Photo by Paolo Nicolello ©
The European summer is so replete with wildlife riches it can be hard to know where to travel next. Should you go north to Finland for wolverine, Norway for musk ox or Svalbard for walrus? But what about south, for Zino’s petrel atop a Madeiran mountain or the Bay of Biscay for whale-watching? And let’s not talk about east or west …
Kainuu and North Karelia, Finland – for wolverine
Slaloming between pipe-cleaner pine trees, a shaggy shadow is undulating through the bilberry-rich understorey. The mammal’s bounding gait is neither clumsy nor fluid, but is certainly flexible of spine.
Stocky and shaggy, it reminds you of badger, stoat and hyena in similar measure. Pausing, forelimbs cresting fallen log, the creature turns its short-snouted face your way. It is! It is, it is, it is! Mean looking and formerly mythical, the wolverine issues a soulless glare – more villain than super-hero. A stab of nerves pollutes your exhilaration. You are slightly relieved to be concealed within a log-lined hide.
Prior to the mid-noughties, seeing wolverine was a pipe dream. Even in places – across North America and boreal Europe – where they were known to occur, this ultimate carnivore was glimpsed annually at best.
Since then, hides in eastern Finland designed to enable people to photograph brown bears have managed to consistently attract wolverines. As a result, the procession of wildlife-watchers to privately run locations in eastern Finland is lengthening year on year.
Spitsbergen, Svalbard – for gulls, whales and walrus
Opening your eyes, you find yourself in heaven. A few metres above your head, against an unending sun, an angel is floating through the air. Its whiteness is of a purity that makes snow look sullied. Its flight is uncontaminated grace. This ethereal wonder is an ivory gull, and it is a High Arctic exclusive – wholly in its icy element. Minke and fin whales are to be expected.
The latter, should you need reminding, is the second-largest creature ever to have lived on Earth. Several species of Arctic seal should be on your radar. Bearded seal – replete with extended whiskers – is the most likely, but ringed is feasible. Moving up an order of magnitude in size, most trips to Ny-Alesund take in the walrus colony on Forlandet. If weather permits, you can go ashore and observe these one-tonne, heavily tusked mammals at close range. For their sake (and yours) never get between a walrus and water …
Dovrefjell, Norway – for musk ox
A stiff breeze crackles over the Norwegian fell. Tufts of coarse copper vegetation merge into tree-frog-green grass before the ground bronzes once more. To your left  shades of grey betray boulders, scree and other rocky formations. At your right and some way downslope, a crystalline river sparkles in descent. Ahead of you, Kolla Mountain domes towards a hazy blue sky. And on its slopes, the world’s largest goat – a contemporary of the woolly mammoth, no less – stands immense and insouciant.
With a name like musk ox (muskox, if you prefer), and a thickset appearance more reminiscent of a buffalo than a Billy Goat Gruff, you would be forgiven for assuming that this huge herbivore is a type of cattle. This is not quite right, though. Musk oxen are housed in the Bovidae family. But within that grouping, their subfamily is not Bovinae (cattle and allies), but Caprinae – sheep and goats.
The musk ox hulks in their midst. Two metres long and thickset, with heavy shoulders and a bulging upper back, this is a mighty beast. Atop a neck that would make Mike Tyson proud, hooked horns almost merge to form a thick central boss. The shaggiest, most chocolatey fur – think shagpile carpet and curtain combined – drapes over sturdy, musclebound legs. This is not a goat with which to mess. Unless you are a rival bull.
Madeira, Portugal – for Zino’s petrel
Angular pinnacles thrust upwards, ripping the crimson sunset. Madeira’s second-tallest mountain, Pico do Areeiro – 1,800 metres worth of rock on a volcanic island that looms out of the Atlantic – is blackening by the minute. Adrenalin propels you up the steep, narrow path. You are dimly aware of precipitous drop-offs at each flank. Aided by guide and headtorch, you ascend the knife-edge for 30 minutes. As you break through the cloud, the moon startles, silvering the landscape. Arriving at Miradouro Ninho da Manta, you kill the light and listen to the bizarre nocturnal serenades of Europe’s rarest bird – the most magical experience.
Fewer than 200 Zino’s petrels exist worldwide. The seabird’s entire population breeds on just six inaccessible ledges of a single massif in central Madeira. It is known locally as freira (nun) as its grey-and-white plumage recalls the habits of 16th-century nuns that hid from pirates in these mountains. Most birdwatchers who have revered Areeiro’s nocturnal spirits regard the trip as a ‘top ten’ life experience.
Somiedo, northern Spain – for Cantabrian brown bear
Nowadays, you stand a very good chance of seeing brown bears in any of several European countries. Arguably the most ‘natural’ way to see them – no baited hides here, unlike most other places – is in northern Spain’s Somiedo Natural Park. For most of the year, Somiedo’s bears keep their own counsel, sticking to the most remote mountainsides and forests. For a month from mid-August, however, they shed their inhibitions.
Unlike their northern cousins, Cantabria’s bears are not particularly carnivorous. Other than scavenging carrion in spring, their diet majors on grasses, invertebrates, fruits, nuts … and berries. It is the latter foodstuff that entices the ursines out of hiding. These few weeks see a berry bonanza, as Alpine buckthorn and bilberry cascade with nutritious fruit. Focus your bear-watching time on the first and last three hours of daylight – and you should enjoy prolonged, if relatively distant, views.
Gibraltar – for Barbary macaque
Wildlife fanatics visiting Gibraltar should start with the Upper Rock, a nature reserve. At sea level, 30,000 Gibraltarians cram into 6km2, travelling on double-decker buses, drinking in English pubs and being surveyed by British bobbies. Higher up, a green swathe of maquis and garrigue provides rich habitat for intriguing wildlife – an invitation to explore.
Your priority should be to enjoy the Barbary macaques – Europe’s only primate (Homo sapiens aside). Mistakenly called an ape on account of being tailless, macaques often form welcoming committees for visitors arriving by cable car atop the Rock. Other good places to see these very confiding creatures are Apes’ Den (Queen’s Gate) and around the Great Siege Tunnels. In total, 160 macaques, spread between six groups, inhabit Gibraltar – no mean population for this globally threatened mammal. The current population derives from introductions in the early 20th century.
Bay of Biscay, France and Spain – for various whales
When the trickiest decision demanded of you is whether to watch wildlife with a beer in hand or a gin and tonic (you’re on holiday, remember), you must be on to a good thing. Cruising across the Bay of Biscay is a trip premised on relaxation. Marine mammals and birds greet you on a regular basis. Your side of the bargain is simply to keep your eyes open (most of the time) and focused on the ocean.
At dawn, bagsy your spot on an upper deck. Choose your location carefully. In breezy conditions, it pays to be sheltered but this involves choosing port or starboard; you can’t be in two places at once. Should someone spot something exciting off one side, you may come to regret being hunkered down on the other. Ideally, site yourself on the aft deck with access to both flanks.
On a good cruise, your species total could approach double figures. You should have no problem seeing short-beaked common dolphin – usually in small pods but sometimes in large squadrons – often close to the ship. Striped dolphin – garbed in several tones of grey – is also frequent, as is common bottlenose dolphin. The undemonstrative harbour porpoise is a tad scarcer, as is the typically battle-scarred Risso’s dolphin.
Falsterbo, Sweden – for visible migration of numerous raptors and landbirds
Migrant birds – landbirds and raptors, at least – have a thing about peninsulas such as Falsterbo. To them the ever-skinnier strip of land, wasting away into sea or even ocean, is a funnel – concentrating passage into dwindling terra firma or the airspace above.
It also demands a decision. Should the migrants stay or should they go? The journey has to be made, but does it have to be made today? Why not rest while conditions are inclement, refuelling before the dangerous crossing over open water? Or if the sun is shining and the skies are clear, why not make headway while the going is good?
Weather will decree your strategy. In rain, fog or strong wind, search Falsterbo’s grassland, bushes and copses for ground migrants. In clear, dry conditions, look up for what birdwatchers call ‘visible migration’. As the air warms, conditions improve for a wider variety of raptors.
Assume position either at ‘The Canal’ or on Skanors Ljung heath. Then look up. Amongst the common buzzards, you may discern early rough-legged buzzards or tardy honey buzzards. Red kites angle past, tail-twisting. A larger form may be an eagle: probably white-tailed, but conceivably steppe or lesser spotted. All circle upwards, gaining enough height to continue journeying, travelling, migrating along the Great South Road through the Scandinavian sky.
Inner Carniola, Slovenia – for olm
There is nothing like the olm. It is as strange an animal as you will ever see. Known locally as the ‘dragon’s baby’ or ‘human fish’, pretty much every key fact about Europe’s largest amphibian has the wow factor. This salamander is an unabashed troglodyte – Europe’s only such vertebrate – living up to 300 metres below ground. It is thought to live for a century, double the lifespan of any other amphibian. It can survive a decade without eating – truly life in the slow lane.
Sightless, what pass for its eyes are shrouded in skin. In shape, it recalls an arrow-headed eel, four short legs doing little to detract from this impression. Unlike most amphibians it does not metamorphosise, retaining youthful features such as frilly gills. It has rosy skin through which internal organs contour so clearly that you can almost determine an adult’s gender. Yet it also has a melanistic variant – with black skin and functional eyes. Finally, the olm is extremely vulnerable to changes in its environment – and is thus considered threatened with global extinction. Wow, wow, wow.
It is unimaginable that you can actually see this most alien of animals. Yet observe it you may, and easily too, in the karst limestone caverns of underground Slovenia. Postojna Cave is the country’s most famous tourist destination. A spectacular network of caves showcases fragile needle-like stalactites and immense swimming-pool-length stalagmites, hefty rock curtains and sturdy river-carved bridges. It’s also where you can see this ultimate specialist.
Discover more of Europe’s wildlife highlights in James Lowen’s 52 European Wildlife Weekends: