Thursday 29 July 2021

Dinaric dreams... of bears and beetles

Last weekend was super intense and all packed in a fantastic two-day adventure in the Dinaric mountains. As Sara had other work to do and didn't seem to like the proposed plan, I (Domen) was joined by two friends who were eager to search for the iconic Alpine Longhorn Beetle Rosalia alpina in the Dinaric forests of central Slovenia. As my two fellows didn't have a plan where to spend the night, we first decided to do a dusk-to-dawn wildlife watching session on the Snežnik plateau. In the evening we were strategically positioned on the edge of the forest, waiting for wildlife to emerge and feed, under a bright full moon. While driving to the spot we already encountered a magnificent Red Deer Cervus elaphus stag close to the road, so our morale was high and the evening seemed promising indeed. Soon after the sun set and still in good light conditions, our dreams came true very quickly: a mother Brown Bear Ursus arctos with cub emerged from the forest and walked through a meadow in full view! For the next half an hour or so we could watch the two bears (the young being 2021-born) wandering around the meadow and looking for food. The female was most probably a young mother, as this is usually the case with bears that wander out of the forest and show well before darkness. Young bears always try to avoid encounters with night-roving older bears (especially alpha males) that rely on darkness for safety. As the site looked incredibly promising, we waited there a considerable amount of time, even when darkness descended. We were hoping to watch some more animals on the meadows enlightened by the full moon's strong light. And of course our patience was rewarded. When the female bear with cub was still around, first a stag Red Deer and then a female appeared, although shortly. Later and rather suddendly, two large black shapes materialised in the moonlight - they were two new bears, certainly adults. The visibility was not very good, so we could only make out the bear's shapes. When the bears left it was then time for a group of Wild Boars Sus scrofa, another strictly nocturnal animal in these forests. Meanwhile it was also lively in the trees around us. We expected to see a Ural Owl hunting on the forest's edge, but in fact we observed 2 different Long-eared Owls Asio otus, certainly a quite rare species in this area (and on Snežnik's plateau in general). At last we also heard a singing Ural Owl Strix uralensis in the trees above our heads, but also two distant Tawny Owls Strix aluco. We were however quite surprised by the complete absence of Edible Dormice Glis glis and their quintessential squeaking noises.

Brown Bear Ursus arctos (last pic by Silvio Davison).
Red Deer Cervus elaphus by the road (by Silvio Davison).
Our spot for the night was a cosy little hill at the edge of the forest, where we wanted to scan the surrounding meadows first thing the next morning. When we woke up at dawn, deer were still out grazing on the meadows. We came across a loose group of 10 Red Deer Cervus elaphus grazing the rocky meadows, all nice males with large velvet antlers. At the very edge of the forest several Roe Deer Capreolus capreolus were around, including a female with two young. It was quite windy, so not ideal for any dawn chorus, although there was a Rock Bunting Emberiza cia singing nearby. Later as the sun rose and the its first rays hit the rocky slopes below us, raptors began to appear. Apart from good numbers of Common Buzzards Buteo buteo and Kestrels Falco tinnucnulus (probably all local birds with juveniles), we were surprised to see a Short-toed Eagle Circaetus gallicus hunting and successfully catching a small reptile (probably a lizard) at around 6.30 in the morning. It was a distinctive bird, with an extremely white plumage colouration and had literally no dark markings on the underparts. Sitting on a pine nearby was another Short-toed Eagle, probably its partner.
Wild night out.
Scanning the rocky meadows at dawn.
Red Deer Cervus elaphus
Roe Deer Capreolus capreolus
Rocky meadows on the edge of Snežnik's plateau.
Great Yellow Gentian Gentiana lutea subsp. symphyandra
Garlic Cress Peltaria alliacea
As the day wore on, we found ourselves driving through the extensive forest roads of the Snežnik & Javorniki mountains, in the direction of the Rakitna plateau. Along the gravel roads we frequently stopped to admire interesting forest butterflies, like the impressive Purple Emperor Apatura iris or the abundant White Admiral Limenitis camilla, two typical summer species of this habitat. Upon reaching the Rakitna plateau, an area of extensive Dinaric forests, but known for its many forest streams, we also spotted an individual of the rare Balkan Goldenring Cordulegaster heros, Slovenia's largest dragonfly, living in small untouched forest streams.
Purple Emperor Apatura iris (by Silvio Davison).
White Admiral Limenitis camilla
Brown Bear's droppings on a forest road.
Balkan Goldenring Cordulegaster heros
"Carniolan" Yellow Bellflower Campanula thyrsoides subsp. carniolica
Finally we reached an area of beech forest where we were supposed to look for the rare Alpine Longhorn Beetle Rosalia alpina (aka Rosalia Longicorn), an endangered Natura 2000 species of international conservation concern (see this post). These attractive beetles, sporting an amazing blue-grey colouring on the elytra (vaguely similar to the much commoner Morimus funereus) live in sunny beech forests, especially those on steep slopes. Like other forest specialists they depend on the presence of dead beech wood, where they lay the eggs. Trees affected by windfall, ice-storms or the like are particularly suitable places for the reproduction of Rosalia Longicorns. Even more attractive to them are freshly-cut beech trunks piled at the side of forest roads by lumberjacks. The smell of freshly-damaged wood is very attractive to the beetles that flock to these logs from far away (Rosalias are excellent fliers). After mating, the female beetles deposit the eggs inside dead wood, where the larva develops and emerges as imago (adult) after three years. The main conservation issue with this species in commercial forests is that the beetles deposit their eggs in log piles that are soon removed by the forestry and the broods are therefore destroyed. Still, checking such log piles in summer is an efficent method of finding the Alpine Longhorn Beetle. And that is exactly what we did. At first the area we worked didn't seem very promising as no log piles were found, but then we came across three large beech trunks stacked at the side of the road and... there it was - a marvellous Rosalia alpina! We then spent a good half an hour there, photographing the beetle, as well as checking the surroudings for any other potential Rosalias, but with no more luck. It was the only one we saw that day and needless to say we were truly overexcited!
Typical view of Rosalia alpina
Alpine Longhorn Beetle Rosalia alpina (last pic by Silvio Davison).
Rosalia addicts.
Wearing the perfect t-shirt for the occasion, as usual!

Friday 23 July 2021

The sunny side of the Alps

Back to the Alps for a two-day excursion, again in the beautiful Lower Bohinj Mountains (Triglav National Park), but this time further to the west in the Vogel area (old post here), ascending the mountains from Tolmin. The gorgeous alpine flora is still in full swing, from the mountain pastures at the forest edge, up to the rockiest parts around the highest summits. This year we are certainly making the most of alpine wildflowers! Regardless of the already full summer season, which is ornithologically very quiet, the alpine meadows are still full of birds. In the belt of alpine pastures around Planina Razor, as well as in the mountain pine stands, we came across noisy families of Red-backed Shrikes Lanius collurio, Rock Buntings Emberiza cia, Bullfinches Pyrrhula pyrrhula and a nice male Grey-headed Woodpecker Picus canus (feeding on ants at the base of the pines), while some other goodies followed higher up (we'll get to those later). As already mentioned before, this year is resulting excellent for herping. Even this time we had a close encounter with a rather fat and very cooperative Adder Vipera berus slowly crawling on the mountain path. The predominant butterflies in this belt were Arran Brown Erebia ligea and Chalkhill Blue Lysandra coridon, while higher up on the sub-alpine meadows just above the treeline we found many Blind Ringlets Erebia pharte, Alpine Heaths Coenonympha gardetta, as well as the interesting dark subalpinus variant of the Sooty Copper Lycaena tityrus and a Clouded Apollo Parnassius mnemosyne.

Thistle Carduus sp. on a pasture in the mountains above Tolmin.
Hairy Alpenrose Rhododendron hirsutum on Planina Razor.
Pair of Red-backed Shrikes Lanius collurio
Rock Bunting Emberiza cia
Arran Brown Erebia ligea
Cross Gentian Gentiana cruciata just coming into bloom.
Adder Vipera berus
Yellow-necked Mouse Apodemus flavicollis
Grey-headed Woodpecker Picus canus
Bullfinch Pyrrhula pyrrhula
Scheuchzer's Bellflower Campanula scheuchzeri
Sowbread Cyclamen purpurascens in a rather untypical habitat - limestone scree.
Wolf's-bane Aconitum lycoctonum
Alpine Aster Aster alpinus
Alpine Heath Coenonympha gardetta
Sooty Copper Lycaena tityrus subsp. subalpinus
No idea yet about this little, but striking moth...
Julian Lousewort Pedicularis elongata subsp. julica
Black Vanilla Orchid Nigritella (Gymnadenia) rhellicani
Alpine Leek Allium victorialis
Carniolan Lily Lilium carniolicum
Higher up, where the lush sub-alpine meadows meet the limestone screes we came across two typical birds that depend on this particular habitat, maintained open by the grazing of cattle and sheep. As we decided to spend the night up on the mountain ridge, in the evening we had the opportunity to listen to the song of two Rock Partridges Alectoris graeca, perhaps one of Slovenia's most difficult birds to see (and one of the most sought-after by visiting birders). The species is still locally common on alpine pastures of the Primorska region (those mountains in the Julian Alps facing south and west), but only where grazing is present, therefore it is increasingly endangered by land abandonment. In the Karst this bird used to be very common until the World Wars, but became almost extinct later, due to the overgrowing of open areas. The other species usually sharing the same habitat with the Rock Partridge is the Rock Thrush Monticola saxatilis. We were happy to see not only 1-2 juveniles, but also a stunning colourful male which allowed close views. The area was also shared by several noisy families of Wheatears Oenanthe oenanthe, the adults being busy with parental duties.
Rock Partridge habitat.
Rock Partridge Alectoris graeca
Rock Thrush Monticola saxatilis - male. the company of a juvenile Wheatear Oenanthe oenanthe.
Rock Thrush Monticola saxatilis
The altitudinal belt from around 1800 metres and above, supports an amazing rocky garden of alpine flowers, now all coming into bloom. Here we enjoyed this year's first Zois' (Crimped) Bellflowers Campanula zoysii, an endemic of the Southeastern Limestone Alps, with a restricted range between NE Italy, Austria and Slovenia, most abundantly found right here in the Julian Alps. Also for us to enjoy were such charismatic species as Pink Cinquefoil Potentilla nitida, Eastern Cinquefoil Potentilla clusiana, Edelweiss Leontopodium alpinum, Julian Columbine Aquilegia iulia (endemic to Slovenia) and Petkovšek's Poppy Papaver alpinum subsp. victoris (also endemic, only found in the Bohinj-Krn mountain range).
South-facing rocky slopes around mount Vogel.
Sternberg's Pink Dianthus sternbergii
Julian Columbine Aquilegia iulia (ex A. bertolonii)
Carinthian Mouse-ear Cerastium carinthiacum
Pink Cinquefoil Potentilla nitida
Edelweiss Leontopodium alpinum
Zois' Bellflower Campanula zoysii
Eastern Cinquefoil Potentilla clusiana
Petkovšek's Poppy Papaver alpinum subsp. victoris
Squarrose Saxifrage Saxifraga squarrosa
Stop at the little but comfortable bivouac above Planina Razor.
On the top of the ridge, dividing the regions of Primorska (south) and Gorenjska (north), breathtaking views opened in front our eyes as we could see most of the Julian Alps, with mount Triglav dominating the scene. Here we scanned for wildlife on the lush mountain pastures descending towards Bohinj (part of the lake was visible) and spotted a pair of Golden Eagles Aquila chrysaetos, calling loudly over the valley. One of the eagles even perched for a while on a grassy outcrop, not far from where we sat. We also heard several Marmots Marmota marmota (the eagles' favourite prey) whistling their typical alarm calls, while also present in this area were birds such as Ring Ouzel Turdus torquatus, Mistle Thrush Turdus viscivorus, Alpine Chough Pyrrhocorax graculus (flock of 35), Alpine Accentor Prunella collaris, Water Pipit Anthus spinoletta, Raven Corvus corax, Black Redstart Phoenicurus ochruros and Wheathear Oenanthe oenanthe (again families with juveniles). The rocky mountain ridge is also home to Ptarmigan Lagopus muta, here interestingly sharing almost the same habitat with the Rock Partridge. While the Partridges are dependant upon grazing and the presence of cattle/sheep, Ptarmigans are linked to the rockiest and highest parts of the mountains, with very little vegetation. The Lower Bohinj Mountains represent the Ptarmigan's southern edge of distribution in Slovenia, therefore the densities here are quite low if compared to those in the interior of the Julian Alps.
Mt. Rušnati vrh (1915 m), west of Vogel.
Golden Eagle Aquila chrysaetos
A look north towards Gorenjska - the central part of the Julian Alps with the Triglav mountain range.
Mt. Triglav (2864 m).
Lake Bohinj
Mt. Rodica to the east, along the Lower Bohinj Mountain chain.
Mt. Črna prst in the far distance at the eastern end of the chain.
Mt. Tolminski Migovec with Batognica and Vrh nad Peski behind.
Ring Ouzel Turdus torquatus - female.
Rock Thrush Monticola saxatilis - juvenile.
Young Wheatears Oenanthe oenanthe being fed by the male.
In the evening we were also treated by an interestng sighting we have already witnessed elsewhere in the Alps (more precisely on Breginjski Stol) - a Long-eared Owl Asio otus patrolling the alpine meadows around the very top of the ridge, in search of prey. As a predominantly lowland species in Slovenia, it is certainly odd to see a Long-eared Owl so high up in the mountains (at 1800 m a.s.l.). Moreover, the species is also a rare breeder in this part of Slovenia, so perhaps our sighting could involve some dispersing individual from the nearby lowland plains of Friuli, in NE Italy, where this owl is very common. The next morning at dawn, a nice group of Alpine Chamois Rupicapra rupicapra, as well as a barking male Roe Deer Capreolus capreolus and a Fox Vulpes vulpes came to say hello, before we started our descend to the valley.
First sun on the northern slopes of Rušnati vrh.
Alpine Chamois Rupicapra rupicapra
Alpine Chough Pyrrhocorax graculus
Sunset in the mountains above Tolmin.