Location 10: Chamonix Alps (France)
Dramatic mountains with a burst of colourful flowers in June.
My favourite site is probably the Chamonix South Circular walk because it gets more shade and has wildlife, a glacier and Mount Blanc to see. For a more adventurous day I enjoy exploring the mountains between Vallorcine and Le Tour.
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 any tourist by using the cable car from Chamonix: queues for tickets start early in the morning so it is worth 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, the rush of life in early summer is spectacular and the wide, open views means the wildlife is actually more easy to see which can more than make up for the rarity.
Flower meadows can be impressive in mountains partly because they can out-compete the grass in this nutrient-poor habitat: early summer is best with butterflies flying at the same time. Nesting birds include Alpine Chough, Golden Eagle, Alpine Accentor and Water Pipit. Grazing mammals such as chamois and ibex (both related to deer) can be seen, particularly if you have binoculars and are out on less popular trails nearer dawn or dusk.
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 mainly replaced by skiing and snowboarding.
- Site 1: Mines-d'Or A lake and restaurant at the top of a road leading into the mountains. Day walks all the way to the border with Switzerland. Forest and mountain wildlife with great views. (GPS coords 46.1484N 06.7658E)
- Site 2: Vallorcine A walk up through woods above the village of Vallorcine. Popular with birdwatchers. Longer walks can extend onto the mountains above. Possible to take the cable car to the top and walk back down. (GPS coords 46.0334N 06.9329E)
- Site 3: Mont Blanc The cable car to the top of the mountain 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)
- Site 4: Refuge Alfred Wills A multi-day walk can include an overnight stop at this refuge. 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)
- Site 5: Le Tour Forest, shrubs and flower meadows with ski lifts up to mountains. Walk to a refuge with possible Rock Partridge and other mountain specialist wildlife. (GPS coords 46.0034N 06.9447E)
- Site 6: Cirque des Fonts A picturesque walk through woodland and meadows with views of the cirque. Possible Bearded Vulture and lots of other wildlife. (GPS coords 46.0334N 06.7710E)
- Site 7: Chamonix South Circular Use a cable car and a train to create a circular walk to the south of Chamonix. Not so hot due to the angle of sun in the summer. Wildlife includes chamois and marmot. (GPS coords 45.9165N 06.8712E)
- Site 8: Chamonix North Circular Using cable cars creates a circular walk from Chamonix. Specialist wildlife all year round particularly good in May for spring flowers. (GPS coords 45.9240N 06.8633E)
- Site 9: Chalet d'Accueil de la Reserve Information centre with some local trails. I enjoyed other sites more as this is next to a road although good wildlife possible. Look towards tops of the valley for ibex and chamois grazing. (GPS coords 46.0039N 06.9232E)
- Site 10: Col des Posettes Includes part of Le Tour (site 5). A walk with significant height change to see a variety of habitats. Good for flowers from approximately late May to early July. Good for birds. (GPS coords 46.0035N 06.9449E)
- Birds Seen in 7 Days in the Chamonix Alps (Summer)
A typical view of the mountains with meadows and isolated trees.
Wildlife of the Chamonix Alps
Mammals including marmot, chamois, ibex, Red Fox and Red Squirrel. Red Fox are possible in many different habitats including open mountainside and the Red Squirrel is mainly seen in woodland. In a week, my experience is that you might see each of these species once.
Chamois and ibex are generally seen at a distance on the slopes above the footpaths. I see chamois and ibex most often in the morning, evening and from less popular footpaths where there is 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.
Alpine Chough photographed on the mountains above Le Tour (site 5).
Birds most commonly seen during a 7 day trip in the summer:- Black Redstart (Phoenicurus ochruros) 26x2 (m3), Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe) 9x2 (m4), Coat 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 include Tengmalms 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, Buzzard, Short-toed Eagle and Golden Eagle. Lammergeier/Bearded Vulture were reintroduced near Cirque des Fonts (site 6) and are sometimes seen. The most common birds overhead seem to me to be Buzzard, Raven and Kestrel with Golden Eagle, Short-toed Eagle and Sparrowhawk less common.
Many birds will go unidentified but add to the spectacle. Smaller birds such as Black Redstart, Water Pipit, accentors and finches often go unidentified on the meadows. Swallows/martins often go unidentified flying overhead. In woodland the smaller birds such as warblers, Goldcrest/Firecrest and tits/titmice often go unidentified in the trees.
The snow can fracture and fall apart in dramatic ways like this.
The slow flow of a glacier is invisible on a day-to-day basis. However, views of the general shape of glaciers can help to show the movement is happening. The curve of the cracks show that the inside 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 June 2017.
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