For those Sociable Lapwings using the western route, upon departing Syria the next most likely stop is the north-west of Saudi Arabia. It has long been known that Sociable Lapwings migrate through Saudi en route to Africa (Sudan) during both the spring and autumn migrations. From our historical sightings database there are just three wintering records (November or December) from the 1930s in the area of Jeddah (two of the records being single birds and the other a group of 3). In December 1990 there was a single bird near Yanbu on the Red Sea coast. So it is fair to say that wintering wasn’t common. However, with the start of the satellite tracking programme, it became apparent that wintering might be more common than previously thought. In 2010/11 one bird wintered near Al Jawf in the north-west and another bird wintered near Al Qa’arah (in 2011/12) in the west of Saudi. Another tagged bird wintered near Tabuk in 2013/14. Then in November 2015 three tagged birds were near Tabuk, Al Jawf and Tayma. All of the tagged birds were associated with irrigated pivot fields that can be seen in many parts of the Arabian Peninsula.
Irrigated pivot fields can provide excellent foraging habitat for many migratory birds, including Sociable Lapwings. Left: harvested alfalfa where 17 Sociable Lapwings were located near Tayma. Right: mature alfalfa field near Tabuk.
I was based at the King Khalid Wildlife Research Center, near Riyadh in 2014-16, and had the opportunity to spend a week searching for tagged birds in November 2015. One Sociable Lapwing was providing regular satellite locations in an area of pivot fields to the west of Tayma, and at pretty much our first survey stop we located a flock of 17 birds (see left image above). Views were brief but it was clear that none of the birds were tagged or colour-ringed so there must have been another flock in the area, although none were located. Near Tabuk we were able to locate a flock of 22 Sociable Lapwings on a field being ploughed – indeed they seemed to be following the plough in a similar way that Northern Lapwings do. Again, none of the birds were tagged or colour-ringed so there must have been other birds in the area. The following week a local birder, independently located a flock of 46 birds in the same area. Given the small area of suitable habitat that we covered then it is highly likely that there is a significant wintering population of birds utilising these irrigated pivot fields.
Recently, Jem Babbington and Phil Roberts have discovered another wintering area much further east, in the Eastern province of Saudi Arabia. On the 5th February 2016, 17 Sociable Lapwings were seen with a flock of 425 Northern Lapwings at Haradh. The following year, on the 13th January 2017, seven Sociable Lapwings were present, and on the 3rd February five were still present. Interestingly, the birds at Haradh were in ploughed fields searching for soil invertebrates.
Elsewhere in the Arabian Peninsula, Sociable Lapwing records are often from farms with irrigated pivot fields. Recent records from Kuwait, Bahrain, UAE and Oman are all associated with these man-made habitats. It seems likely that Sociable Lapwings, and probably other birds, have adapted to this new habitat and altered their migratory behaviour. Why continue the perilous journey south when there is an adequate food resource within these extensive pivot fields? Landsat data from NASA clearly shows this recent and rapid expansion in what must birds must see as an oasis in the desert.
Jem and Phil will be visiting the Haradh area during the Global Bird Weekend. It might be a bit too early for Sociable Lapwings in Saudi, but the species is always surprising us! Their recent paper on Sociable Lapwings was published in the OSME journal Sandgrouse and should be freely available via the Biodiversity Heritage Library soon: Babbington & Roberts (2017). An update on the wintering status of Sociable Lapwings Vanellus gregarius in Saudi Arabia with a new wintering location in the Eastern province. Sandgrouse, 39 (172-176).
Acknowledgements: Sharif Jbour, Mohammed Al-Mutairy, Thamer Al-Shalhoub & Majid Khaled Al-Mutairy were part of the survey team in November 2015.
Photo credit: header image by Maxim Koshkin.