FLY MILAN, SOUTH TO VARZI
Our birdwatching tour to Northern Italy begins with a British Airways morning flight from London Heathrow to Milan Linate airport. We will be met by our local guide Michele and make the two-hour transfer south across Italy's scenic Po Valley to our welcoming hotel in Varzi. We'll stop along the way for lunch and maybe take a first look for Lesser Grey Shrike. Small stands of poplar are home to the last few birds left in the region – our 2017 group had cracking views of two pairs!
Our destination this evening is one of Italy's delightful agriturismi, situated in the rolling hills near Varzi. Here the climate is warm, with the Mediterranean influence having a huge effect on the region's fauna and flora, allowing the cultivation of a variety of different grapes that give birth to some fine local wines. Night near Varzi
OLTREPÒ PAVESE & APENNINE FOOTHILLS
During some pleasant walks amid beautiful countryside, an excellent range of Mediterranean bird specialities awaits. The localised and recently split Moltoni's Warbler is found here, easily identified in summer by its salmon-pink underparts and unique and rattling Wren-like call. These can be common in hedges close to our hotel!
In June, the bushy hillsides are the haunt of breeding Cirl and Ortolan Buntings, Red-backed Shrike and Melodious Warbler, while in the skies high above we may be treated to the tell tale 'wing clapping' display of Honey Buzzard. On top of a beautiful small hill, we may find ourselves surrounded by hundreds of hunting Common Swifts as we search for the exotic Black-headed Bunting and, with much luck, Woodchat Shrike - two of Italy's rarest breeding species.
A visit to the hills of Momperone, which lie partly in the neighbouring region of Piedmont, adds the possibility of Quail, Western Bonelli's Warbler and Stonechat along with nesting Bee-eaters, Rollers and Hoopoes, too. Moving to a drier area, we will hope to find Tawny Pipit scurrying about on the open ground, and the air can be filled with the songs of Woodlark and Skylark. Italian Three-toed Skink and Southern Smooth Snake occur - and are attractive to the local Short-toed Snake Eagles, which spend the summer here.
The butterflies of the region are superb and we will check warm sunny spots for the lovely Southern White Admiral, Spotted and Queen of Spain Fritillaries, and Pearly Heath. Great Banded Graylings should just be appearing and may alight on the road to gain warmth. Brilliant Escher’s and Adonis Blues inhabit the Montalto Pavese, as well as many Marbled Whites. Tall stands of Lizard Orchid can be found in scrubby patches, as can various Ophrys species including Ophrys dinarica.
Throughout our stay in Oltrepò Pavese, we will be based in a charming rural hotel, set amidst the beautiful Oltrepò hills, forests and farms above Varzi. Delicious homemade evening meals featuring local produce and classic Lombardy dishes are a feature of this delightful Italian agriturismo. Two further nights near Varzi
PO PLAIN WETLANDS
We have a fair bit of ground to cover today as we swap the gentle, rolling countryside of the Apennine foothills for the majestic high mountains of the Italian Alps. But there's plenty to see along the way! So with breakfast inside us, we will make a relatively early start, dropping down from the hills and journeying north towards Milan, crossing the Po River en route to one of the largest heronries in the region.
As the Apennine foothills of Oltrepò Pavese fade to our south, we will notice the large numbers of birds flying to and from the trees - like bees round a hive: Little and Cattle Egrets, Squacco, Night and Purple Herons, and surprisingly even Sacred Ibises breed in good numbers. Reedy fringes host a plethora of other wetland species, including Marsh and Great Reed Warblers, Cuckoo and Marsh Harrier.
Brightly coloured Italian Yellow Wagtails breed on open pools nearby, where we also hope to find handsome Red-crested Pochard, white-eyed Ferruginous Duck and elegant Garganey, while Hobbies hunt for dragonflies that are numerous here, cruising low over the water.
Skirting round Milan, we will plan to have lunch near one of the lakes beyond the city – perhaps famous Lake Como, before completing the last leg of our journey east into the Italian Alps.
Standing a little over 4,000 ft above sea level, Bormio is a small alpine town situated at the edge of the stunning Stelvio National Park, and our base for the next four nights. We may arrive in time to enjoy some initial birding in the valley, where summer residents include Black and Common Redstarts, Serin and Crag Martin. In the evening, we can look forward to a super home-cooked Italian meal made from local produce. Night Bormio
Days 5 - 7
THE ALPS: STELVIO NATIONAL PARK
From our base in scenic Bormio, we will travel out to explore different valleys in this sublime national park. Visiting sites up to 3000m (9800 feet) in altitude at the Stelvio and Gavia Passes, we will enjoy a landscape that is constantly changing - from snow-capped mountains and barren 'moonscapes', to tranquil alpine forests and cascading streams. If the spring weather has been warm, in early June the upland meadows are transformed by wildflowers, especially around the picturesque shores of Lago di Cancano, where Alpine Ibex and Chamois can also be found. Michele has even seen Brown Bear on the slopes above the lake!
Stelvio's birdlife is rich and varied, and home in summer to the full gamut of alpine specialists. Golden Eagle, Lammergeier, Alpine Chough and Rock Thrush frequent the open areas above the treeline, with Citril Finch, Nutcracker, Crested and Willow Tits, Firecrest and Lesser Redpoll in the pine forests lower down. We may be lucky to see a Goshawk soaring overhead, while babbling streams hold bobbing Dippers.
Come June, snow is often restricted to the highest mountain peaks. In the wild rocky places, we have a great chance of seeing the 'hoar-frosted' alpine race of Ring Ouzel, pale Northern Wheatears, Water Pipits, Whinchats and Rock Buntings. Playful schools of Alpine Choughs sail across the blue upland skies as we scour the boulder-strewn slopes for a glimpse of the secretive but confiding Ptarmigan, with its 'creaking door' voice. Crag Martins are often to be seen, zapping around the park's bridges, bluffs and alpine villages. In the highest places, Snowfinches and Alpine Accentors will be nesting, too.
In such a rich environment there is much to look for beyond the birds. On sunny days in early June, the first butterflies can be out and about – Alpine Grayling, Berger’s Clouded Yellow and bright Adonis Blues are often on the lower slopes. In small ponds and vegetated lakes, we will look for a number of special dragonflies - including the very rare Northern Emerald, a relict from the last period of glaciation - as well as Alpine Newt. Golden Eagles quarter the slopes and we will no doubt hear the bird-like whistling alarm calls of Alpine Marmots and find them lolloping about their upland home. And if the season is right this year, Stelvio's alpine meadows can be truly spectacular with wildflowers. Three further nights Bormio
RETURN TO MILAN, FLY LONDON
An early breakfast and departure from our hotel sees us heading back south along the autostrada today, past the romantic Italian lakes to Milan.
Bidding farewell to Michele here, we catch an afternoon flight to London Heathrow, where our birdwatching tour of northern Italy concludes.