Tuesday 2 April 2019

Karstic fantastic

Spring is now advancing fast and the changes in nature become increasingly visible. Trees are turning to beautiful light green colours, especially in areas close to the coast, where some oak woodlands already sport their full canopies. Meanwhile meadows and grasslands offer the season's first flowers to enjoy. As the post's title tells, we've been mostly around the Karst in recent days (as well as Škocjanski zatok NR), both for work and leisure. Last week we carried out the last transects of our census of Middle Spotted Woodpecker Dendrocopos medius and found an additional 14 territorial birds (about 10 pairs) - mostly in new areas of the Karst and Brkini. This year we had some amazing results and a rather steep increase in woodpecker numbers, compared to a few years ago. The species in western Slovenia isn't rare anymore, as it used to be until recently. Moreover Middle Spotted Woodpeckers have also been confirmed in the Trieste Karst by Italian ornithologists, with several territories occupied and nesting & copulation observed. These represent the first breeding records for the species in northern Italy.
Middle Spotted Woodpecker Dendrocopos medius
Typical Middle Spotted Woodpecker's habitat in the Karst.
Black Woodpecker Dryocopus martius

During a census we were once again caught completely by surprise by a stunning Ural Owl Strix uralensis, this time perched a few meters away from a forest road we were driving on. Given the increase in sightings in recent times, we should start to consider the species as a new potential breeding bird in large forest complexes in western Slovenia (Brkini hills, some parts of the Karst). Further investigation is certainly needed.
Ural Owl Strix uralensis

Last week the first Short-toed Eagles Circaetus gallicus have also returned from Africa. This rare eagle is mostly found in the western part of Slovenia, where it usually breeds on black pines Pinus nigra and hunts for reptiles over dry stony grasslands. Yesterday we observed a male returning to its last year's nesting site, not far from Sežana. About 10 days ago we also observed year's first Black Stork Ciconia nigra, not far from the village of Razdrto, where repeated observations in the last summers might suggest a possible breeding nearby.
Short-toed Eagle Circaetus gallicus

During the weekend we also visited the limestone cliffs along the Karst edge and had some interesting wildlife there as well. A beautiful male Wallcreeper Tichodroma muraria in breeding plumage was the highlight (if we exclude this). However the species doesn't breed in the Karst, but only overwinters and will soon head back to its Alpine breeding grounds. The cliffs were full of life as flocks of House Martins Delichon urbicum and Crag Martins Ptyonoprogne rupestris wheeled overhead, checking last year's nests in the overhangs. Also Alpine Swifts Apus melba have returned in numbers, while the cliff's chorus was produced by two singing Blue Rock Thrushes Monticola solitarius, several Rock Buntings Emberiza cia and Black Redstarts Phoenicurus ochruros. A nice pair of Peregrines Falco peregrinus was observed on the cliffs as well, where it probably nests. There were already many butterfly species around, but two in particular were of note: Nettle-tree Butterfly Libythea celtis, a very common sight around Nettle-trees Celtis australis and Southern Comma Polygonia egea, a rare species in Slovenia, restricted to the extreme south-west of the country. Among plants we cannot skip mentioning the endangered and endemic Tommasini's Sandwort Moehringia tommasinii (see here), in full bloom on the limestone cliffs.
Wallcreeper Tichodroma muraria
Nettle-tree Butterfly Libythea celtis
Southern Comma Polygonia egea
Hummingbird Hawk-moth Macroglossum stellatarum
Scorpion Senna Coronilla emerus subsp. emeroides (also Emerus major)
Tommasini's Sandwort Moehringia tommasinii

Dry karstic grasslands are also coming alive with the first flowers of the season, including the rather common, but always beautiful Mountain Pasqueflowers Pulsatilla montana, as well as the yellow cushions of Tommasini's Cinquefoil Potentilla tommasiniana. Certainly rarer is the Trieste Gentian Gentiana verna subsp. tergestina, an Illyrian endemic that got its name from the city of Trieste, where it was first discovered. Meanwhile the typical karstic dolines (depressions in the ground, with cooler climate) are hosting the greatest spectacle of early spring flowers. Apart from colourful carpets of common forest species in such places one can observe the odd Toothwort Lathraea squamaria. The shady cliffs at the edges of some dolines are also home to Bear's Ears or Auriculas Primula auricula, which live as ice age relicts, out of their normal range of distribution in the Alps. The most interesting butterfly on dry karstic meadows at this time of year is certainly the beautiful Southern Festoon Zerynthia polyxena. Yesterday we were lucky to add this species to our garden butterfly list!
Mountain Pasqueflower Pulsatilla montana
Trieste Gentian Gentiana verna subsp. tergestina
Tommasini's Cinquefoil Potentilla tommasiniana
Common Globularia Globularia punctata
Toothwort Lathraea squamaria
Dog's-tooth Violet Erythronium dens-canis & Hacquetia Hacquetia epipactis
Bulbous Corydalis Corydalis cava
Bear's Ear Primula auricula
Southern Festoon Zerynthia polyxena

During the last few days Škocjanski zatok NR also hosted some welcome spring arrivals, including: Common Swift Apus apus, Sand Martin Riparia riparia, Wryneck Jynx torquilla, Lesser Whitethroat Sylvia curruca, Northern Wheatear Oenanthe oenanthe and Moustached Warbler Acrocephalus melanopogon. More to come in the next days. Keep checking the reserve's page for regular updates.