Wintering in the Mediterranean: the key players around Maltese waters

During the spring and autumn transects we had spotted several species of seabirds which winter in the Mediterranean. Outside the breeding period, these birds move Southwards along the Atlantic Coast. Some of them fly into the Mediterranean Basin and can be seen as winter visitors in Maltese waters. Their presence is the proof that the Maltese archipelago and adjacent waters are also important for several other species, additionally to the project’s target species. Being a home for Scopoli’s and Yelkouan Shearwaters as well as for the Mediterranean Storm Petrels from early spring to late autumn, Maltese waters are visited by many other species from further North, mainly during the coldest winter months.

The reason they leave their breeding grounds to spend the coldest season in the Mediterranean waters is closely linked to food supply. Relying on fish, seabird distribution follows the movements and abundance of their prey and during this season birds are more flexible, as they are not incubating a clutch or rearing chicks. Among the birds we have been observing were Mediterranean Gulls, Little Gulls, Lesser black-backed Gulls, Black Terns, Sandwich Terns, Gannets and Skuas.

Mediterranean gulls are frequently found in Maltese Waters during migration time and on our March and October transects we counted good number of them on flying North in spring and South in autumn. Lesser black-backed gulls breed colonially along the Atlantic coast of Europe, in the North Sea and in the Baltic. They winter regularly in the Mediterranean and hundreds have been counted by project staff member Maria de Filippo, wintering in the harbour of Catania, Sicily. We observed Lesser Black-backed gulls during both the first transects of March and the last ones in October. Little gulls are the smallest gull species. With a somehow tern-like flight they migrate southwest from their breeding grounds in Eastern Europe to winter off the coast in the Atlantic. A proportion of these birds come to winter in the Mediterranean. Little Gulls also have been seen during the migratory seasons, particularly flying east-northeast in spring.

Lesser Black-backed Gull in winter plumage.

Adult Lesser Black-backed Gull

Mediterranean gull flying above the boat during an autumn transect.

An immature Mediterranean gull flying above the boat during an autumn transect.

Outside the breeding season, Black terns are usually seen offshore, sometimes resting on turtles. This interesting and curious behaviour has been witnessed by the members of the team on several transects. The birds normally have been spotted resting on buoys and particularly on “kanizzati”, small rafts made of floating material, which are anchored to the bottom and have a shade of palm leaves tight to them. This fishing gear, typically found in the Maltese islands, were introduced after it was noticed that dolphinfish (known in Maltese as Lampuki) tend to aggregate in the shade under the canopy of these floats. Other species of gulls were also frequently observed resting on these floats. Sandwich terns can be admired both ashore and offshore in their graceful attempt to get food diving and plunging into the sea.

Black Terns resting offshore on a buoy.

Black Terns resting offshore on a Lampuki float.

Great skuas are solitary birds and they normally chase gulls and other species (such as terns and Northern gannets) in order to get their food. They are efficient and expert kleptoparasites: they perform a piratical behaviour robbing other seabirds of their catches. Arctic and Pomarine skuas they do the same, chasing and mobbing other species, forcing them to regurgitate their prey. We have spotted these two skuas species, too, though they seem relatively rare in Maltese waters.

Great Skua is among the more difficult spots at sea.

Great Skua is among the more difficult spots at sea.

You don’t necessarily need to embark on a research vessel to spot these and other magnificent visitors of the Mediterranean. Even from land it is possible to see them. On a cliff ledge facing the wind you can admire the sight of gannets, gulls and skuas. Their large silhouettes can be easily recognized with a pair of binoculars, but of course with a telescope you get better views. People interested in sea-watching activities can directly contact us in order to experience this fun and exciting adventure.

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