Friday, May 31, 2013

Cathedral spiders

Cathedral spiders build large complicated webs in trees and bushes. This species of spider is very common in the Maltese countryside and the webs are so large that they are difficult to miss once you know about it.
In the Maltese islands, as in other countries around the Mediterranean, the webs are built in prickly pear trees, hence the Maltese name brimba tal-pal tal-bajtar.
Very often several spiders build webs in close proximity to each other creating large colonial webs. It seems that building colonial webs gives the spiders advantages and helps them to better survive in their environment. Very often, colonies are made up of sister spiders which do not move away from the spot where they were hatched.
The webs are built by the female spiders. Males do not eat and die shortly after fertilising a female.
The cathedral spider is found around the Mediterranean and in parts of Africa and Asia.
It is also found in Australia and parts of the Americas. A female cathedral spider is between 10mm and 15mm long.
The male is much smaller, and usually is not larger than 3mm. The colour is variable but black and white is the most common pattern.
The presence of a colony of cathedral spiders can be beneficial to the trees and shrubs as their presence protects the tree from insect pests.
In some cases a heavy presence of spiders has resulted in the loss of leaves from a tree and, in exceptional cases, even in the death of a tree.
This does not seem to be a problem in Malta and the prickly pear trees on which one finds the colonies seem to do very well.
The cathedral spider belongs to the orb spider family. One member of this family, the lobed argiope, brimba kbira tal-widien in Maltese, can frequently be found in the Maltese countryside.
It is particularly fond of valleys and wooded areas, including gardens.

This article was published in The Times of Malta on 29 May 2013

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Every bird shot is one nest less

This year’s bird hunting season closed yesterday and not a day too soon; it should not have been opened in the first place.
The common sandpiper that I photographed at the G─žadira Nature Reserve last Sunday was a lucky bird.For some years we had become used to the idea of seeing migrating birds reaching our shores and being able to continue their journey north. However, this year, flying over the Maltese islands was like running the gauntlet for many migrating birds.
In spring, adult birds return to their breeding grounds to breed. Every bird shot is one nest less. Legally, hunters were permitted to shoot at turtle doves and quail, and hunting had to stop as soon as the bag limit was reached. Obviously the limit was never reached.
Before this year’s season opened, I was told by a number of hunters that they had no intention of sending an SMS – as they were obliged to whenever they shot a turtle dove – as they had no intention of reaching the bag limit.
Shooting turtle doves should not be allowed by law as in many parts of Europe the bird is in serious decline and needs protection.
To make matters worse, this year many hunters were under the impression that the season was a free for all and openly ignored the law.
Protected birds, including rare species such as the pallid harrier, were shot indiscriminately. Some hunters even ignored the boundaries of nature reserves.
Many hunters made non-hunters, including tourists, feel unwelcome in the countryside. Having somebody glaring angrily at you with a gun in hand is to say the least intimidating.
Last week I was even sworn at while taking pictures of flowers growing along a country path near Rabat.
The shooting of migratory birds in spring brings about a widespread negative reaction that should not be ignored. It is giving Malta a bad image and action must be taken for the sake of the birds and ours.
This article was published in The Times of Malta on 1 May 2013.