Trip Report: Spring in a North Italian Marsh -- Verona, May 3, 1997

Wim Vader, Tromsø Museum 9037 Tromsø, Norway;

On Sunday 3 May I had the great fortune to be able to accompany two Italian colleagues, Prof. Paolo de Franceschi and Prof. Roberto Pollo, on a half day visit to 2 of the very few remnant marshes in the densely populated plains south of Verona (I stayed in Verona for 5 days, working on my first love, the amphipod crustaceans). I am very grateful for this chance to forget all about the snow and chill of Tromsø for a while. We had a glorious day, with temperatures of up to 28°C, quite a change for me. My hosts have studied these marshes in detail; Paolo has published on the Paluda de Busanello, and Roberto on the Paluda Brusa-Vallette, where he also has his ringing station.

As usual, I shan't give a complete list of all the birds we saw (I can furnish such a list if you are specially interested), but rather give some impressions. Both areas were marshy areas along a small river, with Phragmites, Carex and Typha facies, and small thickets of mostly Salix and plantations of Populus along the edges. Neither is really very big; we walked around the Paluda de Busanello in a few hours, and this is the larger of the two. But the density of marsh birds was unbelievable!! In the marsh itself the "karre...karre..keet" of the Great Reed Warbler and the explosive song snatches of the Cetti's Warbler Cettia cetti absolutely dominated. The Great Reed Warblers were easy to watch as they sang and postured in last year's dead Phragmites stalks, while the Cetti's warbler, as usual, mostly was "a voice in the marsh" and usually only allowed glimpses of its rusty brown body and full round tail (Roberto is undertaking a census and study of the breeding biology of the Cetti's Warbler, a very courageous project indeed). The Reed Warbler Acrocephalus scirpaceus (In Holland the Small Karekiet, while arundinaceus is the Great Karekiet!) was also common, but less so, and at first sight now somewhat concentrated to the areas that had not been burned last winter and that therefore had taller old reed stalks. At 4 places we heard the secret little travel alarm clock of the Savi's Warbler (called the "snor" in Holland, where as Anneke has listed recently, many birds have onomatopoeic names). Also the staccato and somewhat bumbling song of the Reed Bunting was heard from all directions; I had the definite impression that the song here on the average is quite a bit longer than in Norway (I noticed the same with the Barn Swallows, and of course also among us humans: Italians are far more loquacious than Scandinavians).

We did not walk through the marsh, but circumnavigated it, and therefore we were all the time within earshot of at least 5 Nightingales Luscinia megarhynchos, a bird deservedly famous for its song. As the territories here were so close together, there were constant song-duels, and I have never heard such a endlessly glorious nightingale concerto. There were also Blackcaps Sylvia atricapilla, Goldfinches Carduelis carduelis and of course Greenfinches C. chloris, as well as European Blackbirds Turdus merula, but even the latter found it hard to compete with the nightingales. On the arable fields around another famous singer, the Skylark Alauda arvensis trilled, while we also heard Crested Larks Galerida cristata. Here Yellow Wagtails Motacilla flava cinereocapilla were ubiquitous.

Above the marsh the logo of one of the areas, the Falco di Palude, the Marsh Harrier Circus aeruginosus, was much in evidence, and we watched both display and birds flying with nest material. The other birds constantly flying around and "calling their own name" were the Cuckoos Cuculus canorus; the Acrocephalus and Locustella species are well-known favoured hosts for cuckoo eggs. We also saw several times the jewel-like Kingfishers Alcedo atthis, and Roberto showed me how in this area they usually make their nest cavity among the roots of fallen trees.

Of larger marsh birds we saw regularly Purple Herons Ardea purpurea (strange for a Dutchman to visit 2 areas where this is the only nesting heron), and we also came across a booming Bittern Botaurus stellaris (a very late date), a male Little Bittern Ixobrychus minutus, a lone Little Egret Egretta garzetta, and an also lone Night Heron Nycticorax nycticorax. Ducks and grebes there are less than expected, probably because of too much and suddenly varying water levels, although Mallards were common, and we saw several Dabchicks Tachybaptes ruficollis and a few late Teal Anas crecca. The only shorebird, apart from a few Lapwings Vanellus vanellus in the fields, was a single Snipe Capella gallinago, a late date for this bird. No cormorants at all; probably not enough open water.

A highlight of the day for me were the Penduline Tits Remiz pendulinus and their inimitable retort-shaped nests, usually hanging free high up in a Salix tree; I wondered at how safe these nests must be from predators; sadly, it turns out that exactly the fantastic shape of the nest makes them vulnerable to stupid people who collect the nests and take them home as souvenirs! We also saw the Bearded Reedling Panurus biarmicus, an exotic in the European avifauna.

Verona itself was its elegant self, one of the loveliest cities I ever have had the pleasure to visit. All day the city has a "cover" of shrilling Swifts Apus apus, at night replaced by many bats. Along the unfortunately badly polluted river Adige Mallards loaf or tend their young (One duck had an incredible 18 young, all apparently the same size!), and Barn Swallows and a few House Swallows Delichon urbica feed on the many Chironomid midges; among them the diligent observer will sooner or later come across a few Cliff Swallows Ptyonoprogne rupestris, a species that only recently has begun wintering in numbers in the area, and that now also nests in the area, on the many archaeological sites. Another newcomer to Verona is the Jackdaw Corvus monedula; the town of Verona, with all its towers, palazzi and castles, seems eminently suitable for this species, which may well soon become very common. Compared to N. European cities there are very few corvids in the town -- a few Magpies Pica pica and Hooded Crows Corvus c. cornix -- and now in summer also the gulls are completely absent, although hundreds of Black-headed Gulls Larus ridibundus winter along the Adige. On a walk through the old center before 6 on a Sunday morning, before the ill-famous Italian traffic is out in force, Blackbirds were caroling from all the buildings, with here and there a Black Redstart's much more simple jingle. During the day Serins Serinus europaeus were everywhere, their song was in an old Dutch book I had described as "wriggling an iron stick in a bucket with glass splinters" -- a strange picture but one that I also get in mind when I hear this bird sing -- and they sing incessantly. Chaffinches Fringilla coelebs, Blackcaps, Greenfinches and European Goldfinches live in the shade trees along the quays of the Adige, and this is also a city still full of sparrows, here the interesting Italian Sparrow Passer (domesticus) italiae.

Back in Tromsø the snow-depth has diminished to 188 cm, and there are definite signs of spring. More of that later on, if I find the time. Happy birding!!

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This page served by Urs Geiser;; June 16, 1997