Sunday 18 October 2020

Snežnik - it's a kind of MAGIC

This weekend we decided to join the worldwide initiative Global Bird Weekend and given the fine autumn weather, our destination was up in the mountains. Although higher elevations (and especially forests) host a quite poor selection of birds at this time of year, we nevertheless decided to go birding in our favourite environment. Our aim was to look for Slovenia's rarest breeding woodpecker, the White-backed Woodpecker Dendrocopos leucotos, in the species' stronghold - the beech (Fagus sylvatica) forests of mount Snežnik. Of course we also wanted to make a nice hike in the autumn-coloured forest, in complete tranquility and as far away from other humans as possible. Therefore we visited one of the wildest areas of the Snežnik mountain range. Indeed, apart from a gamekeeper on the main road, we didn't meet anyone else. Although the morning was sunny, the temperatures were quite wintry, with max values reaching only 4 degrees C. A hike uphill was what we needed. After some half an hour of steep climb, walking through some beech forest, with lots of old standing "chimneys", there was our first woodpecker. Initially we only heard a tapping, then some soft "chuks" and as we approached we realised we stumbled upon a pair of White-backed Woodpeckers Dendrocopos leucotos (ssp. lilfordi). Male and female were feeding together on the same trees, with the male usually lower down on the base of tree trunks and on fallen logs. Approaching cautiously, we followed the birds for a good half an hour, although they were quite mobile (as usual with this species) and never allowed us too close. However we managed to take a shot or two. As we continued deeper into the forest we noticed several standing dead beech trees with old nesting holes of White-backs, as well as several feeding signs. Among other common forest birds we heard a distant Black Woodpecker Dryocopus martius and cheered at the season's first Bramblings Fringilla montifringilla arriving to Slovenia from the north.

White-backed Woodpecker Dendrocopos leucotos ssp. lilfordi (male).
Old White-back's nesting hole in a beech tree Fagus sylvatica.
Almost pure beech forest on rocky terrain, around 1400 m a.s.l. - habitat of White-backed Woodpecker.
Woodpecker's feeding signs on the numerous standing dead beech trees.
Low and contorted beech trees on hilltops.
Sometimes there's even Mountain Pine Pinus mugo on the hilltops.

The pure beech forests are interrupted by the occasional Silver Fir Abies alba.

Autumn colours in the beech forest.
Fungi of the genus Pholiota (probably).
As we continued deeper into the forest the path we were following became a track marked only by the constant passage of Red Deer Cervus elaphus. Along the track we noticed a rather small hole under some rocks which seemed very suitable as a bear's winter den. Despite their size, bears usually choose cavities with very tight entrances. Females especially so, to avoid being "overthrown" by larger males. Among all the various karstic holes and caves we are used to see in the Dinaric mountains, this one really seemed like an active bear's den. Along our way we also found some Bear's droppings, although at this time of year, one of the commonest bear's signs in the forest are large stones being turned over - bears look for invertebrates under large stones and frequently dig up roots too.

A probable bear's winter den.
Bear's droppings with a high content of beech mast (natural food) and no signs of corn (from artificial feeding) as seen in other seasons. The forest has been very productive this year!
Around midday we decided to stop on a forested ridge, overlooking a small dolina (karstic depression) with some spruce trees and a small glade on the bottom. Some patches of snow reminded us that winter is approaching, as last week heavy snowfalls covered Snežnik. We were actually at an elevation of around 1400 metres above sea level. The small glade immediately looked "wild" and promising, therefore we stopped to have lunch. While eating we heard the calls of a third White-backed Woodpecker coming from the opposite ridge, however we didn't go to investigate. After lunch Sara took her usual power nap on one of the contorted beech trunks, so typical of the forest at this altitude.
Afternoon power nap in the forest.
Just before moving on we heard the sound of a heavy step and what sounded like a "sniff" coming from the bottom of the dolina. We are quite used to hear galloping deer (be it Red or Roe) in these forests, but the sound we just heard was far too silent and heavy at the same time. We scanned the forest glade with binoculars, but it seemed empty... until Domen noticed a characteristic brownish fur moving slowly among spruce branches... our suspects were right: it was a Brown Bear Ursus arctos!! We were at a distance of around 40-50 metres from it, so we waited quietly to get better views, before starting to move away from the animal. Then, fortunately it came out of cover and appeared right on the glade. Some extremely exciting and adrenaline-filled moments followed as we were watching a truly wild brown bear, doing its daily food-searching in the forest, with no artificial feeding involved and as much far away from civilisation as you could possibly be in Slovenia, hours away from the car. At first we thought the bear would sniff us soon and run away, but it wasn't the case. It was in fact very relaxed and didn't seem to notice our presence. Sara managed to record a video of the animal trying to turn a large stone (see here or below - a MUST watch!). It was close enough we could hear it sneeze loudly (or sniff?), while muzzling under the stones. Given the shape and size we identified her as a young female (although not juvenile at all!). We continued to watch her and take photos for about 5-10 minutes, before she decided to try her luck on the dolina's opposite slope, disappearing into the forest. She left us with our hearts bumping and a huge smile on our faces. Then it began to snow!

Brown Bear Ursus arctos, female feeding in a dolina.
Sara recording the video (below) and the bear's position.

A Brown Bear during its daily business in the forest ("sneezing" at min 0.36).

It's pretty obvious we just saw a bear!
But our fortunes were not over yet. Although there was a light rain mixed with snow the atmosphere in the forest was magical! While heading back along the track we came across a male White-backed Woodpecker once again. It was the male from earlier in the morning, feeding on the low trunks where we left it. As it was in a feeding frenzy, this time it didn't seem to be bothered by our presence and allowed really excellent views!

White-backed Woodpecker Dendrocopos leucotos ssp lilfordi (male).

White-backed Woodpecker Dendrocopos leucotos, hand-held video (no tripod).


After saying goodbye to the White-back we walked onto a small open hill from where we had an amazing view over Snežnik's vast wilderness. Despite the deteriorating weather, it was perfect: not a single human sound and no buildings in view! Returning down to the valley at Ilirska Bistrica and driving back home, we stopped at some small limestone cliffs along the way where the season's first Wallcreeper Tichodroma muraria, coming to winter on the Karst, greeted us and wished a happy winter.

View west from an open hilltop in the forest.
View south towards Croatia.
A spruce-covered karstic dolina in the otherwise pure beech forest.
Goodbye to the next wild adventure!