Chasing the Storm Petrel.

August 21, 2014 3:11 pm
Filfla – By Justin Gatt

Filfla is an uninhabited islet and the southernmost point in the Maltese archipelago. From mainland Malta it stands out against the sky and the sea, a plateau surrounded by large boulders. The island is home to colonies of sea birds, and is one of the main nesting sites of the Mediterranean Storm-petrel. Being one of the few Maltese strict nature reserves, Filfla is not accessible to the public, and a research permit is required to land on the rocky shore. Additionally, access is logistically complicated and dangerous, as the collapsing plateau has filled the surrounding waters with submerged boulders.
Luckily the sea is flat when we get on the wooden boat that will take us there. The boat is painted yellow and blue, the traditional colour combination for Maltese boats, and slowly makes its way towards the island. The fallen rocks reach several metres in diameter, and the landscape is almost unreal. We jump on a rock, my boots barely manage to get some grip on the wet surface. We start climbing up the boulders as the boatman leaves wishing us good luck. The boulders are unstable and we need to test every step. Old shrapnel can be easily spotted among the rocks, the legacy of target practice during the cold war.
We reach the base of the plateau, and we set up the mistnets that we will use to catch the storm petrels. The endemic wall lizards, black with spots of turquoise or green, approach us with curiosity – there’s no human presence on Filfla, and they have no reason to fear man. But while Filfla seem like a haven for wildlife, we have a harsh reminder that Maltastill isn’t safe when a flock of great white egrets and purple herons flies by, squawking. One of the birds has dangling legs, probably the result of shotgun injuries. It’s hardly the first time any of us have seen injured birds flying over Malta, but we can’t help but be somewhat affected by the sight.
It’s still a couple of hours before sunset, and we decide to explore the sea surrounding the island. The water is crystal clear and wonderfully blue, as is hard to find on mainland Malta. The boulders provide shelter to dozens of fish, moray eels, and sea slugs. The colours seem brighter and more saturated. Time passes quickly in the water, and soon the sun is low on the horizon. We have some food, drink some coffee out of a thermos. The rocks are sharp and rugged and it’s impossible to be comfortable. The lizards start disappearing as the temperature slowly drops, and we start hearing the booming sounds of the fireworks for the never-ending summer Festas.
The sun goes down as we wait. Black shapes start flying around us, storm petrels and Scopolis shearwaters. The sky above Maltais painted green and red by the fireworks, but on Filfla the sky is black, the Milky Way stands out against the background as shooting stars fall like rain. The first stormies start hitting the mistnets and fall into the pouches. Storm-petrels have a peculiar musty smell, like sea and fish, but that reminds me of abandoned houses and closed rooms as well. The compounds causing the smell don’t degrade easily, and museum specimens keep their smell for decades. As a defense strategy, stormies spit strong-smelling oil – once you get it on your clothes it’s impossible to get rid of it, and after working with stormies your hands smell for days. We collect the birds from the nets, delicately releasing them from the mesh. Once they are out the birds are checked for rings and their number is recorded – if no ring is found we put one on their left leg, working with extreme care to make sure they don’t get harmed. The data collected by recapturing ringed individuals will be used to study the population, estimate how large it is, and see how their numbers change.
We keep working for hours, when Scopolis shearwaters start to increase in numbers. The night is filled with their calls, their voice too similar to a crying child not to cause a little uneasiness. Here on Filfla, far away from the urban sprawl of Malta and with their shapes darting through the air, I can easily understand why they have been associated to evil spirits in Maltese folklore. A couple of them get caught in the mistnets, and they also get checked for rings. Their ring number is recorded, if no ring is present a new one is put on their leg. One of the birds is still carrying a tracker on its back – the device was fitted on the bird a year ago, and will provide information on its movements during the non-breeding season.
Several hours pass, and the sky starts to slowly get brighter to the east. Birds stop flying around us, we release the last stormy when it’s still dark, but the boat will not get here before dawn. It’s cold now – I really should have brought a sweater with me – and there’s no way to find shelter on the rocks. The boatman appears on the horizon and we start making our way back to the meeting point. I have cuts everywhere, I smell like fish, and my hands have been peeled raw by the sharp edges of the rocks. I unsteadily get on the boat – my thighs are shaky from trying to keep my balance on the unstable rocks all night. We slowly sail back to Malta, the shearwaters gently flying around us as the sun rises behind the island.

Words by Nick Piludu, Development Assistant at BirdLife Malta. 
Photos by Benjamin Metzger, Tim Micallef and Justin Gatt. 
The research detailed above forms part of the Life+ Malta Seabird Project managed by BirdLife Malta. To find out more about the Seabird team and their work, you can check out their website here