Sunday, November 30, 2008

Fire Salamander - Vrsac Hills

I was just looking through some snapshots I took in Serbia recently and I found this one of a Fire Salamander Salamandra salamandra. It was crawling across a forest road in the Vrsac Hills (Vrsacki breg) as they often do just after a downpour. This is classic individual, black with bold yellow markings, which is typical for the Carpathians and its foothills. In some other parts of Europe these placids little creatures can be almost all yellow, more orange and sometimes striped rather than blotched.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Eastern European Bird Tours in 2009

I have been asked by some of you good folks out there to add Poland and Serbia to the destinations that I will guide on private tours next year. So here is the final list of budget birding tours for 2009.
HUNGARY 19 - 22 February, 2009. Winter Break: Geese, Raptors, Wallcreeper....
SLOVAKIA 22 - 28 March, 2009. Forests: Woodpeckers, Owls, Hazel Grouse....
HUNGARY 27 - 30 August, 2009. Birds & Butterflies: an easy wildlife break
BULGARIA 19 - 26 September, 2009. Black Sea Migration, Raptors and residents...
POLAND 2 - 8 November, 2009. Birds & Mammals in the Carpthians: tracking and trekking...
SERBIA 19 - 22 November, 2009. The World's Biggest Long-eared Owl roosts and more...
I hope there is something of interest to you here! Costs and detailed itineraries will be sent to those requesting them.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Lesser Mole Rats in Serbia

The Lesser Mole Rat Nanospalax leucodon is one of Europe's most mysterious mammals. It is not related to true moles. But this blind, subterranean animal is under threat. It is often regarded as an agricultural pest and its steppe and grassland habitat has for centuries been ploughed up and/or planted with forest. Today it is mainly restricted to lowlands in Hungary, Romania and Serbia. Once again, Eastern Europe is the stronghold of a rare European species. This photo (taken last week) shows a fresh earth-mound (with a mobile phone for size comparison) in the Subotica Sandlands, northern Serbia. These mounds, created when the mole rats throw up earth after digging their tunnels, can be 4 times bigger than mole-hills. Such mounds often run in lines but are also sometimes in clusters. A few days later we found many such mounds at Deliblato Sands a few hours to the south. It seems to be common in that area and indeed lowland Serbia may well be Europe's stronghold for this endangered species.

Monday, November 24, 2008

More about Serbia

I have lots to tell you about my recent trip to Serbia... One of the most impressive things that I noticed last week was the dedication and expertise of the local birders and conservationists that I met. Really good folks who made me very welcome and took me to some special wildlife habitats. Nothing was too much trouble for them. And some of them told me that they were very pleased to see me there as they felt that many "western" birders (and even conservation organisations) neglect or even ignore them. Nevertheless, there is lots going on, but funding is scarce and outside help often lacking. One exception was at the Lake Ludas reserve (Ludasko Jezero) near Subotica, where an EU funded cross-border cooperation between Serbia and Hungary is working well. There is a brand new visitor centre there and board-walks, information boards, nature trails and hides are being implemented so that visitors (local birders, foreign visitors and school children) can get closer to the masses of wetland species that breed or pass through the reserve.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Serbia's Long-eared Owl Roosts

I thought I had seen just about everything there was to see in the bird and birding world of Eastern Europe, but a few days ago I was shown something quite amazing. I was taken to several Long-eared Owl roosts in the Banat region of NE Serbia and it was unbelievable. Almost every village there seems to be home to wintering owls, which are packed into clumps of trees in parks, gardens, church yards and along high streets. One tree in a quiet village near the Romanian border held around 80 birds! The surrounding trees held between 10 to 50 each. There must have been about 300 owls in that street! Here are some facts: There are over 400 known Long-eared Owl roosts in northern Serbia. The average roost has 50 birds, many are 250 birds strong and some number over 400. Single trees average 25 birds. The roosts develop in October and numbers build up through the winter before the owls leave finally in March. All in all, northern Serbia is the world's most important wintering area for Long-eared Owls. It is a sight that all birders should see with great photographic opportunities, and I intend to organise a few trips there for this. The photo here is not the best, just a quick one taken on a small camera, but it does offers a snapshot of one of the owl-filled trees.

Friday, November 21, 2008

In Serbia

I am having a great time in Serbia. I have visited some superb sites and seen some very good birds. So far I have been to Lakes Palic, Ludas, and Rusanda, the huge wetland reserve of Carska Bara (3 White-tailed Eagles and 5000+ Greater White-fronted Geese here), seen 16 Great Bustards (a really rare bird here) near the Romanian border and been taken to several MASSIVE Long-eared Owl roosts (that is, over 100 birds in each... more on that later!). Today we explored the Vrsac Hills (but we got rained off). I am VERY impressed with the local birders I have met, they are totally devoted to protecting the special birds and wildlife habitats that Serbia has. I have promised myself that I am going to coorperate with and support these dedicated people in the coming months and years. More later...

Monday, November 17, 2008

Brown Bear: droppings

Yet another photo from our mammal tracking experience in Poland. This time, the fresh droppings of Brown Bear found in the Bieszczady Mountains. Note my size 44 (11 UK) boot for comparison. This dropping was rather pale and upon close inspection we found that it was full of seed and grain. The bear had obviously been feeding on grain put out by hunters nearby for Red Deer and Wild Boar. Bears that have fed upon berries and/or flesh are invariably darker than this.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Bison hair

When tracking bison in Poland last week we also came across another sign of their presence. The bison had rubbed themselves against this tree-stump (see photo) and left some tell-tale hair. The colour, texture and height of the hair on the stump clearly indicates that it was bison. Rubbing against tree stumps like this is probably a kind of comfort behaviour, done to ease an itch or remove ticks. We found a small herd soon after finding this sign.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Bison dung & hoof print

The European Bison (aka the Wisent) Bison bonasus is Europe's heaviest land mammal. It is a creature of old forests, not of grasslands, and despite its huge size (bulls can weigh up to 900kg and stand 2m high at the shoulder) can hide away with surprising ease. This was the case in the Bieszczasy forests in Poland recently where we tracked herds on two different days, finally getting good views of family parties before they thundered off into cover. We tracked them by following recent hoof prints (as in the photo with a biro for size-comparison) and finding fresh dung (photo with pine cone for size comparison).

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Wild Boar tracks

When searching for the tracks of Wolf in Poland we came across many other animal tracks. Here is a typical hoof print of a Wild Boar. Note first of all that this print is made by a cloven-hoofed mammal. Cloven-hoofed mammals have 4 toes: 2 cleaves (at the front) and 2 dew claws (at the rear). Unlike most deer, Wild Boar leave 4 clear imprints, as in this photo. This is because their gait (and the fact that their dew claws are located lower down on the leg that those of deer) results in the dew claws touching the ground. Hence, most Wild Boar leave dew claws imprints, whereas deer usually do not. Most deer leave just 2 slots (left by the cleaves). This hoof print was probably left by a young Wild Boar as the front two claw marks are pointed and narrow. Those of adult boars are broader and more rounded.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Wolf Tracks

In Poland recently we spent many hours tracking mammals. The photo here of a Wolf paw-print in wet mud was taken in the Bieszczady Mountains. Wolf prints are very similar to those of a large domestic dog, which is actually not surprising as the Wolves is itself a large dog! Key things to note are: long toe pads which are well spaced-out and splayed apart and long, pointed, pronounced claw marks. Though not shown here the track-line of a Wolf is also rather narrow, whereas most dogs walk in a more of a zig-zag. Location is also important: this photo was taken in a remote area where there are no pet or stray dogs but where there are packs of wolves.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Poland: Porcelain Fungus

The cap of this distinctive white fungus Oudemansiella mucida is semi-translucent and shiny as it is coated in a slimy substance. It usually grows on beech and often protrudes straight out of the tree-trunk, often fairly high up. This photo one was taken recently in the Bieszczady Mountains, SE Poland. Some say it is edible but others suggest it is not, so it may be wise to avoid it. Indeed, unless you are absolutely sure that a given fungi is edible, or with an expert on fungi ID, all mushrooms and toadstools should be left alone and certainly not eaten.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Poland: Fly Agaric

Walking in the forests of south-east Poland recently we came across a great range of fungi... mushrooms and toadstools of all shapes, sizes and colours. The Fly Agaric Amanita muscaria was one of the easiest to spot and identify. Many other fungi that we found remained unidentified and we left them alone as some would have no doubt been very poisonous. The Fly Agaric in this photo was found amongst birch trees, with which it always associates. It is an attractive toadstool but poisonous.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Poland: Tatras cable-car

In Poland recently we made several attempts to get to the higher peaks of the Tatra Mts by cable-car, but poor weather, with high winds, meant the car was cancelled for several days. Finally, on a clear, still day last week we were able to take the cable-car from Kuznice to just below Kasprowy Wierch (1987m). At the top we had superb views (see photo here) and soon saw several Chamois. The walk down to Kuznice was some 4 miles, at times often steep, but well worth it as we passed through the different vegetation zones and got a real overview of these spectacular mountains.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Back from Poland

Just got back from south-east Poland. I spent 2 weeks, mainly in the Bieszczady and Tatra Mountains with 2 groups of nature lovers from the UK. Birding highlights included White-tailed Eagle, Golden Eagle, Hazel Grouse, Ural Owl, Pygmy Owl, White-backed Woodpecker, Crested Tit, Great Grey Shrike and Nutcracker. Mammals included European Bison and Chamois and we found tracks and other signs of Brown Bear and Wolf. The old forests were full of wierd and wonderful fungi, too. I was unable to get on-line for most of the time and so neglected my blogs, but in the next few days I will add a range of notes and photos from the trip.