Italy: Birds & Art in Tuscany May 12—23, 2017

Posted by Rick Wright

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Rick Wright

Rick Wright, a native of southeast Nebraska, studied French, German, philosophy, and life sciences at the University of Nebraska, where he worked in the bird collections of...

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The whole point of travel, especially travel with a natural historical and cultural focus, is to attain a first hint of intimacy with a new landscape, or with a landscape we think we know in a different, perhaps more superficial way. Our 2017 tour of Tuscany found us strolling the roads the Romans strolled, examining chisel marks in some of the finest sculpture in the world, and getting as familiar as possible with Tuscan cuisine that ranged from delectable to magnificent. Some of our most genuine experiences of closeness, though, were with the wildlife of this wonderful stretch of central Italy: the self-destructive leaping mullets of Diaccia-Botrona, the Hermann’s Tortoise that shared its innermost secrets at the Orbetello Preserve, and above all, the elegant Yellow-legged Gull that daintily plucked its midday snack from Michael’s fingers on the ferry to Giglio Island.

Our first day set the tone and the pace for our investigation of Tuscany’s birds and art, with a stop at the marshes of Fucecchio—host that warm and windy day to Short-toed Eagles and Eurasian Spoonbills, among other wonders—followed by a visit to the notorious Ponte della Maddelena, where we admired the engineering skill of the medieval builders and smiled at the tale that gave this distinctively high-arched bridge its nickname, the “Devil’s Bridge,” all while the members of a nice colony of Crag Martins flashed over and under and around us. 

The mix of nature and culture is virtually inevitable in a landscape that has been occupied by humans for so long, from the prehistoric peoples of the hills and plains through the Etruscans, the Romans, the city-states and fortified mountain towns of the Middle Ages, and the farmers, craftsmen, and chefs of our day. Red-backed Shrikes and Common Cuckoos in the Apuan Alps were the perfect complement to the beauty of the small Romanesque churches of San Lorenzo and Codiponte, and no alert visitor to the world-famous monuments of Florence can fail to appreciate the Common Swifts, Eurasian Magpies, Common House-Martins, and Little Egrets that did their best to distract us from the Giottos, the Titians, the Botticellis, and all the other artistic treasures of the city.

Our move from the wild and rugged mountains of northern Tuscany to the gentler landscapes of the south took us by way of Arezzo, whose medieval cityscape is more human in scale, but just as captivating in effect as the grandiosity of Florence. The frescoes of Piero della Francesca, the Gothic elegance of Arezzo’s cathedral, and the beauty of the “mere” parish church of Santa Maria made us all wish for not just more hours but more days in this Tuscan jewel—a wish made the more fervent by our fine lunch of hearty Aretino specialties.

In fact, there were times when the food almost threatened to overshadow our other activities. On Giglio Island, we ate in a truly authentic and truly welcoming trattoria overlooking the blue waters of the sea, the excellence of the meal rivaled only by the friendliness of the chef and his family and the glory of the view. In Manciano, Irina outdid herself once again, the boards groaning every evening with classic Tuscan dishes prepared with care and imagination; she even prepared her own version of the traditional and time-consuming soup of chickpea-sized pasta dumplings and bacon, one I had never had the good fortune to try and one that immediately joined my list of favorites.  

In between meals, we discovered that the shorebird migration, usually more or less complete by mid-May, was still ongoing on the shores of the Orbetello Lagoon. Golden Plovers, Bar-tailed Godwits, Little Stints, Dunlin, and Ruffs were still sharing the flats with flocks of Greater Flamingos, but we could not take our eyes off the Kentish Plovers, endangered and declining as breeders anywhere in Italy. The biggest surprise of the tour this year had been provided earlier that day by a close-up flock of weirdly beautiful Bald Ibis, representatives of the Austrian breeding flock and an encouraging sign that this species, given up not that long ago as lost for good, might someday be re-established in Europe.  

Hard as it always is to name a favorite, our morning at Diaccia-Botrona may prove the most memorable moment of this year’s tour for me. Not only were we blessed by leaping fish (surely it is good luck to be hit by a flopping mullet), but our boat trip along the canal, starting at the sixteenth-century Casa Rossa, took us right into the reedy home of Zitting Cisticolas, Corn Buntings, and the usually painfully secretive Squacco Heron, while above us loomed the perfect medieval fortress of Castiglione della Pescaia and ahead of us the open waters of the impossibly blue Mediterranean. It is experiences like that, shared with new friends and old, that keep this tour so high on my list of favorites.