JULY 2010: PEACEFUL ALPS ?

You might be forgiven for thinking the Swiss alps should be the heartland of tranquility in Europe - well some bits are, but there is still a lot of activity there whose noise echoes around the valleys and carries a long way. Each mountain farm is only used in the summer months but needs its own generators, milking machines, vehicles to take the milk down, grass cutters for silage, and increasingly helicopters are a common work vehicle for transporting goods and construction materials to some of those hard to reach places.

Last week I was hiking in the mountains in the early morning when the cows were being brought in for milking. In the highest summer pastures they range over a wide area and the farmers have characteristic and rhythmic calls to try and bring them down off the hillside, inevitably they have to walk out and up into all the corners to get them all in - the sound of the bells guiding them to the reluctant ones. The following sequence is in 3 parts: first the cowgirl starts calling and walking out over the hill, the cows who know what to do start descending and the bells get closer, second the girl is now well out over the hill and a steady stream of adult cows are coming down, third the free-ranging calves follow on out of curiosity, they wear lighter bells with a higher tone. As the piece closes one little straggler comes trotting past with her bell tinkling rhythmically:

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I climbed on up past the farming line, heading for some cliffs and scree slopes where I was hoping I may just come across some Rock Ptarmigan. It had been pretty cold and very wet for a few days and when I  stopped to record a Wheatear I could hear a steady stream of rocks falling off the cliffs on to the slopes I was heading for. I was still about 1 km from where they were falling when I made this recording, it was just a steady stream of rocks, not an avalanche or landslide which will roar and then stop - I guess the first hot sunny day for some time was expanding the rocks and so loosening everything:

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I decided to not go any higher and left that area to the solitary crow and numerous bees - maybe I would find Ptarmigan elsewhere !

Some posts ago you may have heard me complain about how Roe Deer constantly try to give me a heart attack by barking alarm calls at the last minute. Their place in this highly unpleasant game is taken over at altitude by a large rodent called a Marmot (M.marmota) - a sort of European ground hog if you like. They give piercing alarm calls, which a normal hiker hears at a long distance, but if you happen to be creeping around with a recorder you can sometimes end up with one very close, since they largely resemble the rocks they live in I usually don't see them until they yell at me when it then gives me a fright:

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If you listen carefully to that recording at about 35 secs you can hear some feet shuffling in the grass, this was a Chamois (R. rupicapra) which strolled across between me and the Marmot, fairly unfazed by my presence. No alarm calls from this one. In fact Chamois are pretty silent beasts most of the time. When they drop their young in early summer they usually go up very high, but I do hear the mothers and kids communicating just the way you would expect from a wild goat:

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They are very shy animals but if you do get close to them they signal alarm by stopping walking, standing stock still and staring at you, then letting the air out through flared nostrils in a gentle wheeze like someone letting off the steam. They do not do that often so here is a compilation of several calls made on different occasions:

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You can see why the Swiss are proud of the mountains, not for the faint-hearted but a rich mixture of rural traditions, dramatic landscapes and fascinating wildlife. Maybe not so tranquil but certainly not boring !

[Technical Footnote:

The rockfall and Marmot were with a Telinga Pro5W in a parabola into a Sony M10.

The rest were the same Telinga into a Fostex FR2LE.]


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