Sicily – birding a bare island

There are birds to see in Sicily although it doesn’t appear so at first glance. Aside from some crows and starlings we saw none on fence posts, none flying overhead and none in the fields during our initial bumpy introduction to Sicily’s autostradas. Birding the island is patchy so you must be reasonably single-minded and cover it all. You need inside knowledge and careful timing, too, all of which made it difficult for me given the nature of our visit and that neither Mission Control nor our companions were birders. I had to get my birds where I could and adopt an opportunistic approach to osservare gli uccelli. Before we travelled I’d assumed I’d see very little and although it wouldn’t be entirely honest to say I was pleasantly surprised I did record 109 species and could have done better. Nonetheless, I found the total birding experience in Sicily to be less than the sum of its parts.

The island gets a bad press and deservedly so because by and large it doesn’t give the birds much chance. Areas described as riserva naturale have virtually no protection and those not yet cultivated or developed live a charmed life as the authorities can be exceedingly – to coin a phrase – malleable. The current favourite is wind energy, where Italy pays a whopping €180 per kwh generated. Last year police disrupted corrupt plans to erect a discordant backdrop of wind turbines overlooking the World Wildlife Fund [WWF] reserve at Trapani and, in Mazara del Vallo, arrests have been made for bribing officials for permits to erect unapproved turbines. You’d believe that someone outside those deals would notice a 100m tower being erected so what on earth were they thinking? The travesty is that minimal protection and management could transform Sicily but it has its head so far up its nepotistic backside that the chances of conservation even making it to the agenda are non-existent unless ‘opportunities’ are exploited. That said, I can appreciate that a lot needs sorting out before a put-upon and disenfranchised population can be encouraged to embrace the esoteric values of wildlife conservation.

Organised trips that target specific sites provide notable birding and are necessarily supported by the rest that Sicily offers – Mediterranean weather and scenery, great food, historical culture and all those gaily-painted fishing boats. But if you are serious about your birding there are other places to go and there’s the rub, because Sicily has a lot going ornithologically; this spring a Bar-tailed lark and an Atlas flycatcher were recorded – very special birds for European birders. Sicily holds the only wintering group of Pallas’s gulls in Europe as well the only Italian-breeding Bonelli’s eagles. Migration across the Straits of Messina can be spectacular and an internationally important population of Lanner falcon and endemics such as the Sicilian Rock partridge and Long-tailed tit are worth the air fare alone. Why is it then that conservation and its consequent nature tourism – given all the other delights on offer – isn’t a better deal here? I concluded that Sicilians mostly don’t like birds – unless they are served with a passable Nero D’Avola, that is. In Pozzo di Mazza we were woken early on Saturday morning by continuous blasts from propane cannon bird scarers before local hunters went on to spend the weekend shooting across the adjoining fields and above our heads in an alarming barrage. The coordination of explosions from cannons and shooting led me to suspect that the former weren’t used to scare birds away from crops [after all, they didn’t use them during the week] but instead to keep them in the air for the benefit of the latter. Just ponder the logic of that for a moment. The same thing happened at Corte del Sole near Vendicari, suggesting it was common practice. At Lago della Priola, another WWF reserve, even putative birders are denied unaccompanied access for fear of them secreting guns into the bird hide or using the tiny remaining piece of endemic woodland for firewood. You wonder how that could be a concern when Sicily employs over 26000 people in its forestry department – more than they employ in British Columbia.

It appears that, a few good men such as Andrea Corso and Antonini at WWF or the hard-working volunteers at CABS notwithstanding, no one who can really make a difference gives a flying whatever; especially where money can be made. I was humbled by Antonini’s calm determination and persistence in the face of insurmountable barriers – he represents WWF locally and has been working with them for twenty years – but confess to being less than comfortable with the brand of nature tourism we bring. It provides a pleasant sojourn in the sun, holiday-island accompaniments, that list of interesting – and sometimes exciting – birds and, probably, a very nice set of photographs but it doesn’t give much back. I couldn’t, for example, find one reference to contact with conservation organisations on any of the birding holiday websites. Certainly some money trickles into the economy but it’s channeled neither into conservation nor a local organisation that might eventually ease these issues onto the agenda. Trips that target a list of species in pleasant surroundings merely perpetuate an archaic and ultimately self-defeating situation.

When we stayed near Selinunte we awoke each morning to a silence broken only by the sound of occasional passing cars. There was no birdsong at all, not even a chirping sparrow. The adjacent fields were liberally covered with spent shotgun cartridges and although it might be different in spring the picture was there to see. Sicily is unique and has huge potential but it needs to find a way for conservation and appreciation of a rapidly-diminishing natural heritage to gain at least as much kudos as self-interest and destructive machismo.

 Without that, even the listers and nature tourists won’t have anything to come for.


Sicily – the boys from Syracuse market

I avoid being an itinerant tourist, preferring to stay in one place and getting to know it inside out even when it means missing something just down the road. Sicily made that difficult; with so much on offer we’d decided before we travelled to get as big a picture as possible and, if it delivered on its promises, come back and stay for a while. Consequently, we didn’t plan anything in detail because on the one hand there would be so much to see and on the other, plenty to avoid; we’d stay light on our feet.

We’d arranged to visit with friends and had initially set out to spend a couple of weeks together but despite best intentions and a year talking about it over ‘Sicilian-themed’ lunches the plan was disrupted by business commitments, migration in Sweden and our forthcoming trip to Dubai. By the time we’d eventually fixed flights it worked out that they would arrive a week or so after us and we’d have to leave several days before them, leaving just a few days together in the middle. Mission Control eased us through this by booking a few places to anchor the Grand Tour, between which we’d drift in the direction the wind took us.

Pozzo di Mazza was perfect for our introduction to Sicily. As well as being handily located to visit some of the sites recommended by Andrea Corso, it was close enough to Siracusa to spend plenty of time in the city. The agriturismo provided a relaxing and authentic springboard to the south-east corner of the island.

Agriturismi are a popular and relatively inexpensive way of holidaying in Italy. The term, in a statement of the obvious, means ‘agricultural tourism’ and was formalised in the mid 1980s as a means of putting some life back into the rural economy by allowing working farms the opportunity to supplement their income with tourist accommodation. Given this basis it means that standards can vary and whilst that is clearly part of the charm our experience in using them over many years has been excellent. And so it was at Pozzo di Mazza. We were provided with good and satisfying food derived from local produce and near-perfect preserves, a lot of which we’ve hauled back. The rooms were spotless, the staff simply charming and there was also a refreshing and welcome absence of television. That meant that guests were left to their own devices although it clearly didn’t suit one Dutch couple who bleated about the place being too quiet, too isolated and too far from any bars. It was actually very pleasant to sit under the quiet, shaded terrace outside the room or in the garden although I was frustrated at the lack of internet access, as all my information for the trip sat in the cloud and was consequently inaccessible.

We knew something of Siracusa before we arrived but weren’t prepared for the sheer magnificence of the crumbling and decrepit buildings, matched in intricacy of detail only by the service and communication cables strung along and between them. Siracusa and its adjoining island Ortigia were largely rebuilt in 1693 after a devastating earthquake in a style that became known as ‘Sicilian Baroque’ and this forms a chiaroscuro backdrop to Greco-Roman and Norman relics. Together they create an intense ambiance of history and immediately we’d absorbed the initial visual impact we knew we’d be back for a longer stay. Like many Italian cities, Siracusa makes one want to live and breathe it. We walked narrow streets and courtyards and, in the Piazza Duomo, watched a Siracusan tableau unfold as its residents married or enjoyed an evening stroll or, like us, simply sipped a slow Spritz.

Siracusa was established on Ortigia in about 734BC and was the most significant city-state in the Mediterranean. I guess the vendors in the market were probably shouting much the same thing then as we heard when we squeezed between the stalls below the market hall. That isn’t in use these days – due, I suspect, to the endemic lack of maintenance – but we did spend a lot of time in the not-to-be-missed delicatessen I Sapori dei Gusti Smarriti. Our only regret was that we didn’t have a nearby kitchen as I can’t wait to get back to the widest range of Sicilian wines I’ve ever seen and an exquisite olive oil scented with orange juice, but that will be remedied next time. Walking Mercato di Ortigia and coming out the other end without buying something was a frustrating experience but in brief but sublime compensation we had lunch in a market restaurant supplied by one of the fish vendors; Ristorante Il Porticciolo in via Trento. We ate fried baby fish, risotto with saffron, pistachio and prawns and ravioli of minced prawn in a tomato and ricotta sauce. The [of course] local wine was recommended by the restaurant and was exactly matched, making the entire experience perfetto.

A lot to see and come back for but before that we’d be taking a long, circuitous drive north and west to meet Greg and Vibeke in Palermo.

Sicily – down on the farm

The guy at the car rental desk didn’t say ‘forget about it’ once, which was disappointing. This was, after all, the land that spawned mobsters and, ultimately, The Sopranos. We’ve spent a lot of time in Italy and, on occasion, been victims of the minor scams that proliferate in and around car rental agencies. Sometimes it’s been difficult to shield oneself from the national pastime of adding little ‘extras’ to the bill like refuelling, booking or administration fees, drop-off charges that weren’t mentioned when you made your reservation or, as I’ve just read in an exasperated forum post, the cost of two replacement wheels. In Sicily it was autostrada tax, which isn’t a great cost and wouldn’t be so bad, I guess, if the money was spent on improving the roads. It’s not, of course. But the island is huge so despite there being a cute rail system between the main points you need a car if you want to get off the beaten track.

We had rented the smallest car available – an essential asset where streets are narrow, parking is impossible and most of the oncoming vehicles are on your side of the road – before setting-off for a little agriturismo near Siracusa. The route from Palermo through Termini Imerese and Catania is autostrada all the way to Cassibile. There wasn’t a lot of traffic but as we bounced and swayed our way down the uneven surface I became increasingly convinced that either one of the distracted drivers hurtling past me – I was driving at 130kph or so – or a hidden pothole would inflict catastrophic damage on our already battle-scarred banger. The roads really are in a very sad condition, but then a lot of Sicily looks a little threadbare. I read that public works tendering is unprincipled in Sicily; that once a contract is let for a road project it’s sold on to a lower bidder then sold on again so that the work eventually ends up being undertaken for a fraction of it’s real worth. The autostrada felt and looked like it had been constructed with cheap cutlery.

Once I’d lifted my eyes from the road, however, the landscape provided expansive, sun-bleached vistas. It was parched and pretty much given over to cultivation so it was interesting and not interesting at the same time, so to speak. Then, as the terrain broke up and became steeper, the hill towns of Enna and Calascibetta came into spectacular view; a perfect place for a break and a perfect chance to take in, for the first time, the unique essence of Sicily. We drove up to Calascibetta and sat in the square beside local residents – Enna gets the tourists – and lunched on panzerotti [bread filled with vegetables], a glass of vino rosso and our first gelato. It was so pleasant in the shade of the huge trees – I didn’t realise at that early stage of our trip just how rare an experience that would prove to be in Sicily – that I barely stirred as a Short-toed treecreeper paraded in front of us.

Andrea Corso had recommended we stayed at Pozza di Mazza and we got there just as the afternoon turned golden. It was all pan and barrel tiles, stone walls and terraces in the open. The rooms were airy, the pool excellent and the quiet, green garden immediately delivered a Black-eared wheatear.



Sicily – forget about it

A trip to Sicily has been on the back burner for quite a while and here I am, at last.

The Mediterranean’s largest island has been high on my list of places to visit, not least because of the combined attractions of wonderful food and wine, a vast wealth of history and a sun-drenched landscape that is clearly spectacular in parts. But despite all that and as well as it being the archetypal holiday destination I’ve tended to put off visiting for a couple of reasons. First, the locals have done a pretty good job over the past 2500 years in eradicating the native vegetation and, second, they shoot anything with feathers that’s not a hat or a bedspread. I know there are worse places – Sicily’s not as bad as Malta, for example – but when considering the undoubted delights that I’d find here I’d struggled with the notion of developing a lasting affection for a land bereft of birdsong and comprising nothing but olive groves, vineyards and endless rows of cultivation. For someone who finds equal joy in an unsullied natural environment as he does immersion in a cornucopia of culinary and cultural abundance this would present, you’d appreciate, something of a dilemma.

The excellent Andrea Corso helped on the birding front. As the foremost expert of everything that is birds or birding in Sicily he was the man to call and duly provided both reassurance and guidance on where I should visit and, perhaps more importantly given my fear of being seduced by the gods of a land that played host to tourisme de masse, where to avoid. It was disappointing that he would be off the island while I was there.

I didn’t have to be in Sicily for long before feeling the first, subtle headiness of intoxication; I was captivated right from the caffè and cornetto at Palermo airport. There are birds – not a lot, but some and worth travelling for, too – and there are a few areas of native scrub and woodland – again, not a lot – that remain more or less as they were when the Greeks first settled here around 750 BC. And in-between, the vast, cultivated landscape is bespeckled with towns on precipitous cliffs, evocative vistas disappearing into heat-haze, breathtaking Baroque extravagance, awful road surfaces and scruffy, litter-strewn villages.

And then there’s the food and wine – enough to make even the most reluctant suitor submit.