VAL D’AOSTA, GRAN PARADISO, ITALIAN ALPS, 10 - 17 July 2023 with Alan Bernard
Monday 10 July
The snow-capped Alps looked fantastic on the approach to Turin, a fine day and 32° awaiting, as my long-time travelling companion Alan and I negotiated the A5 autostrada easily enough, heading north initially before following the road sharply west towards Aosta. The Cogne signage was poor upon leaving the autostrada, and confusing, but somehow no wrong turns were made as we looked for the ‘sensitive’ site which Mike Prentice had kindly told us about, a lovely spot, but the stiff breeze blowing up the valley made photography difficult – however, the rare endemic Piedmont Anomalous Blue (Agrodiaetus humedasae) was there, as hoped, a great way to start our trip even before we’d reached our first hotel! Other species included an Apollo (Parnassius apollo) and Marbled Fritillary (Brenthis daphne). A Dutch couple, mother and daughter, turned up telling us that Valsavarenche in the next valley to the west was by far the best place to visit (also tipped by Mike), and that they’d found Cynthia’s Fritillary (Hypodryas cynthia) up from Pont, ascending 500m vertical height to a marshy area.
The hotel we’d chosen sat with a majestic mountain view up the Torrente Valnontey valley, Valnontey itself being a small gathering of hotels and cafés at the dead-end of the road running south-west through cobbled Cogne.
Tuesday 11 July
It was sunny and warm as we walked from the hotel up the valley, staying local today after yesterday’s travel, but with lots of people around, walkers, mountain bikers, and lots of butterflies too, although the number of species was modest. Many of the riverside meadows had been cut recently, and that was a shame. Highlights were Titania’s Fritillary (Clossiana titania) once we’d convinced ourselves we weren’t looking at Weaver’s Fritillary (Clossiana dia), it was good to see a Swallowtail (Papilio machaon) at 2,200m and Geranium Argus (Eumedonia eumedon) also. Male Oak Eggars (Lasiocampa quercus) flew mostly in the pine-wooded areas, where a fine Chamois kept its distance. At one point, where a bridge crossed the torrent, an infestation of day-flying White Satin Moths (Leucoma salicis) had stripped several trees in the larval stage.
Wednesday 12 July
Valsavarenche was the destination today with our #1 target for the whole trip being Cynthia’s Fritillary. The destination valley was disappointing being largely agricultural with recent haymaking having taken place but a couple of short stops were made before reaching Pont. At the first, several Apollos were flying and at the second, a few Large Blues (Maculinea arion), but the breeze was troublesome. We pushed on to the car park at Pont, crossed over the Torrente Savara footbridge and made our way to the start of the climb, the ascent strenuous, relentless zig-zagging up through the pines until emerging above the tree-line, but we failed in our quest, unable to find the ‘marshy area’ we’d been told about. A Cranberry Blue (Vacciniina optilete) was our main consolation, and the views of course. This was not a trek we’d have the energy to undertake again!
Thursday 13 July
Lillaz, just to the east of Cogne, was today’s location, it’s lovely flowery meadows disappointingly quiet due to an overcast sky, but new species for the trip included Damon Blue (Agrodiaetus damon), Turquoise Blue (Plebicula dorylas), and Queen of Spain Fritillary (Issoria lathonia). A short detour to the popular Cascades de Lillaz was notable for a False Heath Fritillary (Melitaea diamina) juxtaposed with an ‘ordinary’ Heath Fritillary (Melitaea athalia). Later, after another rain interrupted and generally anti-climactic day, we found our way to the un-signposted Alpine Botanical Garden across the river from our hotel in Valnontey, a very well laid out and maintained venture – we learned the reason for the complete absence of visitor signage is because the local council want too much money for the privilege!
Friday 14 July
Today we’d transit east to our second hotel in St Vincent, picking up the quieter road that runs parallel to the south of the autostrada and Aosta river. A right turn at Brissogne took us into an area of slightly wilder vegetation and a Southern White Admiral (Limenitis reducta) greeted our initial pull-in. The first Wall Brown (Lasiommata megera) of the trip also showed up here. The winding country lanes emerged at Grand Brissogne from where we intended to descend to Neyran before crossing the river and autostrada onto the ‘old road’ to Nus. A hairpin en route, where a stream also crossed under the road, looked promising even on the map, given our experience of these kind of habitats. And we weren’t to be disappointed! A White-letter Hairstreak (Satyrium w-album), succeeded in avoiding being photographed by continuously moving around unhelpfully on the thistle heads, High Brown Fritillary (Argynnis adippe), Purple-edged Copper (Lycaena hippothoe) and Purple-shot Coppers (Lycaena alciphron) were also here, in addition to Woodland Grayling (Hipparchia fagi) (assumed as genitalia not inspected), a solitary Marbled Skipper (Carcharodus lavatherae) even came into the car, as Pearly Heath (Coenonympha arcania), and others, all put in an appearance. You can’t beat serendipity!
Saturday 15 July
The plan today was to explore the long valley leading north to the ski station at Breuil-Cervinia but the experience was disappointing, the meadows already cut all the way up with no obvious pull-offs. Stop #1 was taken about 2km from the town and even though we found some uncut hillsides, the butterflies weren’t abundant. Large Ringlet (Erebia euryale), possible Eros Blue (Polyommatus eros) and a definite Green-veined White (Artogeia napi), plus the usual confusion about Titania’s and Weaver’s Fritillaries, occupied our time. On the return leg, we took a diversion off the main road to the left just after di Sotto to a road running parallel down to St Vincent. This turned out to be a very quiet wooded lane and we stopped by the Pemana junction. Immediately, Great-banded Grayling (Kanetisa circe) and Woodland Graylings were seen charging around, sitting conspicuously on tree trunks. A Bath White (Pontia daplidice) visited Scabious flowers, and a weary Peacock (Inachis io) sat forlornly on the road.
Sunday 16 July
One of the hotel’s fantastic breakfast staff suggested we should stay local today, partly to dodge the potential showers that were forecast, and take the ‘panoramic route’ north of the town. We took her advice. Having eventually puzzled-out the spaghetti of narrow lanes up the mountainside north of the town we took the left fork to Nissad and most of the morning spent there where the tarmac ended. Escher’s Blue (Agrodiaetus escheri) and Red Underwing Skipper (Spialia sertorius) were new for the trip and I was pretty sure a Mazarine Blue (Cyaniris semiargus) was there too. Great Sooty Satyrs (Satyrus ferula) and Marbled Whites (Melanargia galathea) were ‘everywhere’, as usual on this trip, and Large Wall Brown (Lasiommata maera) was also seen every day.
Monday 17 July
Today’s forecast was for 34° for our last full day, another ski station at St Jacques in the next parallel valley to the east, the valley replicating the disappointing agricultural nature of the Cervinia route of two days ago. We didn’t stop until the road ran out in the packed car park at St Jacques, impressed with the free parking 'honesty' system in operation. Our last day was largely spent checking-out Large Ringlets in the pine forest in the vain hope that something else might be flying with them but not a lot was, apart from a Large Blue and Chalkhill Blue (Polyommatus coridon). The Groisetta cable car was on its extended lunch break when we pulled into the car park dashing any thoughts we had of a high altitude end to the trip, thereby advancing our planned return to St Vincent, but the one and only Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui) of the trip called-in briefly to say hello. Cutting across from Brusson over the Col le di Joux, where we made our final stop, a Grayling (Hipparchia semele) immediately welcomed us and played ‘hide and seek’ on the pine tree trunks and stumps, with Almond-eyed Ringlet (Erebia alberganus), Chapman's Blue (Polyommatus thersites), and a Heath Fritillary putting in a final appearance.
Although we recorded a total of 84 species on the trip there was a feeling that butterfly numbers had been low, not helped by the extensive haymaking: clearly, our timing could have been more inspired!
This trip report is largely a reproduction of my article in the Autumn 2023 Newsletter of the European Butterfly Group.