On 5 February Phil Roberts and I travelled to Haradh an area of extensive pivot irrigation fields three hours drive from Dhahran. We left at 03:00 hrs to allow us to be at the site at first light. We tried the big farm complexes first but were not allowed entry to any so tried a set of fields off the main road some distance and eventually found some access to some very good looking fields in various stages of growth from ploughed to fallow to newly growing.
We eventually came across a very damp newly ploughed field that had a single Northern Lapwing in it, but as we got closer more and more birds flew out. After a couple of minutes I saw two Sociable Lapwings in flight at the back of the flock that flew around and landed in the ploughed field. We drove around to the area where the access track was to the pivot irrigation bars and moved down this into the middle of the field. Here we scanned through the Northern Lapwings we could see and eventually found eight Sociable Lapwings.
We also found a second large flock of Northern Lapwings in a second ploughed field and went to look at this flock and found another eight Sociable Lapwings in amongst them. At one stage both the flocks joined together and so did the Sociable Lapwings but they split up again with eight staying with each flock.
These birds are only the second time the species has been recorded in the Eastern Province after an adult at Haradh farm on 25 February 1982
The species status in Saudi Arabia is a locally scarce passage migrant and winter visitor, which has historically been recorded north of Jeddah near the coast. Other records come from north of Yanbu, one near Riyadh, An adult at Haradh farm 1982 and one near the National Wildlife Research Center at Taif. Previous historical records include flocks 25 in 1934 and 45 in 1988 and there have only been eight records since 1950.
These include one satellite-tagged bird from central Kazakhstan that wintered in Saudi Arabia for several weeks in 2011, just north of Tabuk by the main road and another satellite-tagged bird in the same area in November 2013, where they probably used irrigated fields for feeding. On 17 November 2012, a group of 10 birds were recorded north of Tabuk in the same area as the satellite tagged birds had been recorded and 35 birds were in irrigation fields north of Jizan 14 January 2013. Whilst birding in the Jizan area on 19 November 2013, Seven birds were in a stubble field near Sabya 21- 22 November 2103.
Satellite tracking of Sociable Lapwings from their breeding grounds in central Kazakhstan has suggested that Saudi Arabia is an important stop-over and wintering area. Tagged birds appear to be associated with agricultural areas in the north of the country, especially Tabuk and Al Jawf. In October 2015, three satellite tagged birds were in Saudi Arabia – west of Tabuk, west of Al Jawf and also west of Tayma. Following a request from BirdLife International, The Saudi Wildlife Authority organised a rapid survey to try and locate the Sociable Lapwings in northern Saudi Arabia.
The survey was conducted from 13-16 November 2015 and found17 birds in west Tamya 13 November 2015 with 22 birds at west Tabuk 15 November 2015 that increased in size to a flock of 46 on 20 November 2015, this being the largest flock seen in the Kingdom for many years. Sociable Lapwing is listed as Critically Endangered because its population has undergone a very rapid reduction, for reasons that are poorly understood.
This decline is projected to continue and increase in the future. Fieldwork in Kazakhstan (and counts in Turkey and the Middle East) has shown the population to be substantially larger than previously feared, but recent demographic studies have found low adult survival, possibly largely driven by hunting pressure along the migration routes and wintering grounds.
Important wintering areas have been identified in Saudi Arabia in the northwest of the Kingdom from satellite tracked birds. Below is a photo of the field where the Sociable Lapwings were seen.