Italy, Slovenia, and Greece (May 1999)

I had business in Italy and Greece during May 5-19. The trip involved stops in La Spezia (which is on the west coast of Italy coast between Genoa and Pisa), Trieste (which is at the top of the Adriatic Sea), and Heraklion (which is on the north coast of Crete). I had time for birding early in the morning, late in the afternoon, and on weekends. My expectations were not very high based on previous visits to La Spezia and Heraklion, but I was pleasantly surprised and saw a total of 137 species. Since I had a difficult time finding detailed information on birding in Italy and Crete, this report provides some information on the places that I visited. I obtained information on Crete from John Gooders’ book on “Where to Watch Birds in Britain and Europe.”

On the drive from Milan to La Spezia, I made a few brief stops and saw Little Egret, Yellow Wagtail, Chiffchaff, and a singing Nightingale. On the grounds of the Doria Hotel in Lerici, I saw Blackcap, Wood Warbler, Blackbird, Jackdaw, and Serin. Late in the afternoon on May 6, Ed McDonald took me up to Campo Cecina above Fosdinovo in the mountains. We heard a Cuckoo and saw a large raptor that was too distant to identify in the mist. In the hills above Campo Cecina, we saw Whinchats and heard several Tawny Owls.

On May 7, I did some birding near Pisa and Lucca. I first visited a large wooded area just north of Camp Darby on the road to Tirennia. This site contains lots of trails through good habitat, but most of the birds skulk in the dense bushes. I heard lots of birds but didn’t see much until I entered an open field to the west of the woods, where I saw many Bee-eaters (one of them being chased by a bee), a Montagu’s Harrier, Turtle Doves, a Redstart, and Whinchats. I next made a brief stop at the mouth of a river that is just north of Livorno, where I saw Ringed Plover and Sanderling. I stopped by a lake next to an on-ramp to the autostrade, where I saw Great-crested Grebe, Coot, Hoopoe, and two mystery birds. One of them was a grey "falcon" that swooped into a tree. I couldn’t match it up with any falcon in the field guide. I later realized that it was a Cuckoo, which has apparently evolved to mimic a falcon to scare birds away from their nests. The other mystery bird was a tiny one that tirelessly skylarked while repeatedly giving a single note song. I didn’t figure out that it was a Fan-tailed Warbler until I got back home and listened to tapes. My next stop was a wooded area south of Torre di Lago. Since it was getting late, I only made a brief stop and didn’t see much. My final stop of the day was at the Oasis at Lago Massacciucola. I had unsuccessfully tried to find this place on a previous visit. I did some asking around in Torre di Lago and found out that it is on the east side of the lake near Lucca. Although it was late in the afternoon when I arrived, I saw Reed Warbler, Great Reed Warbler, Squacco Heron, Cormorant, Marsh Harrier, and a very large, all-dark raptor that was harassed by a Hooded Crow.

On May 8, Ed McDonald took me on a hike in the mountains above Versilia to Rifugio del Freo. In the mountains, I saw an Alpine Chough but not much else. Late that afternoon, I saw a Whitethroat at Ed’s house in Lerici. On May 9, I made a brief stop along a river that runs to the west of the autostrade near La Spezia and saw a Melodious Warbler. I then drove to Trieste and saw a Kestrel, a Black Kite, and some Pheasants along the way.

I had a very busy schedule on May 10 and didn’t get to do any birding. On May 11, I tried to locate a birding hotspot known as Val Rosandra. Following directions from one of the hotel employees, I proceeded to the area between San Dorligo della Valle and Caresana. I could tell that this wasn’t the right place, but it contained some nice birds, including Red-backed Shrike, Cirl Bunting, and Corn Bunting. The areas around the large white tanks (which are the dominant landmark in the valley) were the best. I then proceeded to Isolla della Cona, which is a fabulous marsh located near the mouth of the Isonzo River. It is reached by taking the road from Monfalcone to Grado. Turn left onto a gravel road just before the river. Ignore the small roads that fork off to the right. Go to the right when you come to a large fork. After about a kilometer, you will arrive at the parking lot for the reserve, where the highlights were Little Grebe, Little Bittern, Purple Heron, Spoonbill, Greylag Goose, Garganey, Ferruginous Duck, Lapwing, Black-winged Stilt, Curlew, Wood Sandpiper, Yellow-legged Gull, Black-headed Gull, Black Tern, White-winged Black Tern, and Cetti’s Warbler. I’m sure I missed many other birds since I didn’t have a scope. On the way back toward Monfalcone, I took the first right turn (which goes along a canal) and saw Moorhen and Golden Oriole.

I bought a map and located Val Rosandra. However, I still had a hard time finding the place the next day. On the map, it appears to be right next to Bagnolli della Rosandra, where I saw a Black Redstart. I was becoming frustrated as I wasted precious time looking for the place. I drove up to Basovizza, which is mentioned in the trip report cited above just before a stop at Val Rosandra. I checked out some grassy fields just outside of town, which seemed interesting but were obviously not the right place. I drove into town and saw a sign for Val Rosandra. It is hard to describe how to get there, but I will do my best. There is a small shop in town that sells ice cream a pastries. It is just down the street from a small monument. Drive from the monument toward the shop and take a left onto a small street near the shop. Go straight and you will come to brown signs for Val Rosandra. Along this road, you will pass another monument. This area is good for buntings and other birds. After stopping there, keep going until you come to a small chapel. Park there and take the trail up the hill behind the chapel for about a kilometer. The highlights were Rock Bunting, Woodlark (skylarking), Tawny Pipit, Mistle Thrush, and a rufous phase Cuckoo. The best birds were located in a large meadow with an electric fence. I then drove to Cerknisko Jezero (a lake) in Slovenia. I was a bit apprehensive about this side-trip with the current political situation, but it turned out to be one of the main highlights of the trip. The countryside is beautiful and the people are very nice. I drove to the east side of the lake, where there is a small causeway. The highlights were Garganey, Ferruginous Duck, Corncrake (lots of them calling), Common Sandpiper, Fieldfare, "Blue-headed" Wagtail, Sedge Warbler, Reed Bunting, Yellowhammer, and Cirl Bunting.

On May 13, I set off for Cason di Lanza in the Alps north of Udine. I found the roads blocked with snow about three kilometers from my destination. After trudging the rest of the way on foot, I saw Grey Wagtail, Ring Ouzel, Goldcrest, Redpoll, and Dunnock. I also saw a mystery bird that was grey and had no distinctive field marks. At first, I saw it from a distance and thought it might be a Dunnock. But then I got a closer look and knew that wasn’t it. As I studied it, I kept hearing a shuffling in the brush. Was I being stalked? I then realized it was the bird making the noise. The closest thing I’ve heard to it is the weird rustling sound of the Great-tailed Grackle. I finally got a good look at the bird and noticed it was a bit thrush-like and had a rusty tail. After flipping through the field guide, I realized it was a Black Redstart in immature plumage. On the way back to Trieste, I made another stop at Isola della Cona, where I spotted a very interesting bird that appeared to be a shorebird but flew like a tern. Oh how I wished I had a scope. Poof! Ignazio Zanutto suddenly appeared with a scope. I pointed out the interesting bird, which turned out to be a Collared Pratincole. As we were watching it, a Red-footed Falcon flew in and put on quite a show. Ignazio then showed me all the birds I had missed on my previous visit, including Curlew Sandpiper, Greenshank, Ruff, Little Stint, and Temminck’s Stint. I also saw Great White Egret, Pochard, and Little Gull. Although the day got off to a slow start, I finished with 68 species. I made three brief stops during my last day in Trieste. I first visited the Rilke Trail to see Blue Rock Thrush. This site is located off the road between Trieste and Monfalcone. Take the exit marked Mare Sistiana and park in the small lot. The trail goes off to the right. I ended the day at Val Rosandra. I walked up the hill but had to return to my car when a storm hit. After the storm, lots of birds were singing, including a Yellowhammer. I flushed a Green Woodpecker that was feeding on the ground. The bright yellow on its back was stunning. After a lot of searching the meadow, I spotted a bird on top of a small tree that appeared to be an Ortolan Bunting. However, it disappeared before I was able to get a definitive look. I continued to hear its soft call, but the sun started to disappear behind the hills. Just after giving up on it, I flushed an Ortolan that cooperatively perched nearby. I then waited around until dark, which seemed like a crazy thing to do in a location with electric fence. I was not disappointed. A Nightjar appeared and put on an amazing show.

I traveled to Crete on May 15. At the Athens airport, I saw Alpine Swift and watched House Martins at their interesting nests. Due to a blunder on my part, the trip took 22 hours. I left Trieste at 2 am to drive to Milan. I went to Linate airport, which was until recently the site for inter-European flights. I didn’t realize there had been changes and that my flight was out of Malpensa airport, which is an hour away. I missed my flight and ended up getting into Heraklion after midnight. I called ahead from Athens and made arrangements to pick up my car late. It was very nice of the people from Budget to accommodate me. Otherwise, I would have missed out on the chance of a full day of birding the next day. On May 16, I visited the Lasithi Plateau. I got a bit of a late start due to my late arrival the previous night. The highlights of the day were Crag Martin, Griffon Vulture, Eleonora’s Falcon, Semi-collared Flycatcher, Northern Wheatear, Crested Lark, Sardinian Warbler, Stonechat, Blue Rock Thrush, and Corn Bunting. I saw Eleonora’s Falcons every day, sometimes in flocks that were feeding on flying insects, which were evidently plentiful since birds such as Chaffinch and Spanish Sparrow were flycatching. I was very busy on May 17, but saw a Red-rumped Swallow during a coffee break at the workshop I was attending. On May 18, I visited the top of the Samaria Gorge, where I saw Lesser Kestrel, Rock Partridge, Citril Finch, Linnet, Corn Bunting, and Cirl Bunting. On the afternoon of May 19, I drove around Mt. Ida, where I got a better look at a Lesser Kestrel and saw a Lesser Whitethroat. Before my flight on May 20, I took a short drive and saw a Black-eared Wheatear. I hope to make it back to Crete some day since I missed Lammergeier, Ruppel’s Warbler, and Black-headed Bunting.

Little Grebe, Great-crested Grebe, Cormorant, Little Bittern, Grey Heron, Purple Heron, Little Egret, Great White Egret, Squacco Heron, Spoonbill, Mute Swan, Greylag Goose, Mallard, Shoveler, Garganey, Ferruginous Duck, Pochard, Griffon Vulture, Marsh Harrier, Montagu’s Harrier, Black Kite, Buzzard, Golden Eagle, Kestrel, Lesser Kestrel, Eleonora’s Falcon, Red-footed Falcon, Pheasant, Rock Partridge, Corncrake, Coot, Moorhen, Ringed Plover, Collared Pratincole, Lapwing, Turnstone, Black-winged Stilt, Curlew, Curlew Sandpiper, Greenshank, Wood Sandpiper, Ruff, Common Sandpiper, Sanderling, Little Stint, Temminck’s Stint, Yellow-legged Gull, Common Gull, Little Gull, Black-headed Gull, Gull-billed Tern, Little Tern, Black Tern, White-winged Black Tern, Woodpigeon, Rock Dove, Turtle Dove, Collared Dove, Tawny Owl, Hoopoe, Bee-eater, Kingfisher, Cuckoo, Nightjar, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Green Woodpecker, Woodlark, Crested Lark, Swift, Alpine Swift, House Martin, Swallow Red-rumped Swallow, Crag Martin, Tawny Pipit, Yellow Wagtail, Pied Wagtail, Grey Wagtail, Northern Wheatear, Black-eared Wheatear, Robin, Stonechat, Whinchat, Nightingale, Black Redstart, Redstart, Blue Rock Thrush, Blackbird, Ring Ouzel, Fieldfare, Mistle Thrush, Reed Warbler, Great Reed Warbler, Cetti’s Warbler, Sedge Warbler, Fan-tailed Warbler, Blackcap, Sardinian Warbler, Whitethroat, Lesser Whitethroat, Chiffchaff, Wood Warbler, Melodious Warbler, Goldcrest, Firecrest, Wren, Nuthatch, Semi-collared Flycatcher, Spotted Flycatcher, Red-backed Shrike, Woodchat Shrike, Great Tit, Coal Tit, Blue Tit, Long-tailed Tit, Magpie, Jay, Alpine Chough, Golden Oriole, Starling, Hooded Crow, Jackdaw, Raven, Chaffinch, Goldfinch, Greenfinch, Citril Finch, Serin, Linnet, Redpoll, House Sparrow, Spanish Sparrow, Dunnock, Reed Bunting, Corn Bunting, Rock Bunting, Ortolan Bunting, Yellowhammer, Cirl Bunting