Italy: Birds & Art in Venice & the Po Delta Oct 24—Nov 01, 2016

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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There could hardly be a more rewarding landscape than northern Italy’s Adriatic coast for an exploration of nature, culture, and their intersection over centuries of human history. It isn’t just that the visitor can alternate—birds, art, birds, art—but that the two are so closely intertwined at so many of the sites we visited: I suspect that our congenial and fun-loving group had a much deeper experience of that first approach to Venice than did the ferry passengers who overlooked the Eared Grebes and European Shags on the Lagoon, and I know that our visit to the imposing abbey church of Pomposa at dawn will be that much more memorable for the Gray Herons and Hooded Crows that emerged from the fog. 

Without even leaving our agriturismo on Lio Maggiore, Michele’s beautiful La Barena, we were reminded that human life on the Lagoon has always been lived in close parallel to the life of the wild. Eurasian Curlews, Greater Flamingos, Common Kingfishers (unfair name!), Black Redstarts, European Robins, and even Water Rails were frequent sights on the sandbars out our windows or along the narrow road in, and it was sometimes hard, but never impossible, to turn our sights away from the birds and towards our lavish and excellent meals prepared by the family Vianello. 

But of course we did leave, each morning taking us to a different set of nearby destinations, from the glories of Venice’s St. Mark’s and the dazzling thousand-year-old cathedral of Torcello to the avocet-clad marshes of Lio Piccolo and the muddy flats of the ominously named and startlingly lively Laguna del Mort, where Sandwich Terns and Mediterranean Gulls trilled and quacked at us as we stood in the shade of an Adriatic pine forest. 

Our stay at La Barena was just the beginning of our time together. Our farewell was a mixture of reluctance and excitement, the latter prevailing by the time we reached the marshes of the Po Delta an hour south of Venice. A Booted Eagle was a fine surprise, as was the first of a very small number of Spanish Sparrows we would see during our time based in a quiet corner of the ancient fishing city of Comacchio. The town center itself on a holiday weekend more closely resembled a circus than a wildlife refuge, but the surrounding salt pannes, marshes, and beaches turned out to be remarkably birdy. Thousands of flamingos and hundreds of Pied Avocets roosted in the shallows with smaller numbers of Common and Spotted redshanks, Common Greenshanks, Dunlin, and a beautifully photographed Little Stint—the last, unfortunately, seen by only a few. A Zitting Cisticola perched up to be admired at leisure, but even here the Cetti’s Warblers were as tantalizing as they were noisy, never giving satisfactory looks as they taunted us from ditches and thickets. A long walk on the sandy beach behind our hotel was an opportunity to study Dunlin and Sanderlings up close—familiar birds to some of the group, but few of us had ever watched these shorebirds in the company of Kentish Plovers against the purple waters and warm skies of the Adriatic Sea.

Comacchio has another advantage, too: its proximity to Ravenna, a grubby industrial city with some of the finest artistic jewels in the world at its center. Some of them dating from the last days of the western empire, these Byzantine-influenced churches and chapels with their justly renowned 1500-year-old mosaics were almost overwhelmingly moving, a fitting climax to a tour that had gone from one beautiful sight to the next—whether natural or cultural. I look forward to the next landscape this fine group explores together.