Thursday 19 September 2019

Bear watching & dark Ural Owl

Last weekend we made two excursions into the Dinaric mountains to try and see bears and other forest wildlife. On Friday evening, the day just before September's full moon (known as "harvest moon"), we exploited the moonlight to do some night mammal watching on a forest glade. The sky was cloudless and a very gentle breeze kept the evening mist away, so we had perfect viewing conditions. Bears are usually nocturnal animals, visiting open areas to feed late in the evening, although sometimes they might be seen coming out earlier, at twilight. This is especially the case with young males which need to avoid "disturbing" adult individuals (both females with cubs or adult males) at feeding places. Therefore it is usually younger males that are more frequently observed in "unusual"  daylight hours or at twilight.
After we've settled at the side of a forest glade, an hour or so before sunset, we were soon rewarded with some mammal activity: two Roe Deer Capreolus capreolus, a Fox Vulpes vulpes and a young stag Red Deer Cervus elaphus. Then, after sunset and just when the light was beginning to fade, a magnificent Brown Bear Ursus arctos appeared. It was an immature male, probably a second year animal, given the size. It started to feed on the maize that hunters put out for deer and showed for the next 1 hour and half. Soon after darkness descended, the rising moon was lighting again the glade. In the next few hours we could enjoy the bear as well as other mammals in the moonlight. More Red Deer appeared, as did a group of 8 Wild Boar Sus scrofa and 3 Brown Hares Lepus europaeus. When we left the site we also flushed a Tawny Owl Strix aluco from the side of the road.
Brown Bear Ursus arctos
An almost full moon.

On Sunday we were again in the forest, this time for some daytime birding. We visited the area of Loški Potok, where we hoped to find some interesting birds, especially woodpeckers. Despite the forest being alive with small birds (tits, crests, finches ect.) it was rather calm otheriwse. Our only notable observation was a beautiful melanistic Ural Owl Strix uralensis which showed perfectly well and for long. After initially flushing the bird, we could watch it for some 20 minutes or so as it perched nearby on a spruce. It was so relaxed it even fell asleep in front of us! This amazingly dark morph is rather rare and present in about 10% of the Slovenian Ural Owl population. However the forests of Kočevje in southern Slovenia seem to be the stronghold of such individuals, with "mixed pairs" (a melanistic and an "ordinary" bird) being not uncommon in this region.
Ural Owl Strix uralensis

Among birds another very interesting sight was a Nutcracker Nucifraga caryocatactes collecting nuts in the middle of Loški Potok village, while in the forest only Grey-headed Woodpecker Picus canus and Firecrest Regulus ignicapillus were of note.
In the past few autumns we've been also into mycology (the study of fungi), so at this time of year we are paying more attention to the fungi we see in the forest. The overall situation is rather poor at the moment as the soil is quite dry (a condition that fungi don't like at all). Hopefully some rain in the coming weeks will make more mushrooms sprout. Below are some of the interesting fungi we found recently, as well as some typical September forest plants.
Shingled Hedgehog Sarcodon imbricatus
Sweet Tooth or Wood Hedgehog Hydnum repandum
Blusher Amanita rubescens
Saffron Milkcap Lactarius deliciosus
Spotted Milkcap Lactarius scrobiculatus
Common Puffball Lycoperdon perlatum
Autumn Crocus Colchicum autumnale
Willow Gentian Gentiana asclepiadea
Fringed Gentian Gentianella (Gentianopsis) ciliata

Thursday 12 September 2019

September migration

The autumn bird migration is in full swing and our attention has turned again to birds, after the "summer break" with butterflies and plants. At Škocjanski zatok Nature Reserve several interesting species have turned up in the last two weeks. The highlight was finding the second Broad-billed Sandpiper Limicola falcinellus for the reserve (on the 29th of August). This species is a rare but more or less annual vagrant to Slovenia. Also very interesting is the presence of a juvenile Flamingo Phoenicopterus roseus in the brackish lagoon, which apparently has no rush to move away from the reserve. As it is usually the case in early September, the reserve hosts several migrant Bluethroats Luscinia svecica that can be seen (with some luck) feeding on the muddy edges of reedbeds. Other interesting species recorded at the reserve in the past two weeks, until today included: Spotted Crake Porzana porzana (up to 4 in one morning), Little Crake Porzana parva (2 males together), Hobby Falco subbuteo (1), Short-toed Eagle Circaetus gallicus (1 almost daily at the reserve), Dunlin Calidris alpina (4), Turtle Dove Streptopelia turtur (3), Pied Flycatcher Ficedula hypoleuca, Wheatear Oenanthe oenanthe, Wood Warbler Phylloscopus sibilatrix, Whinchat Saxicola rubetra and several other common migrants.

Broad-billed Sandpiper Limicola falcinellus
Flamingo Phoenicopterus roseus
Bluethroat Luscinia svecica
Little Crake Porzana parva
Spotted Crake Porzana porzana
Pied Flycatcher Ficedula hypoleuca
Snipe Gallinago gallinago
Kingfisher Alcedo atthis
Turtle Dove Streptopelia turtur
Short-toed Eagle Circaetus gallicus

Short afternoon visits of woodlands, meadows and mountains close to home in the Karst have also produced some interesting finds. On the botanical front the most noteworthy plant of the moment is certainly the Autumn Lady's-tresses Spiranthes spiralis - the last orchid of the season. Among birds we had several encounters with Short-toed Eagles Circaetus gallicus, as well as several migrant passerines and a nice male Cuckoo Cuculus canorus, a rather uncommon autumn sight. In the very first days of September we've also checked several mountain meadows for migrating Dotterels Charadrius morinellus, but with no success. This rare mysterious migrant wader has been observed at the end of August on mount Slavnik, an almost annual stopover site for the species in our area. In slightly less than 10 years of regular autumn trips to find Dotterels in the high Karst, we managed to observe the species only twice (in 2011 and 2015).

Autumn Lady's-tresses Spiranthes spiralis
Cuckoo Cuculus canorus
Short-toed Eagle Circaetus gallicus
Wind-swept dry limestone grasslands on mount Vremščica.
Mighty mount Nanos seen from the Karst plateau.
Black Woodpecker Dryocopus martius
Blackthorn Prunus spinosa

The butterfly season is coming to an end, however there are still some interesting species to be found here and there. During a brief visit to Nova Gorica on the 10th of September we made a short walk in the Panovec woodland where we found the amazing and rather rare Common Glider Neptis sappho. Otherwise most butterflies now concentrate on dry meadows where they can find some late-flowering plants for nectar. In our garden the alien Geranium Bronze Cacyreus marshalli from South Africa is common in this season, while far more exciting is the presence of the large Convolvulus Hawk-moth Agrius convolvuli, coming to feed on nectar in the evenings. At the end of August in Škocjanski zatok we also found a caterpillar of the impressive Oleander Hawk-moth Daphnis nerii.

Common Glider Neptis sappho
Dryad Minois dryas
Geranium Bronze Cacyreus marshalli
Weaver's Fritillary Boloria dia
Convolvulus Hawk-moth Agrius convolvuli
Oleander Hawk-moth Daphnis nerii

Friday 6 September 2019

Closing the snorkeling season

With the arrival of the first autumn rains and cold winds we are now saying goodbye to the summer season. Therefore in this post we'll sum up a few more observations and finds from our latest snorkeling trips in the Adriatic sea, more precisely in the Gulf of Trieste. The Abudefduf we found in August (see here) was observed repeatedly, every time we visited the site at Tanki rtič/Punta Sottile. Our colleague marine biologists identified it as a probable Sergeant-major Abudefduf saxatilis on the basis of close-up photos, but further researches are still underway. As we already mentioned, this find represents a new species for the Gulf of Trieste. 
Among the other highlights of the summer season is certainly a close-up encounter with an Atlantic Bluefin Tuna Thunnus thynnus, a fish you don't usually swim with! The encounter was brief but very exciting as a mid-sized tuna (about 80 cm in length) swam at full speed about half a meter away from us, while we were snorkeling not far from the coast. The fish was obviously in hunting mode, as for a few moments the sea "boiled" and Mullets Mugil sp. were jumping out from the water in all directions. After approaching the shore to knee-deep water, the tuna made a few leaps and disappeared back towards the open sea. Unfortunately the encounter was too brief to take any photos... nevertheless we were also too astonished to attempt any photography. However here is a photo selection of the other marine organisms we managed to observe and photograph (with a Fujifilm Finepix XP 140) during all our recent excursions. Another similar post with more species can be found here. Enjoy!
The impressive and harmless Mediterranean Jellyfish Cotylorhiza tuberculata was seen several times, including up to 9 individuals in one afternoon.
...some were in really shallow water, floating among swimmers. Pity most people didn't even have the chance to admire these beauties from below.
The jellyfish serves as shelter to juvenile fish.
Common Jellyfish Aurelia aurita
The alien Sea Walnut Mnemiopsis leydi is a highly invasive species. It can be present in very large numbers by the end of the summer, when water temperatures are higher. Unfortunately the northern Adriatic is literally packed with them. Fortunately for swimmers and snorkelers, this is a Comb Jelly (Ctenophora) and not a true jellyfish, so it has no stinging cells.
Salp Salpa sp. - a curious floating animal belonging to the tunicates (Tunicata).
Sergeant-major Abudefduf saxatilis - "our" alien friend from the tropical seas.
Mediterranean Chromis or Damselfish Chromis chromis - the closest (and only) relative of the Sergeant-major in the Mediterranean (note the similarity).
Garfish Belone belone
Gilt-head Bream or Orata Sparus aurata
Sand Steenbrass Lithognathus mormyrus
Painted Comber Serranus scriba
Goldline Sarpa salpa
A mix of seabreams: Two-banded Diplodus vulgaris and Sharpsnout D. puntazzo
Sharpsnout Seabream Diplodus puntazzo
Mullet Mugil (Liza) sp.
Adriatic Blenny Microlypophrys adriaticus
Peacock Blenny Lipophrys (Salaria) pavo
Dalmatian Blenny Microlipophrys dalmatinus
Tompot Blenny Parablennius gattorugine
Giant Goby Gobius cobitis
Black Goby Gobius niger
Red-mouthed Goby Gobius cruentatus
East Atlantic Peacock Wrasse Symphodus tinca
Red/Blunt-snouted Mullet Mullus surmuletus/barbatus
Saddled Seabream Oblada melanura
Mediterranean/Big-scale Sand Smelt Atherina hepsetus/boyeri
Yellow Tube Sponge Aplysina aerophoba
Noble Pen Shell Pinna nobilis
Snakelocks Anemone Anemonia viridis
Kidney-shaped Sponge Chondrosia reniformis (left) and 
White Warty Seasquirt Phallusia mammillata (right).