Nationalpark Thayatal

2082 Hardegg

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National Park Thayatal
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Spring in the Thayatal

The first snowdrops appear at the end of February, beginning of March. Several weeks later and after a few cold spells, the National Park forest looks like a multicoloured sea of flowers. When snowdrops are in full bloom, liverwort, spring fumewort, daphne, lungwort, primrose and lesser celandine provide a colourful contrast. There are also some early bloomers among the bushes: the steep, south-facing "Überstieg” of the meander mountain is entirely covered in yellow flowering cornel bushes.

Beside the visual charms, the spring forest is also awash with the fragrances of March violets or daphnes. Without the fat bumble bees and the busy bees pollination would not be at its best in early spring! Although there is still some snow left on the ground here and there, the noticeably warmer days draw the first insects out of their winter quarters. Some butterflies such as the brimstone, the small tortoiseshell and the peacock start fluttering over the meadows in bright coloured spots.

Black stork approaching
View from below of flying black stork
Black stork approaching

Sounds of a National Park

Spring has also some acoustic delights to offer: already early March, woodpeckers can be heard calling or "hammering” in the treetops, as they occupy their territories very early in the year. With its large amounts of dead wood, the National Park provides a habitat to eight out of the ten woodpecker species living in Austria. Thus, many trees, in particular along the Einsiedler path, testify to the presence of the black woodpecker.

The cry of the cuckoo, the singing of the wood warbler and the twittering of the blue tit are particularly noticeable. They give a strong-voiced concert - the "spring melody” is omnipresent. Producing loud sounds is a good way to attract attention. At the National Park Centre or near the Kaja Ruin, male toads provide a musical background to the approaching night with their calls, thus attracting female mating partners.

Storks are real messengers of spring among the animals of the National Park: from mid-March the black storks return to the Thayatal from their African winter quarters. They show strong ties to their former aerie, where "couples” from the previous year meet again. In favourable places, the striking birds circle up on warm up winds and glide away elegantly above the Thaya meanders. In Hardegg storks can often be viewed at low altitudes. Most often it can be observed looking for food in the Thaya around the meander mountain.

Flooding at the Einsiedler meadow
High waters flood the Einsiedler meadow
Flooding at the Einsiedler meadow

Spring floods at the Thaya

On a spring walk, the Thaya makes an impressive appearance - sometimes even over its banks. The annual average flow rate of the Thaya amounts to 9.74 m3/sec. near Hardegg. When the snow melts and the ground cannot absorb any more water, spring flooding often occurs in combination with precipitations. The flood waters are normally "intercepted” by the Vranov power plant. However, if the storage lake threatens to overflow, the drains are opened to increase the outflow.

During spring floods, the flow increases to approx. 60 m3/sec and the water level at the water meter below Hardegg goes up to 230 cm. In some places, the water reaches the hiking tracks, which is why the National Park administration will close the Thayatal path or the track through the Kaja valley in particularly critical times.

Summer in the Thayatal

Summer in the Thayatal is an invitation to enjoy the multicolored opulence and let thoughts run free. The summer retreat brings back memories of times when things were cozy and one went barefooted.

In the early morning, the Thaya is shrouded in thick fog, particularly after a rainy night. Dice snakes, Aesculapian snakes, dragonflies and beetles warm up in the first rays of sunlight. Emerald lizards crawl out of cracks in the steep rocky slopes, amidst grasshoppers and butterflies. Those plants that grow on warm, dry rocks are undoubtedly specialists. Some of them, such as the sedum, are able to store water in their thickened leaves, others, like the mouse-ear hawkweed, carry a thick coat of hairs to protect themselves from the sun. In hot weather, the leaves curl up and show their white felted lower side. The same applies here as for the rough pastures in the bottom of the valley: the poorer the soil, the richer the biodiversity.

On the banks of the Thaya wagtails and dippers hunt in black and white, and reddish brown, and those who watch carefully may see the orange-blue kingfisher flashing across the surface of the water.

In a cool valley
A fine mist rises from the waters of the Thaya
In a cool valley

In a cool valley ...

The forest, which runs along the Thaya over steep slopes up to the high plateau, was used despite the steepness. Today one can already catch glimpses of its future wilderness. The thick leaves on the high trees provide a green shelter from the heat. The cold water of the Thaya creates a pleasant cool micro climate. Besides direct cooling down, the river also makes for a constant light breeze, so that even on a hot summer day walks along the Thaya are pleasantly refreshing.

Birds enjoy the forest too. It is full of their song. Melodies and high calls drown out the rush of the Thaya or the ripple of the brooks. Chiffchaff, blackcap, chaffinch and wren accompany hikers throughout the valley. Along the tracks one can see tree frogs and slow worms. And if you look closely enough, you will discover many snails, spiders, springtails, ground beetles, bugs and ants.

Multicolored meadow diversity
Diversity-rich meadow with daisies and campion
Multicolored meadow diversity

Flower meadow and haymaking

As we leave the cool forest, we are greeted by hot air with a surge of meadow scents: tall buttercup, meadow salsify and St. John's wort, purple scabious, lady's bedstraw, red clover, meadow bedstraw, yarrow and wild geranium. The multicolored meadow is full of butterflies accompanied by the chirping of grasshoppers and crickets. Beauty requires grooming: in the National Park mowing is carried out according to nature conservation methods; one part of the meadow always remains untouched. This green island is a refuge for animals; the plants growing there give them food and shelter.

At the National Park Centre the black redstart looks after its nest, the yellow hammer sings all day long and the rare red-backed shrike makes use of the thorny bushes. The herb garden invites visitors to come in for a sniff and with a little luck, you may hear quails calling in the fields in the evening.

In order to protect and sustain all this biodiversity and untouched meadows, forests and river valleys, the Thayatal near Hardegg was declared a national park. Guests are welcome: to look, discover, learn, dream and enjoy.

Colourful autumn and grey November

Autumn has many colours. On a hike in the National Park Thayatal the forest can be seen from its brightest side. Each species of tree tries to attract attention with cheerful colours. One of the most striking ones is the bright orange of the red birch, but the red of the Norway maple and the browns and yellows of other species are also worth a look.

Autumn is a time of harvest also in the National Park. Many seeds and fruit have ripened and are collected by mammals and birds as winter supplies. Visitors to the National Park can get their own taste of nature: blackberries, sloes, hazelnuts, cornel cherries and the seeds of the bagnut look pretty and taste good. In order to leave enough for the animals of the National Park, the motto is: "Tasting, but no picking!”

Meadow saffron
Blooming meadow saffron
Meadow saffron

Meadow saffron

Picking mushrooms is also prohibited in the National Park which enables visitors to enjoy the pretty parasol mushrooms and various boletuses growing along the path. The multicolored meadows have now turned completely green, flowers having withered long ago. There is however one glorious exception: the only flower blooming now, shortly before the first frost, is the light pink meadow saffron. It shows a strange behaviour that is considered as an adaptation to the short summer growing period during the Ice Age. The plant flowers in autumn, but the leaves and fruit only develop in April in the following year. As meadow saffron is toxic, grazing animals do not eat it.

The Thayatal in the mist
Misty Thayatal with rocks and oaks in front
The Thayatal in the mist
After the first frost, when leaves fall to the ground and grey mists descend on the valley, a melancholy feeling spreads through the Thayatal. All the bright colours have gone, grey trees and the dull brown of the leaves dominate the landscape. But a walk can still be enjoyable. Usually there are few visitors and the river exerts a particular attraction even in the dim November atmosphere.

Winter hike through the Thayatal

In many articles on the National Park Thayatal one can see impressive pictures of landscapes. But a winter scene is only seldom to be found among this collection. No wonder, since a hike through the wintery National Park is still an insider's tip.

In December, the wet western wind often provides for a particular climatic phenomenon: thick frost covers trees, bushes and grass in the Thayatal. Long and strange-looking ice crystals begin to develop on needles, leaves and barks. The whole valley is covered in ice, and only at its bottom the warm waters of the Thaya prevent the icy cover.

Equally white but somewhat different does the valley look after a big snow fall. The snow falls softly over the landscape, creating smooth rounded shapes. As the bright colours of the flora have disappeared, the dark shapes of the trees are outlined more clearly. Without leaves, forests suddenly seem more open and transparent.

Otter looking for food
Otter trail with imprints of feet and tail
Otter looking for food

Traces in the snow

Many traces of animals can be found along the tracks, in particular the trails of foxes, badgers and grey herons are easy to recognize. Incidentally winter is a particularly good time for observing fauna. With the increasing cold, animals are less prepared to run away. This means that running distances are growing shorter. It is however important that visitors should not leave the marked tracks. This is the only way for animals to learn that humans are no threat to them.

The power plant in Vranov ensures that the National Park is interesting for many animals in winter. Thanks to the release of a water flow twice a day the Thaya remains mostly ice free. Thus, up to 200 swans find their food in the Thaya. Cormorants, not so popular with fishermen, also often appear in large gangs and dive into the Thaya to catch fish. Kingfishers live on fish too and in the wintery Thayatal, their colourful coat makes a bright spot in the landscape. But another winter guest makes a particularly impressive appearance. Grey herons are startled and flap around excitedly when the mighty sea eagle appears in the sky. With its size and wide wing span it is a stately apparition and with its white tail, it can be easily distinguished from other eagles.

Snowdrops - the first messengers of spring
Flowering snowdrops
Snowdrops - the first messengers of spring
In particularly cold temperatures, the Thaya finally freezes over. The white ice cover above the dark waters is an unusual sight. When the cold subsides, the layers of ice start breaking with loud cracks. Ice plates are pushed together and lie upon each other, creating strange shapes. But with the first rays of sun in spring the magic is over. Long before the last snow has melted, the first spring blooms can be found on the southern slopes.