Secrets of Late Summer

September 1, 2014 3:14 pm

Dawn at Ghadira

It’s no secret that August in Malta is hot, but at least the dawn offers a refreshing start to a day; where walking outside is a cool pleasure and not a burning chore! It is the same for nature, as many species are most active at this time, utilizing these first daylight hours to feed and operate before it gets too warm. When navigating the trails of Ghadira Nature Reserve, you first need to watch your head; or else a feathery branch of African Tamariskmight slap you in the face; hitting you with dew and salt particles. Ground salt is absorbed through the roots of this specially adopted tree, and deposited through the leaves in fine crystals that glimmer in the sun.

After looking up, it’s best to watch your feet, or else you might step on a Churchyard Beetle. One of our most charismatic beetles; it is one of Malta’s largest and can grow to 37mm long. Regularly associated with dank cellars and stone wall cracks, they venture out in the cool damp morning to scavenge on fresh or rotting vegetation. Black all over, they’re hard, armoured wing shells are fused together, rendering them flightless but effective in keeping out water. Though large and clunky in appearance, they are harmless and always a pleasure to see. Dozens can be encountered on the trails of Ghadira.

A glance out across the brackish lagoon and it is clear that migrant waders are still passing through. The salinity of the pools may be high, but there is abundant food in the murky shallows… a walk up to the water’s edge and the surface literally ripples with life… the rare Killifishare breeding, and present in their hundreds. The males, with their orange tails and neon blue stripes are simply stunning, whilst the larger brown females linger nearby. There are brine shrimps too, tiny and brown, their internal organs revealed by transparent skin. It is these creatures that waders find so irresistible at Ghadira. Among the piping cast, a Grey Plover has been present for the past few days. Don’t let the name put you off, this plover in splendid breeding plumage is truly in a league of its own… with jet black belly, throat and face, its scaled back feathers seem silver rather than grey.

The migrating waders, many of which were described HERE, have been joined by an array of species, as impressive as they are diverse. The highlights have undoubtedly been the herons. It has been a while since truly large birds have graced Malta’s skies, but flocks of Purple Herons have been passing through, circling low over the reserve, and sometimes landing to roost in the reeds for a well deserved rest. Flying low over us, you can observe the maroon plumage, with pale charcoal coloured wings. Truly reptilian looking with their long coiled necks, look out for them flying near coastal areas of Malta. Night Herons too, with their distinctive ‘quack’ like call, have roosted amongst the trees in Ghadira’s nursery. When this happens, we are careful to give them privacy and stay away from the trees… they are light sleepers!

Smaller birds can be equally impressive… Hoopoes, with their pink/orange head plumes and curved beaks are being seen on a daily basis. Often spotted in flight, look out for its rounded butterfly-like wing beats; its black and white wings make the Hoopoe quite unmistakable. I was also extremely lucky to see the Roller, a scarce migrant from Italy, Eastern Europe and Spain. Dazzling azure in colour with a chestnut coloured back, it surely ranks among Europe’s most impressive birds. Numbers of Swifts and hirundines such as Barn Swallows and Sand Martins have been heading back to winter in Africa, along with passerines such as Willow Warblers, and Wrynecks have also been heard.

Among the cast of familiar feathers, there are surprises also… among the flocks of Yellow Wagtails paying us a visit, you may be lucky enough to pick out a Citrine Wagtail, a rare species that was only recorded for the first time a couple of years ago in Malta. Though attractive in breeding plumage, the ones that paid a visit to Ghadira are juveniles and more unassuming, but their adventure more than makes up for it! A bird of Russia and the East, they have only recently started to colonise Europe, with small numbers breeding in Estonia and Poland. With this westward expansion, we can expect to see more of this Eastern specialty in the coming years. 

The sun climbs high as the morning drags, and the clearings become oppressive with the heat, however green the trees and bushes remain. There is only one flower left, but it’s a beauty… Sea Daffodils are bulbous perennials, with large white petals that explode from spirally twisting leaves. Though numerous at Ghadira, they are scarce in Malta, as they favour rare sand dune habitat. Ramla Bay in Gozo is also a good place to view them, as described in p8 of July’s Bird’s Eye View. Golden Bay is also another place to spot them.

Such tremendous nature is passing over and between us, but I still feel there is something missing from the migration… and that is the raptors! I hear reports that Marsh Harriers, Kestrels and Eleonora’s falcon are starting to show their hook beaked faces at various places over Malta. They may be just trickling through now, but rest assured, September is their month…

Words by Tom Hendry, Assistant Warden at BirdLife Malta.

Photos by Aron Tanti, Ray Vella and Holly Forsyth.