Tuesday 26 February 2019

Spring flora at Kozjansko Regional Park

Yesterday we ventured into eastern Slovenia, to visit a place we've never been before - the Kozjansko Regional Park. This protected area comprises vast beech forests, open meadows, old orchards, small villages and river valleys. It is a rather overlooked part of Slovenia, although the wildlife there is really amazing. You can read plenty of facts about the wildlife diversity and local specialities on the park's website
At this time of year, certainly the biggest attraction for nature enthusiasts (including ourselves) is a small, but very interesting plant - the Winter Aconite Eranthis hyemalis. It is a species native to south-eastern Europe and is quite rare in Slovenia, with just a couple of localities, virtually all encompassed in the Kozjansko Regional Park. In the park however, it can be really numerous and can form nice stands in early spring. It is usually one of the first flowers to emerge, just after the snow has melted, along with the far-commoner and widespread Snowdrop Galanthus nivalis.
Winter Aconite Eranthis hyemalis
The Kozjansko area is also rich with other interesting flora we are not used to see in other parts of Slovenia. During our walk in the beech forests near Podsreda we also enjoyed the beautiful "Dark Purple Hellebore" Helleborus atrorubens, another speciality of this area, which can be frequently found in the company of the commoner Fragrant Hellebore Helleborus odorus and with which it also hybridizes. Other early spring plants were also in beautiful show, including commoner and widespread species. We also found several fungi, among which the most interesting were up to 6 different Elf Cups Sarcoscypha austriaca growing on the forest path.

"Dark Purple Hellebore" Helleborus atrorubens
Fragrant Hellebore Helleborus odorus
Christmas Rose Helleborus niger
Alpine Squill Scilla bifolia
Snowdrop Galanthus nivalis
Spring Snowflake Leucojum vernum
Spineless Butcher's-broom Ruscus hypoglossum
Alternate-leaved Golden Saxifrage Chrysosplenium alternifolium
White Butterbur Petasites albus
Yew Taxus baccata
Elf Cup Sarcoscypha austriaca
In the beech forests, among birds, the most interesting (and most prominent) were woodpeckers. We heard 2 Middle Spotted Woodpeckers Dendrocopos medius, 1 Grey-headed Picus canus, 2 Black Dryocopus martius and several Great Spotted Woodpeckers Dendrocopos major. The forests of the Kozjansko Regional Park are also home to some pairs of Ural Owl Strix uralensis, Collared Flycatcher Ficedula albicollis as well as Black Stork Ciconia nigra.
Black Woodpecker Dryocopus martius (male).
Beech Fagus sylvatica forest.
The Kozjansko Regional Park has many slow-flowing rivers and streams that have become the new home of a recent, but very welcome colonizator, the Beaver Castor fiber. These animals have re-colonised Slovenia after years of absence. They arrived from nearby Croatia, where the species was re-introduced in the past decades. Nowadays Beavers can be found in several rivers in eastern and southeastern Slovenia, although they are very difficult to observe by day. Being mainly nocturnal they are active at night and quite a good measure of luck is needed to spot one. Nevertheless, the signs of their activity are visible along the rivers. We found several freshly-eaten trees and branches along a local stream, as well as "paths" leading from the water and a possible den. Otters Lutra lutra are also said to inhabit the park, but they can be even more difficult to spot!
Signs of Beaver Castor fiber activity.
Stone Loach Barbatula barbatula in a stream.

On our way to and from Kozjansko we passed the town of Krško, in the Sava river basin. Here we stopped along a main road to admire one of the very few breeding colonies of Rook Corvus frugilegus in Slovenia. The wider area of the river's Sava and Krka confluence has been the historic stronghold of this species in the country. Today Rook has colonised also a few other sites in central and northeastern Slovenia, but it remains a rare breeder. In winter the population is enlarged by overwintering birds from northern and eastern Europe.

Rooks Corvus frugilegus at the colony.

Saturday 23 February 2019

Golden Jackals & Wolves

Yesterday morning we went tracking woodpeckers (up to 6 different species) in a forest in the Karst, like we usually do at this time of year. After a productive morning with all 6 species recorded (all European woodpeckers apart from White-backed, Three-toed, Syrian and Wryneck), we were treated with a rare and unexpected encounter. Just around 11 o'clock, we were standing still and silent by some trees, when a mid-sized animal trotted in our direction. First thought was "a fox", but as the animal approached we realised it was a beautiful Golden Jackal Canis aureus. The animal didn't notice us at all and walked straight in our direction, passing some 15 meters away from us. When it disappeared among the trees, half a minute later, another three Jackals followed in the same direction, silently trotting towards us! This time the group spotted us and decided to change direction, but first the animals chased one another for a while, not far from where we were standing. In the excitement we managed to take a copule of shots and record the above video, showing the last two Jackals of the group, a few moments before they disappeared into the trees, never to be seen again. Although we were used to see quite a lot of Jackals on a daily basis in Romania (see here), watching these interesting animals here at home is certainly different. Golden Jackals have been colonising Slovenia from the Balkans in recent years and in many areas they've become permanent residents. The Karst in western Slovenia is perhaps one of the places with the largest population, but still, seeing these animals is far from easy. The animals here tend to be rather shy and active mainly at night. Hearing their howls is usually the commonest type of encounter with the species. In the past we already heard Jackals howling in the Karst a couple of times and even caught one on a trail camera, actually not far from where we saw them yesterday.
More up-to-date info about Golden Jackals in Slovenia can be found on this website, summarising the results from the latest studies of the species. The site is only in Slovene, but the graphs and tables should be readable nevertheless. This page in particular is interesting as it shows the approximate distribution of the species in Slovenia. 

It is said that areas inhabited by Golden Jackals are not inhabited by Wolves Canis lupus as the two species exclude each other. That is true also for Slovenia as the Jackals usually inhabit lowland and hilly countryside, while Wolves have territories in mountain forests of the Dinaric chain. The Trnovo forest (Trnovski gozd) in western Slovenia is home to a well-studied pack of Wolves (see this informative video) and finding their tracks in not that difficult in winter. At the beginning of the week we visited the forest, once again with the main aim of tracking down some rare woodpeckers (White-backed in particular), but without success. However, during our long walk in the snow, we stumbled upon two droppings of Wolf Canis lupus (above), on the main road running through the forest. Wolves frequently use forest roads as they are quite convenient to walk on and their tracks can be sometimes found quite easily on such exposed places.
Descending from the plateau of Trnovski gozd, we scanned some cliffs at its southern edge and spotted the local pair of Golden Eagles Aquila chrysaetos, perched on the top of a large rock. Nearby we also checked a nest-site that was used in the past and noticed some new building material in it (fresh pine branches), so fingers crossed that the pair will nest there again!

Thursday 14 February 2019

Lake Cerknica & surroundings

At the beginning of the week we payed a visit to lake Cerknica and its surroundings, after several months from our last trip there. The area seldom disappoints and winter is no exception. The lake, swelled by the recent rainfalls, was full of water and thus the waterbirds were thinly spread throughout the surface. We didn't see the hoped-for Smews Mergellus albellus (which regularly winter in small numbers on the lake), but the wildfowl assemblage was good nevertheless and included Goldeneye Bucephala clangula, Pintail Anas acuta, Shelduck Tadorna tadorna as well as about 20 White-fronted Geese Anser albifrons. Due to snow-free roads in the Javorniki mountains, we were able to make a short incursion into the Dinaric forests and were rewarded by a Ural Owl Strix uralensis, which showed shortly, but rather well. Birds in the forest are quite vocal now and they don't seem to care about the cold and cloudy weather of Notranjska anymore. On the forest floor the first early-spring flowers were beginning to emerge, as well as an interesting fungus.

Goldeneye Bucephala clangula (male) - part of a flock of 25 displaying on the lake.

Ural Owl Strix uralensis in the forests by lake Cerknica.
Christmas Rose Helleborus niger - common in the forests around the lake, but not in full bloom yet; only a few specimen were already in flower.
Primrose Primula vulgaris - just about to bloom.
Elf Cup Sarcoscypha austriaca - an uncommon fungus, typically emerging just after the snow melts on the forest floor. It feeds on the rotting remains of broadleaved trees and likes damp habitats.
Roe Deer Capreolus capreolus
Middle Spotted Woodpecker Dendrocopos medius - an unexpected find of 2 territorial birds, close to the lake. At the same site also 2 Grey-headed Woodpeckers Picus canus and a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker Dendrocopos minor.
A karstic spring at Rakov Škocjan, erupting water only during abundant rainfalls when the underground water reservoirs are filled. Sometimes Olms Proteus anguinus might get transported out from the caves by the strong currents, thus ending up on the surface.
Lurking on the shores of lake Cerknica on an uninviting winter's day.

Tuesday 5 February 2019

Late winter birding

February at last, and the end of winter is not that far away anymore! Birding has been the main outdoor activity recently and for good reason - birds seem to be the first animals to notice the change in season and start to be more active than usual (singing, drumming, migration ect). Škocjanski zatok Nature Reserve has become Domen's second local patch, due to his various working commitments there. You'll probably read more about this nature reserve in our future posts... This small wetland near Koper holds good numbers of waterbirds at the moment and some interesting species too. The Bittern Botaurus stellaris (above) is a regular winter guest to the reserve and it can be frequently observed from the main hides and even from the visitor center's bar. With a bit of luck and patience the reedbeds might reveal the wintering flock of Bearded Tits Panurus biarmicus (see photo) or some Penduline Tits Remiz pendulinus. Other birds of note observed in the past two days included a drake Ferruginous Duck Aythya nyroca, 2-3 Caspian Gulls Larus cachinnans, 1 Hen Harrier Circus cyaneus and several Greylag Geese Anser anser

Forests in the Karst are already resounding with woodpecker's first territorial drummings, including those of Lesser Spotted Woodpecker Dendrocopos minor (pictured above). A few days ago, during a short morning walk in our local patch, we had 2 Lesser Spots, 2 pairs of Middle Spotted Dendrocopos medius (4 birds in total), several Great Spotted Dendrocopos major, 2 Black Dryocopus martius and 3 Green Woodpeckers Picus viridis. The forest floor is slowly coming back to life with the first blooming Istrian Hellebores Helleborus multifidus subsp. istriacus and Snowdrops Galanthus nivalis.

The limestone cliffs along the Karst edge are also providing some quality birding, usually during short afternoon sessions. The above Peregrine Falco peregrinus, photographed in the Glinščica valley, on the border with Trieste, is probably well intentioned to nest at its usual and historical site in the valley. At the same site we also observed a Wallcreeper Tichodroma muraria, while not far away, a pair of Eagle Owls Bubo bubo put on show in the evening, performing a singing duet and even copulating in the cliffs in front of us! Certainly an excellent beginning to the breeding season!

This handsome Rock Bunting Emberiza cia visited our karstic garden at the end of January. Although a common species in rocky areas of the Karst, we are always delighted to have this unusual garden bird in our vegetable garden from time to time. 

An abundant snowfall at the end of January covered the garden with a layer of about 15 cm of snow and many birds were attracted to the birdfeeders, including several Hawfinches Coccothraustes coccothraustes (1st photo), Greenfinches Chloris chloris & Goldfinches Carduelis carduelis (2nd photo), as well as some scarcer species like Brambling Fringilla montifringilla (3rd photo) and Siskin Carduelis spinus.

Last Sunday we also made a small incursion into Croatian territory, not far from Slovenia's southern border. We visited the Mirna river valley, where a great abundance of birds was present, including waterbirds, raptors, passerines ect, although no signs of the wintering Greater Spotted Eagle. Most interesting was a smart male Merlin Falco columbarius (phone-scoped pics above).