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!

Friday, 20 October 2017

Autumn's magic in the Dinarides

As you may have noticed, in autumn we like to wander around the Dinaric forests even more than in the other seasons. With so many repetitive posts, we hope not to bore our readers too much, but the places and wildlife we feature most (forests) are actually those most typical for Slovenia, so they are truly unavoidable. In the past ten days we have been visiting the Dinaric forests of Javorniki and Snežnik in the Notranjska region and of course seeing amazing wildlife with beautiful autumn colours. Below are the most interesting species we observed; make sure you also watch all the videos! ;-)
We are having great encounters with Pygmy Owls Glaucidium passerinum this autumn! We had no less than 5 birds in one day; two were on different locations, while three were together at the same site (maybe a family?). The last pic above even shows two inidivuals sitting on the same branch! All owls were first "whistled out", then we carefully approached and after spotting them in the conifer canopies, we could usually watch them for a long time. As they didn't really bother the presence of humans, they behaved spontaneously and allowed close views. Here's a VIDEO of two of the most showy individuals (watch HD).
Ural Owls Strix uralensis are quite abundant in the Dinaric forests and encounters like the above, sometimes happen, especially in the autumn. This species frequently hunts by day and with a bit of luck, it can be observed even along the forest roads. We watched the above individual for at least half an hour and also recorded this VIDEO (watch HD).
Of course we couldn't skip a visit to a prime Three-toed Woodpecker Picoides tridactylus habitat, where we first heard and then with a bit of fieldcraft, tracked down two birds: male (last pic) and female (top 2 pics) feeding close to each other. As usual with this species, both birds allowed good views and proved to be indifferent to our presence. Here's again a VIDEO (watch HD).
Two views on the Three-toed Woodpecker habitat: from "inside" (first pic) and "outside" (second). The area is a forest reserve, where logging is not allowed and the results are clearly visible. The Three-toeds we spotted were probably accompanied by a third individual (only heard), while a Black Woodpecker Dryocopus martius and a singing Pygmy Owl were also nearby (the latter can be heard in the video).
There were still some beautiful autumn colours in the forest, even more accentuated by the fantastic sunny weather. Beech Fagus sylvatica trees are now turning from orange to dark red, while Sycamores Acer pseudoplatanus have already lost their leaves. We are now entering into the last stage of the autumn tree's change: leaf shedding.
We also payed attention to the forest floor and found several species of fungi. Once again, we found the rare Hericium alpestre (H. flagellatum) on a cut silver fir Abies alba. This species was already featured in one of the previous posts from Trnovski gozd.
Below are more fungi species, some of which we managed to (almost) ID, also with the help of an expert.
Ramaria sp.
Lactarius scrobiculatus - a very common fungus in the Dinaric forests.
Amanita pantherina (probably).
Amanita muscaria
Russula fragilis or R. lundelii (?)
Recently we also had an interesting encounter with two Nutcrackers Nucifraga caryocatactes (top pics), feeding in a stand of hazels Corylus avellana (last pic) in the montane part of the Karst. The two birds were regulary observed carrying hazelnuts in their beaks (second pic), together with several Jays Garrulus glandarius. Hazels are an important autumn food for Nutcrackers, so at this time of year is probably easier to observe them outside their coniferous strongholds, where they tend to be more elusive.
Hopefully more Dinaric forests' reports in the next posts!