French Alps - Birds and Wild Flowers 11th to 18th June 2011
For a number of years our son Nick has tried to tempt us to visit the French Alps in late spring, as he had previously enjoyed several trips to the area. The prospect of seeing Nutcracker, Citril Finch, Rock Partridge and Rock Thrush (all lifers), together with Wallcreeper, Lammergeier, Snow Finch and Alpine Accentor (a lifer for Nick), whilst spending some time amongst the spring alpine meadows proved to be just too tempting to pass up.
We decided to stay close to the south of Lake Annecy (No 1 on the map) as it is not too high to be cold or miserable at night and is easy enough to get to from either Lyon or Geneva. On the downside, this base can leave some longer drives (up to 2hr 30min dependant on traffic) into the mountains and either Albertville or Bourg-Saint-Maurice can be considered as alternatives. Both are, however, much bigger, busier towns - you can’t have everything. There are numerous self-catering options available, but hotels also abound, especially in the larger towns. However, beware: late spring is the low season after winter skiing and before the main summer holidays and some hotels are closed for a break.
Our accommodation was a 3 bed apartment at Giez (1), costing €800 with a further €250 security deposit (of which a substantial proportion would be forfeited if we didn’t leave the apartment sparkling clean and, of course, undamaged) from HomeAway.co.uk, with sheets, towels etc., all costing extra (4 sheets & pillow slips €24, 4 bath & hand towels plus bath mats €40, Laundry €10 plus a returnable deposit of €40 - Total €114). It all sounds a bit like Ryan Air really and, quite frankly, a bit of a rip off. I’m sure we could have purchased the items for that! The apartment complex was built about 5 years ago and was a little larger than we imagined from the adverts with up to 60 apartments (although I didn’t count exact numbers). The third bedroom was little better than a storage cupboard, being a curtained off space in the eaves, just off the kitchen/diner/lounge, with two single beds, bedside tables, a standard light and room for little else. The apartment is described as having 2 Bathrooms and 1 separate WC. This needs to be taken quite literally as there is only 1 WC: the bathrooms are just that - no WC included. This was just about OK for us, but for 8 (or 10 as the French tourist companies market the property) the facilities would be a bit of a stretch. Having said all this, the apartment was clean and quite comfortable, ideal for our requirements and we enjoyed our stay here. It is obvious French standards are a little different, as are expectations re sheets, towels etc.
We flew from Liverpool with Easy Jet to Geneva at a total cost of £289.42 for four of us. Flight 7283 departed at 13.15 hrs and arrived in Geneva at 16.25hrs local time. The return flight left Geneva at 21.50 hrs arriving in Liverpool at 22.45 hrs local time. Flights were relatively prompt and arrivals were on time but the incessant queuing, especially at Liverpool was a decided pain. Airport parking at Liverpool was pre-booked at a cost of £40.99, which included 4 Fast Track security check tickets. In the event the airport was very quiet and Fast Track was not required - we could have saved £12!
Car hire was arranged via Holiday Autos and the local provider was National Citer France. Amanda and I had a Citroen DS3 Diesel 2 door saloon with a/c costing £200.88 for the week. The car was quite comfortable, had enough room for our cases and all our gear and proved very economical as we drove 1020 km using 37.50 litres at a cost of €49.10 (Diesel at c€1.30 per litre is much cheaper than petrol and about 20p a litre cheaper than the UK). By my rough calculations this equates to an astonishing 77.3 miles per gallon. Once we had managed to find our way to the French side of Geneva Airport, dealing with the young ladies on the National desk could not have been simpler or more efficient. We decided to stay in France rather than cross Geneva, thereby saving the Swiss road tax of €40. This meant adding c40 km each way to our journey, but still worked out much cheaper. From Geneva to Giez we avoided the Motorways and the journey took about 2¼ hours. The return journey, this time using the Motorways with tolls costing €10, took just over 2 hours.
On arrival it was a little cool and cloudy with sunny intervals. Sunday was much warmer with plenty of sunshine and a few high clouds. Temperatures ranged up to 29°C during the week until we had a thunderstorm at c16.30 hrs on Thursday which lasted about 2 hours. Friday dawned relatively clear but clouded over again by mid afternoon and rain settled in for the next 24 hours. The evenings were mild (a good job really as covers had not been provided for the continental quilts). With our main target birds all found in the mountains, we had a welcome excuse to escape the heat of the day by gaining some altitude. Jackets were occasionally required, especially at Col de l’Iseran, where it was about 8°C but with a biting wind it felt much colder and before we left a sleety rain began to fall on the tops.
Self catering left us with the freedom to come and go as we wished and although most of the mountains we went up had a small restaurant or café at the summit, we invariably took a picnic with us, courtesy of the local Boulangerie or supermarket. Eating out doesn’t come cheap in France so we cooked our own pasta on two nights and had take-away pizza on another. Good wine is still relatively cheap however! In the evening we ate at Chez ma Cousine, Bout du Lac, Chez Pierre and Le Kokopelly (twice), the latter two restaurants being on the eastern side of the lake on the road to Talloires. Staff were always friendly and helpful and two courses for 4, without wine, usually cost in the region of €90. Chez ma Cousine was the most up-market and probably just edged it for quality and taste but Le Kokopelly was the most comfortable dining experience. Amanda and I had one lunch out at Les Rochers Blancs Hotel Bar and Restaurant at Crêt de Châttilion where the food was excellent, as were the staff. Our most expensive dining experience was at Geneva Airport where pizza, spaghetti Bolognaise, a glass of wine and a bottle of beer cost €49.85 for two of us and the food was just OK.
Col de l’Arpettaz (2)
Day 1 - 11th June Geneva Airport to Giez
With a late afternoon arrival we drove straight to Giez from the airport so we could drop off our luggage and find somewhere to eat. As we drove along we were soon admiring the first of many Black Kite and at the apartment complex we quickly made acquaintance with the resident Black Redstart. Dinner seemed to take forever, but we were in no hurry, which is just as well as we only returned to the apartment at around 23.00 hrs.
Day 2 - 12th June Col de l’Arpettaz
We were determined to have a leisurely break and after taking our time over a late breakfast, following a quick trip to the supermarket, we set off at c10.30 hrs heading for our first mountain at Col de l’Arpettaz. Before we got underway another stop at the supermarket for missing supplies saw Nick and Rachel stay outside in the car park where they had the pleasure of a low flying Honey Buzzard being harassed by a Carrion Crow as Amanda and I were indoors, totally oblivious - a shame really (not what I said at the time) as this was the only sighting of the trip. On our way up the mountain we saw Red-backed Shrike perched on a nearby telegraph pole and a pair of Common Buzzard on the roadside wires. We stopped at Le Meruz Réserve naturelle at 1275 metres to admire the wild flowers and shortly thereafter spotted a Tree Pipit singing and displaying with its typical parachute drop to a nearby treetop. When we reached the summit at 1518 metres we parked the cars and explored the track heading almost due north, as far as the first farm, where we enjoyed the view across to Mont Blanc and also a singing male Whinchat on top of the farm chimney stack. Several Water Pipit were singing and displaying on the nearby slopes. We drove to a large lay-by, a few hair-pins down from the summit to have some lunch and afterwards, set out to explore the track leading over the peak which towered above us. Raven and a noisy party of c30 Alpine Chough performed acrobatics overhead along the rock face before a majestic Griffon Vulture came into view as it soared low over the summit and floated over us surveying the area for nearly ten minutes. A distant Common Cuckoo shot by into the woods a little lower down the mountain whilst, as we returned to the cars, we passed a singing male Rock Bunting appropriately enough, on top of a large rock. As we climbed the path we had had distant views of a single Marmot.
Returning to the apartment we walked along the edge of the nearby Golf Course into the neighbouring woods and came across several singing Blackcap, a juvenile Great Spotted Woodpecker, Jay and a very skittish and elusive Marsh/Willow Tit foraging in the treetops overhead. With the midges beginning to find us, we returned to the apartment to cook dinner and enjoy a few beers and some wine. A good start to our trip; but no sign of Rock Thrush or Rock Partridge - a sign of things to come over the next few days!
Today we set off in eager anticipation towards Méribel, in search of one of my specific targets - Nutcracker. Having parked at the end of the road in Méribel-Mottaret at 1703 metres, we walked in to the National Park and almost immediately, spotted a calling Nutcracker on top of a distant pine tree. As we walked towards the lake several more birds flew by quite close and we walked slowly around to the top end of the lake and beyond. 3 Marmot were nuzzling about on a nearby hillside as we watched a Sparrowhawk chase and just miss a male Bullfinch over the woods ahead. Further away we spotted a Peregrine patrolling the distant valley in between the surrounding mountains. As we returned to the car park c8 Nutcracker were calling from the nearby pines as they chased each other and intermittently landed in the trees, affording brief but excellent scoped views. Driving back through Méribel-Mottaret we stopped to watch c20 Crag Martin flying around one of the hotels closed during the off-season, as they made the best of the peace and quiet and went about their nesting business.
On our way to the next site we stopped at the dam overlooking Val d’Isère for a picnic lunch. Driving through the town the only Collared Dove of the trip flew across the road in front of us. Whilst a few hirundines flew around the top of the dam wall, the water was quiet, the only birds of note being a pair of Alpine Chough which drifted overhead. We arrived at Col de l’Iseran at c15.00 hrs to be greeted with plummeting temperatures, a strong bitingly cold wind and spots of rain; not surprising really as we were at 2770 metres. We explored the area around the café/gift shop and old chapel before retreating inside for a welcome warm drink (served in small thin plastic cups and costing €12!). Initially we saw Black Redstart, Northern Wheatear and House Sparrow with no sign of our target birds, but after our drink we ventured outside again and almost immediately Nick spotted two Snow Finch on the café roof. The birds flew off down the hillside after a few minutes and we decided to drive down the track opposite the café towards the Ski Centre buildings. As we stopped in the car park we heard Northern Wheatear singing nearby, as another pair of Snow Finch chased around the car park and the buildings, giving excellent views. As we stood enjoying the birds a pair of Alpine Accentor appeared off the edge of the car park, almost at our feet. Both target species together and giving excellent views - what more could we wish for? As we got back in the cars the drops of rain were turning to driving sleet: time to go. On the way down from the mountain the weather quickly improved. We saw lots of Marmots by the roadside and a brief stop in one of the towns along the way produced a lone Serin. We arrived back at the apartment tired and stiff after the long drive, just in time for dinner at a nearby lakeside restaurant.
With Nick fancying a long strenuous walk in the surrounding hills to stretch his aching back after yesterday’s marathon drive, we took the easy option and drove in search of Citril Finch up to the nearby Crêt de Châtillion at 1699 metres. On the way we passed a farmer driving around a small field and cutting the grass. Three Black Kite were circling the tractor and the freshly mown hay catching insects disturbed by the farmer. We watched entranced for ten minutes as the birds swooped and glided by, almost close enough to touch. We had seen many kites previously but this was a really magical moment. A lone Wood Pigeon which flew across the road in front of us was our only sighting of the trip and as we neared the summit we stopped for a few minutes, just above the tree line, to watch Mistle Thrush on the wires. While we waited to move on, a farmer herded his cows across the road to a new pasture and we enjoyed watching a pair of Water Pipit first displaying and then gathering nesting material. Stopping by the first restaurant at the summit we heard then spotted two singing Skylark as they hovered overhead. With no sign of our target species we decided to drive on a little, over the summit to the nearby Winter Sports Centre with acres of tarmac car park. The grassland surrounding the car park was a riot of colour with numerous wild flower species in bloom and also countless Dandelion seed heads which attracted Chaffinch, Goldfinch and Bullfinch. In the surrounding pines we also came across a Spotted Flycatcher and a vocal Goldcrest and we seemed to be surrounded by Mistle Thrush and Black Redstart which flitted everywhere. We sat patiently on one of the picnic benches and were eventually rewarded when a pair of Citril Finch briefly joined the throng and one of them perched on the nearby fence. We waited for 20 minutes after they disappeared, but the did not return so we got into the car and went back to Les Rochers Blancs Restaurant at the summit of the mountain for a spot of lunch. Afterwards we spent another hour in the Sports Centre car park and although there were plenty of species around we didn’t manage to catch up with Citril Finch again. A young Raven croaked from a nearby treetop and was then joined by another. A beautiful male Alpine Ring Ouzel was a distinct bonus as it searched for food for about 15 minutes in the flower meadow in front of us. As we started to go back down the hill 4 Alpine Chough were a surprise as they preened and clambered about on the roof of the other restaurant at the summit.
On our way back to the apartment we decided to call in to the small Nature Reserve at Bout du Lac at c 16.00 hrs. There were quite a lot of people about and although it was still c28°C there were a few birds about: Blackcap seemed to be singing around every corner, whilst 8 Black-headed Gull roosted on a patch of vegetation near the lakeshore and 3 Reed Warbler were singing from the tops of the reeds. As we approached the old stone tower that overlooks the lake, a loud burst of song and a quick flash of a largish warbler revealed Western Orphean Warbler, a shame really as this was our only sighting and we couldn’t subsequently relocate it. Later, as we were having dinner at Chez Pierre Restaurant on the eastern side of Lake Annecy we saw a female Goosander fly by.
Day 5 - 15th June Bout du Lac, Annecy and Marlens Plaine d’Eau
At 07.00 hrs Amanda and I returned to the reserve at Bout du Lac to see if we could catch another glimpse of the Orphean Warbler, but to no avail. There was much more birdsong in evidence than yesterday afternoon and we were able to locate Nuthatch, Great-spotted Woodpecker, Great Tit, Blue Tit, Song Thrush, Chiffchaff and, annoyingly, 3 elusive Marsh/Willow Tit which wouldn’t keep still whilst we had a proper look at them and couldn’t be bothered singing as they were too busy feeding up in the canopy.
After breakfast we returned to Bout du Lac to catch the ferry to Annecy (€16.20 pp return), rather than drive the busy roads and struggle parking. Besides, a nice peaceful boat trip and a walk around the beautiful old town seemed like a splendid diversion. As we waited for the boat to dock a female Goosander swam up to the landing stage and once under way we saw the first of c10 Yellow-legged Gull. One major surprise, about half way along the 14 km lake, was a party of 3 juvenile Eider with 2 sporting the blotchy colours of young males coming into full adult plumage. Not far away we came across another party of 7 Eider, this time with two males in full plumage. These birds were definitely a long way from home and there was no sign of them on our return trip. A few Mute Swan around the dock at Annecy were our first of the trip. We enjoyed our boat rides on the lake which gave us the opportunity to have a good look at the scenery along the shoreline and the surrounding mountains.
Still having time to kill before dinner, Amanda and I visited a nearby small lake, by the river near Marlens. On the maps the area appeared to have potential, but commercial interests had taken over; the facilities including a restaurant, picnic benches etc appeared well used by the public and the area was quite quiet birdwise. We did however spot a few Serin in the treetops and our only Grey Wagtail of the trip, gathering food in the gravel on the river bed.
Day 6 - 16th June Cormet de Roseland
Whilst at the supermarket in nearby Faverges, replenishing supplies, our first Grey Heron flew over the car park. We were on our way to Cormet de Roseland at 1967 metres, once again in search of Rock Thrush and Rock Partridge. Birds were at a premium today but the whole area was a riot of colour with lots of Alpine flowers in full bloom and several new butterfly species were seen. Our first walk along a fairly well defined track from the summit car park yielded little other than singing and displaying Water Pipit and Whinchat. After about an hour we returned to the cars, dropped down a few metres from the summit and enjoyed a picnic by a mountain stream. Suitably replenished, we set off on the track up the nearby hill. As we walked along the track at the summit we had noticed an area of rocky scree slopes a little higher up, near the head of the valley, which looked like ideal terrain for our target species. We walked slowly up the steep path for almost 2km using stepping stones to cross the fast flowing mountain stream which bisected the path at one point. Having reached c 2220 metres, we spent a further hour searching the slopes and surrounding rocks, but apart from a Northern Wheatear and a Kestrel, all was quiet until two noisy Chough floated by overhead. Later, on our way back down the hillside, we had good views of the pair as they perched and preened on nearby rocks. By now the time had moved on to c15.30 hrs and we could see a mass of black clouds approaching from the west over the mountain tops. Definitely time to head back! As we descended, the first drops of rain started to fall and two large silhouettes appeared over the main ridge behind us and a pair of Golden Eagle glided effortlessly along the valley. The rain had stopped by the time we reached the cars and on our way back down the road from the summit we stopped at a couple of likely spots, still determined to see our target species. Single Cuckoo, Buzzard, Crag Martin and c10 Alpine Chough were our only reward. As we drove down the valley towards Beaufort we could see a thunder storm heading towards us as it totally obliterated the stunning views. We got back to the apartment c 17.00 hrs by which time the storm had passed and skies were clearing again. Despite our best efforts, we only recorded 12 species of birds today. Alpine flowers were far more numerous and, combined with the magnificent scenery, more than compensated for the lack of birds.
Day 7 - 17th June Col de la Colombière returning via La Clusaz & Col des Aravis
Having heard a Nightingale singing in the small strand of trees beyond the golf driving range almost every day as we drove from the apartment to the main road, Amanda and I decided to take an early morning stroll today and make a concerted effort to see the bird. As usual, Blackcap were singing along the road and we quickly picked up a bird as it intermittently foraged in the tree canopy. Hopefully, this was an omen: so it proved as within 5 minutes we were able to pinpoint the Nightingale singing its heart out from within the lower branches of a large tree - a good start to the day then!
At 1618 metres, Col de la Colombière is the former site of a Lammergeier release programme and there are now almost 20 breeding pairs established in the area, creating a self-sustaining population. We parked at the summit and set off along the track opposite the Café/Restaurant which starts behind the gift shop. We initially spent c30 minutes scanning the surrounding peaks looking out for raptors and were rewarded with close views of several Griffon Vulture, Kestrel, Black Kite and Alpine Chough. With nothing new breaking the horizon we continued along the track with intermittent birdsong all around us. Several Fieldfare called noisily overhead as they flew back to their nests with their beaks crammed with food. A female Alpine Ring Ouzel flew by, whilst Whinchat and Water Pipit sang on the hillside above us and Lesser Redpoll flew, calling overhead. We were surprised to pick up the call of a Yellowhammer in the distance and after a while located a feeding flock of c10 Citril Finch which gave us much better views than previously, with one female even perching on a fence post just in front of us as we continued along the track.
On our way to the summit we had spotted a sizeable area that appeared to be the entrance to a disused quarry, right at the base of a huge slab of rock face. This seemed to offer plenty of potential for our target species as well as a convenient spot to have our picnic lunch. We had hardly got out of the car when Nick picked up distant bird song which he immediately identified as Rock Thrush. Deciding the bird was more important than lunch, Nick and I set off along a narrow path at the top of a man-made, raised stone embankment. About 200 metres down the path the singing intensified and I spotted a bird display flying from a rocky ledge about 50 metres above our heads. As it landed we both got our bins on it and exclaimed Rock Thrush almost simultaneously. We quickly got the scopes on the bird and were soon enjoying fantastic views of a stunning male bird. Rock Thrush has been a bogey bird for us for a number of years so I rushed back to the car to get Amanda and as we returned we had close-ups of singing male Rock Bunting and Northern Wheatear. As we approached Nick he pointed out a single Ibex walking along above us almost parallel to the path we were on. The Rock Thrush was still singing and displaying and ventured quite a bit closer to us before we left it in peace to have our lunch. Back at the car, French bread sandwiches in hand, we were still celebrating when a Lammergeier floated over the ridge above our heads. Perhaps we should have visited Col de la Colombière earlier in the week! Just as we finished our late lunch at c15.00 hrs we felt the first few spots of rain and could see low cloud coming up the valley towards us. With yesterday’s experience in mind we decided to head back to the apartment, although we would really have liked to stay much longer and search for Rock Partridge. We decided to return by a different route, via Col des Aravis. Steady rain continued to fall so we didn’t get the chance to stop and do some more birding, but the area did seem to have lots of potential and the scenery was stunning.
Day 8 - 18th June Bout du Lac and then Giez to Geneva Airport
Not much chance to do much today as yesterday’s rain had continued overnight and only stopped at around 15.00hrs. With late flights from Geneva we decided to take a break from tidying the apartment and visit Bout du Lac nature reserve for one last time. There was a small pond on the golf course just down the hill from the apartment - “was” being the operative word as there was now a small lake over 100 metres across in its place. The gently trickling stream which meandered through the golf course and subsequently the nature reserve had become a raging torrent of over 12 metres wide and was threatening to burst its banks. Undeterred we pressed on: it was only three days since our last visit to the reserve, but the rainfall and subsequent sunshine seemed to have worked miracles and what had previously been a grassy meadow with a few wild flowers had become a resplendent display of Orchids with at least four different species adding a profusion of colour. We found Spotted Flycatcher by the car park and as we walked in to the woods the mixed tit flock overhead contained Long-tailed Tit. Walking along the boardwalk almost parallel to Lac d’Annecy we saw a falcon overhead and were able to get stunning views of Hobby as it circled the marsh and lake edge catching prey and feeding along the way. As usual here, Blackcap were singing everywhere. Near the observation tower we heard another bird singing from the outer branches of a large bush, about 6 metres off the ground and were about to dismiss it as another Blackcap when it just didn’t jizz right. We quickly got it in the bins and enjoyed watching a Marsh Warbler doing an almost note perfect rendition of Blackcap song. After a few minutes the bird flew to another bush and started another perfect imitation, this time of a Reed Warbler. Nice to see birds doing just what the book says they do! Time was marching on so we returned to the apartment, packed our bags and got underway for the airport.
For most of the time the weather was excellent and, apart from Saturday, hardly interfered with the birding. The wild flowers and the scenery were stunning and we all enjoyed our Alpine break. As with most mountainous regions the birds are not plentiful at times and we certainly had to work for ours. None of the locations we visited involved climbing (unless you really fancy it) as the roads take you up to the high passes, where you are surrounded by ideal habitat. There is no doubt however that a bit of exploration on foot can produce good results as far as some of the scarcer species are concerned and the flowers are certainly worth the effort. We managed to identify quite a lot of the flowers whilst we were there and afterwards Amanda has slaved over the photos and we saw at least 112 species. No doubt we missed a few really common ones but who's counting! We didn’t expect to end up with a big bird list as we were specifically targeting 4 lifers and Nick was after 2. We saw 78 species (plus Honey Buzzard for Nick) heard another 3 and achieved all our targets apart from Rock Partridge and also managed an Ibex plus several Marmots - altogether an excellent result and a great way to spend a week with the family.
Amanda & David Mason
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