Switzerland 4: Mürren, Schilthorn and Mr Bond

Having explored the east side of the Lauterbrunnen valley, it was time to discover the west side. Mürren sits on the edge of the precipice and is the access point to the Schilthorn summit:

We got the train down to Lauterbrunnen from Wengen, then the funicular railway up to Grütschalp. From there we walked through the pine woods south to Winteregg, and then onto Mürren. The walk is pleasant and easy, with the main peaks clearly visible across the Lauterbrunnen valley:

Just before Winteregg we were stopped in our tracks by the rapid, deep drumming of a woodpecker from what sounded like only a few tens of metres away. Imagine a Great Spotted Woodpecker on steroids (like this):

(Sonnenburg, XC355459. Accessible at www.xeno-canto.org/355459)

Black Woodpecker!” I exclaimed. Almost immediately it began calling, a distinctive almost cat-like call (like this):

(Annette Hamann, XC382687. Accessible at www.xeno-canto.org/382687)

But, despite our efforts to get a glimpse of Europe’s largest woodpecker, the bird remained hidden. There were good numbers of butterflies along the railway line from Grütschalp to Winteregg. As always, I am happy to be corrected over my butterfly ID, so from the top, Heath Fritillary, Titania’s Fritillary, Large Wall Browns and the abundant Chalk-hill Blue:

The highest peak behind Mürren is Schilthorn, at just under 3000m high. The Swiss have built a revolving restaurant on top of this peak and the associated cable car gives easy (albeit expensive) access to the high alpine peaks and their wildlife. My wife and I visited Schilthorn in 2008 and had fantastic views of Lammergeier. Two juveniles birds soared below  us and indulged in a couple of memorable low passes just over our heads. At that time fledglings (an inappropriate expression for a bird with a wingspan of between 2 and 3 meters) from the introduced population in the Swiss Alps had a single primary and single secondary feather bleached white. We watched one juvenile Lammergeier with bleached feathers and one without chasing each other around in front of the magnificent vista of the high peaks (top two pictures below). We also got good views of Ibex (bottom picture):

Reflecting on that fabulous 2008 visit peaked my expectation levels. We chose a clear morning by simply checking the Schilthorn webcam – if there is no visibility on top, don’t go. At 7am it was crystal clear. We took the train down to Lauterbrunnen then the bus to Stechelberg Schilthornbahn, where we climbed onto the first of the three cable cars that take you to the summit. As we ascended from the valley floor we rose past the vast cliffs of the Lauterbrunnen valley:

At the top of the cliffs we changed cable cars. At Gimmelwald cable car station we noted a sign outlining a “Moral Code for Basejumpers”. Lauterbrunnen has a global reputation amongst the basejumper community. The attraction of hundreds of meters of vertical cliff, easily accessed by cable car and funicular railway makes getting to a jumping spot easy. The tricky part appears to be surviving the jump. Whether basejumpers use parachutes or wingsuits, fatalities are common. Unfortunately (for all concerned) it is often the local farmers who find body parts in their fields at the bottom of the cliffs, hence the polite request in the sign at Gimmelwald. There was a fatality the day after we arrived, reported here. Up until 2016 a base jumping fatality list was kept here, Lauterbrunnen features quite often. Like most extreme sport enthusiasts, my personal view is that they confuse the overwhelming surge of adrenaline that such an experience generates with happiness. But enough reflection on life and death. We continued our journey up to Birg, where the views were opening up magnificently and climbed into the final cable car up to the summit:

Above, looking down from Birg. Mürren is visible on the edge of the Lauterbrunnen valley, the big three (Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau) are visible on the centre skyline, with their respective glaciers.

Below, looking up towards Schilthorn. Piz Gloria, the bizarre revolving restaurant on the Schilthorn summit came into view… just as the clouds rolled in! Disaster, we were too late!

Clear skies are a must up here, but as we stepped out at the Schilthorn summit visibility quickly reduced to zero. The picture below illustrates the gathering cloud. On the left, the side with views of the peaks, a complete white-out. On the right of the ridge, clear skies looking down into the valleys.

Within a few minutes only the odd patch of the outside world could be seen. We stayed up there nearly an hour but there was no indication that the cloud would lift. In fact it remained just below the Schilthorn summit all day. There would be no Lammergeier extravaganza today, just the odd Alpine Chough calling from somewhere in the clouds.

The Schilthorn’s own website gives a better impression of how spectacular this place can be. And given the remarkable feat of building, of all things, a revolving restaurant in such a stunning natural setting, I am saddened at the degree to which the James Bond film that was filmed there (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, 1963) is used to advertise the place. Do we really need guns to attract people to a place that should inspire peace and quiet? The incessant playing of the James Bond theme tune, even outside on the viewing galleries at Piz Gloria, is completely at odds with the reasons that most people go to mountain peaks: silence. This is a missed opportunity to educate people about the spectacular scenery, the wildlife and the silence of the high peaks. Next time: less Bond and more Lammergeiers please.

Switzerland 3: Männlichen

I had arranged to get up early and get the first cable-car up to Männlichen. With time a precious commodity, I wanted to maximise some early morning birding on this 2300m high ridge. My day began, as every day did, with the steep walk up from our accommodation to Wengen and the cable-car station. Serins and Black Redstarts sang, Nutcrackers called and the sun shone. It looked like being a perfect morning to photograph some of the high altitude species and Snowfinch and Citril Finch were top of my list and at the forefront of my mind. What could possibly go wrong? Then the idyllic walk up to Wengen came to a brutal halt. I am familiar with the sound of expensive camera equipment hitting tarmac. At Niagara Falls in Canada, a camera body I had placed on luggage at the back of the boot, was propelled forward when I closed one of the rear doors of the car. It continued it’s journey over the lip of the boot, fell for nearly a meter before hitting the tarmac of the car-park. The sound is a unique combination of metal and glass crashing, as brief as it is violent. That traumatic memory came flooding back to me, as the horrendous crash of my 100-400mm telephoto lens smashing onto the road reached my ears. It had slipped from the side pocket of my backpack, where I had used two separate straps to to secure it. The same straps my wife had mentioned every day, as not looking totally secure. Instantly I knew there would no more big lens photography on the trip.

For a few moments I could not bring myself to examine the lens. I simply stood, looking down, feeling increasingly nauseous. When I could bring myself to kneel and pick up the lens, there was a moment of hope. The main objective lens was intact, could it somehow still work? I pulled out my camera body, removed the cracked hood from the lens and twisted the lens into place. It still fitted. I turned on the camera and peered through the viewfinder. I could see an out of focus image. I gently pressed the auto-focus button. There was a horrible grinding sound as the lens screamed in protest. It really was broken. I hunched over my crippled lens, feeling sick and helpless.

After a few minutes, having run through the options available to me, I packed the shattered lens into my backpack and decided to continue with my morning plans.  I hoped that not having a big lens with me would guarantee that I would get point blank views of the key species, as life is often like that. And the sun was still shinning. The ascent in the cable car up from Wengen to Männlichen has stunning views that partially distracted me from my nausea:

Above, looking down: the view down onto Wengen from the Männlichen top-station. Lauterbrunnen can also be seen, nestling right down in the valley bottom, just behind Wengen.

Below, looking up: the view of the peaks from the Männlichen ridge. From left to right: The Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau. The Silberhorn is the all white peak on the right flank of Jungfrau. Most of the snow visible on these peaks sits on glaciers.

Although quite touristy, I love it up here. The views are world-class, there was nobody about, the slopes were covered in flowers and the flowers were covered in bees and butterflies. Even the sound of smashing camera equipment was beginning to recede:

There were birds too. In fact the first passerine I saw was a Citril Finch flying past and then over the ridge, all green wing-bars and rump, with a nice grey head. It was quickly followed by two more and then a small flock of Linnets. I instinctively reached for my big lens, before sadly realising my mistake. Further along the ridge I heard a Snowfinch calling and located one perched on the wires of a nearby gondola. It was carrying food in it’s beak. I waited and watched and eventually the bird flew into a metal tube on the underside of a gondola pylon. A pair of Snowfinches was nesting inside the ski-lift pylons! With my large lens, I could have got some nice shots of Snowfinchs as they came and went with food. However, armed with only a 100mm macro lens, I did well to get any record shots at all. Below, an adult Snowfinch dropping out of the nest site:

The most abundant birds were Water Pipits. In two hours of trekking on the eastern flank of the Männlichen ridge I counted over 200, they were omnipresent. Alpine Chough were around the top-station and there was also the occasional Northern Wheatear, Black Redstart and fly-over Raven. Raptors were strangely absent. The butterflies were also great, though I am happy to be corrected if any are misidentified here. Below, Titania’s Fritillary, Chalkhill Blue, Swallowtail.

Very few places in the world are unspoilt and this includes the Männlichen ridge. Since my last visit here in 2008 this enormous wooden beast has appeared, a sort of Swiss Trojan cow. You really can climb inside and slide down the tongue, before emerging into a fabulous mountain vista.

My family came up to meet me at the children’s play area, which can lay claim to having one of the best see-saw panoramas on the planet. Snow-capped peaks and huge glaciers make up a majestic backdrop:

So ended a very pleasant morning, one with lots of exercise, fabulous scenery and a good views of a nice selection of Alpine passerines.

Next: Mürren, Schilthorn and Mr Bond.

Switzerland 2: Kleine Scheidegg

Kleine Scheidegg is a small cluster of hotels around a station that sits on top of a pass well above the Lauterbrunnen valley, at over 2000m above sea level.

Kleine Scheidegg is completely dominated by the north face of the Eiger, or in English, the Ogre. This vertical slab of rock rises right behind the town and extends vertically to a summit at nearly 4000m. It is from the hotels in Kleine Scheidegg that guests used to train their telescopes onto climbers as they attempted to climb the “Mordwand”, the murder wall. The north face of the Eiger was only climbed for the first time in 1938 and “The White Spider” by Heinrich Harrer is still an excellent account of this ascent.

Above: the north face of the Eiger rising through the clouds. I felt sick just looking at it, let alone imagining what it must be like to attempt to climb such an enormous vertical wall of rock and ice. It used to take up to three days to climb the north face. Climbers risked constant rockfalls and freezing to death where they slept, even in summer. Nowadays the current record for a North Face climb is under two and a half hours. Ueli Steck makes it look easy in this short video. Sadly Ueli died less than 3 months ago whilst training for a new route to the summit of Everest:

But I was not in Kleine Scheidegg for the Eiger. I was there for the Alpine Choughs. These fabulous high altitude corvids, with bright yellow bills and bright red legs are full of character. I have been to Kleine Scheidegg once before in summer and a few times in winter. This time I had a camera with me. We arrived in town after a 90 minute walk down from the Männlichen cable car. Whilst the family got together some lunch, I went to work on the Alpine Choughs.  They were not difficult to see. The first flock I located were perched up on a hotel roof:

But with an increase in diners at the outdoor restaurants, they soon moved much closer. First onto the roofs above the station:

Then down onto the posts by the railway, opposite tables full of feasting tourists. Some adult birds looked quite smart:

Some less so:

At even the slightest break in human activity, they would swoop down onto the tables and devour left-over food.

There is something rather ignominious in seeing these majestic high mountain birds fighting for scraps at restaurant tables. But it does make getting frame filling pictures easy. Once in a while the flock would rise and fly in front of the Eiger, the evocative call of these birds echoing around the mountains. Then they would return for more chips:

In mid-July most of the adult birds were in active moult, replacing their inner primaries and their central tail feathers. This was particularly obvious in flight:

There were also good numbers of juvenile Alpine Chough in town. These youngsters followed their parents everywhere, loudly begging for food. Immature Alpine Chough do not have the bright red legs of adults and the bill is pale yellow with a dark smudge on the upper mandible, near the tip:

But whether adult or young, Alpine Chough are charismatic birds and you won’t get much closer views than in Kleine Scheidegg:

Next: high mountain finches on Männlichen.

Switzerland 1: Wengen

In no way could this be called a birding trip. It was a holiday with my wife, our 5 year old and 7 year old daughters and both my parents, now into their 70s. On two mornings I got up early and spent a couple of hours doing dedicated birding. Most of the time it was family time, with me picking up whatever birds or butterflies we came across during our day.

We flew to Basel and then made the easy three hour train journey, via Interlaken, up to the Lauterbrunnen valley. This stunning valley, at just over 800m above sea level, has been carved out of the rock by glaciers from the Jungfrau range. Lauterbrunnen sits in the valley bottom, with vertical cliffs towering above it. Our destination, Wengen, sits perched up on the flanks of the valley at 1274m. The scenery, even in the valley bottom is world class. There is no access to Wengen by car. Instead a rack railway winds its way up from Lauterbrunnen. The train only takes 20 minutes to climb up the steep sides of the valley, but the journey must lay claim to some of the best views of any rail journey anywhere. Below, Lauterbrunnen from the train up to Wengen. The waterfall on the right is the Staubach Falls. The town is coated in early morning mist:

Below, the Lauterbrunnen valley from the train as it approaches Wengen. As the train climbs the views of the Lauterbrunnen valley open up below, whilst up above the glacier covered massif of the Jungfrau range towers up into the sky. Lauterbrunnen is still visible, the town at the bottom of the valley, some 450m below Wengen:

We disembarked in Wengen, once again appreciating the feel of a small town with no cars. It was a 10 minute walk to our appartment, 10 minutes of increasingly steep downhill walking. The last section, down to our apartment, was challengingly steep and meant every day began with a brutal uphill start. This holiday would keep us fit if nothing else. Any disquiet about the steep climb up from our apartment was negated when we saw the views from our accommodation:

We looked out over the whole Lauterbrunnen valley, with the snow capped peaks of Jungfrau and Silberhorn standing out against the sky above us. We never tired of this view, which constantly changed with the interactions of sunlight, shadows and clouds. There was access to a small garden, complete with stream. My children, particularly our eldest daughter, have always been drawn to butterflies and insects more than birds. This is fine by me and something which I have tried to foster. So there was excitement when the very first thing I saw in the garden was a feeding Hummingbird Hawk Moth:

It took the girls no time at all to discover the huge number of grasshoppers in the garden:

And, of course, there were birds. Local songsters on territory included Serins and Black Redstarts (below):

Chaffinches (below), Goldfinch and Greenfinch were common:

The hillside below our apartment held a pair of Red-backed Shrike. The male…

… and the female:

One morning I walked a few kilometres along the Hausenegg road. This is one of the few roads around Wengen that does not involve a brutal uphill or downhill slog, as it runs along the valleyside, due south of Wengen. It passes through alpine meadows interspersed with patches of deciduous and coniferous woodland. As such bird species of the woodland edge dominate. There were Spotted Flycatchers, Great Spotted and Green WoodpeckersGreat Tit and Blue Tit were common, as was the continental race of Coal Tit (Periparus ater ater) complete with their smart slate-blue backs. There were also Willow Tits

… and Crested Tits:

I regularly heard Nutcrackers call, but after 90 minutes had only achieved flight views or distant views of perched birds:

As I returned back into Wengen, I heard another Nutcracker call from right outside our apartment. Typical! Looking out, I saw that there was one perched on top of a nearby tree, showing off it’s spotted body feathering and white tips to the tail feathers. These are cracking birds, by name and nature.

Next: a Chough frenzy at Kleine Scheidegg.