WAITING FOR BIRDS TO LEAVE MALTA SAFELY

“It’s very sad, but when we spot a bird, we observe it and try to make sure it leaves Malta safely,” says Alice Tribe, who coordinates Birdlife Malta’s raptor camp. The camp gathers local and international volunteers for three weeks to monitor the illegal hunting of protected birds during the period when the peak autumn migration coincides with the hunting season.

It is a silky, serene morning in Delimara – perfect for bird-watching. Alice and her colleague, Scottish volunteer Mary, are equipped with powerful zoom cameras and binoculars. Yet they are actually hunter-watching. And they know they are being watched back. Four hunters casually chat in a hut, one of them is on the phone. According to BirdLife people, hunters inform one another when they spot the watchers.

The sound of small birds chirping feels like a natural music of the place, and the landscape, although scorched after summer, is refreshing to look at, away from construction and urban noise. However, the truth is not what it seems, Alice explains. Much of the wildlife here is redesigned for hunting, fields filled with fast-growing plants and water-hungry eucalyptus trees to attract birds – and shoot them. “Can you hear the repetitive, mechanical call? It’s an illegal electronic caller,” she distinguishes with a trained ear.

Can you spot a row of Cisk cans? They are ‘upcycled’ to scare birds from a distance – and then shoot them. Photo credit: Daiva Repečkaitė / Eve

It is unusual to see so many birds of prey in Malta. Three kestrels start hovering over a the area, and two hunters show up with a dog. They search the field for quail. They, too, know they are being watched. Most of the time the raptor camp teams do not spot irregularities.

Hunter searching for quail. Photo credit: Daiva Repečkaitė / Eve

Yet they coordinate among themselves, report protected birds to one another, follow their path and try to ensure that they leave Malta unharmed. This year, as of early October, 78 protected birds have fallen victim of illegal hunting, so stakes are high.

BirdLife Malta praises changing attitudes of the general public, as more people report injured and killed birds. Also, as reported last year, facilities for clay pigeon or skeet shooting are cropping up to cater for those who want to practice traditional hunting skills without hurting birds. Nonetheless, the list of victims of this year’s hunting is staggering: from turtle doves to three white storks, from various birds of prey to a rare owl. Someone even shot two hoopoes.

This one isn’t that easy to confuse with quail. Photo credit: BirdLife Malta

Last week BirdLife Malta confronted Members of Parliament who were on their way to their parliamentary session to give them information about the illegal hunting during this year’s autumn hunting season. The environmental NGO demands establishing a Wildlife Crime Unit with a dedicated team to focus on environmental crime. Currently this falls under the remit of Administrative Law Enforcement Section, which also deals with cases from the Fisheries Department, the Agriculture Department, the Cleansing Department and the Malta Competition and Consumer Affairs Authority, illegalities related to the VAT Department, enforcement of maritime regulations in the inner coastal areas, as well as general protective service duties including crowd control and VIP escorts.

Further reading:

Birds of prey in Malta

Endangered Maltese species