Monday, 16 October 2017

Autumn botany & micology

Although the vegetation season of most plants is coming to an end, some species can be still found blooming late in October. So with this post we would like to officially close the botanical season (sadly!) and present some of the plants that we encountered during our recent trips in the Karst, from mid September to the beginning of October. Most of them are typical for dry karstic grasslands. 
At the end we added also some of the most interesting fungi we found in the Karst recently - something more autumnal!

Hyssop Hyssopus officinalis.
Scarce aromatic plant, found along the Karst edge, on dry grasslands.

 Winter Savory Satureja montana.
Commonest savory species in the Karst.
Satureja subspicata ssp. liburnica (with Macrolepiota procera). 
Slightly scarcer than S. montana and favouring mountain karstic meadows.

Allium ericetorum (syn. A. ochroleucum).

Allium senescens (syn. A. montanum).

Dittany Dictamnus albus (with Allium senescens).
A typical late spring flower, but sometimes blooming in the autumn as well. 

Colchicum autumnale.
Very common "autumn crocus" on meadows and woodland edges.
Dianthus balbisii ssp. liburnicus.
A scarce pink of the Karst region, still in flower in late autumn.

Aster amellus
Autumn Lady's-tresses Spiranthes spiralis.
This tiny species with a characteristic twisted stem is the last flowering orchid of the season, in bloom from late August to the beginning of October on dry meadows.

Smoke Bush Cotinus coggygria.
One of Karst's most typical plants, that turns its leaves red in autumn and adorns the karstic limestone rocks all over the warmer part of western Slovenia, northeastern Italy and northwestern Croatia.

Barberry Berberis vulgaris

Parasol Mushroom Macrolepiota procera.
Very common and prominent fungus on a variety of meadows.

Porcelain Fungus Oudemansiella mucida.
Jelly-like fungus found on rotting beech logs.

Ramaria sp.
A beautiful coral fungus growing on the forest floor.

This one we didn't ID yet. More fungi pics in the nex posts...

Thursday, 12 October 2017

A day with a Pygmy Owl

In many respects, autumn is like a second spring. Forests come to life and animals are again very active, after the long and calm summer. They seem to be more numerous and somehow more visible. Some days ago we headed to Trnovski gozd (Trnovo forest) in western Slovenia, where we enjoyed the spectacle of the orange autumn leaves and some interesting wildlife too. One of the most thrilling encounters, that one can hope for in autumn, is with Europe's smallest owl: the Pygmy Owl Glaucidium passerinum. A combination of experience and luck gave us the possibility to spend the day in the company of this interesting species. First I whistled its song, then after some minutes the bird began to call back, so we went looking for it. After a short walk and with quite a surprise, we found the bird sitting in the canopy of a beech tree Fagus sylvatica. It remained there for a long time, not really bothering our presence, so we decided to have lunch under its tree. The bird then changed perches several times, behaving spontaneously, so we could still follow its movements, also because it was clearly indifferent with our presence and allowed a close approach.
Pygmy Owl is a rare mountain owl of conifer and mixed forests, found predominantly in the Alps, but also in the Dinaric mountains. In Trnovski gozd we know a few territories, but finding this species is never easy, so a certain amount of luck is required too. The most typical encounters are those in the last picture, when the bird perches on the top of high conifers and sings. That's how we saw it for the last time, when in the mid afternoon it began singing spontaneously once again, marking its territory.
At first, the Pygmy Owl was perched very high up in a beech canopy and the best views were had from right under the tree.
The surrounding forest looked excellent for a variety of interesting birds, due to its large amount of dead conifer and beech wood. While we were following the owl, we also heard a Three-toed Woodpecker Picoides tridactylus nearby. The area is most probably a breeding site for both species as we already had them here a couple of times.
This Grey-headed Woodpecker Picus canus also came to investigate us, while we were busy with the Pygmy Owl. One or two Black Woodpeckers Dryocopus martius were calling not so far away. A truly excellent piece of forest!
Another very interesting find was that of the rare Hericium alpestre (syn. H. flagellum), a saprotrophic fungus, growing in old-growth forests on old silver firs Abies alba (more rarely also on other conifers). There are several species in the genus Hericium and all are known for their medicinal and culinary uses. But we, of course, like to see them on dead trees in their natural habitat!
The commonest bird in mountain forests at this time of year is probably the Crossbill Loxia curvirostra. Noisy flocks of this species fly around the tops of conifers and frequently perch on them. With their characteristic "crossed" bills (visible in the pics) they can easily extract spruce seeds from the cones. Male in the first two pics, female in the last.
Another beautiful, but common fungus in mountain forests is Fomitopsis pinicola, found on the bark of old conifers. Very occasionally it can also grow on deciduous trees. It is perhaps one of the prettiest fungi adorning our forests.
For the end some more beautiful colours of a mixed forest of beech and silver fir (Abieti-Fagetum) in Trnovski gozd. A spectacle worth seeing and enjoying before the leaves are shed.

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Autumn in the primeval forest

A few days ago we visited the forests of the Snežnik plateau, which are turning to beautiful autumn colours. We took a walk through the very interesting Snežnik-Ždrocle reserve, an old beech forest on heavily karstified limestone terrain, full of sinkholes, caves and depressions. The area has been recently proclaimed a UNESCO World Heritage Site because it contains sections of primeval forest. 
Most of the Snežnik-Ždrocle reserve is beech Fagus sylvatica forest with additions of silver fir Abies alba (known as Abieti-Fagetum), but in the depressions where cold air gets trapped, native stands of Norway spruce Picea abies occur as well (more). One of the birds we saw is completely dependant on conifer trees...
As soon as we left the main road and took the path into the forest, Sara had already spotted the above Three-toed Woodpecker Picoides tridactylus, feeding on a dead conifer. It was a beautiful male and we met face to face, some 5 meters close! The observation proved that this part of the forest with its protected reserve certainly suits woodpeckers, even the rare ones.
After a while we arrived to a large forest glade, where we surprised a beautiful Ural Owl Strix uralensis that was hunting in complete daylight. As it frequently happens with this species, the bird was not preoccupied by our presence and continued to hunt from its perch. We watched for several minutes, before it glided into cover.
On the forest floor the colourful Fly Agaric Amanita muscaria caught our attention. This iconic fungus usually grows under the shade of conifers. It is a poisonous species and also because of its beauty, it should be left on the forest floor.
This amazing and very large fungus is Polyporus squamosus, a bracken fungus found in old growth forests. Its favourite host tree in Slovenia is beech Fagus sylvatica. We found at least two of these during our visit to Snežnik-Ždrocle, as well as one during a visit to another forest reserve on Snežnik, about a year ago (see post).
In autumn the forest is full of fungi, but most of them are unfortunately unknown to us. All we can do is admire them in their beauty of colours and shapes and sometimes enjoy in the more characteristic and easy-to-tell species. The last one above is a puffball, probably Lycoperdon perlatum.
The Snežnik-Ždrocle forest reserve is full of fallen and standing rotten trees - a very important element for the feeding and nesting of woodpeckers and other animals. A few pairs of the very rare White-backed Woodpecker Dendrocopos leucotos reside in this forest and take advantage of the high amount of dead beech wood. The large fungi on beech in the above pics are Fomes fomentarius, while the holes in the second pics are feeding signs of Black Woodpecker Dryocopus martius.
At the end some views on the autumn forest. Most beech trees are already sporting orange and red colours, while others still have green leaves. Combined with the yellows of sycamores Acer pseudoplatanus and the dark greens of firs and spruces, the colours in the forest look just perfectly balanced. This spectacle won't last for long, so make sure you catch it in time!
Our trip was rounded up in the evening with the observation of at least 8 Red Deers Cervus elaphus on a glade, while the forest resounded with the last stag's rutting.