Thursday 22 February 2018

Lower course of the river Soča-Isonzo

We don't usually publish posts regarding places outside Slovenia, but this time, giving the lack of other observations, we will do so. Last week we visited the lower course of the river Soča/Isonzo in northeastern Italy, only 12 km from the Slovenian border and some 24 km to the southwest of Gorica. The river Soča originates in the heart of the Julian Alps, in the Trenta valley in northwestern Slovenia. It then flows for the majority of its course through western Slovenia, before finishing its last 43 kilometers in Italy (known there as Isonzo). Near the town of Monfalcone it flows into the Adriatic sea and Gulf of Trieste. The last kilometers of the river and its estuary are protected under the famous Foce dell'Isonzo Nature Reserve (also known as Isola della Cona) - one of Italy's top birding destinations. The lower course in and around the reserve hosts the very few remaining pockets of lowland riparian forests. This is the habitat visited during our last trip.
Our friend and expert ornithologist Paolo Utmar showed us some secret pockets of beautiful riparian forest built up by huge black poplars Populus nigra. Our mission was (once again) to look for woodpeckers. The site hosts breeding Black Woodpecker Dryocopus martius and Lesser Spotted Woodpecker Dendrocopos minor that were both heard, plus the occasional Grey-headed Woodpecker Picus canus. Along the river we observed a pair of Goosanders Mergus merganser and a Common Sandpiper Actitis hypoleucos (both breeding birds here) plus 6 Goldeneyes Bucephala clangula and a male Hen Harrier Circus cyaneus (winter visitors).
But our main target was to check weather the habitat was also good for Middle Spotted Woodpecker Dendrocopos medius. And it clearly was! After a short blast of playback, a Middle Spot flew in and perched on a very tall poplar. The views were enough to confirm it - we were looking at the first Middle Spotted Woodpecker for the Foce dell'Isonzo Nature Reserve! A new addition to the already very long bird list of the area! As we already mentioned in other posts, Middle Spots have been fastly colonising the northeast of Italy in recent months. Giving their increased observations at different sites in the Trieste Karst and in Friuli, we thought well to check the right habitat also along the lower course of the Isonzo. Once again this species surprised us and proved there could be soon a new breeding woodpecker in the forests of northeast Italy.
After our excitement for finding the Middle Spot, we headed to some fields near Grado were a flock of Common Cranes Grus grus was reported some days earlier. To our surprise the birds were still there and were also quite close to a local road, so we could watch them at close quarters, without disturbing them. There were 7 individuals in total: 5 adults and 2 immatures. Cranes are only passage migrants through northeast Italy (and also Slovenia), but sometimes small flocks decide to spend the winter in the farmlands and wetlands of Friuli. But Crane migration has just began, so these might be migrants after all. In the coming weeks, like every year, hundreds of Cranes will migrate through Italy and Slovenia, heading to their breeding quarters in central and northern Europe.