the Écrins

The Écrins, a wilderness in the French Alps

I left you last week wondering where the next part of our French adventure would lead. I won’t keep you guessing any longer. We loaded up the vehicles and set off to our new location, the Écrins Massif in the Hautes-Alpes. The rock type is more variable here which leads to a different variety of flora.

A couple of hours after setting off, we found a convenient parking area half way up a mountain. We had a lovely picnic lunch in the shadow of a stand of young pine trees next to a river that gurgled and splashed as it rushed its way down the hillside. The call of a Marmot rang across the valley and a pair of Fieldfare flew across to sit in the top of the tallest tree.

It wasn’t long before we were exploring the area and finding a wealth of different flowers. There were Trumpet Gentians, Anemones, Spring Gentians, Tulips, Yellow Lousewort, Mountain Violet and Mountain Avens to name just a few. We didn’t stay too long though as the main reason for our detour up this side road was the high alpine flowers up near the snowline.

Continuing up the steep winding road we stopped near the Italian Border at the top, around 2700m above sea level. The snow was just melting and in its place were cushions of colour. Getting out to have a closer look the scree covered ground was not as solid as its stony appearance led me to believe; walking on it was like walking on a water bed and altogether a little un-nerving! There were some lovely flowers though including Purple Saxifrage, Scree Saxifrage, Chamois Cress, Glacier Crowfoot and Yellow Whitlow Grass. We also found a patch of Watermelon Snow caused by a mobile algae which turns the snow red.

A tiny bit further back down the mountainside we came across swathes of one of my favourites, Alpine Snowbells (Soldanella alpina). These tiny and delicate flowers are so named because they can be found flowering through the snow. Here they were only just below the snowline in a very wet newly melted area.


Soldanella-alpina, Ecrins


There were some other nice flowers here too including Musk Saxifrage, Vitellina, Yellow Star of Bethlehem and Alpine Forget-me-not. The marmots were easy to spot too as they made short dashes across patches of remaining snow. We hadn’t been there long when the cloud closed in and it began to rain.

Making our way back down the mountain the rain eased and we stopped at another spot beside the road to admire a fantastic display of Anemone narcissiflora. In doing so we stumbled across all sort of other lovely things too including an endemic species of Vanilla Orchid, Nigritella corneliana and more tulips, this time in much better condition. Another delight was a type of Fritillary (Fritillaria tubiformis) which were very beautiful.




I also found a very trusting Marmot. At first I was most frustrated as I’d left my long lens in the car, which I’d had to park some distance away, as there wasn’t enough space for all the vehicles in the one tiny layby. With a little patience though I managed get this shot with my Macro lens!




Having wandered around for some time we continued our journey only pausing briefly on the way down to look at some Birds Eye Primrose and Narcissus poeticus, the latter being something my Mum had longed to see in the wild for years. It did look lovely among Globeflowers and Bistort in a roadside meadow.

We took a slightly different route down the mountain to enjoy some more meadows. The blaze of colour was glorious and there was a distinct hum of insect life too.




One more roadside stop was made at the bottom of the valley to look at a strange looking plant with quite large yellow flower heads, Astragalus centralpinus. It doesn’t have a common name that I know of, so we gave it one: the Pineapple Milkvetch, perhaps it will catch on one day!




That was our last stop for flowers that day. We continued to our new hotel and checked in just as the rain came. The following morning we woke to a cloudless sky and set off up a nearby valley to see what we could find.

The first stop was another roadside bank with Lizard Orchids, Musk Thistles, three species of parasitic Broomrape, Creeping Bellflower and hundreds of Crickets and Grasshoppers which moved before you like the bow-wave of a boat with every step you took. This little Grasshopper was less inclined to hop away so I took its picture.




Driving further up the valley we momentarily entered into what I can only describe as something you’d expect in an animated movie. The air was suddenly filled with a snowstorm made up of white butterflies. I have never seen so many. Needless to say we stopped at the earliest opportunity and walked back to take a look.

What we had stumbled upon was a group of Black Veined White butterflies, joined by a few other species on a particularly damp and slightly muddy section of the road near a manure heap. They were gathering to take in minerals and salts in a behaviour known as ‘mud-puddling’. I mentioned it in my last post but this was on a different scale altogether. There were easily over two hundred butterflies there. Here is a shot of just a handful so you can get an idea of the density of them in a small area.




Black Veined Whites as I mentioned were not the only species there. They were accompanied by Large, Small, Grizzled and Dingy Skippers; Common, Small and Mazarine Blues. On nearby bushes were Dark Green, Pearl Bordered, Silver Washed and Heath Fritillaries while a Common Swallowtail fluttered overhead. It was a lepidopterist’s dream!

In fact I’d go so far as to say it was an entomologist’s dream, there were just so many insects. Along with the butterflies we found several different bees, such as this one on Geranium phaeum.




There were beetles too: Bee Chafers, Rose Chafers and Soldier Beetles. They were joined by Shield Bugs and micromoths such as Adela croesella and this black one with feathery antennae.




Micros weren’t the only moths either. There was the caterpillar of a Narrow-Bordered Five-Spot Burnet moth chomping its way through the vegetation, and I found this Small Elephant Hawkmoth in the grass just before someone stepped on it! I took a quick photo of it on my hand (very tricky left handed) before moving it to a safer spot.




None of us could have imagined such a wonderful discovery before we even made it to our intended destination for the day. Having marvelled and wondered at the wealth of wildlife in miniature, we continued up the valley and parked up. By now it was almost lunch time so we decided to have a snack before we walked on. We had barely got our bags out when another stunning butterfly was spotted, an Apollo. It was clearly a butterfly day!

This proved true again as we finally began our walk. A Clouded Apollo flapped past and I spotted a Scarce Copper basking on a plant down a steep bank. The photo opportunities were poor which was a shame, as they really are striking butterflies. My luck soon changed with an obliging Silver Studded Blue instead.




There were masses of little black and red striped Shield Bugs too, Graphosoma italica and quite a few caterpillars including various Burnet Moth species, Lackey Moth and lots of these brightly coloured Poplar Satin Moth caterpillars.




Further up the path I came across a beautiful Almond Eyed Ringlet basking on a piece of grass.




There were some lovely flowers too. Harebells, Maiden Pink, Rock Soapwort, Alpine Skullcap, Striped Toadflax, Livelong Saxifrage, Star of Bethlehem and Rock Speedwell were just a few. I also came across a pair of mating Silver Studded blues on a Flase Sainfoin flower (Vicia onobrychioides).




Returning to the vehicles again we had the rest of our lunch and opted to walk about a mile or so down the road. I was particularly pleased as I’d seen a few things on the drive up that I wanted to investigate further. The first were some cherry trees that looked as though they were covered in cobwebs. On closer inspection it was the communal pupation of Ermine Moth caterpillars,

Walking further on down I was pleased to find an Apollo at rest. They really are big butterflies for this part of the world. This particular one was not fully open but you can still make out the distinctive red spots on its hindwing through the slightly translucent forewing.




On the way up I had also seen Orange Lilies (Lilium croceum) way up the steep bank and was determined to try and find one accessible to photograph. I did have to scramble a little way up the slope but was rewarded with this beauty.




Shortly after I spotted a Spiked Bellflower and some Wolfsbane. My attention was really captured by an insect way up over my head though. I knew as soon as I saw it that it was something I had longed to see as soon as I’d read about them in books: an Ascalaphid. I was exceedingly pleased to have seen one but desperately wanted to photograph one too and this particular individual was not playing ball. Hoping that there would be more elsewhere, I continued down the hill where I found a lovely Heath Fritillary on an Ox-Eye Daisy near the meeting point at the bottom.




Having spoken with one of the guides who was waiting at the bottom for the rest of the group I decided that seeing as they were likely to take some time, I would continue walking and he agreed they would pick me up when they caught up with me. I found all sorts of things including a huge Apollo caterpillar which I assume was looking for somewhere to pupate as it was on the gravel at the side of the road, hastily heading for the grass verge.

I also found some beautiful Martagon Lilies in full flower (all previous specimens had been in tight bud). These are one of my favourite flowers. Not only are they gorgeous but they hold sentimental value as my parents found them on their honeymoon and so did my husband and I on ours. I was really pleased to get a good shot of an individual flower against an uncluttered background.




There was some Astrantia major growing in the shade of some trees.




I also came across Burning Bush and St. Bernard’s Lily. But the real winner for me was another Ascalaphid. Also known as Owlflies, these insects really are rather extraordinary. They sort of look like dragonflies but with enormously long antennae, coloured patches in their wings and shorter, furrier bodies. They do fly and hunt like dragonflies too. This one was quite content to rest where it was and let me take a photo though.




Day made, I carried on downhill passing Large and Small Yellow Foxgloves, Tiger Moth caterpillars and White Asphodel. I was just taking this photo of a Narrow-Bordered Five-Spot Burnet Moth when the vehicles caught me up.




The next day was an incredibly wet, rainy one. We had a late breakfast and spent the morning comparing field notes and musing through flower books, sorting photographs and writing diaries. It was actually rather a welcome rest and a good time to catch up with everything. After a light lunch the rain eased and we went for a walk through the woods at the top of the village.

Everything was still dripping and the river was roaring but the light was rather nice for flower photography. I am particularly pleased with this image of another favourite, the Spiked Rampion (Phyteuma spicata).




There were also some lovely specimens of Common Columbine (Aquilegia vulgaris), one of which had a Wood White on it drying its wings. You may recognise this as my Image of the Month for June.




On the way back a few of us took a longer return route and enjoyed the views over the village as well as some lovely meadow flowers.




We came across a few different moths on our way including a beautiful Wood Tiger moth and this rather lovely longhorn micromoth (Adela croesella).




The views across the valley were fairly spectacular too, especially with this little chapel perched on a hillock overlooking it all.




The following day the weather was much better and we set out again in high spirits to a glacial valley. A roadside stop on the way ended up taking rather a while as there was so much to see. As had become usual we found a multitude of different Orchids including Frog, Elder Flowered, Early Purple and Lesser Butterfly. There were a couple of new species to add to our list though, the Small White Orchid (Pseudorchis albida) and a different Vanilla Orchid (Nigritella rhellicani).




There was also quite a lot of Alpenrose which I love, a beautiful blue Alpine Clematis, tiny and stunningly bright blue Snow Gentian and the last flower heads of the fluffy Spring Pasque Flower (Pulsatilla vernalis). As normal flowers weren’t the only thing we found. There was a Green Hairstreak, several Orange tips and quite a few of these shiny blue Alpine Leaf Beetles (Oreina gloriosa).




On finally reaching the top of the valley we split up with three chaps deciding to try and complete the hike to the face of the Glacier Blanc. Most of the rest of the group lingered behind looking at flowers. The first of note was a Spotted Gentian. Having crossed the river that flows from the Glacier Noir most of the remaining group decided to go and see if they could find any interesting primulas on the snow line where it came lowest on the opposite side of the valley. Three more of us decided to climb a bit higher, following in the footsteps of the other chaps.

The path was not only quite steep but also very wet in places with the river flowing straight down it at one point. Nevertheless our efforts were rewarded with some lovely flowers including Alpine Aster, Mountain Avens, Hoary Ragwort and this lovely Rough Saxifrage (Saxifraga aspera).




The view from where we turned around was fairly spectacular too, especially when you consider that the apparent trickling stream in the bottom of the valley is actually a raging river easily twenty feet wide at the bridge!




Having turned around under the impression that we would be late returning for lunch we actually established that the rest of the group were still up near the snowline. We took what we thought was the most direct route to them. It was quite a challenge through thick bushes and over very rough terrain and it turned out that although it was direct they were quite a distance further away than we had thought! Eventually we joined them and were glad to have done so as they had found some interesting flowers.

There were Daphne mezereum, Alpine Snowbell, Vitellina, Mountain violet and a pretty pink form of Pyramidal Bugle. I also came across a lovely female Orange Tip on a Valerian.




Having collected the various stragglers from each group and eaten our lunch it was soon time to move on. We drove back down the valley and stopped at an unmanaged meadow which once again teemed with life.

The first thing I found was this pair of False Heath Fritillaries.




Within moments of taking the photo I realised that this was by no means the star of the show in this meadow. There were Ascalaphids everywhere, I couldn’t believe my luck! Most were warming up in the sun like this one.




As the saying goes, I felt like all my Christmases had come at once. I took a ridiculous number of photos, not just of these beauties but of Orange and Martagon Lilies, Globe Orchids, Burnt Orchids and all sorts of other flowers. There was just so much to see but soon enough we were off back to the hotel.

That wasn’t the end of the day though. After another thunderstorm, a few of us decided to go for a walk through some meadows above the village. Once again it was all still very wet from the recent rain but this made for a rather nice effect for some of my photos. This one is of a Wood Cranesbill (Geranium sylvaticum).





We also found some lovely Viola tricolor in one of the meadows.




The following day was our last. We packed up and tagged along with the group to their last stop before returning to the airport. The road we had planned to take turned out to have been shut by a landslide. Instead we took a detour into Italy and enjoyed an exceptionally good Italian hot chocolate in a café before driving on up a little side road to stop for one last picnic lunch beside a flowery meadow. The flowers were not as abundant as they had been elsewhere but there were still some nice things including Common Butterwort and German Asphodel in a wet patch.

We said our farewells and went our separate ways having followed one another back into France. Our drive to our hotel for the night took us through some pretty scenery and we stopped near Annecy for a cup of tea beside the road. I couldn’t resist two last pictures to round off the trip before the motorway driving ensued again the following day.

There were some Marbled Whites among a patch of daisies. I love these butterflies and so have included both images here to finish my post with a flash of colour for you to enjoy.