In a picturesque spot on our east coast, egrets scan for fish, sandpipers poke the mud for worms and a multitude of small animal life thrives among the specialist vegetation of this rare habitat. Welcome to Salina Nature Reserve, one of Malta’s unique places for nature, protected under the Natura 2000 network.
Natura 2000 sites are natural areas throughout Europe where nature is protected to varying degrees. To make the Natura 2000 list, a site must host rare species of plants or animals that live, breed or seek refuge there, have an abundance or variety of wildlife or be a rare habitat.
Salina earned its Natura 2000 badge as a salt marsh – a very rare habitat for Malta. The mixing of rainwater from the surrounding valleys with seawater from Salina Bay creates a dynamic combination only specially adapted wildlife can survive. But plants and animals are not the only ones to take advantage of the estuary’s special features….
Earning its salt
In the 16th century, the Knights of St John centralised Malta’s salt production industry in one saltworks, simplifying the task of guarding the precious commodity rather than having it scattered on all compass points.
Pay a visit to Salina with your family and learn about salt production at Salina through the ages right up to the present. Drop in at the visitor centre on any weekday and ask the knowledgeable and friendly assistants how and why a salt production line became a nature reserve.
Habitat for nature
The reserve today is managed by BirdLife Malta. Open from dawn to dusk, it is an ideal family destination hosting occasional themed weekend events organised by BirdLife staff. Find out about these events on https://www.facebook.com/SalinaNatureReserve.
At this time of year migrating birds start trickling through, stopping over at Salina for a rest and a bite. As the autumn migration approaches its peak in mid-September, expect to see stints, sandpipers and shanks poking the banks of floating marsh vegetation with their finger-like beaks, looking for crustaceans that feed on the plants.
Egrets and herons wade into the saltpans in search of small fish, while grebes dive into the water and give chase. Look out for visiting flamingoes, the iconic mascot that graces the reserve’s logo, filtering out brine shrimps from the water.
A dynamic profile
Unlike other habitats, a saltmarsh is a highly fluctuating environment, as its main feature – the water – changes profile dramatically with the seasons. This might not seem like a big deal, but to the plants and animals living in the habitat, it is the equivalent of simultaneously living in the desert and in a rainforest.
The hyper saline summer water changes into a veritable freshwater lake during the rainy period. Our national fish – the killifish – is a champion of dynamic environments, capable of activating or shutting off specialised channels that secrete salt, thus keeping its salt level constant.
Thanks to multiple salt-excluding mechanisms, the freshwater beaked tasselweed thrives at Salina, providing an important source of food for some waterbirds and a spawning ground for the killifish, whose eggs stick to the plant’s strands.
Open your child’s senses to the smells and sounds of a saltmarsh, and imprint a sensory collage unique to this rare habitat. Often startling to a first time visitor the unmistakable “marsh smell” comes from the layers of decomposing plant matter so vital to the web of life.
Our urban lives too often destroy our children’s chances to create sensory memories, as we mask odours with perfumes and close our windows to the fumes that surround us.
Make a regular habit of visiting Salina at different times of year and build an audiobank of bird sounds: from the harsh cackle of gulls, to the whistling and piping of plovers or the guttural rasping of a little egret.
For an all-in-one visual feast, enjoy the sticky fleabane – a rough and ready wayside plant with sticky, aromatic leaves evocative of the seaside. In September, you cannot miss its profusion of bee-attracting yellow flowers dotting the Salina footpath.
Behind the scenes
Visiting a nature reserve with your child is more than an enriching nature experience. Every child has heard – at school if nowhere else – that nature has taken a hit from human activity. But the picture is not all bleak.
This summer take your child to Salina and witness together how nature-oriented people can transform a neglected backwater into a thriving nature hotspot thanks to years of ongoing work by BirdLife and a management plan that prioritises nature.
Notice the custom-made mud flats at the edges of carefully chosen salt pans, habitats for wading birds who probe the mud with finger-like beaks. Spot the strategically placed poles in some of the pans, providing perch-and-survey posts for gulls, terns and cormorants. Uncover the information panel secrets with your child and learn about nature at Salina.
Writing the future
Salina is a symbol of hope and a reminder that nature’s story is still being written. As in all our nature places, the wetland is threatened by human disturbance, not least from the roar of cars and motorbikes on the coast road. Success stories abound at the Salina marshland. Set your children on the side of history that cares for nature and ignite their hope that they can be part of the change.
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/.
BirdLife Malta is organising a three-month course to engage children in nature. For all the details, click here.
For more Child stories, watch this space.