Soaring to Switzerland

I’m incredibly lucky to be able to study at the University of Exeter.

The resources that they provide to the students are fantastic: the library, scholarly articles and of course the strikes this year. But, I think I am most glad about the fact that they were able to pay for an awesome field course this year, with the heinous amount of money I paid them first hahaha.

Jokes aside, the field course was incredible, our destination? A little town called Pontresina, nestled cosily into a valley in the corner of Switzerland, close to the border of Italy. The option to go there was a fantastic idea, it’s such an expensive country I knew I wouldn’t be there in a long time and the chance to go almost fully covered as a student was a no brainer really. The transport was on us, but after that it was an all you could eat buffet, literally (I ate as much as I could each day). We arrived into the town in the evening and settled into the rooms a few hours before a welcome brief and introduction by the three lecturers and PHD that would be leading the course.

Day 1 – The cohort was split into two groups, to make it more manageable, and each group left for separate destinations. Mine was headed to Val Languard, a mountain top valley filled with marmot burros and hopefully some Ibex. The weather was a bit chilly in the morning, we woke up to a drizzle which became a patter of rain later on but I was quite content underneath my waterproofs. We watched the mist roll through the pines on our way up the mountain on a chairlift, the two people ahead of us almost disappearing into it .

There is usually something interesting on the ground where a ski-lift cuts through the vegetation, I always like imagine the big stuff like bears wandering through, funnily enough it never happens.

Except this time! A huge, hulking brown bear….. which turned out to be a chamoix was stopped munching on some shrubs below us. We spotted it as we turned to look back at the others and although I was just swapping lenses, managed to get a picture (I have problems committing to a single focal length). There is not an emoji around to portray how happy I was though, day one and we had already seen a new large mammal species. I don’t think it was even 9:30 yet.

At the top and after a fairly long but ever the less interesting talk about the potential species atop the mountains, we began to walk. The weather was a bit worse now, so we didn’t see much. But, you could definitely hear it. The ascending and descending "cheeps and trills" of the water pipit coming from somewhere above, up the rockface through the wet air. But, the best surprise was the call of a ring ouzel. We walked around the valley, crossing the glacial river that was streaming from a tarn further towards the peaks and observing the amazing little alpine plants that had colonised the area. In the afternoon the cloud started to dissipate and the sudden appearance of other massive peaks in the distance certainly enforced the scale of the landscape. Little blobs of brown started to appear near mounds of dirt close to where we had just come, and slowly but surely the heads of alpine marmots began popping up everywhere, like a really big whack-a-mole.

If it wasn’t for a member of the group everyone would have been so focussed on the marmots that no one would have seen the Ibex on the other side of the path, climbing down a rockface.

It was quite surreal, to have herd of male Ibex sit about 30 meters away minding their own business. Especially as they were almost extinct at one point. A few of them wove their way around from the side, silhouetted against the white sky as the last clouds drifted away. I make no excuse for not spotting them very fast. See if you can find all of them there are 7 in total.

We stood and watched them for a good long while before we made our way back down the mountainside by footpath to the hostel. Not only were we gifted with red squirrels, some bullfinch, crested tit and redstart, but the Ring ouzel we had all been so eager to see in the mist earlier was now sat on the top of a tree. It was just by the hiking trail and was soon joined by another. Awesome first day.

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