Wildlife of Europe (Planet Earth)
"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 it within Asia and the Middle East.
In the winter I particularly enjoy the coast of the Netherlands, the estuaries of Great Britain and the Coto Donana in southern Spain. Spring starts early in March in the south and slowly works it way up to the Arctic north by May. Spring and early summer are excellent for viewing birds, flowers and butterflies throughout Europe.
The Mediterranean, southern Europe and much of central Europe is very hot in July and August meaning the wildlife is often hidden and the peak of flowers and butterflies is past. So, if planning a wildlife-watching trip in July or August you might consider higher elevations such as the Alps, Pyrenees, Carpathians or Cantabrian mountains where spring and early summer are delayed until the snow melts.
September is a key month for seeing migrating birds and can also be good for seeing mammals, for example in the Cantabrian mountains of Spain.
This article is work in progress, so for example the list of countries below is incomplete.
Wildlife of Europe
Nearly all of Europe has a relatively high human population. Therefore other 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. I have found that sensible wild camping in Europe http://advrider.com/index.php?threads/wild-camping-in-europe-%C2%96-a-complete-list.925647/ is generally tolerated when I am quiet, just stay for one night and leave no mess: although obviously I do not do this on nature reserves where disturbance is an issue.
Scandinavia (the name for Norway, Sweden, Finland and sometimes Denmark and Iceland) has vast forests of spruce, pine and birch interspersed with bogs and lakes. The whole of Scandinavia is famous for its rocky and Arctic landscapes. For complete solitude away from civilisation, one of the largest wild areas in Europe lies within the national parks of Sarek and Stora Sjoffallet in north-west Sweden.
The coastline of Scandinavia includes the popular 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 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.
Birds of the Arctic tundra might better be called "birds of marshy habitat that is cold and exposed in the summer". With this new definition it is easier to understand that the tundra species are found:- On the tops of mountains in the south of Norway, for example at the unusually high and exposed Hardangervidda; on the tops of many other mountains in Norway, Sweden and Finland and; In boggy areas in the far north of Norway. The ground stays frozen near the surface in the Arctic north of Norway which traps the moisture and creates extensive wet habitats. However, there are still large parts of the Arctic that are not wet enough for some of the famous Arctic summer visitors such as geese and waders/shorebirds.
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/shorebirds 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 Rhine Delta has up to 500,000 birds in winter including the highest concentration of Great Crested Grebes on Earth.
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. Wildlife watching hits a peak later in the year in the mountains, approximately in June and July, because the snowy landscape takes longer to thaw: At this point the mountain spring has arrived, wildlife watchers can enjoy hiking through flower meadows and ski-lifts make access easier.
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. Accessibility of the countryside for walking varies with some of the long-distance footpaths in Estonia being a highlight. The landscape as a whole has 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.
France and Spain are agricultural giants with miles and miles of vineyards, wheat, sunflowers and cork oaks. Where the farming is not too intensive a wide variety of wildlife can be seen.
The Mediterranean region is nearer the equator and has butterflies all year round and more (and larger) amphibians, reptiles and flowers. It is a popular place for wildlife watchers during approximately March through to May before the summer gets too hot. The Mediterranean is also home to turtles, dolphins and other wildlife in the sea.
The Danube Delta runs into the Mediterranean and is a popular destination during migration and winter with lots of wetland birds to be seen. It is in fact good all year round with a wide variety of breeding birds in the wetlands and other habitats.
The Mediterranean islands are popular 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. Flowers and insects will be at a peak in the spring when walking can also be more pleasant because it is not yet too hot.
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.
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 Mediterranean also acts as a barrier to migration meaning many birds fly to the east or west to avoid crossing it. Birds that do cross the sea often take advantage of Mediterranean islands to rest.
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 Denmark, the coast of Sweden, Organbidexka in the French Pyrenees, 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 Israel is used by many birds migrating to/from Europe.
Europe includes Britain, the Netherlands and Germany. These countries have large 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.
Butterfly Watching in Europe
For butterfly watching a very thorough book with lots of detail is the "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" to be very useful. It contains practical information about most species in Europe. Although it lacks some detail, its small size means that it is easy to carry around. I have added hand-written notes to my copy to fill in some of the information gaps.
Identification of the Common Bird Families of Europe
With many 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 useful 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 easy to identify because 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 that 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 stripes 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 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!
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 methods suit different people. 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/shorebirds 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/shorebirds 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 slowly. This is exactly the kind of situation where a telescope is useful. The extra time also means you have the opportunity to compare the different waders/shorebirds 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 try 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 that took me just a couple of seconds to identify".
Tits/Titmice are found all over Europe with my experience being that Great Tits are the most common: I find they are particularly joined by Crested Tits in eastern Europe, Blue Tits in western Europe and Coal Tits in coniferous forest. The Great Tit shows a dark line all the way down the front. I find the Blue Tits clearly look slimmer and more yellow. Crested Tits tend to look quite grey and the head is distinctive. With Coal Tits I usually rely on the lack of a black line down the front of the breast and/or the white line on the back of the head. Juvenile and immature birds (seen mostly towards the end of summer) can be more difficult to identify as plumage features are often 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 is to have more pairs of eyes looking for predators. Birds that I have commonly seen joining 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. The Siberian Tit is also similar to these two species but in the field I find identification fairly easy because the form of the Willow Tit found in the same places is much paler: meaning they look much more different than you might think when you look at an identification guide.
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 species to identify.
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 it is then mainly 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. Perhaps the only place they are not is towards the north of Scandinavia where they are replaced by Brambling which are a summer visitor.
I think that finches have so many different (and reliable) ways to be identified that, even more than with other types of bird, it is possible to choose an 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.
I think that 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 and give very little time for identification. I think it can be better to enjoy watching and just try to work out the family rather than the species. I enjoy seeing 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.
Thoughts About Some of the Mammals of Europe
Shrews are active in the day. They will sometimes make a shrill shrieking noise. The Common Shrew is the one I have most often found in woodland. In autumn they are known to make a dispersal migration and I have had luck looking for shrews, particularly Common Shrew, in woodland at this time of year. I find that any woodland that is not too popular with dog walkers can be good for seeing shrews (as well as mice and voles).
There are many different species of bat. The Noctule is the largest and with a bit of practice can be identified by its size. The pipistrelle is the smallest and can also be identified by size. Different species of pipistrelle are found through Europe but I am happy to call them all pipistrelle for simplicity. The Long-eared Bat can be identified in flight by its tall ears above the head. Daubenton's Bat is found by water and their low flights over the surface feeding on insects is distinctive.
Voles are fairly stocky with short tails and less obvious ears than mice and less obvious noses than shrews. The Bank Vole is mainly found in woodland and the Field Vole is mainly found in open habitats.
Moles are adapted to live under the ground so are rarely seen. In May/June the juveniles will disperse making it more likely you will see a Mole above ground at this time of year.
Wildcats will breed with house cats and feral cats (cats that used to live with humans but now live in the wild). Because of this interbreeding the true Wildcat with its distinctive features can be difficult to see. Generally the best places are areas of woodland and field (habitats they are well suited to hunt in) that are away from human populations. Some parts of Scotland http://www.scottishwildcats.co.uk and large areas of north-west Spain are good for Wildcat for these reasons.
Deer are found throughout Europe, including Reindeer in northern Scandinavia. As a general rule, September, October and November is rutting time when males snort, bark, whistle and fight to try and get the chance to mate with the females. My experience is that any rural area with some woodland at dawn or dusk can be good for deer in Europe. Even if the larger species are not present Roe Deer can often be seen.
Grey Seal and Common Seal are found along the coast of Europe. They can be easier to see during the moulting and breeding seasons. However, these periods are long and between the two species cover almost the whole year: so the more casual observer does not need to consider timing.
Cetaceans (the fancy name for porpoises, dolphins and whales) are found throughout the seas around Europe. They feed on fish and also smaller animals called plankton. The best places to see cetaceans is usually where the fish and plankton are. Fish feed on other fish, plankton, small animals and plants. So logically we want places where plankton and plants can be found! Plankton and plants need sunlight and nutrients and in the sea there is plenty of sunlight so it is all about the nutrients. Therefore, the good cetacean-watching places include the "shelf seas" where steep changes of sea depth create currents that wash the nutrients towards the surface, coral reefs and estuary out-flows which carry lots of mud (which is a form of nutrient). There is another important issue which is that cetaceans will avoid human disturbance: so in practice estuaries that are usually busy with boats are not very good.
For a wildlife watcher who wants to see cetaceans the bad news is that these animals will move around every day depending on the availability of food. There are arguably no land-based observation sites which can reliably give good sightings of cetaceans every day. I prefer to treat cetaceans as a bonus if I happen to see them. One good tactic is to look carefully whenever there are groups of gulls or other seabirds out on the sea feeding because the cetaceans may have also joined them. It is also possible to take special boat trips where the crew will have local knowledge and sometimes detecting instruments. Ideally the boat will then stay far enough away that the cetaceans are not disturbed while you watch for often quite a long time.
This article is part of the Nature Travel Guide and was published on December 10th 2017.
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