Chamois, Marmot, Wall Lizard and Dormouse

Wednesday, August 29, 2012 Adam Tilt 5 Comments


My final post from Switzerland covers the rest of the wildlife seen during our trip, including two mammal species that are a defining feature of that stunning landscape. The first of these is the Chamois, a goat-antelope animal that's native to the Alps and is probably best known for the car cleaning leathers that are traditionally made from its hide. Being very smooth and absorbent makes it an ideal material to use on delicate paintwork, but demand along with their tasty meat has led in recent times to a severe drop in numbers. By the end of the nineteenth century the situation had become so perilous that the Chamois was on the brink of extinction, an outcome thankfully avoided by the introduction of a new hunting law in 1875. Since then the population has slowly recovered with current estimates putting alpine numbers at around 100,000 individuals. Hunting still continues under heavy regulation, so as you can imagine it's not all that common to see one in the wild. At least that has been the case in the past, but this year we seemingly couldn't stop finding them!

Our first pair were sighted at around 3,000 meters near Grosse-Scheidig. A small area of the slope still held snow and it was around this that they seemed to be feeding. I took a few distant record shots (at that time we didn't actually know what we were looking at) before moving on. Following the path around the mountain we soon spotted another or the same pair in a slightly different area. They were a little closer though so I again took a few record shots but the heat haze and distance were always going to diminish quality. At this point you may be wondering why I haven't included any of these photos yet, even if just for illustrative purposes. There is a very good reason in that a couple of miles and a huge climb and descent later, we spotted a herd of six or seven Chamois a little way ahead. As we got closer they milled around but stayed in the same general area until to our utter disbelief we found ourselves surrounded. My camera quickly fired into action and it is those photos that I shall now present.

Wild Chamois, Switzerland

Wild Chamois, Switzerland

Wild Chamois, Switzerland

To see such a rare mammal at close quarters and in good numbers simply blew me away. Mid way through our encounter a stilted exchange with a passing French couple had identified them as Chamois for the first time, a realisation which only enhanced our excitement. But why were they behaving like this and not simply running away? My best guess is that the herd had become split into two on either side of the path and were unwilling to move on without the rest of their cohort. This situation was only exacerbated by the presence of young within the group. As we stood still a few individuals crossed the divisive path just in front of us until the herd was once more complete, the trigger for them to continue on their way.

Although this was the only photographic encounter I had with the Chamois, it was by no means the end of our sightings. We saw a single individual feeding on improved grass behind a house in Murren of all places, and picked out four or five individuals on crags from the Schilthorn cable car.

The second mammal star is of course the Alpine Marmot, a burrow dwelling ground squirrel that I challenge anyone not to love. As they sometimes spend up to nine months of the year hibernating your only real chance of seeing them is during the summer, and see them we most certainly did. Our first sightings were from the cable car between Grindelwald and Mannlichen and served as an excellent reintroduction to a species I had last seen over fifteen years ago. In that time I'd forgotten just how large they were, and indeed quite how loud their calls could be. It was that volume that alerted us to their presence on numerous occasions throughout the region. We got out best views though on the walk from First to Bachalpsee where our attention was initially taken by a pair some distance away on a grassy bank. A slight movement much closer alerted me to a third individual which had just popped its head out of a burrow and was proceeding to eye us up. It stayed like this for a couple of minutes before deciding that we weren't worth the hassle and that its burrow was a much more attractive proposition after all.

Marmot, Switzerland

On a smaller scale still was my first ever Dormouse at Harder Kulm. I spotted this tiny creature hiding under some overhanging tree roots and we were all treated to some great views. Sadly great isn't the word I'd use to describe the following photo, but at least you can see what it is.

Dormouse, Switzerland

Moving away from mammals it's reptile time with a couple of Wall Lizards sunning themselves at Oberhofen Castle. These seemed larger and, in the case of the green individual at least, more colourful than our Common Lizards here in the UK. They were however just as nervous and under the baking sun lacked no energy to dart into cover at the mere hint of an approach.

Wall Lizard, Switzerland

Wall Lizard, Switzerland

The final story I shall share before bringing this particular piece to a close concerns the camp site where we were staying. Early one morning I was awoken by Emma who thought she could hear snuffling and was concerned that an animal had made it into the caravan. Playing the part of the concerned boyfriend I obviously told her to be quiet and went straight back to sleep. In the morning however we found the grass on ours and the neighbouring plots dotted with small shallow holes. It would appear that there had indeed been a visitor during the night. Of course the next question was what could it have been? Badgers were out as the holes were simply too small but we did have two possible candidates. The first was one of the Black Squirrels that Emma had seen in the surrounding woodland, whilst the second was a Pine Martin of which one had been reported on the nearby stream. Of the two I consider Squirrels more likely but we may never know for sure. Even leaving some bread and jam out the following evening couldn't entice whatever it had been to return.

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Swiss Butterflies

Monday, August 27, 2012 Adam Tilt 5 Comments


Our wet summer has meant a pretty disappointing season for butterflies, with very low numbers of all species being seen (apart from Ringlets who for some reason seem to have done quite well). Over in Switzerland however the alpine meadows were in full bloom and positively alive with thousands upon thousands of these delicate creatures. Every bank, field and even the footpaths themselves held a myriad of species, far exceeding anything that I have seen previously. Regular readers will known that I am still very much a novice in this field so my mind has been slightly blown trying to identify everything I photographed. Fortunately some individuals have presented no such difficulties such as this slightly tatty Swallowtail.

Swallowtail, Switzerland

This is a butterfly I have wanted to see for a long time and we were very fortunate to find a pair feeding along the panorama walk from Schynige Platte. Unfortunately it was the more worn of the two which chose to pose for my camera but even so, what a stunner. A couple of passing walkers seemed quite bemused to find my dad and I hopping around the rocky slope, seemingly more concerned with their walking poles than looking at one of natures gems. I mention them only to say that I have a new pet hate concerning people with said poles who seem to spend more time waving them around and generally getting in the way than using them for their intended purpose. Anyway, where was I?

On a smaller scale, though no less impressive, were the Swiss Brassy Ringlets. These stunning butterflies are iridescent when the sun catches their open wings, something which I've only just managed to capture in the following shot.

Swiss Brassy Ringlet, Switzerland

This wasn't the only spotted species we saw with both Wooded Ringlet and Alpine Heath also seen regularly. Both species were a nightmare to photograph as they never seemed to land for any length of time. Fortunately I hit lucky on a couple of occasions even if the composition isn't quite what I would have wished for.

Woodland Ringlet, Switzerland

Apline Heath, Switzerland

It was very nice to see a couple of familiar species from back home on the wing as well, with Small Tortoiseshells being the most numerous. I couldn't tell if it was the scale of the surrounding scenery but I am sure these appeared to be slightly smaller than individuals in the UK. Could this be an adaptation to life at higher altitudes or am I simply imagining things? Either way they were very approachable and we were also fortunate to find quite a few of their caterpillars feeding on occasional clumps of Nettles.

Small Tortoiseshell, Switzerland

Small Tortoiseshell Caterpillar, Switzerland

Fritillaries are another group of butterflies that I like to see but seldom get the opportunity to do so. As a result these following two are easily the most dubious of my identifications. The upper wing patterning looks about right to my eye but as always please feel free to throw in any comments if I have been led astray.

Dark Green Fritillary, Switzerland
Dark Green Fritillary
 
Mountain Fritillary, Switzerland
Mountain Fritillary
 
Along similar lines there are several species that I have simply not been able to even hazard a guess at. Mostly this is down to the sheer number of possible candidates out there, so instead I shall just enjoy them for their beauty alone.

Unidentified, Switzerland

Unidentified, Switzerland

Unidentified, Switzerland

I honestly think we could have spent an entire fortnight just looking at butterflies and still would have been turning up something new by the time we headed for home.

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Swiss Birds

Thursday, August 23, 2012 Adam Tilt 3 Comments


One of the real surprises during our visit to Switzerland was the variety, if not necessarily the abundance, of bird species present, especially once we started to push into higher altitudes. I should have guessed that we were going to be in for some treats after spotting my first ever White Stork flying across the runway at Zurich airport. Sadly I was stuck in a bus being transported from our plane to the terminal so couldn't get my camera out, a failure repeated on the drive through Switzerland where Black Kites were soaring in ones and twos above the lowland farms. More usual species such as Buzzard, Kestrel, Swallow and Swift were quickly added along with White Wagtail and the ubiquitous Chaffinch, all before we had actually arrived at our final destination. Once settled in it was time to start looking for the 'good stuff', starting off with three Mallards and a pair of Coots. Now you're probably thinking that such ordinary fare is a strange thing to mention, but you are forgetting that this was the first time I have seen both species in Europe. As such they count as new life ticks and yes I agree, I am a bit sad.

Of course we weren't going to be satisfied sticking to the common species all holiday and I had a few key targets that I really wanted to see. Chief amongst these was the Alpine Chough, a close relative of our own Choughs and a bird that although rare has a few strongholds in the Swiss Alps. As it turned out we only had to wait until our second day to find some in the shape of a family group at Kleine Scheidegg. The lighting was terrible though, something which definitely wasn't a problem up at the Jungfraujoch. Here a flock of around thirty Alpine Choughs have become so tame that it is now possible to feed them by hand. An amazing experience and a great opportunity to get up close and personal with what would normally be a distant black dot.

Alpine Chough, Switzerland

Alpine Chough, Switzerland

Amazing though the Jungfraujoch Choughs were they pale into insignificance when compared with the huge flock that gathers around the restaurant at First. Here they seemed less interested in the leftovers from people and more concerned with the extra heat given out from the building and its ideal positioning as a perch from which to launch themselves into the abyss.

Alpine Chough, Switzerland

Our other must see bird was the Crested Tit, our best views of which came during a thunderstorm half way up a mountain. As the rain lashed down one hopped around a tree barely two meters in front of us, though I resisted the urge to chance my camera's life with several days of the holiday still to go. As a result the next species I have to share is an Alpine Accentor, a bird I hadn't even considered stumbling across. This very approachable individual was feeding on moths during our walk from Schynige Platte.

Alpine Accentor, Switzerland

Alpine Accentor, Switzerland

Next up is a pair of Black Redstarts, by far the most numerous bird we saw all holiday. Whether we were walking through towns or up on the mountains we were almost guaranteed to bump into at least one family group if not more. Here in Wales we are limited to a small population around the coast so to see such numbers was a real treat.

Black Redstarts, Switzerland

Another species I am used to seeing seldom or from afar is the Goosander, something which certainly wasn't a problem during our brief visit to Thun. On the river through the city centre a flock of twenty or so birds were lounging about and on occasion even competing with the Mallards for thrown bread. Typically wild behaviour it may not have been, but they were certainly the best views of Goosander that I've ever had.

Goosander, Switzerland

Goosander, Switzerland

Even waiting for our morning train at Interlaken wasn't without its avian attraction with the station roof housing a sizeable population of House Martins. Many of the nests had young peeking out which are hard to resist at the best of times.

House Martins, Switzerland

The final bird I want to share is probably also the worst of my photographs but conversely the species that got us most excited. It turned up way beneath us whilst we were photographing the glacier at the Jungfraujoch, and at first we didn't know what to make of it. Initial thoughts were that it was definitely a finch of some sort but which one we couldn't decide. Being surrounded by so much snow the answer should have been obvious. A Snow Finch, one of two having a dust bath at an altitude of 3,500 meters.

Snow Finch, Switzerland

Of course we also saw many other species that never made it onto my memory card including Nutcrackers, a female Red Crested Pochard, Yellow-legged Gulls, Common Sandpiper, Grey Wagtails, a magnificent Golden Eagle, Ravens and even a Hobby. Considering it wasn't a birding holiday that's a mighty haul.

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Switzerland

Wednesday, August 22, 2012 Adam Tilt 2 Comments


Interlaken, Switzerland

I've been back in the UK now for just over a week after spending a fantastic fortnight exploring the Jungfrau region of Switzerland. Shunning the luxuries of a hotel in a country not exactly known for its low prices, we instead rented a static caravan near Interlaken on the shores of Lake Thun. Every morning started with a train or boat journey followed by more trains, funiculars and cable cars until we found ourselves well above 2,500 meters and ready to start that days walking. An extensive network of alpine paths took us through a landscape that words cannot do justice to and must instead be seen to be believed. The Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau mountains became familiar friends and feature in several of the photographs on this page.

Lake Brienz, Switzerland

Schynige Platte Bahn, Switzerland

View from Schilthorn, Switzerland

Panorama Walk from Schynige Platte, Switzerland

With temperatures approaching thirty Celsius on most days we were thankful for the magnificent Swiss public transport system taking the sting out of each climb. This did of course mean that there were far more people than you would normally expect to find on the upper slopes of a mountain, but moving even a short distance off the beaten track soon found us with nothing but the cows and birds for company. It was this isolation that led to us getting fantastic views of wild Chamois and Marmots, both to be featured in a forthcoming post.

Upper Grindelwald Glacier, Switzerland

Double Rainbow from Schynige Platte, Switzerland

Gletscherschluct Gorge, Switzerland

View from Brienz Rothorn, Switzerland

It's been very hard selecting the photos for this entry considering I took well over 1,500, and even harder still to try and pick out a single shot as my favourite. After much deliberating though the award has to go to the Jungfraujoch, the longest ice flow in Europe reached via the highest railway station in Europe at 3,571 meters. I first saw this vista almost fifteen years ago and the scene today is exactly as I remembered it. If you ever get the chance to visit go, as it must rate as one of the best natural wonders in the world.

Jungfraujoch, Switzerland

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Cwm Clydach Fungi

Wednesday, August 08, 2012 Adam Tilt 3 Comments


Quite often in this blogging lark I have a post all worked out that for one reason or another never quite manages to make it to publishing. Normally time is my biggest enemy and as I like to keep things current there is never a convenient way to slip those that miss their slot back in. A visit to the RSPB's Cwm Clydach reserve in March though was too good to leave on the cutting room floor as it was one of the best fungi foraging expeditions I have undertaken to date. What follows are those species I have been able to identify so far, but as always feel free to correct me if I've got anything wrong. The crusts in particular were an absolute nightmare to try and separate.

25655 - Scarlet Elf Cups
Scarlet Elf Cups

25653 - Scarlet Elf Cups
Scarlet Elf Cups

25663 - Birch Polypore
Birch Polypore

25658 - Blushing Bracelet
Blushing Bracket

25651 - Blushing Bracelet
Blushing Bracket

25662 - Stump Puffball
Stump Puffball

25661 - Bleeding Broadleaf Crust
Bleeding Broadleaf Crust

25659 - Hairy Curtain Crust
Hairy Curtain Crust

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Garden Birds Revisited

Friday, August 03, 2012 Adam Tilt 7 Comments


This recent run of good weather has finally allowed me to once again indulge in one of my favourite activities. I am of course referring to the combination of a patio chair, feeders stuffed with seed and an assortment of increasingly tame birds. Unfortunately I have missed much of the fledging this season which somehow managed to continue through our wettest spring on record, but there are still plenty of relatively young birds about. The most numerous are the Blue Tits who look to have had a particularly good year and are currently easily identifiable by their duller colours.

27650 - Blue Tit, Garden

27652 - Blue Tit, Garden

The adult Blue Tits are also still present though a few look the worse for wear either through the stresses of raising a family or as a result of their moult. Whatever the reason this particular individual could definitely do with some restyling.

27654 - Blue Tit, Garden

House Sparrows also look to have had a successful year with at least two broods managing to fledge. There is still at least one nest currently active under my neighbours eaves and we were able to watch this male gathering food to take back to it. This could in fact be a second, third or even fourth brood for these birds, something which doesn't really bare thinking about. Thank god we humans aren't quite as productive!

27653 - House Sparrow, Garden

Although not photographed yet our Collared Dove's have also added one to their number which when put together with our juvenile Great Tits, Blackbird and Robin paints a pretty good picture. I'd like to think that the work we are doing with the garden has in some way contributed as we certainly have more improvements on the cards. Once the summer is over we shall be investing in some more nest boxes as well as trying to encourage a couple of the House Martins out of the sky and onto our property. Fingers crossed for an even better update in twelve months time.

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