We didn’t add any new birds on our final day, although Frank got to see a Yellowhammer, which Barb had seen earlier in the trip. Also, we added one bird after-the-fact from photos – Western Bonelli’s Warbler. We birded areas where we had started the trip two weeks ago, hoping a morning outing would be more productive – it wasn’t.
We got to the airport early. We usually request a wheelchair for Barb at airports, but she thought the Zurich Airport was small enough that she wouldn’t need one. We found out otherwise when we arrived.
So for our departure, we asked for assistance. The check-in attendant directed us to a waiting area to request a wheelchair. We pushed the button and the voice on the other end said to wait there and some one would be there shortly. Well, 40 minutes later(!!) a guy shows up with a motorized cart. We get in and after several elevators and concourses, we arrive at the security checkpoint. We get through that and then go on another elevator, down another concourse, another elevator and arrive at a garage with vans. We transferred to a van and then were driven out to the international terminal. Then another elevator, a wheelchair, another concourse to our destination! It was like something out of a Monty Python movie…
The flight home was uneventful and on time, as was our limo drive home.
Here are some scenery photos, comments, and observations about our trip.
View from the cable car looking back up at Gemmi.
One of the brief views we got from Gemmi, looking for Lammergeiers.
Leuk, Switzerland (Wallcreeper area)
Barb did get to see where she had lived 53 years ago. So that part of the trip was successful. Here are comparison photos.
The roads in Switzerland were very well-maintained – in France, not so much.
We drove mostly on secondary (and tertiary) roads, except when time was of the essence. The major highways were up to US standards in width, lanes, etc. The lesser roads were remarkably narrow – frequently no more than a car-and-a-half wide (frequently less) – and no shoulders.
So trying to bird along them was difficult at best. We could stop to look at a bird, but if another vehicle came along, we frequently had to move to a wider portion of the road to let them pass, thereby losing the birding opportunity.
The drivers in both countries, being familiar with the local roads, drove them a lot faster than we felt comfortable with – especially downhill on mountain roads. And motorcycles were the worst! We had never seen so many motorcycles. They rarely obeyed the speed limit, passed on curves, tailgated, and just generally were pests. Considering the speed at which they descended the curvy mountain roads, we assume that a few thousand feet below each curve there is a pile of dead motorcyclists that nobody cares about…
We used a Garmin GPS to navigate and it did a pretty good job. But it appeared to not have a grasp on what a good road is versus a narrow country lane. It frequently took us on roads which had a posted speed limit of 50, but could not be driven more than 35 – thereby greatly increasing the time it took to get from point A to point B.
In towns and villages, the roads were often even narrower (they refuse to tear down old buildings to modernize their road system) and making turns and getting around oncoming traffic was a treat.
Stop signs and traffic lights are rarities away from the cities. Many of the intersections are round-a-bouts (traffic circles). This keeps traffic moving, but could be daunting when traffic is high.
Barb did all of the driving (I’m the navigator and photographer) and she did a fantastic job considering the conditions. But we would both be frazzled at the end of the day!
We were not interested in staying at luxury resort hotels, but just average hotels. Except for the first night, we used Booking.com to find and book hotels from night to night. We booked our first week of the trip before we left and then did day-to-day booking the rest of the trip (to give us some flexibility).
We decided for the first night that we would stay in a familiar place to ease the transition. We are members of the Holiday Inn Priority Club and stay at Holiday Inn Express whenever we can. They meet our needs, are comfortable, have a great free breakfast, and a refrigerator in the room for cooling drinks for the next day.
Well, apparently Holiday Inn does not keep the same standards in Europe as in the US! The room was small, instead of two queen beds, it was two twin beds (I almost rolled out of bed when I turned over the first night!), parking was not free, the entrance to the hotel had no cover, so we had to unload our luggage in the rain, no refrigerator, it offered “free” WiFi, but it was slower than a phone modem from 20 years ago – you had to pay extra for “fast” wifi, there were no electrical receptacles next to the beds, so I had to borrow an extension cord and run it across the room in order to plug in my CPAP (I have sleep apnea) – I’m surprised they didn’t charge for the extension cord!
The rest of the hotels we stayed in were okay, although they still tended to have much smaller rooms and beds than we are accustomed to. We always selected a hotel that offered breakfast and had a restaurant, however, several times, the restaurant was closed or the breakfast was not offered until 8 AM. So we had to scramble to get convenient meals.
Two of the hotels had small refrigerators in the room – but they didn’t work!
The hotels offered free WiFi and were usually fast connections, but one kept failing.
The hotels were very modern and clean on the inside, often old-looking on the outside. There generally was no coffee-maker in the rooms and when we did have one it was instant coffee.
The shower/tub stalls (especially in France) would have a hand-held shower and only a half-door. This meant you had to be very careful where you positioned yourself and the direction you sprayed or the bathroom floor would get all wet! Very impractical…
It was breeding time in Europe and we saw a number of juvenile birds during our trip. We knew birds during this period would not always be easy to see, but we were confident we could draw them out. At home, pishing will often bring out birds from hiding as their curiosity makes them investigate the odd sounds. In Europe, not a single bird responded to our pishing! We tried the usual pishing, squeaking and variations, but not one bird expressed any curiosity whatsoever.
The other strategy for seeing birds (especially during the breeding season) is playing their song so they come out to defend their territory against the intruder. Again, not a single bird responded to their call! We had a hard time figuring out what birds were calling, but even when we did, playing their call did not help. We had at least 20 to 30 birds that we heard, but never saw.
Of course, water birds were visible. And raptors.
Access to birding areas was also a problem. As far as we could find, there is only one book for finding birds in Switzerland, and it is 16 years old. It really should have been titled “The Hikers Guide to Finding Birds in Switzerland!” Most of the birding areas described consisted of getting to the area by public transport and then taking a 10-kilometer hike! Since Barb cannot walk great distances, we had to read between the lines and re-interpret the maps to find automotive access and short walks. This often failed. Many of the preserves had no public parking at all! And the maps for most preserves had no scale, so figuring out how far we might have to walk at any particular site was difficult.
The group of birds we missed the most were woodpeckers. We had two sightings of Middle-spotted Woodpecker, and that was it. We heard no drumming anywhere.
So we ended up with just 98 species (77 lifers) in two weeks. Pathetic…
The northern part of Switzerland was remarkably similar to Pennsylvania – wooded hillsides and agricultural valleys. The mixture of trees was different – more conifers – but many of the tress looked familiar, poplars, basswood, sycamores, hornbean, oaks, etc. There were a lot of viburnums and elderberry in the understory.
The southern part of the country was the Alps, of course. We got above the treeline twice. Once using the cable car to look for the Lammergeier and once over a mountain pass. It looked very similar to Colorado.
In France, much of the area we birded along the Mediterranean coast reminded us of Florida and Arizona – flat, hot, sandy. Even inland, it resembled southeast Arizona – dry hillsides, olive-colored vegetation. But the vegetation was not thorny like Arizona.
The Crau in France was unique. It was flat, dry, and the ground was, in essence, cobblestones! Walking off the trails was impossible. No birds either.
In addition to Switzerland and France, we passed through portions of Italy, Austria, and Germany. The borders were open, no stopping.
On one of the autobahns, we stopped at a rest area and had this for a toilet.
Rest stop toilet
The seat was spring loaded. You had to get ready to sit down, then push the seat down and sit on it. Once finished, the seat sprang up and automatically flushed!
We rented a Mazda CX-5 diesel manual transmission SUV. We got 44 mpg. It was comfortable, handled well, and just small enough to navigate the narrow roads. When you stopped at an intersection, if you put it in neutral, the engine stopped and would restart when you put it in gear. Also, the wipers had a rain sensor, so they automatically turned on in the rain.
Every gas station in America that has a convenience store has ice. Not in Europe! Out of all of the gas stations we stopped in or passed, we only saw one with an ice machine. So we were unable to have cold drinks in our cooler.
Everywhere we went in Switzerland (and to a lesser extent in France) there were cranes.
Every construction site of even just 2 or 3-story buildings had a crane looming over it. There must be some construction technique or OSHA-type requirements there that required cranes.
The best birds were Flamingo, Kingfisher, Roller, Bee-eater, Northern Lapwing, White Stork, Squacco Heron, Alpine Chough, and kites.
Biggest miss – European Robin!
Most-wanted birds that we missed – Lammergeier, Wallcreeper, Hoopoe
Trip List (* = lifer)
Great Crested Grebe*
Middle Spotted Woodpecker*
Eurasian Blue Tit*
Western Bonelli’s Warbler*
Western Yellow Wagtail*
Eurasian Tree Sparrow*
We ain’t goin’ back…