Sunday, March 9, 2014

Yellow-legged gulls

Yellow-legged gull  Larus cachinnans Gawwija prima
Last Sunday I was at Marsaxlokk. I was sitting with my back to the open air market where thousands of Maltese and foreigners were walking from one stall to the other particularly those selling fish. While all this was going on several black-headed and yellow-legged gull were flying around the harbour looking for any scraps of food floating in the water. Sometimes flying very close to the shore.
The yellow-legged gull is a very large gull. It is Malta’s largest breeding bird. In Malta yellow-legged gulls are normally very wary and avoid getting too close to people but while I was watching and photographing them they came so close that with the naked eye one could clearly see the yellow legs, eye and beak as well as the red spot near the tip of the beak.
The red spot has an important function during the breeding season. When an adult bird approaches the nest the young birds start to peck at the red spot. This stimulates the adult birds to regurgitate its food.
At this time of the year the yellow-legged would have already started breeding. They breed in colonies, in Malta they prefer inaccessible places such as cliff faces and on top of the small islet of Filfla.
Thirty years ago shooting from boats was becoming very popular. Hundreds of Maltese hunters started to hunt from powerful dinghies to get the birds even before they reached land. They also used to patrol the cliffs to shoot at the birds there. The last pair of peregrine falcon fell victim to these hunters while the colonies of yellow-legged gulls were decimated.
It was only a few years ago, after hunting from sea craft started to be controlled, that the peregrine falcon started to breed again and the number of breeding yellow-legged gulls started to recover.

Strict bird protection does make a difference to bird populations. This is especially so in spring when the birds are preparing to breed.

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