Nature Reserve Series: Għadira
Just across the busy Mellieħa-Ċirkewwa arterial road and the even busier sandy beach at Mellieħa Bay, nestles an ecological hotspot – Għadira nature reserve.
The area known as Għadira (which means lake) is so called because of a coastal lagoon that, for as long as people remember, formed just inside the shallow Mellieħa bay. Nobody knows what the place looked like in the distant past, or whether it was a permanent or seasonal lake.
The sandy nature of the ground rendered transient the shape of the shoreline, exposed as it is to the notoriously violent northeasterly gales. Sixteenth-century maps label the site as Saline Vecchie (old saltpans), so for a while, Għadira was presumably used for salt extraction.
However, for centuries the site lay unused, sand and silt raised the ground profile and the land largely reverted to nature. When the coast road that isolated the beach from the lagoon was built, sometime in the 19th century, the shoreline became somewhat stabilised.
A seasonal pool still formed in the rainy months, however, attracting duck and other aquatic birds, which in turn brought in human hunters, as well as naturalists.
At about 7ha, Għadira is tiny by international standards but on a national scale, its ecological value is high. Due to the dry climate, wetlands in Malta are rare and permanent inland bodies of water are almost nonexistent. Because of this, much of the flora and fauna of Għadira tend to be scarce, rare or with very restricted distribution in the country. The aquatic flora includes a species of tassel weed, which appears virtually nowhere else in Malta, and the resident Mediterranean killifish is one of just three or four populations on the Islands.
Saltmarsh and dune flora include rare species such as sea daffodil, sea-purslane and sea lavender. The fauna includes the secretive burrowing sand cricket, a rare insect protected under the EU Habitats Directive.
A dozen species of dragonfly dart across the water to defend their patch, while reptiles including cat snake, ocellated skink and the elusive Mediterranean chameleon make appearances too.
The flagship animal group, however, is birds. Their variety, colour and visibility makes them hard to miss, and a wetland such as Għadira attracts its fair share. Aquatic birds often tend to be large and visible, including herons, egrets, flamingoes, ducks and several wading species.
These come and go with the seasons, most of them spending no more than a day or two – sometimes just hours – as they fly in for a short rest before resuming their migration north or south, depending on the time of year. Several species also overwinter at Għadira, including rails, grebes and woodland birds like robins and chiffchaffs.
Come spring, the territorial calls of breeding little ringed plover mingle with the incessant zip of the zitting cisticola.
More than 140 species of birds are spotted at Għadira every year. Għadira is a Ramsar Site, a national Important Bird Area, the hub of a Natura 2000 site, and holder of a Europa Nostra Award. For most weekends the reserve is also open to the public: a visitor centre, birdwatching hide, nature trail, information panels and BirdLife personnel are available