Watch out for Hobbies and Common Kestrels as autumn migration peaks

BirdLife national raptor coordinator Edward Bonavia on what to expect in the lask week of September

A Hobby. By far the best location to observe raptor migration is Buskett Woodland, ideally on its higher grounds
A Hobby. By far the best location to observe raptor migration is Buskett Woodland, ideally on its higher grounds

Although the end of August theoretically should be the peak time for adult Honey-buzzards in the Mediterranean, very few adult Honey-buzzards are observed over the Maltese Islands.

This is because adults pass from the shorter stretch of sea between western Sicily and northeastern Tunisia and not over the Maltese Islands. Adults are experienced birds and have already completed at least two entire migration routes to and from Africa and thus already know the shortest sea crossing routes to follow. These adult Honey-buzzards avoid the Maltese Islands completely.

In September, raptor migration flow starts increasing drastically as the month progresses, usually peaking in the second and third week of the month.

Buskett grounds
Buskett grounds

The majority of the raptors are Marsh Harriers and juvenile Honey-buzzards, which will be undergoing their first migration and thus do not have the experience the adult birds have.

On good days, hundreds of both of these species can be seen migrating over the Maltese Islands. Although the number of Honey-buzzards seen in Malta cannot be compared to the raptor bottleneck sites mentioned earlier on, the number of Marsh Harriers observed in the Maltese Islands in some years surpasses the numbers seen in these renowned migration hotspots.

Smaller in size, but by no means less spectacular than Honey-buzzards and Marsh Harriers, are the falcons. Three of the more common falcon species that migrate are the Hobby, the Common Kestrel, and the Lesser Kestrel.

Hobbies and Common Kestrels usually arrive singly or in small flocks and peak in the last week of September through the first three weeks of October. Lesser Kestrels, on the other hand, also migrate in flocks, at times quite considerable in size.

As with Marsh Harriers, numbers of these three falcon species observed in the Maltese Islands are in some years higher than in other raptor migration hotspots.

Apart from roosting here, falcons arriving late in the afternoon spend a few hours circling and hunting over suitable habitat in search of prey such as small passerine birds, large insects and also Pipistrelle Bats. Hobbies also have a tendency to be rather territorial even during the migration period, in fact they can regularly be observed mobbing larger raptors such as Honey-buzzards.

Other less numerous raptor species are also observed during the autumn. Osprey, Montagu’s Harrier, Black Kite, Eurasian Sparrowhawk, Eleonora’s Falcon, and Peregrine Falcon are also regularly observed amongst the more numerous raptor species mentioned previously.

Other rare raptor species can also be observed. These include three species of eagle: Short-toed Eagle, Lesser Spotted Eagle, and Booted Eagle, together with a vulture species – the endangered Egyptian Vulture, which is the smallest vulture species that breeds in Europe. Other rare raptors that can be observed in the autumn include Common Buzzard, Red Kite, Pallid Harrier and Hen Harrier.

Rare falcons include Red-footed Falcon, Merlin, and Saker Falcon. These rare raptors are usually only seen on a few dates from the end of September onwards and at times not even annually so birders are always excited when they manage to spot such species amongst the hundreds of the commoner raptor species.

The Maltese Islands thus offer a great opportunity to observe the migration of raptors in autumn. A pair of binoculars and a field guide having the European raptor species is the only thing one needs together with looking up towards the sky to spot these majestic raptors migrating over our islands.

This year BirdLife Malta has launched its #onthemove campaign to showcase the beauty of the autumn bird migration spectacle. The campaign aims to inspire people to enjoy, care and protect Malta’s birds during the autumn migration. Visit https://birdlifemalta.org/onthemove to learn more about the campaign. Members of the public are also being encouraged to log their bird sightings in a form which has been purposely created for this campaign: https://bit.ly/reportasighting

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