It is just before dawn when a female Kestrel wakes and opens her wings, preparing for flight. She is ready to leave her roost and, with a strong beat of her wings, she is up in the air, gaining height. The sun is just starting to rise as she reaches her desired elevation and the cold air whistles past her as she glides on, effortlessly.
Yesterday, she undertook a massive journey from North Africa, passing over 300km of open sea, heading towards her breeding grounds in Europe. She reached Malta, exhausted, and took full advantage of a break in her long journey. She had managed to hover and pounce on a rat before settling down for the night and finding a tree to roost in. By morning, she was feeling recovered and ready to continue her journey.
The weather was pleasant, and she was making good progress; she could see other Kestrels flying in the distance and was catching up with them, all heading in the same direction, towards Italy. After a few minutes, she heard some ‘bangs’ coming from the ground and then suddenly felt a sharp pain in her left wing.
She tried to fly faster, to escape the danger but found her wing was paralysed and, unable to help herself, she began falling from the sky, in a tumult. The speed of her fall increased as she got closer to the ground, her body rolling through the air, and with a fatal thud, she hit the ground. Unfortunately, she never made it to Europe and never got her chance to find a mate, build a nest and lay her eggs.
Twenty metres away, a hunter grinned from his hide. He held his rifle in one hand and revelled at the outcome of his shot. He was getting better and better at his target practice and wondered if his mates had had any luck that morning too.
Unfortunately, this is an all-too-common occurrence in Malta. This small island is so important for migrating birds that are exhausted from their journeys, needing somewhere to stop and take a break. Malta could provide a much-needed safe haven for the beautiful birds that stop or pass over here but the law is such that it allows hunting seasons for particular species. This law is abused and many hunters throughout Malta and Gozo actively shoot down anything they like.
BirdLife Malta are doing what they can to lobby against illegal hunting and trapping of birds on the island, and to monitor and report any illegalities which take place. We can only be aware of illegalities with a strong volunteer presence in the field, watching out for them, and we can only combat illegal hunting if we gather evidence to use against the perpetrators. That’s where our camps such as Spring Watch come in.
During these camps, volunteers are stationed in small teams throughout different locations in Malta, during the spring hunting season. Armed with a pair of binoculars and video cameras, they watch out for birds at dawn and dusk, as they settle down to roost for the night or leave their roosts in the morning. This is the time that hunters are out too, and when birds are most likely to be shot. If illegal shooting is witnessed, a report can be made to the police’s Environmental Protection Unit (EPU) and footage shown as evidence. A daily gathering of all volunteers takes place to share information on species that were seen and any illegalities that were witnessed, providing a good overall picture.
If you volunteer your time to help with the Spring Watch this season, you will witness the beauty of nature, seeing magnificent sunrises and sunsets and getting a chance to watch migrating birds which you otherwise might not get the opportunity to see in everyday life. But more importantly than that, you will take pride in the knowledge that you are helping to protect these amazing animals so that they get a chance to live and so that our future generations can enjoy the wonder of nature, as we do. Your mere presence alone will deter some hunters as they are increasingly aware that their actions are being watched. The situation has improved considerably over the last 10 years and that is only because more and more people care and are taking action against hunting.
If you want to help protect birds, please come along to our training event on Saturday 5 March at Salina Nature Reserve to learn more about how to identify birds in flight and how to use the necessary monitoring equipment, as well as the impact that hunting has on bird species and the legislation surrounding hunting.
The training will also form part of our Spring Alive project, which is aimed at raising awareness about spring migration and the threats birds face during their journey. Read more about our Spring Alive project and book your place here.
By Belinda Hodder, BirdLife Malta Communications Assistant
Belinda Hodder is an Erasmus+ volunteer following a European Solidarity Corps programme