Dr Duncan James > Nature Travel Guide > Planet Earth > Europe

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Nature Travel Guide

Wildlife of Europe (Planet Earth)

Most information in the images is repeated in the text, except some features of the maps.

From north to south: Arctic tundra, rolling hills, mountains, valleys, olive groves and dusty land baked dry in the summer.

Northern Scandinavia is within the Arctic circle (also see the Arctic Regions section). To the east, Russia is often considered part of Europe, however I have included within Asia and the Middle East.

In the winter I particularly enjoy the coast of the Netherlands, the estuaries of Great Britain and Coto Donana in southern Spain. Spring starts early in March and slowly works it way up to the Arctic north in May. Spring and early summer are excellent for birds, flowers and butterflies throughout Europe.

The Mediterranean, southern Europe and much of central Europe is very hot in July/August meaning the wildlife is often hidden and the peak of flowers and butterflies is long gone. So, if planning a wildlife-watching trip in July or August, consider higher elevations such as the Alps, Pyrenees, Carpathians or Cantabrian mountains where spring and early summer are delayed until the snow melts. Alternatively, more northerly places such as Britain, the Netherlands and Estonia have good numbers of dragonflies and damselflies in July and August.

September is a key month for seeing migrating birds. September can also be good for seeing mammals, for example in the Cantabrian mountains of Spain.

Wildlife of Europe

Europe has a relatively high population density over its whole landmass. This is unusual as other continents still retain large areas with a low population density. Therefore, larger mammals http://www.european-mammals.org/php/mapmaker.php are uncommon in a lot of Europe. Similarly, national parks in Europe are typically smaller and more influenced by humans than on other continents.

Scandinavia (the name for Norway, Sweden, Denmark and sometimes Finland and Iceland) has vast pine forests interspersed with bogs and lakes. The whole of Scandinavia has stunning landscapes. For complete solitude away from civilisation, one of the largest wild areas in the world lies within the national parks of Stora Sjofallet, Sarek and Padjelanta in north-west Sweden.

The coastline of Scandinavia includes the spectacular cliffs and fjords (large lakes often connected to the sea) of Norway. Wildlife includes cetaceans such as whales and dolphins. The Orca (also known as the Killer Whale) is one of the most popular cetaceans and if you are visiting you can join boat trips of a few hours or maybe a day in the hopes of seeing it. Alternatively, you can try to watch them from the shore and for this reason fjords such as Tysfjord in northern Norway are popular because they have populations of fish that attract the Orca to feed. Fish populations can vary so the best places can vary.

Britain, the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark have extensive coastlines that are home to massive colonies of breeding seabirds in the summer. In the winter they are visited by geese, ducks and waders from the Arctic. The Netherlands, of all these places, is perhaps the most popular destination for holidaying birdwatchers. The Solway Firth (see Dumfries and Galloway) and the North Norfolk Coast are popular destinations in Britain. In Germany, the Rhein Delta has up to 500,000 birds in winter including the highest concentration of Great Crested Grebes on Earth.

France and Spain are agricultural giants with miles and miles of vineyards, wheat, sunflowers and cork oaks. The Mediterranean region is nearer the equator and has butterflies all year round and more (and larger) amphibians, reptiles and flowers. The Alps and the Carpathian mountains stretch over much of central Europe and hold special wildlife that can survive the colder temperatures and the long winter. There are also the Pyrenees and Cantabrian mountains on the border between France and Spain. Eastern Europe is known for its extensive forests (home to woodpeckers, Wild Boar and other animals) and still has many areas of traditional, non-intensive farming.

Most information in the images is repeated in the text, except some features of the maps.
Birdwatching is popular in Europe. Bird feeders are often used to make it easier to see birds. This bird feeder is at the entrance to Minsmere, an RSPB reserve in Suffolk, England.

Europe shares many bird species with countries as far east as China. Bird species have spread over the whole landmass of Europe and Asia; they are not concerned with political boundaries. Africa has a very different climate and yet many of the bird species are also shared due to the millions of birds that migrate north and south, spending the European summer in Europe/Asia and the European winter in Africa.

Europe includes Britain, the Netherlands and Germany. These are three of the countries with the largest numbers of professional and amateur naturalists. This means there are some very good identification guides. Identification is also helped by the lower number of species compared to regions that are nearer the equator (the general rule for most types of wildlife is that there are more species nearer the equator). Many of Europe's best-funded conservation organisations http://eunis.eea.europa.eu/ are based in these same countries. My experience is that there are active, passionate conservationists all over Europe but in some countries they struggle to get good press coverage and funding.

Most information in the images is repeated in the text, except some features of the maps.
Olive trees are a common sight in southern Europe.

In the summer the Pyrenees and Cantabrian mountains, the Alps and the Carpathian mountains offer spectacular walking/hiking and full of flowers in June/July. Ski-lifts and winding roads offer the chance to explore without walking too much.

The land around the Mediterranean is home to large numbers of flowers, butterflies, lizards, birds and there are turtles and dolphins in the sea. The Danube Delta runs into the Mediterranean and offers spectacular birdwatching particularly during the summer. Many birds migrate over the Mediterranean and the many birds get channelled into the more popular routes with the Straits of Gibraltar and the Bosphorus in Turkey being two good places. The Mediterranean islands are a popular place with tourists and also wildlife watchers. There are opportunities to swim and snorkel with exciting wildlife in the sea. For birdwatchers the migration can be incredible with large numbers of birds to see (although there is a lot of hunting that goes on as well). There are some opportunities to combine this with walking, for example the GR20 in Corsica.

Most information in the images is repeated in the text, except some features of the maps.
A migrant bird seen all over Europe in the summer is the Barn Swallow. These were photographed feeding during a break in migration in the Pyrenees.

In the south the Mediterranean Sea acts as a significant geographical boundary to wildlife meaning there is (generally) a difference in the wildlife between Europe and Africa. The main link between Europe and Africa is the large number of birds that spend the European summer in Europe and then migrate south to Africa from approximately September to March. These migrating birds are channelled by mountain ranges and large areas of water as they travel north in spring and south in autumn. Migration hotspots in Europe include Skagen in Denmark (good from mid-April to mid-May and from approximately September and October with good sites including Stevns Klint and the famous Falsterabo bird observatory http://www.falsterbofagelstation.se), the coast of Sweden, Organbidexka in the Franch Pyrenees (described in detail in the Organbidexka location), Gibraltar, the Strait of Messina in Italy (good in spring and autumn), the Black Sea coast of Bulgaria and the Bosphorus in Turkey (start of September known to be good), Malta (spring and autumn birds use islands such as Malta to rest while crossing the Mediterranean) and (slightly further south) Eilat in Isreal is used by many birds migrating to/from Europe.

Most information in the images is repeated in the text, except some features of the maps.
Europe has large enough wild areas to support mammals such as this Wild Boar, deer, Red Fox and badger. They are generally nocturnal (with some debate about whether this behaviour is a result of human disturbance) and found particularly in forest.

In eastern Europe the landscape continues with larger forests, less developed agriculture and the beginnings of the steppes of central Asia. A different mixture of birds are found compared to western Europe including different birds of prey, different woodpeckers, Great Snipe and Nutcracker. Larger mammals such as bear and wolf https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_gray_wolf_populations_by_country are more common partly because the forests are larger. The Danube Delta is a popular destination during migration and winter with lots of wetland birds to be seen but is in fact good all year round with breeding birds in the wetlands and other habitats to give more variety.

Most information in the images is repeated in the text, except some features of the maps.
The Moorhen is often seen on lakes and rivers all over Europe.

Butterfly Watching in Europe

For butterfly watching a very thorough book with lots of detail is "Collins Butterfly Guide" by Tom Tolman and Richard Lewington. This has a lot of information about races and variations in different parts of Europe. Colour variation of butterflies is not fully understood but still the Collins Butterfly Guide does a very good job of helping with identification of even the most difficult species.

I find the pocket guide "Mitchell Beazley Pocket Guide to Butterflies" very useful. It contains practical information about most species in Europe. Although it lacks some detail, it is so small that it is easy to carry around. I have added a few hand-written notes to my copy to fill in some of the information gaps.

Identification of the Common Bird Families of Europe

With most types of animal, if you can work out which family it belongs to then you are over halfway to working out the species. This was one of the most first things I learnt when I started wildlife watching and I have found it more and more important over the years.

Geese are an interesting bird that are found all over the world. They are particularly characteristic of the Arctic. Many species of geese spend the summer breeding in the Arctic (where they graze on the grass that is exposed during the summer months) and then move south for the winter.

Many species of geese are very easy to identify as they are large and often stand around feeding giving prolonged views. In contrast, if I see geese flying past I usually do not try to identify them as I find it so difficult it seems better just to enjoy the spectacle.

One difficult group is the White-fronted Goose, Lesser White-fronted Goose, Bean Goose, Pink-footed Goose and Greylag Goose in northern Europe. The method I use is as follows:- (1) Is the bill small and dark? If so, if the legs are orange it is Bean Goose and if the legs are pink it is Pink-footed Goose. (2) Is the bill very large and orange? If so it is Greylag Goose. (Some individuals can have some white above the bill as natural variation.) (3) Is there white above the bill and black strips on the belly? If so it is either White-fronted Goose which has more black on the belly or Lesser White-fronted Goose which has a smaller bill and white extending to the very top of the head.

My personal preference is to identify a large group at the same time. Sometimes I often hear a birdwatcher say: "in with those 800 Greylag Geese is one Bean Goose". For me, it is not worth the bother of scanning every bird to find this out. Up to you though!

Most information in the images is repeated in the text, except some features of the maps.
Pochard Ducks with Bewick's Swans photographed on the Fens, England.

Ducks seem to be identified in many different ways. I am not sure that there is one way that works for everyone. So, if someone keeps pestering you with "their way" of identifying ducks I recommend listening as you might learn useful things but remember different people use different methods.

Ducks are often seen slightly further away through binoculars and a lot of the identification methods use colour. This is perhaps why different people use different methods. I have done experiments when out with a group and discovered that depending on our eyes and binoculars we often see colours differently. So, next time you are having a conversation about the colours on a duck remember it might look different to someone else!

I personally use a three-stage process to identifying ducks. The first step is to see how large they are. If I am in Europe and they look large they are probably either Shelduck or Brent Geese (which can look like large Ducks). Similarly, in Europe a smaller duck is usually a Teal. The second stage is to quickly look at the overall pattern and colours: this is often enough to identify the species. Finally, I usually look at the colours and patterns on the head (for example I find this really helps split Teal from Wigeon and Tufted Duck from Scaup).

A lot of people use the "speculum" (a patch of coloured feathers in the wing) to help with identifying ducks. While I agree this is a useful method I do not generally use it myself as I have had too many frustrating experiences of the colour not being visible or being difficult to see in the light.

Waders have some very difficult identifications. I think this is one of the only times a telescope makes a really big difference. Often birdwatchers are on a path in full view of the waders with clear views of the birds feeding. The birds are often aware of the birdwatchers and simply stay a reasonable distance from the path. They also generally feed while moving fairly slowing. This is exactly the kind of situation where a telescope is useful. This extra time also means you have the opportunity to compare the different waders and so have more chance to pick out differences that will help with identification.

Black-tailed Godwit and Bar-tailed Godwit are difficult to identify in Europe in the winter. You can wait for them to fly when the Black-tailed Godwit has very obvious white lines in the wing. Whilst not in flight the Bar-tailed Godwit has a more upturned bill, more obvious markings in the wing and a barred tail. However, my personal experience is that the bill looks variable (either due to individual variation or the light and background and angle making the bill look variable), the wing markings will vary depending on the quality of the view and the Bar-tailed can appear to have an all black tail if the wings cover enough of the barring. So, if you are very experienced then the combination of these features means they can still be confidently identified when not flying. Personally, I do not recommend trying to split these two species and I just call them "godwits".

Thrushes are commonly seen in Europe. In some places there are also the similar "Rock Thrushes". These are part of the thrush family and with practice their slightly different size, shape and behaviour makes it possible to tell the difference.

Thrushes are often seen in the dark of woodland or hedgerows. In this case the colours can be difficult to see. I find it very easy to misidentify thrushes. A good example is that the Redwing or Fieldfare can look like a Blackbird when feeding on berries in woodland during the darker winter of northern Europe.

The Song Thrush and Mistle Thrush are often confused. The main way I separate them is by the more rounded shape (with larger head) of the Song Thrush. However, that does not work if you are not familiar with them. An alternative way to identify them is from the shape of the spots on the breast: rounded for the Mistle Thrush and pointed for the Song Thrush.

Warblers in Europe, Asia and Africa are a group of very similar, small and brown birds. It is a running joke in Britain (in particular) that these are very difficult to identify, particularly for beginners. I think that if you are just starting out as a birdwatcher you should simply try to work out if it is a warbler and be happy with that. Only after you have seen a few and got used to some of the natural variation in appearance and behaviour would I suggest starting to try to identify them to species.

Because I have been birdwatching for so long I am now fairly confident identifying them; however it has taken many years to get to this stage and sometimes I am still not sure.

I have lumped together Reed Warbler and Marsh Warbler on the lists. Personally I identify them by their song: if they do not call I simply don't try to identify them! The "Reed/Marsh Warbler" is fairly easy to split from the other warblers as it is a much richer brown, looks larger/more rounded, has a heavier tail, a thicker bill and is found in wetter habitats.

I used to find Chiffchaff and Willow Warbler very difficult to identify. I now simply identify them by their leg colour: dark legs mean Chiffchaff and light legs means Willow Warbler. Sometimes other birdwatchers tell me that this is not 100% reliable. I agree but in my opinion it is reliable enough and I find many of the other methods used to identify birds are wrong sometimes and I think a lot of people don't realise!

The Icterine Warbler and Melodious Warbler can be very difficult to split. My personal preference is to only identify them in regions where only one of them is likely to be seen: it is then possibly to simply say "there is only one possibility so now I can enjoy watching the bird and not worry about identification any more".

Tits/Titmice are found all over Europe with Blue Tits and Great Tits generally the most common. The Great Tit shows a dark line all the way down the front. I find the Blue Tits clearly look slimmer and more yellow. Juvenile and immature birds (seen mostly towards the end of summer) can be more difficult to identify as things like the line on the front are not fully developed: I tend to use the pattern on the head more in this case.

I usually see Coal Tits in areas of coniferous trees. Often they seem to completely replace the other species of Tit if there are lots of pine trees and/or other coniferous trees such as spruce. My top tip regarding their call is that they often sound like a slightly out of tune Great Tit.

In the winter tits/titmice often group together in flocks of 10 or more birds (I have seen up to 100 in a single flock sometimes). It is thought that one of the reasons they do this to have more pairs of eyes looking for predators. Birds that commonly join flocks of tits/titmice are treecreepers and Goldcrests.

I have lumped Marsh Tits and Willow Tits together. I always "draw the line" somewhere and stop spending time identifying and instead try to enjoy the experience of being in nature watching wildlife. If you want to try and tell them apart I find the easiest features to look for are the shiny black cap on the Marsh Tit and the white in the wing of the Willow Tit.

Larks are represented by nine species that are (according to me) realistically possible to see and identify for the average birdwatcher. Of these nine I lump Crested Lark and Thekla Lark together as they are very similar and difficult to split in the field.

If I am trying to identify a lark from a brief view I am mainly looking at the bill and whether it has an obvious crest. Just the combination of these two features (plus the overall look of the bird) is generally enough to identify it.

I did once try to identify the Thekla Lark and the Crested Lark on a trip to Spain. I decided that the bill seemed to be an unreliable feature as I thought I was seeing a lot of variation. Instead, I decided that to positively identify Thekla Lark I needed to see all the following features at the same time: (1) the bill difference; (2) the higher contrast (dark was darker and light was lighter) in the plumage and; (3) the shorter, stubbier crest.

Crows seem to have some very easy and some very difficult identifications.

A Rook can be easily identified by its bill (although it is important to remember that younger birds have smaller, dark-coloured bills and resemble Carrion Crows).

Jackdaws have a distinctive area of lighter grey on the plumage at the side of the head, extending onto the body.

I find the very large bill, fluffy feathers on the chin and pointed-end to the tail are enough to identify Ravens. My experience is that almost every birdwatcher has a different way of identifying Ravens: so I recommend finding what works for you!

The difficulty I often have is with the Carrion Crow. I find that I usually try to eliminate all the other likely crows to be sure. Also, if it is just a pair of birds flying past it is unlikely to be Rooks or Jackdaws (which are usually in larger groups) and then it is just a question of eliminating Raven.

Finches are one of the most commonly seen birds in Europe. Similar groups of bird include sparrows and buntings. It took me years to realise that the Yellowhammer was a bunting and not a finch! They are very similar groups.

It is useful to remember that the Chaffinch is generally the most common finch in Europe. They are found in most habitats and are often very tame.

I think that finches have so many different (and reliable) ways to be identified that it is possible to choose your own approach that works for you. Personally, I like to look at the number of lines in the wing (for example the two white lines in the wing of the Chaffinch is an easy way to identify this species). I also find the size of the bill to be useful (this is how I usually identify Twite).

If I see a finch-like bird that has an average-sized bill and is brown all over I usually wait for another bird to join it and hope that the next bird has clearer identification features. These juvenile and/or female finches are so difficult to identify I generally do not try. The one exception to this is if I am in a wet habitat in Europe and I check if it is a female Reed Bunting.

Some birdwatchers like to work out the "race" of the finches they see. The exact colours of a finch will vary depending on which region they are from. This is worth knowing as you will sometimes hear this talked about.

Birds of prey are probably not worth trying too hard to identify if you are a beginner birdwatcher. Even if you see a few in a day they often fly past very quickly, giving very little time for identification. I think it can be better to enjoy the spectacle and try to work out the family rather than the species. See if you can see them swoop after another bird or down onto the ground to catch a small mammal. If they hover they often keep their heads completely still while their bodies move around.

More experienced birdwatchers often spend a lot of time identifying buzzards in Europe. I like to go with the alternative approach of assuming that any buzzard in western Europe is Common Buzzard and any buzzard in Scandinavia is Rough-legged Buzzard. Rough-legged Buzzards head south in the winter and this is particularly the time when Common Buzzard and Rough-legged Buzzard can be found together. For example, the winter marshlands of the Netherlands are home to both species: however unless you are a super-keen birdwatcher you could just call them "buzzards" and use the time you have saved by not identifying them to species looking for more wildlife instead.

Most information in the images is repeated in the text, except some features of the maps.
A view of the Spanish side of the Pyrenees.



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