Counting seabirds from the cliffs

At the end of May, the Malta Seabird Project team carried out land-based-observations (LBOs) at three coastal locations in Malta and Gozo, close to some of the most important breeding colonies for Malta’s shearwaters and storm petrels. From two hours before sunset until nightfall (whenever it gets too dark to make out the birds against the sea/sky), Malta Seabird Project staff, volunteers and other birdwatchers and members count, with the help of a telescope, the birds at sea. During April’s LBOs we spotted Scopoli’s (Cory’s) Shearwaters flying and rafting on the surface of the sea in big flocks, and a few Yelkouan Shearwaters and Yellow-Legged Gulls. Then, in May far fewer birds were counted.

This is because the female Scopoli’s (Cory’s) Shearwaters had just laid their eggs and were out at sea, where they stay for up to 10 days after laying, while the males stay on the nests incubating, so not many will be seen at this time. From other fieldwork at the colonies it is known that the Yelkouan Shearwaters had chicks almost ready to fledge at the end of May, so adult birds would have been busy feeding their young in preparation for the day when they finally leave the nest and take to the air (and sea) for the first time.

The next Land-based Observations will be carried out at the end of June. We expect to see more Scopoli’s now that their chicks have hatched and the parents are feeding, as well as Yelkouans and some Storm Petrels. Also visible should be some newly-fledged Yellow-legged Gulls, with their wheeling flight and harsh calls.

This is a great activity for anyone who is interested in getting involved in the fieldwork side of a practical conservation research project- a lot of fun and quite exhilarating, especially on a stormy evening! – Antonio Vilches, Seasonal Field Researcher on the Life+ Malta Seabird Project.

Land-based observations

Malta Seabird Project volunteers carry out Land-based Observations in May

The methodology for the land-based counts consists of one person (the observer) scanning the sea with the telescope over a range of 180 degrees during a 10-minute period, while a second person records the species seen as they are called out by the observer. The task is interesting and challenging (spotting the birds as they glide and weave often just above the waves- like “Where’s Wally?” on the cliffs!), but not so highly specialized that you need to be an expert birder to do it. Anyone interested in learning and gaining experience of ornithological fieldwork is positively encourage to give it a try. With brief training in the identification of the target species- most commonly you will see the two shearwater species, Yellow-legged Gulls and occasionally European Storm Petrels (but you never know when you might see something unexpected, like a Short-eared Owl!).

Ta' Cenc

Ta’ Cenc cliffs in Gozo, where the Scopoli’s Shearwaters have their largest breeding colony in the Maltese Islands, with about 1000 pairs thought to breed there

To find out more about volunteering to help with LBOs and other fieldwork activities on the Life+ Malta Seabird Project, please send an email to or phone the BirdLife Malta office on 2134 7644-6.

To see more news, photos, videos and updates from the Malta Seabird Project, visit our facebook page.

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