Autumn Comes Early

August 1, 2014 11:11 am
Wader migration at Ghadira
It’s the height of summer, and many of us are enjoying (or at least tolerating) the long sunny days and the cool blue call of the Med.  However, certain members of the bird kingdom have other ideas. For itchy winged waders, the migration has already begun. Autumn comes early for some species. Having bred in the wetlands of Northern Europe, chicks have fledged and birds are flying south to the ‘wintering grounds’ of Africa.

Thankfully, we can observe these migratory journeys through Malta, each one epic yet personal; every bird has its own story. Some fly through without stopping, committed to the journey, whilst others don’t see the rush, and take a few days stopover, feeding and refuelling at Malta’s few yet bountiful wetlands. Either way, there’s no better place to watch these waders than at Birdlife’s nature reserves at Ghadira and Is-Simar. There’s certainly no place safer for them!

Ghadira has been a busy place for waders in the second half of July. Despite the low water level, the pools still brim with life. The waders can seem a subdued brown bunch, but give them a chance and you’ll find them full of charm, handsome colours and erratic piping calls. The Greenshankis a perfect example. Its snow white belly contrasts its slate-grey back, only for both shades to merge upwards to form a pale grey head. Standing tall on green legs (hence the name), it holds its own as it stands beside the lankier Black-winged Stilts and Little Egrets. Its shorter and flashier cousins; the Redshank and Spotted Redshank have also made their presence known, the attractive ‘spotted’ with its very dark plumage is striking, whilst both birds liven the place up with red legs and bills. Curiously, a juvenile Redshank has also hung around, this one distinguished by having orange legs. Just to confuse things further!   

Curlew Sandpipers are also present. These chubby small waders are moulting, but the breeding plumage can still be enjoyed. The fronts are red-brown, as if they’ve gone rusty in the brackish water, whilst black-orange tortoiseshell markings can be seen on the wings. A handful of Dunlins have also stopped by, and still bear the handsome summer plumage they’ve brought down from Northern Europe. With ruddy brown backs, a large black belly patch is the most distinguishing feature! Other species have included Temminck’s Stint, Ruff, Green Sandpiper and Wood Sandpiper among others, and of course our breeding Little Ringed Plovers, who are on to raising their third clutch of chicks this season. 

It’s not all waders of course; Kingfishershave brought a dash of flamboyance to Ghadira, whilst regular Black-headed gulls and occasional passerines such as Serin and Subalpine Warbler have shown how diverse summer migration can be. But with arrivals also come departures, and last week our Black-winged stilts bid us farewell. Upon completing their breeding season at Ghadira, it just goes to show that Malta is no different to other Europe countries in providing waders with the means to lay eggs, raise chicks and add to the great diversity of European wildlife. We’re sad to see them leave, but the stilts have joined the other waders in pushing south for Africa… we wish them luck and say, “see you next spring guys!” 


Tom Hendry is the Assistant Warden at BirdLife Malta.

Photos by Ray Vella.