Sunday, 8 December 2019

Winter birding in Istria

This weekend was time for some serious birding, so given the season, we headed to more productive areas, visiting our southern neighbours. The Istrian peninsula in nearby Croatia offers some excellent birding all-year-round, however we only visit it a couple of times a year. In winter, this sub-Mediterranean region is several degrees warmer than most of Slovenia. A lot of small birds, raptors and waterbirds congregate in the valley of the river Mirna and around its estuary by the Adriatic sea. And that was our destination for the day. As we arrived at the river's estuary, working the valley upstream, we first checked the sea. Among the many wintering Black-necked Grebes Podiceps nigricollis we also found their rarer cousin, a Slavonian Grebe Podiceps auritus, while a raft of about 10 Black-throated Divers Gavia arctica was also nearby.
The lagoon at the river's estuary was full of waterbirds, including good numbers of Wigeon Anas penelope. The real surprise here was a small flock of 12 Curlew Sandpipers Calidris ferruginea, a rather unusual winter presence in this region and one we already encountered last year in the same season.
Curlew Sandpiper Calidris ferruginea

Working the river valley upstream we were soon greeted by a pair of showy Little Owls Athene noctua, enjoying the weak morning sun on an old farmstead. It's always a pleasure to see this owl, which is quite rare and localised in Slovenia.

However the star of the day was a beautiful male Merlin Falco columbarius which allowed extremely good views while sitting on the trees along the river Mirna. We could also observe it hunting, sometimes along a female Hen Harrier Circus cyaneus that kept flushing small birds, while quartering the fields. This Merlin is most probably the same bird we already observed (and Paul too) in the last two winters, as it is very loyal to its perches and hunting area. The species is a rather scarce winter visitor and passage migrant to Slovenia that we don't get to observe very often. Therefore seeing a male such as this it's always very exciting...
Merlin Falco columbarius

Many other small birds were around the farmlands of the Mirna valley, including several Great Grey Shrikes Lanius excubitor, flocks of Meadow Pipits Anthus pratensis, some Reed Buntings Emberiza schoeniclus, Stonechats Saxicola torquatus and plenty of other potential food for the Merlin.
Great Grey Shrike Lanius excubitor

In the afternoon, for a change of habitat, we stopped at Istarske Toplice, where we scanned the karstic limestone cliffs and found a Wallcreeper Tichodroma muraria, feeding in the cliff face above the hotel. On the way home we also checked some cliffs at the Karst edge in Slovenia, where in the evening, a singing duo of Eagle Owls Bubo bubo rounded up the day very nicely.
Wallcreeper Tichodroma muraria

Monday, 2 December 2019

Late autumn birding with Cranes on the move

As the first spell of cold is upon us, the last flocks of Common Cranes Grus grus are passing through Slovenia in large numbers. The last couple of days have seen a good passage of large flocks heading south at traditional sites such as Ljubljansko barje (the capital's outskirts), Cerkniško jezero and others. Several flocks were also reported above the Karst and in the wider area around the Gulf of Trieste, so surely some birds should have been passing above our home too. And indeed, yesterday we enjoyed a large influx of Cranes directly from our garden! Between 12.50 and 13.20 several different skeins passed overhead, one after the other, for a total of slightly less than 900 birds. The loud calling of migrating cranes remains one of the highlights of bird migration at our latitudes!
Common Cranes Grus grus migrating over the Karst.

A recent visit to lake Cerknica, now filled with water due to the abundant rainfalls, produced the expected seasonal variety of waterbirds, including some rather interesting species for continental Slovenia. Among the typical winter visitors were small flocks of Goldeneyes Bucephala clangula and Tufted Ducks Aythya fuligula, with a variety of other common dabbling ducks. A large "raft" of 75 Shelducks Tadorna tadorna was something of a regional record, although we were even happier with some Little Gulls Hydrocoloeus minutus mixed within a flock fo Black-headed Gulls Chroicocephalus ridibundus. Interesting was also the presence of 6 Red-breasted Mergansers Mergus serrator, a common wintering bird on the sea, but rather scarce or locally rare inland. Among passerines a nice flock of 12 Redwings Turdus iliacus and a Great Grey Shrike Lanius excubitor were welcome sights.
After checking lake Cerknica we also made a brief visit to Planinsko polje, a large karstic floodplain (polje) which has actually turned into a lake. There were Shelducks here too (8 individuals) and several Mute Swans Cygnus olor, in places where in summer you'd usually expect to have wet meadows with Barred Warbler Sylvia nisoria, Quail Coturnix coturnix and Corncrake Crex crex.
Red-breasted Merganser Mergus serrator, Cerkniško jezero.
Goldeneye Bucephala clangula, Cerkniško jezero.
Shelduck Tadorna tadorna, Cerkniško jezero.
Redwing Turdus iliacus, Cerkniško jezero.
The karstic "lake" of Planina.

In the past week we've also seen a few interesting birds in the Karst. Sara was lucky to spot a Red Kite Milvus milvus (sort of a rarity in Slovenia) and a pair of Golden Eagles Aquila chrysaetos on the Karst edge near Rakitovec, while Domen had a nice Middle Spotted Woodpecker Dendrocopos medius and a Woodcock Scolopax rusticola in a woodland near Sežana. Several Bullfinches Pyrrhula pyrrhula were also seen or heard regularly (also in the garden), including at least some "trumpeting" Northern Bullfinches Pyrrhula pyrrhula ssp. pyrrhula. In our local woods we had the chance to enjoy the last autumn colours on the trees as well as some late species of fungi, closing the mushroom season.
Red Kite Milvus milvus, Karst edge.
Middle Spotted Woodpecker Dendrocopos medius, Karst.
Bullfinch Pyrrhula pyrrhula (male and female), Karst.
Hawfinch Coccothraustes coccothraustes, Karst.
Beech Fagus sylvatica in autumn colours, Karst.
Dog Stinkhorn Mutinus caninus, Karst.
Coral Fungus Ramaria sp., Karst.
Trooping Funnel Clitocybe geotropa, Karst.
Wolf Canis lupus scat on a forest road near Pivka.

Škocjanski zatok nature reserve has also witnessed some interesting birds in the recent week. Highlights included: Red-throated Diver Gavia stellata (1 in flight), Ferruginous Duck Aythya nyroca (1 male), Pygmy Cormorant Phalacrocorax pygmeus (4), Cattle Egret Bubulcus ibis (up to 7), Greylag Goose Anser anser (17), White-fronted Goose Anser albifrons (2), Lapwing Vanellus vanellus (1), Peregrine Falco peregrinus (1) and Sardinian Warbler Sylvia melanocephala (1). The two long-stayers, Flamingo Phoenicopterus roseus and White Stork Ciconia ciconia are still present. The first Bittern Boaturus stellaris of the season has also been reported.
We also forgot to mention that about a month ago, during a spell of bad weather we observed a nice Jack Snipe Lymnocryptes minimus, feeding out in the open on a wet meadow. This is a scarce but annual passage migrant (and maybe overwinterer) at the reserve and it is only the second time we had the chance to observe it so well here.
Jack Snipe Lymnocryptes minimus, Škocjanski zatok.
Red-throated Diver Gavia stellata, Škocjanski zatok.
Ferruginous Duck Aythya nyroca, Škocjanski zatok.
Cattle Egret Bubulcus ibis, Škocjanski zatok.

We'll finish with a "trans-border" sighting from nearby Italy. Some days ago, while visiting a friend in Udine (a major town in NE Italy) we enjoyed great views a Little Owl Athene noctua from his house. Below is a phone-scoping documentation. These birds are common in the intensively farmed and heavily industrialised Friuli region, where they can be quite easily seen. On the other hand, the species somehow struggles to thrive over most of rural Slovenia, where it is a rather rare and localised breeding bird.
Little Owl Athene noctua, Udine (Italy).