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NEWS | Wednesday, 14 November 2007

Seabird’s habits astonish experts

A specimen of Yelkouan Shearwater, a large but little-known seabird which nests in Malta, has been electronically tagged and observed using hi-tech technology for the first time. The results have astounded local and international ornithologists alike.
As part of the biggest conservation project of its kind in Malta, the EU LIFE Yelkouan Shearwater Project team last June recovered an electronic tag from a Yelkouan Shearwater at the project site, Rdum tal-Madonna (L-Ahrax tal-Mellieha). Experts from BirdLife Malta, BirdLife Portugal and the Armed Forces of Malta (AFM) have now analysed the data from the bird and the results reveal some surprising behaviour.
After being tagged, the shearwater was at sea for nearly three full days, searching for food for its growing chick which remained on land, hidden deep in its burrow. During that time, the intrepid bird travelled well over 180kms away from the Maltese islands to deep water to the south-east of Malta, which is equivalent of flying to Sicily and back. The speedy seabird covered this distance in around seven hours. The data also showed that the bird then spent most of its time in this area fishing, and dived 241 times in search of prey. In between these periods of activity, the bird spent time sitting on the water, resting and preening, all of which was recorded by the tag. The team has plotted the bird’s movements on a map (see right/left/below) as it headed towards North Africa and back to its breeding grounds right here in Malta.
Project manager Helen Raine explained: “This data is incredibly valuable. Previously, no-one had any idea where the Yelkouan Shearwaters went to fish when they were feeding their chicks, so this is a first for Malta and is of international interest. This information is not only important to protect these sea birds but also the marine environment, which is under threat by over-fishing and pollution. More information on the behaviour of several different birds is needed before we can identify the most important marine areas for the birds, but these initial findings are an excellent start.”
The LIFE project team scientists will continue with the tagging work in the coming season. This time, they hope to use satellite tags to monitor the maritime journeys of these wide ranging birds which will be a first in the Maltese Islands. “Malta has around 10 per cent of the worlds’ population of Yelkouan Shearwaters, so this work is important at an international level. Seabird populations are on the decline worldwide and the EU LIFE Yelkouan Shearwater Project is contributing to EU targets to reverse this trend,” Raine concluded.


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