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Alpine birding Zermatt, Switzerland, 30 July - 2nd August

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Old Saturday 3rd August 2019, 16:44   #1
aythya_hybrid
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Alpine birding in Zermatt, Switzerland, 30 July - 2nd August

Dear all. I thought I'd post a report of my recent visit to Zermatt in the Swiss Alps in case it is of use to others.

So basically as part of my ongoing attempt at whittling down the list of "regular European species I haven't seen yet" I wanted to do a short break somewhere to try and get Snow Finch and, if possible, do some general Alpine birding. As such I ended up spending a *lot* of time trying to "gen up" on where/how best to see Snow Finch. I was a bit worried that I might have left it a bit late in the season, and was fearful that they might have dispersed into the mountains post-breeding. Such fears were unfounded and I ended up getting Snow Finch no problem on the first morning, which meant I was able to spend most of the trip doing fairly laid back general birding.


GETTING THERE/LOGISTICS:

Zermatt is a popular tourist/skiing resort in the canton of Valais, just a few kms north of the Italian border. In terms of getting there, you have to use public transport for at least some of the way as combustion-engine based cars are not permitted in the town! On arrival there, I was actually travelling from Portugal so I flew to Geneva and then got the train to Zermatt via Visp (which takes about 3.5 hours). It’s a very picturesque journey and includes nice views of Black Kite which are common along the north shore of Lake Geneva. Going back, I actually did the whole route by train (Zermatt to Visp to Geneva to Paris to London to Coventry), which was a little tiring but unproblematic in terms of logistics/organisation. I even had a few hours stopover in Geneva and managed to get nice views of Firecrest and Short-toed Treecreeper in one of the lakeside parks. As such, if you're looking for a European break with good birding and a low carbon footprint, you could do worse than Zermatt.

The town itself is pleasant if unremarkable. It has loads of hotels and restaurants but it is a bit of a tourist trap and so it's not great if you're looking to economise. I stayed in the Hotel Helvetia right in the centre of town. It was simple but perfectly adequate for my purposes, and conveniently located. I also found that the restaurants south-west of the town (on the road out towards Furi) were less busy, little less expensive and had nicer views than the town centre establishments. The local "Zermatt" beer was also very tasty and reasonably priced! Unbeknownst to me prior to my arrival, 1st August was Swiss national day. Let's just say this took its toll on the quality of my sleep, but I don't think this would be a problem at any other time of year.


ITINERARY:

I arrived early evening on 30th, and only had time for casual birding around the town (but did get to grips with Italian Sparrow, see below).

On 31st I had planned on getting the famous Gornergrat Bahn up to the Gornergrat Ridge/hotel (over 3000m asl) which looks down over the town. However, when I awoke there was - contrary to the forecast - low cloud hanging over the town. I spent some time debating what to do and eventually took the gamble of buying a ticket in the hope the cloud would clear (with it still forecast to be sunny in the afternoon). I got off at Riffelberg (two stops below the Gornergrat terminus), as this is a regular Snow Finch spot. However, I could barely see 10 metres in front of me, let alone find any Snow Finch. After an hour of twiddling my thumbs and regretting my foolhardiness I then caught the train upwards for one more stop and alighted at Rotenboden. Not only did the cloud largely dissipate as I did so, I also managed to see Snow Finch within about a minute of getting off the train. Nerves now calmed, I got on the train a final time to the Gornergrat station, the vicinity of which soon became thronged with tourists. After enjoying the views I decided to walk all the way back down to Zermatt, rather than getting back on the train. This was fruitful in terms of birding, fitness and bank balance, but it did take its toll on my legs. The whole walk from Zermatt to Gornergrat took about 6 hours, but could be done much faster as I kept dawdling, birding, and stopped for a coffee break at Riffelberg (at one stage I also had to briefly retrace my steps after setting off downhill without my camera).

If you are reasonably fit and give yourself time, I would certainly recommend trying to walk at least some of the way down. After all, there’s no getting round that the fact that the train (especially in high season) is eye-wateringly expensive, at just shy of £100 return (a single ticket costs half that). A possible compromise would be to walk some of the way and then buy a train ticket just for the section for which you intend to use the train (you can also get off at intermediate stations). The most fruitful stretch for general birding was the “Mark Twain Weg” between Riffelberg and Riffelalp. Indeed, more generally, the best birding seemed to be just above and just below the treeline (but the best spot for Snow Finch, the Rotenboden station, is well above the tree line).

Having got Snow Finch no problem, on 1st I decided to try for Wallcreeper, which I no longer “need” (thanks to a fruitful jaunt to the Spanish Pyrenees last year) but still fancied trying for. So I did a big circular hike from Zermatt taking in the three spots where, thanks my online sleuthing, I knew Wallcreeper might be possible. These were the Gorner Gorge (just south-west of the town), the Staudamm Zmuttbach (a large hydroelectric dam a little further to the west), and the cliffs beside the Edelweiss restaurant (which is on a hill just above the town to the west). Going between the dam and Edelweiss restaurant, I took the high path that goes along the north side of the Zmuttbach River valley (which was a good decision in terms of birding). The weather was lovely throughout and the landscape spectacular (with the imposing shape of The Matterhorn dominating the skyline). It was a long hike (almost 10 miles) but generally easy terrain and so didn’t feel as tough on the legs as the previous day. That said, things did get a bit nervy later in the day: I had a nice meal at the aforementioned Edelweiss restaurant, and ordered a grappa with my dessert. It proved to be a rather generous helping. Thereafter, it was with some consternation that I then discovered that the usual footpath down towards the town was closed, so I had to take quite a significant detour while negotiating mild tipsiness, fading light, and increasingly frequent national day fireworks going off at eye level. In the end I never saw Wallcreeper (although to be fair my efforts were perhaps a little half-hearted) but did see a decent range of stuff so was happy with the day’s efforts.


BIRDS:

OK, enough ramblings, what I see? I hear you ask.

Snow Finch – had 10 in total. The best were a pair apparently with a nest in the small toilet block outside Rotenboden station, where I was met with quizzical expressions from tourists wondering why I was pointing my camera at the toilet rather than the dramatic Alpine landscape. Also had a small flock of 6 in the same area, and found a pair nesting in the first pylon downhill from the Riffelhaus restaurant just below Riffelberg station. Didn’t see any around Gornergrat station/hotel though.
Alpine Chough – 4 ridiculously tame birds around the Gornergrat viewing platform. I had to jostle with Japanese tourists to get in position to take pics! Also 7 around Rotenboden station and I had a distant flock of 22 above the cliffs north of the Staudamm Zmuttbach.
Rock Thrush – delighted to jam in on a juv male when walking between the dam and the Edelweiss restaurant (exact location here), loosely associating with some family parties of Whinchat and Wheatear. Couldn’t locate the parents though.
Citril Finch – one male calling and seen briefly in flight just a few hundred metres east of the spot with the Roch Thrush. Bit frustrating as the habitat looks good – and they are supposedly quite common in some parts of the Swiss Alps – but this was the best I could manage.
Rock Bunting – surprisingly numerous in one specific area (from the dam eastwards along the high path on the north side of the Zmuttbach valley). A total of 9 individuals seen.
Alpine Accentor – I had a decent flight view of one from the upper section of Mark Twain Weg, but that was it.
Nutcracker – the conifer woods above the town were full of these guys. Noisy and conspicuous throughout (well into double figures both days).
Western Bonelli’s Warbler – pretty easy to see, had 2 below Riffelalp on 31st, and at least 5 in the conifer woods on 1st.
Willow Tit – actually one of the most common birds in the woods, a sobering contrast with back home (plus they are of the “Alpine” race).
Ring Ouzel – seen twice but not well (brief view from the train going up plus one seen in flight from Mark Twain Weg).
Golden Eagle – a pair seen well from Mark Twain Weg, and one seen above the dam.
Red-backed Shrike – nice views of an adult male feeding a juv near Zum See (a few km SW of Zermatt).
Italian Sparrow – there are loads of sparrows in Zermatt: some look like normal House Sparrows, many (most?) look like hybrids, and one or two look like genuine Italians. Italian Sparrow was a lifer for me, but the sparrow situation there is not pretty.

Other moderately interesting birds seen included Crag Martin (which is common), Black Redstart (everywhere), Whinchat, Wheatear, Water Pipit (the most numerous bird above the treeline), Raven, Pied Fly, Crossbill, Serin and Crested Tit.

Other wildlife included Red Squirrel, Chamois and Marmot (the latter make bird-like whistles which could confuse the unwary). Also loads of butterflies but butterfly ID remains a closed book to me.

OK, that ended up being longer than intended so apologies for any undue verbosity!

Last edited by aythya_hybrid : Sunday 4th August 2019 at 11:37.
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Old Saturday 3rd August 2019, 17:09   #2
aythya_hybrid
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Pics from Gornergrat hike on 31st: view from the Gornergrat viewing platform, Snow Finch, Alpine Chough, Golden Eagle.
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Old Saturday 3rd August 2019, 17:14   #3
aythya_hybrid
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Pics from hike on 1st:
Rock Thrush, Rock Bunting, Willow Tit, Nutcracker, view of the Matterhorn
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Old Saturday 3rd August 2019, 17:35   #4
Richard Prior
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Thanks for posting Jonathan, hope your knees (and bank balance!) have recovered!
I don’t suppose you’ve got any photos of the sparrows to post? Zermatt doesn’t feature on ornitho.ch as a site for Italian Sparrow, in fact there are only a handful of sightings for the whole of the Valais canton this year, down by the Rhône in spring and late spring. So your observations could represent a significant spreading of the species from the Italian-speaking areas.
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Old Saturday 3rd August 2019, 18:58   #5
aythya_hybrid
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Originally Posted by Richard Prior View Post
Thanks for posting Jonathan, hope your knees (and bank balance!) have recovered!
I don’t suppose you’ve got any photos of the sparrows to post? Zermatt doesn’t feature on ornitho.ch as a site for Italian Sparrow, in fact there are only a handful of sightings for the whole of the Valais canton this year, down by the Rhône in spring and late spring. So your observations could represent a significant spreading of the species from the Italian-speaking areas.
Cheers
Richard
Hi Richard. Attached I've got a photo of a hybrid and a photo of one apparent Italian Sparrow. If you check sightings on ebird for the Zermatt area there are quite a lot of Italian Sparrow sightings, plus it features in several other trip reports I've read.

best,
Jonathan
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Old Saturday 3rd August 2019, 19:43   #6
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Thanks Jonathan.
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Old Saturday 3rd August 2019, 19:51   #7
aythya_hybrid
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Originally Posted by Richard Prior View Post
Thanks Jonathan.
No problem. I should add that I suspect part of the problem here may be a question of where to draw the line. I spent a bit of time looking at the sparrows and it seemed to be that maybe 50% looked intermediate between House and Italian (e.g. trace of white eyebrows and dark crown but with some hint of light grey/green). However, I only saw 2 birds - the one in the pic above, and another which I wasn't able to photograph - which I was happy with as being genuine Italians, a ratio which seems in line with what I read in several other trip reports (e.g. those on the Limosa holidays website). However, I appreciate that maybe Swiss birders take a different view as to the provenance of these birds and, like I say, I have no prior experience of Italian Sparrow, so it's not a hill I'm going to die on (so to speak!).
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Old Sunday 4th August 2019, 10:40   #8
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Nice, love the Matterhorn pic.
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Old Sunday 4th August 2019, 11:07   #9
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I haven't birded the Zermatt area but I did have a week on foot and public transport in the Bernese Oberland based in Wengen many years ago. It was late May, snow cover below the high mountains (principally the Eiger/Monch/Jungfrau in that area) was gone, Alpine flowers abounded. Snowfinches were easy in Kleine Scheidegg, Alpine Choughs there and higher at the Jungfraujoch, Alpine Accentor hard but findable. Wallcreepers were at Grindelwald in the canyon of the glacier snout. Woods were full of Willow Tits and we found both Black and Three-toed Woodpeckers.

Mammal-wise we had point-blank encounters with Alpine Ibex and more distant views of Chamois, with Marmot colonies here and there.

In those days you could buy a week-long pass to the Swiss railways including the rack-railways accessing the higher places, and we made good use of it (ride up, walk down was our general principle). Now I would expect to see more rather than less as I have thirty years more experience, but I would recommend any trip to the Swiss Alps as worth the effort for scenery let alone wildlife.

Thank you for this report - really enjoyed it.

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Old Sunday 4th August 2019, 13:31   #10
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Farnboro John View Post
I haven't birded the Zermatt area but I did have a week on foot and public transport in the Bernese Oberland based in Wengen many years ago. It was late May, snow cover below the high mountains (principally the Eiger/Monch/Jungfrau in that area) was gone, Alpine flowers abounded. Snowfinches were easy in Kleine Scheidegg, Alpine Choughs there and higher at the Jungfraujoch, Alpine Accentor hard but findable. Wallcreepers were at Grindelwald in the canyon of the glacier snout. Woods were full of Willow Tits and we found both Black and Three-toed Woodpeckers.

Mammal-wise we had point-blank encounters with Alpine Ibex and more distant views of Chamois, with Marmot colonies here and there.

In those days you could buy a week-long pass to the Swiss railways including the rack-railways accessing the higher places, and we made good use of it (ride up, walk down was our general principle). Now I would expect to see more rather than less as I have thirty years more experience, but I would recommend any trip to the Swiss Alps as worth the effort for scenery let alone wildlife.

Thank you for this report - really enjoyed it.

John
Thanks John. I should say that you can still buy a railway pass in Switzerland, but I wasn't there for long enough for it to make sense financially.
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Old Sunday 4th August 2019, 17:27   #11
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Yes, good stuff aythya_bybrid.

As you say, the Gornergrat is expensive to get to (but so is Zermatt), but when I was last there, Snow Finches were nesting close to the station, and Alpine Choughs very much in evidence (and marmots).

One thing I particularly enjoyed was a Golden Eagle casually sailing across from the Matterhorn, furiously and frantically pursued by a Raven croaking at it and totally failing to keep up .
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