Nature Haven or Naturalist’s Nightmare
A few days on a non-birding holiday in the Maltese islands with my wife did hold a few interesting birds from a British birders perspective. Early March is the start of the migration season and soon passage birds like Marsh harrier become of interest to hunters sadly.
Knowing well that this was the case I didn’t expect to see much and I only spent a few hours over the week actually looking. However I was pleasantly surprised. Whilst the islands do seem at first glance devoid of birdlife (in the uk you can’t really travel any distance without seeing birds of some sort in the sky or in the trees) on closer inspection there is more than the first impression of simply sparrows and feral pigeons. For a start the majority of the sparrows are Spanish sparrows.
Birdlife Malta are clearly doing some excellent work here in the face of what must feel like a demoralising uphill struggle against the want of the hunting fraternity on the islands. I would encourage anyone reading this to support their work however you can. If you plan to visit the islands do visit the reserves that they manage and you will find them to be little oasis in the bustling busyness of industry that seems to have consumed much of the islands. https://birdlifemalta.org/nature-reserves/
The first reserve I visited (Għadira Nature Reserve https://birdlifemalta.org/nature-reserves/ghadira/ ) has some shallow freshwater and islands that immediately looked interesting. In a few months I’m told breeding Black-winged stilt here is likely. The open water swarmed with House martin and Barn swallow as I arrived. It was early March so few of these birds have yet to reach the uk, but clearly spring starts earlier here
I had come to Malta having done no real prior research regarding the birds I was likely to see. As I said this wasn’t a birding holiday and perhaps naively, I’d assumed there was little to see anyway, given what I knew about the hunting. Of course, my bins and camera had come along just in case 🙂 It was also nice in many ways to discover what was here rather than see what I expected. Beyond the pigeons and sparrows, I found the next most common species all over the islands to be White wagtail, Black redstart, Zitting cisticola and Sardinian warbler. There were also Cetti’s warbler, Blackcap and Chiffchaff around and about.
I settled in one of the basic hides having had a brief chat with the knowledgeable and friendly staff at the visitor’s centre and scanned the promising looking habitat with bins. A Shelduck was present along with a feral Muscovy duck. The water’s edge looked good for waders but I had no idea what to expect here in Malta or at this time of year. I quickly picked up a Little ringed plover along with two Common sandpiper and a Ruff, followed by a Little stint. From a British perspective a haul of pretty good birds for a short wander while my wife had a snooze in the car.
We enjoyed various walks in some barren but interesting habitat over the next few days and I picked up further birds of interest such as Quail, which were heard regularly. Nightingale, Stonechat and, the apparently resident and fairly common in the right habitat here, but from a British perspective highly notable, Blue rock thrush, which we came across easily on Gozo.
At the Salina Nature Reserve ( https://birdlifemalta.org/nature-reserves/is-salina/ ) the salt pans give food and refuge to many gulls and water birds through the seasons. The pans held many gulls, Black headed gulls, Mediterranean gulls and Yellow legged gulls mostly, as well as a few Sandwich terns and this decent looking area no doubt turns up good waders, gulls and waterfowl through the migration season and is a good spot to sky watch for raptors too. I suspect that in just a few weeks when spring migration really kicks off Malta would have a lot to offer a visiting birder, sadly the sound of gunfire will no doubt be a feature also.
At the Salina reserve I had a very informative chat with one of the Birdlife Malta staff who was only too happy to share his knowledge and explain the situation, It made me wish I could do more to help their work on these islands.
One thing I hadn’t realise is that the hunting here is driven by taxidermy. The prize of a pristine stuffed Black stork or similar can fetch in the region of 2000 euros apparently, and underground collectors will pay such sums on the black market. Despite some laws that protect some species from hunting it seems unlikely that many of the unscrupulous bloodthirsty hunters on the island care about either the out of season restrictions or the legislation protecting specific species.
My new friend confirmed that a shoot first check later attitude is likely and that many of the eyes behind the guns don’t know the difference when it comes to female Aythya ducks for example and it’s unlikely they would care if they did. Sadly there is a trophy hunting mentally here, in that the rarer species, the protected species are therefore the more desirable from a black market taxidermy perspective and so ‘worth the risk’ if that is your mentality. It’s unclear how much enforcement there is when it comes to the laws around hunting here and what the punishments would be if caught or prosecuted. Recent government attitudes I’ve picked up on, would imply that Maltese politicians looking for votes are not unwilling to be swayed to the detriment of protected species. I suspect much like the game keepers who are willing to poison and trap birds of prey in the United Kingdom it is also considered ‘worth the risk’ because frankly that risk is small and equivalent to a slap on the wrist even if caught and prosecuted.
Links to a couple of Bird Life Malta posts showing the kind of heart wrenching situations they have to deal with every year here.
If you go to Malta and enjoy seeing the birds, publicise it and talk about it to like-minded people and perhaps Malta can have an ecotourism industry that will change things. Support the work of Birdlife Malta and report any dead or injured birds that you see.
There is plenty of helpful information on their website and much, much more to see from a wildlife perspective than I was able to manage in early spring on a non birding holiday. But I would go back for more and I hope in some small way this post will help.
Malta – March 2022