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The North and the South of it

The Treponti, Comacchio

Last year we were unable to join the celebrations in Rome of the 50th anniversary of LIPU’s founding, so this year we were determined to attend the Assemblea, or AGM, held in Comacchio in the Po Delta – one of the best areas for birds in northern Italy. The event took place on the same site as that used for the International Birdwatching Fair 2016, which was well attended on both days – although, of course, not on the scale of the Fair held at Rutland Water.

Among our LIPU colleagues, we were happy to renew old acquaintances and make new friends, as but everything has a cost I was asked to say a few words during the conference about skylarks. This was a modest contribution to a very strong case calling on the Italian government to remove the skylark from the list of species that may, legally, be hunted. The conference launched the LIPU campaign to ‘Save the Skylark’, and we hope it will gain all the support it will need.

After the Fair it was an early start to drive in torrential rain to Bologna for a flight south to Catania in Sicily, where we were to visit LIPU reserves and see evidence of the projects we are supporting. We travelled with Claudio Celada, LIPU Conservation Director, and were looked after wonderfully by Loredana and Giuseppe Rannisi of LIPU’s branch in Catania.

LIPU is protecting four of the nesting sites of Bonelli’s Eagle in Sicily – in partnership with other groups a total of over 40 sites are monitored. The eagle is ‘declining drastically’ according to Birdlife International: only 600 pairs are thought to exist in Europe and North Africa with the majority in the south west of the region. The eggs and young are highly prized by Middle Eastern falconers and we were told that thieves can expect to receive € 5,000 for each bird and this poses a real threat to the survival of the species in the region.

Bonelli’s Eagle

The location of known nest sites is a closely guarded secret, but we saw one nest on the top of a concrete column supporting a long bridge, and – as I write – the news is that the two young have fledged and are the first of this year’s birds to leave the nest for their life in Sicilian skies.

The protection project employs one co-ordinator who works full time through the season and is supported by volunteers who may be on site for just a few days or perhaps over a week. Some nests have surveillance cameras which send an alert to the guardian’s mobile phone when there is activity at the nest. Thus he can both monitor the adults arriving with food, usually rabbit, and any unwanted visitors.

Before leaving Licata on the south coast we visited the reserve at Gela – a lake surrounded by greenhouses and in the shadow of a huge petrochemical refinery. We were shown an excellent visitor centre by the warden, Emilio, and – from one of the hides – a good range of birds, but then it was time to set off for Catania.

On the following day we drove to the south-eastern tip of the island and Pantano Cuba, a wetland we had been keen to buy a few years ago. Our ambition was dampened when it was announced that the area was to become a Regional Nature Reserve and that our intervention was no longer necessary. Imagine our horror when we discovered two years ago that the hunters’ association took the regional authorities to court on a point of law and that the designation of ‘Nature Reserve’ was reversed. A nature foundation in Germany quickly stepped in, however, and bought the lake and some of the surrounding farm land so the pantano is again protected and has been saved – for ever.

Seeing the pantani in this corner of Sicily brought home to us the clear importance of these coastal wetlands. For the spring migrants crossing from Tunisia and arriving tired and hungry these areas offer fresh water, food and shelter; in the autumn, birds leaving for their winter quarters have this last refuelling stop before setting off on the sea crossing. A total of 10 pantani in the area, together with the Vendicari wetlands just around the corner on the east coast, represent an ecological system whose importance cannot be overstated and whose protection must be a high priority. They are Ramsar sites, IBAs, SPAs, and yet all can be hunted unless brought into private ownership, fenced and posted with notices prohibiting any hunting.

We met wardens Carlo and Egle who explained what had been done and their ambitions for the future then drove around the coast to see the other wetlands – a tour that was both moving and thought-provoking.

After the pantani we were invited to the LIPU reserve of Saline di Priolo, and the warden, Fabio, showed us round a very impressive wetland reserve which was similar to Gela in that it is situated in the shadow of a huge power station. Flamingos have adopted the reserve which is good for attendance figures and public support but not so good for the largest colony of Little Terns in Italy, which are disturbed by the big pink ‘bullies’. After a brief diversion to Melilli to visit a Lanner Falcon site, we returned to Catania.

Black Kite on migration

On our last day we were driven north to the very place that caused me and many others to join LIPU – the Strait of Messina, the bottleneck where migrating raptors, storks and other species have to cross from Sicily to Calabria, the ‘toe’ of Italy. We met Andrea Corso, whom I first met in Parma sixteen years ago, who was sitting beside his telescope in the sunshine counting the birds as they passed, and being employed to do so! This wonderful job has, of course, a serious side with two distinct aims. One is to count and log the movements to build up a data set of the way migrant species move through Sicily and this LIPU project has been supported by the UK branch for many years now. The second aim is to use modern technology to share the information with other volunteers from the WWF, CABS and other groups, as well as the anti-poaching teams on the other side of the Strait. Andrea showed how he could enter his sightings into his mobile phone and they would be sent to over 30 people simultaneously, something which would have been impossible only a few years ago.

LIPU-UK has supported the anti-poaching patrols around Messina and in Calabria since our foundation by Roger Jordan in 1989 and I was proud to see how the work of these enthusiastic people has calmed what used to be a battle ground – no shots at all were reported that day. The visit was important in that we were able to see how well our ‘investment’ in the protection and conservation of birds in Italy is being used, and to meet many of the people who make it all work. I can only say that we were inspired and totally satisfied by what we saw and I haven’t even mentioned Sicilian food!

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