Saturday 11 July 2015

In the Alpine kingdom

I spent the last week or so in Slovenia, firstly on a biologist's camp and later in the Julian Alps. I'll start from the really best of the week - the Alps and its highlights. Two days were spent on mount Mangart, Breginjski Stol above Kobarid and the Trenta valley. All locations held excellent wildlife, although the main focus and highlights were on the botanical front. Literally thousands of colorful alpine wildflowers everywhere, including some very interesting and localised species.
Physoplexis comosa - a very characteristic species belonging to the Campanulaceae family. It grows in rock crevices; in Slovenia just in the Julian and Kamnik Alps. We found just about 10 specimens in a rocky cliff. Close to it are the leaves of Potentilla caulescens.
Campanula zoysii - endemic species of the Slovenian Alps. First described in Slovenia in the 18th century and named after Karl Zois. This is an old evolutionary species as the very characteristic shape of its "bell" (clearly different from all the other species in the genus) tells us. Lives in rock and shaded crevices in the Alps. The species range also stretches to Carnia (nearby Italy) and Carinthia (Austria).
Papaver alpinum subsp. ernesti-mayeri - endemic subspecies of the Julian Alps, named after the botanist Ernest Mayer and inhabiting rocky screes. Interestingly a disjuncted population is also found in Abruzzo (central Italy).
Phyteuma sieberi - first collected in Slovenia on mount Ljubelj (locus typicus) by F.W. Sieber in the 19th century. This is the only truly alti-montane species from the genus Phyteuma in Slovenia and it's also a rock-crevice dweller.
Saussurea pygmaea - quite common on the alpine grasslands of Mangart.
Eritrichum nanum - a species that was incorrectly identified and named by B. Hacquet in the 18th century as Myosotis terglouensis (from specimens collected on mount Triglav). Hacquet thought he found a new species. Later this evocative name was rejected as the species was already known to science as Eritrichum nanum.
Dianthus sternbergii
Potentilla nitida - the charismatic flower in the Slovenian's folklore legend of the Goldhorn. Common alpine species of rocky habitats above the treeline.
Paederota bonarota - the blue counterpart of the much commoner Paederota lutea.
Saxifraga crustata with Mali Mangart in the background. This (along with the species below) was perhaps the commonest flower to be found on Mangart. Another Saxifraga species present in good numbers was S. squarrosa, which wasn't blooming yet.
Saxifraga paniculata with the top of Mangart in the back.
Nigritella rubra (N. miniata).
Nigritella rhellicani
Leontopodium alpinum with Mangart in the back. The quintessential alpine flower.
Hedysarum hedysaroides
Saxifraga aizoides
Aster alpinus
Veronica aphylla
Pinus mugo and the hut on Mangartsko sedlo.
Aquilegia einseleana
Trifolium badium
Minuartia rupestris
Minuartia sedoides
Genista radiata
Cirsium spinosissimum

Of the birds the most interesting were a singing ROCK PTARMIGAN Lagopus muta and a stunning male WALLCREEPER Tichodroma muraria flying with food in its beak (probably to the nest). The commonest species was Water Pipit Anthus spinoletta, accompanied by Black Redstart Phoenicurus ochruros, Alpine Chough Pyrrhocorax graculus (5-10), Alpine Accentor Prunella collaris (3-5), Wheatear Oenanthe oenanthe (5) Alpine Swift Apus melba (4) and Ring Ouzel Turdus torquatus (2). Several Marmots Marmota marmota were also around.
Wallcreeper Tichodroma muraria in flight.
Alpine Chough Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax
Water Pipit Anthus spinoletta
The view south-west from Mangartsko sedlo.
Two views on the top of Mangart.
Loška stena above Loška Koritnica valley.
Mali Vrh with Dianthus sternbergii in the front.

A visit to the Trenta valley produced two handsome Dippers Cinclus cinclus swimming in the emerald river Soča. Redstarts Phoenicurus phoenicurus were very common around villages.
Soča river
Common Redstart Phoenicurus phoenicurus

Breginjski Stol was also full of wildlife. We were very happy to see lots of Apollos Parnassius apollo and managed to take some pics as well. On the bird front the most interesting were the many singing Corncrakes Crex crex all over the grassy slopes and a family of Rock Thrushes Monticola saxatilis (with 2-3 juv). Common birds included Yellowhammer Emberiza citrinella, Stonechat Saxicola torquatus, Tree Pipit Anthus trivialis, Quail Coturnix coturnix and Rock Bunting Emberiza cia. We also heard a Nutcracker Nucifraga caryocatactes and saw several Chamoises Rupicapra rupicapra, Alpine Newts Triturus alpestris and Yellow-bellied Toads Bombina variegata. Rock Partridges instead proved elusive and silent.
The beautiful Apollo Parnassius apollo
Rock Thrush Monticola saxatilis (male)
Digitalis grandiflora
Alpine Chamois Rupicapra rupicapra surrounded by Laserpitium latifolium and L. siler
Dianthus barbatus
Tofieldia calyculata
Atropa belladonna - a very poisonous plant containing alkaloids. It is also a relative of Scopolia carniolica (see end of this post).
Geranium macrorrhizum

During the university camp last week it was very hot and birding/botanising was concentrated around the place where we were based on Kraški rob (Slovenian Karst). The highlight on the bird front were 3 Ortolan Buntings Emberiza hortulana present at the last remaining breeding site in Slovenia - a population very close to extinction. There was an adult male and at least 2 fledged juveniles.
Other birds of note included a pair of Red-rumped Swallows Cercopis daurica (nesting at one of the only regular sites in Slovenia) and a Short-toed Eagle Circaetus gallicus watched catching and swallowing a snake (Hierophis viridiflavus) - see last pic. In the evenings we were having Nightjars Caprimulgus europaeus singing all around our village.

Gentiana lutea subsp. symphyandra on the vast dry grasslands of Lipnik and Golič (Čičarija, SW Slovenia).
Digitalis laevigata - the botanical highlight of the camp.
Delphinium fissum
Short-toed Eagle Circaetus gallicus in the process of swallowing a snake.