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Sicily - 6 - 21 October 2012 (1 Viewer)


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Sicily - 6 - 21 October 2012

I am just back from a 15 night trip with my partner to Sicily. This was our main holiday for 2012 and was not a birding trip, more a sightseeing, good food and wine and finding some sun type of trip. However, we always take our binoculars and telescope on our travels and had put aside one day for guided birding with local birder Andrea Corso, whom I had identified and contacted via BirdForum (I realise now that he is well known, but I am ignorant of the birding world cognoscenti). I have never before written up a trip report, but found so few birding reports from Sicily on the Internet, particularly for autumn - and saw some, albeit limited, interest on this Forum - that I thought it worthwhile to add my own experience of birding on this island.

What follows is not a blow by blow account of each day, but a summary of what we saw, where - it may be of interest to those wanting an idea of how easy it is to be a casual birder in Sicily. For those interested in transport and accommodation, we flew BA from Gatwick to Catania (flight gets to Catania at 8pm and returns to Gatwick at about 11pm). Easyjet also fly to Catania. We met several Brits who had flown Ryanair to Trapani - if you can cope with Ryanair and deal with the luggage restrictions, that is a good option for those on a tight budget and brings you directly to a decent birding area. We stayed in a mixture of budget and high-end accommodation, ranging from basic but comfortable agriturismos, to one high quality agriturismo that was more like a boutique hotel (priced accordingly) and one of the better hotels in Taormina to end the trip.

For those of you not interested in reading the rest of this report, in short: we only scratched the surface of autumn birding in Sicily and it proved unexpectedly rich. The south-east of the island in particular was excellent - and we benefited from spending a fantastic day with a local birder, who not only knew where to find the birds, but also filled us in on all manner of local matters, be they cultural, historical, geographical or gastronomical.

Catania to Palermo, via the Villa Romana del Casale

Our first morning began with local cuisine for breakfast on the roof terrace of the Una Palace Hotel in Catania, with a view of Etna for company. Blazing sunshine, a good start to the day. Not much in the way of urban birding though, Italian Sparrows being the only novelty among corvids, gulls and pigeons. However, one unexpected oddity, not at all strange to a Brit but no doubt very unusual to a Sicilian, was a Carrion Crow, perched on a rooftop aerial a few blocks away. A motorway trip to Palermo today, with a detour en route to see the Roman mosaic floors near Piazza Armerina. First impressions of Sicily as we drove along the motorway were that, as has been our experience in mainland Italy, the birds tend to keep quiet and are not very visible; so very different from driving through France and Spain (to be fair to Sicily, raptors became more obvious in the south and east away from the main roads). A few kestrels were seen from the road - mainly Common, a couple of Lesser Kestrels - and we heard Crested Larks when we stopped at a layby (these birds were ubiquitous during our two weeks). We also saw quite a few Spotless Starlings during our drive. Walking around the Roman villa with its incredible mosaic floors brought the first real birding interest of the trip and what was to prove one of the highlights - great views of a pair of Long-legged Buzzards, a new species for us. Blackcaps, Goldfinches, Jays and Hooded Crows were also about.


Two nights in a great B&B opposite the cathedral. The B&B, aptly named Le Terrazze, has 5 roof terraces from which to scan over the rooftops. Our efforts were rewarded, however, with little in the way of variety - some White Wagtails, Barn Swallows, Linnets, Yellow Legged Gulls and Hooded Crows, among the pigeons and starlings. We also saw little during a few hours higher up, in Monreale. A pair of falcons - possibly Peregrine, but silhouetted only and beyond our identification skills - by the Santa Rosalia sanctuary on Monte Pellegrino was as good as we could manage.

Trapani, via Segesta

Birding improved as we headed to the west coast. Still nothing from the road except Common Kestrels, but our first Common Buzzards, at the temple and amphitheatre ruins at Segesta, a Raven and plenty of Zitting Cisticolas. Trapani was more fruitful. We stayed two nights at an excellent, inexpensive agriturismo, Agricola Azienda Sanacore, which produced wonderful olive oil and really flavoursome, filling evening meals. We were in Sicily during the olive harvest, which was interesting and allowed us to see teams of migrant workers and/or locals putting in long hours under a still hot sun (high 20's, low 30's celsius) bashing trees with various tools and collecting the fallen olives on large black nets that were strewn beneath each selected tree. Our agriturismo was also the site for about 10,000 Starlings to gather before flying off south east to roost. This made for impressive Starling acrobatics, particularly when they swirled and twisted to avoid the attentions of a pair of Peregrines and, briefly, a vaguely interested Common Buzzard.

The main birding attraction in Trapani is its salt lagoons (saline di Trapani). We visited them twice, once late afternoon and again the following morning. The most productive we visited were the saline di Calcara. There were decent numbers of waders and a few duck, together with Greater Flamingoes, plenty of Great White and Little Egrets, and Grey Herons. There were also several Marsh Harriers quartering the surrounding fields and pool margins. The waders we found were: several dozen Redshank, Curlew and Black-winged Stilt; a dozen or so Grey Plover and Common Sandpiper; and smaller numbers of Little Stint; Dunlin; Marsh Sandpiper; Turnstone; and Ringed Plover. The ducks consisted primarily of Mallard, then Wigeon, Pochard, a few Teal and Pintail. There were also some Little Grebe dotted around. Typing out this list makes it all look a bit meagre, but after the paucity of birds elsewhere up until then, it seemed a birder's heaven. A trip to the historic and attractive hilltop town of Erice provided great views when the cloud, forming alone above the hilltop in the otherwise blue sky, wasn't sweeping through the streets! The Sicilian version of Long Tailed Tits provided the primary birding interest. A trip inland to Salemi brought plenty of Common Buzzards and Kestrels, but little else. The saline de Marsala were disppointingly quiet, with fewer birds seen than at the Trapani salt lagoons.

Agrigento, via Selinunte

The west coast was followed by 3 nights on the south coast, at the Azienda Agricola Mandranova, near Palma di Montechiaro. All very comfortable and stylish, with ok, but not stupendous, food. On the way, we stopped to visit the Greek temples at Selinunte. A stroll over to the ruined Malophoros Sanctuary brought us Blue Rock Thrush, Cetti's Warblers, Kingfishers and Moorhen. The entire site was thronged with Zitting Cistocolas. Sightseeing trips through the hills inland to various attractive towns and villages again featured plenty of Common Kestrels and Common Buzzards - and Caltagirone, a pretty baroque town and a centre for ceramics, still had several nesting House Martins - but little else. On two of our three days in the area there were tremendous storms, both at night and for three or four hours at a time during the day. These provided impressive lightning shows, thunder and biblical volumes of rain - but were not conducive to birding. In an effort to escape the storms, we headed east along the coast, past industrial Gela, to the Biviere di Gela, which is a protected reserve. It was nothing to write home about when we visited; several Marsh Harriers and Common Buzzards, lots of Great Crested and Little Grebes, Coots, Moorhen and Water Rail, but we missed out on Purple Swamphen and the winter duck had not yet arrived. I suspect the site is more productive later in the year. The principal highlight of the area was non-birding - the extraordinary Valley of the Temples, at Agrigento.

Siracusa, via Ragusa and Modica

By far the highlight of our trip was the south-eastern part of the island. This area had the greatest variety and volume of birds, the most attractive towns and villages and even the best roads! We took in the beautiful old towns of Ragusa (where the public gardens in Ragusa Ibla gave us Short-toed Treecreeper) and Modica on the way to a very good agriturismo south of Siracusa - Pozza di Mazza - which does decent breakfasts and excellent dinners and appears to be the base for many a springtime bird tour group. We spent 4 nights here. Siracusa itself is a good sightseeing destination, the old island town of Ortigia being particularly attractive. Just south of Siracusa are some salt marshes (saline di Siracusa). A short visit here one day brought us Shoveler and Slender Billed Gull as new birds for the trip. Cattle Egrets attended horses in fields adjacent to the marsh. We also spent 30 minutes scanning the sea at a headland not far from our agriturismo - Capo Murro di Porco - and saw Gannet, Scopoli's Shearwaters and three dolphins. We noted few migrating passerines around the headland.

Our second full day in the area was taken up by a great guided birding tour from Andrea Corso. I don't wish to give away Andrea's local knowledge, so have not spelled out the exact locations he took us to. However, by way of general comment, we visited places that look like potentially good birding sights from a glance at a road map - lagoons on the south coast, including Longarini and Cuba; the south-eastern tip of the island; Marzamemi; and Vendicari marshes. This was the first time we had used a bird guide anywhere and it was an excellent experience. Andrea is very knowledgeable, excellent company and not only showed us good birds, but provided all manner of interesting information about Sicily, in particular the Siracusa area, and gave us tips on where to find the best local food and interesting villages in the days ahead. We added 25 new birds to our trip list, which does not sound impressive, but we also saw the vast majority of birds we had already found during our travels (although no more Long-legged Buzzards!), meaning that we were well satisfied by the end of the day. There were several highlights. Four Richard's Pipits, which Andrea informed us were the vanguard of a small number that have started to overwinter at a particular site in Sicily. Three Stone Curlew, which we found surprisingly quickly in one ploughed field. Audouin's Gulls, which we had been disappointed not to find elsewhere on the island and which, despite the fact that I am by no means a larophile, I have always found very attractive. Two pale Peregines - very white from the front and washed out grey on the back - one male, one female, at different sites, which Andrea taught us were of Siberian origin. A beautiful Osprey at Vendicari, sporting a metal ring we frustratingly could not read. Yelkouan and Scopoli's Shearwaters together, following fishing boats coming into shore. Also a couple of Ferruginous Ducks, which we had not previously seen on the island. There were decent numbers of wintering duck; 16 species of wader; a flock of 20 or so Spoonbill; several Glossy Ibis; a solitary Hoopoe; a smattering of Stonechats; calling but invisible Penduline Tits; and a very smart 'Greenland' Northern Wheatear. We also saw several Caspian Terns, beautiful birds with an ugly call! Greater Flamingoes were pretty much on every large pool of water we saw. If you are in the area, you should visit Marzamemi, a beautiful little seaside village with an interesting history as a centre of tuna fishing and now well cared for and the location for delicious granita (flavoured ices). By all accounts the whole Siracusa province, including the garden of our agriturismo, is alive with migrating birds in April and early May. In our experience, however, an autumn trip to this part of Sicily is still worthwhile.

We spent our final day in the area exploring the baroque towns of Nota and Palazzolo and driving and hiking in the mountains and gorge around the Pantalica necropolis. An attractive area of low mountains covered in olives, figs, carob trees and dry stone walls.

Taormina and Mount Etna

Two Serins trilled away as we enjoyed breakfast in the sunshine before heading off for our last destination, the attractive, if touristy, town of Taormina, perched on a coastal cliff south of the Straits of Messina. We saw a pale phase Booted Eagle heading south as we drove north along the motorway (and another as we visited the Greek theatre at Taormina, where we also added Coal Tit to the trip list). On the way north, we thought we'd check out the Biviere di Lentini, which was marked on our old road map as a large lake. Perhaps it still is, in winter and spring, but we found just a river and what looked like newly ploughed fields where we were expecting a lake - possibly it has been drained. We spent the following morning on the north side of Mt Etna, where pine, beech and sweet chestnut forests line the slopes. As we headed up from the ski station across lava fields and adjacent to the few strands of trees not destroyed by an eruption in 2002, we added Nuthatch and Common Crossbill to our list. During a lazy day in Taormina, we added Common Whitethroat, Crag Martin and Mediterranean Gull. Watching a snake catch a lizard/gecko, put its head and front end, including two legs in its mouth, then hesitate when it saw us and allow the lizard/gecko to escape, added to the wildlife interest. Throughout the day we noticed occasional passerines and raptors heading south down the coast, presumably having crossed the Straits of Messina. Apart from Meadow Pipits and a dark phase Booted Eagle, we failed miserably to identify anything, although in our defence they were all approaching from behind us (over the top of Castelmola) and heading away from us by the time we picked them up. A north facing spot in the area may yield decent viz migging results at this time of year. Our last day, spent entirely within 200m of our hotel above Taormina prior to a late afternoon departure, provided a couple of new trip list additions: Black Redstart, which along with Robin, were abundant in the scrub near the hotel, presumably a fall of migrants; and a wonderful Eleonora's Falcon, eating a bird (possibly a Crag Martin) on the wing above us for several minutes. Four Common Buzzards, two Common Kestrels, a pair of Ravens and at least two more pale phase Booted Eagles (both thermalling over the town then heading south) provided interest from our terrace, as did a lone Stock Dove ploughing south, a late addition to the list.


110 species exceeded our expectations on what was, with the exception of one day, a sightseeing trip, rather than a birding trip, with only casual birding made as we went about our holiday. More experienced and dedicated birders would I am sure see many more on an autumn trip to the island. We benefited from travelling widely across the island, taking in different habitats. If you have time only for one area, I suspect that the south-east would be most fruitful, albeit that we only scratched the surface of the north-west, around Trapani, where there is the shortest crossing to Africa and no doubt many migrants in addition to the waders we saw in that area. Sicily itself is a delight - a wealth of historical interest, lots of attractive towns, some of the tastiest food you will eat anywhere and a great climate. Add that to some decent birding and it all made for a very good holiday.

Matt Evans, London

Trip List, roughly in order as first seen

Italian Sparrow
Carrion Crow
Feral Pigeon
Wood Pigeon
Barn Swallow
Lesser Black Backed Gull
Spotless Starling
Lesser Kestrel
Crested Lark
Long Legged Buzzard
Blue Tit
Hooded Crow
Common Kestrel
Yellow Legged Gull
White Wagtail
Collared Dove
Zitting Cisticola
Long Tailed Tit
Spanish Sparrow
Marsh Harrier
Grey Heron
Great White Egret
Little Egret
Black Headed Gull
Common Sandpiper
Marsh Sandpiper
Ringed Plover
Little Stint
Greater Flamingo
Little Grebe
Grey Plover
Black Winged Stilt
Common Buzzard
Blue Rock Thrush
Cetti's Warbler
Rock Dove
Water Rail
Great Crested Grebe
House Martin
Short Toed Treecreeper
Great Tit
Sardinian Warbler
Tree Sparrow
Cattle Egret
Sandwich Tern
Slender Billed Gull
Yelkouan Shearwater
Scopoli's Shearwater
Audouin's Gull
Penduline Tit
Reed Bunting
Stone Curlew
Ferruginous Duck
Caspian Tern
Kentish Plover
Spotted Redshank
Glossy Ibis
Common Snipe
Richard's Pipit
Northern Wheatear
Green Sandpiper
Meadow Pipit
Coal Tit
Booted Eagle
Common Crossbill
Common Whitethroat
Crag Martin
Mediterranean Gull
Black Redstart
Eleonora's Falcon
Stock Dove
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