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 articles about the Alps

Nature of Grindelwald

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

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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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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Madeira – The Laurel Forest at Ribeiro Frio

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The Island of Madeira is a popular stopping point for cruise ships, but where does the naturalist go to make the most of a day ashore?

If the weather is at least reasonable, I’d recommend taking a bus ride north to the mountain village of Ribeiro Frio.  The route winds its way up through Funchal, through commercial forest, then the edge open plateau of the top of the island, then down into the Laurel forest and the village.  

Best to leave the bus at the restaurant at Ribeiro Frio (just south of the village) from where there are several options for walking, birdwatching and botanising.

If this area is in the clouds, you might prefer to continue on the bus to Santana or Porto da Cruz on the north coast.

If the weather is good, another option is to get off the bus at Poiso, and walk the 4km to Pico de Arieiro near the top of the island – best in clear weather.  But leave enough time to walk back to catch the bus back.

The Madeira Islands were known to the Romans as the Purple Islands. It is likely that the Arabian sailors knew about the archipelago in the 14th Century – it appears on a 1351 Florentine map named as “Isola de Lolegname” (Island of Wood).  The official date of discovery is 1419 by Portuguese seamen.  And within the next ten years most of the endemic forests were burnt away to make room for agriculture. Some forest still remains on the steep slopes on the northern half of the island.  This woodland is most easily accessible at Ribeiro Frio.

Ribeiro Frio

Just below the bus stop a track is signposted to “Balcões”  (Balcony or viewpoint) and an easy half-hour walk leads to a magnificent view over a valley.  Alongside the path is the Levada (water channel) do Faial, and a selection of laurel forest plant species, such as Madeira mahogany Persea indica, Bay tree Laurus axorica, Madeira orchid Dactyloriza foliosa, and Yellow foxglove Isoplexis isoplexis.

The balcony itself (a viewpoint) juts out over a 200m drop. If you have visited the site in the past, and been put off by the rather rustic and fragile-looking wooden railings, you’ll be pleased to know they have been replaced by much more sturdy iron ones. Here is probably the best place for birdwatching – the endemic races of sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus granti, kestrel Falco Tinnunculus canariensis, buzzard Buteo buteo harterti, blackbird Turdus merula cabrerae, chaffinch Fringilla coelebs madeirensis, and firecrest Regulus ignicapillus madeirensis and the endemic Trocaz pigeon Columba trocaz can all be seen from here.  However, nothing is guaranteed except perhaps the chaffinches, which have learned that tourists mean food.

The Madeiran chaffinch is similar to the European chaffinch, but the male has much more blue on its flanks. The birds at the Balcões are very tame, and easily bribed with seeds or apples.

On clear days, you can see the the island’s central chain of mountains – Pico de Areeiro, Pico do Gato, Pico das Torres, Pico Ruivo and Achada do Teixeira. Even a cloudy day may allow occasional glimpses:

In the valley below is the Ribeira da Ametade, and it is possible to walk along the track at the bottom from a point some 7km north of Ribeiro Frio. There is no direct way down from the viewpoint.  This whole valley is a protected area within the Madeira Natural Park. 

Trocaz pigeons keep their distance, but can be seen with luck and patience. We saw as many from the restaurant as we did from the Balcões. They are found only in the laurel forest, and numbers are low.

This bright jewel of a bird is the Madeiran firecrest, weighing only 6g (1/4 ounce).  It is continuously active, often hidden in the vegetation, but can be very confiding, as was this individual foraging in the heather by the Balcões.

Adjacent to the gift shop and restaurant is the government trout farm, where the fish are reared to restock the rivers, as well as for food.  Here there is a break in the forest, allowing growth of flowers such as the native Erysimum bicolour to attract butterflies like the Madeiran Brimstone Gonopteryx maderensis 

On the opposite side of the road to the trout farm is the Parque Florestal (Forest Park) – a botanical garden of Laurel forest plants. Over 100 flowering plants are endemic to the island, many of them hidden within the Laurel forest. The Parque Florestal is best visited in late spring and summer, and is especially useful if you don’t have time to look for the plants in the wild, or want to check the identity of something, as most are labelled. It’s open all day, every day, with no charge for entrance.

Madeira has three species of endemic cranesbills, all with large pink flowers from spring to winter. The Madeiran cranesbill Geranium maderense (above) is endemic to the island’s Laurel forests and has flowers of 3 – 4cm diameter.

By the trout farm, concrete steps lead up to a levada path which takes you to another kind of forest – full heather trees.

Tree heath Erica arborea (above) has small leaves and white flowers with red anthers and stgmas.  It grows well above 700m, and old specimens can be 5m tall.  It was formerly used for charcoal-making, becoming quite a scarce plant.

Besom Heath Erica Scoparia maderincola (left) also grows to tree proportions, and these two species are often found growing together.   Besom heath has broader, longer needle-like leaves, and reddish bell-shaped flowers. It grows from sea level to to 1400m, and plays an important role on the island, condensing the mist into small drops that feed the water tables.  Its wood was formerly used in furniture-making, and it is still used to make brooms (hence the name besom) and fencing hurdles.  The latter are especially characteristic in the landscape around Port Moniz in the north-west of the island.

Going west from the Ribeiro Frio restaurant, is the Levada do Furado to Portela (above). This 12km hike is considered to be one of the best on the island, but involves steep drops and rock-cut tunnels, so is not for the faint-hearted.  

You also need to be aware of the time in order to be sure of catching the bus back to Funchal at the end. If you suffer from vertigo, you can still do the first kilometre or so of the walk, then turn back to Ribeiro Frio when you’ve had enough.

Further information

Tripadvisor lists a number of tour operators who provide guided walking and driving tours which may include wildlife.

Wildlife specialist operators include MadeiraWindBirds. We went on a night watch with them to see petrels and shearwaters coming to their nests after dark, and found them to be excellent and helpful guides.

Bookshop

On our first visit in 1996, we found a few books about the cultivated plants on Madeira, but nothing about the natural history.  

In 2006 this had changed, with the publication of a delightful book called Madeira’s Natural History in a nutshell by Peter Sziemer and available in several European languages. Note that this book is probably a lot cheaper to buy in Madeira than from elsewhere.

Click on the book covers for more information. We have used the ones that were available at the time of our last visit in 2016. (Buying from this source earns me a small commission, at no extra cost to you, that goes towards the cost of this website)

Levada Walks

Walking the paths beside the levadas (water channels) is a popular past-time.  If you plan to take any of these paths, please make sure you have up-to-date information.  We followed one from a 1996 book, and found the end of it had changed due to building and road works.  Another one we had followed in 1996 and found a bit hairy then, was no longer considered a safe route in 2014.

The original Levada-walking guide was Landscapes of Madeira which is frequently updated, and is now also available as a pdf for use on tablets, etc.  We would recommend this, but have not tried any of the other books now on the market.

Flamingos at Castro Marim

Summer in the Algarve is hot

Summer in the Algarve is hot – temperatures in the forties in the shade – and any breeze is welcome though even that is likely to come from the hot Sahara to the south. Very occasionally, it rains.

Early mornings can be cool, even overcast and grey. Carpenter bees and bumblebees buzz around whatever flowers they can find. Purple bugloss Echium plantagineum, thyme Thymus spp, wild carrot Daucus carota, sea daffodil Pancratium maritimum, Sea Hollies Eryngium spp to name a few. But most seem to have gone to seed, or shrivelled up in the heat.

Most of the butterflies are browns – meadow brown, wall brown, southern gatekeeper, speckled wood, skippers – species that depend on grasses for the caterpillar food plants. The occasional flash of colour from an Adonis blue, a swallowtail, or even a Bath white is welcome.

Birds, too, are best looked for in the early morning – before the heat haze turns them into misshapen ripples of colour in the distance. On the saltpans and estuaries waders are returning south – the first wave being those adults that have failed to breed successfully and are now going south without youngsters in tow. Another few weeks and the family groups will appear.

Dragonflies mass around the shrinking pools and diminishing streams. The narrow bodies of these colourful jewels can be surprisingly hard to see amongst the browning stems and leaves of plants.

European pond terrapins coast themselves with mud to prevent sunburn – and as the mud dries, the evaporation of water keeps them cool.

Daytime is siesta time – for wildlife as well as humans. Nothing wants to move if it doesn’t have to. Out on the sand dunes, the heat is accentuated by the fragrance of curry – from the yellow flowers of the curry plant Helichrysum italicum. Holes, burrows, houses, anywhere that provides shade is cool – comparatively speaking. Sandhill snails Theba pisana move up the stems of plants to aestivate (wait out the hot dry period) away from the heat of the ground.

Inland, there is still a variety of small birds skulking in the olive groves, citrus groves and wherever else they can find shade and food. Finches appear magically as the heat goes out of the day, to feed on grass and thistle seeds. At dusk nightjars and owls still call in defence of their breeding territories.

Yes, Summer in the Algarve is hot. Very hot. And it’s probably best left to the tourists.

If there was a book like this for every area I visited, I’d be a very happy camper. It takes you through the year in fortnightly chunks, with information about plants, birds, invertebrates, places, etc, etc.

It is a general guide to the most obvious bits of natural history, so if you are a specialist in birds, or botany, or butterflies, you’ll need a specialist book for that, and this will help with everything else.

More nature-watching in the Algarve