Tuesday 3 November 2020

Forests of the high & low Karst

Autumn is a beautiful time to enjoy the tranquility of the vast Slovenian forests. In the last two weeks and following our super-exciting trip to Snežnik, we visited this mountain's forests two more times. The main aim was to explore some seldom-visited areas, checking for potential good habitats & territories of White-backed Woodpecker Dendrocopos leucotos, for a forthcoming study we'll be doing on the species next spring. While trekking through remote areas of beech forest (between 1100 and 1400 metres a.s.l.) we found some amazingly wild places and came across some excellent habitat for this rare woodpecker. On both visits we had several White-backs (2-3 individuals per visit), however all proved pretty elusive, shy and extremely mobile. The most common give-away of their presence was their characteristic soft call, however, difficult to follow due to the extremely rocky and sometimes steep terrain. On one occasion we also came across an odd Lesser Spotted Woodpecker Dendrocopos minor, an extremely unusual bird in a beech forest at 1400 metres. Given the fact we saw it arriving in flight over a forest clearing on a mountain top, the bird might have been on migration. We don't really remember ever seeing a Lesser Spotted so high up in the mountains. Another interesting and casual find was a female Three-toed Woodpecker Picoides tridactylus that awaited us at the end of the day, in a conifer stand where we parked the car. The moment was too brief for any photos. On both visits we also heard several singing Ural Owls Strix uralensis (2-3 individuals per visit), but all proved elusive. Now that beech trees have already lost their leaves, it has become increasingly difficult to find and see birds at higher elevations. Mountain forests are somehow emptying and falling silent, except for the odd flock of roving birds, that sometimes hosts more interesting species. Bramblings Fringilla montifringilla in particular seem to be common this autumn. Despite the general silence and absence of animals, their signs are everywhere, especially Red Deer's Cervus elaphus tracks and droppings. Brown Bears Ursus arctos (such as this one :-)) are also still active and signs of their presence are frequently encountered in the form of droppings on the path, footprints in the mud or even claw scratchings on trees. We found some interesting scratches on the wooden walls of a small forest hut - a young bear was probably trying to break in, looking for food.

The beautiful spectacle of autumn colours is now visible only in beech forests at lower elevations (below 1000 metres).
Where managed forest gives way to a forest reserve, dead trees stand out.
White-backed Woodpecker Dendrocopos leucotos ssp. lilfordi (male).
A White-back's characteristic sign - a "shaved" tree.
Lesser Spotted Woodpecker Dendrocopos minor, an anusual sight in mountain forests.
Typical habitat of White-backed Woodpecker in Slovenia.
Ural Owl Strix uralensis
Large quantities of dead beech timber in a forest reserve.
Tinder Fungus Fomes fomentarius
Fresh feeding signs of Black Woodpecker Dryocopus martius.
One of the several drinking and bathing puddles in the forest. We found signs of Red Deer and Brown Bear on this one.
This impressive centenary Sycamore Acer pseudoplatanus had a completely hollow trunk.
Rocky outcrops such as these are a common feature in Snežnik's forests.
The karstic terrain on Snežnik is dotted with a multitude of larger and smaller dolinas, some of them inaccessible and forgotten - excellent places for finding bears during the day!
A dolina with the typical temperature inversion, with Norway Spruce Picea abies and Mountain Pine Pinus mugo growing on the bottom.
On top of one of the panoramic summits in the forest.
Mt. Snežnik (1796 m) is always within reach.
A forgotten forest hut in a remote area.
Brown Bear's scratches on the hut's walls.

Given the recent sanitary restrictions (now in act over most European countries), in the free time we've been concentrating more on our local area, the Karst around Sežana. A few days ago the autumn colours were still in full swing in the thermophilous oak woodland that we call our local patch. Logically oak trees (and the odd beech) at lower elevations loose their leaves a few weeks later than higher up in the Dinaric forests. We were glad to catch up with a pair of Middle Spotted Woodpeckers Dendrocopos medius, after several months from our last encounter with this lovely (and one of our favourite) species. An individual showed really well when feeding in the sun-drenched golden canopies of oaks. Minutes later we were surprised by a Griffon Vulture Gyps fulvus catching a thermal above a small clearing on the top of a wooded hill and passing a few ten metres above our heads. One late afternoon we also checked the site of our local Ural Owls Strix uralensis and were very happy to spot the pair exactly where we expected. Apparrently they didn't move much since spring.

Middle Spotted Woodpecker Dendrocopos medius
In the habitat of Middle Spotted Woodpecker.
Ural Owl Strix uralensis
The "forest gate", with the Turkey Oak Quercus cerris on the right, probably being the largest specimen of this species in the Karst.
A sunny panoramic paradise in the middle of the forest.
Griffon Vulture Gyps fulvus
European Smoke-bush Cotinus coggygria
Wild Service Tree Sorbus torminalis
Bosnian Maple Acer obtusatum, a locally common (Balkan) species in the Primorska region.
European Spindle Euonymus europaeus
Wild Peony Paeonia mascula, seedheads of a plant featured in this post.
Moon rising behind Mt. Nanos in the late afternoon.
Among northern migrants, some days ago we had the season's first RedwingsTurdus iliacus, while now we're waiting to see the first Cranes Grus grus moving south. Today some larger flocks have been spotted over Slovenia, so we expect a major passage in the coming days. Stay tuned.