For several years now, satellite tagged birds have been stopping in northern Saudi Arabia on their migration to Sudan, and some are known to have wintered – for example Irina stayed in the pivot fields of Tabuk from October 2013 until March 2014. So when we heard that so many of this year’s cohort of satellite tagged Sociable Lapwings were in Saudi Arabia, the Saudi Wildlife Authority, BirdLife International and the King Khalid Wildlife Research Centre teamed up to undertake a rapid survey in an attempt to locate them.
By early November there were three birds consistently present in northern Saudi, all in different locations – Vyan in Tabuk, Sanjar in Tayma, and Canan south of Tubarjal. Interestingly, all of the locations are within areas of irrigated pivot fields, which presumably provide good foraging habitat compared to the surrounding barren deserts. Given the short time we had, we decided to focus on locating Sanjar en route to the vast pivot fields of Tabuk, and hopefully a glimpse of Vyan.
Day 1 couldn’t have got off to a better start, although it could have been warmer – it’s surprisingly cold in the desert at this time of year, with night-time temperatures down to about 5-6°C. Our first area of pivot fields was about 30km to the west of Tayma, the area where Sanjar had been. Although we had received emails/texts from Paul Donald and Ian Fisher just a few days before telling us Sanjar had moved on, we decided to check if others birds were still present. The first bird of the day was a stunning Black-winged Kite perched on an irrigation arm, and at our third survey point we struck gold! Checking an area just a few hundred metres from a recent satellite tag location, we focused on a field that had been recently harvested – the habitat looked perfect. After a quick scan from a distance, Sharif Jbour from BirdLife Middle East, shouted he had spotted two Sociable Lapwing, then a third, then another. We moved closer and counted a total of 17 Sociable Lapwings mixed in with 5 Cream-coloured Coursers and tens of Collared Doves. Unfortunately, before we could check them thoroughly for colour-rings, the birds were flushed, probably by a nearby Red Fox, and flew off south-east, not to be seen again that day. It was a great start, and although we didn’t see any more Sociable Lapwings on day 1, the habitat looked ideal. We checked all the satellite tag locations from the recent weeks and much of the habitat looked suitable, especially the areas that were recently harvested. Collared Doves and House Sparrows were amazingly abundant and often see in flocks of several hundred. Common Kestrels, Harriers and Black Kites were common over recently harvested fields, presumably targeting recently exposed small mammals.
The second day of the survey targeted an agricultural area north of Tayma, before heading to Tabuk in the late afternoon. Unfortunately, we couldn’t gain access to the private farmland but could get good views across many of the pivot fields from a perimeter bank. Although there was some good habitat, this area seemed to be more intensively farmed than the previous day. The fields were much larger, many contained mature crops, and there appeared to be fewer birds overall, as well as no Sociable Lapwings. After a drive of a few hours to Tabuk, we decide to camp not far from the most recent location of Vyan. We arrived just before sunset and stopped briefly at a specific pivot field from which we’d received a recent satellite tag location. We all got pretty excited as we pulled up to the field and saw a number of medium-sized birds in flight with a contrasting black and white wing-pattern. However, on closer inspection our hopes of recording more Sociable Lapwings were dashed as we counted 13 Spur-winged Lapwings.
One of the best things about survey work in the Saudi desert is the camping and the evenings spent around the camp fire. All the field team were tea and coffee aficionados and the range was impressive, traditional Arabic gahwa, ginger tea, spiced hot milk and of course early morning Italian espresso!
What turned out to be our final full day was an eventful one. We returned to the field of the previous night and after discussions with the farm manager were able to gain access to the private agricultural area. The first few fields again had good numbers of Spur-winged Lapwings and also small groups of Cream-coloured Courser, the largest group being 22 individuals. We saw the occasional Hoopoe and Thick-billed Larks, and of course Crested Larks were everywhere. Steppe Eagles were regularly seen and Kestrels were often hovering above fields of alfalfa. Barn Swallows were present too – we wondered if these were wintering or just late birds migrating through? We also saw very distant flock of birds, which we couldn’t identify at first, and they disappeared out of view. There were a series of three pivot fields that were stubble, one of which was being ploughed, and through the slight heat haze we could make out a couple of Cream-coloured Coursers, and a couple of others birds that looked suspiciously like Sociable Lapwings. As we drove closer, it was clear that we had located our second group of Sociable Lapwings of the trip. A total of 22 were counted and as they were very approachable, we were able to thoroughly check for the presence of colour-rings. None were visible and it was clear that Vyan was not amongst this group. Interestingly, the Sociable Lapwings were clearly attracted to the ground that had been ploughed by a passing tractor, and were seen taking soil invertebrates that had been exposed by the plough. The unidentified large flock of birds that we had seen an hour before was visible again, but this time much closer, a small group of a few hundred broke away from the main flock and flew right above us – they were Pin-tailed Grouse and we counted about 1000 in total.
This of course was worthy of a celebratory tea and coffee!!
We located two more Sociable Lapwings about an hour later, and these were to be our final records. During the three days we found a total of 41 Sociable Lapwings in three groups. Interestingly, none of these birds appeared colour-ringed or satellite-tagged, so Vyan must have been elsewhere in the vast area of pivot fields of Tabuk. Our final day was unexpectedly cut short due to torrential rain – it doesn’t rain that often in Saudi Arabia, but when it does it can be impressive. Within 30 minutes, roads were flooded, and driving became very risky. Visibility was down to 50 metres or so, and by 10am on the final day we decided to halt the survey work and head back to Riyadh two days earlier than scheduled.
The agricultural areas of Tabuk were fascinating. There were large numbers of common birds, and it appears to be a favoured location of the Critically Endangered Sociable Lapwing. It is worth pondering the impact the rapid growth of these agricultural areas may have had on migratory behaviour in the last 30 years or so. In the 1980s,Vyan’s ancestors would have faced a harsh desert environment when they first arrived in the north of Saudi. They almost certainly would have struggled to find sufficient invertebrate food to sustain them through the winter, and continuing to migrate further south was probably an attractive option. Nowadays, in the words of The Clash, Vyan must wonder “should I stay or should I go now?”
The following images are taken from the NASA website and show the expansion of agricultural fields around Tabuk: http://www.nasa.gov/topics/earth/features/saudi-green.html (accessed on the 5th December 2015).
Rob Sheldon, Sharif Jbour, Mohammed Al-Mutairy, Thamer Al-Shalhoub and Majid Khaled Al-Mutairy would like to thank the President of the Saudi Wildlife Authority, His Highness Prince Bandar bin Saud Al-Saud, for his support of this survey work.