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.

Keep reading

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.

Keep reading

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Photo of a puffin in flight

Resources for the naturalist visiting Iceland

We had a plan to go to Iceland a few years back. But health problems got in the way, then there was Covid, and still we’re not travelling yet. Iceland remains on the list . . . . and we will get there one day.

Preparation for any trip includes finding the appropriate books, websites, and other sources of information. I was well into searching for books before we had to cancel. The growing popularity of Iceland as a tourist destination has spawned a lot of general travel books.  Not quite so much for nature-watchers, but here is what I’ve found.  I haven’t actually bought any of them yet, so the information is from the publishers’ notes.


Note – click on any cover or link for more information. Buying through these links brings a small commission (at no extra cost to the the buyer) that helps with the maintenance of this website.

Crossbill Guides – Iceland

Picture of book cover - Crossbill guide to Iceland

Iceland is famous for its stunning landscapes, unique geology, and rich birdlife. There are few places on Earth where volcanism has resulted in such a multitude of different landscapes, and where such vast numbers of birds are easy to watch and photograph. The Crossbill Guide: Iceland shows everything Iceland’s nature has to offer, and contains 16 detailed itineraries for the best places to go. The guide also describes close to 50 sites with tips for visitors interested in geology, birds, marine mammals, flora, and history of the landscape.


Geology of Iceland

This is the first book describing the glorious geology of Iceland’s Golden Circle and four additional excursions:(1) the beautiful valleys and mountains of the fjord of Hvalfjörđur, (2) the unique landscape and geothermal fields of the Hengill Volcano, (3) the explosion craters, volcanic fissures, and lava fields of the Reykjanes Peninsula, and (4) the volcanoes (Hekla, Eyjafjallajökull, Katla), waterfalls, sandur plains, and rock columns of South Iceland. The Golden Circle offers a unique opportunity to observe and understand many of our planet’s forces in action. These forces move the Earth’s tectonic plates, rupture the crust, and generate earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, channels for rivers and waterfalls, and heat sources for hot springs and geysers.

The Golden Circle includes the famous rifting and earthquake fracture sites at þingvellir, the hot springs of the Geysir area, the waterfall of Gullfoss, and the Kerid volcanic crater. As The Glorious Geology of Iceland’s Golden Circle is primarily intended for people with no background in geosciences, no geological knowledge is assumed and technical terms are avoided as far as possible (those used are explained in a glossary). With more than 240 illustrations – mostly photographs – explaining geological structures and processes, it is also a useful resource for geoscientists.

Book cover - the Glorious Geology of Iceland's Golden Circle

Hiking in Iceland

Book cover - Cicerone guide to Iceland

This walking and trekking guidebook offers a total of 49 day-walks and 10 multi-stage treks set right across the magnificent country of Iceland.  It includes popular routes, such as the classic Laugavegur Trail from Landmannalaugar to Porsmork, as well as lesser-known trails.  Cicerone Guides: Walking and Trekking in Iceland is split into 12 sections that cover all the best walking and trekking to be had in and around Iceland’s amazing and awe-inspiring volcanic, glacial landscapes. The routes range in difficulty from easy walks to challenging treks and give readers all the information they need to experience this wonderfully unique destination on foot. Venture inland to the remote interior and captivating ice caps, cross glaciers, lakes and see coastlines and geothermal areas.  Paddy Dillon’s guide to this ‘Land of Ice and Fire’ encourages visitors to explore all that Iceland has to offer, and will inspire lovers of the great outdoors to return time and time again.  Cicerone Guides: Walking and Trekking in Iceland gives lots of tips for travellers on a budget as well as details on public transport and accommodation.


Birds in Iceland

This second edition of the popular Icelandic Bird Guide has been completely revised and expanded. It covers all Icelandic breeding birds and regular visitors in detail and also describes numerous annual vagrants – more than 160 species in total.

Icelandic Bird Guide is an ideal identification guide when travelling around Iceland for experienced birdwatchers and beginners alike. The clear and concise text describes the birds’ appearance and behaviour, as well their diet and habitat. Maps and diagrams clearly show distribution, movements and population sizes. It also includes photographs of eggs shown in actual size.

Book cover - Icelandic Bird Guide

Birdwatching map

Cover - Birdwatchers map of Iceland

A simple and accessible guide to Iceland`s birdlife, covering 70 species of breeding bird and 37 migrants, winter visitors and vagrants. Breeding birds are pictured together with maps showing their distribution and illustrations indicating the size and appearance of their eggs. The water-colour illustrations are by Jon Baldur Hlidberg. The Birdwatcher’s Map of Iceland is an essential companion for all nature lovers woh want to learn more about Iceland`s birdlife on their travels around the country.

There is a similar Geological Map of Iceland which shows the main features of the bedrock geology. Formations are classified by age, type and composition. The map also clearly shows the island’s volcanic zones and the distribution of the recent eruption sites. Lava fields of the Holocene are shown as pre-historic or historic. This is the second, revised, edition of the map.


Plants in Iceland

This illustrated field guide contains details of 465 Icelandic plant species arranged by flower colour, complete with photo keys and distribution maps. The unique features of each plant are briefly described, together with information about its habitat, distribution, flowering time and size. The latest edition of the Flowering plants and ferns of Iceland has been fully updated with many additional entries.

Cover Flowering plants and ferns of Iceland

Useful websites

Sustainable tourism in Iceland

Guide to Iceland – general tourism site – marketplace for activities, adventures, places to go, tours, accommodation, etc.

HeyIceland – Icelandic travel agency, seems to have some interesting self-guided tours of various lengths – accommodation, GPS and hire car included.

All links to the Iceland Nature Conservation Association seem to be unavailable.


The following blogs are not nature-specific, but do contain a lot of information about travelling around Iceland by people who have travelled there independently:

SueWhereWhyWhatWhat is Iceland facous for? 25 reasons to fall in love with Iceland

MyFabFiftiesLife – travelling the ring road in a camper

Meandering Wild – everything the author learnt from her time in Iceland


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Resources for other countries


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

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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 spoonbills in flight

Las Marismas del Odiel

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Why visit . . .

The Odiel Marshes Natures Reserve is the second largest wetland in Huelva province after Doñana, and the most important tidal wetland in Spain.

One third of Europe’s spoonbills breed here.

The marshes lie on silt deposited by the rivers Odiel and Tinto, and provide a paradise for birds.

The protected area also includes salt-pans, lakes, forest, sandbank, tidal channels and rivers.

There is fairly easy access to the reserva from the town of Huelva.


About the Odiel Marshes

The estuary at Huelva has long been considered good for birds, but when a breeding colony of European spoonbills was discovered there in 1977, extra effort went into protecting the site. It was declared a Biophere reserve by UNESCO in 1983 because of its importance for wildlife, migratory birds in particular. It has also been recognised as a Ramsar Site (International Wetlands Convention), and a Special Area for Protection of Birds (Zonas de Especial Protección para las Aves) and Site of Community Importance by the European Union.

The main part of the 6750ha site lies at the confluence of the rivers Odiel and Tinto, with marshes forming behind the sandbar deposited along the coast by the sea. The variety of habitats include salt-pans, lakes, forest, sandbank, tidal channels and rivers. Small wonder that it has been described as a paradise for birds, despite being surrounded by the town of Huelva, the industrial activities based on the mining areas upstream, intensive agriculture (largely grown under plastic tunnels) and human recreation such as the the beach resorts at Playa de los Enebrales.


Best places to go

The best time to visit is in spring during the breeding season and in winter when there are lots of waterfowl. The Easter and summer periods bring lots of tourists.

La Calatilla Visitors’ Centre – Anastasio Senra

I’d always recommend starting with at least a quick visit to the visitor centre of any nature reserve or other protected area. If there are access issues (eg areas to avoid because of breeding birds, or damaged roads, etc) or something more exciting like what birds have been seen recently. It will also give information on any permit requirements, guided tours, etc.

The ‘Centro de Recepción La Calatilla – Anastasio Senra‘ visitor Centre was opened in 1994. It offers basic information on the different aspects of this natural area, via a very interesting exhibition with information boards, tools, samples of vegetation and animal life, archaeological remains and audiovisual information on the salt marshes. Although opening hours are limited, it proved a useful and interesting place to hide from the heavy showers on the day I visited. The Centre is also home to the offices that take care of the area and its natural habitat. There is a large car park and this makes a good starting point for some of the signed footpaths. It is located on the Dique San Juan Carlos I, and overlooks the River Odiel.

Usefully, there is a popular restaurant located next door!

Isla de Bacuta

From the visitor centre you can walk or cycle around this island of salt pans, and overlook creeks and marshes. At one point there is a covered look-out area – the Observatorio de Aves – with views across to the Isla Enmedio. There is usually a good range of waterbirds along here, and small birds in the scrub.

Photo of Flamingos
Greater Flamingos

El Dique San Juan Carlos I

The visitor centre sits beside the Dique San Juan Carlos I, a road that branches off the main A-497 just west of the two road bridges across the Odiel. The road carries on another 20km or so towards a lighthouse, passing through the centre of the saltmarshes. If there is little other traffic, it is easy to use the car as a hide, stopping at intervals along the road (note, this situation may have changed recently and at least in busy periods you may be able to park only in designated car parking areas). This is the best on a rising tide that is likely to bring birds closer to the road. It’s also quite an exposed road, and in winter the car provides welcome shelter from the wind and rain. The far end can be good for sea-watching, and there is a chance of dolphins here.

Photo of Sandwich Tern
The morning’s wind had died down and it was now calm and dry with good visibility. We saw four red-breasted mergansers, twenty‑five Balearic shearwaters, four common scoters, ten puffins, four razorbills, two great-crested grebes, thirty sandwich terns and thirteen gannets. And of course, lots of gulls, a huge flock that took to the air from time to time, perhaps being moved on by the tide. No dolphins this time

Photo of sage-leaved cistus
There were a number of plants in bloom along the tracks including blue lupins, and gum‑leaved and sage‑leaved cistus (above). Closer to the water’s edge were typical salt-tolerant plants such as Salicornia, Suaeda and Arthroc­nemum.

Punta Umbria

Punta Umbria lies at the end of another spit, which runs parallel to the salt-marshes. To get to it, follow signs on the west side of the Odiel to the Playas (beaches). However, if you use the older, smaller roads, you can access the surrounding scrub where small birds such as Dartford warblers can be found. This area is part of the Paraje Natural de Los Enebrales de Punta Umbria. There are also dirt tracks leading to the saltmarshes, etc. The pinewoods around Camping la Boca and eastwards to Punta Umbria are good for Iberian (Azure-winged) magpies, and during migration periods especially, for all sorts of birds. Punta Umbria was a fishing village, now more of a tourist resort (so food and drink easily available) with a long beach facing the Atlantic. Roads on the north side of the town do allow some views across the saltmarshes, and access to dirt roads and footpaths such as the Sendero Caño de Melilla Honda.

Photo of a pair of Kentish Plovers
About fifty kentish plover were loafing and feeding on the beach, some of them clearly paired up. We noticed the male apparently making a scrape. When that was done, he started opening and closing his bill and moving his head to and fro at the same time. Then a female circled him twice, stopped with her back to him and, with an exaggerated movement, bent forward and thrust her tail up. The male ran forward and jumped on top of her, seeming to make cloacal contact immediately. They stayed in this position for about two minutes with the male softly treading the female’s back. Then the female moved, causing the male to step off. After standing together for about a minute, they resumed feeding

Huelva City Waterfront

On the eastern side of the estuary, you can look across the water (and saltmarshes north of the city) from the coast road. It’s best in the morning with the sun behind you, but not in the brisk westerly that dominated the weather when I was there.

Following the road south-eastwards (towards the Doñana Natural Park), you come to the point where Christopher Columbus set sail to discover the Americas. Crossing the Rio Tinto gets you to La Rabida where various roads give views across the saltmarshes and saltpans – the jetty at Muela de Reina is recommended as large flocks of gulls often gather there. The creek between the road and La Rabida attracts herons, spoonbills and other waterfowl.

Photo of Audouin's Gull
Audouin’s Gull

La Rabida is full of historical monuments, and a new (1991) amphitheatre – the Foro Iberamericano. The Parque Botánico José Celestino Mutis is devoted to plants, especially trees, from South America. However, if you continue another 8km along the coast road you come to Jardín Botánico Dunas del Odiel another Botanical Garden, this one run by the local government and displaying plants of the Atlantic Coast.


So there you have it

The February weather wasn’t brilliant during my visit, but it’s on my list for another time – perhaps March or April when there will be more flowers out, with attendant butterflies.

There is plenty to see there, so not a place to rush through. However, if time is limited and you are on your way between the Algarve and the Natural Park of Doñana, it makes a worthwhile break in the journey.

Photo of white broom Retama monosperma
White broom – Retama monosperma – was abundant along the roadsides in February.

Getting there

Huelva is accessible by train, several parts of the reserve are accessible on foot or by bicycle. However, to make the most of the site, a car is recommended.

It is easily accessible from the Natural Park of Doñana , or the Algarve, though if you are hiring a car at Faro Airport, make sure you are allowed to take it into Spain (shouldn’t be a problem with reputable companies).


Resources

Useful Websites

UNESCO – about the biosphere reserve of the Marismas del Odiel

Andalucia department of the environment

Huelva tourist board – information about other things to do in Huelva, accommodation, etc.

Local tour guides

Many nature tour companies include a visit to the Odiel Marshes within a trip to Andalucia, but the following locally based guides are able to give a more focussed tour of this site.

Wild Doñana is based in Huelva, and offers tours of several local wildlife hotspots

Living Doñana organises guided Andalucía bird watching and wildlife tours from 1-day trips, tours of up to several days and tailor-made trips seeking the best wildlife Andalusia has to offer.

Videos

No commentary on this one, but excellent videography to show off the area and its wildlife:


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.


Other places for winter birds

The Lauwersmeer in winter

The Lauwersmeer National Park, in the northern part of the Netherlands, provides a fantastic winter feeding ground for geese and other birds that breed further north.

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The Ayres

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The sand and pebble beach goes on for 8km. Behind it, the sand dunes and heaths of the Ayres National Nature reserve. This is the only National Nature reserve on the Isle of Man, and it’s located on the north coast, the newest part of the island, geologically speaking.

The name is from a Norse word meaning a gravel bank. It was formed from sand and gravel moved along the coast by tides and wind.

I visited in mid-May.

Cronk y Bing

We started exploring at the south-western end – though the small reserve of Cronk y Bing, owned by the Manx Wildlife Trust is not actually part of the NNR. Sandwiched between the sea and the Lhen Trench, this is one of the widest strips of yellow dune on the island, providing habitat for a variety of species that require a mobile sand habitat. Marram grass dominates, with pyramidal orchid, sea bindweed, rest-harrow, common stork’s bill, bugloss harebell, sheep’s bit, wild carrot, common cornsalad, burnet rose and wild mignonette all competing for space, and helping to stabilise the dunes. For the most part, rabbits graze them down to a short lawn between patches of bramble and blackthorn.

On the seaward side, sea holly and saltwort maintain a footing, while oysterplant Mertensia maritima is found on the more shingly areas. This is a rare species – disappointingly it wasn’t in flower yet (it flowers from June to September), so I still have no photos of it. It gets its name because the leaves are said to taste of oysters.

Photo of an oystercatcher in flight

This is a favoured breeding ground for little terns, oystercatchers (above), ringed plovers (top photo) and meadow pipits.

Photo of the Lhen Trench

The Lhen Trench was a melt-water channel from the ice-age, it had silted up but was dug open to drain the marshy land to the south-west, so this section of it runs in a straight line. It provides habitat for another slew of species, including the rare Isle of Man Cabbage. Unfortunately, this is another plant that doesn’t flower until June.

Photo of beach at Cronk y Bing

We continued along the coastal trail almost to Blue Point, before turning back.


Rue Point

Travel eastwards on the A10, and another road leads out to the sea at Rue Point. This is the western end of the NNR, though the habitat continues to Cronk-y-Bing. The road winds through grassy dunes to picnic areas. The rabbits again were keeping the turf short, and many plants were nibbled down to bonsai versions.

This is a great place for insects – the sun is able to warm the sand through the thin layer of vegetation, and provide suitable breeding grounds for solitary bees, grasshoppers, and a whole host of less obvious insects. Colletes succinctus – a small burrowing bee that collects pollen and stores it underground for its larvae. It unwittingly provides a home for the heath bee fly – a bee-mimic which throws its eggs into the burrows, the resulting larvae eat the provisions left for the bee larvae, and then consume the bee larvae themselves. The only other sites in Britain for this bee fly are on the Dorset Heaths of southern England.

Photo of the leaf-cutter bee Megachile maritima

Megachile maritima (above) is also found here, on the northern edge of its range in the British Isles. Like other leaf-cutting bees, it cuts neat chunks out of leaves with which to line its nest in a burrow in the sand. 

Photo of a little tern in flight

Out on the beach, an area of shore has been fenced off. This is the main breeding area for the little terns. A flock of thirty or so moved restlessly along the shore, in the company of arctic terns: they had not yet begun to nest.

Ayres visitor centre

The next road out to the shore leads to an observation platform and a visitor centre. The latter is run by the Manx Wildlife Trust, with the aim of increasing public understanding of the area, and to provide information about its birds, habitats and are plant communities. Unfortunately for us, it was only open in the afternoons from the end of May to the end of September, and this was a morning in mid-May.

The observation platform (erected in 2012) overlooks the NNR in all directions. It’s where the opening photo was taken. The considerable tidal range here provides excellent fishing – from the beach for humans, and close inshore for gannets – about two dozen of them providing a spectacular display. As the birds plunge from about 10-15m into the water, they twist around, almost somersaulting, and flashing their white plumage to alert other gannets to the feeding opportunity. The more gannets there are, the more the fish become confused and exhausted, and the more each individual gannet can catch. As the gannet reaches the water surface, it pulls back its wings to become a perfect arrow shape to dive through the water.

Photo of lichen heath on the Ayres NNR with the foghorn and lighthouse in the background.

Point of Ayres lighthouse

The final road out to the shore takes you to the lighthouse on the northern tip of the island, though you could, of course, walk along the shore.

The heathland here has extensive lichen flora, and a surprise is seeing Usnea articulata – a lichen that normally grows on trees – growing on the ground.

Photo of a chough in flight

A pair of choughs (red-legged crows) had taken up residence in the old foghorn – an interesting alternative to their normal breeding sites in caves and clefts in the cliffs.  We watched them coming and going, as they fed their ever-hungry chicks.  Then we went in search of a meal for ourselves.

The Ayres in winter

The lichen heath is less colourful in winter, but still a fascinating habitat. On my first visit, I watched a flock of several hundred golden plovers land on the heath and just disappear. They were incredibly well-camouflaged amongst the heather and lichen. Skylarks and other small birds were similarly hidden until you walked too close to them, and then they exploded into the air. In the late afternoon gloom, short-eared owls and hen harriers hunted for these small birds and mammals.

Along the shore itself, we have watched eider, scoter, grebes, divers (loons) and other seabirds on the water.

Photo of a red-throated diver flying over the sea.
Red-throated diver (loon) flying past the Point of Ayre in February

Isle of Man: resources

From the Point of Ayre in the north, to the Calf of Man in the south, there is a wealth of wildlife to explore on the Isle of Man.  The following links will help you make the most of a visit.

The Island is famous for the TT races – motorbike time trials that take place in late May/early June. Driving around the island can be difficult at this time because many roads are closed while racing takes place, and accommodation can be hard to find because of the influx of visitors.  

More about the Ayres

Getting there by boat

Isle of Man tourist information

Find accommodation

Video, including the Ayres from the air

Manx Wildlife Trust


Bookshop

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Urho Kekkonen National Park

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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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RSPB Pulborough Brooks

“Ooh, it’s a wonderful place.  I used to live there, we took the (school) kids there for days out, even before it was a reserve.  There’s a wonderful cafe – people often go there just for the cafe . . . ”  Trixie was gushing, she had been a teacher in the village school, and now that I’d mentioned I had been there, she was really selling it to me all over again.

The reserve covers 256 ha of wet grassland, woodland, hedgerows, meadow and heath and is located within the South Downs National Park. The wet grassland has SSSI and Ramsar status and is part of the Arun Valley SPA and SAC in recognition of the important populations of overwintering wildfowl, and the specialist plants and invertebrates in the ditches. 

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) bought the land in 1989, thanks to a generous bequest from a member who had lived in the area.  Winifred Smith Wright wanted the brooks to be restored to the wildlife-rich landscape she remembered from her childhood, and the RSPB has been working towards that end ever since.

The meadowland had been drained for farming, but the RSPB has now blocked the drains, realigned the watercourses from straight narrow drains to shallow meandering ‘grips’ (streams) and pools, and now controls the overall water levels to suit the waders and wildfowl that are there from autumn to spring – with a few remaining to breed in the summer.

But the RSPB isn’t just about birds.  Under the slogan Give Nature a Home, they make provision for other wildlife too.  The water vole above was photographed in this grip in front of Nettley’s Hide.  And meadows, scrub and woodland provide habitat for a host of plants and invertebrates.

About the Water Vole Arvicola amphibious

The water vole is widely accepted as the fastest declining mammal in Britain. Population estimates were around 8 million in the 1960s, 2.3 million in 1990, and probably less than a quarter of a million now.

Reasons for the decline include unsympathetic management of waterways, water pollution, changes in farming practices, and the depredations of the American mink. Populations of the latter have grown since their escape/release from fur farms in the 1960s and 1970s, and their habits make them difficult to eradicate.

But there is hope. Water vole populations are increasing in some areas – canals around cities seem unattractive to mink. Increasing otter populations also seem to help – otters will prey on mink. They will also take water voles, but unlike the mink, are too big to follow the voles into their bank-side tunnels. And there are re-introduction projects in areas where the habitat is now considered suitable for them – particularly on nature reserves.

The water vole is found across Europe, though Russia to Lake Baikal, and from north of the Arctic Circle to parts of the eastern Mediterranean. It is an adaptable species, found in rivers, streams and marshes in both lowlands and mountains. In some areas, they live away from watercourses during the winter months. They are mainly vegetarian, feeding of lush vegetation in summer, and roots and bulbs in the winter, but they also take some insects, molluscs and small fish.

On the continent, the water vole has a different set of problems. It co-evolved with the European Mink, and does not suffer the same depredation as where there American mink has been introduced. However, it does face competition for food and space from the introduced American musk rat. In some areas it has even been considered an agricultural pest, for example in the rice fields of Macedonia in the 1980s.

While it seems unlikely it will become common again in Britain in the near future, efforts to conserve and expand the existing populations should help it survive here in the long term.

Watch a video of water voles here

Human visitors are well-catered for.  As well as the cafe (which was as good as Trixie said), there is a circular trail of about 3.5km (2 miles) which takes in views across the pools, stops at four hides, and several seats where you can just sit and soak in the atmosphere, as well as the other habitats.  Children’s playgrounds and educational trails, a visitor centre, a program of activities and events, all make this a popular spot.

And anywhere along the trails, you are likely to come across these small signs with information about a plant, insect, bird etc that is likely to be seen nearby.

There is relatively little bird activity at Pulborough (or anywhere else) in July – midsummer is when youngsters are finding their feet/wings and the adults are keeping their heads down while they are in moult (they can’t fly so efficiently when they are missing a few feathers).  But that doesn’t mean there is nothing to see.

The beetle above is a hornet longhorn beetle Leptura aurulenta.  The first impression you get of it buzzing around is that it is a hornet.  Once it settled, however, it is clearly a beetle with long antennea.  This species is widespread in central and southern Europe, but in Britain is confined to the south, and is considered Nationally Notable A, which basically means it is pretty scarce.  It can easily be confused with the much more common and widespread four-spotted longhorn Leptura quadrifasciata which has black legs and antennae. The larva develops in the cambial layer (the layer just under the bark) of large sections of freshly dead broad-leaved trees. The adult is usually found on oaks, and rarely occurs on flowers – though the individual in the photo obviously hadn’t read the book because it was flying around a wildflower meadow, and photographed while it explored a ragwort plant.

The marbled white butterfly Melanargia galathea is a much more common and widespread species, occurring as far north as Yorkshire.  But for some reason it is rarely seen in my home area of west Wales.  So it was a delight to see and photograph at Pulborough.  In Britain there is a single species of marbled white, which also occurs across central Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean. In northern Spain there are four species, plus this one which is found only in the western Pyrenees there.  The adults, which fly in June-July in Britain, show a liking for the nectar of blue and purple flowers, such as this creeping thistle Cirsium arvense.

The bright orange upper-side of the Comma butterfly Polygonia c-album makes it easy to mistake for a fritillary species when in flight. In fact, it is related to the tortoiseshells, red admirals and painted ladies. You can just about see the comma-shaped white mark on the underwing here.  Although in recent years it has been abundant and widespread, fifty years ago it underwent a massive decline.  It overwinters as an adult, and probably the relatively mild winters of the past twenty years have helped its recovery.

Marshes and woodland at Pulborough

Oh, yes, this IS a bird reserve. And on this particular visit we did see 40 species – nothing special or spectacular, but a steady selection of the birds we’d expect to see in July at a wetland site.


What’s nearby?

As Pulborough Brooks is only a 45 minute drive from Gatwick Airport, it can be a handy stop en route to elsewhere.

It’s also only a 20-minute drive from the Wildfowl and Wetlands reserve at Arundel, just a few miles downstream.


Bookshop

Click on the covers for more information

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

Buying books through these links provides a small commission, at no extra cost to yourself, that helps with the cost of maintaining this site.


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Parque Natural do Alvão

The Parque Natural do Alvão is a protected cultural landscape near the town of Vila Real in the Trás-os-Montes region of north-east Portugal.

It comprises 72.2 sq km of mainly granitic mountain. Because the farming practices are traditional, the land still supports a wealth of plants, birds, invertebrates and mammals.

Best to visit in the spring or autumn, when the weather isn’t too hot or too cold!

Trás-os-Montes – “Behind the Mountains” – is the name given to the north-east corner of Portugal. Long isolated by the mountains, it is probably one of the least-developed areas of the country. 

The Peneda-Geres National Park creeps into the extreme north-west, the Montesinho Natural Park lies in the north, the International Natural Park of the Douro lies along the River Douro in the east, and the Natural Park of Alvão lies in the south-west. In between are ancient towns and cities, dating back to Roman times, vineyards, olive groves, chestnut groves, almost orchards, and generally low-intensity agriculture. 

Three of us from Pembrokeshire visited Vila Real for a workshop at the University in October 2013, then stayed on for a few days intending to visit at least Alvão. The weather was against us. Sunshine during the workshop gave way to mist and rain. Alvão was sometimes just visible from the hotel window, sometimes not. 

The park information centre in Vila Real gave us little information – a glossy guide-book to the exhibition area which was closed for the season. Yes, the park was good to visit, and yes, there were places to walk, but there was virtually no public transport (one bus a day through the park). We would have to use a taxi, or a hire car. The tourist information centre didn’t add much of use – just a few snippets of information here and there. 

With the weather showing no signs of improving, we decided our best bet was to find a guide who could show us the park in one day – our final full day. The Tourist Information Centre found us Antonio Lagoa and Ana Noga. Antonio was the naturalist, while Ana spoke excellent English and had a car. We squeezed in and out of this small car, and learnt far more about the park than we would have by going it alone (even if we three naturalists had managed all three days there) despite the mist and drizzle.

Landscapes within the park are a mixture of woodland, moorland, rock and water, with a small amount of cultivated land and ancient villages. Of the broadleaved woodland, Pyrenean oak dominates (86% with 13% English oak, and 1% cork oak). Antonio stopped here to show us some fungi – but villagers must have got there first, as he didn’t find what he had hoped to show us.

The local Maronés breed of cattle is quite distinctive with its dark brown coast, white-edged nose and lyre-shaped horns. It is hardy, being adapted to the mountains, and has been used for pulling carts and ploughs as well as for meat and milk. It also has a ceremonial place, being dressed up and decorated for local festivals. 

Lamas de Olo

At 1000m, Lamas de Olo is the highest village in the park. Most of its traditional thatched roofs have been replaced with pantiles. The utility cables and satellite dishes add to the sense of mixed modernity here. The houses are small – one or two rooms above the barn at ground level. 

Espigueiros might look quaint, but have been a part of life here since the 18th century when maize was introduced from North America. The autumn rains meant the corn would not dry properly in the fields, so the espigueiros with their slotted sides were constructed to dry and store the cobs. This one is stone with wooden slats, but elsewhere they were made entirely of wood.

Flora

Within the park, there are about 486 plant species, of which 25 are Iberian endemics, 6 are Portuguese endemics, and 23 species have a conservation status – meaning they are rare or vulnerable. Highlights include the paradise lily Paradisea lusitanica, heath spotted orchid Dactylorhiza maculata, an endemic germander Teucrium salviastrum, Arenaria querioides, and the carnivorous common sundew Drosera rotundifolia. October isn’t the best month for flowers, so we saw only a few species, including the marsh gentian Gentiana pneumonanthe (see Alcon Blue below) and some autumn-flowering bulbs.

The upland pastures are permanently wet, with distinctive vegetation of high conservation value, and a variety of invertebrates too. Lameiros are irrigated upland meadows – a distinctive form of land-use in the Portuguese mountains. A network of ditches carries water to provide moisture in summer and keeps the water moving in winter to prevent it freezing. The meadows have a high biodiversity that includes several of those species of plant endemic to the Iberian peninsula – such as the Paradise Lily (which flowers from May-July so we didn’t see it). The hay from these meadows is needed to feed the cattle in winter. Where crops are grown, they follow a two-year cycle. Rye is grown in year one, fodder crops in the winter and spring, potato and maize the following summer. This preserves the soil fertility, soil moisture, and fits in with the availability of irrigation water. 

Invertebrates

A bush-cricket prowls through the scrub, looking for food. This is a Uromenus species – one of several similar species found in Iberia. 

Alcon Blue butterfly Phengaris alcon 

The Alcon blue is a medium-sized blue-brown butterfly that is widespread across Europe, but only in localized colonies. Its full range isn’t well known yet, so the Collins 1997 field guide doesn’t show it is being in Portugal. However, there are now known to be several colonies including here in Alvão. 

Like some other species of Lycaenidae (blue butterflies), its caterpillar stage depends on support by certain ants. Here, the butterfly lays its eggs onto the Marsh Gentian Gentiana pneumonanthe (in some other areas, a different species of gentian is used). The caterpillars eat no other plants. The eggs are laid on or near the flower bud, sometimes singly, sometimes a dozen or more on a clump of buds. 

The eggs are tiny – look for the white dot below the centre in this photo. Alcon larvae leave the food plant when they reach the 4th moult, and wait on the ground below to be discovered by ants. The larvae produce chemicals (allomones) similar to those of ant larvae, causing the ants to carry the Alcon larvae into their nests and place them in their brood chambers, where they are fed by worker ants and where they devour ant larvae. The larva pupates, and as soon as it hatches, the adult must escape the ant nest. The ants recognise the butterfly as an intruder, but when they go to attack it with their jaws they can’t grab anything more than the abundant loose scales that protect the butterfly. 

The Alcon larvae don’t have it all their own way, though. They are sought underground by the Ichneumon eumerus wasp. On detecting an alcon blue larva the wasp enters the nest and sprays a pheromone that causes the ants to attack each other. In the resulting confusion, the wasp locates the butterfly larva and injects it with its eggs. On pupation, the wasp eggs hatch and consume the chrysalis from the inside. Our guides explained that this particular field in Alvão was managed specifically for the Alcon blue.  Butterfly Conservation Europe had organised work parties of volunteers to cut the scrub back. The farmer had only three cows to graze the field. The ideal conditions for the butterfly require plenty of vegetation on damp soils, but not so much vegetation (especially scrub) that the soils become too cold and wet for the ants. 

Bilhó

The weather got worse during the day. We had an excellent lunch at the Tasquinha da Alice in Bilhó (Tasca da Alice in Bobal – to give the anglicised version of the name) – it’s just outside the park, and provides great local cuisine). Visibility was almost non-existent. Bilhó is a small parish – with less than 600 inhabitants – but I was surprised to see later on the aerial map that there were houses near the Tasquinha. All we saw was this tiny Ermita (hermitage) and Celtic cross by the roadside. It looked hardly big enough to stand up in, and possibly the slit in the side suggests it was more of a confessional (or perhaps a prison) than anything else. But you get the idea about the weather!

Waterfalls

Five or ten minutes of driving took us to the Bilhó Cascade – the main attraction for the village. The River Cabrão cascades down a steep slope, then through a culvert under the road before continuing down and out of sight – at least, we couldn’t see anything more of it.

Annual rainfall in the area is around 1200mm (46 inches) so there is usually plenty of water around. Summers, though, can be hot and dry.

Fisgas de Ermelo

Another 15 minutes or so of driving along roads that switched back and forth along the hillside brought us to another waterfall. Actually, it was several hundred metres in the distance, and we had to wait for breaks in the mist in order to see anything. The Fisgas de Ermelo is not directly accessible by road, but you can hike there from the village, or from the viewpoint.

There was little else to see, but the delight of the day was a brief glimpse of a wall-creeper flying past the overlook. 

Ermelo

Ermelo itself is further along the narrow mountain road. This 800 year-old village has many buildings with traditional slate roofs – but the slates are huge and irregularly shaped. While some of the buildings are clearly in a state of disrepair, others are well-maintained. Points of historic interest are marked, with some information boards too. 

Crag martins breed in the area, and were flying around over the river, swooping after insects, and landing on some of the buildings – huddling together in to roost in the rain in the evening. 

Videos

Here are a couple of video about the Parque that I found on YouTube. The narration is in Portuguese, but you can just enjoy the visuals if you don’t understand the language.

Lots of useful information on the Parque Natural do Alvão website

The Portuguese flora website is useful for checking the distribution, flowering periods, etc of the wildflowers of the country.


Bookshop

Click on covers for more information. Books about the butterflies, dragonflies and other groups seem to be out of print, so general books about these groups in Europe are the only ones I know of.

Buying books through these links brings me a small commission (at no extra cost to you) that goes towards the maintenance of this website.

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More about nature-watching in Portugal

Winter birds on the Gulf of Morbihan

The ‘Mor-Bihan’ – which means ‘little sea’ in Breton – lies on the southern coast of Brittany.

The ‘Golfe du Morbihan’ comprises 12,000 hectares of the Atlantic enclosed by land except for a 1km wide bottleneck, through which the tide comes and goes. 

Due to its location along the Atlantic coast flyway, and its high diversity of wetlands, the Gulf of Morbihan is one of 20 major sites for waterbirds in France

About the Gulf

The term ‘gulf’ was traditionally used for large highly-indented navigable bodies of saltwater that are enclosed by the coastline. So basically, a gulf is a large inlet from the ocean into a landmass, typically with a narrow opening to the sea – which is what the Morbihan is. However, the name Morbihan is given to the département, and so the embayment is referred to as the Golfe du Morbihan.

The Mor-Bihan was filled by Atlantic waters several thousand years ago, when the rising sea-levels (after the last Ice Age) flooded the existing river valleys. The result was a huge shallow pan of water, with some 500km of coastline and around 60 islands which vary in size from rocky islets to large enough to support whole villages. 

Over time, the Gulf developed a range of natural habitats and rich biodiversity. It is a designated Natura 2000 area and is also protected by various international and national regulations including Ramsar (for the protection of wetlands), decrees on biotope protection, and its designated statuses as a natural reserve, protected area and national heritage site. Processes are now underway to declare the area a Regional Natural Park. 

The area around the Gulf of Morbihan is densely inhabited with 230 inhabitants per km² which is twice the national average. Yet the natural beauty and tranquillity of the Gulf attract two million visitors each year, making tourism is the main economic activity. Other major economic activities include oyster farming (with 1,600 hectares given over to this activity) fishing, and agriculture (in decline). The area around the gulf is home to an extraordinary range of megalithic monuments. The best-known is Carnac, where the remains of a dozen rows of huge standing stones can be followed for over 10km. The passage tomb of Gavrinis, on a small island, is one of the most important such sites in Europe. There is more information on the tourist website for the area

In the Gulf itself, Huge areas of mudflats are exposed at low tide and there are saltmarshes and numerous islands, channels and lagoons as well as arable farmland, shingle beaches and rocky shores nearby. This makes it an extremely important stopover and wintering area for waders and waterfowl, with tens of thousands of birds present from Autumn to spring.

Winter Birds

Morbihan is the principal French haunt of dark-bellied brent geese from Siberia – some 20,000 over-winter here. 

From October to March, it also supports high numbers of Eurasian Wigeon, Northern Shoveler, Northern Pintail and Common Teal as well as Common Shelduck, Red-breasted Merganser and Common Goldeneye. 

Waders include most of the regular species of north-western Europe and other species found here in winter include Little Grebe, Great Crested Grebe and around 1000 Black-necked Grebe. 

By summer, most birds have left for their northern breeding grounds, but a few remain to breed. These include Little Egret, Kentish Plover, Black-winged Stilt, Pied Avocet and Marsh Harrier while Eurasian Spoonbill occurs regularly in some numbers during both passage periods. A passerine speciality of Morbihan is Bluethroat which breeds at the Reserve Naturelle de Sene near Vannes and can also be found at the Marais de Suscinio to the south of Sarzeau. 

The land surrounding the Golfe has extensive pinewoods with a good range of bird species including Black Woodpecker, Green Woodpecker and Great Spotted Woodpecker, Short-toed Treecreeper, Crested Tit and various warblers. 

The site regularly exceeds the threshold of 20,000 birds counted simultaneously during the winter (October to February). This makes it of International Importance for its bird populations. However, the total number of migratory and wintering birds (waterfowl and shorebirds) is between 50,000 and 100,000 individuals

Dunlin

Maximum counts for winter 2011-12 (the most recent figures I can find on-line)

  • Pintail 1285
  • Brent Goose 16,594 (20-yr average 20,000)
  • Shelduck 4249
  • Shoveler 669
  • Wigeon 5395
  • Merganser 1231
  • Pochard 53 (20-yr average 664)
  • Black-necked grebe 938
  • Spoonbill 50 passage
  • Avocet 1400
  • Lapwing 5441
  • Ringed Plover 839
  • Grey plover 1784
  • Black-tailed godwit 3660
  • Curlew 710
  • Spotted redshank 104
  • Redshank 1500 passage 463 winter
  • Dunlin 20305
  • Turnstone 238 (20yr average 91) 

Morbihan is also important for its breeding birds: 

  • Lesser black-back gull 400 pairs
  • Common tern 100 pairs
  • Avocet 150 pairs
  • Marsh harrier 6 pairs
  • Oystercatcher 50 pairs
  • Little Egret 100 pairs
Redshank

Bird-watching places around the Morbihan

We camped overnight at Kerhillion Plage, and did some early morning sea-watching, then wandered around the area for a while before moving east to the Morbihan itself.

The place is huge, by the time you’ve added the marshes, sand dunes, salt pans and islands to the sea area, you are talking about some 23 square kilometres (8 square miles). Then the indentations of the coastline plus the narrow roads mean that you can’t really race around it in a day. If, like us, you enjoy watching birds, rather than just ticking them off a list, then you need several days. And if it is sunny, then you have to take that into account, as the low winter sun bouncing off the water isn’t pleasant. Oh, and don’t forget the tide. When it is out, there isn’t much to see on the mudflats unless you have a telescope

Toulvern: a wooded peninsula in the north-west corner of the Morbihan, with the Etang de Toulveryn on one side, and more tidal flats on the other. Lots of access points and a seafood restaurant at the end. Coots, teal, shoveler, mallard, shelduck, grebes, and spoonbills can all be seen here – and a telescope is useful. 

Le Marais de Pen in Toul: a mix of salt- and freshwater habitats, this is the largest marsh in the west of the Morbihan. It has been protected since the late 1990s. There is a useful viewing platform located on a water tower, overlooking the marshes, and a walking route of about 3.5km. The area is freely accessible all year round. 

Ile de Berder: from a small parking area close to the island, it is possible to observe Roseate Terns, especially in September and October – but they were long gone by our visit in late November. The terns often land on the oyster barges that are in the cove. Also good for goldeneye and red-breasted merganser who regularly feed on the plentiful oyster beds here.  You can cross to the island, but the road is submerged at high tide (so we gave it a miss because of not knowing the tide times).

Pond Pump: at Le Moustoir along the D316 which connects Larmor-Baden in Arradon. Gulls and plovers especially gather on the edge of this private pond – but be aware of the heavy and fast road traffic (we didn’t stay there for long) – though there is now a cafe – La Chaumière de Pomper – nearby that might provide a parking place if you eat there, and also the old mill – Le Moulin de Pomper that has been turned into an antiques shop. 

The banks of Vincin: sandwiched between the suburbs of Vannes and the muddy shores of the Riviere duVincin this is easily accessible by coast path (wheelchair-friendly) from the town, or from the le Conleau campsite, or the best Western hotel on the Lily de Conleau. Going east from any of these takes you past the golf course to the Pointe des Emigres. It can be disappointing when the tide is out, but it is home to large numbers of ducks, such as mallard, teal and shelduck.

Shelduck feeding as the tide rises

Séné Marshes

From Vannes, go south on the D199 to the village of Séné. From there, the reserve is signposted. The entrance fee is about €5 and that gives access to the visitor centre, two footpaths, five hides, information from ornithological guides, and the chance to watch a film about the reserve.  However, the reserve centre is closed from mid-September to the end of January so during this time you’re limited to a free access trail in one part of the reserve.

The reserve covers 410 hectares, and is located on the river Noyalo. It was declared by Ministerial Decree of 23 August 1996. It comprises a section of the estuary with mudflats bordered by vast salt marshes, tidal creeks, channels and ponds. These marshes are in fairly good condition, some being replaced by areas of wet meadows, hedgerows and fallow land. 

Some 220 species of birds have been observed on this reserve, including the 76 that nest there regularly. It is a migratory stop-over used by almost all shorebird and wildfowl species regularly seen in Western Europe. It is also a haven for amphibians, reptiles, dragonflies, butterflies and a quarter of the plant species found in Brittany have been recorded here.

The reserve website (in French, but google did a reasonable translation to English) includes a library of videos about the marshes

Wigeon and other winter waterbirds

Noyalo bridge: On the opposite of the Chanel de Saint-Leonard is the village of Noyalo. There are a few places where you can stop along the D780, and the bridge at Noyalo proved interesting even though the tide was still low – shelduck, avocets and curlews, various gulls, several marsh harriers, egrets, etc.

At le Hézo people seemed keen to point us in the right direction to see birds, although it wasn’t until the tide was coming in that we fully appreciated the place. The road runs alongside the mudflats near the old mill – the Moulin à marées du Hézo – and there is a footpath from the parking area there, and another along the old saltpans just to the south. We watched waders pushed along in front of the rising tide, looking like a necklace along the water-line at dusk. As with many of the large semi-enclosed embayments, the high tide seems to last a long time. The next morning (obviously it had been out again during the night) we had to wait for it to go down a bit before we could walk the shore behind the houses. Here we found large numbers of the Brent Geese that the area is known for, and amongst them was a black brant – the Canadian sub-species rarely seen in Europe.

Lasné Marsh is just south of le Hezo, and can be partially circumnavigated by following the coastal path. Part of it is a quiet zone, closed to the public. Avocets and terns are very easy to observe during the breeding season at Saint-Armel. In addition, the coastal path opens directly onto the mudflat east of Tascon, which hosts one of the largest concentrations of birds wintering in the Gulf of Morbihan. Then there is another marshy area between Lasne and Saint-Colombier

Dark-bellied Brent Geese

The Reserve of the Pointe du Duer is just south of Saint-Colombier.  Old salt pans dating from the 15th century and in use until the 1950s are now managed to provide safe roosting places for wading birds in winter and on migration. In spring and summer black-winged stilt, common tern and shelduck breed here. Two hides and a small pine plantation provide shelter, and various pathways leading to them. The footpaths are laid out to allow access without disturbing the birds. Again, large numbers of birds can be seen from the tower hide, especially at high tide.  Some 160 species have been recorded here, including resident black woodpeckers and crested tits.

If you continue along the southern edge of the Morbihan, you find more places to watch birds on the mudflats – for example the Rue du Pont du Lindin is recommended for a variety of waders including grey plover, and from the Port du Logeo you can see groups of red-breasted mergansers and black-necked grebe (especially in January and February) – though a telescope is recommended. 

The marshes of the Château de Suscinio are near Sarzeau on the south side. Just follow signs towards the castle. Once there, turn right towards the sea and park your vehicle in the car park. The marshes spread along several hundred meters in both directions and are very attractive to birds which can be observed from close-by, especially in the morning. 


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Other places to go bird-watching in winter

A winter day at Santoña Marshes

The Santoña, Victoria and Joyel Marshes Natural Park is probably the best, and most easily accessible, wetland in north-western Spain.

Winter birdwatching in Bulgaria

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.


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