Saturday, 3 December 2016

A yellow cap

From time to time it happens to encounter a male Three-toed Woodpecker Picoides tridactylus. I don't know exactly why, but females seem to be commoner and easier to see than males. In Slovenian forests I encounter a male every 5 or so females. Moreover females also drum in spring, so even during a playback census, one is never sure to get a male, after the initial drumming response.
Encounters with Three-toed Woodpeckers are special; even more so if the bird is a beautiful yellow-capped male. This time I was at lake Cerknica, in the Notranjska region, actually looking for waterbirds on the lake. As the water levels were high, waterbirds were few and spread all over the lake. Of note was just a flock of 10 smart Goldeneye Bucephala clangula - recently arrived from the north, to overwinter on the lake. Smews Mergellus albellus should also be here anytime soon. The lack of bird activity on the lake pushed me uphill on the forested Javorniki mountains to try my luck with some forest species. The expected Ural Owl Strix uralensis didn't show up, but after a while in the forest, I heard a distinctive woodpecker "knocking". Soon I also located the source of the sound: a Three-toed Woodpecker "working" a dead silver fir Abies alba on a steep, rocky slope: video (watch HD).

Three-toed Woodpecker Picoides tridactylus, male (video), 
Javorniki Mts., 30th November 2016.

There were signs of a recent forestry cutting in the area, but I was glad to see quite a lot of dead firs left there for the woodpeckers. Several standing dead trees had the "woodpecker sign" on them - a stylized bird's head which foresters usually draw on dead conifers to signal the presence of woodpeckers inhabiting the trunk - thus such trees remain safe from cutting. A wise and clever approach! Many of the firs were also infested with beautiful polypore fungi (Fomitopsis pinicola) and had many woodpecker's holes (some certainly belonging to Three-toed).
"Woodpecker sign", 
Javorniki Mts., 30th November 2016.
Dead silver firs Abies alba
Javorniki Mts., 30th November 2016.
Fomitopsis pinicola
Javorniki Mts., 30th November 2016.
Silver firs Abies alba
Javorniki Mts., 30th November 2016.

In forests where Norway spruce Picea abies is absent, Three-toed Woodpecker also inhabits stands with silver fir Abies alba. Dinaric forests of beech Fagus sylvatica and silver fir (Abieti-Fagetum) are primarily comoposed of these two species, but Norway spruce is often found as well. The presence of the latter is in most cases the result of forestry "reintroductions" - basically most of the Norway spruces are planted. Silver fir, on the other hand, is native and so has a greater value to the local fauna: eg. Three-toed Woodpeckers in Dinaric forests depend greatly upon firs.

Saturday, 26 November 2016

Oak woodlands in autumn

Oak woodland near Trieste, 22nd November 2016.
Wild service tree Sorbus torminalis
Trieste, 22nd November 2016.
Gall made by Andricus caputmedusae (an oak gall wasp), 
Trieste, 22nd November 2016.
Fungi sp., 
Trieste, 22nd November 2016.

Despite being almost December, it is now that oak woodlands close to my home, along the Adriatic coast, are sporting their most vivid autumn colours. These thermophilous stands of sessile Quercus petraea and downy oak Q. pubescens are about a month late in terms of autumn phenology, if compared to the Dinaric forests of beech and fir (Abieti-Fagetum) that cover most of central and western Slovenia. Similarly, also woodlands on the nearby Karst plateau have already shed their leaves, mostly due to the slightly harsher climate. But on the coast is different. The warmer climate allows trees to have a longer vegetation season; moreover, oaks are well known for its late leaf-shedding. All this makes for a great spectacle of autumn colours, at a time when most other forests are already in bleak winter tones.
Speaking about trees, I suggest this new excellent book, written by Peter WohllebenThe Hidden Life of Trees.

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Pygmy Owl in the Alps

Pygmy Owl Glaucidium passerinum
Pokljuka, 15th November 2016.
Snow-covered raised bog, 
Pokljuka, 15th November 2016.
Mountain pine Pinus mugo
Pokljuka, 15th November 2016.
Spruce forest - habitat of the Capercaillie Tetrao urogallus
Pokljuka, 15th November 2016 (lower pic by Sara Cernich).
Fomes fomentarius
Pokljuka, 15th November 2016.
Beard-lichen Usnea sp., 
Pokljuka, 15th November 2016.
Slovenia's highest peak - Triglav (2864 m), 
Pokljuka, 15th November 2016.
Mt. Debela peč (2014 m), 
Pokljuka, 15th November 2016.
Flock of Cranes Grus grus
Sežana, 3rd November 2016.

Our local, very strong and cold northerly wind (called "burja" or "bora") is making birding, walking and staying outdoors quite unpleasant these days. Yesterday we decided to take a break from it and enjoy some windless alpine air, so we found ourselves on the Pokljuka plateau (Triglav National Park). The temperature remained just around 0 degrees C for most of the day, but it was a "pleasant" cold. We walked around the snow-covered forest for most of the day and at the end of it made our best observation: a cute PYGMY OWL Glaucidium passerinum singing from the top of a spruce, as typical for the species (see also this similar post from 2015). The forest was otherwise quite silent, apart from large numbers of montane tits like Coal Periparus ater, Crested Lophophanes cristatus and Willow Poecile montanus, but also Treecreeper Certhia familiaris and Goldcrest Regulus regulus that quickly "turned on", attracted to our pishing. A Nutcracker Nucifraga caryocatactes and 2 Black Woodpeckers Dryocopus martius were also of note.

On the 3rd of November we also enjoyed a nice movement of Cranes Grus grus, when a flock of 169 birds passed over the windy skies between Slovenia and Italy, near Sežana. They were heading westwards as most of the Cranes at this time of year do (arriving from Slovenia and flying into Italy from the northeast). Fieldfares Turdus pilaris and other thrushes are now increasingly commoner on the Karst, as the cold is pushing them southwards. Recently we've also observed repeatedly one of the karstic Middle Spotted Woodpeckers Dendrocopos medius, but more on that species in one of the next posts... 

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Magic Dinaric forests

Ural Owl Strix uralensis
Trnovski gozd, 30th October 2016 (by Sara Cernich).
South-western slopes of the Snežnik plateau, 1st November 2016.
Beech Fagus sylvatica in its autumn coat, 
Snežnik, 1st November 2016.
Three-toed Woodpecker Picoides tridactylus (female), 
Snežnik, 1st November 2016.
Amanita muscaria
Snežnik, 1st November 2016.
Fungi sp., 
Snežnik, 1st November 2016.
Usnea sp. ("beard lichens"), 
Snežnik, 1st November 2016.
Beech Fagus sylvatica
Trnovski gozd, 30th October 2016
Ural Owl Strix uralensis
Trnovski gozd, 30th October 2016.
Lobaria pulmonaria (a rare lichen), 
Trnovski gozd, 30th October 2016.
Artomyces sp., 
Snežnik, 1st November 2016.
Ural Owl Strix uralensis
Trnovski gozd, 30th October 2016.
Sycamore Acer pseudoplatanus
Trnovski gozd, 30th October 2016.
Guepinia rufa
Trnovski gozd, 30th October 2016.
Mt Snežnik from Divača, 31st October 2016.

In the last couple of days I visited the Dinaric forests of Snežnik and Trnovski gozd with a group of friends. Both days were sunny and crystal clear so the autumn colours in the forest were fully enjoyed. In the Trnovo forest (Trnovski gozd) we observed 4 different Ural Owls Strix uralensis (mostly by day), whereas on Snežnik we saw 3. One of the owls on Snežnik was a melanistic individual (dark morph), which I've never seen before. Unfortunately the encounter was quite brief, so we couldn't take any pics (here & here two shots by Lucio Tolar taken in Slovenian forests). Melanistic Ural Owls are regularly observed in Slovenia although they are much rarer than the normal pale form. Some populations in central and southern Slovenia host a greater percentage of such individuals. Dark birds also regularly breed with pale form birds and produce offsprings that are intermediate in colour.
A singing Pygmy Owl Glaucidium passerinum was heard in the late afternoon in the Snežnik forest, while earlier in the day we also enjoyed a female Three-toed Woodpecker Picoides tridactylus. Black Dryocopus martius & Grey-headed Woodpeckers Picus canus were also seen, along with a female Goshawk Accipiter gentilis and other forest birds typical for this season and location. 
Bramblings Fringilla montifringilla were frequently seen among numerous flocks of Chaffinches F. coelebs, feeding on the fallen beech mast, which is very abundant this year.
Finally, on Snežnik we also heard a flock of Cranes Grus grus migrating over the forest in the evening.

Saturday, 29 October 2016

Castle's Wallcreeper

Wallcreeper Tichodroma muraria (video), Predjama castle, 29th October 2016.
Predjama castle, 29th October 2016.

Today I was working on some filming at the Predjama castle (Predjamski grad) in the Notranjska region. This is arguably one of the coolest castles in the world, built on a limestone cliff ledge with a cave above it (for more info see here & here).
A Wallcreeper Tichodroma muraria was making me company for most of the morning, while sticking around the castle's wall and cliff. The bird was frequently just sitting still on a cliff ledge, preening and dust-bathing under a warm autumn sunshine. Predjama is a regular and known wintering site for this rare species and probably one of the most scenic places in Slovenia. I managed to make a short video of the bird (watch HD), while hordes of Italian tourists were pouring into the castle. 
Around the castle I also observed a Crag Martin Ptyonoprogne rupestris (these birds breed at the site), a Black Dryocopus martius & a Grey-headed Woodpecker Picus canus, a few Bramblings Fringilla montifringilla and 3 Chamois Rupicapra rupicapra climbing on a steep forested slope. Not bad for a day at work!

Sunday, 23 October 2016

Białowieża forest - autumn trip

Białowieża forest (Poland)
7th - 17th October 2016

photos by Domen Stanič & Sara Cernich

After 10 days in the Białowieża forest in eastern Poland, I'm back to my blogging duty. It will be (once again) a quite difficult task to present here the trip's highlights without neglecting anything interesting we saw during our stay in such a great place for wildlife. A full report about this year's spring experience in Białowieża can be found here. In that post you can find all the general information about the place, its habitats and forest communities plus the typical wildlife. This time instead I'll try to be more concise - with more photos and less text. 
The main targets of the trip were: seeing (self-found) Bison & other mammals and finding some forest birds, especially woodpeckers. Moreover we wanted to visit some areas (many actually!) that we didn't manage to see in spring and see the changing autumn colours in the forest. As typical for this time of year, the forest was full of all sorts of fungi. Unfortunately we didn't have any ID tools with us, so we couldn't name all the species we photographed. Nevertheless in the selection below there are several of them, so if you can help with fungi/lichen ID, please e-mail here:

Enjoy the pics!
European Bison Bison bonasus on the northern edges of Białowieża forest. We were lucky enough to find a herd of up to 60 Bison feeding in a field on two different occasions. The group consisted of both adult bulls and cows, plus some young individuals too (including this year's calves). Here a video collage of the above herd. For more about Bison in Białowieża forest see also this video by Adam Wajrak.
White-backed Woodpecker Dendrocopos leucotos (nominate ssp.) - male. It wasn't very easy to find, but this species is still quite common in the Białowieża forest. We found a total of 4 different individuals (1 male and 3 females).
Oak-lime-hornbeam forest (Tilio-Carpinetum) is a prime habitat for the White-backed Woodpecker Dendrocopos leucotos. The species also favours wet alder forest (Alnetum).
White-backed Woodpecker Dendrocopos leucotos (nominate ssp.) - female. The above females are also featured in this video (from min 2:38 onwards).
English Oaks Quercus robur are the basic tree components in almost every forest type in Białowieża.
Three-toed Woodpecker Picoides tridactylus (nominate ssp.) - a female in a pine-spruce forest. This was the only Three-toed of the trip. Note the completely white back-patch of the tridactylus subspecies. This video tells the story of the Three-toed Woodpecker and its conservation problems in Białowieża.
Pine-spruce forest (with Pinus sylvestris and Picea abies) - habitat of the Three-toed Woodpecker Picoides tridactylus.
Pine Marten Martes martes. This animal was surprised while climbing on a tree in front of us. After a minute or so, when it realised it was "trapped" on the tree, it dashed off and disappeared into a nearby reedbed.
Spruce forest full of decaying wood. Many of such stands are also affected by spruce bark beetle outbreaks. This is good for birds & nature, but not for foresters and the economy - see this video.
Middle Spotted Woodpecker Dendrocopos medius. This was by far the most common woodpecker after Great Spotted D. major. We saw/heard at least 33 different individuals during our trip. It was usually heard calling in alder woods (Alnetum) or oak-lime-hornbeam forest (Tilio-Carpinetum).
Views over flooded alder forest/alder carr (Carici elongatae-Alnetum).
Bike was very useful when visiting large parts of the forest on very long trails, which would be otherwise impossible to do on foot. The habitat change noticed during such trips was amazing (from dry coniferous forest to broadleaved forest and flooded alder woods in the range of a few hundred meters). Here an alder carr (Alnetum).
Black Woodpecker Dryocopus martius was a quite common bird, encountered during most of our daily trips and in all the different forest types.
Flooded alder carr (Alnetum) with decaying trees where the above Black Woodpecker was photographed.
Feeding signs of Black Woodpecker Dryocopus martius on alder Alnus glutinosa.
Footprint of Wolf Canis lupus. Such tracks were found a few times along forest trails, but the most exciting encounter was with a "real" wolf - actually a howling individual we heard one evening in the northern part of the forest, under an almost complete full moon!
Red Squirrel Sciurus vulgaris - collecting nest material. This was the commonest mammal species to be seen in the forest.
Fomitopsis pinicola growing on dead spruce Picea abies.
Lichen sp. which was very common especially on old English oaks Quercus robur.
Nutcracker Nucifraga caryocatactes was seen almost on every visit to the forest, usually in single numbers.
Forest tracks along spruce (above) and bog-pine forest (below). During a bike ride through these habitats we first flushed, but then managed to see quite well two Hazel Grouse Bonasa bonasia, running on the forest floor. One of the two was clearly a female. Even if they were on the move we had great views of this very shy species (which is however very abundant in Białowieża!).
A break to watch a White-backed Woodpecker Dendrocopos leucotos.
Fomitopsis pinicola in flooded alder forest.
Great Spotted Woodpecker Dendrocopos major was by far the most common bird species of the trip. Wherever we stopped in the forest and listened, we could hear their pecking sounds. Almost every day we saw/heard at least 10-20 different individuals and the total sum of the trip amounts to an astonishing 100 individuals! They were found in all the different forest types (from dry conifer forest to bog pine forest and flooded alder forest) so picking out rarer species proved quite challenging.
Scots pine Pinus sylvestris in the Białowieża forest grows in natural stands that can be very old.
Pholiota sp. growing on Norway spruce Picea abies.
Crossbills Loxia curvirostra were quite common, usually seen passing overhead. Similarly were doing large flocks of Siskins Carduelis spinus and Bullfinches Pyrrhula pyrrhula ("trumpeting" ssp. pyrrhula most commonly heard).
View over the Narewka river valley in the heart of Białowieża forest. A quite exciting mammal encounter on the Narewka was that of a swimming Beaver Castor fiber. They are said to be common in the area and they inhabit all the main water courses in the Białowieża forest. Signs of their presence were frequently seen as well.
Tree barks: Scots pine Pinus sylvestris (left) and English oak Quercus robur (right).
Fungi sp.
An old Hornbeam Carpinus betulus with fungi (Fomes fomentarius).
Puffball mushroom.
Usnea sp. which was quite common on old oaks, alders and spruce.
Lesser Spotted Woodpecker Dendrocopos minor (female). This was the only individual of its species seen during the trip. Other woodpeckers seen/heard and not photographed were Grey-headed Picus canus and Green Picus viridis.
Bison fur on a "scratching site" - a big tree stump, where Bison Bison bonasus like to scratch away mud and parasites from their fur.
Footprints of European Bison Bison bonasus were frequently encountered along forest trails.
Dead wood in an oak-lime-hornbeam stand (Tilio-Carpinetum).
Amazing fungal formations on dead wood.
Tiny Norway spruce Picea abies like to grow from elevated positions, usually on decaying tree stumps of the same species.
Fox Vulpes vulpes on a hunt along a path in the Białowieża forest. Foxes were frequently encountered, also by day.
Mammal spotting from an observation point.
Moon over the Białowieża forest. On this evening we heard a howling Wolf Canis lupus and a concert of 3 singing Pygmy Owls Glaucidium passerinum at the same site.
Spruce forest with dead wood and fungi.
Cladonia sp. growing on the mossy floor in a spruce forest.
One of the many long, straight trails that lead through Białowieża forest.
Fungus sp. growing on the forest floor.
The most vividly coloured leaves where those of the Norway maple Acer platanoides.
 Fomes fomentarius growing on aspen Populus tremula.
Phleogena faginea - a relict of primeval forest, found only on dead trees in natural and semi-natural forests.
An information board describing White-backed Woodpecker Dendrocopos leucotos.
English oak Quercus robur - some were quite impressive in size.
Jay Garrulus glandarius was the second commonest bird species after Great Spotted Woodpecker. These birds were usually doing their favoured autumn activity - gathering and transporting acorns around the forest. On one occasion they did even more: in the middle of the day they made us see a bird we otherwise wouldn't. Very loud and rasping calls from Jays caught our attention and we knew some mobbing was going on. A few seconds later, unbelievably, a Tengmalm's Owl Aegolius funereus flapped a few meters past us, followed by a flock of noisy stalkers. The owl then quickly disappeared in the thick conifers and couldn't be relocated anymore. Jays win!
Autumn colours by a forest glade.
Fomes fomentarius on a fallen oak tree.
Middle Spotted Woodpecker Dendrocopos medius on alder Alnus glutinosa.
Białowieża National Park (above) and nature reserve (below) signs.
A stuffed Woodcock Scolopax rusticola in Białowieża National Park's Natural History Museum. However we did also see a live bird, flying over a forest road at dusk.
Kuehneromyces mutabilis (probably).
Fungus sp.
Puffball Lycoperdon sp.
Mistle Thrush Turdus viscivorus exactly where it should be: beside a mistletoe Viscum album.
Bog-pine forest is the less frequent of all the forest types present in Białowieża. It is found on waterlogged (boggy) soils and characterised by the presence of boreal trees like Scots pine Pinus sylvestris, silver birch Betula pendula, downy birch Betula pubescens, Norway spruce Picea abies and aspen Populus tremula.
Lichens: Ramalina sp., Usnea sp., Hypogymnia sp. in a stand of flooded alder forest.
Tree-hugging was a common practice in the presence of large trees.
Phallus impudicus is a fungus with a strong scent of carrion (rotten meat) and thus attracts many insects (mostly flies) that disperse its spores.
The border with Belarus in the heart of Białowieża forest.
A haystack for the winter feeding of Bison very close to the border with Belarus (see border signs and posts).
Relaxed bike ride through the forest on a sunny day.
Birding at Siemianówka reservoir - a huge artificial lake on the river Narew, north of the Białowieża forest.
Lake Siemianówka is very rich with waterbirds. During our visit we enjoyed up to 18 Whooper Swans Cygnus cygnus (a regular species in NE Poland), a female Common Scoter Melanitta nigra and 3 White-tailed Eagles Haliaeetus albicilla. While traveling outside the Białowieża area (west of Hajnówka) we also picked out a large flock of Golden Plovers Pluvialis apricaria (+150) and 2 Rough-legged Buzzards Buteo lagopus in agricultural areas.
Railway line through the Siemianówka lake - last stop before the border with Belarus.
Evening Bison-watching from an observation tower.
European Bison Bison bonasus grazing in a field.
Attention! Land of Bison - a typical road sign encountered in the vicinity of villages where these animals most frequently cross the roads.
Goodbye to Białowieża village and its forest.

For visiting on our own we used WildPoland's excellent book and the ultimate guide for the area: the Białowieża site guide, combined with this map

A thank to Mateusz Szymura for the help with fungi/lichen ID.

Useful links for visiting: 
pl.Outback (the most excellent accomodation!)