For the Birds: Malta

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Jeanine Barone, a travel writer with an eye for hidden treasures, sends us this note on the state of birds in Malta.

If the local hunters in Malta had their way, the only bird species you’d ever spot would be on a plate or stuffed and mounted over the mantel. That’s what I discovered two weeks before I arrived in Malta by reading “Emptying the Skies,” a shocking New Yorker article describing the traditional shooting and trapping of songbirds and endangered bird species in Malta, as well as in Cyprus and Italy. Pity these birds taking flight along the major migratory route that lies between Europe and Africa. Luckily, my winged friends have a fierce advocate in BirdLife Malta, a relentless conservation group that works to protect wild birds and their habitats.

Not far from the UNESCO World Heritage site of Valletta, I sit down with Geoffrey Saliba, the group’s campaign coordinator, to chat about their contentious relationship with the hunters. In his office full of colorful bird photos and books he matter-of-factly tells me how his team lobbies for hunting restrictions, pushes for better enforcement, and keeps an eye out for illegal hunting and trapping. As a result, they have been attacked with stones, beaten, and had their cars badly damaged.

For more on birds on Malta, make the jump …

But what attracts hunters also makes for a prime bird-watching venue, especially in the spring and autumn. “We want more nature lovers to come to Malta. Four hundred different bird species have been recorded here,” says Saliba.

A 30-minute drive from Valletta, I trade the city’s cobbled streets for a gravel-and-sand path winding through the lush Ghadira Nature Reserve, one of Malta’s two main wetlands. I’m met by the warden–he doesn’t want me to reveal his name–who knows everything that flies, crawls, and grows in this verdant 20-acre gated and 24-hour guarded landscape that lies beside a busy roadway. (Thankfully, the government didn’t build the road through this spot, a 16th-century salt pan and once a major salt producer that is now a refuge for migratory and breeding birds.)

   

Feathery tamarisk trees glisten in the sunlight like mini crystals because of the fine salt droplets the leaves excrete. A blooming sea daffodil grows in the sand along the trail while large churchyard beetles scurry beside my foot. Despite the din of the traffic, I catch the call of a Cetti’s warbler that nests here, and a ringed plover, which chooses this reserve as its sole nesting spot in Malta. The warden tells me that 11 little ringed plovers were reared here recently. Now, he watches every day as one parent leads its chick to a different part of the marsh to feed.

A grey heron soars above us, and then we spy two ruffs in flight. A collared dove also makes an appearance, as do sandpipers and a little stilt. Not far from the salt marsh, ten little egrets and a black-winged stilt can be found. The smallest Maltese bird, the zitting cisticola, is a Ghadira resident. We were hoping to spy kingfishers because the warden saw one last week, but no luck today.

Walking in the shade of Aleppo pines, carobs, and other trees, he tells me that more than ten bird species breed in and around this property that hosts numerous school groups to learn about the wildlife and their habitat and how to identify the birds in the bird blind.

Once I walk out the gates, I feel this hope: As the Maltese children develop an appreciation for nature, perhaps this tradition of shooting and trapping birds illegally will become a thing of the past.

Photo: juvenile greater flamingo; Dennis Cachia at gozonews.com