Dr Duncan James > Nature Travel Guide > Where > Planet Earth > Europe > France > Chamonix Alps

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Nature Travel Guide

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.

  • At Mines-d'Or (site 1) (premium link) there is a lake and a restaurant at the top of a road leading into the mountains. Day walks are available that run all the way to the border with Switzerland. Forest and mountain wildlife can be seen along with great views. (GPS coords 46.1484N 06.7658E)
  • A walk up through woods above the village of Vallorcine (site 2) (premium link) is popular with birdwatchers. Longer walks can extend onto the mountains above. It is possible to take the cable car to the top and walk back down. (GPS coords 46.0334N 06.9329E)
  • The cable car to the top of Mont Blanc (site 3) is very popular. There is a stop halfway up where you can break your journey. A short walk from this halfway point can give views of marmots, Alpine Accentor and other mountain specialities. (GPS coords 45.9185N 06.8698E)
  • A multi-day walk can include an overnight stop at Refuge Alfred Wills (site 4). Footpaths lead from Chamonix, all the way over the top and back down into the next valley at Samoens. (GPS coords 46.0045N 06.7915E)
  • Le Tour (site 5) (premium link) has forest, shrubs and flower meadows with ski lifts up to mountains. You can walk to a refuge with the possibility of seeing Rock Partridge and other mountain specialist wildlife. (GPS coords 46.0034N 06.9447E)
  • Cirque des Fonts (site 6) (premium link) has a picturesque walk through woodland and meadows with views of the cirque. Other birdwatchers have seen Bearded Vulture here along with lots of other wildlife. (GPS coords 46.0334N 06.7710E)
  • The Chamonix South Circular (site 7) (premium link) walk uses a cable car and a train to create a circular walk to the south of Chamonix. The angle of the sun means that it is not so hot in the summer. Wildlife includes chamois and marmot. (GPS coords 45.9165N 06.8712E)
  • The Chamonix North Circular (site 8) (premium link) walk uses cable cars to create a circular walk from Chamonix. Specialist wildlife can be seen all year round and the angle of the sun means the flower displays are better earlier in the summer before it gets too hot (for example in May). (GPS coords 45.9240N 06.8633E)
  • Chalet d'Accueil de la Reserve (site 9) is an information centre with some local trails. I enjoy other sites more as this is right next to a road. I recommend taking some time to look up the sides of the valley for ibex and chamois grazing. (GPS coords 46.0039N 06.9232E)
  • Col des Posettes (site 10) (premium link) is a mountain hike that also includes part of Le Tour (site 5). It is good for flowers from approximately late May to early July. I have also seen a good variety of birds on this walk. (GPS coords 46.0035N 06.9449E)
  • Birds that I saw in 7 days in the Chamonix Alps in summer (premium link) included eagles, other birds of prey, Alpine Accentor and woodland species.

A typical view of the Alps includes rocky peaks, meadows and isolated trees.

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.

I photographed this Alpine Chough on the mountains above Le Tour (site 5).

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.

The snow can fracture and fall apart like this.

The slow flow of a glacier is invisible on a day-to-day basis (unless, I guess, you have some monitoring technology to help). However, views of the general shape of glaciers can help to show the movement is really happening. The curve of the cracks show that the middle of the glacier is moving faster (just like water in a river).

This article is part of the Nature Travel Guide and was published on December 10th 2017.

Larger-scale information relating to this page include the Planet Earth, Europe and France articles.

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