The little bird in my hand looks as delicate as glass. I take a deep breath, focus on the bright yellow streak above its eyes, and think hard about the instructions I’ve been given: Hold the legs firmly but gently between your fingers, and cup your other hand underneath. Then release your grasp.
When I do, the goldcrest—the smallest songbird in Europe—takes flight and disappears over the craggy peaks of the Pyrenees.
I’m standing in a lush mountain meadow in a country many Americans don’t even know exists: Andorra. The name conjures a mythical land of enchantment where sprites and fairies frolic. But Andorra is in fact a real place where travelers can help with real science.
I’ve joined a small band of volunteers on a nine-day expedition run by the 51-year-old nonprofit Earthwatch, which sends do-gooders around the globe to assist with research, whether it’s ancient archaeology in Italy or rhino conservation in South Africa.
Here in Andorra, a microstate tucked into the folds of the Pyrenees mountain range between France and Spain, ecologist Bernat Claramunt-López is on an ambitious mission: a multiyear study of virtually all parts of the fragile alpine ecosystem—from microscopic soil organisms to towering pine trees—to determine the effects of climate change.
While the most obvious one is the melting of glaciers, less is known about the impact on plants, animals, and their intricately connected webs. The results of his study are expected to shape conservation policies in Andorra and beyond.
But Claramunt-López can’t do it alone. He relies on volunteers, also known as citizen scientists. Since his project began in 2016, they’ve contributed some 15,000 hours of work. “More hands in the field means more data, and in science we need data,” he says.
Equally important for him is the opportunity to break down barriers between science and the public. Distributing research solely through scientific papers is not enough, Claramunt-López says. “I can share what I know, or what we discover in this project, directly to the society.”
For the volunteers, it’s a chance to discover a destination in ways that take them far off the typical tourist track and to connect with people from varied backgrounds—all while contributing to research that aims to protect the planet. In other words, to travel with a purpose.
Lakes, valleys, and peaks
Since there are no airports or train stations in Andorra, a 181-square-mile country that feels taller than it is wide, I meet my fellow volunteers in Barcelona for the September 2021 expedition. Tricia Harris, a London-based project manager at a high-tech company, and Tim Hoffman, an engineer who makes parts for the U.S. Navy in Lexington, Massachusetts, are vaccinated, masked, and mountain ready in hiking pants and boots.
Both are volunteer-travel devotees, but neither have been to Andorra. I hadn’t known anything about the place until I first joined this expedition in 2017. As our bus rolls into Andorra and we’re surrounded by emerald green mountainsides, I wonder how a country that’s so old and so beautiful can be so far off Americans’ travel radar.
Founded in 1278, Andorra is the world’s only country whose official language is Catalan and the only one that’s a co-principality. It’s officially led by the Bishop of Urgell, in Spain, and the president of France, though most power now resides with the elected parliament.
With its jagged peaks, forested valleys, and crystal-clear glacial lakes, Andorra does indeed draw visitors, mostly from other European countries. Many of them hit the ski slopes or hike the trails that range from family-friendly afternoon jaunts to serious multiday treks where mountain huts provide rustic accommodation.
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Cultural sites such as the Casa Rull house museum, a time capsule of village life in the late 19th to early 20th centuries, and the 1842 Rossell iron forge, offer windows into the country’s hardscrabble past. Luxuries of the present can be found in the capital city of Andorra la Vella, home to southern Europe’s largest thermal spa and a wealth of low-tax shopping opportunities.
But for Claramunt-López, the allure of Andorra lies in its natural landscapes. The lean 53-year-old has been roaming the Pyrenees since he was a boy growing up in Catalonia. “I studied biology because I wanted to be in the mountains watching birds and plants and nature,” he says.
Now he’s the coordinator of the Network for European Mountain Research and, as a researcher at the Center for Ecological Research and Forest Applications at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, where he also teaches, he leads some nine expeditions a year in Andorra.
Exploring alpine biodiversity
On our first workday, we wake before the sun rises over El Serrat, a stone village in northwestern Andorra where the family-run Hotel Bringué serves as our base camp. Along with Claramunt-López and two field technicians—biologists Jana Marco, from Alicante, Spain, and Oriol Palau, based in Catalonia—we stuff our backpacks with the day’s necessities: tape measures, nets, ropes, poles, calipers, notebooks, computers, sandwiches.
Because this is the first expedition since the pandemic shutdown, and there are fewer volunteers than the usual eight to 12, we have a lot to do.
To cover more ground, we pair off, one volunteer with one scientist, and tackle different tasks. Marco and I get small-mammal duty. We must check a plot where humane live traps have been installed to assess the animals’ diversity and abundance. A drive along a twisty, barely-two-lane road takes us to a meadow threaded by small streams. I follow Marco as she skips and hops across it, her dark ponytail swinging, to reach the first trap of 36 arrayed along a hillside slick with dew.
We each take a line, finding the metal boxes in their hiding places near a rock pile or grassy mound and looking for a closed door, which could mean a critter, such as a garden dormouse or snow vole, is inside. After a few minutes, I excitedly shout “closed!” Marco rushes over and gently opens the door. Alas, the trap is empty, as are the others. Disappointed but undaunted, Marco leads the way up the mountain to the main research site of the day.
About an hour later, we arrive at a high-elevation plateau. Located at the tree line near a glittering glacial lake, it gives us sweeping views over the Ordino Biosphere Reserve, a 33-square-mile zone recognized by UNESCO for its ecological diversity and protection of declining species, such as the bearded vulture.
(Here are some other ways volunteer scientists are making a difference.)
First we collect the remote cameras so they won’t be damaged over the winter. The photos will be reviewed later for the numbers and types of animals caught in the frames, likely red foxes, chamois, roe deer, wild boar, marmots, and a fair showing of free-range horses.
To reach each of the five far-flung camera traps, we crisscross the mountaintop, navigating steep spots where we grasp clumps of grass or edges of rock to pull ourselves up. When I balk at one particularly sketchy section, Marco grabs my hand and steadies me across it.
We then locate the black pine trees wrapped with a metal dendrometer band, record their growth, and check bird nest boxes before hiking down along a rushing stream to join the rest of the group on a grassy slope.
Marco, who’s equipped with a special bird banding license, shows us how to set up the mist nets. Then she presses play on a recording of bird calls, and we wait. But it doesn’t take long. Soon we have the goldcrest and two slightly larger songbirds—a coal tit and a Eurasian blackcap.
As we look on, Marco attaches metal ID bands, inspects feathers, and gets body weights. She also blows on the belly of each bird to reveal bare skin, so she can assess fat and muscle levels. I madly record all the information in a notebook, and then Harris, Hoffman, and I each take a turn releasing a bird. Every time one flits to freedom, it feels like magic.
On a scientific adventure
Over the following days, we alternate partners, splitting off and regrouping as we take on the remaining research sites. Hiking, measuring, recording, we find ourselves falling into a rhythm as other cares fall away. Our whole world seems to be with these people in these mountains.
Each night over dinner at the hotel—where we feast on local specialties such as trinxat, a potato-cabbage-pork hash, and crema catalana, a decadent custard-like dessert—we review the day’s exploits.
Harris and Marco tell us about their avian extravaganza, when they banded 20 birds in two hours. “So many birds appeared,” says Harris, “and then kept coming even while we were collecting the ones we caught.” Claramunt-López and I describe the mysterious whooshing sound that stopped us cold in the middle of measuring tree seedlings. (The image of a sprite briefly flashes through my mind.) We all laugh about the garden dormouse who shows up every day in the same trap, snuggled into the cotton bedding.
And we marvel over how well Hoffman, still recovering from knee surgery, is handling the challenging terrain. It probably helps that the scientists don’t ever seem to see impediments, only opportunities, and their enthusiasm is infectious.
The expedition “isn’t just science; it’s science with people,” says Marco. “And that combination, I think, is just perfect.”
On the day off, we get a dose of Andorran culture when Claramunt-López takes us to one of several historic churches that dot the landscape. Built between the eighth and 12th centuries, the Church of Santa Coloma’s simple stone edifice features a round bell tower once used as a way to communicate with other mountain villages. The elaborate interior frescoes, ripped out in 1930, have since been recovered.
By the end of the expedition, we have climbed 12 mountains, retrieved 60 cameras, peered into 108 nest boxes, tagged 35 small mammals, banded 74 birds, and measured more than a thousand trees. We are tired but also surprisingly rejuvenated, knowing that our hard work counts.
A couple of trends are already starting to emerge from the research, says Claramunt-López. There seems to be a rise in the soil’s microbial activity, meaning more carbon is being released into the atmosphere. Also, trees at high elevation, where it’s colder and windier, are growing at a faster rate than those at low elevation. Both are likely the result, at least in part, of warming temperatures.
On the final day, as we traverse a broad mountain valley where tips of foliage are just starting to turn a fiery autumn red, I think about the landscapes we’ve trekked, the wildlife we’ve seen, the cultural nuances we’ve learned.
Although the expedition lasts less than two weeks, its effects endure, and not just with regard to the research. Hoffman sums it up well when he says it’s given him “new insights and inspiration about how I want to live my life.”
Andorra, it turns out, may be an enchanted land after all.
“Wildlife in the Changing Andorran Pyrenees” accepts volunteers for expeditions in the spring, summer, and fall. Earthwatch operates some 30 additional citizen science trips around the world. Other far-flung volunteer opportunities are offered by Biosphere Expeditions and Adventure Scientists. The Nature Conservancy also runs projects in the U.S. and abroad. For a primer on citizen science and listings of more than 3,000 projects, visit SciStarter, founded by National Geographic Explorer Darlene Cavalier.