Saturday 19 February 2022

February waterbirds

Although the region of Notranjska in central Slovenia can be merciless in terms of winter weather (rigid temperatures and snow) and consequently in terms of wildlife variety, the intermittent lake of Cerknica (Cerkniško jezero) is a place that rarely disappoints. In January the lake has produced several interesting sightings of (the very elusive) Otters Lutra lutra (here & here), as well as Wolves Canis lupus (here), made by the Notranjska regional park staff and some locals. We didn't manage to visit the lake at all this winter and the last time we were there was in November, when large numbers of migrating Cranes Grus grus stopped to rest (blog). Now, at the time when the first returning Crane flocks are already migrating back to Europe, we visited the lake again in the company of Paul. And the weather was so sunny and warm that it already felt like spring! 
But first thing in the morning we stopped on the river Unica near the Planina cave, to enjoy the resident Dipper Cinclus cinclus which didn't disappoint.

Dipper Cinclus cinclus
At lake Cerknica the water levels have been dropping steadily for some weeks, due to absence of rainfalls. As a result the lake was mostly empty, but the few areas with remaining water were full of birds. There was a large flock of 77 Great Egrets Ardea alba in communal fishing, as well as a small flock of dabbling ducks, including Wigeon Mareca penelope (5), Pintail Anas acuta (5), Mallard Anas platyrhynchos, among which there was a female Goosander Mergus merganser, an unusual guest on the lake. In the area of deeper water we managed to locate the small flock of Goldeneye Bucephala clangula (7), containing also a pair of Smew Mergellus albellus. The latter is a particularly rare winter appearance in central and western Slovenia and Cerkniško jezero seems to be the only reliable spot to see them in the region. In the past weeks up to 4 birds were observed on the lake, but probably due to the low water levels, some might have moved elsewhere and only two remained. The two Smews were always pretty distant for photography, so Silvio Davison sent us his excellent pics from a few days before our visit (some even better pics here).
Great Egrets Ardea alba
Smew Mergellus albellus & Goldeneye Bucephala clangula
Smew Mergellus albellus by Silvio Davison.
Goldeneye Bucephala clangula by Silvio Davison.
But the day's highlight were not waterbirds. It was an adult White-tailed Eagle Haliaeetus albicilla, a rather common species on the lake (at least one pair visits the lake on a daily basis). However this time we managed to get incredibly good views of this quite shy animal, as we spotted it perched on the ice by the lake, from one of the forest roads.
White-tailed Eagle Haliaeetus albicilla
Apart from a male Marsh Harrier Circus aeruginosus, 3 Snipe Gallinago gallinago and a few other commoner waterbirds, there weren't many other notable birds on the lake - it's still Notranjska in winter after all! However the forest around the lake produced a pair of Grey-headed Woodpeckers Picus canus and in the warmest hours of the day we enjoyed the season's first Brimstones Gonepteryx rhamni (no less than 6), Large Tortoiseshell Nymphalis polychloros, as well as Carniolan Honey Bees Apis mellifera carnica pollinating the blooming Christmas Roses Helleborus niger.
The intermittent lake of Cerknica was almost completely dry.
View over the dry lake with mount Triglav in the distance.
Grey-headed Woodpecker Picus canus
Brimstone Gonepteryx rhamni
Carniolan Honey Bee Apis mellifera carnica on Christmas Rose Helleborus niger
Meanwhile on the coast, at Škocjanski zatok NR it has been rather quiet for most of the past two months. However in the recent two weeks some early signs of waterbird migration were visible. The freshwater wetland is now quite lively with large (for our standards) numbers of Wigeon Mareca penelope, Shoveler Spatula clypeata & Teal Anas crecca, while Gadwall Mareca strepera and the occasional diving ducks are represented in smaller numbers. On the 16th of February the first Spoonbill Platalea leucorodia of the season was a very welcome sight, while on the 18th a flock of 24 Lapwings Vanellus vanellus turned up in the wet meadows, alongside around 10 Curlew Numenius arquata and +20 Snipe Gallinago gallinago. Also two White-fronted Geese Anser albifrons have been present throughout winter. Other recent interesting sightings at the reserve included Shelduck Tadorna tadorna, Zitting Cisticola Cisticola juncidis (rare winter record), Goshwak Accipiter gentilis, Woodlark Lullula arborea (12) and the first flock of Cranes Grus grus on migration (35 on the 14th). Speaking of Cranes, a small flock passed also over our house on the evening of the 16th. Many more will be migrating through our country in the next weeks. More bird news from Škocjanski zatok NR on FB & the reserve's website.
Spoonbill Platalea leucorodia
Lapwing Vanellus vanellus
Lapwing Vanellus vanellus & Curlew Numenius arquata
Gadwall Mareca strepera
Wigeon Mareca penelope
Shoveler Spatula clypeata
Wildfowl mix at Škocjanski zatok.
Hawfinch Coccothraustes coccothraustes
Sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus