Twice a year, birds travel thousands of miles between their breeding grounds in Europe and their wintering grounds in Africa. Most birds are not comfortable crossing large stretches of water, which is why migrations over the Mediterranean take place on three separate routes. Gibraltar and Turkeyoffer passageways in the East and the West, and Maltais the stepping stone in the centre of the Mediterranean. It is not an easy journey, and lots of birds – the weak, the sick, or even just the younger, more inexperienced ones – find that they are not able to complete the migration.
So what happens to them? Seeing Maltaon the horizon, many of them use their last bit of energy to reach land, and then, exhausted, are unable to continue the migration. Their flocks leave them behind and they are forced to learn how to fend for themselves without the protection of a colony. In the past few weeks, we had more than one water bird reaching the islands and looking for a water body – any water body – in which to land. These include the lagoons at Simar and Ghadira, shallow traits of sea, and even private pools. People in Maltahave heard too many horror stories about birds being shot down and, worried about their well-being, calling BirdLife asking for help.
The stories of migratory birds are often colourful, and luckily, most of them end well. Flamingos start their migration when their young, are still covered in grey feathers, and it is very difficult for the juveniles to face the journey. Two exhausted youngsters landed on Malta this September, both of them showing a little pink in their under-wing feathers. One, in Ghadira Bay, made the news for some nonsense I will not discuss here, while the other went under the radar after landing in the South.
Weak and starved, the two barely reacted when they were rescued. A wild bird’s natural instinct will tell it to escape humans at any cost, as they see us as predators. A wild bird will bite and scratch and peck to run from you, there is no taming it, and when they don’t have any reaction it means they simply have no energy to keep going. Sometimes an emergency feeding is required – a mix of baby food, water and honey, and let me tell you, getting close to those big bills is not necessarily a comfortable experience! Both birds were brought to Ghadira Nature Reserve. A bit uncertain at first, they made their way through the muddy banks and start to filter the water in their bill to get the tiny little shrimp they feed on. The two flamingos are still in Ghadira, where they can easily be seen walking in their not quite graceful way in the shallow waters.
Two black-necked grebes also arrived on the islands, and they decided that the best place to land would be a pool in a private house. Now, do you know how one catches a grebe in a pool? Jumping in, and swimming behind the grebe until the bird tires out and can be caught. Grebes don’t like flying that much and they escape predators by diving and swimming away underwater. The whole process was not very epic, I will tell you this. I felt quite ridiculous swimming behind a bird that was, let’s be honest, a lot faster than me, but at the end I managed to stealthily swim behind it, and catch it without causing it any harm. The birds were really skinny, their sternum sharp against my fingers.
I put the birds in a box, so that they would not hurt themselves, and reached the wetland at Simar at sunset – the last few dragonflies were darting through the air. From the moment they were released in the murky water the grebes seemed fine, and they started diving underwater to look for food. I stayed on the shore for a while as the sun went down, looking at the grebes exploring their new home, until they disappeared behind the reeds.
A couple of days after the grebes, my phone rang at 8 pm, as I was making dinner – a fisherman found an unidentified bird out at sea, and is now waiting in the marina in Msida. I ran down to the seafront – why did I leave the car at the office?? – and I found the fisherman on the jetty. He was friendly and he told me he didn’t know the English name of the bird – he called it a “russett”. I should really know my Maltese names better by now, I had no idea what a russett might be. He put the bird in a wooden box, and before he opened it I asked the routine questions – what does it look like? How big is it?
And, most importantly:
Does it have a long beak?
Yes, he said. Oh crap – it’s a heron.
Herons have a reputation, and it’s not necessarily a good one. They are fishing birds, and their long, strong neck is designed to dart in the water to spear fish with their sharp beak. You can easily imagine what they can do to a human eye.
As the fisherman removed the nets covering the box, however, I saw how the bird was barely able to stand. A juvenile purple heron, the striking red feathers still mixed with a little bit of down. I collected the bird – its sternum felt like a blade under the skin – and reached the empty office. The heron barely moved throughout the process, just squawking a bit to express its indignation at being manhandled. A bit of baby food, some water, and luckily the poor bird was ready to be released. Herons, like flamingos, look a lot smaller and vulnerable when you are close. I opened the box at Simar, in front of the volunteers from Raptor Camp who were visiting the reserve. The heron jumped out, awkwardly at first, then flew off to the other side of the pond.
These stories, these exhausted birds that would not make it without our help, are a part of the natural migration process. Not every bird is meant to be able to complete it. One could therefore argue if we really have to intervene and fix what nature meant to be broken. My answer is yes, we have to. Too many birds are lost in Malta due to illegal hunting during migration. If we can save a few of them by recovering and rehabilitating the exhausted one, I say we have an obligation to do it.
And hey, everybody needs a happy end every now and then.
Photos by John Aldridge, Tim Micallef and Mark Christensen
BACK TO THE SKY
BirdLife Malta has been given the opportunity to set up a rehabilitation centre here in Malta. The government have offered a restored farmhouse in Buskett Gardens, a protected area of woodland in the south of Malta. One of the greenest areas on the islands, the gardens provide a quiet and peaceful setting for the birds to recover in.
The Maltese government will be covering the costs of running the centre, which will include the water and electricity to supply the farmhouse. But BirdLife Malta will have to cover all other costs. This includes funding equipment, food and medicine to treat the birds.