Monday, 20 September 2021

Back to the forest

After spending ten days in Dalmatia (Croatia) at the beginning of September (hopefully more on that soon in a trip report), we're now back in Slovenia, making the most of what autumn has to offer. In the past weekend we went looking for Three-toed Woodpecker Picoides tridactylus on the Snežnik plateau and also explored new areas we haven't been before. Forest reserves (where logging is prohibited) offer excellent possibilities for finding rare woodpeckers, as they hold larger amounts of dead wood compared to commercial forests. However most of these reserves are so small that birds are not always where one might expect. In the morning, despite working a nice mixed forest of beech Fagus sylvatica and silver fir Abies alba, with lots of woodpecker's signs, we only came across Grey-headed Picus canus and Black Woodpecker Dryocopus martius, while Three-toed eluded us. Nevertheless we were pleased to find a pair of Ural Owls Strix uralensis thanks to the insistent mobbing calls of Jays Garrulus glandarius that revealed the owls' location.

Forest reserves are marked with blue lines.
Red-belted Conk Fomitopsis pinicola - thriving on rotting conifers.
Pholiota sp.
Woodpecker's feeding signs on a dying silver fir Abies alba.
Ural Owl Strix uralensis

Around midday we changed location and worked the edge of another forest reserve, rich with silver firs and Norway spruces Pice abies that have been hit by several consecutive wind storms. Upon arrival some distressed behaviour by the local tits (Coal, Willow, Crested) caught our attention - they were alarming at something. We investigated and soon realised the source of all the panic was a beautiful Pygmy Owl Glaucidium passerinum sat nicely on a low branch in front of us! The tiny predator allowed some excellent views for a minute or so, before flying off in the thick conifers and starting to call. Later we heard a second Pygmy Owl in the same area, while a third was singing in the late afternoon in a managed forest in the Javorniki mountains. In autumn, at the time when leaves start to fall from the trees, Pygmy Owls have a distinct peak in vocal activity and sing even during the day. Thus, the end of September and beginning of October is perhaps the best time to observe & census this rare species of forest owl.

Pygmy Owl Glaucidium passerinum - Domen's point of view.
Pygmy Owl Glaucidium passerinum - Sara's perspective.
 

After the short Pygmy Owl intermezzo we were finally again on the search for our target species of the day - Three-toed Woodpecker. We began working the nice stand of decaying conifers, finding some interesting wildlife on the way. An accidental kick at a log on the ground resulted in a lovely discovery - under the piece of wood was curled a beautiful Alpine Salamander Salamandra atra. This is a moist-loving species and in places like Snežnik, where surface water is literally absent, this animal relies on the moisture it finds under logs, among rocks, in tree's cracks and in the moss. 

September is the peak time of Red Deer's Cervus elaphus rutting activity and the forests were echoing with the stag's rutting "calls". On a steep rocky slope we even spotted a nice stag with well-developed antlers that allowed some short views, before fleeing upslope. On a moss-covered trunk we also found some plucked feathers belonging to a Long-eared Owl Asio otus - it most probably fell victim to a Ural Owl.

Forest reserve with large amounts of dead conifer wood.
Moist forest full of moss, covering fallen trunks.
Alpine Salamander Salamandra atra
Red Deer Cervus elaphus
Feathers of Long-eared Owl Asio otus, probably preyed by a Ural Owl Strix uralensis.

 

Finally we were listening to some insistent "ciuk" calls delivered by an unknown woodpecker. Despite being in some perfect Three-toed Woodpecker habitat, we were once again surprised that the source of the sound was instead a female White-backed Woodpecker Dendrocopos leucostos ssp. lilfordi. As the two species have rather similar calls, we compared them on the phone and realised the female we were observing was sounding perfectly Three-toed-ish. In fact upon playing the Three-toed's calls, the bird reacted intensively, while it didn't care much about the White-back's playback. We already observed this behaviour a couple of other times, while playback-censusing Three-toed Woodpeckers in spring. In habitats that are good for Three-toed and where beech is also found, White-back is always a possibility. As we have observed many times, White-backs, despite being broadleaved-tree specialists, frequently use silver fir Abies alba for feeding (see pic below). In the end we also managed to locate a Three-toed Woodpecker in the same area: it was a rather dark-coloured and quite skulky female, feeding on a distant tree and not allowing a closer approach. But still, better than nothing!

White-backed Woodpecker Dendrocopos leucotos ssp. lilfordi
Three-toed Woodpecker Picoides tridactylus
Perfect decay stage of a silver fir for the needs of a hungry Three-toed Woodpecker.
Three-toed Woodpecker habitat with dead & decaying conifers.
An old stand of dead conifers, but unsuitable for Three-toed Woodpecker at the current stage (absence of bark).

Broad-leaved Spindle Euonymus latifolia
Warty-barked Spindle Euonymus verrucosa


Recently we also spent some time more locally in the Karst's woodlands & meadows around our home. In the last decades Red Deer Cervus elaphus have colonised much of the Karst (open areas scrubbing over and giving way to woodland) and nowadays we can actually enjoy the rutting season quite close to home. The other day we had a nice "wilderness stroll" with 6 species of woodpeckers and a Red Deer stag in full rut. Meanwhile the dry karstic meadows on the edge of the forest offered the year's last orchids - the tiny Autumn Lady's-tresses Spiranthe spiralis, as well as carpets of Autumn Crocus Colchicum autumnale. In the sky above we watched what was probably the last Short-toed Eagle Circaetus gallicus of the season - soon all will be heading to Africa, not returning before March next year.

Broadleaved woodlands on the edge of the Karst turning to autumn colours.
A window on the Karst.
Autumn Lady's-tresses Spiranthes spiralis
Autumn Crocus Colchicum autumnale
Short-toed Eagle Circaetus gallicus

Wednesday, 1 September 2021

Early autumn in the Dinaric mountains

The last week or so has seen us back in the field for multiple raptor counts near Pivka, at the same location as in spring. The area is rather good for long hours of census, as the wide view and vicinity of the forest edge allow good birding throughout the day, even at times when raptors are not passing. The raptor passage was actually quite weak, but on the other hand rather good and "steady" at the neighbouring census location above Postojna (most birds are obviously passing there!). However we were still satisfied at the diversity of raptors. At this time of year the general migratory direction is from northeast to southwest, with the birds coming low over the Javorniki mountains, through two main "passes". The commonest migrants were Marsh Harriers Circus aeruginosus and Honey Buzzards Pernis apivorus, with the occasional Hobby Falco subbuteo, Kestrel Falco tinnunculus and Common Buzzard Buteo buteo also passing by. Among the residents, the most interesting was certainly the local pair of Golden Eagles Aquila chrysaetos, as well as a Short-toed Eagle Circaetus gallicus perched on the top of a fir. Sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus and Goshawk Accipiter gentilis, both probably residents, were also of note. A typical feature of late summer & autumn in the Dinaric mountains are also large flocks of Ravens Corvus corax, patrolling the grasslands and forest edge. There was also a good passage of smaller birds with Tree Pipit Anthus trivialis, House Martin Delichon urbicum, Swallow Hirundo rustica and Swift Apus apus going overhead, while in the bushes and trees there were Willow Warbler Phylloscopus trochilus, Wood Warbler Phylloscopus sibilatrix, Spotted Flycatcher Muscicapa striata, Pied Flycatcher Ficedula hypoleuca, Whinchat Saxicola rubetra and the like. The dry grasslands were still full of Red-backed Shrikes Lanius collurio (mostly juveniles), probably involving local birds as well as migrants. In the fields between Pivka and Postojna we also had two adult White Storks Ciconia ciconia.

Golden Eagle Aquila chrysaetos
Marsh Harrier Circus aeruginosus
Short-toed Eagle Circaetus gallicus
Whinchat Saxicola rubetra perched on Cannabis sativa.
Dry limestone grasslands in the Dinaric region.
Counting migrating raptors in the hills above Pivka.


Late summer and early autumn is also the time when Nutcrackers Nucifraga caryocatactes become more prominent and more easily observable. The species is nowadays a rather scarce (or even rare) breeder in the Dinaric forests, while somehow more numerous in the Alps and is never easy to observe "properly". Although pretty shy, these birds are now rather busy searching for nuts and seeds and their distinctive calls give them away on their regular forays in the hazel stands at the edge of the forest. During our raptor counts we were able to see small numbers of them (max. a loose flock of 7), including a nice bird that posed long enough for some photos. Sharing the same food resource with the Nutcrackers was also a Red Squirrel Sciurus vulgaris of the nice red morph (most squirrels here are usually dark brown or black).
Nutcracker Nucifraga caryocatactes
Red Squirrel Sciurus vulgaris
 
Although in late summer and early autumn the dry limestone meadows become really dry and consequently quite depleated in terms of wildlife, some butterflies still linger on the late-flowering plants. Typical inhabitants of such rocky and grassy habitats, exploiting the blooms of Liburnian Savory Satureja subspicata subsp. liburnica & Amethyst Eryngo Eryngium amethystinum include Dryad Minois dryas, Great Banded Grayling Brintesia circe, Chalkhill Lysandra coridon & Common Blue Polyommatus icarus, Adonis Blue Lysandra bellargus, Weaver's Fritillary Boloria dia, Silver-spotted Skipper Hesperia comma, as well as many Honey Bees Apis mellifera.
Dryad Minois dryas
Adonis Blue Lysandra bellargus on Satureja liburnica
Chalkhill Blue Lysandra coridon
Chalkhill Blue Lysandra coridon (left) & Common Blue Polyommatus icarus (right)
Honey Bee Apis mellifera on Satureja liburnica
Small Heath Coenonympha pamphilus on Eryngium amethystinum
Amethyst Eryngo Eryngium amethystinum
Eastern Bath White Pontia edusa
Praying Mantis Mantis religiosa
Wasp Spider Argiope bruennichi
Limestone grasslands & Dinaric forests in early autumn.
 
 
During the last weekend we had family duties, babysitting our nephew & niece, so we didn't have great expectations for thrilling wildlife encounters or the like. But we were wrong. Taking the kids to see the new Mašun forest educational trail & large carnivore exibition, the trip soon transformed into a wildlife safari. Driving on the forest roads of the Snežnik & Javorniki mountains in the afternoon, we first stopped to admire some fresh and large bear's droppings in the middle of the road. Further on we spotted a Ural Owl Strix uralensis from the car. The bird was motionless, hunting from a perch and so concentrated it didn't even want to turn its head towards us. We even witnessed a (failed) hunting attempt. The kids were excited!
Ural Owl Strix uralensis
Brown Bear's dropping on a forest road.

As we continued driving, further on we noticed some unusual looking "stumps with ears" by the side of the road, about 150 metres away from us. Upon stopping the car we immediately realised we were looking at three Brown Bears Ursus arctos! They were small cubs and upon seeing us, they slowly crossed the road and disappeared into the vegetation. Their mother should be around, we thought. Very close by there happened to be a forest glade, so when we drove past it, we managed to spot the whole family again, this time also seeing the large female. It all lasted a few seconds, before the four animals disappeared once again in the thick cover of the forest. Wow! 
Driving out of the forest, we also spotted a small herd of Red Deer Cervus elaphus, a few Roe Deer Capreolus capreolus, a Fox Vulpes vulpes and a Black Woodpecker Dryocopus martius, thus rounding up perfectly this short but intense wildlife safari!
Those are not stumps...
...but cute little Brown Bears Ursus arctos!
Slowly moving away into the forest.
The mother Brown Bear making sure everything is ok.
Roe Deer Capreolus capreolus buck in the woodland behind our house (Karst).