Italy: A Trip To The Po To Find A Pygmy Cormorant

April 11, 2008
Yes, those are mozzies buzzing Gene's head; one of the reasons he loves to go birding with me.
I usually bird in the area where we are  moored because I usually have only my feet for transportation, but there have been times when I have driven to distant locations to find a particular bird. In Australia, I had a car and I drove to find a Southern Cassowary, Chowchilla, Budgie, and Buff-breasted Paradise-Kingfisher.  Last week, Gene and I went to the Po River Delta on the Adriatic coast of Italy to find a Pygmy cormorant. I have wanted to see one since learning of them while we were in Turkey. Apparently, there are lots of them in Thessalonika (Northern Greece), but we sailed though the Southern Islands instead of going north (had to see an Eleonora's Falcon and I thought Tilos was my best chance) .

I really thought that I had lost my chance to see a Pygmy until I browsed through Nigel Wheatly’s, Where to
Watch Birds in Europe and Russia. He mentioned that three pairs of Pygmy's bred in the Po River Delta in 1994**. I still had a chance to see them before setting sail for Spain! I did some googling of Pygmy’s in the Po and found a report by someone (sorry, can’t remember who it was) who saw them in the Punta Alberete area of the vast Parco Delta del Parco. More googling showed me where Punta Alberete was.

I talked Gene into going with me, and made a one night reservation at the Corrallo Hotel in the town of Marina Romea. I figured we could check things out once we were there and stay another night if necessary, or move to another location for another night if that was needed. Now all I had to do was get to Marina Romea using public transportation. We went into the termini in Rome and got tickets on a fast train to Bologna where we would then catch another train to Ravenna; from there it would be a short bus ride into Marina Romea.
It was 5:00 pm by the time we got checked in and I inhaled a few olives and a glass of wine before heading out for a little birding before the sun went down. There is a pine forest reserve directly across the street from the hotel and I went in there. I walked through it until I came to the next little town, Porto Corsini. I had a map that the hotel had given me and saw that if I crossed the road here, I could get on a trail that went along the marsh. This area was Pineta Staggioni, not Punta Alberete which was a few miles away.
I still had enough light, so I decided to walk back to the hotel via the marsh trail. I had gone a bit north of the trailhead so it took a bit of time to find it. Once I was on it, I soon saw a viewing tower. Instead of going up it right away, I walked past it a bit to the edge of the path and looked over the marsh. I could see four cormorants, very small cormorants; small cormorants with short bills. I hadn't been in town for two hours and I got my bird! It was dusk and my photos were silhouettes even with my setting on low light. I have had this bird on a ‘What I want to see in the Med’ list for quite awhile and I couldn’t believe I found it so quickly. As I walked back to the hotel I started to doubt myself. They were quite far, around 75 yards. Hard to judge. What if the distance was so great that I was seeing the bird as smaller than it really was? What if the bill really wasn’t that short? What if it was a shag?

By the time I got back to the hotel my mood was darkening faster than the sky. “You know what you saw. You knew immediately that it was a Pygmy,” said the little angel on my shoulder. “Yes, but when people really want to see something, they often develop selective vision,” said the evil, confidence killing devil on the other shoulder.

I asked Gene to go back with me in the morning. His eyes are really good, and he is very good at birding, much better than me, and I wanted confirmation.

We went right after breakfast and found the birds in the same spot. Pygmy Cormorants. Lifer #567.We walked along the trail till it ended and I saw another Pygmy there. The sky was whited out and the water was grey, but I tried some photos anyway.

When we got back to Peregrine, I loaded the photos onto the computer. They turned out to look like silhouettes, but they were good enough to show a pygmy cormorant.
click to enlarge
Slender-billed Gull
We stayed two nights at the Corallo. I can recommend it; the staff was excellent(I'm kicking myself for not getting the name of young lady at the front desk, she was great), the place was spotless, and the location was good. The only problem was the trickle of hot water in the shower. Unfortunately for us, the hotel no longer loaned bikes and the bike rental place was not open. Too early in the season? Anyway, you would need a bike or car to see the area well. There is no car rental in Marina Romea so if you want to check this area out by car, you need to rent in Ravenna. I also got lifer #568 on this trip--Common Tern. Here is a list of birds seen in walking distance from the hotel:
Black-necked Grebe
Great Crested Grebe
Little Grebe
Great Cormorant
Pygmy Cormorant
Little Egret (lots)
Grey Heron
Gadwall
Redshank
Greenshank
Curlew Sandpiper
Curlew
Black-headed Gull
Slender-billed Gull
Yellow-legged Gull
Common Tern
Whiskered Tern
Collared Dove
Scops Owls were heard in pine forest across from hotel
Barn Swallow
Hoopoe
Yellow Wagtail
Black Redstart
Stonechat
Blackbird
Sardinian Warblers heard
Cetti’s Warbler
Willow Warbler
Great Tit
Blue Tit
Magpie
Jay
Hooded Crow
Starling
Italian House Sparrows
Goldfinch
Greenfinch
Serin
**That book was published in 2000, and the bird was listed as endangered. After seeing my bird, I went to the IUCN site to see what the status was and was amazed to find that the species has been downgraded to Least Concern. It is good to see that some stories are not all doom and gloom.