“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.
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.
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.
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.
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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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
There are other places to watch birds, or just to enjoy the coastal scenery and plants, on Portland Island. Then just to the west is Chesil Beach – 30km (19 miles) of pebble beach, separated from the mainland by the Fleet Lagoon for most of its length. At the western end is the Abbotsbury Swannery which is the only managed colony of nesting mute swans Cygnus colour (above) in the world.
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This is the updated version of the book we used. Each of the sites mentioned in this article is given several pages of text and maps, It gives the history of sites, the location and access provision, what you will see in each season, and much more. We found it very useful and will be using it to find more sites on our next visit to the area.
Obviously, it is about bird-watching sites, but most sites will have other nature interest as well.
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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
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.
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.
Sign up now!
Bioblitz (events have been suspended during the pandemic)
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
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 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.
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 island has now regained its status as a bird observatory, and has full-time wardens – See the island blog.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
Found from southern Greece eastwards. Like other members of its family, it has medicinal uses, in particular as an anti-bacterial agent.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 – 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
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.
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.
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!
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!
The Col du Galibier
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
Axios River – Mavroni river mouth – Loudias Estuary – Aliakmonas 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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Despite being a small country, Albania, especially in spring, displays huge biodiversity. The countryside is alive with plants, birds, insects, mammals, rivers, lakes, green countryside
I have not yet been to Albania, though I have looked across the border from Greece, Macedonia and Montenegro (top photo). That was back in the day when Albania was closed off from the outside world, when Communism was the order of the day in the Balkans, and the internet did not exist.
Now, things have changed. Albania is emerging as a tourist destination, and for its natural values as well as for the cultural aspects of the country. This post was prompted by somebody sending me a link to a brochure on issuu.com. That led me to a few more booklets of various kinds stacked here
Although a small country, Albania is very rich in biological diversity. The tremendous diversity of ecosystems and habitats supports about 3,200 species of vascular plants, 2,350 species of non-vascular plants, and 15,600 species of invertebrates and vertebrates, many of which are threatened at the global or European level.
Albania has recently made significant progress in expanding the network of protected areas from 5.2% of the country’s territory in 2005 to 16% in 2014. The 799 protected areas cover about 16% (4,600 km²) of its territory. The majority of them have been designated in the category nature monument (750) and are mostly quite small in size.
Recommended places to visit
Wikipedia gives information about 14 national parks and one marine park. One of these, Prespa National Park, is shared with Greece and Macedonia.
Divjaka-Karavasta National Park is halfway along the coast. It includes the 4,000-hectare Karavasta lagoon, the largest in the country with 5% of the world’s breeding Dalmatian Pelicans. Elsewhere marshes and shallow pools are teeming with other life. Garganey and greater flamingoes can be present in their hundreds. Pygmy cormorants, marsh sandpipers and Caspian terns, to name but a few. The surrounding pinewoods are home to collared flycatchers, subalpine warblers (above) and nightingales.
The Vjosë- Nartë protected area south of Karavasta comprises a huge complex of saltpans and coastal dunes around the Nartë lagoon. It’s a magnet for migrating birds and can offer some of the best wader-watching in Europe, with black-winged stilts, avocets, spotted redshanks, Kentish plovers (above), stints and sandpipers in abundance. You can also expect to see slender-billed gulls, collared pratincoles, stone curlews, bee-eaters and hoopoes.
The Valbonë Valley National Park lies in the Albanian Alps and next to the border with Montenegro. It is another area with a wealth of natural history, and some good mountain hiking. Brown bears and wolves are present, but elusive and hard to see. Chamois, hazel grouse, rock partridge and black woodpecker are rather more obliging. This area is also wonderfully rich botanically: meadows of green-winged orchid (above), beech woodland with Coralroot and Bird’s-nest Orchids . . . and the list goes on.
Dajte National Park
The Dajti National Park (above) lies to the east of the capital, Tirana. It is an extensive, forested mountain range featuring waterfalls, canyons & caves. A bus ride, followed by a fifteen-minute scenic cablecar ride takes you from the capital to the park. A new visitor centre welcomes tourists and visitors at the “Natural Balcony of Tirana”.
“Preserving natural resources and raising awareness about the rich biodiversity of Albania is fundamental for the development of a more environmental-friendly tourism model and culture. The kind of tourism that builds on nature conservation to support sustainable development,” stated Ambassador Soreca during the inauguration ceremony.
“Dajti Visitor Centre is the seventh centre built around Protected Areas in Albania. They are serving not just as information centres but as communication bridges which will support sustainable tourism development,” said Minister of Tourism and Environment Blendi Klosi. (This was from a news release on the NATUR.AL Website)
So, the government is taking nature tourism seriously, and that effort will probably only be sustained if it is supported by people visiting these places.
Click on the covers below for more information. There are few books specifically about Albanian nature. Books about the Balkans or the eastern Mediterranean areas in general will help. Also check the Albania nature website for booklets and leaflets in English which may be relevant.
P.S. Buying books through these links brings me a small commission (at no extra cost to you) which helps with the costs of maintaining this website.
To understand more about travelling in Albania, here is a blog post (with links to others) that is well worth reading.
If your trip includes time in the capital, Tirana, here is a blog post full of suggestions for things to do there
Kami provides some useful tips for travelling in the country
The culture, landscape and nature of Grindelwald has been recognised by its designation as part of a UNESCO World Heritage site. The Swiss Alps Jungfrau-Aletsch site has the impressive Eiger-Mönch-Jungfrau rock massif
Why visit Grindelwald
The ‘Jungfrau Region’ contains one of the most spectacular landscapes in Europe
A butterfly enthusiast could find 50-60 species in July – including up to 19 species of ringlet!
A keen birdwatcher could find 40-50 species breeding here.
A group on a botanical trip could find 600 species – the more eyes the more you see! Most, but not all, will be in flower in July.
Or you could just enjoy hiking through the magnificent landscape!
You can drive to Grindelwald – but it is the end of the road. To go further, you need to use the post bus, or one of the many cablecars or other mountain transport systems. Or you just hike in almost any direction.
Or you can get there by train or bus from Zurich or Interlaken.
It is a tourist town, so there is plenty of accommodation, and a campsite (where I stayed).
Grindelwald is set at about 1000m in the valley below the Eiger and Jungfrau. The next 1000m or so is mainly farmland – haymeadows, pastures, a golf course, etc.. Once you’ve explored this, it becomes worth using the various transport systems to get to and from hikes at higher levels.
But first, stop in at the tourist centre to pick up current leaflets and timetables. The program of walks, talks and tours can be interesting. You don’t need to join any of them, but it is useful guide about things to do when the weather is wet. The guided walks are useful to get acquainted with the local fauna and flora – the nature of Grindelwald.
They also have maps and books. The panoramic maps were particularly useful for seeing the marked trails in relation to each other, and to the various ski lifts and shuttles, etc. And in respect of the latter, it can be handy to know which ones were running and at what times.
While there is quite a lot of visitor information on the Grindelwald and Jungfrau region websites, there is disappointingly little about the wildlife.
Best places for seeing the nature of Grindelwald
So, you’re now established in your hotel in town or up on a hillside, or you’re in the campsite. Or maybe just driving in for a day trip from Interlaken. Here are my recommendations of where to watch wildlife under the Eiger and Jungfrau:
It’s a long slow hike from Grindelwald to Männlichen, along the route marked Itramenstrasse and then Alp tramen on Google maps, then on a hiking trail. Much of this route is wheel-chair friendly, but there are options for hikers to cut across the zig-zags. I did this on the way up, and used the longer track on the way down (when it rained). The climb is 1200m, but the flowers and butterflies are wonderful. At the top – Trumpet Gentian Gentiana acaulis Mountain Pansy Viola lutea, Bird’s-eye Primrose Primula farinosa, Moss Campion Silene acaulis and Alpine Cinquefoil Potentilla crantzii to name but a few.
You can also get to the top via the newly refurbished cable-car route, or by taxi.
Once at the top, there are several hiking options, including the panorama trail to Kleine Scheidegg, the Royal Walk, the Romantic trail, etc. The panorama trail is good, it isn’t difficult, and the views of the Eiger especially are superb. But be prepared for lots of family groups at weekends and in the holiday season.
The Eiger Trail
Apparently there are two Eiger Trails. A 6km route which needs a reasonable level of fitness, and a 2km route that is easier and has information boards. The latter wasn’t available when I visited. The 6km distance is one-way, and assumes you use the train to get to and from the start and end points of the trail. We incorporated it into a day’s hiking including other trails.
The 500m ascent from Grindelwald was pretty steep, though mostly in the cool shade of spruce trees. At the top was a welcome sunny glade for a lunch stop. A few butterflies passed through and a hummingbird hawkmoth paused to drink nectar from some nearby flowers. From Boneren to Alpiglen the path rises and fall several times, ultimately reaching 1800m, crossing an old glacier track, a snow field and a scree slope under the sheer cliffs of the Eiger. In between these obstacles were rough places over spruce roots, and open marginal habitats with masses of wildflowers from the red alpenrose to the white cottony seedheads of dwarf willow, from the last few globe-flowers to the tiny alpine toadflax. Most of the butterflies were mountain ringlets. We returned via a postbus route lower down the slope, seeing far more birds there – ring ouzels, fieldfares and other thrushes.
Grindlewald is surrounded by glaciers – though they have mostly retreated so far up the slopes that they could now be missed. The Glacier Gorge, or Gletscherschlucht is a steep-sided gorge left by the meltwaters of the lower glacier (Unterer Gletscher). When the glacier began to retreat in 1875, two enterprising brothers made its rocky and fissured route safe and accessible to tourists by means of wooden steps and boardwalks in and over the gorge. As the glacier withdrew more and more, the construction followed and today its length is 720m.
Access to the walkways is easy – by car or bus from town. However, to make a day of it, you can walk to to top of the gorge via Pfinstegg and look down on it. This proved an excellent place for watching wallcreepers and wagtails, as well as a few other birds.
Marmorbruch is a restaurant at the site of an old marble quarry. Marble was extracted from the first half of 18th century until 1903 when the quarry was shut down due to foreign competition. There were still blocks of unpolished marble and some of the shafts remaining. The door frames of the rooms of the Upper House of the Federal Parliament in Berne are made of Grindelwald marble. It is a pleasant walk up from Grindelwald, with woodland and streams. Plenty of flowers and butterflies, and the birds included Orphean Warblers.
Go back to Pfinstegg and continue eastwards to the Upper Glacier (Oberer Gletscher). This was famous for being the glacier reaching the lowest altitude anywhere in the Alps. It has retreated considerably, beyond the point of the ice grotto and other attractions of the 1990s. The pictures in this article show the change between 1910 and 2000. I don’t know how much of the glacier is visible now from the track from Pfinstegg. This alternative trail should also give you a view of it from the east side.
Grosse Scheidegg is the mountain pass to the north-east of Grindelwald. It is accessible by post bus, on foot or by bicycle. Following the postbus route on foot takes a good three hours – and that was walking fast to keep warm in the shadow of the Eiger and Wetterhorn. As with most destinations around Grindelwald, there is a hotel and cafe.
Various events are held here, and the one I went to was a Bergfest. It was really a ploy to get tourists to spend a bit more on bus fares and refreshments. There was an accordion quartet (three squeeze-boxes and a base) and a yodelling choir with 13 voices. A pleasant way to while away a few hours, and admire the local flowers and butterflies.
The best part was watching a flock of about a dozen Alpine chough, coming in like jackdaws to investigate anywhere people had just vacated in hope of finding a free meal. These birds are habituated to humans, and are often found around Alpine resorts. Studies have shown that while they make the most of whatever people leave behind, they are not dependent on this food source. Still, there is no need to share our unhealthy (for them) diet with them.
From Grosse Scheidegg you can take an easy hike along the paths from the cable-car station at First. Alternatively, continue north-eastwards on foot or by bus into the valley on the other side, eventually emerging at Meiringen and the road to Interlaken.
First means ridge, and this ridge to the north of Grindelwald offers a spectacular overlook across the village and valley. It’s a place for thrill-seekers – weather permitting. The easiest thrill is walking out on the First Cliff Walk which leads along the rock face to a viewing platform – but there is nothing between you and a long drop down into the valley.
Then there is the First Flieger – an 800m zip cable-type ‘flight’ to the station below First. The First Glider isn’t quite so fast. The First Mountain Cart is a longer ground-based ride. The First Trotti Bike . . . . . . well, I’m sure you get the idea.
I’ll stick with hiking. There is a panoramic trail eastwards to Grosse Scheidegg, or westward to Bachalpsee and Faulhorn – this being quite spectacular. From Faulhorn it’s a long way down (1600m) back to Grindelwald, and by the time I got there, my knees were wishing I’d taken a bus or cable car at least part of the way.
So there you have it
My recommendations for getting the best nature-watching experiences during a summer trip to Grindelwald in the Bernese Oberland and how to watch wildlife under the Eiger and Jungfrau. At least the weather here was better than the previous ten days of watching wildlife under the Matterhorn. Next time, I know I’ll see changes, particularly in extent of the glaciers. And I’ll aim to do the train ride up to the Eigerwand and Jungfraujoch – to the restaurant at the top of the world.
Buying books through these links earns a small commission which helps towards the costs of this website at no extra cost to you.
Sadly the English version of this book is now out of print. It was a standard volume available in several languages. On walks, the guide would identify a flower, and whoever found it first in their book would call out the page number so everyone could mark it in their own book, regardless of language.
It’s a subject that seems to be more easily available locally rather than trying to buy something in advance.
If you are trying to buy a wildflower book in advance, make sure it is about the Alpine flora in Europe, rather than Alpine regions of North or South America, or Australia or New Zealand, for example.
Finding books specific to the Alpine Region seems to be best done when you are there. There will be books in French, German and Italian, and it seems if you are lucky, in English too. Otherwise, the main guides to birds, mammals, etc covering the whole of Europe, will do the job. I am slowly replacing my older versions with those mentioned below.
The books below are my ‘go to’ books for European wildlife, when I can’t find anything more specific to a region. Click on the covers for more information. Buying books through these links earns a small commission which helps pay for this website at no extra cost to you.