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NEWS | Wednesday, 23 January 2008

Valletta’s winter wildlife spectacle

BirdLife Malta’s annual count of the White Wagtail roost in Valletta’s Great Siege Square last weekend revealed the highest ever count of these charismatic little birds.
BirdLife Malta researchers counted a total of 5,433 White Wagtails as they returned to their evening roost over the course of an hour. This is almost a thousand more birds than were counted at the same time last year
The spectacle began at about 4.30 pm when the first birds, known in Maltese as ‘Zakak Abjad’, began to fly back to the safety of their roost in Valletta. Birds from all over Malta choose to spend the night together in just a few large trees in the Great Siege Square. They gather like this for safety from predators and warmth. Observers were amazed by the high numbers, as they counted the returning birds from strategic spots along the bastions of Valletta.
The White Wagtails are familiar winter birds in Malta where they spend their days catching insects in towns, gardens and the countryside. Their tails wag continuously as they chase their prey around, thus giving rise to their English name. White Wagtails spend their winters on our island, escaping the cold winter in northern Europe. They typically arrive in Malta in mid-October and leave again by mid-March.
Scientific ringing studies carried out by BirdLife have shown that these birds come from countries such as the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Denmark and Sweden. Incredibly, after making their long autumn migration, they choose to spend their winter evenings roosting in the trees centred on the Great Siege Square in the heart of the Capital. This unassuming roost site might only look like a couple of urban trees but it has been in use by the birds since at least 1974 and is now so important to this species that it is designated as a national Important Bird Area.
Ornithologist Denis Cachia, who co-ordinates the count every year for BirdLife Malta, is particularly delighted with the result: ‘It is great to see these birds reappearing faithfully at the same site every year, and even better to see that their wintering population appears to be growing. This shows that the trees in the Great Siege Square not only provide an important role as shade during the summer for human visitors, but provide an equally important winter refuge for our avian visitors as well.’
The White Wagtail roost count is held every year at the beginning of January. A trip at any time over the next month to the Great Siege Square in the late afternoon (from 16:45 onwards) should reward you with a view of these beautiful birds as they settle down for the night. Another roost to look out for is the large Starling roost at Simar Nature Reserve, which can hold several thousand birds at this time of the year.


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