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: "Fir Cauliflower Fungus" Sparassis nemecii 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.
"Fir Cauliflower Fungus" Sparassis nemecii
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