FLY CATANIA, TRANSFER SIRACUSA
Our spring birdwatching tour to Sicily begins with a flight from London Garwick to Catania, on Sicily’s east coast, passing by the slopes of mighty Mt. Etna as we come into land. Andrea will be waiting to welcome us.
Leaving the airport, we follow the shores of the Golfo di Catania and head south (for about an hour), beyond the ancient and historic port of Siracusa, to reach our delightful accommodation for the week. 'Discovered' for us by Andrea, the simple but charming and recently renovated Pozzo di Mazza is a former winery dating back to the nineteenth century. We'll be greeted with jugs of lemon juice freshly squeezed from the lemons of their own trees, while Susanna's home-cooked Sicilian food and hospitality is wonderful – you may not want to leave! In spring, migrant birds find its groves of citrus fruits, olives and almonds equally irresistible, while for us there is also a swimming pool and tables to dine al fresco on warmer evenings. Night near Siracusa
Days 2 - 7
SIRACUSA, VENDICARI WETLANDS, CAPO PASSERO & MT. ETNA
Siracusa makes an excellent base from which to explore the bird-rich southeastern corner of Sicily - Andrea’s ‘home patch’. We may begin our discovery of this fascinating region with a visit to an area of former saltpans, now a nature reserve, on the Golfo di Siracusa. In spring, waterbirds to watch for include Squacco and Purple Herons, Black-crowned Night Heron, Little Bittern and Garganey, while the extensive reed-beds can hold Eurasian Penduline Tit along with Eurasian Reed, Sedge and Great Reed Warblers. Both Red-throated Pipit and Western Yellow Wagtails of various races also occur on passage, and the view from the lighthouse out over the gulf is stunning, with the historical islet of Ortigia spread out before us.
Penisola Maddalena - a sparsely populated promontory covered with dense Mediterranean macchia - and the Capo Murro di Porco, are renowned as one of Italy’s major hotspots for migrants. In spring, the old gardens here are a prime spot to check for birds such as Woodchat Shrike, European Pied and Collared Flycatchers, and Icterine, Subalpine, Spectacled, Sardinian and Wood Warblers. Marked by dazzling white calcareous cliffs, an easy walk along the coast could also produce migrants. Possibilities in April include European Nightjar, Tawny Pipit, Common Nightingale and Northern, Black-eared and Isabelline Wheatears - while our two 2015 groups saw a vagrant Cream-coloured Courser here, the first record for Italy since 1978 and a new Sicilian bird even for Andrea!
At the very tip, a wonderful white lighthouse dominates the steep cliffs. Seawatching from the point can be productive: Scopoli’s and Yelkouan Shearwaters are possible along with Audouin's, Mediterranean and Yellow-legged Gulls. If we are lucky, we could also spot some pods of Striped and Bottlenose Dolphins. Nearby we might enjoy our first Sicilian picnic - perhaps some delicious sandwiches freshly made at a local deli, with Italian hams (crudo and cotto prosciutto) and local cheeses, sun-dried tomatoes, aubergines and olives.
Heading south from our hotel, an hour’s drive will carry us to one of the southernmost corners of Europe. Against a fine backdrop of ancient groves of almond and olive trees, and the stunning white Iblei Mountains framed by a deep blue Mediterranean sky and azure-green sea, we will reach the breathtaking nature reserve of Vendicari. Flocks of rose-pink Greater Flamingos mingle with Shelduck, Garganey, Ferruginous and Tufted Ducks and other wildfowl. A good selection of waders, gulls and terns is usually present in April too, as we enjoy a short walk out along the sand dunes towards the old tuna fish farm and the Sveva tower, which was built in AD1430.
Marzamemi, an old tuna-fishing village, makes an excellent spot for a coffee before we move on to Capo Passero and Portopalo, at the southern most tip of Sicily. Seawatching from the Cape could produce thousands of gulls as well as further chances of Scopoli’s and Yelkouan Shearwaters offshore. Nearby are splendid old saltpans, sometimes dusted pink with Greater Flamingos, but also scattered with waders, terns and gulls, including Wood Sandpiper and rosy Slender-billed Gulls. It is well worth checking the scrubby hillsides for Subalpine Warblers and even Richard’s Pipit. To the west are various wetlands (recently protected by a German nature foundation), where we hope to see Spoonbill, Purple Heron, Garganey and possibly Water Rail. If we are there on a fine evening, the sunset here will mark the end of another unforgettable Sicilian day.
During our stay near Siracusa, we shall enjoy one longer day out, heading north to explore the slopes of mighty Mt Etna. The journey there will take about two hours. Its basal circumference of 140 kms makes this immense active volcano the largest in continental Europe (surpassed only by Mt Teide in the Canary Islands). Its cone soars to 3,329m (10,922 ft) and positively dominates the landscape of eastern Sicily. Up close, Etna’s unique flora adds splashes of bright colour to the oceans of old black magma.
Against this stark but spectacular backdrop we will make a special effort to track down the Sicilian Rock Partridge - an extremely wary species that is notoriously difficult to find! Etna’s steep lower slopes, clothed in dense mountain oak woods, pines and scrub, are also home to the island’s own distinctive races of Long-tailed Tit and Common Crossbill. European Nuthatch, Short-toed Treecreper, Eurasian Golden Oriole and Cirl Bunting breed, and birds of prey to watch for hunting over the volcanic slopes include Golden Eagle, Common Buzzard, Sparrowhawk, Kestrel and Peregrine. The rough, flower-bedecked slopes are also home to two special butterflies: sulphurous Eastern Orange-tips and Italian Festoon are often found here.
Inland of Siracusa, a trip to the Cava Grande del Cassibile - the ‘Sicilian Grand Canyon’ - offers a second opportunity to try for both the elusive Sicilian Rock Partridge and Long-tailed Tit, as Alpine, Pallid and Common Swifts zip across the skies and Northern Ravens tumble and croak above the chasm. Our attention may be diverted by the fine array of orchids (up to 30 species recorded on our 2015 tour, when conditions were just right) and other wildflowers that adorn the hillsides here. Our picnic lunch will be taken al fresco amidst the trees and flowers of the valley. Red-rumped Swallow, Tawny Pipit, Zitting Cisticola, Blue Rock Thrush, Black-eared and Northern Wheatears, and Tree, Rock and Italian Sparrows are among a range of other birds we could encounter in this region today. We will keep our eyes open for the endemic Sicilian Wall Lizard, too. There are several lush valleys to explore and, time permitting, we hope to visit one of these for an afternoon’s walk.
There are many sites north and south of Siracusa that are well worth visiting, sometimes more than once. Murro di Porco is close by and another good spot for migrants, with Whinchats, wheatears, shrikes and warblers aplenty as well as being a regular wintering site for Richard's Pipit. Siracusa's saltpans can hold Squacco Herons and egrets, Marsh Sandpipers, Glossy Ibis, and passing Western Ospreys hunt – sometimes using a post that Andrea stuck in the marsh for just such a purpose!
Raptor migration occurs on a broad front across Sicily and harriers can sometimes be seen in good numbers in the highlands west of Siracusa, or concentrated at headlands in the right weather conditions. At the Penisoal Magnisi, we might see migrant Montagu's or Pallid Harriers sweeping through parties of Greater Short-toed Larks and Western Yellow Wagtails - on one occasion seeming to pass right through the Limosa group that was watching them! Here amongst the ancient burial chambers cut into the limestone, Calandra Larks nest and Andrea turns over stones to find us the sleek Ocellated Skink.
Bar-tailed Desert Lark and two Atlas Pied Flycatchers were extraordinary finds by our April 2012 group, while 2013 proved to be an exceptional year for Pallid Harriers, with eleven sightings during the week. In 2014, highlights included migrant European Roller, Eurasian Golden Orioles and Rufous-tailed Scrub Robin. Cream-coloured Courser, Pallid Harrier and Isabelline Wheatear stole the show in 2015 - together in the same field! Red-footed Falcon and two Long-legged Buzzards were seen in 2016; a Western Reef Egret and 13 Red-footed Falcons came our way in 2017; while 2018 added four each of Pallid Harrier and Red-footed Falcon, plus Lesser Kestrel, Temminck's Stint and White-winged Tern. If you love spring migration and the excitement of not knowing what the next day might bring, eastern Sicily is a great place to try! Nights near Siracusa
ORTIGIA, RETURN TO CATANIA, FLY LONDON
This morning, before leaving Siracusa, we'll visit the ancient town of Ortigia - one of the most beautiful cities in Europe and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. *1
Strolling leisurely about this photogenic town, with its narrow streets and secluded courtyards, is a fabulous experience. If flight schedules permit, we will enjoy a farewell lunch (and perhaps one final ice cream) in the Piazza Duomo. Just off the Piazza is the small chapel of Santa Lucia alla Badia, where the famous painting by Caravaggio ‘Il Seppellimento di Santa Lucia’ (the Burial of Santa Lucia) is housed. There is free entry at certain times and if you wish you may go into the chapel or indeed the Duomo.
As our tour draws to a close we return north to Catania, passing the nests of White Storks beside the autostrada as we make our way back to the airport. Check-in for our flight to London, where our spring birdwatching tour to Sicily concludes.
*1 If flight schedules don't allow this today, we will plan to visit Ortigia earlier in the week.