For most landlubbers, seabirds are a rare sight in Malta. In fact most people only witness these fantastic birds in stormy weather when some species, particularly gulls, shelter in harbours and inlets.
However, their relative lack of visibility is not due to their scarcity alone but is also due to their elusiveness. Maltese seabirds are shy, mostly nocturnal creatures which tend to congregate in inaccessible areas as far as possible from human activity and interference. The best places for seeking such creatures are cliffs and isolated places such as the islet of Filfla where a substantial colony of Storm Petrels, one of the largest in the Mediterranean in fact, is known to thrive.
Shearwaters are another species which is relatively common in Maltese territory. The more common Cory’s Shearwater is a common migrant which is generally present between March and November where it breeds in crevices in the rocks, while the rarer Yelkouan shearwater, of which Malta holds around 10% of the global population, is most commonly associated with the Rdum tal-Madonna cliff-face at l-Ahrax tal-Mellieha, where a third of the Maltese population of these birds resides!
Shearwaters, so called because of the way they skim the water’s surface when flying low as if shearing it, are very avid travellers and birds which have been tagged in Malta have been recorded as far away as the coast of Senegal in the African Atlantic. They are also famous for their human-baby like cry which is especially haunting if heard at night from the cliff-tops where they nest.
During the summer evenings the nesting shearwaters congregate in huge quantities just beneath the cliffs of Ta’ Cenc in Gozo after a day out at sea. This phenomenon is known as rafting and involves hundreds of birds flying low from their distant maritime haunts to eventually settle on the water in sizable groups until the darkness sets in.
I experienced this beautiful phenomenon in the early summer of last year with a group of nature-appreciating enthusiasts. Having set sail from Marfa jetty on Malta we progressed to a site beneath the sheer cliffs of Ta’ Cenc in Gozo and the birds started arriving. After a slow start, the group grew to a few hundreds and provided a veritable spectacle apart from numerous photo opportunities for those on board.
The show ended with the sunset and the brief Maltese twilight but left me with the warm feeling enjoyed by all of those who, like me, derive pleasure from appreciating the simple observation of natural beauty.