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A bird spectacle at sea

Birdlife Malta getting ready for annual shearwater observation trips

Photos: Aron Tanti

Photos: Aron Tanti

Hundreds of Scopoli’s shearwater will soon be seen ‘shearing’ over waves before returning to their nests in Ta’ Ċenċ cliffs in Gozo. The spectacle annually draws many locals and tourists who venture out at sea on boat trips organised by Birdlife Malta’s Life Arċipelagu Garnija project team.

Malta is home to three per cent of the global population of Scopoli’s shearwater (4,000-5,000 pairs), with around 1,000 pairs nesting at Ta’ Ċenċ alone.

The bird, known as ċiefa in Maltese, is the largest of Malta’s shearwater species and at the peak of the breeding season – end of June and beginning of July – they can be seen congregating in large numbers on the sea at dusk after returning from their foraging trips, a behaviour known as ‘rafting’.

As darkness falls they begin to leave the water and fly to their burrows in the cliffs of Ta’ Ċenċ to take their turn in incubating their egg.

Currently, Birdlife Malta is focusing its research on local breeding seabirds.

“Through our scientific work monitoring populations and creating protected areas, we are ensuring we take the right action to save Mediterranean bird populations,” says Nathaniel Attard, communications manager at Birdlife Malta.

He explains that Scopoli’s shearwater is particularly threatened by the destruction of nesting habitat, disturbance from light and noise pollution, rat predation at nesting sites and possible conflict with fisheries.

Through our scientific work monitoring populations and creating protected areas, we are ensuring we take the right action to save Mediterranean bird populations

The secretive species – so called because these birds only return to land at night at very remote locations – have been the subject of ongoing studies by Birdlife Malta through several EU LIFE-funded projects for more than 12 years.

As a result, an inventory of eight marine Important Bird Areas (IBAs) where these seabirds breed was created in 2016. These were subsequently designated as marine Special Protection Areas (SPAs) within the Natura 2000 network by the Maltese government, supported by the European Commission, thus giving Malta’s seabirds full protection on land and at sea.

Other protected bird species in these marine areas, which cover 27 per cent of Maltese waters, are the Yelkouan shearwater (garnija) and the European storm petrel (kanġu ta’ Fifla).

Attard says that as its name in Maltese implies, the LIFE Arċipelagu Garnija project is really aimed at the Yelkouan shearwater because this particular seabird species is more threatened than the Scopoli’s shearwater.

“However, the project is safeguarding sea cliffs which are also home to other seabirds like the Scopoli’s,” he adds.

“Scopoli’s shearwater is also the easiest to spot and that’s the reason why the boat trips are focused on this particular species.”

Malta’s protected seabirds

Scopoli’s shearwater

This is the larger of the two shearwater species found in Malta. The local population is estimated at around 4,500 pairs, equivalent to an estimated three per cent of the Mediterranean breeding population. The main threats to the species are development close to the colonies, disturbance and persecution by humans, light and sound pollution and fishing by-catch. Following recent scientific research, the Scopoli’s shearwater, previously known as the Cory’s shearwater, is now distinguished from Calonectris borealis from the Macaronesian Islands in the North Atlantic and the Cape Verde shearwater Calonectris edwardsii of the Cape Verde Islands.

Yelkouan shearwater

This medium-sized seabird, known as garnija in Maltese, flies with rapid wing beats, rarely shearing over waves. During its breeding season, from February to July, individuals may be observed resting at sea alone or in small rafts. Malta’s population is estimated to be around 1,600 to 1,800 pairs, constituting approximately 10 per cent of the global population. The Maltese population has declined in recent years, mainly due to predation by rats, loss of breeding habitat, illegal hunting, disturbance and light and sound pollution. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) classes the Yelkouan shearwater as ‘vulnerable’.

European storm petrel

The smallest of local seabirds and hardly larger than a sparrow, storm petrels – or kanġu ta’ Fifla in Maltese – are only occasionally observed far out at sea, approaching land only during the night, like the shearwaters. It has a typical fluttering flight and is often seen ‘hovering’ over the water’s surface as it looks for floating food. The Maltese breeding population is mainly concentrated on the small island of Filfla, which holds an estimated 5,000 to 8,000 pairs, or 50 per cent of the Mediterranean population. If this subspecies achieves a full species designation as Hydrobates melitensis, the Filfla colony would constitute half of the entire global population. The IUCN considers the status of H. pelagicus as of ‘least concern’ although their numbers are declining.

(Source: Birdlife Malta)

This year BirdLife Malta is organising four trips, on June 29 and 30 and July 6 and 7. All the trips depart from Marfa Jetty (opposite the Riviera Hotel) at 7pm except for the July 6 trip which will be a special trip for Gozitans, departing from and returning to Gozo’s Mġarr Harbour. Booking closes on Sunday. For more details and bookings, visit https://birdlifemalta.org/2018/05/life-arcipelagu-garnija-shearwater-boat-trips .

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