By March, Europe is noticeably warming up as the days get longer. It can still be pretty cold in the north, but that doesn’t stop the wildlife. Birds are migrating back to their breeding grounds, mammals are looking for mates or giving birth, and butterflies and wildflowers are brightening up the landscape, especially in the south.
Here are some ideas of places to visit, and things to see, based on where nature tour companies go. If you can’t travel on their dates, or prefer to explore by yourself, there will be plenty of similar places close to these where you can find your own wildlife experiences.
Disclaimer – I have no connections with these tour companies, and have not used their services. However, as their websites have provided me with useful information, the least I can do is mention them. Where possible, these are companies based in the country concerned. Many tour companies from other countries will use this local expertise.
- Other nature-watching in Europe calendars:
Neophron – The Eastern part of the Rhodope Mountains is locked between the valleys of the big rivers Arda and Maritsa in southern Bulgaria, near the border with Greece. This area hosts exceptional biodiversity – a result of the mixture of Mediterranean and continental climate. This is the realm of the wolf packs, as here is one of the densest populations of the Wolf in Bulgaria. The most spectacular birds of the region in winter are the vultures – Eurasian Griffon and Eurasian Black vultures.
Wild Echo offers an opportunity to photograph predators from a luxurious hide in the west of Bulgaria. Best months are November to early March for the eagles – we have adult and young birds almost everyday. Other species are raven, and sometimes buzzards, kestrel and occasionally passerines. There is also a Weasel living in front of the hide. Distance is between 26 to 36 meters from bird landing spots. Wolves have active and quite periods during the seasons, their unpredictable behavior makes it difficult to guarantee a success but so far it seems the best periods are September-October and March-May. So far we have recorded between 1 and 4 wolves in front of the hide, but reading the tracks we know there were up to 12 wolves in the immediate surroundings.
Spring comes early in Cyprus, and by March most of the bulbs and annuals are in full flower, although some such as fragrant and tongue orchids are only just starting. The Akamas peninsula in the north-west corner of Cyprus combines a beautiful and varied landscape, an interesting geology and a colourful and unique flora. Precipitous cliffs are to be found on the northern shores whilst the west coast has some of the finest beaches on the island, home to green and loggerhead sea turtles.
The island has long been recognized as an outstanding place to see migrants as they move through the Eastern Mediterranean basin, and one only has to look at its geographical location to see its obvious potential. species such as pipits, wagtails, buntings and shrikes pass through in big numbers and it is also an excellent place to find Black Francolin. The beautiful Dhiarizos Valley, which runs north towards the foothills of the Troodos Mountains, holds several distinctive island subspecies of familiar birds such as Coal Tit, Jay and Short-toed Treecreeper.
These mountains are also a stronghold for breeding Long-legged Buzzard and Bonelli’s Eagle, and the Dhiarizos Valley itself provides a hunting ground for migrant Pallid Harrier and various other northbound migrants. And then there are two endemic species: Cyprus Warbler and Cyprus Pied Wheatear.
March is noticeably different to the preceding months. The days are lengthening, and there is more and more sunlight in the air melting the snow and ice. It’s also a busy time in nature for many mammal and bird species. But be warned, temperatures can still get down to -10C at times.
For the Eurasian Lynx, March (and early April) is the mating season, and the time of year when it is most likely to be seen. Individuals are more active and come to open areas much more often. Estonia not only has the highest lynx population density – estimated at around 500 individuals – but also the largest specimens in the world. Its main prey – Roe Deer – has also been doing well, fuelling a population increase. One of the best areas to spot them is Lahemaa National Park in the north-eastern part of the country.
Of course, there are other things to see – flying squirrels are a possibility in the Alutaguse region. Tracks of wolves and other mammals are usually more obvious than the animals themselves.
The most important wintering area for Steller’s Eider, Europe’s most endangered seaduck, is off the coast of the biggest island, Saaremaa, where they are usually present from December to March. Long-tailed ducks should also be around in their thousands, sometimes coming into sheltered harbours where they can easily be photographed. Saaremaa is also great for finding species such as Smew, White-tailed Eagle and wintering mixed flocks of both Taiga and Tundra Bean Geese
By the middle of March, forest birds are becoming more active. For Western Capercaillie, Black Grouse, and Hazel Hen the lekking period is just starting and they are more visible. Owls are hooting to declare their territories and woodpeckers are drumming to declare theirs – seven woodpecker species are found here.
The estuaries and tidal wetlands of the west and north French coasts teem with birds migrating north, but there are also some inland sites worth visiting.
Migrant cranes and kites pass over the Dordogne in March, and smaller migrants are easier to see before the leaves burst on the trees. The region is dominated by oak forests where you can you can find a variety of woodpeckers – black, green, middle spotted, great spotted and lesser spotted – as well as hawfinch, Dartford warbler, woodlark, firecrest, short-toed treecreeper and crested tit. Mixed farmland supports rock sparrow, crested lark plus corn and cirl buntings.
The area is cut through by the River Dordogne and enclosed by impressive limestone cliffs, which may be home to an eagle owl or two. Scrubby hillsides, arable plains, heathlands and wetlands offer further diversity and collectively harbour a wide variety of species. Wallcreepers are relatively easy to find, often accompanied by Alpine accentor, raven, crag martin and peregrine.
There is a good chance of early butterflies, including the large tortoiseshell. (TravellingNaturalist)
The Peloponnese is the southern part of mainland Greece and it offers some wonderful wildlife experiences early in the spring, before better-known locations further north burst into life. March offers some of the best orchid displays in the region, as well hosting the vanguard of the northbound spring bird migration.
Islands such as Rhodes are bursting into life after a relatively mild eastern Mediterranean winter. The island’s varied habitats include montane and lowland, locations, lush meadows, dry garrigue, and shady olive groves. This provides a wide variety of colourful and dramatic wildflowers for some exciting photographic opportunities, from delicate cyclamens to immense dragon arums, swathes of campanulas, fritillaries and hyacinths like Impressionist paintings, gorgeous endemic peonies, and myriads of orchids in all shapes, sizes, colours and forms. (Greenwings)
Each year Iceland is locked firmly in an icy grip for several months, yet the start and end of winter – when the nights are not too long – are still great times to visit. The chances of seeing the northern lights are good, so long as the skies are clear.
The unpredictable weather at this time of year may limit you to the south-west corner – the Golden Circle Tour’, unless you’re on a specialist guided trip. Iceland’s unique geology and landscapes, such as geysers and the waterfall at Gullfoss, are fascinating to explore. But there are birds to be seen along the coast and on the many lakes – numerous wildfowl including common eider, harlequin duck and Barrow’s goldeneye (above), as well as glaucous and Iceland gulls.
Inland, the snowy wastes are enlivened by flocks of snow bunting, ptarmigan in their winter plumage; and, if fortunate, you may even encounter gyrfalcon, a white-tailed eagle or an Arctic fox in its white winter coat. For the latter, best read this account first and take the advice to hire a local guide who knows the Arctic Fox territories.
There aren’t many mammals in Iceland at the best of times, but if the weather is kind, you can enjoy a whale-watching excursion to search for Killer Whales and other cetaceans.
Some 400km north of the Arctic Circle, the sun is now reappearing over the horizon every day, There is still a covering of snow ice, but the Northern Lights turn the sky emerald green and purple on clear nights.
The Varanger region of northern Norway is welcoming the first returning sea ducks from their wintering grounds to the south. Common, King and Steller’s Eider, Long-tailed ducks, and even puffins, common and Brünnich’s guillemots and razorbills are all beginning their mating displays as they reconnect with their mates from previous years – pairing for life is common amongst seabird species. Glaucous and Iceland gulls are found in the harbours.
On land, Arctic hares and rock ptarmigans hide amongst the snow-covered tundra, while white-tailed eagles, gyrfalcons, northern hawk owls and rough-legged buzzards attempt to find them.
Further south, in the more forested areas, there are Siberian tits, Siberian jays, and three-toed woodpeckers.
The days lengthen, providing time to enjoy the wildlife by daylight, and the northern lights by night – this often becomes more spectacular at the equinox (though nothing is guaranteed).
Trips to Poland in March seem to concentrate on mammals in the north-eastern corner, with a few birds thrown in here and there.
Bieszczady National Park is often said to be the best place for iconic mammals here include Bison, Wolf and the elusive Eurasian Lynx in winter. There are some special birds here too such as Hazel Grouse, Nutcracker and an array of owls and woodpeckers.
Most tours focuses on the large, yet elusive mammals of the Biebrza Marshes and Bialowieza Forest. Animals can be tracked in the snow – European bison, wild boar, elk, red deer and, if you are really lucky, some of the country’s predators. There are also smaller, but equally fascinating species such as otter, beaver, red squirrel, pine marten and up to ten species of bat.
Mammal highlights in the Biebrza Marshes are likely to include elk, otter, beaver and a variety of hibernating bat species, with white-tailed eagle, rough-legged buzzard, goosander, smew and goldeneye amongst the avian possibilities.
Bialowieza Forest, is famed for its herds of European bison. Studying the many tracks and signs left in the snow give a fascinating insight into the forest’s most secretive inhabitants, including both Eurasian lynx and wolf. These species are notoriously difficult to locate, but, the more time you spend in the field, the greater the possibility of a sighting.
The Algarve provides an easily accessible area for birds, butterflies and wildflowers in spring. Most of my visits have been between January and April:
How to get the most out of bird-watching in the Algarve using the railway service.
The eastern part of the Algarve is less busy with tourism than the middle and west, so is ideal for a bird-watching (or indeed any nature-watching) holiday
Early spring is a glorious time to enjoy the wildlife of the Scottish Highlands. Many of the resident species are beginning their breeding routines and summer migrants are starting to arrive. In particular, it is time to see the forest grouse lekking and aerial acrobatics of displaying raptors. This is also a time when coastal bays can hold extensive flocks of migrating wildfowl (such as the pink-footed geese above) and secluded bays and lochs resound to the haunting calls of displaying divers. Add to this the magical atmosphere of the tracts of native Caledonian forests, dramatic mountain vistas and wide open skies and the gushing waters of the mighty River Spey and its many tributaries for an unforgettable experience. (Oriolebirding).
Fuerteventura, with a glorious climate and direct flights from around the UK, is the perfect location for a week of ‘Go Slow’ birding. Our 7-night stay on the island is based at a very comfortable rural hotel in the north of the island, within 20km of most of the key locations, resulting in a relaxed pace to the tour and more time in the field to enjoy the birds and other wildlife that we find, work on our ID skills, and with less time spent travelling!
Lying in the west of the Canary Islands archipelago, La Palma is a quiet and scenic island that enjoys a mild, moist climate, perfect for a retreat from the endless northern winter. Its delights lie in a soothing combination of spectacular landscapes – including a towering volcano, lava flows, forests and pounding ocean – and an eclectic parade of exciting animals and plants found only in this part of the world. The highlights range from the pigeon double act (Laurel Pigeon and Bolle’s Pigeon) to the remarkable endemic flora, found everywhere from remote mountainsides to the scrub next to the hotel. Equally, the surrounding ocean is superb for sea mammals and seabirds alike.
Extremadura, in west central Spain has a wild and beautiful countryside holding some of Europe’s most endangered birds. It is home to Europe’s strongest remaining population of great bustard, together with good numbers of little bustard, and both pin-tailed and black-bellied sandgrouse. A spectacular assemblage of raptors includes cinereous vulture, Spanish imperial eagle and black-shouldered kite. In the distinctive ‘dehesa’ habitat there are good numbers of Iberian magpies, while migrants passing through in spring include European bee-eater, woodchat shrike, western black-eared wheatear, great spotted cuckoo and European roller. White stork nests are ubiquitous throughout this picturesque region.
Andalucia in the south provides a wonderful early season retreat for botanists, not just along the coast, but further inland – the Natural Park of Sierra de Grazelema, the Sierra de Pinar and, a little to the south-east, the Sierra de las Nieves
In spring the marshes of the Doñana Natural Park attract an amazing variety of birds and offer one of the greatest ornithological spectacles on the continent – my first impression was that it was the largest village pond in the world. El Rocío, a village with sandy streets and white houses that overlooks the lagoon, provides a fine base from which to explore in detail the wide range of habitats in the region: the mosaic of marshes, Stone Pine woodland, open grassland and heathland, freshwater pools and coastal sand dunes. Tours within the more inaccessible reaches of the park are possible if you book well in advance. There is a chance of lynx in the park, but possibly a greater chance (but more distant sightings) in the Sierra Morena, in the north of the province.
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.
How to get the most out of a visit to the Doñana National Park. My recommendations after several visits.
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.
The Straits of Gibraltar – the narrow inlet between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean provides a spring migration extravaganza. Thousands of raptors and storks heading north – though exactly which species you see will depend on the timing of your visit. And if you are travelling independently, you need to be prepared to move between Gibraltar and Tarifa depending on the wind. Also from Gibraltar, there are boat trips that will introduce you to its rich variety of marine-life. I saw Common, Striped, and Bottlenose Dolphins, but Long-finned Pilot Whales, are also resident in the area, and at this time of year you stand a good chance of encountering migrating Sperm and Fin Whales, not to mention seabirds such as Cory´s, Scopoli´s and Balearic Shearwaters, Great Skuas and European and Wilson’s Storm Petrels.
Other nature-watching in Europe calendars:
Europe can be as fascinating for wildlife in winter as it is in the warmer months. Here are some ideas on the best places to go in February
Europe can be as fascinating for wildlife in winter as it is in the warmer months. Here are some ideas on the best places to go in January
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