When skiing it is inevitable that we spend a proportion of our time on chair lifts and gondolas. We all fill this time with small talk, discussing the weather and of course what our après plans are for that afternoon, however chairlifts are also a great opportunity for some wildlife spotting! Zermatt along with Randa and Tasch make up one of the largest wildlife areas in Switzerland. There are special areas denoted by green fencing that are off limits to skiers in order to protect this wildlife.
Probably one of the easiest to spot is the Chamois. These are mountain goat-antelopes they are a brown color with short horns that curve backwards (in both males a females) One of the best places to spot them is above the Hublot Express chair lift among the cliffs. The females are found in herds of around 15 to 30, whereas the males a mostly solitary.
Another goat you can find in Zermatt is the iconic Ibex (the symbol for the canton of Grisons) They can easily be identified by there large curved horns. Both the ibex and chamois are able to jump over 6 feet vertically and 20 feet horizontally. Both have adapted to living among the cliffs by being excellent climbers. Their hooves have soft pads on the bottom that mold to the contours of the rocks allowing them to climb what seem like impossible cliff faces.
Photograph from Zermatt Tourism: © Thomas Andenmatten
My personal favorite alpine creature is the Marmot. A large ground squirrel, they are chubby furry and very cute. There is said to be a population of roughly 1000 marmots around the Zermatt area. They hibernate for 7-8 months of the year, during this time they can reduce their heart beat to 3 or 4 beats per minute and may loose almost two thirds of there body weight. However come spring you may see them emerge from their burrows and sun bathe on the rocks (this is actually done to regulate there temperature). According to Zermatt legend they first appear on St Joseph’s day (19th of March). They communicate through clicks, screams and whistles. In fact the Hoary Marmot found in North America is sometimes know as the “whistle pig” and was the inspiration for the renaming of the Whistler resort. In Zermatt you will find a statue of the Marmot on the paradise itinerary run. You will also find a great ski run named Marmot next to the Chamois run of the top of Rothorn that takes you all the way to the Patrularve ski lift. In the Summer there Is a Marmot walking trail that runs from Blauherd to Sunnegga via Stellisee.
A creature you would be very lucky to spot is the majestic Golden Eagle. They have a maximum air speed of 200mph (in a dive) and have have territories of 60 square miles. They guard these territories in their pairs and mate for life. When first attracting their mate the males put on an impressive display where they plummet as close as possible to the ground before spreading their impressive wingspan (which can be up to 2.3 meters) and soar back in to the sky. Spotting one of these incredible birds is a treat to the eye.
Finally if you are heading up the glacier on the furggsattel chair lift if you look to the left hand side you might be lucky enough to spot the illusive park rat. Usually dressed in baggy clothing and sometimes seen wearing a bucket hat they spend a lot of their time hanging in the air upside down.
So next time you are in Zermatt sat on a chairlift and have run out of conversation have a look below and above you and see if you can spot some of the incredible creature the alps have to offer.