Monday, August 24, 2015

Birding Overseas: Alpine Chough on Mt. Pilatus, Switzerland

I've been overseas a couple of times, but not since my intense entry into the birding world. And yet, I can see that I had an interest in birds, as they show up among my pictures of the rocks. In 2007, we were on a journey studying the geology of Italy and Switzerland. One of the highlights (and frustrations), was a gondola ride to the top of Mt. Pilatus near Lucerne, Switzerland, and the subsequent ride down on the what was said to be the steepest cogway in the world. I'm inclined to believe the claim.
The frustration resulted from a perfectly clear day, a first gondola ride part way up in sunshine, and then a terrifying ride in another gondola that disappeared into fog that seemed to appear out of nowhere. At least after an hour or two on the summit, there were enough holes in the clouds that we got a sense of the view, and then it was sunny on the cogway ridge down!
When the clouds were at their worst, I was amused by a flock of birds that hung out along the walkways around the summit. They were crow-like, but obviously not quite the same, given the yellow beaks, and orange legs. I wondered what they were, but no one seemed to know. I was sorting through the pictures the other day and saw the birds, and finally looked them up. They're called Alpine Chough (Pyrrhocorax graculus), and they are indeed members of the crow family. They are a truly alpine species, possibly nesting at higher elevations than any other birds. Their range extends from the high mountain environments of Spain through Europe to the Middle East and into the Himalaya. They have been noted by Everest climbers at elevations as great as 8,200 meters (26,900 ft), and have nested at 6,500 meters (21,300 ft). All of this information is courtesy of Wikipedia, of course.
Mt. Pilatus is kind of a foothill peak next to the Swiss Alps, reaching an elevation of  2,128 meters (6,982 ft), rising steeply above the shores of Lake Lucerne. The peak is either named after Pontius Pilate, who was rumored to be buried there (that seems kind of unlikely), or from the term Pileatus (meaning "cloud-topped"), which seems far more likely, based on my experience.
Pilatus is composed of limestone and other sedimentary rocks that have been pushed up by compressional forces related to the convergence of Africa with Europe. Folds and thrust faults are visible in the cliffs on the upper slopes of the mountain.
It was a fascinating day, made more so by an unusual new bird species...

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