The naturalist travelling through France in winter can expect bleak weather with little sunshine and drizzly, icy rain.
Paris, for example, sees an average of 37°F (3°C) and two inches of rain in January. You’ll find colder, snowier temperatures in the northeast of 37-43°F (3-6°C), and in the mountain regions of the south. However, it is milder along the coasts, 43-46°F (6-8°C) on the Atlantic (west coast) and 48-55°F (9-13°C) in southernFrance (Mediterranean coast).
As with most of northern and central Europe, the most obvious winter features are the birds. Large areas of water both inland and along the coast attract vast numbers of wintering wildfowl. However, a few mammals can be seen, especially in the mountains.
Lac du Der-Chantecoq
Lac du Der Chantecoq is the second-largest artificial lake in Europe. It was dammed in 1974 as part of the plan to reduce the flooding further downstream in Paris. Der is from the Celtic word for Oak, and Chantecoq was the name of one of the villages now submerged. It is now an internationally recognised place for wintering wildfowl, as well as for the thousands of common cranes (above) that stop by on migration. Information for visitors
La Brenne is an area dominated by some 3,000 lakes (actually Medieval fishponds) to the south-west of Paris. In winter, it is home to vast numbers of wintering ducks. Gadwall, shoveler, wigeon and teal mingle with scarcer species such as smew, red-crested pochard and ferruginous ducks. Up to 4,000 cranes also spend winter in this area. Information for visitorsDownloadable leaflet in English
The north and west coasts of France in winter
The Atlantic coast of Europe is part of a major flyway for birds moving from eastern north America, Greenland, Iceland, northern Europe and Russia to wintering areas further south. The mudflats in the wide shallow estuaries, and lagoons formed by sandbars, provide stopping-off places for these migrants to rest and refuel. Some are also major wintering sites for thousands of waders (shorebirds), wildfowl and other water-birds. Where you have waterbirds, you have predators, and there seems to be an abundance of marsh harriers at most of these sites. The best wintering sites along the French coast include:
Baie de Somme – the largest natural estuary in northern France. Its vast sand, mudflats and grassy areas provide refuge during cold weather events, especially for waders and ducks. During the average winter, the Baie de Somme is internationally important as it holds over 1% of the individuals of the biogeographic populations of pintail, shoveler and common shelduck. Information for visitors
Baie du Mont Saint-Michel – has the fifth largest tidal range in the world, and includes sand/gravel beds supporting large bivalve (shellfish) populations. Up to 100,000 waders winter at the bay, including over 1% of the populations of oystercatcher, knot, and dunlin. Marine mammals such as bottle-nosed dolphins and common seals also visit the site. Information for visitors
Golfe du Morbihan – A large, almost enclosed, estuarine embayment and saltmarsh complex at the mouths of three rivers. Vast mudflats support large areas of eelgrass (Zostera species) and an extremely high density of invertebrates. Up to 100,000 waterbirds winter annually at the site, and numerous species of migratory waterbirds stop by in spring and autumn, and nest in the area. Information for visitors
Baie de Bourgneuf, Ile de Noirmoutier et Foret de Monts – a complex site of of sands, mudflats, saltpans, marshes, reedbeds, oyster basins, saltmarsh, dunes, etc. More than 60,000 waterbirds use the site in winter. Information for visitors
Marais du Fier d’Ars – Another coastal complex with more than 31,000 waterbirds using the site in winter. Of particular importance for dark-bellied brent geese, avocets, dunlin and black-tailed godwit.
The Camargue, the Rhône River delta, is the premier wetland of France. It comprises vast expanses of permanent and seasonal lagoons, lakes and ponds interspersed with extensive Salicornia flats, freshwater marshes, and a dune complex. It is of international importance for nesting, migrating and wintering waterbirds. Tens of thousands of ducks, geese, swans and other water birds, including greater flamingo, occur in winter. Other birds present include great spotted and white-tailed eagles, and penduline tit and moustached warbler – the latter apparently easier to see at this time of year. Information for visitors
Les Alpilles (the Little Alps) are easy to access – and not often snowy! This limestone ridge provides good flying conditions for raptors at any time of year, so eagles can be seen. But more importantly, the village of les Baux attracts wallcreepers, blue rock thrush and eagle owl (try behind the Hotel Mas de L’Oulivie) and citril and snow finches can also be found. Wallcreepers head back into the high Alps for the summer so their time in the lowlands is limited. Tourist information
High mountains are often not the most exciting places for wildlife in winter. The sub-zero temperatures limit plant growth and insect activity. Birds often migrate to the lowlands or to warmer climates. On the other hand, there is likely to be a concentration of food around human habitation, and ski resorts can provide interesting bird-watching. Alpine choughs, alpine accentors and snowfinches, for example, forage around ski resorts, and can be observed at close quarters.
Mammals often move to the lower slopes or seek shelter in woodlands. However, mammals may also be easier to find as their tracks are more obvious in the snow, or in muddy areas. And it’s often easier to see into the distance when vegetation isn’t in the way. This Alpine wolf-tracking holiday in France is an example of the specialist trips available.
Chamois inhabit both the Alps and the Pyrenees. They spend summer above the tree-line, but descend to around 800m to live in pine forests during the winter. In the Alps, Ibex are also found high in the mountains, Females spend the winter mostly on slopes that are too steep for snow to accumulate. However, males sometimes come down to valleys during the late winter and spring.
Click on book cover for more information about these books which give much more detailed information about these and many other sites
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The northern-most part of the Black Sea coast (near Romania) has been dubbed Bulgaria’s ‘Geeseland’. Tens of thousands of geese and other wildfowl spend the winter here, where the Black Sea keeps the climate is a few degrees warmer than further inland. Here are some suggestions for the best places to visit.
With 38 four-thousand-metre peaks (including the Matterhorn itself) in the immediate area and a 400 km hiking trail network, Zermatt is an ideal starting point for watching wildlife under the Matterhorn.
The area around Zermatt is an isolated ecosystem with high biodiversity that has survived thanks to a unique combination of a dry climate, the highest tree line in the Alps, plus a large variety of soil conditions from acid to alkali, from wet to dry, and from shallow to deep.
Zermatt’s flora is a delight for botanists. There are seven species that are unique to the area. And they are mostly easy to find thanks to the mountain railways and those 400 km of hiking trails.
The Zermatt-Matterhorn area, with its varied mountain types, Alpine meadows and forests, is ideal for bird-watching. The Mattertal area is designated an “Important Bird Area” (IBA) Region, in other words, an area where many rare and threatened bird species can be found.
Mammals can be seen here too – marmots aren’t confined to the marmot trail, deer can turn up anywhere, red squirrels haunt the woodlands, while ibex and chamois prefer the higher levels.
Please respect this fragile environment – conservation of the species here really needs the appreciation and cooperation of visitors
Nowhere else in the Alps can one find such a variety of rocks. Four geological zones each with different chemical compositions have crashed together here to make a fascinating diversity of geology.
Zermatt has over 50 lakes and almost 100 springs, rivers and streams. In the village, you can drink straight from the fountains as the water is top quality – and it’s cold as it has just come from the glaciers.
If you’re driving to Zermatt, you’ll be stopped at Tasch. Zermatt itself is car free, and always has been. So you leave your car in one of the 2000 parking spaces at Tasch, and take the shuttle train or a taxi the rest of the way (5km). Or, if you’re in a camper, you make yourself at home in the campsite at Tasch, and then hike or take the shuttle as required. In Zermatt only electric vehicles, horse-drawn taxis and bicycles are permitted, and that makes it a wonderfully peaceful place.
Mostly, we hiked in from the campsite. There are plenty of flowers, birds and butterflies to see en route, and plenty of routes in addition to the direct one that more-or-less follows the River and the railway tracks through the narrowest part of the Mattertal (Matter Valley).
While there are several routes in different directions from Tasch, there are plenty more options once you get to Zermatt. Most of them are pretty spectacular, offering scenic views as well as plenty of flowers, butterflies, birds and occasional glimpses of alpine mammals.
But first, stop in at the information centre. They have a program of walks, talks and tours, and while you don’t need to join any of them, I found it useful to at least know about the lectures for something to do when the weather was wet (I went to one where the local weather itself was being explained). The guided walks were useful to get acquainted with the local fauna and flora.
They also have maps and books. The panoramic maps were particularly useful for seeing the marked trails in relation to each other, and to the various ski lifts and shuttles, etc. And in respect of the latter, it can be handy to know which ones were running and at what times.
A lot of this information is on the Zermatt visitor website in more detail, but it’s often useful to pick up printed matter, especially maps that are too big to print at home.
Best places for watching wildlife under the Matterhorn
So, you’re established in your hotel in town or up on a hillside, or you’re in the campsite at Tasch. Now to decide what to do next. Here are my recommendations of where to watch wildlife under the Matterhorn:
Europe’s highest cogwheel railway, the Gornergratbahn has been taking passengers up to Gornergrat (3089m) since 1898. The Gornergrat Bahn was also the world’s first fully electrified cog railway. Now equipped with a regenerative braking system that generates electricity on the descent, it is a truly eco-friendly system.
The ride takes 33 minutes and covers a vertical climb of 1,469 m. The 9.4 kilometres of track goes over dramatic bridges, through galleries and tunnels, across forests of larch and Swiss stone pine, and past rocky ravines and mountain lakes. Best to sit on the right-hand side of the train facing uphill to photograph the Matterhorn and the magnificent panorama of seven glaciers and 29 peaks over 4000m.
July and August are probably the best times for finding plants and butterflies at this altitude. Hang around the top station for a while, then either take one of the footpaths downhill, or take the train down to Rotenboden.
A ten-minute walk from the station is the Riffelsee – one of the many lakes of the region, and one of the best for photographing the reflection of the Matterhorn on calm weather – usually early morning or in the evening. This is a particularly good area for rare Alpine flowers and high-level butterflies.
Continue along the Rotenboden-Gornergrat hiking trail and over the lateral moraine of the Gorner glacier for Zermatt’s hotspot for observing flowers. It has the greatest variety of rare flowers in a relatively small area. But beware, there is a section of the trail that requires surefootedness and freedom from dizziness.
Please take care here and STAY ON THE FOOTPATH – the southern slope of the Gornergrat is a very sensitive ecosystem. An alpine meadow at this altitude takes hundreds of years to develop and stabilise, and a moment or two of carelessness can damage the extremely vulnerable plants.
Depending on the season – the Gornergrat trail is accessible from June – you can find dwarf rampion, alpine aster, alpine alyssum, umbel pennycress, glacier wormwood, Haller’s pasqueflower and Haller’s ragwort, Schleicher’s gentian and the fine-haired sweet clover. Many of these are small, and you’ll need a magnifying glass to look at things like the small barbs on the heads of the sepals of the dwarf rampion, for example. Or better still, join a botanical walk with an expert to help you find these species.
Matterhorn Glacier Paradise
Europe’s highest cable-car station is the Matterhorn Glacier Ride on the Klein Matterhorn (3883m). Views are stunning – 14 glaciers and 38 mountain peaks over 4000m from the Panoramic Platform (good weather only). The Matterhorn looks different from up here – this is best place to see the south face.
Then there is the Glacier Palace, an ice palace with glittering ice sculptures and an ice slide, and even some exhilarating snow tubing outside in the snowy surrounds. There is snow here all year round, but not a lot for the naturalist once you have admired the views – including the one looking down on the glacier from the cable-car.
Return to the cable-car station at Trockener Steg and explore along the Matterhorn Glacier trail. Since the Little Ice Age of around 1850, the Furgg and Theodul Glaciers have retreated by more than three kilometres. This 6.5km trail offers insights into the phenomenon of glacier retreat, displaying what the melting glacier leaves behind, showing the conditions it creates for plant and animal life, and revealing how humans make use of the remains from the river of ice. Information panels along the route tell the whole fascinating story.
The other end of the trail is at the Schwarzsee (Black Lake) gondola station with its tiny chapel dedicated to ‘Maria zum Schnee’ (Our Lady of the Snow). It’s one of the many lakes that give you a reflection of the Matterhorn in calm weather.
The Sunnegga Express was my first experience of a tunnel funicular – the whole train built at the angle of the slope, but with everything properly levelled. The slight unreality of it was increased by leaving a relatively warm and clear Zermatt, then disembarking to a cool thick mist at Sunnegga.
Some 650m above Zermatt, and you’re also just above the tree-line. This means open meadows for Alpine marmots. The marmot trail covers nearly 4km, and offers a chance to watch marmots close-up. The animals live in burrows, and can often be seen sun-bathing at the burrow entrance, visiting the neighbours, collecting food, and generally going about their business. In July there is a chance of seeing the babies on their first forays out of the burrows too. They mostly ignore humans, so long as humans stay where humans are supposed to be – ie on the footpath. There is also a marmot-watching station a few minutes easy walk from the funicular station.
Another easy hike here is the Blumenweg (flower path) with alpine anemones, gentians and violet pasqueflowers among many others. All these trails have information boards in several languages. Of course, flowers aren’t the only thing to be seen, and from the section of the trail between Tuftern and Sunnega, I watched golden eagles and goshawks – not at the same time though!
Sunnegga is also one end of the 5-Seenweg – the Five Lakes Walk (Seen = Lakes) It’s a 10 km hike that takes you past five scenic lakes, with the Matterhorn reflected in three of them (if the weather is reasonably clear!). Each of the lakes is different in terms of shape, colour, character and size. The Leisee is good for swimming, the Grünsee looks out over a rather more rugged landscape, with Swiss stone pines growing among the scree and sand. The shores of the Grindjisee are home to rare flowers. And so on. The other end of the walk is the Blauherd cable-car station, further uphill, so it’s your choice of mostly uphill, or mostly downhill for the route.
Flower Trail – Trift
The Trift valley runs west from Zermatt, and is another botanical delight – although for me, the wallcreepers were part of the pleasure, especially as they were an excuse to pause on the steepest part of the path. A small herd/flock of Alpine Ibex frequent the area around the Pension Edelweiss at the top of that steep section, though they can be out of sight on the slopes above.
The trail from Zermatt to the Trift restaurant is the Botanischer Lehrpfad (Botanical Educational Trail). It’s a long climb of over 700m, but the local world of flowers is explained on the boards along the trail. In May-June there are numerous orchids, eg the Knabenkraut orchid. Spring gentians bring bright shades of blue, soon followed by various anemones and pasque flowers, including the rare Haller’s pasque flower Pulsatilla halleri. Later, in July and August, you can see edelweiss, alpine aster, and rare grasses. Edelweiss is surprisingly inconspicuous, but it is there, just after the alpine aster lookout.
Where there are flowers, there are insects. And amongst the great variety of butterflies is the Apollo.
Edelweissweg (Edelweiss trail)
If you have the time and energy (I didn’t), you can continue along the Edelweiss trail for more botanical delights. The route takes you up another 1000 metres, through Höhbalmen and Zmutt before returning to Zermatt. It’s another 18.8 km (7 ½ hours) and gives you a spectacular view of the Matterhorn north face and the Monte Rosa massif.
Why does the edelweiss (and many other mountain flowers) have fleecy hairs? The answers come as a surprise: the edelweiss’s hairs, for example, protect it from sun damage, frost and drying out.
In between long mountain walks, you need something easier. I mentioned the Mattertal earlier – it provides easy walking between Zermatt and Tasch (5km) and Tash and Randa (4km) along the river. Lots of plants, butterflies and birds to enjoy here. South of Zermatt there are two more fairly easy walks.
Ricola Herb Garden
At Ricola, they make hard-boiled sweets with a difference – they are flavoured with herbs. The herbs are grown locally, and there is a short herb-garden hike at Blatten where you can learn about the 13 species that go into every drop. Blatten is about 2.5km from Zermatt, and the start of the herb-garden walk is next to the small chapel.
For a complete change of scenery, it is hard to beat the Gornerschlucht – a deep gorge cut by the outflowing water from ice-age glaciers. You could spend all day in the gorge, which is carved out of green serpentine rock and accessed by a series of wooden staircases and walkways. Or you could be out in less than half an hour. Take a waterproof jacket, though, as the rushing water leaves a mist in the air. This hike is recommended especially for geologists, though you don’t have to be one to appreciate the place.
Suspension Bridge at Furi
A 3km circular walk from Furi includes the 100m long suspension bridge across the Gornerschlucht. You need a head for heights, as there is a 90 m drop to the river below. The structure – a lattice and cables of steel – is quite secure, though the vibrations of other people crossing, plus the occasional swaying in the wind, make it quite an experience.
The panoramic map showed a hike to Arigscheiss close to the campsite at Tasch, and it didn’t look like a hard walk. Unfortunately – and the problem with these panoramic or perspective maps – is that they are great for stuff on the far side of the valley, but not good for the near side. This turned out to be quite a strenuous hike, climbing nearly 1000m, assisted in places by metal ladders and walkways. But, when the clouds lifted a bit, there were good views across the valley to the tongues of glaciers on the higher levels. It’s also good for seeing animals – a family of chamois, roe deer, birds such as ring ouzels (a kind of blackbird with a white throat) and golden eagles, among many others. There were even a few butterflies when the sun came out.
The name Arigscheis indicates that eagles have been seen here. “Ari” means eagle in the local dialect, and Arigscheis refers to a place where eagles hang out.
Circular Hike to the Suspension Bridge in Randa
If the suspension bridge at Furi whetted your appetite, then the next place to go is Randa for the “Charles Kuonen Suspension Bridge“, also known as the ‘Europaweg Skywalk’. At 494 m, this is the longest pedestrian suspension bridge in the world. It takes almost 10 minutes to cross and in the middle, swaying walkers are at the highest point: 85 m above the Grabengufer.
The bridge opened in July 2017, so it is definitely on my list for next time.
So there you have it
My recommendations for getting the best nature-watching experiences during a summer trip to Zermatt – how to watch wildlife under the Matterhorn. I only hope that the next time I visit, I get better weather. In ten days I hardly saw the sun, and the low cloud meant I only saw the Matterhorn itself a couple of times. People tell me I was unlucky. I hope you do better!
At least I had better weather for the next part of my journey – enjoying the nature at Grindelwald – under the Eiger.
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Sadly the English version of this book is now out of print. It was a standard volume available in several languages. On walks, the guide would identify a flower, and whoever found it first in their book would call out the page number so everyone could mark it in their own book, regardless of language.
It’s a subject that seems to be more easily available locally rather than trying to buy something in advance. For example:
“Alpine flowers around Zermatt”, by Hanspeter Steidle, published by edition punktuell, Herisau, 2009. Bilingual German/English, ISBN 978-3-905724-15-8 and available from the shop at the Information Centre.
If you are trying to buy something in advance, make sure it is about the Alpine flora in Europe, rather than Alpine regions of North or South America, or Australia or New Zealand, for example.
Finding books specific to the Alpine Region seems to be best done when you are there. There will be books in French, German and Italian, and it seems if you are lucky, in English too. Otherwise, the main guides to birds, mammals, etc covering the whole of Europe, will do the job. I am slowly replacing my older versions with those mentioned below.
The books below are my ‘go to’ books for European wildlife, when I can’t find anything more specific to a region. Click on the covers for more information.
It was only a footprint, but it was BIG. I felt the hairs on the back of my neck rise, and the adrenalin starting to pump. The only animal I knew of that size was bear, and bears certainly lived in the area, though at low density and rarely seen.
A second look told me the prints were not that fresh – maybe during the night, or even yesterday. The bear probably was NOT still close by. But we couldn’t help looking around, just in case. And talking loudly – bears usually avoid humans, so best to let them know you are around.
Bob tried to convince me that it was some human pulling a joke, but I think he was actually quite worried about it. Was it coincidence that, while trying to photograph the footprint, I managed to knock the tripod over and damage the camera – beyond repair as it turned out.
We were hiking along a public trail through the Urho Kekkonen in the Saariselka Wilderness area of Finland – a few kilometres from the visitor centre at Tankavaara. The same few kilometres from the road where we were expecting to get the bus back to Saariselka. We arrived back at the bus stop with 45 minutes to spare.
We certainly felt vulnerable – out in the open on foot. I had previously met black bears in America, but then I had been on horseback. A horse can outrun a bear on flat ground, a human can’t outrun a bear on any terrain – the bear has four legs and a low centre of gravity.
But it would be nice to see a bear properly – the bear in the wild, the humans in a relaxed/safe situation. It had taken years to see just the footprint, so what is the best way to see the actual bear?
The most obvious answer is to join a bear-watching holiday. These come in several sizes. Note that I have no connection with any of these places/companies. This is just a round-up of bear-watching opportunities advertised on the internet.
You’ll learn about bears and their environment from people studying them, and also contribute to conservation in that country. Greece, Romania, Bulgaria and Finland are good destinations, and Responsible Travel a good company to use. There is a lot of information about watching bears on their website.
A specialist trip, (or part of a more general nature trip) usually of a few days, designed to put you (with your camera if desired) in a hide for one or more nights in the expectation of seeing a bear at dawn or dusk. Usually, you are taken by vehicle to within a short distance of the hide, then on foot for the last fifteen minutes or so. For overnight stays, the hide will have bunk beds, basic toilet facilities, and perhaps a means of heating food (but not proper cooking facilities). In the morning, or at a pre-arranged time, you are collected, walk back to the vehicle, and driven to your accommodation, or the nearest town, etc. While nothing is guaranteed, a few nights in a hide is probably the best opportunity to see a bear, or two or three, plus some other passing wildlife.
Martinselkonen Nature Reserve, located in Eastern Finland, is one of the best places in Europe to photograph brown bears. This tranquil wilderness location is highly recommended – on occasion up to 20 bears and eight cubs have been seen in a single night! And there is plenty of other wildlife to be seen. The location is popular with holiday companies and is included in many of the following tours.
Bear Centre – 29 hides for watching and photography – April – September
Bears, wolves and Wolverines – April – August, self-drive trip – On this unique wildlife adventure in the boreal forest of Finland you self-drive between lodges, allowing you to explore the wildlife of the taiga at your own pace. We have selected three lodges with a network of outstanding hides from which to watch and photograph such iconic inhabitants of the far north as brown bear, wolf, wolverine and white-tailed eagle. Throughout spring and summer these overnight hides offer mammal-watching which is unrivalled in northern Europe.
Wildlife Worldwide holidays will also organise a bespoke tour, and many other companies provide something similar, perhaps especially for photographers.
Just brown bears – summer – a long weekend Brown Bear-watching holiday amongst the fine taiga forests that straddle Finland’s border with Russia.
Brown bear explorer June & July – Long evenings and early dawns allow incomparable opportunities to watch and photograph the wildlife of the forest on this 8-day tour in Finland. Staying at purpose built hides, night vigils with a naturalist guide reward you with close-ups of brown bears, wolverines and occasionally wolves.
Brown bears in Finland – May-August – An ideal short-haul break to a wonderful location for sighting brown bears in the Finnish wilderness.
Bear watching in Sweden – A 4-day holiday to an idyllic, rolling land of forests and lakes where we will look for Brown Bears from a luxurious purpose-built hide, and enjoy the natural history, beauty and extraordinary tranquillity of a magical place just five hours away
Slovenia – Hiking & bear-watching. Two perfect days to dive into the area of Kočevsko forest. Spend time in nature in search of wildlife and enjoy local delicacies. May – October
Brown bear tracking in the northern Pindos – May – October – Track wild bears in a pristine mountainous corner of Greece: Northern Pindos. Back to nature with the friendly guides of wildlife charity CALLISTO to hear about bear research methods, walk in the wilderness, and witness traces of wild bears. Note – this is basically the same as the bear conservation tour listed under eco-volunteering, but with a different company.
March-April: bears emerge from hibernation, including cubs taking their first look at the outside world. All they want to do in spring is eat, to rebuild the reserves lost through the long winter sleep.
May to July: mating season, when males persistently follow females everywhere.
August-October: it is eating season again, as bears fatten up in preparation for hibernation.