Sicily: May 2012

The group members met Stuart at Catania Airport after the flight from the UK. With Lloyd’s expertise of handling large bulky items, the luggage was carefully packed into the minibus and we headed off into the warm mediterranean night which all agreed was already warmer than the UK had been that day! We travelled south-east for about an hour and reached our base for the week, the Pozzo di Mazza, a converted winery out in the rural countryside surrounded by Lemon groves. Having settled into our rooms, we had a light supper of cheese and ham baguettes and local red wine, while Stuart outlined the plans for the week. We then retired to bed, as two or even three Scops Owls competed against each other in the nearby orchard.

Day 2     Wednesday 9th May

Hot and sunny

The day started with a bird walk around the Pozzo at 7am. Fan-tailed Warblers, or to give them their ‘new’ name, Zitting Cisticolas, bounced around in flight, constantly ‘zitting’ overhead, Serins sang enthusiastically from overhead wires whilst Tree Sparrows mingled with a few Italian Sparrows on the roofs. As was to become part of the daily routine, an Italian Wall Lizard crept from behind the wall-light by the lounge entrance to catch the first rays of sunshine. The grounds of the Pozzo is home to many pairs of Sardinian Warblers and the males gave their scratchy song from the bushes, and nearby Crested Larks sang in the fields. Spotless Starlings were also noted, with their smart, glossy plumage often having a green sheen. Exploring the area just beyond the Pozzo produced several Wood Warblers, and single Melodious Warbler and Spotted Flycatcher in the Oak trees, We returned to the Pozza for breakfast al fresco, in the morning sun, 

After breakfast, we drove the short distance to the headland of Capo Murro di Porco, and set out to walk to the lighthouse. We also became familiar with some of the Mediterranean plant species, especially those most bright and appealing including the golden, thistle-like Spanish Oyster Plant, characteristic of this spiny coastal heath. Birds  seen around the lighthouse included Yellow-legged Gull, a male Linnet and White Wagtail, whilst offshore we had reasonable views of 15 Scopoli’s and at least 30 Yelkouan Shearwaters. Returning to the gardens near the road we enjoyed superb views of Wood Warbler, Melodious Warbler and Spotted Flycatcher; we also had at least 7 Bee-eaters drift overhead, giving their far-carrying ‘quilp quilp’ calls.

The warm weather and light winds meant that several butterflies were visible, Eastern Dappled, Large and Small White, Meadow Brown, Small Skipper, Painted Lady and Wall Brown were all noted. A very small all-dark butterfly also caught our eye; suspecting it to be a skipper species we all knew that none of us had seen anything like this before. After a few failed attempts by group members and the leader to catch one, a local resident made light work of catching one in his hands (on his first attempt) which we then transferred to a catch-pot for closer inspection before release. A quick reference to The Butterflies of Europe field guide confirmed the mystery as Pygmy Skipper, a new species for us all. 

After such a good start to the day, we made our way to Isole, where we enjoyed cold drinks and a view overlooking the sea which produced 4 Sandwich Terns and several Little Terns. Nearby in the grass Martin located a superbly camouflaged grasshopper which we identified as Acrida ungicaria. Needing somewhere suitable for our picnic we returned to the lighthouse at the Capo and this proved to be an excellent decision. During the preparation of the lunch a mixed flock of migrants came through. First to be seen were  at least 13 Red-rumped Swallows, they were soon joined by at least 9 Bee-eaters and  then the icing on the cake was at least 2 Alpine Swifts. These birds were on a mission and within a few minutes all had drifted north leaving us to savour the excellent lunch made up of various local produce, and to toast a very productive first few hours. 

After lunch we drove to the Saline di Siracusa. Here we walked along the track overlooking the reedbeds (mainly consisting of the Giant Reed, Arundo donax) and pools, before dropping down to the sea. Little Grebe and Coot were seen on the pools, while Grey Heron, Little Egret, 5 Black-winged Stilt, a pair of Kentish Plover, and Common Sandpiper were among the other avifauna. A colony of Little Terns gave great views with several close fly-pasts, while an immaculate adult Whiskered Tern fed over the pools.

Our next stop was a flooded meadow behind the Saline di Ciane. Here we quickly located two Squacco Heron, one giving excellent views, while a Cattle Egret became an Equine  Egret as when we arrived it was perched on a horse! A pair of Wood Sandpiper were seen, with one being very confiding, while Pool Frogs were croaking, and Cetti’s Warbler gave its explosive call. Great Reed Warbler gave its crunching song from deep within the reedbed and another Whiskered Tern quartered the wet fields. Just as we were about to leave a Hoopoe flew across in front of the group giving excellent views.

Before heading to the Pozzo we returned to the Capo. A few minutes here produced much better views of both shearwaters than this morning and 3 more Red-rumped Swallows heading north.

After a full first day, we returned to the Pozzo, with time to relax or swim, before an excellent dinner. Afterwards the moth trap was set up for the night and the Scops Owls started to tune up for another long night.

Day 3Thursday 10th May

Fine, hot and sunny

This morning we looked at the moth trap before breakfast, finding amongst other species Bright Line Brown Eye, Ni Moth and a most spectacular Striped Hawk Moth. Shortly afterwards a walk around the grounds produced 6 Wood Warblers and 2 Spotted Flycatchers in the Oak Trees and an immaculate male Lesser Kestrel picked up by Martin T heading south over the Pozzo. 

After breakfast, we visited the Archaeological Park in Syracuse, spending time at the very impressive Greek and Roman Theatres and the ‘Ear of Dionysius’. A spontaneous rendition of ‘The Sound of Music’ by a tourist nearly sparked a duet of ‘Flower of Scotland’ with Finlay - after the excitement had died down several ‘new’ birds here included Greenfinch and Jackdaw.

From here we drove inland, past Canicattini, to the Cavagrande del Cassibile, a spectacular limestone gorge, with the river Cassibile flowing through it. We rounded the top of the gorge and came south east, stopping to listen to 2 male Nightingales trying to out-sing each other, also for a fleeting glimpse of a Woodchat Shrike on a low bush, and another stop for Corn Bunting. At the viewpoint, we had our picnic at the rear of the bus. A male Blue Rock Thrush was perched on nearby wires and afforded some good views, a short while later an Eastern Subalpine Warbler was located by the car park and showed well but briefly. Bee-eaters could be heard all around and we were treated to scope views of two birds on wires. House Martins were abundant, and Common Kestrel, Common Buzzard, Hoopoe, Raven and Stonechat were noted. We set out to walk along the edge of the gorge, and in the first meadow we found a male Spectacled Warbler, of which two displaying males and a female eventually gave excellent views: a special bird for this area. Soon afterwards everyone had superb views of Cirl Bunting, sitting at the top of a bush, singing loudly. Butterflies included Clouded Yellow, Small Copper and Small Blue whilst there were also several smart day-flying moths of which the ID has yet to be confirmed. After a couple of hours we left the gorge, descending the road of hair-pin bends, which  allowed great scenic views, and stopped for a photo stop half-way down at a scenic car-park.

In the Valley below we watched a pair of Hoopoes on a disused building. As we watched the Hoopoes Stuart heard a call that instantly sent shivers down his spine - it just had to be...Sicilian Rock Partridge!  After scanning the valley the calling continued but the birds refused to show their whereabouts; suddenly one was picked up in flight and we all enjoyed good views of the grey upperside until the bird landed in thick grass. A while later Finlay said ‘there’s a strange bird on the dry stone wall here’, following his directions, Stuart was expecting a Wheatear or similar but was amazed to see a male partridge sat on the wall. Telescopes were quickly trained on the bird and we all enjoyed superb views before the bird flew off and out of view - wow!

That evening after a superb meal the Scops Owl in the grounds showed in flight but stubbornly sang from the depths of a conifer and it refused to budge - well there’s always tomorrow!

Day 4                                                                                       Friday 11th May

Hot and sunny

Another fine day saw the group checking out the birds in the local Oak trees and Lemon groves. Melodious Warbler and 2 Wood Warblers were found, along with Spotted Flycatchers. A little further on, a female Golden Oriole flew lazily across the field, and then back again, giving good views. We also had a good look at the local Jays which appeared much more open faced than the birds back in England.

After breakfast, we set out north for the Peninsola di Magnisi, which sticks out in the middle of the Golfo di Augusta, north of Siracusa. This small outcrop can be a magnet for migrants in the trees on the edge, but today all was quiet, apart from Garden Warbler which was giving a subsong from a Fig tree by the buildings. 2 Winchat were seen on the surrounding fence and an Ashy-headed Wagtail flew over calling. We walked up the track and across towards a barn near to the sea. Soon several Calandra Larks were being heard, their raspy flight call giving them away and with their flappy flight, black underwings and black throat patches, several males climbed into the bright blue sky to sing their very skylark-like song. Nearby, Clouded Yellow, Eastern Dappled White, Small Heath and Meadow Brown butterflies were on the wing alsong with several day-flying moths. We retraced our steps, and then took the track towards Thapsos, the Bronze Age settlement and necropolis.  We then returned to Priolo Gargallo to visit a bar for refreshments, before having our picnic by the sea, glad of the cooling breeze. Little Terns were fishing in the bay and a Common Sandpiper flew across rocking from side to side on characteristic flickering wing-beats.

In the afternoon we visited the Saline di Priolo, where we had good views of several Ferruginous Duck, a special species for the area. Speckled Wood butterflies were flying in the shady areas along with Meadow Brown and several superb Carpenter Bees. On the way back we saw an Egyptian Grasshopper which Stuart managed to catch and show to all present, at the same time John and Martin had a Purple Heron fly-over which to our frustration eluded us trying to find where it had landed.

On our way back to the Pozzo we called into the flooded field at Ciane where 2 Squacco Herons showed well and a flock of over 20 Wood Sandpipers flew overhead, giving their characteristic ‘chiff-if-if’ flight call. Nearby a Moorish Gecko posed on some electrical ducting at the stonemasons. We arrived back to the Pozzo in time for a cooling swim and once again enjoyed a meal consisting of local produce. After dinner we set out to track down one of the Scops Owls and after a while we obtained very good views of one perched in a Fan-palm. A Nightjar was also churring in the distance and was a great end to a great day.  The moth trap was once again set out under Martin’s supervision.

Day 5Saturday 12th May

Very hot and sunny

This morning, the moth trap held not one but two two fine specimens of Striped Hawk Moth, along with Bright Line Brown Eye, Spotted Sulphur, Spectacled and several species  of micro moth. A brief walk around the grounds produced two Golden Orioles and a female Red-backed Shrike as well as the omnipresent Fan-tailed and Sardinian Warblers; Bee-eaters were also noted flying over calling. After another breakfast in the sun, we headed south, to explore the lakes and coast of the south eastern tip of the island. Our first stop was at Pantano Longarini; as we scanned the lake, we saw Several Ferruginous Duck, 3 Black-necked Grebes in summer plumage, drake Garganey and a passge fly-through of waders including Greenshank, 8 Avocet, 30+ Little Stint and 2 Great White Egret in addition to numerous Greater Flamingos. The one that got away here though was an unseen flock of Bee-eaters containing a hard dry call which certainly wasn’t a European - could it have been Blue-cheeeked? We will never know.

Nearby at Pantano Cuba we hit the tern jackpot with all three marsh terns present including 6 dapper White-winged Black, 1 Black and 2 Whiskered along with a clumsy looking Purple Swamphen and a very close Purple Heron. A passage Spotted Redshank was heard calling overhead as were several Bee-eaters. Some striking insects provided interest with the large black and yellow wasp-like Scolia flavifrons and several glossy black Carpenter Bees visiting the wild flowers.

A leisurely lunch was enjoyed at Pantano Longarini whilst a Water Rail squealed from the vegetation and two Marsh Harriers sailed past at close range. At Longarini Beach we enjoyed ultra close up views of 2 Little Stints in the tidal pools and also 2 Slender-billed Gulls on the sea. Several of the group took advantage of the inviting blue sea and decided to cool their feet from the heat of the midday sun. Nearby Black-winged Stilts were nesting, a Kingfisher flashed past and a handsome male Ashy-headed Wagtail showed well.  

We next stopped at Portapalo Harbour where an adult Audouin’s Gull flew past close inshore, several Yellow-legged Gulls were loafing on the fishing boats and a single Scopoli’s Shearwater cruised past much further out. On our way back north we stopped at Pantano Morghella where there was another Audouin’s Gull, a very showy Pallid Swift and two new additions to our checklist in the form of a Black-headed Gull and a Turnstone. Our journey back to The Pozzo was enlivened somewhat by a nice Woodchat Shrike on roadside wires near Noto.

In the evening a Stone Curlew wailed in the darkness and a Scops Owl showed well. A shy Moorish Gecko also came out into the open momentarily after dinner.

Day 6Sunday 13th May

Hot and sunny but Cooler on Etna

Today our destination was Mount Etna, the active volcano that dominates the eastern side of Sicily. To make the most of the day we had an early breakfast and were on the road by 7.20. 

As we headed north up the autostrada, on the outskirts of Catania, we noted a White Stork on its nest, atop a pylon, and another was seen on the opposite side of the road. We left the motorway and started climbing through the towns on the lower slopes, busy with morning traffic. As we got clear of the conurbation, the landscape began to change, and we could see lava, some of which dated from the 2002/3 eruption. The road climbs through a series of hairpin bends to the Rifugio Sapienza, at 1900m. Just below this we stopped in a bare, rocky area, likely for Sicilian Rock Partridge, but there was no sign of this elusive species. However, Rock Sparrow and Northern Wheatear were seen feeding on the vegetation in between the bare rock, and a male Black Redstart was singing nearby. A kettle of raptors was picked up and it contained several Common Buzzards, a Marsh Harrier and to our surprise 2 ringtail harriers. Through the scope the dark secondaries, pale collar and dark neck boa of Pallid Harrier were easily noted as was the fact that these birds showed 4 fingered primaries. However these raptors soon gained height and were lost to view. As we approached the Rifugio the sides of the road were covered with a thick layer of volcanic ash from the recent eruptions. We continued to the Rifugio, noting the lower temperature and thinner air compared with sea level. There was a queue of about 100 people waiting for tickets, but soon we were in the Funivia, climbing gently to the Piccolo Rifugio at 2500m. From here, we transferred to the impressive 4-wheel drive buses, and bumped our way through enormous canyons of permanent snow and ice, striated with layers of ash and several of us had good views of a Lanner Falcon hanging in the breeze. The views up here were stark but stunning. We reached the destination at 2900m and got out into a bright and clear landscape where the air was thin but with little wind (unlike the previous week which had windchill of below zero). Gathering our thoughts at the sheer scale of Etna and the Rifugio buried by the 2001 irruption, we walked to the fissure which opened up in 2002/3, erupting over a 3 month period. Although emitting hot steam, it is now plugged by cold lava, and probably won’t erupt there again. The recent volcanic eruptions have been on the south east side, forming a new crater there. However, we could feel the warmth of the lava, and one only had to scrape down a few inches for the rock to be too hot to touch comfortably. The Etna guide informed us that the magma at present was at 1000 degrees c and one an irruption has  commenced how the lava takes 10-15 years to cool down. After we had noted several white butterflies and a Seven spot Ladybird, we took photos of the summit cone, the fissure and the amazing surroundings. We then returned to the Piccolo Rifugio for hot coffees and Panini’s, before returning to the buses. From the Cable car, we mused over what would happen here next and how the 12 year cycle meant that a serious irruption may not be that far off. All agreed that a visit to Etna was an awesome experience! 

We drove down the mountain a little way for our picnic, taking a side road and parking near the Observatory. Here we enjoyed our now customary picnic, and saw lots of Lava Beetles. This area was very peaceful, and alive with birds. Several of the Sicilian race of Coal Tit were seen, along with Cuckoo, Rock Bunting, Wren, Eastern Subalpine Warbler, several Black Redstarts and Woodlark, the latter delighting us with its musical song. Firecrest was also heard in the lower forest and eventually showed very well at close range along with Nuthatch and 2 Short-toed Treecreepers. Soon it was time to leave and we worked our way via a hectic Catania rush-hour to the Pozzo after a long but satisfying day.

That evening after another lovely meal, the Scops Owl in the grounds obliged in his favoured tree before we retired for the night.

Day 7Monday 14th May

Hot and sunny.

This was our final day, but with an evening flight, we were able to enjoy further outings. We woke to rain laden skies which after 6 days of scorching sunshine seemed somewhat  strange. Before breakfast, realising the potential for migrants, Stuart took some group members to the headland Capo Murro di Porco, which we had visited on our first day. The change in weather had produced a mini fall and we enjoyed at least 5 Woodchat Shrikes and 3 Whinchats in the short time we were present. 

After breakfast and time to pack and sort out, we headed for the Oasi Faunistica di Vendicari, a coastal and wetland reserve south of Siracusa. As we got out of the buses, we could hear Turtle Dove, and had superb views of one sitting in an overhanging Giant Reed in the car park. Blackcap and Cetti’s Warbler were heard and a Cleopatra butterfly was also noted. From the first hide, looking north, we saw Squacco Heron, Little Tern, Cormorant and Shelduck, as well as Black-winged Stilt, 3 Little Egrets, and a single Pochard. A few moments later Martin T picked up an adult Audouin’s Gull which showed well before flying around the corner and out of view. Leaving the hide, we saw a Penduline Tit’s nest suspended from a branch in a Poplar tree by the next hide. This had been noted the previous week, probably as an old nest. This week, however, a new nest was being constructed on a lower branch, and we were able to watch the male taking material from the old nest to incorporate into the new. Sitting on the wall by the second hide, we had excellent views and some good photos were achieved. From the hide, we also saw the Squacco Heron again, with two Black-winged Stilts and Reed Warbler also noted.

We then moved on, following the path to the sea. Reed Warblers and Cetti’s Warblers were calling loudly, but did not show themselves. We came across another Penduline Tit’s nest, swaying wildly in the wind, with the male still involved in the construction, and again had good views of this tiny bird. From the beach we could see the disused tuna fishery replete with Yellow-legged Gulls and Shelduck, and the tower built in the thirteenth century by Peter of Aragon. We walked south along the edge of the sand dunes, noting the activity of brown and cream spotted Tiger Beetles on the sandy path. We soon reached another hide, overlooking the Pantano Roveto. Here we saw ten Great White Egrets, 3 Grey Heron, six Little Egrets, two Spoonbill, 3 Grey Plover, Avocet, Curlew and a party of Ringed Plover and Little Stint. Spotted Flycatchers seemed to be on every other post and as we headed along the sandy track a Hoopoe flew up the path towards them and overhead. Further on, at the next screen viewpoint, we saw two Little Stint, on the edge of the pool.

Returning to our vehicle we reconvened for our picnic, eaten in the shade of Orange trees or the Giant Reeds, serenaded by the Turtle Doves around us, and joined by Cleopatra and Speckled Wood butterflies. Having tidied up, it was time to head north, but our journey home was broken by a last gelato in Cassibile. We then had to do our final packing, before heading for the airport, noting en route three White Stork’s nests, and the female incubating on the nearest one, while the male stood guard. At the airport, we bid a fond farewell to Sicily and checked in for our flight to London, and home.


Sample from Sicily: May 2012