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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The naturalist in France in winter

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

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

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

Common Cranes

Lac du Der-Chantecoq

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

Wigeon

La Brenne

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

Dark-bellied Brent Geese

The north and west coasts of France in winter

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

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

Knot

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

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

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

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

Greater Flamingo in winter

Camargue

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

Click here for a flavour of the area from Luca Boscain

Eagle owl

Les Alpilles

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

Mountains

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

Alpine Ibex

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

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


Bookshop

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

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


More places to go nature-watching in winter

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.

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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The Axios Delta National Park

Or, to give it its full title: The National Park of the Deltas of Axios – Loudias – Aliakmonas

Why visit the Axios Delta?

Being close to Thessaloniki, it is fairly accessible

  • 299 species of birds, in other words 66% of the species observed in Greece today, of which 106 nest
  • 350 species and subspecies of plants
  • 40 species of mammals
  • 18 species of reptiles
  • 9 species of amphibians
  • 7 species of invertebrates
  • 25 habitats, of which two are priority habitats on a European level

About the delta area

Given its location on one of the main migratory routes in Europe, it’s not surprising that thousands of water birds stop in this wetland in order to feed and rest. Important numbers of waterbirds (at a European level) gather here during the winter. It’s not just the sheer number of individual birds that is impressive. A total of 299 species of birds have been documented in this area – that is, 66% of all bird species observed to be present in Greece. Of those 299 species, 106 nest here.

Parts of the area were designated a Ramsar Site in 1975 – when it was described as an extensive river delta including brackish lagoons, saltmarshes, and large areas of mudflats. Vegetation consists of scrub, riparian forest, wet meadows, reedbeds, and halophytic communities. 30 freshwater fish species occur in the river. An extremely important area for nesting and migrating waterbirds.

Thanks to its considerable ecological importance, this area is included in the Natura 2000 network of European ecological regions. The largest part of this protected area has been listed as a National Park since 2009 – it comprises 33.800 hectares, including the deltas and the estuaries of four rivers, the Lagoon of Kalochori and the Alykes Kitrous, the wetland of Nea Agathoupoli and the riverbed of Axios, reaching upstream to the Elli dam.

The importance of the delta area goes well beyond just the wildlife. It offers multiple benefits to man, for example a water for water supply and irrigation, it protects the inhabited and rural areas from flooding, regulates the climate, provides food, as well as allowing for research, education and recreation.

There is a lot more useful information on the Axios National Park website.

The red pointer is the location of the national park information centre. Alyki Kitrous is at the bottom (left of centre).

When to visit

Winter and spring are generally considered the best times to visit for birds. However, the autumn period is great for passage migrants – I visited in September, and it was pretty spectacular – 100 species in four days of just enjoying being there rather than trying to see as many species as possible. The greatest numbers of birds are seen in winter. The rice fields are flooded in late spring, providing food for the breeding birds, especially herons, egrets and cormorant. Avoid the summer it can be blisteringly hot, and generally unpleasant except at dawn and dusk.

There was certainly an abundance of dragonflies, mostly Sympetrum species, in September. However, the best time for plants, butterflies and insects in general is probably a bit earlier in the year.

At almost any time of year, the weather can change between hot and cold from one day to another. The Meltemi, a cold wind coming off the mountains to the north, is responsible for this. While the Meltemi can make the heat more bearable, at other times a warm and windproof coat is worth packing.

Note that most of the area is farmland criss-crossed with dykes and dirt roads used by farm vehicles. Most of the roads are drive-able in dry weather, but can be slippery (and treacherous) after rain, and there is a good chance of getting bogged down after prolonged wet weather. Even those that have tarmac are often damaged by heavy tractors and farm machinery.

Sousliks are a kind of ground squirrel. They fill a similar niche to rabbits in western Europe and marmots in the Alps, in terms of eating grass and digging burrows. They were once widespread across eastern Europe, but are becoming scarce. The Axios Delta is one of the best places to see them.

Best places to visit

Kalochori Lagoon

Kalochori village is easily accessible by bus from Thessaloniki, and footpaths lead from there to the lagoon. In winter there are flamingos, great flocks of them. And from autumn to spring there are plenty of waders (shorebirds) too – avocets, black-winged stilts, Kentish plovers, to name just a few. In recent years, water buffalo have been introduced to the area.

Gallikos river estuary

Avocets, black-winged stilts, common terns and little terns breed on the Gallikos estuary, which is accessible via footpaths from the Kalochori area, or further upstream. It also provides breeding areas for smaller birds – Cetti’s and other warblers – and herons. Ospreys and other raptors, and a whole variety of waders stop by on migration, and then there are wildfowl in winter.

White-tailed eagle

Axios RiverMavroni river mouthLoudias EstuaryAliakmonas Delta

As I was researching this area, making notes from my experiences and trying to update them from various websites, I discovered a page on the Axios Delta website that suggests several worthwhile routes through this main expanse of the delta, and what you might see on each.

Most of it is a rice-growing area. Rice fields attract lots of amphibians and fish, and these in turn attract lots of herons, as well as other waterbirds. The herons are particularly numerous – a census in 2015 estimated that this mixed colony of little egrets, night herons, squaccos, as well as cormorants, pygmy cormorants, spoonbills and glossy ibises (below), held over 2,500 nests!

Glossy ibis

Nea Agathoupoli

Nea Agathoupoli is at the western end of the main part of the national park. From the village, a track leads north to an observation tower from where you can overlook the Aliakmonas delta.  The tower is open only for limited periods, but there is plenty to be seen from the track as you pass scrub, salt flats, drainage channels, orchards, and a variety of other crops.  Beyond the tower, the track links with a network of other tracks (of varying quality) across the area, so plenty of opportunity for finding birds and other wildlife.

This area is host to thousands of mallard, teals, pochards, wigeon, mallard, pintail, gadwall and shoveler in winter. Herons, glossy ibis, shelduck, Kentish plover, Dalmatian pelican and white-tailed eagle are also seen here. And it’s also good for spur-thighed tortoises, water snakes, green lizards and dragonflies.

Common pratincoles are a regular attraction at the Alyki Kitrous

Alyki Kitrous

Alyki is Greek for saltpans, or salinas. The lagoon and saltworks at Kitrous are some 20km south of the main part of the national park. This site seems to be particularly good a migration periods. Access to the actual saltworks is limited, but you can walk around the lagoon and along the shore.

The park boasts eighteen species of reptile, including a large population of Hermann’s tortoise near the Alyki Kitrous.

So, there you have it

My guide to the Axios Delta National Park.

For my first visit in 1989, I had only sketch maps provided by other birdwatchers – in particular, Dave Gosney’s Finding Birds in Northern Greece. The book has been updated since then, but now, with the availability of Google maps and aerial photos, I get a much clearer image of where to go and what I missed previously.

The area was declared a national park in 2009, and now has a national park information office and visitor centre at Chalastra, so I expect that on my next visit, I’ll learn a lot more about the place.


Bookshop

There are a few books available that are specific to Greece. Birding in Greece is about bird-watching sites produced by the Greek Ornithogical Society. The finding birds book is the updated version of the book I used on my initial travels. (click on the cover for more information)

Most of the other books I have used are now out of print, but the general ones for Europe, shown below, are perfectly adequate.

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 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.


Other posts about Greece

Nature amongst the ruins at Delphi

Delphi may be best-known for the ruins of an ancient Greek settlement, but it is also a wonderful place for plants and insects. Best to visit in spring, before the vegetation is strimmed and tidied-up for the summer visitors.

Keep reading

Nature of Grindelwald

The culture, landscape and nature of Grindelwald has been recognised by its designation as part of a UNESCO World Heritage site. The Swiss Alps Jungfrau-Aletsch site has the impressive Eiger-Mönch-Jungfrau rock massif

Why visit Grindelwald

The ‘Jungfrau Region’ contains one of the most spectacular landscapes in Europe

A butterfly enthusiast could find 50-60 species in July – including up to 19 species of ringlet!

A keen birdwatcher could find 40-50 species breeding here.

A group on a botanical trip could find 600 species – the more eyes the more you see! Most, but not all, will be in flower in July.

Or you could just enjoy hiking through the magnificent landscape!

About Grindelwald

You can drive to Grindelwald – but it is the end of the road. To go further, you need to use the post bus, or one of the many cablecars or other mountain transport systems. Or you just hike in almost any direction.

Or you can get there by train or bus from Zurich or Interlaken.

It is a tourist town, so there is plenty of accommodation, and a campsite (where I stayed).

Grindelwald is set at about 1000m in the valley below the Eiger and Jungfrau. The next 1000m or so is mainly farmland – haymeadows, pastures, a golf course, etc.. Once you’ve explored this, it becomes worth using the various transport systems to get to and from hikes at higher levels.

But first, stop in at the tourist centre to pick up current leaflets and timetables. The program of walks, talks and tours can be interesting. You don’t need to join any of them, but it is useful guide about things to do when the weather is wet.  The guided walks are useful to get acquainted with the local fauna and flora – the nature of Grindelwald.

They also have maps and books.  The panoramic maps were particularly useful for seeing the marked trails in relation to each other, and to the various ski lifts and shuttles, etc.  And in respect of the latter, it can be handy to know which ones were running and at what times.

While there is quite a lot of visitor information on the Grindelwald and Jungfrau region websites, there is disappointingly little about the wildlife.

Families walking along the panoramic route – between First and Grosse Scheidegg

Best places for seeing the nature of Grindelwald

So, you’re now established in your hotel in town or up on a hillside, or you’re in the campsite.  Or maybe just driving in for a day trip from Interlaken. Here are my recommendations of where to watch wildlife under the Eiger and Jungfrau:

Männlichen

It’s a long slow hike from Grindelwald to Männlichen, along the route marked Itramenstrasse and then Alp tramen on Google maps, then on a hiking trail. Much of this route is wheel-chair friendly, but there are options for hikers to cut across the zig-zags. I did this on the way up, and used the longer track on the way down (when it rained). The climb is 1200m, but the flowers and butterflies are wonderful. At the top – Trumpet Gentian Gentiana acaulis Mountain Pansy Viola lutea, Bird’s-eye Primrose Primula farinosa, Moss Campion Silene acaulis and Alpine Cinquefoil Potentilla crantzii to name but a few.

You can also get to the top via the newly refurbished cable-car route, or by taxi.

Once at the top, there are several hiking options, including the panorama trail to Kleine Scheidegg, the Royal Walk, the Romantic trail, etc. The panorama trail is good, it isn’t difficult, and the views of the Eiger especially are superb. But be prepared for lots of family groups at weekends and in the holiday season.

Chequered Skipper Carterocephalus palaemon – recently re-introduced back home in Britain, but more common in the Alps
Blind Ringlet Erebia pharte – so-called because there are no black ‘eyes’ in the orange spots

The Eiger Trail

Apparently there are two Eiger Trails. A 6km route which needs a reasonable level of fitness, and a 2km route that is easier and has information boards. The latter wasn’t available when I visited. The 6km distance is one-way, and assumes you use the train to get to and from the start and end points of the trail. We incorporated it into a day’s hiking including other trails.

The 500m ascent from Grindelwald was pretty steep, though mostly in the cool shade of spruce trees. At the top was a welcome sunny glade for a lunch stop. A few butterflies passed through and a hummingbird hawkmoth paused to drink nectar from some nearby flowers. From Boneren to Alpiglen the path rises and fall several times, ultimately reaching 1800m, crossing an old glacier track, a snow field and a scree slope under the sheer cliffs of the Eiger. In between these obstacles were rough places over spruce roots, and open marginal habitats with masses of wildflowers from the red alpenrose to the white cottony seedheads of dwarf willow, from the last few globe-flowers to the tiny alpine toadflax. Most of the butterflies were mountain ringlets. We returned via a postbus route lower down the slope, seeing far more birds there – ring ouzels, fieldfares and other thrushes.

Glacier Gorge

Deep gorge cut by the meltwaters of the Lower Glacier

Grindlewald is surrounded by glaciers – though they have mostly retreated so far up the slopes that they could now be missed. The Glacier Gorge, or Gletscherschlucht is a steep-sided gorge left by the meltwaters of the lower glacier (Unterer Gletscher). When the glacier began to retreat in 1875, two enterprising brothers made its rocky and fissured route safe and accessible to tourists by means of wooden steps and boardwalks in and over the gorge. As the glacier withdrew more and more, the construction followed and today its length is 720m. 

Access to the walkways is easy – by car or bus from town. However, to make a day of it, you can walk to to top of the gorge via Pfinstegg and look down on it. This proved an excellent place for watching wallcreepers and wagtails, as well as a few other birds.

Marmorbruch is a restaurant at the site of an old marble quarry. Marble was extracted from the first half of 18th century until 1903 when the quarry was shut down due to foreign competition. There were still blocks of unpolished marble and some of the shafts remaining. The door frames of the rooms of the Upper House of the Federal Parliament in Berne are made of Grindelwald marble. It is a pleasant walk up from Grindelwald, with woodland and streams. Plenty of flowers and butterflies, and the birds included Orphean Warblers.

Upper Glacier

Go back to Pfinstegg and continue eastwards to the Upper Glacier (Oberer Gletscher). This was famous for being the glacier reaching the lowest altitude anywhere in the Alps. It has retreated considerably, beyond the point of the ice grotto and other attractions of the 1990s. The pictures in this article show the change between 1910 and 2000. I don’t know how much of the glacier is visible now from the track from Pfinstegg. This alternative trail should also give you a view of it from the east side.

Grosse Scheidegg

Grosse Scheidegg is the mountain pass to the north-east of Grindelwald. It is accessible by post bus, on foot or by bicycle. Following the postbus route on foot takes a good three hours – and that was walking fast to keep warm in the shadow of the Eiger and Wetterhorn. As with most destinations around Grindelwald, there is a hotel and cafe.

Various events are held here, and the one I went to was a Bergfest. It was really a ploy to get tourists to spend a bit more on bus fares and refreshments. There was an accordion quartet (three squeeze-boxes and a base) and a yodelling choir with 13 voices.  A pleasant way to while away a few hours, and admire the local flowers and butterflies.

Yodelling choir at the Bergfest
Alpine Chough keeping an eye out for eagles

The best part was watching a flock of about a dozen Alpine chough, coming in like jackdaws to investigate anywhere people had just vacated in hope of finding a free meal. These birds are habituated to humans, and are often found around Alpine resorts. Studies have shown that while they make the most of whatever people leave behind, they are not dependent on this food source. Still, there is no need to share our unhealthy (for them) diet with them.

From Grosse Scheidegg you can take an easy hike along the paths from the cable-car station at First. Alternatively, continue north-eastwards on foot or by bus into the valley on the other side, eventually emerging at Meiringen and the road to Interlaken.

Looking across the valley from First in 1989 – left to right: – Wetterhorn – the Upper Glacier – Schreckhorn – Lower Glacier – the Eiger

First

First means ridge, and this ridge to the north of Grindelwald offers a spectacular overlook across the village and valley. It’s a place for thrill-seekers – weather permitting. The easiest thrill is walking out on the First Cliff Walk which leads along the rock face to a viewing platform – but there is nothing between you and a long drop down into the valley.

Then there is the First Flieger – an 800m zip cable-type ‘flight’ to the station below First. The First Glider isn’t quite so fast. The First Mountain Cart is a longer ground-based ride. The First Trotti Bike . . . . . . well, I’m sure you get the idea.

I’ll stick with hiking. There is a panoramic trail eastwards to Grosse Scheidegg, or westward to Bachalpsee and Faulhorn – this being quite spectacular. From Faulhorn it’s a long way down (1600m) back to Grindelwald, and by the time I got there, my knees were wishing I’d taken a bus or cable car at least part of the way.

An unexpected sight at a farm on the way down from Faulhorn

So there you have it

My recommendations for getting the best nature-watching experiences during a summer trip to Grindelwald in the Bernese Oberland and how to watch wildlife under the Eiger and Jungfrau. At least the weather here was better than the previous ten days of watching wildlife under the Matterhorn. Next time, I know I’ll see changes, particularly in extent of the glaciers. And I’ll aim to do the train ride up to the Eigerwand and Jungfraujoch – to the restaurant at the top of the world.


Bookshop

Buying books through these links earns a small commission which helps towards the costs of this website at no extra cost to you.

Sadly the English version of this book is now out of print. It was a standard volume available in several languages. On walks, the guide would identify a flower, and whoever found it first in their book would call out the page number so everyone could mark it in their own book, regardless of language.

It’s a subject that seems to be more easily available locally rather than trying to buy something in advance.

If you are trying to buy 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.

Finding books specific to the Alpine Region seems to be best done when you are there. There will be books in French, German and Italian, and it seems if you are lucky, in English too. Otherwise, the main guides to birds, mammals, etc covering the whole of Europe, will do the job. I am slowly replacing my older versions with those mentioned below.

The books below are my ‘go to’ books for European wildlife, when I can’t find anything more specific to a region. Click on the covers for more information. Buying books through these links earns a small commission which helps pay for this website at no extra cost to you.


Pin it for later

Wildlife under the Matterhorn

Why visit the Matterhorn?

With 38 four-thousand-metre peaks (including the Matterhorn itself) in the immediate area and a 400 km hiking trail network, Zermatt is an ideal starting point for watching wildlife under the Matterhorn.

The area around Zermatt is an isolated ecosystem with high biodiversity that has survived thanks to a unique combination of a dry climate, the highest tree line in the Alps, plus a large variety of soil conditions from acid to alkali, from wet to dry, and from shallow to deep.

Zermatt’s flora is a delight for botanists. There are seven species that are unique to the area. And they are mostly easy to find thanks to the mountain railways and those 400 km of hiking trails.

The Zermatt-Matterhorn area, with its varied mountain types, Alpine meadows and forests, is ideal for bird-watching. The Mattertal area is designated an “Important Bird Area” (IBA) Region, in other words, an area where many rare and threatened bird species can be found.

Chamois resting

Mammals can be seen here too – marmots aren’t confined to the marmot trail, deer can turn up anywhere, red squirrels haunt the woodlands, while ibex and chamois prefer the higher levels.

Please respect this fragile environment – conservation of the species here really needs the appreciation and cooperation of visitors

Nowhere else in the Alps can one find such a variety of rocks. Four geological zones each with different chemical compositions have crashed together here to make a fascinating diversity of geology.

Zermatt has over 50 lakes and almost 100 springs, rivers and streams. In the village, you can drink straight from the fountains as the water is top quality – and it’s cold as it has just come from the glaciers.

About Zermatt

If you’re driving to Zermatt, you’ll be stopped at Tasch.  Zermatt itself is car free, and always has been.  So you leave your car in one of the 2000 parking spaces at Tasch, and take the shuttle train or a taxi the rest of the way (5km).  Or, if you’re in a camper, you make yourself at home in the campsite at Tasch, and then hike or take the shuttle as required. In Zermatt only electric vehicles, horse-drawn taxis and bicycles are permitted, and that makes it a wonderfully peaceful place.

Mostly, we hiked in from the campsite.  There are plenty of flowers, birds and butterflies to see en route, and plenty of routes in addition to the direct one that more-or-less follows the River and the railway tracks through the narrowest part of the Mattertal (Matter Valley).

While there are several routes in different directions from Tasch, there are plenty more options once you get to Zermatt.  Most of them are pretty spectacular, offering scenic views as well as plenty of flowers, butterflies, birds and occasional glimpses of alpine mammals.

But first, stop in at the information centre. They have a program of walks, talks and tours, and while you don’t need to join any of them, I found it useful to at least know about the lectures for something to do when the weather was wet (I went to one where the local weather itself was being explained).  The guided walks were useful to get acquainted with the local fauna and flora.

They also have maps and books.  The panoramic maps were particularly useful for seeing the marked trails in relation to each other, and to the various ski lifts and shuttles, etc.  And in respect of the latter, it can be handy to know which ones were running and at what times.

A lot of this information is on the Zermatt visitor website in more detail, but it’s often useful to pick up printed matter, especially maps that are too big to print at home.

Best places for watching wildlife under the Matterhorn

So, you’re established in your hotel in town or up on a hillside, or you’re in the campsite at Tasch. Now to decide what to do next.  Here are my recommendations of where to watch wildlife under the Matterhorn:

Patterns in the cracked ice surface of a glacier

Gornergrat

Europe’s highest cogwheel railway, the Gornergratbahn has been taking passengers up to Gornergrat (3089m) since 1898. The Gornergrat Bahn was also the world’s first fully electrified cog railway. Now equipped with a regenerative braking system that generates electricity on the descent, it is a truly eco-friendly system.

The ride takes 33 minutes and covers a vertical climb of 1,469 m. The 9.4 kilometres of track goes over dramatic bridges, through galleries and tunnels, across forests of larch and Swiss stone pine, and past rocky ravines and mountain lakes. Best to sit on the right-hand side of the train facing uphill to photograph the Matterhorn and the magnificent panorama of seven glaciers and 29 peaks over 4000m. 

July and August are probably the best times for finding plants and butterflies at this altitude.  Hang around the top station for a while, then either take one of the footpaths downhill, or take the train down to Rotenboden.

A ten-minute walk from the station is the Riffelsee – one of the many lakes of the region, and one of the best for photographing the reflection of the Matterhorn on calm weather – usually early morning or in the evening. This is a particularly good area for rare Alpine flowers and high-level butterflies. 

Continue along the Rotenboden-Gornergrat hiking trail and over the lateral moraine of the Gorner glacier for Zermatt’s hotspot for observing flowers. It has the greatest variety of rare flowers in a relatively small area. But beware, there is a section of the trail that requires surefootedness and freedom from dizziness.

Please take care here and STAY ON THE FOOTPATH – the southern slope of the Gornergrat is a very sensitive ecosystem. An alpine meadow at this altitude takes hundreds of years to develop and stabilise, and a moment or two of carelessness can damage the extremely vulnerable plants.

Depending on the season – the Gornergrat trail is accessible from June – you can find dwarf rampion, alpine aster, alpine alyssum, umbel pennycress, glacier wormwood, Haller’s pasqueflower and Haller’s ragwort, Schleicher’s gentian and the fine-haired sweet clover.  Many of these are small, and you’ll need a magnifying glass to look at things like the small barbs on the heads of the sepals of the dwarf rampion, for example.  Or better still, join a botanical walk with an expert to help you find these species.

Matterhorn Glacier Paradise

Europe’s highest cable-car station is the Matterhorn Glacier Ride on the Klein Matterhorn (3883m). Views are stunning – 14 glaciers and 38 mountain peaks over 4000m from the Panoramic Platform (good weather only). The Matterhorn looks different from up here – this is best place to see the south face.

Then there is the Glacier Palace, an ice palace with glittering ice sculptures and an ice slide, and even some exhilarating snow tubing outside in the snowy surrounds.  There is snow here all year round, but not a lot for the naturalist once you have admired the views – including the one looking down on the glacier from the cable-car.

Return to the cable-car station at Trockener Steg and explore along the Matterhorn Glacier trail. Since the Little Ice Age of around 1850, the Furgg and Theodul Glaciers have retreated by more than three kilometres. This 6.5km trail offers insights into the phenomenon of glacier retreat, displaying what the melting glacier leaves behind, showing the conditions it creates for plant and animal life, and revealing how humans make use of the remains from the river of ice.  Information panels along the route tell the whole fascinating story. 

The other end of the trail is at the Schwarzsee (Black Lake) gondola station with its tiny chapel dedicated to ‘Maria zum Schnee’ (Our Lady of the Snow).  It’s one of the many lakes that give you a reflection of the Matterhorn in calm weather.

Alpine Marmots can be seen anywhere there is open ground

Sunnegga

The Sunnegga Express was my first experience of a tunnel funicular – the whole train built at the angle of the slope, but with everything properly levelled.  The slight unreality of it was increased by leaving a relatively warm and clear Zermatt, then disembarking to a cool thick mist at Sunnegga.

Some 650m above Zermatt, and you’re also just above the tree-line. This means open meadows for Alpine marmots. The marmot trail covers nearly 4km, and offers a chance to watch marmots close-up.  The animals live in burrows, and can often be seen sun-bathing at the burrow entrance, visiting the neighbours, collecting food, and generally going about their business.  In July there is a chance of seeing the babies on their first forays out of the burrows too.  They mostly ignore humans, so long as humans stay where humans are supposed to be – ie on the footpath.  There is also a marmot-watching station a few minutes easy walk from the funicular station.

Another easy hike here is the Blumenweg (flower path) with alpine anemones, gentians and violet pasqueflowers among many others.  All these trails have information boards in several languages. Of course, flowers aren’t the only thing to be seen, and from the section of the trail between Tuftern and Sunnega, I watched golden eagles and goshawks – not at the same time though!

Sunnegga is also one end of the 5-Seenweg – the Five Lakes Walk (Seen = Lakes)  It’s a 10 km hike that takes you past five scenic lakes, with the Matterhorn reflected in three of them (if the weather is reasonably clear!).  Each of the lakes is different in terms of shape, colour, character and size. The Leisee is good for swimming, the Grünsee looks out over a rather more rugged landscape, with Swiss stone pines growing among the scree and sand. The shores of the Grindjisee are home to rare flowers. And so on.  The other end of the walk is the Blauherd cable-car station, further uphill, so it’s your choice of mostly uphill, or mostly downhill for the route.

Flower Trail – Trift

The Trift valley runs west from Zermatt, and is another botanical delight – although for me, the wallcreepers were part of the pleasure, especially as they were an excuse to pause on the steepest part of the path.  A small herd/flock of Alpine Ibex frequent the area around the Pension Edelweiss at the top of that steep section, though they can be out of sight on the slopes above.

The trail from Zermatt to the Trift restaurant is the Botanischer Lehrpfad (Botanical Educational Trail).  It’s a long climb of over 700m, but the local world of flowers is explained on the boards along the trail. In May-June there are numerous orchids, eg the Knabenkraut orchid.  Spring gentians bring bright shades of blue, soon followed by various anemones and pasque flowers, including the rare Haller’s pasque flower Pulsatilla halleri.  Later, in July and August, you can see edelweiss, alpine aster, and rare grasses. Edelweiss is surprisingly inconspicuous, but it is there, just after the alpine aster lookout.

Where there are flowers, there are insects.  And amongst the great variety of butterflies is the Apollo.

Edelweiss Leontopodium alpinum flowers in late summer in Alpine meadows.

Edelweissweg (Edelweiss trail)

If you have the time and energy (I didn’t), you can continue along the Edelweiss trail for more botanical delights.  The route takes you up another 1000 metres, through Höhbalmen and Zmutt before returning to Zermatt. It’s another 18.8 km (7 ½ hours) and gives you a spectacular view of the Matterhorn north face and the Monte Rosa massif.

Why does the edelweiss (and many other mountain flowers) have fleecy hairs? The answers come as a surprise: the edelweiss’s hairs, for example, protect it from sun damage, frost and drying out.

Scarce copper butterfly on a Lychnis flower

Mattertal

In between long mountain walks, you need something easier.  I mentioned the Mattertal earlier – it provides easy walking between Zermatt and Tasch (5km) and Tash and Randa (4km) along the river.  Lots of plants, butterflies and birds to enjoy here.  South of Zermatt there are two more fairly easy walks.

Ricola Herb Garden

At Ricola, they make hard-boiled sweets with a difference – they are flavoured with herbs. The herbs are grown locally, and there is a short herb-garden hike at Blatten where you can learn about the 13 species that go into every drop. Blatten is about 2.5km from Zermatt, and the start of the herb-garden walk is next to the small chapel.

Gornerschlucht

For a complete change of scenery, it is hard to beat the Gornerschlucht – a deep gorge cut by the outflowing water from ice-age glaciers.  You could spend all day in the gorge, which is carved out of green serpentine rock and accessed by a series of wooden staircases and walkways. Or you could be out in less than half an hour.  Take a waterproof jacket, though, as the rushing water leaves a mist in the air. This hike is recommended especially for geologists, though you don’t have to be one to appreciate the place.

Suspension Bridge at Furi

A 3km circular walk from Furi includes the 100m long suspension bridge across the Gornerschlucht.  You need a head for heights, as there is a 90 m drop to the river below. The structure – a lattice and cables of steel – is quite secure, though the vibrations of other people crossing, plus the occasional swaying in the wind, make it quite an experience.

Golden Eagle – often seen hunting along the valley between Tasch and Zermatt

Further away

Arigscheis

The panoramic map showed a hike to Arigscheiss close to the campsite at Tasch, and it didn’t look like a hard walk.  Unfortunately – and the problem with these panoramic or perspective maps – is that they are great for stuff on the far side of the valley, but not good for the near side.  This turned out to be quite a strenuous hike, climbing nearly 1000m, assisted in places by metal ladders and walkways.  But, when the clouds lifted a bit, there were good views across the valley to the tongues of glaciers on the higher levels.  It’s also good for seeing animals – a family of chamois, roe deer, birds such as ring ouzels (a kind of blackbird with a white throat) and golden eagles, among many others.  There were even a few butterflies when the sun came out.

The name Arigscheis indicates that eagles have been seen here. “Ari” means eagle in the local dialect, and Arigscheis refers to a place where eagles hang out.

Circular Hike to the Suspension Bridge in Randa

If the suspension bridge at Furi whetted your appetite, then the next place to go is Randa for the “Charles Kuonen Suspension Bridge“, also known as the ‘Europaweg Skywalk’. At 494 m, this is the longest pedestrian suspension bridge in the world. It takes almost 10 minutes to cross and in the middle, swaying walkers are at the highest point: 85 m above the Grabengufer.

The bridge opened in July 2017, so it is definitely on my list for next time. 

So there you have it

My recommendations for getting the best nature-watching experiences during a summer trip to Zermatt – how to watch wildlife under the Matterhorn. I only hope that the next time I visit, I get better weather. In ten days I hardly saw the sun, and the low cloud meant I only saw the Matterhorn itself a couple of times. People tell me I was unlucky. I hope you do better!

At least I had better weather for the next part of my journey – enjoying the nature at Grindelwald – under the Eiger.


Bookshop

Buying books through these links earns a small commission which helps towards the costs of this website at no extra cost to you.

Sadly the English version of this book is now out of print. It was a standard volume available in several languages. On walks, the guide would identify a flower, and whoever found it first in their book would call out the page number so everyone could mark it in their own book, regardless of language.

It’s a subject that seems to be more easily available locally rather than trying to buy something in advance. For example:

 “Alpine flowers around Zermatt”, by Hanspeter Steidle, published by edition punktuell, Herisau, 2009. Bilingual German/English, ISBN 978-3-905724-15-8 and available from the shop at the Information Centre.

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

Finding books specific to the Alpine Region seems to be best done when you are there. There will be books in French, German and Italian, and it seems if you are lucky, in English too. Otherwise, the main guides to birds, mammals, etc covering the whole of Europe, will do the job. I am slowly replacing my older versions with those mentioned below.

The books below are my ‘go to’ books for European wildlife, when I can’t find anything more specific to a region. Click on the covers for more information.


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Vultures at the Hoces del Duratón

Why visit the Hoces del Duratón Natural Park?

Fantastic scenery looking into this 25km long miniature ‘Grand Canyon’ in the middle of Spain – Hoces = gorges/canyons

  • 400-500 pairs of red-billed chough
  • 500 pairs of griffon vultures
  • golden eagles, peregrine falcons
  • Summer visitors include Egyptian vultures, goshawks, booted and short-toed eagles, and bee-eaters
  • Blue rock thrush, eagle owl,
  • Herons, kingfishers and dippers along the river
  • Dupont’s lark and black wheatear on the plains above the gorge.

Easy walking along the river

Abundant flowers and butterflies in the spring and summer

About the Hoces del Rio Duratón Natural Park

Along some 27 kilometres of its course, the Duratón River cuts through the limestone rock, reaching a depth of over one hundred metres in some places. The cliffs hosts huge population of cliff-nesting birds. An area of over 5000 hectares was declared Natural Park in 1989 to protect these birds. It is a Special Protection Area under the European Birds Directive, and is included in the Natura 2000 network.

Hoces del Río Duratón Natural Park lies about an hour’s drive to the north of Segovia, or two hours north of Madrid.

The canyon of the Duraton has been dammed to provide water for Madrid.

How to enjoy nature at the Hoces del Duratón

Information centre in Sepúlveda

I’d usually start by visiting an information centre, but I was with an organised group and local guides, so did not need to visit. There are mixed reviews of the Casa del Parque de las Hoces del Río Duratón in the Iglesia de Santiago (separate to the Sepúlveda tourism information centre), and the website is in Spanish only. You have to go there to get a permit for hiking through the restricted areas in the vulture breeding season. They do provide maps, leaflets, and guides on-line as well as at the centre itself. Displays include information about the geology and nature of the park, and in particular of the griffon vulture, or the EL BUITRE LEONADO as it is called in Spanish.

From Sepúlveda it is a 20 minute hike to the Puente de Talcano – an old Roman Bridge – from where you can join the footpath alongside the river. The landscape here is pleasant, the walking easy, and there is plenty for the nature-watcher to linger over. The path goes 10km to the Puente de Villaseca where there is a cafe, and then you return via the same route.

The Puente de Villaseca.

Of course you can do the above walk in reverse, starting at the Puenta Vellaseca. Or you can take a shorter hike along the Senda de la Mollinilla further downstream from here. There is limited parking space, so our coach dropped us here, and went off somewhere else for most of the day.

It was amazing to get out of the coach and be face-to-face with a griffon vulture (above) – almost too close to photograph with a long lens. It was probably a young bird, inquisitive about the world around. When it flew off, it tried landing in a tree, and found itself stuck there amongst the branches for a while, but eventually managed to escape.

The area between the bridge and just beyond the cafe is more open, and is an excellent area for plants, butterflies and other insects.

View of the 12th century Romanesque chapel of San Frutos

The Hermitage of San Frutos

Watching the vultures at the Hoces del Duratón Natural Park is easy, even if you don’t want to hike along the river. Further downstream, and not far from the dam across the Rio Duraton, an ancient hermitage sits on a rock promontory. It overlooks a look in the part of the canyon and the views are fantastic. It is a popular place for general visitors, so a large car-parking area has been provided about 1km away.

Cardinal Butterfly Argynnis pandora

The track from the car park proved to be good for butterflies. This Cardinal was the biggest of them. Unfortunately at the end of October, most were looking quite worn and tatty. Nine species (including hermit, Bath white, mallow skipper and Spanish chalk-hill blue) during our short visit is surely an excuse to go back for more. There were few flowers to provide nectar at this time of year, but a visit earlier in the year will be productive.

But the real stars of the show were the griffon vultures. They flew above the cliffs, below the cliffs, and zoomed past at head height almost close enough to touch. Some cliffs still held nesting pairs – or at least the chicks that were now almost full grown. It was very hot, with hardly any wind, so the cliffs were baking. For the vultures, the best place to be was high up, circling in the thermals, reaching for the cooler air at higher altitudes.

A kettle of vultures, circling overhead

If you’ve never seen a griffon, or any other vulture, close-up, this is the place to come. You won’t see them fighting over carcasses because the food is out on the plains. They can travel vast distances in search of food, and will return to the nest with as much as they can carry in their crops (this is a chamber in the throat – so they don’t carry food in their talons/feet) to feed the chicks.

A dipper in the stream at the bottom of the canyon

In search of other birds

Three main habitats dominate the area – the riverine woodland, the cliffs, and the plains above the canyon. In the spring and summer, the woodland is full of a variety of birds. Even in October, we managed a respectable list here – including short-toed treecreeper and dipper.

The open plains have a more specialist range of birds, including Dupont’s, Calandra and Thekla larks, stone curlew, and several kinds of wheatear. There is little shade here, except in the patches of pine and juniper woodland. But these woodlands do provide for hoopoes, owls, Iberian (azure-winged) magpies, amongst many others.

Theckla lark keeping an eye out for danger

So there you have it

We were in Segovia for a conference, and this trip to watch vultures at the Hoces del Duratón Natural Park was organised as part of that. However, it is easy to visit by car, and day trips by coach are available from Segovia and from Madrid – check at the tourist information centres.

Obviously, visiting under you own steam means you can do more exploring. Our guide pointed out the general area for Dupont’s larks – best looked for in spring when they are singing. We just missed the Egyptian vultures, as they were on their way south for winter. For these and the other summer visitors, we need to visit earlier in the year.

However, note that the main vulture breeding areas are not freely accessible from January to June. Contact the visitor centre in advance if you are planning to visit at this time. Of course, you’ll still be able to see the vultures in the air at any time.

November to March can be decidedly chilly. May to September can be hot. Even early October was hot. As we headed back to the coach at 5pm, the heat was going out of the day. More and more people were streaming along the path to the Ermita de San Frutos to look at the vultures.

Useful resources:

  • Local tour guides – Vultour Naturaleza – I don’t know anything about them, but their website suggests they could be worth trying.
  • Wingspan Bird Tours do short break trips from the UK to the Madrid area. Again I don’t know anything about the company.

Two excellent books (I have them both) about birds and nature, including Duraton. Click on the covers for more information.

Buying books through these links brings a small commission, at no extra cost to you, that helps with the maintenance of this website.

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A winter day at Santoña Marshes

Coming off the ferry at Santander, you need a place to stretch your legs and get on with the birdwatching.  I recommend the Santoña Marshes.

The Parque Natural de Santoña Victoria y Joyel, to give it its full name, was designated in 1992. The 6,500ha (25sq miles) is an outstanding area of estuary, marshland, freshwater and other habitats – considered to be one of the wetlands of most ecological value in the north of Spain. It attracts more than 20,000 birds of 120 different species, as well as being home to small mammals and a unique flora. 

The winter birds include a good number that come from Northern Europe to escape the harsher winter weather. These include divers, grebes, cormorants, herons, spoonbills, geese, ducks, waders, gulls and terns.  

The best way to see the marshes is to follow the established route that runs over the docks of the Marsh of Bengoa, north of the town of Santoña and along a road that runs parallel to the C-629 road. This easy 2.3km route can be traveled in about 2 hours – depending on how often you stop to look at the birds! And then there are other, longer routes – we also took one of them and made a whole day of it.

Three fairly short rivers flow into the bay at Santoña and Laredo, and saltmarsh is creeping onto the mudflats exposed at low tide. Sheltered from Atlantic storms by the limestone massif of Monte Buciero at the harbour mouth, the bay attracts sun seekers in summer and flocks of migrant wildfowl and waders in winter.

Spoonbills (above) stop here on migration, and shelduck have taken a liking to the place in recent years, though there were none of the latter to be seen today. The marshes are the principal site on the north coast for grey plover, dunlin, greenshank and curlew. The most numerous species that we saw was wigeon (top photo) – thousands of them – settled quietly on the water.

We parked in Santoña and walked. About half way along there was an area surrounded by a dyke and partly drained.  It had a few healthy-looking ponds and willow scrub in the wetter part

Eucalyptus

A small eucalyptus plantation occupied the drier area. The trees were regenerating, but there was no under-storey since the ground was carpeted with slow-decomposing eucalyptus leaves which inhibits the growth of other species.

Eucalyptus was introduced to Europe in 1804, within a few years of the discovery of Australia.  It was soon found to grow well on deforested land where the soil was so thin and badly eroded that few other tree-species could find sufficient sustenance. Throughout the nineteenth century it spread on eroding, near-desert, lands around the Mediterranean, serving as windbreaks, providing welcome shade and stabilising the soils. It is only relatively recently that its use in forestry has become important, the wood is ideal for pulping to make paper, and on less impoverished soils the trees grows very quickly.

Like most introduced species, the eucalyptus has a reputation for being no good for birds: and the few birds that we did see or hear were well-hidden by the evergreen (or should that be ever-grey) leaves.

Fishing – the human side

While the tide was low there were a number of people out on the marshes, variously fishing, digging or probing for whatever was there. We watched a couple of fishermen under a bridge. They baited a wok-shaped basket with a sizeable piece of fish.  Then they slowly lowered the basket, with the aid of a forked stick and a rope,  into the water and laid on a ledge or mudbank. After a few minutes it was slowly pulled out of the water and the catch of crabs and crayfish was emptied into another wicker basket.  Traditional methods of fishing are still allowed here since the marshes were declared a natural reserve in 1992.

The estuary of the Asón (the largest of the three rivers that flows into site) is also an important spawning/fishing area for sea ​​bass, red mullet, sea bream, sole and eel and Atlantic salmon. Shellfish are farmed here, and the development of the canning industry for anchovies and sardines is part of the economic activity of this area.

Birdwatching

It was mid-December, and our day at the Santoña Marshes was grey and murky with neither wind nor sun, but some drizzle in the afternoon.  At least we didn’t have to contend with the glare of the sun bouncing off the water

The tide was coming in and bringing with it a juvenile red-throated diver (above) and an adult great northern diver which we were able to study at much closer than usual quarters. The red-throated looked small and finely built compared with the heavy angular great northern. The latter swam mostly in a hunched posture, but then took to preening, followed by a fishing session. For this it swam around with its head and neck stretched along the water surface, then dived, sometimes coming up with a crab.

Four red-breasted mergansers flew in and spent most of the time vigorously stirring up the mud and shallow water. Eider and scoter also moved up-stream, some of the female and juvenile scoter looking almost chestnut in colour.

An adult Mediterranean gull roosted on the mudflat, then became active as the tide disturbed it. It walked a few metres and picked up an amorphous lump from the mud, took it to a nearby puddle and washed it thoroughly several times, then shook it vigorously for a few seconds before swallowing it whole. This species’ winter diet consists mainly of molluscs and marine fish.

Two little egrets fished close to the shore: one moving slowly and deliberately, stirring up mud with its foot, the other more energetic, rushing from side to side and flapping its wings to disturb prey. The first one seemed more successful. Later a dozen egrets joined a feeding frenzy of gulls, cormorants and herons. At high tide they all roosted together on a half-submerged wreck.

Among the waders common sandpiper and whimbrel were of particular note as we were now in their wintering areas. Some of the bar tailed godwit had cinnamon plumage on their necks, breast and scapulars indicating they were juveniles.

Out on the open channels, about forty black-necked grebe (above) were roosting or preening. As the tide brought them in, they dispersed into smaller groups and began feeding. Often a group dived together, leaving the water empty. They were quite noisy, calling to each other with high pitched whistles. If a bird surfaced alone, it sometimes got quite frantic, whistling loudly and paddling around to find its mates. Their rather contrasty plumage made the little grebe look quite drab.

A peregrine flew in, calling, and settled atop an electricity pylon to watch the world go by. We made our way back to the camper through drizzle.

Resources for visitors

Two excellent books (I have them both) about birds and nature, including the Santoña Marshes. Click on the covers for more information.

Buying books through these links brings a small commission, at no extra cost to you, that helps with the maintenance of this website.

The local tourist website has more information about accommodation etc, and a down-loadable leaflet about the reserve.  However, it is now available in Spanish only.

Brittany Ferries and others go to Santander – 15km to the west and the closest port to Santoña.  There is the chance of seeing cetaceans and seabirds as you cross the Bay of Biscay


Wikitravel For information about travelling in Spain

Red Kites at Gigrin Farm

One of the most fantastic spectacles anywhere is a huge gathering of birds – especially birds of prey.  Gigrin Farm in mid-Wales probably has the biggest gathering of red kites anywhere.  And you get so much closer to them here because of the hides/blinds.

Red Kite can be seen across most of Europe – distribution map here – usually in small numbers, up to half a dozen, but occasionally dozens of them together at food resources like rubbish tips. I thought the dozens of birds floating over the rubbish tip at Reinosa in northern Spain was pretty impressive when I saw it in 1989, but that pales by comparison.

The late Mr Powell started feeding the kites on his farm in the 1980s, and the farm became an official feeding station open to the public in 1992/93.  There were six red kites regularly using the area at the start, but by 2015 six hundred wasn’t an unusual number.

The feeding station is located near Rhayader, in central Wales.  It is surrounded by mostly livestock farming – often the only viable farming in this cool wet climate, but is close to the large reservoirs of the Elan Valley (supplying water to cities such as Birmingham), forestry plantations and open hill country.

But why feed kites?  Can’t they find their own food?

Kites are basically scavengers, large but lightweight birds that float on air currents looking for scraps to eat – though they can kill small prey if they have to.  They are not strong enough to open a carcass of any size, and have to wait for a raven, crow or buzzard to do that before they can feed.

There aren’t many carcasses left on the land these days – farm hygiene and bio-security mean that such things are cleared away, buried, etc.  So young kites in particular have difficulty finding enough food, therefore survival rates were low.

Kites start looking for food when they wake up hungry in the morning.  At Gigrin food is put out in the afternoon, so any bird that has fed well doesn’t need to come here for more.  But those that are still hungry, know where to find supper.

The spectacle

Kites begin gathering over the site an hour or so before feeding time. It looks impressive then, and you can hear their long drawn-out whistling calls. When everybody is settled in the hides, a tractor appears, stops in front of the hide, the driver gets out and starts shovelling lumps of meat onto the ground. Almost immediately, one or two kites swoop in for a closer look, maybe even pick up a piece or two. The tractor moves to another part of the feeding field, and more meat is thrown out. By the now, the number of kites is increasing, and more and more are coming closer. The birds rarely land, just grab a piece of meat in passing. Sometimes one will try to grab a bit from another bird.

The spectacle lasts for 30 minutes or more. As the food is taken, kites begin to drift away, although there are usually still a few hanging around after an hour or more.

Red kites were once the cleaner-uppers of cities and countryside, until someone decided they were vermin.  Then they were persecuted until only a few pairs remained in the isolated hills of Wales.  Following decades of hard work – much of it by volunteers – kite nests were monitored and protected.  The small population meant that there was little genetic diversity, and so this protection was only half the story of their recovery.  The other half came when a bird of German origin, and probably migrating off-course, paired up with a Welsh bird and injected some new blood into the population.  Now, that has been augmented by birds reintroduced elsewhere in the UK from Spain and Sweden.

Red kites are now seen across much of Britain (they occur naturally across the whole of Europe), and I don’t need to go to Gigrin to see them (sometimes one even passes over my garden).  But it’s still worth stopping there occasionally to see this spectacle – it’s about a two-hour drive for me, so a convenient stopping place on a long drive north.

Of course, there are other birds to be seen at Gigrin.  Buzzards (above), crows, rooks, ravens, and jackdaws all regularly join in the feast.  Small birds – finches, sparrows, tits, wagtails, etc – are found around the farm, and particularly at the feeders by the car park.

Wildlife trail around the farm

In summer, there is a trail around the farm. It leads past the top of the kite feeding station to a small hide overlooking a small wetland. Then across a field or two to some high level ponds, where a path branches off to up onto the moorland. You then wind back across a couple of fields and down through a small dingle to the kite feeding hides. There is a badger sett on the farm, and polecats and otters have both been seen recently.

You may also see birds such as goshawk, black cap, dipper, hen harriers, redpoll, skylark, kestrel, woodcock, curlew, merlin and many more.

The small cafe is a good place to round off your visit – particularly on a cold winter’s day.

Gigrin Farm website – check opening times before visiting.

Other red kite feeding stations

Wales – Llanddeusant Red Kite Feeding Station

Opened in 2002 by a local partnership with support from the Brecon Beacons National Park, the Welsh Red Kite Trust and various other notable wildlife organisations and individuals. Visitors may sit in the specially built hide only feet away from diving birds and observe them competing naturally for the food provided by the feeding centre at regular times throughout  the year.

Wales – Bwlch Nant yr Arian

In 1999, Bwlch Nant yr Arian became a red kite feeding station as part of a programme to protect the small number of red kites in the area at that time. Nowadays, the red kites are fed by the lake at Bwlch Nant yr Arian every day at 2pm in winter (GMT) and at 3pm in summer (BST). The Barcud Trail (an easy access route around the lake) and the café offer fantastic views of this spectacle. There is also a bird hide overlooking the feeding area.

Scotland – Argaty Red Kites

A feeding site in Perthshire

England – Chilterns

A useful leaflet about where to see kites in the English countryside of the Chilterns (Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire).

Covid-19 restrictions

Most sites now require advance booking to ensure that only a safe number of people can visit a site at a time. Details are on the individual websites, along with feeding times and details of all facilities available.

The websites of several other feeding stations are not available now, so these are no longer listed here.

If you come across other red kite feeding stations, in any European country, please let me know and I’ll add them to this page.

Welsh Kite Trust

The charity dedicated to the conservation of the red kite and other raptor species in Wales. Information about how to report a wing-tagged bird,

Bookshop

Where to watch birds in Wales – out of print – 5th edition due in 2022

Buying books through our bookshop provides us with a small commission (at no extra cost to you) to help with the cost of running this site.


Other posts about Wales

Visiting Skomer Island in Pembrokeshire

Skomer Island off the coast of Pembrokeshire is a fantastic place for puffins and other seabirds, seals, plants, and a generally good day out. This article is about how to get there.

Visiting Skomer Island in Pembrokeshire

Photo above: Looking across Jack Sound from the Deer Park.  The first lump of land is Middleholm.  Beyond that is Skomer, with the Mew Stone to the left (south), and the smaller Garland Stone to the right (north).

For a virtual tour of Skomer Island – read this article

Puffin carrying sand-eels back to the nest

What you’ll see there

Skomer Island, off the tip of Pembrokeshire in south-west Wales is a true wildlife haven.  With no ground predators such as foxes, rats or stoats, the island provides a safe haven for ground-nesting birds such as puffins and Manx shearwaters, as well as for other seabirds that nest out in the open.  In the autumn is is a safe place for grey seals to have their pups.

Best time for seabirds – May – July, though fulmars and shearwaters are still feeding chicks until September

Best time for other birds – April-May and August-October migration periods when anything can turn up.

Best time for seals – can be seen in all months, but pups are born between August and November.

Best time for flowers – May – August

Best time for insects – May – September


About Skomer

Grey seals hauled out for an afternoon nap on a rock in South Haven

How to get there

It’s only a ten-minute boat crossing to reach Skomer.

2021 – Due to Covid restrictions, you now have to book in advance. Details are here. If you don’t have a ticket, you are unlikely to get on the boat.

Parking is still at Martin’s Haven National Trust car park, so you need either a National Trust membership card, or some cash.

As well as puffins, guillemots, razorbills and Manx shearwaters, there are other species of bird breeding on Skomer – great black-back, lesser black-back and herring gulls, kittiwakes, cormorants, shags, oystercatchers, curlew (but only one or two pairs), land birds such as wheatears, meadow pipits, rock pipits, blackbirds, jackdaw, crow, raven, chough, and raptors such as peregrine, buzzard, little owl and short-eared owl.

The Pembrokeshire Islands are home to about half a million pairs of Manx Shearwaters. These birds are nocturnal on land (to avoid predation by gulls) and are most easily seen by either staying overnight on Skomer (contact the Wildlife Trust for South and West Wales) or by taking an evening “Seabird Spectacular” on the Dale Princess.

Rabbits, woodmice, common shrews and the Skomer vole (a subspecies of bank vole) all live on the island, while around 150-200 grey seals have their pups on the beaches each autumn.

Manx Shearwaters gathering offshore, waiting to return to their nests after dark

My articles elsewhere about Skomer

Watching puffins and other seabirds

Skomer in May


Other articles about Wales

Winter birdwatching in Bulgaria

Why Bulgaria in Winter

Bulgaria in winter tends to be cold, with temperatures often a few degrees below freezing for days on end, and snow more likely than rain.  The climate along the Black Sea coast, however, tends to be less severe. So tens of thousands of geese and other wildfowl spend the winter here.

The greatest numbers of geese are seen in January and February, but January is still the hunting season, and the birds are often unsettled.  So, February is a better time for a visit.

The northern-most part of the Black Sea coast (near Romania) has been dubbed Bulgaria’s ‘Geeseland’. This is where the main roosts of the geese, the lakes of Shabla and Durankulak, are located. The southern Bulgarian Black Sea also provides wintering grounds for Dalmatian pelicans, pygmy cormorants, various species of ducks, shorebirds, gulls, raptors, owls, woodpeckers, and many smaller birds.

The less severe climate on the southern Bulgarian Black Sea also provides wintering grounds for Dalmatian Pelicans, Pygmy Cormorants, various species of ducks, shorebirds, gulls, raptors, owls, woodpeckers and many smaller birds.

Red-breasted Goose

Shabla Lake complex

Located on the northern part of the Black Sea coast, the Shabla Lake complex is of  European importance for the conservation of rare and endangered habitats.  The coastal freshwater and brackish lakes, sandy beaches and reedbeds are used by thousands of birds as roosts during migration or while wintering.

Located on the Via Pontica – a major bird migration route in Europe – the lake complex attracts a huge number of migratory waterfowl. It is famous for the huge concentrations of red-breasted geese and greater white-fronted geese. These come from the tundra of Europe and Asia to overwinter. The mild winters, coupled with safe roosting lakes and large arable areas where they can feed, bring in about three-quarters of the global population of red-breasted geese (up to 30,000) for the season.

The migration of red-breasted geese is currently being studied by satellite tracking. Several birds have been fitted with GPS devices that transmit information every day. This allows their movements to be followed in detail – through Georgia, Kazakhstan, and then north to the Russian Arctic coast. This also encourages interest in local wildlife in schools etc en route. For more information, check the project website.

For more information, see Shabla Lake – Important Bird Area

Geese flying out to their feeding grounds at sunrise

Lake Durankulak

Like Shabla, Lake Durankulak is a haven for thousands of migratory birds passing each year on the way to their breeding territories or remaining to spend the winter. In winter the variety of waterfowl is incredible: Black-necked Grebes, Pygmy Cormorants, Mute and Whooper Swans, Pochards, Tufted Ducks, Red-breasted Mergansers, Yellow-legged Gulls etc. but especially the tens of thousands of mostly White-fronted and Red-breasted Geese.  But the top attraction is the flocks of many thousands of wild geese flying off the lake at sunrise. 

For more information, see Durankulak Lake – Important Bird Area

White-headed Duck

Burgas

The wetlands around the city of Burgas form one of Europe’s richest bird areas. One of the biggest attractions in winter however, are the flocks of Pygmy Cormorants and Dalmatian Pelicans resident there, and the hundreds of White-headed Ducks wintering almost every winter on Vaya Lake. Some of the other species expected there are Whooper Swan, Tundra Swan (ssp. bewickii), White-tailed Eagle, Bearded Reedling, Smew, Pallas’s Gull, Slender-billed Gull, Mediterranean Gull and other more common wintering waterbirds. Nearby there are coastal riverine forests and the Eastern Balkan oak forests, which are very good sites for Grey-headed Woodpecker, Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, Middle Spotted Woodpecker, Short-toed Treecreeper, Hawfinch, Cirl Bunting and Sombre Tit.

The Bulgarian Society for the Protection of Birds manages a small reserve and visitor centre at the Poda Reserve where there are trails and hides.

Cinereous (Eurasian Black) Vulture

Eastern Rhodopes

The Eastern part of the Rhodope Mountains is locked between the valleys of the big rivers Arda and Maritsa in southern Bulgaria, near the border with Greece. This area hosts exceptional biodiversity – a result of the mixture of Mediterranean and continental climates. This is the realm of the wolf packs, as one of the densest populations of the Wolf in Bulgaria is found here. The most spectacular birds of the region in winter are the vultures – Eurasian Griffon and Cinereous (Eurasian Black) vultures, which are attracted to a feeding station in the Potochnitsa Hills.


Visiting the area

While Bulgaria is fairly easily accessible, the main problem for the independent traveller is that road signs are in the Cyrillic alphabet (although on major roads, some may have Latin script too). And then you have to remember that a shake of the head means ‘yes’ and a nod means ‘no’.

Finding wildlife, especially if you have limited time, may therefore be best achieved by joining an organised tour.

Neophron Tours provides a bird-guide service to these sites in Bulgaria. I haven’t used them myself, but they were recommended by friends.

Birdwatching Bulgaria is a branch of a Danish tour operator, and offers a limited range of tours.

Branta Tours is another company based in Eastern Europe. It also operates the Branta Bird Lodge and conservation centre close to the Durankulak Lake Protected Area.

Wild Echo is a Bulgarian company that has been operating for 15 years, and provide a variety of standard trips as well as tailor-made trips.

Many nature tour companies based outside of Bulgaria also use guides provided by one of these companies.

Wikitravel provides a lot of information for the independent traveller to Bulgaria, and includes a section on the Black Sea Coast


Bookshop

Click on the covers for more information.

Malcolm Rymer’s fascination with waterfowl draws him to coastal Bulgaria each February to study the geese on their wintering grounds.

Many thousands of European White-fronted geese, wintering wildfowl, grebes, divers, larks, woodpeckers, owls, swans, pelicans, buzzards and eagles all feature in these videos.

Video
Video

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