Monday 30 March 2015

Pannonian spring

Saturday was the first day of true spring migration. Together with a friend I happened to be near Medvedce reservoir, so we had an afternoon look at the area. Medvedce is a very well known site among Slovenia's birders as it is one of the best birding places in the country. Located in the Pannonian plain of north-east Slovenia, it hosts important wintering and passage populations of migratory birds and it is important for lots of breeding species. It is also perhaps the place with the highest records of rarities per year. I have always a certain level of expectation when I visit this place and Saturday was no exception. As soon as we arrived on site I noticed literally tens of Marsh Harries Circus aeruginosus quartering the fields. Another bigger raptor in the sky was one of the two OSPREYS Pandion haliaetus that we saw during our visit. It was carrying a freshly-caught fish away from the reservoir, while minutes later, the second bird was still fishing above the same water body. I saw my last Ospreys right here, in spring 2013.
Two different Ospeys Pandion haliaetus. The first bird, in the last pic is carrying a fish.

The reservoir was otherwise full of birds, as usual and we could soon get all the common duck species, including the area's specialty: Ferruginous Duck Aythya nyroca. Migrants were a bit everywhere and included mainly the common, recently-arrived trans-saharan species. As many were my year's firsts, I will mention them: Swallow Hirundo rustica (+50 seen also earlier in the day at different locations), House Martin Delichon urbicum (3-5), Yellow Wagtail Motacilla flava (+30), Little Ringed Plover Charadrius dubius (4), Green Sandpiper Tringa ochropus, White Stork Ciconia ciconia (already on the nest), Northern Wheatear Oenanthe oenanthe (3 males), Ruff Philomachus pugnax (+25), Garganey Anas querquedula and others.
The bird of the day was a male PALLID HARRIER Circus macrourus. We watched it for some short minutes as it passed by and migrated north-eastwards in the late afternoon. Seconds later a male and female Hen Harrier Circus cyaneus appeared after him - an excellent opportunity for quick comparison. Pallid Harrier is an increasingly regular migrant in Slovenia, although it is still treated a rarity by the national committee. The Medvedce area is again one of the best places where to see this species during passage. Of course with a bit of luck.
Male Pallid Harrier Circus macrourus by Igor Maiorano; photographed on our last trip to Medvedce, in April 2013.

Another interesting species we saw (at least for me) was Stock Dove Columba oenas. This bird is a quite scarce breeder in Slovenia, with most of its population concentrated in central and eastern Slovenia. It is nowhere common and I'm always glad to see one. In winter there are bigger numbers around, but again, not everywhere in the country. As I always experienced it is a shy species compared to its relatives.
Stock Dove Columba oenas

And of course, no post could be complete without some nice flowers. These weeks are the real turnover point in spring, when most of the wildflowers are sprouting at large. Every visit in the field has new species to add and it will be like this for the next few weeks. The best time of year really.
Caltha palustris
Leucojum vernum & Crocus vernus
Erica carnea covering large slopes; in association with Scots Pine Pinus sylvetris and Norway Spruce Picea abies. A really fantastic spectacle in the glorious spring sunshine.
Petasites albus
Daphne mezereum

And to round up the post, a winter scene from the Pohorje mountains, where we saw a Swallow Hirundo rustica flying past the snow-covered forest - a sight I've never experienced before! Hopefully this is the last winter pic of the season.

Wednesday 25 March 2015

Ljubljansko barje

Fritillaria meleagris
On Monday I was in Ljubljana and in the late afternoon I payed a visit to Ljubljansko barje - a lowland plain where once there used to be vast marshes and bogs. Now it's mainly turned to agricultural land with sparse, little areas of wet meadows and bogs. My main target were Fritillaries Fritillaria meleagris. These beautiful and rare plants are to be found on just a few locations across Slovenia and the Ljubljana marshes to the south of Slovenia's capital are the main stronghold. I found them flowering at large on a piece of wet meadow. This is a species that needs very wet soils to grow, in contrast with its more dry-loving relative: Fritillaria montana, that grows on dry stony grasslands, especially on the Karst. F. montana usually grows singly and not in large "carpets" as F. meleagris. Both species are rare and localised.
The end of March and the very beginning of April is the climax period of blooming of F. meleagris, so this plant adds a touch of colour to the otherwise bleak, late-winter countryside.
Even on Ljubljansko barje, the species is not abundant everywhere, but it is becoming localised, mainly because of habitat loss. Marsh drainage and the heavy use of fertilizers are the two main causes of decline, to which the species is very sensible. So I was quite glad to see such nice numbers the other day.
Quite abundant on some patches of wet meadow.

But also on the bird front, my short visit was very productive. When I finished to take pictures of the flowers, I noticed a bird of prey in the sky. I immediately realised it was a RED KITE Milvus milvus. Two minutes later it landed on a tree, where another Red Kite was already sitting! They both sometimes took off, disturbed by Crows, but then always landed back to the same tree. It was almost sunset time, so the birds went probably to roost. I was happy with my 3rd Red Kite ever (or something), because these birds are far from common to see here. In general, between north-east Italy and Slovenia the species is a regular but scarce migrant, with only a couple of birds reported every year. It's one of those species never guaranteed on a trip and it was actually still considered a rarity, until recently. Below are two of the few shots I managed to get. In the second pic you can see both birds together: one in flight and one perched on the tree (also a Hoodie Corvus corone cornix in flight).
Red Kite Milvus milvus

Also worth reporting is my first HOUSE MARTIN Delichon urbicum of the year, flying over my house on the first day of spring - 21st March. No better day to see a hirundine!

Saturday 21 March 2015

Leucotos and Wildcat

Male White-backed Woodpecker Dendrocopos leucotos
The highlight of the past week was the census of WHITE-BACKED WOODPECKER Dendrocopos leucotos in the Kočevje forests in southern Slovenia. I only had one individual of my target species but the day proved very exciting because of some other encounters. While driving on a forest road I saw a WILDCAT Felis silvestris running away from the road in the middle of the day. I stopped the car and ran out to have a look around, but despite the forest being really open and without much undergrowth, the cat was simply vanished in a few seconds. This was my second ever wildcat and the first in its main stronghold - the Dinaric forests. Below a picture of my previous encounter in 2013.
Wildcat Felis silvestris

As I was getting back to the car, I noticed a "woodpecker movement" in the canopies, looked up and saw a Middle Spotted Woodpecker Dendrocopus medius. It was actually the third Middle Spot of the day. I didn't expected they were so common and easy to get in the Kočevje forests.
Middle Spotted Woodpecker Dendrocopos medius

During my census I also had other species of woodpeckers, including Great Spotted D. major, Lesser Spotted D. minor, Grey-headed Picus canus, Black Dryocopus martius and Green Picus viridis. March is a great time of year for woodpeckers because they are very vocal and territorial and easily observed through the canopies (the trees are still leave-less).
The same day I also had close daytime encounters with about 10 Red Deers Cervus elaphus (including 2 males) and a Red Fox Vulpes vulpes. Of the other birds the most interesting was the presence of both Short-toed Certhia brachydactyla and Eurasian Treecreeper C. familiaris and a good movement of Woodpigeons Columba palumbus in various flocks.
A forest-road sign in Kočevje - the kingdom of bears!

As usual in this time of year, every new flower that sprouts is a little joy. In the photos you can see the newly emerged flowers of a typical Slovenian spring taken on different locations.
Hacquetia epipactis with Scilla bifolia (on the left); Slovenian Karst.
Erythronium dens-canis (top one) with the first Anemone nemorosa of the year; Slovenian Karst.
Omphalodes verna - a typical flower of the Dinaric forests, giving the name to the association Omphalodo-Fagetum (Dinaric forest of beech and silver fir); Ljubljansko barje.
Euphorbia amygdaloides, Ljubljansko barje.
Leucojum vernum, Kočevje.
Punkish Middle Spotted Woodpecker Dendrocopos medius; Slovenian Karst.

Saturday 14 March 2015

Exciting March

The last week or so has been quite good weather and wildlife-wise. I'll go through it describing the different locations I've been to. First of all, let's start with the highlights!
Today I returned to the location of the MIDDLE SPOTTED WOODPECKERS Dendrocopos medius, where both birds were present (pair), but most importantly, I saw copulation taking place. An undeniable sign of breeding!
Needless to say, the area was as usual full of woodpeckers in breeding activity, song, drumming ect. Also two Tawny Owls Strix aluco were heard - a male in the afternoon and a female in the evening.
The woodland floor is getting really colorful and today the botany highlight was Erythronium dens-canis - a common, but very nice-looking flower with up-twisted pinkish petals and green patchy leaves.
Erythronium dens-canis, with Scilla bifolia in the first pic.

Still more interesting, was the fact that in the evening I heard a female URAL OWL Strix uralensis calling in the forest where I had two in October 2014. Since then I returned to the place several times, but failed to contact the birds. Today after I "sang" a male Ural Owl (an ability I'm quite proud of), the female answered nearby, calling back at me for some minutes. It was of course a very welcome answer as this means the Ural Owl is resident in the area. And this is probably the only known pair on the Karst.
Ural Owl Strix uralensis from Septermber 2014.

Yesterday I took part in the yearly Eagle Owl census organised by DOPPS on the Karst in Slovenia. The beginning of March is the best time of the year to track down the territories of these birds, because the males are most vocal and pairs are in the process of formation. The species has something like +100 pairs in Slovenia and is considered a rare and potentially threatened bird. It is mostly confined to large cliff areas or rocky slopes and it also found in some active and abandoned quarries. The population's stronghold is on the Karst.
Me and my group were lucky enough as a singing male EAGLE OWL Bubo bubo flew a few metres above our heads and perched on the top of a pine tree, some 10 metres away from us. The overall scene looked a bit like the photo below (taken some years ago). The spectacle lasted for a few seconds only, before the bird flew away.
Eagle Owl Bubo bubo on top of a pine.

Yesterday before the census I also checked the river Reka, near Škocjanske jame where a Dipper Cinclus cinclus and Grey Wagtails Motacilla cinerea were of note. The former is apparently nesting somewhere in the canyon. The riverbanks were full of colorful wildflowers. 
Dipper Cinclus cinclus on the Reka river.
Grey Wagtail Motacilla cinerea - male (note the black throat).
Scilla bifolia with Galanthus nivalis
Gagea lutea
Hepatica nobilis (left) and Corydalis solida (right)
Corydalis cava - note different shape of the leaves under the flowers.
Viola alba
Trio: Scilla bifolia, Gagea lutea, Galanthus nivalis

During last week I also checked with some friends a location for Eagle Owl near Trieste. On one occasion we saw both birds sitting together: one on a rock, the other on a pine, thus suggesting the pair is still there and probably doing well. 
Another happy news of breeding comes from the Glinščica/Val Rosandra valley, on the outskirts of Trieste, where a pair of Peregrines Falco peregrinus has decided to nest in a limestone cliff. The first breeding for the area in recent times was in 2008 and since then, the pair has bred irregularly. Luckily the cliff where the nest is located is now closed to rock-climbers and general public, until the end of June.
Peregrine Falco peregrinus guarding the nest.
This picture of mine taken some years ago made the headlines today on the local newspaper of Trieste - adorning an article about the breeding of the Peregrine in Val Rosandra.
Potentilla tommasiniana - one of the typical wildflowers of the area of Trieste.
Raven Corvus corax on the nest.

A cliff in the Peregrine's neighbourhood is also hosting a nest of Ravens Corvus corax. Two Crag Martins Ptyonoprogne rupestris were also present nearby where I was there. Two individuals of the latter were also seen around the cliffs of Monte Grisa, close to my home, where the air is now filled with the smell of Euphorbia wulfenii - a plant with a Balkanic distribution, found along the coastal cliffs around Trieste. To add a bit of Mediterranean touch to the area, a female Sardinian Warbler Sylvia melanocephala was also present the other day.
Euphorbia wulfenii and the Adriatic sea (Gulf of Trieste).
Podarcis melisellensis
Polypodium australe - a fern of southern and western Europe; in this case, inhabiting south-facing limestone cliffs.