European Wildlife: An Unexpected Delight
When most people think of wildlife holidays they think of grand African safaris or South-American rainforest trips. In the UK, more often than not we forget about the wonderful wildlife watching opportunities that are much closer to home but there is a wide variety of fauna and flora in Europe that offers great experiences without the need for a long-haul flight. Explore Worldwide’s Product Manager for Europe Clare Collins highlights some of the top wildlife experiences that can be experienced:
To name just a few of the many wildlife highlights, there’s elk, otters, red deer, wolves, wild boar, polecats, brown bears, wolverines and the European bison (one of the largest mammals on the continent). Or in the air you could spot puffins, falcons, cormorants, Arctic turns, red kites, sea eagles and many more. In the oceans you’ll find a wide variety of impressive creatures including killer whales, dolphins, loggerhead turtles and enormous blue whales.
Scandinavia is well known for its dramatic landscapes, from picturesque fjords to snow-capped mountains and glistening lakes to ragged sea cliffs. In winter there’s the bonus of perhaps glimpsing the amazing Northern Lights in the night sky and in summer there’s the fascinating sensation of the Midnight Sun.
Iceland’s scenery is especially unique with its volcanic interior producing lagoons dotted with icebergs, glacier-topped mountains, black sand beaches and old moss-covered lava fields. Home to Icelandic ponies, this terrain also attracts wild reindeer. The island is great for bird watching with black guillemots and great skua amongst its characterful flying friends. It’s most famous air-bound visitor has to be the Atlantic puffins who head for the islands’ sea cliffs to breed in spring and early summer. It’s estimated that around 10 million individual birds arrive annually. Arctic terns also breed here; they vigilantly guard their nesting grounds, so you need to be very careful when you are walking in an area they frequent or you risk getting a peck from above!
Grundarfjordur on Iceland’s west coast is a great spot to go whale watching. In recent years, herring have chosen this fjord as their winter home. Fortunately for us, this abundance of fish is swiftly followed by the orca 'killer' whales who feed on them not far from the shore. During the spring/summer the whale watching possibilities are endless, with blue, fin, humpback and minke whales all visiting the area. There’s also the chance to see puffins, porpoises and dolphins. Explore’s Whale Watching in Iceland tour offers a great chance to see this natural phenomenon.
I’ve been fortunate enough to travel to Iceland and saw some amazing wildlife whilst I was there – it’s an experience I will never forget. One day just driving along the main road, which hugs the coastline, we were admiring the rocky mountain terrain beside us when suddenly I saw something moving. We pulled over and there was a herd of wild reindeer just going about their business and who were happy to stay whilst we took photos and admired them.
I was on the island in July, so I got the pleasure of seeing hundreds of puffins all bobbing in the ocean next to a black sand beach and sitting on the sea cliffs above it – they’re just adorable. We also took a whale watching boat trip during our visit; we saw humpback, minke and fin whales plus dolphins amazingly close; the whales move so majestically and the dolphins love playing in the wake of the boat. It’s cold out at sea even in the height of summer, so it was a delight to enjoy a cinnamon bun and hot chocolate on board whilst watching the amazing wildlife in the waters around us.
Moving across the sea to Finland, this is one of the best locations in Scandinavia to see European brown bear. Amongst the dense pine forests and glistening lakes you have the opportunity to observe these amazing creatures in their natural habitat. The best way of spotting them is to spend a night in a bear watching hide.
On Explore’s Brown Bear Weekend staying at the Wild Brown Bear Centre, you’ll enjoy a walk through the forest with a local wildlife guide to gain a greater insight into the natural history of the Kainuu region. The habitat here is ideal for brown bears, owls, wolverine, foxes, elk and a number of rare plants. Following the walk you’ll spend the night in specially designed hide. Located in a small, open wetland area, with a fabulous backdrop of spruce and pine forests most of the hides accommodate up to eight people and are equipped with comfortable viewing chairs and a sleeping area. To enhance the overall viewing experience there is a sound amplification system within the hides, allowing us to clearly hear the many noises of the forest at night - with the sound of the approaching bears often being the prelude to their arrival. Although predominantly a solitary animal, bears do congregate in numbers within popular areas where food is plentiful. In the viewing season we can expect 12 to 16 hours per day of direct sunlight and 2 to 4 hours of twilight, so this maximises the opportunity to see these amazing animals.
Another great place to see European brown bears in the wild is Romania in Eastern Europe. The Romanian bear population is one of the few strong and healthy groups remaining in Europe; the Carpathian Mountains as a whole are home to about 43% of all European bears; there are approximately 5,500 in Romania alone. This region is therefore of key international importance in the conservation of brown bears. Due to increasing human-bear interactions, it's also the focus of much research into the effective management of bears and their habitats. Bears may be active at any time of day, but generally forage in the morning and evening and rest in dense woodland cover by day. On Explore’s Transylvanian Backwaters short break we have the chance to go bear spotting at dusk when they come out to feed.
Other places in Europe that are definitely worth a visit for their wildlife watching potential include the Danube Delta in Romania, which is spread over 4,000 square kilometres and is a premier wildlife sanctuary and paradise for birdwatchers. There are 325 bird species, 43 types of mammal and 136 kinds of fish found here. You may see pelicans, grebes, diver birds, herons, spoonbills and flamingos to name just a few.
Heading to Turkey’s gorgeous Turquoise Coast you’ll find Iztuzu Beach where loggerhead and green turtle come to breed. There’s the chance here to visit DEKAMER - the Sea Turtle Research, Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre who are doing great work in trying to ensure that the turtle breeding areas are protected. They also educate the local fisherman on the importance of using propeller protectors and rescue and rehabilitate turtles that have been injured or mistreated. This is a small charity that Explore is helping to support and we offer customers the option of visiting here on our Historical Treasures of Turkey tour.
In Poland you’ll find the Biebrza National Park, which is the largest remaining area of inland marsh in central Europe. Here you have the chance to spot birds such as white and black storks, cranes, waterfowl and if you're lucky eagles. Other wildlife here includes elk, beavers and otters. Another national park in Poland of note is Bialowieza, which is home to the last primeval forest in Europe. Here you’ll find the Bison Reserve where injured and orphaned animals are cared for; a breeding conservation programme is also in place. At the reserve you have the chance to see elk, red deer, wolves, wild boar and of course bison.
Then of course there is the amazing Arctic region. Svalbard is an archipelago up north beyond the upper tip of Norway. Here you’ll find the island of Spitsbergen where polar bears thrive. These powerful animals patrol the ice in search of food. Other wildlife found here includes walrus, Arctic fox, seals and a variety of sea birds including the rare ivory gull, little auk and red phalarope. You have to be tough to survive in this Arctic wilderness. The Gulf Stream provides the island's 400 kilometre long western coastline with the ability to host a rich range of animal and plant life, while the remote east is forever under the grip of the Arctic winter. Explore offers a range of polar voyages to see these amazing creatures in their natural habitat.
Having been wildlife spotting in Europe, I would most definitely recommend it to others and for certain my next adventure is going to be bear watching – I just need to decide if I’ll be heading for Finland or Romania first. To see Explore’s full range of European wildlife tours, visit their website.