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Venice Birding in Venice and the Po Delta


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By Janet from NY, Summer 2002
Birding in Venice and the Po Delta

This trip report was originally posted on SlowTrav.com.

Our recent trip to Italy was by no means focused on birding; but as avid birders, my husband and I can't really go anywhere without taking some time out to bird. This was our first trip in many years that wasn't strictly planned around birding; recent adventurous trips have been to Panama, Ecuador, Mexico, and Belize, but I'd finally insisted on a summer vacation with quality food, great wine, a little luxury, and not having to get up at 5 a.m. every day!

Our birding started very uneventfully in Venice-not much green space there, but we managed to find some greenery at the park where the Biannale was formerly held. Among the abandoned and overgrown buildings (very eerie and reminiscent of a movie set), we found our first two lifers of the trip—European Goldfinch and Eurasian Blackbird. In Venice we also had the ubiquitous House Sparrow—here the "Italian Sparrow" subspecies; perhaps one day it will be split. The House Sparrow seemed especially tame in Venice; one evening a flock shared our café table as we sipped Prosecco and hand-fed them potato chips. The familiar Rock Dove and European Starling of course were abundant, as were Common Swift. Of course, where there is water, there are gulls—Black-headed and Yellow-legged. We saw some terns from the boat to Murano, but they were far out and we couldn't identify them.

After our departure from Venice, we devoted one full day to birding in the Po River Delta and along the coast between Venice and Ravenna. Through research on the web, along with a recommendation from a birding acquaintance in NYC, we contacted Menotti Passerella to be our guide for the day. I cannot recommend Menotti highly enough to anyone who is interested in birding the area or even in general natural history guiding; he does both. He speaks English very well; the son of a fisherman, he was born and raised in the Po Delta area and still lives there. But most importantly, he knows his birds (he's great with calls), and is passionate about them and about sharing them with others. See the Resources area for his contact information.

We began the day by meeting Menotti at the Valle Figheri, one of the marshes adjoining the Venetian lagoon. Its about 20 minutes south of Venice along the Romea Road (SS 309.) It is signposted and there was a "visitor’s center", abandoned it seemed; but (as with many of the places we went) Menotti had access to locked gates. As soon as we exited the car we knew it was a very birdy place. European Goldfinch and Greenfinch sang from the treetops; Black-capped Warblers and Reed Warblers from the underbrush. Menotti called them off and identified them as he heard them (we couldn’t even spot them in the tangle of trees.) Bank and Barn Swallows and House Martin soared overhead.

We walked a short distance to a blind, which gave an affording view of the marsh. Peering out between the slats we were astonished at what we saw. Nesting Purple Herons everywhere among the cattails, with fledglings (rather large by mid-July) in the nest begging for food. This is one of the most important heron rookeries around Venice. The more we looked, the more herons we identified: Great Grey Heron and Little Egret dotted the trees around the edges of the marsh; Cattle Egret, Squacco Heron, and Black-crowned Night Heron were also present. And not only herons; a multi-hued Kingfisher rattled by the blind; Little Grebe with chicks swam along below us, as did Common Moorhen (the same as in the States) and Common Coot (not the same). Overhead, Western Marsh Harrier and Montagu's Harrier circled. Reed Warblers and Reed Bunting flitted among the reeds (where else!); it was fabulous. While looking through the scope at a perched Marsh Harrier, a large black-and-white bird entered our field of view; this turned out to be Eurasian Magpie (we'd see plenty of these all over.) We spent over an hour at this magical spot and couldn't tear ourselves away, but there were more spots to cover…

Continuing south along the Romea road, we visited the basins of the Porto Viro (Contarina) sugar factory, and followed the road until Porto Tolle, passing through an area of rice fields. I honestly don't recall where we saw what, but among the birds seen along the way were Common Cuckoo on the telephone wires; Hooded Crow; and many more Magpies. In the various ponds were Common Pochard, Black-winged Stilt, Wood Sandpiper, Curlew Sandpiper, Common Sandpiper, Ruff, hundreds of Black-tailed Godwits, Whimbrel, Spotted Redshank, Gull-billed Tern, and Black Tern. At one pond a Eurasian Hobby and Eurasian Kestrel flew overhead, offering up a good comparison. The aptly, but oddly, named Zitting Cisticola "zitted" breezily from the grasses.

In the heat of mid-day we stopped for a quick lunch at a Panini shop, where we discussed with Menotti the current state of birding in Italy. Not terribly good news, unfortunately. Its almost unheard of as a hobby or a serious study by residents, and Italy is not generally considered a birding destination for visitors, due to its lack of endemics and little remaining natural habitat. There is, however, an Italian bird conservation group: LIPU. See Resources for more information.

The clouds started to look ominous, and we rushed to get to the coast before the rain-Menotti wanted to check out some gulls, his specialty (he has a web site showcasing the Gulls of Italy.) As we headed towards the Ravenna Lido, we spotted the gaudily hued Bee-eater on a wire...my big regret is that we didn't stop the car for a better look, because as it turned out, this was the only perched Bee-eater we saw the entire trip—I thought they'd be more common. Lesson learned-don't assume you'll see another one! Reaching the waterfront, Menotti immediately spotted and pointed out Mediterranean Gull with its bright red legs and bill, among the more common species on the beach (predominantly Black-headed and Yellow-legged Gulls). Many Black Terns flew overhead. But the highlight of this spot-and I think the loveliest gull I've ever seen (and I'm not a big gull fan ;-)—was a Slender-billed Gull; pure white head with a rosy-glow to its chest, very lovely (for a gull!) We had even better looks at this gull a bit later...

As the rain started coming down in earnest, we headed towards the Comacchio saltpans, just north of Ravenna. We pulled up to yet another locked gate-Menotti said we had to wait for his friend with the key. Since it was pouring at the moment that seemed like a fine idea. He also enticed us by saying that waiting ahead (along with the anticipated birds) was a cabin and a bottle of wine-now THAT'S the way to bird! We waited in the car and tallied what we'd seen so far. The friend arrived, the rain lessened, and we drove the dikes of the abandoned salt-plant. Initially we didn't see much; the rain seemed to have driven the birds away. Scattered shorebirds were evident, but not the specialties we were looking for. Menotti's friends turned out to be banders, on a mission...they were setting up mist-nets to band gulls that evening. Arriving at the "cabin" (one of the abandoned salt-factory buildings) we were greeted with a nice cold glass of Muscato—that really hit the spot! Outside, Menotti was busy positioning his scope. He invited us to take a look...peering through, wine in hand, we couldn't believe our eyes...a mass of pink on the horizon came into focus...Greater Flamingo by the hundreds! Now that we knew where to look, we realized they were all around us. Colorful adults and mottled-brown fledglings, too—almost as large as the adults by now. Turns out this is the primary breeding ground for Flamingos in Italy. I believe Menotti said there were 1000 pairs breeding this year.

After a little more exploration here we found the other specialties we were hoping for; Pied Avocet (just one, but one will do!) and wonderful looks at resting Slender-billed Gull. Common Shelduck, Little Ringed Plover, Snowy Plover, Common Sandpiper, and Spotted Redshank rounded out the list. It was getting late in the day and there was one final, yet important spot to hit, so we reluctantly moved on.

Last stop: the Punte Alberete watch tower standing high over freshwater wetlands, right outside Ravenna. Directly off the SS309, the watchtower is actually visible and signposted from the road, but easy to miss. As we parked, Menotti warned us that there were many break-ins to cars at that spot, so one of us would have to stay with the car while the other went up the watchtower—then we'd switch places. I wasn't too thrilled with this idea; but as luck would have it, just as we started out a marked car pulled up with two Park Polizia. We figured with their car parked next to ours, we wouldn't have to worry about break-ins, so we were all able to ascend the tower. The target here was Pygmy Cormorant-the only spot in Italy this bird is readily found, and one of the few summering spots in Europe. Well, it was almost too easy-they were splayed out all over the branches, drying their wings in typical cormorant fashion. Looks pretty much like our cormorant-just smaller! The view from the top of the tower was spectacular...freshwater delta, islands of trees, ponds...a beautiful spot. Also added here were Eurasian Spoonbill, Glossy Ibis, and a magnificent Great-crested Grebe with cutely-striped chicks. Ferruginous Pochard was our final duck of the day. We added our first mammal too-a swimming nutria, or coypu (I asked Menotti, somewhat idiotically-"do they have beaver here, what's that?") !!

We hated to call it a day, but it was nearing 6 and we wanted to get to Ravenna and dinner, so we parted ways...leaving Menotti photographing a very out-of-place Louisiana Crawfish...yes, Crawfish!...another introduced pest...which was rearing its claws at the base of the watchtower.



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