Postcards from Malta: local birder

Maltese birders help BirdLife Malta in a number of ways but they have to be careful. @JPFIOTT explains what’s its like to be a local with a love of birds:

When I started birding in 2002 I soon realized that most of the birds which flew over Malta low enough would get shot. Local birders considered this state of affairs as a matter of fact and limited their birding to nature reserves so as to avoid seeing disgusting, traumatic scenes of birds getting killed on a regular basis. For some reason, perhaps instinctively, I chose to do most of my birding at Xrobb l-Ghagin, a peninsula on the South East coast. The birding was great but the number of birds I saw being shot was impressive too. The first Bittern I have ever seen was blasted 50m away from where I used to stay. For the record it happened on a Sunday afternoon when all hunting is supposed to be prohibited.

Little could be done to tackle such heinous wildlife crime at that time. Reports of illegal hunting would fall on deaf ears or, at best, the police would make a cursory visit to the crime scene, usually hours after the incident would have been reported. I was obviously very sad and frustrated to witness such killing on a daily basis and it was therefore quite natural for me to volunteer to assist in setting up the first Raptor Camp in 2007 and to participate in every camp organized since then.

The results obtained through these camps have been impressive. During the first camp we could easily feel how our presence would make a difference as the number of shots heard would decrease dramatically within minutes of arriving at any site. The killing of a number of raptors was still witnessed but nowhere near the scale seen before. For the first time, most of the raptors which roosted in Malta were successfully making it to Africa the next day. These impressive results were further improved in subsequent camps as our perseverance paid off and poachers eventually started giving up on their practices.

Data collected through these camps also helped Birdlife to successfully increase pressure on the political front and hunting was banned after 3pm in the peak period for raptor migration in autumn. This ban made it more difficult for poachers to operate and so the number of birds shot decreased even more in subsequent years.

If I had to quantify the number of birds of prey flying low through Malta which successfully continue their journey I’d say – disclaimer: my perception, not scientifically ! – that <10% used to make it before 2007. This increased to around 65% in 2007 and to up to 95% by 2011 – 2013. These figures are really impressive when considering that the presence of the monitoring camps was the only factor that changed between 2006 and 2007.

Unfortunately, the situation degenerated after 2013 due to a number of reasons. The change in Government didn’t help as the incoming administration pledged with the hunters that they would be sympathetic to their cause. I don’t blame the poachers for assuming this sympathy was extended to them too. Hunters’ associations generally portray illegal hunting to be a minor nuisance by a few rogue elements and blame Birdlife for bloating its scale.

The ban on hunting after 3pm was amended to read 6pm, allowing poachers precious additional hours in which they could stay in the field, particularly when raptors are at their most vulnerable, circling low over a wide area to search for a suitable site to roost. The ill-fated referendum on spring hunting in which hunters narrowly won public approval for their barbaric acts further complicated matters.

After being initially shocked with the surveillance of Birdlife and CABS volunteers, poachers eventually became more adept and started doing their abominable practices from places concealed from public views; hidden between trees or from secluded areas surrounded by private land. They were greatly assisted by many otherwise law abiding hunters who, like their associations, went out of their way to assist them by being hostile to our presence and by informing them about our presence.

Poachers are becoming increasingly aware of the limitations of our resources and I have noted they have recently started occupying areas from where they had been “flushed out”. And this is where you birders out there may act – please come and help ! The possibility of serving a good cause just by putting your feet up and basking in the sun in random places in the Maltese countryside should be tempting enough. The raptors and other migrants which fly over, whilst not numerate, can be nice too. The occasional Egyptian Vulture or Eleonora’s Falcon might be a lifer for some of you.

Eyes on the fields!