GPS-tracked birds of prey disappear as they arrive in Malta

October 9, 2023 2:48 pm

As the autumn hunting season progresses with the further opening of a hunting season at sea on the 1st of October, information gathered by BirdLife Malta over the past days indicates a continuous indiscriminate persecution of highly protected species both on land and at sea, with enforcement resources struggling to keep up with reports. Species targeted over the past two weeks include Lesser Spotted Eagles, a Short-toed Snake-Eagle, Black Storks, Black Kites and European Honey-buzzards.

Czech Black Kite, rehabilitated Honey-buzzard and colour-ringed Lesser Spotted Eagle amongst studied birds that disappeared over Malta in the past days, as illegal hunting on land as well as at sea takes its toll on protected species

In the latest case which keeps highlighting the international impact the current hunting season is having on European species, a GPS-tracked Black Kite that started its life in the Czech Republic stopped transmitting after it migrated to Malta. OT-093, as it has been coded, was one of two young Black Kites rescued from their nest near the city of Ostrava in northeast Czech Republic, after the birds were abandoned by their parents. A local birder saved them and took them to a rescue centre, where they were reared to fledging age. They were later introduced to another nest of two young Black Kites in southeast Czech Republic, with all four birds being fitted with solar-powered GPS transmitters to monitor their migration by the University of Veterinary Sciences in Brno.

OT-093 started off its journey on 23rd September heading southwest through Austria, Hungary, Slovenia, Bosnia & Herzegovina and Croatia. It crossed the Adriatic Sea on the 29th of September, and kept flying south until its last night in southern Sicily on 2nd October. On 3rd October it continued south to Malta, flying past Gozo at 2:30pm, and reaching the Rabat/Dingli areas an hour later, settling to sleep for the night in trees in Fawwara. No further positions outside its roosting spot were received the following morning.

The case is the second one in a week of a tracked bird which went missing in Malta. Earlier last Monday, a Honey-buzzard that arrived exhausted to the island, crash-landing in an apartment in Pietà on the 15th of September, was released on Comino, after it was nursed back to health by BirdLife Malta. Upon its release on 2nd October, the bird headed south past Buskett, and continued further south in the afternoon, with its signal going dead around 4:30pm in the limits of Birżebbuġa. In both cases the trackers fitted on the birds are believed to have been destroyed upon the birds being killed.

Conservation efforts at protecting such species over the past days have proved tough for BirdLife Malta staff, birdwatchers and volunteers with a good migration of a number of rare species which are highly targeted for taxidermy such as Black and White Storks, and various eagle species – Booted, Short-toed and Lesser Spotted. Volunteer teams participating in BirdLife Malta’s annual Raptor Camp had a direct role in monitoring the movements of such rare birds assisting at times just a single police unit patrolling against hunting illegalities.

Efforts at watching over a Short-toed Snake-eagle proved successful at first, with a single bird managing to survive two nights on Malta despite attempts at shooting at it. The bird left out at sea the morning of the 1st of October, only to be chased by a boat with hunters, who were filmed shooting down the bird between Malta and Filfla. Footage of the incident was passed to the Environmental Protection Unit (EPU) of the Malta Police Force, following which an investigation set off to apprehend the suspects.

The Short-toed Snake-eagle at Buskett that was shot at sea (Photo by Ian Balzan)

“It is evidently an open season for the collection of prized species for taxidermy, and it is clearly not happening just on land but at sea, taking advantage of the scant police resources on land, absent at sea,” commented Nicholas Barbara, Head of Conservation at BirdLife Malta.

The hunting season at sea sees over 290 licensed hunters using boats to chase down migrating birds in open water outside 3 km from the coast. A Federation for Hunting and Conservation (FKNK) proposal in front of the ORNIS Committee which shall be meeting tomorrow, is proposing such a distance to be shortened to 1 km, bringing hunters close to the shore. It is an unnecessary move which will serve only to decimate more protected birds that might survive the current killing season in Malta, only to face guns also at sea, where enforcement is even more difficult.

The colour-ringed Lesser Spotted Eagle some time before it was shot down (Photo by David Attard)

The incident of the Short-tead Snake-eagle is not the last one, with a colour-ringed Lesser Spotted Eagle that made an appearance over Buskett last Saturday also being killed in the vicinity shortly after birdwatchers attempted to photograph its ring to determine its origin. Up to now no information on the origins of this eagle is known.

BirdLife Malta appeals to members of the public to come forward with any information on such incidents to be able to assist police in executing their duties of enforcing hunting illegalities. Reports can be made by phone to EPU on 119 and to us on 2134 7645/7925 5697 or by email to [email protected].

Read the Maltese version of the press release here.