It’s winter in the Alps. Large snowflakes are whirling from the sky, silently falling between the branches of spruce trees. I’m slowly making my way through the dense forests of the Contamines-Montjoie nature reserve, the highest nature reserve in France. In summer the Tour du Mont Blanc passes straight through this breath-taking area and in winter it provides beautiful snowshoe opportunities. I love getting out and about in winter, because there is just so much to discover, like the endless amount of tracks in the snow that give exciting clues to which wildlife is active, and the absence of thick foliage makes it easier to spot animals.
Difficult to stay alive
It doesn’t take long before I come across some fresh tracks of a hoofed animal in the snow. The prints seem too small for a red deer (Cervus elaphus), so perhaps a roe deer (Capreolus capreolus) has walked past. Or a chamois (Rupicapra rupicapra), because on wintry days they also seek the protection of the forest.
A little further away, I can hear the soft twittering sounds of a flock of tits (also known in North America as chickadees). I decide to follow the sounds and spot the little birds in a spruce tree. They’re crested tits (Lophophanes cristatus), clearly recognizable by their striking tufts. In winter, tits often forage in mixed groups, but I search in vain for the other four species that live in these forests: the blue tit (Cyanistes caeruleus), great tit (Parus major), long-tailed tit (Aegithalos caudatus) and coal tit (Periparus ater). With their constant chatter, the little birds ensure that they do not lose each other during foraging. They also like to stay together during cold winter nights: in order to keep warm, they snuggle up closely together. Yet it remains difficult to keep such a small body at a temperature of 40 degrees Celsius. Small birds are, despite the insulating effect of their feathers, extremely vulnerable to low temperatures. The population of, for example, gold crests (Regulus regulus), the smallest birds of the Alps – and even of the whole of Europe – can drastically decimate in a severe, cold winter.
Although winter can be extremely harsh, these mountains are teeming with wildlife. Not only tits, but also largers birds like alpine ptarmigans (Lagopus muta), black grouse (Lyrurus tetrix) and nutcrackers (Nucifraga caryocatactes) and small mammals such as mountain hares (Lepus timidus), snow voles (Chionomys nivalis) and stoats (Mustela erminea) are all extremely well adapted to life in these mountains and have developed a wide range of strategies to cope with winter. But still…while leaving the twittering tits behind me, I’m plodding through knee deep snow and can’t help but feel that that the survival of these animals in these extremely harsh winters is one of nature’s miracles.
To be continued…
In my next few blogs I will discuss some of the extraordinary strategies and adaptations of wildlife coping with winter in the Alps: