Tuesday 21 November 2017

Visitors from the north

November is perhaps the dullest and calmest month of the year as nature is falling into the big winter sleep. Birdlife is usually scarce as summer migrants have long departed from Europe, while most of the winter visitors have yet to come. There are of course exceptions. A Rough-legged Buzzard Buteo lagopus decided to visit the Bloke plateau for the second consecutive winter and has been reported a few weeks ago. The bird was discovered by Paul Veenvliet who also gave us precious tips on where to find the bird (thanks Paul!). So yesterday while visiting the Cerknica lake we also jumped over the hills to the nearby Bloke area. Among the numerous Common Buzzards Buteo buteo we soon found their northern cousin...
The Rough-legged Buzzard Buteo lagopus (a male) was quite difficult to approach, so we only managed to take photos for documentation (even with digiscoping). It usually perched on Norway spruce Picea abies or Scots pine Pinus sylvestris (the trees that most resemble its northern breeding habitat?) at the edge of a vast meadow. Its behaviour was clearly different from that of other buzzards that usually perch in full view on poles and bushes. The Rough-legged Buzzard preferred to perch on conifers, in the shade of large branches. It was usually well camoufladged and frequently hard to spot against a dark background. On a few occasions we saw it hunting on the fields, but only for a short time. 
The species is a rare winter visitor to Slovenia, with just a few records every one or two years, so truly a bird that lightens up a dull winter birding day. 
On the Bloke plateau and at lake Cerknica we observed several Great Grey Shrikes Lanius excubitor which are common winter visitors to Slovenia. This is one of the very few passerines that lingers on inhospitable wind-swept meadows and fields throughout the winter. Here it survives by preying upon small rodents, small birds and occasional insects. Yesterday we observed one catching a vole (or shrew) and carrying it in its feet to a hawthorn bush. If not eaten immediately, the prey is usually impaled on the spikes of wires or thorny bushes and stored for later use.
Fieldfares Turdus pilaris breed around lake Cerknica, especially in the villages, but in winter their numbers are boosted by birds arriving from northern Europe and joining the flocks. Redwings Turdus iliacus are also frequently found in such flocks and this year they seem to be more numerous than in other years.
A male Hen Harrier Circus cyaneus was hunting over the fields by the Cerknica lake. Good numbers of this species are present in the area in winter. Nearby we also observed a Peregrine Falco peregrinus.
Winter visitors on the lake Cerknica itself were represented by two Black-necked Grebes Podiceps nigricollis (above), a mixed flock of Pochards Aythya ferina & Tufted Ducks Aythya fuligula and 3 female Goldeneyes Bucephala clangula (the first of the season). 15 Shelducks Tadorna tadorna and a Ferruginous Duck Aythya nyroca were also present, while a flock of 22 Greylag Geese Anser anser was migrating overhead.
In a small woodland by the lake we also observed this male Grey-headed Woodpecker Picus canus and heard a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker Dendrocopos minor, while on Bloke plateau we heard a Black Woodpecker Dryocopus martius.
The colourful illustrations known as panjske kon─Źnice frequently adorn wooden beehives in Slovenia (this one is near lake Cerknica). These popular artistic features are typical for Slovenia, where they originated in the 18th century. The illustrations usually depict funny scenes where animals play human roles and vice versa.