Saturday, 2 November 2019

Crane day & northern visitors

After the unusual spell of warm and sunny weather of the past weeks, now autumn (or winter?) is really upon us. The recent days have been amazingly cold and wintry due to the strong north-easterly burja wind blowing across western Slovenia. Many areas experienced the first sub-zero temperatures of the season and even the first snow in the mountains. Yesterday the skies cleared over much of Slovenia and the sunny, but cold weather unleashed the migration of Common Cranes Grus grus from the plains of Hungary. Apparently yesterday was THE day to be out and witness the large movements of these majestic migratory birds. Hundreds were reported from around Slovenia and we were also lucky to have chosen the right sites to go birding. Taking the weather into account, we headed for the Štajerska region to visit the country's migration hotspots near Maribor and Ptuj. By mid morning we were already watching a large flock of around 350-400 Cranes catching a thermal over the Medvedce reservoir and forming a "wedge" before flying west. Later we observed several other flocks, including around 50 over lake Ptuj, 12 near Pragersko and finally 80-100 low over the Medvedce reservoir in the evening. All in all we must have seen more than 500 Cranes, which is a rather good total for a day in Slovenia. Below is a video we recorded when the flocks were passing low - listen out for their loud and distinctive migration calls.
Common Cranes Grus grus
The Medvedce reservoir hosted a large flock of +1000 Greylag Geese Anser anser among which were also a few White-fronted Geese Anser albifrons. Two 1st winter Little Gulls Hydrocoloeus minutus were also of note for us, as we don't often observe this species in western Slovenia. A nice flock of migrating Lapwings Vanellus vanellus and the first Bittern Botaurus stellaris of the winter season were also good to see. 
Nearby, the large reservoir lake of Ptuj held good numbers of wildfowl, among which Tufted Duck Aythya fuligula and Pochard Aythya ferina were the commonest as usual. Among the early winter arrivals were 4 Goldeneyes Bucephala clangula and a Red-throated Diver Gavia stellata. A migrant Grey Plover Pluvialis squatarola, good numbers of Pygmy Cormorants Phalacrocorax pygmeus and several Goosanders Mergus merganser were also of note. However we were most happy when an adult White-tailed Eagle Haliaeetus albicilla, a rare breeder in Slovenia, glided above the lake. At the fishponds of Rače we observed another Little Gull Hydrocoloeus minutus and some Ferruginous Ducks Aythya nyroca, the latter having the largest Slovenian breeding population right in the Štajerska region. Other interesting birds at various sites were also Water Rail Rallus aquaticus, Crested Lark Galerida cristata, Great Grey Shrike Lanius excubitor and a White Stork Ciconia ciconia taking a nap on its old nest.
White-tailed Eagle Haliaeetus albicilla
Red-throated Diver Gavia stellata
Goldeneye Bucephala clangula
Tufted Ducks Aythya fuligula and Pochards Aythya ferina
Ferruginous Duck Aythya nyroca
Pygmy Cormorant Phalacrocorax pygmeus
White Stork Ciconia ciconia
The artificial lake of Ptuj on the river Drava with the town of Ptuj in the distance.

Last week's bird monitoring at Škocjanski zatok which took place during an overcast and misty autumn day was also quite productive in terms of migrants. The most interesting species was a beautiful male Northern Bullfinch Pyrrhula pyrrhula ssp. pyrrhula. This bird seemed a bit out of place at this coastal wetland and it was indeed a new species for the reserve. We identified the bird by its distinctive trumpeting call. Birds with such calls have a north-European or Siberian origin and are usually referred as "Trumpeting", "Komi" or "Northern" Bullfinches. Morphologically they are almost identical to "our" ordinary Bullfinches, except for they are slightly bigger and have colder colour tones. They are known to make irregular winter irruptions into continental Europe, including Slovenia. Apart from the bird at Škocjanski zatok we also observed/heard at least 4 other Northern Bullfinches this autumn, mostly in the Karst.
During the monitoring we had a large flock of finches containing many Bramblings Fringilla montifringilla, Linnets Linaria cannabina and Hawfinches Coccothraustes coccothraustes, feeding with Water Pipits Anthus spinoletta and Meadow Pipits Anthus pratensis on the wet meadows, while some Redwings Turdus iliacus were also in the hedges. A typical late-autumn migration scene. The freshwater part of the reserve also had a White-fronted Goose Anser albifrons and a migrant White Stork Ciconia ciconia, while the lagoon is still home to the lingering juvenile Flamingo Phoenicopterus roseus. A lonely Swallow Hirundo rustica was probably our last one for this year.
Northern Bullfinch Pyrrhula pyrrhula ssp. pyrrhula
Brambling Fringilla montifringilla
Brambling Fringilla montifringilla & Linnet Linaria cannabina
Water Pipit Anthus spinoletta
White Stork Ciconia ciconia
White-fronted Goose Anser albifrons

Monday, 28 October 2019

Veliki Golak with Three-toed Woodpeckers

Last weekend the weather was excellent for a mountain hike, so we decided to visit the Trnovo forest (Trnovski gozd) once again, to walk on the Golaki mountains. A week ago we hiked on Mali Golak (1495 m), while this time it was the turn of Veliki Golak (1480 m), a nearby peak, but much wilder than the first and seldom visited. Actually we were alone for most of the day and didn't meet anyone else on the mountain. The Golaki mountains are typically Dinaric, dominated by exensive beech Fagus sylvatica forests with silver fir Abies alba (Abieti-Fagetum dinaricum), while the very summits are covered by small stands of Mountain Pine Pinus mugo. The forests on the northern slopes have been severely hit by the infamous ice storm from a few years ago. However the area hasn't been "cleaned" from dead and damaged trees as it lies within a forest reserve. Therefore the forest now still hosts large quantities of dead wood and especially standing dead trees. A really excellent habitat for White-backed Dendrocopos leucotos and Three-toed Woodpecker Picoides tridactylus and certainly worth a visit in the breeding season.
During our walk up we encountered several common forest birds, like Black Woodpecker Dryocopus martius, as well as small flocks of Rock Buntings Emberiza cia in the most exposed and rockiest areas.

Beech forest damaged by an ice storm with typical grasses species establishing in the clearings.
Rock Buntings seem to like these open forest type of habitats.
Subalpine beech forest in rocky areas around hilltops.
Tinder Fungus Fomes fomentarius
Saprophytic fungus
Hairy Alpenrose Rhododendron hirsutum in buds, already waiting for the spring.
Towards the summit of the Golaki mountains.
Rock Bunting Emberiza cia
The top of Veliki Golak (1480 m) with Mali Golak (1495 m) in the background.
Mountain Pine Pinus mugo
Northern slopes of Golaki.
A look north-east towards the Julian Alps (the highest peak is Triglav).
A look north with mount Krn and Vrh nad Peski in the Julian Alps.
Looking south, mount Snežnik is visible in the distance.

Passerine migration was boosted by the excellent weather conditions (sun and light northeasterly breeze) and a constant passage of small birds was visible above the mountain tops. The commonest were Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs and Brambling Fringilla montifringilla, but Siskin Spinus spinus, Dunnock Prunella modularis, Bullfinch Pyrrhula pyrrhula, Linnet Linaria cannabina, Meadow Pipit Anthus pratensis and even a Reed Bunting Emberiza schoeniclus were also observed. The first Redwings Turdus iliacus of the season, feeding on the forest floor cheered us up too. The most interesting encounter during the ascent was a beautiful Red Deer Cervus elaphus stag sporting a large set of antlers - something you don't often come across, as adult males are generally very shy. Indeed we could only watch it for a few seconds as it retreated out from view on a steep slope. Finally in the late afternoon we also found and observed again one of our favourite birds - a Three-toed Woodpecker Picoides tridactylus. There were both male and female (probably the same pair from last time), although the female proved once again to be more cooperative and allowed us to record a decent video:

Three-toed Woodpecker Picoides tridactylus, female.
Spruce trees attacked by bark beetles.
An old forestry house with some serious problems on the roof.
Mount Triglav waving goodbye in the distance.

Monday, 21 October 2019

Three-toed Woodpeckers in Trnovski gozd

On Sunday we were again in the forest of Trnovo (Trnovski gozd), walking on the Golaki mountains with some friends. The weather was (once again) rather depressing with heavy clouds, fog and wind. Not ideal for forest birding. And the view from the top of the highest peak in Trnovski gozd, Mali Golak (1495 m) was only down to a few meters! However the wind slowed down in the early afternoon, right at the time when we found ourselves walking in an area of spruce forest "infected" by bark beetles. The mixture between large vital trees, standing dead ones and those ill or dying was apparently irresitible to woodpeckers... and to us of course! The "pecking" on the dry trunks was audible all around. So we went to investigate the source of the nearest sound and soon we were watching a stunning male Three-toed Woodpecker Picoides tridactylus. His female was nearby, feeding on the same group of trees and somehow cooperated a bit better than the male (video). However both birds were quite mobile in their feeding frenzy and they didn't allow us too close (unlike usually with this species). Confusingly, other woodpeckers were feeding in the same group of trees and making other pecking sounds: two Grey-headed Woodpecker Picus canus, a male Black Woodpecker Dryocopus martius and at least a Great Spotted Woodpecker Dendrocopos major. After about an hour of watching the Three-toeds, we checked the wider area and found several old nest-holes in some standing dead conifers. The area looked like a woodpecker paradise - we were clearly in our element! Later we realised that the foresters intentionally spared this area from logging (despite a massive presence of bark beetles), because it lies within a forest reserve, where logging is not allowed. Let's hope it will stay so also in the future! Because of intensive logging nowadays forest reserves seem to be the only suitable places to find Three-toed Woodpecker.

Female Three-toed Woodpecker Picoides tridactylus
Old Three-toed Woodpecker's nesting hole (probably this year's).
Dying Norway Spruces Picea abies affected by bark beetles.
Grey-headed Woodpecker Picus canus

Apart from woodpeckers the forest of Trnovo was generally very quiet, maybe also because of the bad weather. We had the usual mountain forest species like Treecreeper Certhia familiaris, Bullfinch Pyrrhula pyrrhula, Willow Tit Poecile montanus and some migrant Bramblings Fringilla montifringilla. Most of the beech trees in the higher parts of the forest (above 1200 meters) were already leaf-less, whereas some autumn colours were still visible at around 1000 meters and lower down. On the forest floor there were still several species of fungi to enjoy, including some new to us.
Foggy forest.
Some autumn colours, but terrible light.
Tawny Grisette Amanita fulva
Yellowfoot Cantharellus (Craterellus) tubaeformis
Yellow Stagshorn Calocera viscosa
Clouded Agaric Clitocybe nebularis
Stinking Russula Russula foetens
Tree Lungwort Lobaria pulmonaria - an indicator of unpolluted air, common in Slovenian forests.