Migration of ducks, the harbingers of spring

April 13, 2021 3:33 pm

The majority of bird species that breed in Europe migrate south in autumn and in most cases travel all the way across the Sahara Desert to spend the winter in Central Africa or even further south. These birds return back to breed in spring and the majority fly over the Mediterranean Sea.

A flock of Ferruginous Ducks over Gozo (All photos by Ray Galea)

During this time of year several species migrate over the Maltese Islands and often large numbers can be observed on some days. The first ‘spring’ migrants heading north are usually seen as early as February when it’s still winter. The House Martin and Green Sandpiper are often the first to arrive whilst Grey Herons, Hoopoes, Barn Swallows, Marsh Harriers and sometimes Common Cranes often follow. But between February and March the first significant passage of birds heading north take place. And this involves wild ducks.

Several species of ducks migrate through the Maltese Islands in both spring and autumn but the spring migration is often more spectacular. Most migratory ducks that are migrating close to the Maltese Islands veer towards our archipelago and these then tend to concentrate in the Comino Channel often forming flocks of several hundred birds. This happens due to the geographical position of the Malta-Gozo Channel which acts both as a ‘bottleneck’ and also as a sheltered area for migratory birds especially during strong winds.

The first significant passage of birds heading north takes place between February and March. And this involves wild ducks

Pintails, Wigeons and Garganeys from Ċirkewwa

One of the main striking features of a flock of migrating wildfowl is the V formation pattern that these birds utilize to migrate. They use this technique mainly to save energy as the bird in front reduces the air resistance for the bird behind it. When the bird in front becomes tired it goes at the back of the flock and is then replaced by another bird. It is a fascinating experience watching these birds pass by in these formations and actually observe this phenomenon taking place.

Amongst the first to be seen is the Northern Pintail and it can be seen on any day between mid-February and late March. It is often the most common duck with several flocks migrating through the channel on several days.

Another species that regularly migrates at the same time as the Pintail is the Northern Shoveler but usually in smaller numbers. Later, especially during March, the first Ferruginous Ducks start appearing as well. This species is currently listed as Near Threatened since the global population is declining. Numbers migrating over the Maltese Islands fluctuate from year to year but a few hundred are usually seen every year.

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.

A flock of migrating Garganeys at Ċirkewwa
Migrating Shovelers
Ferruginous Ducks, Pintails and Garganeys crossing the channel

The last duck to arrive during the spring migration is the Garganey. It is often the most numerous with several flocks arriving during the morning and then congregating in one huge flock in the afternoon with numbers often exceeding the thousand birds.

Another species that in recent years is being observed more regularly in the channel is the Common Shelduck. It is the most striking duck and can be easily seen at a distance due to its larger size and whitish body. Several other species of birds also migrate through the channel at this time of year. These include Great Crested Grebes, Whimbrel, Eurasian Curlew, Short-eared Owls and Sandwich Terns. 

By Charles Coleiro, BirdLife Malta Nature Reserves Warden