Wildlife in the Changing Andorran Pyrenees

Expedition Briefing


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The Research

In the high slopes of the Pyrenees, climate change has already begun to alter the landscape. Some species are moving to higher latitudes, and some have begun to decline in numbers (Chen et al. 2011, Colwell et al. 2008). The ways humans use the land also causes shifts in the natural order of things, but little research has been done on how people have impacted this particular place. Questions of how climate change and human encroachment continue to alter this alpine world need answers as local organizations work towards sustainable solutions.

Not much is known about the amazing biodiversity of the forests and alpine meadows, and your team will help identify the key species in the ecosystem and how they are changing. Your work will help researchers find out how animals are faring, and how to best manage for key species. Understanding the timing of such processes—the field of phenology—can help scientists learn if species’ life cycles are becoming out of sync with each other, which could have serious consequences for the health of this ecosystem.

Research Aims

Mountain environments are among the most important ecosystems on Earth. Often referred to as water towers because of their downstream benefits to rivers and other essential water systems, mountains also provide other key resources to humans and wildlife alike (Jetz et al. 2004). Your powers of observation will be vital to researchers as they try to answer the basic who, what, when, where, why, and how of this ecosystem: Who (which plants and animals) lives there? What are these species up to? When and where are they observed? Why are some species present in certain areas and absent in others? And finally, how do the life stages of these species intertwine to make this ecosystem function? Together, we will track this incredible diversity of plants and animals and help increase human understanding of the complex network of interactions among them.

Armed with such knowledge, scientists and local organizations can help better manage the fragile environment of the Pyrenees and mitigate the impacts of climate change and other human activities. With an intimate, but also a broad knowledge of the local ecosystem, they can help shape conservation policies to ensure that wild flora and fauna, as well as humans, can thrive.

How You Will Help

This expedition will give you the chance to try your hand at many different field research techniques, focusing on many different species. The activities below may vary depending on the specific needs of the scientists. Specifically, teams will help

  • Large Mammals (spring equipment set-up, summer and autumn expeditions). Will large mammals (ungulates and carnivores) be affected by the abandonment of rural activities and increasing temperatures? Your team will check several camera traps that have been installed in the study region, which continuously take photos of all animals that pass by, and download images. These cameras can offer great insight into the area’s wildlife because they’re installed far from populated and oft-visited regions, so the animals’ behavior is less likely to have been shaped by humans. When you spot wildlife—a raptor soaring overhead, perhaps, or one of the foxes, deer, or alpine chamois that are abundant in the area—the group will stop to make observations. You’ll also walk shorter transects to look for traces of animal activity like tracks and scat.
  • Small Mammal Diversity and Abundance (summer and autumn expeditions). Shrews, mice, and voles are good indicators of biodiversity and the impacts of global warming; while some species will move to higher elevations, abandoning lower elevation territory entirely, others will simply expand their range to include cooler altitudes (Moritz et al. 2008). You’ll keep an eye on how small mammals in these mountains are faring and reacting to environmental changes by helping scientists humanely capture individual mammals, then tag them and record data including weight, age, sex, and breeding condition. You won’t actually handle the critters yourself, but you will get up close to the action to assist the experts as they work.
  • Passerine Birds Phenology (spring and summer expeditions). How will forest birds that live at the tree line be affected by global change? Your team will monitor nest boxes installed throughout the research area to look for signs that birds are using them. Scientists expect breeding patterns to change as a result of climate change, so, keeping an eye on nesting activity will reveal if and when such shifts are occurring.
  • Bird Diversity and Abundance (spring, summer and autumn expeditions). Are birds living at the highest elevations changing their morphological traits? Is bird diversity at these elevations changing? Birds will be banded almost daily at low and high elevations so scientists will be able to calculate changes in the morphology and diversity of alpine bird species, complementing existing data taken by the Andorran government.
  • Bird Diets (spring, summer and autumn expeditions). What do insectivorous birds eat? Does this change over season? Will it change over the years? When captured to be ringed, samples of bird excrement of the two most abundant species (the Coal Tit and the Crested Tit) will be taken to analyse the DNA they contain to assess their diet. We will also sample the abundance of resources in each of the sites where we will band the birds to determine the relationship between resources abundance and fitness of passerine birds.
  • Adult Tree Growth (spring, summer and autumn expeditions). How are trees responding to increasing temperatures? Are their growth rates higher and/or longer, or, due to increasing drought events in the summer months, does growth stop earlier? Two kinds of dendrometers (with different resolutions) will be installed to follow tree growth at low and high elevation. You will help the scientists gather the data from these dendrometers and help review gathered data at the accommodations.
  • Seedling Growth (spring, summer and autumn expeditions). An experiment has been set up to study the growth of Scots and Black pine seedlings at two elevations. Both seedlings species were planted in 2019 at low and high elevations (a total of 1800 seedlings per species), and morphologic measurements will be done during each expedition.
  • Soil Studies (spring, summer and autumn expeditions). How are the changing environmental conditions at high elevations (namely temperature and precipitation) affecting organic matter decomposition (soil respiration)? To answer this important question and calculate carbon balances, we will use a standard methodology to assess soil organic matter decomposition, which entails observing the decrease in mass of tea bags (Keuskamp et al 2013). Teams will collaborate to install the tea bags in May and July, and subsequent teams will collect them in July and September. At the accommodations, tea bags will be cleaned, labeled and classified to be taken to the lab to dry.
  • Using Efficient Search Strategies to Survey Fauna with a Drone (spring, summer and autumn expeditions). We will use a drone equipped with a thermal sensor to test diverse search strategies to assess which is more efficient to survey wildlife.

Due to special environmental conditions during winter, with snow in almost all sampling sites, activities during this period have been adapted. Due to the safety risks of winter storms and strong winds in the region, some activities are dependent on the daily weather forecasts. We appreciate your flexibility and understanding.

The planned activities are as follows:

  • Presence of Large Vertebrates: The team will hike with snowshoes (see Packing List) each day to study areas and look for evidence of vertebrates. This includes both direct observations (for passerine birds, raptors and large mammals), and indirect evidence such as tracks in the snow, markings on vegetation, scat, or feeding rest areas (for small and large mammals). The location, identification and -if possible- activity of each observation will be recorded.
  • Bird Diversity and Abundance: This activity will be the same as the one described above for the spring, summer and autumn teams, but will be adapted for the colder conditions. We aim to know both the diversity and the fitness status of birds that overwinter in the Pyrenees.
  • Bird Diets: This activity will be the same as the one described for the spring, summer and autumn expeditions. The arthropod community that inhabits the Pyrenees in winter is unknown, but will probably be amongst the first to react to increased warming conditions.
  • Searching for the Boreal Owl: The Boreal Owl (Aegolius funereus) is one of the most important small mammal predators in the higher elevations of the Pyrenees, and while its presence has been assessed in other areas, little is known about it in the Ordino valley. We will assess the presence of this important species in our study area, and if we find the owl, we may install special nest boxes for the spring and summer teams.
  • Tracking Environmental Conditions: The government of Andorra has several sensors in the region to monitor the quantity and quality of the snowpack. The team will help CENMA -our local partner- to check some of these sensors and, if needed, download data.
  • Using Efficient Search Strategies to Survey Fauna with a Drone: We will use a drone equipped with a thermal sensor to assess different strategies and their efficiency for surveying wildlife.

Life in the Field


Upon arrival, you’ll receive a safety briefing and a presentation on the goals of the project, and a framework for all the project’s key protocols. When we begin our fieldwork, project staff will introduce and demonstrate each new task; we’ll work with you until you’re comfortable with any new activities. We will also supervise to ensure data quality. Your days in this stunning environment will vary. Sometimes you’ll work at a research site close to home, and on other days you'll venture into the mountains at the highest elevations. Throughout the expedition, you'll see much of the countryside, from wooded mountain sides to quiet valleys and open pastures.


You’ll generally rise early and have breakfast, then head out into the field. You’ll take breaks throughout the day, including a stop for lunch. In the late afternoon, the team will return to the hotel to rest, record data, and/or identify photos of animals taken by camera traps. Evenings will include a communal dinner and time to rest, see local sites, or learn more about the research. On the last night of the expedition, your team will share a special dinner offered by the Ordino municipality to celebrate all you’ve accomplished.

ITINERARY (Spring, summer and autumn expeditions)
  • Day 1: Arrival
    • Arrive at the rendezvous airport (12:00 p.m.) get picked up by the shuttle at 1:00 p.m. (Terminal 1). Travel 3.5 hours from Barcelona to the accommodations in the Valley of Ordino, Andorra.
    • Meet the team, unpack, and settle in before having a group dinner
    • Safety briefing and an Introduction to the research
  • Days 2–4: Training and Field Work
    • Learn field methodologies (carried out directly in the field)
    • Carry out sampling activities
  • Day 5: “Day Off”
    • Help organize collected data, visit sites of cultural interest
  • Days 6–8: Research
    • More data collection and work in the field
    • Special dinner the evening of the 8th day
    • Debrief and discuss how the data collected will be used to better understand and manage the research areas.
  • Day 9: Departure
    • Program close and depart for the airport at 7:30 a.m. The shuttle will arrive at the airport in time for flights departing Barcelona at 2:00 p.m. or later. You will have the option to stop in Barcelona Sants before arriving at the airport.
ITINERARY (winter expeditions)
  • Day 1: Arrival
    • Arrive at the rendezvous airport (12:00 p.m.) get picked up by the shuttle at 1:00 p.m. (Terminal 1). Travel 3.5 hours from Barcelona to the accommodations in the Valley of Ordino, Andorra.
    • Meet the team, unpack, and settle in before having a group dinner
    • Safety briefing and an introduction to the research
  • Days 2–3: Training and Field Work
    • Learn how to work in an alpine environment in winter
    • Carry out sampling activities
  • Day 4:
    • Morning: field work
    • “Afternoon-off”: Either stay at the hotel or go to visit the city “Andorra la Vella”
  • Days 5–6: Research
    • More data collection and work in the field
    • Special dinner the evening of the 6th day
    • Debrief and discuss how the data collected will be used to better understand and manage the research areas.
  • Day 7: Departure
    • Program close and depart for the airport at 7:30 a.m. The shuttle will arrive at the airport in time for flights departing Barcelona at 2:00 p.m. or later. You will have the option to stop in Barcelona Sants before arriving at the airport.

Recreational Time: In most cases, you will have some free time at the end of the afternoon activities and before dinner. You will have the chance to rest and relax in your room or in the hotel lounge, or to use the spa at the hotel (with an extra cost). The hotel also has a gym, so you will be also able to do some stretching there (or exercise more if the day has been too easy for you!!). In case of bad weather, organized groups will visit the surrounding towns, or you will also have the chance to stay at the hotel and help organize some data. During the day-off, the Department of Tourism of Andorra offers a couple of visits to museums in the region, so you will have the opportunity to learn about the history and traditions of this country in the middle of the Pyrenees. In the afternoon, we will visit Andorra La Vella and Les Escaldes, the two most famous cities in the country, full of shops and activities.

Accommodations and Food

* Please note that not every expedition has couples’ or single's accommodations available. Please call or email Earthwatch to check for availability prior to reserving your space(s) on the team.


You will be staying at the Hotel Bringué in the Valley of Ordino, Andorra. Each room is equipped with two beds, so volunteers can expect to share their room with another teammate. Rooms will be split by gender, but couples can easily be accommodated upon request. All rooms are climate-controlled and bedding is provided, along with basic toiletries.

* Earthwatch will honor each person’s assertion of gender identity, respectfully and without judgement. For both teen and adult teams, where logistics dictate single-sex accommodations or other facilities, participant placements will be made in accordance with the gender identity the participant specified on their Earthwatch Participant form and/or preferences indicated in discussions with Earthwatch.


All rooms have hot water showers and conventional toilets. The hotel offers a laundry service with a cost that depends on the quality and quantity of clothes (consider a max cost of 30€). Please bring sufficient clothing to save on washer and dryer costs.


You are welcome to bring electrical equipment. Andorra uses 220–240 volt type F plugs.


The hotel has a spa, a gym, wireless Internet, and access to hiking trails. The accommodations will be the main site for all group activities including meals, presentations, and relaxation time. Feel free to bring cards and board games.


Free Wi-Fi is available at the accommodations. Cell service is also available, but you will have to check with your carrier to set up international calling in advance.

Please note that personal communication with outsiders is not always possible while participating in an expedition. Earthwatch encourages volunteers to minimize outgoing calls and immerse themselves in the experience; likewise, family and friends should restrict calls to urgent messages only.


Research will take place in many different sites within the Valley of Ordino. Elevation ranges from 4,900–8,200 feet, and volunteers should expect varying terrain types and steepness. For any given site, volunteers can expect to drive up to 15 minutes and walk between 30 to 90 minutes to reach each location. Distances will vary depending on the team and research needs.


You’ll eat breakfasts and dinners at the hotel restaurant, which features Catalan and French style food. For lunch, the team will pack sandwiches, fruit, and other snacks to enjoy while taking in the scenery. Goat cheeses are a Pyrenean specialty along with salads, vegetables, and local meats.

The following are examples of foods you may find in the field. Variety depends on availability. We appreciate your flexibility.

Smoking and alcohol consumption are not permitted on teen expeditions

  • Breakfast: Buffet with cereals, fruit, bagels, hard-boiled eggs, cheese, yogurt, coffee, tea
  • Lunch: One sandwich, a picnic tapper with salad, pasta, rice, and fruit (packed lunches prepared for the field)
  • Dinner: Varied menus including salad, pasta, soups, vegetables, meat, fish and desserts
  • Snacks: Fruit, chips, pretzels, granola bars, etc.
  • Beverages: Water (okay to drink from the tap) and different juices. A cup of wine per person is included in the menu. Extra alcoholic drinks are not included.

Please alert Earthwatch to any special dietary requirements (e.g., diabetes, lactose intolerance, nut or other food allergies, vegetarian or vegan diets) as soon as possible, and note them in the space provided on your volunteer forms.

This project can cater to vegetarian, vegan, lactose free, and gluten free diets, but please, we need to know in advance and clearly indicate your preference when filling out your volunteer forms.

Project Conditions

Andorra is a landlocked state bordered by France and Spain in the eastern Pyrenees mountains. It is the sixth smallest nation in Europe. While the official language is Catalan, the project will be conducted in English. Due to its location in the Pyrenees, Andorra consists predominantly of rugged mountains, and the average elevation is 6,500 feet above sea level. Andorra has an alpine and continental climate, and its higher elevation means there is typically more snow in winter, low humidity, and cooler days in the summer.


For weather and region-specific information, please visit Wunderground.com and search for your project location.

Essential Eligibility Requirements

All participants must be able to:

  • Take an active role in your own safety by recognizing and avoiding hazards if and when they arise (including, but not limited to, those described in Earthwatch materials and safety briefings). Comply with project staff instructions and recommended safety measures at all times.
  • Be able to effectively communicate to the staff if you are experiencing distress or need assistance.
  • Be comfortable being surrounded by a language and/or culture that is different from your own.
  • Be able to get along with a variety of people from different backgrounds and ages, often in close proximity, for the duration of your team.
  • Follow verbal and/or visual instructions independently or with the assistance of a companion.
  • Enjoy being outdoors all day in all types of weather in the potential presence of insects and other wild animals.
  • Walk up to 2–8 km per day, over rocky, off-trail, steep (and sometimes very steep) alpine terrain. Elevation gains will vary each day, but they will be around 500m (except in one site, where elevation gain is 900m, where teams are organised accordingly, i.e. not all participants must walk to this site).
  • Carry personal daily supplies such as lunch, water, and some small field equipment while hiking (field material will not be heavier than 1.5 kg).
  • Get up into and down out of a four-wheel-drive vehicle, minibus, or car and ride, seated with the seatbelt fastened.

All winter team participants:

In addition to the above, for the winter expedition, volunteers must be fit enough to walk on snow with snowshoes and walking poles all day in steep slopes. Although not compulsory, we recommend that volunteers practice using snowshoes before the expedition. Daily hikes will be between 2 and 8 km, and elevation gains in winter will also vary each day, but they will typically be around 500m. Participants must provide their own snowshoes and poles. Suggestions for purchase or rental can be found under the Packing List.

Health and Safety


Earthwatch has a 24-hour, 7-day-a-week emergency hotline number. Someone is always on call to respond to messages that come into our live answering service.


Please be sure your routine immunizations are up-to-date (for example: diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus, polio, measles, mumps, rubella and varicella) and you have the appropriate vaccinations for your travel destination. Medical decisions are the responsibility of each volunteer and his or her doctor. Visit the Center for Disease Control and Prevention or the World Health Organization for guidance on immunizations.

If traveling from countries or region where yellow fever is endemic, you must have a certificate of vaccination.

Project Risks and Precautions


Only qualified drivers will transfer volunteers in project vehicles; we ensure project vehicles are well maintained. Seatbelts must be worn at all times. Volunteers are not permitted to drive.

Working at High Altitudes

While most of the project tasks will occur at or below 2,500 meters above sea level, volunteers should be aware that they are working in areas with thinner air and may become tired or out of breath. Be sure to hydrate and take breaks frequently. While altitude sickness is unlikely, project staff will be trained to recognize the symptoms and manage any issues accordingly.


Most activities require walking in an alpine environment during most of the day. Although there will be many stops during these treks, terrain can be steep or very steep in some sections, and off-trail sections are common each day. Volunteers are asked to have some experience hiking in mountain environments.

Getting Lost

Staff will count team members at frequent intervals, and will caution you against going off alone. Please inform project staff if you need a moment away from the team. Volunteers will work in groups of at least two at all times. The scientists take great care to know, at all times, where each volunteer is working, so that volunteers can be located quickly.


Very few animals or plants are dangerous in the region. None of the activities require the manipulation of these species or looking for them, so encounters are likely to be very infrequent. Activities also occur in a region where brown bears live, but the low abundance of this species also makes encounters very rare and unlikely. Volunteers will be taught about these species and what to do in case of encounters.

Personal Security

The region is safe, and volunteers generally do not need to worry about personal security. As a precaution, valuables should not be left in the open and should be stored away when not in use. It is possible to lock valuables in your hotel rooms.

Avalanche (winter team only)

As a special case for the winter expedition, all volunteers will carry an ARVA (avalanche beacon), which will be provided by the organization. Volunteers will be trained on their use on the first day.

Distance from Medical Care

If you have a chronic condition which could require immediate medical care (e.g., heart condition, kidney problems, severe asthma, etc.), or if you are pregnant, please discuss your participation on this expedition with you physician. Some trails are remote, and medical evacuation will be accessible by helicopter only.


Dehydration, heat exhaustion, sunburn, and other heat-related illnesses can occur, but you can protect yourself by drinking sufficient water, wearing high-SPF sunscreen, and wearing appropriate clothing. Dehydration from sweating can be a problem; please bring your own water bottles that you can easily carry and refill them with electrolyte-replacement packets. At high altitudes, there can be quick weather changes and shifts in temperature. Packing layers will be essential each day. In winter, temperatures can be quite low (expect starting temperatures in the morning to be below 0ºC), so please pay special attention to the packing list.

Project Tasks/Equipment

Most activities do not require carrying heavy scientific material, and volunteers will only need to help carry small equipment to the field along with their personal items. A 40 liters backpack will be sufficient.

Travel Planning

RENDEZVOUS LOCATION: Barcelona El Prat Airport (BCN), Barcelona, Spain

* Additional information will be provided by Earthwatch to meet your team. Please do not book travel arrangements such as flights until you have received additional information from Earthwatch.


Earthwatch strongly recommends that travelers investigate their destination prior to departure. Familiarity with the destination’s entry/exit requirements, visas, local laws, and customs can go a long way to ensuring smooth travel. The U.S. Department of State's Traveler’s Checklist and Destination Guides are helpful resources. For LGBTI travelers, the U.S. Department of State's LGBTI Travelers page contains many useful tips and links.


Entry visa requirements differ by country of origin, layover, and destination, and do change unexpectedly. For this reason, please confirm your visa requirements at the time of booking and, again, 90 days prior to travel. Please apply early for your visa (we recommend starting 6 months prior to the start of your expedition). Refunds will not be made for volunteers cancelling due to not obtaining their visa in time to meet the team at the rendezvous. You can find up to date visa requirements at the following website: www.travisa.com.

If a visa is required, participants should apply for a TOURIST visa. Please note that obtaining a visa can take weeks or even months. We strongly recommend using a visa agency, which can both expedite and simplify the process.

Generally, passports must be valid for at least six months from the date of entry and a return ticket is required.


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