part of the Kazakh Upland (Smelansky et al. 2006, 2008, Berezovikov et al. 2006) and by the investigations of other field researchers (Levin 2008).

This important area lacks appropriate protected status (almost no IBAs were identified here during work on the evaluation of such territories in Kazakhstan in 2005–2007).

The results of this research will contribute to a better understanding of the birds of prey of the area and will be used for the evaluation of IBAs and new protected areas in the Kazakh Upland. The project's findings were disseminated through reports to the local wildlife agency and scientific papers (Barashkova et al. 2009).

The next step of this research will be the planning of new IBAs in the Kazakh Upland to increase the value of this important area for raptor conservation. This will require additional research to outline the most important nesting territories for rare and threatened species.

The project leader is very grateful to the BOU for funding the work. We sincerely thank also S. L. Sklyarenko (the Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity of Kazakhstan, ACBK, Almaty), Yu. K. Zinchenko (East Kazakhstan Regional Museum of History and Local Lore, Ust-Kamenogorsk), and E. M. and V. G. Yurchenkov (NGO ‘Eco-Altai’, Ust-Kamenogorsk) for organizational support.

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