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Nature reserve series: Is-simar

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Is-Simar, meaning ‘sharp rush’, can be found at the northeast end of Wied il-Pwales, a valley almost entirely under cultivation. Made up of a mosaic of habitats including open pools, reedbed, and trees, Simar is teeming with wildlife, Victor Falzon tells us more..

The nature reserve can be found in Xemxija, at the northeast end of Wied il-Pwales. However, up until the 1980s, Simar was neglected, and largely used as a dump.

Human activity such as hunting, littering, and sewage overflow left the area substantially degraded. Towards the end of the decade, the site was threatened with permanent destruction by proposals to build a theme park. However, BirdLife Malta’s alternative proposal to restore the wetland was accepted instead.

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Simar nature reserve

Photo: BirdLife Malta

Being at sea level, the site is subject to flooding and though there have been attempts to drain the area for agriculture, seasonal flooding, brackish groundwater and exposure to salt-laden grigal gales, rendered it unusable. Reverted to the wild, a dense thicket of tamarisk formed, to which an olive grove was later added.

The restoration works began in 1992. A network of pools, canals and islands were created, trees were planted and the area was fenced off to reduce disturbance.

The site was declared a bird sanctuary and passed under the management of BirdLife Malta. Permanent bodies of water are a rarity in Malta, making the wetland and associated habitats at Is-Simar important for the rare ecosystems they harbour.

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The reserve

Photo: BirdLife Malta

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common reed

Photo: Victor Falzon

Is-Simar is less than 5ha in area. Despite its small size, the wetland supports a variety of birds throughout the seasons. Due to Malta’s position along the narrow Central Mediterranean bird migration route, most turn up in Spring and Autumn, though their stays are usually short.

This is evident at Is-Simar too, with birds from barn swallows to great white egrets dropping in for a snack and a rest. Wagtails and hirundines often roost in large numbers, in the thick reed bed that grows at the site.

The reed beds are also important foraging and potential nesting sites for summer visitors, like the reed warbler and the little bittern. Also, for year-round residents, like the moorhen and the little grebe. Wintering birds, on the other hand, include the water rail and the common coot.

Many aquatic plants grow in the pools and canals at Is-Simar, including a rare tasselweed. The pond and lake flora provide food and shelter for rare and localised Mediterranean killifish, as well as several crustaceans, including freshwater shrimps and molluscs.

The large, common reed supports many insects, like the green bush cricket and the Italian tree cricket. Dragonflies, including the blue emperor and the scarlet darter, patrol the water.

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Sandy stiltball fungus

Photo: Desiree Falzon

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emperor dragonfly

Photo: Victor Falzon

The dominant tree species that grows at Is-Simar is the African tamarisk. Trees are great habitats for several beetles, bugs, moths, butterflies and other insects. These invertebrates are, in turn, an important food source for  birds and other predators, including the impressive banded argiope spider.

In the drier parts, reptiles like the western whip occur, as well as the ocellated skink and the Moorish gecko. Along the east and south side of the reserve is an olive grove, interspersed with Aleppo pine. The undergrowth supports shade-loving plants like bears breeches and mushrooms, including the rare sandy stiltball. In part of the reserve, sharp rush – the plant that gave the site its name – is regenerating.

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The moorhen

Photo: Denis Cachia

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The barn swallow

Foto: Aron Tanti

Facilities include a visitor centre, a nature trail, information boards and bird-watching hides. Oh, and entrance is free!

Visit BirdLife for more information. The reserve is open between Settembre and Maggio.

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