Tag: European Robin

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.



Birding Barcelona: City Parks

European Robin, Parc de Turo, Barcelona, Spain

Almost thirty years ago, long before I ever noticed the birds, I did a college semester abroad in Oviedo, Spain. It was amazing. The country and the people of Spain are wonderful, and the lifestyle gets top marks. Any culture that revolves around an afternoon break/nap and cured meats is one with its priorities in order. I’d always wanted to go back, not to relive the adventures I had before, but to soak in more of Spain’s awesomeness. Happily, this spring, I was able to visit with my entire family.

We flew to Barcelona, in the separatist-curious region of Catalunya. We enjoyed a few days of modern architecture, modern art, and delicious empenadas. Then, we switched our base to Girona, about 60 miles away, towards France, near the foothills of the Pyrenees. Here, I’m going to recap the park birding we did in Barcelona. It wasn’t mind-blowing birding. The diversity wasn’t awesome. And we were a couple of weeks ahead of migration. But lifers nevertheless abounded.

Parc de Turo

In Barcelona, we shacked up in an airbnb in the grid-happy Eixample neighborhood of Barcelona, centrally located near the old city and many Gaudi buildings. From the window overlooking the central gardens of our city block, I racked up five lifers: Common Wood-Pigeon, Alpine Swift, Yellow-legged Gull, Sardinian Warbler, and the naturalized Common Waxbill. I also got my first native-range sightings of European Starling, Eurasian Collared-Dove, and House Sparrow.

Our first morning in town, I got up early to go get some more lifers while my family slept off the jet lag. The most promising public park within a 15 minute walk looked to be Parc de Turo. Google maps described it as a “compact, tree-lined park,” and the satellite view looked good. It turned out to be full of birds. A European Robin greeted me as I entered the park. A Eurasian Blackbird sung from a low perch. A Eurasian Magpie stood watch atop a tall pine. In a patch of deciduous trees, I found a Short-toed Treecreeper, Coat Tit, a couple Eurasian Blue Tits and a Common Chiffchaff. The songbird I came to enjoy the most was the frantic, and sharply dressed, Long-tailed Tit.

I’ve gotten better at birding by sound. But it’s the result of hours in the field. In new places, I’m lost. So I used the vastly-improved  Merlin app to help me identify the unfamiliar calls and songs I was hearing. Turn it on when a distinct bird is calling, and (assuming it’s right) you can quickly get a grasp on the common bird calls. The two birds it most often identified were the endlessly vocal Eurasian Serin and European Greenfinch. With the aid of Merlin, by Day 3 I was able to pick these common birds out by call alone. But owing to Merlin’s imperfections, I never counted anything that Merlin identified but I didn’t see. 

Parc de la Ciudatella

The next park we found ourselves in was Parc de la Ciudatella. It houses the Barcelona Zoo and the Catalunya Parliament. It’s a big park, but not as densely covered in trees or bushes as Parc de Turo. And at 4 in the afternoon it was full of people. Still, I ended up with a pretty good list in just 45 minutes of walking around. A pond filled with tourists rowing little boats around had some birds, including a Black-headed Gull, Gray Heron, Purple Heron, and Cattle Egret. There were a bunch of domestic Graylag Goose wandering around with their fuzzy goslings. The park also had what I was quickly learning were the usual Barcelona bird suspects: Eurasian Magpie, Eurasian Blue Tit, Monk Parakeet, Eurasian Blackbird, and Common Wood Pigeon. A Eurasian Moorhen was working the pond around the large fountain. Only one species I saw ended up being a lifer: a Spotless Starling that eluded a photograph.

Park Guell

The third of the parks we visited was the hilltop Park Guell (pronounced “Gway” by the locals). It is a UNESCO World Heritage site designed by famed Barcelona architect Antonio Gaudi. It was intended to be a master-planned community for the wealthy.  But they couldn’t sell the plots, and only 2 houses were built. It became a private park, and is a pretty popular tourist destination for its cool architectural features and sweeping views of Barcelona. The forested area of the park also turned out to be a pretty good birding spot.

After we toured the monumental zone and got our views, we wandered the hilly trails. Here, at great distance, I finally got my first view of a Eurasian Hoopoe. I saw it in flight for 2 seconds. This was a target bird when my son and I visited China a few years ago, and we never saw one. Spain provided a second chance, and at least I wasn’t going to get shutout again. Happily, I got point blank views later in our trip. A small mixed flock in one section produced a couple more lifers: the sharp-looking Crested Tit, the monotonous two-note songster Great Tit, and a Common Firecrest. The Alpine Swifts were working the hills.

There were more birds to be found here. A morning visit would probably be very productive. But this was a family excursion, and we had more sight-seeing to do.


Meal times in Spain are out of whack for American travelers. Noon is not lunch time – restaurants don’t serve food until 1pm. And they don’t open for dinner until 8pm. That meant that we often did a late afternoon adventure to fill the time before sunset and dinner. One day, we headed to Plaza de España, one of those giant traffic circles where several large avenues converge. There’s an ornate fountain in the middle of the traffic circle. The so-called magic Fountain was shut down because of drought. If you pass through the two Venetian Towers and head east, you pass a convention center and climb to the National Museum of Art. At the top of the hill, known as Montjuic, there is a Joan Miró museum, the Olympic Stadium from the 1992 games, and some nice gardens.

I wandered the gardens and was able to get good looks at a few birds. A couple of White Wagtails were bobbing their butts. A Eurasian Kestrel was circling above. Curiously colorful European Goldfinches were drinking at a small fountain. And, of course, there were starlings, magpies, blackcaps and blue tits. Indeed, I saw five kinds of tits at the gardens: Eurasian Blue, Coal, Great, Long-tailed, and Crested. Not bad for a quick 45 minutes of birding near sunset. 

La Sagrada Familia

While it isn’t a green city park, the mind-blowing modern marvel of Gaudi’s unfinished Sagrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona is a must visit. (We paid the extras euros for the tower access, and were glad we did). The inevitable crowds can’t diminish the wonder of this building, which has the most astounding stained-glass windows I’ve ever seen.

You are speechless in front of this wall

This incredible gift to humanity was even giving on the birding front. While I was outside checking out the Nativity facade, I spotted a couple lifer Eurasian Crag-Martins swooping in front of the beautiful sculptures. After our visit, I checked out to the small parks next to the cathedral. I picked out 20 species, including a tagged Rose-ringed Parakeet and the less common swift in Barcelona, the Common Swift.  

Birding Barcelona was much more like birding Beijing than birding Costa Rica. There aren’t a ton of birds. You find them concentrated in the parks. And you quickly learn the dozen usual suspects, which seems to be everywhere you look.  If our trip had been a couple of weeks later in Europe, more migrants would’ve been moving through, and some summer arrivals would’ve showed up. But that isn’t a complaint. I added 29 lifers in Barcelona in-between tasty bites of empenadas, jamon serrano, and crepes.