There are days you just feel good to be alive (and you can quote me on that)…
Today the trip we had planned was to the Karwendel, the mountain range that towers over Mittenwald. The day before (when we’d gone to Oberammergau) clouds had been wrapped around the summit like a soggy scarf and the view – had we gone up in the cable car – would have been down to about five feet: a shame when all of Mittenwald some 1500m directly below would have been hidden, and any one of the group (but most likely me as I have been tripping over blades of grass the last two days) could have stepped over a drop that would have led straight back down to the town in far less time than it took to make the journey up.
We would also have had very little chance to see any of the Karwendel’s potential alpine bird species: Wallcreeper, Ptarmigan, Alpine Accentor, Snowfinch, Alpine Chough, and Water Pipit (a sextet of mouthwatering quality for anyone with an interest in – er, alpine birds). We would have also had – according to Philip who’d made the same trip last year in conditions so murky he could barely see the ground – monochromatic looks at some particularly special and strikingly-coloured alpine plants: Primula auricula, Alpine Buttercup, Spring Gentian, Purple Saxifrage, and Alpine Snowbell (and you surely don’t have to be a birder to be intrigued by that little lot – something about the word ‘alpine’ that is just so evocative).
The Karwendel from Mittenwald
As it was the day dawned virtually cloudless, the whole mountain glowed, and we were serenaded on the 30 minute walk to the cable-car through lovely Mittenwald by singing Black Redstarts and Blackcaps (and the ubiquitous Chaffinches). I just KNEW this was going to be a great day…
…and just for once I’m not going to go all miserable and say that the feeling was misplaced, or ‘it would have been great if only…’ – no, the weather stayed amazingly good (if I’m harping on, remember that day we arrived the rain had been falling almost continually for six weeks and we almost couldn’t reach Mittenwald at all as the floods had apparently drowned the railway), the view from the station at the top (which contains a large and bizarre ‘telescope’ viewing platform that juts straight out over the vertical drop to the village) was stunning, and the short turf was starred with glorious plants.
Clearly snow still filled most of the bowl at the top of the peak, making access to some of the higher paths difficult (make that ‘open only to mountain goats’ or ‘birders who don’t want to live to write The Bavarian Alps: Day Seven’). It was still surprisingly warm though (I was in a t-shirt the whole time I was up there) and the snow was melting around its edges: perfect for Alpine Snowbells that thrive on the edge of the snowmelt, and apparently fine too for a pair of day-flying moths that were bouncing around the grass like kids at play – an unexpected sight I can tell you…
However, what of the birds?
Well, we actually did rather well – not brilliantly, but rather well. Snowfinch would have been a lifer for me and I’d been hoping for views similar to the Alpine Choughs at the Zugspitze (what with the tales of them hopping around the tables of hilltop ski stations that I’ve heard about) but I had to settle (happily) for a displaying male which fluttered overhead against a clear blue sky and which I couldn’t get any sort of photo of at all. The same went for the one Alpine Accentor we saw, which was singing from an outcrop and flew fairly high over our heads before disappearing round one of the sheer rock faces out of sight. And actually our view of our only Water Pipit was similar – this time singing below us and too distantly to get a photo.
Sadly we didn’t see a Wallcreeper to accompany these Eurasian specials, but we did see a few Alpine Choughs and I had the dubious pleasure of feeding one by hand (and discovering that Alpine Choughs are apparently not remotely interested in cucumber, but are quite fond of buttered Bavarian white bread rolls).
Much more satisying were the pair of birds that I could so easily have missed, had the two Barbaras (two of the people on the trip) not seen me go across to another slope – and then not seen me come back again. They came over to join me, and by the time they got halfway across I’d already turned round and gone back to one of the observation platforms. They couldn’t find me so they sat down on one of the benches – and on cue two Ptarmigan I’d not noticed and that had been feeding unseen right by the very same bench walked straight past them and onto the short grass at the edge of the snow.
Thankfully one of them raced back (to find Philip and me leaning out over the precipice looking for Wallcreepers), called us over, and we got back in time to watch the two of them (the Ptarmigans, not the Barbaras) walking slowly with cautious, careful steps up over a grass bank, cuckling softly to each other, for about ten minutes. Yes, they’re found in Scotland and North America, but I hadn’t seen one for a very long time – and I’ve certainly never had views as good as these before…
Female breeding-plumaged Ptarmigan at the summit of the Karwendel
Male breeding-plumaged Ptarmigan at the summit of the Karwendel
As utterly wonderful as the birds were, I have to admit to being captivated by the plants. Covered in snow for more than half the year the grass on the summit was glittering with the deep blues of gentians, with yellows, creams, and purples, with short-stemmed flowers barely stretching more than a couple of inches above the cold soil. Surrounded by mountains, reaching for a perfect blue sky, almost miraculous, one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen…