Brazo del Este Natural Area

The Brazo del Este is located 20 km south of Seville in the Guadalquivir river estuary.

This former branch (brazo) of the Guadalquivir lies to the east of the main river and is surrounded by rice plains and intensive farmland.

It is quite possible to see over 100 species during a one-day visit here.

I first came across the Brazo del Este by happy accident, trying to drive from Seville to San Lucar de Barrameda on the back roads, keeping close to the Guadalquivir and hoping the often unpaved roads wouldn’t come to a dead end. The intensively cultivated landscape changed suddenly to something more wild – reedbeds alongside a river that didn’t go in a straight line. And then a volume of birdsong that had been missing since we left the Doñana Natural Park early that morning. Not forgetting the occasional wide verge full of flowers and insects.


About the Brazo del Este

The Brazo del Este Natural Park starts 17km south of Seville, where there is a fork in the main channel of the Guadalquivir. The brazo twists and turns along 39km of meanders, rejoining the main channel some 16km further down. Somehow, this channel has survived the 100 years or so of human intervention, and become an exceptionally important wetland for birds.

It is at least as important as the Doñana National Park Natural Park on the other side of the Guadalquivir – indeed, it has the advantage that it does not dry out in summer, and so provides a refuge for birds trying to escape the summer drought. The abundance of ducks (pintail, mallard, shoveler, teal), birds of prey, various herons, egrets, a colony of white storks, as well as a variety of other birds has meant that it has been declared a Special Protection Area (SPA or ZEPA in Spanish).

The wetland vegetation is mainly made up of marsh-loving plants, with reedmace and giant reed Arundo donax lining the channels. Tamarisk is abundant in drier areas. There are few trees, with some isolated specimens of ash and white poplar in the last stretch of the channel. However, it is not all natural. Red eucalyptus was introduced from Australia as an ornamental garden species, it escaped and here it now grows in abundance along paths and several sections of the river – an invasive species that may be creating problems.


Best places for seeing . . . . .

It’s hard to mention best places – we drove around and there seemed to be something new around every corner. This was the end of March:

After some kilometres (from Seville) we came to an area of olive scrub on slightly elevated ground.   The rain stopped (more or less) and we stopped too, exchanging the sound of the engine for that of birdsong.  It took us a while to work out what was singing.  So many birds were singing that distinguishing a single song from all the others was difficult, but we eventually realised that they were mostly blackcaps.  Scores of them.  A few birds showed themselves, some looking decidedly wet and bedrag­gled while others were smart and dry. Serins, house sparrows and blackbirds tried to make them­selves heard above the blackcaps’ din.

photo of blackcap
Blackcap singing

Jim saw a cape hare on his side of the van, and a few minutes later there was one on my side too.  It looked us up and down, then disappeared into the scrub again.

Egrets flew over the road, along with white storks, black kites, and hoopoes.  There was a strong passage of hirundines and swifts.  Along the road were gold- and greenfinches, great tits, chiffchaffs and Sardinian warblers.  After lunch we heard our first cuckoo of the year, and a little owl crooned from somewhere close by.

In places, the roadside verge was a ten-metre wide carpet of wild-flowers: asphodel, French lavender, broom, yellow crucifers, masses of pink Mediterranean catchfly, poppy, ramping fumitory, purple viper’s bugloss, bugle, weasel’s snout, Barbary nut and chives, to name but a few. Here and there I found small patches of ‘insect’ orchids; they did not correspond exactly with anything in the book, though the nearest seemed to be the early spider orchid.

A blue butterfly rested on a lavender stem, sheltering from the weather.  It walked onto my finger ‑ presumably attracted by the warmth.  We compared it closely with the diagrams in the butterfly book.  The blue-grey underwings, with black spots rimmed with white. Then it opened the wings to show brilliant blue colouring with prominent white veins on the forewing and a black margin.  The body was also blue and hairy.  Having warmed itself suffic­iently the butterfly flew off along the road.  It was a black‑eyed blue, which should not have been on the wing until April.

There were more stunning invertebrates to come, firstly a huge brown slug clambering along thistle leaves – slugs might not appeal to everyone, but this one’s size was impressive. I have no idea what kind it is, though.

Then an oil (blister) beetle with a massive body about 50mm long ‑ all black but with red between the abdominal segments ‑ and small wing‑buds (they are flightless).  The insect book did not show enough examples to identify the species so ID had to wait – in fact it had to wait several years, but this has now been identified as the red-striped oil beetleBerberomeloe majalis. The female oil beetle needs this large abdomen to produce vast numbers – up to 10,000 – eggs, and it is a wonder that any larvae ever get to adulthood as most of them fail to reach maturity either for lack of food or through predation. The larvae are only about 3mm long, and their development proceeds through hypermetamorphosis – a process in which the larval stages are of different forms. Unlike the larvae of oil beetles of the genus Meloe that we have in Britain, the first stage larva has to actively seek out a suitable solitary bee host. Once the larva has consumed the egg and then the stored nectar and pollen from a bee’s nest, they leave it. They then moult again, and emerge with their back legs formed. From this stage they pupate, and emerge from the chrysalis as adults. If a larva accidentally selects the wrong type of bee as host, it will die.

But it was the water birds that dominated.

Purple Heron

The road continued through the Isla Menor agricultural desert.  The marshes shown on the map had been turned into arable fields with only a handful of small wet areas remaining.  Neverthe­less they did contain coot, moorhen, little grebes, grey, purple and squacco herons, marsh harriers, black kites, mallard, cattle and little egrets, snipe, Savi’s and fan‑tailed warblers, and red-crested pochard.  Purple gallinules honked from the reeds.

photo of bird on water
Little Grebe in breeding plumage

In May, the migrants have arrived mostly settled down, and you can expect to add collared pratincole, black, whiskered, gull-billed and Capsian terns, as well as a variety of ducks, waders, little bitterns, spoonbills, booted eagles, hoopoes, and more warblers.

Summer and autumn brings a greater variety as birds breeding in the Arctic begin to migrate south again – those that failed at nesting will be the first to arrive. In winter add greylag goose and marbled duck, little crake, bluethroats and a whole lot more.


So there you have it

If you’re staying anywhere between Malaga and Gibraltar, and don’t have time to visit the Doñana National Park, then this is the next best thing. Take a GPS/SatNav – they didn’t exist when I first visited, so we had to hope that we were actually using the roads that we thought we were.

The heronries – I missed the heron roosts because I didn’t know they were there, never mind exactly where they were. Where to Watch Birds in Southern and Western Spain has the details.

Other species to look out for include purple and squacco herons, black stork, glossy ibis, marbled teal, purple swamphen, penduline tit, bluethroat, Spanish sparrow

The butterflies and flowers change too, with the seasons, so there is always something of interest.


Resources

Websites

Andalucia tourism website

Andalucia.com – tourism site, links to accommodation

Discovering Donana website – for information, local guides, etc.

Videos

Views of the area and its birds
Good views of the habitats. People talking in Spanish about the area.
The birds speak for themselves – with music.

Getting there

Public transport – not easy. There is a bus service between Seville and Cadiz, with the nearest towns en route being Los Palacios y Villafranca and Las Cabezas de San Juan from where it is a long hike, or a taxi ride.

According to the Discovering Donana websiteThe main dirt road that cuts the Brazo and the old Carretera del Práctico (Coast Pilot Road), which runs along the Guadalquivir River, are the main access points, but to these must be added an intricate network of secondary roads and channels that make navigation difficult in the area, hence the usefulness of a local guide – and, obviously, they would prefer you to use one of theirs.


Bookshop

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More nature-watching in Andalucia

Photo of spoonbills in flight

Las Marismas del Odiel

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

Keep reading

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Photo of a puffin in flight

Resources for the naturalist visiting Iceland

We had a plan to go to Iceland a few years back. But health problems got in the way, then there was Covid, and still we’re not travelling yet. Iceland remains on the list . . . . and we will get there one day.

Preparation for any trip includes finding the appropriate books, websites, and other sources of information. I was well into searching for books before we had to cancel. The growing popularity of Iceland as a tourist destination has spawned a lot of general travel books.  Not quite so much for nature-watchers, but here is what I’ve found.  I haven’t actually bought any of them yet, so the information is from the publishers’ notes.


Note – click on any cover or link for more information. Buying through these links brings a small commission (at no extra cost to the the buyer) that helps with the maintenance of this website.

Crossbill Guides – Iceland

Picture of book cover - Crossbill guide to Iceland

Iceland is famous for its stunning landscapes, unique geology, and rich birdlife. There are few places on Earth where volcanism has resulted in such a multitude of different landscapes, and where such vast numbers of birds are easy to watch and photograph. The Crossbill Guide: Iceland shows everything Iceland’s nature has to offer, and contains 16 detailed itineraries for the best places to go. The guide also describes close to 50 sites with tips for visitors interested in geology, birds, marine mammals, flora, and history of the landscape.


Geology of Iceland

This is the first book describing the glorious geology of Iceland’s Golden Circle and four additional excursions:(1) the beautiful valleys and mountains of the fjord of Hvalfjörđur, (2) the unique landscape and geothermal fields of the Hengill Volcano, (3) the explosion craters, volcanic fissures, and lava fields of the Reykjanes Peninsula, and (4) the volcanoes (Hekla, Eyjafjallajökull, Katla), waterfalls, sandur plains, and rock columns of South Iceland. The Golden Circle offers a unique opportunity to observe and understand many of our planet’s forces in action. These forces move the Earth’s tectonic plates, rupture the crust, and generate earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, channels for rivers and waterfalls, and heat sources for hot springs and geysers.

The Golden Circle includes the famous rifting and earthquake fracture sites at þingvellir, the hot springs of the Geysir area, the waterfall of Gullfoss, and the Kerid volcanic crater. As The Glorious Geology of Iceland’s Golden Circle is primarily intended for people with no background in geosciences, no geological knowledge is assumed and technical terms are avoided as far as possible (those used are explained in a glossary). With more than 240 illustrations – mostly photographs – explaining geological structures and processes, it is also a useful resource for geoscientists.

Book cover - the Glorious Geology of Iceland's Golden Circle

Hiking in Iceland

Book cover - Cicerone guide to Iceland

This walking and trekking guidebook offers a total of 49 day-walks and 10 multi-stage treks set right across the magnificent country of Iceland.  It includes popular routes, such as the classic Laugavegur Trail from Landmannalaugar to Porsmork, as well as lesser-known trails.  Cicerone Guides: Walking and Trekking in Iceland is split into 12 sections that cover all the best walking and trekking to be had in and around Iceland’s amazing and awe-inspiring volcanic, glacial landscapes. The routes range in difficulty from easy walks to challenging treks and give readers all the information they need to experience this wonderfully unique destination on foot. Venture inland to the remote interior and captivating ice caps, cross glaciers, lakes and see coastlines and geothermal areas.  Paddy Dillon’s guide to this ‘Land of Ice and Fire’ encourages visitors to explore all that Iceland has to offer, and will inspire lovers of the great outdoors to return time and time again.  Cicerone Guides: Walking and Trekking in Iceland gives lots of tips for travellers on a budget as well as details on public transport and accommodation.


Birds in Iceland

This second edition of the popular Icelandic Bird Guide has been completely revised and expanded. It covers all Icelandic breeding birds and regular visitors in detail and also describes numerous annual vagrants – more than 160 species in total.

Icelandic Bird Guide is an ideal identification guide when travelling around Iceland for experienced birdwatchers and beginners alike. The clear and concise text describes the birds’ appearance and behaviour, as well their diet and habitat. Maps and diagrams clearly show distribution, movements and population sizes. It also includes photographs of eggs shown in actual size.

Book cover - Icelandic Bird Guide

Birdwatching map

Cover - Birdwatchers map of Iceland

A simple and accessible guide to Iceland`s birdlife, covering 70 species of breeding bird and 37 migrants, winter visitors and vagrants. Breeding birds are pictured together with maps showing their distribution and illustrations indicating the size and appearance of their eggs. The water-colour illustrations are by Jon Baldur Hlidberg. The Birdwatcher’s Map of Iceland is an essential companion for all nature lovers woh want to learn more about Iceland`s birdlife on their travels around the country.

There is a similar Geological Map of Iceland which shows the main features of the bedrock geology. Formations are classified by age, type and composition. The map also clearly shows the island’s volcanic zones and the distribution of the recent eruption sites. Lava fields of the Holocene are shown as pre-historic or historic. This is the second, revised, edition of the map.


Plants in Iceland

This illustrated field guide contains details of 465 Icelandic plant species arranged by flower colour, complete with photo keys and distribution maps. The unique features of each plant are briefly described, together with information about its habitat, distribution, flowering time and size. The latest edition of the Flowering plants and ferns of Iceland has been fully updated with many additional entries.

Cover Flowering plants and ferns of Iceland

Useful websites

Sustainable tourism in Iceland

Guide to Iceland – general tourism site – marketplace for activities, adventures, places to go, tours, accommodation, etc.

HeyIceland – Icelandic travel agency, seems to have some interesting self-guided tours of various lengths – accommodation, GPS and hire car included.

All links to the Iceland Nature Conservation Association seem to be unavailable.


The following blogs are not nature-specific, but do contain a lot of information about travelling around Iceland by people who have travelled there independently:

SueWhereWhyWhatWhat is Iceland facous for? 25 reasons to fall in love with Iceland

MyFabFiftiesLife – travelling the ring road in a camper

Meandering Wild – everything the author learnt from her time in Iceland


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Resources for other countries


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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Photo of a gannet in flight

The hottest weekend

In July 2022 we made a road trip across Britain, visiting three RSPB nature reserves. It just happened to coincide with the hottest days ever recorded in the UK

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.

Click on the covers for more information.

Buying books through these links earns a small commission (at no extra cost to you) which helps with maintaining this website.


More about the Atlantic Islands

Parque Nacional del Teide

Mount Teide National Park, on the Canary Island of Tenerife, is the highest volcano in Spain, and in the Atlantic. Here’s how to get to the top.

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.


Bookshop

Click on covers for more information

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.

Pin for later

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


Bookshop

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

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

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

The Alpine Botanical Garden at Lautaret

More nature-watching in the Alps

Nature of Grindelwald

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

The 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

Albania in Spring

Why Albania

Despite being a small country, Albania, especially in spring, displays huge biodiversity. The countryside is alive with plants, birds, insects, mammals, rivers, lakes, green countryside

I have not yet been to Albania, though I have looked across the border from Greece, Macedonia and Montenegro (top photo). That was back in the day when Albania was closed off from the outside world, when Communism was the order of the day in the Balkans, and the internet did not exist.

Now, things have changed. Albania is emerging as a tourist destination, and for its natural values as well as for the cultural aspects of the country. This post was prompted by somebody sending me a link to a brochure on issuu.com. That led me to a few more booklets of various kinds stacked here

According to the Natura.al website:

Although a small country, Albania is very rich in biological diversity. The tremendous diversity of ecosystems and habitats supports about 3,200 species of vascular plants, 2,350 species of non-vascular plants, and 15,600 species of invertebrates and vertebrates, many of which are threatened at the global or European level.

Albania has recently made significant progress in expanding the network of protected areas from 5.2% of the country’s territory in 2005 to 16% in 2014. The 799 protected areas cover about 16% (4,600 km²) of its territory. The majority of them have been designated in the category nature monument (750) and are mostly quite small in size.

Recommended places to visit

Wikipedia gives information about 14 national parks and one marine park. One of these, Prespa National Park, is shared with Greece and Macedonia.

Subalpine Warbler

Divjaka-Karavasta National Park is halfway along the coast. It includes the 4,000-hectare Karavasta lagoon, the largest in the country with 5% of the world’s breeding Dalmatian Pelicans. Elsewhere marshes and shallow pools are teeming with other life. Garganey and greater flamingoes can be present in their hundreds. Pygmy cormorants, marsh sandpipers and Caspian terns, to name but a few. The surrounding pinewoods are home to collared flycatchers, subalpine warblers (above) and nightingales.

Kentish Plover

The Vjosë- Nartë protected area south of Karavasta comprises a huge complex of saltpans and coastal dunes around the Nartë lagoon. It’s a magnet for migrating birds and can offer some of the best wader-watching in Europe, with black-winged stilts, avocets, spotted redshanks, Kentish plovers (above), stints and sandpipers in abundance. You can also expect to see slender-billed gulls, collared pratincoles, stone curlews, bee-eaters and hoopoes.

Green-winged Orchid. Anacamptis morio

The Valbonë Valley National Park lies in the Albanian Alps and next to the border with Montenegro. It is another area with a wealth of natural history, and some good mountain hiking. Brown bears and wolves are present, but elusive and hard to see. Chamois, hazel grouse, rock partridge and black woodpecker are rather more obliging. This area is also wonderfully rich botanically: meadows of green-winged orchid (above), beech woodland with Coralroot and Bird’s-nest Orchids . . . and the list goes on.

Desarashimi1, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Dajte National Park

The Dajti National Park (above) lies to the east of the capital, Tirana. It is an extensive, forested mountain range featuring waterfalls, canyons & caves. A bus ride, followed by a fifteen-minute scenic cablecar ride takes you from the capital to the park. A new visitor centre welcomes tourists and visitors at the “Natural Balcony of Tirana”.

“Preserving natural resources and raising awareness about the rich biodiversity of Albania is fundamental for the development of a more environmental-friendly tourism model and culture. The kind of tourism that builds on nature conservation to support sustainable development,” stated Ambassador Soreca during the inauguration ceremony.

“Dajti Visitor Centre is the seventh centre built around Protected Areas in Albania. They are serving not just as information centres but as communication bridges which will support sustainable tourism development,” said Minister of Tourism and Environment Blendi Klosi. (This was from a news release on the NATUR.AL Website)

So, the government is taking nature tourism seriously, and that effort will probably only be sustained if it is supported by people visiting these places.

Bookshop

Click on the covers below for more information. There are few books specifically about Albanian nature. Books about the Balkans or the eastern Mediterranean areas in general will help. Also check the Albania nature website for booklets and leaflets in English which may be relevant.

Albania book cover

P.S. 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 resources

  • To understand more about travelling in Albania, here is a blog post (with links to others) that is well worth reading.
  • If your trip includes time in the capital, Tirana, here is a blog post full of suggestions for things to do there
  • Kami provides some useful tips for travelling in the country
  • Chasing the donkey blog has a post on the national parks of Albania
  • Wikitravel also has a lot of background information for independent travellers
  • Responsible Travel has plenty of ideas for more organised trips and eco-volunteering
  • Naturetrek offers two tours – one in April which is more bird focussed, while the late May alternative has more botanical and butterfly interest.
The Golden Eagle is the national bird of Albania

The Vouraikos Gorge

Why visit the Vouraikos Gorge?

The spectacular scenery

The abundance of wildlflowers – including a few found only in Greece, and one found only in the Gorge itself.

A variety of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, butterflies, and other insects.

The heritage railway and the Mega Spilio Monastery

There are two ways to see the Vouraikos Gorge – either you walk through it, or take the train. Or perhaps you take the train, and spend a couple of hours wandering around near each station until the next train comes. The latter is probably best done at weekends when there are five trains each way a day, rather than the three on weekdays.

Beginning near the village of Priolithos in the Aroania/Chelmos mountains, the Vouraikos river flows some 40km past the towns of Kalavryta and Diakopto to the Gulf of Corinth. The gorge itself is the last half of this journey, where the river has cut through limestone and conglomerates, and now passes through dense vegetation and tunnels with many caves, passes and crags.

Legend has it that the name derives from Boura, a mythological daughter of Ion and Helice. She was courted by Hercules who opened the gorge in order to get closer to her.

The river and gorge and part of the National Park of Chelmos-Vouraikos, which was established in 2009 to preserve the biodiversity, the natural resources, and the ecological value of the natural ecosystems in the area. The steep sides of the gorge provide a myriad of micro-climates, with plenty of opportunity for plants to evolve into endemic species, and for scarce animals to find refuge.

The endemic plants include Silene conglomeratica (endemic to the gorge), Aurinia moreana, and Campanula topaliana subsp. cordifolia (pictured left).

Otters Lutra lutra hunt along the river. Bats (Miniopterus sehreibasi, Myotis blythii, Myotis myotis, Rhinolophus blasii, Rhinolophus ferrumequinum) also live in the caves and the rock crevices.

Several birds of prey nest on the rock ledges higher up.

The railway line dates from the 1890s. Charilaos Trikinos was the Greek prime minister at the time, and he wanted to create local railway networks to connect the interior regions with the main railway. These local railways were to be narrow gauge, because small trains were better suited to the mountainous country and were cheaper to construct. It also meant that, using a cog system, the trains could negotiate steeper inclines. This railway climbs 750m in its 20km journey. Since it was inaugurated on 10th March 1896, the trains have run every day, regardless of the weather (although parts of the line were closed for refurbishment when I visited).

The E4 European long distance footpath starts in Portugal and runs through the Alps before turning south through the Balkans and ending in Cyprus. It makes use of existing routes, including the railway line through the Vouraikos Gorge. That means that with some careful planning, and keeping an eye and ear out for trains, it is possible to take nature walks within the gorge.

The route

The first station north of Kalavrita is Zahlorov. From here we crossed the rail bridge over the river, noting pale speedwell Veronica cymbalaria and Narrow navelwort Umbilicus horizontalis (horizontalis refers to the flowers in this case, not the whole plant) growing from the crevices, and large plane trees Platanus orientalis shading the river valley below. Iridescent blue male beautiful demoiselle damselflies Calopteryx virgo were flitting from leaf to leaf, and showing off in the sun to the iridescent green females.

A road leads uphill from here to Mega Spilio Monastery, which is mostly located in a cave. The rocky slopes supported dry species from the garrigue – Rock bellflower Campanula rupestris, the pink cistuses Cistus incanus and C creticus, and kermes oak Quercus coccifera whose small holly-like leaves host the Kermes scale insect Kermes vermilio. These insects were harvested and dried, then used to produce a crimson dye until the mid-1500s when the cochineal insects were discovered on cactuses in America.

A stream frog Rana graeca was well camouflaged amongst the leaf litter until it moved. We examined it carefully because all the brown frogs look similar – the diagnostic feature here is that the distance between the nostrils is less than the distance between the eye and the nostril!

Closer to Diakopto the land flattens out somewhat to reveal extensive lemon and olive groves. Use of pesticides has meant that native wildflowers have largely been replaced by the invasive Bermuda buttercup Oxalis pes-caprae, but there are still some places with a mass of colour – bellflower Campanula ramoissima, blue houndstone Cynoglossum creticum, bug orchid Orchis coriophoroa, tongue orchid Serapia vomeracea, branching broomrape Orobanche ramosa, birthwort Aristolocia sempervirens, and grass poly Lythrum junceum, to name just a few, and then wonderful fields of scarlet poppies Papaver rhoeas.

Amongst the trees in one field, the dappled sunlight illuminated a patch of bright pink Cyclamen repandum ssp peloponnesiacum – a local speciality – pictured right.

In a nearby ditch we found shepherds needle Scandex pectin-veneris (the common name deriving from the striking seed pods), and also Calabrian soapwort Saponaria calabrica.

Diakopto itself is on the Corinthian Gulf, with maritime species along the shore by the railway line – yellow horned poppy Glaucium flavum, three-horned stock Malcomia tricuspidata, and sea beet Beta maritima.

On the way back to Kalavrita, we had views of a pair of short-toed eagles circling the top of the gorge. A delightful day out indeed.


Bookshop

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.

There are some books available that are specific to Greece – this one about bird-watching sites for example.

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

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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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.


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More nature-watching in the Alps

Botany and Butterflies in the French Alps

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