the delights of a Sicilian spring in the shadow of Mount Etna
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There are few places in the Mediterranean that can rival the delightful landscape and rich cultural history of Sicily. The hilly terrain includes the striking dome of Mount Etna, while plains and plateau are more frequent in the south eastern parts of the country visited on this itinerary. Well known as a flyway for springtime migrants streaming northwards from Africa, a wide variety of species can be expected from waterfowl and warblers to raptors and terns. Migrant songbirds tend to be concentrated on the east coast promontories.
The Straits of Messina are a famous raptor bottleneck, and at this time of year harriers should be on the move including Marsh, Montagu’s and Pallid. Resident species offer interest too, including the endemic Sicilian Rock Partridge, which some ornithologists believe is a separate species from their mainland relatives. The distinctive Sicilian form of Long-tailed Tit has recently been suggested as a split too. The island boasts as much sunshine as any other part of Europe, and by the time we visit the air will be filled with the scent of wild flowers and the fields are carpeted with fallen orchard blossoms. Add to the mix the hospitable Sicilian people and an abundance of wonderful food and local wine, it is easy to see why this amazing island is becoming a destination of choice for the discerning birdwatcher. On this tour we have two bases, both in eastern Sicily.
Exploring first the rugged and remote interior, we will be delighted to find a mix of high mountain and open steppe which forms a very picturesque landscape. Scenic drives will reveal a variety of species which find their home here. Common garden birds include Serin, Spotless Starling and Cirl Bunting. We will spend time exploring the beautiful Madonie Mountains, searching out species such as Red-billed Chough, Rock Bunting, Short-toed Treecreeper, Hawfinch, Rock Sparrow and perhaps overhead, a stately Golden Eagle. Patience and good luck may well reveal the secretive Sicilian Rock Partridge, the most sought after of the distinctive island forms and perhaps a species in its own right. Our charming hotel provides traditional Sicilian evening meals, washed down with appetising local wine. Eastern Subalpine Warblers can be heard singing in the garden whilst we wait! Descending to the more ‘steppe-like’ foothills we will make a stop at a colony of Lesser Kestrels, then later look for Egyptian Vultures whilst searching out sites for singing Spectacled Warblers and Blue Rock Thrushes.
On day three we move on towards the migrant hot-spots and marshes of the eastern coastline, but not before visiting the stunning and still smouldering, Mount Etna. Europe’s largest active volcano dominates the whole of eastern Sicily and you are never far from its influence on this tour. It is very interesting to visit the lava fields which adorn the slopes to see the bare, black pumice at first hand. Many plants have colonised these stark slopes, including woodlands of beech, birch and pine which harbour distinctive local races of both Long-tailed Tit and Common Crossbill. Further breakdown of the volcanic material has resulted in a very fertile hinterland which supports almonds, olives, grapes and citrus groves.
Syracuse, one of the most beautiful cities in Europe, forms an excellent base from which we can easily explore the bird rich south east of the island. A variety of habitats await; all providing some notable birdwatching. Very near to our hotel are the migrant hot-spots of Capo Murro di Porco and Penisola Maddelena and we shall make several visits to these garrigue covered headlands to see what birds can be found. The quantity and variety of migrants will change daily, but Woodchat Shrike, Whinchat, Pied and Collared Flycatchers, and several races of Yellow Wagtails, can all be sought. At the time of our visit, the locally wintering Richard’s Pipits should still be present, whilst Sardinian and Eastern Subalpine Warblers can be plentiful at times. Nearer the sea, bare rocks and open short grass attract Tawny Pipits and wheatears which can be present in three varieties; Northern, Black-eared and possibly even a lingering Isabelline. Each headland boasts an ornate lighthouse, from where sea-watching can be productive, so we will keep an eye open for both Yelkouan and Scopoli’s Shearwaters, as well as passing Audouin’s and Yellow-legged Gulls and even the occasional Bottle-nosed or Striped Dolphin offshore.
A short drive inland brings us to the Cava Grande de Cassible, Sicily’s own ‘Grand Canyon’, which cuts through the limestone plateau near Avola. The view from the top is magnificent, and looking down into the gorge can produce Sicilian Rock Partridge, Blue Rock Thrush and Alpine Swift, with Lanner and Peregrine both possible, whilst Spectacled Warblers and Rock Sparrow are more certain. For those with an interest in wild flowers, this site boasts a fabulous variety of orchids including Bee and Italian Man Orchid.
During our stay we will venture half an hour northwards to the Saline di Priolo, a wetland home to Greater Flamingo and Ferruginous Duck, and if the water levels are right, a host of migrant waders that are likely to include Spotted Redshank, resplendent in their summer finery. Nearby the grass and thistles of the Penisola Magnisi hold breeding Calandra Larks, Short-toed Larks and Stone Curlews. Migrant passerines find the low vegetation ideal for resting and feeding. With luck Tawny, Tree and Red-throated Pipits can all be found whilst Black-headed and other wagtails follow the feeding cattle. All these migrants do not go unnoticed by raptors and this headland offers one of our best chances to discover a Montagu’s Harrier or perhaps Pallid Harrier, halting their migration for an easy meal.
Longarini and Vendicari are easily accessible wetlands on the south coast which provide further variety in the form of Penduline Tit, Spoonbills, Purple Gallinule and, depending on water levels, passage herons. Nearby, the disused salt ponds of the Salina di Morghello often hold Gull-billed Tern, Glossy Ibis and Garganey whilst migrant waders such as Little Stint, Wood Sandpiper and Marsh Sandpiper find the shallows much to their liking.
Throughout, we will have daily views of many Spanish Sparrows, here showing clear genetic links to the so called ‘Italian Sparrow’.
This is a leisurely paced tour to a most enchanting island, where we welcome the warmth of the Mediterranean spring alongside a rich variety of birds. But it would be foolish to totally ignore the magnificent archaeological legacy so close at hand and short visits, no doubt with ice-cream in hand, to the magnificent Greek amphitheatre in Syracuse or to witness the Baroque splendour of Noto, will be equally memorable.
CLIMATE AND PACE
Spring comes early to Sicily and outdoor breakfasts on the hotel verandas are possible even at the time of our visit. Pleasantly warm and sunny days are to be expected without the blistering heat of summertime. Of course a little rain is always possible, particularly in the mountainous interior, but hopefully nothing to spoil the birdwatching. Breakfast will normally be taken at about 7.30am, with the option of one or two pre-breakfast walks, if required to suit the migration patterns prevalent at the time. Basic fitness is all that is required. Full days will be spent in the field with short to medium length walks on mainly flat ground. There is little uphill walking even in the mountains.
ACCOMMODATION AND FOOD
Full-board accommodation is provided, with two nights at the Agriturismo Tenuta Castagna near Gangi and five nights at the Kalaonda Hotel in Plemmirio, both hotels offering notable food and wine. All rooms have en-suite facilities.
PRICE INCLUDES …..
All birdwatching excursions with expert leader, full-board accommodation (starting with lunch on 12th and ending with breakfast on 19th), local transport by minibus, soft drinks at meal times, bottled water throughout, site entrance fees and international flights.
WHAT IS NOT INCLUDED
Travel insurance. Personal items, alcoholic drinks, laundry.
Return flight from Manchester to Catania using the scheduled services of Easyjet. Outbound flight departs early morning, return flight arrives back late afternoon. Flights are also available from Luton.
One of our special target birds, the endemic Sicilian Rock Partridge
Warm early spring weather will entice a variety of colourful butterflies onto the wing. Here a magnificent Swallowtail
Spectacled Warbler can be found in a number of locations
Comfortable accommodation amongst splendid scenery
Eastern Subalpine Warbler, a widespread breeding species on the island
Dominating the whole of eastern Sicily, a smouldering Mount Etna
click here to see the photographs in our Sicily Album
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