Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Birds and berries

Common smilax (Smilax aspera)
Plants produce berries to entice birds to eat their seeds. 

In most cases the seeds are swallowed whole and after passing through the bird’s digestive system they are deposited away from the parent plant ready to germinate. This sometimes takes place hundreds of kilometres away from their origin.

These plants and birds have developed a vital partnership on which both are dependent for their survival. 

Most berries become ripe at the end of summer or the beginning of autumn, when birds are building the fat reserves that they will be using to provide them with the energy required to migrate to warmer parts of the world. It is also the time when another food, the insects, start to decrease.

Some plants provide berries during the winter and provide food to non-migratory birds even in countries further north where the ground is often covered in snow or frozen making it impossible for birds to find molluscs, insects and other small creatures to feed on.

To ensure that the berries are eaten plants fill them with important vitamins and energy and colour them red or black to make it easier for birds to see them.

 Red berries are usually found in evergreen trees. Trees which loose their leaves in the autumn usually have black berries because these show better against the yellow or brown autumn leaves.

Several species of berry producing plants can be found in the Maltese countryside. 

The most visible is the hawthorn (żagħrun) which produces fruit that look like small apples.

 Less easily seen are the berries of the common smilax (pajżana) which I photographed last Sunday. At this time of the year two other native trees, the lentisk (deru) and the Mediterranean buckthorn (alaternu) have berries.

 These berries are eaten by native species such as the Sardinian warbler (bufula sewda) and migratory species such as the song thrush (malvizz) but unfortunately most of these are shot before they get a chance to eat any berries.

This article was published in The Times on 27.10.2010

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Nature Photography

Maltese wall lizard (Podarcis filfolensis)
I am often asked by readers of my articles about my nature photographs the questions more often than not revolve about the kind of equipment I use. 

My reply is always “nothing special’ a reply which is received with scepticism.

 I have a micro lens which I use most of the time but it is possible to take nature pictures even with the most basic camera, this is especially true nowadays as even the pocket digital cameras can be used for close-up photography. 

The picture of the lizard on a wall accompanying this article was shot without any special equipment. The most important thing is not the equipment but the ability to see pictures where many others do not.

Plants are often surrounded by other vegetation; animals often hide themselves in their surrounding. 

The most important skill is to learn to see pictures in the surrounding clutter. To do this you must learn to look and observe with all your senses a skill you develop with a lot of practice which you can only get by spending a lot of time in the countryside taking pictures or just looking and observing.

By spending some time looking at a particular patch of ground, a bush or even just a small plant you will start seeing things which you previously failed to notice. Insects and flowers seem to pop out of nowhere.

 I often lie down on the ground to get a good point of view and while in that position I start seeing one photograph after the other and I end up taking up a lot of pictures of different objects from one spot.

My advice to anybody who wants to take nature pictures is to get out there and start shooting. 

With digital cameras you can shoot hundreds and thousands of pictures without any extra cost. Spend as much time as possible in the countryside. I spend at least one whole morning every weekend in the countryside to ensure that I have good pictures for my articles.

This article was published in The Times on 20.10.10

Monday, October 18, 2010

15 Species of millipede in the Maltese islands

Last Sunday I found several millipedes sheltering in the rugged bark on the trunks of several eucalyptus trees at Wardija.

 I normally see millipedes moving either on or underneath the eucalyptus leaves which cover the ground beneath these trees so I assumed they climbed to escape from rain water.

Fifteen species of millipede can be found in the Maltese islands.

 The common millipede which apart being found in leaf litter can also be found damp basements and other humid parts of houses, is the largest species in the Maltese islands. It has a cylindrical segmented body with two pairs of legs on each segment except on the first behind the head which has no legs and the next few which have only one. 

Most people who have touched this species are aware that when threatened it release a foul smelling liquid. This liquid repels predators but it generally does not cause any harm to humans.

The common millipede is called ħanex ta’ l-indewwa tad-djar but many people call it millipid or dudu a name given to many other animals including caterpillars.

Not all millipedes have a cylindrical body. The pill millipede which is known in Maltese as żibġa ta’ l-indewwa has a short stocky shape similar to that of the woodlouse which is known in Maltese as ħanżir l-art, and like the woodlouse it can roll into a ball to defend itself from predators and to prevent dehydration.

As anybody who knows some Italian can guess, the name millipede means a thousand feet even though these animals at the most a few hundred legs.

About 10,000 species of millipede are found in the world. Most are herbivores feed mainly on decaying leaves and other dead plant parts but some species are omnivorous or carnivorous and can eat small insects and other small animals such as centipedes and earthworms.

This article was published in The Times on 13.10.2010

Monday, October 11, 2010

Ta’ Ċenċ

Whenever I am in Gozo I go to this little known part of the island which is one of the most beautiful and definitely the most spectacular place in the Maltese archipelago.

I was not the only one there. Three men in their late seventies, were sitting on a rock taking in the view. They said that they go there every Sunday after hearing mass at the Sannat Parish Church. 

They knew that they were lucky to live near such a beautiful place and that they were lucky that it was still in its pristine state.

They recalled that in the late eighties there were plans to build a mega tourist complex complete with two hotels, golf course and helicopter pad and that it was thanks to public pressure that the place was saved.

The campaign to save Ta’ Ċenċ was carried out by a small number of environmental organisations that got together to stop the project at a time when there were still no official structures to evaluate such projects, and Environment Impact Assessments were still unheard of. Reports were drawn up which showed the importance of the area for the biodiversity of the Maltese islands. 

The cliffs and plateau provide habitat for a large variety of plants and animals including the Cory’s shearwater (ċiefa), and Malta’s national bird the blue rock thrush (merill) both of which breed in crevices in the vertical cliff faces. 

The peregrine falcon (bies), which was immortalised in the film The Maltese Falcon, used to breed on the cliffs. The vast garigue provides an important habitat for birds, insects and flowering plants, especially orchids. During my visit on Sunday, I saw more butterflies at Ta’ Ċenċ than I had seen in Malta during the past few months.

When the campaign to save Ta’ Ċenċ started, few people knew that this place existed and even fewer had been there. Even now, twenty years later, few people go there. The cliff face and parts of the plateau are protected legally but more needs to be done to ensure that future generations can enjoy the whole of Ta’ Ċenċ with all its plants and animals.

 The whole plateau and the surrounding areas including valleys and agricultural land need to be given added protection a move which would fit perfectly with the concept of Gozo as an eco island.