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From Red Kites to Egyptian Vultures: Birdlife on the Rivers of Europe


Self-confessed twitcher? The rivers of Europe showcase some of the continent’s foremost birdlife.

Europe’s waterways criss-cross regions of breath-taking natural splendour, guiding you through landscapes free from roads, where nature reigns supreme. And it’s within these remote, peaceful lands that you can encounter the continent’s beloved winged visitors – from pelicans to cormorants, and everything in between.

The beauty of cruising Europe’s rivers is that many birds are attracted to the water, so you stand every chance of seeing a stork snatch a fish from the depths or a swift circling on high with its eye on the fertile riverbank. You’ll also have the perfect vantage point from which to raise your binoculars, with the open-air Scenic Sun Deck granting a 360° view.

So, if you love birdwatching or are keen to learn more about Europe’s precious wildlife, we’re here with a guide to exploring birdlife on the rivers of the continent.

Danube

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With its diverse landscapes, open countryside and fertile delta, the Danube is very much the principal lifeblood of Europe, supporting a huge wealth of life. Hundreds of migratory bird species frequent the banks of the Danube each year, making the river a dream destination for passionate bird watchers.

Here are a couple of birds to look for along the river.

Great White Pelican

white pelican
The great white pelican is a common sight in the Danube Delta – a vast wetland region which extends across Romania to the Black Sea at the mouth of the river. This grand water bird is characterised by its large bill and throat pouch, as well as its pink legs and white/grey plumage. Pelicans can often be seen fishing cooperatively in groups.

White-Tailed Eagle

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The white-tailed eagle is one of the biggest birds of prey in Europe, with a two-metre wingspan and robust 90-centimetre body. Feeding on fish, carrion and small animals like otters, lambs and stoats, this species of eagle ranges widely in the Danube’s remote regions, typically nesting in upland areas. Keep your eyes peeled as you cruise the Wachau Valley in the foothills of the Austrian Alps.

Rhine

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Dense vegetation, undulating landscapes and fertile soils; small wonder the Rhine is one of the best rivers in Europe for birdwatching. As one of the most natural and untouched rivers on the continent, the Rhine provides the perfect environment for a range of bird species – from the little bittern to the black kite.

Little Grebe

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The little grebe is one of the smaller birds to grace the Rhineland, but its rarity makes it a desirable spot for ornithologists. Listen carefully, and you may hear the distinctive ‘bebebebe’ of the little grebe before you see it. The bird lives in dense riverside vegetation and is common within the Rhine floodplain of Rastatt.

White Stork

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There’s a reason white storks appear in classic German nursery rhymes and fairy tales – they’re a common species of wading bird within the Rhineland. With their long legs and sharp-pointed bills, storks are as distinctive as they are beautiful, and are also formidable hunters, praying on everything from frogs to mice, insects to earthworms.

Rhône

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The unique climate of the Rhône makes it a highly bountiful breeding ground for a variety of wildlife, with hundreds of bird species among those who find sustenance on its banks. Warm in the south, cold in the north, the river’s proximity to the French Alps brings unique species to the water’s edge – including rare species that are exclusive to alpine regions.

Here are a couple of species to look for.

European Turtle Dove

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The beautiful European turtle dove is a relatively common species in the Rhône region, its farmland and woods affording an ideal habitat for these shy, cautious birds. The European turtle dove is characterised by its distinctive striped neck and white-tipped tail, as well as its pink breast, which differentiates it from the oriental turtle dove.

Alpine Swift

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The alpine swift favours upland areas, so you’re more likely to see one upstream, where the influence of the Alps is more keenly felt. These elegant birds are twice the size of the common swift, resembling a small falcon in flight thanks to their impressive wingspan. You’ll need to scan the skies to stand any hope of seeing an alpine swift, as they spend most of their lives in the air.

Douro

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The influence of the Atlantic, coupled with the Iberian heat, has had a profound influence on the Douro Valley. The region’s steep, sun-baked valley slopes may appear harsh and unforgiving, but they support a huge diversity of life – including some of Europe’s rarest and largest birds of prey. From Porto to the Spanish border, there are many opportunities to see some of the Douro’s winged visitors; here are a couple to look for along the way.

Egyptian Vulture

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Highly distinctive for its yellow bill and cream-coloured feathering, the Egyptian vulture is a regular fixture in the skies above Iberia. Feeding on carrion, these birds migrate to the Douro Valley during the summer months, where they flourish amid the region’s hot valleys and uplands. With their unique colouring and impressive wingspan, they shouldn’t be that difficult to spot.

Bonelli's Eagle

bonellis eagle
A medium-sized eagle with dark wings and tail contrasting a bright white body. Like many species of eagle, these birds prefer remote areas, and build their nests in ledges, caves and cliffs – small wonder they’re relatively common in the Douro region. A Bonelli’s eagle is characterised by its shallow-fingered wings, which are different to other eagles.

Seine

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The lush vegetation and plentiful wetlands of the River Seine contribute to a region rich in wildlife. Striking out west from Paris, the river passes through distinctly flat landscapes dotted with lakes and streams – many boasting banks which support a wonderful diversity of birdlife.

Below, we highlight two of the wonderful birds you can see during a Seine river cruise.

Great Cormorant

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Conspicuous thanks to its large size and black feathering, the great cormorant is a primitive water bird that’s one of the very best fishers in the world. You’ll often see cormorants standing with their wings out to dry them, or else scooping their great heads into the water to catch fish. Great cormorants can be seen in many parts of the Seine passage, particularly its remote western areas.

Golden Oriole

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The golden oriole is a beautiful blackbird-sized migratory species which can be seen in Normandy in the spring and summer. Males have an unmistakable yellow colouring which makes them easy to spot, though the bird itself is shy and can often be seen hiding in the treetops. Its fluting whistle gives it away, a song you’re more likely to hear at dawn.
Whatever’s on your travel agenda, be it birdwatching or food and drink, a luxury river cruise from Scenic provides the freedom to discover and explore at your leisure. For more information about our award-winning European river cruises, or to book, visit the homepage or call us on 0808 252 0766.