Saturday 25 May 2019

Vipava valley, Karst and Istria

It's been another intense week in the field and given the fine spring weather we've made the most of it. We started with the usual weekly bird monitorings at Škocjanski zatok NR, but more about that at the end of the post. Now we'll first begin with a fantastic morning spent in the Vipava valley in western Slovenia. The primary target was to monitor the Lesser Grey Shrike Lanius minor, a now very rare breeder in Slovenia. A few pairs usually breed in the Vipava valley and represent the population's stronghold in the country. We were glad to see that at least two adults returned from Africa, to breed at their traditional site. However there should be a few more at the site, so hopefully we'll catch up with the other pairs later in the season.
Lesser Grey Shrike Lanius minor

The overcast weather during the census meant there were many other interesting birds around, especially migrants. On top of the list goes a stunning male Black-headed Bunting Emberiza melanocephala that we found at the end of the census. This Mediterranean species used to breed in Slovenia in the past, while nowadays it is only a rare and irregular passage migrant, with occasional breeding attempts in the south-west. It was the first time we've observed this species on migration, outside from its usual breeding strongholds (mostly in Croatia).
Black-headed Bunting Emberiza melanocephala

The farmlands of the Vipava valley provided excellent hunting grounds for migrating raptors, including up to 10 different Montagu's Harriers Circus pygargus, several Marsh Harriers Circus aeruginosus and at least 27 Red-footed Falcons Falco vespertinus. Overhead small flocks of Bee-eaters Merops apiaster were making their way into Slovenia, from the south-west, while Icterine Warbler Hippolais icterina, Whinchat Saxicola rubetra and Wheatear Oenanthe oenanthe were some of the other migrants. Among the local breeding birds were also: Red-backed Shrike Lanius collurio, Melodious Warbler Hippolais polyglotta, Crested Lark Galerida cristata (commonest bird), Hoopoe Upupa epops, Stonechat Saxicola torquatus, Common Whitethroat Sylvia communis, Wryneck Jynx torquilla, Golden Oriole Oriolus oriolus, Honey Buzzard Pernis apivorus, Peregrine Falco peregrinus, Spotted Flycatcher Muscicapa striata and Kingfisher Alcedo atthis (on the river Vipava).
Montagu's Harrier Circus pygargus

While driving back home through the Vipava valley, our attention was drawn to a small stream flowing through a village, where a large dark bird was wading in the shallow water: a stunning adult Black Stork Ciconia nigra! We stopped to have a closer look and managed to watch the bird for several minutes, some 30 meters away from us, before it took off and circled in the sky. 
The species, a very rare breeding bird in this part of Slovenia, is being regularly observed in the Vipava valley in recent years. Our bird certainly belongs to the pair breeding in the surrounding deciduous forests. However it was far from usual to see such a shy bird, fishing in a stream within human settlements. A rare and priceless encounter!
Black Stork Ciconia nigra

As we continued our drive home we stopped along the road two more times. The first time we located a noisy family of Middle Spotted Woodpeckers Dendrocopos medius in some oaks at the side of the road. Two adult birds were feeding at least two juveniles that must have just fledged nearby. This is an excellent record as it confirmes the nesting in this area, where censuses were made in 2016 but the species was not found back then. Later we stopped a second time when a beautiful Hoopoe Upupa epops decided to feed at the side of a main tarmac road, just few meters in front of the car!
Hoopoe Upupa epops

The next day we enjoyed some more Hoopoes, Melodious Warblers Hippolais polyglotta, Red-backed Shrikes Lanius collurio, Golden Orioles Oriolus oriolus and other common birds during another census in an area of dry karstic meadows. We were rather relieved to see again some butterflies (after the past colder weeks) including the first Marsh Fritillaries Euphydryas aurinia and Glanville Fritillaries Melitaea cinxia of the year, as well as some blues. A rather gigantic Aesculapian Snake Zamenis longissimus crossing a gravel road was also a highlight.
Marsh Fritillary Euphydryas aurinia
Common Blue Polyommatus icarus
Flower meadow with Yellow Rattle Rhinanthus sp., Kidney Vetch Anthyllis vulneraria
and Meadow Clary Salvia pratensis.
Cuckoo Cuculus canorus
Aesculapian Snake Zamenis longissimus
Greater Butterfly Orchid Platanthera chlorantha

And now finally to the coast. This week at Škocjanski zatok we managed to pull out another new species of bird for the reserve - Common Rosefinch Carpodacus erythrinus (the 255th species at the site). The encounter was rather brief and involved a singing 1st winter male (not a nice, scarlet adult) on the top of a tall tree in front of the visitor's center. Rather more pleasing was the prolonged sight of a Caspian Tern Hydroprogne caspia (a rather rare migrant in Slovenia), fishing in the freshwater marsh. Apart from the usual species, the brackish lagoon also hosted 4 Spoonbills Platalea leucorodia and 5 Ringed Plovers Charadrius hiaticula, while in one of the ditches along the path we also observed the iconic Water Scorpion Nepa cinerea and several Diving Beetles Cybister lateralimarginalis.
Caspian Tern Hydroprogne caspia
Spoonbill Platalea leucorodia
Water Scorpion Nepa cinerea
Diving Beetle Cybister lateralimarginalis

This week we also carried out a monitoring of farmland birds in the Slovenian Istria, where among others we saw Tawny Pipit Anthus campestris, Bee-eater Merops apiaster, loads of Melodious Warblers Hippolais polyglotta, Zitting Cisticola Cisticola juncidis and a few Hoopoes Upupa epops. Even more interesting than birds were some plants we found in farmland environment, some being typical representatives of the Mediterranean flora and only found in the extreme south-west of the country.
Hoopoe Upupa epops
Salsify Tragopogon porrifoilus
Rosy Garlic Allium roseum
Purple Clematis Clematis viticella
Bee Orchid Ophrys apifera
Large Venus'-looking-glass Legousia speculum-veneris
Tassel Hyacinth Muscari comosum
Scorpion Vetch Coronilla coronata

Sunday 19 May 2019

Rainy May

What used to be the best month of all, this year is actually a catastrophe. The weather has been rather wintry until a few days ago, with temperatures moving between 6 and 11 degrees for most of the past two or three weeks. Many mountain areas were covered in snow, while lower altitudes were almost constantly battered by the rain. The latter is rather normal at this time of year, but this May we actually had only about one sunny day a week. Due to the low temperatures, many insectivorous summer migrants were struggling to find food, especially those that already started breeding. Exhausted Swallows Hirundo rustica resting on the ground or in other unusual places were common to come across. Now the situation is slightly better with temperatures on the increase, although it looks like the rain will be accompanying us to the very end of May.
Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica

Despite the unfavourable weather we managed to carry out some of the fieldwork we had to do and also make the usual stroll or two around the Karst. During one of the few available sunny days we went counting migrating raptors along the ridge of mount Vremščica and observed several interesting species including Osprey Pandion haliaetus, White Ciconia ciconia and Black Stork Ciconia nigra, Short-toed Eagle Circaetus gallicus, Honey Buzzard Pernis apivorus, Griffon Vulture Gyps fulvus and Goshawk Accipiter gentilis. Honey Buzzards in particular are streaming back from the south in good numbers and can be observed quite frequently these days (saw them even from home).
Among other welcome sights in the Karst were also Red-backed Shrike Lanius collurio, Spotted Flycatcher Muscipaca striata, Pied Flycatcher Ficedula hypoleuca, Wood Warbler Phylloscopus sibilatrix, Icterine Warbler Hippolais icterina and the shy but colourful Golden Oriole Oriolus oriolus - the real star of the woodland at the moment.
Golden Oriole Oriolus oriolus (male)
Male Red-backed Shrike Lanius collurio
singing and eating a Field Cricket Gryllus campestris (watch the video).

After the cold spell, butterflies and other invertebrates are slowly "coming back to life". Among the most interesting species we observed were: Chequered Blue Scolitantides orion (scarce species in Slovenia, mostly found in the west of the country), Southern White Admiral Limenitis reducta and Duke of Burgundy Hamearis lucina. From May onwards it is usually good to take a closer look at fresh log piles at woodland edges, which usually host the chunky Beech Longhorn Beetle Morimus funereus - we found our first two of the season the other day.
Chequered Blue Scolitantides orion
Duke of Burgundy Hamearis lucina
Southern White Admiral Limenitis reducta
Large Wall Brown Lasiommata maera
Dalmatian Algyroides Algyroides nigropunctatus

Fortunately, regardless of the weather, there are countless orchids and other wildflowers to enjoy at this time of year. The star of the moment in broadleaved karstic woodlands is certainly the impressive Wild Peony Paeonia officinalis, while the meadows will be soon reaching the climax in orchid variety.
Wild Peony Paeonia officinalis
"Slender-leaved Asparagus" Asparagus tenuifolius
Lily of the Valley Convallaria majalis
Military Orchid Orchis militaris
Burnt-tip Orchid Neotinea ustulata
Three-toothed Orchid Neotinea tridentata
Lady Orchid Orchis purpurea
Mountain Pasqueflower Pulsatilla montana (both in flower and in seed)
 Javorka's Golden Drop Onosma javorkae (O. dalmatica/O.echioides)
Drypis spinosa subsp. jacquiniana

Meanwhile it's breeding time in Škocjanski zatok NR, where we are carrying out the usual spring monitorings of birds. Purple Heron Ardea purpurea seems to be breeding again this year, while the ducklings of the local Greylag Geese Anser anser are doing well. The brackish lagoon is full of breeding Common Terns Sterna hirundo (something between 70-100 pairs) and Little Terns Sternula albifrons (about 5-10 pairs), while from the beginning of May we've been regularly seeing returning Little Bitterns Ixobrychus minutus too. Among the most interesting species observed recently we certainly need to mention a Turnstone Arenaria interpres in the lagoon (on the 7th of May), which was a new species for the reserve (the 254th species)! Other locally interesting birds included Grey Plover Pluvialis squatarola (2 in breeding plumage) & Red-footed Falcon Falco vespertinus (1 male). The reedbeds are now resounding with the songs of breeding Great Reed Warblers Acrocephalus arundinaceus (up to 39 singing males) and Reed Warblers Acrocephalus scirpaceus (47 counted), as well as migrant Marsh Acrocephalus palustris and Sedge Warblers Acrocephalus schoenobaenus. All in all, an excellent time to learn how to identify Acros by their songs!
Purple Heron Ardea purpurea
Great Reed Warbler Acrocephalus arundinaceus