Vendicari: The birds' hotel

Emily Mawson, 20 October, 2017
Travel writer Emily Mawson checks into Sicily's Vendicari Nature Reserve, and discovers why this unique environment is a bird-watching paradise.

“We’re actually further south than Tunis,” announces my boyfriend Tim, as he stares in disbelief at the information panel in front of him. It is certainly mind-boggling that we should be standing on an Italian island with aspects more southerly than parts of Africa.

But the clue that we’re somewhere rather exotic is the scenery: unruly rosemary and juniper bushes clamour for space between tangles of bright green cacti, golden dunes and serene marshes. The landscape tumbles towards the sea, which has the sheen of turquoise velvet, creating a riotous froth of colour against the rocky shoreline.

I didn’t think south-eastern Sicily could better the array of temples, Baroque architecture, cave dwellings and tranquil coastline that it had presented to us so far. Then came Riserva Naturale di Vendicari, a narrow strip of coastline around 10 kilometres south of the must-see city of Noto. The reserve’s impressive 1,335 hectares, which are networked by boardwalks and sandy trails, comprise Mediterranean maquis, freshwater wetlands and coastal lagoons.

The path we’re following skirts cool-toned marshland fringed by rustling reeds. In the distance is the dramatic rocky shelf that towers over Noto. On our wish list is seeing the 300 flamingos the reserve is home to, who, despite their large number, are elusive. Crowds of common spoonbills, glossy ibis and black-winged stilts, alongside little egrets and slender-billed gulls, have nevertheless made this a rewarding visit so far.

A Ramsar site, or a wetland of international importance, Vendicari is a popular spot for birdwatchers. It is located in a strategic position with regards to migratory routes: for aquatic birds, it is the last suitable stopping point before their final journey of around 350 kilometres toward Africa. The reserve boasts the presence of an impressive 241 species – among them 20,000 waders and 57 nesting species that have led to it being dubbed ‘the birds’ hotel’.

A nearby hide overlooking a lagoon provides us with an inconspicuous vantage point, and we settle for a moment, listening to the breeze whispering in the reeds and the birdsong disappearing into the late-summer haze.

“There,” says Tim in an urgent whisper after a few moments. I align my binoculars with his outstretched finger, and find myself face-to-face with a flamboyance of pink-tinged flamingos. They’re teetering through the water, like models on a catwalk unsure in their high heels.

After a few moments of enjoyable flamingo-watching repose, we continue, the marshland boardwalks merging into a sandy coastal path. On the skyline is the dramatic Torre Vendicare, a slender brick tower looming above a desolate tuna-fishing village. We meander between voracious thyme, rosemary and juniper bushes – or garrigue, a low-growing vegetation on limestone that thrives here thanks to the salinity of the ground. In autumn, bluish-violet mandrake will contribute to the palette, alongside antler-like rock samphire.

Before long we have reached the tuna-fishing village, where sandstone pillars cast long shadows across broad courtyards. Clinging to the coastline are the tumbledown cottages that once belonged to the anglers. They now lie empty, but fishing is still commonplace along the coast and our holiday has been enriched by regular visits to our lively local fish market.

At the edge of the development, there is a broad strip of sand sloping gently towards the twinkling water. The beach is almost empty – well, apart from a couple of waders silently scouring the shoreline. And one thing about being at such a southerly latitude – even in late September, it’s still warm enough for a dip in the sea.

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