Spring Watch Camp volunteers recognise Malta’s rich potential for birdwatching tourism

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International ornithologists participating in BirdLife Malta’s Spring Watch Camp declared their fascination with the islands vis-à-vis birdwatching and said that the country has a wealth to offer to tourists within this niche market.

BirdLife Malta also announced that significant changes in bird behaviour were noted this spring, the first-ever that the hunting season had not been opened. “Herons are staying longer in our reserves, no longer scared away by incessant gun shots,” said Dr. André Raine, BirdLife Malta’s Conservation Manager. “Flocks of Turtle Doves (Gamiema) are grouping in areas like Mizieb and then joining together to continue their migration, something we have never witnessed before. But perhaps the most significant fact is that for the first time ever on record, a pair of Coots (Tigiega tal-Bahar) have bred on the Maltese islands, specifically at is-Simar Nature Reserve run by BirdLife Malta,” Dr. Raine continued. “Furthermore, Black-winged Stilts (Fras-servjent) have been observed preparing a nest site at Ghadira Nature Reserve. All of these incidents represent significant steps forward for bird conservation in Malta.”

Andrew Morgan, one of the international volunteers said: “I read an article about the Stop Illegal Spring Hunting campaign in a UK national newspaper. I was appalled by the waste of the life of birds and concerned that my children and grandchildren will not be able to enjoy the sight of the wonderful birds that migrate through Malta to the UK. I volunteered immediately. Since I’ve been here I’ve been thrilled to see many birds unfamiliar in the UK such as Red-footed Falcons (Zumbrell), Golden Orioles (Tajra Safra), and European Bee-eaters (Qerd in-Nahal). Many birdwatchers throughout the world should come to Malta to revel in the spectacle of the spring and autumn bird migration.”

BirdLife stated that birdwatchers are educated tourists who leave behind a lot of money, while on the other hand not requiring a big investment on the part of the countries they visit. BirdLife Malta’s Executive Director Tolga Temuge said: “The International Bird and Research Centre in Eilat in Israel is visited by approximately 100,000 tourists a year. On the island of Mull, off the coast of Scotland, an estimated £1.45 to £1.69 million is generated for the local inhabitants from visitors coming to view White-tailed Sea-eagles (Ajkla tad-Denb Abjad). The Nebraska Department of Economic Development in the United States of America calculated that in 2005 the birdwatching industry in the USA generated $85 billion, including $32 billion in retail sales.”

Oliver Slessor, another Spring Watch Camp volunteer, also commented on the amount of different species he managed to see while spending some days in the Maltese islands. Apart from participating in Spring Watch Camp, Slessor also volunteered on BirdLife’s other conservation projects. “I have travelled far and wide to carry out conservation work, from Portugal to France, and having the opportunity to do this in the Maltese islands where, notwithstanding their size, I saw many species which I do not normally come across, such as the Scops Owl (Kokka) or the Hoopoe (Daqquqa tat-Toppu) was another feather in my cap on this journey.”

Spring Watch volunteers also commented on the level of illegal hunting activity that most of the participants witnessed. Despite slow migration, the teams heard over 2,466 shots in 27 different locations over these past 12 days. Nick Unwin had previously volunteered with LIPU (the BirdLife Partner in Italy) where he met Sicilian members of staff who spoke about their personal experiences with vandal attacks and illegal hunting in their countryside. “Back then, I thought that I would never again encounter the level of hostility that I came across in Sicily within the field of bird conservation. So I was flummoxed to see that Malta nowadays exhibits very similar tendencies to what it was like in Sicily in the past. The good news,” continued Unwin, “is that the situation in Sicily improved radically over the past years and this change was also very sudden. So there is definitely hope that Malta too will see a shift in mentality, something I have already started to sense through my encounters with Maltese simply out to enjoy nature to the full in a peaceful atmosphere.”

However, for this to happen the Maltese government needs to be uncompromising in its efforts to secure nature conservation, BirdLife stated. Ex-Police Officer and member of the UK’s Wildlife Crime Unit Steve Downing expressed his dismay at the level of criminality being witnessed in the Maltese countryside. “The A.L.E. are certainly doing their best, given their limited resources. However,” Downing held, “the situation will only be turned around if and when the Maltese government sets this as a priority on its to-do list. This for the benefit of the Maltese people, visitors to the islands and, above all, the natural beauty that this island has the potential to offer to the whole world,” Downing concluded.

Over 30 international participants from 5 countries are joining local birdwatchers for Spring Watch Camp which will conclude at the end of April.

For more information on BirdLife’s conservation efforts and to view regular updates on Spring Watch Camp, please visit www.birdlifemalta.org

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