The Sociable LapwingVanellus gregarious is a globally threatened wader which breeds in Central Asia and is found in the Middle East on migration and during the winter. The first few records of the species in Qatar were in the early 1980’s but it wasn’t seen again here until 2009. It now occurs in small numbers most years, with peak months October to March. Thus, there were five sightings of up to three birds between mid October 2020 and early March 2021 and 2-3 between mid October and early November, 2021. Maximum count of the species was eight birds in 2009.
A recent study of the migration and habitat preferences of breeding and wintering Sociable Lapwing highlights that fact that passage and wintering birds in the Middle East are reliant on farms and other irrigated land (Appleton, 2021; Donald et al 2021). It also appears that over the years they have learned to take more direct migratory pathways to reach these areas; Birds seen in Qatar are assumed to follow a “central” migration route directly southwards from their breeding areas in Kazakhstan rather than a much longer western route through Turkey and Syria, or an eastern route that takes them into India and Pakistan. The wintering site preference for Sociable Lapwing points to two issues (1) The importance of the growth in the number of farms in Qatar, and the generally low intensity way that they are managed and (2) The vulnerability of waste-water lagoons, another habitat used by the species in Qatar – these are affected by widely varying water levels and are often affected by human disturbance.
During 2021, the International Ornithological Congress announced a number of taxonomic revisions to the IOC World Bird List. One of these revisions was to Graceful Prinia, a familiar sight in Qatar where it is a resident local breeder. Graceful Prinia (Prinia gracilis) sensu stricto has thus been split and a new species, Delicate Prinia (P. lepida) has been established. The split is supported by differences in structure, plumage, song and DNA (Alström et al., 2021). Differences are subtle and to complicate the picture, both species include a number of subspecies.
Delicate Prinia occurs from the easternmost parts of the Arabian peninsula northwards and eastwards into Iran, Iraq and India. Graceful Prinia occurs in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Oman. The status of Graceful Prinia and Delicate Prinia in Qatar and adjacent parts of Saudi Arabia is currently under investigation since these are at the boundary of the distribution of the two species. It currently appears likely that both are present in Qatar but details of their exact distribution remain to be established.
Key distinguishing field characteristics are:
Graceful Prinia – Structurally larger/bulkier with a relatively short tail. Upper tail barring is very feint, but a subterminal under tail bar is prominent. Plumage tends towards cooler, greyer tones. Song is rather staccato, or slower with gaps between separate bursts. May prefer drier habitats, including parks and gardens including Bidda park, Doha
Delicate Prinia – Structurally more slight, with a longer and thinner tail. Upper tail markings are relatively prominent. Under tail markings are rather feint. Plumage tends towards warmer tones. Song is more continuous, and sounds faster. May prefer wetter habitats such as reed beds, such as can be found at Irkaya Farm.
The tail markings and in particular the song are the key defining field characteristics. Clear views of the upper side and under side of the tail are thus important, as are video/audio recordings. Unless either or both are clear, for now at least, it is better to record sightings as Graceful/Delicate Prinia, a convention followed by Ebird.