Friday, 21 April 2017

Forest specialists: White-back & Three-toe

Some days ago, while looking for Three-toed Woodpeckers in the mixed forests of Javorniki mountains we stumbled upon this female White-backed Woodpecker Dendrocopos leucotos (ssp. lilfordi). We watched it for at least one hour during which it was observed repeatedly drumming and even excavating a nest-hole in a rotten beech Fagus sylvatica. From a distance we could also hear a second bird drumming...perhaps its mate? VIDEO (watch HD and listen out for the drumming).  
White-back is one of Slovenia's rarest breeding birds (estimated 100-150 pairs) and any nesting pair is potentially interesting. The species has a quite narrow ecological niche, being a broadleaved forest specialist, inhabiting only natural or semi-natural forests with large amounts of dead timber where it finds its main food (wood-boring beetle larvae). Thus it is nowadays rare over much of Europe. 
Habitat where the White-backed Woodpecker was found: a mixed Dinaric forest of beech Fagus sylvatica and silver fir Abies alba, with elements of Norway spruce Picea abies, on a steep hill (around 1000 above sea level) in the Javorniki mountains.
Fomes fomentarius - a common fungus in Slovenia's forests, usually found on beech Fagus sylvatica or other broadleaved trees.
Later on we were at last successful in our search as we found this stunning male Three-toed Woodpecker Picoides tridactylus (ssp. alpinus) feeding very close to the road on a dead silver fir Abies alba. As usual with this species, the bird proved very cooperative and allowed very close views, without any sign of fear. It even moved towards us a few times and wasn't even flushed by two passing cars. VIDEO
Three-toed Woodpecker inhabits mountain conifer and mixed forests with large amounts of dead or dying trees. It is an absolute conifer specialist and for feeding favours standing trees where wood-boring insects and its larvae are found.
Mountain Dinaric forest of beech and silver fir (Abieti-Fagetum) - habitat of the Three-toed Woodpecker. In the Notranjska region the greenery is several weeks late in comparison to other, low-lying forests.
Fresh green leaves of beech Fagus sylvatica in the area where we found the Three-toed Woodpecker. The forest in this area has been affected by an ice storm several years ago and the consequences are still visible on the trees. Bark beetles have consequently attacked the weaker trees and have caused major dyings among conifers. Three-toed and other woodpeckers benefit from these outbreaks as they find more food (beetle's larvae) in affected stands and thus are more easily found in areas where the forest looks "poor" and ill.
Omphalodes verna is a very common woodland flower in Dinaric forests and so important in this habitat that has also given the name to the forest association Omphalodo-Fagetum. To the left of it are the shiny leaves of Geranium nodosum.
A young silver fir Abies alba slowly making its way towards the light.
Hacquetia epipactis is a characteristic flower of early spring in Slovenian forests and woods.
A male Black Woodpecker Dryocopus martius feeding on a stump, not far from its White-backed cousin. This species is widespread in a variety of forest habitats and plays a crucial role in giving other animals a home - many species readily occupy Black Woodpecker's old tree-holes.
Out of the forest - the village of Laze pri Gorenjem Jezeru by the lake Cerknica.

Friday, 14 April 2017

An exciting return

The Karst is bursting with lush green leaves as the woodlands are coming back to life after long months of winter sleep. In the first photo a detail from a sessile oak Quercus petraea, a common tree species forming broadleaved woods all over Slovenia. The other two pics show a lime Tilia cordata/platyphyllos in all its spring glory.
Narcissus poeticus ssp. radiiflorus in full bloom on Karst's meadows. An increasingly scarce plant due to the loss of open meadows and pastures maintained by grazing animals. However in some areas it is still possible to see such white "carpets" like the above.
Fritillaria orientalis is a scarce and endangered species of dry limestone grassland, in bloom on the Karst at this time of year. Its even rarer wet-loving counterpart F. meleagris is found in central and eastern Slovenia.
Globularia punctata - the colour of the sky.
Pulsatilla montana is a characteristic spring flower which inhabits dry grasslands on limestone; the similar Pulsatilla vulgaris (Pasqueflower) in Slovenia is much rarer and restricted to just a few sites. The above is commonly found, but has a quite early blooming period; most of them are now already going into seed.
Paeonia officinalis at the beginning of its blooming season. This impressive plant has the biggest flower of any Slovenian species and is found in open, sunny woodlands, forest glades and wooded pastures. The real spectacle has yet to come...
Orchis morio is the commonest orchid species on the Karst, favouring unfertilised, mowed or grazed grassland. It can be seen in different colour variations, from whitish and pink to deep blue and purple.
A cherry tree Prunus avium in a vineyard on the Karst...
...where Wrynecks Jynx torquilla like to sing and nest.
Karstic rural landscape; home for Hoopoe Upupa epops, Wryneck Jynx torquilla, Corn Emberiza calandra & Cirl Bunting E. cirlus and Woodlark Lullula arborea.
The different shades of green that make wooded landscapes in spring so beautiful.
Moehringia muscosa - tough little plant, frequently growing out from the bare limestone.
Our first Short-toed Eagle Circaetus gallicus of the year, gliding above one of its favoured grassland areas, where it hunts small reptiles and snakes.
Rock Bunting Emberiza cia - a common bird of stony grassland, cliffs and rocky slopes.
Goshawk Accipiter gentilis soaring over a pine plantation. On the Karst, the species tends to use old pines for nesting and is thus associated with plantations of black pine Pinus nigra, planted by the Austrians in the 19th century.
After watching this Lesser Spotted Woodpecker Dendrocopos minor for a while, we discovered its nest in a rotten tree, some 3 meters above the ground.
A jumping Middle Spotted Woodpecker Dendrocopos medius greeting us, after two months without seeing each other.

After coming back from Romania, everything looks gorgeous here at home as spring is really in full swing. Warm sunny days, clear blue skies, lush green woodlands, birds singing everywhere and carpets of wildflowers! This is without any doubt the most exciting time of the year.
In the past days we only managed to take a few strolls around home, but it was enough to see all the above. Apart from that and the first Cuckoos Cuculus canorus, Nightingales Luscinia megarhynchos, Swifts Apus apus ect. we also saw a Red Kite Milvus milvus yesterday over Lipica (local rarity) and a Griffon Vulture Gyps fulvus on the 11th over Sežana.

Saturday, 25 March 2017

Spring in Slovenian forests

Although this spring I'm almost 2000 km away from home (see Wild Delta Experience), it would be a pity not to share on this blog some of the most beautiful wlidlife (my favourite actually) found across Slovenian forests at this time of the year. I'll start with the above Fritillaria meleagris (also known as "marsh tulip" in Slovenia) which blooms quite early: in the last days of March and the first week of April. There are only a few places in Slovenia where this plant can be found. The above shot was taken in Krakovski gozd - a deciduous floodplain forest in eastern Slovenia, where fortunately this beautiful flower is still quite common.
Middle Spotted Woodpecker Dendrocopos medius in an oak woodland on the Slovenian Karst, where the species holds a small population. This interesting woodpecker, mostly territorial in March is very scarce in the west of the country, whereas in central and eatsren Slovenia is found more commonly, especially in oak floodplain forests.
Erythronium dens-canis is one of the most beautiful early-spring woodland flowers. This shot was taken last year in a karstic oak woodland where carpets of these can be found.
Three-toed Woodpecker Picoides tridactylus in the Dinaric forests of the Javorniki mountains, excavating a nest-hole in a silver fir Abies alba. In Slovenia this rare woodpecker is found in old coniferous forest above 700 m a.s.l., where there's still enough dead wood to support its main invertebrate prey and soft timber for nest excavation. This video sums up a bit the spring atmosphere in a Dinaric forest with a close encounter with the above woodpecker.
Scopolia carniolica in the Kočevje forests. This plant is a Slovenia's specialty, as it was first discovered in this region (the former Carniola) and named after the scientist J.A. Scopoli. It grows in mixed mountain forests throughout the Dinaric region of Slovenia and in some other European countries.
White-backed Woodpecker Dendrocopos leucotos ssp. lilfordi inspectig a rotten stump in the Kočevje forest. This is Slovenia's rarest woodpecker with only about 100-150 breeding pairs, mostly confined to old mountain beech forests with large quantities of dead wood. It feeds mostly on longhorn beetle (Cerambycidae) larvae which are found in decaying deciduous wood.
Hacquetia epipactis, Slovenian Karst. This is a typical flower of early spring in Slovenian forests and woodlands. It was named after the botanist B. Hacquet who worked in this region in the 18th century. 
Ural Owl Strix uralensis is the most abundant owl species in Dinaric forests of beech and silver fir (Abieti-Fagetum), especially in south and central Slovenia. It is frequently observed during daylight, all year round.
Early spring woodland flower mix in the Dinaric mountains: Hacquetia epipactis (yellow one), Omphalodes verna (blue), Anemone nemorosa (white).
Morimus funereus is a longhorn beetle (Cerambycidae) species found commonly in deciduous forests across Slovenia. It is most at home on oak Quercus and beech trees Fagus sylvatica, where it lays the eggs in freshly-cut trunks. 
Paeonia officinalis is certainly one of the most beautiful spring flowers in sunny oak woodlands on the Karst. It usually blooms in April and May when the forest vegetation is already lush green.

Sunday, 19 February 2017

Wild Delta Experience

I'll be away from my usual circuits for a while... in the meantime check this new blog for updates:

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

On the tracks of Lynx and Wolf

January is a good month for following animal's tracks in the snow. Recently I made two snow-tracking visits that proved very productive. I went looking for tracks both close to home, on the Slovenian Karst and further afield in the Snežnik forests. Moreover I've also been to lake Cerknica (Cerkniško jezero) and a few other places, trying to see some live animals as well. Here and there a few woodpeckers and owls materialised in front of me, as it frequently happens. I leave you to the pics with some comments below.

Footprints of Eurasian Lynx Lynx lynx, Snežnik forests, 23rd January 2017. Such find is the climax of a snow-tracking trip and usually the closest you can get to a wild Lynx in Slovenia. With something like 10-15 individuals in the whole country, Lynx is one of the rarest and most secretive animals of Slovenia: virtually impossible to see and a real phantom. Yesterday we were very lucky to find two sets of tracks on a snow-covered forest road. In the second photo I played a bit with the levels in photoshop to make the footprint more clearly visible.
Footprints of Eurasian Lynx Lynx lynx, Snežnik forests, 23rd January 2017. After following the tracks for a while, we came across this large rock with many footprints in the snow nearby and a strong scent of cat urine - clearly a place where the Lynx marked the territory.
Footprints of Eurasian Lynx Lynx lynx in the snow, Snežnik forests, 23rd January 2017. Note the funny-looking ice cream shape of the footprints, made when the animal walks in the deep snow and leaves behind signs of the furry legs too.
Eurasian Lynx Lynx lynx shot in 1987 and exposed in a hunting hut on mount Slavnik in southeast Slovenia (photographed in August 2016). Lynx got extinct in Slovenia at the beginning of the 20th century due to the lack of food (scarcity of its main prey - deer), lack of habitat and hunting pressures. Thereafter, hunters brought it back with a reintroduction programe in 1973 which was very successful. Lynx from the Slovak Carpathians were used for the purpose and their descendants still roam free in Slovenian forests. However nowadays the Lynx is again on the brink of extinction due to small population numbers (10-15 animals) and increasing loss of genetic diversity (inbreeding).
Tracking animals in the Snežnik forests, 23rd January 2017.
Ural Owl Strix uralensis, Snežnik forests, 23rd January 2017. This is one of the few bird species to be found in upland forests in the middle of winter. The above bird interrupted our lunch in the snow as it silently glided some 10 meters past us and landed on a tree nearby. It was in active hunt and didn't pay much attention to us.
Footprints of Wolf Canis lupus, Slovenian Karst, 14th January 2017. Although nearly impossible to ID for sure, due to the similarity with domestic dogs, these tracks belong most certainly to a Wolf. The most characteristic traits, typical of Wolf noticed were: the overall straight walk (for about 2 km on a forest road), the absence of any human footprints nearby, the footprint size and shape and... the opinion of an expert. Moreover Wolves are know to be present in the area where the tracks were found. In the whole of Slovenia there are about 11 packs of Wolves, concentrated mostly in the central and western part of the country, where they inhabit the Dinaric mountains. The new, updated report of the Wolf monitoring in Slovenia is available here (with summary and maps in English).
Lobaria pulmonaria, Snežnik forests, 23rd January 2017. This rare and endangered lichen, indicator of unpolluted air, is actually very common in the forests of Snežnik. It is typically found on the rough bark of old sycamores Acer pseudoplatanus.
Neottia nidus-avis, Cerkniško jezero, 21st January 2017. The remains of a dry orchid from last summer, sprouting out of the snow.
Middle Spotted Woodpecker Dendrocopos medius, Slovenian Karst, 4th January 2017. At the beginning of the month I carried out a testing census and discovered 4 territorial birds in an area that hasn't yet been systematically studied. These results, together with a recent observation from near Ilirska Bistrica, add even more knowledge to the distribution of this woodpecker, which once was thought to be very rare in western Slovenia. It looks like the species is commoner than thought in this part of the country.
Black Woodpecker Dryocopus martius, Slovenian Karst, 20th January 2017. This female is spending whole days stripping off the bark from dead pines in a small woodland that I visit almost on a daily basis. Plantations of black pine Pinus nigra all over the Karst seem to be affected by some sort of bark beetle and are dying quickly. Recently I've noticed an increase of Black Woodpeckers in such affected woods.
Sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus, Rakov Škocjan, 21st January 2017.
Crossbill Loxia curvirostra, Slovenian Karst, 4th January 2017. Feeding on a gall of Andricus caputmedusae in the canopy of a sessile oak Quercus petraea.