Malta’s Secretive Seabirds

December 2, 2014 12:47 pm
By Ed Drewitt 
Standing on the golden limestone cliffs that were once the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea, I paused to appreciate these sheer vertical forms on the islandof Gozo in Malta in later summer this year. Metres away Birdlife Malta’s seabird scientists Dr Ben Metzger (head of seabird research – you can find out more about the fantastic seabird project here.) and Paulo Lago Barreiro were showing myself and Caroline Rance (also Birdlife Malta) how to look for signs of something very special living here. We could see some splashes of poo and a few white feathers; kneeling down on the hard, crusty rocks we peered with torches into a shallow burrow that had been scarped out beneath a huge boulder. At the end in a larger space a large ball of fluff shuffled and revealed a glistening eye and beak. This was a seabird, a baby in fact, belonging to the Scopoli’s Shearwater, a crow-size seabird that when adult has long, straight wings for gliding long distances across the sea. In Malta, 5% of the world’s population of Scopoli’s shearwater nest here, and globally the species only breeds here in the Mediterranean.

Carefully bringing the chick out, we placed a metal identification ring (more info. on seabird ringing here) on the leg of the bird, measured its growing wings, and took its weight before tucking it back inside its nest. We had the chance to admire its tubenose bill; their nostrils extend out along two short tubes on top of their beak and help the shearwaters smell food tens or even hundreds of miles away, in particular squid, fishes, and perhaps even dead dolphins.
In a few months time this chick would be ‘shearing’ the waves and heading for the Atlantic Ocean where it winters off the coast of Africa[b1] . That evening, as the light faded, we scrambled down the rocks that during the day most would faint at if they went anywhere near the edge! We found another eight or nine chicks that we tagged with leg rings, plus a few adults as they returned under the cover of darkness to feed their chicks. Despite the bright moon these adult birds were keen to return. As luck would have it we re-caught a female shearwater [BB2] [b3] that Ben and Paulo had spent many nights that week trying to recapture! She was special because on her back was a device that had been recording and tracking her movements out at sea. We couldn’t wait to discover where she had been over the past month since the Global Positioning System (GPS) tracker had been put on her.  We weren’t disappointed – she had been all the way to Italy spending a lot of time flying up a down the sea between the north-east of Malta and Italy. She then circled right round the islands of Malta, reaching right out into the Mediterranean Sea towards Tunisia, south of Lampedusa, the largest of the Italian Pelagic islands, before heading back north. This information had suddenly transformed out knowledge and understanding of this bird, and this species, in a split second!
During my visit to Malta in September I was excited to see what other birds were using the islands of Malta during their migration. I visited one nature reserve on Maltaitself where one of this year’s hatched flamingos, probably from Sicily, was feeding up before it finds more of its kind to carry on flying south to a wetland in Libya for the winter. One committed ringer was catching, ringing and releasing birds to help find out more about their movements and survival. You can find out more about this type of ringing here. We were lucky to see a kingfisher and a willow warbler in the hand while from the hide we spotted a hoopoe, yellow wagtails and a family of little ringed plovers feeding. My delight before I left Malta was walking through the old city of Valetta, looking up and seeing two male Montagu’s harriers; they were circling low over the city drifting south. I felt more confident that while there are many issues and conflicts yet to be resolved on Malta, many birds using the country’s islands on their migration are passing through unscathed (although admittedly not enough). Additionally, the coastline of Malta is providing an important refuge and nesting area for a significant proportion of the population of seabirds such as the Scopoli’s shearwater. I wonder where that female is now – probably off the coast of west Africa or even further south!


Ed is a freelance naturalist enabling others to enjoy and discover the natural world. He takes people around the world watching wildlife from the Arctic to Madagascar. And in the UKhelps teach people birdsong, watch wildlife from boat, and takes school children fossil hunting. He also works at the University of Bristol, helping students learn more about biology and zoology. Ed has been working closely with Birdlife Maltathis year looking at how more people can engage with its bird life. He has studied Peregrines for the past 16 years and discovered that they hunt at night, using light from street lamps to see nocturnally migrating birds. His book Urban Peregrines was published in the summer.