Much like the idiom about the needle in a haystack, trying to find an eagle in Malta is equally difficult. The Mediterranean island nation might only be small but it’s where you’ll find a huge variety of bird species. Migration season typically sees the greatest numbers of birds pass over Malta as they look to roost for a night on their long journey to or from Africa.
However, the biggest threat to the migrating birds isn’t a lack of food or exhaustion, but from hunters. Malta has one of the worst records of illegal hunting in Europe. Last year saw over 210 birds illegally shot, almost double the number of the previous record high (114 in 2018). As this number only includes the birds that have been recovered it is likely the actual number is several times higher.
A large majority of the birds were found since the autumn hunting season opened in September. While birds such as turtle doves or quail are legal to shoot during this time, migrating birds of prey are supposed to be off limits. Unfortunately the lure of a passing honey buzzard or marsh harrier proves too great for some.
But why are so many hunters taking the risk to shoot illegally and what is being done about it?
The answer to that second question is part of the problem as the Maltese government have seemingly little to no interest in helping to protect the birds. Fines for being caught are little more than a gesture and many of the heads of hunting organisations have friends in high places. Those in power do what they can to delay trials until the two year expiration date passes and those caught hunting illegally can walk free with no further precautions.
This issue was further compounded by the government’s decision to award management of the Mizieb and Ahrax woodlands, areas popular with many bird species as a safe place to rest, to the hunting lobby. The fact that the deal was agreed in secret before the official announcement should give you some idea as to why the situation has only worsened in Malta.
Fortunately there are organisations doing their part to help protect the birds as best they can. While their hands are severely tied, Committee Against Birds Slaughter (CABS) and BirdLife Malta patrol the country alongside a dedicated team from the local police force hoping to record any illegal hunting and build a case against those caught doing it.
However, this isn’t an easy task. Despite Malta being a small island, it’s difficult to know exactly where the birds will be at any given moment, not to mention the hunters. On top of this members of both organisations have faced insults and violent threats from the hunters as well as damage to their vehicles and recording equipment.
Members of the public help out too, calling BirdLife or CABS when they spot an injured bird or joining in the mass sit-down protest that occurred in response to the deal to hand control of the woodlands to the hunting lobbies.
Throughout the island there are many areas where the birds are protected, notably the nature reserves at Salina and Ghadira which are managed by BirdLife. Many of the injured birds that are suitable for rehabilitation end up at Ghadira where they are looked after by the dedicated team until they are healthy enough to fly off once more. This may be a stay of a day or two as they recover their strength, or a few months for a more serious injury.
If the injury takes longer to recover then the bird may have to stay beyond the migration period and wait for a time when they can join a passing flock, as travelling solo in the cold winter or hot summer months seriously reduces the chances of the bird making it safely.
These are the lucky ones however, as many of the injured birds found around Malta are in such a serious condition that the vets have little choice but to put them down. A broken wing caused by a shotgun blast is generally something that won’t adequately heal to give the bird a chance in the wild.
Rare and colourful birds are those most at risk of being shot during the migration season. Honey buzzards for example have so much variation in their markings that it’s difficult to find two alike. While eagles are so rare to the island, even during the migration season, that it’s big news when one shows up. But it’s not only those who want to admire the impressive bird of prey who are on the look out. Plenty of hunters will be keeping their eyes skywards in the hope of an illegal kill too.
Migrating birds of prey aren’t the only ones in danger though. The colourful plumage of kingfishers, bee-eaters, herons and flamingos are also seen as a trophy impossible to resist. Even those who are living within the protected areas. A young flamingo, too injured to fly after one encounter with a hunter, had taken up residence in one of Malta’s nature reserves. Unfortunately he was prone to another illegal attack and killed within the fenced area.
Spring migration and the autumn flight south are the times of greatest risk to the birds who pass by Malta. Both CABS and BirdLife take on volunteers during this time, posting them around the island to record any passing birds whilst keeping a vigilant eye out for any illegal hunting.
The volunteer experiences can be challenging. Not least having to remain calm and ignore the insults while dealing with aggressive hunters and witnessing first-hand the horrific result of their illegal activities. However, it’s also a chance to see some incredible birds as well as many parts of the island that aren’t explored by regular tourists. If you’re lucky you may even spot a passing eagle.