Monday, 28 April 2008

Special Birds: Lesser Spotted Woodpecker

Europe's smallest woodpecker species is fairly common, in the right habitat, throughout the region. Lesser Spotted Woodpecker Dendrocopos minor is found in a wide range of broadleaved woodland types, including old forests, flood-plain woods and even parks and gardens, as long as there are good numbers of trees with dead snags. Being small it does not need the large boled trunks that some other woodpeckers need in which to locate their nesting holes. Often very slender trees are used as breeding and foraging sites, especially birches, alders and willows. The bird in the photo is a male: note the red crown. Females are totally pied, i.e. black and white with no red at all.

Monday, 21 April 2008

Destinations: Krka National Park, Croatia

The Krka National Park in Central Dalmatia (Croatia) lies along the scenic, often rushing Krka River. This is not an easy place to bird as access is limited to certain areas and "off the beaten track" exploration may mean finding yourself in an mine-field! Seriously, there are uncleared mined areas, some marked, some not, close to the park, so roads and clear tracks should not be left. Common birds include Yellow-legged Gull, Scops Owl, Cetti's and Subalpine Warblers, Spanish Sparrow, Blue Rock Thrush, Western Rock Nuthatch and Cirl and Corn Buntings. Pygmy Cormorants are increasing and with a little luck Rock Partridge and Rock Thrush can be seen. Raptors include Short-toed and Golden Eagles. The area lies just inland from Sibenik, an hour and a litle north of Split.

Saturday, 12 April 2008

Special birds: Greater White-fronted Goose

Large numbers (100s of 1000s) of Siberian race Greater White-fronted Geese Anser albifrons albifrons spend their winters in eastern Europe. They roost on large reservoirs, lakes and fish-ponds and feed in the large crop fields that dominate many lowland areas. Most arrive in mid-October and leave in March. Though some stay into April. Local conditions - temperatures, food supply, hunting pressures - dicate local concentrations. In many places they are the most abundant wintering goose and flocks are always worth checking carefully for other goose species.

Friday, 11 April 2008

Country Profile: Slovakia

Slovakia (Slovensko) is a Republic which joined the European Union in May 2004. The capital is Bratislava. The currency is the Koruna (SKK) the Slovak Crown. It is a small but long country stretching from its capital Bratislava on the Austrian border in the west to the Ukraine in the east. It is completely land-locked being bordered by Poland to the north, the Czech Republic to the west, Austria to the south-west, Hungary to the south and the Ukraine to the east. Slovakia is above all a mountainous country and a birding trip here should concentrate on upland and forest species. Indeed, some of the best forest birding in Europe is here. Many ranges are high, with vast forests and some places within them are distinctly wild with Lynx, Wolf and Brown Bear. Slovakia covers some 48,845 km² and is largely montane though there is a belt of lowlands in the south along the Danube and in the far east corner of the country. Not surprisingly there are some varied landscape as altitudes range from as low as 92m to 2655 m at the highest peak Gerlachovsky Stit in the High Tatras. Some upland landscapes, such as those in the Slovensky Raj, are stunning and very much picture-postcard stuff. There are impressive crags and gorges, sheer cliffs, steep forested ridges, stony scree, tarn-dotted boulder terrain, Alpine pastures and rushing stream valleys with rapids and waterfalls. In winter, these places are arguably even more impressive on the eye as they are blanketed in silent snow and waterfalls hang frozen in the air. Lower down, away from these rugged, higher elevations there are more bucolic landscapes with meadows, hay-fields and broadleaved woods dotted with quiet villages and old wooden churches. In the old-growth beech forests of the Vihorlatsk√© Vrchy and the Bukovsk√© vrchy trees lie and rot where they fall and the timber and rocks are covered in the green of lichen and moss. The rolling hills, stream valleys, gorges, juniper-dotted rocky plateaux and grassy meadow of karst regions like Slovensky kras are yet another picturesque landscape. Slovakia's importance to European bird populations mainly concerns its numerous hill and mountain ranges. Raptors are well represented with important populations of two threatened species, Red Kite and Eastern Imperial Eagle, a Lesser Spotted Eagle population of hundreds of pairs and some Saker. Corncrakes breed mainly in upland meadows and Great Bustards hang on in agricultural land in the Danube flood-plain. Some of Europe's rarest owls and woodpeckers inhabit Slovakia's vast forests in good numbers, especially when the size of the country is considered. Ural Owls breed in high numbers in good vole years, and a general increase and westward expansion of its range is apparent. Hazel Grouse are not uncommon in older forests. The Alpine habitat of the higher mountain ranges supports key populations of Golden Eagle and Wallcreeper

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

Special Birds: Spanish Sparrow

Male Spanish Sparrows Passer hispaniolensis are not that colourful but they are handsome birds with their bold black body streaking, black "burglar mask", white cheeks and rich chestnut caps. Females are very much like female House Sparrows. In fact, Spanish and House Sparrows will interbreed and so care should be taken before claiming a Spanish Sparrow away from its core range. They occur in the Balkans, particulary in eastern Romania and Bulgaria where they often nest in small colonies inside roadside White Stork nests. At the end of the breeding season they sometimes form large flocks in rural areas.

Monday, 7 April 2008

Country Profile: Romania

Romania is a Republic which joined the EU in 2007. The capital is Bucharest (Bucuresti). The currency is the New Leu (RON) plural Lei. Romania borders Bulgaria to the south, Serbia and Montenegro to the south-west, Hungary to the west, the Ukraine to the north and north-east, Moldova to the north-east and a Black Sea coastline of 225 km to the east. Romania covers some 237,500 km². Around a third of Romania is mountainous, a third rolling hills and the final third lowlands. The Carpathians dominate the heart of the country. There are some truely impressive upland areas here, blanketed in thick forests of spruce, fir, pine, beech, birch and rowen. The highest peak is Moldoveanu at 2544m in the Fagaras range. The Retezat Mountains have more than 20 peaks over 2000m. The high altitude landscape here is one of rugged crags, rocky scree, boulders and silent tarns. At lower elevations there are grazing pastures, meadows and limestone gorges. The wildness of the Transylvanian Alps is illustratred by the fact that its forests are the haunt of Brown Bear, Lynx and Wolf and its high peaks the home of Chamois and Alpine Marmot. Nestling in the Carpathians is the Central Transylvanian Basin, a largely rural landscape with meadows and pastures. To the east of the mountains is the Moldavian Plain and to the south the rather monotonous Walachian Plain. The flat arid region of Dobrudja lies between the Danube and the Black Sea coast from the Danube Delta in the north to (and beyond) the Bulgarian border in the south. This region is largely farmland, with some enormous crop fields, but remnants of steppe and oakwoods remain. The eastern edge of Dobrudja is formed by the 225 km long coastline of the Black Sea which its sandy beaches, dunes and large lagoons. Finally there is the Danube Delta, 82% of which lies in Romania (the remaining 18% is in the Ukraine). Romania is blessed with a number of bird species which are decidedly rare vagrants to most of the rest of Europe. Ruddy Shelduck, Black-winged Pratincole, Paddyfield Warbler and Isabelline and Pied Wheatears, though not common, are all birds that breed on the important coastal plain of Dobrudja. Europe's largest Lesser Grey Shrike population is also found here with around 40,000 pairs estimated, Rose-coloured Starlings nest most years. Levant Sparrowhawk inhabits wooded hilly areas. Romania has an important population of the threatened Dalmatian Pelican, the largest number of nesting White Pelicans in Europe (3500 pairs estimated) and the world's largest population of Pygmy Cormorant with over 7000 pairs. There is the core European population of Ferruginous Duck with 8000 pairs and in some winters almost the entire world population of Red-breasted Geese. The Danube Delta is home to a who's-who of birds which are threatened across their ranges and the importance of this incredible wetland for both breeding and migratory birds cannot be over stressed. The forests, meadows, pastures and gorges of Transylvania and the Carpathians are home to Wallcreeper, Eagle, Ural, Pygmy and Tengmalm's Owls, a range of raptors, Capercaillie, Hazel Grouse, Alpine Accentor, Ring Ouzel, Shore Lark, Alpine Swift, Crag Martin, Nutcracker, Crested Tit and all Europe's woodpeckers.

Saturday, 5 April 2008

Special Birds: Pied Wheatear

Pied Wheatear Oenanthe pleschanka is a summer visitor to the Black Sea coast of Romania and Bulgaria. Elsewhere in the region (and indeed in western Europe) it is only seen when on passage or as a rare vagrant. They breed on coastal cliffs, on rocky steppes, in gorges, on ruins and sometimes on buildings. Though the male in breeding plumage is essentially just black and white, it is a strikingly attractive wheatear. Females are easily confused with the females of Black-eared Wheatear.

Tuesday, 1 April 2008

Country Profile: Poland

Poland (Polska) is a Republic which joined the European Union in May 2004. The capital is Warsaw. The unit of currency is the Zloty (PLN). It borders on Germany to the west, the Czech Republic to the south-west, Slovakia to the south, Ukraine to the south-east, Belarussia to the east, Lithuania and Russia (Kaliningrad) to the north-east and the Baltic Sea to the north. Poland's Baltic Coastline is 491 km long. The country covers some 312,685km² and 91% of this is lowland, though there are mountains along the southern border with Slovakia such as Bieszczady and the Tatras. In the north is the Baltic Sea and its huge bays such as Zatoka Pomorska (Pomeranian Bay) and Zatoka Gdanska (Gdansk Bay), Szczecin Lagoon and the estuaries of the Odra and Wisla rivers. The coastline varies between beaches, sand-dunes, marshes and pinewoods. Inland is a landscape can that only be described as a lake district. The Mazuria region is composed of hundreds of river and canal linked lakes, most with peninsulas and islets, many with reedbeds and marshes and all set amongst mixed boreal forests. In the east and north-east are the marshes, bogs, meadows and wet forests along wild meandering rivers like the Narew and the Biebrza. The often flooded landscape is sprinkled with wooden barns, hay-stacks and tiny hamlets. In the very east along the border with Belarussia is the famous lowland virgin forest of Bialowieza and its old huge oaks, limes, hornbeams and spruces. Around Bialowieza are even larger managed conifer forests. In the heart of the country are lowlands like the Nizina Slaska (Silesian plain), Nizina Wielkopolska (Great Polish plain), Nizina Mazowiecka (Mazovian Plain) and Nizina Podlaska (Podlasian Plain). These areas are mainly covered in arable land, dotted with carp-ponds and reservoirs and crossed by large rivers like the Warta and Vistula basin. In the very south of Poland the landscape changes dramatically as here are the country's only high mountain ranges. In the east the Carpathians are mostly blanketed in coniferous forests but the higher elevations of the Tatras are more Alpine with meadows, pastures, silent tarns, rocky boulder-littered terrain and rugged peaks with permanent snow cover. The country's highest peak Rysy (2499 m) is here.
Four threatened species, Red Kite, White-tailed Eagle, Corncrake and Aquatic Warbler have crucial and healthy populations. Indeed, Red Kites are flourishing in several areas and the White-tailed Eagle population now stands at almost 500 pairs with more wintering. With 1000s of pairs of Corncrake Poland is a stronghold. Aquatic Warbler, too, is another species which has a key European breeding population. With 40,000 pairs Poland is a very important country for breeding White Storks. In fact, this figure amounts to some 25% of the world population. Around 40% of nests are on electricity poles in villages and these are often fitted with platforms to raise the nest and birds well above the live wires. Apart from these high profile birds Poland also has major populations of Black Stork, Honey Buzzard, Montagu's Harrier, Lesser Spotted Eagle, Common Crane and Black-tailed Godwit, to name just a few. There are some breeding Great Snipe and also a few pairs of Greater Spotted Eagle. The country's forests and uplands support good numbers of grouse, owls and woodpeckers.