TRIP REPORT, STELVIO NATIONAL PARK, NORTHERN ITALIAN ALPS, 11-18 JULY 2017
Tuesday 11 July
Arrived Bergamo on time and picked up the Enterprise hire car, an Audi A3, perfect for the job ahead. By 12.30 we were heading NE on the SS42, a slow, busy single carriageway road, searching for a lunch stop. A salad and coke at a cheerful roadside café duly sufficed.
At Cividate Camuno we took the left turn towards Borno, a site Alan had gleaned from his research. Just through Malegno we stopped in a pull-in and found our first butterflies of the trip - a passing Scarce Swallowtail (Iphiclides podalirius), Idas Blue (Plebejus idas) and Common Blues (Polyommatus icarus), a single Great Sooty Satyr (Satyrus ferula) and others. After a good half hour or so we returned to the SS42 and continued north towards Edolo experiencing a heavy rain shower around Ponte di Legno. The left turn up the Gavia Pass was made in rain on a narrow single track road through the forest necessitating a couple of awkward reversing manoeuvres on Alan's part. At the summit, 2,652 metres, the temperature gauge was reading 9°! Nevertheless, we parked up and went into the Rifugio Bonetta for a hot chocolate then out for a short wander in the cool breeze (even though the sun was hot) and saw a wind-blown Fritillary shoot by, probably a Shepherd's. The Hotel Vedig in Santa Caterina Valfurva was reached at 6pm, a very well appointed and friendly place and our first Moretti beers slipped down well at 6.40. Dinner was excellent aided by a shared full bottle of red wine.
Wednesday 12 July
Slept well, not surprisingly. Got up at 7.20 on a lovely sunny morning for breakfast at 8. At 9.30 we walked from the hotel with our packed lunches down into the town and took a path to the north to explore the opposite hillside. A mix of meadows and woodland provided a proper taste of what was to come but at 1,600m the air was cool despite the hot sun. We stayed all day taking it easy after yesterday's journey and began to puzzle out the plentiful erebias. A Marbled Ringlet (Erebia montana) was the highlight on the way back. A cup of tea in town on the way back delayed our return to the hotel until 6.15pm and then it was the usual routine of shower, beers + crisps and peanuts, dinner, and bed.
Thursday 13 July
Usual start. Sunny again but with some cloud. My turn to drive today, off at 9.10 up the Gavia Pass the summit only 12k away. But several stops would be made en route, the first still amongst the pines a short way out of town. Erebias met us here and a solitary Chequered Skipper (Carterocephalus palaemon) turned up but otherwise it was quiet. Further up the road on the hairpin at the start of the track to Tagliamento we pulled in again and had a great time in the open meadow and on flowery hillside. Alpine Heath (Coenonympha gardetta), Moorland Clouded Yellow (Colias palaeno), and Niobe Fritillary (Argynnis niobe) were there. Stop 3 was made on the major hairpin at Malga dell Alpe, another great spot. Here were Small Apollo (Parnassius phoebus) in good number, Glandon Blue (Plebejus glandon), and Alpine Grayling (Oeneis glacialis) amongst others, all very exciting. The final stop before the summit was made just before Rif Berni and Alpine Blue (Plebejus orbitulus) and Swiss Brassy Ringlet (Erebia tyndarus) got added to the list. By the time we reached Rif Bonetta it was lunchtime and we each chose Goulash soup, and excellent it was too. Bikers and cyclists milled around.
After lunch we crossed the road and wandered the hillsides but it was breezy and butterflies were hard to pursue though Shepherd's Fritillary (Boloria pales) was confirmed. Being a bit disappointed we decided to go down the south side of the Pass in the hope of finding something better but pull-in places were few and far between. Eventually a large car park appeared on the right, just through the first tunnel and we stopped there. A Mnestra's Ringlet (Erebia mnestra) was identified but not much else. The views across the deep valley were stunning. So we returned to the Malga dell Alpe hairpin for another look: at one time there were 6 Small Apollos in view simultaneously along with Mountain Fritillaries (Boloria napaea) and Al found what he thought was a female Marbled Ringlet (Erebia montana), but we couldn't be certain.
Friday 14 July
As the forecast for today wasn't looking too clever we decided to visit Oga Bog, courtesy of Greentours trip reports. I was delighted and amazed to navigate Alan through Bormio to Oga without cocking-up. The bog wasn't so much a bog as a set of flowery ski slopes separated by stands of pine but the presence of Sanguisorba attested to a previous boggy status presumably before it got drained. The Dark Green Fritillary (Argynnis aglaja) population here was impressive, supplemented by Niobe Fritillary (Argynnis niobe) and a single Pearl-bordered Fritillary (Boloria euphrosyne). Alan persevered with a Piedmont Ringlet (Erebia meolans), our first of the trip, and a Black-veined White (Aporia crataegi) similarly turned up. A few drops of rain had me fishing out my ziplock bag, but nothing materialised. Photography was difficult here due to the long waving grass.
Lunch turned into a saga as we searched in vain for somewhere to eat. The main road south from Bormio, joining it beyond Valdisotto, seemed like a good idea, but it wasn't, and way down through the tunnels at La Presse we decided we'd gone far enough and made our way back on the old road. A campsite restaurant (already eyeballed) outside Valdisotto failed to pull us in so we continued into the town looking for something better. The Hotel Cepina seemed to be just the place. But it wasn't doing lunches! So how about that campsite restaurant/café? Third pass lucky maybe? Would they still be doing food at 2pm? They were, and two giant pizzas came to the rescue. This was a typical trip cock-up but we still spoke to each other!
The nearby road up to Massaniga looked to have potential but all the meadows had been recently cut so we tootled back down stopping a couple of times and picked up a lovely Silver-washed Fritillary (Argynnis paphia form valezina), a male Brimstone (Gonepteryx rhamni) and a Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta). On the way back past Bormio a gelato and cuppa were enjoyed in San Nicolo - we deserved them! Finally, c 4k out from Santa Caterina, we explored a track running along the Frodolfo riverbank - a Small Apollo (Parnassius phoebus) and Black-veined White (Aporia crataegi) indicated good things here - and got back to the hotel c6.20pm.
Saturday 15 July
Set off at 9am on a cool, grey morning, heading for the Stelvio Pass. The road up from Bormio was like a race track, full of cyclists and bikers, and I wasn't too far off an encounter with a down-coming black-leathered version of Steve McQueen. An hour later we parked up and were shocked at the 4° temperature, donned fleeces and shivered our way into the centre at 2,760m to find a coffee! This certainly is a unique type of place, throbbing with motorbikes and milling people. Having bought 5 postcards it was time to go looking for some butterflies (yes, really). No more than 300m out of town we dropped into a pull-in and with zero expectations but found Shepherd's Fritillaries (Boloria pales) and Blind Ringlet (Erebia pharte) flying in low single figure temperatures. Shivering, it was good to get back into the car to look for our next stop. This came about 400m from Malgadi Bormio along one of the fast straight stretches where motorbikes came screaming by at God knows what speed. But what a stop! Still cold, and with little sun, we found a strong colony of Purple-edged Coppers (Lycaena hippothoe) down a drainage channel, Eros Blues (Polyommatus eros), Mountain Clouded Yellows (Colias phicomone), Swiss Brassy Ringlets (Erebia tyndarus), Silver-spotted Skippers (Hesperia comma), Mountain Fritillary (Boloria napaea) and Shepherd's Fritillaries (Boloria pales). We stayed here until it was time to eat our packed lunches in the car, still fleeced-up. Five middle-aged male German bikers joined us in the pull in and one of them said to me 'Do you speak English?' to which I replied 'Yes, I am English!' He wanted me to use his phone to take a group photo and we had some fun when I asked them 'are you all smiling?' A really nice encounter!
The first stop of the afternoon was a couple of hundred metres down the road to look at the First World War displays and to read how the poor bastards at the time had to endure winter on these peaks and ridges. Butterflies were sought at 2,176m just before the series of short, tight hairpins and despite the cool stiff breeze we found in a relatively sheltered gully Glandon Blue (Plebejus glandon) and Alpine Blues (Plebejus orbitulus), Olive Skipper (Pyrgus serratulae) and Silver-spotted Skippers, Small Apollo, Arran Brown (Erebia ligea), Shepherd's and Mountain Fritillaries. Finally, I pulled in across the road facing Balacche del Braulio at 1,983m but there was little doing in sunless conditions apart from a single Blind Ringlet and a couple of Mountain Clouded Yellows passing through. That was it now for the mountains as the rest of the descent was through tunnels and hairpins with no parking opportunities.
In different habitat through the tunnel at 1,454m below the vast scree of Cima di Reit we stopped to take a look - and was it warm?! Fleeces off for the first time today! And t-shirts too!! The footpath across the road and running parallel to it produced Pearly Heath (Coenonympha arcania), Small Skipper (Thymelicus sylvestris) and Knapweed Fritillary (Melitaea phoebe), all new to the trip. A pleasing end to a remarkable day. Reached the hotel c6.20 and fell into the usual routine but after dinner a local Grappa Tellina finished things off nicely.
Sunday 16 July
Awoke to a cloudless sky that stayed with us all day. Set off just after 9am for Val Viola but unable to proceed initially due to road closure for a bike race, so we had to park and await clearance from the police. At 9.45 we were able to get away and arrived at the entrance to the Val an hour later. The 4 car parks distributed up the valley were all bulging but we managed to find a space in P1 so took it. A Swallowtail (Papilio machaon gorganus) flew past and in rich vegetation we found False Heath Fritillary (Melitaea diamina), Adonis Blue (Polyommatus bellargus) and Chalkhill Blues (Lysandra coridon), and so on but the road was limited and devoted to holiday homes so we decided to risk it and go higher. On the way we were stopped by a Warden coming the other way who told us to turn around as all the other car parks were full. Alan wanted to rush back to re-occupy our vacated space but I didn't, saying it had probably already gone. Push on and ignore the Warden. I said. P2 and P3 were full. But by a real stroke of luck there was a single space in P4 and I felt relieved, and vindicated! However, our walk up the valley was very busy mostly with Sunday easy-walking pedestrians and some mountain bikers and therefore not great for butterflyling as getting off the road wasn't easy. Above the 'erebia zone' it became quieter still though the scenery was great. Marsh Fritillary (Euphydryas aurinia ssp debilis) and possibly glaciegenita was the highlight here. On our return the car parks were emptying and so we parked again in P1 and returned to our morning's spot. In a late afternoon sunspot a Large Blue (Phengaris arion) was found and maybe a Grison's Fritillary (Melitaea varia) albeit unlikely. Back at the hotel by 6.10pm and after dinner tried another grappa, this time the local Sforzato (but couldn't tell the difference from Tellina).
Monday 17 July
Another sunny start. Off at 9, me driving, back up to Stelvio. But today the road was relatively quiet and we arrived at the top after only 50 minutes with the temperature a more respectable 12.5°. Driving had been a pleasure. We stayed at a couple of places above 2,500m until packed lunch time in the car, latterly being very close to the completely unmanned Swiss border post. Although butterflying had been quiet we came across a small colony of the rare Grison's Fritillary which seemed to occupy a damp area of no more than c 100sq metres. On our way back we stopped at the Malgadi Bormio site and found the same fayre as before.
Once through Bormio we stopped at the river path outside Santa Caterina but it was disappointingly quiet. So we carried on through the town following the river-tracking road up to the car park 5k along the road by the impressive Rif dei Formi perched atop its hill. We had discovered a bit late in the day a potentially great starting point for future excursions but that'll have to await another day, or never. A single old female Geranium Argus (Aricia eumedon) was found, almost inevitably and as it usually is, amongst the wild geraniums. Got back to the hotel around 6pm and I popped back into town to post the cards before slipping into the standard evening routine. Tried grappa #3 after dinner, this time Gramello, tasting just like the other two. To the room just before 10, packed, and was in bed half an hour later.
Tuesday 18 July
Got away before 9am on another sunny morning, much better than forecast, with the aim of taking our time to get down to Bergamo by 4.30pm. Apart from some landscape shots, our first stop was at the sharp hairpin but a cool breeze wasn't helpful. Small Apollo were there as were most of the species seen previously. So we pushed on over the Pass and stopped a couple of times on the descent without much success. The road narrows to single track through the tree line making passing tricky but traffic was light - this is a beautiful route. We then stopped towards the valley floor at the Val di Messi parking up about 1k NW of Pezzo and picking up a Titania's Fritillary (Boloria titania), an unexpected gem. Continuing to the SS42 and leaving the magnificent mountains behind Alan pulled in to the side of the road just after Edolo and followed a track running parallel to the road where a Speckled Wood (Pararge aegeria) turned up in classic habitat.
Lunch at the same café we'd used on the way up consisted of two different tagiatellis and a coke after which we resumed the journey dropping down to Lago d'Iseo at the picturesque town of Riva di Solto. In a pull-in just beyond the town we stopped again and saw another valesina, a Southern White Admiral (Limenitis reducta) and Great-banded Grayling (Brintesia circe) to bring the trip tally to 81 species. Just prior to rejoining the SS42 we changed into our travel clothes and carried on our way eventually dropping off the car at the airport around 4.10pm in heavy heat. The check-in and security processes were pretty standard cattle management and once airside a final Moretti slaked our thirsts. The flight left on time in a brand new 737-800 and arrived at Stansted 10 minutes early despite making a tedious loop before landing. The automatic passport machines caused a slight blockage as newcomers learned what (not) to do, but having picked up our cases and the car key - I do like the Stansted Meet & Greet process - we were driving away at 8.10. A thunderstorm was brewing as Alan gulped down a cuppa with a slice of cake and departed promptly for Dorset.