photo of a southern white admiral butterfly

Butterflies of la Brenne

The Brenne Natural Park lies just west of the centre of France with the large town of Chateauroux just outside the north-eastern corner.

It is an internationally important wetland, with birds, dragonflies, aquatic life, plants, invertebrates, etc etc.

It is truly a naturalist’s paradise, and one worth visiting time and time again.


Map

About la Brenne

The Brenne Natural Regional Park was declared in 1989, covering 166,000 hectares. A large part of the site is a Ramsar site (ie internationally important wetland), and about 48,000ha are defined as an Important Bird Area. However, none of these designations provide any degree of protection of the area.

Only 145ha of the area is designated as a Special Protection Area under the EU Birds Directive.

The area is a cultural landscape, with a multitude of fishponds created in Medieval times and still managed by traditional methods. The lakes are all privately owned, making protection more difficult.

Probably the best way to appreciate the Brenne is by bicycle – it’s fairly flat and easy-going. In spring and summer this allows you to appreciate the birdsong (I vividly remember blackcaps in the scrub on one side of the road, and nightingales on the other, blasting their songs into my ears), while keeping an eye out for butterflies, dragonflies, flowers, and everything else.


The butterflies

Nearly 100 species of butterfly have been recorded in the Brenne area, so there is plenty of scope for the enthusiast. Unlike the Alps, where the number of species is enhanced by altitudinal differences, this is a flat site, and the butterflies are fairly typical of central Europe. The number of species isn’t overwhelming, and a few days there in May gave me thirty species over two trips, June should produce around 45-50 of them. June is the peak season, however butterfly-watching here is good until August at least – although the summer heat and lots of human visitors in August mean I would avoid it then. However, a few species, such as the great banded grayling and the dryad, only fly in late August-September.

Most organised tours are based around birds, orchids, or general natural history – and it is hard to be single-minded about what you are looking for!

So, an introduction to European Butterflies!

Some of the large colourful ones are reasonably easy to identify:

Swallowtail Papilio machaon is widespread across mainland Europe and found mostly in wetland areas, though also on drier ground in the Mediterranean.

Photo of a butterfly

The Scarce Swallowtail Iphiclides podalirius is more associated with trees – particularly Prunus species – on which the caterpillars feed.

All four common species of ‘white’ butterfly are present, the Large White Pieris brassicae being easy to ID because of the extensive amount of black on the wing tips. The less common species include the Wood White Leptidea sinapis which is small with often indistinct markings.

The Brimstone Gonopteris rhamni (which is actually classified as a ‘white’ is distinguished from the other yellow butterflies by having a brown circle on the underwing instead of the prominent white-centred one of the clouded yellow, and by the lack of black margins and spots on the upperwings.

There are a number of small jewel-like butterflies that you really need to see both upper and undersides of to ID. Although they all belong to the ‘blue’ family, they come in a range of colours.

Green Hairstreak Callophrys rubi
This small green butterfly almost always settles with its wings closed, showing off the iridescent green underside. The upperside is plain brown.

Brown Argus Aricia agestis
Both male and female brown argus can look like female common blues, but they do not have any trace of blue on either the under- or upper-sides. There is also a slight difference in the underwing pattern.

Sooty Copper Lycaena tityrus
In most copper species, the male is more colourful than the female. However, in the sooty copper it is the male that is duller (in our eyes at least), almost black in fresh individuals, but fading to brown later. The male also has very little orange on the underside of the forewing, in comparison with the female.

Sooty Copper Lycaena tityrus female is distinguished from the male by her brighter colours, and from the more common small copper by being not so bright on the upperside and having larger spots on the underside.

Short-tailed Blue Everes argiades
There are few blue butterfly species with tails, and those tails are often inconspicuous. Again it helps to see both the upper and undersides. The underside is distinctive, having two orange and black spots by the tail. This is a male, the females having more black on the upperwings, and often an orange spot by the tails.

Small Blue Cupido minimus
The smallest of blue butterflies in Europe is hardly blue at all on the upperside, though there is a dusting of blue on the underside near the body. Females easily mistaken for other small species particularly in southern Europe. They fly close to the ground, and are seldom far from kidney vetch Anthyllis vulneraria, the caterpillar food plant.

photo of a southern white admiral butterfly

Southern White Admiral Limenitis reducta
The purple emperor and white admiral groups look very similar at first glance. The southern white admiral is one of the smallest of the group, is blue-black on the upperside, and that clear white spot on the inner part of the forewing is distinctive.

The name fritillary refers to the chequered pattern of the butterfly’s wings. There are also plants called fritillaries, again because of the chequered pattern on their petals. For the butterflies, you need to look closely at both the upper and underwing patterns, and to use a good book (or a local expert) that shows the points you need to look at. These were cautiously identified in the field, and again later from the photos. They certainly present a challenge. Even looking at the photos now, I’m trying to resist the temptation to check them against the field guide yet again. Having a species list for the region means you can narrow the options – in this case from about 45 species across Europe down to twelve in la Brenne.

This ‘wings half open’ stance is typical of the Duke of Burgundy Hamearis lucina as it stands ready to defend its territory. It isn’t closely related to the fritillaries, which is superficially resembles, but is the only European member of the Metalmark (Rhiodinidae) family which occurs mostly in central America.

Glanville Fritillary Melitaea cinxia
This species is often found nectaring on Birds-foot trefoil and other Lotus species, but the caterpillar food plant is plantain, hence an older English name for it was the Plantain Fritillary

Knapweed Fritillary Melitaea phoebe
It is often more difficult to photograph the underside of a butterfly, but worth it for help with identification. This general patterning puts it in the Meliteae genus, and careful comparison with a good field guide showed it to be the knapweed fritillary.

Spotted Fritillary Melitaea didyma
This isn’t the only fritillary with spots rather than the chequer pattern, so again a view of the underside and a species list for the site is helpful.

There is a variety of ‘brown butterflies’ – and not all of them are obviously brown. They range in size from the tiny small heath, to the almost giant Great Banded Grayling and Dryad – which fly later in the season, so I couldn’t photograph them. Most are medium-sized, such as the Wall Brown

The Small Heath Coenonympha pamphilus rarely shows its upper-wings – a characteristic shared with other members of the family. However, its only cousin in the Brenne is the Pearly Heath Coenonympha arcania which has a white patch on clear eye-spots on the underside of the hind wing.

Wall Brown Lasiomata megera
Could be confused with a fritillary at first glance, but the pattern of lines and eye-spots is quite different, as is the underside.

The skippers are an odd family, not quite falling into either the butterfly or the moth category. Some are mostly orange, some are mostly brown with white or cream spots, and these are the most confusing and difficult to ID.

Grizzled Skipper Pyrgus malvae is the smallest and most distinctly chequered member of a confusing group of species. Photographing the upperside for later ID is relatively easy, getting the underside is not. Fortunately, in this case, the distinct markings on the hindwing indicate the species pictured.

Chequered Skipper Carterocephalus palaemon
A fairly distinctive skipper butterfly and the only brown and yellow skipper one in the area. On the wing in May and June.

I could bore you with more photos of butterflies, and day-flying moths, and other insects from la Brenne, but they are far more enjoyable if you go to see them yourself.


Resources


Further information about la Brenne is available from:

Website for the Parc Naturel de la Brenne (in English and French)

Useful booklet about where to find nature in the park (recommended sites and routes) – download pdf

Tourist information for the Loire Valley as a whole

A checklist of butterflies for a specific area is more helpful than the maps in a field-guide. Butterflies are colonising new areas, particularly as the climate changes.


Bookshop

Click on the covers for more information about each title.

Note that buying through these links provides a small commission (at no extra cost to yourself) that helps with the maintenance of this website.

Cover of butterfly book
cover of butterfly book

Several books, such as the Crossbill guide, about la Brenne are now out of print.

However, there were several books such as these two – (and perhaps only in French) available at the Maison du Parc and/or the Maison du Nature which I haven’t seen on sale elsewhere – so clicking on these covers doesn’t get you anywhere.

Note that the flower book does not cover all species in the area.


A good old-fashioned folding paper map may not be the easiest thing to use in the field, but it does make it easier to work out where the various ponds are in relation to each other for route-planning.


More ideas for nature-watching in France

Nature of the Queyras Natural Park

Queyras Natural Park in the French Pyrenees boasts 300 days of sunshine a year. We managed to be there on one of the other 65! But there was still lots to see.

Watching Wolves in Europe

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


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photo of scarce swallowtail butterfly

Nature of the Queyras Natural Park

Why visit . . . .

  • spectacular scenery with great hiking routes
  • over 1400 species of plants
  • Mammals such as marmot, chamois, ibex, mouflon, deer, roe deer and wild boar.
  • Mountain birds, the rock ptarmigan and black grouse are among the most emblematic. Raptors such as the short-toed (snake) eagle, peregrine falcons, golden eagles and griffon vultures. Nutcrackers and wallcreepers number amongst the smaller birds.
  • 150 species of butterfly

About the Parc naturel regional du Queyras

Air France pilots call the Queyras ‘le trou bleu’ – the blue hole. While the rest of the Alps are frequently blanketed by cloud, Queyras boasts up to 300 days of sunshine a year – all thanks to the shelter it gets from the Écrins to the west.

But on June 18th, it was just grey, wet and miserable. So bad, that it seems I took only one photo! (the other photos here were taken in the French Alps, just not in Queyras)

Still, it was filled with sounds of yellowhammer, willow tit, coal tit, bullfinch, garden warbler and rock bunting. Grey rocks with white patches of snow towered above, green grass filled the valley bottom below, and conifers clothed the slopes in between.

Queyras is located in the Hautes-Alpes department of south-east France. It lies south-east of Grenoble, to the north of the Mercantour National Park, and to the south of the Vanoise National Park. Its eastern border coincides with the Italian border and it is possible to walk between the two countries in several places.

Covering some 65,000 hectares, Queyras consists of an ancient glacial valley with steep sides and a mountain stream. It is ringed by seven 3000m peaks. There are dense pine forests and higher up, hay-meadows on the beds of former lakes. Higher still there are extensive peatbogs and the park has some impressive cliff-faces. Not surprisingly, it is home to a great variety of flora and fauna – including chamois, marmots, hares and partridges. Many of the typical upland and forest birds of Central Europe can be found within the park

A Parc Naturel Regional is the equivalent of a British National Park. Basically, it is a region protected for its landscape value and its traditions and culture, with development and commercial exploitation – apart from tourism – being restricted. Any natural history interest is secondary, and hunting is usually permitted.

The main part of the Parc is a mountainous block with one road going right through it and a few other dead-end roads leading towards other corners. One of our books described it as a countryside of larch and spruce forest, where water from lakes pour out over waterfalls into mountain streams. From the road all we could see were steep slopes clothed in conifers under a ceiling of grey cloud, making the valley seem rather claustrophobic.

Saxifraga aizoides – one of many low-growing Alpine plants

It was a Sunday and the shops were closed, so we were unable to obtain a map showing the footpaths, or other information.  We hadn’t actually heard of the place until we noticed it on the road map and even now, with the internet, there doesn’t seem to be much information available, not in English anyway. 

We walked along the road, and turned a short way down each of several obvious paths – wary of wandering too far in an unknown direction. Nevertheless, we found a handful of usual woodland species jay, Bonelli’s warbler, crested and coal tits, a green woodpecker etc. A few butterflies flitted in sunny glades – a small fritillary, red admiral, scarce swallowtail and common blue. Flowers under the pines included box-leaved and common milkworts, pansy, and some legumes.

The most northerly point of the road through the Parc was the Col d’Izoard. Above the treeline the rocks were worn into weird shapes with scree slopes between. We could hear marmots calling across the valley. A souvenir kiosk marked the highest point. It began to rain a few minutes after we arrived there, but Jim had already gone looking for eagles. No luck with the raptors, but snow finch, fieldfare, black redstart, northern wheatear, whinchat, white wagtail and, at last, Alpine accentor, feeding in a patch of grass at the base of a cliff.

Beyond the pass the road descended quickly through open conifer forest with grass and alpine anemones on the floor. The rain continued and we didn’t hang around to look at the other flowers. Below the trees were alpine pastures grazed by Simmental and Swiss brown type cows.

Three grey-green finches fed by the side of the road and showed off pale rumps as they flew. They didn’t go far, and then came back to the roadside green crown, grey nape and neck, green on wings etc, all pointed to citril finch. They fed amongst the wildflowers, favouring the dandelion seedheads.


Best places for seeing plants and butterflies

Wandering around anywhere in the park seems to produce a good number of butterflies and alpine plants, but there do seem to be a few particular places worth a special mention.

The Ristolas Mont Viso National Nature Reserve is located at the South-East corner of the park. It extends over 2,295 hectares, from 1,800 m to 3,214 m above sea level so provides a huge elevation range and is wonderful for butterflies and alpine plants from mid-June to mid-August. You’ll find it at the end of the D947 road which connects Guillestre to Ristolas.

Belvédère du Viso, where a broad track goes through extensive meadows. On the track itself mud-puddling can be excellent with many Blues and Skippers easy to observe and to photograph. Mud-puddling? That means soft damp often clay soil where butterflies can congregate as they drink in the minerals they need for survival and reproduction, like the green-veined whites in the photo below..

Also near Ristolas, the Lac Egorgéou is a group of lakes at 2,400-2,500m famous for scarce plants and uncommon alpine butterflies as well as the high mountain scenery

Col d’Agniel: on the border with Italy, one of the highest road in the Alps (2,744 m) and with good access to high mountain butterflies and flowers. At 2,744 m, it is the third highest paved road pass of the Alps, after Stelvio Pass and Col de l’Iseran, and popular with cyclist (sometimes part of the Tour de France route).

Abriès is a village and ski resort (so good for accommodation) in the north-east corner of the park, good for plants and butterflies in meadows in the valley and a dry south-facing slope just above.

There is an especially fascinating creature here – the Lanza Salamander which lives only in this part of the Alps. It holds the record for longevity among amphibians: more than 20 years. They need this long life as the females carry their embryos for up to 4 years of gestation – not a true pregnancy, as there is no placenta, but the eggs 2-4 of them, develop inside the female. I haven’t seen any, but the best time to look for them is said to be at night during the spring mating season.


So there you have it

I enjoyed my time in the park, despite the grey weather. There were plenty of wildflowers and birds to keep me occupied, as well as a good few marmots. Maybe it was just as well I didn’t see many butterflies as trying to identify them all would be just too time-consuming.

What I’d look for next time – better weather, so the butterflies will be flying! But, remember that those 300 hot clear summer days also mean clear cold summer nights, even at elevations lower than other areas of the Alps.


Resources

The official website is in French, but can be automatically translated. Website: Parc Naturel Regionel de Queyras

For an idea of the scenery: Video of a journey through the park

For information about places to eat, stay, and visit: Queyras tourism website

The absence of glaciers makes the Queyras ideal hill-walking country as it has several high mountain summits accessible to the ordinary walker and scrambler. Another Queyras tourism website

For a challenging organised hike: For a challenging hike

For those are unfamiliar with travel in France: France travel information


How to get there

Public transport – nearest airport is at Nice on the south coast, and a train will get you half the way to the park. Coming from any other direction isn’t much better, so really, you need a car.


Bookshop

Click on covers for more information. The comments are from the publisher’s ‘blurb’

The stunning natural beauty of the Alps makes this range of mountains one of Europe’s most popular tourist destinations. This book helps visitors to gain a deeper appreciation of that beauty, by providing a guide to the geology and flowers of the Alps.

Written in straightforward language for those with little or no prior knowledge and illustrated by stunning photographs, maps and diagrams, this book reveals how different rocks were created and shaped into the present-day mountains by glaciers and other agents. The detailed guide to 344 stunning Alpine flowers and plants can be used for on-the-spot identification and is complemented by chapters describing just how these flowers survive in their harsh mountain environment. Finally, what better way to make use of your new-found understanding than to explore the Alps with the 23 suggested walks, which are located in some of the best geological and botanical spots of the Alps.

book cover - alpine flora

The vegetation of the French Alps has been studied for several decades and is often presented in technical publications or floras that feature only a small number of images. Walkers and botanist are often helpless in the correct identification of plants in situ. This is the one of the most comprehensive field guides with 1175 colour photos, covering most of the species in the Alps. The author has endeavored to describe each plant succinctly, using only botanical characteristics visible on the ground for a rapid effective and scientifically serious determination.

It is written in French, but that isn’t a problem for the keen botanist

Graceful flight, delicate colours, a fascinating development cycle: butterflies captivate because of their great diversity and can be easily observed in the mountains. Aimed at both expert and beginner enthusiasts, this guide helps Alpine mountain walkers to easily identify these fragile insects which are so threatened today. Each species entry groups together the main characteristics, the distribution area and the periods of the different stages of development (laying, caterpillars, chrysalis, butterfly). Photographs illustrate morphological details or different phases of the life cycle.

Language: French, with vernacular names in English, French, German, and Italian – but don’t let that put you off.

– Descriptions, illustrations and distribution maps to identify butterflies and know where and when to observe them

– For each species, the scientific name and the vernacular name in 4 languages (French, English, German, Italian)

– A guide covering all the Alps: Germany, Austria, France, Italy, Liechtenstein, Monaco, Slovenia, Switzerland.

Buying through these links earns me a small commission which goes towards the cost of maintaining this website.


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.

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.


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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

Click on covers for more information

Buying through these links earns me a small commission, at no extra cost to you, which goes towards the cost of maintaining this website.


More nature-watching in Andalucia

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.

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Nature-watching in the Swiss National Park

Why visit the Swiss National Park . . . .

  • Glorious scenery
  • 100km of hiking trails
  • Wilderness that has not been touched (away from the paths) for over 100 years
  • Wonderful Wildflowers
  • Brilliant butterflies and other invertebrates
  • A good variety of birds and mammals

About . . . .

The Swiss National Park is located in the canton of Graubünden, spread across the four communes of Zernez, S-chanf, Scuol and Val Müstair and covering an area of 170 km2 at an altitude of 1,400 to 3,174 metres.

Established in 1914, it is the oldest national park in the Alps and indeed the oldest in central Europe. As of April 2021, the site is listed on the IUCN’s Green List of Protected and Conserved Areas and is formally recognised as one of the 59 best managed sites in the world. 

Protected areas in Switzerland

Despite its small size, Switzerland manages to squeeze in a number of major sites of ecological importance.  Perhaps that is not so surprising in a country where 25% of the land is categorized as “non-productive”, ie high mountains and lakes.  However, until 2007, there was only a single national park.  Now there are a total of 18 areas designated, or proposed for designation as, national or regional nature parks, each of them at least 100 square kilometres in area.

There are also a handful of nature discovery parks – relatively small areas of only a few square kilometres within densely populated regions, offering intact spaces for local flora and fauna and improving the life quality of the urban population. Their primary purpose is to allow the public to experience nature and receive environmental education. 

Map from the Swiss National Park website which provides information in German, English, French and Italian.

Best things to do:

Go to the visitor centre

I’m an advocate for visitor centres. Having arrived in Zernez when it was raining, this visitor centre was most welcome, and I visited on several other occasions when the weather was poor during my ten-day stay in the area. There were exhibitions about various aspects of the park – geology, animals, plants, history, hiking, etc. The staff were helpful, even the park director was happy to talk to visitors who had questions that the centre staff couldn’t answer themselves.

It has all changed since then. Opened in 2008, the new national park centre at Zernez attracts some 40,000 visitors a year.  It’s well worth visiting for up-to-date information, and for maps and route guides from the shop.  There is a comprehensive, interactive exhibition on permanent show, with various digital information systems, temporary exhibitions and a theatre, all of which provide a set of interesting alternatives for when the weather is too wet for hiking to be pleasant.

Download the app

A fairly recent innovation, the Swiss National Park app is a digital hiking guide that leads you through the National Park region with stories, information and detailed maps. Not all areas of the Park have mobile phone/online coverage; so the app was created in offline mode – so download it when you have a wi-fi signal because it is a rather large file. The app is available in German, English, and French, so is also useful if you are on a guided walk and need help with understanding what the guide is saying in German.

Take a hike

There is a single road through the park, going on down to the Italian border. Along it, you’ll find car parks, hotels, and bus stops. These are all very handy when hiking through the park. The rules are strict. You must stay on the path, camping and fires are not allowed. But the 80km or so of footpaths are all well-worth exploring. I’ve been on about half of them. The campsite in Zernez provided a useful base for some short hikes, and the starting point for some of the longer ones. The need to get back to base meant a good deal of planning for buses or trains, and making sure there was enough time to catch the last one back to base. Nature-watching really tends to slow us down, but if you are just out for the hike, the distances are easy to do in plenty of time.

Go on a guided walk

A guide can give so much extra information and interpretation about the landscape. Guided hikes happen on Tuesdays and Thursdays, are usually conducted in German, and usually have a specialist theme. Alongside the human guides, you can use the app to provide extra information. Both kinds of tour provide an opportunity to uncover some of the secrets of the astounding abundance of flora and fauna – all to be found in the Swiss National Park.

Look for birds

Despite there being only half a dozen pairs of golden eagles in the park, we saw one or two every day. During the summer they feed mainly on marmots, while in the winter they scavenge deer carcasses and whatever else they can find. Carcasses are also important for the Lammergeier – also known as the bone vulture and the bearded vulture. This species has been the subject of an extensive reintroduction program throughout the Alps, including 26 young captive-bred released in the park between 1991 and 2007. They seem to be breeding by themselves now, so no further releases are needed.

Nutcrackers are members of the crow family, restricted in range to areas of pine forests and so most often found in the mountains and the far north where conifers form the main forests. Like jays, it stores its winter food supply in the ground, and the seeds that it doesn’t find again germinate and extend the forest. The nutcracker is the logo for the Swiss National Park.

Looking at the list of 56 species that I saw here, the ptarmigan, Alpine chough, Alpine accentor, and citril finch stand out as being special to the mountains, at least. Most of the other species are more generalist, and found in the lower areas – the forests and along the river corridors.

Shepherd’s Fritillary
Silky ringlet

Look for butterflies

The best place for butterflies proved to be the track alongside the river from Zernez – and on a couple of occasions, we barely managed a mile of hiking because of trying to photograph and identify all the butterflies. But to find the specialities of the region, you have to go to higher altitudes.

En route to Alp Trubchun, we found a shepherd’s fritillary basking on a stone (above left), and while we were trying to photograph that, the local form of the silky ringlet put in an appearance (above right). Depending on the light angle, this butterfly can look much like any other brown ringlet, or it can shimmer an iridescent green.

It’s really the blues and the fritillaries that dominate the butterfly lists here. And to have any hope of identifying unfamiliar species, you really have to photograph both the under-side and the upper-side. And nowadays, having the luxury of looking at the photos on a computer screen, much enlarged, makes it so much easier. I ended up with a list of 34 species, plus a few that I couldn’t identify, and of course, there were a few that didn’t hang around long enough for a photo.

Leontopodium alpinum. Edelweiss – close up of the small white flowers.

Enjoy the wildflowers

Where to start with the wildflowers! As in most mountain regions, there is a huge variety due to the variation in altitude and aspect. However, there are perhaps not so many here as elsewhere in the Alps, due to the dry climate (low in rainfall and in humidity), the extremes of temperature, and the lack of limestone rocks. Nevertheless, up to 600 species can be found here.

I didn’t really look hard at them – I was more interested in the butterflies – but was happy to at last find an Edelweiss. This iconic flower of the Alps prefers rocky limestone places at about 1,800–3,000 metres (5,900–9,800 ft) altitude. Its leaves and flowers are covered with dense hairs, which are believed to protect the plant from cold, aridity, and ultraviolet radiation. It is a scarce, short-lived flower found in remote mountain areas, although it will grow in gardens with a bit of help. It is a national symbol Switzerland and some other Alpine countries.  It is non-toxic and has been used in traditional medicine as a remedy against abdominal and respiratory diseases.

Look for mammals

We saw mammals, or signs of mammals, on each day. However, the best place is generally considered to be Alp Trubchun at the south-west end of the Park. We took the train from Zernez to S-chanf, and started the hike from there – although now there is a bus service that stops closer to the footpath. It’s a relatively easy hike, gently climbing 400m in 10km, but you do have to allow time to walk back too. The scenery is, as always, wonderful, but with the added views of plenty of wildlife. We had to try to ignore the birds, butterflies and plants on the outward journey through Val Trubchun, just to make sure we got to Alp Trubchun itself.

Herds of red deer grazed on the Alp, watching us from a distance. Amongst them were a few ibex. This species was surreptitiously reintroduced to the area in the early 1900s after being exterminated by 1650 – thanks mainly to the medicinal properties attributed to its flesh and horns – plus the fact that they often seem to have no fear of humans, and are therefore easy to hunt. Chamois were not quite so easy to see, as they spend the summer at even higher elevations, so you need time to continue to path up to Fuorcla Trupchun – a steady but much steeper and more difficult climb – from where you can even continue downhill to Livigno in Italy (and return to Zernez by bus, according to the Swiss National Park website).

Marmots are also common on the Alp, and we stopped to watch their antics on the way back. This was early August, and youngsters were out, playing around a rock next to their burrow. An adult posed obligingly outside its burrow nearby. It then wandered through the flowery meadow, stopping to bite off some vegetation here and there, or tug at a juicy root just underground. Then two more young marmots appeared. They hung around a burrow entrance under a rock for a while – mum climbed on the rock to keep an eye on us – then scampered up the hill. When she returned, the family did a lot of licking and grooming as a greeting ceremony, and then the youngsters disappeared into the burrow while the adult still lounged outside, soaking up the late afternoon sun.

Another hike that gave us good sightings of mammals was the route from Zernez via Cluozza to Ova Spin. First, there were signs of otter and fox alongside the river. Then through woodland with red squirrels, and a garden dormouse which, unfortunately, was dead. The woodland gave way to alpine pasture, with red deer, chamois (probably the closest views we ever had), a few ibex, and the inevitable marmots. This route was much more demanding than the Val Trubchun one, including two 700m climbs and requiring sure-footedness in places on the downhills. Fortunately, there was a bus service from Ova Spin back to Zernez, although a passing motorist offered us a ride before the bus arrived.

Photo of chamois with kid
Chamois

So there you have it

Those are my recommendations, but I feel I sampled only a little of the park.

What I’d do next time

Some of the hikes I didn’t do last time – perhaps including the one where you can do an overnight stay in a refuge – remember to book first.

Watch and photograph Lammergeiers – I’ve had only brief and distant views so far

Take more photos – especially now that I’ve got better equipment!


Best time to go

Winter: From mid-November onwards there is generally so much snow that footpaths are no longer visible, and there is a risk of avalanches. From now until the end of May the Park remains closed to visitors. The main Pass dal Fuorn (Ofenpass) road remains open in winter, ensuring access to the Val Müstair. However, the parking areas within the Park and the Hotel Parc Naziunal Il Fuorn are closed in winter.

Spring: During May there can still be heavy falls of snow, and large avalanches are not unusual. But by the end of the month, the trails in the lower and sunnier parts of the Park become accessible, and wildflowers begin to bloom. Trails in the higher areas remain under snow, and are generally only passable towards the end of June. The birds in particular are especially active at this time of year.

Summer: July and August are the ideal months to visit the National Park. All the trails are accessible; days are long and the temperatures pleasant.  At 2000 and 3000m, most flowering plants bloom during the second half of July. In high mountainous regions flowering can be delayed until well into August, according to snow conditions. Depending on the weather, the main flowering season may be delayed by 2 to 3 weeks. With the flowers come the butterflies, providing a visual feast of colour.

Autumn: As the days shorten and the temperature drops, nights can be frosty and the first snows fall in the upper regions. Footpaths may be frozen in places, and walkers heading out to higher regions should enquire about walking conditions at the National Park Centre. The highlight of the season is the red deer rut – when hundreds of stags can be heard roaring and strutting their stuff in traditional rutting areas, such as the Val Trupchun.


Resources

Swiss National Park website

Videos

This short video from the ‘Idle Brain’ YouTube channel will give you more idea of the scenery of the National Park.


How to get there

The Swiss National Park lies in the south-east of the country, and is accessible by rail, bus and road. The nearest railway station is at Zernez, and the line also passes through S-chanf for access to Val Trubchun.

Overnight accommodation within the National Park is available only in the  Chamanna Cluozza (mountain hut) or at the  Hotel Parc Naziunal Il Fuorn. Other accommodation in the region can be found via the  local tourist offices or via the internet. There is also a campsite at Zernez.


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

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

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



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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

Click on the covers for more information

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

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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

Nature along the Dorset Coast

Why the Dorset coast

Spectacular Jurassic limestone scenery

Lots of large nature reserves

Plenty to see at any time of year

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

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

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

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

Poole Harbour

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

Dark -bellied Brent Geese at Poole Park in January

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

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

Avocets in the lagoon at Brownsea Island in January

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

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

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

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

Weymouth area

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

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

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

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

Sunburst over Portland Bill

Portland Bird Observatory

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

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

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

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

Chesil Beach

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


Bookshop

Click on the book covers for more information

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

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

Buying books through these links earns a small commission that helps with the costs of this website.

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Environmental volunteering

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Local volunteering – citizen science

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

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

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

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

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

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How the information is put to use

Citizen scientists help uncover mysteries behind House Sparrow population declines

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

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

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

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


Germany, 1973

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Skokholm, Wales, 1988-2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conservation and wildlife volunteering 

Article from Sarah Bareham of responsibletravel.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Bookshop

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


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Nature amongst the ruins at Delphi

Why Delphi

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

Best time to go – May-June

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

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

About Delphi

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

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

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

Getting the best out of Delphi

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

Things to look out for

Ground Pine 
Ajuga chaemapitys

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

Grecian Golden-drops 
Onosma graecum

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

Oriental Alkanet 
Alkanna orientalis

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

Rough Poppy
Papaver hybridum

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

Spiked Star of Bethlehem
Ornithogalum narbonense

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

Soft Viper’s-grass
Scorzonera mollis

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

Birds

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

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

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

Butterflies

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

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

Southern Swallowtail Papilio alexanor

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

Large Wall Brown Lasiommata maera

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

Heath Fritillary Melitaea athalia

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

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

Pearl-bordered Fritillary Boloria euphrosyne

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

The largest insect in Europe – up to 12 cm long

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

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

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

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


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.

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More ideas for nature-watching 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. Updated 12/01/2023

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

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.

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