Archive for the ‘Alpine Marmot’ Tag

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.


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.

May 2nd – 4th 2015 – The Alps trip part 1 – The French Alps   1 comment

This is the first post describing Margaret and my trip around the Alps and to southern France. When we were invited to the wedding of Margaret’s nephew Marc Hörburger to Elisabeth Lau on May 15th we decided to do a full 18 day trip and make the most of sightseeing and birding in this wonderful part of the world.

Due to an early flight we stayed overnight at a hotel near Heathrow on 1st May and arrived in Zürich, Switzerland late morning the next day. After the bad experience I had hiring a car with Europcar two years ago I specifically avoided them and chose a company called Unirent. Imagine my dismay when I found out that Unirent was administered by Europcar! We have yet to find out whether history will repeat itself or whether we had a trouble-free car hire this time (certainly nothing untoward happened to the car, but there again nothing untoward happened in 2013 either!)

The plan was to visit the high peaks of the Swiss Alps first, then go to the French Alps for Rock Partridge (which as the last post explained was the last European bird that I yet to see) before heading into Italy and reaching Austria via the Italian Lakes. The problem was a week of rain was forecast and there seemed no point in trying to visit the Jungfrau and the Matterhorn if we couldn’t see them.

At the last-minute we decided head straight for the French Alps and then if the weather didn’t improve, drive south to the Mediterranean coast.


Our first night was spent in the little town of Vizelle south-east of Grenoble close to this charming chateau.

IMG_6020 St Christophe hike

The following day’s forecast was spot on and it rained for the entire morning, but we drove to the village of St Christophe and started the hike up the mountain to the site I had been given for Rock Partridge. The early stages were easy enough as we followed the path alongside this stream and through birch woodland.


IMG_6007 St Christophe hike

The track carried on up, climbing some 300m above the starting point. Margaret gave up about a third of the way up but I pressed on.

IMG_6011 St Christophe hike

Climbing the outcrop was out of the question, so my only option was to descend a bit and cross the scree slope which was quite slippery due to the rain. Being on my own and having no phone signal I was quite nervous, as a slip could end in a broken ankle or worse. I left my waterproofs, scope, rucksack and camera behind in case anything would unbalance me and crawled over the loose rocks. Yes, I got a good view of the calling bird, which was as I thought in the hidden gully, but of course no photos. See the previous post for a photo of Rock Partridge from the internet.

IMG_6024 French village

I was back at the car by early afternoon wet, but unscathed and delighted to have seen this bird at last. We decided to try another area for Rock Partridge a little to south where we thought they might be visible from the road, to give Margaret a chance of seeing one and so spent the afternoon driving through a succession of French alpine villages. Whilst they might not have the chocolate box lid perfection of Swiss alpine villages, these French one have their own charm and we stopped several times to wander about.

IMG_6855 Chapelle-en-V valley hotel view

Eventually we stopped for the night at St Firmin, although finding the proprietor of the town’s only hotel was a bit of a mission. Languages were always my weak point and trying to communicate with the hotel’s gardener using (failed) O-level French that hasn’t been used for nearly 50 years was problematic. Anyway, once sorted out we had a lovely view from our room and even saw a Goshawk fly past.

IMG_6854 Chapelle-en-V valley hotel view

The following day we explored the valley as far as Chapelle-en-Valgaudmar but saw no sign of Rock Partridges. We did however see a Chamois perched high above us and a number of alpine birds.

IMG_6866 Chapelle-en-V valley

Although the weather was deteriorating we continued towards the head of the valley.

IMG_6862 Chapelle-en-V valley

The recent heavy rain has swollen the streams and waterfalls abounded ….

IMG_6896 Chapelle-en-V valley

…. but with the rain and spray from the waterfall in the strengthening wind it was hard to keep the camera lens dry.

IMG_6901 Chapelle-en-V valley

We eventually reached the head of the valley where we saw some Alpine Chough, a Rock Bunting, Western Bonelli’s Warblers and Crag Martins ….

IMG_6882 Alpine Marmot

…. but the only thing that came close enough for photos was this rather wet Alpine Marmot.

With the forecast still giving rain for the next few days we thought it best to leave the Alps behind for now and head south. The Camargue and the stony plain of La Crau seemed a good option, the only trouble was we wouldn’t have time to give this extensive area the justice it deserved, but we would try!