Itinerary - Spring 2012
This section of the trip report contains details and sometimes photos of the sites visited, along with a summary of the best birds seen. It does not contain photos of the birds and wildlife or full details of what was seen - for that go to the Systematic List section.
View Sicily in a larger map
The pins on the map above show where we stayed:
- Villa Rosa - 23rd to 26th April
- Antica Dimora San Girilama - 27th April
- Monteluce - 28th April to 2nd May
- Pozzo di Mazza - 3rd to 5th May
I've split this itinerary section between 3 pages, starting below.
Leg 1: based near Mount Etna
Sunday 22nd April
We were flying out of Gatwick early on Monday so stayed at a hotel at Gatwick, making use of their parking deal. First disaster of the holiday was arriving in the hotel and realising that I'd forgotten to pack the Italian birding site guide that I'd acquired a few days before. I'd glanced through the site information for Sicily but hadn't had time to absorb all the information and was relying on it to find the best places to go birding in Sicily!
I read a post on Surfbirds Forum in which Andrea Corso, Italy's premier birder and resident of Sicily, had mentioned a Bar-tailed Desert Lark at Siracusa that he, Brian Small and the Limosa team had found last week. That would make a good start to the trip so I emailed him to see if I could obtain further details.
Monday 23rd April
We were up at 4.00 am for the EasyJet flight which went smoothly enough. We picked up the hire car from Sixt at Catania airport and, knowing the reputation of Italian drivers (which is in fact understated - driving in Italy was a total nightmare) I headed away from the city of Catania. This meant heading south and, with no other plans for the day, we continued on to Siracusa in the hope of bumping into the lark, although at this point I still didn't know exactly where it was or if it was still there.
We had a good exploration of the area round Siracusa, including Capo Murro di Porco, although I didn't bird any one area especially thoroughly. It was clear that there were a lot of migrants around, especially Whinchats and Spotted Flycatchers, also smaller numbers of Pied Flycatchers, a Wood Warbler, an Osprey and the first Woodchat Shrikes of the trip. 3 Ferruginous Ducks were my first away from the curse of uncertain provenance that all British records carry.
Mediterranean species like Fan-tailed Warbler, Sardinian Warbler, Serin, Crested Lark and Spotless Starling were in abundance and I began to take in the variation within the local form of sparrow – often at the Spanish end of the Italian Sparrow spectrum.
Despite plenty of wildflowers butterflies seemed in short supply, although a Knapweed Fritillary was identified. The journey to our first night's accommodation produced a Roller. We arrived at Villa Rosa in Pedara in good time so went for a short drive round the local area before dinner. This produced a Blue Rock Thrush but little else as we failed in this short time to find any decent habitat. On returning to Villa Rosa at dusk Vitty noticed that Mount Etna was erupting! We'd discovered a few days ago that Etna is currently undergoing unusually frequent eruptions and hoped to experience one at some point during our stay, but this was a nice surprise for our first evening! One or two Scops Owls were glimpsed flying around while we were watching it.
We informed the owners of Villa Rosa, who seemed surprised, and the other guests, and we all enjoyed watching it erupting as we ate our (very nice) evening meal. Apparently most recent eruptions had only lasted a couple of hours or so but this one kept going – but it didn't seem to get much bigger.
Our host thought it would get better before it stopped so we stayed up until 1.00 am, but still no sign of it increasing. We went to bed, but I set my alarm for 2.00 so I could check it again. I slept through but Vitty woke me at 4.00 and I went out to check. I don't know how long it had been going like this but it was now sending fire far up into the sky and the flow of lava down the side of the mountain was far more obvious to the naked eye. I fetched Vitty and we watched the spectacle for a bit until it started to die down again and we returned to bed. I was up again at 6.00 but by this time it had finished.
Tuesday 24th April
Messina in NE Sicily is well known as one of the best places in Europe to see migrating raptors. This was a spectacle I was keen to witness and I'd heard that Monti Peloritani was the best place to watch from, but only in NW winds. I found a website that gave a weather forecast for Sicily and it said it was NW today. I was a bit suspicious as it seemed to be for the whole of Sicily and surely the weather wouldn't be the same across the whole island, but I couldn't find a better forecast with the limited internet access I had from my phone. The journey up to Messina was horrible. I'm not renowned for slow or cautious driving in the UK but here in Sicily the driving style was nothing short of crazy, and it really stressed me out. They say it's not the most dangerous place to drive in the world, but if that's the case I wouldn't like to go to somewhere that is – either as a driver or a passenger. Generally driving in towns was most stressful but the road up to Messina, with its many badly-lit tunnels and lunatic drivers, wasn't much better. Add to this the fact that the sat nav attempted to take me down roads that didn't exist and the whole journey was one of the most stressful and unpleasant experiences that I ever wish to undergo.
We arrived at Monti Peloritani, climbed the hill and tested the wind – it was SE, not NW! There wasn't a single migrant raptor, just a few Ravens. Andrea had mentioned that in SE it was better to watch from the beach at Faro, the furthest NE point in Sicily. So we headed there, but the journey taking us mainly through towns, was even worse. I spent a while watching from here but didn't see a single raptor – perhaps the wind was too strong by this time, or there wasn't enough cloud – I don't know! Heading back the journey didn't improve, in fact as the sat nav again tried to take us through roads that didn't exist we ended up getting lost in Messina, nearly had a collision and ended up even more stressed! A wasted day with next to nothing seen but a whole load of stress, and I reluctantly decided that I would not attempt the journey up to Messina again on the off-chance that the weather might be suitable for raptor migration. Day 2 and it was clear that I would not witness the ornithological event I most wanted to experience.
Andrea had replied to my email yesterday with directions for the Bar-tailed Desert Lark at Siracusa, although I'd not picked it up until too late for yesterday. There was still enough time left in the day to get down there and have another look, so we went straight there. I got a bit confused with the directions – I think I mistook his description of the cafe as a name of the cafe, and as it didn't have that name I didn't recognise it as being the right one. I think I got the right area in the end, and we had in fact looked here briefly yesterday. I had a good look round but no sign of any interesting larks. I didn't know when it had last been seen – it could have been gone for days for all I knew! Perhaps I would have looked harder if I'd been certain I'd found the right place and if I'd known it was still present, but in any case, I didn't see it. Several days later I heard that it had in fact still been present today.
A couple of scans out to sea produced both Scopoli's and Yelkouan Shearwaters and a couple of Audouin's Gulls drifted by. There were still plenty of common migrants around, the best of which was a Quail I flushed from near the lighthouse.
Although the food at Villa Rosa last night had been excellent we wanted to try a restaurant in Pedara so we headed into town instead. The target restaurant seemed to be closed though, so we looked for another. The one we chose was not what we'd been hoping for! My attempt to describe what I wanted to someone who spoke very little English was, unfortunately, not successful and I ended up with a watery cheese and tomato pizza with some rather poor quality sausage meat scattered over it.
Wednesday 25th April
We headed up to Mount Etna today, looking hard for Sicilian Rock Partridges, but with no success. A walk up through thick snow and then along to overlook the valley where the volcano lava had run was interesting and enjoyable – thanks to our host at Villa Rosa for the tip on where to go! It was also far more exhausting than we'd expected, but worth it! The birds weren't hugely remarkable, but I never tire of seeing Rock Buntings!
After the walk it became clear that there were vast numbers of people everywhere so I decided to drive round and find somewhere a bit quieter. This proved impossible – every little bit of countryside was full of picnicking Italians! There was traffic and people everywhere – we just couldn't find any peace anywhere. We later discovered that today was a public holiday and, as everything shuts down on public holidays in Italy everyone goes out to the country whether they have any interest in it or not. It was, frankly, pretty miserable.
We ate at Villa Rosa again tonight – much better than last night!
Thursday 26th April
We went up to Etna again this morning, but this time I persuaded Vitty that we didn't need to rush back for breakfast. The evening meals at Villa Rosa were huge and excellent and the breakfasts were perfectly adequate too. But I don't think any breakfasts in Italy are worth spoiling your birding for – us Brits seem to be the only ones who know how to do breakfast! The absence of a need to rush back meant I could relax much more this morning, until the bus loads of tourists started turning up. Consequently I enjoyed the morning much more – although finding the Sicilian Rock Partridges had helped as well! I suppose the rest of the birds seen weren't vastly exciting, but things like Rock Sparrow, Subalpine Warbler and even showy Firecrests were enjoyable enough!
We headed round to Etna North where it was interesting to see the "ash" (or "sand" as they call it) covering the snow. In reality it was small hail-sized pieces of black rock and it was covering everything – I can see now why our host at Villa Rosa was so glad the wind wasn't taking it in his direction on the night the volcano erupted.
We carried on round – the road along the north side was more beautiful than elsewhere with loads of wildflowers. Butterflies included an Eastern Orange-tip but I didn't find enough suitable places to stop and explore on foot. Since coming round to this side we'd noticed that Etna seemed to be smoking more heavily than it had been on previous days, and we wondered if it was about to erupt again. Thinking that it was coming from the SE side we continued round until we reached a point where we could see it wasn't really doing anything much, except a bit of puffing! We later found out that this was pretty normal, so had been nothing to get excited about. We did, however, find some really nice antipasti at a small restaurant on the way up to Etna South – not a place we expected to serve great lunch but one of the best antipasti we had all trip.
I fancied visiting the Nebrodi mountains, not least because I thought it might have read that it was one of the better areas for Sicilian Marsh Tit. We headed up to a place above Cesari and I found this a more peaceful and beautiful place than anywhere we'd been so far in Sicily - a welcome relief from the claustrophobic noisy areas we'd found so far in Sicily. Some good views of Subalpine Warblers here and I found the local race of Nuthatch, and a pair of Short-toed Treecreepers, but despite good numbers of Blue, Great and Coal Tits seen today, I still couldn't find the local forms of either Marsh Tit or Long-tailed Tit. I would have like to have spent much more time in the Nebrodi mountains but another nice dinner at Villa Rosa was calling.
Or here to jump to details of all the birds and animals seen, illustrated with photos of many of the species.