Sunday 6 February 2022

Rare woodpeckers in the snow

The relatively mild weather of the last couple of weeks has allowed us to visit the Dinaric mountain forests of Javorniki-Snežnik several times. Usually in winter all but a few forest roads are closed due to snow and so access is quite limited. Moreover exploring vast karstic areas on foot in deep snow is not very practical. But recently the conditions were more favourable and so we took the chance to go and visit some territories of White-backed Woodpeckers Dendrocopos leucotos lilfordi. On the 23rd of January I (Domen) visited a known territory in a rather ugly commercial forest of the Javorniki mountains, where back in spring 2019 we found a White-back's nest. The forest, being rather intensively harvested, lacks the proper amounts of dead wood on the ground, which is so important for the White-backed Woodpecker. However back in 2014 the area was hit by a severe ice-storm and the tree's canopies have all been (at least partly) damaged. Today, this results in quite large amounts of dead branches in the canopies of live, vital trees - something that is apparently well-suited for the White-backed Woodpecker. But only occasionally one can find proper dead trees, with signs of the woodpecker's old nests or its feeding signs. The forest floor looks very "clean" indeed.

Commercial beech (Fagus sylvatica) forest where White-backed Woodpecker persists.
Beech snags with Fomes fomentarius are difficult to come across in commercial forests.
Feeding signs of White-backed Woodpecker.
The forest was extremely silent, as usual in winter, but this made listening to pecking woodpeckers particularly favourable. Following a rather faint, but insistent pecking on a tall beech, I was rather surprised to find a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker Dryobates minor in this type of forest. The species usually inhabits lowland or hilly woodlands and is quite scarce in the higher elevations of the Dinaric mountains. A good find, but still, not the species I've been looking for.
Lesser Spotted Woodpecker Dryobates minor (female).
Later on, I finally came across a larger woodpecker. It was pecking somewhere above my head, but I couldn't see it at first. Upon inspection I was quite disappointed to discover it was an ordinary Great Spotted Woodpecker Dendrocopos major. But as it flew off, a second woodpecker caught my attention on a nearby tree. This was a stunning male White-backed Woodpecker Dendrocopos leucotos lilfordi instead. Both species were busy feeding on the same trees, but the White-back didn't like the presence of the Great Spotted, so there was quite a lot of chasing around. They didn't seem bothered by my presence as they kept feeding intensively and even the White-backed allowed unusually good views. It was frequently feeding for long minutes on a precise spot and not moving around without stopping, as it happens very often. I could therefore watch it more or less in the same area for the next two hours (short video here). In the late afternoon, as the sun was beginning to fall, I had to abandond this obliging individual and head back to the car.
White-backed Woodpecker Dendrocopos leucotos ssp. lilfordi
Old Brown Bear's tracks in the snow.
"Woodpecker sign" on a beech snag that should be preserved from cutting.
The first Christmas Roses Helleborus niger in bloom.
Wood Spurge Euphorbia amygdaloides poking out of the snow.
Mt. Snežnik's snowy summit in the distance.


On the 30th of January we were again up in the mountains, this time on the Snežnik plateau. Some of the smaller snow-covered forest roads were dotted with footprints and offered a great insight into the winter activity of the local fauna. The most interesting were the tracks of a Wolf Canis lupus, the odd Brown Bear Ursus arctos (in Slovenia bears don't hibernate continuously through winter) and Pine Marten Martes martes, while a bit more ordinary were those of Red Deer Cervus elaphus, Roe Deer Capreolus capreolus, Wild Boar Sus scrofa and Fox Vulpes vulpes.

Footprints of Wolf Canis lupus...
...and those of Brown Bear Ursus arctos
This time we were also in a rather "tidy" commercial beech forest, trying to track down a pair of White-backed Woodpeckers we've been following for several years now. It was sad to see that one of the traditional nesting trees, used by the pair of White-backs for several consecutive years, fell down (probably by the force of wind). Such trees are excellent nesting sites, but they are very difficult to come across in commercial forests.
Old nesting tree of White-backed Woodpecker, defeated by the wind.
Broadleaved forests in the Slovenian mountains are rarely pure beech stands, but always contain some silver firs Abies alba too, especially on sloping or steeper terrains. Therefore when we came across a Three-toed Woodpecker Picoides tridactylus, a coniferous forest specialist, we weren't really surprised, although extremely pleased nevertheless. A handsome male with extensive white on the back (resembling the northern, nominate tridactylus subspecies) was feeding on a dying fir and showing superbly down to 5-8 metres. The typical tame behaviour of the species allowed us to observe the bird for more than half an hour, before it slowly worked its way high up in the tree.
Male Three-toed Woodpecker Picoides tridactylus - note extensive white on the back.
Three-toed Woodpecker Picoides tridactylus - turn volume on & listen to the pecking.
Small stand of silver firs Abies alba where we observed the Three-toed Woodpecker.
Although we walked the known territory extensively, the White-backed Woodpecker proved elusive, as we only managed to hear it calling in the distance. However later in the afternoon, almost when the warm late winter sun was beginning to set, we were very pleased to hear a White-back drumming spontaneously - the first drumming of the season! We were also rather surprised to see small numbers of Marsh Tits Poecile palustris, instead of the usual Willow Tits Poecile montanus (which are so typical of mountain forests in Slovenia), while Treecreepers Certhia familiaris and Crossbills Loxia curvirostra were more usual. The day was rounded up with a nice pair of Nutcrackers Nucifraga caryocatactes visiting some black pines Pinus nigra at the edge of the forest and nice views over the rocky pastures on the southern slopes of the plateau.
Eurasian Treecreeper Certhia familiaris
Marsh Tit Poecile palustris
The saplings of Silver fir Abies alba frequently choose peculiar spots for germination.
Old beech trees at the edge of the forest, bordering the rocky pastures.
Nutcracker Nucifraga caryocatactes
Dinaric rocky grasslands on the edge of the forest.
Mt. Učka (1396 m, Croatia) sticking out of the fog.