By Steven Williams
Like most islands,Comino holds a unique atmosphere. A palpable sense of a deepening of time. That slowing of time that isolation on any island brings, as if time itself were to breath like the ocean. Buildings crumble like ghosts on an island that still has very few inhabitants, and at night the stars fill some of the darkest skies you can find in Malta. But my objective for four days on the island over one weekend was to document an issue affecting seabird conservation that many people may not be aware of. A very successful and adaptable alien invader, of the furry and scaly kind, has become an unwelcome guest and a threat to the local wildlife that inhabits the island.
Together as a small group from Birdlife Malta’s seabird research team and myself from the communications team we set out with the intention of documenting the issue with the hope of raising awareness of this invader’s effect on wildlife and seabirds here. In a wider context the issue is very similar at protected sites across Malta. In the case of island habitats they are often particularly vulnerable to alien invaders. Comino is protected as a Natura 2000 site which designates the area as a particularly special and important place for wildlife. If you’re a furry invader looking for a good food source, the occasional bird’s nest perhaps, then island life is just the ticket. If you are one of the birds for instance that nest on the island and have never seen a furry invader before, you’re in trouble. But on Comino and other places this is only half the story. Being resourceful, an easily available food source can easily swell their population. By the way, did I mention I am talking about rats? The thing is rats are opportunists. If we leave lots of food for them behind when we visit the island, that’s a
good opportunity. If you were a rat you’d be loving it, right? Unfortunately at Blue Lagoon this is what happens. During filming we watched rats jumping into the bins. We could hear them moving around inside the bins. We even listened to a nest of rats in one of the bushes close to the bins.
So I’ve made the point that rats shouldn’t be on the island at all and they have a clear effect on wildlife as non-native resourceful creatures. And that we have a situation at Blue Lagoon where we have a regular food source provided by high numbers of tourists in a small location which incidentally is only a short distance from the cliff sites where Yelkouan Shearwaters breed. Rats are good climbers and good swimmers. The plot thickens. So what’s next?
So for four evenings I haunted blue lagoon observing the coming and going of the place. Anyone who does not look like a tourist here wearing a bikini or swimming shorts stands out a mile. I was very clearly a traveler in my walking boots and outdoor trousers here. “Who are you working for son” one of food vendors asked me. I could hardly say “filming rats. Haven’t seen any have you?” I brushed off the comment and told him I was freelance.
Just to go and watch the number of people that fill this tiny bay is incredible. The giant cruise vessels don’t arrive until late morning. Two decks crammed with people. I watched as they came to dock. As tourists unloaded single file, like a tap opening, the people soon washed in. In only a few short hours the bins really do often go from completely empty to overflowing each day, both recycling and general waste. And this was not even the height of the season.
By tea time the tourists depart with the last of the ferry services. At night I returned with a small trap camera to document the difference between the scene during the day and when the rats come out to play. I really do like the total surreal contrast between the relative still of night and the absolute hive of activity that descends here during summer. Getting away from everything completely is still impossible here but the moments of stillness with only the waves and the faint sound of the docking of the few boats that remain overnight in the bay still offers peace in a crowded world. The stillness was supplemented by the shutter noise of my camera capturing frames of the clouds moving and the moonlight shifting shadows across the scene. I was fortunate for my stay to be working under moonlight each night. This helped light the scenes of the time-lapses I was capturing and made crossing the island in the dark so easy we had no need for head torches.
Shearwaters face problems where there eggs and chicks are eaten by rats at various sites on Malta. Highlighting this was one of the main aims as I talked about. If we wanted to prove clearly that this was the case we had to get some footage of a rat inside a cave eating an egg. So we had to ask the question:Were we prepared for a long wait and rather a difficult challenge filming at some very inaccessible places to catch a rat in the act, just at the exact moment, of eating an egg or was a little creative license required in order to achieve the same results. Would the blood and sweat have been worth it? Which option would you take? Answer, the easy one. As dusk fell I had a plan.
I had set up a small camera again and waited. The screen and all the equipment was in a box a short distance from the cave. Every now and then I opened the lid to check for activity. Light spilled out from the box as I checked the monitor screen. Nothing. Insects crawled over the camera or flew around, tripping the remote sensor. After a short time, again, nothing. I waited and checked again. Wait a minute, the scene remained empty but the egg was no longer in the same place. Interesting. I skipped back to the last video clip. A tail and hind legs were visible. In little over an hour since I set up a rat had visited to investigate. So Mr Rat, where did you come from? Or should I say, where did you get to?
By the end of my stay I had a good picture of the rat problem on Comino and footage showing them foraging around the bins. The easiest solution to limit the rat problem seems to be a simple case of firstly taking the bins away each evening. Removing any food sources seems to be the most simple and logical step. The issue in other parts of Malta may be the result of regular littering attracting rats where we then ask people to think carefully about how they dispose of their litter. The cost of controlling rats is very expensive yet necessary work for protecting seabirds. If the opportunites rats are given are minimized we stand the best chance of maintaining them at a lower population and so limit the pressure their population puts on local wildlife.
If you are interested in reading more about the seabird research carried out by Birdlife Malta please read the seabird blog.