Birding Piedmont Italy

The view of the Langhe from our Italian villa

Birding Wine Country of Piedmont Italy

People around me are turning 50. And some of them really know how to throw a good party. A friend of mine decided to throw her 50th celebration in northwest Italy, and thought it should last for 5 days, and decided that a bunch of her friends should be there with her. Invitees would stay at a villa in the rolling hills (and UNESCO World Heritage site) of the Langhe. This is the premier wine region in Italy, also known for its hazelnut chocolate (think Ferrero) and white truffles. We’d spend the week on tour with Roads and Kingdoms, an unmatched foodie touring company that knows all the local secrets. [Take a look at the different tours they offer around the world.] The topper to all of this? Children were not invited. 

That’s how we found ourselves an hour or so outside Torino, Italy the first week of November. The entire group was looking forward to wine tastings at vineyards, and wine drinking at the villa, and more wine with long lunches, and even more wine at even longer dinners. I, on the other hand, hoped to see birds. Because we’d just visited Spain in April, this wasn’t going to be a lifer-palooza of a trip. But there were a couple of dozen of wintering/resident birds that I hoped to see while we were there.

Our first stop was Milan, where we spent an evening strolling around the poly-pointed Duomo. Before we hopped on a train to Torino, I went for a walk in Parco Sempione, a big city park. Lifer #1 of the trip, Hooded Crows, were plentiful. A surprising (and non-countable) Turquoise-fronted Parrot flew in and perched atop a tree. The rest of what I saw was a collection of European city mainstays, like Common Wood Pigeon, Great Tit, European Robin, and Common Chaffinch. I got close looks at a Common Kingfisher, which looks more suited to a jungle than a city. A Eurasian Kestrel called out as it flew over. And some Jackdaws did their thing in a brick castle tower. Total bird numbers were small at this otherwise promising park.

A short walk around Torino looking for lunch produced lifer #2 of the trip, and life bird #1,000. It was Italian Sparrow, a common urban dweller that looks a lot like House Sparrow and Spanish Sparrow, but only lives in Italy. Our home base for the next few days was Scarpa Villas, about an hour south of Torino. The setting was beautiful (see the photo at the top). But the birding was disappointing. Monoculture doesn’t make for great bird numbers or diversity. I managed to find some patches of native trees and small sections of what remains of forest in the area around our villa. I added Wood Lark, Song Thrush, and Goldcrest to my life list while wandering the trails through the vineyards. During one walk from our villas to the delightful hilltop town of Roddi, a flock of 40 Common Cranes flew over.  That was probably the best sighting of the whole trip.

A flock of Common Cranes

Overall, it was frustrating birding amidst fabulous scenery. Without a car of our own, I was tied to the tour group. And the tour group wasn’t headed for birding spots. As a result, I missed out on seeing a bunch of my target birds

The Alpine Birds I Maybe Almost Saw But Definitely Didn’t

On our last full day in Italy, we drove from the hills of the Langhe north through the metropolis of Torino to the beginnings of the Italian Alps. Our destinations was (consistent with the central theme of the trip) the terraced vineyards of the village of Carema. Rather than stick with the group for more wine drinking, I peeled off to wander this beautiful little town. I delighted in the slate roofs, stone stairways, surprising fountains, and stunning vistas. My hope was that I’d see some different birds in this different habitat – maybe a Brambling, or Eurasian Siskin. We weren’t far enough into the mountains to have a chance at Eurasian Griffon or (dream of dreams) a Bearded Vulture/Lammergeier/Bonecrusher. 

Carema vineyards and the Italian Alps

As with most of the birding during the trip, it was underwhelming. A lone Common Crane circled above at one point. A pair of Golden Eagles soaring along a ridge was the highlight. But not a single lifer.

Don’t get me wrong. The trip was amazing. Great times, great food, great friends. And I got regular looks at, and became familiar with, birds I may never see again. Black Redstarts are not all that different from Black Phoebe, for example, favoring roof perches and tail flicking. I even became able to ID a few species by sound alone before we left. What fortune to have such generous and adventure-loving friends.



Chestnut-Collared Longspur at L.A. Landfill

Chestnut-collared Longspur

The elusive Chestnut-collared Longspur showed for a few seconds

Chestnut-collared Longspur at Toyon Landfill

Every October 29th, I go to a closed landfill in Griffith Park in Los Angeles and see a life bird. At least, that’s what I’ve done the last two years. In 2022, I went to Toyon Landfill hunting for stray longspur. I didn’t see one, but I did stumble across L.A. county’s first-ever Sedge Wren. This year, I was back again in search of a longspur. A Chestnut-collared Longspur had been found the day before, so I was optimistic.

Getting to Toyon requires some commitment. It’s only a half hour drive, and only a bit over a half mile walk from the parking. But you climb 500 vertical feet in that span, which is over a 20% grade. Thankfully, at 8am in late October, it’s not a hot walk. Still, it’s really steep. I alternated walking regular, and walking backwards, up the hill. Andy Birch, who has inhaled more of the landfill’s burping methane than anyone thanks to his countless hours birding the landfill, was there when I reached the top. That always makes birding easier.

Bird’s-eye view of Toyon Landfill – now grown over with vegetation

As I got near him and another birder, they were crouching down near a patch of tall grass and then backing away. I half wondered whether some fireworks were about to go off.  But then Andy pointed in the sky, and I saw a sparrow-like bird circling, with white in the outer-tail, giving a “kibble-it” call I had listened to the night before in preparation. After a half dozen failed fall trips to the landfill in search of a lifer Chestnut-collared Longspur, I finally had it.

We then spent the next 20-30 minutes staring at different patches of grass and weeds, failing to see the bird. It flushed thrice, once from no more than 10 feet from our feet. In the air, it would fly some big circles, never rising too high in the air, give its call, and then inevitably settle some 100 feet or more away. With Andy and the other birder seeking a photograph, I selflessly volunteered to slowly approach the spot where we thought the bird was hiding to see if it would flush into view in some shorter grass, so they could get a photo. I succeeded in flushing the bird, but it went away from them, and landed just 20 feet away. I snapped a couple of shots before it moused its way back into the grass.

Chestnut-collared Longspurs are birds of shortgrass prairies and desert grasslands. They breed in the far northern plains, and winter in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma and north-central Mexico. They’re far more likely (though still rare) in the Antelope Valley than the L.A. basin. But Toyon Landfill has been a good spot for a chance longspur encounter during October. As they fly through, it’s probably the only big weedy-grassy field uninfested by humans for miles in any direction. That it sits atop a hill might help it attract skulky grassland birds like longspurs that would otherwise fly on past.

A much more colorful version, photo copyright of David M. Bell

The breeding males are worthy of the name, gloriously marked with a black-and-white striped head, a patchy yellow beard, a big black belly, bright white at the base of the tail, and (of course) a rich chestnut collar. The nonbreeding birds, like the one I saw, look like what you’d get if you gave someone just a brown colored pencil and told them to draw a bird with patterned plumage.

Looking forward to next October 29th at Toyon Landfill for my next lifer.





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