Sunday 23 March 2014

Malta, 15th - 19th March 2014

With the Snowbird Outlaws enjoying a long stay in Malta to avoid the rigours of English winter weather we decided to head out to join them for a few days and to assist them on their northerly migration back to the UK. With Malta being a hotspot for bird hunting it was with mixed feelings as we drove up to Heathrow Airport on the 14th March in the sunshine - I had been reading the Birdlife Malta website pages and 2 spoonbills had been shot and wounded on the island the previous week - but I thought it is best to go and see things for myself in order to make a proper opinion.

The drive to Heathrow was pretty quiet with the best birds being 2 red kites seen briefly overhead at the A303/M3 junction. It was quite sad to see so many dead badgers along the roadside on the drive, presumably young badgers moving away from their birth setts to pastures new and encountering roads for the first time. A stop at the new visitor centre at Stonehenge was interesting but there were no rock buns so we had to make do with a sausage roll instead.

Arriving in Malta on the 15th March and it was cold and grey but the weather did improve and it was hot and sunny by the time we headed back to the UK on the 19th. The Outlaws met us at the airport and on driving them back to their hotel in our hire car birdlife was noticeable by its absence. I thought it may have been due to the weather but as the weather improved birdlife still remained thin on the ground. The only birds seen on our first day on Malta were Spanish sparrows and feral pigeons, common everywhere throughout our stay, and my first swallows of the year over some salt pans near the Outlaws hotel.

 Male Spanish Sparrow
Male Spanish Sparrow

During our stay I never heard or saw any hunting but the hillsides were dotted with small shooting huts and bird traps and I did find an air rifle shell on a flower covered cliff top. Very sad considering the dearth of birds in general and contravening the EU bird directive but Birdlife Malta are doing a lot of good work to try and change things for the better.

Flowers at the Hagar Quim Cliff Temples
I did however see some good birds during my stay, a grand total of 21 species, but quality not quantity is sometimes best! I did see some very smart blue rock thrush along the clifftops, the national bird of Malta, with birds singing and songflighting and chasing each other across flower covered cliff sides. Fan tailed warblers were noticeable around the island due to their annoying "zitting" songflight. A highlight was a very smart male spectacled warbler singing and songflighting and equally smart looking Sardinian warblers were quite showy at times too.

Fan Tailed Warbler
Valletta Harbour provided sightings of adult and juvenile yellow legged gulls with the adults not appearing to have particularly dark upperwings in the strong sunshine. 1st Winter Mediterranean gulls and 1st winter/1st summer black headed gulls were also around the Harbour along with winter plumaged Sandwich terns and a female type black redstart feeding along the Harbour battlements.

Adult Yellow Legged Gull in Valletta Harbour
Best birds however were Yelkouan and Scopolis shearwaters offshore, seen from the hotel balcony one late afternoon as we enjoyed a glass of wine. The Scopolis shearwaters were seen singly close to shore, their long wings and languid looking flight very noticeable, while further offshore small flocks of Yelkouan shearwaters were seen also heading North, their smaller size, brown looking upperparts and more rapid looking flight action being noticeable. Both breed on islands in the Maltese archipelago and I was very pleased to see them - Scopolis is believed to be either a separate species or sub-species of Corys shearwater and Yelkouan is believed to be a separate species from Balearic shearwater.

Other birds seen were 2 collared doves, robins, a male blackcap, 3 swift, mallards ( typical - and farmyard types with a Muscovy Duck, presumably all feral) and 2 spotless starlings, and a Cettis warbler was heard singing. And so we had a very pleasant few days away in Malta, an interesting place with lots of history and sights, and some very beautiful but quite birdless countryside. I hope the hunting issue gradually gets resolved and maybe birds will become more varied and noticeable on the islands and I will follow Birdlife Maltas campaigns with interest.

 Dodder sp.on the Clifftops
 Maltese Pyramidal Orchid - recognised subspecies
 Maltese Pyramidal Orchid
 Terrapin in the Palacio Parisio gardens in Naxxar
 Maltese Wall Lizards
 Maltese Wall Lizard
Maltese Wall Lizard

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