Thursday, January 31, 2013

Narcotic beauty

French daffodil  (Narcissus tazetta)

The French daffodil is a winter-flowering plant that grows in abandoned fields, steppe habitat and on hillsides.
The French daffodil, known in Maltese as narċis, is relatively common locally. It sometimes grows in small clumps, consisting of a few plants but in some places it grows in dense patches that can cover several square metres.It is native to all the countries around the Mediterranean and in southern France, grown commercially for the production of an essential oil which is used in perfumes.
The beautiful plant is much appreciated by gardeners in countries where it is not indigenous. Up to a few decades ago, it was often cut in large numbers and sold by children and adults along country roads, especially during weekends. This practice was preventing the plants from producing enough seeds to maintain strong populations and if this activity had continued, the French daffodil might have become a rare and endangered species. The plant did not disappear completely, despite the annual onslaught, because it grows from a bulb which can survive for several years.
Other species which were also collected in large numbers have nearly disappeared. One such plant is the pheasant’s eye, which relies solely on seeds for propagation.
The French daffodil belongs to the lily family. As with other members of this family, the bulbs and other parts of this species are very poisonous. The poison protects it from herbivores such as rabbits.
In some countries the French daffodil is used as a cure for several medical conditions including abscesses, boils and other skin conditions. It is also a powerful narcotic and is able to slow down or stop the heartbeat. In fact, the name of this species is derived from narkao (to benumb) from which we also get the word narcotic.
This article was published in The Times on 30 January 2013.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

A swarm of colourful butterflies

Painted lady (Cynthia cardui)

Throughout most of last week several birdwatchers and other naturalists, in addition to migrating birds, were observing the migration of painted ladies, small whites and other butterflies. Hundreds of thousands probably passed over the Maltese in a few days.

Butterflies are known to migrate in spring from North Africa to Europe. There is no regular pattern and the number varies from one year to the other.

On Monday six painted ladies were recorded on the islet of Filfla. More were seen on Tuesday and Wednesday. Little were those noting these migrating butterflies to know that these few migrants were just the advance party of an amazing migration of painted ladies and other species. By Thursday the numbers being observed had increased considerably. 

Hundreds were observed in many areas and thousands were observed particularly along the Magħtab-Baħar iċ-Ċagħaq Coast Road, all flying out to sea in a northerly direction. At San Anton Gardens in Attard, hundreds were drinking nectar from  the orange flowers of the lantana bushes. The largest numbers were observed at the Għadira Nature Reserve. 

One of the wardens made several counts. A typical count was 1,100 butterflies in fifteen minutes. He estimated that about 25,000 painted ladies passed through the reserve during the morning. On Friday even more were counted. Between 30,000 and 40,000 were observed about 25,000 near the Red Tower, slightly to north of the reserve.

A birdwatcher tried to make some counts at different points along the Baħar iċ-Ċagħaq Road. He placed his binocular in a fixed point and counted the number of butterflies flying out at sea heading north and counted between 80 and 120 painted ladies passing by every minute.

By Saturday the number of migrating butterflies went down to a few tens but many remained in the countryside and gardens in built up areas feeding on flowers.
The painted lady is one of the most widely distributed of all butterflies. It is found on every continent during some part of the year except in South America, where the species is rare or absent.

This species seems best adapted to dry and open land and is unable to survive freezing temperatures in any of its stages. The painted lady does not overwinter north of the Mediterranean. Each spring there is an annual migration of butterflies from more southern regions of Africa, sometimes in small, sometimes in massive numbers.

The causes of sporadic population explosions and associated migrations have intrigued biologists since the beginning of scientific research. Few biologists work solely on migration studies. Still fewer are fortunate to be in an area where a migration is taking place.

Last week’s butterfly migration was not the first and will not be the last to take place but it was one of the most spectacular that took place in the past few decades. It is not known why so many butterflies migrated but it is probably a result of favourable weather during the breeding season which resulted in more butterflies reaching adulthood. It could also be the result of climate change which presently is providing the right conditions for butterflies to reproduce. Scientific studies in the breeding and wintering areas could provide the answer to some of these questions and partially solve the mystery of migrating butterflies. 

This article was published in The Times on 27 May 2009.

The gladioli

Field gladiolus (Gladiolus italicus)

The gladioli are sometimes called the sword lily because of the sword-shaped leaves of the plants in this genus but the most widely-used English common name for these plants is simply gladiolus (plural gladioli, gladioluses or sometimes gladiolas). The name comes from Latin gladiator meaning swordsman from gladius "sword”.

The genus Gladiolus contains about 260 species, of which 250 are native to sub-Saharan Africa, mostly South Africa. About 10 species are native to Eurasia. There are 160 species of gladiolus endemic in southern Africa and 76 in tropical Africa.

Gladioli belong to a genus of flowering plants in the iris family. They are attractive, perennial herbs found in temperate climates. They grow from rounded, symmetrical corms that are enveloped in several layers of brownish fibrous tunics.

Several species of gladioli are found in the Mediterranean region. Three of these have been recorded in the Maltese islands. One species is very common especially in agricultural land. This species is known as common gladiolus but has several other common names including Italian gladiolus, field gladiolus, and common sword-lily. It is probably native to much of Eurasia, but it is well-known on other continents where it is a common weed, particularly of cultivated fields and waste places.

The beautiful flowers appear between March and May. It is quite common throughout the Maltese countryside preferring cultivated land, especially cereal fields. It can also be found along roadsides and on hillsides.

The pinkish-purplish flowers are borne on a spike-like stem that can grow a metre high and the flowers are often seen poking above the surrounding vegetation. The leaves are long and sword-like and grow straight out of the ground.

The common gladiolus evolved together with wheat in the Middle East and from there moved west into the Mediterranean region where it is now found growing. Its ability to live close to cereals has given it its Maltese name ħabb il-qamħ tar-raba’.

The gladiolus, which grows out of a corm, survives from one year to the next underground by producing a new corm before the end of the flowering season. The seeds are used to disperse and propagate new areas.

Two other species of gladioli have been recorded in the Maltese islands. Both are quite similar in appearance but are very rare and difficult to find. The southern gladiolus known in Maltese as ħabb il-qamħ tal-wied is restricted to rocky valleys.

This article was published in The Times on 20 May 2009. 

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Fumitory: A 'smoking' medicinal plant

The fumitory  is a genus of about fifty annual flowering plans native to temperate Europe and Asia though some species are found in North and South America, Australia, etc. Several species are found in Malta. Many difficult to tell apart unless one looks carefully for minor features that distinguish one from the other.

In Maltese fumitories are generally known as daħnet l-art, which can be translated as ‘smoke of the ground’. This name mirrors its English, Italian and scientific names which comes from fumo (smoke). 

It is said that these plants come in contact with the eyes the eyes will water just as they would if they were exposed to smoke.  One wonders whether the Maltese name was given to it by local country people or by botanists who coined it from its Italian or scientific name.

Fumitories are well known for their medicinal properties. The best known species is the common fumitory which is also known as earth smoke. This species is the main source of fumaric acid a chemical used in medicine to produce compounds which are sometimes used to treat psoriasis. Fumaric acid is also used in the food industry as an acidant in beverages and it used as a substitute for tartaric and citric and malic acids.

Fumitory has been highly valued since at least Roman times for its tonic and blood cleansing effect upon the body. It is used as a stimulant and for is cleansing action of the liver and gallbladder and is principally used to treat chronic itchy skin problems such as eczema. It is also diuretic and mildly laxative. In excessive doses it is toxic and is said to have hypnotic and sedative effects. Traditionally the leaves of the plant were macerated in wine and a full glass drunk every four hours. 

This article was published in The Times on 13 May 2009. 

The large quaking grass

Large quacking grass (Briza maxima)

The flowers and seed heads of the large quaking grass look like small drooping Chinese lanterns attached to a slender stalk swinging to and fro in a gentle spring breeze. This species is an annual spring-flowering member of the grass family. It is found throughout the Mediterranean region and is cultivated in Britain, Australasia and many parts of the Unites States of America as a decorative garden plant and is often used in flower arrangements.

Known in Maltese as beżżulet il-qattusa, the large quaking grass is frequently found in garigue and other rocky areas such as maquis as well as along roadsides and in wasteland.
The grass family is a large successful plant family in which one finds many well known species such as rice, wheat and barley as well as the great reed, bamboo and a myriad of other species many of which are of economic importance.

Rice, wheat and maize provide more than half of all calories eaten by humans whilst another species, sugarcane, is the major source of sugar production. Of all crops 70% are grasses.

It is estimated that there are more than 10,000 species of grasses. Planted communities dominated by grasses are known as grasslands. Grasslands comprise about 20% of terrestrial habitats.

Grass blades grow at the base of the blade and not from elongated stem tips. This low growth point evolved in response to grazing animals and allows grasses to be grazed or mown regularly without severe damage to the plant. Without large grazers such as deer, elephants cattle and other livestock a clear-cut fire-destroyed areas would soon be colonized by grasses and if there is enough rain, tree-seedlings. 

The tree seedlings would eventually produce shade which kills most grasses. Large animals trample the seedlings, killing the trees. Grasses persist because their lack of woody stems helps them to resist the damage of trampling. 

This article was published in The Times on 6 May 2009

The scented bug orchid

The scented bug orchid, known in Maltese as orkida tfuħ, is a variable plant with a dense flower spike. It grows in garigue, rocky steppes and abandoned fields throughout the Mediterranean, except in Cyprus and the far eastern part as well as in Central Europe and western Asia. The flower scent varies form an unpleasant ‘bed-bug odour’ to a sweet scent.

Orchids are found in almost every habitat apart from deserts and glaciers. 

The great majority are to be found in the tropics mostly Asia, South America and Central America. They are found above the Arctic Circle, in southern Patagonia and even on islands close to Antartica.

Botanists do not agree about the total number of orchid species. Some accept 22,000 species but the number may be as high as 25,000.  

This is about four times the number of mammal species or more than twice the number of bird species. About 800 new species are described every year and since the 19th century horticultarists have created more than 100,000 hybrids and cultivars.   

Some scientists believe that orchids have been in existance for over 100 million years. A scientific study has shown that the origin of orchids goes back much longer than originally expected. 

An extinct species of stingless bee was found trapped in miocene amber which formed about 15-20 million years ago. The bee was carrying pollen of a previously unknown orchid on its wings. 

This find is the first evidence of fossilised orchids to date. This indicates that orchids may have an ancient origin and have arisen 76 to 84 million years ago during the Late Cretaceous period. In other words, they may have co-existed with dinasours. It shows also that at that time insects were active pollinators of orchids. 

According to another study the overall present distribution pattern of orchids shows that they are even older and may go back roughly 100 million years.

This article was published in The Times on 29 April 2009.

The star clover - a plant with a striking formation

The star clover is a smll spring-flowering plant often found in cultivated land and stony rock ground. It has small innocuous pale pink flowers which aftr fertilisation are transformed into a striking structure consisting of a red star formed from the flowers’ sepals which become enlarged and behind which is hidden the seedpod.

This species, known in Maltese as xnien ta’ l-istilla, is found throughout the Mediterranean. It is one of about three hundred species of plants members of the genus known as trefoils or more popularly clovers. A good number of these species are found in the Maltese islands. A characteristic of this group of plants is that they have trifoliate leaves (three leaflets), hence their name although rarely the leaves are 5 or 7-foliate. 

Trefoils are members of the pea family. They are found throughout the world but they are more common in the temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere. Many are used as food plants by the larvae of some butterflies and moths one of which is the clouded yellow (farfett tas-silla) one of the most striking butterflies in the Maltese islands.

Clovers are important as a source of nectar for bees. They are a valuable survival food, as they are high in protein, widespread, and abundant. They are not easy to digest raw, but this can be easily fixed by juicing them or boiling them for 5 to10 minutes. Dried flowerheads and seedpods can also be ground up into a nutritious flour and mixed with other foods. Dried flowerheads can also be steeped in hot water for a healthy, tasty tea.

This article was published in The Times on 8 April 2009.

Along came a spider...

Spiders are terrestrial arthropods and like all arthropods, they are invertebrate animals with an exoskeleton – a segmented body with jointed appendages.
Crabs, lobsters, scorpions and all insects are arthropods. What distinguishes spiders from other arthropods is the fact that they have eight legs and can inject poison.
Over 40,000 species of spiders have been identified. It is believed that between 200 and 500 species are found on our islands although they have not yet been studied properly and much work still needs to be done before we get a good picture of the species living here.
Spiders are found in nearly every habitat, with the exception of the sea and air. They are also found in every continent except Antarctica.
The close proximity of spiders to man has spawned a rich spider folklore including myths, tales and beliefs. Spiders have also inspired comic books and films. A classic example is the story of Spider-Man in which Peter Parker is bitten by a radioactive spider and acquires abilities normally associated with the insect, such as the ability to scale buildings and to shoot a web fluid from two boxes attached to his wrists.In many parts of the world spiders evoke fear. Taken to an extreme, the fear turns into a phobia, known as arachnophobia. Many Maltese have a phobia for the American cockroach (wirdiena) but I do not know anyone who is afraid of spiders locally.
In spiders the fluid is produced by an organ known as a spinneret, a complex structure consisting of several orifices each of which can produce one filament. Each filament is then combined with the filaments produced from the other orifices to create a very strong silk thread.
This silk thread has various uses: many species build sticky webs to trap insects while others trap their prey by running around them. A number of species hunt by making bolas which they throw at their prey.
Spiders are often abhorred because their webs are considered dirty. But spiders can be very effective non-polluting agents of insect control and it would be a good idea to allow them to set up home in houses.

This article was published in The Times on 23 January 2013.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The red leaf beetle

Red leaf beetle (Chrysolina gossa)
The red leaf beetle is one of about sixty species of leaf beetles that are found in the Maltese countryside. The leaf beetle family is one of the largest and most commonly encountered of all beetle families with over 35,000 species in the world.

They are all plant eaters feeding on specific plants and several species have been used to control weeds. This was particularly successful in parts of Australia and in California where introduced plants were causing a lot of damage because of lack of herbivorous animals that could control them.

In Maltese the red leaf beetle is known as żabbella ħamra. Żabbella is a variation of the word sebbella which is one of the several, mostly forgotten Maltese name for the ladybird which is more commonly called nannakola.

 Beetles are the largest group of insects. It is estimated that there are between five and eight million species in this group this being about 25% of all known life-forms. 40% of all described insect species are beetles and many new species are discovered every year.

Beetles and their larvae have a variety of strategies to avoid being attacked by predators. These include camouflage, mimicry, toxicity, and active defense.

Camouflage involves the use of colouration or shape to blend into the surrounding environment. This sort of protective coloration is common and widespread among beetle families, especially those that feed on wood or vegetation, such as many of the leaf beetles. In some of these species, sculpturing or various coloured scales or hairs cause the beetle to resemble bird dung or other inedible objects.

Another defence that often uses colour or shape to deceive potential enemies is mimicry. A number of beetles resemble wasps which helps them avoid predation even though the beetles are in fact harmless. Many beetle species, including ladybirds can secrete distasteful or toxic substances to make them unpalatable or even poisonous. These species often have bright or contrasting colour patterns to warn away potential predators. There are many beetles which mimic these chemically-protected species including the red leaf beetle which resembles a ladybird.

This article was published in The Times on 22 April 2009.

The mallow family

 The mallows belong to a large and important family of plants which are more abundant in the tropics than in colder climates. 

About a thousand species have been discovered and it is claimed that they are all rich in mucilage a substance produced by most plants and some microorganisms which is thought to aid in water storage and seed germination, and to act as a membrane thickener and food reserve. Mucilage is edible, but tastes rather bland and is used in medicine for its demulcent properties. 

Traditionally marshmallows were made from the extract of the mucilaginous root of the marshmallow plant and due to the demulcent nature of the extract, worked as a cough suppressant but marsh mallows sold today in sweet shops do not contain any marshmallow at all.

Most of the mallows have been used as food, and are mentioned by early classic writers in this connexion. Mallow was an esculent vegetable among the Romans, a dish of marsh mallow was one of their delicacies. In France, the Middle East and North Africa mallows are used as salads.

Several species of mallow are found in the Maltese countryside. 

The least mallow (ħobbejża tal-warda żgħira) which flowers from late winter to early summer has small pale lilac-blue or mauve flowers. It is common in fields and along waysides. 

The tree mallow (ħobbejża tas-siġar) grows up to 3 metres high. It is common in some areas especially along the coast.  It has lilac flowers with purple veins at the base.

The common mallow (ħobbejża tar-raba) is also found throughout the Maltese countryside. The flowers which are pink or purple with dark veins can be seen between February and May. 

Another common species is the large-flowered mallow (ħobbejża tal-warda kbira) which is in flower between mid-spring to early summer. It has large bright satiny pink occasionally white flowers.

This article was published in The Times on 15 April 2009.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Birds of a feather... bathe together

Black-necked grebe (Podiceps nigricollis)

Feathers are critical for a bird’s survival: they are used in flight and to regulate their body temperature. Thus birds spend a lot of time preening, bathing and anting to maintain their feathers in optimal condition. These activities help to remove parasites and keep the feathers waterproof.
Bathing is just as important and birds frequently carry out ritual movements to wet their feathers and then dry them.Birds can have up to 25,000 feathers and so they can spend several hours preening a day. Most birds have an oil gland at the base of their tail and when preening they moisten their beak with an oily secretion from this gland.
Aquatic birds such as the black-necked grebes, several of which spend the winter at the Għadira and Simar nature reserves, feed on fish which they catch by diving and swimming underwater. They have a thick layer of waterproof feathers to keep dry and warm and spend a lot of time preening them.
With luck one can catch them having a bath just in front of one of the observation hides at the reserves.
When bathing, these birds lower their body in the water and use their wings to throw water on their backs. They do this several times. When they finish, they rise out of the water, vigorously shaking their body and flapping their wings to remove the water. They can do this over and over again until all or most of the water is removed.
Land birds often follow a ‘water bath’ with a dust bath. This removes excess oil as well as dry skin and stops the feathers from becoming matted.
In summer, when water is scarce, sparrows can often be seen cleaning their feathers this way. They usually dust themselves communally with one or two birds performing the dusting while the others stay on the lookout for danger.

This article was published in The Times on 16.01.13

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Bird whose song is like violin’s

Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita)
The chiffchaff is a small woodland bird that can be heard calling on sunny wintry days. Its song is a repetitive chiff-chaff hence its English, German (zilpzalp), Dutch (tjiftjaf) and Welsh (siff-saff) name.
The bird breeds in northern and temperate Europe and migrates to southern Europe, North Africa and southern Asia in winter. It is estimated that between 60 and 120 million such birds live in Europe.In Malta, it is known as vjolin tax-xitwa, probably due to its call as well.
The chiffchaff visits Malta during migration and many stop here for winter. Although it is present here from autumn, it is only when the temperature starts falling in late December and early January that it increases in number.
It is usually seen in wooded areas, in valleys and in large gardens. Most of the time the bird can be seen flying from one branch to the other picking up insects, as its food consists mainly of small flies.
The chiffchaff is one of several small green warblers known as leaf warblers. Several species visit our islands. The most common are the wood warbler, known in Maltese as vjolin ħadrani, and the willow warbler, known locally as vjolin pastard. These species can be difficult to tell apart without hearing their song. It was only in 1789 that an English naturalist showed how to identify these three birds through their song.
Two other species of leaf warblers that visit the islands are the western and eastern Bonelli’s warblers, known in Maltese as vjolin bajdani and vjolin tal-Lvant respectively.

This article was published in The Times on 09.01.13

Saturday, January 5, 2013

The goldwing moth

Goldwing (Synthymia fixa)
The goldwing is a very common moth seen mainly in April and May. Like most other moths it is a nocturnal insect. It spends the day resting on vegetation. If disturbed it flies for a short distance and lands on another piece of vegetation trying to blend again with its surroundings.

When it is resting in vegetation it is not easily seen. It has a pair of orange under-wings, which it keeps hidden under the forewings but when it is disturbed and flies off these become suddenly visible startling any would be predator.

It lays its eggs on the pitch trefoil, a leguminous plant known in Maltese as silla tal-mogħoz hence its Maltese name baħrija tas-silla tal-mogħoz.

Most species of moths are nocturnal, but there are crepuscular and diurnal species. The hummingbird hawk moth can often be seen during the day inserting its proboscis into a flower while hovering in front of it.  

Although butterflies and moths are in many ways similar it is relatively easy to distinguish one from the other. The most obvious difference are the antennae. Butterflies have thin filamentous antennae, which are clubbed at the end whilst moths have comb-like or feathery antennae and if filamentous they are always unclubbed.

In most cases moth caterpillars spin a cocoon made of silk within which they turn into pupae. The butterfly pupae are usually exposed, although the skipper butterflies make crude cocoons in which they pupate.

Another important difference is the wing colouration. Butterflies are usually very colourful whilst moths are usually plain brown, grey, white or black patterned in such a way so as to aid camouflage whilst they are resting during the day.

Most butterfly and moths can also be told apart by the shape of their bodies. Moths tend to have stout hariy bodies whilst butterflies have slender and smoother abdomens. As a rule moths usually rest with their wings spread out to their sides whilst butterflies hold their wings vertically above their body unless they are basking in which case they hold their wings flat on the side to absorb the heat of the sun like solar water heaters. 

This article was published in The Times on 01.04.09. 

The greater periwinkle

Greater periwinkle (Vinca major)

The greater periwinkle is native to southern Europe from Spain and southern France east to the western Balkans and north-eastern Turkey. It is sometimes grown in gardens and can also be found the Maltese countryside where it has been introduced and become naturalised.

It is a fast growing herbaceous perennial trailing vine with evergreen foliage and pretty blue flowers. The arching stems of the greater periwinkle can reach about 30 cm in height, but they soon fall over and spread indefinitely along the ground. The flowers are produced from early spring to autumn. In many parts of Europe one finds a similar species, the common periwinkle, which is not found in Malta.

Gardeners have developed various cultivars such as the ‘Alba’ which has white flowers, Oxyloba which has deep blue flowes and others which are grown for their variegated foliage.

The two species are well known for their medicinal properties. The periwinkle is known for its astringent, or drying qualities and herbalists used it to treat any health condition with symptoms of excessive flow, from bleeding gums to heavy periods. They have also been used to treat diarrhea, colitis, canker sores and tinnitus, the ringing in the ears that plagues many people.

The modern pharmaceutical industry utilises a number of chemical compounds found in the plants to provide cure for several medical conditions. Vincamine, an alkaloid extracted from the plants, is used as a cerebral stimulant and vasodilator whilst another compound, reserpine, reduces high blood pressure.

Studies are still being carried out on these plants to find new uses for them. Results have shown that there are many potential uses although some are controversial and more studies are needed to determine the effectiveness and safety of the cures being claimed.

A few months ago studies were started in South Africa to study the traditional use of this plant to treat diabetes and pre-diabetic conditions. The periwinkle has been used throughout Europe for centuries as a diabetic treatment, but few studies exist to demonstrate its efficacy in treating this serious condition.

Another controversial use of the greater periwinkle is to treat cancer. This species contains another two powerful chemicals, vincristine and vinblastine which are used in chemotherapy treatments. It is also claimed that as the periwinkle increases blood flow to the brain it can be used to treat Alzeheimer and other memory problems.

A non-contoversial use is in the cottage industry. In parts of Europe the stems of these plants are used to weave baskets.

 This article was published in The Times on 25.03.09.

The soldier bug - a common insect

Soldier bug (Spilostethus pandurus)

The soldier bug is a common insect that can be seen running on the ground or at the base of several species of plants. It belongs to the suborder Heteroptera (true bugs) which forms part of the order Hemiptera.  In the Heteroptera we find a large variety of insects some of which are aquatic. These insects have a sharp tough proboscis which they insert into plants to suck liquids, usually sap. Some species suck blood from livestock as well as humans.

The word hemiptera is from Greek ‘hemi’ (half) and ‘pteron (wing) referring to the forewings of many members of this order which are hardened near the base but soft and transparent at the end. This structure makes it easy for one to distinguish true bugs from beetles, which have completely hardened forewings, which cover the delicate transparent hind-wings.

Hemipterans do not undergo metamorphosis between the larval phase and an adult phase. The young, which are called nymphs, resemble wingless adults. In the last transformation they develop wings and functioning sexual organs without a pupal stage as in most other insects.

At first glance the soldier bug, known in Maltese as suldat, could easily be mistaken for a fire bug another common insect known in Maltese as seffud tal-ġamar.

Several families of Hemiptera are adapted to an aquatic lifestyle. These include the lesser water boatman (qaddief ta’ l-għadajjar), the water cricket (żgiġġ) and the greater backswimmer (mqass ta’ l-ilma). They are mostly predatory, and have legs adapted as paddles to help the animal move through the water.

This article was published in The Times on 18.03.09

Friday, January 4, 2013

The common white wagtail

White wagtail. (Montacilla alba)

A few weeks ago Birdlife Malta announced that the 7,761 white wagtails were counted as they flew towards the large trees surrounding the Great Siege monument in Republic Street in Valletta where they roost. This was the largest number of wagtails counted since surveys were started in 1986. The trend over the past years has been a steady increase showing that this wintering species is doing quite well. 

Most, if not all wagtails wintering in the Maltese islands, roost in Valletta. Many species of birds including sparrows and starlings roost in trees often in urban areas. Communal roosting is advantageous to birds mainly because the large number of birds resting together increase the temperature of their surroundings. This type of roosting also provides safety in numbers. A birds forming part of a large flock stands a much better chance of surviving an attack by a predator than a solitary bird. Another advantage is that young inexperienced birds can follow older more experienced birds when leaving to search for food.

The wagtails are counted as they approach their roosting sites. Birdwatchers post themselves around Valletta to count the birds as they fly in small groups. Watching the small flocks arriving is exciting in itself but watching a large flock of roosting birds as they fly over their roosting site is a spectacle that is difficult to forget. Sparrows can be seen and heard roosting in trees in several towns and villages in Malta and Gozo especially during the summer months when the number of sparrows reaches a peak following the breeding season. In winter large flocks of starlings can be seen performing aerial feats as the flock twists and turns as if it is a single living creature whilst seeking a place where to land.

The white wagtail, known in Maltese as zakak abjad, is a small elegant bird with grey, black and white plumage. It is a wintering visitor to Malta arriving in November and leaving in March. It is often seen in urban areas waging its long tail as it walks slowly feeding from the ground. In the countryside it is a bird of open spaces preferring pools and puddles around which it pursues insects, spiders and other small creatures. In urban areas it often feeds on hard ground and can be seen on pavements and roads.

Recoveries of ringed birds have shown that wintering wagtails arrive from central and northern Europe. Birds have been recovered from the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Denmark and Sweden countries with severe winters. Birds living in areas with milder winters tend to be sedentary and do not migrate.

The white wagtail breeds throughout Europe except in some parts of the Mediterranean. It is also found in most of Asia. Its range extends over more than 10 million km² and it is considered as a common species. It has not declined in numbers and has managed to exploit human changes such as man-made structures which are used for nesting sites and increased open areas which are used for foraging.

This article was published in The Times on 11.03.09.

Sparrow species that breed in Malta

Spanish sparrow (Passer hispaniolensis)

Two species of sparrow breed in the Maltese islands. 

One of them, the Spanish sparrow, is probably the most familiar wild bird even with those who never visit the countryside as they can see this bird in inhabited areas as it is a very tame urban bird and often lands to feed very close to humans without any fear.

Sparrows are small plump birds brown–grey in colour with a short tail and a strong powerful beak. Sparrows are seed eaters though they consume small insects especially during the breeding season. Sparrows belong to a group of birds known as Passer and although many species of birds are known as sparrows only about thirty species belong to the Passer genus.

Two of these species are found in Malta. The Spanish sparrow, known as għammiel tal-bejt, is the common sparrow found throughout the Maltese islands. The tree sparrow is known as għammel tas-siġar

This species also breeds in the Maltese numbers but is less common than the Spanish sparrow and does not live in towns and villages. The nest is built in holes and crevices in walls in rural buildings but it does not breed in trees as its name suggests. It breeds over most of temperate Eurasia and Southeast Asia. In eastern Asia it is a bird of the town and city but in Europe it is restricted to the countryside.

The Spanish sparrow is sometimes called the willow sparrow. It is found in parts of the Mediterranean including Malta, western Spain, Sardinia, Sicily, the Balkans and across southwest and central Asia from Turkey eastwards to China

It Italy and Corsica it is replaced by the Italian sparrow which could be an intermediated between this species and the house sparrow, which is the species found in town throughout most of Central and Northern Europe.  

This article was published in The Times on 4.03.09. 

The birdsfoot trefoils

The birdsfoot trefoils are leguminous flowering plants found growing in different habitats. The flowers are usually yellow. Several species occur in Malta. The common  birdsfoot trefoil, known in Maltese as qrempuċc tal-mogħoż,  is found growing in most habitats especially in fields, stony places, garrigue and roadsides. 

It grows throughout the Mediterranean appearing in winter and spring. Another common species is the edible birdsfoot trefoil known in Maltese as qrempuċ. This species is also found growing in a wide variety of habitats from late winter through spring. 

The grey birdsfoot trefoil, known locally as għantux tal-blat, also blooms in winter and spring. It is frequently found in stony places including close to the shore.

Trefoils belong to the leguminous plant family. This is a very large group in which we find a large number of plants which can be very different but are characterised by their flowers which usually have two large upper petals, two smaller lateral petals which form a wing and two even smaller petals which come together to form a keel. Well known members of this family are the clover, beans, peas and peanuts. The flowers of the carob tree, another member of the family do not have petals. 

Leguminous plants are known for their ability to fix nitrogen from the air thanks to a symbiotic relationship with certain bacteria found in root nodules. The ability to form this symbiosis reduces fertilizer costs for farmers and gardeners who grow legumes, and allows legumes to be used in a crop rotation to replenish soil that has been depleted of nitrogen.

Beans are one of the longest-cultivated plants, broad beans having been grown at least since ancient Egypt, and the common bean for six thousand years in the Americas.

Many modern dry beans come from European and African varieties of broad beans, but most of the kinds commonly eaten fresh come from the Americas, being first seen by Christopher Columbus during his conquest of a region of what may have been the Bahamas, where they were grown in fields.

Legume seed and foliage have comparatively higher protein content than non-legume material, probably due to the additional nitrogen that legumes receive through nitrogen-fixation symbiosis. This high protein content makes them desirable crops in agriculture and beans and other pulses are an important dietary source of proteins especially for vegetarians.

This article was published in The Times on 25.02.09.

The lesser drone-fly

Lesser drone fly (Eristalinus taeniops)

The lesser drone-fly, which is also known as the band-eyed drone fly, is a common hoverfly found around the Mediterranean from Portugal to Lebanon and from Italy to Libya. It is also found in the Canary Islands, the Caucasus, eastern parts of the Afrotropical region to South Africa, Nepal, northern Pakistan and can now be found in California and Florida where it has been introduced accidentally. 

This species of drone-fly is one of several species of hoverflies found in the Maltese islands. This is a large family found in many habitats frequenting flowers in the same way as bees and wasps which they closely resemble in appearance and behaviour. More than 6,000 species of hoverfly have been identified by scientists of these about thirty species are found in Malta although with more research and study more could be found.

The lesser drone-fly resembles the very common drone-fly. It differs from it in being slightly smaller and the eyes have alternating light and dark vertical stripes. The two species look like a bee and are actually often mistaken for one by humans as well as insect-eating birds which do not eat them as they fear that it would sting them in the same way as a bee. In actual fact hoverflies do not have stings.

The drone-fly is known in Maltese as dubbiena dakar whilst the lesser drone-fly is known as dubbiena ta’ l-għajnejn irrigati.

Hoverflies spend a lot of time hovering or feeding on flowers. Their larvae, known as maggots, are found in soil or in fresh water feeding on decaying plant or animal matter. In a few species the maggots feed on plant-sucking insects including aphids and are important in the biological control of insect pests. In some places gardeners use companion plants to attract hoverflies to their gardens so as to reduce the number of pests. This is a form of integrated form of pest management that avoids the use of pesticides which often do more harm than good. 

This article was published in The Times on 18.02.09.

The medicinal nettle

Large-leaved stinging nettle (Urtica dubia)

Nettles (ħurrieq) would seem an unlikely candidate for inclusion in the list of useful plants but some species of this group of flowering plants are well known for their medicinal properties and some are widely used as salads. 

The best known species is the stinging nettle which is found throughout central and northern Europe as well as in the Mediterranean region. This species is not found in Malta but three other species which apparently have similar properties are found in the Maltese countryside.

The small nettle (ħurrieq zgħira), the Roman nettle (ħurrieqa taz-zibeġ), and the large leaved nettle (ħurrieqa komuni) are common weeds found mostly in nitrogen rich soil especially in fields, abandoned land and along roads and paths.

Nettles are best known for the painful sting one feels when touching their leaves. The plants were used in ancient times for flogging known as urtication.  This brought about redness of the skin which was believed to be a cure for rheumatism.

Extracts from the plants are used to treat arthritis, anemia, hay fever, kidney problems and pain. A particular compound found in nettles is also believed to induce lactation and clinical trials indicate that the extract of some species is a diuretic in patients suffering of congestive heart failure.

Nettle is used to treat dandruff and to make hair more shiny. In some countries farmers add nettles to cows’ food to give them a more glossy and healthy appearance. It is believed that nettles can ease eczema.
Moreover fresh nettles are used in folk remedies to stop bleeding thanks to the large quantity of vitamin K they contain although there is none in dried plants which are thus used to thin blood.

Nettles contain substances that are believed to prevent or cure many other conditions. Studies and clinical trials are still going on to determine these properties which include prevention of certain types of cancer.
Nettles are also widely used as food being rich in vitamins A,C D, iron, potassium, manganese and calcium and are a good source of nutient for people who do not eat enoough meat or fruit. Its flavour is similar to that of spinach and its leaves and flowers are used to make a herbal tea. A soup made from the young shoots is considered a delicacy in Scandinavia. It can also be used in polent and pesto.

To remove the sting the leaves are soaked in water.

In Medieval times the nettle was used to make dye for clothes and even during the Second World War it was used to camouflage soldiers’ uniforms.

This article was published in The Times on 11.02.09

Thursday, January 3, 2013

The multi-purpose ivy plant

Ivy (Hedera helix)

Walk through Buskett Gardens at this time of the year and you will be amazed by the variety and number of birds singing in the ivy plants that grow on many of the walls along the numerous paths. 

The songs belong to robins, blackcaps, song thrushes and other species that congregate in the gardens to feed on the fruit of the ivy, lentisk and other species of plants. 

Some of the birds are winter visitors. They arrived in the autumn and spent the winter in the Maltese islands.

Others have just arrived from further south, probably from North Africa and stopped in Malta to refuel and build up their body fat which will provide the energy required by them to complete their journey to their breeding grounds further north.

The ivy also attracts other creatures especially butterflies and moths that lay their eggs on the leaves which are the food plant of the caterpillars when they hatch. In turn the caterpillars are eaten by birds.

The leaves and berries, whilst so attractive to many species of birds and insects are toxic to humans. The leaves contain a chemical which can cause an allergic reaction in some people. This same substance has been found to kill breast cancer cells.

It has been found that ivy is an efficient air filter. It tops a list of plants that remove toxic chemicals from the air. The list was compiled by NASA as part of the NASA Clean Air Study which researched ways to clean the air in space stations. As well as absorbing carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen, as all plants do, these plants also eliminate significant amounts of benzene, formaldehyde and/or trichloroethylene.

The ivy, known in Maltese as liedna, is native to western, central and southern Europe, northwestern Africa and across central-southern Asia east to Japan. It is indigenous to Malta and grows very well on north-facing walls. It is common at Buskett and in some valleys and would be a useful plant if grown in gardens where it would attract wildlife, provide much needed greenery and cover ugly walls.

This article was published in The Times on 04.02.09.