Taking flight: a window on raptor migration

Introduce your child to the spectacle of bird migration, Victor Falzon recommends
The European honey-buzzard (kuċċarda) is one of the most common migratory raptors over Malta in autumn. Photo: Aron Tanti

Epic journey

As you read this, millions of birds are on the wing, on a gruelling challenge they must face twice a year – migration.

At this time of year, birds are travelling, generally in a southerly direction, on a trip that may take them months and land them several thousand kilometres from home. Destination: a place with mild weather. Reason for trip: to escape the bitter northern winter.

Birds are hardier than we think and they are superbly equipped to accomplish these feats of endurance; after all, they have been doing this for millions of years.

But the journey is fraught with danger and many perish along the way. It seems such a waste of life, but had they stayed home, they would have died a slow death of cold and starvation anyway. 

Watching for change

It’s not only birds that migrate: many insects, fish and mammals undertake long journeys in search of better conditions. But to most of us living in urbanised countries, bird migration is perhaps the least difficult to observe.

How can you describe bird migration to a child?

The key is to spend time outdoors in nature and observe the subtle transformations that autumn brings. We can all sense the days gradually becoming shorter and cooler, and the rain transforming the once brown landscape into a vibrant green.

Imagine, if we, city dwellers, can appreciate these changes, just think how much more attuned to them outdoor creatures like birds must be. In fact, they have an incredible ability to sense these changes much earlier than we do. Even in mid-summer many birds pack their bags and leave their nesting home, knowing that winter is coming.

A flocks of raptors awaiting dark to land in the pine trees at Buskett. Photo: Aron Tanti

Birds of prey

Most birds keep a low profile when migrating. Many travel at night, landing in trees and shrubs to rest their aching wings and perhaps skulk about to find a snack.

Birds of prey, on the other hand, are not in the skulking business. They are generally largish-to-massive birds and easy to recognise by a hooked beak, which they use to tear up the animals they catch.

Birds of prey, or raptors, spend much time up in the air scanning the ground for lunch. With the sharpest eyes in the animal kingdom, they can spot a lizard in the grass from incredible heights. But hard flying saps energy fast, so these aerial predators have evolved broad wings to soar and glide, rather than constantly flap their wings – a nifty trick they also use on migration.

Riding thermals

Another trick many raptors and other broad-winged birds employ is riding thermals.

When the sun rises the ground heats up, warming the air flowing above it. The heated air rises and forms what is known as a thermal. This is why birds of prey often wait for the sun to climb high before launching into the air. They extend their wide wings, and the moment they catch a thermal, they soar effortlessly to great heights carried on the updraft. It’s not about being lazy late-risers, but sound knowledge of thermodynamics!

Once the birds gain enough height, they glide forward and look for the next thermal. In this way they cover large distances with hardly a wingbeat.

Thermals don’t form over the sea, however, so the birds often follow land corridors to avoid sea-crossings as much as possible. Italy provides one such land corridor down which raptors travel on their way to Africa. Next in line: Malta, and this is why our islands are part of the Central Mediterranean Flyway.

Thermal currents help broad-winged birds attain great heights with little effort. Illustration: Victor Falzon

Enjoy the spectacle

And so, like royalty, birds of prey sail in overhead in full daylight, and you can spot them from anywhere: your roof, the village square, waiting in traffic.

Some places, however, are more promising than others. Especially after a sea-crossing, raptors too get tired and look for somewhere to land and spend a night. A nice bit of dark woodland like Buskett is ideal. Raise your chance of seeing some this autumn: spend an afternoon there with your child, find a quiet spot in the open and scan the sky for raptors.

September and early October are the best time for autumn raptors in Malta. Among the species that regularly make single-night stopovers at Buskett are European honey-buzzards, Western marsh-harriers, common kestrels and Eurasian hobbies – no wonder the woodland is a prime location for birdwatchers.

BirdLife Malta scientists and enthusiasts flock there at this time of year to study and enjoy raptor migration, and nothing is stopping you from joining them. Let your child catch the raptor-watching bug as you spy 40 marsh-harriers circle overhead at dusk slowly lose height and, in perfect silence, drop into the pine trees. Pure magic.

Birdwatchers and nature photographers gather at vantage observation points overlooking Buskett valley. Photo: Ray Galea

You can join BirdLife’s special birdwatching event for beginners at https://birdlifemalta.org/2023/09/eurobirdwatch23-at-buskett/.

Victor 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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