The Fantastic Big Five and Where to Find Them
Searching for marmots.
1. Ibex | Kaunergrat Nature Park
If you want to be in with a good chance of seeing an ibex, there is no better place than the Kaunergrat Nature Park. Visitors who wish to be 100% sure can pop into one of the nearby souvenir shops, admire the frescos on local houses depicting animals from the region, or simply take a look at the Kaunertal Valley’s coat of arms featuring a mighty ibex. The Kaunergrat Nature Park is, however, also one of the best places to see an ibex in the wild. Since being reintroduced to the region in 1953, their population numbers have grown steadily. Today there are around 1,200 ibex in the Kaunergrat Nature Park, making it home to the largest colony anywhere in Austria. With so many around, the chances of seeing one are pretty good. We recommend the hike to the Rüsselsheimer Hütte. The shimmering Pitztal Glacier provides a more than impressive backdrop – and amateur photographers with a powerful lens will be able to take some incredible photos. From the Pitztal Valley, the ascent to the Rüsselsheimer Hütte (2,323 metres) takes around two hours. With 700 vertical metres to overcome from bottom to top, it requires good fitness – but the rewards make it worth the effort. Up at the hut, owner Florian Kirschner serves delicious ibex meat carefully prepared. And just in case you weren’t lucky enough to see one in the wild, on the your way back you can stop off at St. Leonhard, where a new Ibex Centre opened this spring featuring an exhibition all about this iconic alpine animal as well as an enclosure with a family-friendly learning trail.
Did you know…?
Despite being a relatively heavy animal, the ibex is an outstanding climber. This is thanks to its hooves, which are a little like modern rock-climbing shoes: soft in the middle with plenty of grip, hard around the edges for leverage.
Equipped with the basics…
… we head out into the Hohe Tauern National Park with a ranger to explore the area around the Großglockner mountain in search of the Big 5.
2. Vulture | Tiroler Lech Nature Park
A sensational discovery was made last year in the Tiroler Lech Nature Park: a vulture’s nest, complete with a young bird in it. Until then, the Hohe Tauern National Park was the only known place in Austria with a population of breeding vultures. With the discovery of this new nest, the Lechtal Valley is now more than ever a hotspot for ornithologists. Of the 150 bird species native to Tirol, 110 can be found in the Tiroler Lech Nature Park. It is little wonder that this region in the far west of Tirol has been declared an Important Bird Area of international significance. Details of where the nest was found have not been released in order to protect the birds, but there is still a decent chance of seeing the vultures during a visit to the nature park. With a wingspan of three metres, the largest bird of prey in the Alps is hard to miss! A good place to start your search is the bird adventure trail in Pflach. It is a great place to see rare species native to the alpine region, including the rosefinch and the kingfisher. The trail includes an 18-metre-high viewing tower. Leaving from the „Innovationszentrum“ in Pflach, the trail leads towards the Lech river and then its banks. The terrain is flat, and the circular route brings you back to where you started in about one hour. Those in search of a challenge can hike up to the Säulinghaus (1,720 metres, 2 hours). Last but not least, don’t miss out on the chance to visit the meandering Lech river. One of the last remaining wild river landscapes in Central Europe, it lies at the heart of the Tiroler Lech Nature Park
We weren’t lucky enough to see a vulture on our visit, but we certainly know what they look like.
Did you know…?
The word for vulture in Spanish is „Quebrantahuesos“, meaning „bone breaker“. The name comes from the fact that vultures can often be seen dragging away a dead animal, carrying it into the sky and then tossing it against a rock in order to break its bones and eat the nutritious bone marrow inside.
3. Marmot| Ötztal Nature Park
Admittely, the Ötztal Nature Park isn’t the only place in Tirol where you will find marmots. This cuddly brown alpine resident can be found in many spots at altitudes above 900 metres, but we still recommend the Ötztal Valley as a good place to combine hiking and observing marmots in their natural habitat. One of the best mountains in the area for this is the Hoher Mut (2,670 metres) offering fantastic views of no fewer than 21 mountains over 3,000 metres. The landscape here really is picture-perfect: lush meadows giving way to craggy mountains capped with shimmering glaciers. If you listen carefully, you may well be able to hear the unmistakable whistling sound of the marmots. We recommend leaving from the village of Obergurgl and making your way up past the Zirben-Alm hut and through the stone pine forest, since 1963 a UNESCO biosphere reserve. In the forest, keep your eye out for a permanently installed telescope. It was set up to observe „bears, cats and apes“, the terms used by hunters to refer to male, female and young marmots. From the forest, it is then not far to the top of the Hoher Mut. On the way you will pass the Schönwieshütte, another hut serving food. If you do stop off there, make sure you try a „Gretscheler“ – a local pine schnapps distilled in the region. It takes around two hours to walk back down again. Alternatively, you can take the cable car – maybe depending on how many „Gretscheler“ you’ve had!
Did you know…?
Marmots hibernate in winter – for up to nine months! During this time they may breathe as little as twice a minute.
Searching for marmots.
4. Eagle | Karwendel Nature Park
Tiroleans have a somewhat paradoxical relationship to the eagle. On the one hand, the bird is revered as the „King of the Skies“, a symbol of courage, freedom and far-sightedness. On the other hand, it was mercilessly hunted and poisoned for hundreds of years as a hunting competitor and a possible threat to the sheep, cows, goats, etc. essential for farmers. Thankfully, despite the best efforts of local people in centuries past, the eagle has survived until today – a few nests proved too high and too remote for humans to destroy. Since 1925 eagles have been protected by law – and the population has grown accordingly. The Karwendel Nature Park is one of the areas in Tirol with the most breeding pairs – 14 – making it the number one breeding terrain in the Alps. Visitors hoping to catch a glimps of an eagle should try the hike onto the Feilkopf mountain (1,562 metres), which leaves from Pertisau on the shores of Lake Achensee and takes around three hours to the top. Those who want to increase the chances seeing an eagle can book a guided walk with a ranger from the Karwendel Nature Park. The rangers know the area inside out and are happy to share their extensive knowledge about these wonderful birds.
Did you know…?
In the first few years of life, eagles have mostly dark feathers with just a few patches of white. It is only at the age of 6 or 7 years that they develop their disctinctive brown-and-yellow feathering. This is why adult eagles are known as „golden eagles“.
Scale drawings of a vulture and an eagle.
5. Chamois | Zillertal Alps Nature Park
The Zillertal Alps Nature Park stretches from the valley floor to the high mountains – from the lowest to the highest point there is a difference in altitude of around 2,500 vertical metres. As you can imagine, these diverse vegetation and climate zones are home to a wide range of animals. For chamois in particular, the nature park with its mix of high-alpine rocks and thick, lush forests is a perfect habitat: in summer the animals enjoy searching for herbs and shoots in between the rocks, while in winter the forest offers some much-needed protection from the elements. We recommend the hike to the Grüblspitze mountain (2,395 metres) to observe these incredible climbers in their natural habitat. Watch in awe as they sprint up seemingly vertical rock faces as soon as they hear the slightest noise. Despite the treacherous terrain, chamois can reach speeds of up to 50km/h. The hike to the Grüblspitze mountain can be either easy or challenging, depending on whether you take the Eggalmbahn cable car up or complete the first section on foot. From the top of the cable car there is a wide trail winding its way through lush pastures along the foot of a mighty wall of rock. Here you are most likely to see female chamois with their young – males spend most of their time alone and only search out females during the breeding season.
Did you know…?
The „chamois beard“, a tuft of soft hair often sported proudly by hunters on their hats, comes not from the chin of the chamois but instead from its back.
ibex in our sights.
Bonus | Hohe Tauern National Park
Tirol is home not only to five beautiful nature parks but also to one stunning national park: the Hohe Tauern National Park, at 1,856 square kilometres the largest nature reserve in Central Europe. It is home to more than half of the animal species native to Austria, including all of the Big Five. That means with a bit of luck you may be lucky enough to see ibex, vulture, marmot, eagle and chamois all in one day. One of the best places for nature watching is the Ködnitztal Valley, for example on a hike at the foot of the Großglockner to the Glorer Hütte. A good place to start this walk is at the Lucknerhaus, a mountain lodge at the end of the Kalser Glocknerstraße road. The foundations of the national park date back to the early 20th century. Today, the park has an Outer Zone and an Inner Zone. The Inner Zone is subject to particularly strict rules aimed at preserving the area’s natural beauty and minimising the impact of humans. It was in the Hohe Tauern National Park that the first young vultures were resettled as part of an Alps-wide project. The park’s rushing streams and rivers are home to an ancient species of trout, and there is a stable population of eagles. The Hohe Tauern National Park is very large, so we recommend booking a ranger. Regular guided walks and hikes are available.