Wednesday, 17 October 2018

Autumn

Sweet Chestnut Castanea sativa
A good season for Nature's fruits, including apples, plums, pears, chestnuts, beech mast, acorns and much more to be found in great quantities in forests, orchards and meadows. Wild animals have pletny to eat this autumn!
Autumn colours in the Dinaric forests of Trnovski gozd (Trnovo forest), featuring beech Fagus sylvatica, sycamore Acer pseudoplatanus & silver fir Abies alba.
Tinder Fungus Fomes fomentarius (bracket fungi) in a forest reserve in Trnovski gozd.
Autumn Emperor Moth Perisomena caecigena, Karst edge near Rakitovec. 
A large moth inhabiting open oak woodland and emerging as an adult in autumn.
Hyssop Hyssopus officinalis, Karst edge near Rakitovec.
Goldilocks Aster Aster linosyris (Galatella linosyris), Slovenian Istria.
Smoke Bush Cotinus coggygria, Karst near Rakitovec.
Praying Mantis Mantis religiosa, Karst near Rakitovec.

Autumn is in full swing with its magic colours, despite some unusually hot temperatures and prolonged periods of sunny weather. At the moment we're co-leading a trip to Istria in NW Croatia, so not much time to write a proper post. Instead just a couple of recent photos from the Karst region with some of its typical season's representatives. A week or so ago, when we headed to Trnovski gozd (Trnovo forest) to enjoy the autumn colours of the Dinaric forests, we were dragged into the forest by the loud calls of a Nutcracker Nucifraga caryocatactes and observed a Ural Owl Strix uralensis being mobbed by the noisy corvid! An amazing scene you don't witness every day! Hopefully more interesting autumn wildlife to come in the next week... stay tuned.

Tuesday, 9 October 2018

October Forest Birding Tour

We are back after a long weekend's guiding a group of birders in the forest of Notranjska in southern Slovenia. Our base was in Loška dolina from were explored the forests of Snežnik and Javorniki on a daily basis. We also checked the temporary karstic lake of Cerknica, which was almost completely dry and therefore devoid of birds. On the last day we also visited the coastal wetland of Škocjanski zatok for a few more waterbirds. The group returned home very happy with almost all targets seen.
The tour's focus were forest owls, especially Ural and Pygmy and the rare woodpeckers that become active at this time of the year, before the arrival of winter. We saw Ural Owl Strix uralensis on a daily basis, including a pair and 2 single males, for a total of 4 individuals. One particular bird that gave excellent views was spotted at the side of a forest road, while it was in "hunting mode" and remained in full view for quite a while (last pic below & top of the post). Most importantly, all the owls were seen without disturbing them with the use of playbacks.

Ural Owl Strix uralensis

For the participants, perhaps even more exciting, or at least as exciting as the Ural Owls, was a fabulous Pygmy Owl Glaucidium passerinum that we initially heard on the first day and then also managed to see on the last. It was quite hard work though and the group stated that the guide was simply good enough to locate the calling owl and to spot it in the distance. :-)
We watched this diminutive and rare forest owl through our scopes for at least half an hour or so, before it decided to fly off, never to be seen again. A truly magic encounter!

Pygmy Owl Glaucidium passerinum
Habitat of the Pygmy Owl & Three-toed Woodpecker

Next were the woodpeckers. While having lunch on a forest glade on the Snežnik plateau we heard the distinctive "chek" of a Three-toed Woodpecker Picoides tridactylus and located a beautiful male, feeding on spruce trees around our pic-nic site. Another Three-toed Woodpecker, this time a female, also distracted us while we were listening to and looking for the Pygmy Owl. We also enjoyed good views of a male Grey-headed Woodpecker Picus canus, heard a Middle Spotted Woodpecker Dendrocopos medius and saw & heard several Black Woodpeckers Dryocopus martius. Even if we checked several sites for White-backed Woodpecker Dendrocopos leucotos, this rare species eluded us this time.

Three-toed Woodpecker Picoides tridactylus

Among other forest birds we enjoyed daily encounters with common species like Crossbill Loxia curvirostra, Bullfinch Pyrrhula pyrrhula, Treecreeper Certhia familiaris, Willow Tit Poecile montanus, as well as large flocks of Chaffinches Fringilla coelebs feasting on fallen beech mast along the forest roads. Within Chaffinch flocks we also spotted the first Bramblings Fringilla montifringilla of the autumn while small flocks of Siskins Carduelis spinus were flying overhead. A single Redwing Turdus iliacus was also an autumn's first. In the sky some large flocks of migrating Woodpigeons Columba palumbus (up to 150-200 birds at a time) were heading south, as were a few residual House Martins Delichon urbicum.
Mammals included a few rutting Red Deer Cervus elaphus stags (heard only) as well as about 5 individuals seen along forest roads. Some dark-morph Red Squirrels Sciurus vulgaris added a bit of atmosphere to the conifer forests. This time we didn't see any Brown Bears Ursus arctos, but their droppings, full of beech mast shells, were literally on every forest road.
In the forests we also enjoyed the beautiful autumn colours of changing leaves, especially those of beech Fagus sylvatica, which are now turning yellow and orange. Despite the rather dry autumn season and the lack of fresh fungi, we nevertheless found two interesting species: Cauliflower Fungus Sparassis crispa and the rare Hericium alpestre, growing on dead conifer wood.

Crossbill Loxia curvirostra
Dropping of Brown Bear Ursus arctos on a forest road, not far from lake Cerknica.
Cauliflower Fungus Sparassis crispa
Tinder Fungus Fomes fomentarius & Porcelain Fungus Oudemansiella mucida
Hericium alpestre
Autumn colours in the Dinaric forests.
Two views on mount Snežnik.

As we already mentioned, the Cerknica lake was almost devoid of birds and the only interesting species we saw were some Great Grey Shrikes Lanius excubitor, a Kingfisher Alcedo atthis and a Water Rail Rallus aquaticus. A stop at the river Unica on Planinsko polje produced a nice pair of Dippers Cinclus cinclus and several Grey Wagtails Motacilla cinerea.
After leaving the Notranjska region on the last day, we moved to the coastal wetland reserve of Škocjanski zatok, were we rounded up the trip with some common waterbirds and two stunning Bluethroats Luscinia svecica hopping on the mud at a reedbed's edge. 
At the end of our 4-day trip, the check-list numbered 84 species of birds. Not that many you will say, but during our tours we always try to concentrate on the quality, rather than the number of species!

Dipper Cinclus cinclus

Wednesday, 3 October 2018

White-backed Woodpecker & Red Deer rut

Two days ago we were again on duty in the Snežnik-Javorniki mountains exploring for new locations. Our target species was the White-backed Woodpecker Dendrocopos leucotos, one of Slovenia's rarest breeding birds and thus a rather difficult one to find. Being a heavily-specialised species, living only in old deciduous forests with good amounts of dead wood, it is mostly confined to the mountain forests of the Notranjska and Kočevska region in southern Slovenia. One of the latest population counts estimates between 100 and 150 breeding pairs in the whole of Slovenia. From personal experience we can say that the species is rather different in behaviour from the other woodpeckers, like Great Spotted for example. When it feeds it is usually restless and very mobile, never stopping for more than a minute or so. Moreover its territories are very large and scattered over quite rocky and mountainous forests. Thus, outside of the breeding season, when males drum and can be located more easily, this is a quite difficult bird to track down and observe. On Monday we visited an area where the species is known to be present with low densities (2-3 pairs). We didn't have much hope of success, but soon after our arrival on one of the "lucky spots" signed on our map, we heard the distinctive "chuk" of a White-backed Woodpecker. We followed the sound, but the bird proved to be quite mobile and also invisible, somewhere high up in the (still green) canopies. After one fleeting glimpse and about one hour later, we were finally watching the female White-back as it was, quite surprisingly, looking for food on Norway spruces Picea abies, rather than deciduous trees. In fact, the forest where we found the bird was very poor with dead beech wood, where the species finds its main food source - wood-boring beetle larvae. The female White-back gave good views for a short while and so we managed to take a short video when it descended to feed on a Sycamore Acer pseudoplatanus.
 
White-backed Woodpecker Dendrocopos leucotos


Later in the day, we were quite astonished, when after following a probable Three-toed Woodpecker Picoides tridactylus, tapping on some dead conifers, we stumbled into another White-backed Woodpecker. Once again a female; it was feeding at the base of a dead spruce and later on a spruce stump in a predominantly conifer forest, where you certainly wouldn't expect this species. Our personal thought is that White-backs in Slovenian forests can't find enough dead beech wood and thus they need to move around quite a lot within their large territories and frequently switch from beech to conifers. 

The end of September and beginning of October represent the climax of the Red Deer Cervus elaphus rutting season. So the forests were resounding with the rutting of stags: wherever we stopped and listened there was at least one rutting deer. Here's a video we recorded on site. The sound quality is bad, so you need to turn the volume up to maximum to hear the rut. At the beginning and sometimes in the background a pair of Ural Owls Strix uralensis can be heard as well.

 Red Deer Cervus elaphus rutting 


As mentioned we also had our daily dose of Ural Owls Strix uralensis as a pair was spontaneously calling to each other along a forest road, where we stopped to hear the Red Deer. We saw both male and female for a few seconds. The one in the photo is a female of the grey morph - having a greyish-barred face disk. More about Ural Owl morphs in this article.
Ural Owl Strix uralensis
 
Other wildlife in the forest included 2 Black Woodpeckers Dryocopus martius, a Red Squirrel Sciurus vulgaris, 4 Roe Deer Capreolus capreolus and commoner forest birds like Willow Tit Poecile montanus, Crested Tit Lophophanes cristatus, Crossbill Loxia curvirostra and others. In the sky there were still some House Martins Delichon urbicum making their way south. Being a quite dry and rain-less season there weren't many new mushrooms on the forest floor, but rather old specimens from a week or so.
Roe Deer Capreolus capreolus
Fly Agaric Amanita muscaria
A dead beech stump with an old woodpecker's nesting hole. It looked perfect for a White-backed Woodpecker (that we observed nearby), complete with moss-covered bracket fungi and the rare lichen Lobaria pulmonaria.
Comparison between Silver Fir Abies alba (left) and Norway Spruce (right). Among other differences, the fir has upright-standing cones that fall apart when mature, whereas spruce has hanging cones that fall to the ground.
 

Sunday, 30 September 2018

Autumn birding in Štajerska

Osprey Pandion haliaetus
Large Copper Lycaena dispar (female)

This time a more concise post due to the lack of photos. In the past ten days we made two birding excursions to the Štajerska region in the north-east of Slovenia. On the first occasion we visited the Medvedce reservoir near Pragersko, the lake of Ptuj and the fishponds at Rače, while during the second trip (yesterday) we attended DOPPS's traditional bird race in the area of Ormož. Our team started quite late for the race, so wasn't too competitive (we arrived 6th), but in general, also due to the strong wind, birds were thin on the ground. However we managed to see a few interesting species in the form of two juvenile Little Crakes Porzana parva at the Ormož lagoons and the season's first Great Grey Shrike Lanius excubitor along a farmland road. Even more interesting was a pair of Large Coppers Lycaena dispar (male and female) at the Ormož lagoons - a quite common butterfly in these lowland wetlands, but rather scarce in western Slovenia.
During our previous visit, the most exciting encounter was a pair of Ospreys Pandion haliaetus fishing above the Medvedce reservoir, while supporting cast included Long-eared Owl Asio otus (1 at a traditional roost), Ferruginous Duck Aythya nyroca, Stock Dove Columba oenas (large flock in the fields), Black Tern Chlidonias niger, Night Heron Nycticorax nycticorax (13 at Medvedce), White Stork Ciconia ciconia (on a nest in a local village), Hobby Falco subbuteo, Peregrine Falco peregrinus and a few of the last migrating Swallows Hirundo rustica.
While visiting these areas in northeastern Slovenia we always like to remember the most memorable birding day we've ever had in Slovenia - here's the old post from 2013 describing it - gives an idea about some of the species that can be seen on a good migration day in the Štajerska region.
 

Wednesday, 19 September 2018

September forest delights

Another post dedicated to forests and probably one of the many similar ones yet to come this autumn! Well, forests are our favourite environment and thus we spend quite a lot of time visiting and exploring them. So far it's been an excellent mushroom season and we have the impression we caught a great amount of species we didn't see in the previous years. We aren't actually mushroom collectors, but rather we like to enjoy them where they grow in their natural habitat, be it a tasty bolete or a deadly agaric! During one such "mushroom visit" to a local forest near our home in the Karst, we came across a great variety of interesting species, some of which are shown in the photos to follow (some still under ID process).

Bronze Bolete Boletus aereus
Hazel Bolete Leccinum pseudoscabrum (L. carpini).
Either Hortiboletus rubellus or Suillellus queletii
Puffball sp. Lycoperdon mammiforme
Common Puffball Lycoperdon perlatum
Parasol Mushroom Macrolepiota procera
Agaric Amanita sp.
Russula sp.
Ramaria sp.
Probable Butter Bolete Boletus appendiculatus

Even more interesting than the fungi on the forest floor was the casual find of a male Ural Owl Strix uralensis - a rare species in this part of Slovenia. We noticed the bird as a noisy flock of songbirds was giving loud alarm calls. Soon we also located the owl and enjoyed it with good views. A few days later we returned to the place to find not 1 but 3 different Ural Owls. We witnessed a singing male being attacked by another male and flushed away, while a female was angrily calling nearby. Probably a dispute on the edge of two territories. Nearby we also enjoyed in the sight and sounds of 1-2 Middle Spotted Woodpeckers Dendrocopos medius - a local pair we know rather well. 

Ural Owl Strix uralensis

Further afield we spent two days in the Notranjska region, making some exploration and scouting for future projects. We were rather depressed to see that vast parts of the Dinaric forests on the Snežnik plateau are being heavily logged. It is now quite hard to find a decent piece of forest, where you don't hear the chainsaw and where the effects of human activity aren't visible. Fortunately some patches of forest are so inaccessible and difficult to reach that they still remain truly wild. We visited one such example of mixed Dinaric forest set on heavily karstified limestone terrain, full of caves, sinkholes and dolinas that is protected as a forest reserve (logging is not allowed there). As we entered a stand of very old Norway spruces Picea abies we almost immediately heard the distinctive "knocking" of a Three-toed Woodpecker Picoides tridactylus, feeding on a dead spruce. Following the sound we spotted the bird, a female, that gave excellent and close views, as it is usual for the species.

 
Three-toed Woodpecker Picoides tridactylus
 
Typical Three-toed Woodpecker habitat.

We then continued our way into the forest reserve and enjoyed in the hundreds of fungi sprouting from the forest floor - we are still processing the ID for most of the species in the photos below (we'll add the exact names sometime later). The great amount of dead and decaying wood in this forest and the mixture between conifers and beech trees make for a perfect habitat for specialist birds like Three-toed and White-backed Woodpecker Dendrocopos leucotos - both nesting here. 

Mixed primeval forest of beech Fagus sylvatica and silver fir Abies alba on very rocky, karstified terrain.
Dead beech Fagus sylvatica covered with Tinder Fungus Fomes fomentarius.
Porcelain Fungus Oudemansiella mucida
Bracket fungi
Fly Agaric Amanita muscaria
Sarcodon imbricatus or Sarcodon scabrosus
Puffball Lycoperdon sp.
Puffball Lycoperdon sp.
Puffball Lycoperdon sp.
Agaric Amanita sp.
Clitocybe sp.
Agaric Amanita sp.
Agaric Amanita sp.
Earthstar Geastrum sp.
Shaggy Ink Cap Coprinus comatus
Bolete sp.

Later in the day we followed again a woodpecker's knocking and re-found the female Three-toed, some distance away from the first spot. A shy Ural Owl Strix uralensis gave a hoot in the late afternoon, but we couldn't locate it. However we were still lucky with this species as we flushed a bird from the side of a forest road, whilst driving. Other interesting birds were in the form of a distant singing Pygmy Owl Glaucidium passerinum, 3-4 Nutcrackers Nucifraga caryocatactes, a Middle Spotted Woodpecker Dendrocopos medius and 3 Black Woodpeckers Dryocopus martius (heard only).

Nutcracker Nucifraga caryocatactes

The final surprise and the most heart-stopping one, was when an adult Brown Bear Ursus arctos appeared at the side of the road, while we were driving back from the forest reserve. It was rather quick in fleeing away from us, but as it descended and open forest slope, we could watch it for a few seconds, before it vanished into the vegetation. Amazingly this bear was more or less on the same strecth of road on the northern side of mount Snežnik, where in spring we had two similar encouters!
During a visit to the Veliki Obrh stream in Loška dolina, we were also excited to find some fresh footprints of Otters Lutra lutra that are known to inhabit this area.

Footprints of Otter Lutra lutra
Otter habitat on the Veliki Obrh stream.