Location 10: Chamonix Alps (France)
"Dramatic mountains with a burst of colourful flowers in June."
I recommend the European Mountain Explorer (premium link) activity.
My favourite site is probably the Chamonix South Circular (premium link) walk because it gets more shade and has wildlife, a glacier and Mont Blanc to see. For a more adventurous day I enjoy exploring the mountains between Vallorcine (premium link) and Le Tour (premium link).
The Alps are mountains in the east of France on the border with Switzerland and Italy. They drop in altitude towards Digne and Nice in the south. The full mountain range extends east through many countries. The highest peak is Mont Blanc reaching 4,800m. Mont Blanc can be visited by cable car from Chamonix: queues for tickets start early in the morning so I recommend booking before the day you want to go up.
Plants need heat, water and nutrients: in the mountains nutrients are often locked up in the rocks, water often runs off the rocky terrain not staying available for plants for very long and it can be very cold. Therefore there is not always so much wildlife compared to lower elevations. However, I find the wildlife that can survive is exciting to see and the rush of life in early summer to be spectacular. Also, the wide, open views mean the wildlife is easier to see which can more than make up for the rarity.
Flower meadows can be impressive in mountains partly because they outcompete the grass in this nutrient-poor habitat: early summer before the extreme dry and extreme heat is best with butterflies flying at the same time. Nesting birds include Alpine Chough, Golden Eagle, Alpine Accentor and Water Pipit. I have seen chamois and ibex (both related to deer) which I find easiest to spot with binoculars from the less popular trails nearer dawn or dusk.
In the autumn I have seen Nutcracker collecting hazelnuts from the trees by the car park for the Mont Blanc cable car.
In the winter the mountains are covered in snow, flowers hibernate under the ground, birds migrate to lower elevations and wildlife watching and hiking is typically replaced by skiing and snowboarding.
Wildlife of the Chamonix Alps
Mammals including marmot, chamois, ibex, Red Fox and Red Squirrel can be seen.
Red Fox are possible in many different habitats including open mountainside and the Red Squirrel is a woodland species. In a week, my experience is that you might see a Red Fox and a Red Squirrel once.
I generally see chamois and ibex at a distance on the slopes above the footpaths. I see them most often in the morning, evening and also during the daytime when I am on less popular footpaths with less disturbance. You might see them once every couple of days if you take the time to stop and scan regularly. Binoculars will make it easier to look and improve the views you can get. Chamois are often seen on grassy slopes and also in woodland and are generally quite common. Male and female chamois both have horns. Ibex were heavily reintroduced in the 1990's. The ibex is often found on rocks and also above the snow line in addition to on grass. The ibex ruts in December through to early January and only the males have the giant horns.
Marmots are generally seen at higher elevations above approximately 1,500m. They often live in rocky areas that also have grass nearby. Lookouts often sit on the rocks searching for danger. They feed by grazing on grass and other plants including flowers and berries. When alarmed they make a high-pitched squeal/whistle and may go into their burrows to hide. They can be seen in the summer and for the long winter they hibernate underground. Their large size and thick fur is thought to be an adaptation for the cold conditions in the mountains and the long winters during which they have to hibernate. Marmots will sometimes feed close to footpaths and this can give close views: if you then try to get closer this will often alarm them so I recommend staying on the footpath and enjoying the view if they are already quite close.
The birds I most commonly saw during a 7 day trip in the summer were:- Black Redstart (Phoenicurus ochruros) 26x2 (m3), Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe) 9x2 (m4), Coal Tit (Parus ater) 9x6 (m20), Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus) 8x2 (m3), Water Pipit (Anthus spinoletta) 8x5 (m8), Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs) 8x3 (m6), Common Buzzard/Steppe Buzzard (Buteo buteo) 7x2 (m3), House Martin (Delichon urbicum) 7x5 (m10), Nutcracker (Nucifraga caryocatactes) 7x2 (m3), Carrion Crow (Corvus corone) 6x2 (m3), Alpine Accentor (Prunella collaris) 5x3 (m4), House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) 5x4 (m8), Whinchat (Saxicola rubetra) 4x1 (m1), Goldcrest (Regulus regulus) 4x2 (m4), Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes) 4x1 (m1), Alpine Chough (Pyrrhocorax graculus) 4x17 (m35), Raven (Corvus corax) 4x2 (m2), White Wagtail/Pied Wagtail (Motacilla alba) 3x4 (m7), Ring Ouzel (Turdus torquatus) 3x2 (m2), Blue Tit (Cyanistes caeruleus) 3x1 (m1), Marsh Tit/Willow Tit (Poecile palustris/Poecile montanus) 3x3 (m4), Redpoll (Carduelis flammea) 3x11 (m30).
Two of the key bird habitats are the high mountains and the woodland. The high mountains include specialist birds such as Black Redstart, Wheatear, Water Pipit, Alpine Accentor and Redpoll. Woodland birds include Nutcracker, tits/titmice, finches and Goldcrest. Rarer birds that are said to be around, which I have either not seen or rarely seen in the Alps, include Tengmalm's Owl, Pygmy Owl, Hazel Grouse and Three-toed Woodpecker in the woodland, Black Grouse on the upper edges of the forests and Rock Partridge in rocky terrain in the mountains.
Larger birds that might be seen flying overhead include Raven, Kestrel, Common Buzzard, Short-toed Eagle and Golden Eagle. Lammergeier/Bearded Vulture were reintroduced near Cirque des Fonts (site 6) and are apparently seen occasionally. The most common birds overhead for me have been Common Buzzard, Raven and Kestrel with Golden Eagle, Short-toed Eagle and Sparrowhawk less common.
Many birds can go unidentified but still add to the spectacle. I often see unidentified smaller birds such as Black Redstart, Water Pipit, accentors and finches on the meadows. Similarly I often see swallows/martins flying overhead and warblers, Goldcrest/Firecrest and tits/titmice in woodland.
This article is part of the Nature Travel Guide and was published on December 10th 2017.
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