The Enchanted Landscape of the Po River Delta
Ready to explore the Po River Delta, the biggest wetlands in Europe, Bob and I were off the sheets early on our first full day in the region. The enchanted landscape covers an area of 140,000 hectares, so under a crystal clear sky, we set off in the direction of Parco Regionale Veneto del Delta del Po.
As part of our wake-up call that morning, soft meowing at a shuttered window of our farmhouse alerted us to the farm’s tortoiseshell cat pleading to enter our warm confines.
The friendly feline quickly lapped up a saucer of warm milk.
Elsa was a happy cat. While making chirrupy noises, she kneaded the floor with her front paws. By the time the rooster crowed, we were under way.
The plan was to revisit the areas seen the previous evening, but that was easier said than done.
With dikes and canals, bridges and channels, and sand dunes and wetlands woven together to create a maze of possible routes, it took us quite sometime to find ourselves where we wanted to be. Parco Regionale Veneto del Delta del Po is the northern park of the two regional parks established to protect the delta lands.
The longest river in Italy, the Po begins its journey in the Cottian Alps of the north. Before emptying into the Adriatic Sea, the river divides into seven tributaries with 14 mouths.
This complex river creates a delta with hundreds of small channels and five primary ones, Po di Maestra, Po della Pila, Po delle Tolle, Po di Gnocca and Po di Goro.
The Po River Delta was added to the World Network of Biosphere Reserves by the International Coordinating Council of UNESCO’S Man and the Biosphere Program in June of 2015, a couple of months before we visited the area. It is one of the most appealing natural oases in Italy.
The delta is rich in natural habitats ranging from pine forests, brackish closed lagoons, rivers and riparian habitat, open coastal lagoons, freshwater wetlands and sand dunes.
As Bob and I navigated the myriad narrow roads atop the embankments, frequent stops were made to photograph birds including this Common Greenshank.
Periodically, there was evidence of some past habitation in a time before the delta lands became protected.
All around Po Delta Park, vast expanses of the moist and fertile flood plain are largely preserved for agriculture with cereal crops being the primary focus. We were surprised to learn that rice is included in those crops grown, but it makes sense given the quantity of water required for irrigation.
As farm machinery moved from one field to the next, clouds of Great Egrets, Gray Herons and other birds converged on the stubble to glean rice left behind.
Touring Parco Regionale Veneto del Delta del Po meant that Bob and I were always surrounded by water. Because of the vast range in habitats, over 370 species of resident, migratory and migratory-stopover birds shelter, breed and find nourishment in the area. Birds outnumber humans by far!
Black-winged Stilts shared one pond with a Pied Avocet. Both species nest in the Delta in the spring. In repose on one leg, the Stilts did not disturb the glassy surface of the water.
On the nearby point, a Common Snipe probed the mud with its long beak.
We were fortunate to come across an Eurasian Marsh Harrier and this Great Crested Grebe, both breeding species of the Po River Delta.
Bob and I were particularly thrilled to find the colony of 10,000 Greater Flamingos. Considered the jewel of the lagoons, the Greater Flamingos reside in the mudflats throughout the year after raising 2,000 chicks in the spring.
Pacing the shallow saltwater lagoon, Greater Flamingos stir up the mud using their feet to uncover shrimp, mollusks, seeds and algae. With their heads under water, the Flamingos filter the water through their bills to capture the tiny morsels of food.
At lunchtime, Bob and I simply parked our car on top of one dike. Beneath a blue sky with sunshine lighting the flat surface of the water, we were lulled by a soundtrack of reeds rustling on one side, water gently lapping on the other, and wings beating overhead as Herons made their way from one lagoon to another.
As Bob and I moved around Parco Regionale Veneto del Delta Del Po, we noticed a great diversity of plants on the coastal dunes and sand bars. A large variety of butterflies were attracted to the blossoms, so we took advantage of our lunchtime break to photograph a few such as this Wall Brown Butterfly.
We spent long periods of time admiring the butterflies, but the winged beauties were so numerous that we will feature them to great effect in a separate post.
After our picnic, Bob and I planned to make inquiries about a boat tour that sets sail from Santa Giulia. The flat and windswept landscape of the Delta lands meant that we were sharing the road with quite a few cyclists as we made our way in that direction.
In order to reach our destination, it was necessary to cross another of the many canals, but this time, it was by no ordinary means.
One of only 3 remaining floating bridges in the Po River Delta is the pontoon of Santa Giulia. Ponte di Barche across the Po della Donzella is made from boats linked together. This historical floating artifact is still necessary to link communities across the river.
A floating bridge is one of the most characteristic and original structures of the Po Delta. Daily users are reminded of the difficulties and hardships experienced when trying to keep contact with villagers on the opposite shore. The unique means of crossing the waterway resulted in a very noisy ride, indeed.
Deciding that a boat tour was not the right fit for us, Bob and I proceeded to a nearby preserve with walking trails.
Upon arriving at Oasi di Ca’ Mello, the Oasis of Ca’ Mello, we discovered it to be on the Island of Donzella along the edge of a very large lagoon, the Sacca Degli Scardovari.
It became apparent right away that this portion of delta land was under redevelopment to protect the biodiversity of its natural landscape.
The area of Oasi di Ca’ Mello is a portion of the marshy basin that once existed at the mouth of an ancient branch of the Po River, the Ca’ Mello Po. In 1936, the Ca’ Mello Canal was built to feed water from the river into inland fishing basins or valleys.
Extensive flooding in 1966 led to the installation of a water drainage pump in 1985. In draining the amphibious territory, the area slowly was transformed by eliminating marsh flora and fauna for lack of water.
Since 1990, water was gradually reintroduced into the Ca’ Mello Canal, and its flow is regulated to create basins of varying depths.
Trees and shrubs suitable for a marsh environment have been reintroduced, and the management of water has allowed reed beds and aquatic plants to regain a foothold.
The original traditional farmhouse has been converted into a Visitors’ Centre, but our visit coincided with a weekend closure. There was not another soul around as Bob and I explored Oasis of Ca’ Mello.
We were left to our own devices to interpret the sights as we walked the trails. Knowing the Italian language would have been a real benefit.
Reparations had not extended to all the infrastructure, so we had to be selective and cautious.
Our explorations were hindered by overgrown paths, weather-worn interpretive signs, and observation decks that appeared unsafe.
Still, we managed to circumvent a large swath of land bordered by woodlots and canals that revealed some interesting sights.
These colourful fruits added a punch of colour along the way.
Even though we could not gain access, this bird hide conveyed a sense of charm where it huddled on the opposing bank of one waterway.
A Marsh Frog hopped across the trail, an indication that amphibians are returning to the wetlands.
One path followed the perimeter of adjacent farmland, and the sunny exposure next to the forested hedgerow supported an abundance of wildflowers.
Blossoms were fragrant in September’s late-afternoon sunshine attracting an assortment of butterflies. This is a Small Heath Butterfly, a species that only flies when it is sunny. Feeding on nectar, it assumed its customary at-rest position with wings folded.
Leaving Oasis of Ca’ Mello behind, Bob and I drove towards the Adriatic Sea. What a surprise to spot a small herd of Red Deer on an adjacent embankment. The Red Deer in the Po River Delta are considered genetically different from other European populations.
It was late afternoon by the time we edged close to one fishing lagoon or valley by the Sea. Backlit by the sun’s intense rays, it was impossible to discern the colours of boats bobbing on the calm water. It was such a serene sight.
The brackish water of a fishing lagoon is regulated by sluice gates that control the inflow of salt and fresh water.
Reeds, canes and nets are placed at the mouths of the canals that link the marshes to the open Adriatic Sea. The resulting fishing basins are consistent with ancient eel-catching techniques. They are called lavorieri.
In the fishing lagoons, building is restricted to those structures solely relating to fishing. Eel catching has been a long-standing practice in the marshes, and the Lavorieri system is the preferred means to catch them.
Bob and I were enamoured with this quaint fishing “village” built over the water. Structures supported by wooden piers occupy the bank all along the western and southern fringe of the fishing lagoon.
Typical buildings that characterize a fishing lagoon are buildings to shelter tools, roofed mooring spots for boats and a dwelling place for the owner and guardians. We simply called them fishing houses.
Having spent the whole day touring around Parco Regionale Veneto Del Delta del Po, Bob and I were ready for a relaxing evening. We made tracks for a restaurant near our lodgings then spent time planning our next day’s adventure.
We had plans to explore the second regional park set aside to protect the Po River Delta, Emilia-Romagna in the south. It was declared a World Heritage Site in 1999, so we were anticipating another interesting day.
Frame To Frame – Bob and Jean