On guard during spring migration

May 22, 2020 3:18 pm

When people hear that I am working and living in Malta, they imagine me sunbathing on an idyllic island surrounded by the azure waters of Mediterranean Sea. It is like that indeed, however, some troubles can happen even in paradise. For example, if the hunting season is open during the peak migration of a bird vulnerable to extinction.

The author of this blog during one of this year’s Spring Watch shifts (Photo by Danielle Moore)

We were desperately hoping that during this year, which has already been turned upside down with the COVID-19 crisis, the government will not open the hunting season for Quail in spring. Sadly however, government did not only decide to open it, but worse still the dates coincided with the period when Turtle-doves, a species protected by international and European law, were migrating back from Africa to Europe. Hunting for birds, both migratory and resident, during their breeding period can have a negative effect on their population and breeding behavior.

This is where we faced a challenge – we arranged our annual Spring Watch camp at a time when we could not rely on help from volunteers from abroad who are usually of great support during the camps. Despite this, our staff managed to have at least two teams going out in the countryside in the mornings and one team during afternoons to monitor the situation with hunting and migration. Our small conservation team was joined by activists and staff members from BirdLife Malta’s education, communication, seabirds, reserves and finance teams making this year’s Spring Watch possible.

No one would say it is easy to wake up at 4am and stay on alert till noon, listening to gunshots coming from all directions, watching hunters sitting in their hides and waiting for birds to fly by. We had been through a challenging time, yet at the same time it is quite encouraging when you know that the hunter you saw shooting and killing a bird other than Quail (which was the only huntable species during spring) is held accountable for what he did. I am not exaggerating when I say that if BirdLife Malta and Committee Against Bird Slaughter (CABS) teams were not present in the countryside, the outcome of this hunting season could be much worse in terms of illegal activity.

I recall vividly one morning in Qrendi, when in the silence of the predawn hours our team noticed a Montagu’s Harrier majestically appearing from beyond the horizon and flying over our heads. The only sound I could hear was the light rustle of the bird’s wings, the rest of the world stopped for that minute while this spectacular creature was passing by and vanishing behind the trees. This is why Spring Watch is organised – to ensure that birds like this harrier safely migrate over the island that they use as a resting stop on their long journey from Africa. Sometimes all we need to do is just be present in the countryside which may prevent unscrupulous hunters from targeting a protected species; and sometimes we need to take more decisive steps and call for police, government and even the EU to intervene and stop illegal activities we have witnessed.

Turtle-doves were witnessed being shot down during this year’s Spring Watch (Photo by Maria Dyrdenkova)

One of the other mornings, when the weather was particularly favourable for Turtle-dove migration, we witnessed at least three hunters shooting at these birds. At the same time, we constantly heard gunshots coming from various directions meaning that a number of other hunters present in the area yet being out of our sight also were aiming at a pair of Turtle-doves flying through the valley. That morning we recorded at least three Turtle-doves being shot down in just that area. On another day we were in two teams circulating around Gozo and I have not seen more hunters on a square kilometre than anywhere else! None of the hunters I saw were genuinely hunting for Quail – as they were not accompanied by a dog, or looking for Quail in vegetation, as a regular Quail hunter would do, but instead were looking up into the air and staying put in hides. While we were at a public park on top of a hill, overlooking a valley, quite a few hunters passed by and one took a picture of us and even posted it on Facebook later that day expressing his resentment to our presence there.

This spring hunting season with approximately 6,000 hunters holding active licenses and with generally low numbers of migrating Turtle-doves, appeared to be the worst compared to previous seasons which had been monitored by BirdLife Malta. As many as 50 shot protected birds have been recovered during the hunting season which is more than four times the amount recovered the year before. All in all, over 21 days of Spring Watch we have witnessed 167 offences committed during the hunting season, the most numerous were categorised as “shooting at a protected species” (mainly Turtle-dove). Opening the hunting season for any species in spring is unsustainable and unjustified, since it clashes with the breeding season and with the period after a long migratory journey when birds are in their most vulnerable state and smallest numbers. Opening the hunting season should comply with scientific data and international legislation, so that hunting does not contradict and undermine the conservation efforts taken by countries to protect biodiversity and migratory birds in particular.

Lots of thanks to everyone who participated in our Spring Watch camp, you all greatly contributed to it and without you it would not have been possible!

By Polina Venka, BirdLife Malta Policy Assistant
Polina Venka is an Erasmus+ volunteer following a European Solidarity Corps programme