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Wild Slovenia - August 2015 (1 Viewer)

Paul Collins

Well-known member
Introduction

Charlie first mentioned the idea of a Slovenia trip to me in a warm pub in Arundel last winter. During one of our regular wanders around a bird reserve - on this occasion, the WWT reserve of the same name - he had seemed a bit preoccupied, making the walk much more bracing than usual. I had put it down to bad luck that he had just missed the water rail shooting out in front of the hide, and his eagerness to get to the pub down to hunger pangs; but even when we had demolished most of our sausages and mash, he still had a bothered air about him.

This description might sound unnecessary, fanciful and out of place in a trip report, but there was a lot of weight in that moment when he finally "unburdened" what was on his mind. A Big Trip, a phrase we had coined to describe a birdwatching trip somewhere outside of the UK, had been on the cards for 4 years. We have known each other for almost double that time. The occasion where we met - on a once-in-a-lifetime school trip to Alaska in 2009, an extraordinary place to start a friendship and birding partnership - is in some part to blame for our "Big Trip Travel Bug". 19 years old at the time, I had been birding for some years in Europe, and was very familiar with North American birds; and at 17, Charlie was just entering this hobby. To cut a potentially long story short, we have filled the past few years with many outings to England's well-known and lesser well-known bird reserves, honing our skills side by side. In that time, Charlie's birding ability has become so polished to the point that he regularly challenges me on my identifications, and his scientific knowledge far surpasses mine (as a photographer, I admit I take a more romantic approach to birding).

A routine had developed where we would visit our local parks or favourite reserves, and after 5 years we were beginning to yearn the different kind of excitement which overseas birding could offer us. However, by this point I was just leaving university, having done a post-grad degree, and was heading into the world of freelance film work where holiday would be unpredictable; and Charlie, starting a career as a teacher, had strict holiday time but which was often taken up with planning for the term ahead.

In the end, August was the only time we could both realistically do, and so in September 2014 we started planning for a Big Trip somewhere for the following August.

There were 3 main considerations in planning a Big Trip: diverse points of interest, budget, and time frame. We had discussed Finland and Estonia at length, particularly with regards to owls, woodland birds and mammals; Iceland for the sea birds, landscapes and whales; and Southern Spain, which we were already relatively familiar with from our own trips, for birds, reptiles and moths. We had previously discussed visiting another continent but for reasons too complicated to sum up here, we decided to postpone such a trip until after a European venture. The sticking point however was that none of these countries would be too satisfactory in August, and the heat of Southern Spain would prove unbearable and unproductive.

Come in Charlie's "random suggestion", to quote his first words on this topic: "On the surface Slovenia seems quite devoid of wildlife but if you dig deeper it's quite an undiscovered wildlife destination. Very much alpine and coastal habitats. It has an amazing array of butterflies and moths. It is one of the most diverse countries in Europe owing to its central position with openings in all directions. There would be lots of diverse wildlife there, plus it is a pretty small country, exactly the size of Wales, so we could thoroughly explore the whole country's wildlife without feeling like we've missed anything good which would be the case for other countries. We could look at wildlife in an in-depth way without rushing around on the hunt for new species all the time. Just a thought.”

How quickly a thought became eight months of intensive planning.

Once it was settled that we were going to Slovenia, Charlie's imagination was set on fire with ideas. The next few months was a rally of emails detailing everything from precise site coordinates for rare blue butterflies to learning the intricacies of Slovenian grammar. We weighed up the pros and cons of each subject and gave considered, sometimes mildly confrontational responses. There were a few sacrifices made at the last minute, but in hindsight the extra time we devoted to certain activities was worth it. It was terrific fun and our efforts obviously paid off as we found ourselves shortly in Ljubljana airport eight months later, raring to discover this jewel within Central Europe's crown.

I've held off for 7 months before writing this, as we've got another Big Trip in the works for this August. Remembering Slovenia the other day made me feel that it's about time that I get this report down - for me and Charlie, and for anyone who is considering a fabulous wildlife-watching trip in Slovenia.

So, as the Slovenians say, "Tukaj gre nič". (Or, here goes nothing!).
 

Paul Collins

Well-known member
Dates

Tuesday 4th August - Sunday 23rd August (20 days)

Planning

IDENTIFICATION GUIDES

These are by far the best ID guides available on the European animal families.

"Collins Bird Guide: The Birds of Britain and Europe" (2nd Edition) - Lars Svensonn & Killian Mullarney
"Butterflies of Europe: A Photographic Guide" - Hannu Aarnio & Kimmo Saarinen
"Concise Guide to the Moths of Great Britain and Ireland" - Martin Townsend & Paul Waring (I didn't have a European guide)
"New Holland Guide to the Reptiles and Amphibians of Europe" - Axel Kwet

FIELD GUIDES

We employed two guides, one birdwatcher (Tomaz Jagar) and one herpetologist (Tomas Remzgar) , to show us around. Tomaz Jagar showed us elusive birds in tricky and undisclosed sites. It was a pleasure having someone our own age showing us his local birding patches. Tomaz Remzgar meanwhile opened our eyes to a world of cold-blooded fauna that we have little experience with in the UK. Without him we would not have seen any of the herps on our list, and in spite of the hot dry weather he went out of his way to get us list additions and some of our most memorable wildlife experiences.

ACCOMMODATION

We stayed at a range of self-catered Air BnB chalet accommodations all over Slovenia, to get a more authentic experience of the country.

Smolnik farm cottage, Polhov Gradec
A modern apartment, Postojna centre
"The Retreat" alpine chalet, Livek
Miha Mlakar's bearwatching hides, Markovec
A rustic farmhouse, Plistovica

TRANSPORT

Flights direct to Ljubljana were made with Easyjet for £250 plus extra luggage. We kept a close eye on the rise and fall of prices, and booking a couple of months earlier may have saved us £100.

We hired the cheapest car available from Hertz at Ljubljana airport, for £200 for the full 20 days. Whilst our guides drove us for 8 of these days, it was far cheaper and more convenient to have a car for the whole period. There were a few situations when a hardier off-track 4x4 might have been better for less easily accessible sites, but in such cases it would have been possible to park and walk rather than risk taking the vehicle all the way.
 
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Paul Collins

Well-known member
Day 1 - Tuesday 4th August 2015 - Arrival in Ljubljana and Polhov Gradec

Arrival

Touch down!

The slam of our aircraft against the tarmac runway affirms that, after all these years, we are finally here. Outside my porthole window lies a verdent and alluring landscape of vineyards, hillside plantations and the distant majestic peaks of the Polhov Dolomites. Bursts of Slovenian are heard over the intercom, and Hooded Crows breeze along on thermals, a mixture of the foreign and the familiar.

We go to get our rental car from Hertz, Charlie dealing with the practicalities of signing forms whilst I wait with the luggage and start adding the first birds to our trip list - House Sparrow, Feral Pigeon, Magpie, Swallow. After a small hiccup regarding the deposit and a wrong turning out of the airport, we are on the road to Polhov Gradec. Ten minutes later, we enter a stretch of twisty forest road. It is early evening and the road ahead is empty. If the plane's touch down wasn't affirmation enough of our arrival in new lands, the tranquil openness of the zucchini fields ahead, cast in the sun's honeyed glow, takes us further and further away from England. Golden Bergers Clouded Yellow butterflies, a numerous butterfly which is our first new species, shimmer along the road verge. A second new species, a Long Tailed Blue, flits ahead with its wing-tails obvious even in flight.

Birds: + Hooded Crow (+ meaning numerous), 1 Kestrel, 1 Buzzard, + House Sparrow, + Feral Pigeon, 1 Magpie, + Swallow, 1 Wood Pigeon
Mammals: 1 Roe Deer
Butterflies: + BERGER'S CLOUDED YELLOW, 1 LONG-TAILED BLUE, + unidentified blue and white butterfly species

N.B. A key to the sightings. + means numerous sightings (e.g. + Hooded Crow). " means the animal was heard (e.g. " Tawny Owl). A lifer (i.e. a new species) is capitalised.

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Accommodation at Smolnik, Polhov Gradec

The sun is low by the time we reach Polhov Gradec, a village some 30km south in the foothills of the Polhograjski Dolomiti. We pass through the vertically-built village, stopping to stock up for provisionals like meat, cheese and pasta at the supermarket. I am tempted to buy some Slovenian red wine (my dad being a bit of a sommelier) but know that we'll get better quality in the west near the coast. We weave our way up windy roads. At the top there is the beautiful courtyard of an Adriatic villa, resplendent with a fountain and monkey puzzle trees.

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Our cottage in Smolnik is just 5 minutes further through the forest, on the top of a hill looking over mown meadows and woodland. To the right of the house is what looks like a small quarry - essentially a very tall pile of broken slate and chalk-stone - where we find some breeding Black Redstarts. This is a lifer for Charlie, so we spend a good half hour maximising our views of these before we even consider opening the front door and unpacking! And to the left is a crumbling farmhouse with out buildings where the owner and her son are happy to meet us and offer us some fresh eggs from their hens.

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Their sweet dog joins us on an exploratory walk. It sure seems to know the best places to take us, guiding down a forest track into a secluded field where Mediterranean Katydids and other grasshoppers leap about at our feet. We are treated to a brief glimpse of a Hungarian Glider butterfly living up to its name, gliding on elongated black and white wings into the canopy. In the late evening, there is not much bird-life to see, but the rich insect life makes up for this.

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After a simple home-cooked meal and anticipated discussion of the days ahead, we retreat to bed for what will be a very short night's sleep. A 4am start to any birding trip is customary for us now, but despite 7 years of doing it, it never gets easier! Somehow however, I don't think we'll be having any difficulty getting out of bed early tomorrow...

Birds: 7 Black Redstart, 1 Blackbird, " Tawny Owl (" meaning that it was heard)
Butterflies: 1 HUNGARIAN GLIDER, + unidentified blue species
Moths: 1 Clouded Buff, 1 plume species, + micro species
Insects: 5+ MEDITERRANEAN KATYDID, + Bush Cricket species
 
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Paul Collins

Well-known member
Day 2 - Wednesday 5th August - In Search of Bee-Eaters / The Stork Village / Krajinski Park

Drive to Mihalovec (4.10-6.25am)

No sooner had we arrived in Slovenia that we find ourselves heading 120km east to the Croatian border, to visit a site that is closer to Zagreb than it is to Ljubljana. After a quick shower and breakfast of apricot-filled croissant and strawberry juice (where I pick up my first new Slovenian word: "jagoda", meaning strawberry), we are on the dark gravel road to Mihalovec, in the south-eastern Novo Mesto region. This region is characterised by its zucchini and maize fields, which we had had a taste of the previous evening, fruit orchards and landscapes that are gently sloping and very restful on the eye. So much so that, like a lullaby, the constant view sends me to sleep, and I am awoken just before sunrise by Charlie, who is slowing to a stop. We are in Draževnik, a town just 20km from our house. I ask why the stop, and he points to a bumbling silhouette on the road which trundled into the grassy verge. We get out and approach carefully with our torches. The Hedgehog at our feet doesn't seem too bothered by our lights. We grab a couple of record iPhone photos, and only later speculate its ambiguous identity as a possible white-breasted hedgehog, whose range only just overlaps. The photos are not good enough to confirm one or the other, so the sighting is put down as a probable west european hedgehog (the one we see in the UK).

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Onwards to the 108 motorway, which takes us most of the way to Mihalovec, I drift in and out of sleep, Charlie guided by our SatNav. It's very handy having a SatNav which can take us even to the most specific and out-of-the-way locations. As Mihalovec is relatively well known among Slovenian birders for its bee-eater colony, which we were hoping to see, but the precise nesting location is rarely disclosed. Charlie had done well to get not only their exact location but also a list of the most recent sightings.

I spot a Little Owl beat across the grainy twilight sky, and as the sun rises from behind green hills, the sky swells with Buzzards and Kestrels.

Birds: 1 Little Owl, 7 Buzzard, 3 Kestrel, 20+ Hooded Crow, + House Sparrow
Mammals: 1 West European Hedgehog, 3 Common Shrew

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Mihalovec - Bee-Eaters (6:25-8:30am)

We arrive at Mihalovec. The dirt track is too bumpy to attempt in our little Avis, so we park and go by foot. The air is alive with bird song - or rather, the air carries the lofty call of birds perched atop the poplar trees. I know the song straight away, despite having only heard it twice before. The fluty whistle gives away a group of male Golden Orioles. They are splendid birds, perching openly among the leaves. The light is soft enough to pick them up with ease; any later in the day and their colours would be bleached the same colour as the poplar leaves, making them very difficult to find.

Several male birds fly back and forth between the poplars and the zucchini plants whilst we head down to the river bank. About 20 bee-eaters, a relatively low number, congregate along this stretch of the Sava River, but it is a long river and the birds nest along only one chink of its entire length. We listen hard, and Charlie thinks he can hear its distinctive "glüp glüp" call high above us. My ears are a bit blocked from the air-plane still, so less sensitive.

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We see a pair of Red Backed Shrikes perched in the open. Charlie takes an opportunity to digiscope the female bird on a wire, placing his phone against his new telescope.

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We carry on to the river. No bee-eaters here, although more Golden Orioles. They seem to be here by the bucket load, a surprise to see a bird I believed to be so elusive actually being relatively showy. It is still dawn though, and the heat of the day, sweaty as it is, is far from its peak. The river bank reveals a few Kingfishers, some actively feeding Common Sandpiper and some flyover Great White Egrets and Grey Herons. I remember how much more common herons and egrets are in this part of Europe, and it looks like there is a heronry on the other bank.

As we get to 8am, there is still no sign of these bee-eaters. We are particularly keen to see them, me especially. I last saw them in the Camargue in 1998 when I was 7, and my only memory of this sighting is a photo-frozen memory which becomes fainter and less accurate with each passing year. So this is essentially a new species for me, and a rather beautiful and significant European species to see. Charlie has only seen this species once in Tuscany. The air is quiet except for the call of a Hobby which is hunting dragonflies high over the river. Neither of us has heard this falcon's high-pitched cry before, so it is a nice behavioural experience for us. A Lesser Purple Emperor butterfly basking on the orange zucchini with sheening indigo and white wings is a happy tick for me.

After some more exploration of the zucchini fields, where we find peaceful Roe Deer and a Hare and typical birds of the arable land, we return to the car. Alas no bee-eaters, but Charlie has a second Ace among his cards.

Birds: "1 Hobby, "10 Golden Oriole, 1 Green Woodpecker, 1 Buzzard, "4 Jay, 3 Great White Egret, 5 Grey Heron, "2 Kingfisher, "2 Red Backed Shrike, 5+ Collared Dove, 1 Pheasant, "4 Common Sandpiper, 10+ Mallard
Mammals: 2 Roe Deer, 1 Hare
Butterflies: 1 LESSER PURPLE EMPEROR
 

Paul Collins

Well-known member
Day 2 cont. - Wednesday 5th August - In Search of Bee-Eaters / The Stork Village / Krajinski Park

Dobe, near Kostanjevica na Krki (9-10:30am)

En route to a second bee-eater site which Charlie assures me is more reliable, we pass through the hamlet of Dobe. This is one of many "Stork Villages" along the Sava River in the Novo Mesto, and we are quick to spot the first nest, a gigantic structure of tree branches, on top of a metal pylon structure. Two White Storks are at home, sitting down. We find a small gravel car-park further up the road, spotting more nests, some occupied, some not. Charlie unpacks his telescope and camera whilst I chase after blue butterflies. I have seen a short-Tailed Blue, which guides me to several more and a cluster of delicate Meleager's Blue.

Although I am not a lepidopterist, I realise that this trip is fast becoming a butterfly trip for me. I have my ID guide at the ready and get confident at IDing some of the blues around me. Further east in Slovenia, nearer the Croatian and Hungarian borders, blue butterflies in particular are incredibly difficult to ID, but here I am in safe territory with these two distinctive albeit unfamiliar species.

Charlie hears bee-eaters, so we venture down to the most obvious place for them, the river. It is an idyllic spot here, almost quaintly British, and many Banded Demoiselles glint metallically against the bokeh of the water surface with their fanning black-tipped wings. My favourite moth species, a Hummingbird Hawkmoth zooms around a buddleia bush, tiny beside some resting Emperor Dragonflies. All this activity has attracted the attention of a Hobby, a speck high up which is honing in.

The bee-eaters elude us and we return to our Dobe mission of seeing white storks. The first house we came across now has three storks on its nest, and we use our scopes and binoculars to get very close views. I am very familiar with this species in France and as one of my favourites, it makes me oddly nostalgic. The owner of the house comes out and starts chatting to us in broken English. On her lawn there is a placard about the storks nest, and she invites us inside to get a better view. She takes us to the top floor of her house into her bedroom - Charlie and I throw an amused glance at each other - and into an adjoining storage space with piles of books, old magazines and an upright piano. Outside the window, we have a perfect eye-level view of the storks on the nest. What an amazing view (and I think what a lovely place to have a piano!).

She goes to get us some refreshing water whilst we photograph the storks. There is one adult and two juveniles huddled together. The juveniles almost look like adults, although their bills are quite black and not the full scarlet colour of their mother's. Their wing feathers are still greyish and downy, but this is only obvious close up and they must have recently taken their first flight. To prove this, the youngsters flap about the edges of the nest, sometimes almost perilously, but mainly comically, as they struggle to keep balance whilst exercising their flight muscles.

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A few moments later, we have our cold water and the home-owner, whose name I can't remember, asks us about England and about the reason for our visit. We pick up a new Slovenian word, "ptica", meaning "bird". She leaves us to the storks, and a moment later the father flies in, bearing new nest material.

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The nest can't fit all of them at once, so there is some temporary raucous whilst they rearrange themselves.

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The father makes a swift dutiful exit for more branch material. I'm not sure why he needs to do this - if this is nest upkeep, or a courtship behaviour which he has continued even throughout the chicks' upbringing. It shows the affectionate behaviour of these birds, as with each visit the mother and father storks tilt their necks back and clack their bills vigorously. Even the youngsters sometimes join in.

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They are magnificent birds, but we better be on our way for these bee-eaters. The woman introduces us to her husband, a successful artist, who is busy at work on a new sculpture in their garden. We believe he wants to sell us some work as he takes us around his converted barn which he now uses as a gallery space, but apparently this is an icebreaker for the request that he has for us - to help him carry his new washing machine up the stairs into their house. Charlie hurriedly explains that we must be on our way, but I don't mind helping them out considering they so willingly let us into their home. Gently refusing the offer of vodka, we help them take the washing machine in. It takes the four of us to carry it in, and they celebrate by inviting us to lunch. It is a very kind gesture, but one we politely decline as we have much of Novo Mesto, not to mention the north-west region of Ptuj, to cover today.

We have a sneaky peek at the nests from a neighbouring field, and watch the father doing his gathering of branches. It's a good view from here with better sunlight, although not quite at the impressive elevated level.

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Charlie snaps me photographing the storks nest

Back to the car for a hasty drive up to Bizeljesko. We are kept laughing and amused by this stork village and washing machine adventure for the drive.

Birds: " Bee-Eater, 5 White Stork, 1 Hobby, "1 Buzzard, "2 Kingfisher, Mute Swan, Mallard
Butterflies: 5+ SHORT TAILED BLUE, + Berger's Clouded Yellow, + MELEAGER'S BLUE
Moths: 1 Hummingbird Hawkmoth
Insects: + Banded Demoiselle, 5+ Emperor Dragonfly
 
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Paul Collins

Well-known member
Day 2 cont. - Wednesday 5th August - In Search of Bee-Eaters / The Stork Village / Krajinski Park

Bizeljesko - Bee-Eaters (11am-1:30pm)

Bizeljesko is a quarry in the Kozjanski Park (Kozje), just a stone's throw from the Croatian border. There is a good chance that we will find bee-eater here; any later in the month, or even week, and they may be gone.

Unless our sense of direction gets in the way. On multiple occasions we head up the wrong track, and I can see that Charlie is starting to get exasperated. The midday heat is unbearable, belting upon our heads. I'm naturally tanned, having lived in Italy and France at various stages of my life, whilst Charlie, as is common for ginger-haired people, sunburns very easily. But even I am struggling in this heat, which is relentlessly nearing 38 degrees celsius.

And the worst part is that there is still no sign of these bee-eaters. We climb up a steep path past a vineyard dripping with white grapes, and I am reminded that we have not eaten or drunk anything since 4am this morning.

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I suggest to Charlie that we stop in the shade of a pine tree, but he suggests that we go on to the very top where we should get a view of the quarry. The smell of pine needles, a scent I usually find pleasant and nostalgic of past Mediterranean birding trips, is acrid and mildly irritating.

And then he hears too. And I hear them too. The bubbling whoops of Bee-Eaters in unison. And he sees them, and I now see them too. Like rainbow-coloured swifts, they glide around and around in their hunting ecstasy.

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Surprisingly brown at a distance, their plumage gains a loud complexity as we approach. The closer they fly to us, the more my past memory of them as a 7-year old fades, and this incredibly vivid present reality takes over. These technicoloured wonders swoop over, under and in between the trees, picking a huge number of insects (mainly bumblebees and dragonflies) from the air with amazing deftness.

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Charlie thinks we can get even closer, so we make our way back down to where we have parked. This is not the correct entrance to the quarry, so we walk along asking for directions. The little shade that cork trees offer is welcome. At the bottom of the hill, there is a little house. We knock on the door and an elderly woman opens it. We explain in a faltering mix of English and Slovenian that we are looking for the quarry - I remember the word "ptica" (bird) and drop it in. She stares at us silently and, in confusion, we thank her, as seems to be the customary awkward British reflex in such a situation, and go down to the car. The woman keeps watching resolutely, even when we are some considerable distance away. Like the washing machine incident, it is quite amusing but a little concerning how Slovenians are taking to us British birders!

We stop along the road at an open barn, where a man is busy at work soldering. Charlie repeats the word "Ptica" a few times, and it clicks with the man, who knows instantly what we are talking about. He gives us directions but, realising that we're a little stuck linguistically, hops on his motorbike and drives ahead, turning his head routinely to shout out directions and words of encouragement. We thank him extremely gratefully and commit to another sweaty climb up another dusty hill.

We make a few wrong turns, but this kind man stopped to watch us from the road and alert us to our mistakes with a shouted Slovenian equivalent of "Warm...Cold...Getting Warmer." Eventually, falling in a puddle of sweat, we collapsed on warm red sand, the quarry just ahead.

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Both Red and Blue-Winged Grasshoppers zip in and out of the sand and thorny bushes, displaying their buzzing electrically-charged wings as they jumped about. I enjoy these characterful insects for a brief while until Charlie spots the first few Bee-Eaters overhead. These ones are much lower than before. Between hunting dragonflies high up - I think these grasshoppers are safe where they are on the ground - they take turns to perch in the trees and eat. A Hobby and a Sparrowhawk take pickings lower down.

We see some eating bees, or emperor dragonflies, and one wolfs down a red admiral butterfly.

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Only a couple are entering the quarry nest holes. It looks like they will be leaving here very soon for Africa, so it's a good thing that we made bee-eaters a priority on our first day here. We have a very pleasant twenty minutes watching them, but the heat gets the better of us. Happy with our views and record shots, and unable to get much closer to the nest for fear of disturbing them, we return to our car, which by now must be a furnace.

Birds: "20+ Bee-Eater, 1 Hobby, 1 Sparrowhawk, "1 Buzzard, 1 Red Backed Shrike, + House Sparrow
Butterflies: 1 COMMON GLIDER
Insects: + Red Winged Grasshopper, + Blue Winged Grasshopper
 

Paul Collins

Well-known member
Day 2 cont. - Wednesday 5th August - In Search of Bee-Eaters / The Stork Village / Krajinski Park

Sedlarjevo, Sanlarjevo, Golobinjek and Čigonca

With bee-eaters now under our belts, we head to our third major site of the day, the Krajinski Park. This is going back north of Bizeljesko but back west into Slovenia into the Pohorje-Savinjska region, on the same longitude as the city of Maribor. This journey is not made without a few more opportune en route stop-offs at the stork villages in Sedlarjevo and Sanlarjevo, and at Čigonca which I'm fairly certain means "stork" in Slovenian (as cicogna means stork in Italian). The latter town is peppered with these nests, especially the village school and the main car park where every lamppost is occupied. But only a few White Storks are at home. Between Sanlarjevo and Golobinjek, I am pleased to see a male Honey Buzzard perched on a pylon.

Birds: 5 White Stork, 1 Honey Buzzard, 1 Marsh Tit, 2 House Martin, Buzzard, Kestrel
Butterflies: 1 probable Silver Washed Fritillary

Krajinski Park, in Racki Ribinika, near Rače, Požec (3:30-5:30pm)

Welcomed into a cool world of shady emerald forests, this already looks like a good decision. Relieved of our sweaty condition, we are able to enjoy some calm wetland birding. We will be able to add some good trip additions here and notable central European species, including a possible couple of new species for Charlie.

There is a tower hide which I attempt to climb, but at the top there are so many hornets that I agitatedly back down the rickety ladder and join Charlie by the lakeside. There are huge hornets and tree bumblebees everywhere - the latter are okay but noisy buzzers, and if there's one creature I really don't like it is the hornet. They are docile enough, so we scan the far side of the lake and the forest - lots of Moorhens and Coots, two minor additions to our list, but not much of interest. The sun is against us, so many birds are in shadow. But some careful searching on Charlie's part shows up a Ferruginous Duck - splendid! Just the second I've ever seen, and a first for Charlie. Ferruginous being a fancy word for iron-coloured, this drake has a truly rusty red plumage, and I can't believe that I've ever mistaken it with female tufted ducks in the past.

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A digiscoped shot which nevertheless shows how orange this bird is

There is also a Hoopoe which flaps over the forest, too quick that Charlie doesn't catch it. A few more Ferruginous Duck, 2 males and 2 females, materialise like specks of rust out of the black shadows of the far bank. Charlie entertains himself with good views of these whilst I check the lake on the other side of the path. There's little to add here other than Great Crested Grebe and a compact heronry of Grey Heron, Cormorant and 14 Great White Egret. There is a mother Garganey swimming along with two chicks, a good view. I listen for warblers but in this late afternoon heat there are none singing. A surprising lack of passerines here.

We rejoin our car and drive further into forest. We can see sections of lake and reed bed peaking out between the trees, and we are startled when a Purple Heron takes us just 10 feet away from us. It does a circle around the lake, taking up a few Great White Egrets in its broad flightpath.

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We reach a crossroad where options seem infinite. There are terrapin pools - no chance in this heat - and more lakes to explore, but time is slipping away from us and we still have a couple of places to cover today in the north.

Birds: 1 Purple Heron, 1 Hoopoe, 5 Ferruginous Duck, 1 Great Tit, Cormorant, 17 Great White Egret, Grey Heron, Coot, Moorhen, Mute Swan, 6 Garganey, 1 Little Grebe, 5+ Great Crested Grebe

Ptuj Jezero reservoir (6:30-6:45pm)

An ideal spot for Pygmy Cormorant, we find nothing on the bird front at this large reservoir except for a few Common Tern and Cormorant. The grassy slopes just below the reservoir offer me a few black-and-orange Assmann's Fritillary.

Birds: 3 Common Tern, Cormorant
Butterflies: 4 ASSMANN'S FRITILLARY

Drive to Murska Sobota

We have decided, for the start and end of our trip, to have a nice meal in a traditional restaurant. As we do not plan to visit the eastern part of the country later in the trip, we dine at one of its most well-known establishments in Murska Sobota. On reflection this is not the best idea as it is about 20km east of Maribor and therefore a considerable way off route from where we are and where we need to go back to. But it seems a shame to deny ourselves of a meal in the north-eastern Ptuj region, so we drive onwards (I sleep, and point out more and more White Stork nests- there are so many of them), with a soundtrack of Paul McCartney songs pushing us onwards to the restaurant.

We are the only diners at this restaurant, but that is not an indication of its quality but rather at how isolated it is. We have just come off a fly-over and entered a very sleepy village where a 4* hotel/restaurant seems very out of place. We take a table outside and both order the local specialty Ajdovi Rezanci, a dish made up of buckwheat reginette (a ribbon-shaped pasta) served with pumpkin oil, curd cheese and pancetta. It is a hearty if unrefined and beige-looking plate of food and, washed down with a local beer, is a very pleasant meal. It is getting dark, so we thank the waitress and make the long drive back to Polhov Gradec.

Birds: 1 White Wagtail, 9 White Stork, 4 Yellow Legged Gull

Polhov Gradec (1am)

We have covered most of the Eastern portion of the country, so we are knackered when we get back home. Fortunately Charlie and the SatNav know the way by heart, so I get to doze a little more.

At the cottage, a Tawny Owl is calling from the woods. As I get ready for bed and open my window to let a mosquito out, a green moth flies in which I capture in a glass before releasing it. It is an Orache Moth trachea atriplicis, an attractive moth with intricate green and black striped markings. I release it out the front door, in case the mosquito should come back, and my breath is taken away by what I see.

On the door, resting below the porch light, its huge wings spread out as big as my hand, is a Japanese Silk Moth! It's HUGE. The largest moth in the whole of Europe, even bigger than the Emperor Moth.

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I call Charlie, who is in bed, and he seems pretty impressed too. I won't pick it up although I am tempted to see just how heavy this moth is to hold, and also to test an experiment. The eye-shape on each wing is translucent - when a light shines through the black eye, it lights up, making it truly look like a firy eye.

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An exciting end to a brilliant day. And it's only Day 1! Lots planned for tomorrow.

Birds: " Tawny Owl
Moths: 1 ORACHE MOTH, 1 JAPANESE SILK MOTH
 

Paul Collins

Well-known member
Day 3 - Thursday 6th August - Crag Martins / Cerkniško Jezero / Alpine Swifts at Škocjan Caves

Drive to Unec (9am)

We catch up on sleep and leave at 9, getting our first glimpse of Polhov Gradec in broad daylight. The Adriatic villa at the top of the hill looks very out of place among the almost ski-village setting of this foothill hamlet.

Along the forest road which we took from the airport, we have a better view now of the stream, which our bird guide Tomaz Remzgar (who we are meeting tomorrow; author's note: I got the two names mixed up earlier!) says is good for Dippers. I see one from the car window, bobbing up and down on a rock.

Birds: 1 Dipper, 2 Kestrel, 4 Buzzard

Unec, near Cerknica - Crag Martins (9:45-11am)

Like with the bee-eater site at Mihalovec, Unec is a site that Charlie struggled to track down. The crag martins' nesting location is very precise, being underneath a flyover bridge just by the town of Unec. Even with the SatNav we manage a few wrong turns, and several times we drive over the bridge, glancing down when we should be looking up at it. When we eventually get to the foot of the flyover, something doesn't feel right. Being used to well-managed bird reserves and the birdwatching infrastructure in the UK, it feels a little odd standing in what seems like the least likely place to birdwatch. But there they are - sandy-brown Crag Martins swooping overhead and, with a little effort, we locate some nests right under the bridge. There are Swallows and House Martins too, but it's easy to pick the Crag Martins out in the sunshine, and their "tree sparrow" chirping call gives them away even at a distance.

As the morning pushes on, they come even closer, some very low overhead as they swoop back and forth to their nests. I point my camera at the edge of the bridge, in a rough line perpendicular to the nearest nest, and wait for martins to pass through which I can track. I fire off a few shots.

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It's turning out to be a very warm sunny morning and we are thankful that the bridge offers us shade. Charlie sets up his telescope on the nests and gets some good digiscopes on full magnification.

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This is another lifer for Charlie, and I have only seen them a couple of times in Spain and Italy, but always in flight. This is the first one I've seen perched, and we enjoy fine views of the females at the nest. Like the bee-eaters, this is pretty late to still be on the nest, and if we were to leave this trip much later in the week, the martins might be gone. So we are making the most of early August to get birds that will likely be going soon, knowing that August can be an awkward transition time for birdwatching.

We are enjoying the leisured pace of this birdwatch, so Charlie keeps trying to better his digiscope images and views, whilst I am distracted by a chirruping noise in the bushes, and little greenish birds flying in a nearby garden. After much effort to get a good view, I finally see that it is a shy juvenile Greenfinch. I had hoped for a Serin, but take time to appreciate its striated plumage, and the youngster's call which is new to me.

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The Crag Martins offer good entertainment and with some luck, I am surprised to see one flying upside down with its head twisted around to grab an insect.

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We are both satisfied with these excellent views and make our way to the next site.

Birds: "20+ Crag Martin, Swallow, House Martin, "4 Greenfinch, 3 Buzzard, 1 Kestrel
 
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Paul Collins

Well-known member
Day 3 cont. - Thursday 6th August - Crag Martins / Cerkniško Jezero / Alpine Swifts at Škocjan Caves

Drive to Cerkniško Jezero (11am-12pm)

Of note on our drive, we just see a White Stork on a chimney nest in Martinjak, one of many stork villages in this area.

Birds: 1 White Stork

Cerkniško Jezero (12-1pm)

We are staying fairly central today, visiting a couple of sites just east of Postojna (or 40km direct south of Ljubljana). Cerkniško Jezero, or Lake Cerknica, does not live up to its name in summer time, when most of the water is dried up to reveal long-grass fields and reed beds. In the winter, it is a haven for rare wildfowl and even sea eagles. I don't realise this at the time, so when Charlie tells me to keep an eye out for it, I am mistakingly searching for a large lake. You can see who has done their research and who hasn't!

This is another of Charlie's target suggestions where we could see Baillon's Crake and Marsh Warblers, although we both have very low expectations. It looks like an idyllic place to have a walk, with wide open meadows and a river meandering through. A footbridge into the reserve allows us to look down into the crystal clear water, and watch fish holding on to the current. Neither of us know a thing about fish, but a useful placard and my photos helped us to identify the beefy-looking Chub, the finely scaled Rudd with red fins and tail, and zebra-striped Perch.

Chub squalius cephalus 01.JPG
Common Rudd (Roach) scardinius eryhropsalmus 01.JPG
Perch perca fluviatilis 01.JPG

A few typical riverine birds are around such as an approachable Grey Wagtail and a less approachable Kingfisher.

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The watery meadows are not at their best now, and will be getting more watery as autumn approaches. As a result there are few birds in this changing habitat other than some warblers clutching onto the heads of bulrushes.

Walking back the way we came, I almost walk right through the web of a Wasp Spider argiope bruennichi. It is a colourful arachnid common in these parts, with a vivid yellow and black patternation and large fangs, enough to put off any predator. I don't think they can do much harm to people though other than a nasty bite.

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There are lots of other micro-beasts which I failed to notice beforehand, such as Mediterranean Katydids. These are fast becoming one of my favourite insects of the trip, with their large leaf-shaped abdomens and quizzical expressions. I also find some Reverend Blue butterflies, another new species - I am clocking up butterfly species quickly.

We have our sandwich lunch by the stream, and now steady streams of cars carrying families are arriving, a mix of tourists, fishermen and cyclists. We hurry the last of our lunch and make a move, not wanting our birdwatching to get too caught up with the afternoon activities of these newcomers.

Birds: 1 Red Backed Shrike, "2 Reed Warbler, "1 Sedge Warbler, "2 Goldfinch, "1 Kingfisher, 1 Buzzard, 1 Grey Wagtail, 2 Grey Heron, Swallow
Butterflies: REVEREND BLUE
Insects etc: 2 Mediterranean Katydid, 1 WASP SPIDER, unidentified CRICKET species
Fish: + ROACH, + RUDD, + PERCH
 
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Paul Collins

Well-known member
Day 3 cont. - Thursday 6th August - Crag Martins / Cerkniško Jezero / Alpine Swifts at Škocjan Caves

Drive to Škocjan Caves (1:30-3pm)

In theory this should not be a long drive, but there is no quick route around Cerkniško Jezero so it is an hour and a half before we reach our final stop of the day. Not much is seen en route.

Birds: 1 Black Redstart, "6 Buzzard, 3 Kestrel

Škocjan Caves (3-5:30pm)

Driving from South-Eastern/Central Slovenia towards the Škocjan Caves, beyond Postojna, we are entering our 5th and penultimate region of Slovenia. In the last 24 hours we have covered huge distances, with most of the south-east and Pohorje-Savinjska well covered yesterday, straddling the Croatian border, plus a sliver of Ptuj; and then the overlap of central and south-eastern Slovenia today. We enter the Karst, and it is immediately obvious how different this is from where we have previously been. Gone are the zucchini and pumpkin fields of the east and the rolling verdent hills of the north. We are entering cave country, and at the heart of this cavernous kingdom sits the mightiest of all the caves, the Škocjan Caves.

Due to its exceptional significance, this huge Cretaceous cave and canyon system is a UNESCO world heritage site. Naturally it is a valuable ecosystem which supports highly specialised creatures from bats and cave spiders to the rare olm. It is most famous however for the Great Hall, a vast cathedral of stalactites, with the largest reaching 36 feet in height and 13 feet in width. This rocky inferno inspired Dante Alighieri's visions in the Divina Commedia and some of Slovenia's own leading poets and painters.

However these attractions are not the reason for our visit today, as tempting as all this sounds. We are here to observe Alpine Swift, which nest behind a huge waterfall at the heart of this parkland. At this time of day, as we discover when we arrive at the car-park, the place is still heaving with coach parties. I don't mind this so much but I agree with Charlie that large numbers of people put a dampener on any wildlife watching experience.

After stocking up on food, soft drinks, maps and postcards (the gift shop has a wonderful collection of wildlife postcards), we hurry through the throngs and cut across the cafe to the waymarked pathways. There is a route which will take us around the edge of the gorge, looking down the great Paradiso waterfall at the spring of the Reka River and the entrance of the Murmuring Cave.

It is a steady incline up a dusty path sided by tall pine trees. Forests which should have Crossbills or Crested Tits are quiet but for a single Chaffinch. An early morning walk around here might be more productive, and we fail to see any of the wildlife ambitiously listed on pathside placards such as Fire Salamander, Rock Bunting or Rock Thrush. We reach the first viewpoint, a platform which looks out over an incredible expanse of the gorge. It is a breathtaking view, with forest on one side and an immense sheer precipice dropping down below us. At the bottom we can make out the inky shape of a pool, presumably the source of the river. Across from us is the church of St Cantianius and Škocjan village. It seems fitting that this church should overlook the gorge and the Paradiso Falls, which tumble down into the inferno of the Great Hall.

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We have no luck scanning for Rock Bunting, and don't stand a chance finding either of the Eagle Owls which nest deep in the gorge's walls. Charlie however thinks he can see Hirundines down below, so we follow the path along a little further to the next viewpoint, and here our view opens out onto the Reka River and the Falls. The sound of crashing water resounds all around, and the rumbling force of the Falls shake the silence. It is an immersive sound which seems to drag us like a stony hand closer into the caves, even from way up here.

Charlie picks up some Alpine Swifts feeding against the pool. There is a bridge much further down which people are walking over. We ask a Spanish girl, who is sitting on the railing dangling her care-free legs over the drop, how we get down there. It looks like we cannot get down without a ticket to enter the caves; we only have a general admission. She confidently tells us that she is planning to wild-camp in the park and climb down at night, a plan I find doubtful. We are too late to get a tour ticket, so we plan to return here another day and settle with our current views, which are adequate. Charlie manages some good digiscopes of the swifts, and picks up some smaller Crag Martins which we almost overlook.

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It's a shame we can't get any closer today. Charlie is very keen to get better views than this - as it is a new species for him, he will not add a bird to his life list unless it is a very good view and he can see enough of its distinguishing features. I am happy to come back, particularly to try for bats in the caves, so we promise ourselves to fit it in later in the trip.

We head back to the car park, where we ironically get our best views of the Alpine Swifts flying over the visitors' centre. Funny how often that happens in birdwatching. It occurs to us that we could try looking from the St Cantianius side - it doesn't look too far to walk.

It is a short stony incline from the main road, with apple orchards on either side. Stone walls which should home lizards line the pathway, leading up to a little hilltop village with sand-coloured houses. The architecture is distinctive in Western Slovenia, with a clear Italian influence. The St Cantianius church is however not so ornate, and we cannot enter inside, but the surrounding piazza is quaint and worth a photo. The architecture in my opinion is more picturesque than that in the east, which typically was more modern and blockish.

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There is also an archaeological museum nearby where one of the staff gives us information about the various walks around Skocjan and the caves. The view from here is obscured by trees, and it is difficult to make out anything of the gorge. Slightly defeated, we make our way back down. The tourists are leaving and the park is closing. In this oppressive heat, nothing sounds nicer than a relaxed evening back at the cottage.

Birds: "20+ Alpine Swift, "20+ Crag Martin, Rock Dove, "2 Buzzard, "1 Chaffinch

Accommodation at Smolnik, Polhov Gradec (7-8pm)

Charlie and I have different plans - he goes back to the quarry to watch Black Redstart whilst I look for insects. The field opposite our cottage is in shade, so just a few straggling butterflies are seen which I can't get to close enough. Again I almost step on a Wasp Spider - I must be more careful, but it is surprising how well hidden they can be in the long grass, and resultantly its web is a buffet of flies and moths. Just as I delicately remove my tangled foot from its web and make my next step, I spring it up again, losing my balance momentarily, for I almost step on a caterpillar. It is a Swallowtail larvae, bright green with segments of black and orange bean-shaped spots along its side and back.

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I spend a very happy 30 minutes photographing it in the fading light, and bring out my macro flash to shine more light on its colours. I try photographing it against a black card and a white card background, the latter working quite well for monochrome images; but instinctively, the natural green background looks cleaner and more pleasing.

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Dinner is ready - pasta with a tomato and olive sauce, and some local cheese. We go to bed at 10pm, as we need to get up ridiculously early tomorrow for our first day of guiding with our bird guide Tomaz Remzgar. If these last two days have been action-packed, we can't wait to see what the next two days will bring.

Birds: 3 Black Redstart, "5+ Swallow
Butterflies: 1 Swallowtail (caterpillar), 2 unidentified blue species
Insects etc: 1 Wasp Spider
 
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Paul Collins

Well-known member
Day 4 - Friday 7th August - Birding with Tomaz Remzgar - Red-Breasted Flycatchers / Nutcrackers / The Medvedce Marshes / Pygmy Cormorants / Ormošte Lagoon / Crested Larks

Drive to Kamniška Bistrica (2:30-3am)

2am. My phone alarm pierces through my deep dreaming like a stake, its tinny tones cruel and mocking. Never in 10 years of birdwatching have I had such an early rise. Charlie is already up, and we monosyllabically drift pass each other on the landing. He robotically makes his sandwiches, and I grunt at the lack of inspiration in the fridge. We are sub-humans, and I seriously doubt our ability to spot our target bird, the Red Breasted Flycatcher, this morning.

We wait for Tomaz outside the house, and the finding of a Japanese Silk Moth on the door, probably the same from last night, gives me a pick-me-up shot of energy. At 2:45, a little later than expected, headlights rove through the trees, surely Tomaz's car. We shake hands blearily, smirking at the absurdity of this midnight meeting. There is little talking on the drive other than the exchange of pleasantries and the abrupt shout from someone of "BADGER!" as a Badger trundles quickly across in front of us.

Mammals: 1 Badger
Moths: 1 Japanese Silk Moth

Kamniška Bistrica (3-6am)

3am, and we are somewhere. I have no idea where; I might still be dreaming. It's barely light enough to see anything, and out of the shadowy night rise taller imposing shadows around us. With Tomaz's car headlights dimmed, my eyes take time to adjust to the contours of the forest. Everything is awash in black; there is not a single light around, not even the moon. I realise I haven't even seen Tomaz's face, a thought that amuses me more than it should at this hour.

The sky works its way along a spectrum of blue. It is only just light enough to make out each other's sitting shape in the car. Tomaz rummages in the boot for some sandwiches and apples, which we eat quietly but appreciatively.

Conversation is still sparse as we set off, the silence of the night running thick through the forest. Tomaz is intensely focussed, listening to the variations in the air.

MORE COMING SOON...

Birds: 1 Red Breasted Flycatcher, "1 Nuthatch, " Crossbill, "2+ Crested Tit, Blackbird, "3 Robin, 4 Wren, "1 Willow Warbler, "1 Great Spotted Woodpecker, Chaffinch, 1 Black Redstart
Mammals: 1 Roe Deer, 2 unidentified bat species (1 myotis, 1 probably pipistrellus)
 

Paul Collins

Well-known member
Thanks for the comments, and I apologise for the delay in writing this up. I forget how time consuming writing a report of this kind can be! Onwards.
 

Paul Collins

Well-known member
Day 4 cont. - Friday 7th August - Birding with Tomaz Remzgar - Red-Breasted Flycatchers / Nutcrackers / The Medvedce Marshes / Pygmy Cormorants / Ormošte Lagoon / Crested Larks

Kamniška Bistrica (3-6am)

3am, and we are somewhere. I have no idea where; I might still be dreaming. It's barely light enough to see anything, and out of the shadowy night rise taller imposing shadows around us. With Tomaz's car headlights dimmed, my eyes take time to adjust to the contours of the forest. Everything is awash in black; there is not a single light around, not even the moon. I realise I haven't even seen Tomaz's face, a thought that amuses me more than it should at this hour.

The sky works its way along a spectrum of blue. It is only just light enough to make out each other's sitting shape in the car. Tomaz rummages in the boot for some sandwiches and apples, which we eat quietly but appreciatively.

Conversation is still sparse as we set off, the silence of the night running thick through the forest. Tomaz is intensely focussed, listening to the variations in the air. Charlie and I have both been birding long enough to pick out arboreal birds such as Nuthatch and Common Crossbill by song, but Tomaz has an advantage in being specially attuned to the rhythms of this forest, his local patch. Aside from with Charlie, the only person with whom I regularly go birdwatching, I've rarely experienced birdwatching on someone else's patch, so it is a pleasure to be with someone who knows not only the songs of the woods but who can also detect the faintest movement, the subtlest alteration in the wood's mood. To quote the Paul McCartney CD we've been listening to day in and day out, there's "something in the way she moves" that makes local patch birdwatching such a fulfilling and returnable activity. And Tomaz clearly sees something in the wood's movements that we don't see, and I feel that, if we find Red Breasted Flycatcher, that it will be through his intuitions and deep-rooted understanding of this landscape.

Tomaz has something up his sleeve which I've been eyeing since we left the car. Stopping in what seems like a rather nondescript place to stop, no different from any other part of our route, he fiddles with dials on the unusual apparatus hanging over his shoulder. After a few adjustments, he produces a speaker from his backpack and, attaching it to the apparatus, points it up high towards the canopy. A button is clicked, and a moment later out comes a slurred rattle, almost mechanical, followed by a steady descent of precise staccato notes. To my ear it sounds like a muffled wren mixed with a fluty-sounding chiffchaff. It is, of course, a Red-Breasted Flycatcher, and Tomaz is trying to lure the real deal out of the leafy canopy. He's not having much luck, so we press on up the path.

We do however find a good lifer for Charlie, a pair of Crested Tits in typical pine tree habitat. They are high up but I think Charlie is satisfied with the view. He's a stickler for getting the best view possible when it comes to lifers, and we can clearly see the crests and distinguish their high-pitched agitated calls.

The next stopping place looks better for flycatcher. There is a lush overhang of leaves over the path, and a mix of deciduous trees like Oak and Maple. There are a few false alarms as we come across some moulting Robins, but the flycatcher wouldn't be this confiding. Funny that these are the first Robins we've seen in Slovenia. Tomaz sets up his sound apparatus and again the rattle pervades the woods. We carefully scan the overhang. Tomaz has had much luck at this spot, and it isn't long before I catch sight of something flying just behind Tomaz and Charlie. A flash of a white tail, with a blackish break in the middle. Few birds in the forest would have a tail like that, so I alert them to where it has landed, just out of sight. Tomaz cautiously introduces the playback. "There!" A buff flutter of wings. Tomaz has missed it, and so has Charlie. "There there there!" Hovering in and out, so difficult to see. And then a blush of bright orange and white through the leaves, hither and thither, restlessly dashing. Charlie catches a glimpse, Tomaz too. 100% Red Breasted Flycatcher, although I see Charlie's not satisfied enough to count it. Tomaz however looks pleased that we located it - August is a difficult time to find this species, let alone many easier forest birds.

Walking back the way we came, we hear another song which, although I know it straight away, Tomaz is surprisingly less familiar with. Or rather, he knows what it is, but he does a double-take and has to ask me for verification. Apparently Willow Warbler are incredibly rare in the forest and this is the first time he has heard one here, but there's no confusing its lovely melancholic trickling song. We see it fly across a glade, a fairly nondescript warbler at a distance, but a concrete confirmation for him.

To our next target - the Nutcracker.

Birds: 1 Red Breasted Flycatcher, "1 Nuthatch, " Crossbill, "2+ Crested Tit, Blackbird, "3 Robin, 4 Wren, "1 Willow Warbler, "1 Great Spotted Woodpecker, Chaffinch, 1 Black Redstart
Mammals: 1 Roe Deer, 2 unidentified bat species (1 myotis, 1 probably pipistrellus)
 

Paul Collins

Well-known member
Day 4 cont. - Friday 7th August - Birding with Tomaz Remzgar - Red-Breasted Flycatchers / Nutcrackers / The Medvedce Marshes / Pygmy Cormorants / Ormošte Lagoon / Crested Larks

Črnivec (7-10am)

The increasing heat is soporific and I predictably dip in and out of sleep, surprised once again when we arrive at our next stop, Črnivec Pass. I really am sorry for the absence of scenic photos here - to be honest, uninspired by the motorway which we had just pulled off, I definitely wasn't expecting on our approach to find a vista of red-roofed cottages, pine trees, snowy peaks and church spires, so had left my camera in the car. Tomaz is quick to spot a Sparrowhawk, quite an unusual find in the Pass, flying at a distance. Its flight path leads him to a Raven sitting in a field. Two birds which Charlie has always been keen to see, but this distant view like the flycatcher is a tease.

We are on a forested road looking down pine-tree covered slopes into the Pass. We have a fantastic vantage point up here, looking across miles of suitable habitat for spotted nutcracker and another elusive bird we are hoping to see, or at least here - the black woodpecker. It is August though, so not a good time for finding woodpeckers. I had the most unsatisfactory view of a great-spotted woodpecker this morning at Kamniška Bistrica, so am not expecting miracles.

We have a much higher chance with our main target, and Tomaz says he has seen nutcracker many times this past week. With high expectations we watch him set up his sound apparatus and scroll through his iPod for the correct track. Although it has been 7 years since I last heard one, hearing the harsh jaylike chatter feels like deja vu. And with jaylike curiosity, we are in big luck as a slaty-brown corvid flutters with surprising grace to perch on a nearby spruce tree. What a view. Picture-postcard: a Nutcracker on top of a spruce tree, exactly as my Collins Bird Guide shows it. We all couldn't be happier. Tomaz jogs down to the car, about 100m down the road, to get his telescope (Charlie has also left his), and I hesitate about getting the camera, but we both settle for the good view. Some might think that might be the wrong decision, and as the Nutcracker takes off, does a circuit flight over the forest, and then comes to perch barely 20 feet away, with the entire Črnivec Pass rolling out behind it, I do bite my lip and think "Damn, that's a nice photo right there", but if we had gone down to the car, Charlie and I would be missing this view. I know that it is hands down one of the best views of an elusive bird that I've had. Every diagnostic feature is on display: the speckled back scintillating like sunlight bokeh, the dagger-sharp raven-like beak, and the white vent which is obvious as it perches at a sharp horizontal angle along the spruce's top. There are lots of wordless gasps and airy laughs of disbelief from us both, and although it's a shame that Tomaz is oblivious to all this, we can't help but be pleased that we stayed put. We give him a few hollers, which finally catch his attention, but he's struggling with a dilemma of having too much gear to carry, and by the time he reaches us, the Nutcracker has flown off.

Energised and enthused, but taking a bit of time to collect ourselves and sort out gear and drinks, we continue into the forest. Something has made Tomaz doubtful about us seeing Black Woodpecker today, I'm not sure what but I trust his judgement of his local patch. This is an area which he regularly surveys as part of his monitoring work with the Slovenian Bird Watching and Conservation Society (DOPPS). It is a quiet walk through the forest, so we take this opportunity to find out more about Tomaz. When the DOPPS was founded in 1979, it had only 30 members and took a long time to establish itself. There is a lot of hunting across the country, and many species such as Bear, Wolf and even its national animal the Olm are feared. It is unfortunate that a country should choose a creature that has inspired generations of fear as its national animal, an amphibian of mythological status that very few get to see. Whilst many rare species now seem to have a secure future here, it has taken a lot of hard work on the part of DOPPS's 1000-strong volunteer base. Tomaz alone has done a lot on understanding the habitat requirements for corncrakes and their distribution around Ljubljana Moor and Marshes, and has conducted many censuses on the country's most notable reserve, the Iski Morost. More remarkable given that he is in a full time university degree and gets little time away from Ljubljana University.

We come out into a farm with timber cottages. A Black Redstart bobs up and down on the enclosing fence. The sunshine is exciting butterflies from the forest floor, mainly Speckled Wood, whose wing patterns remind me of the nutcracker, and 2 basking Cardinal Fritillaries.

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Tomaz's conversation is cut short as a White Admiral dances out in front of us, caught in a sun beam. We're both keeping eyes open for lesser emperors and poplar admiral, a species which is easiest to find early morning feeding on animal scat in the leaf litter. I think we've given up on black woodpecker, and frankly the informed conversation and occasional finds of butterflies and Crested Tits makes up for their absence.

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Birds: "1 (Spotted) Nutcracker, "4 Crested Tit, 1 Sparrowhawk, 1 Red Backed Shrike, 1 Raven
Butterflies: 2 White Admiral, 2 CARDINAL FRITILLARY, Speckled Wood
 

Paul Collins

Well-known member
Day 4 cont. - Friday 7th August - Birding with Tomaz Remzgar - Red-Breasted Flycatchers / Nutcrackers / The Medvedce Marshes / Pygmy Cormorants / Ormošte Lagoon / Crested Larks

Zadrževalnik Medvedce (12-1:30pm)

From mountain passes to lowland wetlands, we make the smooth transition from one ecosystem to another. Falling asleep yet again in the sultry heat of the car, waking up here among reeds feels like entering another country. I can see countless butterflies coursing back and forth over the reed-beds. Whilst I am a far keener ornithologist than lepidopterist, I remember that I have so far added 10 new species on this trip, and the prospect of adding more here in this marshland is irresistible. At this site, unlike this morning, we also don't have specific bird targets, so we take our time in approaching the reeds - not least because we find ourselves stepping over countless Common Froglets!

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Tomaz and Charlie both have their telescopes, so spend time setting up for a good scan of the vast lagoon. There's plenty to look at, but the high midday sun is placing a washy backlight on the ducks and waders. I have a little Opticron Mighty Midget telescope, an excellent cheap scope which I have often used handheld, but it doesn't have the same optical reach or stabilisation as theirs. The typical Mediterranean sight is of herons - largely Great White Egrets and Grey Herons by the dozen, although we are treated with a few fly-by Purple Herons and a juvenile Black Crowned Night Heron too. Definitely one of my favourite bird families, with their austere expressions, long pointed beaks and primitive flapping and squawking.

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There is a brief distraction as a Common Snipe rockets out of the reedbed in front of us, startling a little grey bird to the top of a brush thicket - a Lesser Whitethroat, a good find for late summer.

The big birds covered, we concentrate on the smaller water birds. A small island in the middle of the lagoon holds a gathering of Common Sandpiper but little else. Just lots of Coot scooting back and forth in the haze.

We're exposed here so the heat, like at Bizeljesko, is fierce. I drop down the side of the lagoon onto the sandy embankment, nearer the reeds where there are patches of shade. I'm getting restless staring at coots, and whilst Tomaz and Charlie scan the horizon which I can't scan, I slowly pass along the reeds watching the butterflies. I can't get over how many Swallowtails there are - a dozen or more in a single glance - and so many blue butterflies that I don't know where to start. I hone in on just one patch of reed, about a few metres square, and see how many species I can find. Painted Lady, Swallowtail, some orange ones I recognise as a copper species, more specifically Large Copper. A few Hummingbird Hawkmoths - such a charismatic fast-winged moth as it zooms from flower to flower. 1 blue species, and a brownish species, both unfamiliar, so I focus on these. The brown ones are easy to identify as Scotch Argus, but the blues cause more aggravation as you can only really tell them apart with a clear view of the underwing patternations. I get some photos, and compare with my field guide. The precise constellation of spots matches up with Chapman's Blue. Sigh of relief as I get one right.

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Charlie and Tomaz are ready to move on, having found no additions other than a male Marsh Harrier and some distant ducks which they want to check out. We head along the bank, me snapping off passing butterflies and getting a very lucky grabshot with my handheld 400mm of a Swallowtail.

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I love seeing the Hummingbird Hawkmoths, my favourite European moth species and one so evocative of hot summer days. I've rarely seen one at rest though, so I am surprised to see one feeding with its wings down at its sides.

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The eastern corner of the lagoon brings us closer to the ducks, a dark assortment of Tufted Ducks and Common Pochard, and there is a male Ferruginous Duck too. I think this is becoming one of Charlie's favourite birds of the trip because, like with the "fudge ducks" at Krajinski Park, he gives it a good long look. It's too distant for a good view with my scope, so I give my butterfly IDs some further testing in the shade.

They both soon succumb to the heat as well, so we agree to go back to the car for sandwiches now so that we can squeeze in an extra site. This sounds promising as, in addition to looking for Pygmy Cormorant and Crested Larks at our 2 next sites, we are adding a detour to Ormošte Lagoon where we could find rails/crakes and herons.

A wrong turning out of Medvedce takes us onto a gravel track. Tomaz knows how to get off it back onto the main road, but takes this accident as fortuitous as two brown birds skit across the road ahead. Although they ebb in and out of a mirage, they are clearly larks - Crested Larks - and they fly off as we edge closer.

Birds: 1 Ferruginous Duck, 3 Purple Heron, "1 Snipe, 1 Lesser Whitethroat, 1 Marsh Harrier, 1 Black Crowned Night Heron, 3 Black Headed Gull, 2 Crested Lark, 1 Meadow Pipit, 20+ Great White Egret, 15+ Grey Heron, "10+ Common Sandpiper, Mute Swan, Pochard, 4 Tufted Duck, Coot
Butterflies: 20+ Swallowtail, + SCOTCH ARGUS, + LARGE COPPER, + CHAPMAN'S BLUE, 5+ Painted Lady, unidentified blue sp., unidentified skipper sp.
Moths: 10+ Hummingbird Hawkmoth
Insects etc: unidentified dragonfly sp.
Amphibians: + Common Frog
 

Paul Collins

Well-known member
Day 4 cont. - Friday 7th August - Birding with Tomaz Remzgar - Red-Breasted Flycatchers / Nutcrackers / The Medvedce Marshes / Pygmy Cormorants / Ormošte Lagoon / Crested Larks

Ptuj Reservoir (2:10-2:30pm)

I obviously have a habit of falling asleep as soon as my seatbelt is fastened. When I wake up half an hour later feeling very refreshed, I wonder if we've left Medvedce yet. The surroundings look very similar - reedbeds, a quiet turn-off road with a single white cottage, a huge expanse of blue sky. But apparently I have slept through the drive and we have indeed arrived at our next site, the Ptuj Reservoir, just a little further east.

To give some brief geographical context, Kamniška Bistrica (the red-breasted flycatcher site) is about 25km north of Ljubljana, with Črnivec (the nutcracker site) about 10km further. Medvedce and Ptuj are 100km east of these sites, so on the same latitude as Maribor, which is the second largest city in Slovenia. Ptuj is equidistant between Maribor and our bee-eater site Bizeljesko, so there is a degree of familiarity in the landscape we were now seeing.

There is just one bird on our list here, the Pygmy Cormorant. This will be the first of several lifers I am personally expecting on the trip and, having seen almost all of Europe's herons and ally species, this will be a great sighting.

The reservoir is in the suburbs of Ptuj, so there is a busier feeling to the place with watersports enthusiasts on the edges of the reservoir and the sounds of the motorway. There is a tangle of fallen tree branches in the centre, being used as a cormorant day roost. We check every Cormorant and even every Coot in case there is a hunched Pygmy Cormorant among them. Photos of Pygmies can be deceptive and don't really show their diminutive size. But we are in luck, as what is clearly too small to be a Great Cormorant - but nevertheless a Cormorant it is - takes off from the water. We know it to be a Pygmy Cormorant and, as it's the only one in sight, I grab a shaky record shot. It has little wings and an interestingly curved beak, making it look like a baby bird rather than the adult of a bird species.

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Some of the dark hunched shapes on the fallen branches unravel themselves, and Tomaz happily cries out that there are 6 more Pygmy Cormorants which we had overlooked. It is obvious now but they had been so easy to overlook when their heads were tucked under their wings.

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With both Pygmy and Great Cormorants side by side, a sensible comparison can be made. In good light we can see the Pygmy is brown feathered, especially around the neck and head, whereas the Great is an oily black. The bill is grey, not yellow, and stubbier. Its tail also looks paddle-shaped, and sometimes fans out. But its size is the most striking difference, much closer to the Coot than the Great Cormorant.

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Charlie meanwhile has perfected his "fudge duck" radar and has found 2 Ferruginous Ducks, whilst Tomaz finds a lovely summer plumage Black Necked Grebe tucked among some Great Crested Grebes. With a Little Grebe popping up with almost adult chicks nearby, that makes 3 grebe species. Not bad for a 20 minute scan of a suburban reservoir.

Birds: 7 PYGMY CORMORANT, 1 Black Necked Grebe, 2 Ferruginous Duck, Great Crested Grebe, (Great) Cormorant, Mute Swan, 4 Little Grebe
 

Paul Collins

Well-known member
Day 4 cont. - Friday 7th August - Birding with Tomaz Remzgar - Red-Breasted Flycatchers / Nutcrackers / The Medvedce Marshes / Pygmy Cormorants / Ormošte Lagoon / Crested Larks

Ormošte Lagoon (3:10-3:50pm)

NB: My notes say Ormošte but it may be Ormoške, which would make sense as Ormoško Jezero ("jezero" meaning lake) and the town of Ormoška are in Ptuj.

Tomaz knows the guy who owns and manages this miniature reserve, so we get special privileged access today. The owner is driving around in a red tractor, wearing shades and sipping from a bottle of lemonade, going with the swing of a slow Friday afternoon. He has to move his other tractor so that we can park on the one sliver of gravel and not on the verge of a ditch, but Tomaz and him are old friends so the mood is amicable as he goes back and forth between tractors and looks for his misplaced keys for the reserve entrance gate. Turns out they are on the same keychain as his tractor ignition key. He chats with us in a pidgin "Slovenglish", but lapses back into Slovenian for bird names. Tomaz translates: Purple Heron, Red Backed Shrike, Common and Jack Snipe, Water Rail, Squacco Heron. The last bird stands out as one we should focus on, so we thank him and, remembering to take the reserve key, head away from the ramshackle farm where we've parked and into the reserve.

What I see of Ormoške I quickly warm to. It's open plan - we can see the whole reserve in a glance. Just two lagoons, each about the size of a football pitch, no bigger, filled with bulrushes and pockets of water. Most of it has now dried up though, as it has been a very dry summer. A path cuts between the two lagoons and runs around each side, creating an easy circuit that could be done in 20 minutes with no stops.

There are some fields on the outside of the reserve boundary where we spot a few grazing Water Buffalo. These are not wild, but I enjoy seeing them out here, even though Charlie says jokingly that captive animals are "not real". There are no signs of Cattle Egret, a species one would expect to see here, or of Yellow Wagtail or Pipits. But there are some Marsh Harriers and Lapwings wheeling around - apparently there haven't been that many lapwings here with the lack of moist land to feed in.

We take the central path through the lagoons, keeping our ears alert for warblers or the call of a crake. Every so often we come to a break in the bulrushes, practically a puddle of water, and on one we find a handsome Garganey. We are below the bulrush heads so we are reliant on birds being flushed or taking off, as our view doesn't penetrate the dense reedbed. Approaching a tall hedgerow which marks as a reserve border, we flush a Cuckoo, which lands in the same field as the buffalo.

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Digiscoping this bird, we almost miss a Sparrowhawk dash out of the same hedgerow in the opposite direction. Sparrowhawks are masters of surprise, appearing when we least expect them.

We're on slightly higher ground and can scan the tops of the bulrushes. We're lucky because a Purple Heron has been flying regularly around the lagoons these past few weeks and now we see it rise up from one and fall down into the other lagoon, batting back and forth as we make the return loop. Just as we think we see the tail-end of the heron come up again and are about to lose it, it reels back towards us and gives us a side-on view - no, this bird is smaller and white-winged - a Squacco Heron! As pale and as buffy as a barn owl, it gives a clean descending glide down, down, down, and spooks up the Purple Heron! which raucously complains and beats away on huge rakish wings. Meanwhile the Squacco Heron cowardly ducks down and we see no more of it, but the excitement has flushed 2 Snipe and a rather angry Lapwing. The tension diffuses and no sooner had the alarm been called that the reserve falls deathly silent and you wouldn't believe at all that there was a single bird, let alone a Slovenian rarity, among those bulrushes.

We relay our sightings to the reserve manager, who gives us each a refreshing lemonade in reward. Tomaz, remembering my earlier enthusiasm for butterflies, points me towards a Lesser Purple Emperor sunning by the car, a majestic species. With more time and at different times of year, Ormoške has the makings of a fine local patch.

Birds: 1 Squacco Heron, "2 Common Snipe, 1 Red Backed Shrike, 1 Purple Heron, 1 Cuckoo, 15+ Lapwing, 1 Garganey, 3 Marsh Harrier, 1 Sparrowhawk
Mammals: 3 Water Buffalo
Butterflies: 1 Lesser Purple Emperor
 

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