Thursday, 18 May 2017

Sardinia, 9th-13th May 2017

Aside from two trips to South Africa I've done very little birding abroad, so when my girlfriend and I decided to book a few days in Sardinia to use some of the air miles we'd accrued from our SA trips I was excited to see what new birds we might encounter.

We flew into Cagliari at lunchtime on Tuesday and headed to Hotel Chentu Lunas in Poetto where our wonderfully friendly host Graziella had arranged for hire bicycles to be dropped off. We hopped on and headed along the beachfront to the Parco di Molentargius; a Ramsar protected site and one of several large wetlands on the outskirts of the island's capital city. En route we saw and heard the ubiquitous Hooded Crows, Serins, Spanish Sparrows, Tree Sparrows and Spotless Starlings in the beachfront gardens.
Tree Sparrow on a lamppost! A common sight in Poetto
We had seen Greater Flamingoes from the plane as we came into land so it was no surprise to see lots of them as we entered the park. I knew Sardinia has a healthy population of this species but was still amazed to see so many: every body of water was covered in them, interspersed with smaller numbers of Avocets, Black-winged Stilts, Shelduck and Pochard. There were several Terns flying about, including singles of Gull-billed Tern and Little Tern plus a few Common Terns, while among the numerous Yellow-legged Gulls it was nice to pick out a couple of Slender-billed Gulls.
Greater Flamingo
Slender-billed Gull
Gull-billed Tern
In the vegetation around the park Reed Warblers and Cetti's Warblers were very vocal, while the scrubbier fields and hedges held Collared Doves, Spotless Starlings, Zitting Cisticolas and Sardinian Warblers. At one point we flushed a Cattle Egret as we cycled past and later a Purple Heron which flew off into one of the massive reedbeds. As we headed back past the biggest pool near the main entrance a Squacco Heron gave a nice flypast. Overhead there were large numbers of both Common Swift and Pallid Swift plus Barn Swallows, House Martins and Sand Martins; so numerous their combined calls provided a constant soundtrack to our time here. As we parked up our bikes to check out one of the tower hides a familiar call alerted me to two Bee-eaters amongst the hirundine flock above us. Around the same time Kate pointed out a Crimson Speckled moth on the ground which unfortunately proved too flighty to allow good views or a photo. Molentargius is up there with West Coast National Park in South Africa as one of the best nature reserves I've visited; I wish we could have stayed for longer.
Cattle Egret
Spotless Starling - strangely the only photo I got of this common species
Sardinian Warbler - this male was busy collecting food and taking it back to a nest
The next morning (Kate's birthday) we woke to the sound of singing Serins and Greenfinches and a quick scan from the balcony produced a Peregrine flying in front of the mountain and scores of House Martins and Swifts over the water and buildings behind the hotel. After breakfast at one of the beachfront cafes we hit the road for the three hour drive up to Dorgali in the mountains up the east coast. The drive was incredible and slightly terrifying at times as we wound our way along mountain passes in an unfamiliar car on the other side of the road! There was plenty of bird interest along the way including several Turtle Doves and two Monk Parakeets flying across the road and perched on wires, a Bee-eater hawking near the road, Crag Martins nesting under a road bridge and the first of several high altitude raptors which at the time suggested Honey Buzzard but was later identified from my photos by others as a Marsh Harrier.
By mid-afternoon we'd made it to Agriturismo Canales - a charming traditional farmhouse set on a hill by the edge of Lake Cedrino and with great views across into Gennargentu National Park - our home for the next two nights. The first thing that struck us here was the overwhelming quietness of the setting, interrupted only occasionally by goat and sheep bells and bleats, and bursts of song from Turtle Doves and Cirl Buntings. We also found our first Spotted Flycatcher of the holiday squeaking away near our chalet here. It's a cliché to say it but it really is striking how these scarcer species still seem to be thriving further south in Europe, presumably due in no small part to the more sensitive way in which the land is managed; for the time being at least, intensive agriculture with its flailed hedges and monocrops sprayed within an inch of their life are nowhere to be found on Sardinia, or not that we saw anyway. It's a sobering glimpse of a landscape that is becoming such a distant memory in much of Britain.
Cirl Bunting
Turtle Doves

As night began to fall the valley below our chalet really came to life as the first Robins, Wrens and Blackcaps we'd heard during the trip, amongst others, burst into song. After dinner we returned to our balcony to the distinctive sound of Scops Owls duetting and a curious call which I soon discovered to be Barbary Partridge. I regularly heard them calling quite close to our chalet during our stay here and spent a good couple of hours or more in total trying to track them down but sadly they remained frustratingly elusive!
After a hearty breakfast on Thursday morning we drove down to Baunei as Kate had suggested we try the walk from the Golgo Plateau down to Cala Goloritzé – a picturesque beach only accessible by boat or by hike, and reputedly a good site for Eleonora's Falcon. No sooner had we got out of the car at the Golgo Plateau than one drifted overhead; a good start! The hike down took us through deeper and deeper vegetation, soundtracked almost constantly by Firecrests and occasional Sardinian Warblers. At one point I heard a Dartford Warbler calling as well.
A little clearing halfway down dotted with Holm Oaks produced at least two Spotted Flycatchers, a Pied Flycatcher and a Wood Warbler while our second Eleonora's Falcon powered overhead. Nearer the beach we saw Crag Martins and Alpine Swifts flying around the cliffs while down at the beach itself a couple of Ravens and another Peregrine flew over along with another high altitude broad-winged raptor which I judged to be a Honey Buzzard from its shape and 'whole wing' wingbeats.
Spotted Flycatcher
Pied Flycatcher - sadly the only picture I got as it wouldn't stop moving!
The hike back up proved challenging and during one of several hard-earned rest stops we were rewarded with a little group of Corsican Finches flitting about in the bushes quite near the path in the aforementioned area which I nicknamed 'Flycatcher Corner'.
Corsican Finch
Overhead a couple of soaring Common Buzzards were joined by another Marsh Harrier which drifted east, as did another Eleonora's Falcon. On the way back to the main road we were drawn to stop by a gathering of pigs and donkeys on the dirt track ahead and it was here we heard our only Cuckoo of the holiday.
Back at Canales we had dinner on the balcony again to the sound of Scops Owls and Barbary Partridge plus a brief burst of churring from a Nightjar.
Our fourth day in Sardinia saw us again on the road for a long drive down to the south-west - Portovesme to be precise - from where we caught a ferry over to Isola di San Pietro. Though this holiday was primarily about having a few days away for Kate's birthday I made a special request that we go and see the Eleonora's Falcon colony on the island. I wasn't sure they'd be back on territory yet but having seen three the previous day my confidence was bolstered. The ferry over to the island proved productive with two Scopoli's Shearwaters flying past, one very close, plus two flyover Little Egrets, several Shags and two Black-headed Gulls: the only time we saw this species during the whole trip.

After making shore and indulging in a bit of tapas we headed over to the west side of the island and the LIPU reserve at Faro di Cala Sandalo, the most westerly point of Italy and home to the Eleonora's Falcon colony. As soon as we'd got out of the car I spotted a couple of them sailing about over the cliffs. A friendly chap showed us a mouthwatering photo of one of the birds he'd seen earlier perched on a crag and pointed us in the right direction. Within a few minutes we were sat on the cliff edge watching in awe as at least four of these magnificent birds - both pale and dark morphs - put on an incredible display right in front of us, sometimes cruising about amongst the gulls and Alpine Swifts, at other times dashing and diving at breakneck speed towards the ocean before veering back up, almost looping back over on themselves, calling excitedly as they did so. Breathtaking. Sometimes in life and in birding you sense that a moment will live with you forever. To top it all off Kate spotted a dark morph individual that had just alighted on the cliff less than 50 metres below us. Magical.

I could have stayed there for hours but unfortunately we were rather short of time as we had to catch the ferry back to the mainland and check in to our B&B in Portoscuso. A quick check of one of the stagni (saltwater lagoons) near Carloforte on the way back produced more Greater FlamingoesAvocets and Black-winged Stilts, lots of Little Egrets, a single Grey Heron (our only one of the trip!), a couple of Slender-billed Gulls and Common Terns and a very vocal Zitting Cisticola carrying food.
Black-winged Stilt
Saturday was our final morning in Sardinia so I couldn't resist a little seawatch from our hotel window before we packed up our bags, hoping I'd be able to pick out a distant seabird or two. I was pleasantly surprised to find not just one but at least four Scopoli's Shearwaters almost straight away, feeding quite close in to the shore. After watching them for a while a smaller and more strongly contrasting black and white bird darted across my scope view: a Yelkouan Shearwater! One of two seen during this session and a very nice way to end our time here in Portoscuso.
Soon we were on our way back to the airport but the birding fun wasn't quite over as a couple of rest breaks and a petrol stop added Corn Bunting and Skylark to the holiday list, singing in the fields near the road, while birding from the car* produced another Bee-eater and two Black Kites over one of the recently cut hay meadows. If we ever come back here I'd definitely like to spend a bit more time exploring the more agricultural areas of the island as I suspect there were many avian treats hiding there. The very last bird of the holiday was a Marsh Harrier quartering over the reeds that separated the airport tarmac from the Stagno di Cagliari beyond.

It wasn't all about the birds of course. We saw a great many butterflies during our trip, particularly Clouded Yellows, but also Red Admiral, Painted Lady, Brimstone, Cleopatra, various Whites and a Small Copper. Most were too flighty to photograph, sadly, but I did manage to capture a shot of one on the walk back from Cala Goloritzé which I didn't recognise. Looking in my Collins guide when we got home I realised this was a Corsican Wall Brown which is endemic to this part of the world.
Corsican Wall Brown
Everywhere we went, particularly in the Gennargentu area and on Isola di San Pietro we saw lizards, most of which I think were Tyrrhenian Wall Lizard, like the one pictured below which scuttled across our balcony at Canales.
All in all a great few days in a wonderful part of the world. There's really far too much to see in four days though - I hope to return one day and it's certainly inspired me to do more European birding!

* If you're looking to hire a car while in Sardinia, I must just implore you not to go anywhere near Avis, they are absolute crooks who swindled us out of £300 for the tiniest of chips on the rear spoiler which any respectable hire company would have overlooked as general wear and tear. Worst customer service I've ever experienced in years of hiring cars. Avoid!


  1. Brilliant post, mate - makes you realise how hard work British birding is!

    1. Only just seen this, sorry! - yes it sure does, especially in Surrey!

    2. I agree birding in the UK is hard work else where birds seem to drop into your lap!