Tuesday 7 January 2020

Tundra rarities & other winter birds

Last week we received news of a Snow Bunting Plectrophenax nivalis observed on mount Slavnik (1028 m) by a hiker, so given the short distance from home, we really needed to pay a tribute to this northern bird. The species is a rare and irregular winter visitor to Slovenia from the tundras of Scandinavia and Iceland. It usually occurs singly or in very small flocks. However it is somehow more regular on the sandy coasts of the western part of the Northern Adriatic, in nearby Italy.
On Saturday we took advantage of the beautiful sunshine and walked on Slavnik from its northern slopes. As soon as we approached the rather crowded grassy summit (full of hikers, bikers, dogs ect.) we spotted the Snow Bunting feeding in an area of short grass and rocks. For the next few hours the bird remained in the same area, occasionally flying away a short distance (being flushed by people), but then always returning to the same spot. As it is typical with birds born in the tundra, this bird showed no fear for humans, except when they approached at less than two meters. Needless to say, we had excellent and super close views.
Snow Bunting Plectrophenax nivalis

Given the winter season there weren't many other birds on Slavnik, except for a few Fieldfares Turdus pilaris, Rock Bunting Emberiza cia, Raven Corvus corax, as well as Black Woodpecker Dryocopus martius, Common Treecreeper Certhia familiaris and Firecrest Regulus ignicapilla in the beech forest. However the panorama from the summit was excellent and the view stretching from the mountains of NW Croatia, over most of western and northern Slovenia, to Venice and the Dolomites in Italy.
Grassy slopes of Slavnik, looking SE.
The view from Slavnik to the east, with mount Snežnik in the distance.
Mt. Snežnik from mt. Slavnik.
Mts. Nanos (left) and Vremščica (right) from Slavnik, with the Alps in the very distance.

Recently we also paied a few visits to the Karst edge, where on the limestone cliffs we observed the "usual" Wallcreeper Tichodroma muraria or two, as well as listened to the song of Eagle Owls Bubo bubo. These large nocturnal raptors are quite vocal in winter as they begin to advertise and defend their territories. Their singing activity escalates from mid winter until the beginning of March, when the vocal peak is reached.
Enjoying a winter sunset in the NW-most corner of the Slovenian Karst edge, overlooking Trieste.

Apart from the occasional good birds, the Karst is rather empy at this time of year and birding can be quite challenging. On the contrary the birding scene in the wetlands around the Northern Adriatic is very lively. The Italian part of the Gulf of Trieste is hosting some interesting northern visitors and lots of birders have taken advantage of the festivities to go birding in the areas around the mouth of the river Isonzo/Soča. In the past ten days or so we ourselves paid a couple of visits to these areas, enjoying in a good variety of waterbirds, including some rarities. The highlight were two Bewick's Swans (Tundra Swans) Cygnus columbianus feeding in some arable fields near Monfalcone. These vagrants from the Russian tundras are rare and irregular winter visitors to our region (both Slovenia and Italy), although in recent years there have been several observations. In Slovenia, two birds overwintered at lake Ptuj in 2013 (see this post).

Bewick's Swan Cygnus columbianus bewickii

The sea coast between Duino/Devin near Trieste and the Grado lagoon is extremely rich with waterbirds. Hundreds of overwintering ducks, grebes, swans and waders feed in the shallow sandy waters. On the sea we had excellent views of two Slavonian Grebes Podiceps auritus at close quarters, as well as several Velvet Scoters Melanitta fusca (up to 8) and Goldeneyes Bucephala clangula. It was also good to see a couple of Red-necked Grebes Podiceps grisegena, a rather scarce species in recent winters. There were also many Black-throated Divers Gavia arctica (up to 10 together) and some Red-throated Divers Gavia stellata.
Slavonian Grebe Podiceps auritus
Views over part of the gulf of Trieste from its northern shores with Slovenia in the background.

At Valle Cavanata Nature Reserve there was the usual winter spectacle of hundreds of Flamingos Phoenicopterus roseus, Pygmy Cormorants Phalacrocorax pygmeus, Lapwings Vanellus vanellus, geese and other waterbirds. More interesting were 29 Spoonbills Platalea leucorodia, an increasingly common winter sight. The sandy sea shore held good numbers of waders, including Grey Plovers Pluvialis squatarola, a bird we don't get to see very often in Slovenia.
Checking the arable fields close to Isola della Cona Nature Reserve we came across a large mixed flock of Greylag Anser anser and White-fronted Geese Anser albifrons. Although a Red-breasted Goose Branta ruficollis was reported a few weeks ago within the flock, we didn't have luck with that. A Lesser White-fronted Goose Anser erythropus or two might have been also present in the large flock, but we didn't put much effort in finding it. In the fields we also observed 3 Golden Plovers Pluvialis apricaria and a large flock of a hundred Skylarks Alauda arvensis.
Some other rarities were also available nearby, although we didn't go looking for them: a Hume's Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus humei at Duino/Devin (as well as one south of Udine) and a White-tailed Eagle Haliaeetus albicilla along the river Isonzo/Soča (a local rarity).
Flamingo Phoenicopterus roseus
Grey Plover Pluvialis squatarola
Pygmy Cormorant Phalacrocorax pygmeus
White-fronted Goose Anser albifrons
White-fronted Goose Anser albifrons with mount Triglav (in Slovenia) as a backdrop.

On the other side of the Gulf at Škocjanski zatok NR the situation is calmer, although some good birds can be found with a bit of dedication. Among the typical winter birds present at the reserve, the Bittern Botaurus stellaris certainly steals the show, although it is not always easy to see. A few days ago a Moustached Warbler Acrocephalus melanopogon was also observed, suggesting a wintering of the species at the reserve. A small flock of Greylag Anser anser and two White-fronted Geese Anser albifrons is usually present, as well as an overwintering White Stork Ciconia ciconia. On the contrary, the two Flamingos Phoenicopterus roseus lingering in the lagoon for some time, seem to have moved somewhere else. Other interesting birds observed in recent weeks include 3 Ferruginous Ducks Aythya nyroca, 1 Caspian Gull Larus cachinnans and several Penduline Tits Remiz pendulinus. No sign of the usual overwintering Bearded Tits Panurus biarmicus yet.
Bittern Botaurus stellaris from the office.
Ferruginous Duck Aythya nyroca
Flamingo Phoenicopterus roseus