Italy Trip Report by an American birder
June-July, 2001

By Jack Stephens

I spent three weeks in Italy with Ellen and the kids this past month. While I was primarily in Italy for a family trip, I could not resist the temptation to explore the birds of the region while I was there.

I knew that Italy is not the best place for birding in Europe, and while my total count was low (68 species seen) I did manage to see some truly beautiful birds. As always, the process of birding added greatly to the experience of being in another country.

In Rome we stayed at the Aurelia Residence, near the Vatican. This is far enough away from the center of town that we had a few birds in the small garden in back of our apartment, including EURASIAN BLACKBIRD, CARRION (HOODED) CROWS, EUROPEAN ROBIN, and EUROPEAN GOLDFINCH. COMMON SWIFTS wheeled overhead from the rooftop garden. Forget trying to pick up a Pallid Swift or Alpine Swift amongst their ranks, I heard from several sources that one must travel to the coast to see these species. I saw EURASIAN KESTREL several times in Rome, including one screaming from the top of the Coliseum. I did spend one morning birding at the Villa Borghese, and had my best luck along the weedy border of the hippodrome at the south edge of the park. Here I was able to pish out BLUE TIT, FIRECREST, and SERIN. The other bird of note in Rome was a singing BLACKCAP on the Spanish Steps, it just goes to show that you never know where things will turn up.

Prior to my trip, I had attempted to contact local birders with the kind assistance Luciano Ruggieri of the Birding Italia web page (EBN Italia). Luciano provided me with several local contacts in Rome, and I eventually made arrangements to go out with Roberto Gildi and Richard Wagner. Roberto lives in Rome and runs a bookstore there, Richard is an American schoolteacher who is teaching in Rome on a two year contract. The day that Ellen and I spent with Roberto and Richard proved to be the best day birding by far, and a highlight of the trip. Roberto drove our rental car out to the hills around Tolfa, about 1.5 hour’s drive northwest of Rome. We started by finding numerous BLACK KITE, EURASIAN KESTREL, CRESTED LARK and TAWNY PIPIT in the stony fields, then found a pair of MONTAGU’S HARRIER, a single HOBBY and EURASIAN SPARROWHAWK, along with EUROPEAN TURTLE-DOVE, STONECHAT, WOODCHAT SHRIKE, BLACK-BILLED MAGPIE, ZITTING CISTICOLA, CALANDRA LARK, and CORN BUNTING. We then headed to an abandoned railroad bridge over a stream, where we found nesting EUROPEAN ROLLERS, soaring SHORT-TOED EAGLES and a pair of EUROPEAN BEE-EATERS. Driving on rutted dirt roads to the hills overlooking the Mediterranean, we found a beautiful RED KITE soaring in full sun, along with RED-BACKED SHRIKE, WOOD LARK, MELODIUS WARBLER, CIRL BUNTING, and a HOOPOE. We had a wonderful dinner in the town of Tolfa, and topped the day with a TAWNY OWL on the way back home. Roberto was a great guide and host, and despite his protests about his poor English we did very well.

Venice, out next stop, was predictably sparse in terms of birds. This was the only spot on the trip for MEDITERANEAN GULL, however.

A week at Casa Vecchia, a villa in Tuscany 40 minutes south of Florence, provided a welcome relief from the fast pace of Rome and Venice. By walking the grounds of the villa, and on several trips into nearby San Casciano, I added COMMON WOOD-PIGEON, EURASIAN COLLARED-DOVE, COMMON CUCKOO, SPOTTED FLYCATHCER, COLLARED FLYCATCHCER, COMMON NIGHTINGALE, COMMON REDSTART, CHAFFINCH, and EUROPEAN GREENFINCH to the trip list. HOOPOE are regular in their garden as well, much to my delight. On the bus to and from Florence, NIGHT HERON and GREY HERON were both in evidence, as well as a LITTLE OWL that perched up in the bus’ headlights one evening.

Our trip ended in Roccalbegna, a hamlet in the hills of southern Tuscany. We were hosted by Riccardo Nardi, who works for the World Wildlife Fund and put us up in a small house in town owned by that organization. The afternoon of our arrival Riccardo took us to the reserve that the WWF owns near town, where we found PEREGRINE FALCON along with nesting EUROPEAN HONEY-BUZZARD. Riccardo knows more than birds, and he showed us roosting bats, newt ponds, porcupine quills and trails, wild boar dust baths, and a 12 meter tower in the forest that they use for observation. He also showed us the cave where the WWF is attempting to re-establish Egyptian Vultures into Tuscany. Riccardo is a member of the team that will climb a ladder up the rock face to feed the young vultures before they fledge. That evening we sipped wine in his garden, admired a young Little Owl that he is nursing back to health, and viewed the LANNER FALCON that nest in the rocks overlooking Roccalbegna with his Swarovski scope (my kind of birding!).

The next day Riccardo had a prior commitment with a group tour to the reserve. He did loan me his car and the guiding services of Filipo, an very pleasant young man connected with the reserve. Our enthusiasm was dampened by communication difficulties; he spoke very little English, I speak no Italian, and without Ellen along to interpret we spent a lot of time smiling and shrugging at each other. Eventually we determined that he knew some French, so I reached back to my high school French and we managed for the rest of the morning. We added GREAT TIT to the trip list and I had a great view of BLUE ROCK-THRUSH, along with an impressive stoop by EURASIAN HONEY-BUZZARD.

The drive from Roccalbegna back to Rome for our departure did yield a view of several more EUROPEAN BEE-EATERS, and a GREAT EGRET outside of Grosseto.

Please feel free to contact me for more details or if you have any questions. Jack Stephens - jstephens62@home.com.

Birding tips

  • The birds of Italy are fearful. They have been hunted for centuries; Galileo had a taste for Ortulan Bunting for example. You will often get only fleeting views of the birds you find.
  • Learning the call of common birds will be a great help. Blackcap, Serin, Chaffinch and Blackbird would be a good start, the last three have links with sound files on the following web page.
  • Italian birders often refer to birds by their scientific name. This makes communication easier if there is a language barrier.
  • Roberto Gildi has kindly agreed to guide birders visiting Rome, as long as they make allowances for his English. He can be reached at rotogildi@tiscalinet.it.
  • To reach Riccardo Nardi in Roccalbegna, e-mail riccardonardi@interfree.it.
  • Don’t leave your binoculars behind while visiting the tourist sights of Italy. You will see details in art and architecture that others will miss if you bring them along.

  • SPECIES SEEN in Italy ~ 68 seen

    Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) - Rome
    Gray Heron (Ardea cinerea) - Road from Florence to San Casciano
    Great Egret (Ardea alba) - Road from Grossetto to Rome
    Black-crowned Night-Heron (Nycticorax nycticorax) - Florence
    European Honey-buzzard (Pernis apivorus) - Tolfa,Roccalbegna
    Red Kite (Milvus milvus) - Tolfa
    Black Kite (Milvus migrans) - Tolfa
    Short-toed Eagle (Circaetus gallicus) - Tolfa
    Montagu's Harrier (Circus pygargus) Tolfa
    Eurasian Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus) - Tolfa
    Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo) - Tolfa, Casa Vecchia
    Eurasian Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus) - Rome, Tolfa, Roccalbegna
    Eurasian Hobby (Falco subbuteo) - Tolfa
    Lanner Falcon (Falco biarmicus) - Roccalbegna
    Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus) - Roccalbegna
    Ring-necked Pheasant (Phasianus colchicus) - Casa Vecchia
    Yellow-legged Gull (Larus cachinnans) - Rome, Venice
    Mediterranean Gull (Larus melanocephalus) - Venice
    Rock Dove (Columba livia) - All locations
    Common Wood-Pigeon (Columba palumbus) - Casa Vecchia, Roccalbegna
    European Turtle-Dove (Streptopelia turtur) - Tolfa, Roccalbegna
    Eurasian Collared-Dove (Streptopelia decaocto) - Casa Vecchia
    Common Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) - Casa Vecchia, Roccalbegna
    Tawny Owl (Strix aluco) - Tolfa
    Little Owl (Athene noctua) - Road from Florence to Casa Vecchia
    Common Swift (Apus apus) - All locations
    European Bee-eater (Merops apiaster) - Tolfa, Roccalbegna to Grossetto
    European Roller (Coracias garrulus) - Tolfa
    Hoopoe (Upupa epops) - Tolfa, Casa Vecchia
    Great Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos major) - Casa Vecchia
    Eurasian Green Woodpecker (Picus viridis) - Tolfa, Roccalbegna
    Eurasian Jay (Garrulus glandarius) - Tolfa, Casa Vecchia, Roccalbegna
    Black-billed Magpie (Pica pica) - Tolfa, Roccalbegna
    Eurasian Jackdaw (Corvus monedula) - Tolfa, Roccalbegna
    Carrion Crow (Corvus corone) - Rome, Tolfa, Casa Vecchia, Roccalbegna
    Red-backed Shrike (Lanius collurio) - Tolfa, Casa Vecchia
    Woodchat Shrike (Lanius senator) - Tolfa
    Blue Rock-Thrush (Monticola solitarius) - Roccalbegna
    Eurasian Blackbird (Turdus merula) - Rome, Tolfa, Casa Vecchia
    European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) - Rome, Casa Vecchia
    Spotted Flycatcher (Muscicapa striata) - Casa Vecchia
    Collared Flycatcher (Ficedula albicollis) - Casa Vecchia
    European Robin (Erithacus rubecula) - Rome
    Common Nightingale (Luscinia megarhynchos) - Casa Vecchia
    Common Redstart (Phoenicurus phoenicurus) - Casa Vecchia
    Stonechat (Saxicola torquata) - Tolfa, Casa Vecchia
    Long-tailed Tit (Aegithalos caudatus) - Tolfa
    Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica) - Tolfa, Casa Vecchia, Roccalbegna
    Common House-Martin (Delichon urbica) - Rome, Tolfa, Casa Vecchia, Roccalbegna
    Firecrest (Regulus ignicapillus) - Rome
    Zitting Cisticola (Cisticola juncidis) - Tolfa
    Melodious Warbler (Hippolais polyglotta) - Tolfa
    Blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla) - Rome, Tolfa, Casa Vecchia, Roccalbegna
    Great Tit (Parus major) - Roccalbegna
    Blue Tit (Parus caeruleus) - Rome
    Calandra Lark (Melanocorypha calandra) - Tolfa
    Crested Lark (Galerida cristata) - Tolfa
    Wood Lark (Lullula arborea) - Tolfa
    House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) - Common
    Eurasian Tree Sparrow (Passer montanus) - Common
    White Wagtail (Motacilla alba) - Rome
    Tawny Pipit (Anthus campestris) - Tolfa
    Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs) - Casa Vecchia, Roccalbegna
    European Serin (Serinus serinus) - Rome, Casa Vecchia
    European Greenfinch (Carduelis chloris) - Casa Vecchia
    European Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis) - Rome, Tolfa, Casa Vecchia, Roccalbegna
    Cirl Bunting (Emberiza cirlus) - Tolfa
    Corn Bunting (Emberiza calandra) - Tolfa

    Notable Misses:
    Sardinian Warbler (Sylvia melanocephala) - Not an uncommon bird in Rome, so Roberto and Richard tell me. I never did find one.
    Cetti’s Warbler (Cettia cetti) & Subalpine Warbler (Sylvia cantillans) - Heard in Tolfa, but they just would not pish out.
    Golden Oriole (Oriolus oriolus) - Heard in Roccalbegna at the reserve but did not see.

    Notable Mammals:
    Foxes and dead Stone Martin at Tolfa
    A baby Hedgehog at Casa Vecchia
    Wild sheep and deer at Roccalbegna


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