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Sicily | Italy Western Sicily & Madonie Mountains

An 8-day, small group birdwatching tour to Sicily in autumn

In September, Europe’s migrant birds are on the move again, funnelling south through Italy and passing along the west coast of Sicily before crossing the Mediterranean into Africa. This easy-paced tour to Western Sicily starts above Palermo, with two nights at an agriturismo in the scenic Madonie Mountains - Sicily's highest mountain range and home to the elusive Sicilian Rock Partridge. From there, we drop down to the western end of the island, where we spend five nights at a family-run hotel in the charming old town of Custonaci. Offering delightful birding, historic towns, beautiful scenery and delicious Italian cuisine, this early autumn holiday is the perfect complement to our April visit to Eastern Sicily.

Tour Dates

2019

Available

Leaders
Richard Thaxton
Andrea Corso

Max Group Size: 10
Duration: 8 Days

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Cost: £1995

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

Deposit: £300

Single Supp: £150
Land Only: £1795

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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 narrow Strait of Messina, and from the coast of Tunisia on the African shore, 100 miles to the south, by the Sicilian Strait, Sicily has long been a focus 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 agriculture, archaeology, architecture, history, culture and art. Sicilian food and wine are wonderful - and something to look forward to - and the Sicilian people are as warm and friendly as the island’s climate.       

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 so is a staging post for southbound migrants. Autumn is the best season to observe the movement of shorebirds, flamingos and herons in southern Italy and we should find 'new' birds are passing through Western Sicily on a daily basis.

Our tour commences with a flight to Palermo and from where we drive first into the beautiful Madonie Mountains. With six peaks over 1500m (4900ft) in height, this is Sicily's highest range - although the isloated volcanic cone of Mt Etna, looming large on the horizon some 50 miles to the east, is of course higher at 3329m (10922ft).

Our base for two nights here is an agriturismo (farmhouse hotel) near the medieval town of Polizzi Generosa, amid the impressive Parco delle Madonie - an area of more than 60 square miles, cut by limestone gorges and clear streams, and dotted with forests of beech and oak that can be attractive to birds on migration. Of special note is the population of Sicilian Rock Partridge, the largest in Sicily, along with a nice range of Mediterranean forest species that includes the unique pale-headed Sicilian Long-tailed Tit.

Next we head west to the beautiful landscape of Erice province, overlooked by the hilltop town of Erice itself that in turn enjoys views over the historic port of Trapani on the coast below, with the unspoilt Egadi archipelago lying offshore and a backdrop of dazzling limestone mountains inland. Our hotel for five nights here is a family-run hotel-restaurant in the charming old town of Custonaci. People from all around Europe visit this lovely little town, which is renowned for its good food and wine - and many local people also choose to dine out at our hotel, enjoying evening meals al fresco in the hotel courtyard.

To the north and east of Custonaci, the jutting outcrops of Monte Cofano, Monte Sparagio and the Zingaro Nature Reserve protect one of the best-preserved and most majestic coastlines in all Italy. Mediterranean specialities to watch for include Subalpine, Spectacled and Sardinian Warblers, Blue Rock Thrush, Italian Sparrow, and Corn, Cirl and Rock Buntings. We'll look for Scopoli’s Shearwaters passing by offshore, while the increasingly rare Bonelli’s Eagle still breeds on the cliffs and is sometimes seen.

Coastal wetlands should produce herons, egrets, Spoonbill and Slender-billed Gull 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 past surprises have included Terek Sandpiper. Gardens and groves of olive, almond and carob can be attractive to passing warblers, chats and shrikes. As with autumn migration anywhere, so much depends on the  weather conditions at the time and, of course, nothing is ever guaranteed - but then that's all part of the fun!

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 to Sicily without him. Andrea also possesses a wonderful sense of humour and a fine singing voice - as you may discover if you book this tour!

Our 2019 tour visits some of the most beautiful parts of all Sicily and will be Limosa's 19th tour to the island with Andrea - and our seventh trip there in the 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, MADONIE MOUNTAINS

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

From Palermo, we follow a scenic route east, passing around the city and along the island's north coast before climbing up into the Madonie Mountains. We spend two nights here, staying at a traditional agriturismo (farmhouse hotel) near the historic old town of Polizzi Generosa, on the western side of the Madonie Regional Park and set amidst a pretty landscape of mountains and streams, olive groves, vineyards and orchards. Night Polizzi Generosa

Day 2
MADONIE MOUNTAINS

The Parco delle Madonie – often just known as ‘Madonie’ - was the second nature reserve to be established in Sicily. Covering some 35,000 hectares, it is generally mountainous with the highest peak - Pizzo Carbonara, 1979m (6492ft) - being the second highest in Sicily after the mighty Mt Etna. The countryside is impressive with lush green woodland and freshwater rivers and torrents, limestone gorges and steep cliffs, valleys and high peaks from where, to one side, the Tyrrhenian Sea is visible and to the other almost the whole interior of Sicily all the way to the smoking volcanic cone of Mount Etna.

Rising early, we will try to find the endemic Sicilian Rock Partridge. Although shy and always elusive, the Madonie hold one of the richest populations on the island. In the holm oak woodlands, the dry calls of Sicilian Long-tailed Tits may draw our attention to a restless feeding party moving through the trees, perhaps bringing with them other inhabitants of these forests such as Short-toed Treecreper, Firecrest, Nuthatch and Great Spotted Woodpecker. Cirl and Rock Buntings, Woodlark, Whinchat and Tawny Pipit frequent the drier, stonier slopes, and Dippers love the torrents that cascade down the limestone hills.

In autumn, when Sicily's lowlands are parched after the hot Mediterranean summer, the still green uplands are attractive to migrating birds such as Woodchat Shrike, and Subalpine and Spectacled Warblers. Higher up, we might see Red-billed Chough (one of the few remaining island colonies), Golden Eagle and Peregrine.

September butterflies in the Madonie include the endemic Sicilian Grayling and Mediterranean Skipper, and we might also see Sicilian and Italian Wall Lizards basking in the autumn sun. Critically endangered, the endemic Sicilian Fir (Abies nebrodensis) is restricted to the Madonie - there are just 32 adult trees in the current population. Night Polizzi Generosa

Day 3
MADONIE TO CUSTONACI

This morning we have another chance to enjoy the mountains - and to seek the elusive Sicilian Rock Partridge and Sicilian Long-tailed Tit.

After lunch, we leave Polizzi Generosa and head west - passing once more by Palermo - en route to our second hotel, in the historic old town of Custonaci, which will be our base for the remaining five nights of the tour.

Set around a courtyard and with a restaurant that’s renowned for its traditional Sicilian cuisine, our hotel here is small, friendly and very typically ‘Italian’. Evening meals are a highlight, being freshly prepared by the grandmother, wife and daughter of the hotel’s owner, Andrea Oddo - himself a real Sicilian character! As a bonus for birdwatchers, Italian Sparrows breed in the pantiled roof of the hotel. Night Custonaci

Days 4-7
THE TRAPANI SALTPANS, MARSALA, MONTE COFANO, MONTE SPARAGIO,
ZINGARO NATURE RESERVE, ERICE & BOAT TRIP TO MOTHIA ISLAND  

With so many wonderful spots to visit around about, we will divide our time at Custonaci amongst the best of them. Keeping an eye to the skies, our guides may decide locally to vary the selection and running order in response to weather conditions and bird movements when we are there, choosing from the following destinations:

TRAPANI SALT PANS

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 Mediterranean flora and fauna.

In September, we should find good numbers of Greater Flamingos together with an excellent variety of waders. Curlew Sandpiper, Little Stint, Greenshank, Kentish Plover, Black-winged Stilt and Avocet are regular - but almost anything can drop in on migration and past tour surprises have included Temminck's Stint and Marsh and Terek Sandpipers! Though no two visits are ever alike, over the years we have recorded all the European herons and egrets here, along with Spoonbill, Glossy Ibis, Osprey, Yellow-legged and Slender-billed Gulls, and Caspian, White-winged Black and Gull-billed Terns. And as a backdrop to our Sicilian picnic lunch of tasty locally made sandwiches, we look out over the azure Mediterranean with the three Egadi Islands often visible as a mountainous outline offshore.

MARSALA & MOTHIA ISLAND

The lovely Marsala area lies about 90 minutes drive south of our hotel, bringing further chances to see Slender-billed Gull as well as waders and ducks. Our last two visits in autumn have found Ferruginous Duck and Western Swamphen, too. Herons are on the move in September and we have seen Great and Little Egrets, and Squacco, Grey and Purple Herons.

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.

ZINGARO NATURE RESERVE

Zingaro Nature Reserve protects one of Italy’s finest coastlines, characterised by its beautiful coves, old tuna farms, ancient farmhouses (masseria), sand dunes and seacliffs clad in dense Mediterranean scrub (macchia). We’ll watch for the rare Bonelli’s Eagle, which breeds on the steep cliffs, and explore tracks across the reserve, checking the little bushes for migrant passerines. We could see Peregrine and perhaps Golden Eagle, 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 retrace our steps back across the reserve.

MONTE COFANO & MONTE SPARAGIO

The limestone peaks of Monte Cofano (659m) and Monte Sparagio (1110m) lie within easy distance of Custonaci. Crag Martins and Alpine Swifts may be seen over the spectacular Monte Cofano reserve in September, when warblers to look for can include Spectacled, Subalpine and Sardinian. Blue Rock Thrush, Rock Sparrow and Cirl and Rock Buntings are resident, with chats, flycatchers and Redstart possible on migration.

ERICE

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 itself sits atop Mount Erice (750m / 2500ft) and is one of the most attractive and historic towns in Southern Italy, with its castles, thousand-year-old churches, narrow streets, magical squares and stone defensive walls encircling the old town. Birds of prey, bee-eaters and hirundines may be seen on migration over the town, with Italian and Spanish Sparrows among a range of resident birds we could see while walking here. Firecrest and Short-toed Treecreper find a home on the densely wooded and scrub-covered slopes that surround the town. Four nights Custonaci

Day 8
RETURN TO PALERMO, FLY LONDON

If flight times permit (schedules change year on year), 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 migrating birds of prey that might be passing overhead!

Bidding farewell to Andrea in Palermo, we board our return flight to London Heathrow, where our autumn birdwatching 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 on the move again, funnelling south through Italy and passing along the west coast of Sicily before crossing the Mediterranean into Africa.

This easy-paced tour to Western Sicily starts above Palermo, with two nights at an agriturismo in the scenic Madonie Mountains - Sicily's highest mountain range and home to the elusive Sicilian Rock Partridge. From there, we drop down to the western end of the island, where we spend five nights at a family-run hotel in the charming old town of Custonaci. Delightful birding, historic towns, beautiful scenery and delicious Italian cuisine - this early autumn holiday is the perfect complement to our April visit to Eastern Sicily.

Expect a mix of sunshine and showers in Sicily in September, with average daytime temperatures in the region of 20-28C (68-82F), falling to lows of around 15C/59F (mostly at night).

At 900m (2950ft), temperatures at Polizzi Generosa in the Madonie Mountains can be rather cooler at night and in the early morning – often pleasantly so.

Although the summit of Mount Erice (near Custonaci) is not particularly high at 750m (2500ft), it can sometimes be cooler here too, 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

110-140 species.

Western Sicily can be good for wildflowers, and there are some fascinating late summer dragonflies and butterflies to watch for.

Butterflies

Western Sicily has some fascinating late summer butterflies, with Sicilian Grayling, Eastern Bath White and Mediterranean Skipper to watch for.

Accommodation

7 nights accommodation in Sicily, beginning with two nights at a traditional agriturismo (farmhouse hotel) near Polizzi Generosa, on the western slopes of the Madonie Mountains.

From there, we head west to spend five nights at a small, family-run hotel-restaurant in the charming old town of Custonaci, in the hills above the island's west coast.

Both hotels are comfortable and characterful, and serve good food using local produce. All rooms en suite.

Meals

All main meals are included in the price, typically commencing with lunch on Day 1 and concluding with breakfast on Day 8. Please note that flight schedules to Palermo have a habit of changing from one year to the next, so our meal plan for days 1 and 8 may change 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. We may occasionally ring the changes with a light resturant lunch. Dinners will be taken at the hotels - and are something to look forward to.

Walking

Easy. Short walks on good tracks and trails, over mainly easy terrain. Our walks in the Madonie Mountains, along the shore at Monte Cofano and at the Zingaro Nature Reserve are around 4-5 km (3 miles) and on well-made trails. 

Comfy walking shoes are advised. At Madonie we will reach a maximum altitude of ca. 1500m (4900ft).

Travel

We fly London Heathrow-Palermo, nonstop with British Airways. 

Ground transport is by minibus.

Boat Trips

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

Saltpans at Trapani Sicily Brian Small Limosa IMG 0140 copy resized

Less than an hour's drive will bring us to the Trapani saltpans, the third largest such complex in the Mediterranean - and an excellent spot to see Greater Flamingoes, Slender-billed Gull and waders on migration in autumn © Brian Small, Limosa Holidays

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1 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]
2 BH, Sicily tour ... Two of the best leaders we have had... [empty string]
3 V&B, Sicily tour ... Scenery wonderful, flowers beautiful, birding not bad either! And then the Bonelli’s Eagle drifted over!!... [empty string]
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