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.