with Birdlife Malta and sponsored by ZEISS Sports Optics

It is scenic, beautiful of course in parts, but for an Island approximately the size of Islay, it has more registered hunters to its population, than any other European country. Spring shooting should only be Quail, autumn hunting open to 32 or so species, but as I was to witness for myself, so many birds are illegally hunted. The reason: – taxidermy, the cage bird trade and s, for ‘sport’. During the last year or two, I had been talking with friends at Birdlife Malta, an organisation who work tirelessly to protect and conserve wild birds and their habitats in the Maltese Islands, about visiting and working on location.

Birdfair 2018 made the plans concrete, and after wonderful supportive discussions with Zeiss Sports Optics who very kindly supported and sponsored my visit, a date was set in late September, the beginning of Raptor migration.

I wanted to come at conservation from the arts, help encourage and enthuse a new generation to make the most of the beauty that surround us, help them see connections to celebrate, appreciate and marvel at the passage of migrating birds that Malta is so lucky, and so importantly, to host.

A major reason for my visit was that I wanted to work with local children and adults, and to share my enthusiasm and passion for my subjects and painting.

Day 1.

Warm, 27 degrees. I was struck how quiet it was for Birdlife. We had only seen 3 species till mid-afternoon. Suddenly, Marsh Harriers, Honey Buzzards, Black Kite, Yellow Wagtails and beautiful Bee-eaters arrived. Blue-Rock Thrush, Northern Wheatear and Redstart also around the area of Buskett. One Grey Heron flew overhead, struggling with missing primary feathers – a result of illegal shooting. And as dusk fell, 17 Marsh Harriers and a lone Honey Buzzard settle to roost in the trees, and then gun shots. Within the first few hours a solid introduction to why I was here, and a solid reality check.

Day 2.

I was struck by what would appear to be perfect habitat, for Wagtails, Redstarts, small warblers, crows – yet nothing. There is no shortage of insects, but birdlife – just an empty gap. I thought I heard Quail but then, quickly realised the call was mechanical, a forever playing loop call, blasting out from a dwelling just to the north of Red tower. Just then 3 Great Egrets flew low and out to sea, Sicily bound. Any birds here you automatically wish them luck, and a speedy journey away from these turquoise shores.

Later in the day we received a call regarding a Black Stork, just arrived at Ghadira Nature Reserve to the north of the island. The 1st Black Stork here on the reserve for 25 years. A Bird prized by Taxidermists – a bird worth in excess of €4000. I painted frantically, and in rapidly falling light made full use of the Harpia’s wonderful light gathering ability.

It became such an important tool for keeping track of the Stork in the pitch darkness, I could still see how it rested and painted its shapes and its reflections. I commend the Harpia, the brightness and resolution allowed me to carry on working well into the evening, to a point where it could not get any darker.

During the evening I counted up my species seen over 2 full days – 29. To put this into context, had I been home walking the dog in modest countryside, I could have seen at least 40 in less than an hour. The feeling of degradation and surprise just never stops in Malta.

Day 3.

Early start to see the young Black Stork still present and posing out in the full sun but showing a noticeable round and pellet shaped wound to its right leg, which was often held up or rested. Painted from early morning, when after a short bout of preening and a quick wing and tail stretch or two, it lifted off to the South.

It was followed by Birdlife Malta and no doubt by hunters, but thankfully it gained height quickly, Africa bound. Wonderful in comparison to last night, how the colours of the Stork came alive in the low morning sun.

Then, one of THE most important reasons for me coming to Malta, it was the time for workshops for the children. With just 12 spaces allocated little could prepare me for what followed. Saturday afternoon, 27 children turned up for the workshop, aged 4 to 15 years!!

They were so excited at being able to use binoculars and telescopes, many for the first time, and just have the most wonderful time being creative. It was such a special occasion, to see and be part of over 2 hours of a whirlwind of creativity, we made bird mobiles, and many combined this with painting birds from the hides too. It was special and showed me that Art can inspire a vital way in, to connect and appreciate. This is what I came here for!

Painting through the ZEISS Harpia 85, when all others had packed up, I was still able to continue.
Top class optics.

Shot Honey Buzzard brought back to the flat. A sad state. Carpal bone broken on such a beautiful bird, its fate – rehabilitation for a year.

Day 4.

Bee-eaters on wires by the Palace to north of Buskett, sunning themselves, however they quickly became restless. With rapidly rising temperatures and loud sudden sounds of gunfire, they were off. These loud rounds of gunfire, forced 7 – 8 Honey Buzzards out from their roosts, leaving to south. 1 Lone Turtle Dove SW through valley in front, this was to be the only one I saw in Malta.

An amazing adult workshop followed from 10am till 12.30pm. I am left thinking that this has to be a way forward, pushing the interest in nature through this arts side, and letting the interest and passion for nature grow.

What an evening it turned out to be. Walked to the viewing point, and there sat 10 or so others, all scanning the sky for migrants. Grey Heron came past with dangling leg, clearly maimed by gunshot. 1 Eleonora’s Falcon among the 3+ Hobby, 1 ringtail Pallid Harrier, 30 Marsh Harrier – 10 of those staying to roost. 30+ Honey Buzzard, flock of 10-15 Tree Pipit visibly migrating at dusk low to South, Hoopoe and 2 Richard’s Pipits.

Days 5 & 6.

Joined the Raptor Camp team at first light to spend a day seeing the work both the Birdlife Malta staff and the volunteers do, during this critical migration period for both Raptors and other migrating birds. Early mornings were a mixture of disturbing scenes of hunters with tape lures and make shift hides and wooden decoys, with the majestic occasional sight of migration. Shockingly I witnessed a passerine being shot by one hunter who appeared to come for his morning fix before work.

Nearby Gun shots accompanied our watching and painting, Yellow Wagtails in the St. Katarina Valley. In the afternoon we ventured to the south East coast near the Blue Pool, hoping for Blue Rock Thrush. Difficult to see, we made our way slightly further west where we got better views, however the 6 or 7 birds were just too far away to get a really good look to enable me to work on them.

Day 7.

Day out Birding and painting and seeing areas as yet unexplored for me. Firstly began at Buskett, which was quiet migrant wise, a rattle again of a few Sardinian Warblers but the mod-strong north-easterly wind with light drizzle not helping. 1 Honey Buzzard, 2 Wheatear and then a surprise, as a nice pale Icterine Warbler flew in front of us then landed to feed low down in a pine.

Unusual at this time of year, seems they mostly take a different autumn migration route to spring. Headed then to Dingli, where Blue Rock Thrush fluttered around the cliffs, males and females, as well as 2 Black-eared Wheatear. Pm headed to Ghadira where at last, we found the most beautiful Chameleon, using the wonderful close focus of my 8 x42 SF’s to the maximum, enabling me to see so close in a wonderful clarity, this most beautiful of reptiles.

Day 8.

05:15, Quail callers ring loud and clear, onto Solumen to check out a young shooter, thought to be illegal killing. We watched as he ruthlessly and efficiently shot down a small bird. I thought Blue Rock Thrush? Surely not, surely he wouldn’t shoot Malta’s national bird? We waited until he’d left and sure enough, found 3 feathers in the butt, a primary and two body feathers.

11am Ruth Peacey and Megan McCubbin arrived, Ruth a filmmaker working with Chris Packham and Megan, Chris’s daughter. As we chatted about filming at the Birdlife Malta office, calls came in for the collection of a Little Bittern, a Kestrel and a Yellow Wagtail, all found by members of the public and all needing urgent veterinary treatment.

The Little Bittern we released at Ghadira late evening, the Wagtail was taken to Ghadira to be rehabilitated, but the Kestrel was different. It had to be euthanized. Its wing was too badly broken to give it any chance of a life. How can shooters do this, it baffles me. No painting at all today, just wasn’t the day.

Day 9.

The morning spent filming with Ruth and Megan, around the St. Katarina valley. I felt it so important that the film showed both the beauty and the beast of Malta. Here, where so many migrant birds fuelled up, was the tallest shooting tower on the island, and sure enough, accompanied by the regular rumble of gunfire. It was the perfect location to paint and film.

St Katarina, Swallows and Sand Martins,
painted whilst filming.

Day 10.

I spent some time on the Greater Flamingo’s. Such a charismatic species which migrates east to west along the Mediterranean, and one that possesses such grace and elegance. Their shapes volume and contours make for a beautiful subject to paint, and a fitting end to my very special week – for many many reasons – on Malta.

Within three months of painting the immature bird that featured on my sheet of paintings here, it had been shot and poached from Ghadira Nature Reserve. It has to stop.

After my visit, plans were set to raise money for Birdlife Malta, to help the invaluable work they do from protection, conservation and education, by way of organising an auction of some of my paintings produced during my stay. With the help of Chris Packham and his team, the Birdlife Malta team as well as Ruth Peacey and Megan McCubbin, we raised €3200, all directed to conservation.

My heartfelt thanks go out to The Birdlife Malta team, and the Raptor Camp volunteers for their welcome and warmth, to the Misfud family for just being gorgeous!

To all the workshop attendees who had such a ball, to Chris Packham, Ruth Peacey and Megan McCubbin for the time and help filming and the efforts put into helping to raise such a huge amount of money, and of course to Adam Kidman and all at Zeiss Sports optics team for their support and sponsorship.

We must and can make a difference, but we must all react soon, time is running out for so many of our migrant birds. Something has to be done, we owe it to our future generation to do something.

Darren Woodhead