|Raptor camp 2013|
When I answered Birdlife Malta’s call for volunteers in 2007 I didn’t imagine that I would still be attending Raptorcamp in 2014 – but Malta does that to you.
Malta is a small island lying between Sicily and Libya on the central European flyway. Migrating birds use the island as a stopover and the migration of raptors coincides with the beginning of the hunting season. Birdlife Malta organise an annual camp for international volunteers who patrol the countryside monitoring any illegal hunting activity.
There are in excess of 10,000 hunters on an island not much bigger than the Wirral. Every field is bordered by countless high dry stone walls and has at least one hunter present while hunting hides are everywhere from cliffs to woods. While the hunters are allowed to shoot quail and turtle doves, there is widespread shooting of protected species often for taxidermy and sometimes for no reason. Birds of prey and herons are most at risk but even swallows can fall prey to target practice.
Birdlife Malta teams consist of 2 or three individuals who not allowed to leave the tarmac of the road due to Malta’s land laws even if a bird is shot in front of them.
|Terry at Raptor camp Sept 2014|
Camp had already been running for two weeks when we arrived and hunting had been suspended by the Prime Minister following the shooting of white storks. Nevertheless we were straight into 5 a.m. patrols where we went out in small groups to position ourselves at known hunting hotspots all over the island. While it was still dark we were able to listen for illegal electronic lures mimicking the calls of quail, golden plover or dotterel. These could be reported to the police for them to take action. In the early light of dawn we looked for departing migrants (usually marsh harrier and honey buzzard) and listened for any shots. In normal years the sound of gunfire is constant from every direction and it is essential to track and where possible film raptors to check that the guns do not switch from shooting quail to shooting raptors. This year any shot would be illegal so ears were as important as eyes.
By 9 a.m. the sun was hot and most migrants would have already have left the island so we drove back to the hotel for breakfast and to compare notes with other teams. Many camp attendees have been coming for years so it is good to renew old acquaintances but new attendees are always made welcome.
|Raptor camp Watch point|
Teams meet up for debriefing and afternoon assignments, lunch and then out into the field again. One of the other elements of the camp was to look for evidence of finch trapping which the government is allowing later this autumn after a gap of a number of years.
Back on patrol in the afternoon we began to notice a change in the birds’ behaviour. In previous years harriers and honey buzzards arriving from Sicily would not settle but circle above the island all afternoon because of the presence of so many hunters, only going to roost as darkness fell. This year birds would arrive and go straight to roost wherever they chose.
|Short toed eagle - what became of you|
Migration had already peaked and there were fewer birds than in previous years but the arrival of a short toed eagle set the camp on high alert even with a ban on hunting. After a day of flying over a wide area thus advertising its presence to much of the island the eagle went to roost in a tree which could be viewed from a road but from a distance of 800 yards.
Andrea was one of the volunteers assigned to watch the eagle roost safely overnight. Just as her team was being relieved at 6 a.m. two shots rang out from under the tree. Team members ran toward the roost site but it appeared that the culprit made his escape in the opposite direction. The police were called but no sign of the eagle was found.
The hunting ban was lifted on the 11th of October and shooting began again.
Sunset at Red Tower looking towards Gozo.
BirdLife Malta has been given the opportunity to set up a rehabilitation centre here in Malta. The government have offered a restored farmhouse in Buskett Gardens, a protected area of woodland in the south of Malta. One of the greenest areas on the islands, the gardens provide a quiet and peaceful setting for the birds to recover in.