I spent three days in late April 2023 exploring and birding northern France. I did venture an hour and a half south of Calais to Crécy Forest in search of Black woodpecker as well as some brief explorations of marshland around the Pont-le-Dien and Sailly Bray, Hable d’Ault and the Marquenterre bird reserve.
I didn’t see Black Woodpecker though it always felt like looking for a needle in a haystack, in fact I was surprised how thin on the ground woodpeckers seemed to be with only a little evidence of Green and Great spotted here. Crécy Forest did have easy Hawfinch, Tawny owl and singing Golden oriole as well as Short-toed treecreeper and Tree pipit but nothing to keep me in the area for more than an evening and morning.
The Marquenterre bird reserve was very crowded and I skipped it, however Crested tit and Short-toed treecreeper were easy in the car park as well as Green hairstreak butterfly.
Crested Tit below and Green hairstreak butterfly above
The track west of Salley bray gives views over marshland towards Le Dien river and produced the only White stork of the trip. Cattle, Little and Great white egret were easily seen here as was Marsh harrier throughout.
White stork – which was ringed as it turns out in 2019 not all that far away.
The above aside I was surprised to find I spent much of my time in the nature reserve and dunes areas to the east of Calais and west of Dunkirk. The National Nature Reserve Platier Oye and the dunes, lagoons and beaches here were all simple to explore, easy to access and vast, various well positioned hides around the area helped greatly and it really had a feel that you could devote several days to the area and still turn up new birds. The sheer number of birds around gave it a great feel.
Everything I write is from the perspective of a birder of southern England and mostly Hampshire. So, to me birds like Nightingale, Lesser whitethroat, and Yellow wagtail are notable, here these quickly became background birds that are everywhere.
Similarly, the lagoons and scrapes held tens of Ruff and the skies were filled with Hirundines. The trees near the carpark had a singing Short-toed treecreeper. Birds aside I also saw Hare, Natterjack toad and the forever croaking calls of Marsh frog.
Other birds that may get a British birders pulse racing at least a little, such as Black-winged stilt quickly became background birds also. There were tens of them across the various pools and many were nest building and mating. Avocet were far less common with just a handful seen.
A courting pair of Black-winged stilts
A quick look at the beach in the hope of Kentish plover didn’t disappoint where there were also Wheatear and Ringed plover.
male Kentish plover
The lagoons held at least three Garganey and other waders included Whimbrel, Black tailed godwit, Turnstone, many many Ruff, Dunlin, Redshank, Greenshank, Common sandpiper, Oystercatcher and so on. Mediterranean gulls were frequent and there is a large colony of breeding Sandwich tern. I picked out a Little Gull among the BHGs and another treat from a southern UK birders perspective was at least four summer plumaged Black-necked grebe.
Black necked grebe above and
Black-winged stilts with background male Garganey below
The vast area of dunes and impenetrable scrub must attract far more birds than get seen here but it was alive with singing warblers including Whitethroat and Lesser whitethroat, Willow warbler, Chiffchaff and Blackcap. Add to the list reeling Savi’s warbler a minimum two Wryneck at least two Zitting Cisticola and all this to a backdrop of Nightingale song and it felt a long way from Hampshire, but I was less than three hours away, shuttle crossings all being well.
Gallery below of just some of the species photographed on this three day trip. Please click and scroll through them.
Little owl (Athene noctua) tend to lay their first eggs in April-May and occasionally have a second brood. They lay 2-4 eggs and incubation is around 4 weeks with fledging taken nearer to 5 weeks after that.
The Little owl is in decline and this may be linked to Farming practices and the number of prey items available. These include earthworms, beetles and other large invertebrates, small mammals and occasionally birds.
My observation of a Little owl pair over the years have been sparse and inconsistent but still interesting enough to add here as much of the behaviour of the juveniles is in contrast to the Tawny Owls (Strix aluco). Please see previous article here
Viewing conditions are a little difficult as this pair of Owl’s nest on private land. The birds would doubtless not use the old apple tree and nest box here to nest and to roost were the area accessible to the public.
Little owls are crepuscular meaning they are active predominantly at dawn and dusk, unlike the more strictly nocturnal Tawny owl. They are also far more likely to be encountered during the daylight, they can sometimes be found sunning themselves on a winters afternoon if the weather is right as well as sitting in the open near the nest site at breeding time.
My observations suggest this pair raise only one or two chicks each year. This last year (2022) certainly they reared two chicks to the fledging stage and unlike my observations with Tawny Owl, Little owl chick seems to stay near the natal site and return to the nest hole if they feel threatened.
Once they are able to make short flights, they still remain active near to the original nest until they become bold enough to disperse more widely to their own new territory in the autumn.
Some days as a wildlife photographer you can spend hours in the field and things just don’t fall into place. Poor light, poor weather, animals and birds just not doing what you’d hoped. It’s all about putting the hours in and you just won’t get result sitting at home on the sofa. There is always a little luck involved but great wildlife photograph’s also take planning, they generally don’t just happen.
It can sometimes take years of field work and patience in order to place yourself in the right place at the right time. And even then, the weather or light or behaviours of your subject all have to fall into place for the stars to align. I suppose if there was no challenge it would soon become boring!
For over twenty years I’ve been monitoring some local Barn owls Tyto alba. I see them sporadically, far less often than I look for them, despite having reasonable knowledge of their habits. Often if I see them hunting at all, it’s briefly at a distance or in poor light after the sun has set, or in the morning I may be able to watch them have a last attempt to hunt briefly before watching them head to roost before the sun rises.
Barn Owl Tyto alba hunting on the wing in early morning light
Getting good shots of Barn owl hunting needs the birds close enough for detail, in light that enables a high enough shutter speed to freeze movement. Barn owls, since they hunt on the wing, will struggle to hunt in the rain, their plumage isn’t all that water proof not to mention that rain messes with them hunting using sound, so a series of wet nights may mean they struggle to catch enough food and that can sometimes mean they will hunt in the daylight when it’s dry. In the breeding season the nights are short so if they have chicks to feed Barn owls may also hunt in daylight if needs must. I knew all this but it’s never really helped me nail any flight shots in daylight.
This particular dawn in early February was a beautiful one, after a clear night with a full moon. Ideal hunting conditions and most Barn owls would no doubt have been hunting successfully and resting up between feeds most of the night to then go to roost at dawn.
Barn Owl rising out of the frosted grass just after swallowing a vole
So, I have no explanation for why I was able to watch and photograph this Barn owl hunting from just before dawn to nearly two hours afterwards, by which time it was at times in full sunlight. It wasn’t always close, but twice it came within just a few meters of me checking out what I was as I crouched motionless against the hedgerow. I watched it catch a Vole not twenty meters from me, tease it from the grass and swallow it whole with a few gulps and jerks of the head. It knew I was there.
My photos aren’t perfect, though I am pleased with them, but the whole experience was mesmerising and unforgettable. Just me and a Barn owl sharing a beautiful sunrise and a frosty winters morning with three or four Roe deer Capreolus capreolus .
A pair of Roe deer Capreolus capreolus in winter
It was far less tranquil for a handful of unfortunate Voles however….
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Owls of all kinds have always been a fascination for me as they must be for anyone with even a mild interested in birds and wildlife. Their friendly wide-eyed appearance and regular presence throughout myth and folklore give them added allure. For the wildlife photographer they have obvious appeal, being photogenic and a definite challenge due to their generally nocturnal nature.
Tawny Owl (Strix aluco) is the most common Owl in the UK and they are no doubt present in most suitable woodland across the south of England. That doesn’t make them easy to find or photograph, they are certainly easier to hear than to see. Tawny Owls start their breeding cycle early in the year and may lay their first eggs as early as late February. Pairs stay on their territories and can be heard throughout the year with a peak in the Autumn.
During the spring of 2022 Justyna’s dedication and enthusiasm, coupled with her patience and fieldcraft resulted in her finding a Tawny Owl nest near the Hampshire / Surrey border in a nesting box designed to be used by Common Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus). Justyna’s initial notes start the story.
This morning I decided to take a stroll around the forest to take some pictures of the Stonechats (Saxicola rubicola) living there. I noticed a small white stain while I was still on the path so I decided to stop as I knew that there was a nesting box there for birds of prey, though I’d never seen it occupied I decided to check it out.
As I came closer, around 50 meters I took a picture. On the screen I was able to see a dead chick hanging out of the box! I couldn’t say what species it was, but it looked like a bird of prey. When I studied the photo more closely, I realised that there was a shadow behind the dead chick that looked like the head of an Owl. I analysed its plumage and decided that it must be a Tawny Owl. I have heard them calling many times in this area but I have never seen one.
I was overwhelmingly excited to see one in this area, but I was also sad to see it in these circumstances. I had lots of questions appearing in my head.
Why is there a dead chick hanging out of the nesting box? Is this Tawny Owl roosting or nesting here? Is that dead chick a prey item or hatched there? Are there more chicks alive in there?
I have never observed wild Owls in my life before but I have read a lot about them. I know a person who is more knowledgeable and has more experience in Owl photography than me. His name is Richard Ford from www.digitalwildlife.co.uk.
I decided to share this little secret with him. I know that it will stay between us. It is better for the birds if only a small amount of people know about the nest. I visited this place many times after that morning but I only saw the dead chick hanging out of the box. I started to lose any hope for seeing a happy Tawny Owl family.
28th May 2022
This morning was cold, sunny and foggy and I decided to visit the nesting box when I had finished doing some landscape photography. The dead chick is gone and so I went cautiously closer and took quick photo of the box. Zooming in on the back of the camera I could see a little white fluffy head sticking out from the nesting box. It was looking straight to my camera lens! Yes, yes, yes! There is a chick! It’s alive! I was so excited that I nearly shouted and had to cover my mouth with gloves. I quickly took another two or three photos and went away to avoid disturbing it.
I sat on the middle of the path and quickly shared the news with Richard. I was so happy to have this encounter but I was worried that this might be the first and last time I’d see it. I had a trip to Poland the next morning for 2 weeks.
29th May 2022
With Justyna away in Poland I was keen to assess the situation at the nest box. I have photographed young Tawny Owls at this time of year before when they are branching, at this stage they are less than ¾ grown, perhaps only four weeks old and they cannot fly. Even so they leave the nest and climb around the trees nearby keeping in contact with the parent birds which are never far away, using contact calls. However, Tawny Owl nests are not always easy to see into, so I was intrigued. After a while I located the spot and using my scope I was eventually able to see a pair of eyes looking back at me when curiosity got the better of the Owl and it would lift its head to peer over the lip of the box and look directly at me. It was grey and covered in wiry looking fluff with two large dark eyes. This was certainly a Tawny chick. There was no sign of an adult bird at the box but it was almost certainly nearby and I didn’t want to linger for fear of causing any agitation to the birds. Tawny Owls are known to be aggressive at nest sites and this was also in the back of my mind. A talon to the head was not something I wanted to experience. The absence of the adult at the nest itself suggested the chick was no longer reliant on being brooded and therefore it could be branching soon.
We were both keen to observe what would unfold but without influencing or disturbing things in any way. Having seen Justyn’s picture of the sadly deceased chick, it appeared well grown even then. Why the chick was hanging dead out of the front of the box will remain a mystery. A failed extraction by a predator seemed possible given that it appeared to have been dragged out but environmental conditions can often affect the amount of food available and consequently chick mortality. Having said that Tawny Owls have one of the most varied diets of any Owl and lack of food seemed unlikely.
6th June 2022
It has been over a week since I saw the remaining chick in the box and I confirm my suspicion that it has left, no sign of the bird in the box and no sign of it in the trees nearby. Justyna is still away and has not been able to make further observations in the meantime. It could have been branching for up to a week but I assume that it can’t have gone far. I arrive in the area before dusk hopeful that I will be able to locate the chick and safely observe it for a short while, I am not expecting to see any interaction between it and the adults. I don’t plan to stay long in case my presence dissuades the parents from feeding it during this critical time in the owlet’s development.
It’s not long before I hear the distinctive call of the chick, it’s no doubt been camouflaged and silent all day but the sun has barely set before it makes its location known. It can’t fly at this stage so I’m surprised to see how far from the nest box it is, as well as how high it is in a mature Scots Pine (Pinus sylvestris). I take a few photos but I’m surprised to almost immediately become aware of an adult bird softly calling from the same tree and it soon lands next to the chick! I freeze, though of course this bird will be well aware that I am there given its incredible hearing and eyesight. It seems the urge to feed the chick has overcome any trepidation it may have regarding a human nearby.
With camera in hand I hardly need to move to fire off a few shots and I am later able to identify the prey item offered by the parent. It looks to be a Fox Moth (Macrothylacia rubi) a large bodied insect that I’m sure will be only the first of many meals the chick will be provided with over the night.
I dare not move while the adult is present and I assume on being offered the moth it is swallowed whole but then something strange happens, the chick drops from the perch at least three meters up and falls to the ground. The adult has gone but I can hear soft contact calls from nearby. I don’t want to cause undue stress to the birds so I leave, wondering if my presence has caused this to happen.
The chick has likely been in this tree close to a public footpath all day and will have remained undetected by dog walkers and the public in general and as I find out tomorrow the parent has no doubt been observing things very closely all day long. On reflection the strategy of simply dropping out of the tree and changing location makes perfect sense. The Owl cannot fly at this point but it is clear that it can very effectively walk and clamber around both along the ground and in the trees. Why waste energy climbing down a tree when you are a hollow boned ball of fluffy feathers! Though the bird appears to drop like a stone in the most unsettling of ways it’s perhaps more like a foam ball and alights not uncomfortably on leaf little or in this case spongy heather on the edge of heathland and makes its way, as I have found, often a surprising distance to the next tree truck which it can ascend and roost in during the following day. I suspect regardless of the presence of myself or Justyna this is simply the strategy it employs every night.
7th June 2022
I am keen to find the chick the following day to learn how far it has moved and confirm my thoughts. I feel as if my chances are reasonably good given that I know where it was last night. How far could it have gone? I arrive in the late morning and move around the area slowly trying to pick up any signs of the chick’s location to no avail and it feels very much like looking for a needle in a haystack. I have however noticed an adult Tawny Owl roosting near the top of a nearby Scots Pine. It has no doubt spotted me long before I saw it and other than giving me the occasional passing glance it generally continues to snooze the day away until it is later discovered by some Jays (Garrulus glandarius) and it moves to another pine nearby. It seems clear that the adult wants to stay in the area but also that it isn’t concerned by me and other passing humans using the footpath. I am encouraged by this and assume it’s quietly keeping tabs on the chick that must be nearby.
I am ready to give up when I pick up some very soft calls which I suspect emanate from the chick and I head towards the area they seem to come from but they stop as quickly as they started. I have all but given up when a single squeak has me turning to face what could be dismissed as a ball of lichen on the branch of a young Oak tree (Quercus robur).
The chick is absolutely still but follows me with nearly imperceptible head movements and squinted eyes as a walk parallel to it just a few meters away, I had been standing oblivious to the chick’s presence in this spot for some time earlier, while watching the adult Owl which still now watches me with what seems like indifference from it’s roost in the nearby Pine.
I take some daylight photos of both birds and some video and I leave then both to the rest of their day shortly after lunchtime. It’s been an enlightening, educational and exhilarating twenty-four hours and I wonder if I’ll be lucky enough to see either bird again as the chick becomes more independent and mobile. Its location is some twenty meters from where I had seen it drop at dusk just a few hours before and in that time it has travelled over rough ground, Heather and leaflitter to ascend another tree and find itself two meters up in a safe site to spend another day.
11th June 2022
It’s been two long weeks since I saw the Owl last time. I knew that it had left the nesting box thanks to Richard who was keeping me updated. As soon as I was back in the UK I headed for the forest. I arrived around two hours before sunset and I didn’t have to look for long. She was sat on one of the Silver Birches (Betula pendula) around two meters above the ground and constantly calling for food from her parents. I was really surprised how quickly her feathers had changed to a light brown colour. I couldn’t believe that this clumsy bird was so good at climbing the trees. I decided to back away and observe it from a distance as I didn’t want to stress her out.
Absolute darkness. My camera was showing ISO12800, 1/40 sec and f6.3. My only light source was a pocket torch. I am still gathering equipment as I’ve not been a photographer very long so I had to cope with what I had. It wasn’t easy in complete darkness.
Suddenly the chick started to squeak. It was a sign that the parents have come with food. One of them landed on the nearby tree and was calling occasionally and looking around, while the other appeared and fed the chick a rodent. It looked like the rodent was too big and the branch the owlet was sitting on started to move as it tried to swallow it unsuccessfully. The seemingly clumsy owlet while trying to get closer to the adult appeared to fall to the ground like a stone. It stood up quickly and while holding its prey in its beak it quickly moved towards the forest with unsteady steps. I was really surprised that it was fine after such an fall. It looked like the chick was made of the rubber and knew exactly how to fall to avoid any damage.
I decided to go home as I couldn’t see them anymore and I knew that it would allow the parents to safely feed the owlet undisturbed. I couldn’t sleep that night, I was analysing the whole situation. I was super happy with the fact that I was able to see Tawny Owls in their natural environment.
It was very dry and hot this month. I was wondering how the young owl was coping with the high temperature and lack of water throughout the day. I know that overheating for young birds can be deadly. The bare minimum of water it needed was probably provided with the food. I decided to go to the same place where I previously found the Tawny Owl family but I couldn’t hear the owlet this time and I wondered whether I’d been seen already and the owlet was trying to remain silent. The first month is one of the most difficult and most dangerous months for the young birds and I wonder if it was still alive.
I started to look around and flash the torch on the nearby trees and I eventually found an adult adult Owl sitting in a Pine watching me. I tried to look around, hoping that I would find the chick somewhere in the nearby trees but after a while I decided to stop looking and go back home. On my way towards the car, I could hear quiet squeaking. It was music to my ears.
It was sitting around three meters above the ground on a young Oak. I walked around this tree a few times but I couldn’t see the Owl. It is amazing how they can become one with their surroundings. She was constantly calling for food when I eventually saw her and so I took few pictures and went home, knowing that this owlet needs food and I shouldn’t disturb her.
I met Richard at the site and we looked for the Owlet together. We managed to find her thanks to his experience. She was still like a puffy ball but her flight feathers were already much longer. She seemed more alert and her eyes were focusing more on the surroundings. I was surprised how far she had moved from the previous place I had seen her and how high she had climbed. She was sitting nearly on the top of a mature Pine Tree.
Justyna and I found the chick that evening perhaps five meters up in a Scots Pine, and fifty meters from the original nest site, having zigzagged a route across forest floor and heath. It’s possible that it was able to make short flights between branches at this point, our photos from that night (above) show well grown brown flight feathers but otherwise the bird was still mostly grey and fluffy. The understory here was dense gorse bushes and this tree was probably thirty meters from the previous area the bird had been seen and fifty meters from the nest location. Our observations suggest it had moved across ground most evenings and even at 5-6 weeks old was covering some twenty meters over ground during the night and then climbing up mature trees and along branches. Justyna a week later observed it making short flights. This was the last night I was able to see the chick as it became harder and harder to locate although it will remain dependant on being fed by the parents for up to two more months.
I visited this area a few times after this evening with Richard. I knew that the Owlet was slowly moving deeper into the forest and becoming more mobile. I often stayed till late to make sure that the Owlet was ok but I never had a chance to see her as she was always going quiet as I came close.
27th June 2022
I spent a few hours looking for the Owl and managed to find her around an hour after sunset. It was so dark that I didn’t even bother taking the camera out. The young Owl was already able to glide from one tree to another which explained why I’d struggled to find her and why I thought I’d heard her in more than one place at a time. I know that it will become nearly impossible to see her again and my last chance is to come early in the morning to take some photos of her.
28th June 2022
5am – I came to the forest early in the morning to increase the chance of finding her. I knew that Tawny Owls is active early in the morning when they are feeding the young ones.
It was quiet in the forest but loud noises made by Jays caught my attention. Jays often abuse Owls when they spot them, and this is exactly what was happening right here. The young Owl was trying to hide and blend into the background and the Jays left as I got closer. I could clearly see how much she’d grown since I saw her last time. She’d got bigger, was able to keep her balance and reminded me much more of an adult Tawny Owl. She was just looking at me from time to time with her curious eyes but didn’t seem bothered by my presence. I stayed with her until she easily jumped off the tree branch and glided into the forest. It was the last time I saw her.
It was an amazing experience. I will never forget the emotions that accompanied me every time when I was trying to find her. I am overwhelmingly happy that I was able to see one of the most secretive birds in Europe. There are difficult times ahead for this young Tawny Owl. She will have to leave her parent’s territory and learn how to hunt so she can become fully independent. Hopefully this pair of Tawny Owls will lay eggs here again next year.
One of the most interesting things Justyna and I have learned is the distance the young bird is able to travel during the night across ground and up trees. Dropping out of a tree also seemed with hindsight to be a perfectly reasonable strategy, as unsettling as it is to watch. In order to move from place to place and avoid patterns that a predator could take advantage of why waste energy climbing down, when you are light and fluffy enough to easily survive dropping to the ground. The Owl as far as we could tell showed no real pattern with its movements away from the nest site, they seemed sporadic in direction and distance and became more so as the Owlet grew in strength and ability.
Observations like this do throw up as many questions as they answer and I would love to be able to study a similar situation next year. To see an Owl climbing the tree for example would be quite a sight. However, I would encourage anyone reading this to be very, very careful around nesting Owls which have been known to be aggressive but also because any prolonged human presence near to nesting birds could disturb them and also contravene the Wildlife and Countryside Act.
Tawny Owls are protected by law and knowingly disturbing them is a criminal offence.
Justyna and I are both very happy that we were able to observe these birds behaving naturally without affecting their behaviour and we would encourage anyone else to be very careful to do the same.
Richard Ford & Justyna Bielska 2022
D. W. Snow and C. M. Perrins The Birds of the Western Palearctic Concise Edition 1998
Six hours in a hide at a private site in Hampshire, resulted in about ten seconds with this young Kingfisher within range of my lens, and only one or two pictures that work. I’m very pleased with this picture so I’m not complaining, though it would have been nice to have taken a wider selection of images.
You can’t win them all and that’s wildlife photography for you! Patience will often pay off but there are rarely guarantees. It’s been a long time since I photographed Kingfisher and it’s almost always been from a hide. So having a good deal of background knowledge and fieldwork behind you will be the key.
My host had done just that and placed his hide in just the right place, from what he told me, after much trial and error.
You know who you are, thanks very much for the opportunity, I hope to do it again some time. Mission not quite accomplished, but a great start.
This magnificent Roe Deer buck was perhaps taking the same route he had done across his territory for many months. I found him running and pacing furiously along this new deer fence (deer fencing is very much designed to keep deer on the erector’s desired side of it).
He seemed confused and a little distressed, you can see the old rusty fence in the foreground which for years he has had no trouble clearing. I don’t know the reason for the new fence and at first I considered the photo spoiled by it. I still do, but coupled with the story, it seems to serve as a metaphor for much of what is going on for Britain’s wildlife.
So much of what seems like open countryside is in fact segregated in this way. So many people want to keep nature out of “their” space and so many could gain from embracing it and letting it flood in.
I don’t often pay sheep all that much attention but these lambs were undeniably cute, content and happy looking. The green and natural surrounding of Wales certainly helped to add to the feel of the photograph.
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.