Maltese Sea Cliffs – home to birds too, not just climbers!

The MCC reached out to ornithologist and climber Marie Claire Gatt to learn more about the curious birds that call our sea cliffs home. In her own words:

Scopoli's Shearwater in nest
Scopoli’s Shearwater nesting in one of the many nooks and crannies found on Maltese sea cliffs. Photo by Benjamin Metzger

One of the joys of outdoor climbing is accessing corners of the landscape that are otherwise inaccessible, gaining a different perspective on our surroundings. This often brings us closer to the environment that we form part of – the diverse features of limestone, the plants that grow from nooks and crannies in the rock, and the fauna that inhabit our islands.

Our cliffs, caves, and valleys are home to several species of indigenous birds that winter or nest on the Maltese Islands. An often overlooked group of birds that breed in significant numbers on our coasts are shearwaters – seabirds that spend their lives out in the open sea, feeding on pelagic fish and squid, and only coming to land during their breeding season under the cover of darkness. The Maltese Islands are home to Yelkouan Shearwaters (Maltese – Garni), present in Malta between November and July, and Scopoli’s Shearwaters (Maltese – Ċief) which are present between March and October.

Yelkouan Shearwaters mid flight. Photo by Benjamin Metzger

Shearwaters nest all along our cliffs, in crevices and deep cave systems within the rock. During the summer months, Yelkouan Shearwaters are already feeding their chicks to fledging, while Scopoli’s Shearwaters’ breeding season spans throughout summer. The largest Yelkouan Shearwater colonies on the Maltese Islands are at L-Aħrax tal-Mellieħa and Majjistral Park. Several hundred pairs of Scopoli’s Shearwaters nest in the Ta’ Ċenċ cliffs on Gozo, with other colonies scattered across the southwestern cliffs of Malta and on Filfla. Most of these colony sites are on rock that is unsuitable for climbing, but in areas where climbers and seabirds overlap we should be considerate in our activities to avoid causing disturbance. Shearewaters are very secretive at the colony and are not usually visible during the day. The best way to enjoy them from land is to watch them congregate in rafts in the evening, when they sit in large groups on the sea off the colony waiting to approach land at night. Sitting in the darkness at the cliff tops you would then be audience to the spectacle of their haunting calls echoing against the land (Click the first audio file in the list, uploaded by LIFE Arċipelagu Garnija).

Shearwaters are very long-lived species – monitoring of Maltese seabird populations carried out since the 1960s has revealed breeding shearwaters that are over 30 years old. Throughout their lives seabirds form long-lasting bonds with their partners, with whom they work tirelessly to hatch and raise a single chick during a breeding season. They are also very faithful to their nest site, returning to the same spot every year. Shearwaters only feed at sea, so when pairs have an egg to incubate one partner must stay at the nest and fasts – sometimes for over a week – until it exchanges roles with the other parent and can go out at sea to forage. The life cycle of seabirds makes them very vulnerable to threats introduced by humans, which have previously caused the disapearance of colonies as birds abandon their nest sites. Light pollution has a negative influence on shearwaters and impacts their choice of nesting locations. Bright lights at the cliffs could cause breeding seabirds to delay feeding a chick, switching with a partner that’s fasting, or to abandon their nest altogether. Later in the season, light pollution attracts fledglings which instinctively fly towards it and get stranded in built up areas. Rats, which thrive off the waste that we dump in the environment, can decimate an entire colony of its eggs and chicks. So whenever you’re out climbing or camping make sure to respect the environment around you and to take your organic waste back home with you if there aren’t frequently serviced closing bins.

As human impact has pushed shearwaters to the edges of the land, at the most inaccessible sites of the Maltese Islands, their research depends heavily on rope access techniques. Indeed, seabird research on the Maltese Islands is probably one of the most extreme in the Mediterranean in terms of access. Field researchers are often rock climbers themselves, and have worked closely with members of the climbing community who have helped install safe access points for our work.

BLM research team abseiling from Filfla Plateau
A research team from BirdLife Malta descends the crumbly cliffs of Filfla plateau. Photo by Stephen Farrugia

Our shearwaters are an iconic part of our native fauna, and it is a privilege as climbers to be able to enter their sheer vertical world and see our island from their perspective. Our love for the outdoors takes us into the habitats of other living creatures that we share the island with, and it’s a pivotal pillar of climbing ethics to do so with the greatest respect.

About the Author: Marie Claire Gatt is an ornithologist and has been part of the climbing community for the past 9 years. She obtained a PhD in seabird ecology, awarded by the University of Lisbon, Portugal, where she studied Cory’s Shearwaters on the remote oceanic island of Selvagem Grande, Madeira. Currently she holds a post-doctoral research position at the University of Milan, Italy, and is carrying out fieldwork on Middleton Island in the Gulf of Alaska.

What to do if you come across a grounded shearwater?
Where possible, stranded birds should be collected and gently placed in a cardboard box. The birds should not be given any food or water, but kept in a quiet place until they are retrieved by BirdLife Malta staff to be safely released back at sea. BirdLife Malta can be reached on 2134 7644 (office hours) or 7925 5697 (emergency out of office).  For more information on what to do in such a situation please click here.

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