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A Report from

Malta,  8th- 15th April 2003,

Saul Cowen

Many of my trips abroad have been linked with my school and this was no exception.  I visited Malta as part of a 1st Xl pre-season cricket tour with Dauntsey's in Wiltshire.  Normally I would've been fairly excited to visit the Med in April as it would provide me with opportunities with connecting with a lot of migrants as well as the residents.  However as Malta has a reputation for being the centre of the annual slaughter of European migrant birds, I wasn't sure whether it would be worth my while even taking my bins.

However I spoke to John Borg at Birdlife Malta who reassured me that there would be some birds to see.  Most of my time was spent around the Marsa Sports Ground which John had told me could be good for birds so every match or training session was accompanied with binoculars (not on the pitch though!)

8th April

We flew from Gatwick with Air Malta and landed in Malta at about 4pm to overcast skies and a cold wind.  Not exactly the conditions we were expecting.  Around the airport I got reacquainted with Spanish Sparrows (the only other one I'd seen was in Cumbria!) but I was soon to find out that 90% of the birds to be seen in Malta are sparrows!

However on arriving at Sundown Court Leisure Resort I picked up my first lifer, a male Sardinian Warbler.  However this was another species I was almost sick of the sight of by the end of the tour.  But nevertheless, it was a good looking bird.  In the evening I was able to explore the area behind the hotel which was scrubby and looked promising for shrikes and other migrants.  However with the weather as it was I was pleased just to get a female Subalpine Warbler (another tick).  The only other birds were Spanish Sparrows and Feral Pigeons, hardly gripping.

9th April

Up fairly early to grey skies once again.  We made the short trip to Marsa and immediately got out on the field.  However the first signs of migration were evident.  Swallows, House Martins and Swifts passed over occasionally and a Hoopoe and a small flock of Serins were around the edge of pitch.  The Hoopoe and the Serins were exotic but I was hoping for something a little more exciting.  On returning to the hotel for lunch I found another Hoopoe and another or the same Subalpine Warbler.

In the afternoon we visited the capital Valletta, which was an interesting trip in historical context but as far as birds were concerned another Hoopoe and a couple of Yellow-legged Gulls were the best I could manage.

So a mildly disappointing couple of days, I didn't know whether to put the lack of birds down to not visiting the right sites, or if I was too early or too late or if the hunting was really that bad.  Had I experienced spring migration elsewhere in the Med then I might have been able to hazard a guess but all I could do was wait.

10th April

First match against Marsa Sports Club.  Again some visible migration of hirundines and Swifts but the only excitement came from 2 Night Herons flapping gently over the pitch together.  During our batting innings I went for a wander around the pitch but found nothing more than Subalpine and Sardinian Warblers and a Song Thrush.  The temperature had warmed up but it was still cloudy making it quite sticky.  Marsa were too strong for us and we fell well short of their total of 247.  I got a duck and poor bowling figures so it was a bad day all round.  Back at the hotel I found a single Chiffchaff.

11th April

Woke up to glorious sunshine and a much more promising day.  At Marsa for our match against St Paul's School, London we were much more alive and ready and we ended up beating them convincingly making 159 and getting them all out for 89.  Aside from the cricket, the birding hadn't brightened up but I did find my first Eastern Olivaceous Warbler in the trees around the ground, suggesting the area had potential for good birds (EOWs are uncommon passage migrants in Malta).  However there was nothing more of note.  But a trip to the sister island of Gozo the following morning promised to be much more exciting.

12th April

Up early for the bus to Buġibba to pick up our jeeps for a 'safari'.  This started promisingly as we took the scenic route to Ċirkewwa which produced heard Cetti's Warbler and several heard and seen Fan-tailed (Cisticolas) Warblers.  However I did see the first hunter on a hill just east of Ċirkewwa, but looking skywards there didn't seem to be much to shoot at (or perhaps that was why).

Once on Gozo we headed for a secluded bay (I think it was Daħlet Qorrot).  A quick session atop the cliff produced several good birds such as a pair of Blue Rock Thrushes, 2 Black-eared Wheatears, several fly-over Yellow Wagtails and Red-throated Pipits and best of all a male Collared Flycatcher flew through.  All except the wagtails were new!  Driving back up another Cetti's Warbler was singing and a Pied Flycatcher, several Swallows and another Blue Rock Thrush were also seen.  More birds plus brilliant weather - this was more like it.  Next stop at Ramla Bay however was not so good with a Sardinian Warbler the only bird.  When we stopped for lunch at a local resturant it didn't get much better with lots of Spanish Sparrows and nothing else.

Next stop was Dwejira and the Inland Sea on the west coast.  On the way I had another lifer, a pair of Lesser Kestrels circling round a church at quite close range, top stuff!  However they were the only species of raptor I saw in the entire week.  Once at Dwejira everyone else went swimming or on a boat trip, I headed inland in search of birds.  I was disappointed to find just Subalpine and Sardinian Warblers, Meadow Pipit and Swift.  Oh and a big flock of Spanish Sparrows.

Heading back we met 3 hunters by the side of the road.  They seemed about as pleased to see us as we were them.  We moved on quickly.  Driving through another village a third Lesser Kestrel was circling.  I also picked up my first Spectacled Warbler perched on a cattle trough by the side of the road.

After another uneventful ferry crossing we headed back to the hotel.  Behind the hotel there was a female Pied Flycatcher and a Red-throated Pipit flew over at low level and then turned around and pitched in the dead tree I was standing next to giving me some great views.

13th April

Match 3, againt Marsa Sports Club promised to be a real crunch game.  (Un)fortunately due to the circulation of bowlers each match, today was my day to be left out and despite doing some fielding for a man-short Marsa, the day was pretty much mine.  And fortunately it was a good day for birding.  Exploring the trees around the pitch produced lots of Pied, 1 Spotted and 1 Collared Flycatcher, a pair of Whinchats, 5 Wood Warblers, a Redstart, 2 Spectacled Warblers and Night Heron.  Finally some migration.  But that was all.

Dauntsey's pulled through and won (no thanks to my fielding for Marsa I'd like to add) making a good day.  However as today was the Maltese election we weren't allowed out to celebrate.  However this meant I could do some birding around the hotel which produced 3 Pied Flys, a Whinchat, 2 Wood Warblers and a Fan-tailed Warbler.

14th April

The final day was supposed to be spent on the island of Comino.  However as we took a round-Malta ferry from Sliema we only had 2 hours on the island.  As a far as I know no hunting occurs on Comino and I believe there is even a ringing station there.  Therefore I hoped for some good birds.  I also hoped for Cory's Shearwater from the ferry, but you can't have everything despite some lengthy seawatches from the boat.  All I saw from the boat were some Swifts, Yellow-legged Gulls and of course Spanish Sparrows!

Comino didn't appear much better, in the first half-an-hour I managed Skylark, Meadow Pipit, Sardinian Warbler, Swallow and Swift.  However when I was just about to give up, it got good.  First I saw my first Sand Martin of the trip.  Then another lull and then a Blue Rock Thrush flew across giving brilliant views.  This was followed seconds later by a gorgeous male Black-eared Wheatear which showed itself off at close range.  A few seconds after that I flushed a Stone Curlew  which gave superb views as it flapped past around and away over towards Gozo.  Then as the wind dropped I heard a Turtle Dove purring away just out of sight a few yards away!  If I had been able to stay longer who knows what I might have found, but we had to head back.  Of all the places we visited I would have liked to stay much longer on Comino as it seemed to be small enough to bird throughly but big enough to attract some excellent species.

15th April

Left at 5.45am for the airport and left at 8am giving no more opportunities for birding.

Overall I saw 9 new species which is really not very good as Bee-eater, Honey Buzzard, Red-backed and Woodchat Shrikes and Alpine Swift would all have been new and not exactly rare on migration in Malta.  It's fair to say I didn't do the island much justice, and maybe if I had been able to visit some of the reserves or Buskett Gardens I would have seen more.  However I do feel that the dearth of good birds is at least partly down to hunting.

However sitting at home and tut tutting at the EU and the Maltese government does nothing.  Many people would regard bird tours to Malta a contradiction in terms, but there are birds on Malta (in particular Gozo and Comino) and with planning and the will to do it a successful bird orientated trip to Malta could be organised without too much conflict with hunters.  There are stories of hunters bullying and intimidating birders which may well be true, but if the groups are big enough and bloody minded enough they can beat it.

Government measures have not worked, nor have protests.  The only way left is like whale-watching in Japan, provide an alternative.  Hunters will undoubtedly know the best sites for migrants and if enough people are interested, who knows the tide may turn.  The bottom line is that Malta is cheap to get to, accommodation is not too expensive and it is such a small place, transport is never a problem.  Everyone speaks good English and most Maltese and Gozitans are very friendly.  And if the main islands are not an option, Comino would be an attractive alternative.  Malta needs birders to visit its reserves and watch-points and I implore birders to take a risk and do some pioneering in the Med.

Saul Cowen


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