Monday 12 December 2022

Finding wildlife in the quietest season

In November and early December we reach the "low point" in wildlife activity and biodiversity in most of the areas away from the coast (and the wetlands). The cold season can be particularly depressing, due to unfavourable weather conditions and the (apparent) lack of wildlife. Despite this we still love to visit our usual circuits in the Karst and the Dinaric mountains (snow permitting), trying to find our favourite wildlife.

Surely the best excursion we had recently was a hike to mount Veliki Golak (1480 m a.s.l.) in the Trnovo forest (Trnovski gozd) in mid November. The general idea was to walk on the mountain through some nice sub-alpine beech forests within the Golaki-Smrekova draga forest reserve (unlogged forest). Bird wise our primary focus was White-backed Woodpecker, a rare breeding bird in this area, although a real possibility, given the extremely suitable habitat. The forest was almost totally silent (as is typical in this season), except for the occasional Jay Garrulus glandarius, Willow Tit Poecile montanus, Treecreeper Certhia familiaris or Siskins Spinus spinus & Bramblings Fringilla montifringilla flying overhead.

The impressive dolina of Smrekova draga in Trnovski gozd.
Conifer stand within a forest reserve, hit by bark beetles a few years ago.
Jay Garrulus glandarius

In the course of the day we must have seen something like ten species of birds at most, but nevertheless we were super satisfied! Why? Because on our way up the mountain, we came across a fantastic male White-backed Woodpecker Dendrocopos leucotos lilfordi. It was feeding on some large beech trees close to the path and its pecking gave it away. When we spotted it, we could watch it for a long time and enjoy unusually good views of this rare forest specialist.

White-backed Woodpecker Dendrocopos leucotos lilfordi finding & swallowing some large saproxilic larvae.
White-backed Woodpecker Dendrocopos leucotos lilfordi, Trnovski gozd.
Inspecting the habitat where we observed the woodpecker, we found many fresh feeding signs. So, before continuing our walk, we took some time to collect data on the trees where the woodpecker fed. This prolonged our hike for an hour or so, but at that point, our day was already done! It wasn't surprising to find the White-backed Woodpecker there, as the habitat looked absolutely perfect for it. The forest was on a slope that had been hit by an ice storm back in 2014 and contained a lot of dead timber. Moreover, every standing tree that remained up and alive after the storm, developed at least some dead snags, representing an excellent microhabitat for the feeding and nesting of White-backed Woodpecker. Because it lies within a forest reserve, this forest has not been salvage logged like most other beech forests in the region, affected by the same ice storm back in 2014. 
Anyway, after our data was collected, we proceded to the top of Veliki Golak and enjoyed beautiful views over the Julian Alps, covered in the first dusting of snow, as well as over the rest of western Slovenia and the Adriatic sea.
The beginning of White-backed Woodpecker's typical feeding signs.
White-backed Woodpecker's pecking signs on a fallen beech log.
Fresh de-barking sings of White-backed Woodpecker.
Habitat of White-backed Woodpecker - beech forest hit by an ice storm in 2014.
Dinaric beech forest in the Golaki mountain range, Trnovski gozd.
Tinder Fungus Fomes fomentarius, a common species on old beech trees.
Mountain beech forests on limestone "terraces" in Trnovski gozd.
Mountain Pine Pinus mugo shrubs on the top of Veliki Golak.
On Veliki Golak (1480 m a.s.l.); not much of a summit, but amazing 360° view!
Hairy Alpenrose Rhododendron hirsutum - one specimen in flower on top of Veliki Golak.
View from Veliki Golak towards the Julian Alps.
Triglav (2864 m a.s.l.), Slovenia's highest mountain.
Mt. Porezen in the Julian pre-Alps above Cerkno.
View towards the Trebuša valley & Julian Alps in the background.
The Sava valley in Gorenjska region was bathing in the fog.
Part of Trnovski gozd with the plains of Friuli & the Grado lagoon (Italy) in the distance.
A very distant view of mount Snežnik, in a SE direction from Veliki Golak.

For a slight change of activity, in late November we joined a field excursion for monitoring reintroduced Lynx Lynx lynx in the Gorenjska region (project LIFE Lynx). First we visited the site where some Lynx originating in the Carpathians were released into nature, then we set a trap for capturing an unmarked individual, then we visited an old denning site and finally we checked a camera trap on a Lynx's kill (the carrion of a Roe Deer). As the forest was covered in snow we also looked for Lynx footprints, but we only found those of Wildcat Felis silvestris and a possible scat of young Lynx. On the Sava Bohinjka river near Bohinj we also saw a Dipper Cinclus cinclus, while lake Bled held a small group of Goosanders Mergus merganser.
Mount Triglav (again) as seen from the area of Bohinj.
The lake of Bohinj lies covered with fog, while the Julian Alps bask in the sun.
Dipper Cinclus cinclus on the Sava Bohinjka river.
Trap for capturing Lynx.
Lynx's kill (Roe Deer), a few weeks old.
Tracks of Wildcat Felis silvestris
In the first half of November, clear skies with northeasterly winds meant good conditions for observing migrating Cranes Grus grus. In autumn these birds pass through Slovenia in large numbers, following a W-SW direction, mostly towards the Northern Adriatic wetlands in Italy and then continuing west over northern Italy, towards the Iberian peninsula. As usual, also this year several flocks passed above our home in the Karst, so we didn't have to go far to see them. First we had a large and noisy flock of 193 individuals circling above the house on the 13th of November, while 486 more passed overhead in smaller flocks on the 25th. On the 16th of November we also observed a small flock of 25 resting in the brackish lagoon at Škocjanski zatok Nature Reserve near Koper. Most Cranes only pass through Slovenia on migration and seldom stop to rest, unless the weather is unfavourable. The flock that landed at Škocjanski zatok stayed at the reserve for two days, because of rain and low clouds, before departing as soon as the skies cleared.
Cranes Grus grus circling & in formation over the Karst, heading towards Italy.
Flock of 25 Cranes Grus grus resting at Škocjanski zatok NR.

Late autumn and winter in the Karst are characterised by the strong & cold northeasterly wind called burja (bora in Italian). Birding in the wind is not so effective, especially not so in the forest, where we like to spend most of our time. Therefore we always need to find some sheltered places where we can at least take a walk. Stari Tabor is a nice hill (603 m a.s.l.) not far from where we live and a typical late-autumn destination, mostly sheltered by the wind, except for its very top. It has a beautiful panorama over most of the Karst and is an excellent spot for catching some migrating flocks of Cranes (on a good day). Several caves in the area add some karstological/geomorphological interest to the place - and by the way, there's no wind in caves either! Other times on windy days we also visit some river valleys in small limestone canyons that are also usually sheltered by the wind. But despite all our efforts, there's not much to see in terms of birds at this time of year in the Karst! Some of the most interesting species we observed locally in this season included Goshawk Accipiter gentilis, Black Woodpecker Dryocopus martius, Middle Spotted Woodpecker Leiopicus medius, Firecrest Regulus ignicapilla, Rock Bunting Emberiza cia, Woodlark Lullula arborea, Bullfinch Pyrrhula pyrrhula and the odd Woodcock Scolopax rusticola flying above the roads at dusk.
View from Stari Tabor eastwards over the Karst, with Mt. Nanos in the distance.
Karst plateau in the foreground with Trnovski gozd in the background.
Entrance to one of the numerous caves in the Karst around Sežana.
Inside the cave a mighty stalagmite sticks out from a "chimney".
The dry riverbed of the intermittent river Raša in the Karst.
Beech Fagus sylvatica in autumn colours, a month and a half later than in the Dinaric mountains.
A narrow section of the Raša river valley, carved in limestone.
Probable Red-belted Conk Fomitopsis pinicola on a Black Pine Pinus nigra log.
Autumn leaves of Acer obtusatum

In recent days an added value to the typical geomorphological features of the Karst is the hydrological factor. Abundant rainfalls from a few days ago have transformed the appearance of some places. Where until recently there was only rock, now there are lively streams. The intermittent river Raša has come to life again, after many months of complete drought. This river usually holds water only at times of prolonged or abundant rainfalls and comes to life only a few times a year. Nearby streams in the flysch hills at the edge of the Karst are also filled with water and are a joy to watch in this season, when wildlife is thin on the ground. However, even in this desperate season, we were able to find an animal that cheered us up. Fire Salamanders Salamandra salamandra are widespread amphibians in woodlands with streams, but are only to be found in rainy weather (or at night). Given the relatively mild temperatures of the last week (6-10 degrees C) and wet weather, we were able to observe up to four different salamanders in one morning. Salamanders usually rove around the wet leaf litter and are not very difficult to spot. However, because of the swift fall of temperatures over the weekend (with snow down to lowlands), most salamanders will be inactive by now and won't come out of their hibernation until tempertures rise again above 5 degrees C. We'll probably see them again in spring next year!
Kranjšek, one of the few karstic surface streams and an affluent of the Raša.
Fungi & ferns on rotting logs by the Kranjšek stream.
The intermittent river Raša is back to life.
Forest streams in the flysch hills at the edge of the Karst.
During abundant rainfalls flysch rock is full of water.
The tiny spring of the stream featured in the previous photos.
Spot the salamander...
Fire Salamander Salamandra salamandra
Residual autumn colours on beech Fagus sylvatica in December.
Only two days after encountering the salamanders we found ourselves roving the karstic forests in the season's first snow. Slovenia was hit by a cold front and it snowed not only in the mountains, but also lower down at elevations below 600 m. Therefore, on Monday 12th December, most of the Karst woke up to a white blanket. Taking a short afternoon stroll in the fresh snow proved to be an excellent decision. One hour and a half in the forest produced an exciting encounter with a Ural Owl Strix uralensis, which was given away by the nosiy screaming of a Jay. The owl was resting in a thick stand of Norway spruce and wasn't easy to spot at first, due to the shade in which it was sitting (a typical hiding strategy in Ural Owls). However, after the Jay pointed us the owl, we could watch it for 20 minutes or so. On the oaks above our heads, a soft pecking also revealed a Middle Spotted Woodpecker Leiopicus medius searching for food on the snow-covered branches, while a loose flock of Rock Buntings Emberia cia was also looking for food in an open section of the forest, at the edge of some meadows. Finally we were greeted by an unusual sight of a flock of 42 White-froted Geese Anser albifrons migrating overhead in the late afternoon - more will be arriving from Northern Europe to wetlands around the Adriatic in the coming weeks.
Ural Owl Strix uralensis in the snow, Karst.
Middle Spotted Woodpecker Leiopicus medius gleaning invertebrates from oak's bark.
The season's first snow graces the Karst!