Nature-watching in the Swiss National Park

Why visit the Swiss National Park . . . .

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

About . . . .

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

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

Protected areas in Switzerland

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

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

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

Best things to do:

Go to the visitor centre

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

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

Download the app

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

Take a hike

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

Go on a guided walk

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

Look for birds

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

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

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

Shepherd’s Fritillary
Silky ringlet

Look for butterflies

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

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

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

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

Enjoy the wildflowers

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

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

Look for mammals

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

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

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

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

Photo of chamois with kid
Chamois

So there you have it

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

What I’d do next time

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

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

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


Best time to go

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

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

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

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


Resources

Swiss National Park website

Videos

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


How to get there

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

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


Bookshop

Buying books through these links earns a small commission which helps towards the costs of this website at no extra cost to you.

Sadly the English version of this book is now out of print. It was a standard volume available in several languages. On walks, the guide would identify a flower, and whoever found it first in their book would call out the page number so everyone could mark it in their own book, regardless of language.

It’s a subject that seems to be more easily available locally rather than trying to buy something in advance.

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

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

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


Botany and Butterflies in the French Alps

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

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Nature of Grindelwald

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

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Photo of Rocina Marshes

Doñana National Park

Why visit . . .

  • It is one of the largest and best-known wetlands in Spain
  • It holds internationally important numbers of geese and ducks in winter
  • Six species of herons, plus spoonbills and glossy ibis breed there
  • Nearly 400 species of bird, including vagrants from Africa, Asia and the Americas have been seen there.
  • The Iberian Lynx still survives there, along with 36 other mammal speces
  • 21 reptile, 11 amphibian and 20 freshwater fish species have also been recorded.
  • It is a World Heritage Site and a UNESCO Biosphere reserve

About . . . .

The Marismas (marshes) of the Guadalquivar found fame as the Coto Doñana – the hunting preserve of the Duke of Medina Sidonia, in the 16th century. It played host to hunting parties of the Kings of Spain for more than 300 years, and as many as 12,000 people were said to have assembled for the visit by Felipe IV in spring 1624.

In the 1960s, a group of scientists, including José Antonio Valverde and Guy de Montford, started to campaign for recognition of the importance of the area, leading it to be declared a national park in 1969. It has since been expanded, and a buffer area (pre-parque) set up around it, now designated a Parque Natural.

The Doñana National Park and its protected margins cover more the 1300km sq. of mostly flat marshes. The actions of the sea and the Guadalquivir river built-up a large sandbar that protected an inland sea of shallow lagoons and seasonally flooded salt flats. On the south side lie 35km of sandy beach, not accessible by vehicle and so populated only by a few dozen licenced fishermen. Inland, an extensive system of sand dunes is variously clothed in grassland, heath, cistus scrub, then stone pine and cork oak woodlands.

To the north and west, there are saltpans and rice paddies, these days giving way to polyculture – the growing of fruit and vegetables under never-ending rows of plastic poly-tunnels. While the micro-climate in these tunnels provides ideal growing conditions and conserves moisture, the very act of growing these crops demands that more and more water is extracted from water-courses and ground aquifers before it reaches the marshes. And then there are the pesticides and other chemicals used on the paddyfields. To the south-west, the expanding resort of Matalascanas wants to make golf courses and other tourist attractions that will further lower the water table.

Water isn’t the only threat to the marshes. In 1998 a retaining wall at the Aznalcollar mine, north of Doñana, collapsed, and five million cubic metres of toxic waste started flowing downstream. Fortunately, most of the waste was diverted to farmland that is now ‘decommissioned’ because of the high levels of zinc, cadmium and other metals. The mine is still in operation.

For now, the marismas and their associated habitats and species seem to be doing OK. They need to be seen and appreciated while they can be. Climate change will undoubtedly bring a slew of other problems to bear.


Eagle-watching

There is nothing special about booted eagles here – they can be found across Spain. However, on my first visit I met Gus, who was studying these birds, and his family. Gus showed us how he watched the birds and recorded their activities, and said he would be grateful for any observations. It wasn’t as if I needed an excuse to go out and just sit and watch for something to happen, but it helps when you know that what you are doing is useful. Keeping detailed notes also helps you to get a better understanding of the species. And you never know what else you might see.

Just looking at the notes of one afternoon, there were several pale and dark phase booted eagles (two different colour forms of the same species) hunting; a common buzzard sitting unobtrusively on a fence post; a pair of imperial eagles in display flight – stooping and dipping, pitching and rolling, etc, as if on their own personal roller-coasters – and later mating; a couple of red kites; a peregrine that swooped through the waders and wildfowl, but without catching anything; six griffon and one Egyptian vulture soaring overhead; from time to time there were also kestrels, sparrowhawks, and possibly a goshawk and a Montagu’s harrier, but these last two were too distant to be sure.

Spanish Imperial eagle – twice the size of the booted eagle.

On another occasion, a distant shape on the horizon that turned out to be a camel!  The last descendant of a herd of about eighty intro­duced to the Marismas in the early 1900s for meat and as draft animals.  Local people were not too happy about these newcomers, complaining that, amongst other things, they ate fodder that should have been for horses and cattle, and that the horses were terrified of them – horses were still an important part of life here in the 1980s.  They generally made life miserable for the camels, which did not thrive, and eventually the herd was left to its own devices.  Now, only this one remained.


Best places for watching birds

El Rocío and the Madre

After the road from Ayamonte to El Rocío via la Palma, with its thirsty red earth, never-ending orange groves and plas­tic covered strawberry beds, the Marismas of the Parque Nacional de Doñana came as an oasis: an outsize village pond on the edge of a collec­tion of whitewashed buildings and sandy roads.  As far as one could see through the heat haze there were birds, birds, and more birds.  Somewhere in the far distance, a huge flock took to the air.  They shimmered in the haze, giving off a faint pink glow to suggest they were flamingos. (My first impressions, back in 1989)

El Rocío is a town of whitewashed buildings and wide sandy roads, sitting right next to this vast shallow water often referred to as ‘the Madre’. Technically, the Madre de las Marismas is the stream feeding through from the west, but here it overspills the channel during winter, creating this vast shallow lagoon, dotted with birds – wading birds, shorebirds, ducks, geese, herons, gulls, small passerines looking for insects along the margins, and birds of prey overhead.

The promenade, which sort of separates the town from the water and continues across the Rocío Bridge on the old road, is the easiest place for bird-watching. And the place where most bird-watchers seem to congregate, so if there is something to be seen, you’ll soon know about it.

A Spaniard got out of his car, rushed across to where we had the telescope set up on the promenade, and muttered something about a lesser spotted eagle. Before we had time to process what he was on about, he had grabbed the telescope, pointed it in the appropriate direction, and was on his way back to his car. We peered through the haze at a large, fuzzy brownish bird on a very distant fence post. Lesser-spotted eagles were only occasional visitors here. The Spaniard, we discovered later, was in charge of censusing the birds in the Park.

Centro de La Rocina

Just south of the Rocío Bridge is the Visitor Centre of La Rocina. I don’t remember much about the centre itself, except for seeing booted eagles overhead as soon as I got there. Beyond the centre, a network of paths takes you through scrub and woodland, and to the hides along the south side of the Charco de la Boca (Charco = puddle or pool) a slow-flowing stream with boggy patches and islands and reedbeds. The hides provide welcome shade from the sun and the birds – anything can turn up here – can be seen at closer quarters than on the Madre.

Acebrón

Beyond La Rocina, the road continues some 7km to the Palacio del Acebrón – a good place to visit on a rainy day. It houses a permanent exhibition of traditional human life and exploitation of the marshes. A collection of stuffed birds and animals proved useful in looking at ID features for birds that didn’t hang around for close examination in real life. A stuffed lynx showed just how large these animals are, commensurate with the footprints I found along the Camino del Rey some time later.

Outside, there is a nature trail through semi-formal gardens, around the lake (El Charco del Acebrón), through woodlands and across waterways. My overriding memory of this place is walking through willow scrub in the sunshine of a spring morning, through a haze of yellow catkins and an incredibly loud buzz of insects. A week later, the flowering was over, and the insects had moved elsewhere.

Centro de Recepción El Acebuche

El Acebuche is closer to Matalascañas, and seems to be the main visitor centre – it houses displays, information, souvenir shops that include maps and books as well as car-stickers and T-shirts, and a cafe. Oh, and a pair of white storks nesting on the roof! A short walk takes you to the lagoon of El Acebuche, which is overlooked by seven large wooden hides – one of which had swallows nesting when I last saw it. The laguna is often the best place to see ferruginous ducks and purple swamphens, amongst many other waterfowl. A boardwalk trail goes off through the woods and scrub to the west, there are more hides, and usually plenty of birds.

phto of a western swamphen

Some strange noises had been coming from the reeds, honkings and hootings which one could imagine coming from a purple swamphen (gallinule) ‑ the largest rail in the western Palaearctic, with a wing‑span of nearly a metre, and a voice that seemed to come from way down in its boots.

After a while, a large blue‑black head with a huge bright red bill poked up from the vegetation.  A second gallinule appeared about twenty metres beyond, and the first one flew off with heavy wing-beats. The second bird waded ponderously towards the hide, picking its huge red feet clear of the water.  It climbed onto a pile of vegetation and looked around, calling continuously.  Then it selected some underwater stalk which it pulled on vigorously until it came free, and carried it in its bill to a nearby mat of reeds.  The stalk was dropped while the bird climbed out of the water, then picked up again and transferred to one of those huge feet to be held firmly, yet almost delicately, as the bird chewed chunks off the end.

The first gallinule flew back out into the open and the birds stood some distance apart, facing each other and performing exaggerated head-bobbing movements, and calling to each other.  The second bird wandered off, flicking its tail to show an expanse of white under-tail coverts.  The first flew closer to the hide, then pulled up a juicy stalk for its supper.

Later the honkings from the reeds increased in intensity: two gallinules were fighting ‑ we could see their wings flailing in the vegetation ‑ while a third bird peered over the top to see how things were progress­ing.  After a few minutes, the loser beat a hasty retreat. Others were heard in the distance.

Purple swamphens would not win any prizes for elegance, but they certainly are impres­sive.  They were surprisingly willing to fly ‑ perhaps those huge feet get in the way when they try to run in a hurry.

José Antonio Valverde Visitor Centre

Following the Camino del Rey (a dirt road) eastwards from El Rocío takes you first through pinewoods (good for birds, butterflies, plants and reptiles) then into a more open area where the roads are often along the top of embankments. On my first visit (photo above), this was an open plain of swampy grassland, with deer and cattle grazing on the drier areas, and frogs calling from the irrigation/drainage channels. I saw my first sandgrouse at a bend in the road – known forever after (in my memory) as Sandgrouse Bend!

On my last visit, heavy rains had flooded these fields, they were occupied by black-necked grebes and other waterbirds. The road surface was slippery and as we drove along, I reminded myself of how to survive if the car slid off into the water (especially not knowing how deep the water was in the channels by the road.).

The road does, however, lead to the Jose Valverde Visitors’ Centre, where there are displays, a shop, and a cafe. It has picture windows and a short, screened boardwalk overlooking an adjacent permanent lake. This lake is the home of a large nesting colony of glossy ibises, as well as colonies of other species of heron. Neither the centre nor the ibises were here on my first visits!


Best time to visit

The National Park itself is not open to the public – only park staff and registered scientists are allowed in for their specific projects. However, there are guided tours, operated by approved companies and individuals, and they need to be booked well in advance. We tried a couple of times – waiting at the departure area in case somebody didn’t turn up. However, people working there said that we wouldn’t expect to see any species that we couldn’t see in the Parque Natural area, so don’t worry if you can’t get in.

My visits have been between February and April, when generally the weather is not too hot, there aren’t too many people around, and the bird numbers are at their highest. Even when the wintering birds depart, there are plenty of migrants coming through in March and April. Plants, insects and herptiles can be found at any time, though there was a noticeable increase in activity in spring.

Water levels vary with the rainfall, some years are very dry, and sometimes most of the park seems to be flooded. Generally, October to May is considered the best. The marshes are fed mainly by rainfall, so in summer they can dry up completely, and the birds relocate to other wetlands, such as the Odiel Marshes which are tidal.

Unless you are really there for the festival, the area is best avoided at Pentecost (seven weeks after Easter) when up to a million pilgrims converge for the Fiesta de Nuestra Senora del Rocío. Traditionally, some residents rented their houses at high enough rates that they lived on this festival income for the rest of the year.


So there you have it

My first visit to the Doñana National/Natural Park lasted a month, subsequent visits have been shorter. Most of that time was spent exploring the areas mentioned above, and anywhere else that took my fancy – the advantage of getting to know a place.

What I’d look for next time – José Antonio Valverde Visitor Centre and its environs must be worth a visit, and more time in the dunes near Matalascañas. But just wandering around those same areas as before – because with wildlife, you never quite know what might turn up. Perhaps being there in January when the cranes are wintering there – I had missed them by mid-February. Perhaps seeing what it is like in May – before it gets too hot, but the flowers, birds, butterflies and lizards should be abundant. Maybe I’d try again for one of the guided trips into the interior of the Nationa Park – just to see what it is like. Or one of the trips that specifically goes out looking for lynx – nothing is guaranteed, but it would be nice to see a real live one instead of just the pawprints (and the stuffed specimen!)

And I’d go with a list of all the places and things I didn’t photograph previously. A wildflower book would help too, so I could concentrate more on plants and butterflies, than on birds.


Resources

Websites

Doñana as a World Heritage Site

Doñana as a Ramsar site – for a detailed technical ecological appraisal of the park

Department of the Environment website – in Spanish (clicking English on the language tab doesn’t give you the whole website in English. You’ll probably need Google translate if you don’t read Spanish)

Getting there

The Donana National and Natural Park lies between Seville and Huelva. It is possible to get to El Rocío by bus, but this is time-consuming. And because of the size of the Park, a car is a necessity if you want to go further than the Madre and the la Rocina Centre. Hotels in Seville, and/or the tourist office, will have details of day trips by coach.

Visits to the protected area of the national park can only be undertaken with licenced operators. There are several, I don’t know anything about any of them, but these two have been mentioned by friends who have been there.

Discovering Doñana – tour operator – lots of information on their website

Doñana Visitas – tour operator – a local cooperative

There is plenty of accommodation in El Rocío, and in Matalascañas to the south.

Videos

This documentary from Planet DOC gives an excellent idea of the variety of wildlife of the Doñana


Bookshop

Click on covers for more information

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


More nature-watching in Andalucia

Brazo del Este Natural Area

If you’re staying somewhere between Malaga and Gibraltar, and you can’t get to the Doñana National Park on the other side of the river, then the Brazo del Este is the place to head for. A true oasis of wildlife surrounded by an agricultural desert – a desert in terms of wildlife.

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Photo of spoonbills in flight

Las Marismas del Odiel

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

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Photo of a lake in the forests of Lapland

Urho Kekkonen National Park

Poster for pinterest

The Urho Kekkonen National Park covers a huge area: 2,550 sq km (980 sq miles)

It is the second-largest protected natural area in Finland

It is the second oldest National Park in Finland – founded in 1983

It is home to rare wildlife such as bears, wolverines, eagles, and plants that need tundra conditions.

Urho Kekkonen background

The Urho Kekkonen National Park, extending from Saariselkä all the way to the Russian border, is by far the most popular trekking region in Finland. It is essentially a network of excellent wilderness huts, with a varied landscape between them, so there is no single trekking path to follow. If you have walking in mind, come in the summer.

The National Park was established in 1983 with the purpose of protecting the original forest, mire and fell nature of north-eastern Finland. It is the second-largest nature protection area in Finland, and offers the most majestic views of forested Lapland. The round summits of the gently sloping fells are barren and treeless. Between the fells, valleys and gorges grow sparse Scots pine and lots of lichens. The rivers south of Saariselkä run through wet bogs and thick willow bushes between low hills of spruce. In the south-eastern valley of the Nurttijoki (joki = river), the vegetation can be downright lush in places.

Photo of a small group of young reindeer
Young reindeer moulting out their winter coats

Traditionally the area was used by the Lapp villages of the Forest Sami people. Pit-trapping of deer was the usual hunting method. When the Finnish settlers spread to the area, the wild deer disappeared. In the 1870s the Fell Sami people arrived with their large reindeer herds. Gold panning, pearl hunting and forestry have all left their marks on the area, but today the most important uses of the park are reindeer husbandry and recreation. More than 20,000 reindeer live in the park, which offers excellent winter grazing. Hikers must avoid disturbing and chasing reindeer at any time, especially during the calving period in April and May. Other than the reindeer, it is estimated that about 20 bears and half a dozen wolverines inhabit the park. Wolves are regular visitors, especially near the eastern border. There are also otters, eagles, owls, and a host of other interesting things. So, plenty of reasons to visit.

Saariselkä

Saariselkä is basically a ski resort. According to the Lonely Planet Guide – the village is now one of the busiest yuppie resorts in the whole of Lapland. Real estate prices here are second only to those in Helsinki, big companies have luxurious log houses in the village and hotels are expensive. Fortunately, this was mid-June – the end of the offseason, so there were few facilities and even fewer people to be found here. This suited us and we were able to enjoy a week of solitude and nature watching.  Apparently by mid-summer’s day, that would all change.

Photo of the grey buildings of the Saariselka resort

For the first couple of days, the temperature was only a few degrees above freezing and the sky remained cloudy. The mostly grey buildings of the village seemed dismal and uninviting. The Scots pine logs traditionally used for building turn grey with age, and that seemed to be an excuse to paint all other buildings grey too. We had a pretty luxurious cabin, with two double-bedrooms, and four more single beds in the loft. It was all triple/quadruple glazing, and the heating was permanently on – Finnish buildings are always kept warm! As well as more mod-cons than we could wish for, we had our own private sauna.

Just outside the cabin we saw a mountain hare and a reindeer – perhaps a good omen. Then there were Siberian tits, chaffinches, bramblings – the first time I had seen them in breeding plumage, fieldfares, redpolls, siskins, willow warblers, pied flycatchers, hooded crows, ravens, little ringed plovers and wood sandpipers by a small lake, and the ubiquitous house sparrow.

Photo of a mountain hare

Highlights of a week there in mid-June

During the next week, we explored the area on foot, sometimes along waymarked routes, sometimes just following roads or animal tracks.  The going was easy – no big hills or deep valleys – so long as you avoided the boggy areas.  Daylight seemed to go on forever – it was mid-June in the land of the midnight sun.  The variety of birds taking advantage of the short nesting season included some species we hadn’t seen before, and others we had seen only in winter plumage in the UK. 

We followed signs for ‘Luontopulka’ (nature trail) through the forest and out into an open area on the fell at Iisakkipaa. The size and numbers of pine trees dwindled, and there were dwarf birch trees with hardly a leaf bud showing. Ground cover was heather, crowberry and lichens. Meadow pipits, redwings, and many other birds were singing. A male bluethroat did the rounds of song perches in his territory, stopping whenever he got near his prospective mate to woo her by fanning his tail in front of her nose (sorry, beak).

Photo of droppings from a game bird

Every so often we came across piles of droppings that looked like cylindrical wads of tobacco, typical signs of game birds. The larger ones with pine needles were probably y certainly belonged to game birds, these were from a hazel-hen.

A shallow valley with snow in the bottom offered some shelter from the cold breeze. Then there was a golden plover in song flight – a wonderfully haunting sound in this wilderness; a whimbrel vigorously and noisily chasing a raven from its territory; a pair of ptarmigan sitting on rocks near a snow patch – we could easily have missed them if they hadn’t called; arctic redpolls flitting about amongst the heather and dwarf birch, calling loudly but eluding our binoculars until one pair eventually obliged by sitting out in the open for a few minutes; more bluethroats, and a male northern wheatear perhaps still on migration.

We met a Finnish family with three noisy kids. This was the start of the school vacation (they go back in mid-August) and they had just come from Helsinki. They had been here before, but only in winter to ski.

Photo of Scots pine forest in Lapland

Most of Finland’s forests have been felled and replanted over the years, so there are few old trees – and few old growth forests. Here in the national park there were a few larger pines, snags and dead wood, but it would need another century or two of being left to develop by itself to become old-growth forest again.

This is Scot’s Pine Pinus sylvestris forest left to nature.

Arctic terns hunted over the lakes. Whimbrels, snipe, and other shorebirds perched on top of small trees (looks an uncomfortable place for a shorebird) between song-flights in the boggy areas.  Bob found some fresh frog spawn – something we would have seen in February back home. And here, instead of the tadpoles turning into frogs in their first summer, it could take two or three seasons, and even longer for frogs to reach breeding age/size.

Photo of a red squirrel eating bread on a picnic table

One morning I crumbled a slice of bread onto the table on the deck to see what would happen. As we finished our breakfast a red squirrel suddenly appeared, jumping confidently onto the table then skidding on the plastic. It took a lump of bread and chewed it up, then another. I got my camera ready and took a few pictures through the triple glazing. Then I opened the inner part of the patio door, the squirrel took no notice. I tapped on the window, the squirrel ignored me. I opened the outer door, still the squirrel kept eating. As I set up the tripod, the squirrel jumped off the table and came over for a closer look. In fact, it came in the door and sniffed at the tripod, and at my hand. Not wanting him to come inside, I tapped him on the nose, and he went back up onto the picnic table! This must be a dream . . . . .

Then there were Siberian tits, bramblings, fieldfares, redstarts, a female pied flycatcher who was being rather aggressive towards two great tits, a house sparrow and a willow warbler trying to land in her tree, and a mountain hare crossing the ski trail not far away.

Amongst the other sounds were the thin whistle of the hazel grouse – the kind of sound that is almost impossible to locate, the go-bak go-bak call of the willow grouse, and another call that Bob said was a black grouse.

One day we took the bus to Ivalo, the regional capital.  It was a tiny place, even the Lonely Planet Guide referred to it as a village – population 3,500. It had a couple of supermarkets, banks, a post office, several tourist shops, and some restaurants/hotels. This was the second day of sunshine and we could almost see the leaves bursting on the birch trees.

Tankavaara and Sompio

About 25km south of Saariselkä is the village of Tankavaara, with a visitor centre and access to the Sompio Strict Nature Reserve.  And, like Saariselkä, it is conveniently on the bus route between Ivalo and Rovaniemi.   

Three nature trails started at the information centre, and we elected to take the longest (5km) one. It took us through spruce forest, as opposed to the pine forests we had been in previously. There were two kinds of spruce here, the ordinary Norwegian Spruce and the Siberian Spruce. The latter is taller and thinner, and is also known as candle spruce. Apparently it is a further adaptation to heavy snowfall – all the snow slides straight off the slim shape – in theory anyway, though some trees had broken crowns from snowfall that was just too heavy.

Photo of a Siberian Jay

The route we took was designated the Siberian Jay trail. Our information had suggested that Siberian Jays were common, and were very tolerant of people – they are a sign of good fortune and it is bad luck to harm one. The woman in the centre was surprised when I asked if we would see one, yes, of course, she said as if they were everywhere. After a while Bob caught a glimpse of one flying from one treetop to another, but it was another hour or more before we got a good look at one. In fact, it lived up to its reputation, and even came over to investigate us! It is a very attractive bird, a smallish jay with a russet red tail and orange shoulder patches. We only saw the two.

The trail went slowly uphill, above the spruce forest into birch scrub, and to an observation platform on the top of the Tankavaara Fell. From here the view stretched into the distance across the forest and lakes to other fells, and to the Russian border. Several times along the trail there were signs of battlements – trenches etc – left over from the German and Russian occupation during WW2. Two golden plovers called as they flew in, landing close to the platform, but immediately disappearing against the background of heather and lichens. Also up here were found droppings of grouse, capercaillie, reindeer, weasel and fox, and perhaps pine marten too.

Instead of going straight back to the information centre, we turned onto a ski track that would take us to the Sompio strict nature reserve. A strict nature reserve is an area where nature can do its own thing with no human interference. This one was established in 1956.  (When we visited, we were told that it was the part of the national park with the highest density of breeding birds, but from the website it is not clear if the strict nature is actually within the park boundary).

photo of a boardwalk trail

Access was limited to this one track, which you are supposed to keep to. Elsewhere in the national park you can wander off the tracks, though it is easy to get lost or stuck in a bog if you leave the marked routes. Anyway, by the time we stopped for lunch, I was feeling the beginnings of blisters on both feet. Since our time was limited (we had to get back for the last bus) we had decided to walk until 3pm, then turn back regardless.

We had not gone very far back, when I heard something crashing through the forest, and just caught sight of a capercaillie hightailing it across an open area and disappearing into another patch of trees. At least, I assume something large and black, with wings, is a capercaillie. Bob went off in pursuit, I found capercaillie droppings under a small pine tree, and took some photographs of the landscape while waiting for Bob to return. He had caught another glimpse of capercaillie, and reckoned there were also several hundred reindeer hiding amongst the trees.

Photo of a bear track

The map suggested that the track would eventually come out on the main road, so we decided to continue along it rather than go back to the information centre. Halfway there, I noticed some large tracks in the mud – the only animal I knew of that size was bear, and bears certainly lived in the area, though at low density and rarely seen.

We got back to the bus stop with time to spare!

Here is how to watch bears in Europe


Resources

The Finnish National Parks website provides a lot of useful information. Particular note should be taken of the Instructions and Rules in Urho Kekkonen National Park.

The Inari region tourist board website has a lot more information about the area in general, including places to stay, other national parks, other things to do, etc.


Luontoporti – Naturegate – a useful ID and info resource

NatureGate enables you to find fascinating information about hundreds of wild species together with thousands of superb images captured by top photographers. You can view and search for species in various ways – for instance using their English names, their scientific names, or by genus or family. Our unique identification tools also help you to get to know new species. They make the task of discovering new species easy, fast and fun. Try one of these tools right right now!

Comprehensive information on nature in many languages

NatureGate mainly works in eight languages. Many of our featured species can be found right around the world. Our multilingual web services can benefit millions of people interested in nature, wherever they happen to be.

We also publish a free Finnish-language web magazine, featuring the latest news on the natural scene, longer articles and interviews, and news about our own work and events. Readers can also send questions about nature to the magazine section experts’ answers.

The NatureGate team welcome you to enjoy investigating the species featured on our site. We hope you will find our services both enjoyable and useful. Exploring our website should also give you a lot of good reasons to get outdoors and explore the natural environment!


Bookshop

Click on covers for more information.

Many books on the nature of Lapland, or even Finland as a whole, seem to be out of print. So you have to use whatever you can find on north-west Europe.

Note that buying books via these links earns me a small commission (at no extra cost to you) that helps with the maintenance of this website.


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More about Finland

Watching Wolves in Europe

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

Bear-watching

A round-up of opportunities for watching and photographing bears in Europe

Parque Nacional del Teide

The Canary Islands, like the Hawaiian Islands, were each built as they passed over a volcanic hotspot in the ocean floor. Mount Teide is the third highest volcanic structure in the world after Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea in Hawaii.

Some of the Canary Islands volcanoes are still very active, as shown by the 2021 eruption on La Palma.

Mount Teide, the volcano on Tenerife, is fairly quiet, but when you get near the top, you realise things are still happening there.

At 3,718 metres (12,198 feet) above sea level and more than 7,500 metres (24,606 feet) above the ocean floor, the peak of Teide is the highest point of Tenerife, of any Spanish territory, and in the Atlantic Ocean. Its location, size, looming silhouette in the distance and its snowy landscape give it personality. The original settlers considered Teide a god and the volcano was a place of worship.

I only made it almost to the top because you need a permit for those last few metres, but I didn’t know that until too late, so I had to make do with the tourist route.

Mount Teide is easily accessible from any of the resorts on Tenerife. There is a road going past it, and plenty of parking space. For those of us who prefer not to drive when on vacation, there are also buses – two each way a day, so you take one out there in the morning, and catch the other going back in the afternoon, whichever end of the island you are staying on.

Once you’ve parked, or got off the bus, the next stage of the journey is by teleferico – cable car. You can do it on foot, though I don’t recommend that if you have to be back in time to catch the bus. The teleferico runs continuously from 9am to 4pm, unless it gets too windy. It’s a popular tourist destination, and even in late October, we had to queue for a while to get tickets.

On the way up (and again when coming down) you get wonderful views of the surrounding lava fields – different colours indicating different types of volcanic activity over the millennia. Various shades of red dominate, but there are also browns and blacks.

Cocooned in the cable car, you don’t appreciate the effect of altitude until you step outside at the top. Suddenly it is cold. Very cold at times. Even with the steam coming out of the sulphur vents, it’s hard to feel warm. Quite a few visitors were heading back to the teleferico within five minutes because they were inadequately dressed.

A sign tells you which way to go – if you have a permit for the top, you go one way, otherwise take one of the two trails to lookout points. Safe paths have been made in the rocks, but they are still uneven. And you need to walk slowly. The thin air can make you feel light-headed, and a helping of sulphur gas makes it worse. But once there, the view is fantastic – worth staying and appreciating until you feel too cold.

Back at the bottom station, you can explore the surrounding crater – Teide itself grew up within the remains of a much older volcano. Footpaths take you out to the rim, or to the visitor centre and café.

I’ve seen photos taken in the spring (apparently April – June is best) with the area ablaze with broom and other wildflowers, but in October the vegetation was mainly dead and dry. There are birds and lizards here too, and a variety of insects.

The Tizon lizards were great characters. Probably attracted by the bananas in our lunch, they thoroughly investigated the camera bags, and we had to check that we weren’t taking any back to base. Each of the Canary Islands has its own lizard species.

I had planned to visit again in spring 2014, but horrendous storms created mudslides that blocked the roads, and the best I could do was photograph the snowy peak from a distance.

In 1954, the Teide, and the whole area around it, was declared a national park. In June 2007 it was recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage site for being “one of the richest and most diverse assemblages of volcanic landscapes and spectacular natural values in the whole world“. Just west of Teide is the volcano Pico Viejo (Old Peak). On one side of that, is the volcano Chahorra o Narices del Teide, where the last eruption in the vicinity of Mount Teide occurred in 1798.

With 2.8 million visitors per year, Mount Teide is one of the most visited national parks in the world. It is surrounded by the Park Natural Corona Forestal – a massive natural forest for hiking & biking amid mountains, valleys & ravines with native wildlife.

I could go on and on about this place, but all the information is in the two websites mentioned below. I previously didn’t think a trip to a tourist hotspot like the Canary Islands would interest me. However, most of the mass tourist activity is in the main resort in the south and along the coast. There is so much more to this island, and, having been there, I’m happy to go again – I’ll try a different time of year next time.

The Roques de Garcia are amongst the many volcanic rock forms in the National Park. This is on a popular hiking trail.

Tenerife resources

The easiest way to visit Tenerife is via a cheap holiday deal, however this will likely leave you in either the mass tourist area of the south, or a small resort in the north.

Either way, there are two buses a day from each end of the island to Mount Teide, giving you a few hours to enjoy the mountain and its surroundings. Also, organised coach trips are available from most of the hotels.  If you have a hire car, you have more flexibility.

Two websites with loads of information are the Volcano Teide experience (background information) and the linked Teide Guide where there is more practical information for visitors, what to visit en route, where eat, tours and trails, etc.

General information for visitors to Tenerife

Tenerife information centre

Teleferico de Teide – cable-car information

Apply on-line for a permit to hike to the top


Bookshop

Click on covers for more information.

Books on wildflowers are more easily obtained on the islands – I always found more there than in any online shop.

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

Probably the most comprehensive and wide-ranging volume on the subject.
This walking guide for Tenerife presents 35 of the most scenic walks on Tenerife and will introduce the reader to the island’s dramatic landscapes and varied flora and fauna.
Covers Tenerife and la Gomera
Where to watch birds – in Spanish (English version is out of print)

More on the Atlantic Islands

Lanzarote walking

Walking from Peurto del Carmen to the Playa Quemada with views of the Monumento Natural de Los Ajaches.


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Birdwatching in Hungary in Spring-Summer

Why Hungary?

With a scenic landscape of wooded hills and endless flat plains, dotted with reed-fringed lakes and cut by the mighty Danube River, it is not surprising to find that Hungary is one of Europe’s best wildlife destinations.

It has abundant and varied birdlife, and also has much to offer in terms of butterflies and other wildlife. 

And then there is a rich folklore, culture, wines and food.

In early May the resident birds are joined by migrating waders, warblers and raptors on their way further north and the woods are alive with birdsong.

While there is plenty to explore, for those on a time-limited trip, probably the best places are the forested Zemplen Hills and the Bukk National Park in the north-east, and the lowland steppe, grassland and farmlands of the Kiskunság and Hortobágy National Parks.

Kiskunság National Park

Just an hour’s drive from Budapest, the Kiskunság National Park is a tranquil lowland region of steppe, sandy dunes, farmland and wooded copses. It is one of Hungary’s most important areas for the great bustard, which should be displaying in April and May.  Collared pratincoles breed here, whilst the ponds and gravel pits attract three species of marsh terns, plus red-crested pochard, ferruginous duck, garganey and pygmy cormorant. The reedbeds are home to moustached, Savi’s and great reed warblers, whilst overhead you can see Montagu’s harrier, saker falcon and red-footed falcon. Keep an eye on utility wires for roller and lesser grey shrike.  An evening walk could well produce scops owl, long-eared owl and nightjar.

Eagle Owl

Zemplen Hills

North-east of Kiskunság, the Zemplen protected landscape is characterised by dense broad-leaved forests, traditionally farmed fields, flowering meadows and vineyards. Nine species of woodpecker (including the rare white-backed woodpecker) can be found here. This is the best area for Ural and eagle owls. It is also rich in other birds of prey, with goshawk, eastern imperial, short-toed and lesser spotted eagles all breeding. While corncrakes are more likely to be heard than seen, there will be many more obvious birds to enjoy such as woodlark, red-backed shrike, black redstart, barred warbler and golden oriole to name but a few.

Lesser Spotted Eagle

Bükk National Park

The hills and forests of Hungary’s largest national park include important geological features, as well as some 90 species of breeding birds.

In the abandoned, uneven-aged forest, woodpeckers and flycatchers are common.  Eight species of woodpecker are resident here including Syrian, lesser-spotted, middle-spotted, white-backed, grey-headed and the mighty black woodpecker, and wrynecks are now back from their wintering areas.  Other species include hawfinch, turtle dove, yellowhammer, corn bunting, both short-toed and common treecreepers, Eurasian tree sparrow, marsh tit, the white-headed form of long-tailed tit, serin, barred warbler and black redstart. This area is remote and unspoiled enough to have black stork, saker falcon, and imperial, golden, lesser-spotted and short-toed eagles breeding. White storks are obvious on their huge nests in villages while black storks are a little harder to find.  Evenings sounds are dominated by owls, especially the crooning of Eurasian eagle owls.

And of course, there are plenty of plants, butterflies and other wildlife too.

Lesser Spotted Woodpecker

Hortobágy National Park

Probably the best-known of the Hungarian National Parks, the Hortobágy is the foremost wildlife region of the country and one of Europe’s most valuable ecological areas. It is a flat land of distant horizons, small woodlands and reed-fringed fish ponds, but dominated by the lowland semi-steppe and grassland known as the ‘puszta’.

The grasslands are home to an abundance of small mammals, including the souslik (a kind of ground squirrel) and insects, making this an excellent area for long-legged buzzards, imperial eagles, Montagu’s harriers and saker and red-footed falcons.  Great bustards, stone curlews, collared pratincoles and white-winged terns can be found here. White storks nest on the roofs of cottages, flocks of gaggling white geese, shepherds with their scruffy ‘puli’ dogs, are all part of the atmosphere of the puszta, an area which is steeped in folklore and myth.

The huge complexes of fishponds that dot the Hortobágy are rich in breeding marshland birds and are a magnet for migrating waders and passerines. In May, the reedbeds are a cacophony of song, from the loud, harsh notes of great reed Warblers, to the sweeter, mellow songs of marsh and moustached warblers and the reeling of Savi’s warblers. Adjacent to the fishponds are sedge beds which are also home to the beautiful, but sadly declining, aquatic warbler. By early May the herons and egrets are nesting in their large raucous colonies. As well as spoonbill, great egret, purple heron and glossy ibis, the secretive bittern also occurs, and can often be heard booming from the surrounding reedbeds. Other interesting species include whiskered tern, black-necked grebe and pygmy cormorant.

Collared Pratincoles

Fertő-Hanság National Park

Fertő is the Hungarian name for the Neusiedler See.  The two national parks are part of the same ecosystem – based around the lake and the surrounding landscapes. The reedbeds are extensive, and good for a variety of heron species. Shoveler and ferruginous ducks breed there, as do black-tailed godwits and Kentish plovers. Reedbed warblers are common, and it’s probably the best place in Hungary for moustached warblers which may stay right through until October. National Park website

Lake Fertő


Bookshop

Click on the covers for more information.

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.


Resources

Hungarian Tourist Information

Hungary travel guide (Wikitravel)

Birding Pals in Hungary – links to local birders

Hungarian-based websites/tour operators

Farm Lator is an eco-friendly farmhouse accommodation & campsite located in North-eastern Hungary. It is run by an English-speaking wildlife guide offering various nature holidays for independent travellers and groups. They cater for birdwatching, butterflies and moths, general natural history, wildlife photography tours/workshops, mammal trips and family holidays.

Hungarianbirdwatching.com is an association of young, enthusiastic birders who organise birding tours and birdwatching holidays in Hungary and in Budapest. Their birding tours are highly customised to your needs.

Birding Hungary – for bird sightings

Ecotours organise a variety of natural history tours in Eastern Europe. Their Kondor EcoLodge offers a unique place at the westernmost edge of the Eurasian Steppe to discover the special mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, butterflies, moths, dragonflies, other invertebrates, wildflowers and other natural values of the “Hungarian Puszta” or flat grassland.

Saker Tour specialise in bird and bird photography holidays in Eastern Europe – their blog gives an idea of what you are likely to see from their photography hides in the Hortobágy

Finland: Hiidenportti National Park

According to legend, Hiisi was a devil giant living on Vuokatinvaara Hill. He hated the sound of the church bells ringing (when Christianity was first brought to Finland), and threw large rocks at the church. When this didn’t stop the noise (or the church) he gathered his livestock – a pack of wolves, bears, wolverines and lynx – and moved to the backwoods through the gorge of Hiidenportii (the Giant’s Gate). 

You can still walk through the gorge today, and gaze down on the dark, round, mossy ponds at the bottom of the gorge that are said to be Hiisi’s eyes.

Geologically, the gorge is a massive rupture valley, formed by the folding of the earth’s crust, and later moulded by the ice ages. It is 1km long, and has vertical walls up to 20m high.

The national park was established in 1982 to preserve the region’s wilderness. The 45 sq km encompasses a mosaic of mires and dry forests. No logging has taken place since the early 20th century, and much of the woodland is in a near natural state.

The Porttijoki (joki = river) alternates riffles and still, dark ponds. It’s fed by a system of rivulets from boggy ground and mires. The whole national park is an important wetland, though the open waters can appear dark and barren as they do not support much vegetation.

Tufted Loosestrife Lysimachia thyrsiflora and Common Reed Phragmites australis can be found on the shores, while ponds surrounded by pine mires and open bogs may support White Water Lilies Nymphaéa cándida and Spatterdocks or yellow water lilies Nuphar lutea. The natural fish population of Hiidenportti National Park include Perch Perca fluviatilis, Pike Esox lucius and Roach Rutilus rutilus.

Location: Hiidenportti National Park is located in the southeast corner of the municipality of Sotkamo, on the boundaries of the municipalities of Kuhmo and Valtimo.

A Mosaic of Mires

The mires in Hiidenportti National Park are in their natural-state, forming wet corridors winding through ravines and valleys.

Dwarf-shrub pine bog is the most common mire type, dominated by pines and Marsh tea Ledum palustre. These pine bogs often surround more open boggy areas which form long strips in the middle of forests. The largest are Kortesuo Mire and Urposuo Mire.

Spruce mires are usually located by streams and in narrow steep-sided ravines and are a mix of myrtillus spruce mire, cloudberry dominated spruce mire and wood horsetail spruce mire. They can be quite lush on slopes with springs, and on the shores of streams. Downy Birch Betula pubescens, Grey Alder Alnus incana, Goat Willow Salix caprea, and ferns are found here.

Although the Hiidenportti mires are quite barren and the vegetation is sparse, there are a few surprising rich spots in the middle of mires, spring areas, seepage areas, and fens. Demanding plants which grow at these lush spots are Early Marsh-orchid Dactylorhiza incarnata, Broad-leaved Bog-cotton Eriophorum latifolium and Common Twayblade Listera ovata.

Cottongrass growing on a mire
Cottongrass

Old-growth Spruce Forests and Hilltop Pine Forests

Forests cover two-thirds of the national park. In the past, the forests were used for slash-and-burn agriculture and for tar burning. The last logging was in Portinsalo at the beginning of the 20th century, so today the forests are approximately 100 to 150 years old. They are practically all spruce and pine forests in their natural-state, and are in sharp contrast to the commercial forests surrounding the area.

Moist pine forests cover the tops of fells, while spruce predominates on the slopes by spruce. The marked trail from Urpovaara Hill to Hiidenportti Gorge takes you through the most splendid of these dark forests, and in the midst of the large spruce trees there are some grand aspens.

Generally, the forests are not herb-rich, except for one area with plants such as Bearded Couch Elymus caninus, Mezereum Daphne mezereumRosa majalis and the Baneberry Actaea spicata.

Inhabitants of Old-growth Forests

The backwoods of Hiidenportti National Park are quiet and undisturbed. Bear, wolverine, pine marten and lynx are permanent inhabitants. Wolves visit occasionally. Beavers make their homes in the streams, and there is a large Eurasian elk (moose) population.

Tradition – Kovasinvaara Hill

The most valuable traditional landscapes are on the grounds of a former wilderness croft on the slope of Kovasinvaara Hill. On some parts of the slopes birch trees grow – a reminder of slash-and-burn agriculture. These birch forests are much like herb-rich forests: lush and varied. However, spruce forest is starting to invade. The area is actively managed by the use of grazing animals, and a small area has been subjected to recent slash-and-burn (including the planting of traditional crops) to maintain the more open habitat here.

Field Scabious is a perennial of calcaereous and neutral grassland, found in rough pasture, open hedgerows and on roadside verges, waste ground and railway embankments.

There are many interesting plants at Kovasinvaara Hill, including Alpine Bistort Polygonum viviparum, Field Scabius Knautia arvensis (above) and Moonwort Botrychium lunaria, as well as the regionally near threatened Brown Knapweed Centaurea jacea and Leathery Grape Fern Botrychium multifidum. The threatened Clustered Bellflower Campanula glomerata and Creeping Bellflower Campanula rapunculoides can also be found.

In addition to dry and wet meadows Kovasinvaara also has large areas where raspberries and Fireweed Epilobium angustifolium grow amongst Couch grass Agropyrum repens and Tufted Hairgrass Deschampsia cespitosa.

Birds of the National Park

The majority of bird species in the Hiidenportti National Park are indigenous to the east and north. The most common in summer are Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs, Willow Warbler Phylloscopus trochilus, Siskin Carduelis spinus, Spotted Flycatcher Muscicapa striata and Tree Pipit Anthus trivialis. The Wren Troglodytes troglodytes is the only southern species – its clear song can be heard in the lush hillside forests of Porttijokilaakso River Valley.

Many species require old-growth forests in order to survive. These include Goldcrest Regulus regulus and Wood Warbler Phylloscopus sibilatrix, Goshawk Accipiter gentilis, Three-toed Woodpecker Picoides tridactylus and Siberian Jay Perisoreus infaustus; this last species is very curious and will watch humans from tree tops – often coming in for a closer look. The most common game birds are the Western Capercaillie Tetrao urogallus and the Hazel Grouse Bonasa bonasia.

Great grey owl, Strix nebulosus, in northern conifer forest, where it is well camouflaged. One of the three largest owls in the world, it is found across the boreal forest zone of the northern hemisphere.

The Great Grey Owl Strix nebulosa is the emblem of the park.  It is common and can be seen especially in years when there are many small rodents such as voles around.

The mires do not attract many species, but the wood sandpiper Tringa glareola is the National Park’s most typical wader.

Butterflies, Moths and Beetles

A lack of intensive farming has left Hiidenportti National Park and its surrounding areas ideal for invertebrates. Species are typically those of middle boreal coniferous zone and also from further south.

Burnished Brass moth

A study done in 1992 found 164 species of large moths and butterflies, and 186 species of micro-moths in Hiidenportti National Park. Among these were Swallowtail Papilio machaon, Burnished Brass Diachrysia chrysitis (above), Eurasian Emperor Moth Saturnia pavonia and the threatened Xestia sincera.

Dead wood: The short summer and cool temperatures mean that dead wood rots slowly – providing cracks and crevices for invertebrates.

Finland: Hildenportti resources

The canyons of Hiidenportti are an impressive sight. Along the path leading to the main gorge you can experience shady spruce forest, a flowery meadow and woodland that used to be cleared periodically by slash-and-burn farmers. The park has many fascinating places and stories for anyone interested in cultural history to discover. 

Hiidenportti Narional Park Website – The canyons of Hiidenportti are an impressive sight. Along the path leading to the main gorge you can experience shady spruce forest, a flowery meadow and woodland that used to be cleared periodically by slash-and-burn farmers. The park has many fascinating places and stories for anyone interested in cultural history to discover.

Getting there – Hiidenportti National Park is located in the southeast corner of the municipality of Sotkamo, on the boundaries of the municipalities of Kuhmo and Valtimo.

Activities to enjoy – Trekking, admiring the sights and the views, photographing the scenery

Hiking – 30km of trails – For hikers and trekkers looking for peace and quiet. Also well-suited to inexperienced hikers, groups of students and other group trips. Not suitable for the disabled. 

Rules for visitors – the DOs and DON’Ts for visitors to the park

Travelling in Finland – advice for those unfamiliar with the country

Videos

Three days hiking in the Hiidenportti NP – with English subtitles

Books

Useful guide to sites south of the Arctic Circle, but sadly not to Hiidenportti

Lluontoportti – NatureGate – a useful website

About NatureGate

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The NatureGate team welcome you to enjoy investigating the species featured on our site. We hope you will find our services both enjoyable and useful. Exploring our website should also give you a lot of good reasons to get outdoors and explore the natural environment!


More about nature-watching in Finland

Photo of a lake in the forests of Lapland

Urho Kekkonen National Park

Urho Kekkonen is the second largest national park in Finland. I visited in early-mid June, before the vacationers and the mosquitos, midges and black-flies really got going.


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