Monday, October 19, 2015

The Onion Weed

Onion Weed - Asphodelus fistulosus 
The onion weed is a spring-flowering plant of the lily family. It is found in Mediterranean countries but has been introduced in many areas with a Mediterranean climate particularly in California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and Mexico. It has also been introduced in Australia and New Zealand.

In the Maltese islands it is a rare species that can be found only in a few localities. I have seen in growing mostly on the walls of the bastions at the Argotti Batonic Gardens in Floriana and at Sa Maison Garden in Pieta’.

In Maltese it is known as berwieq żgħir.

In non-Mediterranean countries it has become a pest and measures are taken to try to eliminate it. This is a common situation where plants are introduced in areas where they are not indigenous. In Malta this has occurred with many species the best known being the Cape sorrel which in Maltese is known as the ħaxixa ngliża.

The onion weed is an asphodel. It is related to the very common species known as the branched asphodel. Both plants are very similar except for a big difference in size. The branch asphodel can grow up to 150 cm while the onion weed rarely reaches a height of fifty centimetres.  

This plant is an annual or short-lived perennial. It reproduces by seed which can be dispersed by wing water, machinery or agricultural produce. The seeds can also be carried around by mud attached to animals and vehicles.

The very common and larger branch asphodel flowers in winter and early spring. It grows in most habitats but is more common in rocky steppe. In some places, especially in areas that are regularly burnt, it can become the most common flowering plant.

This article was published in the Times of Malta on 23 April 2015, 

Mason Bees

The mason bee is common in spring. It can easily be identified by the thick layer of reddish brown hair that covers its thorax, the hairless blackish brown abdomen and reddish legs. Females have an abdominal broom. This is a structure formed by fringes of hair which is used to collect pollen.

This species is found in western counties of the Mediterranean including Portugal, Spain, France, Italy and Malta as well as North African counties as far east as Libya. In Italy it is restricted to southern Italy, Sicily and Sardinia.

In Maltese the mason bee is known as naħla tal-koppla because of the rounded structure of its nest which looks like a church dome.

Mason bees are solitary bees but at this time of the year several can be seen close together on the ground especially in rocky areas, collecting gravel and small stones which they use to build their nests.

Females the building material collected from these places and cement it by mixing it with a secretion from their labial glands to form a mud. The mud is used to build rounded nests which are attached to walls or rocks. The labial secretion makes the dried mud impervious to water and the nest can last for many years.

The internal structure of the nest consists of several elongated cells which are filled with honey and pollen. An egg is laid in each cell. The larva forms a pupa which overwinters inside the nest. The adult bee emerges in early spring to start nest building and to collect pollen from flowers

The mason bee belongs to a family known as megachilid. Most bees belonging to this family are known either as mason bees or leafcutter leaves depending on the material they use to build their nests. A small number of species which collect plant or animal hairs and fibres are known as carder bees.

About fifteen species of megachiclid bees are found in the Maltese islands.
Megachiclid bees are inefficient pollen collectors. They have to visit several plants to collect sufficient pollen for their needs and this makes them very important pollinators. 

This  article was published in the Times of Malta on 16 April 2015. 

Every bird shot in spring is one nest less

Turtle dove
There a many reasons for voting no in next Saturday’s referendum one of the main ones being that those who do not hunt want to be able to visit the countryside at the best time of the year without feeling threatened by the presence of thousands of hunters who behave as if they have an exclusive right to be in the countryside.

There is above all another reason which we should not forget; the protection of turtle doves and quails when they are on their way to breed.

These two species have been hunted in many parts of Europe for centuries. In the past animals were hunted to augment the amount of meat available to eat especially for country people who could not afford to buy other sources of protein.

With today’s high standard of living nobody needs to hunt to have meat on the plate. Hunting is carried out solely for pleasure to which there are alternatives such as bird watching and bird photography.

The hunting of birds is no longer necessary especially in spring when every bird is about to breed. Every bird shot in spring is one nest less. If Maltese hunters were not blinded by their obsession they would realise that they should stop killing turtle doves.

The population of turtle doves is decreasing. Since 1970 declines occurred in up to 60% of the countries for which trends are known and the declines are continuing.

Maltese hunters who have been hunting since the 1970s or early eighties are fully aware of this decrease in numbers. Thirty years ago turtle doves used to migrate in large numbers. 

Nowadays the turtle dove is not common at all. Hunters try to justify their pastime by saying that they shoot only ‘small’ numbers of turtle doves but do not say that they shoot fewer birds than they used to because year after year the number of migrating turtle doves is less and less.
The alarm bells have been ringing for many years. Hunters should have taken their heads out of the sand a long time ago and since they did not the time has come for all responsible Maltese citizens to make them stop this destruction before it is too late.   

This article was published in the Times of Malta on 9 April 2015.

Collared Dove

The collared dove is a regular breeder in the Maltese islands. It bred for the first time in 2003 at Santa Marija Estate in Mellieħa. Now it is breeding in many other areas. It builds its nest in trees close in urban areas, often close to buildings. The best places to see collared doves are at San Anton Gardens and the President’s kitchen garden, the Addolorata Cemetery, Buskett Gardens, and at the Għadira Nature Reserve and surrounding fields.

In Maltese the collared dove is called gamiema tal-kullar because it is closely related to the turtle dove which in Maltese is called gamiema.

Collared doves have a long breeding season and remain faithful to each other. At this time of the year they are busy courting and building their nests. During courtship the male climbs vertically close to a female and then glides downward in a circle holding the wings held under the body in the shape of an inverted V. At this time you can also hear collared doves cooing, a sound that in some places has become synonymous with spring.    

The collared dove is non-migratory but has been expanding its range since the beginning of the 20th century. It first appeared in Eastern Europe and by 1945 it reached Germany and in 1956 bred for the first time in Great Britain. By the end of the last century it was breeding throughout North Africa.

Although the collared dove is closely related to the turtle dove they differ from each other because while the collared dove is a resident species the turtle dove is fully migratory and flies all the way from Europe to Africa and back every year. They also differ because the collared dove breeds close to buildings where hunting is not allowed while the turtle dove prefers more rural habitats where shooting is allowed.

Because of this the turtle dove has never become a breeding bird and although it has tried to breed several times it never managed to so because of spring hunting.

This aricle was published in the Times of Malta on 2 April 2015.

The Scarlet Pimpernel

The scarlet pimpernel is a small indigenous plant with beautiful red or blue flowers. It is found in central and southern Europe, in North Africa and in western Asia. It has been introduced accidentally or as a decorative plant in many places including North and South America, Central and East Asia, the Indian sub-continent, Australasia the Pacific Islands and South Africa. In some areas where it has been introduced it has become a pest.

In Malta the pimpernel flowers from March to May. Further north it flowers later in spring and in some areas it remains in flower throughout most of the summer. The flowers grow singly on a thin stalk. The flower is made up of five petals with a small purple spot at the bottom part of the petals which form a circular shape at the centre of the flower. 

The flowers are very sensitive to light. They open up only after the sun is bright enough and close down as soon as the sun disappears behind a cloud. The plant has been called the poor man’s barometer, the poor man’s weather glass and the shepherd’s clock although I doubt whether it has ever been used to tell the weather or time as it is much easier to look up at the sky and check whether the sun is shining than looking at the ground to check if the tiny flowers are open or closed.     

In Maltese the pimpernel is known as ħarira ħamra or ħarira kaħla although the second name is nowadays being used for another very similar species whose flowers are always blue.

The English name comes from a late Middle English word which itself comes from the Middle French word pimpernelle meaning small pepper.

In the past the pimpernel was used medicinally as a diuretic, and as an expectorant and to relieve depression. It is toxic to livestock and can be poisonous. 

The plant is the emblem of Emma Orczy’s fictional character Scarlet Pimpernel, an aristocratic hero who rescued condemned victims from the guillotine during the French Revolution. 

This article was published in the Times of Malta on 26 March 2015.  

Bay Laurel

There can be no doubt that the bay laurel is an indigenous tree. Fossilised imprints of its leaves have been found in Pleistocene deposits, that is, rock formations from the Ice Age period. They formed thousands of years before the first humans arrived in the Maltese islands and so they could not have been brought over by humans.

The bay laurel is an evergreen tree with dark green leaves and light yellow flowers. It flowers from February to April and although it is already mid-March do not be surprised if you find trees that are not yet in bloom. The persistent wintery weather seems to be causing trees and plants to flower later than usual.

In Maltese the bay laurel is known as sigra tar-rand.  It is found in maquis habitat but very few wild specimens are left in nature. A good number have been planted in gardens and public areas but more should be planted. It is much better to have an indigenous tree than an alien species growing in the countryside.

Indigenous trees  are well adapted for local conditions and provide food and shelter for indigenous fauna thus helping to maintain a rich biodiversity. Alien species take up space that would be much better utilised by native trees. They do not provide a habitat for many species of animals and so can be called a faunistic desert.

Moreover indigenous species often have a rich cultural legacy which is a result of centuries of interaction between humans and nature.

The bay laurel is used in medicine and cooking and is a well-known symbol. The leaves are used to flavour Mediterranean soups and stews. In Malta it is an important ingredient of rabbit sauce.

In Classical times the Greeks used laurel wreaths to symbolise victory and to bestow a high status on the person wearing it.

Bay laurel is also used medicinally. An essential oil produced from it is used in massage therapy to alleviate arthritic and rheumatic pain. Laboratory studies have shown that high concentrations of a chemical extract can inhibit skin cancer cells from proliferating.  

This article was publshed in the Times of Malta on 19 March 2015. 

A New Spring

This year it seems that spring will be coming late. At this time of the year the sun normally shines much more often and the temperature on average is higher. When spring finally arrives it will no doubt be welcomed with open arms.

This spring could be also be welcomed for another reason. If the referendum against spring hunting results in a majority voting no many would be welcoming a new spring for Maltese nature.

A no vote will stop the killing of turtle doves and quails on their way to breed.
Protected birds will be able to continue on their journey from their wintering grounds in Africa to their breeding areas in Europe without being shot and everybody will to see more in the countryside.

A no vote will also mean that the Maltese and visitors will be able to visit the countryside without being intimidated by gun wielding bullies and without fearing being hit by pellets.
A no vote will bring about the anarchy that requires a large number of policemen to bring under some semblance of control.

No other country allows the shooting of turtle doves and quail in spring and by voting no the Maltese will align the Maltese islands with the rest of Europe.

Since the start of the referendum campaign the hunters have been noticed by their absence. They are hiding themselves hoping that we will forget what the vote is really about.

They got themselves a spokeswoman to convince us to vote yes or to lull us into not voting. This is nothing but a real life version of the Biblical story about the wolf that covered itself in a sheep skin to gain the trust of the shepherds.

If the hunters’ ruse succeeds on the 12th of April they will throw off their skin and all hell will be let loose. The annual killing of migrating birds will start again with impunity.

The only way to bring about this new spring is for a majority of the Maltese voters not to be lulled into compliancy and on the 11th of April to vote no.

The April 11th referendum is an opportunity to vote in a new spring. 

This article was published in the Times of Malta  on 12 March 2015.