Birds of prey, also known as raptors, are predatory birds whose powerful talons and beak, as well as their speed and keen vision, allow them to detect and catch their prey during flight. Most of these birds hunt and feed on other smaller bird species, rodents or fish.
Malta is not a country known for its birds of prey. Indeed, these kinds of birds are not endemic to our islands, and the few which can be spotted touring our shores are usually those which fly over our lands during their migration route. Those who want to admire these beautiful, majestic and carnivorous birds usually tend to prefer visiting Natural Bird Centres such as the Malta Falconry Centre in Siġġiewi, where one would be able to admire them at close range. This is unfortunately hard to do so in the wild.
Professional birdwatchers and ornithologists, however, prefer to capture these magnificent creatures of the air – on their camera, of course – while they are in their natural habitat, nesting and breeding. Although this is not an easy feat, since such occurrences sadly are few and sporadic in Malta and Gozo, this fact makes the experience even more special and magical for any bird lover.
One of the most picturesque birds of prey which graces our shores during its migratory route is the Egyptian Vulture (Avultun Eġizzjan), also known as the white scavenger vulture. Although this bird is usually present locally during autumn, it can sometimes be seen during winter and spring as well. It’s not very big, being only around 56cm in length. However, the distinctive wedge shape of its tail make it conspicuous, since its flights are concentrated during the warmer parts of the day. It feeds on carrion as well as rodents and reptiles, as well as eating the eggs of other birds. It is mostly white in colour with black wing tips and a yellow beak, and it usually builds its nest amidst the crags and cliffs on the coast.
Image source: Wikipedia
Another raptor which is popular with ornithologists, but is rarely sighted on our shores, is the Short-Toed Eagle (Ajkla Bajda), which, at a length of 62-69cm, is one of the largest birds of prey to visit the Maltese Islands. It can be spotted in trees on hills mainly from September to December. The head, neck, and back are a dark colour, while its chest feathers are white. It usually sports a number of black dots and splotches along its body, and mostly hunts for reptiles. It’s been noted that they seem to prefer Dwejra as a roosting and hunting site.
Image source: Floriana Skola
The Marsh Harrier (Bagħdan Aħmar) is a relatively common species of raptor on our islands, and appears mostly during spring and autumn, mainly during the months of March till May and August till November. It is around 45cm in length. While the male has black, grey and brown wings and a yellow head and chest, the female is mostly brown with yellow patches on her head and neck. It flies very low around hills, fields and valleys in order to be able to spot its prey – mice, small water birds, and other small mammals. It usually nests near streams, marshes and moist ground, and is known to roost around Buskett and the Luqa Airfield.
Image source: Flickr
The Common Kestrel (Spanjulett) is another common species to be seen mostly during spring and autumn. The male is brownish-red in colour on the back and has a grey head and black wingtips. The female has a brownish-red head and tail, with thin dark bands on its whole body. The kestrel is generally seen on farm land and open areas. It is a medium-sized bird with long wings and a tail, and generally preys on large insects, reptiles, small birds and rats. Common kestrels are normally solitary or seen in small flocks. The best sites to spot one are known to be Buskett, Foresta 2000, Comino, and Malta International Airport.
Image source: Flickr
The Red-Footed Falcon (Żumbrell) is frequently seen in spring. It is a medium-small, long-winged raptor, being only 28-34cm in length. The male is black and grey with a spot of brownish-red underneath its tail, and the female is grey with a yellowish head and chest. It feeds on small insects and nests in colonies in the open countryside.
Image source: Sakertour