Friday, 15 September 2017

Golden Eagles vs Chamois

A few days ago we had a relaxed raptor-watching session on the grassy plateau of mount Nanos in western Slovenia. Our primary target was checking the local Golden Eagles Aquila chrysaetos and catching up with some migrants. We succeeded with both. We spotted a family of eagles quite soon as their juvenile was calling loudly. Three birds, male, female and this year's juvenile were together in the sky, flying quite close to our position and giving excellent views. Later as we continued to watch the eagles, the juvenile left their parents and drifted towards a distant rocky hill. We almost thought it will land on a rock, but instead it stopped in mid air a few meters from the ground; underneath there was an angry Alpine Chamois Rupicapra rupicapra, trying to defy the attack. The Chamois was obviously too big for the eagle and the latter then landed on a nearby tree. After a motionless face to face of several minutes between the two animals, the eagle's parents joined in and the aerial attacks resumed. The Chamois was proudly defending its position and actually scaring off the eagles several times. Perhaps it was trying to defend something we couldn't see... its young hidden in the grass? The dispute went on for several minutes, after the three eagles decided to abandon their target. 
It was an amazing scene... one that we would expect to see only in documentaries! Fortunately we managed to film it, so have a look below (sorry for the shaking and bad quality, but this is pure documentation). If the video doesn't open, watch it here.
After the "attack" we observed the three eagles several more times, but other raptors kept us also entertained. The migrant's highlight was an Osprey Pandion haliaetus, drifting in a straight direction from north-east to south-west, heading towards the sea. The same direction was held also by several migrating Marsh Harriers Circus aeruginosus (6 in total), a Honey Buzzard Pernis apivorus and 3 Common Buzzards Buteo buteo. Two Griffon Vultures Gyps fulvus were instead flying north-westwards, to the Alps. On Nanos' rocky summit we also had a fleeting enconuter with a juvenile Rock Thrush Monticola saxatilis, while earlier in the day we observed a Short-toed Eagle Circaetus gallicus, perched on a pylon by the motorway.
After the intese rainfalls of the previous days, fungi sprouted all around. The above is the edible Parasol Mushroom Macrolepiota procera, seen commonly on meadows in autumn.
On the botanical front, Satureja subspicata ssp. liburnica is now the most prominent plant of dry karstic meadows in mountainous areas. The similar, but white-fowered Winter Savory Satureja montana is typical of lower altitudes (despite the name!).
Our raptor watching position on Nanos' edge, with the Karst and Gulf of Trieste in the distance. From Nanos one can have the best landscape panorama in the whole of Slovenia. Most of western Slovenia, northwest Croatia and northeast Italy is visible in clear and windy weather.

Sunday, 10 September 2017

In Brown Bear's kingdom

Autumn is an excellent time for mammal watching on forest glades. A few days ago we set for a good location on the western slopes of the Snežnik plateau, to try our luck with the Brown Bear Ursus arctos. We chose an elevated point overlooking some open grassland, that Bears like to cross in the evenings. Soon after the sun set, we were lucky as we spotted a large Bear. It was a brief encounter, perhaps only half a minute long, while the animal trotted over a grassy slope, before disappearing in the vegetation. However it was on view long enough to catch it briefly in the scope and also take some pictures. 
Bears are mostly nocturnal animals and individuals that usually venture out at twilight are young or immatures, trying to avoid the older and more agressive individuals; the latter being very wary and only wandering around in pitch darkness.
Open grassy areas bordering the Snežnik forests offer great opportunities for mammal watching as many animals come out of the forest to feed at dusk. The Snežnik forests are home to a strong Brown Bear population, as well as a few packs of Wolves Canis lupus and the only few remaining Lynx Lynx lynx in Slovenia.
When darkness came, we started to hear the first rutting Red Deer Cervus elaphus - their mating season has begun! During the evening we observed several other mammals, including Roe Deer Capreolus capreolus, Brown Hare Lepus europaeus and Fox Vulpes vulpes, while birds included a Nightjar Caprimulgus europaeus and a Scops Owl Otus scops hunting by the road.
A nice full moon made a few brief appearances in the cloudy sky. Animals are usually more active during full moon nights. Although we didn't hear any forest owls, we know by experience that such nights are the best for wildlife observation in the Dinaric forests.
Earlier in the afternoon we also observed two female Black Woodpeckers Dryocopus martius feeding on a large pile of black pine logs. The trees were visibly ill and obviously still very attractive to the woodpeckers. There's currently a large disease (bark beetle or something) affecting most of the black pines in the Karst and woodpeckers are clearly taking advantage of it. This is quite great as black pines were actually introduced to the Karst in the 19th century.
Allium ericetorum (syn. A. ochroleucum) is a common species of leek on dry karstic grasslands. It is typical of the autumn and at this time of year one of the few flowering plants on grasslands. Its pinkish counterpart, Allium senescens (syn. A. montanum) is also common at the moment.

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Wetlands of eastern Slovenia

Yesterday we visited northeastern Slovenia after a long time. There are some excellent birding locations in the Štajerska region, set on the Pannonian plain. Actually two areas are known as the best birding sites in the whole of Slovenia: the Medvedce reservoir near Pragersko and the Ptuj lake. We visited both as well as another site in the vicinity, the Rače fishponds south of Maribor. These precious wetlands are important breeding sites for a great variety of waterbirds, but are also used by migratory birds as stop-over sites. Some of Slovenia's greatest rarities were recorded on the Medvedce reservoir and at lake Ptuj. Yesterday we didn't see any rarities, but we had a nice mix of wetland wildlife, some of which we are not used to see frequently.
Spotted Crake Porzana porzana at the Medvedce reservoir. The species is a scarce breeder in Slovenia, mostly at Cerkniško jezero and a few sites in eastern Slovenia. It is far easier to catch up with it during migration, when birds feed at the edge of reedbeds and sometimes allow views as above. Similarly also Little Crake Porzana parva can be observed with the same mode in this period.
Part of the Rače fishpond is covered by the beautiful Fringed Water-lily Nymphoides peltata that is superficially similar to the water lily Nymphaea alba and the yellow water-lily Nuphar luteum, but belongs to a different family, the Menyanthaceae. Waterbirds seem to favour areas covered with such floating vegetation, where they can hide and build their nests...
Ferruginous Duck Aythya nyroca is a true bird of eastern Europe. As you move from western Slovenia to the east, this species becomes increasingly common. It is a regular breeder at fishponds, reservoirs and freshwater wetlands in eastern Slovenia and can be observed quite easily. The above birds were all photographed at the Rače fishponds. A flock was resting in the thick stand of Fringed Water-lilies.
Another very common duck species, breeding at fishponds is Tufted Duck Aythya fuligula. Similarly also Pochard Aythya ferina is quite common in this region as a breeding bird. In winter, Tufted Ducks are joined by flocks of Scapus Aythya marila arriving from the north and spending the winter in northeastern Slovenia.
Great Crested Grebe Podiceps cristatus is one of the commonest birds at the fishponds and reservoirs in eastern Slovenia. They usually nest colonially on floating nests in the middle of reservoirs. One such colony, with up to ten breeding birds is present at the Rače fishponds. Yesterday we observed many fresh juveniles, still being fed by adults.
A welcome addition was one of the most beautiful butterflies, the Large Copper Lycaena dispar, which we observed repeatedly on overgrown banks along the Rače fishponds and Medvedce reservoir. In eastern Slovenia this species is much commoner than in the west, although recently we also found it closer to home (see this). The above specimen are a beautiful male (front) and a less-marked female (rear).
Close to the Large Coppers was also this Small Copper Lycaena phlaeas, a less-colourful species and probably the commonest of all coppers in Slovenia.
This juvenile Purple Heron Ardea purpurea was observed at the Rače fishponds. Individuals like this are regularly seen on migration all over Slovenia's wetlands. There are only a handful of probable breeding records of this species in the country. The first confirmed breeding is fresh from this year and involves a breeding pair at DOPPS's reserve Škocjanski zatok in southwest Slovenia.
Unlike in western Slovenia, Stock Doves Columba oenas are common in the lowland east of the country. Yesterday we observed up to 15 individuals resting on wires in farmland areas.
A view over part of the Ptuj lake with Pygmy Cormorants Phalacrocorax pygmeus resting on the left. This is a large artificial reservoir formed with the construction of a dam on the river Drava. It extends in the vicinity of the town of Ptuj, but nevertheless hosts a large diversity of waterbirds. In winter up to 10-20 thousand birds gather at the lake. It is also important for colonial breeding birds such as Common Tern Sterna hirundo, Black-headed Larus ridibundus and Mediterranean Gull Larus melanocephalus. Yesterday at the lake we also observed Little Gull Hydrocoloeus minutus, Black Tern Chlidonias niger, Dunlin Calidris alpina and Sand Martin Riparia riparia.
On the Medvedce reservoir we observed a mixed flock of Curlews Numenius arquata and Whimbrels Numenius phaeopus (both species in the photo).
This juvenile Cuckoo Cuculus canorus was also at the Medvedce reservoir. Most of the adults are now already in Africa; only if you are lucky you can catch up with the residual juveniles, still making their way to the winter quarters.
And now a species we didn't see yesterday, but one that needs to be mentioned: the White-tailed Eagle Haliaeetus albicilla. Although there are only a few breeding pairs in the country, this is a quite usual raptor over eastern Slovenian skies. The above pic was taken a few years ago at the Medvedce reservoir, where it's a regular bird.
Medvedce reservoir with the Pohorje plateau rising in the back... The conifer forests over there are home to Capercaillies Tetrao urogallus, Three-toed Woodpeckers Picoides tridactylus, Pygmy Glaucidium passerinum and Tengmalm's Owls Aegolius funereus. This is Slovenia - great biodivesity over a small distance!

Thursday, 24 August 2017

Nanoščica river with a special butterfly

The Nanoščica river basin is a nice example of an extensive agricultural landscape combined with wet meadows, hedges and woods. A lot of birds and other wildlife, including some rare and endangered species, benefit from such a mosaic landscape. There are several interesting butterflies in Slovenia that are typical for wet meadows and are endangered on an international level. One of them was the target of our recent trip to Nanoščica. We visited and searched several wet meadows in the area, before finding this amazing butterfly...
The Large Copper Lycaena dispar is a very rare butterfly in western Slovenia, confined to wet meadows and overgrown freshwater canals. We found only one specimen, the above male, which was sitting prominently on a very visible spot. Its orange upperwings probably serve as a territorial advertisement for other butterflies, that are also eagerly chased away.
Another butterfly dependent on wet meadows is the Scarce Large Blue Phengaris teleius that is quite frequent along the Nanoščica river. The season is a bit late for this species, but we nevertheless managed to see a few specimen (perched on their feeding plant: Sanguisorba officinalis).
Sooty Copper Lycaena tityrus was another species we found; it inhabits both wet and dry grasslands, as well as forest clearings. It is one of the commonest coppers in Slovenia.
The Tufted Marbled Skipper Carcharodus floccifera is scarce and locally distributed on wet meadows as well as dry grasslands in the Karst. We spotted just one or two of them.
Wet meadows at this time of year are not as colourful as in late spring, but fortunately there are some species that bloom late in the season too. Succisa pratensis is one of them, being a very common late-summer flower, sometimes covering entire meadows.
Gentiana pneumonanthe (marsh gentian) is another example of late-summer flower of wet meadows and acidic soils. It is also a feeding plant for the Alcon Blue Phengaris alcon, another rare butterfly confined to wet meadows.
Geranium palustre
Lycopus europaeus
Viburnum opulus
There are already many Red-backed Shrikes Lanius collurio on migration, although the above individuals were probably the local breeders - several noisy families were still around. The hedges and trees are now coming alive with passerine migrants like Pied Flycatcher Ficedula hypoleuca, Spotted Flycatcher Muscicapa striata, Wood Warbler Phylloscopus sibilatrix, Wryneck Jynx torquilla and others. In a bush by the Nanoščica river we also managed to get nice views of a migrant Grasshopper Warbler Locustella naevia, a bird we are not used to see so frequently.
Mount Nanos gave the name to the Nanoščica river, that flows in the valley under the mountain's eastern slopes (those that are visible in the photos). See this post for more about the Nanoščica river basin and this about Nanos.