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Encounters with Nature
20th October 2016 – The Spurge Hawkmoth (Caterpillar)
The caterpillar of the Maltese Spurge Hawksmoth (Baħrija tat-Tengħud, Hyles sammuti) lives on the spurge plant, by feeding on the leaves. The spurge plant is typical of the Maltese Islands, which often thrives in garrigue vegetation communities. This wild plant defends itself from herbivores such as goats and sheep, by producing a toxic milky-white liquid. The poison found in the plant is used by the caterpillar of the Spurge Hawkmoth, which accumulates the poison in their body to protect itself from predators. In fact, the bright colour of the caterpillar is due to the assimilation of poison from the plant to their body. In Malta, the species of the spurge hawksmoth is protected since it is endemic and can only found in the islands. The caterpillar is smooth and black with several white dots and a coral line than runs from its head to back. A fully grown caterpillar may be about 10cm long.
In their adult life form, hawk moths are large sized with narrow wings and stout bodies. They have powerful wings built for speed, over long distances. Some hawkmoths can fly at 50 kilometers per hour and are among the fastest insects. In the Maltese Islands, this species is endemic.
3rd October 2016 – the Mediterranean Tiger Moth
The Mediterranean Tiger Moth (Cymbalophora pudica, Żarżur), identified by its tessellated pattern made of black shapes on a light background, can be seen from September to October. The tiger moth that was photographed at The Cliffs Interpretation Centre was recorded during the day and it appeared to be resting, since this moth is nocturnal. The meaning of the Maltese name is that of buzzing, since while flying the moth makes a buzzing sound. The female moths lay eggs in autumn, and by the following spring the caterpillar is fully grown. The pupa changes into adult form after the first autumn rains, and that is when the moth can be seen.
8th September 2016 – Autumn migration and the vibrant bee-eater
September is one of the best times of the year to meet across several of the migratory birds that fly by the Maltese Islands during the autumn season.
A common bird migrant that often visits the Maltese Islands during this time of the year is the Bee Eater (Merops apiaster, Qerd in-naħal) with pointed wings and very distinguishable colourful plumage. Their extravagant bright colours often catch the eye of the observer, or else you may hear its very particular repetitive call. The bird has social habitats – it is often seen in large flocks and breeds in colonies.
The bee-eater is a specialist in catching insects whilst in flight. Despite its name, only one of the ten insect that it catches is a bee. In the Maltese Islands, this bird feeds mainly on wasps, dragonflies, butterflies and grasshoppers. During the past years, this birds was also noted breeding in the Maltese Islands.
One of the best sites for bird-watching during Autumn is Buskett Gardens, the largest woodland area in Malta, located about 2km from The Cliffs Interpretation Centre.
10th August 2016 – The unmistakable sound of summer…from the Cicada
Heard everywhere in summer is the songs of the male Cicada (Cicada orni, Werżieq ta’ b’inhar). This insect is the most active during the hottest times of the day, that’s why it sings throughout the day. The sound originates from the blur-speed vibration of part of this winged insect’s abdomen.
The cicada appears when the larvae dig out of the soil and climb onto trees. Upon metamomorphisis, the cicada turns into its adult life form. Only males sing to attract females to mate. Eggs are laid in the soil and these hatch in late summer. The newly hatched-larvae spend the majority of their lives in the soil.
This winged insect makes one of the loudest animal sounds, but it is difficult to see one, since when threatened the cicada stop singing. Once mating occurs, adult cicadas start dying. That’s why end of summer is characterised by such a silence!
28th July 2016 – The Mediterranean Chameleon
This chameleon was rescued whilst crossing a road close to Dingli Cliffs. It was then released in a shrub. Currently, from mid-July to September, during the mating season, one might see pairs of chameleon, but throughout the year, the chameleon is a solitary reptile. It is important to note that the chameleon is protected by law and and one should not keep, kill or sell them.
The Mediterranean Chameleon (Chamaeoleo chamaeleon, Kamalejont) was brought to Malta from North Africa and introduced in a residence in a private gardens in St. Julians in the mid-1800s, but it then spread all over Malta.
This reptile inhabits trees, shrubs, low-lying vegetation and open countryside, using its four tours to grasp branches and its tail to maintain balance. It can grow up to 30cm and is normally green or brown in colour with pale markings. When threatened, it changes colour, puffs its body and opens its mouth to appear fiercer. The chameleon feeds on insects, using its protractible long tongue, which is often two times the length of its body. Its eyes can be rotated independently from each other. Thus, the chameleon, has a full 360° arc of vision, and can focus on two different objects simultaneously.
Date: Thursday 28th July 2016
Place: Dingli Cliffs, Chameleon was rescued and then released in its natural environment.
2nd July 2016 – Animal friction
An encounter between a gecko and a bat was riddled with friction, when sounds were heard coming from a circa two meter high spacing in a wall within an agricultural area at Dingli Cliffs in the evening of 2nd July.
The Moorish Gecko (Wizgha tal-Kampanja) is native of the Mediterranean region. Its flat head and transparent eyelid. The encounter was photographed in the evening, attributing to the very light colour of the gecko. Bats, which are the only flying mammals are nocturnal animals. They often roost in sheltered areas such as caves and cliffs, but also man-made structures such as walls and buildings.
22nd February 2016 – Spot the Common Starling
The Common Starling (Sturnell, Sturnus vulgaris) is a very common bird, which often spends winter in the Maltese Islands. Often, the Starlings visit the Maltese Islands in October and return back to Europe before spring.
The bird is alike to a thrush in size but has a glossy black body. White spots appear in later summer when the bird moults, giving the starling a speckled appearance. By the following summer, the feather tips wear off and the plumage is no longer spotted with white. Common starlings can often be encountered in huge flocks. It is thought that this is a defence mechanisms against birds of prey.
Starlings eat mostly insects, seeds and fruits. They are often regarded as pests since they devour sprouting crops and feed on fruit trees, whilst also causing noise nuisance due to their large roosts. However, in the Maltese Islands, the starlings do not damage fruit trees; albeit eating olives abandoned by farmers in trees.
16th November 2015 – The Swallowtail butterfly
The endemic Maltese Swallowtail butterfly, a subspecies of the European Swallowtail is only found in the Maltese Islands, locally called “Farfett tar-reġina/bużbież/fejġel”. It has an impressive wingspan of between 8 -10cm. It is identified by the bright yellow and black wings, blue band and red spots on the hind wings. Its name is attributed to the pair of protruding tails on the hind wings of this butterfly. The Maltese Swallowtail is elusive, it often flutters its wings as it feeds on flower nectar, moving from one flower to the next.
The life history of the swallowtail starts from a single egg laid on the larval host plant, most often under the leaf of a Fennel plant. The larva, which hatches from the egg feeds on the host plant for about 4 weeks, producing a pupa. The adult butterfly then lives for about 20 days, during which the female lays its eggs to complete its life cycle. The endemic Maltese Swallowtail butterfly can be seen from February to November since it produces two or three broods. Populations of the Swallowtail butterfly have remained relatively stable because the wild fennel is common in the Maltese countryside.
Date: Sunday 15th November 2015
Time: 9.30 am
Place: Dingli Cliffs, along The Cliffs Trail
14th October 2015 – The Eurasian Dotterel
Eurasian Dotterel Birwina Charadrius morinellus
Kevin Francica Kevin Francica
Observed: Mainly in Autumn, however is also seen in Winter and Spring
Description: The Eurasian Dotterel is a small long-legged wader of the plover bird family, about 20-22cm long with a wingspan of 57-64cm.
Population: The population size is very large, and hence does not approach the thresholds for Vulnerable under the population size criterion (<10,000 mature individuals with a continuing decline estimated to be >10% in ten years or three generations, or with a specified population structure). For these reasons the species is evaluated as Least Concern.
Ecology: This species is fully migratory and travels non-stop on a broad front across Europe, staging first at a number of traditional sites. It departs from its breeding grounds from August to September, the return migration in the spring beginning in late-February or March. The species breeds from May to August in solitary well-dispersed pairs.
Behaviour: There is a sexual dimorphism in the size and plumage of the dotterel, since the female is larger and brighter than the male. This species shows a reversal of sexual roles; the female attracts a mate through its plumage displays, while the male helps incubate the eggs and tends the young chicks.
Local Habitat: Garrigue and bare arable land with sparse vegetation.
Breeding Habitat: The species breeds on flat open uplands, on mountain ridges and plateaus with sparse vegetation, and on coastal and inland Arctic tundra of moss, short grass or lichen and bare patches of rock.
Diet: Its diet consists of insects, (mainly beetles, grasshoppers, crickets, and ants), spiders, snails and earthworms, as well as plant matter such as leaves, seeds, berries and flowers.
Breeding site: The nest is a shallow scrape on bare ground or in short vegetation. The species is a solitary nester but where suitable habitat is restricted it may also breed in loose groups of 2-5 pairs.
Main threats: Some of Scotland’s most popular birds are suffering a severe drop in numbers, a study has revealed:
Mon, 09/12/2013 – 16:46 — Henk Tennekes
Scientists from the RSPB, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) and Natural Research have revealed the startling decline in bird populations in the State of UK Birds 2013 report. The mountain species dotterel (Charadrius morinellus), one of the rarest breeds in Britain – with two-thirds living in the Cairngorms – has declined by about 40 per cent in just over a decade. The results found that the estimated number of dotterels had fallen from 630 breeding males in 1999, to just 423 breeding males in 2011, continuing a longer-term decline since the first survey in 1987-88, which estimated the number of breeding males at 981. Mark Eaton, of RSPB, said: “Scotland’s Highlands provide an important home for dotterel and the species’ presence offers a good indicator of the health of our mountain landscapes. To see such a significant drop in their numbers over the past three decades is deeply concerning.
Eileen Stuart, SNH head of policy and advice, said: “The declining numbers of some birds, particularly the drop in dotterels, is obviously very worrying”. Colette Hall, a species monitoring officer with the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, was concerned that the figures show the breeding ranges of waders are drastically shrinking. She said: “We’re losing much-loved species like snipe or lapwing completely from parts of lowland Britain. The list of countryside birds which are declining also includes willow tits, cuckoos, whinchats, starlings, wood warblers and yellow wagtails.
Source: The Scotsman, 9 December 2013
In northern England, a historical decline since the mid-nineteenth century has been attributed to overgrazing by sheep causing a degradation in the quality of breeding habitat, although pollution and human recreational disturbance may also be involved in preventing a recovery (Galbraith et al. 1993). The main threats for the species are loss of habitat due to alteration in mountains,-the construction of ski stations, tracks and urbanization.
Latest encounter along The Cliffs Trail: Sunday 4th October 2015, two hunters along the Cliffs Trail at Dingli Cliffs managed to take some photos of the wonderful bird, which rested for some time in a field prior to continuing its journey.
31st August 2015 – The spectacular Lobed Argiope
The Lobed Argiope at Dingli Cliffs (Source: The Cliffs Interpretation Centre)
The striking Lobed Argiope (Argiope lobata, Brimba kbira tal-widien) is the largest spider in the Maltese Islands with a striped black and yellow abdomen. The males have a body length of only 6mm, but the females’ body length reach 25mm, and its legs reach 40mm.
As the other members of the Argiope genus, the Loped Argiope decorates its large spherical web with a prominent zig-zag silk structure to immobilise and captures its prey, which it also poisons.
The Lobed Argiope is frequently found in vegetated areas, such as valleys. The photo above shows its presence at the garrigue habitat of the Dingli Cliffs.
6 June 2015 – Mating Western Whip Snakes
(product of THE CLIFFS Interpretation Centre)
The largest snake in the Maltese Islands is the Western Whip Snake, which can grow up to 1.5m. Known in Maltese as “Is-Serp Iswed”, it is the most common snake in Malta. It lives in dry places along valley sides, maquis and open rocky ground, where it is occasionally found basking on rocks or rubble walls. It usually feeds on lizards, mice, shrews, young birds, smaller snakes, frogs and large insects.
Although some people are afraid or dislike snakes, native reptiles are part of our Maltese heritage and should be safeguarded. The Western Whip Snake, like all native snakes, has been protected in Malta since 1992. One should not pursue, take, kill or keep these fascinating reptiles. According to a report compiled by MEPA in connection with the EC Habitats Directive, the population status of the western whip snake is considered to be favourable and positive trends have been predicted.
Date: Saturday 6th June 2015
Temperature: During day maximum 28 degrees Celsius
Wind: Low North East.
Place: Dingli Cliffs, along The Cliffs Interpretation Centre trail.
Important: Pair was not disturbed