Thursday, 21 September 2017

HOLIDAYS - HEAVEN OR HELL

a wonderful place for a holiday - the Paps of Jura from Islay - a true wilderness for wildlife
A sage once said that if you’re thinking of travelling – don’t!

If you’re looking for a vision of hell on earth that is often a reality, try travelling. Airports, queues, check ins, delays, long flights, cramped seats, no sleep, lost baggage, hours waiting for hire cars, finding accommodation in the dark, dodgy beds, poor food and all designed to empty your hard earned pot of cash. We’ve all been there and got the tea shirt.

Noto's ornate celebration to God
However, most of us have also had some wonderful holidays and my wife Sue and I have certainly made some fortunate choices. They range from culture to vultures and having been a wildlife nut since childhood, birds play an important part in my life because they are so rewarding. In fact, they inspired me to become a wildlife film-maker and as a result I’ve been privileged to enjoy the company of birds all around the world. You might not be a bird-watcher and if not you are missing out, for they are 'cheap' to watch, free even and their songs, their tameness in our gardens and their travels around the globe are always fascinating.

The Hebrides again - Islay's thousands of barnacle geese and famous malt whisky distilleries
My wife Sue enjoys them a lot too and we both love wild flowers, so when she said she’d like to visit Sicily, I jumped at the idea. But when to go and where exactly?
there were glorious drifts of wild flowers everywhere in April

the size of Roman amphitheatre in Syracuse impressed us
the conservation and detail of the mosaics at the RomanVilla Tellaro just down the road from our villa are wonderful 
Sicily is a big island and with the many piles of Greek and Roman rubble that we wanted to admire, along with the glorious Baroque architecture and art, we were spoilt for choice. However, I guessed the last week of April would be good for the flora and with migration in full swing at that time, it would be perfect for birds too. But where to stay?

Armed with a coffee table groaning under the weight of brochures, we started on the needle in a haystack search but with the attractions of Syracuse, Noto, Ragusa and Modica tucked into the less developed SE quarter, it seemed like a good area to start. What’s more, a marshy area along the nearby coast looked good for migrants. Then I struck lucky, for turning the pages, there was Villa Favorita. Having ‘Google Earthed’ it, I became excited at the prospect for it looked like the perfect place for our holiday – and it was!

what a beautiful place for a holiday
the owner's special family room in which we could relax in perfect peace

Fearing this is turning into a book, I’ll ignore the beautiful Villa and rooms, the kindly and faultless staff, the excellent food and wine … why can’t every country serve such tasty food … and concentrate on the estate and it’s birdlife.
service with a smile ... and their own estate 'house' wine was delicious
citrus groves and the sea

a perfect place to read and write
The 18th century villa is set on the top of a hill close to the ocean and surrounded by citrus groves that are protected from the sea breezes by ancient olive trees, so the delightful scent of oranges and lemons wafts into our windows and pervades every waking hour.

dawn from our balcony and the oriole trees in the garden
such exciting birds to admire every morning before breakfast ... c. Mike Read
We’re woken at dawn by the glorious fluty calls of golden orioles in the huge ficus trees that glow in the rising sun. Keen to see such exciting birds, I creep through the courtyard and garden before several minutes of neck ache reveal the bars of gold hiding in the topmost branches. It turns out they are there every day, feeding on the little fruits of these weeping figs and are a joy to behold as they are so rare back in blighty.

hoopoe nested nearby, flying over the pool with food for their young
A leisurely stroll round the grounds before breakfast finds a diminutive, bright yellow serin singing from the hedges in the veg. plot, goldfinches in good voice above the ripening almonds, a woodchat shrike evidently nesting just below the garden and a pair of hoopoes flying over the swimming pool, one of which is carrying food for it’s chicks. What exotic looking birds they are.

the weather was simply perfect
Breakfast is taken on the terrace by the citrus groves, the sun already warm enough for shirtsleeves. Better still, that ubiquitous Mediterranean bird the Sardinian warbler serenades us as we gulp the juice from those famous Sicilian blood oranges.

With the air now tepid, the sky above is filled with swifts as they scythe the blue for insects. Some are bound together in flight, mating on the wing and I find myself humming that Paul Young song ‘Love is in the Air’. But it’s time for some culture now, so it’s Syracusa or maybe Noto, visible just across the valley from the swimming pool.
the ancient city of Noto seen from our villa pool

Sue admiring Noto Cathedral as it glows in the warm afternoon light
frescos adorn the ceilings
an impressive18th-century Baroque balcony on Palazzo Nicolaci in Noto - there were lots like it in the town
Sicily's southern tip - over the Med. lies troubled Libya
There’s an endless variety of interesting places to go nearby, including the very southern tip of Sicily where we look across the Med. towards the coast of sadly troubled Libya. Migrant swallows arrive as we scan the waters, survivors of their epic journey across the Sahara and the sea.
most of the offshore islands have forts which now act as lighthouses

water flows into the Vendicari lakes from the sea to ensure a welcome for thousands of migrant birds
Nearer to the Villa is the wonderful Vendicari wetland reserve where we enjoy the wildflower walks among flamingos, avocets and marsh harriers.
greater flamingoes and many species of wading birds make this an exciting birding spot

an obliging curlew near one of the hides as it refuels for it's migration north

flowers adorn every corner of the reserve, providing insect food for warblers and woodchat shrike
numerous lizards appreciated the warm sun as much as we did
the once numerous but sadly endangered turtle dove were a delight on the reserve
But we never linger long. The villa and it’s clear blue pool is too tempting, so after a delicious Sicilian antipasto lunch, one portion shared is enough, we write, read, embroider, swim and paint the scenery while soaking up the sun and birding.

The delights of the pool are shared by numerous thirsty birds, so there’s never a dull moment. The design of the pool ensures there’s always shallow water at the edge and this proves a magnet to many collared doves and wood pigeons, two of the villa’s commonest birds. Serins, goldfinches and linnets love it too, along with smart Italian and tree sparrows, magpies and spotless starlings – they are spotless even before they bathe – but most amusing was the Sardinian warbler, that attractive bird with it’s charcoal grey head and blood red eye.

The shower had been left dripping slightly and the warbler thought this was just the ticket, sitting under it until fully soaked, then jumping up into the olive tree above and having a good shake and preen. It evidently decided it enjoyed the cool water so much that it repeated the performance several times. It was like a Disney cartoon character, feathers splayed all over the place until groomed to sartorial elegance.

a splendid viewpoint for some pre breakfast birding



Whenever out in the gardens, we were always alert to passing birds and some rarer ones were seen every day. The sky was often lit up by the flocks of bee-eaters heading for Europe, there were alpine swifts among them, hobbies too, along with specials like Eleonora’s falcon and Montagu’s harrier.

colourful bee-eaters hunted the skies above us every day ...  c. Mike Read
serenading scops owl ... c. Mike Read


There never seemed to be a dull moment in the bird world so we’d sleep well, except when woken by the delightful pair of scops owls that hooted duets to each other in the moonlight. They sung every night, signalling the end of another perfect day in paradise.
... and so to bed after a day of delights ...

So my verdict on whether holidays are heaven or hell. Well, if you make good choices and get lucky like we did in Sicily then they are heavenly … even if it’s always good to be back home!
our garden is always a delight, especially in the spring and autumn

All our travel and bookings were arranged most efficiently by Inghams Italy ... and if you want to spend a holiday at the Villa Favorita then please visit their website - www.villafavoritanoto.it   -  you will love it.



Thursday, 27 July 2017

A BIRTHDAY TENCH


If you’re a passionate angler like me, what could be better than a birthday tench. Beautiful but feisty, big enough to fight back when hooked and a joy to behold when finally on the bank, they make the perfect present.
a perfect six pounds of birthday present
Fishing for them on my special day has become a tradition, so each year I venture forth in an attempt to prove that I’m not yet past my sell by date.
nearly seven pounds and thin but what a birthday beauty


waiting for the bobbins to fly
The locations for my adventures have been purposefully varied. This year and last I have been on a wonderfully scenic gravel pit in Hampshire. I’m there right now as I write.

this tame robin has noticed a bite on the buzzer
Two years ago it was in the Cotswold Water Park, the pictures taken by my good friend Mark Woodage.
nearly safely in the net and time for some relief


a beautiful fat Bradleys eight pounder
an inspiring place to fish
It was snared from Bradleys, a huge but inspiring clear-water wildlife haven that is challenging at the best of times.
spring fishing can be freezing in the wind and Mark is well wrapped up preparing for a blank

there are wildfowl galore to keep us entertained
lots of small fry provide food for many grebes and big perch
the odd couple but inseparable
I love it there and would fish it more often if it wasn’t a distance away.

a simply gorgeous tench and at 8lbs the ultimate river prize
In contrast, this next fish was taken from the intimate waters of the upper Bristol Avon. At exactly eight pounds it is the best tench I’ve ever caught, not because it’s the biggest but because it was caught from a river, on a traditional float and pin, used to edge a lobworm under an alder tree. The catch included an 8lb15oz bream and a 2lb6oz perch so it was a memorable day.

what a gorgeous start to any day
a lobworm snaffling tench from under the willow
On several years I’ve tench fished in the Fens, a place close to my heart as I grew up there dreaming of catching tench instead of the ubiquitous bream.
what a remarkable place to grow up and sing for my supper

I never did succeed when I was at school in Ely but recently the lovely Lodes have provided me with a few, including this six pound battler.
Fenland tench seem to fight harder than any others but the tackle held - just
the beautiful Fenland Lode from which I caught several good tench and bream

My biggest tench is stuck on 8lb9ozs. I’ve caught one this size from five different waters, the first from Sywell in the good old days. You’ll be relieved to hear that I have no pics of any of these big tench but I’m after a double, aren’t we all, and when I catch it I’ll make sure I take a pic. Hopefully it will come along on my birthday ; now wouldn’t that be a present and a half.
those lilies scream tench, especially during this magic hour