Sunday, December 7, 2014

A carob tree is either male or female and when it flowers the male tree needs an insect to transfer the pollen to the flowers of a female tree. Nothing unusual in this because the majority of flowering plants make use of insects to ensure that pollination takes place. 

Carob trees rely on flies. They attracting by producing a strong scent of rotting vegetation which can be smelt from several metres away. Flies are probably equipped to detect the odour from further away than we can.

When a fly lands on a male flower it starts walking about and in the process ends up with the carob’s pollen attached to its body. If it visits the flowers of a female tree some or all the pollen grains on its body are detached and if they are in the right spot fertilise the flower.

Not all plants rely on animals for pollination. About ten percent of all flowering plants rely on physical factors such as wind. Wind pollination is mainly used by grasses and conifers. Most aquatic plants depend on the surrounding water to transfer their pollen.

Together plants make use of at least 200,000 species of animals to pollinate them. They cannot rely on chance for an insect to land on them so they have evolved special traits to attract them.

Most flowers have coloured petals that make the flowers more visible to insects.

Many petals have patterns which are only visible under ultraviolet light. Humans cannot see UV light and what looks like a mono-coloured petal to us looks like an airport runway to an insect with lines which lead the bees to their nectar and pollen.

Night-flowering plants usually have large white flowers which are shaped like a funnel. They are usually strongly scented flowers to attract bats and moths.

Plants that are pollinated by birds are usually red and do not produce any scent as most birds have a weak sense of smell.

Plants that are visited by a wide variety of insects often risk wasting their pollen as after visiting a flower of a particular species an insect might visit the flower of another species. Some plants, such as the orchids, have become specialised to attract just one species of insect.

Bees, of which the honey bee is but one of thousands of species, are the most important pollinators of cultivated plants. It has been estimated that thirty percent of the food that we need depends on honey bees for pollination and if honey bees were to disappear we would find it very difficult to find produce enough food.

This article was published on 4 December 2014, 

In search of mushrooms

This is the best time of the year to visit the countryside in search of fungi. Armed with a simple camera one should be able to find a good number of species especially in wooded areas such as Buskett Gardens and Wied il-Luq.

Mid-autumn is a good time to find mushrooms because the soil is wet and the air is still relatively warm.           
About 100,000 fungi have been identified although it is estimated that there can be up to five million species most of which are still to be identified.

About three hundred species of fungi can be found in the Maltese islands. They grow on a wide range of substrates both in the countryside and on man-made objects.

Most people assume that fungi are members of the plant kingdom. Fungi are sessile, they have what look like roots and reproduce by means of spores. In fact this was the belief until in the late sixties it was discovered that fungi are closer to animals than to plants which led to them being assigned a kingdom of their own.

The cell wall of fungi is composed of chitin. Chitin is the main component of the external skeleton of arthropods such as insects and lobsters and is also found in some mollusc structures. Plants do not produce chitin.

Fungi consist of an array of tiny filaments that look like plant roots, known as hyphae. The hyphae are hidden in soil, wood or other organic material on which the fungus can feed.
The hyphae produce acids and enzymes which digest the food outside the cells. The organic material is broken down into simpler compounds which are then absorbed into the cells.

Fungi can live on a very wide range of living or dead organic material. Fungi play an important role in the recycling of nutrients breaking down dead plants and animals into compounds that can be absorbed and utilised by plants. On the other hand fungi that feed on living plants and animals often cause disease or death.

The mushrooms with which we are familiar are nothing but a fruiting body whose function is solely to produce spores and to release them in air so that they drift as far as possible from the parent fungus. 

This article was published in The Times of Malta on 26 November 2014. 

Beautiful Flamingos

The Għadira Nature Reserve is again open to the public. Those visiting the reserve last weekend had the pleasure of watching two juvenile flamingoes feeding and flying around the protected wetland.

The two flamingoes are the ones that were saved by BirdLife in early September. The two birds were migrating south but probably could not keep up with the rest of the flock and had to land. The first bird landed at Paradise Bay on September 4th. The second bird was found in a private garden at Birżebbuġa five days later.

In the past few years flamingoes made it several times to the headlines usually because one or more were shot while migrating over the Maltese islands. Flamingoes used to be rare migrants in the central Mediterranean but now we are seeing several flocks every year especially in early autumn.

What we are seeing is the result of new flamingo colonies which are establishing themselves in various wetlands just to the north of Malta in Sicily.

Italian ornithologists, monitoring the island’s birds have, after an absence of many decades, found flamingos breeding again in saline marshes along the south-eastern coast of Sicily.
The ornithologists said that within a year of stricter bird protection laws coming into force and better enforcement the number of species of birds breeding in Sicily increased tenfold.

In Italy hunting is permitted as long as it does not conflict with the needs for the conservation of wildlife and does not cause actual damage to agricultural production. Hunting for most birds is allowed only from the first of October until the end of December. A few species can be hunted from the last Sunday of September and for a small number hunting is allowed till the end of January. No hunting is allowed in spring when the birds are preparing to breed.

Italian legislation, as stipulated by EU Directives prohibits all forms of bird trapping.
Furthermore the law allows the prohibition of hunting of certain species if their populations are declining or if they are threatened by sudden environmental conditions such as bad weather or disease.

In spite of what Maltese hunters say local bird protection legislation is too liberal and furthermore enforcement still leaves much to be desired. Spring hunting and bird trapping are presently the two main threats to Maltese birdlife and the rest of nature. Hunting in spring kills birds returning to breed and every bird shot in spring is a nest less. Moreover the presence of hunters disturbs birds attempting to breed even if these are not shot at.

This article was published in The Times of Malta on 6 November 2014. 

Solid as a rock

In a few localities around the Maltese islands it is possible to find what looks like mounds of reddish-brown soil with stones and pebbles embedded in it. On close inspection one realises that what looks like soil is a solid structure as hard as the surrounding rocks. 

These geological features were formed after the Maltese islands emerged from beneath the surface of the sea were they were formed. One can find such structures among other places at Wied Magħlaq and Pembroke.

The Maltese islands are made up of five layers of sedimentary rock. The oldest layer started to be deposited thirty to thirty five million years ago making the Maltese islands relatively young in geological terms.

The topmost layer, therefore the most recent layer to be formed is known as upper coralline limestone is usually more 150 metres thick. The second layer which is made up of Greensand is absent from many areas and which is nowhere thicker than thirteen metres. This is followed by the blue clay layer underneath which one finds the globigerina limestone which can be as thin as 20 metres in some places and thicker than 100 in others. The oldest layer is the lower coralline limestone which is very similar to the upper coralline limestone and which like it is very thick.

Beneath these five layers are even older layers which cannot be seen without drilling through the lower coralline limestone.

 The emergence of the Maltese islands above the surface of the sea did not mean the end of rock formation.

The rocks which formed after the emergence of the islands from the sea are known as quaternary deposits because they were formed during the quaternary period. This period started just over two and a half million years ago. It s defined by a number of ice ages with warm periods in between. This period is divided into two - the Pleistocene which ended about twelve thousand years ago and the Holocene, the period in which we are living. The Holocene is considered as the most recent interglacial warm period.

During the Quaternary sea levels went up end down depending on the temperature. During Ice Ages evaporated water precipitated as snow and ice and formed thick glaciers leading to lower sea levels. In higher temperatures the glaciers melted and sea levels became higher. The low water level uncovered the sea bottom between Malta, Sicily and the Italian mainland creating a large continuous landmass. T

he weather was also characterised by heavy precipitation and the creation of several valleys which were formed by large amounts of flowing water which carry with them large quantities of sediment and debris including soil, pebbles rocks as well as small and large organisms.

The quaternary deposits were carries down such valleys although it is possible that many of them were formed during the Holocene period. 

This article wsa published in The Times of Malta on 30 October 2014.

The common grass eggar

The grass eggar is a common moth. It can be seen from October to November especially in areas where grasses and plants of the pea family grow. In Maltese it is known as baħrija tas-silla.

The grass eggar belongs to a family of moths known as Lasiocampoidea in which we also find the oak eggar, which is known in Maltese as baħrija tal-ballut and the rare lackey moth which is known in Maltese as malakosoma.

In this family the females are generally noticeably larger than the males a characteristic we find in all three species found in the Maltese islands.

The grass eggar is found throughout Europe, North Arica, and the Near East as far as southern Russia but is missing from high altitudes. In some parts of its range, particularly in Central Europe, it has become endangered because of eutrophication, agricultural intensification, abandonment of grazing areas and fragmentation of habitat. In other parts of its range especially around the Mediterranean it is still common.

In colder countries the moths are seen in the warmer months especially in August and September. Wherever it occurs it prefers nutrient-poor habitats with low-growing grass especially in dry limestone area and thus finds a good habitat in the Maltese islands.

The female lays its eggs on the ground before winter. The eggs hatch when the days start getting warmer and the caterpillars form a cocoon before summer to hatch in autumn.
Like that of the oak eggar, the caterpillar is covered in protective hairs. It feeds on a variety of grasses and plants of the pea family. When the caterpillar is older it tends to change its diet to eat more plants of the pea family.

The closely related oak eggar has a similar life cycle but the adults can be seen flying in August and September. It is common only in the Buskett area.

This article was published in The Times of Malta on 23 October 2014. 

Digging their way out of soil

Autumn marks the appearance of large numbers of fairly large brown beetles with a noticeable horn like that of a rhinoceros on their head. The beetles appear after sunset and disappear before dawn. In some areas these insects concentrate in such large numbers that anybody passing by would find it difficult not to notice them.

This beetle, which belongs to the scarab family known scientifically as Phyllognathus excavatus. This species is found in southern Europe and North Africa and to the east in Asia all the way to Crimea.

They emerge from beneath the soil surface usually in the days following the first rains of the season. After mating they dig their way back into the soil using their shovel-like front legs to dig their way in. by dawn they all disappear except for those which find themselves on a hard surface such as roads and tiled areas.

Once back in the soil the female lays its eggs in rotting vegetation. The eggs hatch after about two weeks and the soft-bodied white larva which emerges grows slowly in the soil taking about two and a half years to reach a length of five centimetres. When it is fully grown it is ready change into a pupa inside which the body of the larva breaks down completely and rebuilds itself into a six-legged winged adult. The whole process is known as metamorphoses.
The scarab family is represented in the Maltese islands by more than thirty species. These include the rhinoceros beetle, known in Maltese as buqarn kbir, the dung beetle known as ħanfusa barri tad-demel  and the chafer called the għawwar dehbi because of its golden coloured body.

In Maltese the general term for beetles is ħanfus. Over the years entomologists have coined descriptive names for the many species that did not have a common name but they seem to have missed giving a name to this species of beetle for which the name ħanfusa tal-qarn seems to be very appropriate.

This article was published in The Times of Malta on 16 October 2014. 

The Painted Lady

The painted lady is a common butterfly. It is found on all continents except South America and Antarctica. It is a notable migrant and in some years tens or hundreds of thousands appear suddenly in the Maltese countryside only to disappear some days later.

In the USA this species is known as Cosmopolitan. In Maltese it is known as farfett tax-xewk.
When resting on the ground with its wings closed the painted lady can be very well camouflaged and difficult to see but it often spends time sunbathing with its dark orange wings open in full view of any predator that happen to be in the vicinity as well as to potential mates.

Adult lives from two to four weeks but during their brief life some manage to travel from North Africa to northern Europe. Spring migration takes place every year but we do not see it annually because the exact route taken is determined by weather and wind direction.

Until recently it was believed that the movement is in one direction only but research is indicating that in autumn there is another migration to the south. The southern movement takes place at very high altitude and is being studied by means of entomological radars. Research has shown that these butterflies use the sun to orientate themselves so as to be able to keep a straight-line path.

The caterpillars can be found feeding on mallow plants (ħobbejż), wild artichoke (qaqoċċ tax-xewk) and borage (fidloqqom).

The painted lady is related to the red admiral (farfett tal-ħurrieq), another common butterfly. It also has other close relatives namely the Australian painted lady, the American painted lady which is usually found in mountainous areas of North America and the west coast lady which can be found throughout much of the western US and south western Canada.

This article was published in The Times of Malta on 2 Ictober 2014.  

Colourful Bee Eater

The colourful European bee-eater brings a touch of the tropics to the European continent. It breeds mostly in southern Europe, North Africa and western Asia but it has been recorded breeding further north including in England and even southern Sweden. It spends the winter in tropical Africa. India and Sri Lanka.

It is a very noticeable spring and autumn migrant usually seen in large noisy flocks. Several hundred can be seen at Buskett Gardens in spring and autumn chasing insects like large colourful swallows.

Bee-eaters were not always this common. Thirty years ago bee-eaters were a rarity. I remember an Italian bird watcher informing me that the last bee-eater colony in Sicily had just been decimated, but, as Italian hunters started to be controlled bee-eaters slowly recolonized their former breeding areas.

In the past few years bee-eaters have also been recorded breeding in the Maltese islands and would do so in larger numbers if these beautiful birds were not continuously targeted by Maltese hunters.

The shooting of bee-eaters and other protected birds including birds of prey which at this time of the year are migrating over the Maltese islands continues to deprive the Maltese public from enjoying the spectacle of migration and tarnishes Malta’s reputation overseas.

Last Saturday’s emergency closure of the hunting season was a result of the killing of strictly protected birds including storks and flamingos. The closure of the hunting season means that the only way to effectively protect birds in the Maltese islands is to stop hunters from roaming the countryside during critical times of the year. This is especially important during spring when birds are returning to their breeding areas and every bird shot is a nest less.

The Valletta protest and the savage attack of a group of bird watchers and photographers at Buskett goes to show that some people are not willing to behave civilly.

On Sunday I was with the group of bird watchers taking pictures of migrating birds of prey to be used to illustrate my articles when a group of at least thirty individuals attacked us throwing stones and bottles in our direction.

We had to run as fast but not everybody was fast enough. An elderly photographer was punched in the face resulting in a fractured mandible and eleven thousand Euro worth of camera equipment stolen from him. A young man was hit in his leg while running for his life and my eight year old son saw many large stones raining all around him.

Everybody now expects the authorities to take appropriate action to ensure that these people are controlled so that migratory and breeding birds are effectively protected in the Maltese islands once and for all.

This article was published in The Times of Malta on 25 September 2015. 

Honey Buzzards

The European honey buzzard is known in Maltese as kuċċarda. It is a migratory raptor seen in over Malta in spring and autumn as it soars on its broad wings by using the hot air currents, known as thermals to sustain an effortless flight that takes it from one continent to another.

Three species of honey buzzard exist. The crested honey buzzard (also known as Oriental honey buzzard) breeds in Asia from central Siberia east to Japan and winters in South East Asia. The barred honey buzzard is resident in lowland and montane forests in Indonesia and the Philippines.

Our honey buzzard is found breeding in forests from south west Europe north to Scandinavia and east into Russia. All populations are fully migratory and spend the winter in tropical Africa. Honey buzzards use the earth’s magnetic field as  well as visual memory to find their way from their breeding areas to their wintering grounds and vice versa. They avoid flying over large tracts of water as these do not allow the formation of thermals.

Honey buzzards feed mostly on the larvae and nests of wasps and hornets. They also prey on small mammals, reptiles and birds. Opening up a wasps’ nest and tearing it apart to get at the larvae can be a painful affair but it is believed that honey buzzards have a chemical deterrent in their feathers which stops wasps from attacking them.

Broad winged raptors chose migratory routes that do not require large sea crossings. Hundreds of thousands of birds of prey from continental Europe can be seen at the Straits of Gibraltar and over the Straits of Bosporus in Istanbul as they migrate across the narrow straits.

Smaller numbers of raptors cross between Europe and Africa via the central Mediterranean from Sicily to Tunisia. Many of these birds pass over the Maltese Islands to where they find more thermals that allow them to gain height and continue their journey.  

Watching migrating honey buzzards in the Maltese islands can be an unforgettable experience. In autumn their migration usually reaches a peak during the third or fourth week of September and on good days up to five hundred honey buzzards together with other birds of prey can be counted over Buskett Gardens. To add to the spectacle, when the air starts to cool and the hot air currents disappear, birds that arrive late in the afternoon fly down to land in the trees where they then spend the night. 

This article was published in The Times of Malta on 18 September 2014.

Honey Bees

The honey bee is a social insect which evolved in Africa from where it spread to all adjoining land masses. Wild honey bees build colonies in cavities in cliff faces, hollow tree trunks and other suitable places. Colonies often consist of tens of thousands of female workers and a queen bee and at times of the year a small number of drones.

The queen bees spends her entire life in the colony laying eggs. The drones take part in a nuptial flight during which the queen bee is fertilised.

The workers gather pollen and nectar which they take back to the colony. The nectar is converted into honey which is used as a concentrated source of energy. Honey that is not used immediately is stored to be used when it is not possible to find enough nectar for their immediate need.

A long time ago humans found out that they could obtain honey by raiding bees’ nests and at some point they discovered that they could increase the amount of honey they collected by providing the bees with hives, artificial cavities where they could set up new colonies. The hives had the advantage that they could be taken care of all year round, the honey inside was easier to reach and they could be moved from one place to another to ensure that the bees are were always close to good sources of nectar.

In spite of the fact that humans have been providing bees with hives for thousands of years, the bee was never domesticated. It remains a wild animal and bee colonies can sometimes be found in nature which were initiated without human intervention.

The honey bee is also important as a pollinator. It is estimated that honey bees contribute 22 billion Euros to European agriculture with 84% of crops needing insect pollination. Beekeeping is also associated with the production of other products such as wax, royal jelly and propolis.

The Maltese islands can boast of their own race of honey bee. A race that adapted itself for the local environment. Nowadays another race, the Italian bee, can be found in the Maltese islands. This race was imported in large numbers in the 1990s from New Zealand following the decimation of the local bees by disease.

During the past two decades the two races intermixed and produce hybrids and it is doubtful whether pure forms of the Maltese race still exist.

This article was published in The Times of Malta on 11 September 2014. 

Mediterranean Shore Crab

The Mediterranean shore crab is a very common, if not the most common crab in the Maltese islands. It is a native of the Mediterranean and Black seas and parts of the Atlantic. Since 1996, probably as a result of global warming, it has also been observed in the English Channel and has been recorded as far north as Southampton.

As with many other common and widespread species, the Mediterranean shore crab has several other names such as marbled crab or the marbled rock crab. This name is a good description of the yellowish marbling pattern on its violet brown carapace.

Maltese naturalists refer to it as granċ tax-xatt to distinguish it from the many other species of crab found around the Maltese coasts but for most Maltese is just a granċ.

The Mediterranean shore crabs can be found mostly along the rocky coasts. It can be seen hunting in the open but quickly hides underneath stones or in narrow cracks in the rocks if it feels threatened. It can move in any direction and is difficult to catch with bare hands. When somebody is regressing rapidly the Maltese say sejjer lura bħal granċ meaning moving backward like a crab.

Shore crabs feeds on algae as well as small animals such as mussels and limpets and will mix their diet with both plant and animal material even if one item is very abundant.

The shore crab can disperse and colonise new areas by giving rise to large numbers of free-living larvae. These can float on the surface of the sea for several days and can travel far from their origin before finding a new place to continue developing into an adult crab.

In parts of the Maltese islands the coast is being invaded by another species of crab known as the sally lightfoot. This species is found on both sides of the Atlantic, and on the Pacific coast of North America. In 1999 it was discovered in Linosa and Sicily and in subsequent years it was also found in the Balearic Islands, in Greece, Libya and Malta. This species has been described as very invasive and can compete with the Mediterranean shore crab.

This article was published in The Times of Malta on 4 September 2014.  

Leaf-cutter bees

Leaf-cutter bees are solitary bees. They do not form colonies and do not produce honey. They are a large cosmopolitan group of insects which consists of about 1,500 species. in In Maltese the common leaf-cutting bee is known as mqass tal-weraq.

Leaf-cutter bees are important pollinators of both wild and cultivated plants. A leaf-cutting bee is a much better pollinator than a honey bee.

They build their nest in sheltered places usually in natural cavities in the ground, on rock faces or in hollow twigs. The nests are lined with disk-shaped pieces of leaf or petals which the female cuts using her large mandibles. It is thought that the leaves and petals maintain a higher humidity inside the nest. This prevents the stored food from drying up.

A typical nests consists of a tunnel with columns of cells along it. The female lays an egg in each cell, supplies it with food which usually consists of pollen which is sometimes mixed with nectar and then seals the egg and food inside.

The male larvae hatch before the female do but they die shortly after mating while the females live several weeks more during which time they build a new nest and lay eggs in each one of them.

Leaf-cutter bees can sting and will do so to defend themselves but their sting is much less painful than that of the honey bee. A tell-tale sign that gives away the presence of leaf-cutter bees are circular patterns cut in leaves. These can be found in a variety of plants but are not of concern even when the leaves belong to cultivated garden plants.

All bees and wasps are highly beneficial insects and should never be considered as pests. The presence of these and other bees and wasps is an indication of a rich biodiversity. They should be encouraged to build their nests in your garden by providing them with suitable nesting cavities. These can be made of short lengths of reed or cane tied together in bunches and placed in sheltered parts of the garden. Canes of different diameter are likely to attract different species of bees and wasps.

This article was published in The Times of Malta on 28 August 2014. 

The Chinese banyan tree, like the fig tree, is a member of the mulberry family. It is widely planted along roads and in public gardens in many parts of the world including the Maltese islands.

It has many other names mostly associating the tree with a country or geographic area where it is indigenous. Amongst them one finds Malayan banyan, Taiwan banyan and Indian laurel. The tree is also indigenous in Sri Lanka, India, Australia and New Zealand among others.

It does not seem to have a Maltese name but I have heard it referred to as siġra tat-toroq.
The Chinese banyan grows to a large size and provides much needed shade during the summer. In many localities old trees are used throughout the year as roosting sites by sparrows. For several months of the year the branches are shared with roosting starlings, white wagtails and other wintering birds.

When the trees become very large they sometimes become the cause of complaint as their roots damage pavements, drains and even buildings and they are then relocated.  On the other hand the trees are sometimes heavily pruned and this too results in protests by tree lovers.

Like other fig tree species the banyan requires the presence of a symbiotic fig wasp to be fertilised and produce seeds. If the wasp is not present no seeds are produced. Sometimes it took decades for the wasp to arrive.

Many species of birds love the seeds of the Chinese banyan and are responsible for transporting them far and wide sometimes to the most unusual of places including walls where they can cause structural damage. 

Sometimes the banyan grows as an epiphyte, that is, it grows on other trees. When this happens the trees puts down roots that eventually reach the ground. As the banyan grows larger it strangles the host tree and eventually kills it.

In the Maltese islands the wasp required to pollinate the Chinese banyan arrived several years ago probably from Sicily where it is now also present. As a result of this banyans can be seen growing on their own in both in natural as well as in built up areas. 

Small trees can be seen growing out of walls in many towns and villages and unless they are removed in a few years’ time they will be causing a lot of damage to the structures on which they are growing. 

This article was published in The Times of Malta on 21 August 2014. 

The Fig Tree

The fig tree is synonymous with the Mediterranean area even though it is originally from the Middle East and western Asia. Together with the grape vine and olive tree, the fig tree was one of the first trees to be domesticated. Its cultivation marks the start of horticulture in the Mediterranean.  Nowadays the figis cultivated for its fruit and as an ornamental tree far beyond the Mediterranean.

The fig tree is adapted for the Mediterranean climate. It remains in leaf and produces figs during the hottest months. It manages to do this by having an aggressive root system that can dig deep into the earth seeking the minutest sources of water that allow it to flourish when all surrounding vegetation is parched dead and in the process cooling the surrounding environment.

Figs are an important food for mammals as well as for local and migratory birds. In return these fruit eaters help the tree by dispersing its seeds with their droppings. It is no wonder that sometimes one sees fig trees growing out of walls and in cracks along pavements and other unusual places.

To produce seeds all species of fig require the help of a particular species of wasp. The fertilised female wasp enters the fig through a tiny hole in the crown. The wasp walks over the flowers and lays eggs on some of them. While walking she unwittingly leaves pollen on the flowers which fertilise them. After laying the eggs she dies inside the fruit. 

This is the start of a cycle that sees male wasps hatching before females. The males fertilise the females which are still in the unhatched eggs. When the time comes the males assist the females to hatch while some males enlarge the hole so that the fertilised females can leave the fruit. The newly emerged fertilised females have 48 hours in which to find another fruit, enter through its tiny hole and lay their eggs.

Reading through the list of health benefits of the fig tree and its fruit is like going through the list of contents in a medicine chest. Even the sap which is known as an irritant to human skin has its benefits. It is traditionally used to remove warts and to reduce the pain from wasp stings but recent studies have shown that it is also anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant. Other parts of the tree are antibacterial and antiviral while the fruit provides many beneficial nutrients.  

This article was published in The Times of Malta on 14 August 2014.

Migratory Waders

Earlier this week the police found several trapping sites which were being used to catch waders. Some of the trapping sites were very large and sophisticated and included areas of water to create the aquatic habitat favoured by these birds as well as bird callers that were being used to attract migrating birds.

Waders are small to medium-sized birds with long legs and beaks that live in wetlands or coastal environments. Many species breed north of the Arctic Circle and are highly migratory.
In the far north summer comes late and lasts for only a few weeks. The waders usually arrive in April or early May to get the most out of a plentiful supply of food which consists mostly of small mud and soil dwelling animals.  

The food does not remain available for very long and by June the old and young birds start their journey south. On the way they stop at various places to rest and feed with large flocks gathering on the mudflats on the coast of Denmark, Germany and The Netherlands. 

Some species winter in Europe while others continue their journey south to reach the coast of North Africa or continue travelling further south.

Two species of waders, the black winged stilt and the little ringed plover for the past few years have been breeding at the Ghadira Nature Reserve. This year he black winged stilt bred for the first time at Is-Simar Nature Reserve but these two species are not the only ones to be seen in the Maltese islands. Several species are seen during migration starting from early to mid-July.
It is these birds that are being trapped illegally in the Maltese islands. 

There can be no justification for this wanton destruction and probably the trapping is being resorted to as a trapper site is more difficult to locate than a hunter whose shooting can be heard from a distance. The trapping sites that have been found are probably only the tip of the iceberg and more vigilance is necessary to completely eliminate this illegal activity. 

This articl was published in The Times of Malta on 7 August 2014.

The Century Plant

The common centaury is a flowering plant in the gentian family. It is also known as the European centaury. It is a biannual plant that is it can live for two years. 

It is found through most of Europe and can also be found in parts of western Asia and North Africa. Like many other plants it is now found in areas well outside its range such as in North America and eastern Australia.

In Malta it is frequent in late spring and in summer. Its pink flowers are easily seen especially since it flowers when most of the annual plants have dried up. In Maltese it is known as ċentawrija kbira.

The common centaury is an important plant because of its medicinal properties. It is a strong antioxidant and in many parts of Europe it is made into a tea and drunk by those having gastric and liver diseases. In fact another common English is feverwort.

The flowers can also be used to make a yellow-green dye.

The gentian family, to which centauries belong consists of about 1,600 species ranging from trees shrubs and herbs and having a wide range of colours, shapes and sizes. Many species have medicinal properties or are cultivated as garden plants.

Four members of the Gential family can be found in the Maltese countryside. The lesser centaury (ċentawrija żgħira) and the slender centaury (ċentawrija tal-virga) have similar pink flowers while the yellow-wort (ċentawrija safra) has yellow flowers.

The family is named for the Illyrian king Gentius. Gentius ruled the Ardiaean State, which was located in present day Albania, between 181 and 168 BC. The plant family was given his name because it was believed that he discovered that some species in the Gentian family had medicinal properties and could be used as a tonic.

This article was published in The Times of Malta on 31 July 2014.

The Humped Crab Spider

The humped crab spider does not build a web but hunts insects by waiting in ambush on a flower for an unsuspecting fly or bee to land within its grasp. When its prey is close enough it uses its pair of enlarged front legs to hod it and then bites the back of its neck to kill it.

This species is common in the Maltese islands. It is widely distributed and it can be found throughout most of Europe, except for the northern parts and in Africa as far as South Africa. Its range extends east as far as Siberia and Central Java.

Spiders of this species can be yellow, pink, or white depending on the colour of the flower on which they hunt. This is advantageous as it camouflages the spider against its background making it more difficult for unsuspecting prey to notice it.

In Maltese, the humped crab spider is known as brimba tal-fjuri mħattba.

Crab spiders got their name from their habit of moving sideways like crabs and possibly also because of their enlarged front legs which resemble a crab’s claws.

The specimens one is likely to notice on flowers are females. Males are much smaller and inconspicuous which is of survival value.

In most species of spider the male has to take precautions to ensure that he is not eaten before managing to copulate. This is often done by presenting her with an insect which she would eat while he is approaching her.

The male humped crab spider is so small that the female totally ignores him and allows him to climb on her back without devouring him.

The humped crab spider is one of several species crab spider belonging to the Thomisidae family. The name crab spiders is also used for several other species of spiders from other families.

In the Maltese islands one is also likely to meet another species of crab spider which is known in Maltese as brimba tal-fjuri. This species can also have different colours but is not humped and has a black design on its back.  

This article was published in The Times of Malta on 24 July 2014. 

Long-horned General

The long-horned general is a European species of soldier fly. Soldier flies make up a large family of about 1,500 species. About 140 of these are found in Europe and about four in the Maltese islands.

In Maltese the long-horned general is called dubbiena moqrana although this name is probably not a folk name but was coined by entomologists when it the species was included in a book about Maltese nature. Folk names are usually given to large or conspicuous species or those species with which humans interact usually because they are either very common or because they are pests and the long-horned general does not fall into any of these categories.

Soldier flies are usually found in a variety of habitats including wetlands, damp places in soil and decaying organic matter. The long-horned general is found in Europe, western Asia, and North Africa
It lives close to fresh water and can be seen resting on rocks and vegetation at the water’s edge. The picture accompanying this article was taken at the Simar Nature Reserve where one finds an ideal habitat for this and many other species of interesting insects.

Like many other species of soldier fly, the long-horned general is rather inactive and the specimen I photographed allowed me to take several close-up pictures before flying away.
Soldier flies vary in size, shape and colour. Many have metallic colours especially green. Some mimic bees or wasps and often have black and yellow blotches.

Soldier flies are an important link in the cycle of life. As adults they feed on pollen or do not feed at all but their larvae feed on organic material and thus help its decomposition and the recycling of organic material.

The black soldier fly, an American species but which is nowadays found throughout the world, is being used to produce alternative energy. Its larvae are fed biomass. When they reach a certain size they are crushed and a lipid is extracted from their bodies which is added to biodiesel. The same species is used to treat organic waste including the sewage from livestock farms, waste from the food industry, household garbage and compost farms.

This article was published in The Times of Malta on 17 July 2014. 

The Greater Flamingo

Some weeks ago a flamingo made news by visiting the Salina salt pans and remaining there for several days. It left during the night three weeks. Last week another flamingo, which could be the same one, landed at the Ghadira Nature Reserve and it seems that it will be spending several days there.

The proper name of the species that visits the Maltese islands is greater flamingo. This distinguishes it from other species of flamingos that are found in other parts of the world. In Maltese the greater flamingo is known as fjamingu although I think that most if not all Maltese refer to it as flamingo.

Sightings of flamingos in the Maltese islands have increased in frequency over the past few years. This is probably because flamingos can now be found in several wetlands around Sicily including at Vendicari, a nature reserve at the south east corner of the island where they will hopefully soon start breeding.

Adult flamingos are pink although their colour varies from one individual to another and even over time as the colour depends on the birds’ diet and health. Young birds are greyish pink becoming pink as they grow older. In Malta we see both pink adults and grey young birds. Whenever a young flamingo lands in Malta many ask me why it is grey and not pink.
Flamingos can be found in a number of countries around the Mediterranean. They breed in large numbers in Spain and France. They also breed in Sardinia. Large numbers winter in wetlands around Tunisia and other North African countries.   

Flamingos are most closely related to waterfowl. Six species exist, four in the Americas and two in the Old World. One of these two is found in Europe

Apart from the pink plumage, flamingos are characterised by their very long legs and neck as well as by their hooked beaks. Both characteristics are adaptations for life in shallow water. The legs allow the flamingos to wade in water without wetting their feathers and the long neck helps them reach for the water without bending their legs.

The beak is constructed in such a way to act as a sieve. It holds the brine shrimp and blue-green algae on which it feeds inside while allowing water, mud and silt to flow out.
As flamingos become better established in Sicily we are bound to see more of them visiting the Maltese islands and who knows they might one day establish themselves in the Maltese islands as well.

This article was published in The Times of Malta on 10 July 2014.