Mont Blanc, at 4,810 meters, is the highest mountain in Western Europe. Nestling some 3,800 meters below Mont Blanc’s summit lies Chamonix. The wildlife here has adapted to the extremes of altitude and the corresponding weather and terrain.
As you progress up the valleys, then up the mountains, past the tree-line and finally towards the barren windswept peaks, you’ll find at each stage a variety of plants and animals that have created a niche for themselves.
Patrolling the skies of Chamonix, high above everything else, are the Bearded Vultures with 3 meter wingspans, one of Europe’s rarest birds of prey. After being reintroduced into the Haute Savoie region, these birds are now successfully breeding and guided tours are available to help you find them.
Chamonix and the department of Haute Savoie are home to a number of raptors, some common and some very rare: Golden Eagles, Honey Buzzards, Eagle Owls, Ospreys, Kestrels, Boreal Owls, Long Eared Owls, Sparrow Hawks, Eurasian Pygmy Owls, Peregrine Falcons, Red Kites and Tawny Owls.
Inhabiting the snowline high up in the mountains (2km to 4.5km), the Alpine Ibex – Latin name Capricorn – was once incredibly rare but has staged a comeback. These wild goats were re-introduced in around 1960 and their figures have now grown to about 7,000 across the country. The male Alpine Ibex can be easily identified, with a body height of about a meter and with curled-back horns that can grow to the same length again!
The females are usually substantially smaller and although they too have horns from birth, they are much smaller. The Alpine Ibex has legendary rock climbing skills. These skills must be put to good use early as large predatory birds, such as the Golden Eagle are known to prey on young Ibex.
Not much lower down at about 200 meters to 3.5km can be found the Alpine Shrew. This tiny creature is probably best seen besides the banks of Alpine streams although its habitat includes rocky mountain slopes, wooded areas and Alpine clearings. Although not actually threatened as a species, it is classed as ‘near threatened’, so here’s hoping it clings to survival like it clings on to those rocks!
Between about 1km and 2km you’ll find Chamois, depending on the time of year (they retreat to lower meadows or forests during the cold winter months). Chamois are about half the size of Ibex and can be easily distinguished from them by their horns. Both sexes have relatively small horns which are straight until near the tips where they suddenly jut backwards. Chamois are the creatures whose hides are made into chammy leathers (their conservation status is listed as ‘least concern’).
Mountain Hares, or Snow Hares, as they’re sometimes known, can be found along the tree line during the colder months and higher up in more clement weather. The hares have adapted well to the conditions around Chamonix – their furs change from brown to white in the snow and their feet are larger than those of normal hares, the better to walk across the snow.
The Alpine Marmot is a sort of large burrowing squirrel – indeed it’s the largest squirrel that exists. It can be found at altitudes between about 1km and 3kms. Predated on mainly by foxes and eagles, although they can be hard to spot (not least because they hibernate), you may be able to hear the warning whistles they make when they’ve spotted a threat. If you hear a single whistle, look up because this is the warning sign for a bird of prey. Multiple whistles are used to warn of threats from ground based predators, such as foxes.
The above is just a small sample of the animals that you can see around Chamonix and the surrounding areas, but it’s probably also worth mentioning one or two that you won’t find and one or two to watch out for!
The Eurasian Lynx, the largest of the Lynx, have been reintroduced to France. However, the likelihood of you actually seeing one around Chamonix is very low indeed. These creatures are incredibly rare and keep the sort of low profile that a secret agent would be proud of. Although a lynx was found run over near Chamonix, the only chance you have of seeing any sign of these creatures is by coming across a kill they’ve made.
You’re not going to see any bears. There are about a dozen bears in France (Brown Bears) but they live in the Pyrenees and there’s so few of them that some have names. These are probably the only large (wild) animals in Europe that can kill a person outright but, as I say, that’s not going to happen. If perchance you do cross the path of a Brown Bear in France, the advice is to play dead.
Wolves do exist in France. It’s a precarious existence but they are fighting back for a home here. These lovely creatures are no threat to you if you come across them. In fact, people who actively seek them out need to be careful not to scare them off. The active wolf population in France is relatively close to Chamonix, Cézanne’s Provence and Mont Blanc, but you’ll be lucky to see one. Here’s hoping they cling to survival.
Processionary Caterpillars might not seem like a threat but then, fur is normally a comforting sort of thing. Not in the case of the Processionary Caterpillar. The hairs on it are not nice – they can burn your skin and several people a year die from anaphylactic shock when they come into contact with them. It’s probably no more dangerous than the sting of a bee or wasp but don’t go stroking the things.
Finally…snakes. You’re most likely to see snakes in the middle of summer soaking up some rays. The main types you’ll come across are grass snakes and vipers. Some can get pretty big although these tend to be the grass snakes (which although not poisonous, can bite). If you notice a vertical pupil rather than a round one then keep well clear, it’s a venomous snake. In fact, if you’re close enough to see the snake’s pupils, you’re too close! Give them all a wide berth and watch out especially if you’re walking in a rocky area where they might be basking.