Saturday, March 23, 2013

Birdwatching in Buskett

Last Monday bird watchers at Buskett saw and photographed two black storks by soaring over Buskett and other parts of Malta. The two spectacular birds were flying at a great height and visited Buskett several times during the afternoon. As it was getting dark they began to loose height and attempted to land somewhere outside the limits of the bird sanctuary but as they were landing several shots were heard. One of the two birds was seen falling to the ground shot. The other did not rise and was presumably shot as well.

When I started watching birds in 1977 visiting Buskett Gardens in September was like finding yourself in a war zone during a fierce battle. There used to be hundreds of hunters openly walking around as if they owned the place shooting at any bird within range of their guns. Buskett was a no go area for all non-hunters as it was too dangerous for anybody to be in the garden and in the surrounding countryside.

Birdwatchers used to try to be as innocuous as possible as their mere presence was taken as a provocation by the hunters some of whom did not think twice before shooting in their direction. The police hardly ever turned up at Buskett and when they did, not much action could be taken. The law stated that it was illegal to discharge a firearm in Buskett Gardens but it was not illegal for anybody to be there with a gun in his hand waiting for a bird to come within range. Furthermore birds of prey were not protected species.

The legislation changed in 1980. Birds of prey were among the birds which could not be shot but most hunters ignored the law and continued to shoot at raptors as before. Hundreds of honey buzzards, marsh harriers, kestrels, hobbies and other rare birds continued to be shot in Buskett.  In view of this situation youth members of the BirdLife Malta which at the time was known as the Malta Ornithological Society organised protests against the annual massacre of birds of prey in Buskett. 

During these protests they were often attacked and sometimes injured. After years of campaigns the situation started to change. Today Buskett Gardens is a relatively safe place for birds and humans. One can watch migrating birds without seeing them being shot in the bird sanctuary. The former youths who organised and took part in the protests in the 1980s now visit Buskett with their young and not so young children knowing that it is no longer dangerous to be there while birds of prey are migrating. Unfortunately the situation still has not changed in other parts of the Maltese islands and birds of prey as well as other protected birds are still being shot. 

This weekend Maltese and foreign volunteers who are monitoring bird hunting found the remains of nearly two hundred protected birds at Miżieb which is public land managed by the hunters. Miżieb is an important spot for migrating birds where and should be declared a protected area for birds and humans. 

This article was published in The Times on 23 September 2009. 

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