Wednesday 3 October 2018

White-backed Woodpecker & Red Deer rut

Two days ago we were again on duty in the Snežnik-Javorniki mountains exploring for new locations. Our target species was the White-backed Woodpecker Dendrocopos leucotos, one of Slovenia's rarest breeding birds and thus a rather difficult one to find. Being a heavily-specialised species, living only in old deciduous forests with good amounts of dead wood, it is mostly confined to the mountain forests of the Notranjska and Kočevska region in southern Slovenia. One of the latest population counts estimates between 100 and 150 breeding pairs in the whole of Slovenia. From personal experience we can say that the species is rather different in behaviour from the other woodpeckers, like Great Spotted for example. When it feeds it is usually restless and very mobile, never stopping for more than a minute or so. Moreover its territories are very large and scattered over quite rocky and mountainous forests. Thus, outside of the breeding season, when males drum and can be located more easily, this is a quite difficult bird to track down and observe. On Monday we visited an area where the species is known to be present with low densities (2-3 pairs). We didn't have much hope of success, but soon after our arrival on one of the "lucky spots" signed on our map, we heard the distinctive "chuk" of a White-backed Woodpecker. We followed the sound, but the bird proved to be quite mobile and also invisible, somewhere high up in the (still green) canopies. After one fleeting glimpse and about one hour later, we were finally watching the female White-back as it was, quite surprisingly, looking for food on Norway spruces Picea abies, rather than deciduous trees. In fact, the forest where we found the bird was very poor with dead beech wood, where the species finds its main food source - wood-boring beetle larvae. The female White-back gave good views for a short while and so we managed to take a short video when it descended to feed on a Sycamore Acer pseudoplatanus.
White-backed Woodpecker Dendrocopos leucotos

Later in the day, we were quite astonished, when after following a probable Three-toed Woodpecker Picoides tridactylus, tapping on some dead conifers, we stumbled into another White-backed Woodpecker. Once again a female; it was feeding at the base of a dead spruce and later on a spruce stump in a predominantly conifer forest, where you certainly wouldn't expect this species. Our personal thought is that White-backs in Slovenian forests can't find enough dead beech wood and thus they need to move around quite a lot within their large territories and frequently switch from beech to conifers. 

The end of September and beginning of October represent the climax of the Red Deer Cervus elaphus rutting season. So the forests were resounding with the rutting of stags: wherever we stopped and listened there was at least one rutting deer. Here's a video we recorded on site. The sound quality is bad, so you need to turn the volume up to maximum to hear the rut. At the beginning and sometimes in the background a pair of Ural Owls Strix uralensis can be heard as well.

 Red Deer Cervus elaphus rutting 

As mentioned we also had our daily dose of Ural Owls Strix uralensis as a pair was spontaneously calling to each other along a forest road, where we stopped to hear the Red Deer. We saw both male and female for a few seconds. The one in the photo is a female of the grey morph - having a greyish-barred face disk. More about Ural Owl morphs in this article.
Ural Owl Strix uralensis
Other wildlife in the forest included 2 Black Woodpeckers Dryocopus martius, a Red Squirrel Sciurus vulgaris, 4 Roe Deer Capreolus capreolus and commoner forest birds like Willow Tit Poecile montanus, Crested Tit Lophophanes cristatus, Crossbill Loxia curvirostra and others. In the sky there were still some House Martins Delichon urbicum making their way south. Being a quite dry and rain-less season there weren't many new mushrooms on the forest floor, but rather old specimens from a week or so.
Roe Deer Capreolus capreolus
Fly Agaric Amanita muscaria
A dead beech stump with an old woodpecker's nesting hole. It looked perfect for a White-backed Woodpecker (that we observed nearby), complete with moss-covered bracket fungi and the rare lichen Lobaria pulmonaria.
Comparison between Silver Fir Abies alba (left) and Norway Spruce (right). Among other differences, the fir has upright-standing cones that fall apart when mature, whereas spruce has hanging cones that fall to the ground.