- Eating Out
- Useful Info
They circle above us, representing freedom and escape, providing a link to the wider wild world. At the peak of the migration season, Sandra Aquilina goes birdwatching
“There – can you see it? Over there?”
I squint slightly and try to focus. But all I can make out are fiery clouds over the valley at Dwejra which, at this hour of the day, is partly bathed in light, partly covered in shadow.
My birdwatching guides, peering through their binoculars, however, seem to be more fortunate. They follow a distant speck for a while, before returning back to earth. “That was a kestrel,” says Ray Galea, a Council member of BirdLife Malta and a keen birdwatcher for at least 30 years.
During this time, he has watched thousands of birds, taking beautiful and moving shots of the rare ones in flight. Few people know that even large and magnificent birds like eagles and storks have been spotted circling over the Maltese islands.
Lying in the middle of the Mediterranean, the Maltese islands often provide a resting place for birds migrating south. Around 400 species of birds have been recorded on the islands, and we are linked to 36 other European countries and 12 African countries in terms of bird species.
“We have seen marsh harriers, honey buzzards, hoopoes, cuckoos, golden orioles, warblers,” says Ray. “Sometimes they arrive late, looking for a place to roost until morning.”
Birds seem to provide the link of ordinary people to the wider wild world. Linked as they are to the habitat, they are also a useful indicator species, assessing the health of various habitats. Most famously, in the fifties, for instance, an early warning of the harmful effects of pesticide DDT was given when bird of prey populations started plummeting.
Perhaps that is why they tend to elicit such strong emotions – with most people polarized at either end of the hunting debate, represented by Birdlife and the hunters lobby. And while public opinion generally tends to support the anti-hunting brigade, even here there are those who point out that there might not be such a difference between birdhunting and, say, fishing.
The issue takes on a new significance during the peak migratory season twice a year: in spring and autumn. During this season, birdwatchers and hunters alike flock into the countryside, the former armed with binoculars, the latter with shotguns. Altercations are not uncommon.
Most of these happen when birdwatchers chance across a rare bird and spend hours watching it feed and hop around – sometimes even at close range – only to move away and hear distant shots. Often they return to find an injured or dying bird.
“This is the scourge of the Maltese birdwatcher,” says Ray bitterly. “Even an eagle was shot at while we were watching it; we saw it being shot and then it vanished over Siggiewi.” He looks angry. “Sometimes I would rather not see anything – than watch it die in front of me.”
His emotions seem to be shared by most birdwatchers. In the past eight months, for instance, over 160 spoonbills migrated over the islands – larger than the British population. But out of a flock of around 70, the birdwatchers believe that only six made it out alive.
Birdwatchers have in fact been known to follow the birds for hours, in an attempt to guard them from the shotguns of hunters. Some visit everyday to watch over areas where particular birds are nesting or breeding, while others watch over the reserves or make themselves visible in the countryside.
Their numbers are small, however: Ray is one of around 20 active local birdwatchers, although the number goes up to around 50 if one includes the occasional birdwatchers. Coming from a family of hunters, he left hunting when he joined the Malta Ornithological Society – the forerunner of Birdlife Malta – in the seventies. Over the years he accumulated a wealth of knowledge on birds and nowadays he spends entire afternoons and weekends with his son – also a keen birdwatcher – in the silence of the Maltese countryside, broken only by the chirping of the birds, which he points out as we walk through the Dwejra countryside.
Like Ray, Nimrod Mifsud is also a birdwatcher coming from a hunting and trapping family. He insists that the problem is not so much sustainable hunting as indiscriminate pursuit of the rarer species.
“Sometimes we know that a rare bird has landed because of the chaos in the streets,” he says.
These are what the birdwatchers call “raptor persecutors” – a specific type of hunter who goes out specifically for protected birds. Although these are often disowned by the hunters themselves, they sully the name of the entire community.
The ALE of the police force appears relatively powerless to stop them, says Ray. Its numbers need to be strengthened to keep up with the thousands of hunters. The situation is even more dire in Gozo.
Together with 34 international and local volunteers, Nimrod forms part of a Spring Watch camp organized by Birdlife Malta during the migratory period for the past three years. The volunteers spend two weeks scouring the countryside for migratory birds, spreading across hotspots like Buskett, Girgenti and Rabat, recording observations and comparing notes. They also gather in Comino and in Buskett – protected reserves where hunting is banned.
Marianne, a Dutch volunteer, is on her third Spring Watch camp. She came to Malta as a tourist a few years ago and heard about the birdwatching camps.
“Now I’m on my own migration,” she smiles. “Last year we saw 89 species in spring in a twoweek migration period,” she says, “including species of conservational concern in Europe such as the redfooted falcon.”
Such large numbers are getting increasingly rare, however.
“So many threats face these birds these days,” says Nimrod sadly. “I have often heard the older hunters say that before it was not uncommon to see large flocks of, say, 30 Turtle Doves. Now such a sighting would make my year.” Still things are slowly improving, they say. “Ospreys, for instance, a flagship species throughout Europe, had almost disappeared. Then so much effort was put into them that their numbers started recovering.”
The more common species are not being targeted as blatantly as they used to be – before it was not uncommon for swallows and swifts to be used for target practice. The latter have expanded their breeding population in Malta with a phenomenal increase in just a few years.
There has also been a return of the Common Kestrel and 2009 was the first year that they bred after an absence of 15 years. The Collared Dove had also vanished 10 years ago – now there is a small population in Mellieha.
And the Marsh Harrier population has also increased a lot in the past few years. Ray is cautiously optimistic. “Maybe in two or three generations…”
His patience might derive from his passion as a birdwatcher – in the end, very few birds made an appearance during our wait in Dwejra. The weather had been fine and the birds had continued on their journey south without the need for a stopover.
“Often we do not see anything,” says Ray apologetically. “Sometimes we choose a fixed point and set up a telescope. You have to look for the birds.”
For him, as with many birdwatchers, it is also about a peaceful communion with nature.
“There is no need to walk only where the road is paved,” says Nimrod. “Respect private land but the wild makes us more human.”
On the good days, however, the rewards of birdwatching can be great.
“You see hazy grey clouds flying over the garigue, over Dingli. It’s so impressive to see them gliding and looking for a roost,” says Nimrod.
“We get concentrations – that’s nature, you never really know. It can be very disappointing – but then suddenly you get a surprise…”