Malta is an important way-point for birds migrating between Europe and Africa. But the spring and autumn migrations attract illegal hunters, who pick off the birds as they fly overhead. There has been a huge rise in illegal hunting in recent years, prompting conservationist group BirdLife Malta to set up camps to deter illegal hunters. Volunteer Steve Butler reports on his experiences at this year's camp.
It's 0545 and I am sitting on the edge of a cliff overlooking a valley at Mtahleb with my team of fellow volunteers, waiting for the sun to rise.
I strain my eyes to distinguish the figures moving around in the darkness of the surrounding countryside.
As we listen to the dogs barking and the sound of gunshots echoing around the hills, we wonder how the hunters can see the birds at this hour, never mind shoot them.
In the first light we start to discern the hunters' dogs running in and out of the bushes to flush out quail and turtle dove. One is successful: a turtle dove leaves the tree, we hear shouting and see a hunter raise his gun towards the bird which has flown directly in front of us.
In Malta, hunting licences allow the shooting of turtle dove, quail, woodcock and duck. There is a loud gunshot and we instinctively drop to the floor. As the bird plummets and lead rains down beside us, we wonder if it was skill or fluke that prevented the hunter from shooting one of us by mistake in his frenzy to kill the bird.
The sound of lead periodically sprinkling down around us throughout the early morning is quite unnerving and we are pleased when the sun has finally risen.
Black storks downed
I pack away my binoculars and prepare to head back to camp for breakfast. It has been an uneventful morning for my team - no illegal hunting activity and no protected species to record.
On other days, we are fortunate enough to see the migration of many birds of prey - including kestrels, honey buzzards and marsh harriers - as well as large flocks of herons and even the occasional black stork.
The birds follow three main paths to migrate between the continents:
Sadly during my volunteering, I have witnessed many protected birds being shot down by Maltese hunters.
The previous morning we had uncovered the bodies of 201 protected birds in the Mizieb woodland. We then failed to protect two black storks.
We made our presence known, but the hunters clearly felt the storks were a prize worth the risk.
With every hillside lined with hunters, the large, majestic birds did not stand a chance as they slowly circled overhead, looking for a spot to roost for the night.
Three extinct species
Despite these setbacks, I feel as volunteers, we do make a difference to the problem of illegal hunting in Malta.
There are many situations in which I think if we were not here in our bright red BirdLife shirts, these special birds would almost certainly have been killed.
"While BirdLife's position is not anti-hunting, there is a very serious problem with illegal hunting in Malta, which dates back many years," says Geoff Saliba of BirdLife Malta.
"Three species have gone extinct in the Maltese islands as a result of illegal hunting - the peregrine falcon, the barn owl and the jackdaw."
One legal hunter (who asked not to be named) has spoken out against illegal hunting in Malta.
"Illegal hunters are destroying the sport I have enjoyed since a child with my grandfather and father," he says.
He adds that the illegal shooting of birds he witnesses on a daily basis is "heartbreaking".
"The youngsters that are doing this do not understand hunting, it is not in their blood, they just want to shoot at anything that flies," he adds.
"Sometimes you see them chasing protected birds in their cars or on motorbikes."
The unnamed hunter feels the government needs to make more effort to eradicate illegal hunters by taking measures such as confiscating gun licences.
A recent ruling by the European Court has criticised the Maltese government for allowing the hunting of dove and quail during the spring seasons of 2004 - 2007.
The ruling, which has been welcomed by BirdLife, stated that the Maltese government was at fault for not complying with EU birds' directive.
Throughout this autumn's bird migration, even in light of the discovery of the well-publicised "bird cemetery" in Mizieb, the shooting of the black storks and numerous other protected species, the Maltese government has so far failed to comment.
With under-resourced law enforcement and a culture of fear amongst those against illegal hunting, it seems that, for the time-being, BirdLife Malta and its international volunteers could be the birds' best hope.