Monday, 4 December 2017

The master of reeds

Winter has arrived at last. Birds in the countryside are increasingly scarce and wetlands offer greater chances to see a wide variety of wildlife. Yesterday afternoon we visited Škocjanski zatok Nature Reserve on the coast - a prime wetland site in southwestern Slovenia. The main attraction there (and our main target) was the above Bittern Botaurus stellaris. It was trying to avoid detection by moving slowly at the edge of a reedbed, but our sharp eyesight was simply too efficent :) Actually you can just see (last pic) how difficult it can be to spot such a well-camouflaged bird in its natural habitat. 
Only a few pairs of Bittern breed in Slovenia, mostly at Cerkniško jezero, where in spring they can be commonly heard booming. The species is slightly commoner in winter and on migration when it can be observed at different wetland sites. Škocjanski zatok is a regular wintering area for one or two birds. The newly-constructed observation tower at this nature reserve helps a lot with spotting the birds, especially those hiding over large patches of reedbed.
Other interesting birds at the reserve included a drake Ferruginous Duck Aythya nyroca, 2 Greylag Geese Anser anser (scarce winter species), Cetti's Warbler Cettia cetti, Water Rail Rallus aquaticus and Gadwall Anas strepera. In recent years the reserve has also become a regular wintering site for Bearded Tits Panurus biarmicus - those will be the target for the next visit!

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Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Visitors from the north

November is perhaps the dullest and calmest month of the year as nature is falling into the big winter sleep. Birdlife is usually scarce as summer migrants have long departed from Europe, while most of the winter visitors have yet to come. There are of course exceptions. A Rough-legged Buzzard Buteo lagopus decided to visit the Bloke plateau for the second consecutive winter and has been reported a few weeks ago. The bird was discovered by Paul Veenvliet who also gave us precious tips on where to find the bird (thanks Paul!). So yesterday while visiting the Cerknica lake we also jumped over the hills to the nearby Bloke area. Among the numerous Common Buzzards Buteo buteo we soon found their northern cousin...
The Rough-legged Buzzard Buteo lagopus (a male) was quite difficult to approach, so we only managed to take photos for documentation (even with digiscoping). It usually perched on Norway spruce Picea abies or Scots pine Pinus sylvestris (the trees that most resemble its northern breeding habitat?) at the edge of a vast meadow. Its behaviour was clearly different from that of other buzzards that usually perch in full view on poles and bushes. The Rough-legged Buzzard preferred to perch on conifers, in the shade of large branches. It was usually well camoufladged and frequently hard to spot against a dark background. On a few occasions we saw it hunting on the fields, but only for a short time. 
The species is a rare winter visitor to Slovenia, with just a few records every one or two years, so truly a bird that lightens up a dull winter birding day. 
On the Bloke plateau and at lake Cerknica we observed several Great Grey Shrikes Lanius excubitor which are common winter visitors to Slovenia. This is one of the very few passerines that lingers on inhospitable wind-swept meadows and fields throughout the winter. Here it survives by preying upon small rodents, small birds and occasional insects. Yesterday we observed one catching a vole (or shrew) and carrying it in its feet to a hawthorn bush. If not eaten immediately, the prey is usually impaled on the spikes of wires or thorny bushes and stored for later use.
Fieldfares Turdus pilaris breed around lake Cerknica, especially in the villages, but in winter their numbers are boosted by birds arriving from northern Europe and joining the flocks. Redwings Turdus iliacus are also frequently found in such flocks and this year they seem to be more numerous than in other years.
A male Hen Harrier Circus cyaneus was hunting over the fields by the Cerknica lake. Good numbers of this species are present in the area in winter. Nearby we also observed a Peregrine Falco peregrinus.
Winter visitors on the lake Cerknica itself were represented by two Black-necked Grebes Podiceps nigricollis (above), a mixed flock of Pochards Aythya ferina & Tufted Ducks Aythya fuligula and 3 female Goldeneyes Bucephala clangula (the first of the season). 15 Shelducks Tadorna tadorna and a Ferruginous Duck Aythya nyroca were also present, while a flock of 22 Greylag Geese Anser anser was migrating overhead.
In a small woodland by the lake we also observed this male Grey-headed Woodpecker Picus canus and heard a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker Dendrocopos minor, while on Bloke plateau we heard a Black Woodpecker Dryocopus martius.
The colourful illustrations known as panjske končnice frequently adorn wooden beehives in Slovenia (this one is near lake Cerknica). These popular artistic features are typical for Slovenia, where they originated in the 18th century. The illustrations usually depict funny scenes where animals play human roles and vice versa.

Thursday, 9 November 2017

Long weekend in Notranjska

Last weekend Paul Tout and I (Domen) helped to organise and accompanied a small birdwatching tour with 7 participants in the Notranjska region (central Slovenia). Late autumn is a tough time to look for birds in the Dinairc area, but nevertheless we managed to carry out everything smoothly and managed to see some interesting species. Weather was fortunately on our side (cloudy, but mostly windless) although some target species proved elusive or didn't actually show up. Below are the trip's highlights in a short report; we didn't take many pics (hence the poor selection!). Enjoy!
Lake Cerknica was half-full, but the bodies of water didn't attract many waterbirds. The only flock of ducks present contained some Pochards Aythya ferina, Tufted Ducks Aythya fuligula, Teals Anas crecca and Wigeons Anas penelope. The great attraction on the lake, was one of our target birds: White-tailed Eagle Haliaeetus albicilla. We saw a total of 3 individuals (2 ads and 1 imm) in two different days. Other birds around the lake included several Great Grey Shrikes Lanius excubitor (up to 6 in a day), Hen Harriers Circus cyaneus, 2 Peregrines Falco peregrinus, 1 Penduline Tit Remiz pendulinus and a few other commoner birds.
As the situation on the lake was calm, we spent quite a lot of time in the Snežnik and Javorniki forests. Despite our bad luck with the rare woodpeckers, we managed to observe a superb Ural Owl Strix uralensis that proved to be the real highlight of the trip. The bird allowed excellent views and the participants could enjoy it for at least half an hour. For most of them this was a lifer. 
The forests of Snežnik and Javorniki were quite silent, but hosted some of the common woodland species such as Crested Tit Lophophanes cristatus, Willow Tit Poecile montanus, Crossbill Loxia curvirostra, Bullfinch Pyrrhula pyrrhula. Of the winter visitors we had several Redwings Turdus iliacus and Bramblings Fringilla montifringilla on a daily basis.
Among woodpeckers we recorded two male Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers Dendrocopos minor (above) and several Grey-headed Woodpeckers Picus canus. Both species were highly appreciated by the participants. On a few ocasions we also heard a Black Woodpecker Dryocopus martius.
This showy Red Squirrel Sciurus vulgaris was feeding on a spruce cone above our heads in the Snežnik forests. Of the other mammals we also frequently encountered Red Deer Cervus elaphus and Roe Deer Capreolus capreolus, especially in the evenings along forest roads. Some Brown Bears Ursus arctos are still around as we also found some fresh droppings on the forest road.
Along the river Unica on Planinsko polje we encountered this smart Dipper Cinclus cinclus. Winter is a time of high territoriality for Dippers and the above individual (most probably a male) was already singing from its favourite rocks.
The last day of our trip we also visited the spectacular Predjama castle near Postojna. The Renaissance castle was built at the entrance of a large cave. On the high limestone cliffs we looked for a very special bird...
The Wallcreeper Tichodroma muraria is a regular winter visitor to the castle's wall and cliffs, as well as similar cliffs in the Karst area. We watched the above individual for most of the morning, so the group had excellent views of this rarely-seen bird - a pefrect way to round up the trip!
Hopefully we will repeat this short tour in early spring, to catch up with interesting species like Wallcreeper, Ural Owl, Three-toed and White-backed Woodpecker and others. For info write to:

Saturday, 28 October 2017

White-backed Woodpecker on Snežnik

The White-backed Woodpecker Dendrocopos leucotos is one of the rarest breeding birds in Slovenia. Most of the Slovenian population resides in the southern part of the country, in the vast Dinaric forests. These populations belong to the Balkan subspecies lilfordi (named after him), whereas the nominate leucotos has only been observed a couple of times in the Alpine region of Slovenia. White-backed Woodpecker is a beech forest specialits, favouring old stands with large amounts of dead wood; either standing or fallen decaying trees. Although over 58% of Slovenia is forested, most of it is not suitable for this exigent woodpecker. The species has low densities and large territories over vast mountainous areas, hence it is difficult to track and monitor. The best time to observe this species is early spring, when birds are highly territorial and drum, thus are easier to detect. But if visiting the proper habitat, one might be lucky also in autumn...
A few days ago, during a visit to a forest reserve on the Snežnik plateau, we stumbled across this female, feeding on tree stumps close to the ground, not only on beech, but also on old conifers. As it seems to be typical for the species, the bird was feeding quite nervously (unlike other woodpeckers) and kept moving around from one tree to the other (short video). When we lost it for a while, we could then relocate it after about half an hour, thanks to the soft calls it was making. In the meantime it had moved several hundred meters, proving that the species, even in the proper habitat, has quite large territories. The bird then disappeared even farther away, deep into the forest. In the pics, note the barred back, typical of ssp. lilfordi and unlike ssp. leucotos which has a more pure-white back.
The forest was full of White-backed Woodpecker's sings: either "classical" feeding signs (first two above) or old nest-holes on dead standing beech trees (third pic). For feeding the species is reliant on beetle's larvae that bore into the decaying wood. Some studies in Europe have shown that the species' diet includes several rare and endangered forest beetles that share the same primeval forest habitats.
Some views on the forest where we observed the White-backed Woodpecker; clearly the right place for the species. Forest reserves as this one provide an excellent habitat for the species, but are often too small to provide space for a viable and thriving population. Such pockets of preserved forest are frequently disconnected from other similar habitats and they prove insufficent for the woodpecker's conservation on a larger scale. Intensive forest management is a big problem for forest biodiversity in Slovenia, as it is in other parts of the world.
The area where we found the White-back was dominated by beech Fagus sylvatica, although ecotones with spruce Picea abies and silver fir Abies alba forest were also present. These areas of habitat mix are excellent for a variety of species, including the Three-toed Woodpecker Picoides tridactylus that we observed almost simultaneously with the White-back! Having a look around we also noticed good amounts of dead conifer (above) that probably provide an excellent all-year-round territory also for the Three-toed Woodpecker.
The lichen Lobaria pulmonaria, bioindicator of clean and unpolluted air, was very frequent on beech and sycamore Acer pseudoplatanus in the forest reserve. Another sign of the preciousness of this primeval-like forest ecosystems.
The day was excellent also for some sightseeing, so in the afternoon we decided to hike onto the top of mount Snežnik (1796 m). It was a brillinat idea, as the panorama was breathtaking due to the crisp autumn weather. The first two pics above show the view to the south-east, where extensive forests dominate and stretch into Croatia's Gorski kotar, forming the largest forest complex of central and south-eastern Europe. The third pic shows a typical example of temperature inversion doline - a depression where the vegetational belts usually found when ascending a mountain are inverted: the doline's bottom is the coldest part with typical sub-alpine meadows, surrounded with stands of mountain pine Pinus mugo and Norway spruce Picea abies, followed upwards by sub-alpine beech forests.
On the very top of Snežnik we also met a group of 6 showy Alpine Accentors Prunella collaris that have just descended from the Alps, to spend the winter at lower elevations in karstic areas. Similarly also Wallcreepers Tichodroma muraria do this kind of seasonal migration and can be encountered in the same habitats, proven that there are enough cliff faces.
Finally some more landscapes: in the first pic is the gulf of Rijeka in Croatia with some of the Kvarner islands, as seen from the top of Snežnik, looking southwards. The second is a view south-eastwards to the mountains of Risnjak National Park in Gorski kotar (Croatia). The third photo shows a more unusual view on mount Nanos (the mountain that dominates the Karst and most of Primorska) with the Nanoščica river valley at its feet and the Julian Alps' mountain chain in the back. One of the best views for rounding up such a wonderful day!