Friday, 11 June 2021

Ortolans & Hoopoes

Ortolan Bunting Emberiza hortulana, one of the rarest breeding birds in Slovenia and on the very brink of extinction. This little bird, a typical inhabitant of dry limestone grasslands, has nearly vanished from its Slovenian strongholds. Only a few decades ago the species used to be common in the Karst, while in the last 15 years it went through a very steep decline. Reasons for this include a combination of factors, like habitat change, small population size and unfavourable population's dynamics. For those interested in the species and its trend in Slovenia, here is an article we wrote a few years ago, when we were studying Ortolans more intensively. DOPPS-BirdLife Slovenia still continues to monitor the population size and twice a season we also help with censuses. This week we visited the species' traditional nesting site and managed to observe two singing birds, although colleagues reported other individuals, but still, for a national total of just less than 10 individuals! However we were glad to hear its melancholic song in an area of extensive grasslands, where Ortolans used to be absent in the last few years. This observation has nothing to do with a possible re-colonisation, but rather involved an unpaired male, moving desperately over a large area, holding territory. Sadly the future of this bunting in Slovenia is really bleak.

Typical view of an Ortolan Bunting Emberiza hortulana in the Karst, singing, but well hidden in a Black Pine Pinus nigra.
Ortolan Bunting - male number 1.
Ortolan Bunting - male number 2.
Ortolan Bunting - male number 3; observed feeding by a gravel road and drinking from a puddle.
Ortolan's singing perch.
Views on Ortolan Bunting's habitat.
Feather Grass Stipa eriocaulis
Jurinea Jurinea mollis
But all is not sad on the karstic grasslands. This amazingly biodiverse habitat still supports many species of interesting birds, some of which have seen a moderately positive trend in the last decade. One such bird is the charismatic Hoopoe Upupa epops, which in some areas has also benefitted from artificial nest boxes specifically put out for it. In the Karst's limestone grasslands Hoopoes usually nest in dry stone walls and only rarely in holes in trees as these are not widely available. Therefore the species will readily use nest boxes put on small oak and pine trees in the otherwise treeless countryside. Last week, during one of our grassland bird censuses we came across an occupied nest box, so a few days later, when we were again on site, we decided to wait for an hour or so in the vicinity, but still from a safety distance, in order not to interfer with the nesting. Adult Hoopoes were coming to the nest box with 10-15 minutes intervals and the chicks were already calling very loudly from inside the box. We also positioned a camera on a tripod close to the nest and left it there to record the scene non-stop, while we waited, well hidden in the distance. In 20 minutes time of recording we thus managed to film three food deliveries to the nest - the result in the video below. A quick, efficient and non-disturbing way of getting a close insight into the nesting of this attractive birds.
Hoopoe Upupa epops bringing food to the nest.
Just before landing at the entrance.
Feeding the chicks without entering the box.
Checking the surroundings.
Entering the box and cleaning it from droppings & rubbish.
Checking the surroundings before going out...
Flying away. 
A week later - one of the chicks watching the world outside.
Hoopoe Upupa epops delivering food to the chicks (video also here).
The dry stony grasslands also support good numbers (and variety) of reptiles, which in turn support our only reptile-eating specialist - the Short-toed Eagle Circaetus gallicus. Around 10 pairs of this rare breeder are found in Slovenia, but mostly confined to the western part of the country, where optimal areas for it include all the extensive grasslands above the Karst edge. Some areas of grasslands are so optimal that they represent shared feeding territories for different pairs. One afternoon we observed three individuals together in the same area. The sunny and rather summer-like days of the recent week have "brought out" also many Honey Buzzards Pernis apivorus, a bird we now see even more often than Common Buzzards Buteo buteo, sometimes even in thermals of up to 6 individuals. Although we already mentioned some of the other typical birds of dry limestone grasslands in the previous post, we'd like to give special emphasis on this interesting community: the chorus of Skylarks Alauda arvensis, Woodlarks Lullula arborea, Quails Coturnix coturnix, Hoopoes Upupa epops, Corn Buntings Emberiza calandra, Cuckoos Cuculus canorus, Golden Orioles Oriolus oriolus, Red-backed Shrikes Lanius collurio, Turtle Doves Streptopelia turtur, Melodious Warblers Hippolais polyglotta, Nightingales Luscinia megarhynchos and Tawny Pipits Anthus campestris is really something not to be missed in June!
Short-toed Eagle Circaetus gallicus
Honey Buzzard Pernis apivorus
Skylark Alauda arvensis
Tawny Pipit Anthus campestris
Linnet Linaria cannabina
Greenfinch Chloris chloris
A young Fox Vulpes vulpes

Dalmatian Wall Lizard Podarcis melisellensis
Marbled White Melanargia galathea
Marsh Fritillary Euphydryas aurinia
Carniolan Vetch Astragalus carniolicus
Karst meadow mix: Dianthus sanguineus, Astragalus carniolicus, Rhinanthus sp., Galium mollugo, Salvia pratensis.
Dry limestone grassland with Scorzonera villosa.
Typical view on a karstic grassland with a Smoke Bush Cotinus coggygria bordering a dry stone wall.
From the Karst to Istria (with Salvia officinalis in the foreground).

Friday, 4 June 2021

Late spring in western Slovenia

For us, the end of May is certainly the best period of the whole year. Spring is really in full swing, warm temperatures make the stay outside finally pleasant, while wildlife is abundant and easily observable. Mount Nanos (1242 m), a geographical border between the sub-Mediterranean Primorska region and the continental part of Slovenia is a must in this season. In the last days of May we made our traditional ascent to this fantastic mountain, rich in a variety of wildlife, especially interesting plants. This year the vegetation season is quite late, especially in the mountains and many of the plants that we usually see on Nanos at the end of May, this year weren't out yet. For example the Ramsons Allium ursinum in the beech forest on Nanos' northern slope were not yet in bloom. Still, we enjoyed other species we don't see so often, including some rare or localised ones like Scopoli's Rockcress Arabis scopoliana, an endemic of the SE Alps and the Dinaric mountains, named after J.A. Scopoli. Among birds the highlights were two typical species of sunny rocky slopes: a male Rock Thrush Monticola saxatilis and several singing Rock Buntings Emberiza cia. Crag Martin Ptyonoprogne rupestris, Honey Buzzard Pernis apivorus and Tree Pipit Anthus trivialis were some of the other birds encountered. For a similar post with similar content (from spring 2020) see here.

Mount Nanos - the landmark of Primorska.
Limestone screes on Nanos' SW slopes, habitat for reptiles.
European Green Lizard Lacerta viridis
Alpine Mezereon Daphne alpina
Mossy Sandwort Moehringia muscosa
Thermophilous woodland on Nanos' SW slopes.
A clearing on the wooded limestone slope, revealing...
Illyrian Irises Iris illyrica in full bloom.
White Asphodel Asphodelus albus
Thermophilous mix: Peony Paeonia officinalis, Illyrian Iris Iris illyrica and White Asphodel Asphodelus albus.
Common Peony Paeonia officinalis
Grass-leaved Iris Iris graminea - loved (and pollinated) by ants.
Coming out of the woodland, just above the treeline.
A view over the hills bordering the Vipava valley and the Karst plateau (with the Adriatic in the distance).
Rock Bunting Emberiza cia feeding on grass' seeds.
Rock Bunting Emberiza cia

Rock Bunting's habitat.
Rock Thrush Monticola saxatilis
Silvery Broom Genista sericea
Dwarf Buckthorn Rhamnus pumila
Wood Treacle Mustard Erysimum sylvestre
Scopoli's Rockcress Arabis scopoliana - endemic of the SE Alps and Dinaric mountains.
A possible Bitter Milkwort Polygala amara
The slopes of Suhi vrh, in the NE part of the Nanos plateau.
South-western slopes of Nanos descending in the Vipava valley.
Fresh new beech leaves on the Nanos plateau.
Mt. Triglav (Slovenia's highest peak) visible to the N - looking still very much wintry.
Meadows on Nanos, looking west over the Karst plateau and the Adriatic sea.
Mountain Pasqueflower Pulsatilla montana - a very late bloom.
We found the perfect pic-nic spot.
Honey Buzzard Pernis apivorus
Mt. Snežnik in the distance, looking SE.
Beech Longhorn Beetle Morimus funereus on the path from Nanos.


Meanwhile, in the valley of the Nanoščica river, to the east of Nanos' plateau, wet meadows are in full bloom. The beginning of June is the best time to enjoy the spectacle of Siberian Irises Iris sibirica adorning the meadows in large blue patches, mixed with other wet-loving plants such as pink carpets of Ragged-robin Lychnis flos-cuculi, Early Marsh Orchids Dactylorhiza incarnata and the rarer Bog Orchids Anacamptis palustris. In Slovenia these meadows, supporting also other interesting wildlife such as Corncrake Crex crex, Barred Warbler Sylvia nisoria, Large Copper Lycaena dispar and Scarce Large Blue Phengaris teleius (to name just a few) are increasingly under pressure by agricultural intensification & conversion into farmland/intensive pastureland. Fortunately some biodiversity-rich areas are still to be found in the Nanoščica river basin.

Wet meadow with Siberian Iris Iris sibirica and the ridge of Suhi vrh (Nanos) in the background.
Siberian Iris Iris sibirica
Yellow Flag Iris pseudacorus
Early Marsh Orchid Dactylorhiza incarnata
Bog Orchid Anacamptis palustris
Ragged-robin Lychnis flos-cuculi
Summer Snowflake Leucojum aestivum
Hobby Falco subbuteo defending its nesting site from a Buzzard Buteo buteo

During our fieldwork on White-backed Woodpeckers Dendrocopos leucotos ssp. lilfordi on mount Snežnik (came across a fledged juvenile, while another pair was still feeding chicks), we regularly drove by the valley of the Pivka seasonal lakes. At the end of May, flocks of migrant Red-footed Falcons Falco vespertinus were easily seen, perched on wires, while we also regularly watched Barred Warblers Sylvia nisoria in song-flight. As mentioned in the previous post, here Red-backed Shrikes Lanius collurio are definitely the commonest species of bird!
White-backed Woodpecker Dendrocopos leucotos ssp. lilfordi, fledged female.
White-backed Woodpecker Dendrocopos leucotos ssp. lilfordi - male carrying food to the nest.
Red-footed Falcon Falco vespertinus in the Pivka valley with Mt. Snežnik as a backdrop.
Red-footed Falcon Falco vespertinus - young male.
Red-footed Falcon Falco vespertinus - female.
Barred Warbler Sylvia nisoria
Red-backed Shrike Lanius collurio
River Pivka with the Snežnik plateau in the distance.
River Pivka

Recent fieldwork also took us to the dry grasslands of the Karst edge, between Osp and Rakitovec. At this time of year the karstic flora of limestone grasslands is at its best, with nice stands of colourful Sage Salvia officinalis, buzzing with swarms of bees. In one of these stands we came across an exceptionally white-headed female Honey Buzzard Pernis apivorus perched on the ground, watching the bees with interest (Hymenopteras' larvae are the buzzard's main food). As we approached with the car, the buzzard changed perches a few times, but didn't go far, allowing excellent views. Later it was even joined by another Honey Buzzard, this time a male. We watched both for some minutes, before they took off. During our bird censuses we also recorded an Ortolan Bunting Emberiza hortulana, one of Slovenia's rarest breeding birds (6-10 singing males left in the whole of the country!), in an area where the species vanished some year ago. However the bird was fleeting and we didn't even manage to see it - it was probably just an unpaired male, moving around great distances and singing. In one of the several nest-boxes on small oaks in the open meadows we found a nest of Hoopoes Upupa epops, the parents already feeding their chicks. The grasslands were otherwise productive with all sorts of common breeding birds like Red-backed Shrike Lanius collurio, Corn Bunting Emberiza calandra, Skylark Alauda arvensis, Woodlark Lullula arborea, Quail Coturnix coturnix, Stonechat Saxicola torquatus, Melodious Warbler Hippolais polyglotta and even some introduced Northern Bobwhites Colinus virginianus. After a tragically cold spring for butterflies, some species seem to be doing well now, for example Black-veined Whites Aporia crataegi and Glanville Fritillaries Melitaea cinxia, both very common in the meadows at the moment.

(Wild) Sage Salvia officinalis
Honey Buzzard Pernis apivorus - female.
Honey Buzzard Pernis apivorus - male.
Hoopoe Upupa epops catching a Scolopendra for its chicks - bleugh!
Nest-box with Hoopoe's chicks inside.
Cuckoo Cuculus canorus
Glanville Fritillary Melitaea cinxia
Safflower Skipper Pyrgus carthami
Assman's Fritillary Melitaea britomartis
Black-veined White Aporia crataegi
Crab Spider (Thomisidae) waiting for a butterfly.
Slow-worm Anguis fragilis
Dry karstic grassland.
Two typical species of karstic grasslands: Stipa eriocaulis & Scorzorena villosa.
Dittany Dictamnus albus
Carniolan Vetch Astragalus carniolicus (with the type locality on Mt. Nanos).


In the few moments of free time we also went to check some breeding birds in our local patch, not far from where we live. Remember the nest of Eagle Owls Bubo bubo we found in the Karst back in March? Two months later and now there's a big chick in the nest, safely guarded by the vigilant female. The photos below were taken from a great distance, using a telescope and a smartphone camera. At the moment, some slightly older Eagle Owl chicks can be followed on the second live-cam on this link (although they're not always in the nest!). In a forest not far from home, we have been also following the breeding of Black Woodpecker Dryocopus martius, now for the 4th consecutive year. In the last days of May there were at least 3 visible chicks at the nest entrance, now probably already fledged. On the local front, also this year we had a Great Spotted Woodpecker Dendrocopos major nesting in the woodland behind the house (as we're fond of woodpeckers, even the commonest species makes us happy!), while at least two different Common Redstarts Phoenicurus phoenicurus wake us up every morning at dawn with their beautiful song - priceless!

Eagle Owl Bubo bubo - female on the nest with chick.
Black Woodpecker Dryocopus martius - female feeding one of the 3 juveniles.
Great Spotted Woodpecker Dendrocopos major - female carrying food.
Common Redstart Phoenicurus phoenicurus on the neighbour's roof.
Scopoli's Longhorn Beetle Cerambyx scopolii


We'll round up this post with some more leisure-orchid-botany content. On an interesting botanical visit to the Slovenian Istria in late May, we enjoyed in several of the typical orchids of this area, but also with the visit of a "weed field" - a wheat/barley field cultivated the old way, allowing also the growth of some rare species of almost-extinct agricultural weeds. Finally some interesting and rare species of grass, typical of the Mediterranean region. Check the pics below.

Adriatic Lizard Orchid Himantoglossum adriaticum
Pyramidal Orchid Anacamptis pyramidalis
Bug Orchid Anacamptis coriophora ssp. fragrans
Long-lipped Serapias Serapias vomeracea
Lax-flowered Orchid Anacamptis laxiflora
Bee Orchid Ophrys apifera
Late Spider Orchid Ophrys holosericea
Wheat/barley field in Istria.
Common Poppy Papaver rhoeas
Pheasant's-eye Adonis annua
Corn Crowfoot Ranunculus arvensis
Rough Corn Bedstraw Galium tricornutum
Corn Gromwell Buglossoides arvensis
Small Restharrow Ononis reclinata
Three-awn Goatgrass Aegilops neglecta
Ovate Goatgrass Aegilops geniculata
Delicate Hair-grass Aira elegantissima