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Sicily | Italy Western Sicily in Autumn

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An 8-day birdwatching tour to Sicily in autumn

In September, Europe’s migrant birds are heading back south again - this time passing along the west coast of Sicily, from where they make the return crossing to Africa. Our autumn tour features six nights at a family-run hotel in the charming old town of Custonaci, plus one night on the island of Favignana, right next to the sea. With delightful birding, historic towns, beautiful scenery and delicious Italian cuisine, this autumn trip is the perfect complement to our April visit to eastern Sicily.

Tour Dates

2017

  • Spaces
    4

Leaders
Colin Bushell
Andrea Corso

Max Group Size: 12
Duration: 8 Days

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Cost: £1995

inc flights from London Heathrow-Palermo, nonstop with British Airways

Deposit: £300

Single Supp: £150
Land Only: £1745

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Bonelli's Eagle juv Andalucia Spain Stephen Daly andalucianguides.com 9834

Bonelli's Eagles (this a 'rosy' juvenile) breed on the steep cliffs at Zingaro © Stephen Daly, Daly Wildlife

Separated from the toe of Italy to the east by the Strait of Messina, and from the coast of Tunisia, 100 miles to the south, by the Sicilian Strait, Sicily has long been known as a hotspot for migratory birds moving between the continents of Africa and Europe. With parts of the island’s southeast lying geographically to the south of Tunis, this mountainous Mediterranean island is also one of the most fascinating regions of Europe, its varied landscape the product of a centuries-rich blend of history, archaeology, art and culture. Sicilian food and wine are wonderful - and a real highlight on this tour - and the Sicilian people are as warm and friendly as the island’s climate.       

The largest of all the Mediterranean islands, first-time visitors may be surprised at just how big Sicily is! For this reason, our September tour focuses solely on the westernmost part of the island, which lies closest to Africa and is a key staging post for southbound migrants. In fact, autumn is the best season to see migrating shorebirds, flamingos and herons in southern Italy, and we should find new birds are passing through Western Sicily on a daily basis.

For this unique autumn tour we have chosen to base ourselves amid the beautiful landscape of the province of Erice, overlooked by the hilltop town of Erice itself that in turn enjoys views of the historic port of Trapani below, with the unspoilt Egadi archipelago lying offshore and a backdrop of dazzling white limestone mountains inland. Our hotel for six nights here is a small, family-run hotel-restaurant in the charming old town of Custonaci. People from all around Italy and Europe visit this lovely little town, which is renowned for its fine food and wine - and many local people also choose to dine at our hotel, enjoying evening meals al fresco in the hotel's courtyard.

To the north, Zingaro Nature Reserve protects one of the best-preserved and most majestic coastlines in all Italy. To walk the scenic coastal tracks, immersed in the heady perfume of Mediterranean macchia, is something you will never forget. With luck, we may find the elusive and wary endemic Sicilian Rock Partridge here. The increasingly rare Bonelli’s Eagle breeds on the steep cliffs and is often to be seen hunting or flying against the crystal blue-green sea, and other Mediterranean specialities we shall be watching for include Subalpine, Spectacled and Sardinian Warblers, Rock Thrush and Blue Rock Thrush, Italian Sparrow and Rock Bunting. 

A visit to the medieval town of Erice promises to be another memorable highlight. Erice is one of the most attractive and historic towns in Europe, with its castles, thousand-year-old churches, narrow streets, magical squares and stone defensive walls encircling the old town.

Coastal wetlands harbour herons, egrets, Spoonbill and Audouin’s, Slender-billed and Mediterranean Gulls as well as good numbers Greater Flamingos. Our last two trips have seen Ferruginous Duck and Western Swamphen, too. September shorebirds include Black-winged Stilt, Kentish Plover and Curlew Sandpiper - and Terek Sandpiper was a good find on our 2016 tour! As with migration anywhere, so much depends on weather conditions at the time and there can be no guarantees. But the region’s gardens and groves of almond, olive and carob are attractive to migrant passerines, nightjars and Hoopoe - and in autumn, vagrants are found every now and then!

During our tour we will take the ferry across to Favignana Island, which lies some 20km off the westernmost tip of Sicily, and spend a night in a very comfortable hotel there. Amazing views of Scopoli's Shearwater from the boat have been a highlight of all our previous tours. If conditions are right, Favignana can be a terrific spot for migration in autumn, with Marsh Harriers, European Honey Buzzards and other birds of prey to watch for - and passerine migrants, too - seeking the shortest sea crossing between Italy and Africa.

Sicily is a superb destination, with an easy-going lifestyle and an almost perfect combination of great birding, culture and cuisine. Our expert local guide, Andrea Corso, lives on the island and is Sicily’s foremost ornithologist. Author of the Avifauna di Sicilia and one of the leading lights in birding and conservation in Italy today, his knowledge of the birds of Sicily and where to find them is unsurpassed - indeed, it is hard to imagine any birding trip there without him. Andrea possesses a wonderful sense of humour and a fine singing voice - as you may discover if you book this tour!

Our September 2017 tour will be Limosa’s 15th visit to Sicily with Andrea, and our fifth to the island in autumn.

CK 1EU view Monte Cofano W Sicily BS 0914 IMG 0125

View to Monte Cofano from the village of Custonacci, where we stay on our September tour to Western Sicily © Brian Small, Limosa Holidays

Day 1
FLY PALERMO, TRANSFER CUSTONACI

Our autumn birdwatching tour to Sicily begins with a flight from London Heathrow direct to Palermo, the island’s capital, on Sicily’s north coast. Andrea will be waiting to welcome us.

From Palermo, we follow the scenic coast road west for about 90 minutes to arrive at our first hotel, in the historic old town of Custonaci. With a restaurant that’s renowned for its traditional Sicilian cuisine, our hotel here is small, friendly and very typically ‘Italian’, and will be our base for six nights of the tour. Evening meals are a special highlight and something to look forward to, being freshly prepared by the grandmother, wife and daughter of the hotel’s owner, Andrea Oddo - himself a real Sicilian character! Night Custonaci

Days 2 - 3
TRAPANI SALTPANS, MARSALA & MOTHIA ISLAND

We divide our time at Custonaci into two three-night stays, with one night in between at a fine hotel on the offshore island of Favignana. The island is accessible only by ferry so we travel there mid-tour rather than leave this until the end of the trip and run the risk of being late for our return flight home! Our guides may vary the running order of the below itinerary locally in response to prevailing weather conditions and bird movements when we are there:

Following a delicious breakfast at the hotel - which features all the usual Italian goodies, such as cornetti, pane (Italian bread), marmellata and cappuccino - less than an hour's drive will bring us to the Trapani saltpans, the third largest such complex in the Mediterranean. We will explore the manmade shores with their hundreds of saline lagoons bounded by dry stone walls, old windmills, and classic flora and fauna.

In autumn, thousands of shorebirds rest here during migration or arrive to spend the winter and we could find Greater Flamingos and Spoonbills alongside all the European herons and egrets, plus Slender-billed, Mediterranean, Yellow-legged and other gulls, and Little, Sandwich and Gull-billed Terns. Waders can be excellent in September with Curlew Sandpipers, Little and Temminck’s Stints, Greenshank, the scarce Marsh Sandpiper, Avocet and Black-winged Stilt among many to be found - and Terek Sandpiper was an exciting discovery on our 2016 tour! As a backdrop to our first Sicilian picnic lunch of tasty locally made sandwiches, we look out over the azure Mediterranean with the three Egadi Islands often visible as a dark, mountainous outline offshore.

The lovely Marsala area lies about 90 minutes drive south of our hotel. We have further chances to see Slender-billed and Audouin’s Gulls here, as well as waders and duck. Our last two tours have found Ferruginous Duck and Western Swamphen and, in September, migrant herons can include Little Egret, Squacco and Grey Herons and possibly also Purple Heron.

Nearby, we take a short boat trip (just 500m!) over to the tiny island of Mothia, famous as the site of a Phoenician town dating from the 8th century BC. The island was purchased in the late 1800s by Joseph Whitaker, a Victorian English gentleman who had inherited his family’s vast vineyards in Sicily and moved to Palermo some years earlier. During his working life, Whitaker started to travel around the Mediterranean, chiefly between Sicily and North Africa, importing and exporting the famous Marsala grapes with which he produced the wine of the same name, and also Zibibbo, two sweet wines that are a good companion for desserts.

A keen ornithologist, archaeologist and sportsman, Whitaker devoted much of his travel time to studying the region’s avifauna, and discovering many new birds and subspecies for Sicily, Tunisia and Morocco. He wrote the Birds of Sicily and the Birds of Tunisia as well as a long list of papers on the avifauna of these areas. The endemic Sicilian Rock Partridge Alectoris [graeca] whitakeri is dedicated to him, for he was the first person to notice they were different to those found elsewhere in Europe (even though he did not have time to formally describe them). Two further nights Custonaci

Day 4
FERRY TO FAVIGNANA ISLAND

We make the short drive down to Trapani this morning and catch the ferry across to Favignana Island, where we spend the night. The 22km crossing takes around 2hrs and our groups have always enjoyed good views of Scopoli’s Shearwater from the boat. We have sometimes been lucky to see and Yelkouan Shearwater, too.

Favignana is largest of the three Egadi Islands - the mythical ‘Aegades’ of Homer’s classic tale, but better known nowadays as a popular destination with Italian holidaymakers. If conditions are right, Favignana Island can be outstanding for migrants, its vegetation of figs, dwarf palms and Mediterranean scrub providing food and shelter to migratory passerines as they head south in autumn from Europe to Africa.

Depending upon the wind direction, raptors may also be on the move. With luck, we could witness several tens or sometimes hundreds of Black Kites, Marsh and Montagu’s Harriers, Kestrels and Lesser Kestrels passing over the island, while Egyptian Vulture and Eleonora's Falcon are among rarer possibilities well worth watching out for in September.

This evening, we’ll enjoy dinner at our very comfortable hotel on the seafront in Favignana - a town famous for its cuisine, including tuna, swordfish and other fresh fish dishes. Night on Favignana Island

Day 5
FAVIGNANA ISLAND & FERRY RETURN

One of the joys of autumn migration is that no two days are ever alike and we shall spend the best part of this one enjoying further birding on the island, including a visit to the old tuna farm.

To make the most of our time on Favignana, we’ll plan to catch the late afternoon or evening ferry back to Trapani, then head back up into the hills for dinner and a three further night’s stay at our lovely hotel in Custonaci. Night Custonaci

Days 6 - 7
ZINGARO & THE ERICE VALLEY

The Zingaro Nature Reserve safeguards one of Italy’s finest coastlines, characterised by beautiful coves, old tuna farms, ancient farmhouses (masseria), sand dunes and seacliffs clothed in dense Mediterranean macchia. We’ll watch for Bonelli’s Eagle, which breeds on the steep cliffs, and explore tracks across the reserve, checking the little bushes for migrant passerines such as flycatchers, Icterine Warbler and various Phylloscopus warblers. We could see Peregrine and perhaps Golden Eagle here too. After enjoying a leisurely picnic lunch on the shores of a colourful small cove (and the chance to swim in the sea, for anyone who wants), we’ll watch for more migrants as we make our way back across the reserve.

The Monte Cofano Nature Reserve also lies within easy reach of Custonaci. Bonelli’s Eagle, Crag Martin and Alpine Swift often frequent this spectacular reserve in September, when warblers can include Spectacled, Subalpine and Sardinian. Sunsets over the bright and crystal clear Mediterranean Sea beyond the mountainous promontory can be breathtaking.

A day in the beautiful Erice Valley offers a fine mix of birding and culture, and rounds off our stay at Custonaci. The medieval town of Erice sits atop Mount Erice (750m / 2500ft), and is one of the most attractive towns in Southern Italy, with its narrow streets, castles and churches encircled by strong defensive walls. Migrating bee-eaters, swifts and hirundines, along with resident Italian, Spanish and Rock Sparrows are among a range of small birds we could see while walking here. Great Spotted Woodpecker, Sardinian Warbler, Firecrest, Short-toed Treecreper and Cirl and Rock Buntings also find a home on the densely wooded and scrub-covered slopes that surround the town. After enjoying lunch in lovely Erice, we will return to our hotel at Custonaci. Two further nights Custonaci

Day 8
ERICE TO PALERMO, FLY LONDON

If flight times permit, we may have one last chance to soak up the wonderful scenery and birdlife of the Erice Valley before travelling back to Palermo today - keeping our binoculars handy for any passing birds of prey!

Bidding farewell to Andrea we board the flight back to London Heathrow, where our autumn birding tour to Western Sicily concludes.

Sardinian Warbler Sicily 2015 Peter Farren1

The spectacular Monte Cofano Nature Reserve lies within easy reach of Custonaci, and is a good spot to see Sardinian Warbler © tour participant Peter Farren

What To Expect

In September, Europe’s migrant birds are heading back south again - this time passing along the west coast of Sicily, from where they make the return crossing to Africa. Our autumn tour features six nights at a family-run hotel in the charming old town of Custonaci, plus one night on the island of Favignana, right next to the sea. With delightful birding, historic towns, beautiful scenery and delicious Italian cuisine, this autumn trip is the perfect complement to our April visit to eastern Sicily.

Expect a mix of sunshine and showers in September, with temperatures typically 20-25C (65-77F) during the day, falling to around 10C/50F (mostly at night). Although the summit of Mt. Erice is not particularly high at 750m (2500ft), it can sometimes be significantly cooler here, especially on days when a sea fret rolls in from the coast down below - please be sure to bring some warm clothing with you to layer up, if necessary.

Birds

120-140 species.

Western Sicily can be great for wildflowers, plus some fascinating late summer butterflies and dragonflies, giving good all-round wildlife interest at this season.

Butterflies

Late summer butterflies may include Sicilian Grayling, Cleopatra, Lang's Short-tailed Blue and Mediterranean Skipper

Accommodation

7 nights accommodation in Sicily. We spend a total of six nights (split 3+3) at a small, family-run hotel-restaurant in the charming old town of Custonaci, plus one night in between at a fine hotel on the seafront on Favignana Island, in the Egadi archipelago. Both hotels are comfortable, characterful and with all rooms en suite.

Meals

All main meals are included in the price, typically commencing with dinner on Day 1 and concluding with breakfast on Day 8 (please note as flight schedules on this route differ year on year, our meal plan may differ accordingly).

Breakfasts will be at the hotels, with a selection of Sicilian and international food. Lunches will usually be picnics, with sandwiches freshly-prepared in the morning using delicious Italian cheeses, hams, vegetables, sun-dried tomatoes, olives and aubergines. Dinners will be taken at the hotels - and are definitely something to look forward to!

Walking

Easy. Short walks on good tracks and trails, over mainly easy terrain. Our walk at the Zingaro Nature Reserve is a round trip of about 4-5 km (3 miles), not too strenuous but including a 300m walk downhill on the track to reach the shore - and then back up again (after a good rest). Comfy walking shoes are advised.

Travel

We fly from London Heathrow to Palermo, nonstop with British Airways.  

Ground transport is by minibus.

Boat Trips

Two are included in our tour cost:

The ferry crossing from Trapani-Favignana Island takes approx. 2 hours each way and offers good views of seabirds en route.

The sheltered crossing to Mothia Island is by traditional covered wooden tourist boat and takes just 10 minutes.

Black winged Stilts Andalucia Spain Stephen Daly andalucianguides.com 8997

A fly-past of Black-winged Stilts trail their fantastically long pink legs © Stephen Daly, Daly Wildlife

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3 H&CS, Sicily tour ... Andrea Corso and Brian Small made an incomparable pair as leaders. They have incredible skills and seemingly limitless knowledge of the area, birds and local culture. They work in a relaxed but highly effective way to make sure everyone sees the birds and learns about the local culture... [empty string]
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