Each spring, millions of European raptors that have over-wintered in Africa set out from that continent for breeding areas in Europe to breed and raise young. Most leave Africa via the Strait of Gibraltar at the western end of the Mediterranean and via the Middle East over the outskirts of the coastal resort city of Eilat, in southernmost Israel. Others however migrate via the central Mediterranean via the Sicilian Channel between Cap Bon in Northern Tunisia and the Strait of Messina in Sicily. Although the Maltese Islands do not fall exactly on this central Mediterranean raptor migration flyway, when weather conditions are right, large numbers of raptors can be observed over Malta.
In Malta, raptors migrate mainly from mid-March until mid-May. Unlike in autumn, Buskett is not the best place to observe raptor migration, as in spring, raptors arrive on a much broader front primarily depending on weather conditions including wind direction and strength. In fact there is no single location that is good every day and one can see large numbers of raptors migrating in various locations in the Maltese Islands ranging from the north of Gozo to the south of Malta.
Avid birdwatchers monitor closely weather conditions to choose the best locations to monitor the spring raptor migration. As a general rule, in strong easterly winds, the western coast of Malta and Gozo are ideal while in strong westerly winds, the eastern and southern coasts of both islands are the best place to observe raptor migration. In calm winds, high locations having a good panoramic view are normally the best. Although the majority of raptors arrive in the afternoon and evenings, in overcast conditions large numbers of harriers and falcons do arrive in the mornings.
For most raptor species, usually adult males migrate first, followed by adult females and last are the immatures such as second year birds. The earlier the adult males arrive at their nesting sites in Europe, the higher is the chance of finding the best site for nesting and the higher the chance to find a mate, therefore increasing breeding success. This is the reason why adult males are usually the first to be observed.
The first raptors that appear in spring are the Common Kestrel and Marsh Harrier, the first birds appearing even as early as the end of February. Both species peak at the end of March and early April but linger on until the end of spring.
On a few evenings in spring, large roosts of Marsh Harriers occur, sometimes even numbering a hundred birds. Wheat fields are usually the preferred roost sites for this species. A good place to observe such roosts is in the airfield at the Malta International Airport where birds find it safe to roost in the grass. Unlike Marsh Harriers, Common Kestrels usually migrate singly or in small flocks.
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.
Other raptor species that can be seen regularly in March are Black Kite, Pallid Harrier and Lesser Kestrel. Black Kites and Pallid Harriers are usually seen in single figures or in small flocks whereas Lesser Kestrels can be seen in considerably-sized flocks. Like Common Kestrels, Lesser Kestrels hover to catch insects, small rodents and reptiles.
As days get longer and warmer in April, Montagu’s Harrier gradually replace Pallid Harrier and Hobby starts migrating through. At the end of the month, Honey-buzzard and Red-footed Falcon are the last raptor species to appear, both species peaking in early May, where depending on the year, large flocks can be observed over the Maltese Islands on a few days. Only adult Honey-buzzards migrate north in spring as second-year birds remain in equatorial Africa for another year.
Apart from the species mentioned, a few Ospreys also migrate in the spring but they are relatively scarce. The following four raptor species are recorded only on a handful of times during the spring migration: Hen Harrier, Eurasian Sparrowhawk, Eleonora’s Falcon and Peregrine Falcon.
The Maltese Islands thus offers a great opportunity to observe the migration of raptors in spring. Malta is one of the best places in Europe to see the migration of Marsh Harrier and the endangered Lesser Kestrel. A pair of binoculars and a field guide having the European raptor species is the only thing one needs together with looking up towards the sky to spot these majestic raptors migrating over our islands.
By Edward Bonavia, BirdLife Malta’s National Raptor Coordinator