Watching Wolves in Europe

Seeing wolves in the wild in Europe isn’t easy. Mostly, we have to make do with finding signs of their presence.

Wolves are now protected in most European countries.

Eurasian wolf packs and individuals have now been spotted as far west as the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg, although their strongholds are still in the north and east. In total, the grey wolf population in Europe is estimated to be around 12,000 animals (excluding Belarus, Ukraine and Western Russia) in 28 countries. (Info from Rewilding Europe)

Top photo © Christels/Pixnio Creative Commons Licence, bottom photo Photo User:Mas3cf, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Magura National Park in southern Poland was our best bet for seeing wolves. It was an informal trip, organised by someone who had been there several times, and had seen wolves a couple of times. But, as with all wildlife, there were no guarantees. It was a new place for us, so somewhere to be enjoyed, regardless.

We set up trail-cams. One for each member of the group, variously overlooking ponds and wallows – wild boar were another possibility here. We took long walks, looking at birds, plants, reptiles, and anything else. We had hot scorching days, we had terrific downpours.

One day, we (just the two of us) walked along the Poland/Slovakia border – once a no-man’s land with fences and border guards, now part of a long-distance trail through the forest. We were told to stick to the trail because there were probably still land-mines in some areas of the woods. But even so, we were still vulnerable. Bears and wolves were known to be in the area, even if they were infrequently encountered. What should we do if we did encounter them? Bears were usually solitary, or mother and cubs. Wolves were pack animals, and we could be surrounded without realising it. We kept going, sort of hoping not to see any.

What we did see from time to time, were large carnivore scats – piles of droppings that were too big and coarse for domestic dog, but too small for bear. And always these scats were surrounded by butterflies and other insects, mining the scats for minerals and salts they needed to survive and produce eggs. Perhaps not what you expect of beautiful insects, but part of their survival strategy anyway.

At the end of the week, the trail-cam results were disappointing. Between us, we had the odd wild boar, deer, owls, and a badger. At least the beavers living in the stream near the village obliged every evening.


Improving your chances

So, are there any way of improving your chances of seeing wolves? I’ve scoured the internet, and found the following ‘wolf-watching’ trips. Generally, you will be tracking wolves and learning about them and their interactions with other animals and the environment. Actually seeing a wolf, or even hearing one, is the icing on the cake. The exception is the Norway trip, where you are taken to meet a semi-wild pack in a very large enclosure.

I have not used any of these companies, and have no affiliation with them. This is simply a round-up of possibilities. The brief comments are taken from the company websites.


Bulgaria

It is now possible to organize unique tailor-made wolf tracking holidays in Bulgaria. These wolf tracking holidays are particularly rewarding during the winter months when the mountains are covered in snow, and the wolves and their ungulate prey can be tracked on foot, often with the aid of snowshoes.


Finland

Responsible Travel: With a 100% success rate in photographing wild brown bears & wolverines and over 80% chance of photographing wolves, this is the best tour for anyone wanting to see and photograph some of Europe’s largest and top predators.

Wildlifeworldwide: Join award winning wildlife photographer Bret Charman or Emma Healey on a five-night tour to northern Finland’s remote boreal forest in search of Europe’s large predators.

Wildlifeworldwide: You stay at two carefully selected locations equipped with purpose-built hides, where you keep a night vigil with a local guide to see brown bears, wolverines and wolves lured by carrion. In the day there are nature walks in the vicinity or optional trips further afield.

Finnature: In Finland, it is possible to see wild Wolves at special wildlife watching sites. At these sites, predators are attracted in front of viewing hides with food. Comfortable viewing hides are excellent places to watch Wolves safely. While Brown Bears and Wolverines are regular visitors at these sites, Wolves come around more rarely. This is because Wolves avoid conflicts with other carnivores, but also because they have larger territories. We at Finnature can help you to choose the best sites for Wolf watching. The best time for Wolf watching is from spring to autumn.

WildTaiga: Overnight stays in a photographic hide watching for carnivores


France

Undiscoveredmountains: Your high mountain guide and tracker, Bernard has been following the colonisation of the wolves in the French Alps for 20 years. With a wealth of local knowledge and access to a network of other local wolf enthusiasts, you won’t get a much better insight into these elusive animals. He will take you on a 4 day adventure following tracks and signs of wolf activity in the area and give you a rare insight in to the lives and behaviour of the other animals as they live under the threat of the wolf. This is a tracking holiday so we will be following signs of wolves and spending some time wildlife watching and interpreting what we see. However, it isn’t a wolf park and the territory of each pack or solitary wolf is enormous. So, please be aware that although you may be lucky and find signs straight away, you may not find anything and there is no guarantee you will see or hear a wolf.  


Germany

Biosphere Expeditions: wolf conservation expedition. Elaine gives an account of her experience here


Norway

Arctic holiday: This arctic animal-orientated journey packs in the mesmerising Northern Lights and a thrilling dog sledding ride. You will also visit the Polar Park and meet the local wildlife, like lynx and reindeer, and last but not least; Arctic Wolves! All this, while travelling through stunning arctic landscapes and enjoying local food along the way.

Polar Park is the world’s northernmost animal park & arctic wildlife centre. Animals you’ll see include wolves, lynx, moose, bears, wolverines, and muskox. They look especially great in their natural habitat with thick coats in winter! These predators live in wilderness enclosures with massive spaces to roam, so you may need all day to see all of them.

Photo User:Mas3cf, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons


Poland

Responsibletravel: Bieszczady belongs to the lowest mountain ranges of Carpathians (max. 1346 m/4416 feet). Scarcely populated and largely forested these mountains are now teeming with wildlife and have become the most important Polish refuge for Brown Bears, Wolves, Lynx and even Wild Cats. Moreover, there is a large herd of wild European Bison living here as well as plenty of Beavers and we will aim to see them all.

Naturetrek: This unique winter wildlife holiday focuses on the large mammals that are rare or extinct in western Europe, but still flourish in the remoter eastern corners of the continent. This holiday explores the meandering rivers of the Biebrza Marshes and the extensive forests of Bialowieza, including the primeval ‘Strict Reserve’. Within this snowy landscape live Elk (Moose), Red Deer, Beaver and a variety of birds, along with the impressive European Bison. There will also be the opportunity to listen for wolves howling in the forest.   


Portugal

European Safari Company: Faia Brava reserve is the first privately owned natural reserve in Portugal. It is bordered by the Côa River, and it is part of the Archeological Park of the Côa Valley, a UNESCO world heritage site. Oak forests and former cropland returning to nature are home to griffons, Egyptian and black vultures, golden and Bonelli’s eagles. In this experience you will learn how to track wolves, enjoy hikes around the private reserve of Faia Brava, and get to know the rich cultural and historical heritage of the Côa Valley. The accommodations are charming family-owned guesthouses in which you will feel like home sitting with a glass of some of Portugal’s finest wines and enjoying delicious local cuisine and a beautiful view.


Romania

Responsible Travel: A 6-day long private trip in Transylvania, with 4 days (morning and evening) focusing on wolf watching and tracking with a wildlife researcher. We’ll also take the opportunity to visit Bran Castle (aka Dracula’s Castle), enjoy the medieval town of Brasov with the most Eastern Gothic church, the Black Church, as well as the unforgettable sceneries of the Carpathian mountains in search of wolf tracks. Wolves are very shy animals due to the numerous persecutions from people, who learned the art of camouflage the hard way. This trip gives you the opportunity to look for wolves in their natural habitat, at safe distance to minimize the negative impact of our activities on these magnificent carnivores.


Spain

Naturetrek: This tour offers a chance to look for three of Europe’s most iconic mammals in contrasting habitats in northern Spain – the Bay of Biscay, Somiedo Natural Park in the western Cantabrian Mountains and the rolling hills of Zamora Province. Our holiday begins with a ferry trip to Santander across the Bay of Biscay, where we’ll watch for whales, dolphins and seabirds. On arrival in northern Spain we head to the heart of Somiedo in search of bears, before transferring to our second base in Zamora for two days of wolf-scanning. There’ll be some special birds too, including plenty of raptors, bustards and other mountain and steppe birds. We finish the tour with a little light culture in Santander.

Wild Wolf Experience: The Sierra de la Culebra hosts the highest density of wild wolves in Spain, but any sighting has to be regarded as a bonus when spending time in this area of wolf country. We do have a high success rate of sightings of these iconic predators, but at least be assured, if you haven’t seen them… they have seen you! Our Watching for Wolves tour operates throughout the year and is based in our home area of the Sierra de la Culebra in the far north west of Spain. The Sierra de la Culebra has recently been declared a Biosphere Reserve, which also includes the Duero Gorge.

Wildside Holidays website provides information about the Iberian Wolf and the Iberian Wolf Visitor Centre in La Garganta, as well as links to the Wild Wolf Experience mentioned above.

Visit Andalucia gives some hints about the best places to see wolves in the province


Sweden

Responsible Travel: Join a tracker for a day out in wolf territory. Tracking wolves is always exciting! During this trip we travel together by foot and by van in small groups in one of Sweden´s wolf territories. You will have good chances to track Wolves and feel their presence.

Responsible Travel: Sweden wildlife tours over a long weekend uncover an inordinate amount of animal life with moose, beavers, foxes and red squirrels all to be found if you know where to look. Following a guide on a four day Sweden wildlife tour lets you learn as you explore with bird calls deciphered and animal tracks uncovered, especially when tracking through the realm of the wolf.

Naturetrek: In the beautiful forests of central Sweden some of Europe’s larger mammal species, long since extinct in the British Isles, still outnumber the human population. On this short break we’ll search for Elk, Beaver and learn how to track Wolves amidst the scenic lakes and dense forests of Sweden’s Bergslagen region. Based in a lakeside guesthouse, inside a forest, we’ll make evening excursions to look for Elk and Beaver. We’ll track Wolves and our guide may even demonstrate how to attract their attention – by howling! 


Photo (c) Malene Thyssen, CC BY-SA 3.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/, via Wikimedia Commons


Wolf distribution and population in Europe 2019.

Wolves have now been found in low (often very low) density across much of Europe. The brown areas on the map show where they (or signs of them) are most frequent.

A larger version of the map can be seen here

© Sciencia58, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons


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Bear-watching

A round-up of opportunities for watching and photographing bears in Europe

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Winter birds on the Gulf of Morbihan

The ‘Mor-Bihan’ – which means ‘little sea’ in Breton – lies on the southern coast of Brittany.

The ‘Golfe du Morbihan’ comprises 12,000 hectares of the Atlantic enclosed by land except for a 1km wide bottleneck, through which the tide comes and goes. 

Due to its location along the Atlantic coast flyway, and its high diversity of wetlands, the Gulf of Morbihan is one of 20 major sites for waterbirds in France

About the Gulf

The term ‘gulf’ was traditionally used for large highly-indented navigable bodies of saltwater that are enclosed by the coastline. So basically, a gulf is a large inlet from the ocean into a landmass, typically with a narrow opening to the sea – which is what the Morbihan is. However, the name Morbihan is given to the département, and so the embayment is referred to as the Golfe du Morbihan.

The Mor-Bihan was filled by Atlantic waters several thousand years ago, when the rising sea-levels (after the last Ice Age) flooded the existing river valleys. The result was a huge shallow pan of water, with some 500km of coastline and around 60 islands which vary in size from rocky islets to large enough to support whole villages. 

Over time, the Gulf developed a range of natural habitats and rich biodiversity. It is a designated Natura 2000 area and is also protected by various international and national regulations including Ramsar (for the protection of wetlands), decrees on biotope protection, and its designated statuses as a natural reserve, protected area and national heritage site. Processes are now underway to declare the area a Regional Natural Park. 

The area around the Gulf of Morbihan is densely inhabited with 230 inhabitants per km² which is twice the national average. Yet the natural beauty and tranquillity of the Gulf attract two million visitors each year, making tourism is the main economic activity. Other major economic activities include oyster farming (with 1,600 hectares given over to this activity) fishing, and agriculture (in decline). The area around the gulf is home to an extraordinary range of megalithic monuments. The best-known is Carnac, where the remains of a dozen rows of huge standing stones can be followed for over 10km. The passage tomb of Gavrinis, on a small island, is one of the most important such sites in Europe. There is more information on the tourist website for the area

In the Gulf itself, Huge areas of mudflats are exposed at low tide and there are saltmarshes and numerous islands, channels and lagoons as well as arable farmland, shingle beaches and rocky shores nearby. This makes it an extremely important stopover and wintering area for waders and waterfowl, with tens of thousands of birds present from Autumn to spring.

Winter Birds

Morbihan is the principal French haunt of dark-bellied brent geese from Siberia – some 20,000 over-winter here. 

From October to March, it also supports high numbers of Eurasian Wigeon, Northern Shoveler, Northern Pintail and Common Teal as well as Common Shelduck, Red-breasted Merganser and Common Goldeneye. 

Waders include most of the regular species of north-western Europe and other species found here in winter include Little Grebe, Great Crested Grebe and around 1000 Black-necked Grebe. 

By summer, most birds have left for their northern breeding grounds, but a few remain to breed. These include Little Egret, Kentish Plover, Black-winged Stilt, Pied Avocet and Marsh Harrier while Eurasian Spoonbill occurs regularly in some numbers during both passage periods. A passerine speciality of Morbihan is Bluethroat which breeds at the Reserve Naturelle de Sene near Vannes and can also be found at the Marais de Suscinio to the south of Sarzeau. 

The land surrounding the Golfe has extensive pinewoods with a good range of bird species including Black Woodpecker, Green Woodpecker and Great Spotted Woodpecker, Short-toed Treecreeper, Crested Tit and various warblers. 

The site regularly exceeds the threshold of 20,000 birds counted simultaneously during the winter (October to February). This makes it of International Importance for its bird populations. However, the total number of migratory and wintering birds (waterfowl and shorebirds) is between 50,000 and 100,000 individuals

Dunlin

Maximum counts for winter 2011-12 (the most recent figures I can find on-line)

  • Pintail 1285
  • Brent Goose 16,594 (20-yr average 20,000)
  • Shelduck 4249
  • Shoveler 669
  • Wigeon 5395
  • Merganser 1231
  • Pochard 53 (20-yr average 664)
  • Black-necked grebe 938
  • Spoonbill 50 passage
  • Avocet 1400
  • Lapwing 5441
  • Ringed Plover 839
  • Grey plover 1784
  • Black-tailed godwit 3660
  • Curlew 710
  • Spotted redshank 104
  • Redshank 1500 passage 463 winter
  • Dunlin 20305
  • Turnstone 238 (20yr average 91) 

Morbihan is also important for its breeding birds: 

  • Lesser black-back gull 400 pairs
  • Common tern 100 pairs
  • Avocet 150 pairs
  • Marsh harrier 6 pairs
  • Oystercatcher 50 pairs
  • Little Egret 100 pairs
Redshank

Bird-watching places around the Morbihan

We camped overnight at Kerhillion Plage, and did some early morning sea-watching, then wandered around the area for a while before moving east to the Morbihan itself.

The place is huge, by the time you’ve added the marshes, sand dunes, salt pans and islands to the sea area, you are talking about some 23 square kilometres (8 square miles). Then the indentations of the coastline plus the narrow roads mean that you can’t really race around it in a day. If, like us, you enjoy watching birds, rather than just ticking them off a list, then you need several days. And if it is sunny, then you have to take that into account, as the low winter sun bouncing off the water isn’t pleasant. Oh, and don’t forget the tide. When it is out, there isn’t much to see on the mudflats unless you have a telescope

Toulvern: a wooded peninsula in the north-west corner of the Morbihan, with the Etang de Toulveryn on one side, and more tidal flats on the other. Lots of access points and a seafood restaurant at the end. Coots, teal, shoveler, mallard, shelduck, grebes, and spoonbills can all be seen here – and a telescope is useful. 

Le Marais de Pen in Toul: a mix of salt- and freshwater habitats, this is the largest marsh in the west of the Morbihan. It has been protected since the late 1990s. There is a useful viewing platform located on a water tower, overlooking the marshes, and a walking route of about 3.5km. The area is freely accessible all year round. 

Ile de Berder: from a small parking area close to the island, it is possible to observe Roseate Terns, especially in September and October – but they were long gone by our visit in late November. The terns often land on the oyster barges that are in the cove. Also good for goldeneye and red-breasted merganser who regularly feed on the plentiful oyster beds here.  You can cross to the island, but the road is submerged at high tide (so we gave it a miss because of not knowing the tide times).

Pond Pump: at Le Moustoir along the D316 which connects Larmor-Baden in Arradon. Gulls and plovers especially gather on the edge of this private pond – but be aware of the heavy and fast road traffic (we didn’t stay there for long) – though there is now a cafe – La Chaumière de Pomper – nearby that might provide a parking place if you eat there, and also the old mill – Le Moulin de Pomper that has been turned into an antiques shop. 

The banks of Vincin: sandwiched between the suburbs of Vannes and the muddy shores of the Riviere duVincin this is easily accessible by coast path (wheelchair-friendly) from the town, or from the le Conleau campsite, or the best Western hotel on the Lily de Conleau. Going east from any of these takes you past the golf course to the Pointe des Emigres. It can be disappointing when the tide is out, but it is home to large numbers of ducks, such as mallard, teal and shelduck.

Shelduck feeding as the tide rises

Séné Marshes

From Vannes, go south on the D199 to the village of Séné. From there, the reserve is signposted. The entrance fee is about €5 and that gives access to the visitor centre, two footpaths, five hides, information from ornithological guides, and the chance to watch a film about the reserve.  However, the reserve centre is closed from mid-September to the end of January so during this time you’re limited to a free access trail in one part of the reserve.

The reserve covers 410 hectares, and is located on the river Noyalo. It was declared by Ministerial Decree of 23 August 1996. It comprises a section of the estuary with mudflats bordered by vast salt marshes, tidal creeks, channels and ponds. These marshes are in fairly good condition, some being replaced by areas of wet meadows, hedgerows and fallow land. 

Some 220 species of birds have been observed on this reserve, including the 76 that nest there regularly. It is a migratory stop-over used by almost all shorebird and wildfowl species regularly seen in Western Europe. It is also a haven for amphibians, reptiles, dragonflies, butterflies and a quarter of the plant species found in Brittany have been recorded here.

The reserve website (in French, but google did a reasonable translation to English) includes a library of videos about the marshes

Wigeon and other winter waterbirds

Noyalo bridge: On the opposite of the Chanel de Saint-Leonard is the village of Noyalo. There are a few places where you can stop along the D780, and the bridge at Noyalo proved interesting even though the tide was still low – shelduck, avocets and curlews, various gulls, several marsh harriers, egrets, etc.

At le Hézo people seemed keen to point us in the right direction to see birds, although it wasn’t until the tide was coming in that we fully appreciated the place. The road runs alongside the mudflats near the old mill – the Moulin à marées du Hézo – and there is a footpath from the parking area there, and another along the old saltpans just to the south. We watched waders pushed along in front of the rising tide, looking like a necklace along the water-line at dusk. As with many of the large semi-enclosed embayments, the high tide seems to last a long time. The next morning (obviously it had been out again during the night) we had to wait for it to go down a bit before we could walk the shore behind the houses. Here we found large numbers of the Brent Geese that the area is known for, and amongst them was a black brant – the Canadian sub-species rarely seen in Europe.

Lasné Marsh is just south of le Hezo, and can be partially circumnavigated by following the coastal path. Part of it is a quiet zone, closed to the public. Avocets and terns are very easy to observe during the breeding season at Saint-Armel. In addition, the coastal path opens directly onto the mudflat east of Tascon, which hosts one of the largest concentrations of birds wintering in the Gulf of Morbihan. Then there is another marshy area between Lasne and Saint-Colombier

Dark-bellied Brent Geese

The Reserve of the Pointe du Duer is just south of Saint-Colombier.  Old salt pans dating from the 15th century and in use until the 1950s are now managed to provide safe roosting places for wading birds in winter and on migration. In spring and summer black-winged stilt, common tern and shelduck breed here. Two hides and a small pine plantation provide shelter, and various pathways leading to them. The footpaths are laid out to allow access without disturbing the birds. Again, large numbers of birds can be seen from the tower hide, especially at high tide.  Some 160 species have been recorded here, including resident black woodpeckers and crested tits.

If you continue along the southern edge of the Morbihan, you find more places to watch birds on the mudflats – for example the Rue du Pont du Lindin is recommended for a variety of waders including grey plover, and from the Port du Logeo you can see groups of red-breasted mergansers and black-necked grebe (especially in January and February) – though a telescope is recommended. 

The marshes of the Château de Suscinio are near Sarzeau on the south side. Just follow signs towards the castle. Once there, turn right towards the sea and park your vehicle in the car park. The marshes spread along several hundred meters in both directions and are very attractive to birds which can be observed from close-by, especially in the morning. 


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Other places to go bird-watching in winter

Photo of spoonbills in flight

Las Marismas del Odiel

The Odiel Marshes Natures Reserve is the second largest wetland in Huelva province after Doñana, and the most important tidal wetland in Spain. Here’s how to make the best of a visit.

Winter birds at the Tejo Estuary

Some 70,000 water birds spend their winter on the Tejo estuary near Lisbon in Portugal. That can mean some serious birdwatching there.

The Lauwersmeer in winter

The Lauwersmeer National Park, in the northern part of the Netherlands, provides a fantastic winter feeding ground for geese and other birds that breed further north.

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Adventures in French

As a thirteen-year-old, I swore I’d never go to France.  Nothing wrong with the country, or the people.  It was just the language – and my fear of being made a fool of because I didn’t understand the language.

Twenty years later, it was a different matter. I was in France, and definitely getting by in French (after a good bit of practice).

I’ve been interested in languages for as long as I can remember. While I was at junior school, there were Sunday morning language lessons on the BBC, repeated next Saturday and you’re ready for the next episode the following day.  I picked up a smattering of words, but not being able to afford the books that went with the courses, I wasn’t going to progress very far.  Spanish, German, Italian . . . I’m sure French was in there too, but I don’t remember it.

At the grammar school, I happened to be in a class that learned German – I wasn’t brilliant at it, but I enjoyed it.  After two years we had the opportunity to do a second language.  My father persuaded me to do Latin – he wanted me to be a doctor, and apparently that meant I had to learn Latin.  What sold it to me was that it was the root of several other languages, and in theory would make them easier to learn.  The Latin classes didn’t happen – not enough kids signed up.  So I went for French.

French classes were a nightmare.  After the precision of German pronunciation and grammar, I could not cope with the strange sounds, the letters that were silent in French or the different language structure.  It might as well have been Martian.  Nor did it help that most of the other kids seemed to have done some French in junior school, and I hadn’t.  This was the only subject that had me reduced to tears in class, and on more than one occasion.

Hence my teenage declaration about not visiting France.  The thought of making a fool of myself, or someone making a fool of me, was more than I could cope with.

Street market in le Mezieres

Roll on twenty years, and I was embarking on a year-long trip around Europe.  I hadn’t used my O-level German since the summer I left school, nor had any time or opportunity to learn any other language – just picking up a few words here and there from novels and magazines.  I felt I needed to be able to communicate at least at a basic level in other languages.  And that’s what the ‘Teach Yourself’ books were for. 

A combination of those books for German, French and Spanish (they are still sitting on my bookshelves) and a very basic computer with very BASIC programming, took up much of my spare time in the year leading up to the journey.  Computers in those days didn’t talk back – no sound, no pictures – just words on a screen.  I learned the words and phrases in the books, transferring them to the computer, having to spell everything correctly before the computer would let me move on to the next phrase.  I crossed the channel knowing words and phrases, but with no practice of hearing them, or knowing how to say them correctly.

And so it was that I eventually walked into a boulangerie, and asked the classic question ‘Avez-vous du pain, si’l vous plait?’.  The woman behind the counter looked at me and smiled.  She spoke slowly.  I believe the gist of her answer was ‘No, but you might get some from the mini-market down the road’.  Whew! I had survived my first foray into spoken French.  And yes, the little supermarket had some sliced white bread.

During the next three weeks, my confidence and speaking ability improved – so long as I didn’t have to try to understand more than one phrase at a time when someone spoke to me!  When the camper developed a knocking sound and I called out the breakdown people, I started off trying to explain in French, but was so relieved when the person on the other end asked if it would be easier to speak English.  Fortunately, most spoken conversations were pretty standard tourist things, and the rest was reading signs and information in visitor centres, etc.

I could tell a similar story about the next five months in Spain and Portugal, though on returning to France it took a while to remember to say Bonjour rather than Buenos dias, and Merci instead of Gracias.  But my language skills were certainly put to the test when the camper needed a service.  My husband at that time refused to communicate in any language except English.

Traditional ceremonial dress for town officials in le Mezieres

We knew, from a mechanic in Gibraltar, that there was a fault with the brakes, and this guy had shown us what needed to be done via the diagrams in the manual.  I attempted to pass this information to the French mechanic, and he said no problem.  When we collected the vehicle, he had tightened the hand brake cable so much that there was little difference between the on and off positions.  We were disappointed, but not surprised, when the cable snapped a couple of days later.  We limped back to the garage, and now the mechanic refused to speak any English.  He made it obvious that he wasn’t going to stand for a foreign woman telling him what to do.  At least he did fix the brake cable, but at a further cost.

The next potentially difficult situation happened a couple of weeks later.  We were driving along the Avignon bypass, when a car ahead of us suddenly left the road, skidded across a dirt track (where road widening work was going on) and disappeared down a bank.  If anybody else saw what happened they did not stop.  The car had come to rest on a steep gravel bank and the woman driver, without a seatbelt, had slid across to the passenger side where she sat crying.

We helped her get out, and led her back up the bank.  She realised we were struggling with French, and so told us in broken English that she wanted to be at the bottom of the bank, and later said she wished she was dead.  After asking if we had children, she said we were lucky, she had three but they and their father were not with her now.  A Frenchman stopped to see what was going on and offered to take her home ‑ it was probably easier for her to talk to him in French than to us in English anyway.  It was hard to tell whether she had been suicidal before, or if this was a genuine accident that had made her realise she had just come close to solving all her problems. 

As we got back to the camper, a police car pulled up – we were on a road where vehicles were not supposed to stop.  Neither of the officers spoke English, and I had to explain with a mixture of French words and actions what had happened.  Fortunately, they were happy with the explanation, and let us go without further ado.

Road signs are sort of multi-lingual!

Four months later we were crossing France on the way back to Britain.  Somewhere we stopped for supplies, and I went into a travel agency to ask about the car ferries across the channel.  Which would be the best port to aim for?  And what about the news stories (we could get Radio 4 on the longwave frequencies back then) of strikes causing chaos at the ports.  This conversation took place entirely in French – halting French in my case, but French none-the-less.  I was proud of myself.

I’ve been to France several times since then, including once to a conference (with papers presented in French, Spanish, and English).  I’ve even translated a paper from French into English – it helped that I had seen the illustrated presentation, and that I was familiar with the scientific terms about the subject.  The written language is still much easier for me to deal with than the spoken one.

There are two things I’ve learned from this experience.  One is that if you HAVE to and/or WANT to learn something, it is much easier than if you are casual about it – just thinking it would be a nice thing to do.  Secondly, that being immersed in a language – ie being where it is spoken all around you – makes it much easier than trying to learn from three or four lessons a week at school.

And in general, people abroad really do appreciate you making at least an attempt at the language, rather than expecting them to do all the work.

Bread on a market stall in le Mezieres
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More about France

Watching Wolves in Europe

A selection of organised trips (eco-volunteering, guided vacations and single day/night opportunities) for watching wolves in Europe.

Botany and Butterflies in the French Alps

The French Alps provide a wonderful backdrop for a botanical and/or butterfly trip. Here are some of my recommendations after a week at La Grave, near the Col du Galibier which is equally well-known for the tour du France cycle race.

Botany and Butterflies in the French Alps

Why the French Alps

A high biodiversity due mainly to the large range in altitude

A relative lack of intensive farming means more space for wildlife

My week at this site, with a botanical group, resulted in lists of 418 plant species, 41 butterfly species, 46 birds species and a few other odds and ends.

However, had it not been for the emphasis on botany, I’m sure we would have found a lot more of the other things.

Best time to go? May – August

La Grave

La Grave – it sounds ominous. But the name of this small French village actually means severe.  And it refers to the terrain, which is difficult to navigate.  Despite the presence of a telepherique, there are no ski pistes, and it isn’t a ski resort.  This is where the really adventurous skiers go – and a guide is recommended, if not a necessity, for most.  Too many people have met their deaths here.

In summer, it is a different story.  Like so much of the Alps, it is a paradise for botanists and butterfly watchers.  There are plenty of footpaths, and the telepherique comes in handy for getting to those high levels where only the specialist plants can survive. 

One reason for the diversity of plant and butterfly life here is the huge vertical distance – over 3,000m – from the valley bottoms to the mountain peaks. Another is the orientation of the slopes – most are facing either north or south. And thirdly, there is geology. A geological map of the area shows a patchwork of colour, representing and whole range of acid to alkaline rocks, which in turn affect the soil types, and therefore the plants that grow in particular localities.

Walking around the village, along the roads to villages higher up the slope, along the Romanche river at the bottom of the valley, through the Arboretum (where there is a small collection of trees labelled only in French) provides a good introduction to the local plants and butterflies. But while you are there, it’s worth visiting a few other nearby sites.

The Alpine Botanical Garden at Lautaret

To help get into the right frame of mind for Alpine plants, start at the Alpine Botanical Garden at the Col du Lauteret.  It is well worth a visit, and all the plants are labelled!

The Col du Lautaret is located at the crossroads of the Northern Alps (high snow cover and cloud amount) and the Southern Alps (high levels of sunshine and Mediterranean influence) on the border of the external Alps (oceanic influence causing high levels of precipitation) and the dry inner alps (continental influence).

Add to that, the varied geology and altitude (Lautaret is at 2058m) of the immediate area, and it isn’t surprising that over 1500 species of higher plants have been recorded here.  It is a site of considerable botanical research, being part of the University of Grenoble.

At the end of the 19th century, dozens of botanical gardens sprang up in Europe.  The garden at Lautaret was opened in 1899, presenting a rich systematic collection of 500 species from the western Alps, all painstakingly classed and labelled.

Round-headed orchid Traunsteinera globosa
Vanilla orchid Nigritella rubra
Man orchid Orchis anthropophora

In 1915 the highways agency of the time decided to improve the road between Lautaret and Galibier – right through the garden.  The garden had to move – not far – to its current position, where it is easily accessible to travellers through the Alps. 

In the last twenty years, in particular, it has grown in both popularity and size.  There are now collections of alpine (and arctic) plants from various regions of the world. The garden website includes a virtual tour.

There is limited parking on-site, but plenty nearby at the Col du Lautaret itself.  Walking the few hundred metres along the road winding up to the garden is a delight in itself – enough to keep any botanist happy for an hour or two.

Once in the garden, you can wander around the various alpine areas of the world, though I settled for just the local stuff.  It’s a great introduction to the local flora as all the specimens are labelled.  Ideally, a place to visit at the start of a botanical trip to the area, and again at the end to answer the questions you found along the way.  Certainly, in these days of digital photography, it’s useful to be able to compare photos with labelled specimens, or ask someone.

Titania’s fritillary Clossiana titania and small skipper Thymelicus sylvestris on field scabious Knautia arvensis.

There are areas of alpine meadows where such striking local plants as Campanula thyrsoides ssp thyrsoides could be seen. In the fields behind the café opposite the car park there was spotted gentian Gentiana punctata as well as the much more common spring and trumpet gentians Gentiana verna and G acualis.  This, with a background of the green valleys and the rocky mountain peaks, some still snow-capped, forms a picture that is difficult to beat.

So, even if you can’t spend time wandering alpine paths and discovering the flora for yourself, you can still enjoy it in the Alpine Botanical Garden.  And the learn more about the Parc National des Ecrins in the Maison du Parc, have a meal in the French restaurant, stay overnight in the Hotel des Glacier, and do more of the same the next day!

Part of the panoramic view from the telepherique top station.

La Meije

La Meije is the mountain massif overlooking La Grave from the south. The name is derived from a local word meaning midday, and refers to the fact that the sun passes over (or behind depending on the season) the peak at midday.

There are some footpaths – some of them quite a scramble in places. So the best way to explore the botany is to make us of the Telepherique de la Meije which starts in la Grave. There is a middle station, and a top station.

The top station overlooks the Girose glacier, and a wonderful panorama (above) of the other nearby glaciers and mountain peaks. It’s a pretty stark place, but a few plants can be found at the top – glacier crowfoot Ranunculus glacialis and Alpine toadflax Linaria alpina survive mainly in the lee of the structure that supports a cafe above the glacier. The cafe provides welcome hot drinks!

Alpine toadflax Linaria alpina
Glacier crowfoot Ranunculus glacialis
The Meije glacier from the middle station.
Shepherd’s Fritillary  Boloria pales – a high altitude butterfly photographed near the middle station.

The Col du Galibier

The Col du Galibier – looking to the north side, the Col du Télégraphe. On these higher levels, the plants are often small, only a few centimetres tall to avoid the stresses of harshness of life at high altitude.  Lower down, where there is more shelter, the plants are often taller and more luxurious.

At 2,645m, the Col du Galibier is probably best known for being (often) the highest point of the Tour du France cycle race.  The pass is closed during the winter.  The road over the top is the ninth highest paved road in the Alps.  It wasn’t actually paved until 1976 when the tunnel (at 2556m) was closed for restoration and an alternative route over the mountains was needed until the tunnel reopened in 2002.

According to local folklore, before the tunnel no one from the north side of the Galibier ever married anyone from the south. The people of each side were different and full of mistrust for each other. The isolation of the north side was compounded by its climate, which is still much harsher than the south.

Alpine Avens Geum rossii
Mount Baldo Anemone Anemone baldensis
Unbranched Lovage Ligusticum mutellinoides
Above the villages, there is a flattish ‘shoulder’ of land used for summer grazing – this is what is meant by an alp. This seems to be a particularly good area for plants and butterflies. Visiting these alps before breakfast – while it was still cool and the butterflies relatively inactive – proved to be the best time for photography.
Apollo Parnassius apollo
Chequered Skipper Carterocephalus palaemon
Darwin’s Heath Coenonympha darwiniana

La Grave – getting there

It is possible to get to La Grave by public transport – eg bus from Grenoble (Rome2Rio website) – and on to the Col du Lautaret. However, anywhere else beyond walking distance requires a car or a bike. The Hotel Edelweiss in La Grave offers mountain e-bike tours.

Hotel Edelweiss – There is other accommodation in the village, but this is where I stayed – very comfortable and friendly.

See it on Google maps

Resources

La Grave – information in Wikipedia

Telepheriques des Glaciers la Grave/la Meije

The Col du Galibier is on the route of the Tour de France cycle race, but still great for wildlife and scenery.

The Botanical Garden – in French or in English

The Parc National des Ecrins is immediately south of the road and is my favourite French National Park – scenery, wildlife, walking etc.

Organised trips

The company I travelled with ceased to exist when the owners retired, however, there are a number of other companies which provide nature trips to the Alps, for example:

Greenwings wildlife holidays – Butterflies of the French Alps

Naturetrek – Italian and French Alps


Bookshop

Click on the covers for more information. Buying books through these links brings me a small commission which helps with maintaining this website at no extra cost to you.

English language field guides to Alpine plants are hard to find. These French ones have pictures and icons that make them reasonably usable to anyone.

If you are trying to buy a wildflower book in advance, make sure it is about the Alpine flora in Europe, rather than Alpine regions of North or South America, or Australia or New Zealand, for example.

The Alpine Botanical Garden at Lautaret

More nature-watching in the Alps

Nature of Grindelwald

The area around Grindelwald, in the shadow of the Eiger and the Jungfrau, is great for plants, birds, and butterflies as well as just great scenery for hiking through.

The naturalist in France in winter

The naturalist travelling through France in winter can expect bleak weather with little sunshine and drizzly, icy rain. 

Paris, for example, sees an average of 37°F (3°C) and two inches of rain in January. You’ll find colder, snowier temperatures in the northeast of 37-43°F (3-6°C), and in the mountain regions of the south. However, it is milder along the coasts, 43-46°F (6-8°C) on the Atlantic (west coast) and 48-55°F (9-13°C) in southern France (Mediterranean coast).

As with most of northern and central Europe, the most obvious winter features are the birds. Large areas of water both inland and along the coast attract vast numbers of wintering wildfowl. However, a few mammals can be seen, especially in the mountains.

Common Cranes

Lac du Der-Chantecoq

Lac du Der Chantecoq is the second-largest artificial lake in Europe. It was dammed in 1974 as part of the plan to reduce the flooding further downstream in Paris. Der is from the Celtic word for Oak, and Chantecoq was the name of one of the villages now submerged. It is now an internationally recognised place for wintering wildfowl, as well as for the thousands of common cranes (above) that stop by on migration.
Information for visitors

Wigeon

La Brenne

La Brenne is an area dominated by some 3,000 lakes (actually Medieval fishponds) to the south-west of Paris. In winter, it is home to vast numbers of wintering ducks. Gadwall, shoveler, wigeon and teal mingle with scarcer species such as smew, red-crested pochard and ferruginous ducks. Up to 4,000 cranes also spend winter in this area. Information for visitors Downloadable leaflet in English

Dark-bellied Brent Geese

The north and west coasts of France in winter

The Atlantic coast of Europe is part of a major flyway for birds moving from eastern north America, Greenland, Iceland, northern Europe and Russia to wintering areas further south. The mudflats in the wide shallow estuaries, and lagoons formed by sandbars, provide stopping-off places for these migrants to rest and refuel. Some are also major wintering sites for thousands of waders (shorebirds), wildfowl and other water-birds. Where you have waterbirds, you have predators, and there seems to be an abundance of marsh harriers at most of these sites. The best wintering sites along the French coast include:

Baie de Somme – the largest natural estuary in northern France. Its vast sand, mudflats and grassy areas provide refuge during cold weather events, especially for waders and ducks. During the average winter, the Baie de Somme is internationally important as it holds over 1% of the individuals of the biogeographic populations of pintail, shoveler and common shelduck. Information for visitors

Knot

Baie du Mont Saint-Michel – has the fifth largest tidal range in the world, and includes sand/gravel beds supporting large bivalve (shellfish) populations.  Up to 100,000 waders winter at the bay, including over 1% of the populations of oystercatcher, knot, and dunlin. Marine mammals such as bottle-nosed dolphins and common seals also visit the site. Information for visitors

Golfe du Morbihan – A large, almost enclosed, estuarine embayment and saltmarsh complex at the mouths of three rivers. Vast mudflats support large areas of eelgrass (Zostera species) and an extremely high density of invertebrates. Up to 100,000 waterbirds winter annually at the site, and numerous species of migratory waterbirds stop by in spring and autumn, and nest in the area. See this post for more detail.  Information for visitors

Baie de Bourgneuf, Ile de Noirmoutier et Foret de Monts – a complex site of sands, mudflats, saltpans, marshes, reedbeds, oyster basins, saltmarsh, dunes, etc. More than 60,000 waterbirds use the site in winter. Information for visitors

Marais du Fier d’Ars –  Another coastal complex with more than 31,000 waterbirds using the site in winter. Of particular importance for dark-bellied brent geese, avocets, dunlin and black-tailed godwit.

Greater Flamingo in winter

Camargue

The Camargue, the Rhône River delta, is the premier wetland of France. It comprises vast expanses of permanent and seasonal lagoons, lakes and ponds interspersed with extensive Salicornia flats, freshwater marshes, and a dune complex. It is of international importance for nesting, migrating and wintering waterbirds. Tens of thousands of ducks, geese, swans and other water birds, including greater flamingo, occur in winter.  Other birds present include great spotted and white-tailed eagles, and penduline tit and moustached warbler – the latter apparently easier to see at this time of year.
Information for visitors

Click here for a flavour of the area from Luca Boscain

Eagle owl

Les Alpilles

Les Alpilles (the Little Alps) are easy to access – and not often snowy!  This limestone ridge provides good flying conditions for raptors at any time of year, so eagles can be seen.  But more importantly, the village of les Baux attracts wallcreepers, blue rock thrush and eagle owl (try behind the Hotel Mas de L’Oulivie) and citril and snow finches can also be found. Wallcreepers head back into the high Alps for the summer so their time in the lowlands is limited. Tourist information

Mountains

High mountains are often not the most exciting places for wildlife in winter. The sub-zero temperatures limit plant growth and insect activity. Birds often migrate to the lowlands or to warmer climates. On the other hand, there is likely to be a concentration of food around human habitation, and ski resorts can provide interesting bird-watching. Alpine choughs, alpine accentors and snowfinches, for example, forage around ski resorts, and can be observed at close quarters.

Alpine Ibex

Mammals often move to the lower slopes or seek shelter in woodlands. However, mammals may also be easier to find as their tracks are more obvious in the snow, or in muddy areas. And it’s often easier to see into the distance when vegetation isn’t in the way. This Alpine wolf-tracking holiday in France is an example of the specialist trips available.

Chamois inhabit both the Alps and the Pyrenees. They spend summer above the tree-line, but descend to around 800m to live in pine forests during the winter. In the Alps, Ibex are also found high in the mountains, Females spend the winter mostly on slopes that are too steep for snow to accumulate. However, males sometimes come down to valleys during the late winter and spring.


Bookshop

Click on book cover for more information about these books which give much more detailed information about these and many other sites

Note: Buying books through these links brings me a small commission (at no extra cost to you) which helps with the costs of maintaining this website.


More places to go nature-watching in winter

Winter birdwatching in Bulgaria

The northern-most part of the Black Sea coast (near Romania) has been dubbed Bulgaria’s ‘Geeseland’. Tens of thousands of geese and other wildfowl spend the winter here, where the Black Sea keeps the climate is a few degrees warmer than further inland. Here are some suggestions for the best places to visit.


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