Monday 20 January 2020

A day with Dippers

As we didn't see any Dippers Cinclus cinclus during our recent IWC winter count, this weekend we were happy to join a colleague who was counting them on the river Bača in the Julian Prealps. The narrow alpine valleys in northern Slovenia, with their fast-flowing mountain streams hold large populations of these water specialists. Every winter, volunteers from DOPPS-BirdLife Slovenia work all the main mountain rivers in detail, counting Dippers as well as other waterbirds. On Sunday we gave a little contribution to this count, walking the Bača river valley between Hudajužna and Grahovo ob Bači, on a distance of about 9 kilometers and counting 27 Dippers. However this year's total count for the river Bača (measuring 22 kilometers), was 47 Dippers! The Bača ranks among rivers with the highest density of this species in Slovenia.
We had thus plenty of opportunities to enjoy this amazing bird we are never tired of watching. Dippers start breeding very early and therefore some birds were already singing and defending their territories. We also managed to find two old nests on natural cliffs by the river.
Dipper Cinclus cinclus
Old Dipper's nest.

In one of the small pools created by the river we glimpsed two trouts that could have been Marbled Trouts Salmo marmoratus, an endemic and highly endangered species of the Adriatic basin, found mostly in western Slovenia and northeast Italy. Later we came upon a dead fish which we confirmed as a Marbled Trout. Unfortunately we also came across several small hydropower plants built on some beautiful stretches of almost natural river. These plants are a great problem for migrating fish as well as other river organisms. Marbled Trouts, being so rare and vulnerable can be seriously affected by such interventions.
Marbled Trout Salmo marmoratus
River Bača.
Girls counting Dippers.
One of the several waterfalls joining the Bača in its canyon.

Walking along the Bača there weren't many other birds to keep us company, apart from the occasional Grey Wagtail Motacilla cinerea, another typical inhabitant of the river ecosystem. However in the riparian trees, our attention was caught by a small flock of 4-5 Long-tailed Tits Aegithalos caudatus. The interesting fact was that all had a pure white head - a sign that usually points out to a northern origin of such birds (ssp. caudatus perhaps?). Regardless of the birds' origin, white-headed Long-tailed Tits are uncommon in Slovenia and homogeneous flocks like the one we observed are very rare. Two male Bullfinches Pyrrhula pyrrhula drinking water from the river were also nice to see.
Possible caudatus Long-tailed Tit Aegithalos caudatus ssp. caudatus
Bullfinch Pyrrhula pyrrhula

On this trip we finally managed to write down in the notebook the first (short) plant list of the year! On the fertile woodland floor along the river Bača we were greeted by the first flowers this winter. First we saw the "usual suspects" - Primrose Primula vulgaris and Snowdrop Galanthus nivalis, followed by single flowers of Spring Crocus Crocus vernus, Christmas Rose Helleborus niger and Spring Heath Erica carnea. An interesting addition was the bizzarre fungus Elf Cap Sarcoscypha austriaca
Walking down the valley we also enjoyed in the views of the beautiful "Lower Bohinj mountains" - the southern chain of the Julian Alps, rising above the Bača river valley.
Snowdrop Galanthus nivalis
Spring Crocus Crocus vernus
Elf Cup Sarcoscypha austriaca
One of the several small tributaries of the river Bača and a traditional barn.
Mt. Črna Prst (1844 m) towering above the Bača valley.
Mt. Rodica (1964 m) is the highest peak above the Bača valley.
Mt. Raskovec (1956 m).

Wednesday 15 January 2020

International Waterbird Census weekend

Black-throated Diver Gavia arctica, Koper.
Red-throated Diver Gavia stellata, Koper.
Black-necked Grebe Podiceps nigricollis, Koper.
Slovenia: from the sea to the Alps (Mt. Triglav).
Velvet Scoter Melanitta fusca, Sečovlje salina.
Little Owl Athene noctua, Sečovlje salina.
Water Rail Rallus aquaticus, Škocjanski zatok.
Bullfinch Pyrrhula pyrrhula, Ilirska Bistrica.

 Podstenjšek stream - a karstic spring near Ilirska Bistrica.

A rather short post in terms of photos (mostly phone-scoped), but nevertheless rich with interesting observations. In the past weekend we had the International Waterbird Census (IWC) in Slovenia, when most of the country's water bodies were censused by volunteers. We had several transects to cover, both on the sea coast and inland, as well as Škocjanski zatok Nature Reserve. The coast proved the most interesting - between Koper and Izola we counted 2 Black-throated Divers Gavia arctica, 4 Red-throated Divers Gavia stellata and 1 Red-breasted Merganser Mergus serrator, plus several Sandwich Terns Sterna sandvicensis and commoner waterbirds. It was a quite good total for Slovenian coastal standards. The same afternoon, family business took us to the other side of the gulf, on the sea shore near Miramare, just north of Trieste. There we were entertained by a fantastic pod of 4 Bottlenose Dolphins Tursiops truncatus, leaping out of the sea not far from land. Needless to say, we didn't have any camera with us.
The next day we censused two IWC transects on the river Reka near Ilirska Bistrica, but with very scarce results. We didn't even manage to find the expected Dipper Cinclus cinclus nor Kingfisher Alcedo atthis. However we were taken by surprise by a nice Woodcock Scolopax rusticola which flushed a few steps away from us and showed really brilliantly in flight. Two Great Grey Shrikes Lanius excubitor and 2 Bullfinches Pyrrhula pyrrhula were also of note. After the census we stopped at Podstenjšek, a karstic spring originating under a limestone cliffs near Ilirska Bistrica. We didn't find any Dippers here either, but we enjoyed in the beautiful stream with its characteristic pools (video above).
On Monday instead we had a guided trip on the coast and worked the Sečovlje salina (saltpans) in detail. There we saw a nice variety of common waterbirds, but also some goodies including 1 Slavonian Grebe Podiceps auritus and 3 Velvet Scoters Melanitta fusca on the sea, as well as a Little Owl Athene noctua, Black Woodpecker Dryocopus martius, Shelduck Tadorna tadorna and Pygmy Cormorant Phalacrocorax pygmeus in and around the saltpans. We rounded up the day listening to the song of a male Eagle Owl Bubo bubo on the Karst edge.

Tuesday 7 January 2020

Tundra rarities & other winter birds

Last week we received news of a Snow Bunting Plectrophenax nivalis observed on mount Slavnik (1028 m) by a hiker, so given the short distance from home, we really needed to pay a tribute to this northern bird. The species is a rare and irregular winter visitor to Slovenia from the tundras of Scandinavia and Iceland. It usually occurs singly or in very small flocks. However it is somehow more regular on the sandy coasts of the western part of the Northern Adriatic, in nearby Italy.
On Saturday we took advantage of the beautiful sunshine and walked on Slavnik from its northern slopes. As soon as we approached the rather crowded grassy summit (full of hikers, bikers, dogs ect.) we spotted the Snow Bunting feeding in an area of short grass and rocks. For the next few hours the bird remained in the same area, occasionally flying away a short distance (being flushed by people), but then always returning to the same spot. As it is typical with birds born in the tundra, this bird showed no fear for humans, except when they approached at less than two meters. Needless to say, we had excellent and super close views.
Snow Bunting Plectrophenax nivalis

Given the winter season there weren't many other birds on Slavnik, except for a few Fieldfares Turdus pilaris, Rock Bunting Emberiza cia, Raven Corvus corax, as well as Black Woodpecker Dryocopus martius, Common Treecreeper Certhia familiaris and Firecrest Regulus ignicapilla in the beech forest. However the panorama from the summit was excellent and the view stretching from the mountains of NW Croatia, over most of western and northern Slovenia, to Venice and the Dolomites in Italy.
Grassy slopes of Slavnik, looking SE.
The view from Slavnik to the east, with mount Snežnik in the distance.
Mt. Snežnik from mt. Slavnik.
Mts. Nanos (left) and Vremščica (right) from Slavnik, with the Alps in the very distance.

Recently we also paied a few visits to the Karst edge, where on the limestone cliffs we observed the "usual" Wallcreeper Tichodroma muraria or two, as well as listened to the song of Eagle Owls Bubo bubo. These large nocturnal raptors are quite vocal in winter as they begin to advertise and defend their territories. Their singing activity escalates from mid winter until the beginning of March, when the vocal peak is reached.
Enjoying a winter sunset in the NW-most corner of the Slovenian Karst edge, overlooking Trieste.

Apart from the occasional good birds, the Karst is rather empy at this time of year and birding can be quite challenging. On the contrary the birding scene in the wetlands around the Northern Adriatic is very lively. The Italian part of the Gulf of Trieste is hosting some interesting northern visitors and lots of birders have taken advantage of the festivities to go birding in the areas around the mouth of the river Isonzo/Soča. In the past ten days or so we ourselves paid a couple of visits to these areas, enjoying in a good variety of waterbirds, including some rarities. The highlight were two Bewick's Swans (Tundra Swans) Cygnus columbianus feeding in some arable fields near Monfalcone. These vagrants from the Russian tundras are rare and irregular winter visitors to our region (both Slovenia and Italy), although in recent years there have been several observations. In Slovenia, two birds overwintered at lake Ptuj in 2013 (see this post).

Bewick's Swan Cygnus columbianus bewickii

The sea coast between Duino/Devin near Trieste and the Grado lagoon is extremely rich with waterbirds. Hundreds of overwintering ducks, grebes, swans and waders feed in the shallow sandy waters. On the sea we had excellent views of two Slavonian Grebes Podiceps auritus at close quarters, as well as several Velvet Scoters Melanitta fusca (up to 8) and Goldeneyes Bucephala clangula. It was also good to see a couple of Red-necked Grebes Podiceps grisegena, a rather scarce species in recent winters. There were also many Black-throated Divers Gavia arctica (up to 10 together) and some Red-throated Divers Gavia stellata.
Slavonian Grebe Podiceps auritus
Views over part of the gulf of Trieste from its northern shores with Slovenia in the background.

At Valle Cavanata Nature Reserve there was the usual winter spectacle of hundreds of Flamingos Phoenicopterus roseus, Pygmy Cormorants Phalacrocorax pygmeus, Lapwings Vanellus vanellus, geese and other waterbirds. More interesting were 29 Spoonbills Platalea leucorodia, an increasingly common winter sight. The sandy sea shore held good numbers of waders, including Grey Plovers Pluvialis squatarola, a bird we don't get to see very often in Slovenia.
Checking the arable fields close to Isola della Cona Nature Reserve we came across a large mixed flock of Greylag Anser anser and White-fronted Geese Anser albifrons. Although a Red-breasted Goose Branta ruficollis was reported a few weeks ago within the flock, we didn't have luck with that. A Lesser White-fronted Goose Anser erythropus or two might have been also present in the large flock, but we didn't put much effort in finding it. In the fields we also observed 3 Golden Plovers Pluvialis apricaria and a large flock of a hundred Skylarks Alauda arvensis.
Some other rarities were also available nearby, although we didn't go looking for them: a Hume's Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus humei at Duino/Devin (as well as one south of Udine) and a White-tailed Eagle Haliaeetus albicilla along the river Isonzo/Soča (a local rarity).
Flamingo Phoenicopterus roseus
Grey Plover Pluvialis squatarola
Pygmy Cormorant Phalacrocorax pygmeus
White-fronted Goose Anser albifrons
White-fronted Goose Anser albifrons with mount Triglav (in Slovenia) as a backdrop.

On the other side of the Gulf at Škocjanski zatok NR the situation is calmer, although some good birds can be found with a bit of dedication. Among the typical winter birds present at the reserve, the Bittern Botaurus stellaris certainly steals the show, although it is not always easy to see. A few days ago a Moustached Warbler Acrocephalus melanopogon was also observed, suggesting a wintering of the species at the reserve. A small flock of Greylag Anser anser and two White-fronted Geese Anser albifrons is usually present, as well as an overwintering White Stork Ciconia ciconia. On the contrary, the two Flamingos Phoenicopterus roseus lingering in the lagoon for some time, seem to have moved somewhere else. Other interesting birds observed in recent weeks include 3 Ferruginous Ducks Aythya nyroca, 1 Caspian Gull Larus cachinnans and several Penduline Tits Remiz pendulinus. No sign of the usual overwintering Bearded Tits Panurus biarmicus yet.
Bittern Botaurus stellaris from the office.
Ferruginous Duck Aythya nyroca
Flamingo Phoenicopterus roseus