7th – 10th May 2015 – The Alps trip part 3 – the Italian Alps   Leave a comment

The last post dealt with our time in southern France. From there we crossed into Italy and then turned north towards Assendria and then on to Aosta in the Italian Alps.

IMG_6083 Ovada Italy

On the 7th we stopped for the night at a hotel near the town of Ovada in Italy. My reason for taking this route north to the Italian Alps was that I hoped to find Moltoni’s Warbler, a recent split from Subalpine Warbler. I think I have seen this species before, but the identification lies wholly on geographical grounds and I wanted to see and hear one well to be absolutely sure. This area is at the northern edge of its range and in spite of searching areas of scrub, field margins and waterside vegetation we drew a blank. The valley was narrow and held a six lane motorway, a railway line and the minor road we were travelling on, so noise levels were high – which didn’t help, but I did add a number of species to the trip list.

IMG_7099 Gr Paradiso NP

We arrived in Aosta in the mid-afternoon. A short distance west of Aosta a minor road entered the Gran Paradiso National Park from the north. The weather had deteriorated and there was light rain.

IMG_7181 Corbe Gr Paradiso NP

At the end of the road we stopped at the small town of Corbe.

IMG_7076 Gr Paradiso NP Corbe

Fortunately the rain eased off although we didn’t get to see the 4000m peak of Gran Paradiso.

IMG_7123 Dippers

The river that flows through the town gave us great views of a pair of Dippers.

IMG_7167 Dipper

I have seen this species many times but usually they fly off at your approach or are seen distantly. On this occasion I could spend as long as I wanted photographing them

IMG_7178 Dipper

Note the white ‘third eyelid’ or nicitating membrane that protects the eye when they are underwater.

IMG_7191 The Matterhorn

The following morning we drove east to the town of Breuil-Cervinia. On route we had great views of the mighty Matterhorn, at 4478m one of the highest of the Alpine peaks. Note the ‘banner clouds’ just below the summit. This is caused by winds blowing across the summit causing an area low pressure in the lee (just like an aerofoil does) this in turn pulls warmer, damp air up from below which turns to cloud as it cools.

IMG_7204 Cervinia

The pretty town of Breuil-Cervinia is dominated by views of the Matterhorn.

IMG_7195 Willow Tit

Woodland on the edge of the town held a number of Willow Tits, a species that I use to see here in Dorset but it has been extirpated from much of southern England for some time now.

IMG_7308 Whinchat

Just north of the town near the ski lift we came across a number of nice birds such as Fieldfare, Water Pipit, another Dipper, Grey Wagtails and this Whinchat.

IMG_7314 Citril Finches

I was particularly pleased to see several Citril Finches as I have only seen this European endemic a couple of times before. Surprisingly two days after I took this photo Britain’s twitching fraternity were watching the UK’s second ever Citril Finch in Norfolk.

IMG_7368 House x Italian Sparrow

Since we arrived in Italy the familiar House Sparrow had been replaced by the newly recognised Italian Sparrow. Italian Sparrows occur as far north as Aosta but here at Cervinia, just a few Km from Switzerland a range of intermediates occur.

IMG_7375 House x Italian Sparrow

The white cheeks, supercilium and heavily spotted breast are all features of Italian Sparrow but the grey feathering on the crown indicates that it has House Sparrow genes in there as well.

IMG_2136-Italian-Sparrow

For comparison, here is a photo of a pure Italian Sparrow taken by Lake Garda, Italy in 2013

IMG_7266 Cervinia

I took the cable car up above the snow line in hope of finding some high altitude birds ….

IMG_7244 Alpine Chough

….clearly the local Alpine Choughs were nest-building.

IMG_7219 The Matterhorn

I also had a brief view of an Alpine Accentor plus a pair of Snowfinches. The area was full of skiers taking advantage of the fact that they could still ski as late in the year as mid-May.

IMG_7263 Marmot

Whilst waiting to come down the ski lift I watched the antics of several Alpine Marmots.

IMG_7254 Gr Paradiso Mt

I asked a skier who was waiting to descend if he knew what this distant peak was, the answer was Gran Paradiso, the one that had been shrouded in cloud yesterday ….

IMG_7272 Alpine Ibex

…. but more importantly the skier told me there were many ‘mountain goats’ around when he arrived earlier that morning. With the ski lift on its way I just had a couple of minutes to see if I could locate an Alpine Ibex before it was time to descend. They clearly had moved some way from the ski lift but I found a group of three about half a mile away just before I had to board the ski lift. A new mammal for my list which means that I had three ‘lifers’ on this trip: one bird, one mammal and one country.

IMG_7386 nr Aosta

Later in the day we explored several areas closer to Aosta, seeing nice birds like Crested Tit ….

IMG_7392 ST Eagle

…. and this Short-toed Eagle.

IMG_7381 Cervinia area

The following day it was time to head northwest towards Chamonix in the French Alps.

IMG_7409 St Bernard Pass

Rather than go through the long (and expensive) Mont Blanc tunnel we decided to cross into Switzerland via the Gt St Bernard Pass and take the old road that climbs to the top of the pass before descending into Switzerland and then doubling back on ourselves to get to Chamonix.

IMG_7408 Golden Eagle

Unfortunately we found that this road was closed but we drove as far up it as we were allowed. Birding was good as we had the road to ourselves, and we found Firecrest, Black Woodpecker and this immature Golden Eagle.

IMG_7448 Valle de Ferret

We crossed into Switzerland via the St Bernard tunnel then took a side road into the scenic Valle de Ferret.

IMG_7427 Lammergeier

We saw quite a few birds here but the star of the show was this immature Lammergeier or Bearded Vulture, part of a reintroduction program to the Alps. The bird is clearly in wing moult but strangely the replaced feathers on the right-wing are white.

IMG_7456 Lammergeier

The bird reappeared after a while carrying a huge stick. I would have thought that it was too young a bird to be nest-building. Lammergeier’s are known to feed on the marrow of long bones by dropping them from a height to crack them open. Perhaps it was getting in some practice in with this stick.

From the Valle de Ferret we continued south to the town of Martigny then westwards and crossed back into France. We stayed the night in the beautiful town of Chamonix in the shadow of Mont Blanc. This will be the subject of the next post.

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