. . . where the Monks make perfume . . . and chocolate . . . and the wildlife is thriving.
Religious retreats are, by their nature, remote and often inaccessible. Caldey Island, however, is an easily accessible retreat close to the holiday town of Tenby on the south Pembrokeshire Coast in Wales.
Caldey Island isn’t the first place you’d think about when looking for nature-watching sites in Pembrokeshire. It doesn’t have the huge numbers of seabirds that you can see on Skomer, for example, but it does have some advantages over the other islands.
Boats every half hour or so from Tenby Harbour, starting around 10am, every day except Sunday – weather permitting – and the trip takes only about twenty minutes.
The boat lands at the only jetty, which is in Priory Bay, on the sheltered north side of the island. To the east is a large sandy beach, backed by sand dunes. Sun-lovers need go no further than the beach, which is never crowded, but then they would be missing the other delights of the island.
if you are not good with climbing steps or walking on uneven footpaths, you don’t have to do that here.
The only road runs from the jetty to the village and farm in the centre of the island, and then to the lighthouse. The trees and shrubbery alongside the road hide views of the farmland beyond. Caldey was an active farm, with mainly cattle grazing. This used to provide milk for the small village community, and for the produce of the island dairy – ice cream, clotted cream, yoghurt, shortbread and chocolate – which is sold in the shop. Now, the milk comes from the mainland. There are still a few cows, and sheep and ponies, but farming is a lesser part of the island now.
The village is small, the school having closed a decade ago through lack of pupils. There is still a gift shop, a post office, cafe, and a small museum, all under the shadow of the Abbey and other religious buildings. More about this later.
Beyond the village, the road continues through the farmland to the lighthouse. This south side of the island is much more exposed and windswept, and is probably where the island got its name – Caldey being derived from the Viking Keld-eye or cold island. The walk is worth it for the spectacular views: the Pembrokeshire coast and the Preseli Hills to the north, the Gower Peninsula to the east, and Lundy Island to the south.
The lighthouse was built in 1829, and together with Lundy North Lighthouse provides for safe navigation in the north Bristol Channel. It was originally powered by oil, was converted to an automatic acetylene system in 1927, and since 1997 has been modernised and converted to mains electricity. Like most lighthouses, it is a large white imposing structure.
The wild-flowers along the coast are spectacular. Thrift Ameria maritima and Kidney vetch Anthyllis vulneraria were in full bloom (above). Then there were patches of sea campion Silene maritima and spring squill Scilla verna. The best time is mid-April to mid-July. Bluebells Endymion non-scripta and three-cornered leek Allium triquetrum provide a spectacular early season display alongside the road through the village.
And with the flower come the insects. In June there may be small blue butterflies on the kidney vetch, 24-spot ladybirds on the sea campion, gorse bugs on the gorse and green nettle weevil on the patches of nettles. I’ve found several species of bumble and solitary bees here too, over the years.
From the lighthouse, there is a mown path a short way to the east, and a long way to the west. The path used to end at Windberry Bay, where you can admire the spectacular red sandstone cliffs. These cliffs are good for seabirds, but you really do need binoculars to appreciate them properly. You can see herring and lesser black-backed gulls, fulmars, razorbills, shags, cormorants, and choughs and peregrines. But remember that these seabirds are only here for the nesting season. By the end of July, most will have gone back out to sea.
A mown path takes you back across a field to the village, for tea and cake in the cafe.
Or you can follow the path further west to Sandtop Bay. We usually eat our sandwiches overlooking this bay, watching for the choughs that nest in the cliffs on the far side. Sometimes a peregrine passes over. Again, an easy track takes you back to the village, where you visit the cafe and shops, and join the hard track back to the boat.
In the far left of the photo above, you can see St Margaret’s Island, which is a nature reserve, a Site of Special Scientific Interest and the main seabird colony. Again mostly razorbills and guillemots, but also the largest cormorant colony in Wales. At low tide (when this photo was taken), St Margaret’s appears to connect with Caldey, though the rocks are not quite continuous all the way across. At high tide, it is clearly a separate island.
The best way to see St Margaret’s is on a ’round the islands’ boat trip.
The red squirrels
Caldey Island is the only place in Pembrokeshire where you can see red squirrels. This species vanished from the county half a century ago as the introduced grey squirrels became more numerous here. After considerable consultation and an extensive program of rat eradication, three red squirrels were brought to the island in 2016, and then a further 12 were added in 2017.
The island doesn’t have the right habitats to support a totally self-sustaining population of squirrels, so they are closely monitored and given supplementary food. The aim is for the reds to live as natural a life as possible, so although some openly hang around the cafe area, please don’t give them human food. It isn’t good for them. The squirrels’ welfare is continually assessed, and so far they are enjoying their surroundings, building dreys, finding food, exploring the island, and raising young.
Hedgehogs have long been on Caldey, but now are being seen there more frequently – certainly, I’ve come across their droppings more often in the last few years (hedgehogs are nocturnal, so you are only likely to see one if you stay overnight on the island). They have probably benefitted from the rat eradication program.
Caldey as a religious retreat
The Abbey was built in 1910 by the Anglican Benedictine monks who came to the Island in 1906. It was designed by Penarth architect John Coates-Carter in traditional Italianate style, and is now a grade II* listed building. Tours of the abbey are available – but are for men only!
Older religious buildings include the Old Priory and the medieval churches of St David and St Illtud, where anyone can explore. The Priory is thought to occupy the site of the original 6th-century Celtic monastery, and was home to the Benedictine monks who lived on Caldey in medieval times, but has not been occupied since the Dissolution of the Monasteries in about 1540. Conversely, St Illtud’s, with its strange leaning spire and pebble floors, is, still a consecrated Roman Catholic church.
The original Anglican Community converted to Roman Catholicism in 1913 and then sold the Abbey to monks of the Reformed Cistercian Order in 1926. They still occupy Caldey Abbey today. They follow the strict lifestyle of their order, with vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, observing a rule of silence between the hours of 7pm to 7am and following a demanding timetable of prayer, study and work.
The work includes the production of Caldey Island Perfumes, an industry that started in the 1950s with the sale of bunches of herbs to visitors. It then became more sophisticated and popular until the island ran out of raw materials and had to start importing. The perfumes are no longer developed on the island, but by a Belgian company. However, they are still made on Caldey, using a mixture of local plants, such as gorse, and imported essential oils. Lavender is again being grown in the Abbey gardens and sold in sachets in the shop.
Half of the island is red sandstone, the other half is limestone. The limestone was quarried in centuries past. As with most limestone areas, there are many caves – inaccessible to the casual visitor – and some of these have yielded archaeological artifacts showing that the island was inhabited perhaps some 12,000 years ago. It wasn’t an island then, the sea level was much lower during the ice age, and Caldey would have been a hill on the Bristol Channel Plain.
A seabird spectacular cruise offers an alternative (or an addition) to landing on Skomer Island – and a great chance to see the Manx Shearwaters that are hidden in burrows, or are out at sea during the day.
It was 2002. My friend Holly had encouraged me to become a tour leader with Gulliver’s Natural History Holidays. My first trip was as a replacement driver – the main leader had broken his ankle while playing football in the garden with his son. He could still lead, but someone else would have to drive . . . . .
Holly was the other official leader on this trip to Crete, so she and I travelled together. We got on the local train from Pembroke to Swansea where we should pick up the express to Gatwick (London airport). The little train was so full that it struggled on the uphills, and was late getting to Carmarthen. The powers that be decided it would be even later by the time it got to Swansea, so they got passengers off the train and onto buses to make sure we got to the express on time. Huh! Two busloads of passengers disappeared into the distance, leaving six of us waiting for transport. Eventually a mini-bus turned up, loaded all our stuff, and took us off to a station beyond Swansea where we watched our train pull out as we arrived. Apparently no-one had told the guard that there were still some passengers on their way from Carmarthen. We got on the next train, an hour later, and had to stand for the four-hour journey because all the seats were booked. Not a good start.
Holly, having lead a number of these trips before, had everything organised. She had booked a night at a nice bed and breakfast place ten minutes from the airport, and as soon as we were installed there, she hauled me off to a restaurant five minutes’ walk down the road. She went off to get the drinks, and came back with two rather large (double measures) of red wine, and before we had finished the meal, she got another two. Now, I don’t usually drink even one small glass of wine with a meal, so I was rather glad of the brisk walk in the cold air to get back to our lodgings!
Next morning we were at the airport early to round up our clients. Holly set up stall just inside the departure lounge, draping a bright green t-shirt with ‘Gulliver’s Natural History Holidays’ on it over a chair. One by one, our clients arrived. Holly said she found it useful to memorise people’s names before the trip, and then you only had to match faces when you met people, so we had been testing each other on the journey. Now we actually met George and Anne, who had been on a trip with Holly previously, as had Rachel. Tall Tony would be easily remembered, and he travelled with Sylvia, the tallest of the females. Pauline and Derek went on various trips together, but never shared a room. With the exception of Rachel, and possibly Sylvia, I would guess that everyone was over 50. And so we got on the plane for the proper start to the trip.
Just before leaving, I had bought a woman’s magazine as something to read on the plane (the kind of thing I would normally read only in a doctor’s or dentist’s waiting room) I had to laugh when I got to the horoscope page – it said “You’re still feeling your way into a new role and you’re wondering now whether you’ve taken on too much.” So here I was, about to drive a vehicle of a size I hadn’t driven for ten years, a strange vehicle, with the steering wheel etc on the wrong side, and I was going to be driving on the wrong side of the road, in a place I’d never been to before, and worst of all, I was going to have an audience – passengers! Really, it was a relief that my first trip for Gulliver’s was just as a driver, without all the responsibility of full leadership too.
At the airport in Crete we met up with the other four people who had flown in from Manchester airport – Ian, the leader the with broken ankle who wasn’t allowed to drive, Sylvia and Jenny were the two that I could never remember who was who, and Cynthia, also from Pembrokeshire, and who had been on one of Holly’s trip before.
Ian was worried that the company who provided the mini-buses hadn’t shown up. After some consultation with Holly, and phone calls to the company, they realised that this time the mini-buses were being provided by a different company – only Ian didn’t know. So a few more phone-calls and Holly and I collected two mini-buses from a very crowded parking lot. Having got everybody organised, we drove about 25 miles and stopped for fuel. Holly had a problem. There was a red light flashing on her dashboard, and no-one had a clue what it meant. A breakdown truck appeared half an hour later, and they didn’t know what the problem was either. We headed back to the airport, where the company swapped Holly’s mini-bus for a taxi and a people carrier, and then we set off across the island again.
By now it was getting dark. We stopped at a taverna, where we were plied with vast amounts of souvlaki, omelette and salad, as well as the largest slices of cake imaginable (I wrapped mine in a napkin for later consumption). We eventually arrived at the hotel at Plakias at about eleven pm, having seen a barn owl and an eastern hedgehog en route. Ian was somewhat taken aback when we arrived at the hotel because the reception area had disappeared – the ground floor had been refurbished and the reception area moved. Early April in the Mediterranean is not necessarily a warm time of year, and no-one had put the heating on. Several people complained of the cold, and the lack of hot water, the next morning. However, Holly and Ian got things sorted out with the hotel, the mini-bus company returned the second mini-bus during the day, and things went fairly smoothly from then on.
Wednesday, the first full day, we spent on the beach by the hotel. We were not exactly lazing in the sun, but ambling slowly along the top of the beach looking for plants, butterflies, birds and whatever else we happened across. So slowly, that it took about an hour to do the first quarter mile! I indulged in plant photography, often finding myself left way behind as the group moved on to the next plant, and the next. There were drifts of blooms, mostly small such as the tiny pick catchfly Silene colorata (top photo), the tiny Echium arenarium, (sorry, but you might have to find a plant book for some of these species – these are just the ones I heard the names of before everyone moved on), and creeping mats of the densely-woolly Sea Medick Medicago marina.
The clouds were building as we reached the headland and began to explore the rocky part of the shore. At first the path passes through maquis – scrub that is waist to shoulder height and consisting largely of tree spurge and hairy thorny broom. As the path continues, garrigue habitat takes over, low scrub dominated by the small plants of Jerusalem Sage and Three-leaved Sage. All sorts of plants were found here, including orchids and the bizarre flowers of the Cretan Birthwort – like miniature saxophones with hairy throats.
Walking back to the hotel we had a brief view of a female Ruppell’s Warbler – brief enough for me to know it was something I hadn’t seen before, and to accept Ian’s identification.
In the afternoon we went up the Kotsifos (blackbird) Gorge behind the village. Crete has many endemic plants, and Ian introduced us to several of the chasmophytic (gorge-loving – no I hadn’t heard the word before either) species – Arum creticum, with its amazing orange-yellow spadix, the pink cress Ricotia cretica (sounds more like a cheese), Cretan Valerian, Procopiania cretica and the Shrubby Yellow Flax – I took a few pictures, but the cold wind and grey skies were not encouraging. The first drops of rain fell as we returned to the hotel, and there was quite a downpour overnight.
Thursday morning we awoke to dense, dark cloud. Ian, having led this trip several times before, worked out an itinerary that would allow us to be within easy distance of shelter if the weather deteriorated further. We headed east, stopping at the Kourtaliotiko Gorge in hope of seeing a lammergeier – the bone vulture. No lammergeiers, but marsh harriers on migration, blue rock thrushes and black-eared wheatear and others kept the birdwatchers happy. While down on the ground there was golden drop and bladder vetch amongst the many plants by the roadside.
As we drove east to the Minoan site of Phaestos, the sky cleared to reveal the dramatic snowy peaks of Mount Ida, which rise to 7500 ft; the mountainous nature of the island is a real surprise. Along the roadsides were large drifts of blue lupins, and of pink flowers which Ian said were Naked Man Orchids. I remarked that they looked like heaps of fluffy pink marsh mallows, and Ian asked if I was inferring something. The guffaws from the rest of my passengers told me that pink marsh mallows and naked men were not synonymous (as if I had ever thought they were!)
At Phaestos we explored the hillside by the car park, turning up a variety of good flowers . . the tiniest Yellow-worts possible, no more than two inches high, the smaller-leaved Jerusalem Sage with soft oval leaves and the bold flowers of Mallow-leaved Bindweed. Orchids were abundant, and everyone had a good chance to compare side by side the similar flowers of the Naked Man and Monkey Orchids. The lip of the Monkey has ‘arms and legs’ with deep pink rounded tips, unlike those of the Naked Man which are more ragged and pointed. And it’s pretty obvious where the Naked Man Orchid gets its name! There were also some large iridescent greeny-yellow beetles clinging onto the blooms in the wind.
We had lunch on the veranda above the archaeological site, under the watchful eyes of a dozen or more cats, before Ian gave a short tour around the Minoan palace (he is a history teacher). Although the ruins are very low, you can see how the various areas of the palace related to each other. The palace dates back some 3500 years and we could have spent ages here. I was intrigued by the huge storage urns that people could hide in, especially comparing them with a tiny ‘urn’ being built by a potter wasp on one of the ancient walls.
Afterwards, we continued along the road to what had been the site of the summer palace (if I remember Ian’s commentary correctly) at Agia Triada, in a cooler location than the main building. We didn’t look at any ruins here, but at the swathes of Cretan Ebony, as well as Giant Orchid and the pink-flowered Cistus creticus.
On the way back we stopped in the pleasant town of Spili, where Daphne and others were keen to see the Venetian fountain with its 19 lion-head spouts. Fountain wasn’t quite the right word, but there were 19 lion heads. It was situated in a pleasantly shaded plateia, where fresh orange juice was the order of the day. I decided to try the local ‘Yoghart with walnt and honey’ (we had a good laugh at the spelling on some of the menus) which was a meal in itself. Derek managed to wheedle ‘Mother’s Chocolate Cake’ out of the waiter. It was swiftly becoming clear that the group needed food on a very regular basis!
It was not only culinary delights that Spili offered, as Rachel was entranced by the paintings in the church, and Jenny captivated by the antics of Swallows making their nest outside one of the shops. Holly and I did some window shopping.
Friday there was still a lot of cloud inland and to the west, so we wound our way down alongside the Megalopotomas (Big River?) to Moni Prevelli. Ian said the scrubby hillside of Mastic and Cypress between the monastery and the coast could be very good for migrant birds and, sure enough, there were birds around. However, for most of us the Wryneck was little more than a fleeting glimpse of something brown. Nightingales were very much in evidence, singing their plaintive notes and even posing in the open for a lucky few. Jenny, in particular, was thrilled with her first encounter with the species, especially in such a beautiful setting. Meanwhile Sardinian Warblers sang their scratchy songs, wood warblers flitted among the olives and swallows moved steadily up the slope and away inland . . .while Chukar (partridge) called from the hillside above. I just enjoyed the sounds while I concentrated on photographing more plants.
We made our way up the Kourtaliotiko Gorge (still no Lammergeier) at lunchtime and at the top veered off on a scenic detour to Mixorrouma, which allowed super views down to the entrance to the gorge, as we ascended. After a quick stop in Spili, it was onwards and upwards to the Orchid Hill, as it is known. To say that we found Orchis boryi, few flowered orchid, four-spotted orchid, bumble orchid, sawfly orchid, Ophrys iricolour and several other species is all very well, but it is the sheer numbers within a small area that takes the breath away. Add to the orchids such delights as Tulipa doerfleri and Narcissus tazetta and this is botanising at its best! It was just as well that the breeze made photography difficult, otherwise I wouldn’t have had any film left for the following days!
On Saturday (with the promise of better weather on Sunday) we took the long drive to the plain of Omolos. I felt sorry for Tony on the longer trips, as he had to fold his body into the mini-bus in an uncomfortable-looking posture, for three hours this time. But at least we managed a stop at the Agia Reservoir halfway there. One of the few areas of freshwater on Crete, this lake used to be superbly wild and overgrown, according to Ian. Now it has been pushed into the 21st century by the addition of a Taverna and car park . . . and a man throwing whole loaves of bread out onto the water for the birds. The taverna was closed when we arrived, so we had a cold half-hour watching ducks on the water as well as Little Crakes, Black-winged Stilts and Night Herons around the edge. Then the rain came, and boy did it rain!!!! The hundreds of barn swallows that had been busily feeding over the surface finally gave up and took shelter in the bushes. The taverna was open by the time the rain was over, and we all indulged in large cups of rich hot chocolate!
The Omolos is a strange place. It’s not quite a plateau, more a depression in the hills, like a giant thumb-print at 3000 feet. Apparently the geologists can’t agree on how it was formed. My impression would be that it was once a lake bed, with the outlet being the spectacular Samaria Gorge. The Gorge was closed to the public for safety reasons (it will open later in the spring) but if you walk down it, the only way out is a boat from the bottom. We sat at the top to eat lunch, with some vague hope of eagles appearing out of the clouds, or a glimpse of the rare Cretan ibex – a kind of wild goat. No luck either way, and we moved on before we got too cold. Ian and Holly led the group along a footpath looking at flowers, while I drove one mini-bus down to a meeting point, and walked back to the top of the gorge to collect the other one (only a mile or so, but I was cold enough to want a very brisk walk). A small brown bird calling from a nearby tree took my attention, and I stopped long enough to ascertain that it was an alpine accentor. Ian was disgusted when I told him about it – he has looked for this bird in this area on every visit without success, and now I had ‘gripped him off’ in birder parlance.
We enjoyed the plants – wild tulips as well as Chinodoxa cretica, Crocus sieberi and Gagea amblyopetala were all new, exciting species, specialities of the area (if only I could remember which was which) and ignored the cold. I think Pauline, Daphne and Jenny would happily have spent longer exploring here, but it was a long journey home for dinner.
No matter, because it was then that the Lammergeiers chose to perform over the hillside. What spectacular birds they are! Otherwise known as the bearded vulture, they have a wingspan of over 9 feet and a huge, diamond-shaped tail. They are increasingly rare in Europe, but they have a stable population of some 15 pairs on Crete, a testament to the islands vast and largely uninhabited interior. We could scarcely have hope for better views, especially when one passed along the near side of the hill, carrying a large bone in its talons. It is the only species of vultures to carry food in this way, carrying it high up to drop on a hard surface to crack it open to get at the marrow and break the bone into chunks small enough to swallow. Perhaps it was just as well I wasn’t equipped for bird photography – I’d probably have stayed all day. We did just about get back in time for dinner!
At last, on the Sunday, we awoke to clear blue skies, and set off to the Imbros Gorge secure in the knowledge that it would be dry and safe to walk. Holly, driving ahead of me, was flagged down by a Cretan elder – probably a shepherd from the cloud of flies surrounding his head. Ian said he wasn’t sure the guy knew where he was going, and certainly no-one else did. About all they could ascertain was that he found Cynthias’ hat most attractive. They dropped him in the next village, together with his swarm of flies, and headed on to the top of the Gorge.
There is a long and winding road from the coast to the top of the gorge – a good twenty minutes driving. The problem of how we were going to get the buses back to the bottom to collect everyone at the end of the day was solved when I saw a sign advertising a taxi service. We dropped everybody off at the top, Holly and I drove back down, got a taxi back to the top, and soon caught up with the group as they ambled from flower to flower. The scenery is gorgeous and the plants get better as you descend. Holly oaks, normally only around head height, were here growing to over 30 ft. in the shelter of the gorge, together with some wonderful old Cypresses. One of the commonest plants was the white Saxifraga chryosplenifolia, growing out of the rock alongside Spring Arabis, Anthemis chia and the Rustyback Fern. There were tantalising glimpses of other later-flowering goodies, like Eryngium ternatum, Spiny Mullein and Ptliostemon chamaepeuce. There were cyclamens at the rock bases, Rock Tulips high up on the cliffs, and, finally, some splendid, large specimens of the endemic bellflower – Petromarula pinnata. All the while, it was worth looking up too – I watched a super adult Bonelli’s Eagle circling lazily for about five minutes. I tried to call the rest of the group, but they had moved out of earshot. Fortunately the bird reappeared ten minutes later, so everyone had a good view of it.
It took some six hours to reach the bottom, and our tired legs and sprits welcomed the Kiosk as the bottom, with its deliciously fresh orange juice. George wanted a badge saying ‘I’ve walked the Imbros Gorge’ while Ian wondered how many others had ‘walked’ it on crutches. It is very tiring, but also so worth the effort. And we were really glad to have the buses there ready to go home.
The early Monday morning birdwatchers found a strange, almost reptilian-looking Stone Curlew anxiously scanning for danger before settling down among the pebbles on the beach. Clearly tired, it would have just arrived from Africa, as would the assortment of yellow wagtails that trod delicately among the sheep behind the beach. A nice way to start the day – and the first time the early morning effort has been worthwhile.
We went to Spili again, after breakfast, but to another point just beyond the orchid hill. There were more orchids here – dense-flowered orchid, Anatolian orchid, pink butterfly orchid, as well as Erodium gruinum with its large blue flowers, and a small collection of snake’s-head fritillaries. There were Griffon Vultures drifting past, woodlark singing and lizards beginning to emerge from the undergrowth – but only when I didn’t have the camera ready! At least the sun was out this time, and made it much more pleasant that the cold grey wind of a couple of days ago.
We returned to Plakias for lunch. Holly and I tried a local fish dish, very nice it was, cooked with vegetables in a foil wrapping. Daphne and Rachel opted for an easy afternoon with a few last-minute purchases in the town, while the rest of us took a pleasant walk through the olive groves, behind the hotel, to the bottom of the Kotsifou gorge. One of the amazing sights in Crete was the little patches of rough ground between buildings that were filled to overflowing with wild flowers. Even away from town, anywhere that was not cultivated was crammed with colour. I was down to my last three rolls of film, and having a job to make it last the rest of the day.
We had struggled a bit all week for sightings of lizards and butterflies. The cool breeze and lack of sun were to blame. On sunny days a Balkan Green Lizard basked in a bush outside the hotel shop, and we caught a glimpse or two of the colourful eastern festoon and Cleopatra butterflies. Things improved somewhat on this last day, though most of the butterflies were species we would see in Britain later in the summer. But the star of the day was an ocellated skink, which Pauline found hiding under a boulder. We waited and waited, and eventually it showed itself before disappearing into the vegetation again.
Our final tally for the week was 373 species of plant, 92 of birds, four of mammals – the most common being the beech martens killed along the main road, four reptiles, 17 butterflies (I’m not convinced of this) and an assortment of other brightly coloured insects like the large Egyptian grasshopper, carpenter bee and gold beetle.
You won’t be surprised to learn that I had a bat detector with me! I returned to the olive groves that evening with four brave souls to face the cold evening breeze, hoping that something would be flying. We came across a couple of bats feeding busily around a streetlight (why was there a streetlight in the middle of an olive grove?) and watched them for a while.
Tuesday’s early morning birdwatchers admired a squacco heron on the beach and a woodchat shrike beside the road. Then it was time to pile our luggage into the mini-buses and head back to the airport. Our return journey was straightforward, and we stopped at a rather pleasant Taverna with wonderful views over the centre of the island. We had to wait a while for our snacks to arrive – it takes a while to cook those over-size portions! Anyway, it set us up for the plane journey home.
Holly and I stayed near the airport again, she being determined to get me into bad habits with these large glasses of wine! Next morning we were at the station in plenty of time for the train home, only to find it was cancelled due to works on the line. That meant we had to travel through London – not my idea of fun, and Holly said it terrified her. The London Underground was very busy at that time of morning. Having gone down into the depths of the station I was looking for a map to tell us what platform and train we needed, but found Holly had seen a porter and immediately went to ask him where we should go. Holly was happy with his directions, which seemed to me to have consisted of a couple of grunts, but it was enough to get us where we needed to be. I still felt totally unprepared, not having seen a map yet. We were both relieved to finally get on the train – and have seats – for the journey back to Pembroke, where our husbands were waiting for us.
I did a few more trips for Gulliver’s over the next five years, but the business ceased trading when the owners retired, and I didn’t get around to looking for another similar job.
However, Crete remains a popular destination for nature holiday companies, so organised trips are easy to find.
It seems that most books about the botany of Crete are either out-of-print or just not easily available. There is an English version of this book, but not currently available.
There were more books available on the island itself – some in tourist information centres, others in bookshops, if you are prepared to spend the time looking for them.
Or try googling books – wildflowers of Crete – and see what is available second-hand. I have one by George Sfikas that is worth looking out for, although it is not well-illustrated (take along a hand lens too).
There isn’t a right or wrong way to plan a trip. It depends on the funds, the time available, your interests, perhaps family commitments, but mostly on your character. I’d love to go back to the days when I could walk out the door and just go wherever the wind blows.
But those days are over, my other half likes things planned, paid for, knowing what it going to happen when. And he likes his home comforts – our campervan sits in the driveway, mostly doing nothing, but occasionally getting short trips to pre-booked campsites in the UK.
As I get older, I’m beginning to agree with him.
So, how do we plan a trip now.
Our interests lie in natural history. Birds, butterflies, botany, hiking in interesting places, and taking photos. Effectively, that means mainly birds in winter, and everything else when we can fit it in.
We aim for self-catering accommodation with access to public transport and places to walk and watch wildlife. The Algarve is ideal. Lanzarote worked well, as do some parts of mainland Spain.
Walking from Peurto del Carmen to the Playa Quemada with views of the Monumento Natural de Los Ajaches.
It is often difficult to find information about other areas – especially the public transport part. Of course, we could hire a car, as most people do. But then we’d have the extra stress of driving on, what is to us, the ‘wrong’ side of the road. We have, at times, found ourselves staying in the middle of a busy holiday resort – definitely not somewhere we’d want to be driving. And if there is a language problem, it can be even more complicated. So, we have to plan differently.
Eastern Bulgaria – the Black Sea Coast – is such an area. Not only is the language different to the Germanic and Latin languages of western Europe, but the alphabet is different. You can’t just look at a word and get a vague idea of what it means. I’d travelled through the old Yugoslavia and Greece back in 1989, and learnt the sounds of some of the Cyrillic letters just by the road signs that had place names in both alphabets. But that was a long time ago and it takes some practice for the sounds to come easily.
Public transport? It exists, but not necessarily going to the sort of places we are interested in visiting.
There were organised natural history trips to the area, but we were persuaded to try one of these to Poland a few years ago, and realised that they were not for us. We like to have time to watch birds, look for butterflies and plants, to take photos, to walk, etc.
And then there is the problem of food – eating in different places when you have specific dietary requirements (even a simple dietary requirement of low fat for gallstone problems) and trying to make the most suitable choice from a menu – if indeed, there is a menu at all. Hence a preference for self-catering accommodation.
Getting down to it
But Eastern Bulgaria still looked interesting. It is the only place in Europe for Red-breasted Geese in winter – they breed in Siberia. There were likely to be a few other species we hadn’t seen before, or at least hadn’t photographed. So how to solve the problem.
Amongst all the literature (paper brochures collected at Birdwatching Fairs over the years, adverts in wildlife magazines, as well as information from the internet) I found the Branta Birding Lodge right next to the red-breasted geese wintering grounds. The birds are only there in January and February, and in January they are much disturbed by hunters. Hunting officially ends at the end of January, and the birds start to settle down. It was now early January, could we stay there in February?
An exchange of emails with the owner, Pavel Simeonov, said yes. He would meet us at Varna Airport, be our guide for the time we were there, his rates included accommodation, food, guiding, a trip to the Danube Delta, and a couple of days based near Burgas at the south end of the Black Sea Coast. Although his website suggested a seven-night itinerary, I asked to extend that to nine nights – no problem as he had no-one else booked in after us. (The top photo shows the sunrise from the lodge)
This is how we had organised our trips to Nepal and Sri Lanka 20 and 15 years ago – using local ground agents rather than organised tours meant we could be more flexible, say where we wanted to go, and how long to stay there.
With the accommodation etc sorted, the next problem was transport. There are some direct flights to Varna, on the Black Sea coast, operated in winter by WizzAir. They flew from London City or Liverpool, and arrived in Varna in the early hours of the morning – not very convenient. We knew nothing about WizzAir, except that they had just pulled out of using Cardiff Airport. Did that mean they were risky? We had just avoided being stuck when another airline collapsed a few years ago, and didn’t want to take such chances.
A bit more googling showed that there were all sorts of routes available, often via a strange combination of airports, and often cheap. But did we really want to change airlines en route with the attendant risk of losing luggage? Then I discovered that SwissAir went to Varna via Vienna, leaving Heathrow at 6am (not much fun) but arriving and leaving Varna at more convenient times. That was that flights sorted.
But Heathrow is still several hours travel from home. We could drive there and leave the car at the hotel or airport parking. Or we could take the train. Given the recent rail staff strikes, I wasn’t sure the train was a good idea, but Bob disagreed. So, we went to the nearest train station where we could get tickets in person – and came away with Senior Citizen railcards, and seat reservations, as well as a personalised printed timetable that showed when we would be on the train, and when we would be using a bus replacement service due to work on the rails. We’ll have to use the train at least once more this year to get the full benefit of the railcard reductions.
Almost done. We booked a Premier Inn at Heathrow for a short night before the flight, and a taxi for the airport – the hotel hoppa buses didn’t start until 4am, and we were supposed to be at the terminal to check-in by then.
That leaves packing.
I’m a pretty minimalist packer. Basically, just enough clothes to last the duration, plus one complete change in case of a soaking. A basic toiletry kit. A pair of indoor shoes of some kind (slippers this time) and a set of waterproofs. Bulgaria is supposed to be quite cold in winter – snow across most of the country, but not so bad on the Black Sea coast. So we made sure we had clothes for cold weather. But how cold? Pavel had mentioned that the winter had so far been very mild – up to 20C – and the red-fronted geese had not arrived, he would take us north into Romania to see them. Hmm, perhaps not too cold. Then two days before we left – 300 Red-breasted Geese just arrived with the cold weather. Hopefully they will stay until your arrival. OK, perhaps very cold. We added wellies and insulated snow pants, just in case. It was the first time I’d ever had to sit on my suitcase to close it.
As it turned out, the cold weather meant a couple of days of snow that was more or less gone by the time we arrived. The lake was still iced over, and there were cold northerly winds. But we did not actually need or use that extra clothing. But as I hate being cold, it was worth being prepared. The geese stayed around for a week or so, and we did not go to Romania.
As I said earlier, we like to take photos, and photographing birds requires long lenses and heavy cameras. For a winter trip with birds as the main focus, I took one camera with a long lens (Nikon Z6ii with Nikon 100-400mm lens), and one small camera (Fuji X100V) for scenery, and any flowers that might be showing. There was no point in including everything for close-ups of flowers and insects. Bob took more equipment, including an even longer lens, than I did. I’d like to have taken a tripod and sound recording equipment to make some videos, but that would have meant more weight and more bulk (and anyway, I’ve tried it before and not had a decent opportunity to use the equipment).
Fitting the equipment into a bag that is within cabin baggage requirements is often a bit tricky. SwissAir said 55x40x22cm. We had only one camera bag that was within the 22cm, so Bob bought yet another new one. By the time we had added our laptops and binoculars, the weight was just below the 8kg limit for each of us.
Back to that language ‘problem’. With Pavel and his wife Tatyana (the all-important cook and housekeeper) speaking good English, it wasn’t going to be a problem. But, as always, I tried to learn a few words/phrases.
Thank you – Merci – yes, they really do use the French word and it is simpler than the Bulgarian phrase (Благодаря ти Blagodarya ti). Goodbye – Ciao – yes, the Italian word.
Then there was hello (Здрасти, Zdrasti), yes (Да, Da), no (He, Ne), Okay (Добре, Dobre), and please (Моля, Molya)
But I never did master the Bulgarian habit of nodding the head to say no, and shaking it to say yes!
Well, we survived the trip, all the travel went smoothly, except for the one thing I hadn’t booked in advance. A few days before we left Bulgaria, I tried to book a hotel at Heathrow. I tried several times, got a sorry-something-has-gone-wrong-please-try-again-later message, and eventually gave up. Same response when we arrived at Heathrow. Bob was back in worrying mode, but we went to the hotel anyway. They told us to try booking again, as they still had a room, and this time it did work. I still don’t know what the problem was, but I guess it served me right for not doing the whole job properly to start with.
We came back home to what seemed like colder weather than we’d had in Bulgaria. Now, it’s time to look through the thousands of photos, and the hastily scribbled notes, and get the trip stories written down before they are forgotten.
The northern-most part of the Black Sea coast (near Romania) has been dubbed Bulgaria’s ‘Geeseland’. Tens of thousands of wildfowl including red-breasted and white-fronted geese, spend the winter here. We went in search of them with Branta Tours
Who would want to go looking for nature in Finland in Winter?
It may not be obvious from a distance (eg a warmer country), but Finland isn’t just for skiers in winter.
According to the Lonely Planet guide (1996) Finland in January is cold dark and depressing everywhere. The Kaamos (polar night) in Lapland may be of interest if you don’t want to see the sun at all (the sun never rises above the horizon at this time). There is plenty of snow for skiing but perhaps not enough daylight.
As a non-skier, the only thing that appealed to me was the possibility of seeing the Northern Lights – the Aurora borealis. But is Finland really so bad in winter? Helsinki, in the south, is on roughly the same latitude as Shetland (an island group off the north of Scotland, for the uninitiated), so perhaps not all doom and gloom.
According to the Finnature website, the cold, short January days may appear rather bird-less in Finland but appearances can be deceiving. Although few birds are usually seen, many interesting species can still be found, even in the town centres.
Finland can be a place of extremes – 24 hours of winter night and 24 hours of summer day above the Arctic Circle. Freezing winter weather, and hot muggy summers plagued by mosquitoes and other biting insects. Years of abundant fruit production and small mammals, other years of apparently very little.
Finland in winter can be unpredictable. The bears go into hibernation to avoid problems with food supply. Reindeer avoid moving to conserve energy. Birds migrate to wherever they can find food – whether to the nearest town, or to the southern hemisphere. So, what is still there to watch?
Towns are probably the best places to see birds. If there are berries left on rowan (mountain ash) Sorbus aucuparia trees, birds will flock to them. Likewise, if people are feeding birds – and there are more people in towns, so more likelihood of feeders – that’s where the birds will be. Thrushes, waxwings, pine grosbreaks, common, two-barred and parrot crossbills, Siberian jays, Siberian and crested tits, Arctic redpolls, etc. Willow grouse frequent roadsides, while hazel grouse call within forests. Snowy and hawk owls can be seen – all more easily in some years than in others.
Luxury bird photography
Just below the Arctic Circle, Kuusamo has a little more daylight in January – enough for photographing wintery landscapes of snow-covered forests and lakes. Finnature have heated hides where you can photograph golden eagles, Siberian jays and Siberian tits in comfort.
South-west of Kuusamo, Finnature have another heated hide at Utajärvi, where the main focus is on golden eagles – up to ten visit the hide daily.
And if you really want to make the most of it – Finnature have yet another hide. At the forest feeder hide in Liminka it is possible to photograph Goshawk, Nutcracker, Crested Tit, Bullfinch, Yellowhammer etc. And with the help of locals, you could also see great grey and hawk owls hunting.
This western side of Finland is also the best place to see snowy owls. They are not easy to find, despite often perching on the roofs of barns. Probably the best way to find them is to contact local birdwatchers who may have located one or two in their New Year’s bird hunt.
Ranua Wildlife Park
Personally, I am not a great fan of keeping wild animals in enclosures. However, if such a place offers people the opportunity to encounter native wildlife in a safe place – especially for children and less mobile people – then the Ranua Wildlife Park has reason to exist. And it has good ratings on Trip-Advisor.
Ranua sits in the triangle between Oulu, Kuusamo and Rovaniemi, and is easily accessed by bus from Rovaniemi. So, if you’ve been to Santaland at Rovaniemi, this is a convenient day trip to see local wildlife – 200 individuals of 70 or so species, though some may be in hibernation at this time of year.
There is much less snow in the south-west, and the sea is usually free of ice. Thousands of waterfowl spend the winter here, with Steller’s eider, long-tailed ducks, cormorants, etc. White-tailed eagles are attracted to carcasses set out for them. Small numbers of waders, such as purple sandpipers, feed on the rocky shores.
The Gulf of Bothnia
As you move up into the Gulf of Bothnia (Bothnia Bay) between Finland and Sweden, the ice becomes more and more solidly packed. There is little space for birds here, but grey seals give birth on the ice in January-February – rather later here than in British waters (Pupping starts in August on the Welsh coast). The timing is to do with water temperature and the availability of food – and the frozen surface means fewer predators and less competition for that food.
The Baltic ringed seals produce their pups in February – but the adults can still be seen at other times.
Finnature – I have no association with Finnature, but their website provides a lot of information about Finnish wildlife. And obviously, they want you to travel with them, and use their photographic hides.
Luontoportti – Naturegate – excellent site for identifying almost anything found in Finland and elsewhere in northern Europe. They have ID apps as well as the website. And include a lot of background information on individual species.
NatureGate enables you to find fascinating information about hundreds of wild species together with thousands of superb images captured by top photographers. You can view and search for species in various ways – for instance using their English names, their scientific names, or by genus or family. Our unique identification tools also help you to get to know new species. They make the task of discovering new species easy, fast and fun. Try one of these tools right now!
Comprehensive information on nature in many languages
NatureGate mainly works in eight languages. Many of our featured species can be found right around the world. Our multilingual web services can benefit millions of people interested in nature, wherever they happen to be.
We also publish a free Finnish-language web magazine, featuring the latest news on the natural scene, longer articles and interviews, and news about our own work and events. Readers can also send questions about nature to the magazine section experts’ answers.
The NatureGate team welcome you to enjoy investigating the species featured on our site. We hope you will find our services both enjoyable and useful. Exploring our website should also give you a lot of good reasons to get outdoors and explore the natural environment!
A nature-watching road trip through Cantabria in winter
This journey was undertaken in the days before the internet and digital photography. The only information we had was about the Santona Marshes. Everything else was just there to be discovered.
We had expected the mountains to be snowy in winter, but in December, it was just frosty at times.
About the Cordillera Cantabrica
The northern strip of Spain is a more or less continuous mountain range, the Pyrenees forming a barrier between Spain and France, and the Cordillera Cantabrica separating the Spanish interior from the Bay of Biscay. As in many mountain regions, the inhabitants were isolated and developed a culture and language of their own. About 25,000 years ago, at the beginning of the last ice age, the forebears of the Basque people settled the eastern end of the Cordillera and the western Pyrenees. The mountains are littered with archaeological remains, including cave paintings at Altimira. The Basque language, Euskadi, is considered to be one of the oldest in the world and is said to have no affinity with any modern language – except that a few French and Spanish words have crept in here and there.
The Cordillera is formed from a layer of Carboniferous limestone up to a thousand metres thick with the main outcrop forming the Picos de Europa; shales and slates influence the landscape to the east, metamorphic rocks are found to the west. High precipitation from the Atlantic climate has given rise to typical karst formation of fissures and caverns, some of which formed permanent channels for water courses. Raptors favour the high cliffs and ledges, while chough make use of the more sheltered cracks and pot‑holes where their chicks are safe from predators.
In Laredo I tried out my Spanish – “Por favor, ¿Donde esta el correo?” (where is the post office?). The small Spanish lady looked at me quizzically and I repeated the question. “Ah, el corrrreeeeeo” she corrected my pronunciation in a voice that came from her boots and sounded as if it was loaded with flu viruses – I was to suffer later. Fortunately, the post office was not far away, and I just about understood her rapid-fire answer – helped by a lot of arm waving in one particular direction.
We continued to the Santona Marshes. The weather was calm and grey along the coast, and there was little out to sea. We didn’t have a plan – it would all depend on the weather. Dare we risk the mountains? We did not fancy getting caught in winter mountain weather but while it was settled, we could surely take a look.
The Santoña, Victoria and Joyel Marshes Natural Park is probably the best, and most easily accessible, wetland in north-western Spain.
Mountain roads were usually narrow and stopping places were few and far between. The first one we tried had been used as a rubbish dump and smelt bad ‑ a member of the civil guard drove past slowly and gave us a long what-are‑you‑up‑to sort of look. However, we were looking up at the end of a limestone bluff ‑ the Sierra de Hornijo ‑ there were goats up on the scarp slope, then three griffons sailed over the ridge.
Another stopping place, which looked up at the dip slope of the same ridge, was more pleasant. The vegetation on the slopes was a mosaic of eucalypt and conifer plantations, and of evergreen and autumnal deciduous trees ‑ mostly various species of oak ‑ and sweet chestnut which was now leafless.
We walked up a steep track through a eucalyptus plantation and then through conifers. Beyond that was lush rolling farmland. Although the rock massifs were limestone, much of the vegetation was more acid‑loving, including the oaks, gorse and eight kinds of heather found along the track. These mostly had seed heads rather than flowers and so proved difficult to identify, however they included St. Dabeoc’s heath, Spanish heath and Dorset heath.
On the farmland there was a usual selection of passerines: robins, blackbirds, tits, firecrests, chaffinches, and one female hawfinch which sat in a bare tree ‑ conveniently for us. There were some chough‑like calls and we located eight birds flying north, high overhead but in the poor light it was impossible to decide if they were the red‑billed or alpine kind. The most common corvid at all heights seemed to be the jay, noisily flying from oak tree to oak tree, and usually carrying an acorn.
As we headed downhill, the three griffons circled the limestone bluff again and settled on a pinnacle. Later forty or fifty corvids circled the area before settling to roost.
Barn owls were hissing and tawny owls were hooting close to the camper last night, and the tawnies were still quite vociferous again at dawn. There were two, one in the trees above and the other below where we were parked. They talked to each other in voices halfway between those of youngsters calling for food, and adults hooting.
We walked uphill along a minor road, birds were similar to those on the farmland yesterday but fewer of them. The very steep slope was covered with evergreen holm oak and deciduous species such as sessile oak, hawthorn, hazel, field maple, and some beech and privet.
We drove on and stopped for lunch at a view-point overlooking a sheer limestone cliff which was marked on the map as Cueva de Covalanas. There were a number of cave entrances visible and signs requesting visitors to check with the authorities before exploring them. Inside, there are cave paintings dating back 5,000 years or more. To protect and preserve the paintings, human visits are regulated, and the caves are closed at this time of year. A buzzard and a raven circled in the valley, and a couple of meadow pipits flew through. On the higher peaks on the other side of the valley were the three griffons again.
Mountain tops were generally in the clouds but the road went to 1000 metres at Alto de los Tornos and we followed it. Visibility was often down to 50 metres, so we stopped to listen for bird sounds ‑ mostly a few unidentifiable noises in the distance. Close to us was a chunky-looking pipit with white supercillium, eyestripe and moustachial stripe, faintly striped on the back, dark legs, and white belly and outer tail feathers. The elusive (for us) water pipit was found at last. There was another as we reached the viewpoint at the top, feeding along the road then bathing in a nearby puddle (photo above).
Day 4 – Vultures
We were surrounded by thick cloud again this morning and had to go down the road some way to get under it. Surprisingly griffons were amongst the first birds to be seen, floating along level with the cloud base, about thirty in all. At night these vultures roost communally in loose groups, usually on cliff ledges or rock outcrops. They leave as soon as temperatures rise sufficiently or wind currents are adequate for soaring. But on misty mornings, like today, they may not vacate the site until ten or eleven o’clock and birds may stay put when it is wet or foggy. The members of a colony fly off together up to sixty kilometres in one direction, then they split up and apparently each individual systematically circles one area, searching the ground but still keeping an eye on its neighbours just in case they find food first.
After a rather circuitous journey we managed to get onto rough ground above farmland. The vultures were descending onto something just over the ridge and out of our sight. Vultures are attracted to a carcass by sight, and often by the movements of other birds on the ground or in the air ‑ here crows, ravens and magpies were also in attendance. A hundred or more vultures may alight some distance from the food and approach timidly. We could see at least ten birds on the ground and another fifteen in the air. Those on the ground appeared to be pulling at something while others appeared to be defending themselves – or their meal.
Natural history films often show vultures feeding together in a squabbling mass, but this only happens if all the birds are equally hungry – and it looks more exciting on film. Usually they take turns, the hungriest birds first while others queue up and wait. Feeding birds maintain their positions by threatening, chasing and fighting others. Fights, which are usually brief and highly ritualised, also break out amongst the nearest onlookers. After feeding for several minutes a bird at the carcass may be displaced by a hungrier one from nearby group. Many gorge so much that they are unable to take off and may have to eject part of meal before flying.
Despite the fact that I was now struggling to breathe because of a bad cold (courtesy of the lady in Laredo, perhaps), we walked up a jeep track to level with the cloudbase, which had by then risen to about 950 metres, passing a plantation of what appeared to be cupressus sp. and Monterrey pine, eventually emerging in an area of heather, gorse and grass. A few ponies and cattle grazed the hills, but there were no sheep at this time of year. Higher up was deciduous wood ‑ beech, alder and Pyrenean oak. There were few small birds apart from half a dozen siskin around the alders and flying into an apparently moss-filled crevice.
By the time we reached the place where the vultures had been feeding, they had dispersed; a high fence and locked gate prevented us from seeing what they had been feeding on.
Traditionally, each community had its own “mule tip”, a place where they took mules, cattle, etc when they died and left the bodies to be cleaned up by the vultures. This practice is dying out as farmers prefer to bury the carcasses in pits and use a chemical to speed up the decomposition process. These pits are actually illegal and are depriving the vultures of food. People studying vultures now sometimes provide carcasses at convenient places, and in recent years the vulture population has increased by up to 400% in some areas. As this particular area was fenced off, we might have come across either a mule tip, or a study area here.
We circled back to the viewpoint near the Cueva de Covalanas. About twenty or thirty red‑billed chough were gathering on the rocks above us before going off to their roost. Jim scanned the rocks for smaller birds and discovered half a dozen crag martins hawking insects along the cliff top. This species is typically found feeding just below the tops of cliffs, where they catch insects carried up on air currents as well as those they disturb by flying close to the cliff face, and even picking insects directly off the rock as they fly past. They glide most of the time, occasionally giving a little shake, perhaps as they manoeuvre to catch a nearby insect.
There were some weird noises at dawn, the loudest being chough (above) possibly calling from one of the limestone caves which was acting as an echo chamber. Then there were some loud hoots which I suspected as being from ravens, but was surprised, later, to discover the callers were crows. Some chacking calls turned out to be black redstarts being chased off by a robin.
A track cut into the cliff‑side led up to a cave which had been bricked up but had two locked doors. A small flock of birds flew overhead and landed on the cliff even higher up. Through the binoculars they were dumpy grey and rufous birds but with the telescope Jim saw enough detail to confirm that they were alpine accentors, adults with speckled chins and first winter birds in plainer plumage. They did not stay long, perhaps they were just passing through for although alpine accentors sometimes move below 1800 metres for the winter, they do not normally utilise the kind of precipitous or broken terrain that characterised this area.
In fact, coming across many species here seemed to be a matter of luck. Yesterday’s crag martins were not seen again, the black redstarts were gone when we descended the track, and groups of siskins and linnets also came and went.
Halfway back down the track a vole was sitting out in the open eating grass. It did not seem to notice our approach, perhaps the large tick on its neck was interfering with its vision. I moved around for a better look but then it became alarmed and scuttled into the rocks. This vole was quite a dark colour, almost like a bank vole, however, its very short tail and uniform colour on the back and sides convinced me that it was actually a field vole.
A red squirrel clambered up a wall across a ravine. It stopped in a crevice for a while ‑ until we wondered if we were just looking at squirrel-shaped vegetation ‑ then it disappeared.
Day 6 – 8
We drove south, and then turned west towards the Embalse (reservoir) del Ebro. We were in the neighbouring provide of Burgo at this point, taking the main road rather than mountain roads. The route went through the Ojo Guareña Natural Monument – a huge area with extensive cave systems – 110 km of navigable natural tunnels deep in the limestone. Again there are places with cave paintings, though these are only hundreds of years old rather than thousands. Again it was closed for the winter, but pictures of the interior show something quite fantastic.
We stopped in the village of Soncillo to buy bread and milk; the storekeeper, on realising we were English, insisted that we visit an English couple in the nearby hamlet of Montoto. He gave us detailed instructions (in Spanish) and was most adamant that we should go there. We decided we might as well try.
The instructions were easy to follow, and Montoto turned out to be a hamlet of a dozen or so farmhouses. We drove through it in a few seconds and stopped for lunch at the side of a field. As we finished eating and were looking at birds in the field, I heard strange voices talking in English. By chance, the English couple had come out for a walk and taken the road we were parked on.
We joined them for the walk and later for coffee, discussing Britain and Spain and what we were all doing. Vicky was Spanish but had spent the last nineteen years in London. Andy was from Yorkshire but also had spent some years in London. They had both been involved in social work, and eventually got fed up with it.
They had considered buying a flat in Barcelona, then one of Vicky’s relatives had mentioned cheap houses for sale in Montoto and so they changed their minds, bought a huge farmhouse and moved out to it in October. One wall of the house is believed to be at least a thousand years old, other bits having been added as required. The place had not been properly lived in for some years and it did not have much in the way of mod cons. Andy and Vicky put in a bathroom, got the kitchen stove working and organised a bedroom. They are working on the rest of the house as they have funds and time available, and may convert it into holiday flats.
After a couple of days with Vicky and Andy, learning about the local environment, the effect of Spain joining the European Union, visiting a local dairy farmer for milk, fixing the battery properly in the camper (before it fell through the rusting base), and having a very nice meal in a local taverna, we continued our journey to the Embalse del Ebro
The Ebro is one of the largest and most important rivers in Spain. The Romans called it Iberus, from which the peninsular takes the name Iberia. It rises in the Cordillera Cantabrica about 40 km from the north coast and meanders along the inland edge of these mountains and the Pyrenees to drain into the Mediterranean via the vast Ebro Delta. It was dammed some ten kilometres from the source to form a reservoir (embalse in Spanish) twenty by four kilometres, the largest area of fresh water in Cantabria, with twelve villages lying beneath it.
The reservoir was at too high an altitude to attract large numbers of breeding or wintering birds but was a useful stop‑over point for migrants. So far as we could see it provided roosting places for black‑headed gulls and also held mallard, coot, gadwall, teal, tufted duck and great-crested grebe in small numbers. A peregrine flew in and watched proceedings from a mudbank.
The countryside around the Embalse del Ebro was rolling rather than mountainous but, being mostly above 600 metres, it looked harsh and hungry. In those fields which were cultivated the soil looked peaty and probably quite deep in places, yet most of the area was covered with heather and bracken with some scrub and the occasional small plantation. There were rocky out-crops and small ravines and plenty of power lines.
We stopped a few kilometres east of the dam and waited for birds to appear. They were slow in coming ‑ a griffon, a couple of ravens, crows, etc. A small bird appeared in a bush some 150 metres away and looked like a bullfinch; it appeared to have a pinkish breast, dark cap, grey back, white rump and dark tail. It came closer and was re‑identified as a great grey shrike as the markings and shape became clearer ‑ the white “rump” was actually white tips to the tertials (photo above).
The shrike moved closer in stages, stopping on a fence post or twig, looking around intently for a few minutes then perhaps swooping down on something on its way to the next post. It ignored passing cars but did not think much of the lorries. When we left it had done a circle back to the bush where we first saw it.
A collection of twenty or so red kites (photo below), numerous ravens, jackdaws and black-headed gulls and a few buzzards and crows near the town of Reinosa suggested the location of rubbish dump. We managed to get off the main road (the second stopping place we had seen in 50 km) and watched the kites for half an hour or so.
The weather was noticeably colder and we saw a snow plough ready for action on the road to Reinosa. Time to head back to the coast.
If this book had been available when we made this journey, it would have added so much.
For example, the book recommends driving along the south side of the Embalse del Ebro, while we drove in happy ignorance along the north side.
And there is even good bird-watching to be had in the Bay of Santander, ideal for stretching your legs if you’ve come in by ferry from Britain or Ireland.
Click on the cover for more information.
Buying books through this site earns me a small commission, at no extra charge to you, that helps with the cost of this website
Tripadvisor gives more information about history, access and facilities at the Embalse del Ebro
Wildside Holidays provide a lot of information, including accommodation and guides in the area
Wikitravel provides more information for visitors to Spain (but not much directly about Cantabria)
The Cabárceno Nature Park was conceived for educational, cultural, scientific, and recreational purposes, and has become one of the major tourist attractions in northern Spain. Something of a safari park, with animals from all continents but may be worth a visit to see some of Europe’s larger mammals – I haven’t been there myself. I’ve mentioned it here to distinguish it from the countryside areas designated Nature parks or Parque Natural.
Mammals such as marmot, chamois, ibex, mouflon, deer, roe deer and wild boar.
Mountain birds, the rock ptarmigan and black grouse are among the most emblematic. Raptors such as the short-toed (snake) eagle, peregrine falcons, golden eagles and griffon vultures. Nutcrackers and wallcreepers number amongst the smaller birds.
150 species of butterfly
About the Parc naturel regional du Queyras
Air France pilots call the Queyras ‘le trou bleu’ – the blue hole. While the rest of the Alps are frequently blanketed by cloud, Queyras boasts up to 300 days of sunshine a year – all thanks to the shelter it gets from the Écrins to the west.
But on June 18th, it was just grey, wet and miserable. So bad, that it seems I took only one photo! (the other photos here were taken in the French Alps, just not in Queyras)
Still, it was filled with sounds of yellowhammer, willow tit, coal tit, bullfinch, garden warbler and rock bunting. Grey rocks with white patches of snow towered above, green grass filled the valley bottom below, and conifers clothed the slopes in between.
Queyras is located in the Hautes-Alpes department of south-east France. It lies south-east of Grenoble, to the north of the Mercantour National Park, and to the south of the Vanoise National Park. Its eastern border coincides with the Italian border and it is possible to walk between the two countries in several places.
Covering some 65,000 hectares, Queyras consists of an ancient glacial valley with steep sides and a mountain stream. It is ringed by seven 3000m peaks. There are dense pine forests and higher up, hay-meadows on the beds of former lakes. Higher still there are extensive peatbogs and the park has some impressive cliff-faces. Not surprisingly, it is home to a great variety of flora and fauna – including chamois, marmots, hares and partridges. Many of the typical upland and forest birds of Central Europe can be found within the park
A Parc Naturel Regional is the equivalent of a British National Park. Basically, it is a region protected for its landscape value and its traditions and culture, with development and commercial exploitation – apart from tourism – being restricted. Any natural history interest is secondary, and hunting is usually permitted.
The main part of the Parc is a mountainous block with one road going right through it and a few other dead-end roads leading towards other corners. One of our books described it as a countryside of larch and spruce forest, where water from lakes pour out over waterfalls into mountain streams. From the road all we could see were steep slopes clothed in conifers under a ceiling of grey cloud, making the valley seem rather claustrophobic.
Saxifraga aizoides – one of many low-growing Alpine plants
It was a Sunday and the shops were closed, so we were unable to obtain a map showing the footpaths, or other information. We hadn’t actually heard of the place until we noticed it on the road map and even now, with the internet, there doesn’t seem to be much information available, not in English anyway.
We walked along the road, and turned a short way down each of several obvious paths – wary of wandering too far in an unknown direction. Nevertheless, we found a handful of usual woodland species jay, Bonelli’s warbler, crested and coal tits, a green woodpecker etc. A few butterflies flitted in sunny glades – a small fritillary, red admiral, scarce swallowtail and common blue. Flowers under the pines included box-leaved and common milkworts, pansy, and some legumes.
The most northerly point of the road through the Parc was the Col d’Izoard. Above the treeline the rocks were worn into weird shapes with scree slopes between. We could hear marmots calling across the valley. A souvenir kiosk marked the highest point. It began to rain a few minutes after we arrived there, but Jim had already gone looking for eagles. No luck with the raptors, but snow finch, fieldfare, black redstart, northern wheatear, whinchat, white wagtail and, at last, Alpine accentor, feeding in a patch of grass at the base of a cliff.
Beyond the pass the road descended quickly through open conifer forest with grass and alpine anemones on the floor. The rain continued and we didn’t hang around to look at the other flowers. Below the trees were alpine pastures grazed by Simmental and Swiss brown type cows.
Three grey-green finches fed by the side of the road and showed off pale rumps as they flew. They didn’t go far, and then came back to the roadside green crown, grey nape and neck, green on wings etc, all pointed to citril finch. They fed amongst the wildflowers, favouring the dandelion seedheads.
Best places for seeing plants and butterflies
Wandering around anywhere in the park seems to produce a good number of butterflies and alpine plants, but there do seem to be a few particular places worth a special mention.
The Ristolas Mont Viso National Nature Reserve is located at the South-East corner of the park. It extends over 2,295 hectares, from 1,800 m to 3,214 m above sea level so provides a huge elevation range and is wonderful for butterflies and alpine plants from mid-June to mid-August. You’ll find it at the end of the D947 road which connects Guillestre to Ristolas.
Belvédère du Viso, where a broad track goes through extensive meadows. On the track itself mud-puddling can be excellent with many Blues and Skippers easy to observe and to photograph. Mud-puddling? That means soft damp often clay soil where butterflies can congregate as they drink in the minerals they need for survival and reproduction, like the green-veined whites in the photo below..
Also near Ristolas, the Lac Egorgéou is a group of lakes at 2,400-2,500m famous for scarce plants and uncommon alpine butterflies as well as the high mountain scenery
Col d’Agniel: on the border with Italy, one of the highest road in the Alps (2,744 m) and with good access to high mountain butterflies and flowers. At 2,744 m, it is the third highest paved road pass of the Alps, after Stelvio Pass and Col de l’Iseran, and popular with cyclist (sometimes part of the Tour de France route).
Abriès is a village and ski resort (so good for accommodation) in the north-east corner of the park, good for plants and butterflies in meadows in the valley and a dry south-facing slope just above.
There is an especially fascinating creature here – the Lanza Salamander which lives only in this part of the Alps. It holds the record for longevity among amphibians: more than 20 years. They need this long life as the females carry their embryos for up to 4 years of gestation – not a true pregnancy, as there is no placenta, but the eggs 2-4 of them, develop inside the female. I haven’t seen any, but the best time to look for them is said to be at night during the spring mating season.
So there you have it
I enjoyed my time in the park, despite the grey weather. There were plenty of wildflowers and birds to keep me occupied, as well as a good few marmots. Maybe it was just as well I didn’t see many butterflies as trying to identify them all would be just too time-consuming.
What I’d look for next time – better weather, so the butterflies will be flying! But, remember that those 300 hot clear summer days also mean clear cold summer nights, even at elevations lower than other areas of the Alps.
Public transport – nearest airport is at Nice on the south coast, and a train will get you half the way to the park. Coming from any other direction isn’t much better, so really, you need a car.
Click on covers for more information. The comments are from the publisher’s ‘blurb’
The stunning natural beauty of the Alps makes this range of mountains one of Europe’s most popular tourist destinations. This book helps visitors to gain a deeper appreciation of that beauty, by providing a guide to the geology and flowers of the Alps.
Written in straightforward language for those with little or no prior knowledge and illustrated by stunning photographs, maps and diagrams, this book reveals how different rocks were created and shaped into the present-day mountains by glaciers and other agents. The detailed guide to 344 stunning Alpine flowers and plants can be used for on-the-spot identification and is complemented by chapters describing just how these flowers survive in their harsh mountain environment. Finally, what better way to make use of your new-found understanding than to explore the Alps with the 23 suggested walks, which are located in some of the best geological and botanical spots of the Alps.
The vegetation of the French Alps has been studied for several decades and is often presented in technical publications or floras that feature only a small number of images. Walkers and botanist are often helpless in the correct identification of plants in situ. This is the one of the most comprehensive field guides with 1175 colour photos, covering most of the species in the Alps. The author has endeavored to describe each plant succinctly, using only botanical characteristics visible on the ground for a rapid effective and scientifically serious determination.
It is written in French, but that isn’t a problem for the keen botanist
Graceful flight, delicate colours, a fascinating development cycle: butterflies captivate because of their great diversity and can be easily observed in the mountains. Aimed at both expert and beginner enthusiasts, this guide helps Alpine mountain walkers to easily identify these fragile insects which are so threatened today. Each species entry groups together the main characteristics, the distribution area and the periods of the different stages of development (laying, caterpillars, chrysalis, butterfly). Photographs illustrate morphological details or different phases of the life cycle.
Language: French, with vernacular names in English, French, German, and Italian – but don’t let that put you off.
– Descriptions, illustrations and distribution maps to identify butterflies and know where and when to observe them
– For each species, the scientific name and the vernacular name in 4 languages (French, English, German, Italian)
– A guide covering all the Alps: Germany, Austria, France, Italy, Liechtenstein, Monaco, Slovenia, Switzerland.
Buying through these links earns me a small commission which goes towards the cost of maintaining this website.
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.
At around 1,500ha, the Laguna Gallocanta is the largest natural lake in Spain.
Its other main claim to fame is that it is the major staging post for Eurasian cranes migrating between their wintering grounds in southern Spain, and their breeding grounds in northern Europe.
The cranes arrive in November, with several thousand staying through the winter. The greatest spectacle is at the end of February, when they are heading north again.
About the lake
Laguna Gallocanta is situated at 1000m on a high plain in north-eastern Spain, meaning that temperatures can be bitterly cold in winter, and blisteringly hot in summer. Spring doesn’t seem to arrive until June, or so I was told on a cold windy day in April 1989. I certainly didn’t expect to visit again any earlier month of the year. However, there were no cranes on that first visit, and it is the cranes that bring people to the laguna in February and November. Some cranes remain for the winter, but most move on to Extremadura.
The laguna lies in a tectonic depression. It is fed mainly by rainwater, and there is no outflow. Thus, the lake levels and extent vary by year as well as by season depending on rainfall. In a good year, the laguna covers some 1500ha (5.8 sq miles). In some years the water level is below ground and the lake bed remains dry for months. However, there are some freshwater springs that allow localised growth of Phragmites reeds, reedmace and other freshwater plants. Yet it is still the most important saline lake in Western Europe, and is well-studied by students from various Spanish universities.
About the birds
The Laguna Gallocanta has long been known as a fantastic place for wintering birds – though the numbers depend on the severity of the winter in northern Europe, and on the level of water in the lake. The name Gallocanta can be translated as Chicken/Bird Song, though whether that refers to the trumpeting of the cranes in winter or the songs of other birds in spring is anybody’s guess.
Eurasian Cranes are large birds, with males standing up to 1.3m (4ft) tall and with a 2.4m wingspan – females are usually a bit smaller. That should make them easy to see, but their basically grey colour means they blend well with the background, and at a distance they often look like rocks strewn across the fields.
February 18-20th 2015 were calm days following frosty nights. Some 30,000 cranes were already trying to move north, although snow-storms over the Pyrenees were forcing many to stay in Spain. During the following few days, the numbers at the laguna increased, as more and more arrived from the south-west and had to wait for a break in the weather.
The photo below was taken on the evening of the 23rd. It is impossible to show the sheer numbers involved – this is just a small section of the lake near Gallocanta village.
The cranes are counted weekly during the migration period. Antonio Torrijo from the Association of Friends of Gallocanta, and José Antonio Román who coordinates the crane censuses in Spain, took out a team of six for the counts. The area is divided between them, and each person counts from a set vantage point. In the late afternoon, they count the birds already on the ground, and then at dusk, they count the birds coming in to roost.
Some 82,906 cranes were counted on the 24th. But the weather held up migration for another few days, so the total was estimated at 110,000 by the weekend when the wind dropped and most were able to move on.
Of course, there are other species on the lake – up to 3000 gadwall, 80,000 common pochard, and 40,000 common coot, and smaller numbers of other species. We saw 82 species altogether, including raptors such as northern harriers, golden eagle and short-eared owls, and small birds like Calandra Lark, Rock Sparrow and Theckla Lark. Amazingly, I also saw 82 species on my brief visit in April 1989, with about 40 of them seen both times. 220 species have been recorded over the years, and 90 of these breed here.
We stayed at the Auberge Allucant from the 18th – 28th, walking down to the lake shore nearest the village, or driving around the lake (about 35km), stopping at various viewing points, walking along the Camino del Cid, and one day driving just a bit further afield.
A day in the freezer
Javier, who runs Allucant, told us there were hides that would get us really close to the birds, and he arranged for us to get a permit and a key from the offices in one of the nearby villages. We had to be in the hide half an hour before dawn, and couldn’t leave until it was dark in the evening. So two of us, in a small square box, camera lenses pointing out the ‘windows’, wrapped up for the Arctic but still getting colder and colder – there was a sleet shower in the afternoon – sat it out for 12 hours. Was it worth it? Definitely YES. Would we do it again? Well . . . maybe . . . . .
Ghostly shapes in the half-light – Cranes roost at the lake margins and in the shallow water. They leave before sunrise, heading for feeding areas within a few kilometres of the lake.
As the light improves, wave after wave of cranes leave the laguna, but somehow there are still a few left as the sun begins to warm the land.
For a while, the lagoon is quiet, but at around mid-morning the birds begin to return.
Now the birds spend their time preening and socialising, sometimes feeding, and sometimes roosting. The way to get yourself noticed is to shout – and they do. Cranes are 1m – 1.3m tall (3-4 feet) and have a voice to match. The males are bigger than the females, and most of the squabbling seemed to be amongst the males.
Another way to get noticed, by humans at least, is to wear leg rings. Only a small proportion are ringed at the nest each year, and a few are fitted with radio-transmitters too. This particular bird (and one of the others that we saw) was ringed in Brandenburg, Germany, in 2006. A third bird was ringed in Germany in 2003, and this was the first time it had been recorded in Spain. Reporting colour-ringed birds provides so much more information, both for the researchers and for the observer.
It’s not yet the breeding season, but the activity swings between frustration (top photo shown by picking up things and throwing them) and mild aggression. They stick in tight family groups, sometimes with a youngster from last year AND the previous year in tow. But by now, the older youngsters – teenagers perhaps – are mostly in groups of their own age. The adults pair for life, but the pair bonds are renewed by dancing and marching displays when they get closer to the breeding grounds. In adults, the eye colour varies, as does the extent of the red patch on the head. Neither is correlated with age, sex or season. However, as their threat displays involved showing off the red patch, it may be linked with dominance.
The weather was cold but mostly dry. However, the cold brought sleet showers, and the cranes had to put up with it. This weather extended to the Pyrenees, forcing the birds to postpone the next stage of their migration. When the sleet stopped in the late afternoon, many headed out to the fields to feed again. They returned at dusk to roost.
In the late afternoon, many of the birds head out to the fields to feed again. They return at dusk to roost. Inevitably there is some conflict between farmers and birds, but an agreement has been drawn up to provide compensation if crops are damaged.
The last day
February 28th the wind dropped from force 4 to force 2, and the birds could finally move on. Throughout the morning, the excitement of the cranes was palpable – the sound was deafening and it was hard not to be excited with them. They rose in great flocks, circling to gain height. There was still enough wind to push them back southwards, and some returned to the lake. But the majority moved northwards.
As we drove to Zaragoza airport, we passed under huge skeins of them. If they encountered a thermal, they made use of it to gain extra height. They will fly at 40-50 kph in calm conditions, covering 300-500km in a day as they return to northern and eastern Europe to breed.
The website GrusExtremadura provides up-to-date counts and maps showing the progression of the migration.
Click on the covers for more information
Note that buying books through these links earns a small commission (at no extra cost to you) that goes towards the cost of maintaining this website.
A rough road circumnavigates the laguna, and is clearly signposted to keep tourists on track. Access is prohibited on other tracks through the farmland. The whole route is approximately 35km, with access points near the villages of Gallocanta, Tornos, Bello and Las Cuerlas.
The Camino del Cid is a hiking route which passes along part of the above track.
Two high observation platforms are accessible from the track. These provide a good view across the lake and fields, but may not get you close to the cranes – that depends on where they are feeding.
The stone observation hides at los Ojos, la Ermita and at los Aguanares also provide some protection from the weather.
The new interpretive centre (right) is more to do with local cultural history, but contains a collection of stuffed birds (these were previously housed in a small museum in the village). Glass walls provide a panoramic view. Entry is quite cheap.
Another, smaller, information centre at the south end of the lake has more information about the wildlife, and the cranes in particular.
Five photographic hides provide opportunities for close-up photography. They are administered by the local office in Bello, and there is a charge of 20 euros per day. However, it is a requirement that you enter the hide before sunrise, and do not leave until after sunset.
There are limited accommodation and restaurant facilities in the nearby villages of Gallocanta, Berrueco, Tornos, Bello, and Las Cuerlas. We stayed at the Albergue Allucant in Gallocanta village, and can happily recommend it as providing good basic accommodation and excellent meals at a very reasonable price. It can be quite busy, especially at weekends during the crane migration periods, and early booking is recommended. Not all rooms have en-suite facilities, but there are beds (and bunks) for up to 54 guests.
Allucant boasts a good library of bird and wildlife books in a variety of languages. It provides a focus for birding activities in the area. The staff were very helpful, especially with regard to getting the permit for using one of the photographic hides. Muchas gracias, Señores, for giving us a good time.
How to get there
There is little in the way of public transport access to Gallocanta and the surrounding villages. Most routes suggested on Rome2Rio end with a taxi.
We flew to Zaragoza airport, picked up a hire car, and found it was a relatively easy journey not having driven on the right (wrong for us) side of the road for some years.
Once in Gallocanta or any of the other nearby villages, you can walk to the nearest bit of lakeshore and surrounding countryside, but you really do need a car, or at least a bike, to see the place properly. And in winter, we were especially appreciative of the car for shelter from the weather.
Some nature tour companies (eg NatureTrek) do include a day or two in the area as part of a longer winter trip in north-east Spain, often combining it with looking for birds in the Spanish Pyrenees to the north.
The Giant’s Trek is a 7-stage round-trip itinerary through the Aosta Valley, around 4 of the highest mountains (giants) in Europe. Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be done in one go, or even in seven stages (roughly 20 hours trekking per stage!).
With a few days to spare before attending a conference in Cogne, I was able to enjoy a slow hike, at first in the shadow of Monti Bianco (Mont Blanc). As I was carrying full hiking/camping gear, I had only a basic camera with me – so no pictures of the birds or marmots!
The trek follows the route of the Alta Via, a high-level trail around the Aosta Valley in northern Italy. Part of the trail runs through the Gran Paradiso National Park, another part along the southern edge of Monti Bianco (Mont Blanc). This trail, divided into Alta Via 1 (on the northern side) and Alta Via 2 (the southern half), is further divided into some 35 sections, often linked by other trails and roads so that you can walk shorter routes, allowing you time to enjoy the scenery and the wildlife, without wearing yourself out.
On this occasion, I had stayed overnight with friends Skip and Jeannie at Villeneuve. From their place, it takes about an hour to drive along the valley to Courmayeur, where the main road continues to the tunnel through Monti Bianco.
Monti Bianco dominates the landscape from well down the valley, and just grows ever bigger in the scenery. In fact, the massif is some 50km from east to west, and the highest point is about 4,800m (nearly 16,000 feet). There is a cable car system that allows you to go over the top into France to Chamonix. One day, I would like to take that ride. Skip takes a road to the west, along the Val Veny on the south side of Monti Bianco. Cars are allowed to go only as far as Visaille, so we park at the end and have lunch in the car – bread, cheese, ham and wine, followed by a cappuccino at the nearby ristorante.
Thus refreshed, we begin the hike to the Miage glacial lake. It is uphill all the way. Skip’s long legs soon take him ahead, while Jeannie and I follow at a more sedate pace.
At first the road is paved as it wends its way up through larch woods. On the south side of the road is a deep fluvial valley, with trees and rocks washed down with the spring-summer torrents. Willow and coal tits inhabit the trees, and the few butterflies include red admiral and a fritillary. Behind us, a magnificent view of the east end of Mont Blanc – les Grandes Jorasses, and other mountains.
The road gives way to a rougher track, then a flat plain opens out ahead. Lake Miage is immediately above us, behind a huge moraine left by a glacier. We have to climb that moraine. It makes you appreciate the power of ice – to build a wall that high.
The lake itself is at the base of a glacier – the one which left the huge moraine as it retreated. Skip said they had previously seen small icebergs in the lake, which is milky with ice and rock particles. Bits of ice and rock drop into the water as we watch, and with the magnificent backdrop it is hard to stop taking pictures – I suspect I have taken quite a few exactly the same.
Jeannie and Skip head back to their car, while I continue westwards.
The sign says it is an hour to the Rifugio Elisabetta Soldini, which is visible at the far end of the valley. I expect it to take two hours. At first the road is flat and straight, though a boggy plain, then uphill to the Rifugio. The plain is glacial outwash gravel, now partially vegetated with even a few willows and birches growing in the drier parts. A marsh marigold is still showing its golden blooms, indicating how late the seasons are at this altitude. Marsh marigold flowers are gone by May/June in Wales. A fisherman plies his rod in one of the bigger pools.
The uphill part is hard work, and I take any rock of suitable height as an excuse to stop and admire the view behind. The sun sinks behind Monti Bianco, and the lengthening shadows gobble up the plain. By the time I reach the Rifugio, only a distant mountain glows orange in the evening light. I ask if this is Monte Rosa, the highest peak in the Alps, but am told that it is le Grand Combin.
Only about 25 people have booked into the Rifugio, so there is room for one more. The Rifugio Elisabetta has some small bunk rooms, but up in the loft are three long low bunks, each taking 6-12 people laying side by side. Sleeping like sardines in a can takes some getting used to, especially as there is no segregation even by sex. I am lucky – I have an end bed with space between myself and the two French lads at the other end.
Everybody has to put up with everybody else’s snoring, restlessness etc, though most people are too tired after a day’s hiking to care. One of the French lads makes a very loud fart, which has them both in hysterical giggles for the next few minutes. Then the peace returns.
People seem to be getting up while it is still dark, then I see faint daylight coming through a window. After a while it isn’t getting any lighter, so I get up too (I am not the last). I discover that I am in the darkest part of the loft, and the shutters have fooled me again. Outside it is bright sunlight. Most people have breakfasted and left by the time I get downstairs. A Swiss lady asks if am travelling alone. I try out my rusty German – how long is she in the mountains – only for the weekend, Monday is for working. She and her husband are carrying daypacks. The younger people with them have mountain boots and are equipped perhaps for glaciers and high routes.
There is no sign of other human life on the Alte Vie as I set out. I walk in the sun for a while, along another flat outwash plain. Then I am in the shadow for the uphill – 400m of it. It is hard work, with nothing but chough and marmot calls for company. In the distance I see a large group of hikers on the skyline, they seem to cluster around the cairn which marks the French border. They venture a little way into Italy, probably to find shelter. The air is so clear, that even at this distance I can see them getting out the coffee flasks. Then they return towards the cairn.
My progress up the mountainside is slow. I have all day, so there is no point in rushing. I stop frequently, looking out for other birds and animals. The path is frozen, and there are patches of ice and snow. There are weasel and mountain hare tracks on the snow. Staying in the shadow keeps me cool, and the path looks as though it could be slippery when it thaws out. I am surprised to see mountain bike tracks – but then I remember Jeannie saying that one year they met someone who they had earlier seen carrying a mountain bike over one of the glaciers on Mont Blanc. He was a city bus driver and this was his idea of getting away from it all and relaxing. Looking back towards the Mont Blanc glaciers, I see two tiny figures hiking across a high snowfield, heading towards a glacier.
About three-quarters of the way up I am in the sun, and find a flat grassy area looks ideal for a much-needed rest. My view is dominated by Mont Blanc and its glaciers, with almost every stone standing out in the clear air. The path ahead does not look so steep, but appears to cross a scree slope before reaching the pass – the Colle di Chavannes. A guy pushes a mountain bike past me, I will watch where he goes. Water pipits, goldfinches and redpolls fly past. There is a light but cold breeze coming off the mountains. The cyclist finds it hard work on the scree and resorts to carrying the bike as the path gets steep again. However, he has nothing else to carry. Now I see where the path goes. Someone looks over the ridge from the other direction. I have rested for an hour, and it’s about time I moved myself.
The cyclist went up the path like a mountain goat, my progress is more like an old woman’s. It is steep and narrow in places, and great care is needed. The pack makes me top heavy, and the monopod is useful as a hiking cane. Again most of the path is in shadow, and I find mountain hare tracks in a snow patch. The figure who appeared at the top earlier is having lunch when I get there, the cyclist is long gone. The view into the next valley contrasts sharply with the grey rocks and gleaming glaciers of Mont Blanc. Everything looks more green, the mountains are not so high, and apart from one huge vertical north-east-facing cliff, the slopes are more gentle.
A group of about 20-25 alpine choughs feed on the slopes, they are widely spaced but keep in contact through little high-pitched calls which sound as though they belong to smaller birds. Their ‘chough’ call is higher and thinner than the red-billed chough back home in Wales. There is also another un-chough-like sound, and it takes me a while to be sure that it really does come from the birds. A group of small birds fly over the pass after me, and land close enough that I can identify them as wheatears and black redstarts. The ubiquitous marmots call from the valley below.
My feet are screaming to be let out of the hiking boots, and sandals will be no problem on this track. I walk as slowly as I can, with lots of stops, even though it is all downhill. I want to camp on a mountainside tonight, not in the main Aosta valley. I noticed last night that my eyes were puffy and sore. Today they are badly affected by the bright sunlight, and my lips are also sunburnt.
A young golden eagle drifts up from the valley, and is mobbed by the choughs. A pair of kestrels hovering below, looking minute, are the only other raptors. Below 2,200m the variety of wildflowers increases, but most are beyond their best for photography. Fortunately, I have photographed many of them before. Grasshoppers are also abundant, including the banded grasshopper, whose distinctive call I remember from a previous trip. Painted lady butterflies bask in the sun, or whizz along the valley.
From mid-afternoon the path is in shadow from the huge rock face, and I walk faster to keep warm. Eventually I reach sunshine again. A small herd of diary cows hangs around a decrepit building, and there are more tumbledown buildings beyond. A new building, higher up the hillside, overlooks it all. It’s time to find a campsite, and after a while I come across a cleared patch – rocky but level in places, with black redstarts flitting around. There is now a strong cold breeze, which blows my hat off into the vegetation where I risk life and limb to rescue it – I will suffer if I am walking in the sun without it tomorrow. It is also difficult to put up the tent – the ground is too hard for tent pegs, so I tie the guys round lumps of rock instead. The last sounds of the evening are a green woodpecker calling, and cowbells from the huge herd in a pasture across the valley.
My tent gets the first rays of sun this morning – desperately welcome after a cold night at 1900m. The wind also dropped during the night. A nearby marmot screams at the strange intrusion into its view. After breakfast I look around for marmots, and find one basking at the entrance to its burrow – it looks like a doormat soaking up the sun. Scanning further around I find a red fox hunting voles. He pounces on one, misses, but gets it on the second attempt. He works his way up the slope, away from me, and soon disappears over the ridge.
Up on the ridge is a thrush of some kind, perched on a stone and singing. Frustratingly, it is too far away to be identified, and I don’t recognise the song. A handful of black redstarts chase each other from boulder to boulder, recognisable even at that distance by their grey bodies and orange rumps. Later one sings its strange little ditty from the roof of a derelict building. There are also wheatears, whinchats, grey wagtails, coal tits, crossbills and rock bunting.
It is hard to work up the enthusiasm to leave such a place. On the southeast horizon is a huge glacier which partially blocks the Col di Planaval. Unfortunately, you need ice equipment and some experience, to negotiate this col, which is on the Alta Vie, and so I will be going by road from now on. (NB – this glacier has now retreated to the point where the footpath is accessible)
It is 10:30 by the time I have packed up. More birds greet me as I go downhill – jay, wren, willow tit, crow, chiff-chaff, chaffinch willow warbler, more whinchats, even a blackbird. Alpine chough call from way up the slope. Then a female goshawk flats past, low over the pasture and swooping up to land on a rock. A while later she moves to perch on top of a larch. Four buzzards circle and call overhead.
I stop where the mountain road joins the main road over the Colle di Piccolo San Bernardo. A constant sound of traffic comes from the few vehicles making their way up the switchbacks. I sit here for an hour, enjoying the sounds of the birds, grasshoppers and crickets. A crag martin hawks along and above the river channel, a sparrowhawk struggles to find a thermal over the trees. The grasshoppers include one that tries to eat me, and a very large green bush-cricket which makes ridiculously tiny chirps with its wing cases. There are an amazing variety of stridulation rhythms. Among the butterflies are an Apollo, clouded yellows, some very faded fritillaries and Damon blues.
Val d’Aosta – a brief history
The Colle de Piccolo San Bernardo is the westernmost end of the Aosta valley, which is described as the smallest and least populated Italian region, a mountain territory lying in the heart of the Alps. The history and economy of the valley have always been influenced by the role of the Piccolo and Grande San Bernado Passes, which have been controlled by the town of Aosta itself, some 70km down the valley. Habitation here goes back to ancient times, with the Ligurian and Celtic people in 3,000 BC, and the local ‘Salassi’ tribe in the 2nd century BC. The Romans gained control of it as a strategic route into Gaul and Germany in the 1st century AD. Then the Burgundians, Goths, and Byzantines struggled for possession, but the Franks eventually won in the sixth century AD. After more feudal authorities gained control over the next few centuries, the Savoy Family claimed rights in the 11th century, and the French influence remains til this day. The area now has some legislative, economic and administrative autonomy, and the local language is a patois of French and Italian – hence the path is known as both the Alta Via, and the Alte Vie.
Val d’Aosta resources
Between them, these websites have most of the information that most tourists need:
There are a lot of books about Italian wildlife, hiking, climbing, etc. Click on the banner above, and search for Italy or the Alps. Buying books through this link brings me a small commission (at no extra cost to you) that helps maintain this website.
A traditional object from Valle d’Aosta, the Friendship Cup (Coppa dell’Amicizia), is a wide shallow bowl made of wood with a lid and several spouts from which to drink “à la ronde” (passing it round a group of friends). It was traditionally used for drinking “Valdostan coffee” with family or friends on important occasions to show a strong feeling of group belonging.
Drinking from it is a true ritual, following strict rules. Each person takes a sip then passes it to the friend sitting at his or her side who takes a “coupe”, this continues in a clockwise direction until the cup is empty. Once the “ronde” has begun, the cup should not be put down until all the contents are finished, otherwise it will bring bad luck.
Caffè alla Valdostana (Valdostan coffee), drunk in the Friendship Cup, is made according to an ancient recipe combining grappa, sugar and coffee, plus a dash of orange, juniper, cloves and cinnamon. And it tasted wonderful.
The Brazo del Este is located 20 km south of Seville in the Guadalquivir river estuary.
This former branch (brazo) of the Guadalquivir lies to the east of the main river and is surrounded by rice plains and intensive farmland.
It is quite possible to see over 100 species during a one-day visit here.
I first came across the Brazo del Este by happy accident, trying to drive from Seville to San Lucar de Barrameda on the back roads, keeping close to the Guadalquivir and hoping the often unpaved roads wouldn’t come to a dead end. The intensively cultivated landscape changed suddenly to something more wild – reedbeds alongside a river that didn’t go in a straight line. And then a volume of birdsong that had been missing since we left the Doñana Natural Park early that morning. Not forgetting the occasional wide verge full of flowers and insects.
About the Brazo del Este
The Brazo del Este Natural Park starts 17km south of Seville, where there is a fork in the main channel of the Guadalquivir. The brazo twists and turns along 39km of meanders, rejoining the main channel some 16km further down. Somehow, this channel has survived the 100 years or so of human intervention, and become an exceptionally important wetland for birds.
It is at least as important as the Doñana National Park Natural Park on the other side of the Guadalquivir – indeed, it has the advantage that it does not dry out in summer, and so provides a refuge for birds trying to escape the summer drought. The abundance of ducks (pintail, mallard, shoveler, teal), birds of prey, various herons, egrets, a colony of white storks, as well as a variety of other birds has meant that it has been declared a Special Protection Area (SPA or ZEPA in Spanish).
The wetland vegetation is mainly made up of marsh-loving plants, with reedmace and giant reed Arundo donax lining the channels. Tamarisk is abundant in drier areas. There are few trees, with some isolated specimens of ash and white poplar in the last stretch of the channel. However, it is not all natural. Red eucalyptus was introduced from Australia as an ornamental garden species, it escaped and here it now grows in abundance along paths and several sections of the river – an invasive species that may be creating problems.
Best places for seeing . . . . .
It’s hard to mention best places – we drove around and there seemed to be something new around every corner. This was the end of March:
After some kilometres (from Seville) we came to an area of olive scrub on slightly elevated ground. The rain stopped (more or less) and we stopped too, exchanging the sound of the engine for that of birdsong. It took us a while to work out what was singing. So many birds were singing that distinguishing a single song from all the others was difficult, but we eventually realised that they were mostly blackcaps. Scores of them. A few birds showed themselves, some looking decidedly wet and bedraggled while others were smart and dry. Serins, house sparrows and blackbirds tried to make themselves heard above the blackcaps’ din.
Jim saw a cape hare on his side of the van, and a few minutes later there was one on my side too. It looked us up and down, then disappeared into the scrub again.
Egrets flew over the road, along with white storks, black kites, and hoopoes. There was a strong passage of hirundines and swifts. Along the road were gold- and greenfinches, great tits, chiffchaffs and Sardinian warblers. After lunch we heard our first cuckoo of the year, and a little owl crooned from somewhere close by.
In places, the roadside verge was a ten-metre wide carpet of wild-flowers: asphodel, French lavender, broom, yellow crucifers, masses of pink Mediterranean catchfly, poppy, ramping fumitory, purple viper’s bugloss, bugle, weasel’s snout, Barbary nut and chives, to name but a few. Here and there I found small patches of ‘insect’ orchids; they did not correspond exactly with anything in the book, though the nearest seemed to be the early spider orchid.
A blue butterfly rested on a lavender stem, sheltering from the weather. It walked onto my finger ‑ presumably attracted by the warmth. We compared it closely with the diagrams in the butterfly book. The blue-grey underwings, with black spots rimmed with white. Then it opened the wings to show brilliant blue colouring with prominent white veins on the forewing and a black margin. The body was also blue and hairy. Having warmed itself sufficiently the butterfly flew off along the road. It was a black‑eyed blue, which should not have been on the wing until April.
There were more stunning invertebrates to come, firstly a huge brown slug clambering along thistle leaves – slugs might not appeal to everyone, but this one’s size was impressive. I have no idea what kind it is, though.
Then an oil (blister) beetle with a massive body about 50mm long ‑ all black but with red between the abdominal segments ‑ and small wing‑buds (they are flightless). The insect book did not show enough examples to identify the species so ID had to wait – in fact it had to wait several years, but this has now been identified as the red-striped oil beetle, Berberomeloe majalis. The female oil beetle needs this large abdomen to produce vast numbers – up to 10,000 – eggs, and it is a wonder that any larvae ever get to adulthood as most of them fail to reach maturity either for lack of food or through predation. The larvae are only about 3mm long, and their development proceeds through hypermetamorphosis – a process in which the larval stages are of different forms. Unlike the larvae of oil beetles of the genus Meloe that we have in Britain, the first stage larva has to actively seek out a suitable solitary bee host. Once the larva has consumed the egg and then the stored nectar and pollen from a bee’s nest, they leave it. They then moult again, and emerge with their back legs formed. From this stage they pupate, and emerge from the chrysalis as adults. If a larva accidentally selects the wrong type of bee as host, it will die.
But it was the water birds that dominated.
The road continued through the Isla Menor agricultural desert. The marshes shown on the map had been turned into arable fields with only a handful of small wet areas remaining. Nevertheless they did contain coot, moorhen, little grebes, grey, purple and squacco herons, marsh harriers, black kites, mallard, cattle and little egrets, snipe, Savi’s and fan‑tailed warblers, and red-crested pochard. Purple gallinules honked from the reeds.
In May, the migrants have arrived mostly settled down, and you can expect to add collared pratincole, black, whiskered, gull-billed and Capsian terns, as well as a variety of ducks, waders, little bitterns, spoonbills, booted eagles, hoopoes, and more warblers.
Summer and autumn brings a greater variety as birds breeding in the Arctic begin to migrate south again – those that failed at nesting will be the first to arrive. In winter add greylag goose and marbled duck, little crake, bluethroats and a whole lot more.
So there you have it
If you’re staying anywhere between Malaga and Gibraltar, and don’t have time to visit the Doñana National Park, then this is the next best thing. Take a GPS/SatNav – they didn’t exist when I first visited, so we had to hope that we were actually using the roads that we thought we were.
Public transport – not easy. There is a bus service between Seville and Cadiz, with the nearest towns en route being Los Palacios y Villafranca and Las Cabezas de San Juan from where it is a long hike, or a taxi ride.
According to the Discovering Donana website – The main dirt road that cuts the Brazo and the old Carretera del Práctico (Coast Pilot Road), which runs along the Guadalquivir River, are the main access points, but to these must be added an intricate network of secondary roads and channels that make navigation difficult in the area, hence the usefulness of a local guide – and, obviously, they would prefer you to use one of theirs.
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Wilderness that has not been touched (away from the paths) for over 100 years
Brilliant butterflies and other invertebrates
A good variety of birds and mammals
About . . . .
The Swiss National Park is located in the canton of Graubünden, spread across the four communes of Zernez, S-chanf, Scuol and Val Müstair and covering an area of 170 km2 at an altitude of 1,400 to 3,174 metres.
Established in 1914, it is the oldest national park in the Alps and indeed the oldest in central Europe. As of April 2021, the site is listed on the IUCN’s Green List of Protected and Conserved Areas and is formally recognised as one of the 59 best managed sites in the world.
Protected areas in Switzerland
Despite its small size, Switzerland manages to squeeze in a number of major sites of ecological importance. Perhaps that is not so surprising in a country where 25% of the land is categorized as “non-productive”, ie high mountains and lakes. However, until 2007, there was only a single national park. Now there are a total of 18 areas designated, or proposed for designation as, national or regional nature parks, each of them at least 100 square kilometres in area.
There are also a handful of nature discovery parks – relatively small areas of only a few square kilometres within densely populated regions, offering intact spaces for local flora and fauna and improving the life quality of the urban population. Their primary purpose is to allow the public to experience nature and receive environmental education.
Best things to do:
Go to the visitor centre
I’m an advocate for visitor centres. Having arrived in Zernez when it was raining, this visitor centre was most welcome, and I visited on several other occasions when the weather was poor during my ten-day stay in the area. There were exhibitions about various aspects of the park – geology, animals, plants, history, hiking, etc. The staff were helpful, even the park director was happy to talk to visitors who had questions that the centre staff couldn’t answer themselves.
It has all changed since then. Opened in 2008, the new national park centre at Zernez attracts some 40,000 visitors a year. It’s well worth visiting for up-to-date information, and for maps and route guides from the shop. There is a comprehensive, interactive exhibition on permanent show, with various digital information systems, temporary exhibitions and a theatre, all of which provide a set of interesting alternatives for when the weather is too wet for hiking to be pleasant.
Download the app
A fairly recent innovation, the Swiss National Park app is a digital hiking guide that leads you through the National Park region with stories, information and detailed maps. Not all areas of the Park have mobile phone/online coverage; so the app was created in offline mode – so download it when you have a wi-fi signal because it is a rather large file. The app is available in German, English, and French, so is also useful if you are on a guided walk and need help with understanding what the guide is saying in German.
Take a hike
There is a single road through the park, going on down to the Italian border. Along it, you’ll find car parks, hotels, and bus stops. These are all very handy when hiking through the park. The rules are strict. You must stay on the path, camping and fires are not allowed. But the 80km or so of footpaths are all well-worth exploring. I’ve been on about half of them. The campsite in Zernez provided a useful base for some short hikes, and the starting point for some of the longer ones. The need to get back to base meant a good deal of planning for buses or trains, and making sure there was enough time to catch the last one back to base. Nature-watching really tends to slow us down, but if you are just out for the hike, the distances are easy to do in plenty of time.
Go on a guided walk
A guide can give so much extra information and interpretation about the landscape. Guided hikes happen on Tuesdays and Thursdays, are usually conducted in German, and usually have a specialist theme. Alongside the human guides, you can use the app to provide extra information. Both kinds of tour provide an opportunity to uncover some of the secrets of the astounding abundance of flora and fauna – all to be found in the Swiss National Park.
Look for birds
Despite there being only half a dozen pairs of golden eagles in the park, we saw one or two every day. During the summer they feed mainly on marmots, while in the winter they scavenge deer carcasses and whatever else they can find. Carcasses are also important for the Lammergeier – also known as the bone vulture and the bearded vulture. This species has been the subject of an extensive reintroduction program throughout the Alps, including 26 young captive-bred released in the park between 1991 and 2007. They seem to be breeding by themselves now, so no further releases are needed.
Nutcrackers are members of the crow family, restricted in range to areas of pine forests and so most often found in the mountains and the far north where conifers form the main forests. Like jays, it stores its winter food supply in the ground, and the seeds that it doesn’t find again germinate and extend the forest. The nutcracker is the logo for the Swiss National Park.
Looking at the list of 56 species that I saw here, the ptarmigan, Alpine chough, Alpine accentor, and citril finch stand out as being special to the mountains, at least. Most of the other species are more generalist, and found in the lower areas – the forests and along the river corridors.
Look for butterflies
The best place for butterflies proved to be the track alongside the river from Zernez – and on a couple of occasions, we barely managed a mile of hiking because of trying to photograph and identify all the butterflies. But to find the specialities of the region, you have to go to higher altitudes.
En route to Alp Trubchun, we found a shepherd’s fritillary basking on a stone (above left), and while we were trying to photograph that, the local form of the silky ringlet put in an appearance (above right). Depending on the light angle, this butterfly can look much like any other brown ringlet, or it can shimmer an iridescent green.
It’s really the blues and the fritillaries that dominate the butterfly lists here. And to have any hope of identifying unfamiliar species, you really have to photograph both the under-side and the upper-side. And nowadays, having the luxury of looking at the photos on a computer screen, much enlarged, makes it so much easier. I ended up with a list of 34 species, plus a few that I couldn’t identify, and of course, there were a few that didn’t hang around long enough for a photo.
Enjoy the wildflowers
Where to start with the wildflowers! As in most mountain regions, there is a huge variety due to the variation in altitude and aspect. However, there are perhaps not so many here as elsewhere in the Alps, due to the dry climate (low in rainfall and in humidity), the extremes of temperature, and the lack of limestone rocks. Nevertheless, up to 600 species can be found here.
I didn’t really look hard at them – I was more interested in the butterflies – but was happy to at last find an Edelweiss. This iconic flower of the Alps prefers rocky limestone places at about 1,800–3,000 metres (5,900–9,800 ft) altitude. Its leaves and flowers are covered with dense hairs, which are believed to protect the plant from cold, aridity, and ultraviolet radiation. It is a scarce, short-lived flower found in remote mountain areas, although it will grow in gardens with a bit of help. It is a national symbol Switzerland and some other Alpine countries. It is non-toxic and has been used in traditional medicine as a remedy against abdominal and respiratory diseases.
Look for mammals
We saw mammals, or signs of mammals, on each day. However, the best place is generally considered to be Alp Trubchun at the south-west end of the Park. We took the train from Zernez to S-chanf, and started the hike from there – although now there is a bus service that stops closer to the footpath. It’s a relatively easy hike, gently climbing 400m in 10km, but you do have to allow time to walk back too. The scenery is, as always, wonderful, but with the added views of plenty of wildlife. We had to try to ignore the birds, butterflies and plants on the outward journey through Val Trubchun, just to make sure we got to Alp Trubchun itself.
Herds of red deer grazed on the Alp, watching us from a distance. Amongst them were a few ibex. This species was surreptitiously reintroduced to the area in the early 1900s after being exterminated by 1650 – thanks mainly to the medicinal properties attributed to its flesh and horns – plus the fact that they often seem to have no fear of humans, and are therefore easy to hunt. Chamois were not quite so easy to see, as they spend the summer at even higher elevations, so you need time to continue to path up to Fuorcla Trupchun – a steady but much steeper and more difficult climb – from where you can even continue downhill to Livigno in Italy (and return to Zernez by bus, according to the Swiss National Park website).
Marmots are also common on the Alp, and we stopped to watch their antics on the way back. This was early August, and youngsters were out, playing around a rock next to their burrow. An adult posed obligingly outside its burrow nearby. It then wandered through the flowery meadow, stopping to bite off some vegetation here and there, or tug at a juicy root just underground. Then two more young marmots appeared. They hung around a burrow entrance under a rock for a while – mum climbed on the rock to keep an eye on us – then scampered up the hill. When she returned, the family did a lot of licking and grooming as a greeting ceremony, and then the youngsters disappeared into the burrow while the adult still lounged outside, soaking up the late afternoon sun.
Another hike that gave us good sightings of mammals was the route from Zernez via Cluozza to Ova Spin. First, there were signs of otter and fox alongside the river. Then through woodland with red squirrels, and a garden dormouse which, unfortunately, was dead. The woodland gave way to alpine pasture, with red deer, chamois (probably the closest views we ever had), a few ibex, and the inevitable marmots. This route was much more demanding than the Val Trubchun one, including two 700m climbs and requiring sure-footedness in places on the downhills. Fortunately, there was a bus service from Ova Spin back to Zernez, although a passing motorist offered us a ride before the bus arrived.
So there you have it
Those are my recommendations, but I feel I sampled only a little of the park.
What I’d do next time
Some of the hikes I didn’t do last time – perhaps including the one where you can do an overnight stay in a refuge – remember to book first.
Watch and photograph Lammergeiers – I’ve had only brief and distant views so far
Take more photos – especially now that I’ve got better equipment!
Best time to go
Winter: From mid-November onwards there is generally so much snow that footpaths are no longer visible, and there is a risk of avalanches. From now until the end of May the Park remains closed to visitors. The main Pass dal Fuorn (Ofenpass) road remains open in winter, ensuring access to the Val Müstair. However, the parking areas within the Park and the Hotel Parc Naziunal Il Fuorn are closed in winter.
Spring: During May there can still be heavy falls of snow, and large avalanches are not unusual. But by the end of the month, the trails in the lower and sunnier parts of the Park become accessible, and wildflowers begin to bloom. Trails in the higher areas remain under snow, and are generally only passable towards the end of June. The birds in particular are especially active at this time of year.
Summer: July and August are the ideal months to visit the National Park. All the trails are accessible; days are long and the temperatures pleasant. At 2000 and 3000m, most flowering plants bloom during the second half of July. In high mountainous regions flowering can be delayed until well into August, according to snow conditions. Depending on the weather, the main flowering season may be delayed by 2 to 3 weeks. With the flowers come the butterflies, providing a visual feast of colour.
Autumn: As the days shorten and the temperature drops, nights can be frosty and the first snows fall in the upper regions. Footpaths may be frozen in places, and walkers heading out to higher regions should enquire about walking conditions at the National Park Centre. The highlight of the season is the red deer rut – when hundreds of stags can be heard roaring and strutting their stuff in traditional rutting areas, such as the Val Trupchun.
This short video from the ‘Idle Brain’ YouTube channel will give you more idea of the scenery of the National Park.
How to get there
The Swiss National Park lies in the south-east of the country, and is accessible by rail, bus and road. The nearest railway station is at Zernez, and the line also passes through S-chanf for access to Val Trubchun.
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Sadly the English version of this book is now out of print. It was a standard volume available in several languages. On walks, the guide would identify a flower, and whoever found it first in their book would call out the page number so everyone could mark it in their own book, regardless of language.
It’s a subject that seems to be more easily available locally rather than trying to buy something in advance.
If you are trying to buy something 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.
Finding books specific to the Alpine Region seems to be best done when you are there. The National Park Visitor Centre usually has a good variety. There will be books in French, German and Italian, and it seems if you are lucky, in English too. Otherwise, the main guides to birds, mammals, etc covering the whole of Europe, will do the job. I am slowly replacing my older versions with those mentioned below.
The books below are my ‘go to’ books for European wildlife, when I can’t find anything more specific to a region. Click on the covers for more information.