Say Hello to the Alpine Animals Appearing This Spring
The French Alps are a rural and wild area in France. Wildlife thrives here, with a wide range of animals present. Once the winter season finishes, and spring starts to peek its head around the mountains, the snow melts, temperatures rise, and animals start to say hello, after hibernating, hiding or returning from their winter migrations.
Due to its predominantly alpine landscapes, the French Alps are home to deer, chamois and ibexes, mountain hares, groundhogs as well as various voles including the snow vole, and the collared field mouse. You may also have the opportunity to observe foxes, badgers, martens, weasels, ermines, bats or even insectivores such as the water shrew during the spring and summer months.
Looking up, you may spot one of the 125 species of birds nesting in the French Alps. Among them are the golden eagle, crossbill, nutcracker, Tengmalm’s owl, pied flycatcher, eagle owl, rock thrush, rock sparrow, black grouse, rock partridge, rock ptarmigan, the black woodpecker, the three-toed woodpecker (which you can only see in France the in the Savoie and Haute Savoie regions).
Here we will look into a few of these marvels of nature a little closer. Perhaps if in the Alps this Spring and Summer you will spot all or some of these wonderful creatures.
Marmots are large ground squirrels, known for living in burrows throughout mountainous regions. They hibernate throughout the winter and only start to emerge during spring. Marmots are very sociable with one another and whistle loudly to communicate. you can. often hear this call when walking in the mountains. If you want to spot a marmot the best time is during the mornings and evenings, and this is when they emerge to feed as they prefer cooler temperatures and the heat of the day isn’t suited to them. They eat large quantities of food to build up a layer of fat on their bodies to help them survive the next winter’s hibernation period.
A chamois is a goat-antelope species native to mountains in Europe. If looking for a chamois, you can find them high up in the mountains, usually living at elevations of at least 3,600 meters in rugged, rocky terrain. Although don’t be surprised if they don’t hang around for long, they use speed and stealth to escape predators (which include wolves, lynx, golden eagles and humans). They can go 50 km (31 miles) per hour and jump up to 2 meters high, they can also leap over 6m horizontally.
Ibex were hunted to extinction across the French Alps in the 1960s. They have since been successfully reintroduced by the Ecrins National Park, located in the départements of Hautes-Alpes and Isère, southeastern France. To find an ibex, hike up a mountain in the Ecrins National Park, their preferred habitat is between 1,800 to 3,300 metres elevation, along the snow line above alpine forests. They are excellent climbers so tend to stay in rocky steep areas. They can be recognised by their large, backwards-curving horns with a lot of small ridges along the length of them. The males’ horns are much longer than the females’ and can grow up to 98cm in length.
Enjoy this slow-motion video of an eagle owl hunting, from the perspective of the prey.
The eagle owl is the largest owl in the French Alps. To spot an eagle owl, be sure to pack your binoculars and pay attention to high rocky ledges. They usually nest up on ledges as it helps them hunt mammals and birds. It can be up to 70 cm (27 inches) in height and has distinctive bright orange eyes, tufted ears and feathered legs.
While looking for an eagle owl, be sure to keep an eye out for other species of owl found in Alpine areas including (in order of descending size), tawny owls, long-eared owls, barn owls, tengmalm’s owls, little owls, scops owls, and pygmy owls.
The Eurasian three-toed woodpecker is a medium-sized woodpecker that can be found in the Savoie and Haute Savoie regions of the French Alps. It is only 21–22 cm in length, a little smaller than the Great Spotted Woodpecker. (one of the main types of woodpeckers in the UK).
Mountain populations of the Eurasian three-toed woodpeckers are known to migrate to lower elevations during the winter and when the weather warms they return to the Alps. So look to the skies to spot them returning, or alternatively look where they are likely to nest during the summer months. The voice call of the Eurasian three-toed woodpecker sounds like ‘kik’ or ‘chik’ and they usually make nests in cavities found in trees or poles or dead conifers, so look to the tops of damaged or dead fir or pine trees.
The adult has black and white plumage except for the yellow crown of the male, and it is important to note that they do not have any red feathers (unlike the great spotted woodpeckers in the UK).
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The mountain hare is found in the Alps, and although they are not always easy to spot, the mountain hares’ distinctive tracks are often seen in the snow when looking down from a ski lift. They live above ground, not in burrows like rabbits, and lie in slight hollows in the ground called forms.
Mountains hares are mainly nocturnal, but can often be seen at dawn or dusk. Please note that if you spot one, their sense of hearing and smell are much better than their sight, so the best chance of observing it close at hand is to stay motionless. Mountains hares change their appearance greatly from winter to spring. As the weather warms, they shed their big fluffy white coats to reveal their brown-grey fur in the summer. Its tail stays white throughout the year, and the ends of its ears are always black.
Mountain hares can live for up to 10 years. However, winter tourism can have negative impacts on mountain hares, according to a 2011 study in the Journal of Applied Ecology. If disturbed by people during the winter, the hares have to waste energy running away at a time when they don’t have access to a lot of food, due to snow coverage. As such, if you spot a mountain hare during the winter, do not approach it and try to completely avoid the area it is in.
The red deer is one of the predominant kinds of deer living in the French Alps. You may be surprised to discover that on average a male adult red deer reaches 4 feet tall at the shoulders and can sometimes weigh up to 150 kilos. To spot the difference between the sexes, the males grow huge horns which they use to fight other males during the breeding season.
To find a red deer, listen out for their deep resonant call and head deep into an Alpine forest, well below the treeline. They tend to congregate in packs, so you may stumble across a large herd of red deer. it is recommended, like with all the animals on this list, that you do not approach the deer as their behaviour may be unexpected.
Watch this incredible video from a camera strapped to a golden eagle flying over the Alps during spring.
The golden eagle is the largest bird in the alpine region. You don´t often spot these incredible animals, but it’s an unforgettable experience when you do.
These magnificent birds have a wingspan of up to 2.5 meters and can be spotted flying amongst the mountains. They fly in areas with sparse or fragmented cover, as their incredible eyesight allows them to spot their prey over 1km away. When hunting, the golden eagle can dive up to 240-320km per hour, meaning the poor marmot/rabbit/hare is defenceless to its sheer hunting speed.
To best spot a golden eagle, look to the cliffs on the mountaintops, which they return to each spring for breeding.