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A Report from

Northern Italy, 16th-17th May 2006 ,


By Richard Bonser


With extremely cheap flights to Milan Bergamo airport, I decided to spend a couple of days with Mick Frosdick birding in Northern Italy on 16th and 17th May 2006. The main purpose of this trip was one for those with a rather acquired taste – namely Ashy-throated Parrotbill and Northern Bobwhite – but with two previous visits to the country this year, I realised that Italy as a birding destination is certainly underrated and decided to explore this beautiful country once again.


As has been the norm with all of my recent trips, I took advantage of cheap Ryanair flights, this time flying from Stansted to Milan Bergamo airport – we flew at 6.30am on 16th May and arrived back at Stansted in the early hours of 18th May (due to our return flight being delayed by a couple of hours). I hired a car through Hertz and on the night of 16th May we managed to find accommodation at the Hotel Sporting Trento without an advanced booking. Please be warned that the traffic in the Milan area was rather heavy during our visit and despite using toll roads (autostradas), we lost a fair bit of time whilst sitting in traffic.


The first port of call for any trip is usually the internet but, like my April 2006 trip to the Rome area, I was very disappointed by the severe lack of any decent trip reports. Some very useful information on Northern Bobwhite, Ashy-throated Parrotbill and Sacred Ibis can be found here but please note that the sites I saw Ashy-throated Parrotbill and Northern Bobwhite were not at exactly the same locations as advised on this website. Additionally, the recently published ‘A Birdwatcher’s Guide to Italy’ by Luciano Ruggieri and Igor Festari was very useful for this trip, in particular for our second day where we visited ‘site 26 – Paneveggio Park and Lagorai Mountains’ in order to observe several alpine specialities.

I am indebted to Graeme Joynt who provided me with information on both Northern Bobwhite and Ashy-throated Parrotbills just prior to my visit and without this the trip may not have been as successful as it was. Much of the detail in this report is replicated from Graeme’s information and, as such, I’d like to once again acknowledge his input and thank him for allowing me to publish this information below.


16th May 2006

After picking up our car from Milan Bergamo airport, we headed off west and around the north side of Milan, suffering heavy traffic in the process, and then headed north-west and out of the city on the A8 in the direction of Varese to Brabbia Marsh.

Brabbia Marsh, Lombardy – Ashy-throated Parrotbill site

Directions: driving north along the A8 from Milan towards Varese, take the last exit before Varese town signposted to Azzate and Lago di Varese. From this exit, follow signs to Bodio and after about 8km you will reach the village of Inarzo – turn left into the village centre and you will easily find the obvious car park opposite the visitor centre here (these directions are based on those previously published here). However, instead of getting out of your car here and following the trail to the first hide as suggested, stay in your car and turn left (the way you have just come) and take this road that runs north out of the village of Inarzo. Follow this main road until you see signs to Cassinetta and, just before you reach this town (only a few km), there is a large Whirpool Factory on the left (that is obviously signed from the main road). Turn left towards this factory and you will quickly approach the staff car on your left and the factory itself will be straight ahead – branch left through this car park and as the road bends round to the left you will notice a track with a barrier on the right. Park as near to this as possible and walk 400 yards down this track to a small ringing hut and veranda. From here, a grassy strip leads out onto the marsh and the scrub on either side and within the near vicinity of the ringing hut is the prime area for Parrotbills. Apparently one of the best times to locate Parrotbills is during the winter months when they form sizeable flocks at this site.

On our visit, I located two Ashy-throated Parrotbills in the low scrub about 50 yards from the ringing hut and to the left of the track. The birds were initially located by their scolding call and, in addition to the birds that we saw, there certainly appeared to be a couple of further birds calling in the scrub on both sides of the track. Please note that Vinous-throated Parrotbill also occurs at this site and, although rarer than Ashy-throated, this species needs to be ruled out whenever a Parrotbill is located. For those of you unfamiliar with either of these species, click here to view a comparison photograph (the Ashy-throated Parrotbill is on the right).

Even though our visit coincided with the early afternoon heat, a magnificent male Red-footed Falcon graced the skies of the marsh along with a Hobby and a couple of Black Kites. An adult Purple Heron flew over the marsh as did many Grey Herons and a Cormorant whilst passerine activity was dominated by those rather vocal Nightingales with Blackcap, Lesser Whitethroat, Spotted Flycatcher, ‘Italian’ Sparrow, Long-tailed Tit and Marsh Tit amongst the other species noted. A little bit of colour was added to the proceedings by a flyover European Bee-eater and both Green Woodpecker and Great Spotted Woodpecker were recorded in the adjacent woodland.

Feeling satisfied with our first bit of birding on this trip, we headed back to the car and back towards Milan, on our quest for our next introduced species! This drive was not without incident as I got rather frustrated with the Italian way of driving i.e. as close to your rear bumper as you can get, and decided to gesture to a couple of blokes in a 4x4. After a game of staring each other out, they obviously got frustrated by my lack of remorse and consequently wound down their window and through an umbrella in our direction! Now, at over 120kph, this was obviously not going to be the most accurate of aims and consequently they drove off whilst we had the last laugh at their pathetic antics. Road rage the Italian way I guess… oh and the San Siro was noted on our journey around Milan.

Boschi del Ticino, Piemonte – Northern Bobwhite site

Directions: from Milan take the P494 south-west towards the town of Vigevano. As you approach this town, you will go over a bridge over the River Ticino and then you will hit a series of roundabouts that skirt the southern edge of this town. At the 3rd roundabout, turn left on the road signed ‘Pavia 37’. A couple of kilometres down this road you will enter the small village of Sforzesca and in this village turn left on the road signed ‘Boschi del Ticino’. This paved road will meander adjacent to a channel across farmland and will terminate at a gate where you can park your car in a clearly marked ‘P’ area. Once parked, walk through the gate and after a couple of hundred yards you will come to an information board where the path forks – take the right hand fork and walk through the woodland for a few hundred yards until it opens out onto farmland on the left hand side. In this open area, we had at least 5 Northern Bobwhites calling and gained excellent views of 3 birds (a male and two females). May is apparently a favourable time to observe this species and, when Graeme Joynt visited this area in March 2003, he never saw or heard this species (though he did locate a pair in early May 2006 in this same area). Lame del Sesia NP is also a recommended site for this species and directions to this site can be found here.

Despite the heat, we managed to easily locate 3 Northern Bobwhites as they scurried around on the edges of the woodland adjacent to the arable land as described above. Nightingales were extremely common in this area, as were Sylvia warblers with Garden Warbler, Blackcap and Whitethroat noted, whilst a Short-toed Treecreeper was heard in the wooded area and at least one Tree Sparrow was located in the vegetation adjacent to where we had parked our car.

With time getting on a little and knowing that if we wanted to bird an alpine region the next day we would have a rather long drive to do in the evening, we headed west from this site in the direction of the town of Vercelli and to the village of Oldenico.

Oldenico, Piemonte – Sacred Ibis site

Directions: this site is easily reached from the A4 Milan to Torino road by taking the Greggio junction and following this road (the P594) through this aforementioned place and into the small village of Oldenico. In this village, you need to turn east off the main to the cemetery (signed ‘cimiterio’) and park in the cemetery car park – from here walk to the river bank and observe the large numbers of herons and egrets that frequent the area. On our visit, the ibises and indeed many of the herons and egrets seemed to be using this area as a flyway to and from the heronry (located on the river itself to the south-east of the cemetery car park) and hence few birds were actually present on the rice fields. Further information on Sacred Ibises and their status in Italy can be found here.

Walking along the bank of the rice fields in the direction of the river, a flock of 5 Sacred Ibises flew over us heading south. On the rice fields themselves a couple of adult Night Herons performed tremendously in the evening light whilst over 50 of this species were seen flying over in the direction of the heronry. A couple of summer plumaged Cattle Egrets put in a welcome appearance amongst the many Little Egrets and Grey Herons flying over whilst a Common Tern hawked over the river. Hirundines and Common Swifts were abundant, making use of the ample supply of flies and mosquitoes (the latter unfortunately taking a liking to us) whilst passerines included several Nightingales, many ‘Italian’ Sparrows and a couple of Lesser Whitethroats. As we returned to our car and headed north out of Oldenico village, a further 3 Sacred Ibises were seen on the rice fields immediately north of the village and adjacent to the road.

After a relatively brisk drive, although once again getting slightly held up around Milan on the A4, we arrived in Trento at about 11pm where we quickly found some accommodation. Bleary eyed and looking rather dishevelled, we soon woke up with the rather welcome sight of a load of young Italian talent drinking at the bar and waiting outside our abode for the night. Unfortunately too tired for any mingling, it was time to get some well deserved rest.

17th May 2006

Having a rather unprofessional lie in, we rose at 6am and headed out of Trento on the autostrada for about 40km to the village of Egna where we took the S48 and then the S50 into the Alps. The journey proved rather uneventful bird wise, although a Hoopoe at Ora was most welcome, but the landscape we found ourselves in was truly outstanding in terms of scenery. Having used ‘A Birdwatcher’s Guide to Italy’ to find a suitable site where good alpine birding could be had, we were not to be disappointed by our decision of a visit to ‘site 26’ – the Paneveggio Park and Lagorai Mountains. I’d used this site guide for my previous trips to Italy this year and, unlike many other site guides, it really is a worthwhile investment giving the reader detailed site information as well as subspecific identification pointers to endemic or near endemic Italian taxon.

Bellamonte – immediately east of the village on the S50 and the area around the ski car park at Lusia (signed from the S50)

As we were driving through this area, our attention was immediately drawn to a large bird perched atop of a pine tree – before actually lifting our binoculars, we knew exactly what it would be but unfortunately the bird flew before we could gain any decent views. Moments later, however, we were entertained by a couple of cracking Spotted Nutcrackers (of the nominate race) flying around the pines adjacent to the main road – having located our target bird so early in the day, we both felt pretty contented. A handful of Tree Pipits sang from this area, regularly ‘parachuting’, whilst a rather familiar call from British winters seemed rather out of place up here – a Fieldfare, and I heard this species singing for the first time here. Heading up the road to the ski car park at Lusia, a couple of Crag Martins flew around the buildings in amongst numerous House Martins whilst a Black Redstart could be seen singing from the vegetation adjacent to the car park. A further Spotted Nutcracker was seen in flight over the pines here, and a Nuthatch called from nearby.

Returning to the ski car park early afternoon, much the same array of species seen in the morning were still present but with two notable additions – a pair of Golden Eagles showing well as they hung in the skies above the woodland to the east of the car park and a superb male Red-backed Shrike that performed admirably on the isolated bushes in the car park.

Passo Rolle – east of Paneveggio and north of San Martino di Castrozza (the highest point of the S50 at 1,970m above sea level)

A few kilometres to the east of Bellamonte, and after going through the small village of Paneveggio, you’ll go through a series of hairpin bends and ascend to the summit of the S50 at Passo Rolle. Just before you reach the summit itself, there’s a track down to a ski lift to the right of the road (and a car park on the left) and walking down this track for a short way we located a couple of male Redstarts, a couple of Black Redstarts as well as Tree Pipit, Mistle Thrush and Song Thrush but any intentions to walk through the forest paths were thwarted by the amount of snow still lying on the ground. Returning to the car park, a couple of Kestrels were located and, distantly over the crags, a handful of Alpine Choughs could be seen.

A few hundred metres further on and just to the other side of the summit, scraps of meat, beetroot and pasta that had been chucked out in the small settlement allowed crippling views of several Alpine Choughs down to a couple of yards whilst slightly more distantly over 50 of this species were present on an adjacent rocky outcrop. A cracking male Ring Ouzel (race alpestris) sung from a tree in the small valley here whilst a couple of Crag Martins were also present in the area.

Continuing to head along the S50, we terminated our journey in the rather plush resort of San Martino di Castrozza where we stocked up on supplies and headed back over the Passo Rolle and back to the village of Bellamonte.

Bellamonte village – pinewoods adjacent to the campsite

Having returned to the village of Bellamonte, we parked by the entrance to the campsite (near a small children’s play area) and headed into the woodland on the marked trails. A couple of Cuckoos called from the near vicinity, and a Carrion Crow strolled around the open area in the village itself, whilst the pinewoods themselves produced a couple of Spotted Nutcrackers, a male Redstart and a handful of Crested Tits.

With time getting on and our view that traffic on the way back to the airport could be heavy, we headed off early afternoon and decided to save a bit of cash on toll roads by going back the ‘scenic route’ around Lake Garda. This route was fairly devoid of birdlife with only a couple of Western Yellow-legged Gulls and Mallards being seen on the lake, whilst travelling with the window down Serins sung at frequent intervals.

As is usual with my timekeeping, we had been a little bit overcautious with the amount of time anticipated to get back to the airport and, as such, we decided to kill some time by stopping near Brescia in an area of arable land close to the village of Calvagese. Serins once again were a common sound, whilst other birds noted here amongst the abundant ‘Italian’ Sparrows and Nightingales included a Grey Wagtail, a couple of Turtle Doves and a Cetti’s Warbler.

Arriving back at the airport with over a couple of hours to spare before our late evening flight, we were dismayed but not surprised that we were delayed by just under a couple of hours. As it was we got back to Stansted at 12.30am and I was safely back in my London home by 2am pretty contented with the results of this quickly planned trip.

Species list – Northern Italy 16th – 17th May 2006

Great Cormorant, Phalacrocorax carbo

Night Heron, Nycticorax nycticorax

Cattle Egret, Bubulcus ibis

Little Egret, Egretta garzetta

Grey Heron, Ardea cinerea

Purple Heron, Ardea purpurea

Sacred Ibis, Threskiornis aethiopicus

Mallard, Anas platyrhynchos

Black Kite, Milvus migrans

Golden Eagle, Aquila chrysaetos

Kestrel, Falco tinnunculus

Red-footed Falcon, Falco vespertinus

Hobby, Falco subbuteo

Pheasant, Phasianus colchicus

Northern Bobwhite, Colinus virginianus

Moorhen, Gallinula chloropus

Coot, Fulica atra

Lapwing, Vanellus vanellus

Yellow-legged Gull, Larus michahellis

Common Tern, Sterna hirundo

Woodpigeon, Columba palumbus

Collared Dove, Streptopelia decaocto

Turtle Dove, Streptopelia turtur

Cuckoo, Cuculus canorus

Swift, Apus apus

European Bee-eater, Merops apiaster

Hoopoe, Upupa epops

Great Spotted Woodpecker, Dendrocopos major italiae

Skylark, Alauda arvensis

Crag Martin, Ptyonoprogne rupestris

Barn Swallow, Hirundo rustica

House Martin, Delichon urbicum

Tree Pipit, Anthus trivialis

Yellow Wagtail, Motacilla flava ssp.

Grey Wagtail, Motacilla cinerea

White Wagtail, Motacilla alba

Wren, Troglodytes troglodytes

Nightingale, Luscinia megarhynchos

Black Redstart, Phoenicurus ochruros

Common Redstart, Phoenicurus phoenicurus

Ring Ouzel, Turdus torquatus

Blackbird, Turdus merula

Fieldfare, Turdus pilaris

Song Thrush, Turdus philomelos

Mistle Thrush, Turdus viscivorus

Cetti's Warbler, Cettia cetti

Lesser Whitethroat, Sylvia curruca

Common Whitethroat, Sylvia communis

Garden Warbler, Sylvia borin

Blackcap, Sylvia atricapilla

Common Chiffchaff, Phylloscopus collybita

Willow Warbler, Phylloscopus trochilus

Goldcrest, Regulus regulus

Spotted Flycatcher, Muscicapa striata

Ashy-throated Parrotbill, Paradoxornis alphonsianus

Long-tailed Tit, Aegithalos caudatus italiae

Marsh Tit, Parus palustris

Crested Tit, Parus cristatus

Coal Tit, Parus ater

Blue Tit, Parus caeruleus

Great Tit, Parus major

Nuthatch, Sitta europaea cisalpina

Short-toed Treecreeper, Certhia brachydactyla

Red-backed Shrike, Lanius collurio

Eurasian Jay, Garrulus glandarius albipectus

Magpie, Pica pica

Spotted Nutcracker, Nucifraga caryocatactes

Alpine Chough, Pyrrhocorax graculus

Carrion Crow, Corvus corone

Hooded Crow, Corvus cornix

Common Starling, Sturnus vulgaris

House Sparrow, Passer domesticus

Tree Sparrow, Passer montanus

Chaffinch, Fringilla coelebs

Serin, Serinus serinus

Goldfinch, Carduelis carduelis


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