In early July we had the pleasure of accompanying – thanks to the collaboration with the local ornithologist Leonardo Siddi – Kevin and Rebecca, two guests from the United States and Canada respectively, for a 2-day birding tour departing from Turin to discover the bird diversity of Piedmont, northern Italy.
Our journey begins at 6:00 in Turin; first stop is on a bridge crossing Po River near Crescentino village.
Po is the longest river in Italy: its riverbends provide suitable habitat for ground-nesting species such as Eurasian Thick–Knee, Common and Little Tern and European Bee–eater.
Summer migration has begun, with the first waders crossing Italy to reach their winter quarters in Africa. Common Greenshanks (Tringa nebularia), Wood Sandpipers (Tringa glareola), Green Sandpipers (Tringa ochropus), Common Sandpipers (Actitis hypoleucos) and Little Ringed Plovers (Charadrius dubius) feed on the sand.
After checking every single rock, 3 Eurasian Stone-curlews (Burhinus oedicnemus) finally emerge! We spot some holes on a distant sand wall, perhaps from an old, now abandoned Bee-eater colony.
On the way to the second stop, Kevin’s eyes fall on a strange duck swimming along an irrigation channel: it’s a female Tufted Duck (Aythya fuligula) that has probably nested in the area. We will see two more pairs later in the day.
San Genuario’s swamp is a protected wetland area, consisting of a complex of satellite ponds. Access to the innermost areas is limited, due to the presence of a ringing station, but some ponds remain accessible to visitors.
We reach these ponds and Pygmy Cormorant (Microcarbo pygmaeus), Purple Heron (Ardea purpurea), Squacco Heron (Ardeola ralloides) and Little Bittern (Ixobrychus minutus) are just some of the many water birds that inhabit the site. European Turtle Doves (Streptopelia turtur) sing from the treetops, while a pair of Stock Dove (Columba oenas) seems to prefer the roof of an old farmhouse.
An Eurasian Hoopoe (Upupa epops) flies distantly over the rice fields, an increasingly rare encounter in Piedmont. Before leaving, a pair of Western Marsh Harrier (Circus aeruginosus) indulges briefly while hunting on the reeds.
Moving towards the next stop, a Western Reef Heron (Egretta gularis) magically appears in the paddy fields. It’s a known specimen for local birders: its presence has been established since October 2021 and it is probably intergraded with a Little Egret (due to the extensive presence of white feathers). Nevertheless, this is a more than remarkable sighting, especially considering the location and the time period.
Apparently increasing in the region, a Zitting Cisticola (Cisticola juncidis) sings from a power line along the road. A quick stop at the Leri Cavour power plant allows us to see (and hear) a Melodious Warbler (Hippolais polyglotta) singing from the top of a false acacia tree, while the local heronry is filled with African Sacred Ibises (Threskiornis aethiopicus).
As we approach Cascina Oschiena, the last stop of the morning, we spot some Black Terns (Chlidonias niger) hunting in the fields, belonging to the last colonies in this part of the Po Valley. Cascina Oschiena is a complex of artificial ponds created with the aim of restoring a semi-natural aquatic habitat suitable for birds. The view is limited; vegetation has grown to such an extent that it covers almost the entire surface of the ponds.
The firsts two Glossy Ibises (Plegadis falcinellus) of the trip fly over us, reminding us that we are close to another important heronry. The colony teems with birds: cormorants, herons and ibises pile their nests on top of each other, creating a noisy feathered condominium.
A flock of Black Terns flies in the distance over the rice fields. Looking more closely, we notice the presence of several juveniles, already able to fly but still being fed by their parents.
It’s lunchtime for us too, and after a quick break we towards the Gran Paradiso National Park. Some European Bee-eaters (Merops apiaster) fly over us for a few moments as we drive along the highway, performing their hunting stunts. A sighting as quick as it was unexpected, filling the almost total absence of birds on the route. The only other interesting species is an Eurasian Goshawk (Accipiter gentilis) observed by Kevin as we cross the hills of Ivrea.
Our accommodation is a hotel located in the village of Noasca, along the Orco stream and just outside the park boundaries. Alpine streams are the perfect habitat for the White-throated Dipper (Cinclus cinclus), which Kevin and Rebecca will find right from their bedroom window! A perfect way to end this first day of birdwatching, followed by a typical Piedmontese dinner.
The second day is dedicated to the observation of the species linked to Alpine environments. The site to reach is the Nivolet Pass, famous among birdwatchers in northern Italy mainly for the summer migration of the European Dotterel. Early morning is the perfect time to see passerines. Around the village of Ceresole Reale we observe numerous Mistle Thrushes (Turdus viscivorus), a Common Redstart (Phoenicurus phoenicurus) and other more common species.
As we go up in altitude, the first alpine species begin to appear, with dozens of Northern Wheatears (Oenanthe oenanthe), Water Pipits (Anthus spinoletta), a White-winged Snowfinch (Montifringilla nivalis) and a Whinchat (Saxicola rubetra) seen fleetingly at the roadside. The route devised foresees starting from the Savoia refuge, skirting Lake Rossett and then ascending to the pass of the same name (which we will not reach due to bad weather).
Waiting for us at the parking lot of the refuge is Antonio, the mid-mountain guide who will guide us during our hike. Although Antonio has only a superficial knowledge of alpine birds, he has an extensive background in Earth sciences and was able to give us the right notions to enhance a broader reading of the landscape that also included the geomorphology of the area.
A few White-winged Snowfinches emerge shyly from the roof of the chalet, where they have decided to build their nest. After a few meters of elevation gain, we leave behind the last signs of human presence and plunge into the boundless high-altitude grasslands. Eurasian Skylarks (Alauda arvensis) are still singing, unlike conspecifics in the plain that have already concluded their breeding season.
Mixed flocks of choughs patrol the area, although in flight it’s difficult to distinguish the two species. With the aid of the spotting scope, we spot two Red-billed Choughs (Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax) in a group of feeding Alpine Choughs (Pyrrhocorax graculus), just in time before they disappear toward the peaks. Past the alpine grassland, rocky outcrops begin, the Alpine Accentor’s favorite habitat. We observe one Prunella collaris feeding right along the trail, not at all disturbed by our presence and giving us a few verses of its song.
We decide to position ourselves in front of the screes of the mountains that mark the border with the Aosta Valley, where we hope to spot the elusive Rock Ptarmigan. The wind blowing against us makes us invisible to a large herd of Alpine Chamois (Rupicapra rupicapra), also composed of cubs and a radio-collared adult.
The hours begin to be good for raptor observation: these large soaring birds take advantage of the warm updrafts to move in search of food. Golden Eagles and Lammergeiers nest in the park, and Griffon Vultures from other alpine regions are occasionally observed. Peering toward the highest peaks we observe just two Golden Eagles (Aquila chrysaetos), probably moving to hunting territories. Two Alpine Ibex (Capra ibex), the park’s iconic species, climb nimbly up nearly vertical walls, finding support in ravines impossible for any other species. During the excursion we also observe some Alpine Marmots (Marmota marmota).
The hope of seeing Lammergeier and Rock Ptarmigan unfortunately vanishes with the onset of rain, forcing us to retreat back to the car. On the way down, in addition to the species already encountered, we add a Ring Ouzel (Turdus torquatus) and a Common Linnet (Linaria cannabina) to our list, also admiring some of the typical flowers of the Alpine chain, including Glacier Buttercup (Ranunculus glacialis) and the magnificent Edelweiss (Leontopodium nivale).
The mountain is now filled with people, and only the most confident birds tend to show themselves. All the passerines we encountered on the way up to the Nivolet Pass are now sheltering in the vegetated foliage. On the way back we attempt one last stop at Lake Agnel, where we hope to see the rare vulture. Of the raptor not even a shadow, but its absence will be amply compensated for by a pair of Common Rock Thrush (Monticola saxatilis) nesting near the dam.
The search is postponed until another time, the midday heat resets the chances of further sightings. We end the trip with the noisy Coal Tits (Periparus ater) of Ceresole Reale, with the hope of seeing the missing species on a future alpine tour.
Despite the season and limited time, we managed to make more than interesting sightings (with a total of 89 bird species!), enhanced by the breathtaking views and landscapes and (as well) good local food.
We would like to thank Antonio for having joined us in the exploration of the second day and for the stunning photos, but above all we thank Rebecca and Kevin for their kindness, they have been great travel fellows, hoping to be able to to meet them again soon for a new birding adventure!
1. Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos)
2. Tufted Duck (Aythya fuligula)
3. Great Crested Grebe (Podiceps cristatus)
4. Great Cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo)
5. Pigmy Cormorant (Microcarbo pygmaeus)
6. Little Bittern (Ixobrychus minutus)
7. Black-crowned Night Heron (Nycticorax nycticorax)
8. Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis)
9. Squacco Heron (Ardeola ralloides)
10. Little Egret (Egretta garzetta)
11. Western Reef Heron (Egretta gularis)
12. Great Egret (Ardea alba)
13. Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea)
14. Purple Heron (Ardea purpurea)
15. Glossy Ibis (Plegadis falcinellus)
16. African Sacred Ibis (Threskiornis aethiopicus)
17. Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos)
18. Black Kite (Milvus migrans)
19. Western Marsh Harrier (Circus aeruginosus)
20. Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo)
21. Eurasian Goshawk (Accipiter gentilis)
22. Common Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus)
23. Common Moorhen (Gallinula chloropus)
24. Eurasian Coot (Fulica atra)
25. Black-winged Stilt (Himantopus himantopus)
26. Eurasian Stone-curlew (Burhinus oedicnemus)
27. Little Ringed Plover (Charadrius dubius)
28. Northern Lapwing (Vanellus vanellus)
29. Common Sandpiper (Actitis hypoleucos)
30. Green Sandpiper (Tringa ochropus)
31. Wood Sandpiper (Tringa glareola)
32. Common Greenshank (Tringa nebularia)
33. Black-headed Gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus)
34. Yellow-legged Gull (Larus michahellis)
35. Common Tern (Sterna hirundo)
36. Black Tern (Chlidonias niger)
37. Feral Pigeon (Columba livia var. domestica)
38. Stock Dove (Columba oenas)
39. Wood Pigeon (Columba palumbus)
40. European Turtle Dove (Streptopelia turtur)
41. Eurasian Collared Dove (Streptopelia decaocto)
42. Common Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus)
43. Common Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis)
44. Eurasian Hoopoe (Upupa epops)
45. European Bee-eater (Merops apiaster)
46. Great Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos major)
47. Eurasian Skylark (Alauda arvensis)
48. Eurasian Crag Martin (Ptyonoprogne rupestris)
49. Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica)
50. Common House Martin (Delichon urbicum)
51. Water Pipit (Anthus spinoletta)
52. White Wagtail (Motacilla alba)
53. Western Yellow Wagtail (Motacilla flava)
54. Grey Wagtail (Motacilla cinerea)
55. White-throated Dipper (Cinclus cinclus)
56. Alpine Accentor (Prunella collaris)
57. Common Nightingale (Luscinia megarhynchos)
58. Common Redstart (Phoenicurus phoenicurus)
59. Black Redstart (Phoenicurus ochruros)
60. Whinchat (Saxicola rubetra)
61. Mistle Thrush (Turdus viscivurus)
62. Common Blackbird (Turdus merula)
63. Ring Ouzel (Turdus torquatus)
64. Common Rock Thrush (Monticola saxatilis)
65. Northern Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe)
66. Blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla)
67. Cetti’s Warbler (Cettia cetti)
68. Common Reed Warbler (Acrocephalus scirpaceus)
69. Marsh Warbler (Acrocephalus palustris)
70. Melodious Warbler (Hippolais polyglotta)
71. Common Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita)
72. Great Tit (Parus major)
73. Coal Tit (Periparus ater)
74. Long-tailed Tit (Aegithalos caudatus)
75. Eurasian Magpie (Pica pica)
76. Eurasian Jay (Garrulus glandarius)
77. Western Jackdaw (Corvus monedula)
78. Red-billed Chough (Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax)
79. Alpine Chough (Pyrrhocorax graculus)
80. Hooded Crow (Corvus cornix)
81. Carrion Crow (Corvus corone)
82. Common Raven (Corvus corax)
83. Italian Sparrow (Passer italiae)
84. Tree Sparrow (Passer montanus)
85. White-winged Snowfinch (Montfringilla nivalis)
86. Commn Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs)
87. Common Linnet (Linaria cannabina)
88. European Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis)
89. European Serin (Serinus serinus)