Ethereal calls in the night: discover the sound of Malta’s shearwaters

Treat your family to a unique nocturnal soundfest this June and July
Shearwaters gather in rafts at sea, waiting for the dark to fly in to their nests. Photo: Aron Tanti

I sincerely believe that for the child, and for the parent seeking to guide him, it is not half so important to know as to feel.”                      

Rachel Carson, A Sense of Wonder

Nocturnal serenade

It’s hot… but maybe you’re not ready to head down to the sea yet? Luckily, one of nature’s hidden marvels is happening in just the right place for an evening’s chilling.  Head off to the cliffs above Għar Ħasan, Wied Fulija or Miġra l-Ferħa or, if you’re in Gozo, to Ta’ Ċenċ or Dwejra, and be prepared for a flesh-tingling experience.

This is the time of year when shearwaters throng to our cliffs to serenade each other with love songs. Once you’ve heard the ethereal call of hundreds of shearwaters in the dark, you’ll remember the experience forever.

The good news is that you have all June and July to indulge your newfound passion for the love songs of these seafaring birds.

Scopoli’s shearwaters nest in crevices in our cliffs, lining the ground with breast feathers. Photo: Joe Sultana

Creatures of the sea

Shearwaters are long and slender-winged seabirds that spend their lives skimming the waves, a habit that has earned them their name. Here they ride the breeze with skilful agility just above the sea’s surface to minimise wing flaps and conserve energy as they scout for small fish below the waves.

Like all seabirds, shearwaters have a keen sense of smell, but these birds’ olfactory prowess is more akin to a super sense. They can smell a chemical released by microscopic algae that are the food of tiny shrimps called krill, and this will lead them to the fish that prey on them. 

What’s more, these amazing birds can navigate their way from their winter feeding grounds in the Atlantic or off the Tunisian coast to our islands, simply by following a mental map of sulfurous scents ingrained in their memory!

Scopoli’s shearwaters find their prey through a highly developed sense of smell. Photo: Adin Vella

“The call of a shearwater is like no other bird you are likely to hear. It sounds like a baby crying, complete with split second pause for breath”

The pull of family

Shearwaters feel safest at sea. Evolution has kitted out shearwaters with many assets to get the better of their marine habitat.

Take for instance their long nostrils − not only does this tubenose help channel marine scents towards the nostrils on their beak, but it also enables the bird to excrete excess sea salt by “weeping” a saline solution.

But one thing you can’t do at sea is bring up a family.

The breeding urge is what forces shearwaters to run the gauntlet of returning to land – a habitat the birds are so unadapted to that they choose the safety of darkness to fly in to shore. And this is when you can treat your family to a unique nocturnal soundfest.

Long legs and webbed feet give the advantage at sea, where shearwaters spend most of their lives. Photo: Aron Tanti

Red light zone

Towards dusk in June and July, shearwaters gather in large groups (rafts) and sit on the waves waiting for dark. Use this time to enjoy clifftop wildlife and find a comfortable spot where you can safely listen to sounds coming from the cliffside.

Be prepared: wear shoes for rough surfaces and bring a headlamp with red light to find your way back in the dark. Check the lunar cycle before picking your shearwater night. Shearwaters will not fly in to shore on moonlit nights, and flashing white torchbeams, loud voices and music will disturb the birds and drive them away from their breeding grounds.

The call of a shearwater is like no other bird you are likely to hear. It sounds like a baby crying, complete with split second pause for breath. Soon after you hear the first call, you will be regaled with the calls of hundreds of echoes as more and more birds fly into their cliffside nests.

Over 1,000 pairs of Scopoli’s shearwaters breed at Ta’ Ċenċ cliffs in Gozo. Photo: Aron Tanti

Parenting skills

What would be happening in the cliffs?

From March to May, the shearwaters fly in to the cliffs at night to find a nesting site. Males and females call out to each other as lifelong partnerships are formed and rival males spar it out.

By the end of May, the females have laid a single egg in their rocky crevice and incubation starts, with one parent on incubation duty while the other builds up their strength back at sea.

When the switch happens, the parent flying in calls out in the dark to find its mate, who answers amid hundreds of other nesting pairs.

Once the chick hatches after 50 days, the parents continue switching between nest duty and time off.

The returning parent will only come in once it has eaten enough to keep it going for days without food on the nest, and of course, to regurgitate some of that food for the chick. This will go on till August, after which the frequency of nest visits starts to decline.

Eventually, in September, the chick is left to fend for itself and take its maiden flight.

Males and females take it in turns to do nesting duty. Photo: BirdLife Malta

“Our 7,000 or so Scopoli’s shearwaters are threatened by disturbance, light, noise and litter pollution and are declining in numbers”

Safeguarding the future

In Malta, we have two members of the shearwater family. The more common, the Scopoli’s shearwater breeds in many of our cliffs, but like much of our natural heritage, is negatively impacted by human disturbance. Our 7,000 or so Scopoli’s shearwaters are threatened by disturbance, light, noise and litter pollution and are declining in numbers.

Engage your child in immersive experiences like the ones featured in this series, and instil a deep appreciation for nature that can play a crucial role in securing a better future for Malta’s wildlife.

Listening to shearwaters on our coastal cliffs is the perfect way to immerse your children in nature. As these secretive birds fly into our radar at night, they create a memorable experience that will leave a lasting impression on your family.

Desirée Falzon is a naturalist and field teacher with BirdLife Malta.

Join BirdLife Malta

For more nature experiences for you and your children, join BirdLife Malta’s family events at www.birdlifemalta.org/events or become a member and join their family of nature lovers at https://birdlifemalta.org/become-member/.

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To view all the articles in this series, click here. For more environment-related articles, follow this link.

For more Child stories, watch this space.

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