The Maltese Islands lie in the centre of the Mediterranean. They are 96km from the most southern tip of Sicily and 288km to the nearest point in Tunisia. The total area is 315.6 km2. The main Islands are Malta, Gozo and Comino. The climate is typically Mediterranean with hot, dry summers and very mild, rather moist winters (occasionally not so moist).
Most types of habitat found in Malta are pretty much disturbed, and consist of cultivated land (44%); maquis (2.8%); garigue (12%) (including maritime); steppe (2%); cliff side (2%); clay slopes (0.5%); boulder screens (0.5%) and afforested areas (1.2%). The remaining 29% is built up and roads.
Afforested areas or woodland is a rare habitat due to human interference and few patches of native forest remain. Some areas have been planted by man but are now regenerating on their own. Most typical trees found here are evergreen oak and Aleppo pine.
Maquis is found mainly along valley sides. It is a habitat of mainly small trees and large shrubs. It is a more sheltered environment with deeper soil and more water. Typical trees include olive, carob, lentisk, bay laurel and bear`s breeches.
Garigue is a widespread habitat, which develops on karstland or as a result of a degraded maquis. It is an exposed habitat with little soil and sparse water. This is a habitat dominated by low vegetation, especially hardy aromatic shrubs. There are three types of plants: annuals which grow in winter and spend the summer as seeds; geophytes which are perennial plants with a dormant stage as bulbs and evergreen which are perennials which live throughout but must be adapted. Typical plants include Mediterranean heath, wild thyme, olive-leaved germander, Maltese spurge, rock roses and Maltese pyramidal orchid.
Steppe is an unstable and difficult environment. There are two types: natural and man-made. The natural steppe is generally made up of clay slopes. The typical plant is esparto grass. The man-made is habitat once exploited by man such as abandoned fields and overgrazed garigue.
Coastal an inland cliffs are so to speak vertical garigue. There is hardly any soil or water. Here plants occupy small ledges and cracks and are typically small shrubs. Plants on the coastal cliffs have to adapt to exposure to salty winds. Inland cliffs, valley sides and fortifications are home to many endemic plants. Typical plants include Maltese salt tree, Maltese rock centaury, Maltese everlasting, Maltese cliff-orache, caper and white snapdragon.
Coastal communities are divided into three habitats. Sand dunes a very rare due to human impact and the fact that less than 2% of coastline is made up of sandy beaches. Sand dunes are important for coastal protection and also contain many rare plants (many already extinct). It is an environment where plants have to adapt to drought, salt and shifting sands. The typical tree is the tamarisk and plants include sea holly and sea daffodil. Rocky shores contain patches of shallow and saline soil. Only salt tolerant species of plants survive and these include golden samphire and the endemic Zerapha`s sea lavender. Saline marshland forms a boundary between the marine, freshwater and terrestrial environment. During the wet season rainwater mixes with salt water to form brackish water. This environment is home to many specialised flora, which include rushes, reeds and golden samphire.
Freshwater is normally found in valleys and watercourses. Valleys are important water catchment areas, but very few watercourses hold water throughout the year. Valleys support a maquis type of vegetation. Typical trees include white poplar, willow and grey elm. Typical plants include great reed and Sicilian squill.
Rock Pools form in winter on small depressions found on karstland. Water-crowfoot is atypical plant found in rock pools.
Disturbed ground is a very common habitat (unfortunately). Such land has been degraded by human activities. Typical flora includes grasses and annuals, most of which are alien species. Alien species in such habitat include eucalyptus, castor oil tree, crown daisy, cape sorrel and prickly pear.
The number of species recorded in Malta is 375 with a great number of vagrants. 200 is more or less the number recorded annually.
If one wants to bird watch in Malta timing is of the utmost importance. It is during migration that good numbers (sometimes large numbers) of birds are seen. Few birds breed on Malta so summer is pretty quiet. Some birds winter in Malta but these are generally the commoner species. Weather is also a determining factor. This may result in a dream day full of birds or not a single feather for the record.
Hunting and trapping is a very big problem in Malta. Hundreds of thousands of birds are shot and trapped every year. They are shot both from land and from powerboats out at sea, and this is where the larger number are shot. Birdwatching can be somewhat perilous unless you know where to go at the right time as a good number of hunters consider birders as a threat and can be intolerant to say the least. Anybody interested in birding in Malta, should contact a local birder or BirdLife Malta for further information.
Maltese birdwatchers and birdwatching organisations need support from British Tourists if the slaughter is ever to end.
When and where to watch birds in Malta
January: Mostly resident and wintering birds. Best birding: Wooded areas, harbours, reserves. Everywhere is rather quiet.
February: Mostly resident and wintering birds. Appearance of first migrants. Best birding: Same as in January.
March: Migration begins, usually starting to peak towards the middle of the month. Highlights include good passages of ducks (mainly Garganeys and Pintails); herons, raptors (mainly Black kite, Marsh harrier and Kestrel) and early migrants such as Hoopoes, cuckoos and wheatears. Best birding: NW coast for sea watching. Anywhere is good.
April: Peak migration. Anything can be expected. Good number of birds on most days. Best birding: Island of Comino, Ghadira Nature Reserve and Simar Nature Reserve, (mainly because other places are invaded by hunters).
May: Migration starts to dwindle but presence of late migrants can be quite interesting. Best birding: Comino, Ghadira Nature Reserve, Simar Nature Reserve and along the coast for Sea watching.
June: June is one of the quietest months. Only resident and breeding species are found. Occasionally there are some very late migrants. Best birding. Weather hot, birds few. The two reserves and Buskett are the only places worth visiting in the early morning.
July: Breeding birds in full activity. Early autumn migrants start to appear mainly waders. Best birding: The two reserves and places suitable for breeding birds. A night visit to the cliffs in Gozo and the south of Malta is recommended to hear Cory`s shearwater.
August: Breeding birds with fledglings and resident birds. First herons and raptors start to appear. Best birding: Same as above plus sea watching along the eastern coast of Malta.
September: Migration is in full swing. Anything can be expected. Highlights good numbers of raptors with late arrivals during the day trying to roost mostly at a small patch of woodland called Buskett. Best birding: Buskett for raptors especially in the afternoon. Sea watching along the eastern coast.
October: Peak Migration of many birds including the arrival of the first wintering birds. Best birding: Anywhere but especially along the North Eastern coast.
November: Late autumn migrants pass in good numbers. Wintering birds increase in numbers. Best birding: As above plus the North Western coast.
December: Occasional late migrants and wintering birds much in evidence. Best birding: Woodlands, reserves, harbours and coast.