Saturday, November 3, 2012

A secure breeding ground for seabirds

For many Maltese the small island of Filfla is a strange mysterious place which hardly anybody ever visits. 

I have been to Filfla several times to help in the study of  its breeding bird populations  but this weekend I took part in a boat trip around the island organised by BirdLife Malta to get a different perspective of the island.

The present shape of Filfla is a result of a century of heavy bombing by the Royal Navy which used it as target practice. The bombardments destroyed large parts of the islet and was leading to the death of many of the island’s breeding seabirds. 

The bombing stopped in 1971 following pressure by the Malta Ornithological Society. In 1980 Filfla became a bird reserve and it became illegal to shoot at birds on the island. 

Eight years later, the bird reserve was given further protection and more restrictions on access were imposed. It is now possible to view Filfla only from a boat as long as one does not land on the islands. Permission to land is given only to persons carrying out scientific research.  

Filfla once formed part of the mainland. As a result of a geological event which must have been of cataclysmic proportions, a large piece of land slid down into the sea by more than 200 metres creating the Magħlaq Fault and a sea channel between Filfla and the mainland.  

The five kilometre channel provides enough isolation for a special habitat for several species of plants and animals. As a result of this isolation some animals and plants took a separate evolutionary path resulting in a number of endemic races of indigenous species. 

The best known of these is Maltese wall lizard whose scientific name is Podarcis filfolensis. This lizard is endemic to the Maltese islands. Four races of this species exist one of which is found only on Filfla. The Filfla lizard is blackish with green spots and is larger than the others races.

Filfla’s isolation has provided a safe breeding ground for a number of seabirds particularly the storm petrel  which in Maltese is known as kanġu ta’ Filfla, a sparrow-sized seabird that approaches land only during the night and which is hardly ever seen out at sea. 

The Cory’s shearwater ċiefa in Maltese, is another breeder while the Yelkouan shearwaters (garnija) probably breeds on the island as well.  

The yellow legged gull (gawwija prima), Malta’s largest breeding bird, breeds in increasing numbers on the plateau although some nests are sometimes built among the boulders at the foot of the cliffs. 

This article was published in The Times on 04.07.2012

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