Monday 25 January 2021

The angel duck from the north

It is frequently the case that the year's first visit of lake Cerknica in January delivers some typical cold-season birds that we don't usually see in western Slovenia until the turn of the new year. One such bird is the attractive Smew Mergellus albellus, an increasingly scarce wintering duck in Slovenia. The only area where it occurs every winter in some numbers is the Drava river basin, while lake Cerknica usually holds only a few individuals in recent years (although we remember seeing flocks of up to 10 birds about a decade ago). Needless to say it is always good to come across one, even if intentionally, like a few days ago, when we wanted to check the lake specifically to find this species. And we quite successfully did so, as Smews at lake Cerknica seem to like always a particular spot. However they are not easy to approach as they tend to be rather shy and flighty, as our poor images usually illustrate. The drake we found, possibly the same individual wintering on the lake last year, was mostly alone, only occasionally mixing with some Mallards and following a small group of Goldeneyes Bucephala clangula. The latter, also a regular species at the lake, numbered only 7 individuals, although we must have missed a few more (flocks of up to 20 or more are the norm here). Among other wildfowl we also saw a few Tufted Ducks Aythya fuligula, but didn't actually check the larger flock of ducks present at the lake, as the rain caught us on the way.
Smew Mergellus albellus
Smew Mergellus albellus with some unlikely friends - Mallards Anas platyrhynchos.
Smew Mergellus albellus with female Goldeneye Bucephala clangula.
Goldeneye Bucephala clangula (male).
Two white dots on the lake: Smew (right) & Goldeneye (left).
Another typical winter species we are not used to see very often (at least not in recent years) is the Common Gull Larus canus, which is far from common in Slovenia! We were greeted by a flock of 14 resting on the lake, however again, winters ago we remember seeing flocks of up to 200 on the lake. The species seems to be more abundant at the end of winter, in March, when larger flocks pass through Slovenia on their way north. Winter visits to Cerknica often repay the observer with sights of the majestic White-tailed Eagles Haliaeetus albicilla. This time we didn't see just the two (probably local) adults resting on the lake, but also an immature, possibly a wintering bird from northern Europe? On the forest edge several birds were already in spring mode: 3 Grey-headed Woodpeckers Picus canus were calling to each other, a Great Spotted Woodpecker Dendrocopos major was drumming insistently, while Goldcrests Regulus regulus, Coal Tits Periparus ater and Great Tits Parus major were happily singing. Other birds around also included a small flock of Fieldfares Turdus pilaris, Mistle Thrush Turdus viscivorus, Crested Tit Lophophanes cristatus, Crossbill Loxia curvirostra and a Great Grey Shrike Lanius excubitor. All in all a short but very productive winter morning.
Common Gull Larus canus
White-tailed Eagle Haliaeetus albicilla (immature).
Grey-headed Woodpecker Picus canus (male).
Birding on the lake on a fine winter morning.
Mistle Thrush Turdus viscivorus, on a silver fir, defending its winter larder - Mistletoe Viscum album ssp. abietis.
Black Woodpecker Dryocopus martius had breakfast and did a mess.

Sunday 17 January 2021

IWC weekend

In Slovenia the mid weekend of January is reserved for the traditional International Waterbird Census (IWC) that also takes places all over Europe and other parts of the world. Although Slovenia has some interesting wetlands (lakes, marshes, reservoirs) they are relatively small and few if compared with other countries. However it certainly has high richness of rivers and mountain streams, especially fast-flowing ones, which are home to one of the most specialised passerines of all, the Dipper Cinclus cinclus. This year we censused two small rivers in the Vipava valley that represent quite good wintering and breeding sites for Dippers, but hardly any other waterbird (except for the occasional Grey Heron Ardea cinerea or Mallard Anas platyrhynchos). The day was sunny and enjoyable and the final tally totalled 9 Dippers. It is certainly not a lot if compared to the 27 recorded last year on the alpine river Bača, but still a good total for two streams with a combined length of around 7 kilometres. Dippers are already highly territorial at this time of year and several individuals were recorded singing and displaying on the rocks.

Dipper Cinclus cinclus on the Lokavšček stream.
"Baywatch" Dipper
The rather small, but attractive Lokavšček stream, hosting good numbers of Dippers.
Some amazing geology in the Lokavšček stream.
River Hubelj close to its karstic spring.
The Slovenian & NE Italian endemic Marble Trout Salmo marmoratus (left) with an introduced Rainbow Trout Oncorhynchus mykiss (right) in the river Hubelj. Note the distinctive marbled pattern on the left individual.
The southern edge of Trnovski gozd seen from the Vipava valley.
Čaven - Mala Gora, on the southern edge of Trnovski gozd.
After finishing the census we birder the Vipava valley, even if birds are rather thin on the ground at this time of year. While scanning the skies above the southern edge of Trnovski gozd a Griffon Vulture Gyps fulvus caught our attention. A regular sight in this area in summer, when numerous birds are observed making daily migration between the Alps and Croatia, however not that common in winter. Instead, a female Hen Harrier Circus cyaneus and a Great Grey Shrike Lanius excubitor were perhaps the two most typical winter birds to be seen around. Our souls were also livened up by the season's first drumming Great Spotted Woodpecker Dendrocopos major.
Griffon Vulture Gyps fulvus, southern edge of Trnovski gozd.
Great Grey Shrike Lanius excubitor, Vipava valley.
IWC was also carried out at Škocjanski zatok NR, where at this time of year the winter birdlife is represented by good numbers of ducks of different species, a large flock of Coots Fulica atra, a mixed assortment of common waders and even a few Greylag Geese Anser anser (18 to be precise). In recent weeks the situation was rather calm, only here and there some occasional interesting birds turned up, for example: a drake Ferruginous Duck Aythya nyroca, Lapwing Vanellus vanellus, Grey Plover Pluvialis squatarola, Marsh Harrier Circus aeruginosus, Hen Harrier Circus cyaneus and occasional small numbers of Cattle Egrets Bubulcus ibis. Around the end of 2020 a Glossy Ibis Plegadis falcinellus also made an appearence - a rare winter record in Slovenia (the 2nd at Škocjanski zatok in winter). On the other hand we are still missing the Bittern Botaurus stellaris, a typical winter species at the reserve.
Ferruginous Duck Aythya nyroca intruding a flock of Mallards Anas platyrhynchos, Škocjanski zatok.
Glossy Ibis Plegadis falcinellus, Škocjanski zatok.
Curlew Numenius arquata, Škocjanski zatok.
Greylag Goose Anser anser, Škocjanski zatok.
Wigeon Mareca penelope, Škocjanski zatok.
Pochard Aythya ferina, Škocjanski zatok.
Reed Bunting Emberiza schoeniclus, Škocjanski zatok.
Sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus, Škocjanski zatok.

Wednesday 6 January 2021

Snowshoeing with Pygmy Owl

This winter has been so far particularly snowy, with weekly and abundant snowfalls in the mountains (as well as almost daily rainfalls in the lowlands) throughout December. Mount Snežnik, being known as the "snowy mountain", was no exception. This week we took the chance to combine some fieldwork with snowshoeing in the plateau's extensive forests. Along our track we measured a layer of 70-80 cm of snow, therefore snowshoes were rather useful. The snow was very fresh, maybe even too fresh to find any mammals' tracks - we only came across a few footprints of Fox Vulpes vulpes and Red Squirrel Sciurus vulgaris. As it is typical for winter, the forest was mostly silent, with only occasional small flocks of birds concentrated in specific areas. Until the early afternoon we didn't see anything unusual, only common forest birds like Coal Periparus ater & Crested Tits Lophophanes cristatus, Goldcrest Regulus regulus and a Bullfinch Pyrrhula pyrrhula. Every time we visit mountain forest in winter we wonder how on earth these tiny birds manage to survive the winter in the harsh mountain envorinment. Most of the birds however concentrate in areas with conifers (where there's more food and cover), while the leaf-less beech canopies become completely empty once snow falls.
Snowshoeing in the fresh snow of mount Snežnik.
One of the several closed forest roads. At the time of writing this chain is probably completely covered by snow.
For about half an hour also a light snowfall greeted us on the way.
The surroudning peaks above 1400 metres are completely snow-encrusted.
Bullfinch Pyrrhula pyrrhula
The epiphytic lichens known as tree lungworts Lobaria pulmonaria (excellent indicators of clean air), are a common sight on Sycamores Acer pseudoplatanus in the forests of Snežnik.
Bird's-nest Orchid Neottia nidus-avis (last year's plant).
Some beech trees have forgotten to shade their leaves.
In the afternoon, when passing by a stand of conifers on the edge of a dolina (sinkhole), a mixed flock of rather noisy tits caught our attention. Among them were also some loud Willow Tits Poecile montanus. Nothing unusual we thought, until an excited flock of Crossbills Loxia curvirostra joined the show and began to alarm. When Crossbills alarm in group with other birds, this often means a Pygmy Owl is around. And sure enough, after some minutes of listening and searching with bins, we realised the centre of activity was on the tree right above our heads. On the top of a silver fir Abies alba, a small and unusually rounded shape was perched - it was a beautiful Pygmy Owl Glaucidium passerinum. Although we were standing right under the tree, the owl wasn't bothered by our presence but rather paying attention to the small birds flitting around it and alarming. This precious moment lasted for about 5 minutes, before all the mobbing stopped and the Pygmy Owl flew off on another conifer, where we couldn't relocate it anymore (they are so small!). Although we have seen the species several other times in this area (see here), it still remains a quite rare bird in the Snežnik's forests and is never easy to see. Typically inhabiting mountain conifer forests, Pygmy Owl is somehow commoner in the Alps (Pokljuka, Jelovica & Pohorje plateaus). Needles to say, this short but intense encounter made our day and we returned to the car with a smile on the face.
Typical view of a Pygmy Owl Glaucidium passerinum sitting on the very top of a conifer.
Pygmy Owl Glaucidium passerinum - tiny but fierce!
Watching the Pygmy Owl (and the bird's position).
Snowy greetings from Snowy mountain.