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.