Birding In Tuscany

We have just returned from a fortnight’s holiday based in Montecatini Terme, an ancient spa town in Tuscany. The extensive main spa building, the Terme Tettucio, has most attractive elegant 19th century architecture and is set in delightful gardens which rival Bath, Harrogate or Buxton in UK. Apart from a huge range of spa type activities, it also hosts open air evening concerts- including an excellent one by the UK Burton Concert Band, which we attended.

It is also a great spot for getting to the cultural icons of Pisa, Florence, Pistoia and Lucca. Here is a typical Tuscan cathedral front - in Lucca, begun in 1204.

[click on a photo for a larger view]

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And here is the beautiful mid 14th century Baptistry in Pistoia.

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But our timing was really poor for birding. The region has reportedly had the driest summer for years and it was nearly 90 degrees most days we were there. So the nearby Fucecchio marshes, the largest inland marsh in Italy, contained a fraction of spring water levels. Here is a distant photo of the main lake on the reserve taken from the reserve hide platform (building closed by hornets nest building in the roof – pending the pest controller’s visit).

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In spring the lake extends over the whole of the grassy area up to and beyond the vast reed beds. So of the 200 species of birds to be seen here on migration in the spring, only a handful could be seen on the water at our first visit– lapwings, little egrets, the odd common sandpiper and a little ringed plover. Here, on my second visit, even grey herons are sheltering under what shade they can find.

Here is a close-up of one young heron on the nearby stream- looking half dead!

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Better luck was had with the reed beds and the grassy areas on our slightly cooler first visit - a pair of migrating Whinchats, a Cisticola doing its aerobatics, several Reed warblers and many Cetti’s warblers calling everywhere but hard to see, as usual. A Marsh harrier floated over the reed beds and two White storks rooted in the grass. But the best sighting (a lifer) was a male Red Avadavat, aka Strawberry finch, perching on the edge of the reed bed. Called Bengalinos locally because of their asian origins (though here for 20 years), they are active breeding at this time of year because this is the natural time for breeding in Asia.

Here is an image of this splendid carmine red tiny finch.

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Further down the stream towards the Arno river, we saw Kingfishers streaking across the water, White wagtails, a single Great-crested grebe, Black-headed and Yellow-legged gulls, a single Squacco heron, a single Great egret, and this close up of a juvenile Night Heron perched in an overhanging tree. So well camouflaged, we missed it the first time we passed.

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In the channels we saw two invasive species - a Coypu (aka Nutria) swimming and an American Red-eared slider Turtle basking on a tree trunk. Flitting around this mildewed oak were these delightful Lesser Purple Emperor butterflies.

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In the fields there was a large group of Cattle Egrets and a Greater-spotted Woodpecker flew from the top of a telegraph post. A female Pheasant scurried across our track followed closely by two well-developed young. In Italy our guide says they are a well-established species (brought in by the ancient Romans) and do not need the sort of annual releases that happen in the UK

Towards the end of day with Daniele, the familiar UK sight of Common Starlings swirled in murmuration before settling en masse in a tree.

Our other main birding expedition was to Lake Massaciuccoli near Pisa on the coast, once home to Puccini (a hunter as well as composer) and where there is now a large reserve and a visitor centre.

Here, through our guide Marco Valtriani, we had arranged a trip through the reed beds with the reserve manager in a small rowing boat powered by a small electric outboard motor. Alas, the trip did not go entirely to plan. The boat got stuck in the channel, because of low water levels, Marco dropped an oar on my wife’s head and promptly lost his balance. He fell into the water and sank up to his waist in mud! A local wag claimed that Jean pushed him in!

Here is a photo of the lake taken from our boat after the mishap. It shows the fishing nets used by locals from their ramshackle wooden huts dotted among the reed beds and now mostly disused. No birds to be seen here!

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But we did eventually see a few good birds – particularly Kingfishers, a single Wood sandpiper and a couple of Purple herons. Also wheeling in the sky were two Common Buzzards and a Honey Buzzard (another lifer). Rare as it is in the UK, the latter is not so in Italy apparently. For such a large bird, it is difficult to understand how they can live mainly on a diet of wasps and hornets. But apparently they watch adult wasps return to their nests and then raid them. We could do with encouraging more to come to the UK!

Elsewhere on this reserve, the colourful Bee-eaters were gathering for their journey to Africa. Here is an adult (with long tail streamers) and a juvenile (without streamers) perched on telephone wires. I was told by our guide, Marco, that they are increasingly successful breeders in Italy, tunnelling underground for their nests.

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Also we saw a pair of Northern Wheatears, feeding on the ground, probably juveniles on their way to Africa too. Along with a single Turtle Dove, this Wheatear perched on a wire for my photo.

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In the nearby ancient woodland, on the banks of the Arno, Spotted Flycatchers flitted from their perches and an adult Night Heron concealed itself in a tree overhanging the river.

As to Hirundines, we saw a few remaining Barn swallows and House martins above the reserves – stragglers perhaps on their way south. But best was a small flock of Crag Martins flying around the ancient buildings of Montecatini Alto up in the hills. A resident species this, in the bright sunlight their pale grey feathers and white tail “windows” showed up well.

Plenty of sparrows of course, especially round the hotels and park, but at least they are the Italian version – seemingly a cross between the Spanish and the House Sparrow. I think they are more attractive than our House Sparrow, with brown heads (rather than mucky grey) and white cheeks. Here is a splendid male.

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I also briefly saw a leucistic individual (not an albino with pink eyes), which flew on to the ground in front of the local supermarket – completely white. For comparison, here is an example.

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Tuscany is of course also famous for its wine. So as a final reminder, here is an image of the natural source – vines at a hilltop town and loaded with luscious grapes ready for harvesting.

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Peter M
30 September 2016

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