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Sicily | Italy NEW! Mt Etna & Coast in Autumn

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

Limosa’s autumn birdwatching tour to Sicily has a fresh new look for 2020, beginning with a two-night stay on the slopes of mighty Mt Etna before heading south for five nights at a villa hotel close to Siracusa. In September, Europe’s migrant birds are on the move again, funnelling south through Italy and on to the island of Sicily before crossing the Mediterranean into Africa. After exploring the old lava flows and forests of Mt Etna for Rock Partridge and Sicilian Long-tailed Tit, we turn to the island’s rugged southeast – a landscape familiar to devotees of TV’s Inspector Montalbano – and the best wildlife sites of the region. From saltpans and coastal wetlands to limestone gorges and fragant scrub, this easy-paced Sicily birding tour is a delight.

Tour Dates

2020

Spaces
9

Leaders
David Walsh
Andrea Corso

Max Group Size: 10
Duration: 8 Days

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Cost: £1995

inc return flights from London Gatwick-Catania (Sicily)

Deposit: £300

Single Supp: £135
Land Only: £1845

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051 Italian Sparrow (Passer italiae) Sicily Italy IT April 2018 cp 300dpi copy resized

A male Italian Sparrow enjoys some late afternoon sunshine on a Sicilian rooftop © robinchittenden.co.uk

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 Europe and Africa. 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! This September tour complements our spring trip to Sicily in again focusing on the easternmost part of the island. Here we will watch birds amidst a landscape dominated - and very largely shaped - by the immense smouldering cone of Europe’s biggest volcano, Mt Etna, where we stay for two nights on the northern slopes close to the town of Randazzo. Out on the rugged black lava of Mount Etna we will look for three of the island’s special birds: the endemic Sicilian race of Rock Partridge (still awaiting promotion from its mainland cousin); the distinctive ‘Sicilian’ Long-tailed Tit, which breeds in the mountain oak woods and scrub; and the enigmatic 'Sicilian' Common Crossbill. Over the slopes and the hills to the north raptors pass through, lifting up from the high peaks as they head southwest towards Africa.

Leaving Etna, we follow the coast south to our second hotel, close to the headland and coastal garrigue (scrub) of Murro di Porco and near the ancient ports of Siracusa and Ortigia - two of the most beautiful and historic towns in Europe. Nearby is Penisola Magnisi, where passage birds may drop in on their way south, and the likes of Stone-curlew and Calandra Lark are resident. Audouin’s Gulls coast past along the clifftops and local wetlands harbour Ferruginous Duck, Slender-billed Gull and the incongruous Western Swamphen. The hotel garden and nearby groves of almond, olive and carob can be attractive to migrants both in spring and autumn, as well as being home to resident Sardinian Warblers, Tree Sparrows and fluting Crested Larks.

We will spend some time in the south checking the limestone headlands and coastal macchia for warblers, wheatears and other passerine migrants. Also nearby are important wetlands and saltpans (salinas), well worth checking in autumn for shorebirds heading south – with anything from Glossy Ibis and Spoonbill to busy Kentish Plovers and Little Stints likely to be seen.

West of Siracusa is the beautiful and unspoilt Iblei region, a rough, sheep-grazed limestone plateau cut by deep valleys such as the Cava Grande del Cassibile - Sicily's ‘Grand Canyon’. Here we will watch for migrating raptors and localised specialities such as Spectacled Warbler and Rock Sparrow.
    
As a tourist destination, Sicily has enjoyed a surge in popularity following the BBC's screening of the hit Italian television series Inspector Montalbano, which was filmed on location in the stunning southeast of the island. During our stay, we will briefly visit the historic towns of Siracusa and Ortigia, to walk the cobbled streets and enjoy the local architecture - and perhaps a delicious gelato or granita. Near Vendicari, the old tuna-fishing port of Marzamemi is another favourite spot with Limosa clients on our spring tours here.

Andrea Corso lives in Siracusa 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, he also has a wonderful sense of humour - not to mention a fine singing voice! Andrea’s enthusiasm for his country is infectious and he’s passionate about its birds. Indeed, his knowledge of Sicily’s birds and where to find them is unsurpassed - and it’s impossible to imagine a trip there without him!

Our September 2020 visit will be Limosa’s 20th tour to Sicily with Andrea. Guide David Walsh has bags of experience with Mediterranean bird migration and, like Andrea, has an infectious enthusiasm for the natural world.

Long tailed Tit Sicily Rene Pop

The distinctive Sicilian race of Long tailed Tit might one day be 'split' © Rene Pop

Day 1            
FLY CATANIA, TRANSFER TO MT ETNA
Our autumn birdwatching tour to Sicily begins with a flight from London Gatwick 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 head north, skirting the eastern flank of Mt Etna - looming ever larger as we drive - to reach our first hotel, a charming agriturismo not far from the town of Randazzo, where we spend the first two nights of our tour. The journey will take a little over an hour as we travel around two sides of this immense active volcano - the largest on continental Europe (and surpassed only by Mt. Teide in the Canary Islands). Many of the buildings here are made of blocks of lava; indeed the town of Randazzo itself has buildings and roads hewn from the landscape – while the town is also known for its fabulous pistachio gelato!

After lunch, we’ll take a first look for birds on the northern slopes of Mt Etna. Night Randazzo

Day 2
MT ETNA
Enjoying the stark but spectacular backdrop of rugged ancient lava fields we continue our exploration of Mt Etna today, making a special effort to track down the Sicilian Rock Partridge, an extremely wary species that is notoriously difficult to find - we may have to rise early for the best chance! Etna’s lower slopes are clothed in dense mountain oak woods and pines, good spots to look for the island’s distinctive races of Long-tailed Tit and Common Crossbill. Nuthatch, Short-toed Treecreper and Cirl Bunting are also resident and birds of prey to watch for hunting or migrating over the volcanic slopes include Golden Eagle, Common Buzzard, Sparrowhawk, Kestrel, Peregrine and possibly Lanner (rare). Migrant raptors use Mt Etna as a point to gain height before heading west, and in September these can include Honey Buzzard, harriers and Booted Eagle, too. Night Randazzo

Days 3 – 7
SIRACUSA &  SOUTHEAST SICILY
Leaving Randazzo today, we have a final opportunity to birdwatch on the slopes of Mt Etna before picking up the autostrada and heading south, beyond the ancient and historic port of Siracusa, to Penisola Maddalena and our hotel for the rest of the week. 'Discovered' for us by Andrea, lovely Villa Fanusa lies close to the coast and has a garden with a swimming pool and a small olive grove. In spring and autumn, Hoopoes and other migrant birds can drop into the gardens and groves around about.

Siracusa makes an excellent base from which to explore the bird-rich southeastern corner of Sicily - Andrea’s ‘home patch’. We often begin our discovery of this fascinating region with a short morning drive to a sparsely populated limestone promontory covered with dense Mediterranean macchia (evergreen scrub).

The lighthouse area at Capo Murro di Porco, together with the cultivated fields of Penisola Maddalena, are well known ‘hotspots’ for migrants. In autumn, the scrub, aloe, fields and old gardens regularly attract species such as Woodchat Shrike, Pied and Spotted Flycatchers, Whinchat, and Northern and Black-eared Wheatears, along with Subalpine, Spectacled and Sardinian Warblers. Other possibilities in September might include Tawny, Tree and Richard’s Pipits (with small numbers of the latter remaining to overwinter here).

At Murro di Porco, a wonderful white lighthouse dominates the steep cliffs. Seawatching from the point can be productive: the season’s last Scopoli’s and Yelkouan Shearwaters are possible offshore along with Audouin's, Mediterranean and Yellow-legged Gulls. It also makes a great spot to enjoy a tasty Sicilian picnic - perhaps some delicious sandwiches freshly made at a local deli, with Italian hams (crudo and cotto prosciutto), arancini di riso (stuffed rice balls coated with breadcrumbs), 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 breath-taking nature reserve of Vendicari. Flocks of rose-pink Greater Flamingos mingle with the likes of Glossy Ibis, Shelduck, Garganey, Ferruginous Duck and other wildfowl. A good selection of waders, gulls and terns is usually present in September 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 1430 AD. The reedbeds can secrete mobile and elusive Penduline Tits along with Reed and Sedge Warblers. Yellow Wagtails of various races also occur on passage.

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 offers further chances of shearwaters moving offshore. Nearby Morghello has more splendid old saltpans and we will also visit the fine wetlands of Longarini and Cuber (recently protected by a German nature foundation). These are often dotted with flamingos, but in autumn can also hold a variety of waders, terns and gulls, such as Wood Sandpiper and Slender-billed Gull.

Inland of Siracusa, we’ll head to the Cava Grande del Cassibile - the ‘Sicilian Grand Canyon’ - where we can try again for the elusive Sicilian Rock Partridge and Long-tailed Tit, while Alpine Swifts zip across the skies and Ravens tumble and croak above the chasm. Tracks follow the northern and southern edges of the canyon, through the dry macchia. Our picnic lunch here may be taken al fresco, looking down onto the steep slopes. Zitting Cisticola, Blue Rock Thrush, Woodlark and Tree, Rock and Italian Sparrows are among a range of other birds we could encounter in this very scenic region today - and we will keep our eyes open for the eye-catching endemic Sicilian Wall Lizard, too.

There are several sites north of Siracusa that are well worth visiting, sometimes more than once. Small saltpans at Siracusa and Priolo can hold Squacco Heron and egrets, Marsh Sandpiper and Glossy Ibis, while passing Ospreys pause to fish – sometimes using a post that Andrea stuck in the marsh for just such a purpose! At Penisola Magnisi, we might find migrant Short-toed Larks and Yellow Wagtails. Here, amongst the ancient burial chambers cut into the limestone, Eurasian Stone-curlews and Calandra Larks hide and Andrea turns over stones to find us the sleek Ocellated Skink. Five nights near Siracusa

Day 8                
RETURN TO CATANIA, FLY LONDON
We leave Siracusa after breakfast this morning and return north via the autostrada to Catania airport. Bidding farewell to Andrea, we check-in for our flight back to London, where our autumn birdwatching tour to Sicily concludes this afternoon.

Lava flow Mt Etna Sicily BS DSC03171 copy resized

Lava flow on Mt Etna © Brian Small, Limosa

What To Expect

Limosa’s autumn birdwatching tour to Sicily has a fresh new look for 2020, beginning with a two-night stay on the slopes of mighty Mt Etna before heading south for five nights at a villa hotel close to Siracusa. In September, Europe’s migrant birds are on the move again, funnelling south through Italy and on to the island of Sicily before crossing the Mediterranean into Africa. After exploring the old lava flows and forests of Mt Etna for Rock Partridge and Sicilian Long-tailed Tit, we turn to the island’s rugged southeast – a landscape familiar to devotees of TV’s Inspector Montalbano – and the best wildlife sites of the region. From saltpans and coastal wetlands to limestone gorges and fragant scrub, this easy-paced Sicily birding tour is a delight.

Expect a mix of sunshine and showers here in September, with daytime temperatures typically in the region of 20-30C (68-86F), falling to lows of around 15C/59F (mostly at night).  It can be significantly cooler on the higher slopes of Mt Etna, so be sure to pack some warm and weatherproof clothing to layer up if necessary.

Birds

100-135 species

Accommodation

7 nights accommodation on Sicily, commencing with 2 nights at a charming and comfortable agriturismo near Randazzo, on the northern slope of Mt Etna - with views to the northern mountains - followed by 5 nights at Hotel Villa Fanusa near Siracusa, in the southeast of Sicily. Rooms are simply furnished but comfortable and all en suite. Both locations have swimming pools.

Meals

All main meals are included in the tour price, commencing with lunch (or dinner, according to flight schedules) on arrival in Sicily on Day 1  and concluding with breakfast (or lunch, again according to flight schedules) on the island on Day 8.

Continental breakfasts and home-cooked dinners featuring freshly made Sicilian food. Lunches are delicious picnics, with sandwiches or local pastries freshly-prepared that morning using Italian cheeses, hams, vegetables, sun-dried tomatoes, olives and aubergines.

Walking

Easy. Short walks over mainly easy terrain. Comfy walking shoes with stout corrugated soles both for grip and to protect against the sharp lava on Mt Etna are advised. The ground can be uneven and loose underfoot in places, so some participants might find a walking pole handy. Although our tour includes a visit to Mt Etna, please note that we focus on seeing the birds and wildlife here and do not go to the summit area on our tour.

Maximum elevation on this tour: (Mt Etna) approx. 2000m (6500ft).

Travel

We use the scheduled services of British Airways or Easyjet (according to schedule), nonstop from London Gatwick to Catania, Sicily.

Ground Transport   By minibus

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Serin singing © Zoli Baczo, Limosa

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