Record number of White Wagtails at Valletta roost, birds counted exceed 14,000

January 24, 2019 4:46 pm

This year’s annual White Wagtail roost count in Valletta resulted in a record!

The organised count by a group of BirdLife Malta volunteer birders which was held on Saturday 19th January 2019 in Valletta resulted in a record total of 14,474 White Wagtails.

White Wagtail roost count 2019 (Photo by Kinga Kupska)

The count was attended by 15 volunteer birders and these were assigned strategic positions on the Valletta bastions from where to watch and count the birds. The wagtails come streaming in over the bastions every evening, heading towards the centre of the capital city where the roost is located. The birds seek the Ficus trees situated at Great Siege Square and beside St. John’s Co-Cathedral, where they eventually settle down and sleep through the night.

Every winter from October to late March, White Wagtails fly from their feeding territories scattered throughout Malta to their roosting spot in Valletta, at around sunset. In the morning the birds fly back to their diurnal haunts where they feed on insects and discarded scraps of food.

This year’s count exceeds by nearly 4,000 birds the previous record of 10,786 achieved in 2016.  Last year’s count was on the same high level as that year with 10,323 birds.

Valletta holds the biggest roost of this species in Malta. There are also two other known roosts in Malta, namely at Mosta and Buġibba. In Gozo, White Wagtails have their own roosts, the main one being in Victoria.

The Ficus trees at Great Siege Square, where the White Wagtails roost each year (Photo by Denis Cachia)

The Valletta roost has been monitored since 1985, with counts becoming an annual event from 2004 onwards. Counts from 1985 to 2004 never exceeded the 5,000 mark, with the lowest figure of 2,002 birds in 1992.

Thanks to the ongoing collaboration between BirdLife Malta and the Valletta Local Council, the Ficus trees in Valletta are maintained and pruned sensibly every year to ensure they are kept bird-friendly. It is only due to the fact that they are not trimmed too heavily that these trees are maturing more and more, being able to host a larger number or birds.

This has surely contributed to the increase in White Wagtails roosting in the capital city in the past few years, leading to the greatest count on record this year.

White Wagtail (Photo by Denis Cachia)

With the support of Valletta 2018 – the European Capital of Culture, throughout the end of 2018 BirdLife Malta celebrated the White Wagtails in Valletta with multiple events held in October and November as part of the official V18 programme of festivities. The activities, held mainly at Great Siege Square, included several other bird roosting sessions, an art day and even a surprise flash mob. The aim was to make the public aware of this unusual natural spectacle which can be enjoyed every year in the capital city and to make sure this sight is experienced by as many people as possible.

The general trend in recent years also shows that the White Wagtail (Zakak Abjad in Maltese) is doing very well and is increasing in numbers. It is a species that breeds in Europe, migrating south in autumn to spend the winter months in the Mediterranean region. It returns to its breeding grounds in early spring.

White Wagtails do not shun urban environments and can be often seen feeding in roads, parking lots and playing fields. Their adaptation to live in such habitats is certainly one key factor to the bird’s increasing trend in Malta. Illegal hunting on the species used to take a heavy toll on their population but this practice has significantly decreased although not totally eradicated.

By Denis Cachia, White Wagtail roost count coordinator