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Italia Exotica, 29 March-3 April. (1 Viewer)

Jos Stratford

Eastern Exile
Staff member
United Kingdom
With tickets to a concert in Milan dictating the timing and the season being decidedly not optimal for Alpine butterflies nor for birding in general, I scratched my head a little for what to do in Italy for a few days. And then an idea appeared - an attempt to see all of the established exotics in northern Italy, this virtually guaranteeing me some new birds, something rare in Europe these days.

So it was, with the lure of Vinous-throated Parrotbills and Red-billed Leiothrix rather tempting, a short itinerary evolved basically covering the Milan to Pisa areas. The following non-native species have established themselves in the region:
  • Northern Bobwhite *
  • Mute Swan
  • Mandarin Duck
  • Sacred Ibis *
  • Ring-necked Parakeet
  • Monk Parakeet
  • Vinous-throated Parrotbill *
  • Ashy-throated Parrotbill *
  • Red-billed Leiothrix *
All three passerines would be new species for me on a global basis, while Northern Bobwhite would be my first outside the Americas.

29 March. Arrival in Milan.

Early evening flight from Lithuania, touched down in Milan at 7.30 pm local time. Already dark, nothing to see. Picked up a rental car, drove an hour or so west to the Varese area.

30 March. Palude Brabbia, Arnetta, Parco Castella.

Deep damp gloom of the predawn plains west of Milan, Black Redstarts singing in the darkness. I drove a dozen kilometres to reach the Palude Brabbia wetlands way too early, the leaden skies and heavy mist further obscuring any hints of the day to come. Yet already a positive feast of bird song, Blackcaps and Redwings in particular abundant voice.

As light finally crept in, I wandered down towards the edge of the Palude Brabbia marshland, my quest for parrotbills could commence. My first chosen point was a narrow track pushing out into the marsh, heavily flanked by dense shrubbery and bushes …perfect to my eye for parrotbills. Not sure the parrotbills had the same opinion, or perhaps they didn't like the damp conditions - plenty of common birds, but not a peep or call of anything remotely suggesting parrotbill in the first hour. Things then changed - alerted by the chattering call, a pair of parrotbills did indeed appear - Ashy-throated Parrotbills. Cute little things, but highly active and unexpectedly secretive - a few relatively brief views and off they went. Tried in vain to relocate them and subsequent searching did not reveal any further birds. Deciding to move three kilometres further along, I then tried my luck along the ‘sentiero natura’. Wet and boggy underfoot, but pretty good general birding - alongside Great Spotted Woodpeckers and rather plentiful Green Woodpeckers, also bumped into both Black Woodpeckers and Lesser Spotted Woodpecker. Still heavily overcast with mist sitting over the marsh, Marsh Harriers and Black Kites looked bedraggled, while waterbirds amounted to murky shapes off yonder, most being Little Grebes and Mallards. As for parrotbills, I had walked about three kilometres before finally encountering them - first a pair of Vinous-throated Parrotbills in a clump of semi-flooded willows that frustratingly did a vanishing act almost the same as the earlier birds, then final success with a large mixed flock of the two species that proceeded to feed in bushes and rank vegetation for about 15-20 minutes right alongside the boardwalk …superb, a minimum of three Vinous-throated Parrotbills and eight Ashy-throated Parrotbills.

With these successfully seen, I walked up through the village, Italian Sparrows and Serins prominent, before returning to accommodation for mid-morning breakfast.

With the concert set for Milan this evening, I then shifted south a little to new accommodation just south of Malpensa airport - easy striking distance for the concert and, more importantly, very close to a Northern Bobwhite area, the plan to target these birds the following morning. With the afternoon still free, I decided to have a wander around the Arnetta wetlands - two sets of artificial pools a handful of kilometres apart. And quite superb they were - the northern set sporting no less than 40 splendid Ferruginous Ducks and five Red-crested Pochards, as well as a Purple Heron and six Night Herons, while the southern set boasted even more waterbirds in general, but mostly Shoveler (140+), Gadwall (35) and Common Pochard (120+). Notching up the third non-native of the day, albeit not one I was exactly targeting, several Mute Swans at both sets of pools too.

Time to head to Milan, but still time for a short twitch to one of the city's parks - Parco Castello. Among a motley crew of various pinioned collection birds (Bar-headed Goose, Redbreasted Goose, Ruddy Shelduck, Wood Duck, etc), the park’s pool were also attracting one further established exotic - Mandarin Duck. Took quite a while to find them, and was interrupted by my first Ring-necked Parakeets of the trip, but eventually found a pair of Mandarins quietly feeding at the rear of one pool. Continuing the alien theme, umpteen Grey Squirrels here too.

So that was birding for the day over - five Category C species seen. Headed into Milan for the concert.
31 March. Arnetta, Sesia, Pavia.

Heavy overnight rain had fortunately stopped as I headed out to bushland just north of the Arnetta pools for dawn. As typical for quail, Northern Bobwhite is none too easy to find, even less so as the area they favour is thick bramble and scrub in a mosaic of relatively open woodland and clearings. However, if you hit the area at dawn, so the theory goes, they should be calling, this at least narrowing the area to search. Fortunately, this was the case - walking a few hundred metres through the scrub, I heard a fairly distant bird calling in what looked completely impenetrable thick scrub. Quietly walked as close as I could, then realised there were actually three calling against each other. I positioned myself between them and waited - with birds actively calling both sides, one did seem to be approaching. Stayed perfectly still and, sure enough, after about 15 minutes, movement in the undergrowth - out scurried one male Northern Bobwhite, skirted along the bramble edge, clearly spotted me, then slunk back in the bramble depth. Quite chuffed with that, hadn't really expected to see this difficult bird. Then it started to rain. Back to digs for breakfast.

The rest of the day was scheduled for a southbound drive, Massaciuccoli my final destination. Before that however, a few detours to try and find Sacred Ibises and Monk Parakeets.

The first of these is a doddle to find - simply criss cross the extensive rice paddies around the Sesia River and beyond and many can be encountered. So it was, before even reaching my targeted village, Oldenico, I had seen several roadside Sacred Ibis. At Oldenico, the rain having now stopped, there was another treat awaiting - one of the largest heron and cormorant colonies in Italy (and actually the first breeding location for Sacred Ibis in the country). Graced by Red Kites and my first Swallows of the year, it was a pleasant riverside walk to the colony a couple of kilometres downstream, then quite a feast for the eyes - Great Cormorants and Grey Herons in their hundreds in the higher levels, masses of Cattle Egrets lower and, in the midst, at least 220 Night Herons, a few Great White Egrets and a handful of Little Egrets. Not in big numbers, but a regular back and fro of Sacred Ibis too. All in all, quite a nice stop.

So, hoping my luck holding, I then decided a detour to Pavia wouldn't add to many kilometres to my route…and might add Monk Parakeet, several being seen around the town in recent weeks at least. Parkland at the western side of the town resulted in several Ring-necked Parakeets only, so I then relocated to residential areas on the eastern fringe of town. I thought this would be looking for a needle in a haystack, but by pure fluke I overshot my planned stop and found myself in the parking area of a group of houses with nice greenery around. Thought I might as well park there and walk back …but as I left the car, I heard the squawking of parakeets! Quickly found the culprits, two Ring-necked Parakeets feeding on buds of a flowering tree. They zoomed off, but moments later in zoomed another bunch of parakeets - 12 Monk Parakeets! And they they stayed, happily munching. I never got to leave the car park.

All the day’s targets seen, I turned onto the autostrada, cruised south and reached Massaciuccoli early evening. Day over, and being Italy and being Easter Day, everything was shut. Bang went ideas of buying food.
1 April. Lucca, Massaciuccoli.

Rainy day - shorts and umbrella, perfect birding attire! My final target for this trip, and indeed one of the main targets, was Red-billed Leiothrix - an attractive bird that is fond of riverside thickets and lush bushland. Many possible localities for this bird, but the bamboo thickets along the Serchio River near Lucca seem a consistently reliable locality …whether it would be in the rain was another question.

With no sign of the rain easing, it was fortunate that my accommodation had an umbrella - was a moderately pleasant stroll, Cetti’s Warblers belting out song from the outset, so too Blackcaps and other birds. Walked about a kilometre, then paused at one particularly think clump of bamboo and scrub …a chattering call from its depths, then a fluty call, vaguely reminiscent of a Blackbird. I knew what this was and in not many minutes up one popped, then another - not caring about the rain, two very showy Red-billed Leiothrix. And even in the gloomy grey of the rainy day, what an amazing splash of colour these birds were, truly little gems. Stayed with them a while, then wandered back to the car.

Still raining, so decided to do a car tour of the wet meadows south of Massaciuccoli. Pretty good overall - a couple of Purple Herons, lots of Great White Egrets and Little Egrets, multiple hundreds of low hawking Swifts and hirundines - mostly Barn Swallows and House Martins, but also at least three Red-rumped Swallows. As the rain subsided, Marsh Harriers began to quarter, Common Buzzards and Black Kites resolutely staying in trees by contrast. Somewhat a surprise, a Booted Eagle appeared low overhead. Zitting Cisticolas, Common Nightingale, a bunch of mixed Yellow Wagtails and a scatter of waders also seen. Outside chance of Red Avadavat failed to materialize.

Over at the LIPU centre, I walked the boardwalk to add more reedbed species - a ton of Cetti’s Warbler at the marsh edge, several very showy Moustached Warblers in the reeds, another Purple Heron, one Osprey just beyond. And then, that was about that, did a couple more circuits of the meadows in rather more pleasant weather, then headed off to Pisa for a bit of obligatory culture. The tower isn't really that amazing - not anywhere as nice as a Red-billed Leiothrix :)
When I visited Italy, I was surprised how common were Sacred Ibises. Another introduced bird which is marginally treated in field guides but far commoner than many native birds.
2 April. Lucca, Massaciuccoli.

Repeat of the day before, albeit in rather better weather - no less than eight Red-billed Leiothrix at Lucca (a pair, then a very engaging flock of six), plus Short-toed Treecreeper, Wryneck and several Crag Martins at the same location, then a few hours at the Massaciuccoli producing many of the same birds, but with additions including Woodchat Shrike, Common Redstart and Glossy Ibis.

Thereafter, though cloud continued to blight the hills, sunshine in the lowlands did add the first butterflies of the trip - a mere eleven species, the mix being the rather expected early spring species: Brimstone, Orange Tip, Small White, Green-veined White, Clouded Yellow, Berger's Clouded Yellow, Holly Blue, Large Tortoiseshell, Peacock, Small Heath, Wall Brown.

So ended the day and really the trip, all targets now seen.
3 April. Le Folaghe.
With an early afternoon flight from Bergamo, departed the Massaciuccoli area fairly early and began the journey north. Only one real stop, Le Folaghe - some pools near the motorway south of Milan - final exotica in the form of Pheasants, but otherwise a fairly nice mix of general birds, including Black Kite overhead, a Red-crested Pochard among the waterbirds and my only Common Sandpipers and Greylags of the trip.

And with that, 118 species seen, all the exotics found, it was time to fly out of Italy, mini trip over.
Bird Checklist


Mute Swan. Eight Arnetta, two River Sesia, four Le Folaghe.

Greylag Goose. One Le Folaghe.

Common Shelduck. Two Arnetta, seven Massaciuccoli.

Mandarin Duck. Pair Parco Castello.

Garganey. 16 Arnetta, two Le Folaghe.

Northern Shoveler. 140 Arnetta.

Gadwall. 35 Arnetta.

Eurasian Wigeon. Four Arnetta.

Mallard. 80+ Arnetta, 250+ Massaciuccoli, 30 Le Folaghe.

Common Teal. Eight Arnetta.

Red-crested Pochard. Five Arnetta, one Le Folaghe.

Common Pochard. 120+ Arnetta.

Ferruginous Duck. 40+ Arnetta.

Tufted Duck. Two Arnetta.


Northern Bobwhite. One male seen, two more calling Arnetta.

Ring-necked Pheasant. Several near the River Sesia, five at Le Folaghe.

Little Grebe. Five Palude Brabbia, six Arnetta.

Great Crested Grebe. Five Arnetta, one Le Folaghe.

Pigeons & Doves

Feral Pigeon. Common in towns, etc.

Wood Pigeon. Widespread, fairly common.

Collared Dove. Small numbers, mostly in towns.


Common Cuckoo. One Palude Brabbia.


Common Swift. Many hundreds hawking low in poor weather Massaciuccoli.

Rails & Gallinules

Water Rail. One Arnetta, two Massaciuccoli.

Moorhen. 20+ Arnetta, ten Parco Castello, 25+ Massaciuccoli.

Eurasian Coot. 50+ Arnetta, 20+ Massaciuccoli, 25 Le Folaghe.


Black-winged Stilt. Five Arnetta, 15 Massaciuccoli, ten Le Folaghe.

Oystercatcher. Two Massaciuccoli.

Ringed Plover. Eight Massaciuccoli.

Kentish Plover. Two Massaciuccoli

Northern Lapwing. One Arnetta, one Massaciuccoli.

Green Sandpiper. Six Arnetta, 18+ Massaciuccoli, two Le Folaghe.

Wood Sandpiper. Four Massaciuccoli, one Le Folaghe.

Common Sandpiper. One Le Folaghe.

Common Redshank. One Massaciuccoli.

Dunlin. Four Massaciuccoli.

Curlew. One Massaciuccoli.

Gulls & Terns

Black-headed Gull. Two River Sesia, three Massaciuccoli.

Mediterranean Gull. 30+ Massaciuccoli.

Yellow-legged Gull. Five Arnetta, common Massaciuccoli.

Sandwich Tern. Three Massaciuccoli


Great Cormorant. Five Palude Brabbia, 10+ Arnetta, some hundreds at the breeding colony on the River Sesia, common Massaciuccoli.

Herons and Ibises

Black-crowned Night Heron. At least 220 individuals in the heronry on the River Sesia. Also six at Arnetta.

Little Egret. Six on the River Sesia, fairly common Massaciuccoli.

Cattle Egret. Breeding colony on the River Sesia, several hundred pairs. Also three Massaciuccoli, four Le Folaghe.

Great White Egret. 20+ at Arnetta, many dozens in the breeding colony on the River Sesia, common at Massaciuccoli.

Grey Heron. Four Palude Brabbia, 10+ Arnetta, many dozens in the breeding colony on the River Sesia, common at Massaciuccoli, two Le Folaghe.

Purple Heron. One Arnetta, five Massaciuccoli.

African Sacred Ibis. Common on the plains and rice paddies throughout the area either side of the Sesia River, including several pairs in the mixed heron and cormorant colony on the Sesia near Oldenico.

Birds of Prey

Osprey. One Massaciuccoli.

Marsh Harrier. Three Palude Brabbia, 20+ Massaciuccoli.

Eurasian Sparrowhawk. One River Sesia.

Red Kite. Pair River Sesia.

Black Kite. Five Palude Brabbia, two Massaciuccoli, one Le Folaghe.

Common Buzzard. One River Sesia, 15+ Massaciuccoli, two Le Folaghe.

Booted Eagle. One Massaciuccoli.

Eurasian Kestrel. Fairly common, pairs dotted around, especially on the agricultural plains around the Sesia and at Massaciuccoli.


Eurasian Hoopoe. Six Massaciuccoli.


Great Spotted Woodpecker. Five Palude Brabbia, two Arnetta, two Parco Castello, two Le Folaghe.

Lesser Spotted Woodpecker. Two Palude Brabbia.

Green Woodpecker. Widespread, seen or heard at all localities.

Black Woodpecker. Two Palude Brabbia.

Wryneck. One Lucca.


Rose-ringed Parakeet. Three Parco Castello, six Pavia.

Monk Parakeet. 12 Pavia (single flock).


Eurasian Jay. Widespread in small numbers.

Eurasian Magpie. Common at all sites.

Hooded Crow. Abundant, widespread.

Common Raven. Two Palude Brabbia.

Tits, Nuthatches and Treecreepers

Marsh Tit. Eight Palude Brabbia, four Arnetta.

Blue Tit. Widespread, less common than Great Tit.

Great Tit. Widespread, fairly common.

Long-tailed Tit. Six Palude Brabbia, two Arnetta, two Lucca, two Le Folaghe.

Eurasian Nuthatch. Two Palude Brabbia.

Short-toed Treecreeper. Two Lucca.


Zitting Cisticola. 10+ Massaciuccoli.

Moustached Warbler. Five Massaciuccoli.

Sedge Warbler. One Massaciuccoli.

Willow Warbler. Three Palude Brabbia, four Le Folaghe.

Chiffchaff. Fairly common.

Cetti's Warbler. Common Arnetta, abundant Massaciuccoli.

Eurasian Blackcap. Common and widespread.

Common Whitethroat. One Arnetta.

Sardinian Warbler. Several in the hills above Massaciuccoli.


Barn Swallow. Five River Sesia, abundant Massaciuccoli.

Red-rumped Swallow. Three Massaciuccoli.

House Martin. Common Massaciuccoli.

Crag Martin. Six Lucca.


Vinous-throated Parrotbill. Five Palude Brabbia.

Ashy-throated Parrotbill. Ten Palude Brabbia.


Red-billed Leiothrix. Pair, eight Lucca.


Goldcrest. One Lucca.

Firecrest. Four Massaciuccoli.


Eurasian Wren. One Palude Brabbia, one Massaciuccoli.


European Starling. Common and widespread.


Mistle Thrush. Three Arnetta.

Song Thrush. Common Palude Brabbia.

Redwing. 30+ Palude Brabbia.

Blackbird. Common and widespread.

Fieldfare. 20+ Palude Brabbia.

Ring Ouzel. One Arnetta.

European Robin. Common and widespread.

Common Nightingale. Three Massaciuccoli, four Le Folaghe.

Black Redstart. 10+ Palude Brabbia.

Common Redstart. Two Massaciuccoli.


Dunnock. One Arnetta.

Old World Sparrows

Italian Sparrow. Widespread, common in towns.

Tree Sparrow. 40+ Massaciuccoli, 15 Le Folaghe.

Wagtails & Pipits

Yellow Wagtail. Seven Massaciuccoli.

White Wagtail. One River Sesia, one Le Folaghe.

Grey Wagtail. Two Massaciuccoli.

Meadow Pipit. One Massaciuccoli.


Chaffinch. Several Arnetta and River Sesia, few Massaciuccoli.

Greenfinch. Several Arnetta, River Sesia and Massaciuccoli.

Linnet. Two Massaciuccoli.

Goldfinch. 20+ Parco Castello, five Pavia.

Serin. Fairly common Palude Brabbia, Pavia, Massaciuccoli.

Siskin. 40+ Pavia.

118 species.

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