The diverse habitats harbour 30 different species of orchids, including the slipper orchid and the Adriatic lizard orchid. Sightings of peregrine falcons, cirl buntings, black storks, owls, kingfishers, white-backed woodpeckers and hoopoes are common, while the bee-eater and the white-tailed eagle are frequent guests. The Danube salmon and the nase are among the more than 50 species of fish that thrive in the Danube’s tributaries as well as the river’s calm, protected shallow zones and main bed, which are habitats also for beavers and otters.
The green lizard derives its name from its strikingly intense colour, reminiscent of an emerald. Male members of the species exhibit an especially handsome colouring during the mating season. Found mainly in countries of the Balkan peninsula, this large lizard variety is endangered despite a widespread population. At home at altitudes ranging from 125 to 600 metres, the green lizard, like the Aesculapian snake, favours warm, dry slopes of the kind frequently found in the Wachau.
The peregrine falcon is known to many as the emblem of Federspiel wines. But what many probably do not know is how rare the species is in Austria. The Wachau is one of the regions lucky to still have a few peregrine falcons. These birds prefer to build their nests in the steep cliffs flanking both shores of the Danube. Hunting in flight, the peregrine falcon can dive at speeds of well over 300 kph (180 mph) when pouncing on its prey, other bird species.
Feather grass, also known as orphan maidenhair or Steinfeder, is a species within the grass family. It is found in the Wachau especially in dry grasslands immediately surrounding vineyards. According to custom, the grass is used as a traditional decoration for hats.
One of Europe’s longest snake varieties, it can reach lengths of up to 2 metres. The non-poisonous Aesculapian snake has a shimmering, smooth hide ranging in colour from yellowish brown and olive green to greyish brown. A veritable world-class climber, the species is actually quite useful, preferring a diet mostly of small mammals and especially mice. Preserving areas with deadwood and natural compost, brushwood and leaf piles could support this mouse hunter as it increasingly faces endangerment.
Though still sighted frequently in the Wachau, the praying mantis is an endangered species in Lower Austria. As its larvae require in spring a relatively high supply of prey, the species’ habitat in Central Europe is limited to very warm biotopes. It finds suitable habitats in dry and semi-arid grasslands such as those typical of the Wachau. The praying mantis is directly threatened, however, through farmers’ use of insecticides, which poison the species’ food supply. Fortunately, insecticide use has become virtually unknown in the Wachau, and countless praying mantises can often be observed even on small patches of dry grass. Larger than their male counterparts, females can grow to a length of 75 millimetres. Though myth would have it that the female devours her mate after pairing, this is not necessarily the case: this behaviour is witnessed more often in terrariums, which offer no escape route, but hardly ever in nature.
Also known as the spiked magician, this predatory species can reach a length of 9 centimetres and is one of Europe’s largest and most rare insects. It is the only variety of cricket protected under law in Lower Austria. Usually inhabiting shrubs and grasses growing in calcareous soils, the cricket is equally at home in dry grasslands. Recent sightings have been reported in the Setzberg and Höhereck vicinities. Interestingly enough, its eggs remain in the ground over two winters and often even longer. Later, in early May, the nymphs hatch, in appearance already very similar to adult members of the species.
This bird species is strikingly distinctive, both in appearance and in terms of its call. An insectivore drawn to warm habitats, the hoopoe has grown somewhat in number in recent years and it will be interesting to see how the population develops in the next 10 to 20 years. The hoopoe is probably best recognised by its call – three soft ‘oops’ in rapid succession – and its distinctive appearance.
The original habitat of the rock bunting consists of steep, rocky hillsides with sparse vegetation. In the Wachau it prefers to make its home in the stone walls of the many vineyards, where possibly a third of Austria’s total rock bunting population thrives. A permanent resident, the species can be seen year round but, with its soft call, is more often heard. It is comparable in size to a house sparrow and loves to perch and sing, from the posts and wires supporting vines or from shrubs.
Only in recent years has the cirl bunting been observed to breed in the Wachau, where it is now more prevalent than anywhere else in Austria. Temperate, open landscapes with sufficient low vegetation are its preferred habitat. Next to the rock bunting, it has become a local feature, with currently around 30 to 50 pairs. But the population continues to grow, followed keenly by observers.