Friday 19 May 2017

Our magic Karstic local patch

Recently we have been mainly enjoying the spring close to home in the wooded hills of the Karst and looking for orchids in the meadows. This is is probably the best time of year to be outside as nearly all the summer migrants are back and wildflowers are at their best. Most of the orchid species found in Slovenia are in full bloom at the moment. Birds like Golden Oriole Oriolus oriolus, Cuckoo Cuculus canorus, Nightingale Luscinia megarhynchos, Wryneck Jynx torquilla, Hoopoe Upupa epops, Red-backed Shrike Lanius collurio and others are holding territories in the woodlands, hedges and grasslands of the Karst. The greenery in the trees is finally at its climax and even the late oak Quercus species have finally new fresh leaves.
The most important news is about "our" Middle Spotted Woodpeckers Dendrocopos medius breeding in a Karstic woodland. Yesterday we were lucky enough to witness the youngs leaving the nest! Initially, when we arrived on site a juvenile was still in the nest with the head out of the hole, but still being fed by the adults. After some time, many hesitations and loud calls, it finally climbed out of the hole and took off. The last photo above shows the juvenile a few seconds after it left the nest. Another chick followed an hour or so later and then a third one appeared at the nest-hole. We didn't witness the third chick leaving, but it probably did so the same day. 
Thus ends this amazing experience of having an insight into the breeding life of such an interesting species. We have some nice video footage about the activity around the nest-hole and will prepare a short movie soon. We'll publish it in one of the next posts, so keep tuned for that! EDIT - watch the video here.
Most wild peonies Paeonia officinalis in the warmer parts of the Karst are already at the end of the blooming season, but some are still to be found in flower, especially in cooler and shadier places in the forests. In the area where we took the above photo, the much rarer species, Paeonia mascula is also present, but we haven't seen it in flower yet.
Orchis militaris is a quite tall orchid with the flowers resembling a small man with a helmet on its head (hence its Latin name). The flower's shape is superficially similar to that of Orchis simia (having a "monkey" shape, rather than a "soldier") and Orchis purpurea (resebling a lady in a dress). Of course, for seeing such things you need to have a certain amout of fantasy! 
O. militaris is in flowers from the end of April to the end of May and at the moment is the most conspicuous orchid on some Karst's meadows. The above photos were taken at the roadside, not far from Sežana.
Neotinea ustulata (also Orchis ustulata) is a small but beautiful orchid, growing sparsely among commoner orchid species and is never very abundant. The small flowers on the inflorescence's tip remain closed and retain a deep red colour, whereas the lower ones open and become white. This colour contrast gives a "burnt" appearence to the plant and hence the common English names: burnt orchid or burnt-tip orchid (same meaning in Latin).
One of the commonest orchids at all in Slovenia is Orchis morio, which blooms early in the season, from April onwards. In late May it can be still found in bloom at some higher elevations (karstic hills and mountains) or cooler corners of the Karst. On the meadows where it grows is usually associated with Narcissus poeticus ssp. radiiflorus (another species still in bloom at higher altitudes).
But as the season advances Orchis morio on dry stony meadows is readily replaced by the pink-flowered Neotinea tridentata - a species we have already mentioned in the previous post.
Gymnadenia conopsea is a common orchid in Slovenia, found on both dry and wet meadows. It blooms from May onwards and later in the season, its rarer relative G. odoratissima is a possible confusion species (the latter has a pleasant smell of vanilla).
Among our native Irises the above Iris graminea is perhaps one of the most interesting. Its flowers are not on the top of tall stems, but usually hidden among its grass-like leaves (graminea=grass-like). Some say its flowers smell of ripe plums and this attracts their main pollinators: ants (see last pic).  Another of those interesting relationship between animal and plant!
The tall and elegant Asphodelus albus is a typical species of karstic mountain pastures. Entire "stands" cover large patches of grassland and woodland edges. On the Karst it is more commonly found on hills and grassy plateaus (like Vremščica, Slavnik, Nanos, Čičarija...) rather than at lower elevations, where it is rare. Being a warmth-lover, in Slovenia is mainly restricted to the western, more submediterranean part of the country.
Where one month ago the beautiful Pulsatilla montana was in bloom, now only its puffy white seedheads remain. The blue flowers instead belong to Salvia pratensis, one of the commonest plants on Karst's dry meadows.
One or two grassland areas on the Slovenian Karst host small numbers of Red-footed Falcons Falco vespertinus every spring. The above birds were part of a flock of at least 12 individuals. Numbers like these are the norm, but in some years real invasions take place, like in 2015. These colourful falcons don't breed in Slovenia, but only stop here on migration to their breeding grounds in eastern Europe. Their passage peaks from the end of April to the first half of May.
A male Montagu's Harrier Circus pygargus has been sharing the meadows with the Red-footed Falcons. Also this species is a passage migrant and can be observed in Slovenia in April and May. It is not so common on the Karst, but a few grassland areas are good enough for it to stop and hunt. Far easier to see is on the vast grassland expanses of Cerkniško jezero, Ljubljansko barje or in lowland north-east Slovenia.
Hobby Falco subbuteo is mostly a migrant to the Karst and a scarce breeder here. It breeds more commonly in other parts of Slovenia. The above individual was seen hunting insects in flight in the same area where some days earlier its red-footed relatives were observed.
Wherever you find yourself on the Karst, Mount Nanos (1262 m) is a very prominent landmark. If you haven't noticed yet, we like to use it as a backdrop for plant photography! Like every year, when the grassy slopes are getting green, Nanos draws us irresistibly to its summit...
Vineyards and orchards across the Karst resound with the repetitive calls of Wrynecks Jynx torquilla. This frequently overlooked bird is actually still quite common here and usually linked to man-made agricultural habitats. Most important of all is an extensive farming landscape with hedges, old orchards and large trees with cavities. Being totally insectivorous (feeds almost exclusively on ants and their larvae) Wryneck is the only woodpecker to spend the winter in Africa. A slightly odd but fascinating little bird!
Common Redstart Phoenicurus phoenicurus is another much welcomed summer migrant, found in many (but not all) villages of the Karst. Is a typical bird of rural habitats, but not as common as the Black Redstart P. ochruros.
Spotted Flycatcher Muscicapa striata - another summer migrant which usually lives alongside man in villages, gardens and parks, but also woodlands.
Barn Swallows Hirundo rustica in the Karst's villages are still very common, but have almost disappeared in some places where farming abandonment reduced their main food sources and new architecture changed drastically their breeding habitats. In the villages they usually breed in stables, barns and in old farm houses.
House Martins Delichon urbicum share the breeding habitats with Swallows, but frequently breed in towns and cities as well. Swallows' nests are cup-shaped and opened above, whereas House Martins seal them up almost completely with mud and leave only a small access hole.
This female Green Woodpecker Picus viridis was feeding on the Lipica golf course and allowed close views. Despite being a very common woodland bird (and frequently heard), it is quite shy and difficult to see. Green Woodpeckers also like to feed on ants and do so on the ground, like the above bird. Note the whole black moustache, typical of the female (males have it red).
Cerambyx scopolii is one of the many representatives of the longhorn beetle family (Cerambycidae). It is quite similar to the larger Cerambyx cerdo and a few other species which are all rarer. This beetle is widespread in Slovenia and in spring can be commonly seen feeding on flower nectar of its favourite shrubs and trees: Sambucus, Crataegus, Cornus and others. As with several other beetle species, it takes some 2-3 years for the larva to develop under the bark and inside rotten tree trunks.
In a local quarry we were happy to find a male Blue Rock Thrush Monticola solitarius, probably breeding at the site. In Slovenia this species inhabits only the Primorska region (western part of the country) with a submediterranean climate. The favoured breeding habitat are sunny limestone cliffs, but on the Karst it frequently chooses limestone quarries as well. 
At the same quarry we also observed two Crag Martins Ptyonoprogne rupestris circling above a tunnel entrance (a possible nesting site?) and perched at the edge of the quarry. This could be a possible new nesting site in south-west Slovenia, where the species is quite scarce.
Work duties in recent weeks brought us to some wetlands as well - more precisely to Isola della Cona Nature Reserve in north-east Italy. Of course we couldn't miss an opportunity to squeeze some botany into our work commitments and visited a wet meadow within the reserve, where we found the above orchid - Anacamptis laxiflora, flowering alongside the similar and commoner Anacamptis palustris.  
A. laxiflora is also found in Slovenia, but is quite scarce and restricted to wet meadows of the Primorska region (mostly Istria and Vipava valley).