RSPB Pulborough Brooks

“Ooh, it’s a wonderful place.  I used to live there, we took the (school) kids there for days out, even before it was a reserve.  There’s a wonderful cafe – people often go there just for the cafe . . . ”  Trixie was gushing, she had been a teacher in the village school, and now that I’d mentioned I had been there, she was really selling it to me all over again.

The reserve covers 256 ha of wet grassland, woodland, hedgerows, meadow and heath and is located within the South Downs National Park. The wet grassland has SSSI and Ramsar status and is part of the Arun Valley SPA and SAC in recognition of the important populations of overwintering wildfowl, and the specialist plants and invertebrates in the ditches. 

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) bought the land in 1989, thanks to a generous bequest from a member who had lived in the area.  Winifred Smith Wright wanted the brooks to be restored to the wildlife-rich landscape she remembered from her childhood, and the RSPB has been working towards that end ever since.

The meadowland had been drained for farming, but the RSPB has now blocked the drains, realigned the watercourses from straight narrow drains to shallow meandering ‘grips’ (streams) and pools, and now controls the overall water levels to suit the waders and wildfowl that are there from autumn to spring – with a few remaining to breed in the summer.

But the RSPB isn’t just about birds.  Under the slogan Give Nature a Home, they make provision for other wildlife too.  The water vole above was photographed in this grip in front of Nettley’s Hide.  And meadows, scrub and woodland provide habitat for a host of plants and invertebrates.

About the Water Vole Arvicola amphibious

The water vole is widely accepted as the fastest declining mammal in Britain. Population estimates were around 8 million in the 1960s, 2.3 million in 1990, and probably less than a quarter of a million now.

Reasons for the decline include unsympathetic management of waterways, water pollution, changes in farming practices, and the depredations of the American mink. Populations of the latter have grown since their escape/release from fur farms in the 1960s and 1970s, and their habits make them difficult to eradicate.

But there is hope. Water vole populations are increasing in some areas – canals around cities seem unattractive to mink. Increasing otter populations also seem to help – otters will prey on mink. They will also take water voles, but unlike the mink, are too big to follow the voles into their bank-side tunnels. And there are re-introduction projects in areas where the habitat is now considered suitable for them – particularly on nature reserves.

The water vole is found across Europe, though Russia to Lake Baikal, and from north of the Arctic Circle to parts of the eastern Mediterranean. It is an adaptable species, found in rivers, streams and marshes in both lowlands and mountains. In some areas, they live away from watercourses during the winter months. They are mainly vegetarian, feeding of lush vegetation in summer, and roots and bulbs in the winter, but they also take some insects, molluscs and small fish.

On the continent, the water vole has a different set of problems. It co-evolved with the European Mink, and does not suffer the same depredation as where there American mink has been introduced. However, it does face competition for food and space from the introduced American musk rat. In some areas it has even been considered an agricultural pest, for example in the rice fields of Macedonia in the 1980s.

While it seems unlikely it will become common again in Britain in the near future, efforts to conserve and expand the existing populations should help it survive here in the long term.

Watch a video of water voles here

Human visitors are well-catered for.  As well as the cafe (which was as good as Trixie said), there is a circular trail of about 3.5km (2 miles) which takes in views across the pools, stops at four hides, and several seats where you can just sit and soak in the atmosphere, as well as the other habitats.  Children’s playgrounds and educational trails, a visitor centre, a program of activities and events, all make this a popular spot.

And anywhere along the trails, you are likely to come across these small signs with information about a plant, insect, bird etc that is likely to be seen nearby.

There is relatively little bird activity at Pulborough (or anywhere else) in July – midsummer is when youngsters are finding their feet/wings and the adults are keeping their heads down while they are in moult (they can’t fly so efficiently when they are missing a few feathers).  But that doesn’t mean there is nothing to see.

The beetle above is a hornet longhorn beetle Leptura aurulenta.  The first impression you get of it buzzing around is that it is a hornet.  Once it settled, however, it is clearly a beetle with long antennea.  This species is widespread in central and southern Europe, but in Britain is confined to the south, and is considered Nationally Notable A, which basically means it is pretty scarce.  It can easily be confused with the much more common and widespread four-spotted longhorn Leptura quadrifasciata which has black legs and antennae. The larva develops in the cambial layer (the layer just under the bark) of large sections of freshly dead broad-leaved trees. The adult is usually found on oaks, and rarely occurs on flowers – though the individual in the photo obviously hadn’t read the book because it was flying around a wildflower meadow, and photographed while it explored a ragwort plant.

The marbled white butterfly Melanargia galathea is a much more common and widespread species, occurring as far north as Yorkshire.  But for some reason it is rarely seen in my home area of west Wales.  So it was a delight to see and photograph at Pulborough.  In Britain there is a single species of marbled white, which also occurs across central Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean. In northern Spain there are four species, plus this one which is found only in the western Pyrenees there.  The adults, which fly in June-July in Britain, show a liking for the nectar of blue and purple flowers, such as this creeping thistle Cirsium arvense.

The bright orange upper-side of the Comma butterfly Polygonia c-album makes it easy to mistake for a fritillary species when in flight. In fact, it is related to the tortoiseshells, red admirals and painted ladies. You can just about see the comma-shaped white mark on the underwing here.  Although in recent years it has been abundant and widespread, fifty years ago it underwent a massive decline.  It overwinters as an adult, and probably the relatively mild winters of the past twenty years have helped its recovery.

Marshes and woodland at Pulborough

Oh, yes, this IS a bird reserve. And on this particular visit we did see 40 species – nothing special or spectacular, but a steady selection of the birds we’d expect to see in July at a wetland site.


What’s nearby?

As Pulborough Brooks is only a 45 minute drive from Gatwick Airport, it can be a handy stop en route to elsewhere.

It’s also only a 20-minute drive from the Wildfowl and Wetlands reserve at Arundel, just a few miles downstream.


Bookshop

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Info about all RSPB reserves
Appreciate the Sussex countryside
Rewilding Knepp Farm

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Lanzarote walking

Friends visiting Lanzarote in December told us of the magnificent wild-flowers there. A check on the internet indicated that February was the best time for flowers. What we didn’t know, until we got there, was that there had been no rain since Christmas, and most of the flowers had died off. We persevered, using the bus routes and footpaths, and eventually managed to photograph over 100 species. The bird-watching was good too, but butterflies were hard to find.

Puerto del Carmen to Playa Quemada

The book described it as “Easy rather than spectacular, this route provides a good introduction to the island’s countryside, and is ideal as a stroll out taking a drink at the new marina then continuing to Playa Quemada for a relaxed lunch, Repeat the procedure on the way back for a laid back day’s walking.” It sounded ideal for our first full day on the island.

Of course, it didn’t quite go to plan.  We should have left by 9am.  By the time we had sorted out what to take,  what to wear, what to leave in the safe, etc, etc, it was nearer 10:30. 

Then there were two parakeets to photograph in a nearby garden, and a brief stop at the tourist information centre to ask about bus times – no printed timetable available, but you can check the times on the screen, or photograph the timetable with your phone (at the time, I didn’t have a smart phone).

The walk starts from the old port at the eastern end of Puerto del Carmen, we had checked where this was the previous afternoon, but had failed to factor in this extra 3km from our hotel to the port – a mistake I would pay for later.

We take a leisurely stroll through the harbour, stopping to watch the large fish and the ducks and little egret watching them. A broad, rope-handled, zig-zagging stairway leads to the start of the coastal walkway.

The photo shows the view back over Puerto del Carmen.

At the top of the stairway, there is a broad pavement, which continues beyond the residential area as a broad dirt path, heading out into the countryside. It’s well-worn enough to be easy to follow, though the white-painted posts are reassurance that we’re on the right track as the path swings inland to cross a rocky inlet – a small barranco.

Aizoon canariensis: this Macaronesian species has now spread through the world, The creeper can grow up to one metre; its tiny flowers – just a few millimtres in size – open in strong, direct sunlight.
Southern Grey Shrike

We find the odd wild plant here and there, photographed some, identified fewer, and kept walking.  As is our habit, we took twice as long to do sections of the walk as the book suggests – it would have been even slower if there had been more flowers.  And from time to time, a bird hangs around for a photo too.

Ahead is the new village of Puerto Calero: a marina full of expensive-looking boats, the Paseo Maritima – a promenade with shops for tourists, and hotels overlooking the sea. Midday is long-past, and we find a café for a late lunch – a rather expensive menu del dia – and a reminder that the first course is usually larger than the second, which is unlikely to include vegetables. 

Canary palms Phoenix canariensis provide welcome shade in the otherwise treeless landscape.

Continuing westwards, we track through an almost barren landscape. It looks like it hasn’t rained here for months (we learn later that it hasn’t rained for two months), and plants with flowers are few and far between.

The dusty track takes us into a more undulating landscape. The tracks seem more complicated, the area being popular with quad-bikers. White markers are less frequent, and on occasion, the instructions in the book are more than a little helpful in keeping us on the right path. Basically, we are following the coast via a series of gentle ascents and descents to head westwards, eventually leading to Playa Quemada, a tiny coastal hamlet of a few houses and a couple of small cafés.

Here, things liven up as linnets, trumpeter finches and Spanish sparrows (above) feed on the seeds of scrubby plants between the houses. There are bees on some of the few remaining flowers, but they are no easier to photograph than the birds – and will be more difficult to identify.

It’s already 4pm, so a stop at the café for a drink and cake is welcome.

Monumento Natural de Los Ajaches

Behind and beyond Playa Quemada is an ancient volcanic landscape. Some geologists think these hills were probably around 4,000m high, but 11 million years of erosion have reduced them to mounds of around 500m. There are fossils here dating back to the Lower Pleistocene (up to 2.5 million years ago).

As well as being a Natural Monument for its geological and paleontological features, lost Ajaches has been declared a special protection area for birds ( ZEPA ), in accordance with the provisions of European Directive 79/409 / EEC on the conservation of wild birds.  There is a network of trails for hiking/biking/running, more information on the alltrails website, though roads for cars are fortunately few and far between.

Los Ajaches covers some 30 sq km of the western end of Lanzarote, and we did explore other parts – around Yaiza and across to the salt flats of Janubio – on other days. If you stay in one of the south coast resorts, such as Playa Blanca or Playa Mujeres, you have Los Ajaches on your doorstep.

Goats (accompanied by goatherd and dogs) graze the dry vegetation. Puerto Calero beyond, and Puerto del Carmen in the background.

The journey back

Then it’s time to return, following the same tracks, but now with the sun behind us. (There is a bus service if you time your arrival correctly, but it wasn’t a consideration for us this time).

On the edge of Puerto Calera, I stop to photograph a few plants – I’d ignored them earlier, to make sure we had time to finish the whole walk. By the time we leave Puerto Calero, it is 6:30 and the sun is sinking behind the western hills. The walk becomes a route march to get back to the streetlights of Puerto del Carmen while we can still see where we are going.

The sixteen-kilometre round trip route from the port to Playa Quemada and back, with the additional 3km to and from our hotel is now taking its toll on my feet. I am already looking forward to an easier day tomorrow!


Bookshop

Books about the natural history of Lanzarote were hard to come by. The standard flora is out of print – but was only any good if you were already familiar with all other Mediterranean species.

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More about the Atlantic Islands

Parque Natural do Alvão

The Parque Natural do Alvão is a protected cultural landscape near the town of Vila Real in the Trás-os-Montes region of north-east Portugal.

It comprises 72.2 sq km of mainly granitic mountain. Because the farming practices are traditional, the land still supports a wealth of plants, birds, invertebrates and mammals.

Best to visit in the spring or autumn, when the weather isn’t too hot or too cold!

Trás-os-Montes – “Behind the Mountains” – is the name given to the north-east corner of Portugal. Long isolated by the mountains, it is probably one of the least-developed areas of the country. 

The Peneda-Geres National Park creeps into the extreme north-west, the Montesinho Natural Park lies in the north, the International Natural Park of the Douro lies along the River Douro in the east, and the Natural Park of Alvão lies in the south-west. In between are ancient towns and cities, dating back to Roman times, vineyards, olive groves, chestnut groves, almost orchards, and generally low-intensity agriculture. 

Three of us from Pembrokeshire visited Vila Real for a workshop at the University in October 2013, then stayed on for a few days intending to visit at least Alvão. The weather was against us. Sunshine during the workshop gave way to mist and rain. Alvão was sometimes just visible from the hotel window, sometimes not. 

The park information centre in Vila Real gave us little information – a glossy guide-book to the exhibition area which was closed for the season. Yes, the park was good to visit, and yes, there were places to walk, but there was virtually no public transport (one bus a day through the park). We would have to use a taxi, or a hire car. The tourist information centre didn’t add much of use – just a few snippets of information here and there. 

With the weather showing no signs of improving, we decided our best bet was to find a guide who could show us the park in one day – our final full day. The Tourist Information Centre found us Antonio Lagoa and Ana Noga. Antonio was the naturalist, while Ana spoke excellent English and had a car. We squeezed in and out of this small car, and learnt far more about the park than we would have by going it alone (even if we three naturalists had managed all three days there) despite the mist and drizzle.

Landscapes within the park are a mixture of woodland, moorland, rock and water, with a small amount of cultivated land and ancient villages. Of the broadleaved woodland, Pyrenean oak dominates (86% with 13% English oak, and 1% cork oak). Antonio stopped here to show us some fungi – but villagers must have got there first, as he didn’t find what he had hoped to show us.

The local Maronés breed of cattle is quite distinctive with its dark brown coast, white-edged nose and lyre-shaped horns. It is hardy, being adapted to the mountains, and has been used for pulling carts and ploughs as well as for meat and milk. It also has a ceremonial place, being dressed up and decorated for local festivals. 

Lamas de Olo

At 1000m, Lamas de Olo is the highest village in the park. Most of its traditional thatched roofs have been replaced with pantiles. The utility cables and satellite dishes add to the sense of mixed modernity here. The houses are small – one or two rooms above the barn at ground level. 

Espigueiros might look quaint, but have been a part of life here since the 18th century when maize was introduced from North America. The autumn rains meant the corn would not dry properly in the fields, so the espigueiros with their slotted sides were constructed to dry and store the cobs. This one is stone with wooden slats, but elsewhere they were made entirely of wood.

Flora

Within the park, there are about 486 plant species, of which 25 are Iberian endemics, 6 are Portuguese endemics, and 23 species have a conservation status – meaning they are rare or vulnerable. Highlights include the paradise lily Paradisea lusitanica, heath spotted orchid Dactylorhiza maculata, an endemic germander Teucrium salviastrum, Arenaria querioides, and the carnivorous common sundew Drosera rotundifolia. October isn’t the best month for flowers, so we saw only a few species, including the marsh gentian Gentiana pneumonanthe (see Alcon Blue below) and some autumn-flowering bulbs.

The upland pastures are permanently wet, with distinctive vegetation of high conservation value, and a variety of invertebrates too. Lameiros are irrigated upland meadows – a distinctive form of land-use in the Portuguese mountains. A network of ditches carries water to provide moisture in summer and keeps the water moving in winter to prevent it freezing. The meadows have a high biodiversity that includes several of those species of plant endemic to the Iberian peninsula – such as the Paradise Lily (which flowers from May-July so we didn’t see it). The hay from these meadows is needed to feed the cattle in winter. Where crops are grown, they follow a two-year cycle. Rye is grown in year one, fodder crops in the winter and spring, potato and maize the following summer. This preserves the soil fertility, soil moisture, and fits in with the availability of irrigation water. 

Invertebrates

A bush-cricket prowls through the scrub, looking for food. This is a Uromenus species – one of several similar species found in Iberia. 

Alcon Blue butterfly Phengaris alcon 

The Alcon blue is a medium-sized blue-brown butterfly that is widespread across Europe, but only in localized colonies. Its full range isn’t well known yet, so the Collins 1997 field guide doesn’t show it is being in Portugal. However, there are now known to be several colonies including here in Alvão. 

Like some other species of Lycaenidae (blue butterflies), its caterpillar stage depends on support by certain ants. Here, the butterfly lays its eggs onto the Marsh Gentian Gentiana pneumonanthe (in some other areas, a different species of gentian is used). The caterpillars eat no other plants. The eggs are laid on or near the flower bud, sometimes singly, sometimes a dozen or more on a clump of buds. 

The eggs are tiny – look for the white dot below the centre in this photo. Alcon larvae leave the food plant when they reach the 4th moult, and wait on the ground below to be discovered by ants. The larvae produce chemicals (allomones) similar to those of ant larvae, causing the ants to carry the Alcon larvae into their nests and place them in their brood chambers, where they are fed by worker ants and where they devour ant larvae. The larva pupates, and as soon as it hatches, the adult must escape the ant nest. The ants recognise the butterfly as an intruder, but when they go to attack it with their jaws they can’t grab anything more than the abundant loose scales that protect the butterfly. 

The Alcon larvae don’t have it all their own way, though. They are sought underground by the Ichneumon eumerus wasp. On detecting an alcon blue larva the wasp enters the nest and sprays a pheromone that causes the ants to attack each other. In the resulting confusion, the wasp locates the butterfly larva and injects it with its eggs. On pupation, the wasp eggs hatch and consume the chrysalis from the inside. Our guides explained that this particular field in Alvão was managed specifically for the Alcon blue.  Butterfly Conservation Europe had organised work parties of volunteers to cut the scrub back. The farmer had only three cows to graze the field. The ideal conditions for the butterfly require plenty of vegetation on damp soils, but not so much vegetation (especially scrub) that the soils become too cold and wet for the ants. 

Bilhó

The weather got worse during the day. We had an excellent lunch at the Tasquinha da Alice in Bilhó (Tasca da Alice in Bobal – to give the anglicised version of the name) – it’s just outside the park, and provides great local cuisine). Visibility was almost non-existent. Bilhó is a small parish – with less than 600 inhabitants – but I was surprised to see later on the aerial map that there were houses near the Tasquinha. All we saw was this tiny Ermita (hermitage) and Celtic cross by the roadside. It looked hardly big enough to stand up in, and possibly the slit in the side suggests it was more of a confessional (or perhaps a prison) than anything else. But you get the idea about the weather!

Waterfalls

Five or ten minutes of driving took us to the Bilhó Cascade – the main attraction for the village. The River Cabrão cascades down a steep slope, then through a culvert under the road before continuing down and out of sight – at least, we couldn’t see anything more of it.

Annual rainfall in the area is around 1200mm (46 inches) so there is usually plenty of water around. Summers, though, can be hot and dry.

Fisgas de Ermelo

Another 15 minutes or so of driving along roads that switched back and forth along the hillside brought us to another waterfall. Actually, it was several hundred metres in the distance, and we had to wait for breaks in the mist in order to see anything. The Fisgas de Ermelo is not directly accessible by road, but you can hike there from the village, or from the viewpoint.

There was little else to see, but the delight of the day was a brief glimpse of a wall-creeper flying past the overlook. 

Ermelo

Ermelo itself is further along the narrow mountain road. This 800 year-old village has many buildings with traditional slate roofs – but the slates are huge and irregularly shaped. While some of the buildings are clearly in a state of disrepair, others are well-maintained. Points of historic interest are marked, with some information boards too. 

Crag martins breed in the area, and were flying around over the river, swooping after insects, and landing on some of the buildings – huddling together in to roost in the rain in the evening. 

Videos

Here are a couple of video about the Parque that I found on YouTube. The narration is in Portuguese, but you can just enjoy the visuals if you don’t understand the language.

Lots of useful information on the Parque Natural do Alvão website

The Portuguese flora website is useful for checking the distribution, flowering periods, etc of the wildflowers of the country.


Bookshop

Click on covers for more information. Books about the butterflies, dragonflies and other groups seem to be out of print, so general books about these groups in Europe are the only ones I know of.

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More about nature-watching in Portugal

Watching Wolves in Europe

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

Winter birds at the Tejo Estuary

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

Winter birds on the Gulf of Morbihan

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

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

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

About the Gulf

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

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

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

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

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

Winter Birds

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dunlin

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

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

Morbihan is also important for its breeding birds: 

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

Bird-watching places around the Morbihan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shelduck feeding as the tide rises

Séné Marshes

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

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

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

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

Wigeon and other winter waterbirds

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

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

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

Dark-bellied Brent Geese

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

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

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


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Other places to go bird-watching in winter

The Lauwersmeer in winter

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

A winter day at Santoña Marshes

The Santoña, Victoria and Joyel Marshes Natural Park is probably the best, and most easily accessible, wetland in north-western Spain.

Winter birdwatching in Bulgaria

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


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Nature along the Dorset Coast

Why the Dorset coast

Spectacular Jurassic limestone scenery

Lots of large nature reserves

Plenty to see at any time of year

Best place for Lulworth Skipper, great raft spiders, smooth snakes and others

The section of coast between Poole Harbour and Exeter is popularly known as the Jurassic Coast, for its abundance and variety of fossils laid down in the Jurassic period – 200-145 million years ago. However, the geological time period of the rocks also covers the Triassic (250 – 200 million years) and the Cretaceous (145 – 60 million years ago). The Jurassic Coast website gives plenty of information for visitors interested in the prehistory of the area.

There is, however, much more to this section of coast than just the geological spectacle. The South-West Coast path provides a walking route from end to end – and beyond. It offers the hiker stunning views of many coastal features, from the sheer cliffs and limestone formations such as Lulworth Cove and Durdle Door (top photo) to a great range of birds, flowers and butterflies including the rare Lulworth Skipper Thymelicus acteon (well, rare in Britain as it is only found in this area, although widespread and even common in parts of central and southern Europe).

The Lulworth Skipper is like a large skipper (with the orange patches on the wings) but is much smaller.
The Essex skipper is like a small skipper but has black-tipped antennae

Poole Harbour

Just inland from the sea is a series of nature reserves. Many of these are associated with Poole Harbour, providing refuge for a variety of birds during winter. The harbour itself is a huge shallow bowl with a relatively small outlet to the sea. It has double tides, which means lots of shallow water over mudflats, and lots of food for waders and wildfowl. On the west side, there are several heathland nature reserves which include the shoreline eg Studland Heath and Arne.

Dark -bellied Brent Geese at Poole Park in January

On the east side is the town of Poole – an extensively built-up area with considerable boating and recreational activity on the water. Nevertheless, Poole Park, an area of municipal parkland between the harbour wall and the town is excellent for birdwatching – with a large flock of dark-bellied Brent geese Branta bernicla among the other wintering wildfowl and gulls.

Brownsea Island, within the harbour is important for its red squirrel Sciurus vulgaris population. The island is owned by the National Trust, with managed forestry and heathland areas, as well as parkland.

Avocets in the lagoon at Brownsea Island in January

The northern part, however, is leased to the Dorset Naturalists Trust. Here there is a large lagoon surrounded on the outside by a high sea wall, areas of alder carr and other wet woodland, and generally much more natural habitats. The lagoon is frequented by waterbirds, especially herons, egrets and spoonbills Platalea leucorodia, and holds Britain’s largest single wintering flocks of avocets Recurvirostra avosetta and black-tailed godwits Limosa limosa – over 1000 birds of each species at times. Within the harbour are a number of small gravel islands, used by terns and gulls for nesting.

The RSPB reserve at Arne has been in existence since 1965. Like the nearby Studland Heath National Nature Reserve, it is important as one of the main sites to see all six species of British reptiles – adder Viperus berus, grass snake Natrix natrix, smooth snake Coronella austriaca, slow-worm Anguilis fragilis, common lizard Zootoca vivipara, and sand lizard Lacerta agilis.

Rare plants on the site include Dorset Heath Erica ciliaris (left), while the freshwater pond is one of only three sites for the great raft spider Dolometes plantarius in Britain. The wasp spider Argiope bruennichi is also found here (below – photographed in July).

The heathland provides a breeding stronghold for the secretive Dartford warbler Sylvia undata, as well as European nightjar Caprimulgus europeaus, woodlark Lullula arborea, and stonechat Saxicola rubicola. Waterbirds commute between the shore here, and Brownsea Island lagoon.

Weymouth area

Some 35km (22 miles) to the west of Poole Harbour is the town of Weymouth, and another set of nature reserves. Within the town itself is the RSPB reserve of Radipole Lake – a long finger of open water and reedbeds. The southern end, with a small RSPB information centre, is next to the railway station, is very popular with families wanting to feed the ducks and swans, so the birds here tend to be quite tame and tolerant. Following the footpath to the north hide takes you to more secluded areas, often quiet in winter except for the explosive calls of Cetti’s warblers Cettia cetti. It is also a good place for bearded reedlings Panurus biarmicus again a species more often heard – pinging calls as they move through the reedbed – than seen.

It is also a good place for a variety of plants, dragonflies and butterflies in the appropriate seasons.

On the eastern side of Weymouth, is the RSPB reserve of Lodmor. This is an area of open water, saltmarsh, wet grassland and scrub, separated from the sea by a shingle embankment and road, and with the ever-increasing housing development of Preston on the north side (view from south side below).

Birds move between here and Radipole, so the species seen are similar. However, it does have one of the largest common tern Sterna hirundo colonies in south-west Britain, and autumn migration can be spectacular. On a rather blustery late August day, we saw more than 50 species easily from the footpath (wheel-chair and push-chair friendly). The last few common tern chicks were being fed by their parents, while large numbers of swifts Apus apus gathered with the swallows and martins preparing for migration south.

Sunburst over Portland Bill

Portland Bird Observatory

A programme of bird ringing (bird banding) has been carried out since the earliest days of ornithological exploration at Portland in the 1950s. Bird Observatory staff and suitably qualified helpers use ringing as a tool to assist research into the migration patterns, population changes, biometrics and longevity of birds. The majority of ringing is carried out within the grounds of the Bird Observatory, where over 225,000 birds of 200 species have been trapped and ringed to date. There have been subsequent recoveries of birds marked at Portland from as far north as Finland, as far south as Ghana and as far east as the Republic of Georgia in the former USSR. (from the PBO website)

Portland Bill is a narrow promontory at the southern tip of the Isle of Portland which is connected to the mainland by a shingle spit, the eastern end of Chesil Beach. Jutting out some 8km (5 miles) into the sea, it makes a convenient departure and arrival point for birds on migration, and also catches birds moving along the coast.

The Portland Bird Observatory occupies the Old Lower Lighthouse just before the Bill (tip) itself. The observatory is open all year round.

Back in around 1982, I visited Portland Bill in migration season, just because it was said to be good for birds. The first afternoon was pleasant enough, and somebody mentioned that a hoopoe had been seen. OK, so we kept a look out for it, but weren’t too bothered if we saw it or not – our philosophy was to enjoy the place, and the birds would be the icing on the cake. In the evening we pitched our small tent in a seemingly out-of-the-way place. The next morning we opened the tent only to find a dozen birdwatchers about 50m away, all looking through binoculars and telescopes at the hoopoe feeding right in front of the tent!

Chesil Beach

There are other places to watch birds, or just to enjoy the coastal scenery and plants, on Portland Island. Then just to the west is Chesil Beach – 30km (19 miles) of pebble beach, separated from the mainland by the Fleet Lagoon for most of its length. At the western end is the Abbotsbury Swannery which is the only managed colony of nesting mute swans Cygnus colour (above) in the world.


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This is the updated version of the book we used. Each of the sites mentioned in this article is given several pages of text and maps, It gives the history of sites, the location and access provision, what you will see in each season, and much more. We found it very useful and will be using it to find more sites on our next visit to the area.

Obviously, it is about bird-watching sites, but most sites will have other nature interest as well.

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Environmental volunteering

According to Wikipedia:
Environmental volunteers conduct a range of activities including environmental monitoring (e.g. wildlife); ecological restoration such as revegetation and weed removal, and educating others about the natural environment. They also participate in community-based projects, such as improving footpaths, open spaces, and local amenities for the benefit of the local community and visitors. The uptake of environmental volunteering stems in part from the benefits for the volunteers themselves, such as improving social networks and developing a sense of place.

Participation in such projects can be at a local level (even your backyard), or you can travel to the ends of the earth.  You can put in a lot of time and energy, or just a little time or energy, and you can do it for just a few hours, a few weeks, or for a few hours a week or month for several years.

Volunteering may mean getting close and personal with wildlife – perhaps a bit of radio-tracking work, behavioural observations, etc – but more often is about the interface between people and wildlife.  The bears in the photos are two of about 70 in a sanctuary in Romania where volunteers support local staff, allowing them time to do educational work and to rescue more bears.   

Other projects may involve the restoration of habitat, or building facilities so that visitors may enjoy and learn about wildlife.

But it is also possible to volunteer on your own, collecting data in your own time and at your own pace. Data that organisations can use chart changes in numbers over time, which can then be used to influence environmental policies.

Here are some examples of volunteering that I have been involved in, and some guidance from responsibletravel.com who advertise selected eco-volunteer holidays on their website.

This information is inevitably UK based – other countries will also have volunteer organisations and schemes.


Local volunteering – citizen science

Volunteering on long-term surveys such as a butterfly transect provides data for monitoring the distribution and population both common and rare species – the small tortoiseshell has declined in the past ten years.

The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) is the largest organiser of bird surveys in Europe.  Through the efforts of volunteers participating in BTO surveys, the bird populations of the British Isles have been monitored more effectively and for longer than those of most other parts of the world. This has produced a uniquely rich and detailed body of scientific work. This will help us to understand the complex challenges facing wild birds at a time of great change in the environment. 

The Wetland Bird Survey requires a day a month of counting birds on estuaries, lakes and reservoirs, while the Garden Bird Survey only needs you to look out of your window a few times a week.  Monitoring bird nests requires a little more skill (easily learned) and effort, while bird ringing requires a lot more time and dedication to learn the necessary skills before you are allowed to go and practice on your own.  See the website for the full list of surveys to get involved with.

This kind of voluntary work – which ultimately involves gathering data – is known as citizen science.  Other organisations such as Butterfly Conservation, the Botanical Society of the British Isles and British Dragonfly Society, also rely on members and enthusiasts to gather specific data to use for scientific or conservation purposes.  

An example of a short-period citizen science is the Bioblitz.  Organised at sites all around the country, these may be days when “expert enthusiasts” get together to find as many species as possible on that site, or they may primarily function as events to introduce the general public to nature.  

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How the information is put to use

Citizen scientists help uncover mysteries behind House Sparrow population declines

Although House Sparrows are conspicuous birds and can still be found cheeping away in many areas, their numbers have fallen sharply in recent years, leading to their inclusion on the Birds of Conservation Concern Red List. Declines are greater in urban than in rural areas, and in eastern and south-eastern Britain than in other parts of the country (where the population is stable or increasing).  A new study by the BTO has used data collected by volunteers participating in Garden Birdwatch (GBW), the Nest Record Scheme (NRS) and the Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) to investigate possible reasons underpinning these trends.

The research focussed on measures of breeding performance.  In keeping with population trends, GBW data showed that annual productivity was highest in Wales and lowest in the east of England, but that there was no difference between rural and urban areas.  The regional difference in GBW productivity was mirrored by NRS data, which revealed that House Sparrow clutch and brood sizes were significantly lower in the east of Britain than in the west.  The number of breeding attempts per year and post-fledging survival did not differ between regions, so are not thought to contribute to the differences in population trends.

The results suggest that the processes driving regional differences in House Sparrow productivity are likely to be complex and operating over a large-scale (e.g. climatic processes), but interacting with local factors (e.g. habitat changes). The absence of productivity differences between rural and urban areas suggests other factors contribute to the varying population trends in these habitats, for instance, differences in food availability affecting adult survival.  This work demonstrates the importance of large-scale datasets collected by citizen science projects in understanding drivers of population change, which is vital for implementing effective conservation measures.

More information about this and other science results on the BTO website


Germany, 1973

In order to maintain the heathland and its unique flora and fauna, trees have to be removed.

There were eleven of us – two Irish, one Norwegian-American, three German, three French, one English, one Turkish.  We did not have a common language though everyone spoke at least one (and mostly two) of English, German or French. We were all students, aged between 16 and 23.  None of us had any idea of what we were going to be doing – or any experience of eco-volunteering.

We were collected from Cologne railway station, and driven for a couple of hours to a forested area near Munster.  A large corrugated tin hut was to be our home for the next three weeks, and that – the leader pointed to a ramshackle assortment of logs and tarpaulin – was the washroom.  The toilets were two huts over pits in the ground.  By mutual consent, we hastily rearranged the bunks and cupboards in the hut so that girls and boys were in separate sections.  And then found a spare blanket to hang in front of the showers give some privacy from the rest of the “washroom”.

Looking back, our mission was clear.  We were clearing trees that were threatening to take over an area of heathland.  At the time, however, we were just following instructions.  I learned the names of trees in German before I knew them in English – Eiche, Birke, Kiefe (Oak, Birch, Pine).  I learned to use a machete and an axe – but was more than happy to leave the chainsaw to the boys.

This camp was one of many organised by the IJGD which was set up after WW2, and is still running camps today. The ethos of the organisation is based around getting young people to live and work together, organising their daily lives as a group (we had to organise our own shopping trips, do most of our own cooking etc) and undertaking ecological or social work under the guidance of a local leader.  We had one leader (who spoke only in German) for the forestry work, and another (who also spoke English and French) who was probably more of a liaison person with the local town council.  

The town council arranged various excursions for our spare time – we “worked” only an average five hours a day.  One day we had afternoon tea in the town hall, and a tour of the premises; another day there was an evening of music in a local tavern; a helicopter ride from the local army base; a ride in a small plane; a pony and trap ride; an afternoon of cycling to explore the countryside; a visit to a brewery to see how the local beer was made; etc.

But that was 1973 – I don’t suppose today’s economy would allow so many luxuries!


Skokholm, Wales, 1988-2018

Skokholm – the Wheelhouse in 2010 above, and 2014 below. Just some of the renovations carried out by volunteers for the love of being on this ‘Dream Island’.

Skokholm Island lies a short distance off the coast of Pembrokeshire.  Until recently there was no running water, no electricity, no telephone, no television.  I visited twice in the 1980s as a paying guest, and maybe twenty times since then as a volunteer.  Volunteering can be as simple as a day helping the wardens get themselves and their food and equipment to and from the island at the ends of the season, or it can be staying on the island to work.

Work usually includes scrubbing and painting the buildings at the start of the season in preparation for paying visitors, and then cleaning and storing stuff at the end of the season to keep it safe from the damp and the house-mice.  But it has also included upgrading the accommodation.  

For any place to accept paying guests, there are certain hygiene, and health and safety, requirements.  One year (early 1990s) we were told that food could not be cooked in the same room as it was served, so suddenly we had to convert the larder into a kitchen, and a small storeroom into a new larder.  The work was done by volunteers – one of whom was so keen to get started he was pulling walls down and creating dust before we’d finished washing the breakfast crockery – and by a group on a government youth opportunities program.  I was cooking that week, and had an assistant who insisted on putting either garlic and/or lemon in everything.

More recently, a considerable amount of work has been done to conserve (in some cases rebuild) and upgrade the accommodation.  Most of the work has been done by volunteers, although professionals have been brought in where necessary – where health and safety issues were concerned (eg roofing, and rebuilding the landing stage), or specific skills required.  

The island now has electricity, thanks to the advent of solar PV panels.  The buildings now have running water – previously it was pumped by hand from the well into plastic containers, and taken to the buildings by wheelbarrow.  The kitchen has a hot water supply thanks to solar panels, and the hot water supply has now been extended to the bedrooms, which also have a piped waste system (previously it was a bucket under the sink), and there are composting toilets which are much more pleasant to use (and to empty) than the old chemical toilets.

Puffins are one of the charismatic seabirds of Skokholm Island, along with razorbills, guillemots, Manx shearwaters and storm petrels.

All this work has been enthusiastically undertaken because people consider the island is a wonderful place to be.  In summer it is teeming with seabirds, in spring and autumn migrant birds of all sorts can turn up.  Despite the living improvements, it still retains its air of isolation and remoteness.  The weather is unpredictable,  the boat can’t always come and go on a regular schedule – often visitors have to wait a day or two to get on, and maybe have to leave a day early (or even stay an extra week) because the weather is bad.

We spent three weeks there in April 2012 – it was wet, windy and horrible a lot of the time.  On several days I found myself preparing vegetable soup for lunch wearing several layers of clothes, topped with waterproofs, wellies and a woolly hat.  

Conversely, we had a week there in September 2018 – a glorious week of wonderful weather, bird migration was slow, but there was a wryneck on the island.  One team of people were cleaning and painting the lighthouse, another team built a new hide overlooking North Pond.  Bob and I were part of another team on a long-term project to transfer all the island biological data from hand-written logs onto spreadsheets.

It’s an amazing place with amazing people.  There is nobody actually in charge, but a group of people who are here because they love the island.  They all have different skills, appropriate to the jobs this week.  There is a list of jobs that need to be done, and when anyone has finished what they are doing, they tick it off on the board, and pick another job to get on with.  And the amount of work that is being done is just amazing.  (Skokholm volunteer, 2012)

Skokholm Island is owned by the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales. There is accommodation and facilities for researchers, ringers, and for people who just want a quiet holiday on a lovely island. There are more opportunities for volunteers on the nearby Skomer Island.

The Friends of Skomer and Skokholm organised the work parties with help from local companies such as Dale Sailing.

The island has now regained its status as a bird observatory, and has full-time wardens –  See the island blog.

Skokholm accommodation and library block, with new roof and solar PV panels for lighting (no more gas or oil lamps). Comfort for volunteers, as well as for the paying guests that come to enjoy the puffins and other wildlife on this island. (2010 top and 2014 below)

Conservation and wildlife volunteering 

Article from Sarah Bareham of responsibletravel.com

With an ever-expanding array of volunteer opportunities available it can be increasingly difficult to understand which projects are of genuine value to conservation efforts,  which are having little impact and worse, those which work against community and conservation aims. However, with the right preparation and research well-intentioned prospective volunteers can ensure their time and effort will not go to waste, or cause harm.

Responsibletravel.com’s main advice to any traveller looking for volunteer opportunities is to ask questions, and plenty of them. To be truly sustainable a project should be driven by the needs and expectations of the host community and for a conservation or wildlife project to be successful in the long term local people need to see the value in supporting it, they should be the ones which own and lead it, with volunteers providing support to help them meet their aims. For example, through its close work with local people this brown bear conservation project in Romania has started to change attitudes towards bear welfare among the general public, with more and more realising that capturing wild bears for entertainment purposes is not only a betrayal of animal welfare, but of the country’s own natural heritage. 

We encourage prospective volunteers to speak with their placement and find out what the long-term aims of the project are, and how their work will fit into this. Volunteers should have a clear and defined role, and should undergo a selection process that matches their skills to the opportunities available. It should be possible, upon questioning the potential placement, to find out more about the project’s history, how it is monitored, where your payment goes, what role the volunteers play and to be able to speak with previous volunteers to understand more about their personal experiences.

Conservation projects with long term sustainability at heart are also likely to offer education programmes for local communities and schools. Educating the younger generation as to the importance of the project, and engaging them at an early age increases the likelihood of long term success. Ask whether this is part of the work your prospective placement does. It may mean you will also be volunteering closely with local children – there are a number of issues to consider if this is the case. 

With wildlife rescue projects volunteers should be aware that the more contact wild animals have with humans, the less their chance of successful reintegration back into the wild. If the project you are considering aims to rehabilitate and release animals be aware that hands-on contact with wildlife will be very unlikely, reserved only for those with specific knowledge and skills, such as veterinarians. If you are invited to play with, interact and pet the animals it is unlikely that successful reintroduction into the wild is their real aim. The Born Free Foundation’s guidance notes on issues in wildlife volunteering, sanctuaries and captive breeding programmes for conservation are a useful resource for prospective volunteers. 

https://www.responsibletravel.com/holiday/33237/turtle-conservation-in-greece

All holidays and volunteering opportunities on responsibletravel.com have been carefully screened for their commitment to responsible tourism. We have also worked closely in the past with the Born Free Foundation and Care for the Wild, whose Right Tourism campaign holds a wealth of information on what travellers can do to ensure their work is contributing to the protection rather than exploitation of wild animals. The Born Free Foundation also has a Travellers Animal Alert system where volunteers concerned about the in poorly run sanctuaries can report the establishment for further investigation.

For carefully screened wildlife and conservation volunteer placements in Europe go to responsibletravel.com


Bookshop

These are just a few of the books based on data collected by volunteers who simply enjoy being out birdwatching, mammal-watching, moth trapping, etc. Click on covers for more information about the books


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Nature amongst the ruins at Delphi

Why Delphi

As far as plants and animals of rocky scrubby places are concerned, it doesn’t really matter if the rocky places are natural or man-made.  So long as they provide nutrients/food and shelter, they are worth colonising.  And the longer it is since humans colonised and abandoned the site, the better.

Best time to go – May-June

Many natural history tour groups now include ancient sites in their itineraries.  Such sites are often relatively easily accessible compared with nearby mountain paths, for example, and the animals are so used to humans being around that they are often more easily seen than when living “in the wild”.

Greece is particularly well endowed with ancient ruins, and is the ideal place to combine a human history and natural history trip. The city of Delphi is one of the more popular sites, being accessible on a day-trip from Athens.

About Delphi

According to legend, when the god Zeus released two eagles from opposite ends of the world, their paths crossed in the sky above Delphi, thus establishing the site as the centre of the earth (NB other sites also make this claim).

According to the Ancient Greece website Delphi was inhabited since Mycenaean times (14th – 11th c. B.C.) by a series of small settlements dedicated Mother Earth God. Then the worship of Apollo, as the god of light, harmony and order, was established between the 11th and 9th centuries B.C. Slowly, over the next five centuries the sanctuary grew in size and importance.

The site lost its importance with the rise of Christianity, and was eventually abandoned in the 7th century AD. The temples and other buildings slowly fell into ruin, and the place was apparently forgotten until it was rediscovered in the 1880s. Since then, it has been designated a World Heritage Site, some conservation and restoration work has been done, and now it is a well-regulated tourist attraction.

Getting the best out of Delphi

The ruined settlement covers a large area, and apart from the visitor centre, it is all open to the elements – so in the spring and summer, take plenty of sun-cream and water. If you can, get there early. If you’re on a day trip from Athens (or any other organised trip), you may just have to make the best of it. All the services are at the bottom of the site, so once you are through the gate, you head slowly and steadily to the stadium at the top. Have your lunch (and a siesta) while you are there, then head slowly back down – taking a different route. If you are looking at the ancient history as well as the natural history, you may need a couple of days there.

Things to look out for

Ground Pine 
Ajuga chaemapitys

Like many members of the mint family, ground pine contains essential oils, and in this case, they smell faintly of pine resin. The leaves also look a bit like pine needles. It likes dry open habitats, on calcareous soils.  Herbalists have used it for treating rheumatism and gout.

Grecian Golden-drops 
Onosma graecum

This intensely hairy plant grows on rocky calcareous areas from sea level to 850m. The hairs provide some defence against the arid conditions and prevent the plant from drying out.

Oriental Alkanet 
Alkanna orientalis

Found from southern Greece eastwards. Like other members of its family, it has medicinal uses, in particular as an anti-bacterial agent.

Rough Poppy
Papaver hybridum

The Mediterranean area, in general, seems to have an abundance of poppies, and identifying them can be a problem. Often, the main characteristic is the seed-pod. Rough poppies have round seedpods, with pale bristles along the “seams”.

Spiked Star of Bethlehem
Ornithogalum narbonense

This plant is found in grassy and dry areas, on waste ground and in rocky terrain from the Mediterranean basin eastwards, and from sea-level to 3000m.  It flowers in May and June, and is pollinated by insects. 

Soft Viper’s-grass
Scorzonera mollis

The common name refers to the grass-like stem leaves of this plant which is related to daisies and dandelions. It has many uses in traditional medicine – being considered anti-inflammatory, and a cure for infertility in women, amongst many others.

Birds

I didn’t see much in the way of bird life at Delphi on this trip – perhaps because it was primarily a botanical trip, and I was busy trying to keep up with the group and photograph the flowers and butterflies.  One bird, however, is difficult to miss during the spring and summer.  

Rock nuthatches nest all over the site – wherever they find a suitable crevice – or even an unsuitable one that they can adapt by plastering mud over the entrance.  Once the entrance is the right size, it keeps the chicks in, and most predators out.

Other species that breed here include black-eared wheatear, woodchat shrike and eastern orphean Warbler.

Butterflies

Of course, where there are flowers, there are butterflies – and Delphi is no exception.  

We were particularly entertained by a southern swallowtail Papilio alexanor, and a large wall brown amongst a dozen or so species.  But it was only May, and a few weeks later we would have seen a lot more.

Southern Swallowtail Papilio alexanor

Looks like a common swallowtail, but without all the black veins, and like a scarce swallowtail but not so elongated.  Found on hot, dry, steep slopes on limestone or similar calcareous substrates. In south-eastern Europe. Flies in search of mates and nectar, with red valerian Centranthus ruber being a preferred source.

Large Wall Brown Lasiommata maera

Widespread across Europe, but not found in Britain or the Netherlands.  This species also likes dry, grassy, rocky or stony places with steep slopes.  In the south it has two broods, flying from April onwards, while in northern Europe it has a single brood, flying from mid-June to late September.

Heath Fritillary Melitaea athalia

One of Britain’s rarest butterflies, yet the heath fritillary is found across most of Europe and Asia.

Fritillary means having a spotted or chequered pattern, so there are fritillary flowers as well as fritillary butterflies.

Pearl-bordered Fritillary Boloria euphrosyne

All the Fritillary butterflies have orange and black patterns, but you need to see both the upperside and underside of an individual to be sure of the identification.

The largest insect in Europe – up to 12 cm long

A careful look amongst the vegetation revealed more insects, many of them green and well camouflaged. While most of the grasshoppers and crickets leapt or flew quickly out of the way, the large, wingless bush-cricket above relied on its camouflage. It could have been any of the several species of Saga found in south-eastern Europe. but I’ve not yet been able to find information about how to distinguish them.

Known as the predatory bush cricket, or the spiked magician due to the way it waves its forelimbs to mesmerise its prey, these critters have the distinction of being hermaphrodite – the females reproduce asexually, and no males (of at least one species) have been reliably identified.

Each female lays up to 80 eggs (the largest insect eggs in Europe) in the soil, and these eggs may take up to five years to hatch, depending on the ambient temperature. Once hatched, the nymphs grow, mature, and lay eggs in a single season.

It occurs in meadows, pastures, shrubby hillsides, cereal fields and vineyards in southern and central Europe and eastwards to China. However, it is vulnerable to insecticides and habitat destruction, and the population is now spread thinly across its range.


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This is the standard flora for Greece.

First published in 1987, this guide lists many of the richest plant-hunting areas in southeast Europe at first hand, and each description is accompanied by several line drawings.

Names and describes almost 3,000 species of flowering plants in the region.

However, it is a key, and if you prefer to ID your flowers from pictures, then there are other books that might suit you better, but are not as comprehensive.

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.

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More about nature and wildlife in Greece

Environmental volunteering

Environmental volunteering is a great way of getting to know more about a place or a species. It can be done quietly on a local level, or by joining a working group or a vacation.

The Axios Delta National Park

The Axios-Loudias-Aliakmon Delta area is one of the most biologically diverse areas in Greece – especially considering it is all flat land at sea level. It’s also easily accessible from Thessaloniki.

The Vouraikos Gorge

A trip through the Vouraikos Gorge to look for the wonderful wildlife there, especially the endemic plants.

Bear-watching

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

Botany and Butterflies in the French Alps

Why the French Alps

A high biodiversity due mainly to the large range in altitude

A relative lack of intensive farming means more space for wildlife

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

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

Best time to go? May – August

La Grave

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

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

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

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

The Alpine Botanical Garden at Lautaret

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part of the panoramic view from the telepherique top station.

La Meije

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

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

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

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

The Col du Galibier

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

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

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

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

La Grave – getting there

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

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

See it on Google maps

Resources

La Grave – information in Wikipedia

Telepheriques des Glaciers la Grave/la Meije

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

The Botanical Garden – in French or in English

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

Organised trips

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

Greenwings wildlife holidays – Butterflies of the French Alps

Naturetrek – Italian and French Alps


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

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

The Alpine Botanical Garden at Lautaret

More articles about the Alps

Nature of Grindelwald

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

Birdwatching in Hungary in Spring-Summer

Why Hungary?

With a scenic landscape of wooded hills and endless flat plains, dotted with reed-fringed lakes and cut by the mighty Danube River, it is not surprising to find that Hungary is one of Europe’s best wildlife destinations.

It has abundant and varied birdlife, and also has much to offer in terms of butterflies and other wildlife. 

And then there is a rich folklore, culture, wines and food.

In early May the resident birds are joined by migrating waders, warblers and raptors on their way further north and the woods are alive with birdsong.

While there is plenty to explore, for those on a time-limited trip, probably the best places are the forested Zemplen Hills and the Bukk National Park in the north-east, and the lowland steppe, grassland and farmlands of the Kiskunság and Hortobágy National Parks.

Kiskunság National Park

Just an hour’s drive from Budapest, the Kiskunság National Park is a tranquil lowland region of steppe, sandy dunes, farmland and wooded copses. It is one of Hungary’s most important areas for the great bustard, which should be displaying in April and May.  Collared pratincoles breed here, whilst the ponds and gravel pits attract three species of marsh terns, plus red-crested pochard, ferruginous duck, garganey and pygmy cormorant. The reedbeds are home to moustached, Savi’s and great reed warblers, whilst overhead you can see Montagu’s harrier, saker falcon and red-footed falcon. Keep an eye on utility wires for roller and lesser grey shrike.  An evening walk could well produce scops owl, long-eared owl and nightjar.

Eagle Owl

Zemplen Hills

North-east of Kiskunság, the Zemplen protected landscape is characterised by dense broad-leaved forests, traditionally farmed fields, flowering meadows and vineyards. Nine species of woodpecker (including the rare white-backed woodpecker) can be found here. This is the best area for Ural and eagle owls. It is also rich in other birds of prey, with goshawk, eastern imperial, short-toed and lesser spotted eagles all breeding. While corncrakes are more likely to be heard than seen, there will be many more obvious birds to enjoy such as woodlark, red-backed shrike, black redstart, barred warbler and golden oriole to name but a few.

Lesser Spotted Eagle

Bükk National Park

The hills and forests of Hungary’s largest national park include important geological features, as well as some 90 species of breeding birds.

In the abandoned, uneven-aged forest, woodpeckers and flycatchers are common.  Eight species of woodpecker are resident here including Syrian, lesser-spotted, middle-spotted, white-backed, grey-headed and the mighty black woodpecker, and wrynecks are now back from their wintering areas.  Other species include hawfinch, turtle dove, yellowhammer, corn bunting, both short-toed and common treecreepers, Eurasian tree sparrow, marsh tit, the white-headed form of long-tailed tit, serin, barred warbler and black redstart. This area is remote and unspoiled enough to have black stork, saker falcon, and imperial, golden, lesser-spotted and short-toed eagles breeding. White storks are obvious on their huge nests in villages while black storks are a little harder to find.  Evenings sounds are dominated by owls, especially the crooning of Eurasian eagle owls.

And of course, there are plenty of plants, butterflies and other wildlife too.

Lesser Spotted Woodpecker

Hortobágy National Park

Probably the best-known of the Hungarian National Parks, the Hortobágy is the foremost wildlife region of the country and one of Europe’s most valuable ecological areas. It is a flat land of distant horizons, small woodlands and reed-fringed fish ponds, but dominated by the lowland semi-steppe and grassland known as the ‘puszta’.

The grasslands are home to an abundance of small mammals, including the souslik (a kind of ground squirrel) and insects, making this an excellent area for long-legged buzzards, imperial eagles, Montagu’s harriers and saker and red-footed falcons.  Great bustards, stone curlews, collared pratincoles and white-winged terns can be found here. White storks nest on the roofs of cottages, flocks of gaggling white geese, shepherds with their scruffy ‘puli’ dogs, are all part of the atmosphere of the puszta, an area which is steeped in folklore and myth.

The huge complexes of fishponds that dot the Hortobágy are rich in breeding marshland birds and are a magnet for migrating waders and passerines. In May, the reedbeds are a cacophony of song, from the loud, harsh notes of great reed Warblers, to the sweeter, mellow songs of marsh and moustached warblers and the reeling of Savi’s warblers. Adjacent to the fishponds are sedge beds which are also home to the beautiful, but sadly declining, aquatic warbler. By early May the herons and egrets are nesting in their large raucous colonies. As well as spoonbill, great egret, purple heron and glossy ibis, the secretive bittern also occurs, and can often be heard booming from the surrounding reedbeds. Other interesting species include whiskered tern, black-necked grebe and pygmy cormorant.

Collared Pratincoles

Fertő-Hanság National Park

Fertő is the Hungarian name for the Neusiedler See (Tő = Lake).  The two national parks are part of the same ecosystem – based around the lake and the surrounding landscapes. The reedbeds are extensive, and good for a variety of heron species. Shoveler and ferruginous ducks breed there, as do black-tailed godwits and Kentish plovers. Reedbed warblers are common, and it’s probably the best place in Hungary for moustached warblers which may stay right through until October. National Park website


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Resources

Hungarian Tourist Information

Hungary travel guide (Wikitravel)

Birding Pals in Hungary – links to local birders

Hungarian-based websites/tour operators

Farm Lator is an eco-friendly farmhouse accommodation & campsite located in North-eastern Hungary. It is run by an English-speaking wildlife guide offering various nature holidays for independent travellers and groups. They cater for birdwatching, butterflies and moths, general natural history, wildlife photography tours/workshops, mammal trips and family holidays.

Hungarianbirdwatching.com is an association of young, enthusiastic birders who organise birding tours and birdwatching holidays in Hungary and in Budapest. Their birding tours are highly customised to your needs.

Birding Hungary – for bird sightings

Ecotours organise a variety of natural history tours in Eastern Europe. Their Kondor EcoLodge offers a unique place at the westernmost edge of the Eurasian Steppe to discover the special mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, butterflies, moths, dragonflies, other invertebrates, wildflowers and other natural values of the “Hungarian Puszta” or flat grassland.

Saker Tour specialise in bird and bird photography holidays in Eastern Europe – their blog gives an idea of what you are likely to see from their photography hides in the Hortobágy

Kopački Rit

I wouldn’t normally recommend visiting anywhere in August for birdwatching – things are usually quiet as young birds are keeping out of the way while they begin to discover independent life, and their parents are keeping out of sight while they moult and feed up to recover from the breeding season.  Also, it can be hot, especially in a continental climate. 

However, we were on our way to Greece in a campervan, and that meant travelling through the old Yugoslavia in the heat.  We stopped at a few places en route.  And some of them turned out to be real gems.

So, this piece is about my memories from then, followed by a description of the place now.  And it seems that the Kopački Rit Nature Reserve is good at any time of year.

August 1989

As we descended into the valley of the Drava, the floodplain appeared to be covered with reedbeds.  My heart sank as we got closer and I realised it was actually huge fields of maize.  Did the Kopački Rit still exist?  Had it been swallowed by intensive agriculture?

We stopped in Osijeck for groceries and information – not that there was much to be had back then.  At least we now knew we were on the right road.  We continued through another 10km or so of farmland, though it didn’t seem quite so intensive here.  And then suddenly we were in the wetland.

This was the edge of the park with fishponds – open water fringed with reeds – on one side of the road, and vast areas of rushes with clumps of willow on the other. On the water were hundreds of coot with a few each of moorhen, little and great-crested grebe and a few ducks. Moustached, reed and great reed warblers hunted in the vegetation.

Within a few minutes, an osprey flew in and circled the fishpond. It dived twice without success and eventually disappeared into the distance, mobbed continuously by common and whiskered terns, and black-headed gulls. A cuckoo flew past mobbed by a dozen hirundines.

A rush of coot and other birds over the water surface announced the arrival of a boat. The people on board were shovelling maize meal into the water – fish food that the birds weren’t interested in.

Purple Heron

There was a continual coming and going of waterbirds – purple and grey herons, cormorants, buzzards and marsh harriers, and sometimes a white stork too.

The road followed the edge of the fishpond then went straight north through farmland again. The drainage ditches were choked with yellow and white water lilies, and fringed with purple loosestrife, goldenrod etc; a few moorhen and mallard were in residence.

Dry-looking arable fields extended way beyond the channels. A black stork circled low over one field, working its way slowly along one edge, then it drifted back before going to rest in a dead tree at the edge of a wood.  In the sweltering midday heat, shade was hard to come by – the trees were too far from the road to be of much use. It was quiet except for the raucous calls of jays.

Back at the fishponds, we stopped on a track that leads into the park but has an “entry forbidden” on it. Sitting in the shade of the campervan’s tailgate, we watched birds coming and going for the rest of the day. To our right were the wooded rushes and willows, to the left was a fishpond with small fish – a tern paradise, and behind us the pond of bigger fish where we had stopped earlier.

Eight squacco herons were lined up along the edge of reeds; a little bittern flew in low, showing off its pale wing patches and landing clumsily on a reed; something disturbed a roost of night herons and scores of them emerged from some low trees; occasionally a little egret flew over.

White-tailed eagle – the emblem of the Kopački Rit Nature Park

We stayed put for the next four days.  Early in the morning, we would walk along the path on the top of a dyke, then back to the van before it got too hot – or sometimes when it was too hot as we got distracted by birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians.  The shade of the tailgate provided some relief for the main part of the day, allowing us to watch the comings and goings of over 70 species of birds – including regular visits from white-tailed eagles as they picked up a free meal from the fishpond.  Then, in the evening, we’d take another stroll along the dyke.

The track was out of bounds to all except authorised vehicles and we saw only two cars during the morning. The driver of the second vehicle wanted to know what we were doing there and said something about it being a forbidden place. However, he seemed satisfied when I said the general tourist office in Osijek said we could walk here, so long as we didn’t leave the path.

One morning we watched as a couple of red deer came out of the vegetation, ran along the edge and plunged out of sight again. There were only tree sparrows occupying the top of a dead tree, but a movement lower down caught my eye. It looked at first like a squirrel but as the whole animal came into view its heavy build immediately distinguished it as a marten, then it disappeared into the foliage of a small tree below. Time to stop and watch!

After about five minutes the marten reappeared in another tree, moving slowly and deliberately from branch to branch, using its tail for balance; sometimes it leapt across a gap but always seem to stop to balance before moving on again. Its dark red-brown body and tail, contrasting with a yellow-cream throat, identified it as a pine marten. It showed itself four times for a few minutes each during a half-hour period as it explored the clump of trees thoroughly. Then it either went to sleep or moved to trees further away for we saw no more of it.

People were generally few and far between.  There was a Dutch couple who were pleased to see the sea eagle which was mobbed first by buzzards and later by marsh harriers as it soared over the marshes. Then an osprey arrived and caught a fish at the first attempt; it was mobbed by a black-headed gull which it easily outflew before flying in circles looking lost – perhaps it couldn’t see a suitable dining table. It was then chased by a marsh harrier which couldn’t keep up with it and was last seen being mobbed by buzzards as it disappeared into the distance.

Osprey

Our second visitor was a Frenchman called Dominic who had a long-term association with Kopacki Rit and permission to go into the reserve for bird photography. He is currently working on a book about the area. From him, we got some background information, for example the relative importance of the hunting reserve and its ability to bring in foreign currency while the bird reserve was left to its own devices apart from keeping people out. The fish ponds are managed in order to keep areas of open water but this does mean that many waterbird nests are destroyed when the reeds are cut.

Then there was Stefan, an over-enthusiastic photographer who admitted he was no ornithologist. He took pictures of the larger birds and game to sell to tourists. This was the third time we had seen him and he had brought some prints to show us. Dominic stopped by again and there was some bantering between the two photographers with the Frenchman repeatedly telling the Yugoslav that he has to approach things slowly, that he has to let the creatures know he loved them, and so on. Stefan gave the impression that he would just photograph purple herons one day, kingfishers the next, etc

You can read all of my notes from the five days here

European Pond Terrapin (Emys orbicularis)

Kopački Rit today

Looking at Google maps now, I can’t quite make out exactly where we stopped back in 1989. My notes say we were 10km from Osijek, which would put us at the north end of the reserve. However, it is possible that we were actually at the end of the road in the photo below. That road leads to the dyke – which now appears to be more accessible.

What is clear, though, is that this part of the reserve has received considerable development for visitor access and appreciation. The park website shows an extensive system of boardwalks and a visitor centre. There are exhibitions and educational/interpretive materials, guided tours, and a proper campsite nearby.

View of the boardwalks (image from the Kopački Rit website)

The Kopački Rit website provide a lot of useful background information, including the following facts:

  • The Nature Park encompasses a total of 231 km2, including a 71 km2 Special Zoological Reserve.
  • Nature Park Kopački Rit is one of the best-preserved large river floodplains in Europe.
  • Due to the abundance of fauna found in the southern part of the Park in particular, this area has been declared a Special Zoological Reserve.
  •  In 1986 it was included in the Important Bird Areas in Europe list. Its international significance was further confirmed in 1993, when it was included in the List of Wetlands of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention.

Kopački Rit is home to:

  • Some 300 bird species, of which 140 are breeding in the park
  • twelve species of amphibian
  • ten species of reptile
  • 50 species of freshwater fish
  • 48 species of dragonfly
  • 64 species of butterfly
  • More than 500 species of plant

Kopački Rit is also an important part of the Croatian-Hungarian Transboundary Biosphere Reserve Mura-Drava-Danube established by UNESCO in 2012.

White Water Lily (Nymphaea alba)

Other seasons

The floods start at the end of February or the beginning of March and last to the end of July or the beginning of August. The dry season lasts from August to February the following year, when most of the birds stay in the fishponds or rivers. The largest number of birds can be seen during the Spring and Autumn migrations, later during Summer.

Although the number of birds in Winter is less than in other seasons, thousands of wild geese and ducks arriving from West Siberia can be observed in the wider area of the Park.

Birding in Eastern Europe suggests that it is worth a visit at any time of year, though May is absolutely the best month.

The author also makes a safety warning: The surrounding area may not have been entirely cleared of mines from the 1990s conflict with Serbia, so do not leave the main roads or marked trails, or ignore warning signs.

Getting there

While travelling by car (or campervan as I did) is relatively easy, it is also possible to get there by public transport. Aim for Osijek – which has a railway station, then you’ll probably need a taxi for the last few kilometres.

If you use the Rome2Rio website for travel planning, be aware that one of their Kopacki Rit options takes you to the far side of the Danube (an expensive taxi journey from Osijek) and the other options take you beyond the visitor centre.

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