Attention non-birders; this was a guided trip to the beautiful west coast of Italy, combining fine dining and exploration of ancient Etruscan and Roman ruins with wonderful birding in the Riserva. My five travel companions were non-birders, but people who liked new adventure, travel, hiking, and history, not to mention the dining. My job was finding a guide for the day who could serve this diverse crowd and create an appropriate agenda for all. Marco Valtriani was the perfect choice. He is a biologist by trade, but also a gifted birder, naturalist, and well-versed in local history and culture. He knows the off-the-beaten-track sites and loves to share his knowledge with travelers. Visit his sites at www.Birdinginitaly.com and www.walkinginetruria.com. We met Marco in Siena and car pooled to the coast. Pulling into the picturesque coastal town of Castiglione della Pescaia we saw beautiful, large yachts moored along the quay, and immediately assumed one would be ours for the sea-leg of our tour. But when we turned into a dirt road along the swamp and stopped next to the 22 foot outboard open skiff, I could see the crest-fallen looks on some faces. Their vision of wine and cheese on a Mediterranean cruise while Steve watches birds fly by, was shattered. They were all good sports however, as we loaded into the skiff and started down the canal, into the vast brackish, wetland making up the Riserva Naturale Diaccia Botrona.
It was a “bluebird day” with panoramic views of the marsh and continuous flyovers of wading birds, ducks, and gulls, called out by the guide. Several stops on dry land gave great scope-views of the waders, including Greater Flamingo. This is one of the few places this bird is seen in Italy. I saw 27 species including 12 life-birds: Common Shelduck, White-cheeked Pintail, Greater Flamingo, Eurasian Spoonbill, Eurasian Marsh Harrier, Spotted Redshank, Common Greenshank, Common Redshank, Eurasian Curlew, Common Wood-Pigeon, Common Kingfisher, and Eurasian Jackdaw.
We had settled in to the pleasant routine of cruising the canals while Marco pointed out bird after bird. When a birder hires a guide you must not fall into the trap of just making your list, and not truly observing the birds. I think we accomplished that, and could tell from the smiles on the non-birders that we had achieved some enjoyment for them too. Suddenly Marco and the boat captain started waving, pointing, and yelling in Italian as two ducks landed just in front of us. The boat veered to the side of the canal and the motor abruptly stopped. We weren’t sure what had happened and why the excitement, until Marco reported that the birds were likely a rarity, not usually seen in the marsh. He wasn’t sure what they were. Most of these birds were new for us, but it was interesting to see the excited reaction of the Italian birders, universally experienced by all birders, when an unexpected rarity turns up. Marco texted a couple good pictures of the birds to the local birding guru and finally established the birds as male and female White-cheeked Pintails.
With that settled it was time to eat, and what a lunch it was. I can still taste the wine, bread, and pasta served at the sidewalk cafe of the Ristorante Pierbacco in Castiglione della Pescaia. These people know how to dine–no hurry, just good food and conversation, and planning for the afternoon trek to the ancient ruins a few miles inland.
The Etruscan civilization developed in central and western Italy in the 9th century BC and lasted to the 4th century BC when it was assimilated by the Romans. It was contemporary to ancient Greece, but surprisingly little is known about these people. They had a unique language; “Etrusci” is the root for “Tuscany”. The Etruscans tended to build their towns and cities at the top of hills and mountains, as was the case with our destination Rusellae, which is situated on the twin peaks, 636 feet above the coastal plain. The hill over looks the ancient Lake Prile, now a dry, fertile farmland.
After short climb up the ancient Roman via we arrived at the ruins. These are primarily Roman, built directly on top of the Etruscan ruins which have been recently discovered and excavated. Its amazing to realize that at the height of the Roman Empire, the Etruscans were already an ancient civilization. The Roman ruins include a large amphitheater, villas, and baths, some with surviving mosaic floors. The town was sacked by the Muslims in 935 AD and completely deserted and left to the weather and undergrowth by 1138. The ruins were discovered an excavation begun in the 1950’s. The site was surprisingly quiet that day with only a few other visitors seen all afternoon–a great chance to contemplate one’s position in the great march of time, and catch a few more bird photos when no one was looking.
But as Virgil said, “all our sweetest hours fly fastest”. That was the case that evening as we thanked Marco and bid him good-bye in Siena, a little tired and dusty, but so much richer for our experience–and don’t forget those Italian birds.