SICILY BIRDING TRIP REPORT
2015 Sicily Scouting Trip
I knew very little about Sicily before this tour. What I found was a fabulous, semi-autonomous part of Italy with friendly people, fabulous food (think cannoli, gelato, and much much more), and extraordinary history. The landscape is rather xeric though pine forests are present in the mountainous interior. The towns and cities still show signs of the multicultural heritage of Sicily's past: Greek temples, Roman amphitheaters, vestiges of the Arab occupation 1200 years ago, Norman castles, Renaissance masterpieces, and 500-year old cathedrals. Add to that the major spring and fall migratory bird flyways along with the possibility during migration of many vagrants from Asia and Afica and you have a little known but quite superb birding destination. That is what I discovered during our birding trip to Sicily with Andrea Corso, Sicily's premier birding expert and authority. Below is an account of our travels with him.
Sunday, Sep 20. Andrea arrived at our hotel in Palermo shortly before 9:00am as planned. We then drove to Custanaci on the west coast, a pleasant scenic drive of an hour and a half. When we arrived, we discovered all roads to the hotel were blocked off for an auto race through the town. These things can happen in Europe! After driving around looking for a way in, we decided set aside one of the barricades and drove to the hotel on a road not being used at the time for the race. We finally checked in to the hotel about 11:15. After some coffee and a snack, we drove up a nearby Mt Sparagio, an area of open rocky limestone habitat with scattered evergreen trees. The wind was blowing quite strongly so birds stayed under cover. We did find a few species such as Cirl Bunting flying among the rock-strewn fields, Spotted Treecreeper in the pines, and a nice flock of Chaffinches. We heard both Great Tit and Blue Tit but they didn't come open for us. From there we drove down to the Tapani Saltpans, where a very rare Terek Sandpiper had been seen the day before. We drove to the spot and had good views of it. We also saw a number of other migrant waders. Back on the main road by the salt pans where mounds of salt were piled high, we found Red-necked Phalarope, a vagrant to the area, and a pair of Common KingfisherS. We also saw a few raptors fly over including Eurasian Sparrowhawk and Marsh Harrier. However, few raptors were present due to the strong winds. Shorebirds were mostly far away due to the many tourists around the salt pans so all we had were scope views.
Monday, Sep 21. The day was again very windy. We spent the morning birding several coastal wetland areas, namely Trapani Saltpans, Capo Feto, and Tonnarella Lagoon. We mainly saw the same species as the day before but did pick up a few new ducks and shorebirds. After lunch we proceeded to a new site, the rubbish dump of Campobello. The main birds of interest there were the rather uncommon Red Kite, where we saw several individuals, and the now very rare Egyptian Vulture. The latter species is in serious decline with only 4 pairs remaining in Sicily. We saw two juveniles very well. Another notable species seen was Black Stork, with a flock of 7 birds flying over. Also present were large numbers of Black Kites, some 75 White Storks, and numerous Yellow-legged Gulls. Finally, in late afternoon we stopped at Laghi Gorghi, where we saw our main target bird, Purple Swamphen. Nearby, we also saw 4 Red-rumped Swallows perched on a wire. The guide saw a couple of the same species fly by at the rubbish dump, but he was the only one who saw those.
Tuesday, Sep 22. We spent all day birding around Custonaci and Cofano. We checked an area where Bonelli's Eagle is known to nest and were fortunate enough to see one soaring high above. This is one of the most wanted target birds in Sicily and often missed by visiting birders. We also saw our first Eurasian Crag-Martins, Corn Bunting, and our only Willow Warbler of the trip.
Wednesday, Sep 23. We took the 10:00am ferry from Trapani to Isla Favignana, a fairly small island that is often a migrant trap in spring and fall. During the ferry ride we spotted several Scopoli's Shearwaters as we approached Favignana. This species is a recent split from the very similar Cory's Shearwater. Once on the island and settled at our hotel, we drove around to the far side of the island to look for migrants. We saw a single Eurasian Wryneck quite well, many Crested Larks, Subalpine Warblers, Sardinian Warblers, and singles or a few Greater Whitethroat, Spotted Flycatcher, European Pied Flycatcher, Common Redstart, Blue Rock-Thrush, Black-eared Wheatear, and Tawny Pipit (flying overhead). Andrea also saw a single Sky Lark, not seen by either of us. The highlight bird was a Thekla's Lark, never before reported in Europe, which we saw flying across a small field and singing in flight. We drove farther around the island below the highest peak where Booted Eagle is known to nest. They tend to stay around after nesting, and with patience we spotted one soaring very high above the mountain.
Thursday, Sep 24. We spent the morning birding around Favignana. The hour before breakfast we walked around the town hoping to find some new migrants. It was stormy the night before so we hoped for a fallout. However, few birds were evident, perhaps because it was quite windy. We did see European Bee-eater, Garden Warbler, Greater Whitethroat, Northern Wheatear, Common Chaffinch, and Spanish Sparrow. Andrea also saw a Eurasian Reed Warbler, which I missed. Amazingly, we found an Eastern Olivaceous Warbler, listed as accidental in Italy, which we saw briefly but well. We went back to the lark site of the previous day and this time had distant but good scope views of Thekla's Lark. Unfortunately, we could only manage distant out-of-focus photos so our sighting won't be accepted by the European records committee. The ferry was supposed to leave for the mainland at 4:00pm, which called for us queuing up by about 2:40. However, it was delayed until 7:00PM due to strong winds, so we didn't arrive back at our hotel in Custonaci until about 9:30pm. We enjoyed a very nice late dinner there before going to bed, including cannoli with fresh ricotta that makes cannoli in the US pale in comparison.
Friday, Sep 25. After breakfast, we checked out and headed toward the Madonie Mountains south of scenic Cefalu. Many tourists visit Cefalu to see the 1000-year old duomo of Norman origin, Temple of Diana, the Saracen lavatoio, and wonderful views of the harbor from the higher part of town. We spent an hour or so looking around, visited the duomo, had lunch, and continued south into the highlands, birding en route. We saw our first Eurasian Jays along the road in a region of pine forests. We also saw Great Tit, Blue Tit, Black Redstart, and Eurasian Blackbird. Andrea saw European Robin briefly, missed by us. This species is very secretive and hard to see while in transit through Sicily. He also saw a Mistle Thrush from the car, which flew away before we could see it. The road continues into the highlands, eventually up to the highest point where Red-billed Chough is typically seen. However, the area is being invaded by Hooded Crows, which seem to be pushing the choughs out. This area supports one of only two chough populations in Sicily and is the most accessible. We found no choughs at all but many Hooded Crows.
Saturday, Sep 26. We spent most of the day driving from Madonie to Randazzo, birding en route. We stopped at a known nesting site of Lanner Falcon, now quite rare in Europe and probably heading toward extinction. With some patience we were able to spot an adult and juvenile flying and apparently hunting at some distance away. We also stopped at another site where we were fortunate enough to see a perched individual for decent scope views from a long way away. A second highlight during the transfer was 18 Eurasian Griffons soaring high above. This species is rarely seen so far south and is mostly present in the Apennines of northern Italy. That evening we enjoyed a spectacular dinner with some 15 different antipasti dishes in the first course, plus delicious second and third courses and desserts to die for. Sicily is known for its cuisine but this dinner was the best food experience of the trip.
Sunday, Sep 27. We went out early to look for Sicilian Rock Partridge outside town, a likely future split. This species is readily seen in early spring and even until early June while breeding but is more difficult during autumn. The problem is that the birds are very wary due to fairly intense hunting pressure, especially in the fall. We couldn't find any. The main highlight of the morning was a distant scope view of Little Owl perched on a stone wall in the field where the partridges are often present. We then drove up Mt Etna and had good views of Red Crossbill in treetops along the road. The Sicilian subspecies is quite different from other Red Crossbills, being a more dull red and with a thicker bill. It's a likely future split. We also had good views of Coal Tit along the road. We hoped to get around to the far end of the road where the crossbills are more easily photographed and where Rock Buntings are common, but it was closed off due to a bicycle race being conducted on the mountain. These things happen at times in Europe. We had to change plans and drive back down the mountain and around to the other side. We did get good views of Rock Buntings in a lava field along the road. We went up to the top of the road on the backside where a gondola can take people farther up. It's a substantial hike up to where one can see the caldera, which we didn't do. At the visitor center we found a migrating Chiffchaff. Laura and Andrea spent the remaining afternoon in Randazzo, an interesting town with Norman arches over one of the roads and an old church built during the Norman occupation some 900 years ago.
Monday, Sep 28. We left Randazzo for the drive to Siracusa. Outside town on a country road leading to the autostrada we encountered some migrating raptors. Most numerous were Lesser Kestrels which were diligently hunting flying ants. In addition, we had decent looks at a couple Eurasian Hobbys, a single Red-footed Falcon that flew directly away from us, plus Eurasian Sparrowhawk and Peregrine. We continued on to a wetland area, Saline di Augusta, where we had good looks atSlender-billed Gull, Mediterranean Gull, and Lesser Black-backed Gull. From there we drove to a nearby wetland, Saline di Priola, where we saw a single individual of the quite rare Audouin's Gull. This gull is quite rare throughout the Mediterranean, especially so in southern Italy and Sicily, but does seem to have a small nesting colony on a tiny island off the coast of Portopalo farther south. The highlight bird though, was a single Greater Sand-Plover, listed as accidental in Italy. Other interesting birds included Great Cormorant, which is common in winter but only present in small numbers during late September, and a few distant Pallid Swifts.
Tuesday, Sep 29. We left Ortigia around 8:20 for wetlands south of Siracusa. It takes 30-45 minutes driving to get to the first one at Vendicari. This wetland is often very good for shorebirds but water levels were quite high due to fairly heavy rains the previous week so few shorebirds were present. We walked a pathway to the first and second blinds that provide viewing without disturbing the birds. Vendicari is the best place to see Marbled Teal in Europe. Only about 5-7 pairs typically breed in Sicily, mainly there. We saw 20 individuals from the second blind including juveniles with distant but good scope views. We also saw a single Sandwich Tern perched on a post sticking out of the water by the first blind. We drove from there to Portopalo on the cape, where the waterfront is typically good for gulls including rarities. Unfortunately, so many people were around the port area and waterfront that no gulls were around. We therefore continued on to several wetlands around Longarile. At the first one we spotted a Eurasian Hoopoe that flushed along the side of the road and flew off, never to be seen again. This first wetland is often good for shorebirds but was dried up so virtually none were present. We continued to a second wetland where only common species were present. At the third and largest wetland we had brief but good looks at a Water Rail swimming out from the reedbed. We then drove around to the other side where we saw a Western Reef-Heron, a very rare bird with only 90-100 records in Italy. We saw numerous shorebirds including our first Temminck's Stints of the trip. We also saw large numbers (several hundred) Greater Flamingos and several Common Snipe. The area is a good place to look for rare shorebirds such as Broad-billed Sandpiper, seen there a couple week earlier, but no rarities other than the reef-heron were present during our visit.
Wednesday, Sep 30. We spent the morning birding in the Anapo Valley Nature Reserve, an area with pine forest along the Anapo River. Access to the main trail was closed so we did some birding around the parking area only. There we had good views of Short-toed Treecreeper, European Stonechat, Firecrest, European Robin (a bird hard to see during migration but finally good views of it!), Eurasian Wren, Eurasian Blue Tit, and Common Chaffinch. From there we made a stop at an overlook of the Pantalica canyon where we could see many necropolis carved into the canyon walls. These were excavated between the 13th and 7th centuries BC as burial sites. They are not readily accessible as the entrances are on the walls of sheer cliffs, some way down from the top. We reached Palazzolo Acreide in time for lunch and had some time to explore the town, including the town piazza and the ancient Norman Castle overlooking the Anapo Valley below. The castle is no longer intact, with only portions of the walls still standing. That afternoon we drove through the Riserva Naturale Orientata Cavagrande, Sicily's "Grand Canyon". The views are quite nice but birding there was very slow since it was rather windy. It can sometimes be good for migrating raptors and other species. We arrived back in Siracusa in time to eat an early dinner before catching the night train to Rome.