Sicily: 25 April to 01 May 2013

We arrived at Catania Airport mid evening after the flight from the UK. We were greeted  with pleasantly warm temperatures, even though it was already mid-evening it already felt a great deal warmer than the weather we’d said goodbye to earlier that day. We headed off into the warm mediterranean night to travel south-east for about an hour and reach our base for the week, the Pozzo di Mazza, a converted winery out in the rural countryside surrounded by Lemon groves. On arrival at the Pozzo a Scops Owl sang in the warm night, reminding us that we were now in the Mediterranean. Having settled into our rooms, we had a light supper of cheese and ham baguettes and local wine. Stuart then outlined the plans for the week. We then retired to bed full of expectation about what we might see in the coming days.

Day 2       Friday 26th April

Hot and sunny with rain late afternoon

After a leisurely breakfast in the courtyard we explored the grounds of the Pozzo. In the fields opposite the car park 2 Woodchat Shrikes perched on the Orange trees whilst several Crested Larks sang overhead. Serins, Fan-tailed Warblers and Tree Sparrows gave good views, Sardinian Warblers chattered and a female Marsh Harrier drifted past. 

After a visit to the supermarket to get the picnic lunch we drove the short distance to the nearby headland of Capo Murro di Porco, and set out to walk to the lighthouse. There were lots of migrants here with at least 5 Woodchat Shrikes and a few Whinchats seen from the bus. Parking near the lighthouse we set out to explore the headland. 

We hadn’t been going long when Dave heard a Richard’s Pipit which then flew up onto a wire for us all to admire through the ‘scopes. This primarily Siberian vagrant has a small wintering population in Italy so this one was most likely a straggler passing through as it worked its way north. As we watched the Richard’s Pipit fly off giving it’s ‘shreeep’ call we glimpsed 2 low-flying raptors in the distance, switching to the scopes we were pleasantly surprised to see that both were female Montagu’s Harriers showing nicely their narrow wings due to the 4 fingered primary tips (as opposed to Hen Harrier’s 5). As we watched them a 3rd narrow-winged ringtail harrier joined them; this bird was much darker with wholly dark secondaries and a pale collar bordered by a dark neck boa, definitely a female or immature Pallid Harrier then, a real added bonus! 

As we headed back to the vehicles we enjoyed a flock of Bee-eaters calling and circling overhead, several Nine-spotted Moths hovered amongst the bright yellow Spanish Oyster Plants with both Meadow Brown and Brown Argus Butterflies.

With the weather now warming up nicely we headed off to Pepe’s Bar in Isola for some cold drinks and to set out the first of the week’s picnic lunches. Whilst lunch was being prepared the buoys offshore provided resting places for 4 Sandwich Terns and several Little Terns. With lunch ready we all tucked into some wonderful local meat, cheese and fresh fruit and vegetables, all accompanied by locally sourced red and white wines of course.

After several of the group had enjoyed an ice cream at Pepe’s we headed off to the nearby Saline di Siracusa. Here we walked along the track overlooking the reedbeds. Many Coot were seen on the pools, while further along a flurry of activity produced several wader species including Kentish Plover, Turnstone, 3 Common Sandpiper and both Great White and Cattle Egret. Nearby a flock of 25 Greater Flamingos provided a splash of colour. In the scrub and Tamarisk bushes several Pied and Spotted Flycatchers were seen and at least 3 Woodchat Shrikes were perched on bushes, possibly indicating a recent arrival  of migrants. Offshore up to 3 Little Terns gave great views with several close fly-pasts.

Our next stop was a flooded meadow behind the Saline di Ciane. However, on arrival we disccovered that it was pretty dry. Scanning from the gate we were able to witness hundreds if not thousands of hirundines working their way along the river valley ahead of the impending rain. Also here at least 10 Wood Sandpipers flew over giving their characteristic ‘chif-if-if’ call. As the rain set in we returned to the Pozzo and reflected on what had been an interesting bird-filled and very successful first day.

Day 3Saturday 27th April

Fine, hot and sunny

After breakfast we headed out to the Cavagrande del Cassibile, a spectacular limestone gorge, with the river Cassibile flowing through it. On our way there we stopped at the Avola Veccia scenic viewpoint which proved very productive. Firstly a male Blue Rock Thrush sang and flew across the hillside, followed shortly afterwards by male Subalpine and Sardinian Warblers. 

Whilst listening for Bee-eaters overhead a Rock Sparrow called nearby and we soon had excellent ‘scope views of two perched on a wall, showing theirbroad white supercilia and obvious white tail spots. On arrival at the gorge we enjoyed a Lanner Falcon circling overhead, with Common Buzzard, Montagu’s Harrier and Raven also soaring over the car park. As we set out to walk the farm track a Cirl Bunting sang from a nearby conifer and at least two Subalpine Warblers sang from roadside vegetation. After a relaxed walk which had produced Nightingale, Wood Warbler, several Whinchat and Spotted Flycatcher we reached the meadow. Our visit here is normally productive with the target species being Spectacled Warbler but today we were in for a surprise... The Spectacled Warblers showed well (as expected) but a glimpse of a striking black and white bird in a low bush produced a massive bonus in the form of a stunning male Collared Flycatcher, no doubt on his way to Eastern Europe - only on view for a couple of minutes but what a bird! The return walk produced several butterflies including Scarce Swallowtail, Common Blue and Southern Speckled Wood.

In the afternoon we visited the Archaeological Park in Syracuse, spending time at the very impressive Greek and Roman Theatres and the ‘Ear of Dionysius’. We concluded our time here with a cooling ice-cream stop and headed back to the vehicles where we had brief views of migrant Redstart, Pied Flycatcher and Nightingale along a hedgerow.

Heading to dinner at 8pm a Scops Owl called outside and all was very peaceful, just a warm still Mediterranean night, or so we thought!

At about 8.30pm, our waiter Chan ran into the dining room and announced to all that Mount Etna was erupting, NOW!!! We all headed up onto the roof and gradually over the course of a few minutes the eruption itself and the lava flow to its right were clearly visible in the night sky - and we were over 70km from the volcano itself. Who could have predicted that we would have the very rare opportunity to witness an eruption, and at a safe distance - we all felt incredibly privileged to have witnessed such a spectacular event. I managed some distant but nonetheless unmistakable record shots, one of which is on the cover of this report - back to the dining tables we were all buzzing with excitement about what we’d witnessed; it was a truly unforgettable experience for us all.

Day 4                                                                                   Sunday 28th April

Warm and sunny

Prior to breakfast we checked out the birds in and around the Pozzo. As well as the omnipresent Fan-tailed Warblers, Serins and Sardinian Warblers, Whitethroat and 2 Wood Warblers were found, along with several Bee-eaters. A little further on, we were treated to stunning views of a male Golden Oriole perched atop an Orange tree, giving excellent telescope views. On our way back a female Montagu’s Harrier quartered the roadside fields and a Woodchat was perched sentinel-like on a fence.

After breakfast, we headed north to the Peninsola di Magnisi, jutting out into the middle of the Golfo di Augusta, north of Siracusa. On arrival a Tree Pipit flew over calling and several Corn Buntings were jangling nearby. 

As we walked along the track we enjoyed great views of several butterflies including Dappled and Bath Whites, Small Copper and numerous Clouded Yellows. 

The shrill call of a Stone Curlew was heard way out in front of us and we soon picked up two Stone Curlews flying in the distance. This site is also home to several pairs of Calandra Larks and after a while we were treated to display flights by at least 3 birds, their raspy flight call giving them away and with their large size, flappy flight, broad triangular wings and jet black underwing all readily apparent. As we headed towards Priolo Gargallo to visit a bar for refreshments we saw a flock of 20+ Greater Flamingo heading across the bay where several Little Terns were fishing.

After enjoying our picnic lunch by the sea we visited the Saline di Priolo, where we had wonderful views of Purple Gallinule, a special species for the area. The islands at Priolo were alive with migrant shorebirds and over the course of about an hour we saw Kentish Plover, Spotted Redshank, Ruff, Little Stint, Greenshank and Wood Sandpiper. A beautifully delicate drake Garganey also posed for us as did a Ferruginous Duck. Southern Speckled Wood butterflies were flying in the shady areas along with Meadow Brown.. Several members of the group saw a Green Lizard as it crept along the track and an Egyptian Grasshopper gave a particularly close view for some! In the flower meadows the large black and yellow wasp-like Scolia flavifrons and several glossy black Carpenter Bees visiting were busy visiting the wild flowers.

We headed back to the Pozzo where a Scops Owl tuned up at 9pm but Mount Etna remained quiet.

Day 5Monday 29th April

Warm and sunny

Heading down to the south-eastern tip of Sicily today was all about wetlands, lakes and the coast. Our first stop was at Morghella where a group of three summer-plumage Curlew Sandpipers showed well with Ruff, Kentish Plover and a couple of flyover Bee-eaters. Moving on to Pantano Cuba we saw at least six Ferruginous Ducks accompanied by a couple of Pochard. A Melodious Warbler sang from bushes by the track but refused to show itself and a Great Reed Warbler was heard some distance away. Lunch was taken at Pantano Longarini but keeping food on the plate proved challenging due to the gusty wind but a Swallowtail caterpillar was far more obliging allowing a close approach and photographs. Nearby Longarini Beach provided several surprises as in the space of a few minutes we enjoyed fly-by Osprey and Collared Pratincole, these were completely outshone a few moments later by a summer plumage Gull-billed Tern in the sheltered shallow bay.

Our final stop was Portapalo Harbour where three Audouin’s Gulls gave great views and a Northern Gannet cruised past offshore. 

Also here several Yellow-legged Gulls were loafing on the fishing boats and a pair of Kentish Plovers tried to remain out of sight as we walked along the sandy beach.

In the evening a Scops Owl called again but refused to show itself, meanwhile a walk around the grounds produced a Moorish Gecko hiding next to the guttering. After a few minutes and some detailed directions, most group members were able to see it as it blended in perfectly with the edge of the building - only its beady eye giving its presence away.

Day 6Tuesday 30th April

Bright and sunny but much cooler on Etna

Having formed our special bond with Etna a few nights previously we were all eager to get there today and see it up close (well, not too close). An early breakfast ensured we would be ready and waiting at the Rifugio Sapienza and determined to beat the queue for tickets. 

Firstly however, as we headed north up the autostrada, on the outskirts of Catania, we noted 4 White Stork nests on roadside pylons (last year there was only one!), We left the motorway and started climbing through the towns on the lower slopes, busy with morning traffic. As we got clear of Nicolosi, 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. 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 150 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 - looking around the bus I could see that everyone was spellbound by the sheer scale of ash, snow, lava and just about everything else that combines the truly amazing scale of Etna!

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. Dave took Some of the group to the top of the crater overlooking 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. The recent eruptions, like ours a few nights ago have been on the south east side in a valley known as Valle de Bove, forming a new crater there. Thanks to Dave and his shovel we could feel the warmth of the lava, this was only scraping down a few inches for the rock to be too hot to touch comfortably. We then returned to the Piccolo Rifugio for hot coffees, Pizza, Panini and cake, before returning to the buses. Just as with previous groups all agreed that a visit to Etna was an awesome experience! 

We drove down the mountain and birded the lower slopes, this produced both Northern and Eastern Black-eared Wheatear, Black Redstart and Lanner. 

Taking a side road and parking near an area of coniferous forest we enjoyed great views of Sicilian Coal Tit, Short-toed Treecreeper and Black Redstart, along with Tawny Pipit, Rock Bunting, Whinchat, Subalpine Warbler, and 2 yodelling Woodlarks, the latter delighting us with its musical song. We also had rather surprisingly our only Robin and Chaffinch of the tour here in the dense coniferous lower slopes of Etna. Soon we had to tear ourselves away however and headed back to the Pozzo after a long but satisfying day.

That evening after another lovely meal, the Scops Owl in the grounds called but remained hidden.

Day 7Wednesday 1st May

Hot and sunny.

Well, our final day had come, but with an evening flight, we were able to enjoy one last  new site before heading to the airport. 

After breakfast we headed to Vendicari, a delightful coastal and wetland reserve south of Siracusa. On arrival, we could hear Turtle Dove, Blackcap, Sardinian and Cetti’s Warbler From the first hide, looking north we saw 3 Grey Plover, 2 Curlew Sandpiper, 5 Spoonbill, Ringed Plover, Common Sandpiper and Little Tern. 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 on our visit last May. Sitting on the wall by the second hide, good views were obtained as the male busily headed back and forth. 

We then moved on, following the path to the sea. Reed Warblers and Cetti’s Warblers were calling loudly, but did not show themselves, a Marsh Warbler also sang from cover. 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. Nearby 2 Stone Curlews were seen briefly on the beach before flying off. 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 saw Great White Egret, several Little Egrets and 5 Sanderling coming into summer plumage.

Returning to our vehicle we reconvened for our final picnic, eaten in the shade of Orange trees for the very last time. We then had to head back to the Pozzo, do our final packing before heading for the airport, noting en route the increasing numbers of White Stork’s nests. At the airport, the group bid a fond farewell to Sicily and checked in for their flight to London, and home.


Sample from Sicily: 25 April to 01 May 2013