Friday, 23 April 2010

Hunting in Malta

We spent a nice evening at a viewpoint near Mtahleb on our third day at the Springwatch camp. We were stationed on a narrow road which descended into a very scenic valley. Few birds were about. No hunting activity was observed either, but a couple of pickups came by and slowed down as they went past, their occupants giving us the long, hard and very unfriendly stare that we'd already become used to.

The next morning we returned to the same viewpoint to find this message on the wall we'd sat on the evening before. The stuff in the foreground is assorted bits of vegetables and animals - in the bottom right is a swastika. This cowardly attempt at intimidation is just one of the signs of how badly rattled the hunters are by the presence of BirdLife Malta's conservation teams in the countryside. On other occasions, we had guys with sticks come up and shout at us, were forced to back into a wall by a hunter in a Landrover, and were shouted and sworn at every day. Other incidents that happened to some of the other teams included tyres being slashed, a windscreen shot out, stone-throwing and actual physical assault.

We filmed this chap hunting by the sea on our last afternoon trip. I've blurred his face just in case. The police took more than an hour to arrive, by which time he'd scarpered (they did find his sweater though).

What's going on with these guys? They already have the most generous legal hunting situation in Europe, both in terms of number of quarry species and the length of the open season. Spring hunting for Quail and Turtle Dove was legal for a short season until 2008, and a very short season has been reopened this year. (This is bad news for the two species concerned, both of which are in serious decline across Europe.) But some of the hunters want to shoot all the time, at everything. Most of all, they want to shoot raptors, the rarer the better, and the fact that all of the raptors are protected at all times doesn't deter them at all. A hugely overstretched police force plus a disinterested, head-in-the-sand government mean they often get away with it, but BirdLife Malta's activities do make a huge difference.

This Marsh Harrier has already had at least one run-in with illegal hunters. Both of its legs are injured - we watched and filmed it as it left its roost (we heard several gunshots at the time) and flew out to sea, and its legs dangled hopelessly the whole time. It will struggle to hunt in this condition - it probably won't survive.

A case of 'Malta moult' - this Kestrel has had a sizeable hole blown out of its right wing. It can still fly and of course feathers regrow eventually... but  it may well be targetted again. Several Kestrel pairs are making nesting attempts on the islands this spring - it will be interesting to see whether any succeed. Because of the hunters, no other birds of prey breed on Malta, though there is suitable habitat for many species.

It isn't just the big and impressive birds that interest the hunters. Many keep collections of stuffed birds and are keen to kill new species to add to their private exhibitions. If migration really is quiet, the hunters will amuse themselves by taking bets on, say, who can be first to kill a passing Swallow. This Swallow will hopefully manage alright with its damaged wing, and continue its migration to a safer place.

Everywhere you go in the Malta countryside, you will see the little dry-stone buildings that the hunters use as hides. The extraordinary abundance of these hides illustrates the enormous popularity of hunting here. Also common are trappers' hides, from where the trappers illegally catch finches and other birds using decoys and clapnets.

In the woodlands of Mizieb, where some 200 dead protected birds were found last autumn, there are spent shotgun cartridges scattered liberally on the ground, along every path and trail through the trees. In nooks and crannies around the hides, they are piled up in their hundreds.

Many birdwatchers have boycotted Malta for years, in protest at the continued illegal hunting situation and the government's failure to sort things out. The BirdLife Malta message is... don't. Come to Malta on your holidays, but be aware of what goes on and be ready to report any illegal activity you see to the police. These are our birds, trying to migrate to northern Europe, and they need our protection. The more birdwatchers active in the countryside, whether on BirdLife Malta conservation camps or not, the more the hunters and trappers will have to curtail their activities. See here for everything you need to know:

Malta - the migrants

Though Maltese hunters have wiped out many of the country's breeding birds, at migration time lots of species traverse the islands. All are targetted by illegal hunters, especially the raptors. Here are some of the ones we saw.

Male Collared Flycatcher, keeping still for a split second. Collareds, Pieds and Semi-collareds all stop off in the Mizieb woodlands on migration.

There are a few pairs of Common Kestrels breeding on the Maltese islands this year, but this is a male Lesser Kestrel, which occurs as a migrant only. No doubt this very rare species could become an established breeding bird on Malta if the hunters would leave it alone.

All four European harriers may be seen on migration in Malta. Montagu's is the second commonest after Marsh, with Pallid in third place and Hen Harrier the rarest. This male Monty's was hunting low over fields - we were willing it to just gain some height and fly away.

After Sardinian Warbler (which breeds here), the commonest Sylvia warbler is  Subalpine, a passage migrant here. This soggy female was photographed drying off from a bath in the fountain of a small park near our hotel.

Swifts and hirundines were numerous during our visit, mostly around the coast. Besides this Alpine Swift there were also Common and Pallid Swifts, and hirundine-wise countless Barn Swallows, a few Red-rumped, and House and Sand Martins.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

Wildlife of Malta - some of the common stuff

Spanish Sparrow, the only really common urban bird in Malta (unless you count the free-ranging but still domestic pigeons).

Zitting Cisticola (and I know I am probably alone here but I think that's a MUCH better name than 'Fan-tailed Warbler'). Common breeding bird - during our trip we were never far away from a territorial male, singing his tedious 'zit... zit... zit...' refrain from an undulating display flight.

Excuse the dodgy, very heavily cropped photo, this was as close as we got to a Blue Rock Thrush, Malta's national bird and an absolute stunner. Honest.

Malta has its own subspecies of Swallowtail butterfly - Papilio machaon melitensis. Quite common... and one of only about six butterfly species we saw on our visit.

I'm not great at flower ID but I think this fantastically pink specimen is Greater Snapdragon (Antirrhinum tortuosum). Poor it may be for vertebrate animals, but Malta seems great for flowers.

This is a Moorish Gecko. So called because one is never enough (boom tish). A really lovely-looking animal, though I think this one is sporting a regrown tail. Did a bored hunter blow away his original one? In the next posts I'll talk about migrating birds and the illegal hunting problem.

Saturday, 17 April 2010

Malta - part 1 of probably lots

Firstly, apologies for lack of photos. There ARE photos to come but thanks to a certain Icelandic volcano our flight home is cancelled, so I thought I'd while away the time waiting for Air Malta to answer their helpdesk number by writing a wee blog post.

Our week in Malta is over (or is it?). We've had the most extraordinary time, despite things being really quiet on the bird migration front. Met some absolutely awesome people, heard some totally shocking stories and had some really quite alarming experiences. Rob has gone out with the teams again this morning while I'm waiting here to try to find out how/when/if we can get home.

The hunting and trapping problem here has not been exaggerated in the UK media. If anything it has been understated. Likewise the importance of the work of BirdLife Malta... More later.

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Elmley, Easter Monday

Seduced by talk of Merlins, Little Gulls and Yellow Wagtails on the KOS website, I suggested Elmley Marshes for our outing today. It was cloudy again, with the BBC forecast cheerily promising a steady improvement to blinding sunshine by mid-afternoon.

The access track came up trumps for us. Lots of birds around, many of them really close to the car. I remarked that the reserve itself would probably be a big let-down, and so it was, photographically speaking. Here's some of the stuff we saw on the way in. First, a Redshank who picked its way along a flooded bit, doing much vigorous bobbing and suspicious eye-balling of the car as it went, but only flying off when another Redshank showed up.

This Lapwing was on my side of the car, and was so close that I could almost have reached out and tidied up its crest for it. Unfortunately, it was too close for Rob to get a pic without including a large section of Passat doorframe, so here's the best pic from the Panasonic. I'm still not allowed to buy myself an SLR...

Even the little birds were gettting in on the act. We had some great close views of Skylarks, and then this splendid fellow. There were piles of horse manure everywhere which I'd speculated had been put down to attract Yellow Wagtails (they eat insects that live in livestock crap) - looks like it worked.

By the reserve car park we found a Kestrel sitting on one of the buildings, keeping out of the wind. On another building was one of those 'terrace' nestboxes with multiple chambers and entrances, built to accomodate several friendly families of House Sparrows. This one had at least one tenant by the looks of things, and the numbers of spuggies in the nearby patch of scrub suggested there could be more.

Out on the reserve, we saw numerous Meadow Pipits, Little Egrets, Skylarks, Reed Buntings, a couple of Marsh Harriers, Oystercatchers, Redshanks, Shelducks, Canada Geese, etc etc. Views from the hides were not great though and nothing much came within camera-range. One thing that did was this stroppy Avocet, which circled above us giving a volley of curiously canine yapping calls.

And that was about it. No real sunshine to speak of today, and we didn't go anywhere but home in the evening. Next Saturday we're off to Malta to do the Springwatch camp, which promises to be a dramatic change of pace...

Oh, by the way, Rob discovered today that the Bigmos lens is back-focusing. He thinks he's corrected for it now in the D300's settings, but that would be why some of the recent pics aren't as sharp as they should be. Maybe in the summer we'll send the lens back to Sigma and see if it can be fixed/replaced.

Farlington Marshes, Pagham, Selsey

Easter Sunday, or 'Chocolate Day' as Rob prefers to call it, and we jumped in the car and headed for Farlington Marshes near Portsmouth, a place neither of us had visited before. On the way we hit a huge traffic jam just next to the turning for Thursley Common and might have had an instant change of plan if it had been one month later... but Thursley in early April would probably have been a bit quiet. So we sat out the delay and finally reached Portsmouthish at about lunchtime. Some roundabout-related shenanigans ensued before we located the place we were supposed to park to walk on the marsh.

This is a Hampshire Wildife Trust reserve occupying a little stubby promontary into Langstone Harbour. A path just inside the sea wall takes you round almost the whole reserve, and you can walk on the sea wall if you like (good thing too, as it was VERY wet underfoot on the path itself). Inland there is mostly wet grassland with a few pools, some of them reedy. The exposed position of the path means getting close to the birds is... well, we didn't. So while there were plenty of birds around (Curlews, Oystercatchers, Redshanks, Black-tailed Godwits, Teals, Little Egrets etc) they were all Far Away. Again.

Farlington is famous for its Dark-bellied Brent Geese in winter. There were only a handful around today, individuals which, for whatever reason, hadn't yet gone back to Russia to breed. This one looked splendid in the intermittent sunshine - I'm sure he/she will have no difficulty finding a willing partner on return to the homeland.

We opted to go on to Pagham Harbour for the rest of the day. It began to rain as we arrived but proved just a passing shower and the sun came out properly for the end of the day, just as it had done on Friday and Saturday.

There is a bizarrely sited hide at Pagham, overlooking Ferry Pond by the roadside. Unfortunately, the hide is on the other side of the road to the pond. so you have to put up with lorries periodically interrupting your view of the waders and ducks on the pond. In between the traffic I found a couple of snoozing Avocets on the shore, too far away for pics. By the path was a more obliging quarry - a rather nice clump of violets which I hope to get round to identifying to species one of these days.

As we strolled alongside the harbour we saw several passing Redshanks, Shelducks and a small flock of Grey Plovers flaunting their black armpits at us. Then a wonderfully obliging Little Egret flew in and performed beautifully in the nearby shallow creeks, stalking about and making flashy strikes at little beasties in the water and among the soggy sedges and grass tussocks.

Nearby, a particularly stately-looking Curlew foraged with ponderous dignity around the small pools. This pic is one of the last in a series of about 100 - Rob experimented with different angles and this one was the result of him pointing his shadow directly towards the bird - colours came out quite nicely.

We ended the day at Selsey Bill, where there were few birds (Cormorant passing by at sea, various gulls including Great Black-backed), but there was a brisk, chilly wind which discouraged us from hanging around and enjoying the last of the sunshine.

Easter Saturday

We were supposed to go out on Good Friday but it rained (and rained and rained) so we paid a visit to my dad in Hastings during the day. By late afternoon the rain had passed and it was a lovely evening - we raced to the Sevenoaks Wildlife Reserve but it was a bit too late for any decent photos. Nevertheless, we saw a couple of Little Ringed Plovers, and Rob whiled away a few happy minutes photographing one of the territorial Lapwings as it wheeled and whooped over the heads of assorted non-plussed geese, Cormorants and gulls. I include this photo because it shows the Lapwing rather cleverly flying upside down.

The following day, the plan was to go to Seaford with Dianne and Kuldeep, but the forecast was abysmal. Checking other local forecasts I found that the one for Faversham was sort of OK (sunny intervals rather than torrential rain) so we headed for Oare Marshes instead. When we arrived, it was raining (curses!) so we went for a pub lunch in the Castle in Oare (Rob seeing a Stoat from the car on the way), hitting the trails after that when the rain had abated.

Oare was quiet, with a 'between seasons' feel. Not many ducks were left (Wigeons, Gadwalls, Teals, Mallards, Tufties) but no spring visitors either. There was a roost of mainly Black-tailed Godwits on the East Flood, some in smart brick-red breeding garb, with a few Redshanks among them, but they, like most of the birds around, were too distant for decent photos. We really need that 1,000mm lens... This Lapwing took pity on us and flew past at point blank range.

There were lots of Little Egrets around, a lone Snipe, at least two distant Marsh Harriers, and from the reedbeds near the sea wall came the tantalising 'pings' of Bearded Tits, tucked out of the strong wind and giving only a couple of brief and hopeless 'flight views' as they popped out to see if the wind had dropped before vanishing again. No Med Gulls around, just numerous Black-headeds. Nothing to see on the Swale. However, by the time we got back to the car it was pretty much wall to wall sunshine. Looking at the map, I suggested we zip down the A2 to Samphire Hoe, as a sort of Seaford substitute.

Samphire Hoe, made out of the stuff they excavated to make the Channel Tunnel, is a nicely landscaped bit of rolling grassland beneath towering chalk cliffs, leading to a small shingle beach. It is very scenic, which made up for today's lack of birds. On the beach, Dianne collected about a billion hagstones, while I took photos of assorted stuff in the tideline, such as this dogfish eggcase.

We all accidentally dozed off on the beach and then had to hurry back along the seaside path to the car as our parking ticket was about to expire. On the way I took some dodgy photos of the Rock Pipits on the sea wall.

Thursday, 1 April 2010

A post because it's been a while since the last post

Long time, no blog. We've both been busy at weekends for the last few weeks, plus the weather's been dire. Photographic opportunities have been limited to the succession of Harlequin Ladybirds which have invaded our living room. We've had black ones, red ones, spotty ones, plain ones. Evil and invasive they may be, but also undeniably cute.

Today, sunshine was forecast first thing, so I got up early and walked down to the wildlife reserve, armed with the Panasonic in case I saw any birds. I did, but most of them evaded my clumsy and amateurish attempts to photograph them.

Almost the first bird I saw was a superb male Bullfinch, lurking close to the visitor centre. A site first for me (though the log shows they're seen regularly). No photo - the sun was only just up and the Panny was offering shutter speeds of about three seconds.

On the path up towards Willow hide, I was very pleased to hear the spluttery/fluty songs of several Blackcaps, with Chiffchaffs providing a less beautiful but equally welcome backing track. There was some pleasingly backlit wildfowl bobbing about on the big lake - I took a beautifully lit and composed but hopelessly out-of-focus cheesy Mute Swan pic, and, slightly more successfully, these two Canada Geese.

There was little to see from the Willow hide. In its vicinity, though, there was a nest-site-prospecting Long-tailed Tit pair, and I got reasonable looks (though no decent photos) of both Chiffchaff and Blackcap. Then, on the path back towards Tyler hide I found a couple of Treecreepers. One of them zipped smartly around the tree trunk out of view immediately, but this one must have been half-asleep.

En route to Tyler hide I photographed a Jay which was... actually, I've no idea what it was doing. It was up a tree and attacking the bark. It was curiously oblivious to my presence. Unfortunately the Panasonic was oblivious to the Jay's presence, repeatedly refusing to focus on the bird but instead on some twigs in the foreground. Because obviously I want nice sharp photos of some twigs against an atmospheric backdrop of blurry Jay. Stupid camera. Anyway, I did manage one sharp(ish) frame before the Jay got bored and left.

There were lots of Swallows whizzing around the Tower hide. I went in and enjoyed some brilliant close views of them as they zoomed past, within touching distance. There were also Sand and House Martins hawking over the water - this must be the first year that I've ever had my first annual sighting of all three hirundines on the same day. Outside the hide, I noticed a small something with a yellow tummy high in a tree, and as I got it in my bins, it decided to spare me the Willow Warbler/Chiffchaff ID dilemma and began to sing its lovely sweet down-the-scale Willow Warbler song. I took some photos, which were awful.

What else? Green and Great Spotted Woodpeckers. No interesting migrant waders, just the usual Lapwings (swooping about, making toy trumpet noises and attacking the geese) and Snipes (skulking almost invisibly in a clump of foliage on an island). Wildfowl numbers falling, but still plenty of Mallards, Gadwalls, Teals and Tufties. One Goldfinch. One Skylark calling over the horse-filled field on the way in. The horses were all standing in one corner of the field, with eerie Hitchcockian stillness.

We've lots of birding trips planned for the Easter weekend. So, if the weather doesn't let us down, more posts soon.