Thursday, December 27, 2012

A plant that loves the sea

European searocket (Cakile maritima)

The European searocket is indigenous to Malta. Known in Maltese as kromb il-baħar, the plant grows mainly on sandy beaches. It starts flowering in December and remains in flower until August. This weekend I found it flowering at Għadira and Golden Bay.
The searocket is adapted to a harsh environment where few other species manage to survive. Its roots are surrounded by salty water and its leaves are often covered with sea spray. Sometimes, especially in inclement weather, the plants are completely covered with sand. By surviving under these difficult conditions, it faces less competition from other plants.
The plant is also found throughout Europe and North Africa and has been introduced in many other parts of the world, including such faraway places as the US and Australia. It has become very common in some countries and is considered a noxious weed.
The mustard or cabbage family, to which the searocket belongs, consists of about 3,700 species. Most species are found in the north temperate region with maximum diversity around the Mediterranean. Over 40 species are found on our islands.The European searocket is a member of the mustard family which includes commercially important species such as cabbages, cauliflowers and broccoli. The seeds of members of the mustard family are produced in a capsule called siliqua. In the searocket, the siliqua is made of a light, corky substance that can float – a factor that helps the seeds disperse in water.
The flowers of this family are made up of four petals shaped like a cross. In the past, members of this family were known as crucifers, a word derived from crucis, the Latin word for cross.
This article was published in The Times on 19.12.12

The very wary starling

The starling is one of the best-known birds in Europe and is a common wintering bird in Malta.
In most of Europe, starlings are tame and confiding. In Malta they are not protected and are shot in large numbers. The ones that survive are thus often very wary and keep away from humans.The first birds start to arrive in September but the majority visit us from October to early spring.
A couple of decades ago, a pair of starlings bred for the first time in the Maltese islands.
The bird continued to breed here irregularly but it is still a rare breeder, with only one or two pairs managing to breed every year.
The starling, sturnell in Maltese, is difficult to confuse with other birds. It is the size of a thrush – about half the size of a pigeon – with dark, glossy feathers. After moulting, in late summer, it gets a spotted appearance.
The spots appear because the new feathers have white tips. But with time, the tips wear off and by summer, or earlier, most of the white spots would have disappeared.
Starlings are mainly insectivorous and can play an important role in pest control. They also eat seeds and fruit.
These birds are also found in North Africa, the Middle East and all the way to India, Nepal and China.
They have also been introduced in many other parts of the world, including North America, Australia and New Zealand from where it migrated to surrounding regions.
Although the starling is still common, in some areas it has decreased by up to 80 per cent.
Tens of thousands are shot in Malta every year and if it were not for this ‘sport’, starlings would be much tamer and approachable and they would probably breed in larger numbers.
This article was published in The Times on 12.12.12

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The duck that changes coat

The mallard, known in Malta as kuluvert, is a wild duck found in the Americas, Europe, Asia and North Africa. It has also been introduced in Australia and New Zealand.
Mallards visit the Maltese Islands in autumn and winter. One or two can regularly be seen at the Għadira Nature Reserve where they sometimes join a colony of feral mallards that resides there.
The male mallard has two different plumages. In the breeding season it has a conspicuous shiny green head, brown chest and grey body, but during the rest of the year it sports speckled brown feathers similar to those of females.
Most ducks have the same moulting pattern and outside the breeding pattern superficially look very similar. Often what distinguishes one species of duck from another is a patch of coloured feathers on the wing, known as a speculum.
The male mallard’s vivid colours help it to attract females during courtship, but bright colours are also conspicuous to predators so, as soon as the eggs hatch, the male moults into the less conspicuous non-breeding plumage.
Moulting is an important yet dangerous process. In the initial phase, the duck’s feathers start to fall off and new ones grow in their place.
New feathers are full of blood and grow very fast, but they are heavy. When a feather is fully grown, the blood supply is closed off and the feathers become hollow and light.
During the post-breeding moult, which takes place in late summer, the feathers are lost and replaced in a short period of time. This results in many feathers being lost at the same time and the ducks becoming flightless for up to two weeks, which makes them very vulnerable to various predators.
This article was published in The Times on 05.12.12.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

A snake without venom

Leopard Snake (Zamenis situla)

The leopard snake is a beautiful indigenous reptile that lives in vegetated areas and sometimes visits gardens.
Despite being active during the day, it is rarely seen although it may be caught hunting at dusk.
In Maltese, the leopard snake is known as lifgħa. It can grow up to one metre in length and hunts small animals such as young birds, reptiles, frogs, mice and even small snakes. But it is not poisonous.
In the Acts of the Apostles, it is written that Paul of Tarsus was shipwrecked in what we believe are the Maltese islands in AD 60 and that while he was warming himself near a fire he was bitten by a viper but he did not die. This gave rise to the belief that, as a result of this, all snakes in Malta lost their poison.
Three other snakes can be found in our countryside.
The most common is the black whip snake known in Maltese as serp iswed. Any snake encounter in the Maltese Islands is likely to be with this species that is active during the day. It can grow up to two metres in length. The black whip snake is also not poisonous. When approached it will move swiftly away but if it is caught or cornered, it will defend itself by trying to bite.
The two other species, the Algerian whip snake (serp aħdar) and the cat snake (teleskopu) are rare and very difficult to find.
The Algerian whip snake is an African species not found in Europe except in Malta. It probably arrived in Malta with merchandise from North Africa. The cat snake spends the day hiding under stones and becomes active at dusk and dawn.
This species is poisonous but it is not dangerous. The fangs through which it injects the poison are placed at the mouth and can reach only creatures that are small enough to fit in it. Its poison is weak and has an effect only on small animals.

This article was published in The Times on 28.11.12

Saturday, November 24, 2012

An edible yet deadly plant

Black nightshade (Solanum nigrum)

The black nightshade is a common annual or short-lived perennial plant found in disturbed habitats such as shaded road and way sides, footpaths and under trees. It is easily recognised by its small white flowers and black berries.These plants can grow to over one metre in height but most plants found in the Maltese countryside are only about half a metre tall.
Another related species, the hairy nightshade, is very similar but its berries are red. The black nightshade is known in Maltese as għeneb id-dib while the hairy nightshade is known as tuffieħ is-serp.
Parts of the black nightshade plant, especially unripe berries, are poisonous and, if ingested in sufficient quantities, can be fatal.
However, some varieties have been widely used as food. In some countries, such as parts of North America and Africa, it is cultivated and the leaves and berries are eaten either raw or boiled. This is certainly not recommended in areas where the indigenous variety might be more toxic.
The black nightshade is native to Europe and Asia, but it is now also found in North Africa, the Americas, Australasia and South Africa.
Leaves and fruits of the plant are used for medicinal purposes in some countries.
The species was mentioned by herbalists as far back as the First Century AD. In ancient Greece the plant was used as a cure for dropsy but its use declined as it was considered too unpredictable and dangerous. The plant is, however, still used in traditional oriental medicine, especially as a cure for dysentery, stomach complains and fevers.
The nightshades belong to a large group of plants many of which are poisonous although some of the species in this group are grown commercially. These include the tomato, potato and eggplant.
This article was published in The Times on 21.11.12

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Sex on the rocks

I got this set of pictures four years ago during a weekend in Gozo with my family. We were visiting a small freshwater pool at Dwejra. My intention was to take some photos of damselflies and dragonflies but as happens often in nature photography I ended up taking pictures of something totally unexpected.

I saw this beautiful male lizard sunning himself on top of a boulder. It looked tame and I moved close to it to get some pictures. Lizards on Gozo are tamer than those on Malta and I managed to get some beautiful closeups.

Half way through the photo session he was distracted by a female lizard that was passing by in the vicinity. He looked only once (it must have been love at first sight) and he left his boulder to follow her.

When he reached her he placed himself in front of her and started to show off his bright yellow throat. She must have been impressed by his display because she slowed down her pace.

When she passed by he ran after her and caught the tip of her tail in his mouth. She seemed to be ignoring him and continued walking. Sometimes he held placed his front leg on her tail to slow her down.

He then moved his mouth, one small bite at a time, towards the front part of the tail and beyond and continued until he was holding her from the abdomen.

While this was going on he was oblivious to the fact that I was taking pictures and three other people including two noisy young girls were watching him closely.

He then entwined himself around the female and twisted himself so that their genital organs were touching. He remained in this position for several seconds. When they were ready she continued walking in the original direction and he went back to his boulder.

The whole photo session took about five minutes but the actual courtship and copulation lasted less than a minute.

I had never seen this behaviour before and I have not seen it since even though I spend many hours every week in the countryside. One might call it luck but if you spend enough time out in nature you are bound to meet interesting situations.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Secretive moorhens

Common Moorhen (Gallinula chloropus)
The black bird known as the moorhen is found throughout most of Europe as well as in North and South America and parts of Asia and Africa.
Malta’s first moorhen nest was found in 1985 in a partially flooded quarry near Kirkop
The moorhen, known in Maltese as gallozz iswed, lives in well-vegetated habitats close to water and, in fact, can be seen all year round at the Għadira and Simar nature reserves.
This species is easily distinguishable from the coot (tiġieġa tal-baħar) which is also found in these two nature reserves. Moorhens are smaller and lighter in colour than coots and their beaks are red with a yellow tip, instead of white.
In some places, moorhens are very secretive and difficult to see but in areas where they are protected, such as in nature reserves, they are less cautious and can be easily spotted. They spend a lot of time swimming in water but can often be seen walking along the water’s edge, especially in the vicinity of dense vegetation.
Malta’s first moorhen nest was found in 1985 in a partially flooded quarry near Kirkop. The quarry was being used as a fruit tree orchard and the owner had installed a gate to prevent people, especially hunters, from going in.
I had visited the quarry after the owner informed me about the breeding moorhens.
Part of the quarry was flooded with rainwater and aquatic vegetation was growing densely around the edges. The moorhens built their nest in a corner of the quarry underneath a tree tobacco plant. The nest, in the shape of a deep plate, was built on a small stone surrounded by water.
When we visited the quarry the eggs had already hatched and the young birds had flown away. Young moorhens are precocious and leave the nest and start feeding on their own a few days after they hatch. We only heard the mother calling her young and saw glimpses of the young ones as they walked in the vegetation.
The nest contained many dragonfly wings, showing that the parents had been busy catching dragonflies to feed them to their young.
This article was published in The Times on 14.11.12

Friday, November 9, 2012

The swimming ‘chicken’

Coot (Fulica atra)
The coot is an aquatic bird easily identified by its black plumage and the white beak and facial shield. It is the size of a fat chicken, in fact, in Maltese it is called tiġieġa tal-baħar

Coots spend most of their time in water and although they do climb on land you are unlikely to see them out of water in the Maltese islands. 

Like ducks coots use their legs and feet to propel themselves through the water but their feet are not webbed like those of ducks but palmate, that is, they have flaps of skin along the sides of their toes.

They are not strong flyers although they can migrate over relatively long distances.

In Malta coots can be seen from early autumn to late spring mainly at the Għadira and Is-Simar nature reserves. 

A visit to these two reserves is a guarantee that you will see this species as they are all the time actively swimming on the water. In winter they prefer to swim together as a flock but during the breeding season they are more solitary and keep chasing each other noisily away. 

Although this is not the breeding season such behaviour can be seen in the coots which are presently living at Is-Simar.

The habitat at Is-Simar is just right for these birds which prefer marsh lands with ample vegetation especially reeds, which provides them with food and cover throughout the year. 

The habitat there is so much to their liking that coots bred in this reserve twice, in 2008 and in 2009. They will hopefully breed there again in the future.

The coot is not the only all black bird that you can see in the two reserves. The moorhen, which has been breeding in the Maltese islands for nearly three decades, is also easily recognised by being slightly smaller and by having a red and yellow beak.

This article was published in The Times on 07.11.2012.

Monday, November 5, 2012

An unfriendly, squeaking beetle

The list of animals and plants living in a particular area constantly changes with time with new species appearing and others disappearing. Some species arrive on their own natural while others are imported by man and wittingly or unwittingly released in new areas.

During the past decade or so we have been hearing about several insect species that appeared in the Maltese islands. The Asian tiger mosquito is a nuisance and carrier of dangerous diseases. The red palm weevil which also appeared in the Maltese islands a few years ago has decimating many palm trees.

Another alien species that is causing great damage is the mulberry long-horned beetle. This species originated in central Africa. It was first noticed in Malta in 2000. When it first arrived it laid its eggs in black mulberry trees (siġra tat-tut) and later on white mulberry trees (siġra taċ-ċawsli) and has destroyed many old trees.

It has also been recorded on fig trees which are related to the mulberries.

In Malta the mulberry long-horned beetle does not seem to have any natural enemies and is free to reproduce unhindered. The larvae live in deep tunnels which they dig in the branches and are not easily reached by insecticides. The adults are mainly nocturnal and to be effective spraying has to be applied during the night. The adult beetle is large and can reach a size of more than four centimetres. 

The antennae areas long as the rest of the body. When picked up it makes a squeaking noise which probably distracts predators.

The mulberry long-horned beetle has been given the Maltese name ħanfusa tal-qrun twil tat-tut. It probably arrived in Malta as a larva or pupa with wood or logs imported for the wood industry. 

It has not yet spread into the rest of Europe except for parts of France and we should do our best not to let it leave the Maltese islands to spread havoc in neighbouring countries. 

This article was published in The Times 31.10.2012

The snail coated with ‘chocolate’

The red banded snail, or as it is sometimes known the chocolate-banded snail, is a large land snail. 
It belongs to a group of land snails and slugs known as the pulmonates. These are characterised by having a ‘lung’. Other molluscs have gills which allow them to take exchange gasses with the surroundings from air or water that flows over them. 
Pulmonates, on the other hand, have lost their gills and ‘breath’ air or water through a hole known as a pneumostome, into a cavity which functions as a lung. In some species the pneumostome remains permanently open while in others, such as in the common slug, it can be seen opening and closing rhythmically.
This species is very common especially in open spaces such as garigue. In Maltese it is known as għakrux mara which means female għakrux. It belongs to the Helicidae family in which we also find other common species such as the edible snail which is known in Maltese as għakrux raġel (male għakrux). This shows that in former times these two species were believed to be the male and female of the same species.
The red banded snail is mainly a Mediterranean species but can be found as far east as Crimea. It has also been introduced in other parts of the world and is now found in south eastern Australia
In 2006 it was found in London. It has also been found in Germany, Hungary and in the United States of America although it is not yet known whether it has managed to establish itself permanently in these countries.
This species, like other members of its family, is edible and is in fact collected and sold for food in parts of the Mediterranean particularly in Italy and Greece. In Malta although it was believed to be the female of the edible snail, which is collected in large numbers, it is believed to be inedible and is not collected. 

This article was published in The Times on 24.10.2012

Pollinators’ view

Insects don’t see light the way we do
Insects see the world very differently from the way we do; and their vision varies from species to species. Some cave dwelling insects do not have eyes, others can distinguish between light and dark while predators such as dragonflies have good eyesight and can even detect minute motion.

An insect eye can be simple or compound and many species can detect infrared and ultraviolet waves which are beyond our range of vision and so can see things that we cannot.  

Compound eyes are made up of small structures known as ommatidia. Each ommatidium is able to form an image and the insect brain joins all the images together to form a single picture. 

The more ommatidia present the more detail that can be seen. 

Some dragonflies can have up to 30,000 ommatidia in each eyeball and are able to see small insects such as mosquitoes flying at a distance. Even flies such as the housefly have good sight. That is why swatting a fly is so difficult. But to get such vision the ommatidia must be as long as possible. That is why insects with good vision have large bulging eyes. If humans had to use the same system as insects they would need one-metre large eyes to see the same as they do with their simple eyes.

For some insects, the ability to detect different colours is also important. Honey bees can see in the ultraviolet range of the spectrum. Using a special camera, scientists have made pictures of flowers using ultraviolet rays. The results have shown the bees see flowers differently from the way we see them. 

Although we cannot know exactly how bees see the pictures have shown that many petals have lines which guide the bees to the nectar. It also helps them to distinguish between the flowers of different species which to us might look the same.

It is believed that the Monarch butterflies which migrate more than 4,000 kilometres in the American continent use ultraviolet light from the sun to navigate. 

This article was published in The Times on 17.10.2012

A treat for the eye and the palate

Chicken of the woods – an edible shelf fungus
The sulphur shelf is a bright yellow bracket mushroom that grows on the bark of trees, especially oaks. To be more precise I should say that the fungus grows in the trunk of trees and branches. What we see on the bark is the fruiting body which appears only at particular times of the year to produce and disperse spores.

The fruiting body of the sulphur shelf does not look anything like the typical mushroom with which we are familiar. It grows straight out of the bark and does not have a stalk. The fungus feeds on the dead wood at the core of the tree. After years of feeding the wood decays into a powder leaving a hollow trunk which is said to make the tree better able to resist the forces of nature.

A large specimen appears every autumn on an old English oak that grows along one of the main paths in Buskett. I have seen it every autumn for the past fifteen years or so but although it is very visible most people who walk past the tree do not see it, and if they do, they do not bother to look at it twice.

The sulphur shelf is found in Europe and North America. It is edible when young although some people are allergic to it and suffer from gastrointestinal problems after eating it. It is said to have a unique mushroomy taste. Others describe the taste as similar to that of crab or lobster while there is a general consensus that it reminds one of chicken. In fact another name for it is chicken mushroom or chicken of the wood. Although wild specimens are usually collected for cooking, this species can also be cultivated.

Some specimens can grow to a large size; one specimen collected in 1990 in the New Forest in Hampshire in the United Kingdom weighed more than 45 kilograms and has even found a place in the Guinness Book or Records.  

In 2009 it was depicted on a 5 cent stamp which was one of a set of five stamps featuring Maltese fungi issued by Maltapost.  

This article was published in The Times on 10.10.2012

Sunday, November 4, 2012

The lizard on the wall

Podarcis filfolensis laurentimulleri
The Maltese wall lizard is an endemic species. It is found only in the Maltese islands and two Pelagian islands. It is closely related to another lizard found on Sicily. Fossil records indicate that the two species are derived from a common ancestor which is now extinct and which reached the Maltese islands probably sometime when these were connected to Sicily.

When the land connection between the Maltese islands and Sicily disappeared the local lizards were separated from those in Sicily and started to evolve into a separate species – the Maltese wall lizard which is known to scientists and naturalists as Podacis filfolensis.

The Maltese wall lizard now consists of five subspecies that live isolated from each other each of which over a period of several thousand years could evolve into a separate species unless, that is, they become extinct or come into contact again with any of the subspecies.

What is known as the nominate subspecies is found on Filfla islet. Scientists refer to this subspecies as Podarcis filfolensis filfolensis. Podarcis filfolensis maltensis is found on Malta, Gozo and Comino. Podarcis filfolensis kieselbachi is endemic to St Paul’s Island. It is believed that this subspecies became extinct a few years ago. Another race, known as Podarcis filfolensis generalensis, is found on Fungus Rock (Il-Ħaġra tal-Ġeneral), off the west coast of Gozo.

This summer I had the opportunity to see and photograph the fifth subspecies of this interesting lizard, Podarcis filfolensis laurentimulleri. This subspecies lives only on Linosa and Lampione, two small Italian islands which together with the larger island of Lampedusa are known as the Pelagian Archipelago. The archipelago is found about 150 km south west of Malta. Being another subspecies of the Maltese wall lizard points at the fact that the Linosa/Lampione lizard arrived on these islands from Malta although it is not known how and when. It is possible that these lizards were transported by humans although, if this happened, it must have been thousands of years ago.

This subspecies is very dark with light-green spots all over the body and light blue spots on the lower sides. On Linosa the lizards are common everywhere and although grape growers kill them because they believe that they eat their grapes this subspecies seems to be doing very well and did not seem to be endangered or in risk of extinction. 

This article was published in The Times on 03.10.2012

Queen of the raptors

The Eleonora's falcon

Of all the birds of prey that migrate over the Maltese islands only one, the Eleonora’s falcon, deserves to be called the queen of raptors. This magnificent falcon can be migrating in Malta in both spring and autumn.

The Eleonora’s falcon is an unusual bird in more ways than one. It breeds in colonies mostly on small or uninhabited islands in the Mediterranean. Two thirds of the world population, which does not number more than 12,000 pairs, live in Greek territory. Most of the rest are found on islands off the coasts of Spain, Italy, Croatia, Corsica, Morocco and Algeria. 

Throughout most of the year, the food of the Eleonora’s consists mostly of large insects such as dragonflies but in late summer and autumn it switches to migrating small birds which it hunts as they approach the island on which it breeds. 

The Eleonora’s starts breeding very late in the season so that the hatching of the eggs coincides with the start of the autumn migration. This ensures that the young birds are most hungry during the peak migration thus ensuring a plentiful supply of food.

The Eleonora’s falcon, which in Maltese is known as bies tar-reġina, is named after Eleonora of Arborea, a Sardinian judge with a keen interest in birds. She was born in 1347 and after becoming a judge she passed legislation to protect the falcon which later was named after her.

Eleonora’s falcons also have an interesting migration. Most of the world’s population winters in Madagascar. Until recently it was believed that the migratory route was totally coastal, with birds flying south along the Suez Canal. Birds that breed in the western parts of the Mediterranean were thought to reach the Suez by flying along the North African coast. 

Recently studies involving the use of satellites to track birds on which transmitters had been attached showed that these birds actually cross through the Sahara Desert and equatorial rainforests until they reach Kenya and Mozambique a distance of 9,000km. 

This article was published in The Times on 26.09.2012

When raptors spread their wings

Honey buzzard

The autumn raptor migration is in full swing. 

Every day thousands of birds of prey start a precarious journey south to avoid the cold weather in their breeding grounds in Europe. Their routes will take them over forests, mountains lakes and rivers. 

Not being fond of wide sea crossings many will veer to the west over France, Spain and Gibraltar to cross into Africa across the Strait of Gibraltar. 

Others will take an eastern route, reaching Africa via Turkey, where they only have to cross the narrow Istanbul Strait which is also known as the Bosphorus.

Other raptors, including many birds of prey from Scandinavia, take a route directly south, flying over Italy, Sicily and over Malta and from here to North Africa.

Migrating raptors avoid wide sea crossings because when soaring, they use rising air currents, known as thermals, which form above land but not above water.

In Malta, raptors can be seen throughout September. The largest numbers arrive during the third week. The most common species are marsh harrier (bugħadam aħmar), honey buzzard (kuċċarda), hobby (seqer tal-ħannieqa) and kestrel (spanjulet). Other species are seen especially falcons such as the Eleonora’s Falcon (bies tar-reġina) as well as several species of eagle.

Watching migrating raptors can be an unforgettable experience and the beautiful thing about it is that no experience is needed to enjoy the spectacle. On good days hundreds of raptors can be seen soaring; some high and some very low. Late in the afternoon many close their wings and dive for the trees to roost. 

One of the best spots to watch the raptors is in the area just outside Buskett Gardens known as Clapham Junction.

I have watched migrating raptors in several places in Europe, Asia and Africa but up to now I have not been to a place where these majestic birds can be seen as beautifully as at Buskett. 

If Buskett and the surrounding areas continue to be strictly protected, every autumn, birders from other parts of the world will start visiting Malta specifically to watch raptors migrating over Buskett. 

This article was published in The Times on 19.09.2012

A bird that finds Malta a hostile place

The jackdaw, known in Maltese as ċawla, was once a very common bird in the Maltese Islands but is not found here anymore.
But as bird hunting became more popular, the number of jackdaws in Malta started to decrease.Up to 150 years ago, it was so common that it bred in the Valletta fortifications.
A few colonies remained in inaccessible southern cliffs.
By 1932, the jackdaw had decreased to such an extent that Giuseppe Despott, a Maltese naturalist, predicted that unless severe legislation was introduced, this species would be exterminated.
The last Maltese jackdaw was shot in Gozo in April 1956.
Jackdaws feed by foraging on the ground and in trees.
They feed on small animals, especially ground-dwelling insects, and help to control their numbers.
Jackdaws also stand on the back of sheep and other mammals to pick up ticks and other external parasites. In urban areas, these birds feed on rubbish.
It is not a migratory bird and although the jackdaw breeds throughout most of Europe, it does not migrate and does not visit the Maltese Islands.
There are four races of jackdaw, three of which are found in Europe and one in North Africa.
The Maltese natural heritage would be richer if this interesting bird had to be reintroduced, but this is very difficult, if not impossible, since jackdaws have not visited the islands since 1956. 

This article was published in The Times on 12.09.2012

Surviving in the heat of summer

Snails are dormant during the hot season
August was the fourth warmest since 1922. Both the average air temperature and the sea temperature were 2.3 °C above the norm.

Hot dry summers are typical of the Mediterranean region but the climate is not homogeneous throughout the region. 

The northern shores are cooler and wetter than the coast along the south and the east is much drier than the west.  As a rule of thumb botanist delineate the Mediterranean  as those areas where the olive tree can grow.

The Mediterranean region has a fairly rich biodiversity but living in the region is not easy for plants and animals unless they are adapted to live in the summer heat.

Plants need water and light to grow but in the Mediterranean the time of maximum light coincides with the driest months, thus plants cannot fully utilise the light for photosynthesis and growth.  Many plants survive by being annuals, drying up completely in the dry months and surviving until the next season as seeds. 

Others, although perennials, also dry up during the summer and remain alive as bulbs, corms or tubers. 

Other perennials reduce their activity to a bare minimum. Many of these, such as thyme,  are in the form of small bushes with small, dense leaves often with a waxy cover and aromatic leaves that help to reduce water loss.

Animals also find it difficult to survive the summer. Lack of vegetation makes it difficult for plant eaters to find food. Many die after laying eggs with the consequence that animals higher up in the food chain also find it difficult to eat. It is not only the lack of food that makes it difficult for animals to eat. The heat and lack of water increase their struggle. 

Malta’s only amphibian, the frog, and all land molluscs, including snails, aestivate in a safe place as they await  autumn’s first rains to become active again. (This article was published in The Times on 02.09.2012)

A plant rich in nutrients and used for medical cures

A few days ago I planned to take a few pictures of purslane, a common annual plant that I allow to grow in the pots in which I grow a few vegetables, but forgot that the flowers are open only a few hours early in the morning, and had to try again the following day just after sunrise.

Purslane is common in well-watered fields. It has succulent leaves and from late spring to early autumn small yellow flowers.

It is native to most of Central and Southern Europe, as well as parts of North Africa, Middle East, the Indian Subcontinent and Australasia. In Maltese it is known as burdlieqa. Purslane is considered as a weed with those attempting to remove it little realising that it can be very useful as a medicinal plant and as a vegetable.
All the aerial parts, including the stems, leaves and flowers are edible. When fresh it can be used in salads, stir-fried or cooked in boiling water. It can also be used with other vegetables in soups to add taste and texture.

Purslane is very rich in omega-3-fatty acids and vitamins especially A and C as well as some vitamin B. It is also a rich source of minerals and antioxidants although it also contains oxalate, a compound linked to the formation of kidney stones and therefore should be avoided by anybody susceptible to this condition.

Purslane was used in ancient Rome as a cure for headaches, stomach aches and other intestinal problems. It is also very popular in Chinese traditional medicine to treat urinary and digestive problems as well as for appendicitis.

Purslane is considered as a useful companion plant as it helps to reduce evaporation from the soil and prevents the soil from drying up too fast. (This article was published in The Times on 29.08.2012)

Better to be an ugly duckling... even if you are a bird!

Male Spanish sparrow
The Spanish sparrow is the most common breeding bird in the Maltese islands.

It often passes unnoticed and is often ignored probably because it is not colourful and does not have a beautiful song.

Its success is a result of its feeding and breeding habits but, its general lack of attractive features has helped it by no small means.

If it had a beautiful song like that of the finches it would have been trapped and placed in a small cage in such large numbers that it would probably had become very rare or extinct a very long time ago. 

Finches have been trapped in the Maltese islands for decades. When trapping them was still allowed they did not breed except in exceptional years when a pair or two managed to build a nest undisturbed.

Another breeding bird, the blue rock thrush, which is Malta’s National bird, has a loud melodious song. The males are beautiful blue grey. 

These two features made this bird very popular with bird enthusiasts. Many used to be on the lookout for nests and took away all the young birds from any accessible ones. This bird managed to continue breeding in small numbers in the Maltese islands because it often builds its nest on inaccessible cliff faces. 

Accessible nests are sometimes still robbed of their young and if this ugly past-time had to stop completely this beautiful bird would become more common and would even start breeding closer to human habitation.

The Spanish sparrow has neither the colourful plumage nor the ability to sing beautifully like some other more popular birds but it is still a striking and interesting bird. 

Although it prefers to perch on trees and poles it can often be seen feeding on the ground and sometimes, especially where they are given food, they can become very tame. 

The best way to observe sparrows is to put up a bird table outside a window and within days you will start getting sparrows feeding on it giving you the opportunity to observe sparrows as well as other birds at close quarters. 

(This article was published in The Times on 22.08.2012)

Saturday, November 3, 2012

A flying huntsman

It is again the time of the year when the high temperatures do not encourage you to take long walks in the countryside. 

Most vegetation is completely dry and even the perennial plants and that are well adapted to survive the dry Mediterranean summer reduce their rate of growth to a bare minimum.

Butterflies are noted by their absence although other insects such as the various species of bees and wasps remain very active throughout the day. Some species of dragonflies are also active during the summer months. 

Dragonflies live close to water. Adult dragonflies are often seen hunting smaller insects near pools and ponds. They also need water to breed. Dragonflies lay their eggs in water. Some insert them in floating or submerged vegetation; others drop them onto the water while flying. 

The larvae live a completely aquatic life. They are important predators feeding on other invertebrates especially mosquito larvae and so help to control their numbers. As they get older, the larvae start hunting larger prey, including vertebrates such as tadpoles. 

The larval stage is much longer than the adult stage. Some species remain under water for several months; others for up to five or six years. 

When the larval stage is completed the larva climbs out of the water, usually up a reed or other vegetation. In Malta seen larvae living in cement-lined reservoirs get a foothold on dry algae growing on the vertical sides of the reservoir.

On emerging from the water the larva starts breathing air. The larval skin breaks open along a weak spot behind the head and the adult dragonfly walks out of its larval skin to start life as a flying and hunting machine. 

Some dragonflies can fly large distances. A few species can migrate and even cross relatively large sea crossings, such as between Malta and Sicily. 

This article was published in The Times on 15.08.2012