When the wagtails come home to roost!

January 11, 2018 2:25 pm

On the 6th January BirdLife Malta undertook its annual White Wagtail count in the historic setting of Valletta, Malta’s capital and European Capital of Culture for 2018. Each year, this small winter migrant arrives in Malta between the months of October and April and shelters from the cold chill in the Ficus trees that embellish the city – the most significant roosting site in the country. Only slightly bigger than a sparrow, this black and white bird is instantly recognisable by its distinctive wagging tail – as its name would suggest!

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White Wagtail roosting by Denis Cachia

Organised by long-term BirdLife Malta volunteer Denis Cachia, the White Wagtail count has become a ceremonious event. Bringing a group of dedicated volunteers together, participants can enjoy the beauty of nature in an unconventional urban setting whilst also collecting important data about White Wagtails in Malta.

Antaia Christou, BirdLife Malta Conservation Assistant joined this year’s count for the first time and told us all about the day.

Last Saturday was a very unique experience for me.

Sitting on the walls of Valletta just before sunset anticipating the arrival of thousands of White Wagtails to come in to roost around St John’s Co-cathedral.

First they came slowly, one, then another two, then five… Suddenly, they started flying in big groups, right in front of us and over our heads, decorating the already mesmerising sight of the sunset sky. It was such a beautiful spectacle; from hearing their lovely call and witnessing the unique way that they fly – all with the picture-perfect backdrop of the sea and the three cities across us.

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Recording wagtail sightings in the heart of Valletta by Antaia Christou

It is rare to experience a sight like this. A moment when nature embraces a city. Especially a city in the heart of an island like Malta that is bright, bustling and highly urbanised.

By 5:30pm the light was already starting to slip away and the wagtail sightings started to stop, marking the end of a successful day. All of the volunteers met at the piazza and we were all so happy that we got to see them in such high numbers – 10,323 to be exact – coming just behind the highest count of 10,786 birds two years ago.

Of course things like this don’t just happen! White Wagtails arriving in such high numbers is partly due to efforts with the local council to reduce the pruning of these trees, ensuring they stay dense on the top so these small yet incredible birds can find a place to rest. This just goes to show that small changes can have big impacts and I hope that next year’s count will be an even bigger success!

By Antaia Christou, Conservation Assistant at BirdLife Malta