The reeds are never silent.
Even if you arrive well before sunrise, before there is any sound or any movement from birds or frogs or 747's, the reeds are swaying softly back and forth, inhaling and exhaling as the air currents shift over them. On hot days or cool, you can always hear the gentle breathing of the reeds.
They grow in dense stands that reach as far as 12.2 meters (40 feet) out into the lake Their hollow, jointed stems, pith-hearted fibrous tubes two centimeters (three quarters of an inch) in diameter, rise from horizontal underground rhizomes to soar three or four meters (10 to 14 feet) in a tense curve like an unstrung bow. Leaves like lance points angle away from the sterns on divergent curves of their own, densely ridged with fine parallel veins. In the mornings, their papery surfaces are beaded with dew: a few drops of it often trickle down to fill the tiny crescent-shaped cups formed at the leaf bases, where they sheathe the stems.
At the top of each stem flies a disorderly gray-beige downy plume, tossed and tousled by the wind that catches it to sway the reeds. At their bases, where they emerge from the water or from the succulent black earth, the reeds are crossed and tangled like jackstraws, interwoven in to a springy thicket that humans can enter - with difficulty - only by steamroller methods, crushing all before them.
So the humans stay out. What stays in the reeds, besides dragonflies, snails, small fish, maybe some snakes, and a perfect chaos of frogs, is birds. They shelter there, hunt and feed, perch and preen.
Behind the reed beds, much of the way around the lake, are the tamarisks, they deal with the wind in a different way, more rubbery than steely in their compliance, and so dense in their sprays of dividing needle-like branchlets that their smaller branches are often bent double in the gusts, providing a wild ride for the wilderness of small birds that perch there as they rest or hunt, claim a territory or display for potential mates. Tamarisks are often planted as windbreaks, and though these serve that function well at the lake, no one planted them, any more than anyone planted the reeds.
Give or take a few species of birds or plants, lake scenes like this are common enough all over the world, but there are three things about this lake that are uncommon: place, fact and species. Lakes like this are downright rare in Saudi Arabia, and this one in Dhahran is surrounded, behind the tamarisks, by stony scrub desert whose predominant color is not the lake's lush green and blue but the eye-stabbing white-beige of harshly sunlit limestone, sand and gravel. Second the lake is an artifact, man made for reasons that have nothing to do with its burgeoning plant and animal populations: those exist on sufferance, subject to change or extinction without notice. And the common species is bipedal like the birds, sharp-sighted as the harrier, and patient as the heron, but has no feathers, it's the human bird-watcher.
Homo sapiens ornithoscopus, the serious amateur bird watcher, has only been sighted in Saudi Arabia in the last century, and the species has remained an infrequent visitor until a couple of decades ago. As a result, the mass of detailed data that constitute the raw material of scientific ornithology - what birds have been found where in the country, under what circumstances and in what habitats, whether they breed here, winter here or just pass through on migration, and reams of other specifics on variations, behaviour and life cycle - is much less extensive for Saudi Arabia than for many other countries. Yet the kingdom is important ornithologically: perhaps five trillion birds - the number has 12 zeros - pass over or through Saudi Arabia twice a year, migrating between Africa and western or central Eurasia, some 300 species are resident in the country, including at least a dozen that are found nowhere else in the world; and there is a long guest list of summer and winter visitors as well. That doesn't count occasional unexpected vagrants and rarities like the waldrapp ibis (Geronticus eremita), sighted once almost a decade ago on its northwards migration from Ethiopia to southeastern Turkey (See Aramco World, January-February 1974).
Working in what thus amounts to a rich and almost unexplored territory is a small group of very dedicated amateur birders who fit an astonishing amount of careful ornithology into the free time left them by their paying jobs in Saudi Arabia. Some work for various Saudi government offices, some work for Aramco, others for joint-venture engineering or construction companies; many of them are up before the birds are every morning, most are out birding the same areas again every evening, and all drive to different locations on the weekends to watch and record. Because the lake in Dhahran is a magnet for birds, it is also a magnet for the bird watchers, who can record, and enjoy watching, more species there than in any other single location in the area.
It's a birders' axiom that the richness and quality of bird records from an area is as much a function of the presence of bird watchers as of the presence of birds. The birds at the Dhahran lake are thus not only well recorded today, but they have been well recorded since the lake was created five years ago: the data includes the valuable extra dimension of change over time, and that in a period during which the face of Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province changed considerably - not least from the bird's-eye view.
Industrialization, grain-farming, marsh drainage, irrigation, land filling, afforestation, paving, construction and population have all increased in that time, with both positive and negative effects on the bird population. Industries pollute, for example, but their needs for water bring it, from wells, canals or pipelines, to places where it wasn't found before, and the birds benefit. Grain-farming provides new food sources, but requires clearance of indigenous food and shelter plants. Draining marshlands eliminates rich bird habitats, but sewage treatment plants create new ones. The net effect of all these changes may be about even in the Eastern Province, but they seem to have concentrated the birds in fewer localities.
British ornithologists have calculated what one could call "species m.p.g." for certain migratory birds: the number of miles they can fly per gram of the body fat that fuels them on their often incredible migrations. The scientists have demonstrated that, in theory, most of the birds that cross Saudi Arabia twice a year carry enough energy-storing fat to make the exhausting trip non-stop. Yet Dhahran's premier birders, Tom and Jo Heindel, have counted as many as 50 different species - and far greater numbers of individuals - in a single hour during the February-to-April spring migration, 67 species in the course of a weekend morning, and 106 on one Big Day in April.
Obviously, many birds choose not to over fly Saudi Arabia, and that choice must be influenced by what they see from the air of the terrain below them. Beacons of green and blue in the surrounding sun-struck beige mean water, shelter and food for both seed- and insect-eaters, and the opportunity to rest and build up reserves for the next leg of the migration.
Lake Lanhardt is such a beacon - one created at the right time and in the right place to attract concentrations of birds few other places in Saudi Arabia can match, and that is why, on a good day, the birders nearly outnumber the birds. That is also why, increasingly, there are some unique sightings recorded there.
Last December 28, for example, a brilliant bolt of iridescent blue lightning appeared there, a bird with a white bib, rich chestnut head and sides, and a spear-like oxblood bill so massive it looked aerodynamically unsound. It took the birders at the lake longer to recover from their surprise than to identify the visitor, for nothing else looks like a Smyrna kingfisher (Halcyon smyrnensis) - but only one has ever been sighted in Saudi Arabia before. This one took up residence at the lake, perching on signposts or in the reeds, and stayed there for two months, eating tadpoles and small fish and posing for photographs. The bird breeds on the Aegean and Mediterranean coasts of Turkey and Lebanon and on the other side of the Arabian Gulf, and has never been recorded as wintering in the kingdom - except for this stay at Lake Lanhardt.
Nearly as unbelievable was the arrival, on November 9, of nine greylag geese (Anser anser) at the lake. These large, handsome birds, wild ancestors of the barnyard goose, are known to winter no closer to Saudi Arabia than the marshes of Iraq, andthough they have been sighted in the kingdom before, it has only been as travelers en route to other destinations. Seven of the nine did indeed travel on in the next few days, but one mated pair, whose pink bills marked them as belonging to the eastern race of the species, was still in residence nearly five months later, and growing tamer than was good for them. "We expect goslings next," said one birder, only half joking.
Accompanying the greylags was a greater rarity still: three young- and probably confused - white-fronted geese (Anser albifrons), so unlikely a sight that they confused the birders in turn. They were lumped in with the greylags until a specially sharp-eyed watcher noticed the white band beginning to show at the base of their bills, and what one called "the higher poop deck" - the steeper angle of their backs as they maneuvered in line abreast at the reed edges. White-fronts do not normally winter so far south, and none has ever been recorded, even as a visitor, in Saudi Arabia - except this year at Lake Lanhardt.
Flamingos, falcons, snipe, various kinds of warblers, shrikes, swifts and martins, bee-eaters, bluethroats, wheatears, wagtails and dozens of other species have all been recorded at the lake, most of them frequently. "So if Lake Lanhardt is the birding hot-spot of the Eastern Province," a novice supposed, "then Lanhardt must be the biggest birder around."
Well... no. David Lanhardt is not a bird watcher. The birds he gets most emotional about are served with cranberry sauce, and, at least professionally, his deepest concern is with excess water. This is not a problem for many people in Saudi Arabia, but Lanhardt is technical adviser for waste-water treatment at Aramco's Dhahran Utilities Department, and it is his job to get rid of some nine million gallons a day of effluent from Dhahran's sewage-treatment plants.
It's good water and not at all offensive. Indeed, by Aramco's water-treatment standards, which are equivalent to California's, it almost qualifies as tertiary-treated water - safe to drink - but it has to be properly disposed of. Eight million gallons of it a day, from the company's largest and newest secondary-treatment plant, was going to be pumped out to large percolation fields 14 kilometers (nine miles) southwest of Dhahran, where the sun and the thirsty ground would drink it up. But problems arose: high groundwater levels limited the field's safe absorption capacity to only one million gallons a day, and Lanhardt had to find an alternative fast.
"I called in a bulldozer," he says in blithe, mountain-moving tones, "threw up a dike here and a dike over there, and ran in a ten-inch tee off the 24-inch effluent line out to the percolation field." And, in justifiable pride at the swift and satisfactory solution, he named the result Lake Lanhardt.
Lanhardt does not know how much water is in the lake at any given moment. He doesn't even measure it. "Right now, all I know is that I come out here every evening, open the valve one and a half turns, and let it run all night." When higher daytime temperatures bring faster evaporation rates, he has less excess effluent to put into the lake, and the water level gradually drops. As it does, the bird population changes: the feke is full of shore birds and waders when its shallow margins are exposed: sandpipers, plovers, godwits, stilts and others. When the water level rises, the area of shallow water gets smaller and smaller, and many of the same birds move to the shores of the nearby Gulf - the shorter-legged species first - and other species appear that like deeper water better. At the spring migration this year, the water level was as high as it had ever been, measuring, Lanhardt estimated, one and a half meters (five feet) deep in the center of the four- to six-hectare (10- to 15-acre) lake.
Lots of people besides birders like Lake Lanhardt: joggers, dog-walkers, schoolchildren with science projects, amateur photographers, and people who just like to stroll in a pretty spot. Dave Lanhardt shares their feelings. "We like it," he says. "It's pretty, and we're proud of it. But it isn't our main concern at all: our main concern is disposing of effluent without causing a public-health problem." For that reason, Lanhardt even likes the reeds that are so important to the birds, because the vegetation drinks up and transpires to the atmosphere more of the water that it's his job to get rid of.
Nonetheless, two summers ago, he drained the lake and burned off the reeds to eradicate the mosquitos breeding there. And to control mosquito-breeding problems, he plans to drain and burn it again this year, and disk-harrow the lake bottom as well, because the last time the reeds - an especially attractive home for mosquitos - were growing back within two weeks.
In the meantime, however, Lake Lanhardt lives on, waxing and waning in cycles of an industrial, rather than a natural kind. The birds come nonetheless, residents and migrants, in search of the food and shelter the lake offers. The bird watchers come too, in search of the knowledge and the pleasure they feed on. And all can listen to the breathing of the reeds.
Robert Arndt is editor-designate of Aramco World magazine and an occasional bird watcher.