Berta, Bertina…

June 4, 2014 11:40 am
by Ilaria Murgia.

It was with the autumn BirdLife Malta’s Raptor camp that I was introduced for the first time to birdwatching and bird conservation issues. From that moment a completely new world disclosed to me and I decided which direction I wanted to take.
Years passed and I continued to catch all the opportunities I could to keep working with birds, in Italy, Germany, where I did a European Voluntary Service, and Malta again. So I happened to monitor waders and seabirds and assist with passerine and flamingo ringing, among the other things.
Now this year I had a great opportunity to fulfill my dreams: doing a Leonardo da Vinci Internship with BirdLife Malta! Leonardo da Vinci is basically a European grant that allows young (and not so young) people to do a 3-6 months internship in Europe, and I’ve got a 3 months grant. Reality often doesn’t coincide with your expectations, sometimes it’s better! I arrived in Malta knowing that I would be working with the conservation department, on illegal hunting and trapping issues, and within the LIFE + Malta Seabird Project.
I must admit, I didn’t know much about seabirds, especially Yelkouan Shearwater, Scopoli Shearwater and Storm Petrel, the secretive species which are the target of this project. One more reason to become very much interested in this project and to dedicate myself to it. What a great opportunity to learn and to work on the field! I arrived in March, by the time the Yelkouan Shearwater were occupying the nests and preparing to lay their only yearly egg. They nest in caves and crevices, in (almost) impossible places on the cliffs…impossible only if you don’t have ropes and other abseiling equipment. Then came my very first day of work, which I will never forget.
“Would you like to come to the cliffs?” That’s how it started.

I found myself wearing a harness, with a full set of carabiners and unknown devices connecting me to the rope…and then down, to the nests! Later on my abseiling skills improved and I found out that was the easiest site of them all, but that first time it really seemed like abseiling a canyon! So there I was, sitting as the evening faded into night, on a “terrace” of the cliff, in front the entrance of a Yelkouan cave, waiting for the occupants to come back. On this occasion, they didn’t come, but it was an amazing first experience.
Many other nights of survey work followed, at a variety of cliff sites, but the feeling was always the same. When you are in the cliffs you enter another world made of rocks, shaped by the sea, where people have no access (if we exclude us researchers), a place that during these few months of spring belongs only to the shearwaters.There’ssomething mystical about sitting in the darkness at the entrance of a cave or inside it, as you wait in silence you can only hear the waves and the eerie calling of the shearwaters returning to their nests.
And when you’re distracted enough and unprepared they usually start to come. First there is the quick wing flapping, often not even that, and suddenly a shearwater bumps into you. Very quickly you grab the bird, before it sneaks away heading to its nest hole, and put it in a bag so it can be processed. Ringing (if it is a new bird), weighing and other measurements. Weight is particularly important to assess if a bird is a breeder or just a prospecting, coming to check the site in view of a next year nesting.
Later in the season we also started tagging some of the birds with GPS tags, to track their foraging journeys at sea. This data will be used to identify marine IBAs (important bird areas) which, at a later stage, will be proposed to become part of the Natura 2000 network.
Part of the work also consisted in exploring new sites, looking for caves occupied by Shearwaters. How do we do this? First having a good look at the cliffs, for instance from a boat, looking for suitable caves. Then comes the “sniffing around” part, where you come to explore the places by literally sniffing for Yelkouan typical smell and looking for other signs of their presence, as footprints and droppings.Our best success in this sense was the tiny island of Cominotto, where I personally had the most beautiful surprise and best experience of my internship.
Facing the (too) famous Comino’s Blue Lagoon, a place that during the summer days is literally packed with tourists and all the related stuff, I wouldn’t even imagined that the tiny rocky island of Cominotto could be so full of life. We found several caves with traces of Yelkouans nests and indeed when we came back during the night we had many birds …so many that we couldn’t even handle them. We worked there for two consecutive nights, and with us came also many other volunteers, all together with the same spirit of collaboration and excitement for the new discovery and for the possibility for them to do something extraordinary as working with these birds. What a positive feeling! I will always be grateful to all the people who joined that expedition for this great experience.

Last but not least there is the survey in Filfla’s boulders scree to count and mark the nests of Yellow Legged Gulls.Filfa is the islet you see in front of Zurrieq/Blue Grotto. It is a protected area for its unique fauna (a subspecies of the Maltese wall lizard, Podarcis filfolensis ssp. which is endemic to this island) but it is also famous for being used as a target for bombing practices by the British Armed Force and the NATO. The result is the boulder scree around it which hosts some nests of Yellow Legged Gull but also the most important colony of Storm Petrels of the Maltese Islands.
The census of gulls nests and the collection of gulls regurgitates is indeed aimed to assess the impact of this Laridae species on the nesting Storm Petrels. The boulder scree and the rocky walls of Filfla are subjected to a very strong and fast erosion process, which changes its shape from year to year, and makes very difficult and challenging walking on it, but it was a great adventure!
Now, between the field and office work, my internship period is almost over, just other two weeks to go. Time flies when you’re having fun and indeed this has been so far a very important experience both for my life and for my career.
See you soon again, Yelkouans!
Berta bertina, la notte si avvicina..
(Yelkouan, Yelkouan, night’s coming..)
*Berta minore is the Italian name for Yelkouan Shearwater. It means “small shearwater” but Berta is also a female name and Bertina is its diminutive, my way to describe the small cute Yelkouans.