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
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
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
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.
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
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.