Friday 30 May 2014

A week in MAGIC Slovenia

I spent most of the current week in Slovenia for university field work. Despite the bad weather (except yesterday) it was a good couple of days, stuffed with excellent wildlife sightings and a very long list of plants.
Three days were spent on the Cerknica lake, where botany was once again the main focus. The absolute highlight here was seeing a flock of 14 BLACK STORKS soaring above the lake together with an adult WHITE-TAILED EAGLE. I've never seen such a numerous flock of Black Storks and I presume it's a quite rare sight in Slovenia.
Black Storks Ciconia nigra & White-tailed Eagle Haliaeetus albicilla (bottom right) - a documentative, phone-binning shot.
A night trip around the lake to listen to CORNCRAKES (4-5 singing males) also produced a booming BITTERN, which was very cool to hear. Other commoner birds seen during our stay included: Hobby, Tree Pipit, Black Woodpecker, Yellowhammer, Cuckoo, Golden Oriole, Wryneck, Quail, Yellow and Grey Wagtail, Sedge and Marsh Warbler, Common Whitethroat, Garden Warbler, Fieldfare, White Stork.
A speleological visit to the interior of Planinska jama (Planina's cave) gave us the opportunity to see in the wild the most charismatic of all Dinaric endemisms and the largest cave-dwelling vertebrate: the OLM (Proteus anguinus). Out of the cave, a nice Dipper was seen on the river Unica.
Iris pseudacorus
Wet meadow with Lychnis flos-cuculi
Orchis palustris
Morimus funereus - a large beetle from the Cerabycidae family
Yesterday we visited the Triglav National Park, more precisely the Trenta valley. A female WALLCREEPER was the most unexpected and thrilling sight of the day. It remained on view for several minutes, performing on the cliffs overlooking a large waterfall.
Wallcreeper Tichodroma muraria - pic by Martin Senič
At least 3 Dippers were seen along the emerald-coloured river Soča, where also the rare and localised Marble Trout (Salmo marmoratus) was seen. 

River Soča's source - this year with an exceptional amount of water
Western Bonelli's Warblers were commonly heard and seen in the wooded areas, while Crag Martins were flying overhead and several Common Redstarts were singing in the small villages. Here I also saw my first Spotted Flycatchers of the year. The upland slopes of the Vršič pass held also a Ring Ouzel, several Dunnocks, Bullfinches and a Lesser Whitethroat. Three Alpine Ibexes (Capra ibex) added a bit of characteristic alpine atmosphere to the day, as did the hundreds of interesting wildflowers around the valley and on the Vršič pass. Quite interesting was the visit to the Juliana Alpine Botanical Garden where some rare and exciting plants are cultivated (for example the Cypripedium calceolus below).
Soldanella alpina
Soldanella minima
Pinguicula alpina
Rhodothamnus chamaecistus
Primula auricula
Phyteuma orbiculare
Paederota lutea
Viola biflora
Cypripedium calceolus in the Juliana Alpine Botanical Garden
View on the mountains from the Trenta valley
View from the Vršič pass
Vršič pass (1611 m)
As usual for a good day, a singing Tawny Owl at night was the perfect way to round up the trip.

Saturday 24 May 2014

Two days in Istria

Black-headed Bunting Emberiza melanocephala
Cistus creticus
Cistus monspeliensis
Cistus salvifolius
Serapias istriaca - endemic orchid of southern Istria and Lošinj island
Serapias lingua
Spartium junceum
Back from two days of university field trip on the Istrian peninsula (Croatia). Spent most of the time botanising in wooded areas of maquis shrubland and mediterranean evergreen woodland. Still had time to squeeze in a bit of birding. Top highlights included a male BLACK-HEADED BUNTING (showing nicely on a bush - the above pics are from 2009), Bee-eater (year's first), Pallid Swift (colony), both Melodious and Icterine Warbler, Turtle Dove, Subalpine Warbler (common), Sardinian Warbler (very common), Spoonbill, Tawny Pipit, Red-backed Shrike, Stonechat, Corn, Cirl & Rock Bunting, Golden Oriole and Nightingale in every bush.

Wednesday 21 May 2014

Ortolan day, shrike trio and much more

Ortolan Bunting Emberiza hortulana (male)
In the last two days I had some really top quality birding on the Slovenian Karst. Yesterday was Ortolan Bunting day on Kraški rob, where the only remaining vital population for Slovenia remains. I was there with a small group of ornithologists and ringers to start a study on the species. At least 5 ORTOLAN BUNTINGS were holding territories. We enjoyed the buntings for most of the morning, while trying to catch them for colour-ringing. But unfortunately none of them was successfully lured into the mist nets. Instead we managed to catch a female WOODCHAT SHRIKE which was present on the karstic grassland for most of the day.
Woodchat Shrike Lanius senator - still unringed...
...and later in the hand!
Along with the very abundant Red-backed Shrikes we completed a shrike-trio with a superb male LESSER GREY SHRIKE.
Lesser Grey Shrike Lanius minor
During the day we had a good entertainment with the shrikes plus with a local pair of Golden Eagles, nesting in a cliff. Male and female were frequently seen on the nest, as well as in the air performing displays above the cliffs.
Male Golden Eagle Aquila chrysaetos sitting on a pine, overwatching the nest
The most abundant birds on the grasslands were Red-backed Shrikes, Woodlarks, Skylarks and Corn Buntings. Several Northern Bobwhites were also present, advertising their territories all day long. The species has been introduced here as a game species for hunters.
Other birds recorded during the day included: Hoopoe (+5), Cuckoo (+6), Cirl Bunting, Linnet, Hobby (1 mobbing the Golden Eagle), Marsh Harrier (1 f), Hawfinch, Golden Oriole, Alpine Swift, Raven, Tawny Pipit (2), Northern Wheatear (1).
In the evening we rounded up with a chorus of singing Nightjars (+3) and a Scops Owl.

On Monday instead I was out and about in search of BARRED WARBLERS. Without too much effort I found 2 singing males - one of which showed really well on some hawthorn bushes by a local road (viewed from the car!). The same day I also heard my first singing Quail of the year, Wryneck, Hoopoe, Black Woodpecker, Yellowhammer and the first Melodious Warbler.
Barred Warbler Sylvia nisoria (male)

Saturday 17 May 2014

Capercaillie on the Pokljuka plateau

Capercaillie Tetrao urogallus by Tomaž Velikonja
Capercaillie lekking habitat in Norway spruce Picea abies forest
I'm just back from a short birding trip to the Pokljuka plateau in the Triglav National Park (Slovenia). Today at dawn I visited a Capercaillie lek and was successful with one singing CAPERCAILLIE. It performed its song (only the initial part was audible) which was frequently interspersed with noisy wingbeats, from dawn until about 6.30. I didn't get to see the bird though, except for a glimpse of wingbeats in the conifers. Nevertheless it was a major success and it was one of those birds I really wanted to contact for a long time now. The above pics by Tomaž Velikonja are a great replacement for my "invisible" Capercaillie. They've been taken in the Trnovo forest, where only a few birds remain. In contrast, the Pokljuka plateau and the Alpine region of Slovenia holds good populations of the species. The site I visited is the lek for about 5 displaying males.
After the Capercaillie I had quite good views of a singing PYGMY OWL, which attracted the attention of a "cloud" of Chaffinches, tits, Treecreepers and Goldcrests. In the forest I also had the good variety of upland conifer birds like Nutcracker (1), Bullfinch, Siskin, Crossbill, Crested & Coal Tit and so on. Mammals included 2 Red Deer, 4 Roe Deer, 1 Brown Hare and 1 Red Squirrel.
Pygmy Owl Glaucidium passerinum - lovely as always!

Tuesday 13 May 2014

Cory's Shearwaters & Gannets

Cory's Shearwater Calonectris diomedea
Two dots over the sea - Gannets Morus bassanus
Local patch: mega seawatch on Sunday evening from Miramare. The sea was quite rough due to a nice southerly. At about 18.00 pm a friend of mine called me to say he was watching several Cory's Shearwaters on the sea in front of Miramare. So I hurried out and 10 minutes later I joined him down the coast. At least 14 CORY'S SHEARWATERS put in a good show in front of us while they kept flying back and forth low above the waves. Some were relatively close to the coast and thus we had great views. Actually my best Cory's ever. And by the way the second record for the patch. I also managed a few shots for documentation (above).
Soon a flock of 7 fly-by YELKOUAN SHEARWATERS joined the show, but later we didn't relocate them. At a certain point we had both species in the same scope's view!
Of the larids 4 immature Little Gulls and 1 Med Gull were of note.
Around 19.00 pm, just before leaving the area I decided to do a last scan (to have a last look at the Cory's) and immediately saw two large birds flying high above the sea: GANNETS! An adult and an immature (juv). They remained on view for some time as they flew towards Trieste, only to disappear in the waves minutes later. This is also a second for the patch and of course, like the Cory's a local mega. All in all a good hour's seawatching.

Saturday 10 May 2014

Trnovski gozd: botano-gasm and ornitho-delights

Primula carniolica
Primula auricula
Pinguicula alpina
Gentiana clusii & Gentiana utriculosa
Erica carnea
Rhodothamnus chamaecistus
Exciting day spent in the Trnovo forest (Trnovski gozd) and its southern edge (Mt. Kucelj - 1237 m). The botany front was quite strong this time, but good birds were also always around the corner. From the above pics you can see that the most interesting plants were mainly Primula carniolica (a rare and endemic plant in Slovenia), Pinguicula alpina, Primula auricula, but also Paederota lutea, Gentiana clusii, Rhodothamnus chamaecistus, Primula veris and several others.
The highlight on the bird front was an unexpected THREE-TOED WOODPECKER that I found while taking pics of the primroses. I actually didn't even try to find one, it just appeared nearby while I was busy with the flowers. It showed on a spruce a few times and then began to drum and call.
Smrekova draga
Beech woodland
Mt. Kucelj (1237 m)
Also cool to see were two Golden Eagles being mobbed by a pair of Kestrels on the forest's southern slopes. A Black Kite passing several times above the top of mt. Kucelj was also of note. Otherwise pretty usual forest and upland birds like Cuckoo, Crossbill, Bullfinch, Grey-headed Woodpecker, Lesser Whitethroat, Northern Wheatear, Whinchat, Tree Pipit, Rock Bunting and Woodlark.
On the way out of the forest I also saved the life to an Aesculapian snake Zamenis longissimus (Elaphe longissima) crossing the main road.
Aesculapian snake Zamenis longissimus
Last highlight of the day were 2-3 LESSER GREY SHRIKES in the Vipava valley. Also this year they have returned to their usual breeding site. Good to see they're back.
Lesser Grey Shrike Lanius minor