DAY 1 – Sat 26th May 2007 – Quedgeley-Les Houches, Rhone-Alps, France via Geneva, Switzerland
Weather: Sunny and warm in England, rain on arrival but drying and brightening in the evening
This was to be a family holiday with seven of us travelling to Les Houches near to Mont Blanc in France. I had no real idea of what birds I may see because information on this area is almost non-existent. I was armed with a map and a list of possible ticks, but what I really wanted was to have a good break and to try and finally nail Alpine Accentor, which had become my bogey European bird. I had already dipped it three times in Sierra Nevada, Spain, a site where it was allegedly impossible to miss.
Our flight was to be a lunchtime one with Easyjet from Bristol, but soon became known as “our fright with Queasyjet”. We were last onto a full plane after getting stuck behind a school party so we were all separated. Apparently the turbulence was very bad with the plane dropping and bouncing all over the shop. However as I slept for most of the 1½ hour journey I wouldn’t know. I did wake up to find the stewardess gripping the coffee trolley muttering “This is bad”. My Coolpix 995 got broken after being banged about in my hand luggage and I had to make do with my Coolpix P3 for the week, therefore I couldn’t really digiscope.
I was one of the first off of the plane after a safe landing and was very pleased to see a Black Kite quartering the airfield. We efficiently picked up our cars and headed over the border for our one hour journey to Le Grand Balcon in Les Houches.
We stopped at SuperU at Les Houches to get in a few supplies, but I headed for the back car park where I saw a male Fieldfare aggressively defending a territory, male and female Black Redstart and another Black Kite. On settling in to our accommodation I stepped out onto the balcony to have fabulous views of Mont Blanc range in the evening sun (see below). I also saw a pair of Black Redstarts feeding two juveniles, yet another Black Kite, a male White Wagtail, a Jay and a Great Spotted Woodpecker.
DAY 2 – Sun 27th May 2007 – Les Houches & Parc de Merlet
Weather: Dull early then rain from 8am-12MD, then cloudy and dry and rain returning in the evening
As with most holidays, especially in a new place, I was up and out at first light. The skies looked ominous. I saw the pair of Black Redstarts and nearby two more males, four White Wagtails and a Black Kite. I added a few more common birds to the holiday list before I saw a singing male Serin, always a treat. It started to spit with rain at about 7:30am and I decided that rather than get soaked I would get into my waterproofs early. Next in a wood at the end of the village I found a singing male Firecrest (a bird I had been scouring the Forest of Dean for unsuccessfully the previous week). It was now raining in earnest and I sheltered under a barn with overhanging eaves. A pair of Marsh Titswith four juveniles went past me unaware of my presence. Soon it became obvious that the rain was not stopping anytime in the near future so I decided to go home. On the way back I saw a Crested Tit, two Ravens and a female Red-backed Shrike, the only one of the week.
After breakfast I birded from the balcony and the rain eased and when that happened birds started to fly around. First Swifts and House Martins were joined by four Crag Martins and then a Buzzard was followed by a Honey Buzzard and a Sparrowhawk. We walked into the village, bought lunch at the Patisserie then visited a table sale in the village hall. Then we returned and got the cars and headed up into the mountains towards Parc de Merlet. Parc de Merlet has some of the mammals you may see in the wild in the surrounding mountains such as Chamois, Ibex and Marmot, but even when in the Parc you had to search for most of them. However the view was spectacular across the valley to Mont Blanc and the Glacier des Bossons and down into the valley where Les Houches and Chamonix nestled. It also had a few good birds including Black Redstarts, White Wagtail, Nuthatch and Goldcrests (heard in numbers but never seen). Then it had fabulous birds – a Honey Buzzard was circling just in front of the café patio and suddenly four huge birds came from behind us and joined the Honey Buzzard briefly before gliding majestically out of site. They were Lammergeiers! They were over and gone in probably two minutes, but what a buzz! I was certain that one of them was wing-tagged, it was quite possible, as they were reintroduced to this area in 1997 following their natural extinction here. After circling the Parc we returned to the café and were treated to a phenomenal mini-passage of Honey Buzzards. Eight birds passed in front of us in a line no more than twenty feet apart heading along the valley towards Chamonix.
DAY 3 – Mon 28th May 2007 – Chamonix
Weather: Heavy rain then heavy snow in the morning, thawing and dry pm
As I awoke I could tell from the skylight above me that it was pouring down, but I needn’t have worried because by the time we sat down to breakfast it turned to heavy snow! And you think Bank Holiday weather in England is bad. However, following a family conference we decided that we could sit inside and watch the weather or we could get out there whatever. So soon we were heading into Chamonix on quite dicey roads. A look around the shops and lunch was first on the agenda, followed by a trip to the station where we found the Mountain Railway to Montenvers was forced to close for the day. It had now stopped snowing and I walked up the Luge D’Ete slope to take photos of a snowbound Chamonix (see below). Halfway up I found two very nice summer-plumaged Water Pipits. Other birds seen around the town included more Black Redstarts, Fieldfares and White Wagtails.
We travelled to Carrefour at Sallanches after to stock up for the week. 8+ Black Kites were in the fields around Le Fayet. On a walk around the village before dinner in the evening I found six Serins.
DAY 4 – Tue 29th May 2007 – Col de la Forclaz and Montenvers Glacier
Weather: Early showers, then dry and mainly sunny but cold
First thing I set out and climbed up mountain roads and on up through the low cloud until I ran out of tarmac roads and found that I was steadily climbing Col de la Forclaz. Birds were fairly thin on the ground perhaps due to the early showers. A male Whinchat singing on the village outskirts was my first of the year. A pair of Bullfinches and a another male, and also Wren were holiday ticks. A Red Squirrel high up was a good find and the only one of the week. I also had a Crested Tit here. I found the paths were almost vertical and very dodgy following yesterday’s fresh snow. A sign indicated that I was still 50 minutes from the summit and because I was under-prepared and alone and it was getting late I headed back down.
After a late breakfast we returned to Chamonix where today the Mountain Railway to Montenvers and the Mer de Glace glacier was running. We bought tickets and began the long ascent to the top, the difference in conditions from bottom to top being extreme opposites, see below.
There were more birds at the top than I expected given the conditions but yet again not the hoped for Alpine Accentor, despite there being a café and a restaurant. However there were over fifty Alpine Choughs, often very approachable and several of them colour-ringed.
Other birds included Chaffinches, a Chiffchaff, a Buzzard, a Great Tit, a male Black Redstart and new for the holiday a Dunnock and a Lesser Redpoll. The glacier itself was the real star, at 5.6 km long and 200 m deep, with an area of about 40 km², it is the second-longest glacier in the Alps. The Mer de Glace moves about 90 metres per year in the region of Montenvers, which is about one centimetre per hour.
DAY 5 – Wed 30th May 2007 – Aiguille du Midi and Glacier du Bossons
Weather: Sunny and warm
The best day of the holiday by far. I finally awoke to a lovely sunny day and headed out through the village onto a mountain road. Nothing too startling seen but Spotted Flycatcher and a party of five Crossbills were new for the holiday. Other notable birds included seven Black Redstarts (5m, 2f), two Whinchats, a Crested Tit, a male Serin, a Fieldfare and two Crag Martins. The scenery was stunning and the air was fresh, a good to be alive day.
After breakfast we had decided to tackle the Aiguille du Midi via the Téléphérique de l’Aiguille du Midi, which was built in 1955 and held the title of the world’s highest cable car for about twenty years. In a spectacular ascent it travels from Chamonix to the top of the Aiguille du Midi, over 2800m altitude gain in just 20 minutes. It comprises two cable cars, the first from Chamonix up to Plan de l’Aiguille at 2317m (7602ft), then a cable car just running on cable with no towers! Then it is a very fast lift to the top which is at 3842m (12602ft).
There were one or two unhappy bunnies in our party just at the thought of it. When we finally reached the top the view was breathtaking (literally). Within minutes most of us were suffering from mild symptoms of altitude sickness – leaden legs, headaches, dizzy spells and in one case actually being sick. It is easy to see how mountaineers are quickly overcome if not prepared. Below are two views from the top. Mont Blanc is in the first picture.
We descended back down to Plan de l’Aiguille where the café was situated. It was easier to breathe and everyone felt better. At the summit only a few Alpine Choughs were around. However there were many more here. As we walked towards the café I spotted a small bird under the outdoor tables. Finally I had found ALPINE ACCENTOR (pics below, second by Bridgette) and it was behaving in a textbook fashion, approachable to within inches. In fact there were at least two and I enjoyed watching them whilst we drank coffees. Also up here was a Raven, two male Wheatears and surprisingly a Small Tortoiseshell butterfly.
We spent a least an hour playing in the snow with the kids. It was a bit disappointing for me in that the fresh snow was thigh deep in places so I couldn’t explore the plateau for other Alpine species, especially with the knowledge that there were ice lakes under the snow. It was just too dangerous. After a while my brother-in-law, Tyrone spotted a large mammal moving across the snowfield towards us. It was an ALPINE MARMOT, a tick for me, and a lot larger than we imagined being similar in size to a Beaver (pics below by Bridgette).
We eventually descended into the valley and drove a short distance to an Alpine meadow where we picnicked. After lunch I went off in search of butterflies with my nephew, Jared. We found quite a few butterflies and moths, some of which were new to me. There were Common Blues, PURPLE-EDGED COPPERS, a BLACK-VEINED WHITE and several CHIMNEY SWEEPER moths and many Burnet Companions. Pics below of male and female PURPLE-EDGED COPPERS. The male (left) is a poor shot because they were impossibly flighty.
After this it was decided that we should walk up to the Glacier de Bossons, a long and steep climb in warm sunshine. Jared and I brought up the rear searching out and photographing more butterflies and moths. We found a Pearl-bordered Fritillary, a CHEQUERED SKIPPER and a few Latticed Heath moths. Pics below, first two CHEQUERED SKIPPER, third pic LATTICED HEATH. The only Siskin of the holiday was here too and a Green Woodpecker called unseen.
DAY 6 – Thu 31st May 2007 – Annecy
Weather: Sunny and warm becoming cloudy during the afternoon with rain from 5pm onwards.
A non-birding day today because we went to the ancient town of Annecy on the shores of Lake Annecy. The town’s centrepiece is the 12th Century Palais de l’Isle which is among the most photographed monuments in all of France, so here it is left.
A Black Kite, a Serin, a pair of Black Redstarts and a pair of Fieldfares were seen from the balcony before we left.
The journey was notable for a Black Kite at La Roche sur Foron and another at Cruseilles and three pairs of Mute Swans at Bonneville were new for the holiday.
Annecy itself was an interesting city with many old buildings and modern sculptures too. We had lunch at a nice riverfront restaurant called Les Jardins de l’Auberge where we dined on the local speciality, Tartiflette, a baked dish of potatoes, lardons, Reblochon cheese, onions and crème fraiche, served with salad. It was very, very rich. After lunch Bridgette and her Mum went shopping and I selected a very nice park bench bench overlooking Lake Annecy, to digest my meal. When I woke up, I searched the lake for birds and found new for the holiday a female Goosander, a Great Crested Grebe and 3+ Yellow-legged Gulls. Also of note two Black Kiteswere over the lake and a White Wagtail was in the Park. Another two Yellow-legged Gulls were at Brédannaz and another Black Kite was at Doussard as we left Annecy.
DAY 6 – Fri 1st June 2007 – Christ Roi and Aosta, Italy
Weather: Rain for most of the day
Above Les Houches was an imposing statue called Christ-Roi, which looked over the valley like a monument from Lord of the Rings. I determined to walk up there before breakfast and get some photos. It was a very stiff climb and the birding rewards were scant. A singing male Firecrest was very nice though. I also had the usual ubiquitous Black Redstarts, a couple of Great Spotted Woodpeckers and a Buzzard. The view was worthwhile though, but the whole place around the statue had an eerie feel to it with the lingering early morning fog and an altar at the foot of the statue looked worryingly sacrificial.
On the way back down I had a Crested Tit and two new birds for the holiday, a Short-toed Treecreeper and a Grey Wagtail.
Today we had decided to travel to Italy through the Mont Blanc tunnel because it was something my sister wanted to do. It currently costs €26 return. When we got through the tunnel the sun was shining on the Italian side but it didn’t last long. Due to a missed turning we found we had to drive all the way down to Aosta before we could turn around. Again there were few birds of note the best being a displaying male Serin at a Service Station. We stopped for a picnic but it soon started to rain hard and we retired hurt.
DAY 7 – Sat 2nd June 2007 – Les Houches to Quedgeley via Hermance, Switzerland
Weather: Sunny and warm
As is often the way with holidays the last day dawned sunny and warm, where was the sun yesterday when we needed it? I took a final early morning walk around the countryside surrounding the village. Best bird and new for the holiday was a male Redstart carrying food. I also saw Black Redstarts, Serins, White Wagtails, a pair of Lesser Redpolls, a pair of Fieldfares and a Nuthatch.
Once we were loaded into the car our plan was to drive towards Geneva Airport for our late afternoon flight, stopping on the way for shopping and then a picnic lunch somewhere on Lake Leman in Switzerland, the largest Alpine lake in Central Europe.
Unbelievably a Collared Dove at Le Fayet was the first of the week. We stopped at Carrefour in Sallanches for shopping but Jared and I went birding. We saw a Black Kite, found a baby White Wagtail being fed by its parents and discovered a Reed Warbler, a holiday first, in a tiny reed-filled ditch beside the car park.
Moving on we began to see lots of Black Kites, five were at St Pierre en Faucigny, eleven were at Annemasse and another was at Chen sur Leman. A Starling at Loisin was first of the week! We stopped at Hermance on the shore of Lake Leman for our picnic. A further three Black Kites were over the lake. There was also a male Tufted Duck and two Black-headed Gulls, both new for the list, three Yellow-legged Gulls and a female Goosander.
We set off on the short ride to the Airport seeing more Black Kites, one at St Maurice and eleven within the city of Geneva, some flying down the main streets! The plane was delayed for an hour and we saw, you’ve guessed it, at least six more Black Kites over the airfield.
So an excellent holiday came to an end. We saw some really good birds and other wildlife, I finally ended my Alpine Accentor jinx and the scenery was just stunning. The people were friendly, the food was very nice and I can thoroughly recommend Le Grand Balcon as a base. As it was out of season we paid just £119 per apartment for the week.
I’ve no doubt going a few weeks later would yield many more species of birds, especially on the high tops where the snow was very restricting. Also the chairlifts and cable cars all reopen on June 16th, when we went only one or two were open. Additionally less rain would have produced more butterflies and moths. Many thanks to Matt Rowlings again for help with butterfly and moth i/d, you can see Matt’s website at Matt’s European Butterflies.
Species Lists (Life ticks in CAPITALS)
1 Carrion Crow
3 Black Kite
4 House Sparrow
5 Feral Pigeon
8 House Martin
12 Black Redstart
15 White Wagtail
16 Great Tit
18 Great Spotted Woodpecker
19 Grey Heron
27 Song Thrush
28 Marsh Tit
29 Crested Tit
30 Coal Tit
31 Red-backed Shrike
35 Crag Martin
36 Honey Buzzard
40 Cuckoo (Heard only)
41 Goldcrest (Heard only)
42 Water Pipit
47 Alpine Chough
49 Lesser Redpoll
50 Spotted Flycatcher
51 Common Crossbill
52 ALPINE ACCENTOR
53 Northern Wheatear
55 Green Woodpecker (Heard only)
56 Mute Swan
58 Great Crested Grebe
59 Yellow-legged Gull
60 Short-toed Treecreeper
61 Grey Wagtail
63 Collared Dove
64 Reed Warbler
66 Black-headed Gull
67 Tufted Duck
1 Red Squirrel
2 Roe Deer
3 ALPINE MARMOT
Butterflies & Moths
1 Small Tortoiseshell
2 Common Blue
3 PURPLE-EDGED COPPER
4 BLACK-VEINED WHITE
5 Pearl-bordered Fritillary
6 CHEQUERED SKIPPER
7 Large White
8 CHIMNEY SWEEPER
9 Burnet Companion
10 LATTICED HEATH