Join Ed Hutchings as he reveals the birding delights found in two of Italy’s most beautiful regions, Tuscany and Umbria, neighbours with very different characters, and birds, to discover
The tourist brochure view of Tuscany as an idyll of olive groves, vineyards, hill towns and frescoed churches may be one dimensional, but Tuscany is indeed the essence of Italy in many ways. The national language evolved from the Tuscan dialect, a supremacy ensured by Dante – who wrote the Divine Comedy in the vernacular of his birthplace, Florence – and Tuscan writers such as Petrarch and Boccaccio.
And the era we know as the Renaissance, which played so large a role in forming the culture, not just of Italy but of Europe as a whole, is associated more strongly with this part of the country than with anywhere else. Florence was the most active centre of the Renaissance, flourishing principally through the all-powerful patronage of the Medici dynasty.
Every eminent artistic figure from Giotto onwards – Masaccio, Brunelleschi, Alberti, Donatello, Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo – is represented here, in an unrivalled gathering of churches, galleries and museums. Tuscany is also rightly renowned for its wine, but many are unaware that it is a brilliant region for birding too. The region has no fewer than 16 Important Bird Areas (IBAs) among its beautiful scenery.
Sharing a border with Emilia-Romagna in the north of the region, the large, mountainous area in the northern Apennines from Passo del Cerreto to Monte Caligi is worth exploring. It includes broadleaved (mainly beech Fagus) and coniferous woodlands, alpine grasslands and rocky areas, crossed by rivers and streams. The area is important for breeding species of forest and mountain including Nightjar, Tawny Owl, Honey Buzzard, Golden Eagle, Green Woodpecker, Blue Tit and Rock Thrush. The most paramount threat is the abandonment of traditional cultivation and cattle rearing activities, with consequent loss of pastures and grasslands. A National Park is proposed in the area.
To the southwest lie the Apuan Alps, east of the towns of Massa and Carrara, particularly rich in rocky areas and alpine grasslands. The main land uses are grazing, nature conservation and marble extraction. Key species include Golden Eagle and Chough and it is a significant breeding site for montane passerines such as Rock Thrush and Tawny Pipit. The principal threat is from quarrying the famous Carrera marble, used for some of the most remarkable buildings found in Ancient Rome.
Further south lies the shallow Lake Massaciuccoli, close to the town of Viareggio, four kilometres from the Tyrrhenian coast. The lake is surrounded by a belt of reeds (Phragmites) of variable width and there is a large freshwater marshland (padule) adjacent to the lake on the north side, consisting of stands of sedge (Cladium) with scattered pools and canals. The surrounding areas are intensively farmed, but it is a vital breeding site for reedbed species, notably Bittern (the most important breeding location in Italy) and was once a key staging spot for the critically endangered Slender-billed Curlew. Formerly it was paramount for wintering water birds, especially Coot (tens of thousands), whose decline was due specially to hunting and a reduction in the extent of submerged vegetation. Other key species include Little Bittern, Bittern, Purple Heron, Black Tern, Marsh Harrier and Moustached, Reed and Savi's Warblers. A few Ferruginous Duck winter. The chief threat is the intensification of agriculture in the surrounding area, which is leading to water pollution, lowering of the water table and shrinkage of wetlands. There is a LIPU reserve on the east side of the lake.
Immediately to the south of the lake and east of the city of Pisa, the wetland complex of Migliarino-San Rossore comprises open (San Rossore) and wooded (San Rossore and Migliarino) coastal marshes, the estuaries of two large rivers (Arno and Serchio) and a tract of very shallow sea offshore. There are dunes between the marshes and the sea and extensive arable/pasture areas at San Rossore. This is a significant wetland for migrating and wintering waders including Jack Snipe.
Inland to the east, the freshwater wetland of Fucecchio Marsh, a few kilometres south of the town of Montecatini, consists of reedbeds, open water, wet woodland (Bosco di Chiusi) and surrounding cultivation. This is a vital wetland for breeding herons, such as Little Egret, Little Bittern, Night and Squacco Herons, and reedbed passerines, such as Moustached and Savi’s Warblers.
Continuing eastward brings one to a complex of small freshwater pools, wetlands, abandoned pits and farmland on a plain west of Florence used primarily as game reserves, though farming is the most important human activity away from the pools. It is especially paramount for its Night Heron colony, though Ferruginous Duck is also found on passage. Further east, and sharing a border with Umbria, the Casentinesi Forest National Park is a large tract of broadleaved and coniferous forest in the northern Apennines, dominated by beech (Fagus) and fir (Abies). The predominant land use is forestry, but it is a significant breeding site for woodland species such as Nightjar, Tawny Owl, Green Woodpecker, Blue Tit, Woodlark, Subalpine Warbler, Song Thrush, Robin, Firecrest and Rock Bunting.
To the south, the Arezzo Heathlands, a hilly area predominately covered by heathland, can be divided into three subsites: Alpe di Poti, Monte Ginezzo and Pian di Scò. The foremost land uses are forestry, hunting and heath cutting. This is a vital heathland for breeding raptors, such as Montagu’s Harrier, and passerines, especially Sylvia warblers, such as Subalpine and Dartford.
Further south, on the Umbrian border, the two freshwater lakes of Chiusi and Montepulciano are found fifteen kilometres east of the village of Montepulciano. The lakes are surrounded by extensive reedbeds, cultivated land and small broadleaved woodlands, and there are also some small artificial ponds called Vasche di Dolciano. Water levels fluctuate greatly during the year. It is an important area for breeding Little Bittern, wintering Cormorant and for a mixed heronry at Lago di Chiusi that includes Squacco and Night Herons. Herons and Cormorants roost at Vasche di Dolciano. A couple of pairs of Ferruginous Duck breed annually and a handful winter too. Moustached Warbler is resident.
To the west, the Crete Senesi is a hilly area southeast of the town of Siena. There are large tracts of farmland, small woodlands, gorges and highly eroded slopes. The major threat is agricultural intensification, which destroys the eroded landforms that are paramount nest sites for breeding raptors such as Lanner Falcon. It is also a significant spot for Stone Curlew.
Further west, the middle valley of the River Cecina lies about ten kilometres south of the town of Volterra and comprises a large broadleaved evergreen woodland called Berignone and a stretch of the River Cecina. Varied habitats include rocky cliffs, rivers, streams, grasslands and farmland. The valley is notable for its breeding raptors and woodland passerines such as Subalpine Warbler. Ever further west and back on the Tyrrhenian coast, the Bolgheri Marsh and Tombolo is a wetland about ten kilometres south of the village of Cecina. Habitats include beaches and dunes, macchia, wet woodlands and grasslands, and open water, surrounded by farmland. The wetland is notable for breeding and wintering water birds, as well as migrating waders such as Golden Plover. A few Ferruginous Duck overwinter.
Offshore, the Tuscan Archipelago - seven small islands between Tuscany and Corsica (Montecristo, Giannutri, Gorgona, Capraia, Elba, Giglio and Pianosa) - is chiefly covered by macchia, garrigue, sclerophyllous scrub, pine woodlands and rocky cliffs. Some have evergreen woodlands, grasslands and agricultural land.
The islands support breeding Cory’s and Yelkouan Shearwaters, Audouin's and Caspian Gulls, as well as Shag. Other key species include Peregrine, Marmora’s, Subalpine, Sardinian, Spectacled and Dartford Warblers, Blue Rock Thrush and Black-eared Wheatear. The fundamental threats are the disturbance of breeding seabirds by tourists, especially using motorboats, the development of tourist resorts and associated infrastructure and the burning of vegetation.
To the south, the large wetland of Diaccia Botrona on the coast, close to the village of Castglione della Pescaia, was formerly freshwater but is now brackish due to seawater inflow. The main habitats are large reedbeds, open water and a small coniferous wood. This is a vital wetland for wintering and migrating water birds (more than 15,000) including Wigeon, as well as breeding Little Egret and Bittern. There is a heronry in the wood. A couple of Ferruginous Duck usually winter. The prime threat is from aquaculture, which is causing saltwater intrusion along the southern border.
Further south. the Maremma Regional Park comprises the wooded Uccellina Mountains, mostly covered by Pinus and macchia, as well as the large brackish Trappola Marsh with very little vegetation, mainly Salicornia, and the mouth of the River Ombrone, about ten kilometres south of the town of Grosseto. Habitats include rocky sea cliffs and beaches.
The park is important for wintering water birds (especially Greylag Goose), though threats include coastal erosion, disturbance of breeding and wintering birds by tourists who walk among the dunes, the poor water quality of the River Ombrone, which affects the Trappola Marsh and overgrazing, which threatens Stone Curlew.
Tuscany could provide a renaissance in Italian birding. And the landscapes are simply exquisite.
Often referred to as ‘the green heart of Italy’, Umbria is a predominantly beautiful and – despite the many visitors – largely unspoiled region of rolling hills, woods, streams and valleys. Within its borders it also contains a dozen or so classic hill towns, each resolutely individual and crammed with artistic and architectural treasures to rival bigger and more famous cities. To the east, pastoral countryside gives way to more rugged scenery, none better than the dramatic twists and turns of the Valnerina and the high mountain landscapes of the Parco Nazionale dei Monti Sibillini.
Historically, Umbria is best known as the birthplace of several saints, St Benedict and St Francis of Assisi being the most famous, and for a religious tradition that earned the region such names as Umbra santa, Umbra mistica and la terra dei santi (‘the land of saints’). The landscape itself has contributed much to this mystical reputation and even on a fleeting trip it’s impossible to miss the strange quality of the Umbrian light, an oddly luminous silver haze that hangs over the hills.
After years as an impoverished backwater, Umbria has capitalised on its charms. Foreign acquisition of rural property is now as rapid as it was in Tuscany three decades ago, though outsiders have done nothing to curb the region’s renewed sense of identity and youthful enthusiasm, nor to blunt the artistic initiatives that have turned Umbria into one of the most flourishing cultural centres in Italy.
Most visitors head for Perugia, Assisi – the latter with its extraordinary frescoes by Giotto in the Basilica di San Francesco – or Orvieto, whose Duomo is one of the greatest Gothic buildings in the country. For a taste of the region’s more understated charms, it’s best to concentrate on lesser known places such as Todi, an increasingly chic but still unspoiled hill town; Gubbio, ranked as the most perfect medieval centre in Italy, and Spoleto, for many people the outstanding Umbrian town.
Although there are few unattractive parts of the Umbrian landscape (the factories of Terni and the Tiber Valley being the largest blots), some areas are especially enticing: the Valnerina, a beautiful valley surrounded by mountains and remote hilltop villages; the Piano Grande, a vast, featureless plain best visited in spring, when it’s carpeted with wild flowers; and Lago Trasimeno, the largest lake in the Italian peninsula, with plenty of opportunities for swimming and, naturally, birding.
The Valnerina is the most beautiful part of Umbria. Strictly translated as the ‘little valley of the Nera’, it effectively refers to the whole eastern part of the region, a self-contained area of high mountains, poor communications, steep wooded valleys, upland villages and vast stretches of barren nothingness. Italian Wolves still roam the summit ridges and the area is a genuine ‘forgotten corner’, deserted farms everywhere bearing witness to a century of emigration.
Mountains in the region are 1,500 metres high, creeping up as one moves east to about 2,500 metres in the wonderful Monti Sibillini in the central Apennines, the most outstanding parts of which fall under the protection of the Parco Nazionale dei Monti Sibillini. The Monti Sibillini hold large tracts of broadleaved woodland and especially extensive alpine grasslands. The main land uses are nature conservation, tourism and forestry.
The mountains are a breeding site for four of the ten species of the Eurasian high montane biome, as well as raptors and owls. Key species include Rock Partridge, Lanner Falcon, Red-billed and Yellow-billed Choughs, Wallcreeper, Alpine Accentor and White-winged Snowfinch. Recreation, tourism and the building of new infrastructure (e.g. roads) are the main threats to the area.
It’s difficult to explore with any sort of plan (unless one sticks to the Nera), and the best approach is to follow your nose, poking into small valleys, tracing high country lanes to remote hamlets. More deliberately, one could make for Vallo di Nera, the most archetypal of the fortified villages that pop up along the Lower Nera. Medieval Triponzo is a natural focus of communications, little more than a quaint staging post and fortified tower (and a better target than modernish Cerreto nearby).
The eerie, expansive Piano Grande, twenty kilometres east of Norcia, is an extraordinary prairie ringed by bare, whaleback mountains and stretching, uninterrupted by tree, hedge or habitation, for miles and miles. A decade or so ago, it was all but unknown: now, in summer at least, it can be disconcertingly busy. It’s much photographed, especially in spring when it’s ablaze with wild flowers of every description. Prairie species such as wagtails, pipits, larks and wheatears are everywhere.
The most tempting destination around Perugia – whose surroundings are generally lacklustre – is Lago Trasimeno, an ideal spot to hole up in for a few days. The freshwater and eutrophic 12,000-hectare lake is about thirty kilometres west of Perugia and is easy to get to on public transport. The largest lake in central Italy, and the fourth largest in the country, though one would not think so to look at it, never deeper than seven metres – hence bath like warm water in summer.
There is a belt of Phragmites of variable width all around the lakeshore and submerged beds of waterweed, such as Potamogeton and Ceratophyllum, offshore. Wet woodlands of willow, alder and elm, as well as grasslands, are also present. Tourism is the main activity, while pig farming and intensive agriculture dominate the surrounding area.
The lake is an area of international importance for wintering Cormorant and other water birds collectively (more than 20,000 occur on a regular basis, mainly Coot) and for the presence of a mixed heronry. The number of wintering birds has greatly increased (especially Coot) following the declaration of the Regional Park in 1995 and the lowering of water levels. Other key species include breeding Little Egret, Black-crowned Night Heron and Squacco Heron.
The main threats to the lake are numerous, including the pollution of the wetland by nutrients and pesticides from the surrounding agricultural areas, the reduction in reedbed extent due to erosion, the creation of new beaches and arable land, fires in the reedbeds and the extraction of water for agriculture. Coypu, a non-native aquatic rodent, has dramatically reduced the extent of floating Nymphaea waterlilies.
A winning combination of tree covered hills to the north, Umbria’s subtle light and placid lapping water produces some magical moments, but on overcast and squally days the mood can turn melancholy. Not all the reed lined shore is uniformly pretty either; steer clear of the northern coast and head for the stretches south of Magione and Castiglione if one is after relative peace and quiet.
Lago Alviano is one of the largest WWF reserves and includes all the typical habitats of freshwater wetlands: swamps, ponds, marshes, water meadows and a hygrophilous woodland, among the largest in central Italy. The reserve was created in 1990 to save these habitats, many of which disappeared elsewhere more than a century ago. This makes it a special place. In fact, with its nine hundred hectares, it protects its precious biodiversity from hunting and property speculation, too.
The reserve is part of the larger Umbria regional park which also includes Corbara Lake and Forello Gorges. Part of the reserve includes agricultural fields. The hygrophilous woodland itself holds a mixture of alders, poplars and thirty-year-old willows with proliferating ivy. The water vegetation is rich and varied with large blankets of Potamogeton, Najas and Ceratophyllum.
Alviano is most famous for its rich bird diversity, which includes Mallard, Teal, Shoveler, Wigeon, Cormorant, herons, Bittern, Little Bittern, Marsh Harrier, Osprey, Glossy Ibis and Spoonbill. There are also many passerines, particularly Siskin and thrushes. The mammal population comprises Crested Porcupine, Red Fox, Wild Boar and, recently, European Ground Squirrel. There are two nature trails: the first is circular, about 1,500 meters long, and easily accessible (not suitable for wheelchairs and pushchairs). Several hides and an observation tower are located along the trail. A second trail runs along the river and marshes, ideal for more enthusiastic birders and photographers. A picnic area at the entrance is available for visitors.
The 157-hectare freshwater wetland of Colfiorito in the central Apennines, close to the eponymous village, is fringed by a reedbed and includes the surrounding hilly areas of Piani di Ricciano, Piani di Arvello, and Piano di Annifo. It’s an important breeding site for reedbed species, especially Bittern. Other key species include Little Bittern, Montagu's Harrier and Lanner Falcon. The main threats are agricultural intensification (leading to wetland drainage and water pollution with nutrients and pesticides), hunting around the wetland and a road building project which will cross the area.
Italy's green heart, Umbria is a land unto itself, the only Italian region that borders neither the sea nor another country. Removed from outside influences, it has kept alive many of Italy's old-world traditions. One will see grandmothers in aprons making pasta by hand and front doors that haven’t been locked in a century. You’ll also see plenty of birds, amongst some of Italy’s loveliest landscapes.
For more information please see – www.umbriatourism.it/en