Tuesday, 8 March 2022

Late winter in the Karst & Dinarides

Field activity has been quite slow in the past weeks, due to unfavourable weather (rather cold and wintry) and lots of work to do. But despite this we still managed to get out here and there, although mostly locally. The greatest emphasis has been on surveying the habitat of Middle Spotted Woodpecker Leiopicus medius here in the Karst near Sežana, for Sara's study on the species. In late February the oak woodlands were already coming alive with woodpeckers' drummings and the odd "mewing" calls of Middle Spots - the time we've been waiting for so long - woodpecker season! A commonly heard species in early March is also Black Woodpecker Dryocopus martius, with its loud drummings. Locally there were also Lesser Spotted Woodpecker Dryobates minor and Grey-headed Woodpecker Picus canus to keep us entertained. Thrushes also began to sing; in the cooler woodlands mostly Mistle Thrushes Turdus viscivorus, followed by Blackbirds Turdus merula and a few days ago also the first returning Song Thrushes Turdus philomelos

The woodland flora seems a bit slow this year due to the absence of rain. Snowdrops Galanthus nivalis and Primroses Primula vulgaris are locally abundant, but we'll still need to wait for the proper blooms of such beauties as Dog's-tooth Violet Erythronium dens-canis & Hacquetia Hacquetia epipactis. As we didn't manage to take any decent pics of birds, here is some material from the archive.

Middle Spotted Woodpecker Leiopicus medius

Middle Spotted Woodpecker Leiopicus medius - mewing calls.

Black Woodpecker Dryocopus martius - territorial drumming.
Surveying Middle Spotted Woodpecker's habitat in the Karst.
A tranquil afternoon stroll in the oak woodlands...
...followed by crawling through a Wild Boar's "bramble tunnel".
Red Deer Cervus elaphus - young males.
Mezereon Daphne mezereum
Primrose Primula vulgaris
Scarlet Elf Cup Sarcoscypha austriaca/coccinea
Hazel Corylus avellana - catkins & female flowers.
Yellow-berried Mistletoe Loranthus europaeus
Cirl Bunting Emberiza cirlus holding territory on the tree in front of our bedroom.


Meanwhile the northward migration of Common Cranes Grus grus is getting more and more spectacular every coming year. In the last days of February some huge flocks migrated through Slovenia on single "passage days", while smaller flocks have been still reported in the last couple of days. Perhaps the most notable was a flock of around 2000 individuals that entered western Slovenia somewhere around Gorica, after it left the Friuli plains in northeastern Italy on the 22nd of February. We've been lucky to catch up several smaller flocks both in the Karst (usually right above the house) and at Škocjanski zatok Nature Reserve. Check this amazing video (with sound on!) of a large flock that stopped briefly at lake Cerknica.

Common Crane Grus grus

Early March is also a prime time to listen for singing Eagle Owls Bubo bubo. Last weekend we attendend DOPPS' traditional Eagle Owl census in SW Slovenia and despite rather terrible weather conditions (strong & cold northeasterly), we managed to confirm the presence of our local pair near Sežana - the male was hooting in the evening. The group census, like every year, attracted a large number of people: around 160 volunteers attended the event and divided in smaller groups, counted a total of 14 Eagle Owl territories, mostly in the Karst area. After the census, my colleague and Eagle Owl expert Tomaž Mihelič gave a talk on the species' ecology & conservation. He presented some interesting results from a GPS telemetry study he is carrying on in the Karst (see post). On the front of Slovenian Eagle Owls there's a lot going on lately, including the two live cameras on the species' official website. The first cam is active, but the female hasn't started to lay eggs yet (although last year's infertile egg is still in the nest & visible), while the second cam has some connection problems and should be fixed soon. If all goes well, in a few weeks both cameras should be streaming live Eagle Owl nesting activity, so keep tuned!

Eagle Owl Bubo bubo

Snapshot from the live camera. Full video here.

Although we're currently under the influence of a cold front that brought some fresh snow to the mountains, in the last days of February we still managed to visit the Snežnik plateau, as roads were mostly snow-free. White-backed Woodpeckers Dendrocopos leucotos lilfordi have been already territorially active (drumming), but proved rather elusive (hence, also here some archive material). Nevertheless we took the chance to visit some old nesting trees and record some habitat parameters. Also in these higher-altitude forests Black Woodpeckers were drumming insistently. Apart from that and a few singing Mistle Thrushes, the situation was still very wintry. Despite this, Brown Bears Ursus arctos seem to be already pretty active as we came across several footprints in the snow, including a long track of a very large individual (probably a male). However in Slovenia, bears regularly wander around in winter and don't usually hibernate throughout the cold season, like farther north. On the "mammal tracks & signs" front it was also nice to find an old Red Deer's antler - soon the stags will start to shed their fresh antlers & finds like this will be even more exciting!

White-backed Woodpecker Dendrocopos leucotos lilfordi

White-backed Woodpecker Dendrocopos leucotos lilfordi - male drumming.

Roe Deer Capreolus capreolus buck in velvet.
Rising up on Snežnik's plateau...
...and abandoning the foggy valley below.
Dead wood in White-backed Woodpecker's habitat.
Contorted beech Fagus sylvatica in the sub-alpine forest belt.
Wild corners of the Snežnik's plateau.
I'm getting rather good at this new hobby of mine...
Red Deer's Cervus elaphus old antler.
Forest still life.
Footprints of a large Brown Bear Ursus arctos.
Christmas Rose Helleborus niger is still emerging from the snow at higher altitudes.
Tree Lungwort Lobaria pulmonaria coming to life with moisture from a recent rain.