Bird migration is without doubt one of the most spectacular events in a bird’s life. Twice a year, a large number of species undertake a perilous journey thousands of kilometres long from summer to winter quarters and back again.
Although spring officially starts on the 20th March, spring bird migration starts much earlier and in fact in Malta spring bird migration ranges from February until May, peaking from the middle of March until early May.
During spring, birds leave their wintering grounds in Africa to migrate north to breed in Europe. Although in Europe Barn Swallows are known as the harbingers of spring, the first spring migrants that usually appear in Malta are the House Martins, which can start arriving in the beginning of February in small flocks. At this time of the year they are usually found over water bodies either at BirdLife Malta’s nature reserves like Għadira and Simar or over freshwater valleys like Chadwick Lakes, Għajn Riħana and Marsalforn Valley. The Green Sandpiper is also one of the first spring migrants to appear and can be observed in the same places as those mentioned for the House Martin. These two species are usually followed by the Pintail which, depending on the year, migrates in fluctuating numbers and can be mostly seen in the Malta-Gozo channel migrating northeasterly in flocks. Our breeding Scopoli’s Shearwater also arrives at the end of February and can be seen anywhere along the coast especially in moderate or strong winds.
In spring, birds are in their best plumage as they are preparing to breed so the males will be in full breeding plumage and usually migrate a few days earlier than females in order to claim their breeding territory as quickly as possible. Additionally resident birds like the male Blue Rock-thrush are singing out loud and can easily be heard along the cliffs of the Maltese Islands.
Following last year’s success with the autumn migration campaign, this year BirdLife Malta has launched its second #onthemove campaign to showcase the beauty of the bird migration spectacle, this time in spring. The campaign aims to inspire people to enjoy, care and protect Malta’s birds during the spring migration. Visit https://birdlifemalta.org/onthemove to learn more about the campaign.
Spring is also the time when the winter visitors leave our islands after spending the entire winter here. Robin, White Wagtail, Meadow Pipit, Song Thrush, Stonechat, Black Redstart, Mediterranean and Black-headed Gulls, Blackcap, Chiffchaff and Starling, amongst other less conspicuous species, will all depart during spring.
In March more spring migrants start arriving in Malta. The Garganey and the Ferruginous Duck join the Pintail when it comes to duck species. Again they are mostly observed in the Malta-Gozo channel but a few birds are sometimes also sighted at Għadira and Simar Nature Reserves but since they are in a hurry to arrive at their breeding sites, they do not normally stay for long and leave overnight unless weather conditions are poor. Grey Herons also peak in March and can be seen anywhere but in order to observe migrating flocks overcast weather conditions are optimal for this species.
Raptors also start to migrate and Marsh Harrier and Common Kestrel are usually the two birds of prey that show up first. These are followed by smaller numbers of Pallid Harrier, Lesser Kestrel and Black Kite, which peak at the end of March. March is also an interesting time to visit BirdLife Malta’s reserves as a number of wader species can be observed. These include Black-winged Stilt, Little Ringed Plover and Ruff.
During this month, House Martins are joined by Barn Swallows and Common Swifts. As the month of March progresses garrigue habitats such as those found in Majjistral Nature & History Park are good for Hoopoe, Northern Wheatear and Short-toed Lark. Subalpine Warbler and Willow Warbler are also around at this time of the year but due to their small size can be hard to spot.
As the days get longer and warmer, additional species start migrating. These include Night and Purple Herons, and Little Egrets, which can all be seen at our nature reserves. Montagu’s Harriers join Marsh Harriers while Hobbies also start migrating. A number of wader species can also be found at our reserves especially at Għadira Nature Reserve and Salina Nature Reserve (the salt pans) where at times mixed flocks of Little Stint, Curlew Sandpiper, Ruff, Greenshank, Wood and Common Sandpipers can all be observed. April is also a good month for European Turtle-dove and Common Quail. Turtle-doves can be seen along valleys and also at Buskett woodland while quails can be flushed from garrigue areas along the coast but are harder to spot as they are usually very well camouflaged amongst grasses or bushes.
With a bit of luck Common Cuckoos can also be seen or heard in valleys and in wooded areas while with a bit of extra effort you can also observe Nightjar at dawn or dusk hawking insects. At times the sky in April is full of swifts and hirundines. These mainly include Common Swift, Barn Swallow, House and Sand Martins, however Red-rumped Swallow, Pallid and Alpine Swifts are also frequently observed amongst them.
A characteristic brightly-coloured bird that arrives in April is the European Bee-eater which can be seen anywhere in the countryside, at times even in large flocks. Bee-eaters sometimes migrate at very high altitudes and are hard to spot with the naked eye however they also tend to rest on wires and feed on large insects. Most of the breeding Short-toed Larks arrive in April and you can easily hear their beautiful song and observe them in certain locations like the rural parts of Gozo and some areas in Malta like the airport.
Tree Pipit and the bright yellow Yellow Wagtail are also common in April. Wood Warblers, Pied and Collared Flycatchers peak in April and can be found in most places where trees are present. Buskett is a great place to observe these species and you can also see Golden Oriole. Although the male Golden Oriole is bright yellow and is a medium-sized bird it sometimes requires some patience to get good views of this magnificent bird.
In May, the days usually get considerably warmer and the variety of species decline considerably as the month progresses. May is usually the peak migration period of Honey-buzzard and Red-footed Falcon, which numbers vary significantly between one year and another for both species. In some years they are common and can be seen in large numbers and in others they can be rather scarce. Waders at the reserves are still numerous especially in the first half of the month where Ringed Plover joins the species mentioned in April. Hirundines, swifts and bee-eaters keep on migrating in May while Whinchat and Woodchat Shrike are common in open areas and usually can be easily seen perched high on shrubs and trees. Warbler migration is dominated by large numbers of Garden Warbler and Whitethroat and smaller numbers of Icterine Warbler. These, together with Spotted Flycatcher, are usually the last spring migrants to arrive.
As can be seen from above, the Maltese Islands offer a great opportunity to observe the diversity and abundance of spring bird migration. A pair of binoculars and a guide book having the European species mentioned above is the only thing you need together with going to the best sites for migration.
By Edward Bonavia, Malta Rarities and Records Committee Secretary