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Long-term (1989 to date) Italian resident, originally from UK, I'm an ex-teacher, passionate naturalist and environmentalist who works as a wildlife tour-guide and translator.

Monday, 28 March 2016


Day 1 - 9/3/2016 - Arrival at airport and travel to our hotel……

The planes (from Munich and Stansted) arrived at Trieste on time. For K. and Paul there was time to check the airport grounds and three species were added to the list, hen harrier (2), common buzzard and Eurasian kestrel, and soon we were off towards our hotel, Istarke Toplice in NW Croatia about 90 minutes away. Everything went smoothly along the coast and through Trieste and by 8:00 p.m. we were sitting in our restaurant and enjoying two magnificent home-made “fresh” fuži pastas, one with white truffles Tuber magnatum and the other with penny-buns Boletus edulis, the latter being extraordinarily abundant in Istria’s oakwoods in autumn 2015.

Day 2 - 10/3 - Around the hotel grounds and along the River Mirna to the coast

The grounds of the hotel and the immediate surroundings are excellent for birding and a walk before breakfast was in order. The extensive riverine oakwoods in front of the hotel rapidly produced calling great spotted, green and grey-headed woodpecker with distant views of hawfinches too. A detour up a rocky path for a singing rock bunting failed to yield a sighting of the bird but as we descended Paul recognised the cat-like call of a middle spotted woodpecker which gave frustratingly brief views, at which point it was time to return for breakfast. The enormous numbers of song thrushes in the local woods were in full voice.

After breakfast a tour of the area around the hotel was in order. A brief stop  at the large rock behind the hotel seemed to yield a wallcreeper, it was, after all, a bird climbing about on the rockface, flicking its wings, but it was not to be, just a blue rock thrush and the only red visible was Paul’s red face! After brief views of a Eurasian nuthatch and a calling short-toed treecreeper we encountered a territorial fight between three lesser spotted woodpeckers that included the strange, slow bat-like courtship flight that this species engages in at this time of year. Both green and grey-headed woodpeckers were heard but not seen and a hawfinch gave brief views and a small flock of  house martins already visiting the colony on the nearby aqueduct pump-house. 

Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui) basking in cool  sunshine
Making the climb up to the quarry yielded a singing male cirl bunting and, in a small suntrap with a willow bush or two in flower, several butterflies including at least four painted ladies, a couple of peacocks, a nettle-tree butterfly a clouded yellow and a brimstone together with a couple of violet carpenter bees, a wall lizard (but which species?) and a hummingbird hawkmoth which posed nicely on a rock - not something you usually see later in the year when it is warmer. Large numbers of migrant Lepidoptera had passed through Malta three days earlier and the painted ladies were probably the vanguard of a much wider invasion. Unfortunately, when we arrived up at the quarry there were no wallcreepers to be seen and we consoled ourselves with views of raven, rock dove and the first early spider orchids of the year.

Shelducks (Tadorna tadorna) are increasingly common
around the Northern Adriatic in recent years.
From the hotel we headed towards the mouth of the river Mirna – Quieto for lunch. The lagoon where it reaches the sea is protected and an Important Bird Area. The sea produced a few species including the only Mediterranean shag and black-necked grebes of the week but there were some interesting birds in the lagoon including shelduck, great white and little egrets, Mediterranean gulls and three ferruginous ducks, all males.

Heading back up the river the second of several great grey shrikes were seen. These are winter visitors and, after a brief respite for the local invertebrates will be replaced by numbers of red-backed shrikes in a few weeks. There had been no sign of the local corn buntings on the way down the river. These are very late nesters and were still in a large flock on the farmland and not yet holding territories. On the way towards the river mouth we’d had poor views of a male and female merlin. On the return the view of the male was splendid. Like the great grey shrikes these are scarce winter visitors to the area. 

Male Merlin (Falco colombarius) seen beside the road
In cold winters they often move on but this year four or five shrikes have remained in the Mirna valley throughout. Most of the other birds seen were common local residents including stonechats and black redstarts. Arriving back at the hotel at dusk there was little left to do but rest and wait for dinner – again a marvellous meal produced by Edi and Mirijan in the Trattoria Dolina – Istrian / Italian food and east European numbers of birds. What’s not to like, eh?

Day 3 - 11/3  - The caves of Škocjan,  the valley of the river Osp & Škocjanski Zatok

The River Reka before it tumbles into the Škocjan caves 
Our failure to hook up with wallcreeper at the hotel meant that it was imperative that we did so today caves at Škocjan near Divača in Slovenia. This was a splendid opportunity and one not usually accorded to the public on regular visits and we had an opportunity to visit one of the best sites for the species at the mouth of the caves. Arriving at 09:30 we were met by Karmen Peternelj, the park’s European projects’ officer who led us “in” the exit and down in a small funicular lift to where the river Reka (which later becomes the Timavo when it exits 40km away in Italy) tumbles into the cave system and begins its journey beneath the Karst.

Toothwort (Lathraea squamata)
Search as we might on the towering rock faces there was no trace of the wallcreeper and very few other birds, just a wren and a grey wagtail! There were compensations however. Even the help of the young eyes of Domen Stanič and Sara C. failed to find it, although the guides had seen the bird as recently as Monday, just 72 hours earlier. The river was extremely high and powerful and made for a great display and the woodland close to the circular walk had a magnificent spring flora on show, including Hacquetia epipactis, bear’s-ear primrose, maidenhair fern, hepatica, snowdrops in profusion, bulbous corydalis, toothwort, mezereon, spurge-laurel, wild garlic, nine-leaved bittercress, alpine squill, dogstooth violet, fragrant hellebore, wood and yellow anemones, lungwort and white-flowered spring crocus. Most years these species would have been in flower later but this year, as elsewhere in Europe, everything is very early.

After saying goodbye and thank you to Karmen we stopped for a coffee in the caves’ restaurant. We would have to go on to a second (third?) wallcreeper site, the most reliable one even if it required a bit of a climb! There would be a third (fourth?) fallback site that has a bird in late afternoon if we failed here! Making our way to the site on a rock face just behind Trieste we stopped for lunch in an olive grove before making our way up to the cliffs with a large cave-mouth at the base. The climb up was fairly demanding but everybody managed it and even before we had all arrived Domen’s young eyes had spotted the wallcreeper which performed well, if rather distantly (about 75m away). 

Wallcreeper (Tichodroma muraria) creeping on a wall
(Photo: Sara Cernich)
Still in winter plumage and hopping languidly across the rockface, it occasionally paused, immobile for a minute or two before setting off again, making the occasional short flight, showing off white-spotted vermillion wing feathers to perfection. On one occasion it flushed a fairly sizeable insect from the rockface and it proceeded to fly-catch, butterfly-like in the sunshine. High above it on a jutting branch sat one of the local peregrines, almost out of sight. As we set off back down towards the van Domen picked up the bird returning to the original rockface and most of group (those that were not already too far back down the path) were treated to a further ten minutes or so of its antics as it made its way towards the cave, before climbing up and out of sight. 

endemic sandwort (Moehringia tommasinii)
(Photo: Domen Stanič)
The birds weren’t the only thing to look at, there were flowers too including the endemic sandwort Moehringia tommasinii, the cliffs behind the hotel being another of only three sites for this incredibly rare plant. It is probably already extinct at a fourth site in Italy, perhaps as a result of damage by rock-climbers. There were also clumps of the strange yellow and white corydalis Pseudofumaria alba and spikes of the grape hyacinth Muscari botryoides.

Flushed with success and back at the van there was still time to stop off at the newly inaugurated visitor centre at the Škocjanski Zatok-Val Stagnon bird reserve, managed by DOPPS and the beneficiary of the Honeyguide Charitable Trust donation from this holiday. There were some birds to see, especially on the first pools, including wigeon, ruff, the only common snipe(s) of the holiday, pygmy cormorants and, particularly beautiful, a flock of about 25 great white egrets, most with the ‘aigrettes’ that were almost their downfall a century-and-a-half ago and in breeding plumage and some already with the red legs associated with breeding birds. Again there were house martins present and the very early March arrival now seems standard practice for these birds.

Heading back towards the hotel the final bird, apart from the great grey shrike on its usual tree and poor views of an uncooperative grey-headed woodpecker was a large female goshawk alongside the van. There has been an immature female present in the area in question all winter so it is unlikely to have been a breeding bird as youngsters are not tolerated within their territories by pairs and they are often forced to occupy more open and suboptimal habitats. All that was left after this was  a wash and brush-up and dinner.

Day 4 – 12/3 - Rakov Škocjan, Cerkniško Jezero & Senožeče

Day 4 dawned much colder and windier than yesterday, and the closure of the international road border crossing at Sočerga added considerably to the journey which was a shame. Woodpeckers hate wind and indeed, the woodpecker surveys by DOPPS are postponed if the days are not flat calm, so it was with some trepidation that we set off under leaden skiesfor Rakov Škocjan, a limestone gorge towards the Slovene interior.

Tkalca Jama or Weaver’s Cave was blocked
and the river had backed up
Arriving after about an hour, with little to show but a pair of woodlarks flying off the verge of the road, a male sparrowhawk with prey, our ‘usual’ great grey shrike and large flock of lapwings near Postonja, something interesting had happened. The river Rak from which the gorge takes its name, instead of a fast-flowing mountain stream with nesting dippers, tumbling into the Tkalca Jama or Weaver’s Cave, was a lake! Evidently all the rain had swept a mass of logs and debris into the cave, blocking it, as sometimes also happens at the Škocjan caves which famously backed up in 1966. Apart from a few common buzzards, a coal tit and a calling black woodpecker there were few birds to be had and we headed for the lake at Cerkniško Jezero

The lake was extremely high. Up to the level of the road in places, and any birds that there were (coots, great crested grebes, pochards, tufted ducks and a flock of five ferruginous ducks, were ‘diluted’ across about 30 square kilometres of shallow water. Arriving at the imaginatively named island of Otok (meaning ‘island’ in Slovene) we walked around a nice patch of mixed woodland dotted with clearings. Even though it was windy there were a few birds including nice views of marsh tit, goldcrest and, finally, a decent view of a grey-headed woodpecker, admirably photographed by Mike Kempton in spite of the very poor light conditions.

Grey-headed Woodpecker (Picus canus)
(Photo: ©Mike Kempton)
There was plenty of ground flora to admire too, similar in large part to that observed at the caves at Škocjan but at an earlier stage in the year and with much larger numbers of spring crocus and many, many Christmas rose Helleborus niger. The geography around the northern Adriatic is like a time machine. In woods close to the coast a species such as cornelian cherry or snowdrop may already be over when in cool, upland north-facing areas inland it hasn’t yet begun to flower. Moving away from the coast one has the strange experience of going ‘back in time’ through the spring or forward into autumn. Making our way back to the van a bullfinch was heard calling, a species that this far south in Europe occupies cool mixed woodlands, rarely appearing on the coast. At the van itself K. picked up on a crested tit which gave great views, together with a goldcrest.

Christmas rose (Helleborus niger)
Moving on, we saw the only greylag geese of the day, a pair. They remain inexplicably rare inland even if the feral Italian coastal population now numbers in the thousands. The causeway to Gorenje Jezero was still (just about) above water so no forest diversion was required. On the shallow, southern basin there were about 30 or so mute swans but little else. Continuing on around the lake, the only stop on the asphalt was for a suspiciously “wild” looking cat hunting in a meadow beside the road. Crouching as Paul neared, it sprinted off, the long thin tail and, especially, the white paws suggesting it was less than the genuine article! Wild cats are common around the lake and elsewhere in the Karst. So much so that there is little or no interbreeding with domestic ones, the unpaired females having plenty of choice of real wild tomcats – a situation that is certainly not the case in Scotland.

Passing through Martinjak, the white stork’s nest, familiar to "generations" of Honeyguiders, was still on its chimney-pot but has been dramatically trimmed and placed within a sort of weldmesh basket. The birds were not due to arrive for another fortnight. It had grown so large in recent years, even with an elder tree growing out of it, that it was threatening the roof of the building supporting it.

Finishing the loop around the lake, we began to cross the old flood plain or polje. There was a lot of bird activity in a cultivated field on our right and a cursory check revealed chaffinches and tree sparrows, a flock of about 40 linnets together with large numbers of starlings and a dozen or so fieldfares. Fieldfares are common breeders around the lake but unlike mistle thrushes (also seen) they do not defend winter territories and wander locally, mixing with members of the same species that arrive from further afield.

Further out onto the polje there were large numbers of great white egrets feeding on, what were to judge by the burrows, a considerable number of common voles Microtus arvalis, a species absent from UK (other than Orkney where it was probably introduced accidently during the Neolithic period) and which reaches extraordinary densities in C. Europe. As well as common buzzards there were also at least two hen harriers, a ringtail and a splendid adult male which gave excellent  views as it hunted a metre off the ground, head into a stiff breeze, pouncing at one point onto what proved to be a vole (or other small mammal). Nearing the bird in the bus it got up, flying a further 150 metres into the field to eat its meal in peace.

Dogstooth violets (Erythonium dens-canis)
Having circuited the lake in the strong wind, all that we could do at this point is visit a final woodpecker site in the hope of finding another middle spotted and black woodpecker but it was looking unlikely in the light of the strong bora, a geostrophic north-easterly that was blowing hard. Heading back down the motorway the lapwings and starlings were in a panic and the reason became clear with a passing peregrine falcon. Arriving at Senožeče the ground flora was splendid, with masses of lungwort, snowdrops, wood anemones, hepatica, Haquetia epipactis and especially large numbers of dogstooth violets, a rare species in the Karst where there is plenty of slightly-acidic soil overlying the limestone. We gave it our best shot, but it was not to be. There was too much wind and no woodpecker activity as we headed back towards the hotel, Our dispappointment being assuaged with another splendid meal in the restaurant, a notable absentee being the great grey shrike, no longer on its usual bush. Perhaps it had printed its boarding card made its way to the gate? An unfortunate Beech Marten (Martes foina) 
encountered on the road

Day 5 – Škocjanski Zatok, The Lake of Doberdò & Isola della Cona

An unfortunate Beech Marten (Martes foina)
encountered on the road
Day 5 dawned bright and (unfortunately) very breezy once again. An early morning walk did provide good views of hawfinches and a grey-headed woodpecker and well as very the entertaining sight of short-toed treecreepers diplaying on a tree-trunk right outside the hotel itself. Setting off at about 9:00 we were briefly delayed when we stopped to take a close look at a beautiful but unfortunate beech marten that had finished under a vehicle. 

At Škocjanski Zatok Paul presented the DOPPS representative, Borut Mozetič, with a donation from the Honeyguide Charitable Trust which will help DOPPS with their important research work into conserving Slovenia’s birds. Contributions such as these, while small compared with government and European funding, can be used quickly, effectively and without strings or bureaucracy, for example as mileage payments for the survey workers who took part in the woodpecker survey on March 20th, finding 8 calling middle spotted woodpeckers in the Karst, showing that the species has firmly established itself in the west of country in the last decade, having been historically confined to the east and south of the country last century.

Crossing back into Italy, we headed towards the Lake of Doberdò in a final but ultimately vain search for black woodpecker. Along the way the first barn swallows of the year crossed the road in front of the van. Again the wind was blowing hard and keeping all the woodpeckers out-of-sight and completely out-of-earshot. Cutting our losses we headed towards the nature reserve of Isola della Cona, a huge wetland reserve (2,200 hectares) at the mouth of River Isonzo. 

Gadwall (Anas strepera)
After lunch we made our way around the hides where there were plenty of wetland birds including pygmy cormorant and large numbers of waterfowl including greylag goose, mute swan, teal, wigeon, gadwall, shoveler and shelduck with the four day checklist reaching 100 species. At the main hide there were large numbers of summer plumage great cormorants sheltering on a gravel island, many of them with the white heads of the sinesis subspecies. The first arrivals from Africa were also visible at the reserve in the form of ruffs and black-tailed godwits that are traditionally the first trans-saharan migrants to arrive in spring in this part of the world. This trickle  will become a flood in the coming weeks. By now time was getting on and it was time to make our way to the airport about 15 minutes away for the various flights where we said our goodbyes, wrapping up a thoroughly pleasant and fruitful few days.

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