Record number of wagtails roost in Valletta this season

BirdLife Malta collaborates with Local Council of Valletta for bird-friendly tree management

(Photo: Matthew Scerri)
(Photo: Matthew Scerri)
Volunteers collected roosting data for the trees just outside the city gates (Photo: Matthew Scerri)
Volunteers collected roosting data for the trees just outside the city gates (Photo: Matthew Scerri)

A record number of 10,786 White Wagtails have been counted roosting in Valletta’s trees this winter. The record follows BirdLife Malta’s collaboration with the mayor of Valletta and an arborist to ensure the city’s trees this season are not trimmed too heavily and allow a dense enough canopy for birds to roost in.

“It is interesting to see how easy humans and nature can live in harmony together. Valletta should be proud to be hosting so many birds even if one would not usually associate a city full of buildings with birds,” said Valletta’s Mayor Prof Alexei Dingli.

Valletta is the most important winter roost site for migrating White Wagtails (Zakak Abjad) in the Maltese islands. During the cold winter nights these birds find refuge in the ficus trees at Great Siege Square and St John Square.

However, during the past years Valletta’s trees had been over-pruned at this time of the year making the safe sleeping quarters unsuitable for birds. But this year, the Local Council decided to do things differently and delay the heavy pruning to a time when the White Wagtails have migrated back to breed in  Northern Europe.

“The local council was happy to change a small common routine for the benefit of these birds. We believe in the importance of trees in urban areas and encourage other local councils to adopt similar actions for the benefit of nature and humans alike,” Dingli stated.

Since 1986 BirdLife Malta’s volunteers count White Wagtail roosts of Valletta each year. This year the annual count was held on Saturday, January 23, with over 20 experienced bird watchers and researchers volunteering.

“This year was a special year with an influx of White Wagtails visiting our islands, and it coincided well with the decision not to prune the trees these birds seek for every night. Thousands of birds flying in to roost is the most amazing spectacle. We hope it encourages people to visit the city in the evenings to spot these beautiful birds.” said Mark Sultana, BirdLife Malta’s CEO.

During a press conference on Wednesday morning, BirdLife Malta presented Mayor Prof Akexei Dingli with a symbolic certificate to congratulate and thank the Local Council of Valletta for keeping the trees safe for birds.

The systematic monitoring of Valletta’s wagtail roost was initiated and is still organised by Denis Cachia, long-time BirdLife Malta’s volunteer. At the time the annual roost counts started, the numbers roosting amounted circa 4,500 birds. The lowest roost was that of 2,002 birds counted in 1992. As the trees in Valletta matured, the roosts started steadily increasing in numbers reaching a 7,000 figure in 2009.

This was however badly affected by insensitive pruning that left the trees to bare stumps in 2010. The 2011 roost numbers only 3,255 individuals. Following more careful measures adopted by the local council, the trees regained their foliage offering a protective canopy to roosting birds. Winter roost numbers increased again to 5,554 in 2012 and 7,805 in 2015. The roost has now reached a record of 10,786 counted last Saturday by BirdLife Malta’s volunteers.

The White Wagtail is a migratory bird and a common visitor in Malta between October and April. This insect-eating bird can be often seen feeding in agricultural fields, but also on rooftops and streets in towns.

More in Environment