Blog Archives: Overseas Tours – other

The Swiss Alps by train: joining the 6% club

At the very end of August, we made our first trip to Switzerland, and had our first taste of long-haul rail travel. The rail experience was superb, each train on the journey there and back on time, to the minute, clean and comfortable, as we watched the landscapes of France slip by. And in the Alps, the local trains and cable cars getting us to high altitude with ease, again on time, regular and with exemplary integrated public transport information, on train and station. We are now proud to be part of the 6% club, as compared with the carbon cost of flying.

The journey down was broken in Strasbourg, two half-days to explore the abundant historic delights of La Petite France, the Gothic Cathedral (the fourth-tallest church in the world) and the Rhine-side wildlife. One abundant feature of the attractive floral displays was the Brown Marmorated Stink-bug Halyomorpha halys, new to us, and new to Europe as recently as 1998 when it arrived from the Far East on roof tiles imported for repairs to the Chinese Garden in Zürich. One to watch this, as it is starting to be found in pest proportions on fruit and vegetable crops, both in Europe and North America.

Another non-native insect was Isodontia mexicana, a North American wasp which is now established in Southern Europe, and seemingly at home – last year I even saw it apparently migrating south through the French Pyrenean valleys in September.

And so to Switzerland and the Bernese Oberland, a place of stunning mountain scenery. We were staying in the delightfully traffic-free village of Wengen, overlooked by the Jungfrau massif, from where we had easy access to the higher ground by train and cable car. The alpine meadows around 1200m were blooming again after the first hay cut, with Knapweeds and Willow Gentian, Masterwort and Yellow-rattle, Eyebright and Purple Lettuce, among many others.

 

In perfect weather and a landscape relatively unscathed by agricultural poisons, insects abounded. Butterflies included several Fritillaries, Marbled White and Sooty Copper, among a whole host of other moths, bees, flies, beetles and bugs.

The timing of our trip was deliberate, to visit when the snow cover was the least and hopefully find some of the botanical specialities at high altitude. Highest of all, Jungfraujoch – ‘the Top of Europe’ – at 3454m was almost above vegetation, though the few areas clear of snow had tussocks of hardy flowering grasses. And very little else, aside from begging Alpine Choughs and magnificent views, at least when the clouds parted. Magnificent, albeit worrying to learn that the glaciers are only a shadow of their former selves, melting as a result of climate breakdown.

500m lower down, the summit of the Schilthorn was substantially snow-free, and high alpine flowers were on show, their relatively large flowers (to attract the limited number of pollinators at those altitudes) springing from cushions and mats of rock-hugging foliage.

Again the food-beggars were out, here a Snow Finch, but sadly no Ibex to be seen, although a group of Chamois as we headed back down was some compensation.

The Männlichen cable car from Wengen took us to 2300m, a ridge-top with Snow and Field Gentians, Monkshoods and Grass-of-Parnassus. A Stoat flushed a fledgling Alpine Accentor, and it was here we saw our only Golden Eagle: this part of the Alps is sadly lacking in large predators and vultures.

 

Of course, plants on extensive mountains can be difficult (or dangerous) to search out, so the Alpine botanic garden of Schynige Platte was a final day treat, at the top of an incredibly scenic cog railway, slow and expensive but absolutely worth it. Surely this is the most picturesque botanic garden in the world, with an unsurpassed collection of Swiss native alpine flowers.

As always, the flowers were only a part of the natural festival: Slender Scotch Burnet, Damon Blue, Dusky Grizzled Skipper and Painted Ladies were visiting the blooms, and Common and Green Mountain Grasshoppers and Wartbiters abounded in the flower beds. Presumed migrant Tree Pipits passed overhead, the wader-like piping of Alpine Marmots drifted from the more distant rocky slopes.

  

All the above, and much, much more. As always, a blog like this can only touch upon the absolute highlights of a week, and then only those that fit easily into the overall narrative. But there was so much more: take the the weeping brackets of Fomitopsis pinicola (a phenomenon known as guttation)

…on a similar theme, a Noon-fly blowing bubbles…

…and on one memorable morning, swarms of unidentified insects in scintillating masses appended to seemingly every tree top…

…the awesome power of the Trummelbach Falls, both over and underground, but impossible to fully capture visually…

…and simply stunning scenery in every direction. And while expensive, as expected, it didn’t cost the Earth too much.

Spring in the Camargue

My second Honeyguide trip of the year, and for the second time I was treated to a new destination: the Camargue, between Montpellier and Marseilles in southern France. Formed in the delta of the Rhône, it is a huge wetland, renowned throughout Europe for its wildlife, cultural landscapes and rural industries, especially salt-making and rice-growing.

Although far from complete, as a result of drainage, the wetlands comprise a complex of rice fields, lagoons, reedbeds, Tamarisk hedges, salt pans and marshes, each with is own distinct wildlife, reflecting both land-use and salinity. Many waters were bird-free; others had gulls, Black-headed or Mediterranean, but not often together; especially towards the sea, terns came to prominence, with a few northbound waders; and just a few ducks – Mallards, Shelducks and Red-crested Pochards. But it was outstanding for the most upstanding birds, the long-legged waders, herons, egrets, ibises, storks and of course Greater Flamingos, which along with white horses are the iconic sights of the Camargue.

This meant some searching by minibus to get among the birds, but that was welcome during the first half of the week, when it was unseasonably cold, windy and wet. At such times. visitor centres came in useful as well, often associated with excellent reserves. La Capelière  was a wonderful mosaic of most Camarguais habitats, all accessible by boardwalk: centrepiece of the reserve was a hide overlooking a breeding colony of Black-winged Stilts, watching and being watched by a Coypu, with European Pond Terrapins in the ditches and a Stripeless Tree-frog on a viewing platform, highly appropriate as it lends its name to the trail: ‘Le Sentier des Rainettes’.

Scamandre reserve was similarly well-provisioned, all the better to enjoy the airport-style procession of Glossy Ibises, Great, Little and Cattle Egrets, Grey, Purple and Night Herons overhead, and watch the fearless Squacco Herons feeding in the shallows. This site should have been superb for Odonata, especially as we visited in warm, calm weather, but only three species was a strong indication of what seemed to be a late spring.

Some other highlights included a couple of beds of Iris spuria among the ubiquitous Yellow Flags; Aristolochia rotunda in almost malevolent flower,  being demolished by Southern Festoon caterpillars;  a small lagoon with all three species of marsh tern – many Whiskered, several White-winged Black and a few Black Terns; and legions of Common Swifts in the skies overhead. Presumably (hopefully, given their sparse arrival back home) they were still on their way north, and indeed numbers were much lower by the end of the week.

One final sight of note came without much wildlife at all. The industrial salt-pans around Salin-de-Giraud presented a dramatic abiotic landscape, white mountains of salt standing proud from the pink lagoons, hypersaline waters shot through with the essence of flamingo.

Just to the east of the Rhone lay another different world. La Crau is a cobbly steppe area, the Alpine outwash plain of the River Durance before its course was diverted during the Ice Age. Flat, stony and grassy, ideal for a range of steppe birds – Roller, Lesser Kestrel, Stone-curlew, Calandra Lark and Pin-tailed Sandgrouse – although the intense heat-haze made viewing difficult.

Turning our sights inland, we visited the magnificent Pont du Gard, a Roman aqueduct across the River Gardon. A ‘must see’ despite its popularity, tourism being catered for relatively tastefully, and it is surrounded by wildlife, from Common Redstarts singing in the trees, to Rock Sparrow and Common Wall-lizard on the bridge itself.

No so for our other inland destination, Les Baux: historic maybe, but crowded, noisy and dusty, crammed with every sort of shop one could never want, a tourist tat-trap. Not surprisingly, Alpine Swifts from the viewpoint were just about all there was to see…

Fortunately, the village is set within Les Alpilles, so we had preceded the tourism terrors with a lovely ramble through the limestone hills, ablaze with colour – vivid blue Beautiful Flax and Blue Aphyllanthes; yellow and white Rock-roses; crinkled pink Cistus albidus….

… and where there are flowers, so there were insects, including a range of stunning jewel-beetles ….

.. and where there were insects, so there were predators, spiders lurking at every turn. Watchful jumping spiders waiting to pounce…

Crab spiders ambushing the unsuspecting pollinators of ‘their’ flowers. Time and again, the sight of an uncommonly still bee or fly dangling from a flower on closer inspection proved to be in the jaws of its nemesis.

And in a Gothic flourish of sex and death, the sight of a tiny male Thomisus onustus precariously mounting a much larger female while she was otherwise occupied in dealing with a paralysed bumblebee was for me one of the sights of the week!

A fully detailed illustrated report with lists will be found on the Honeyguide website in a few weeks. In the meantime, just a random selection of additional photos of some of the bugs and beasties and more of a wildlife-filled week.

And here is the link to the report!

 

In the foothills of the Atlas: Southern Morocco

My first experience of southern Morocco, indeed of North Africa, last week was a hot one: several days peaked at 30°C, some 10 degrees hotter than expected for mid-March, and just one cloud in the sky, on one day only!

Our Honeyguide/N&S Wildlife & Walking tour there came after some 18 months without meaningful rain, and the drought is beginning to take its toll on the landscape. At a time when the rolling foothills of the Atlas Mountains should be ablaze with a colourful array of wild flowers, from spring bulbs to poppies and other annuals,  it was a scene of parched aridity, the bones of the land clearly visible through its hide. Almost the only green came from deep-rooted Argan trees, so important to the local economy, naturally studded evenly across the stony plateaus and slopes in an attempt to make best use of what rainfall or condensation comes their way.

In contrast, the grounds of our hotel, the wonderful Atlas Kasbah Eco-lodge, were remarkably lush and productive, the source of most our food for the week, watered by our own efforts, as translated through the biofiltration water purification plant, complete with its thriving population of Saharan Marsh Frogs!

Although quiet in the midday heat, the gardens came alive at night, trilling Tree Crickets at every turn, mingling with wailing Stone Curlews, occasional Red-necked Nightjars and the wild yelperings of a family of (presumed) Ruppell’s Foxes from further afield. At dawn and dusk, Common Bulbuls gave liquid body to the soundscape, the repetitive song more structured but of a similar fluty tone to their conversational burbles throughout the day.

Other unfamiliar birds in the garden included a couple of pairs of Moussier’s Redstart, House Buntings all over the buildings, and the occasional pair of Laughing Doves, which all underline the significance of the Mediterranean as a barrier, at least to non-migratory species.

  

In and around the garden were a number of attractive native flowers, like Catananche arenaria (a Cupid’s-dart), the endemic knapweed-like Volutaria maroccana, and the sticky Large Yellow Rest-harrow.

  

Garden invertebrates included Long-tailed and Lang’s Short-tailed Blues, Brimstone and Cleopatra, Cage-web Spiders in their 3D webs, and most dramatically, Orange-headed Mammoth-wasps Megascolia bidens, always creating a stir when one appeared, and a mating pair of African Nine-spotted Moths Amata alicia.

 

Over the week, we visited a number of sites, all within an hour of so of home, and many much closer, such as the gorge at the head of our valley, home to Black Wheatears and Barbary Ground-squirrels.

 

Oleander was flowering profusely in the dry riverbeds, always with thriving populations of the Oleander Seedbug Caenocoris nerii, at all stages of development from egg to adult. Few creatures can withstand the toxic chemical armoury of Oleander, but these bugs can, and presumably (from their warning coloration) sequester the poisons for their own defences.

     

Just outside the gorge were our best reptiles of the week, Bibron’s Agama and Algerian Skink, the first a mini-dragon and the second a cylindrical ‘snake with legs’ that seemed to have been eating tomato ketchup. Messily!

The coast north of Agadir gave us one of the rarest of birds, Northern Bald Ibis. Although access to the famous breeding site at Tamri was not permitted for fear of disturbance, the warden (whose role is part-funded by Honeyguide conservation contributions from this holiday) was happy to show us to a vantage point away from the breeding cliffs which gave us excellent flight views. And that has to be when these admittedly rather ugly birds look their best! In fact we witnessed a single flight of some 75 birds, about one third of the local population, more than a tenth of the entire Moroccan population (which forms the vast bulk of the world population) in just one flock, wheeling across the desert-like perched sand dunes.

Also skittering around the sandy and stony ground, no doubt trying to avoid the attention of hungry Ibises were several examples of the Moroccan Fringe-toed Lizard Acanthodactylus margaritae, a species described as recently as 2017, and found only in the stretch of Atlas coast from here to a few kilometres south of Agadir.

A little to the south, around Cap Rhir, our attention turned to a habitat that is as rare, if not rarer, than the Ibis on a world scale: Macaronesian Euphorbia scrub, known only from the southern coast of Morocco, and some of the mid-Atlantic islands, and everywhere threatened by tourism infrastructure and over-development. It is dominated by a series of succulent plants, particularly the cactus-like Euphorbia officinarum, the tree-spurge-like Euphorbia regis-jubae, a succulent groundsel Kleinia anteuphorbia, its ‘dandelion-clock’ seed heads revealing its family affiliations.

Succulence is a growth form that provides some resilience against drought conditions, the fleshy stems acting as a reservoir to store water when it is available, and the spines, latex and other poisons prevent the stored water being available as a convenient source for any passing browser. Other ways of tackling the same problem were shown by Sea-heaths (here Frankenia thymifolia), with very hairy leaves in a cushion-like growth, to simply having no leaves, just living as a photosynthetic roll of barbed wire, like Launaea arborescens.

Inland from here, penetrating the westernmost outpost of the High Atlas, we visited Paradise Valley….which didn’t really live up to its name: great scenery, yes, but with added, major, noisy, dusty road improvement works, the ever-present scourge of plastic litter, and precious little water in the river, even by the oasis and its Date Palm grove.

But we persevered, and watched Grey Wagtails by the river with basking Sahara Pond Terrapins, along with a pair of Bonelli’s Eagles overhead, Two-tailed Pasha and Moroccan Orange-tip butterflies (the latter of the southern Moroccan form androgyne, with reduced underwing markings), and several interesting plants, including Hypericum aegyptiacum, Trachelium caeruleum (Throatwort), and the subtly beautiful borage relative Trichodesma calcaratum.

 

South of Agadir, we spent time at both ends of the Souss-Massa National Park. The south end, relatively quiet, along the Massa River produced Bee-eaters in abundance, their jewel-like properties if anything enhanced by the shimmering heat-haze, Plain Tiger butterfly and Nosed Grasshopper, lots of the pink-flowered Fagonia cretica, and two species of Mesembryanthemum.

  

And two very exciting parasitic plants: Striga gesnerioides on Euphorbia, and the remarkable, phallic Red Dog-turd Cynomorium coccineum, sprouting fungus-like from the ground amongst the Shrubby Sea-blite, its presumed host.

At the northern end, near the mouth of the Souss, despite Sunday afternoon disturbance, we found our largest concentration of water birds, including an array of waders, bound for northern shores, Sandwich Terns, maroccanus form Cormorants, a feeding Spoonbill, and then at the last gasp as we headed away, some 80 Greater Flamingos.

So despite the sometimes challenging conditions, we managed to find plenty of interesting and unfamiliar wildlife, helped along by the wonderful hospitality and food at the Atlas Kasbah and the unfailingly friendly Berber locals. Indeed one of the high points of the trip was a walk through the nearby village of Elmaasa. We soon attracted a gaggle of village children who then walked with us, scurrying off every so often to find a new flower for us to show the group. And we reciprocated with beetles, specifically the large, lumbering darkling beetle Pimelia chrysomeloides. The smaller girls initially shrank away from handling it, but when first one of the braver boys and then one of the older girls took their cue from us and the young ones started to follow suit, we felt we might just have left a little bit of Honeyguide stardust behind us….

Nature and Culture in Cologne

Why Cologne? Well, the first reason for our trip there was a concert of Russian music at the superb modern concert hall, but it was too good an opportunity to miss to make it a short break by train, and explore an unknown city. First stop of course was the monumentally magnificent cathedral: surely the apogee of gothicry?! Terrifying but inspiring in equal measure, and some lovely modern glass touches.

But as always we also sought out the green spaces, the refuges from the bustle and air quality of the city. One such was the Botanical Garden, five hectares of tranquillity, a short distance from the city centre. Interesting plantings – some formal, some less so, although never over-tidy – and some exciting plants, both native and ornamental kept us occupied for half a day. It could have been much longer!

Labelling was comprehensive, and largely accurate (a bête-noire of every botanist), and the maintenance is clearly based on good ecological and environmental principles: Rabbits grazing the lawns, and holes in the Hostas speak volumes! As did the Red Squirrels, noisy Marsh Frogs, dragonflies and a whole host of other insects….

Best of all, it was free, and clearly well-used and well-loved, by locals and visitors alike. Just as it should be. Just as anything which supports civilised thinking and behaviour in an uncertain world should be. Well done Cologne!

And then was the municipal Melaten cemetery, a little further out, more than 40 hectares and 55,000 graves, set amongst old mixed woodland. Again, the site is tended, but not in a precious manner: it is as much nature reserve and country park as last resting place. Buzzards were breeding in the treetops, while the diversity of insects – a mix of familiar and unknown to us – again kept us occupied for several hours….

Every city has places like these. Every city-dweller needs places like these, the source of physical and mental well-being as well as refuge for the wildlife itself from the rigours of modern countryside management and overdevelopment. Thank you Cologne for providing such places free of charge, which taken together with the music, architecture, food and beer we sampled, made it a perfect city break.

 

 

Late autumn in West Cork: the calm after the storms

Nowhere are you more at the mercy of the elements than at the extremities of our islands. Two days before our visit, Storm Brian swept through, and just a week prior to that ex-Hurricane Ophelia left her ferocious mark on the landscape, still very apparent during our stay.

But after the storms came the calm. A pool of still, saturated anticyclonic air lay over county Cork for the whole of our visit. Gloom, mist and fog, sometimes coalescing into rain: the air, the land and the sea merged imperceptibly but firmly, the common element being water. Still, what would Ireland be without water?

   

This weather didn’t make for easy wildlife watching. Landscapes were best described as ‘atmospheric’; the few remaining flowers were storm-battered and wind-burnt, and always studded with reflective droplets of water.

  

Of course, transatlantic hurricanes often carry involuntary waifs from distant shores, and this was no exception. A Gray-cheeked Thrush from America had pitched down close to our hotel in Rosscarbery, and was duly ticked, with the help of the thankfully small group of twitchers. But for us at least, the waterbirds on the estuary – Black-tailed Godwits and Curlews, Redshanks and Greenshanks, Grey Herons and Little Egrets among many others – were a more satisfying spectacle, along with several Mediterranean Gulls in the gull flocks, and Choughs overhead, just to confirm we were no longer in Essex. But best of all, just off the harbour wall, five Great Northern Divers, only just starting to lose their summer plumage, were simply stunning, as they made inroads into the local crab population.      

Elsewhere, a boat trip to Garnish Island in Bantry Bay, produced ‘Black’ Guillemots in their white winter garb and a couple of White-tailed Eagles, huge but bedraggled (yes, it was raining!) from the local reintroduction scheme. And many Grey Seals, mostly hauled out on rocky islets, were of course in their element, oblivious to the weather. The gardens on the island must be magnificent at more favourable times of the year, but a Treecreeper hunting for insects and spiders on the moss-covered walls, Wallcreeper-fashion, was about all we could muster.

When all else fails, however, the ‘world within’, the bugs and beasties that make the world go round, always come up with the goods, especially when I have Jude and her amazing close-up vision (aka myopia) at my side! Even through rain-smeared optics, I learned that woodlice moult in two halves, a few days apart, and then came face to face for the first time with our largest centipede Stigmatogaster subterraneus. In the semi-arid south-east of England, such sights need searching for, under bark or stones; here they were in full show on the stone walls and tree trunks.

  

Add to that a proliferation of fungi and lichens, and our short time there was put to good use, helped along by our ‘three stout challenge’. Our unanimous verdict was that Murphys is better than Beamish, and both come above Guinness in the taste-test…although that may need further research and confirmation the next time we venture down the Wild Atlantic Way!