No wing but a prayer

The breeze gentle, the sun bright and high in the sky, I’m in bird watcher mode. My new $1500 binoculars, bought for a substantial discount from the Leica factory in Germany, are in my hands. They’re focused to the middle distance: waiting, waiting…

It’s the day before the crowds arrive for the British Bird Watching Fair and the reserve at Rutland Waters in Leicestershire is empty of people. I’m strolling down the path to a birdwatching hide that overlooks the reservoir. Leaves move fractionally on the breeze concealing the activities of smaller birds. There’s twittering in the shrubs so I move cautiously down the path – careful not to flush the bird.

Once in the hide, I scan the sky for signs of life. Movement high up and left attracts my eye.

In an instant my binoculars are in position and the blur becomes a sharp image: white head and pale underwing plumage make it readily identifiable. It’s a perfect English summer day in 2001 and I’ve been fortunate to encounter an Osprey, fish in talons, climbing towards its nest: an ordered pile of naked branches monitored by closed-circuit television.

The bird is part of an intensive recovery and breeding program. Like many other birds of prey, Osprey migrate to avoid the harsh winter. Their route takes them south across the Mediterranean to the warmth of North Africa.

These British-based birds generally journey to Africa via the Iberian Peninsular where the main threats are storms, hunting and inadequate fishing grounds if and when they get to Africa. Other species based on the European continent aren’t so lucky. They cross the busier shooting grounds of Italy, Greece, Turkey and Malta. The Maltese islands are little more than dots of land in the centre of the Mediterranean.

I’d been in Malta just two weeks prior to sighting the Osprey at Rutland. In Malta, during the migration period, birds like this are routinely – and illegally – shot out of the clear blue sky. To hunt, trap and kill an estimated million birds a year is a fact of life in Malta. And of death.

I’d heard all about it, so I had to see it for myself.

To picture Malta think of Phillip Island, which is roughly the same size, jammed with nearly 400,000 inhabitants at the height of a baking hot summer.

‘Welcome to Malta, Mr Salinger,’ said my driver, Mark, holding aloft a sign as he met me at Luqa International Airport.

He elbowed his way through the crush to escort me to his car. In the car park we walked past a row of newish vans to a battered Cortina.

Automatically, I scanned the sky for signs of life – and saw nothing.

As we snaked our way through Qormi, Hamrun, Msida and Gzira to arrive at Sliema I wondered whether he’d stolen the car. The squeal of tires on the shiny tarmac, blatant disregard for road rules, and the circuitous route made me uneasy. It turned out the car wasn’t stolen. It was simply the way everyone drove.

Malta’s that kind of place.

To picture Malta think of Phillip Island, which is roughly the same size, jammed with nearly 400,000 inhabitants at the height of a baking hot summer.

Picture yourself in an island nation crammed with stunning churches and cathedrals to service the 96% of the population that’s Catholic. Sins like divorce and abortion are banned. Hunting isn’t. Malta became Catholic when St Paul washed ashore in a shipwreck in 60 AD. The Knights of St John arrived in 1530 AD. Shortly thereafter, they help beat back marauding Turkish invaders and were gifted the islands for their defence of Christendom.

Picture a group of islands packed with more historical points of interest per square inch than any rocky outcrop anywhere ought to possess.

Malta really is that kind of place.

We arrived safely in Sliema and I checked in at the Soleado Guesthouse. There I met Judy Rizzo, the proprietor. Though tired, she gathered enough enthusiasm to point me towards the beach. Thirty seconds later I was standing on the corner of Triq Ghar Id-Dud and Triq it-Torri. Straight-ahead was the Mediterranean and beyond that, over the horizon and some ninety kilometres away, Sicily.

Again, I scanned the sky for signs of life – none.

Right beside me, and my de facto home for the duration of my stay, was a wonderful little family-run pastizzrija. I tasted my first of many Cisks that afternoon. Cisk is the local brew: very cheap, served cold and available everywhere. It certainly hit the spot.

Later that evening, with the heat of the sun diminished, I decided on a passeggiatta down to and along Triq ix-Xatt. There, the ferry to Valetta departed every half hour on the quarter and three quarter hour. Valetta, the medieval capital and pulsing heart of Malta lay across Marsamxett Harbour. At dusk, viewed from Sliema’s waterfront, it is truly a picture postcard. Huge sand-coloured stone walls, shiny white dome of the Carmelite Church, spire of St Paul’s Cathedral and assorted medieval battlements bathed in the setting sun. I liked the island. It’s impressive architecture, cluttered streets and knockabout locals were wonderful.

But there was something missing. It dawned on me as I wandered back up the steep hill of Tower Road through the crush of shoppers. All day I’d been subconsciously and also deliberately scanning the sky for bird life like I do everywhere. I do it out of habit. That’s why people like me are called twitchers. But I’m not a real twitcher, the longest I’ve waited for a bird to appear is only four days. I know guys who’ve waited four weeks. Now they’re twitchers. Granted it wasn’t migration season when the sky teems with movement, but in my mind, I could picture powerful birds of prey overhead. Their wings, beating the air effortlessly. Their flight, strong and true. Then the reality set in for me. I could imagine the scene clearly: their death by shotgun blast, painful and deliberate. Plunging out of the clear blue sky.

I scanned the sky for signs of life – none

After a few days of travelling the island on the crowded Leyland buses to various places of historical interest that were devoid of bird life I headed to the prehistoric monuments of Hagar Qim and Mnajdra. These megalithic temples are located on the south coast of Malta and pre-date the Egyptian pyramids by a thousand years. Like the birds, they’re another part of Malta’s heritage that’s devalued by the locals.

Built somewhere between 3600 and 3000BC they are regarded by outsiders as being as significant as England’s Stonehenge. Linda Eneix, an experienced archaeologist, arrived in Malta in 1990 expecting to find excavations. Instead, she found herself standing on original pavements surrounded by standing walls. “It wasn’t hard to know that this was something fantastic,” she says.

Linda’s still there. She now heads up the non profit OTS (Old Temple Study) Foundation. She’s still fighting to maintain the island’s impressive archaeological assets in the face of some tough cultural barriers that seem to value neglect over preservation. An example of this is the hunting and trapping of wildlife like birds, wild rabbits, turtles, hedgehogs and lizards despite the fact there’s nearly none left.

The bus driver designated a quiet crossroad as the place to disembark for the temples so I climbed off the crowded number 138 bus with a group of other foreigners in pursuit of the monuments. The bus pulled away and we all stood wondering where they were.

I scanned the sky for signs of life – none.

As a group, we took pot luck and walked up the hill to – hopefully – Hagar Qim and Mnajdra. Before long we crossed a barren car park to arrive at a security gate. A surly guard baked mean by the heat of the sun sat in a little tollbooth. He seemed genuinely displeased at the arrival of visitors and was stunned when I had the temerity to ask him how much entry cost. Feigning a lack of English he gestured towards a sign so I coughed up my one Maltese Lira ($3.40AUD) and passed through the gate, smiling happily at the guard to infuriate him all the more. Everyone in Malta, including, I suspect, the gatekeeper speaks English to some degree. Malta gained her independence from Britain in 1964 and became a republic in 1974. To this day, many locals still refer to the Lira as the Maltese Pound and English is taught in the schools.

After entering the reserve I was hit with food smells wafting from a restaurant serving overpriced ‘traditional‘ Maltese cuisine. Off to the south, cliffs plunged into the staggeringly blue Mediterranean. Immediately in front stood a collection of massive bleached rocks and large boulders exposed to the weather forming Hagar Qim. 500 metres off in the distance down an uneven poorly maintained goat track was Mnajdra – fenced off and out of bounds as a result of an April 2001 incident of vandalism where over 60 boulders were pushed over, broken or defaced with graffiti. Hunters, fed up at a ‘crackdown’ on the shooting of protected species, broke into the complex and part-destroyed Mnajdra’s 5,500 year old history. No one’s been prosecuted.

To the left of Hagar Qim, facing the sea, was an illegal stone hunting hide looking for all the world like a pimple on the bum of Malta’s culture. I went in. The hide overlooked the island of Filfla, a nature reserve and former bombing range. I scanned the sky for signs of life and wondered what they hunted.

This was Stonehenge – Malta style. Linda Eneix believes money from tourism is the key to saving the temples for future generations. As she says, ‘it’s sad, but that’s the way it is.’ She’s right when she decries the Maltese government’s inability to market the island as a cultural tourism destination. What a culture! What a destination! I thought to myself that maybe the bird life needs to be better protected like the monuments. Maybe that’s just the twitcher in me talking, though, as I said, I’m no twitcher.

My second last night in Malta corresponded to the feast of San Guzepp held at Msida near Valetta. Every town has a festa and they are joyous celebrations of church, family and community.

The church of San Guzepp is a charming building built in the late nineteenth century. A small dome points god-ward at the rear of the church while twin bell towers guard both front corners. At twilight, a boisterous crowd watched kids compete for a flag that hung from the top of a greasy pole overhanging the water in a game known as Il-Gostra. Many of the crowd of 2,000 queued to go inside and view the church’s collection of religious relics, to pray and to listen to the local band strangle traditional marching songs.

Red banners hung from poles. After dark the church was lit by thousands of globes, lending a festive feel to the contented faces. Row after row of food vendors sold piles of fast food, beer, soft drinks like Kinni, and flavoured nougat. People chatted casually and relaxed, waiting for the fireworks display to bring the night to an end. Before long, the statue of San Guzepp that is normally kept under lock and key inside was processed around the streets to the collective chant of ‘Viva Guzepp!’

Teenagers walked hurriedly about the closed-off streets, the girls in impossibly revealing clothes, the boys slicked back and ready for anything. Mostly the kids just tried their best to avoid their parents and look cool, but occasionally they found themselves in one another’s embrace in the darkened laneways.

Late at night, anticipation lifted as the festa committee ignited the ground-based fireworks. Each firework spinning and twisting and turning – throwing colours and light and noise into the crowd. Afterwards, massive airborne fireworks lit up the night. Booms and bangs rebounded off the medieval walls and stone houses. To my mind, the smaller cracks reminded me of the sound of shotguns, which reverberate around the island during the migratory season.

I can recall looking around that night at the sea of happy faces wondering how many of these men – for it is the men who hunt – spend their autumns and their springs in the hillsides blasting away at everything and anything that flies. I wondered too at how they could be driven to hunt and trap such wonderful protected species when they belonged to a culture as celebratory of life as the one I was witnessing.

How does this dualism exist in modern Malta? Which was the real Malta? The one that has a proud tradition of historical and cultural values, or the one that disregards these values on an almost daily basis? Linda Eneix succinctly sums up the battle to restore the temple areas, to restore Malta’s heritage of which the protected birds are as important as the megalithic temples: “The OTS Foundation has made a public offer… to help when Malta is ready. More than that, we cannot do.”

I wandered home to my room with the stunning night-time view of Valetta for company, the buses having long since stopped. It was night but I imagined I heard the plaintive call of a Plover on the water, but there was nothing there. I was full of Cisk and Souvlaki, full of joy and sorrow too at what’s missing and what will soon be gone forever if Malta’s never ready.

Back at Rutland Water it’s the first day of the bird watching fair. Fate has placed my booth directly opposite Steve Cale’s. Steve’s an artist from Dorset and a great bloke. He’s very particular with an eye for detail. If there’s a feather out of place in one of his paintings, it’s deliberate.

At the front of Steve’s booth is a rare sight: a painting of Honey Buzzards soaring on thermals over his cottage in Dorset. Steve’s painted it in such a manner that it reminds me of a scene from World War Two: Hurricanes and Spitfires duelling with ME 109s against the backdrop of a cloudy sky. I tell Steve this and he’s pleased. I sense Steve painted the scene both because it was there and because he’s not sure he’ll ever get the chance to see it again.

I know what he means.

While we wait for the crowd to build we chat amiably about birds, Australia, Dorset, family and topics in between. I tell him about my trip to Malta. I tell him how, frustrated at having nothing to look at through my new binoculars while I was there, the minute I landed in London I drove to North Scotland in a mad dash just to look for Puffins.

He gives me a knowing look then labels me, “Twitcher.”