It’s probably best not to habitually make excuses for my absence, but one very good one I can offer for the last, oh, I don’t know how many blog-free weeks, is that I was busily preparing a poster (and, crucially, needed to finish generating some data to put on it) for a conference that took place in Florence last week. Lest anybody suspect I’m asking for sympathy, I fully acknowledge that a conference in Italy seems like an excuse for a holiday, and, indeed, we managed to extend the trip a couple of days either side to take in some of the Tuscan countryside.
It goes without saying that binoculars were never far from my side, and since I was travelling in a country that I’ve only visited once before, more than half a life ago, I was eager to observe anything in the birdlife that was different to what we see here in the UK. One of the first things I noticed is that the sparrows of Italy are rather sharply attired, as befits a country renowned globally as a centre for fashion, with a chestnut brown cap, white cheeks and an extensive, chequered black bib.
They look very much like a cross between a regular house sparrow (Passer domesticus) and the even more boldly dressed Spanish sparrow (Passer hispaniolensis, an almost certainly ship-assisted individual of which I twitched in Hampshire back in 2012), and indeed that’s probably what they are – though the original hybridisation occurred so long ago that ornithologists consider the line to be its own species, Passer italiae. In every city, town, and small village these sparrows abound, tweeting in a near deafening chorus from the rafters of the farmhouse we stayed at during our first weekend in the country. It must be a long time since I saw a new species in such great numbers.
In the surrounding gardens and olive groves redstarts proved, to my surprise, to be one of the more common birds, delighting with their colour and sleepy, summery song wherever we went. And in a few places I was even more pleased to hear woodlarks sound their melancholy descending tunes, in my opinion a song of near unparalleled beauty. In the UK hearing one out in the general farmed countryside, away from the lowland heath they tend to prefer here, is a memorable event.
Cirl buntings proved widespread, their simple song – like a yellowhammer’s without the cheese, I’ve heard it described – forming a common backdrop to our wanderings. Meanwhile, off in the distance the peculiar, deep resounding call of hoopoes echoed from hillside to hillside, but we only caught sight of one on one occasion; our repeated attempts to get a good look were thwarted as the bird fluttered away like a big black, white and pink butterfly among the olive trees. Wrynecks also frustrated my efforts at obtaining a good view, but I was pleased to hear them calling on their breeding grounds for the first time, considering my only experience of this bird is as an all-too-fleeting passage migrant.
I didn’t see a single firecrest all week, though they were as common as anything, incredibly so, audible just about everywhere we went and in every habitat, from scrub to forest to urban park. Serins, an utterly charming little bright yellow finch, were just as ubiquitous but thankfully more visible.
Many of the differences between the Italian and British birdscapes are of course down to climate and regional geography; after all, we spent the week nearly 800 miles south-east of Reading. Though I also suspect that the steep hillsides of Tuscany – difficult to farm intensively and usually covered in an intricate and slightly scruffy patchwork of olives, vineyards, small meadows, rocky scrub and forest – make for a more habitable landscape for birds than can be found in most of modern Britain.
There is, however, a darker tale to tell from our week’s ornithological observations. I saw as many raptors of as many species all at once on Sunday afternoon, soaring in the skies of Reading (one buzzard and four red kites) as I did in nine days in Italy (three kestrels and two buzzards). With some notable and lamentable exceptions, Britain is a nation of bird lovers now, and it’s unusual to go a day without seeing a bird of prey, especially for those of us lucky enough to live in kite country. The cultural attitude to birds is probably still rather different in Italy, as this recent blog by Peter Rafferty (from the LIPU – ‘Lega Italiana Protezione Uccelli’) attests, and undoubtedly persecution is a real problem, perhaps explaining that rather notable lack of larger birds in the sky during our trip.
It was almost like receiving a glimpse of British birdlife a century ago, with birds of prey largely absent but bushes and fields teeming with sparrows. Maybe a country alive with serins and hoopoes (whose establishment as breeding species in the UK is one of the more pleasing potential effects of climate change), woodlarks and cirl buntings (whose populations may continue to recover under careful management) and firecrests (already on the increase here) offers a vision of the future of British birds. It’ll be interesting to see where the birdlife and the bird-people relationships of both nations go from here.