During the first half of October I visited the peninsula of Istria, in Croatia, leading a Naturetrek group together with the knowledgeable Paul Tout. It was a rather special time to be there, having still the enthomological tail of summer, but also signs of migrations and beginning of winter concerning the birds.
I spent most of the week there around the North-western side of the peninsula, along the valley of Mirna river, also known in Italian with the name of “fiume Quieto”.
It’s a very flat valley, with just a minimum gradient, that use to be mainly coltivated in the past, but has been rather abandoned recently, with the leak of most of the Italian-speaking population after the end of Second World War (despite Istria is still officially bilingual, Croatian and Italian) and the lack of new investments by the central government of Croatia.
That’s why, expecially along the footslopes, but also often in the plain, it is now covered by dense deciduous forests of oaks, hornbeams and ashes: a true heaven for truffle hunters, but also for the wildlife, including 7 species of woodpeckers (Lesser Spotted, Middle Spotted, Great Spotted, Grey-headed, Green, Black and Wryneck).
Particularly dramatic were the limestone cliffs at the eastern end of the valley: a wonderful home for Eagle Owls, but also for Blue Rock-thrushes, Peregrine Falcons and Alpine Swifts.
As usual, when I lead groups, most of the time I wasn’t with my best lens, the Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 L IS USM II, but only with a very light and portable all-in lens, a Tamron 16-300mm f/3.5-6.3 Di II VC PZD Macro. That’s why you will notice often a low quality of pictures and few of them concerning birds, usually too quick or far for the 16-300mm.
With the sun that blessed most of the days, I found quite a few species of butterflies still around, despite if most of them were rather worn. Not only Red Admirals, Painted Ladies and Common Clouded Yellows, but also rarer species like Woodland Grayling (Hipparchia fagi), Reverdin’s Blue (Plebejus cf. argyrognomon) and Southern White Admiral (Limenitis reducta).
The commonest insects were however the Prayer Mantises (Mantis religiosa), with amazing densities in the dry grasslands.
An unforgettable scene has been that of a Mantis eating a Great Green Bush-cricket (Tettigonia viridissima) with almost the same size: it sounded happier than a kid with a huge ice-cream…
The few villages and towns of the area were settled on the top of hills: Istria use to be contested for centuries by the Venice Republic and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, so the dominant position and some powerful walls were the standard in order to defend the population from the raids of enemies.
One of them was the beautiful center of Motovun (“Montona” in Italian), with a prominent position above a lovely coltived countryside.
The old town center has maintained the typical Venetian architecture, with widespread St. Mark lions and frequent use of the local pale Istrian stone.
On the walls I spotted some stunning moths, probably attracted there by the night illumination of some historical buildings.
Another very nice walled village was Hum (“Colmo” in Italian), usually referred as the smallest “city of the World”.
The vegetation on the hilly landscapes, nearby the Mirna Valley, wasn’t particularly rich under a photographic perspective: most of the grass was dry and most of the flowers over, but there were still locally few interesting late blooms, including the elegant Autumn Lady’s-tresses (Spiranthes spiralis), the only orchid to flower in autumn, with its delicate “frozen” petals.
The rather mild temperatures (more than 20°C) and the sun helped some enthomological activity, so I observed a number of nice insects around the few patches of flowers. A lot of Red and Blue-winged Grasshoppers (Oedipoda spp.), but also the Egyptian Grasshopper (Anacridium aegyptium) and the attractive Schmidt’s Marbled Bush Cricket (Eupholidoptera schmidti), among grasshoppers…
…but also emerald shining Dor Beetles (Trypocopris vernalis)…
…a lot of Honey Bees and bumblebees…
…and many other strange creatures.
Under the bark of pines, instead, were particularly abundant the firebugs, looking for a sheltered place where spend the winter.
The heat wasn’t probably enough for a rich presence of reptiles: I observed only Dalmatian Algyroides (Algyroides nigropunctatus), Eastern Green Lizard (Lacerta viridis), Italian Wal Lizard (Podarcis siculus) and Western Whip Snake (Hierophis viridiflavus).
Even rarer the amphibians, with just two species observed, despite the frequent night downpours: Common Toad (Bufo bufo) and Marsh Frog (Pelophylax ridibundus).
North of Mirna Valley, lies the border between Croatia and Slovenia that has been recently “fortified” by an orrible wall of metal fences and barbed wires in order to keep the migrant people out of European Comunity.
For who, like me, has visited the extermination camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau, but also the walls that still divide the two sides of Cyprus, or Israel from Egypt and West Bank, well, the view of such an unbeliavable structure at the border of Western europe, the so considered civil Europe, was really an offence for the soul and reason for deep shame as European citizen.
The highest peak in Istria is the mount Učka, on the North-eastern corner of the peninsula, with an altitude of 1,396 m. The beech forests of the slopes host an healthy pack of Wolves, but also, occasionally, Brown Bears.
During my visit I noticed an abundant presence of migrants, with hundreds of Chaffinches all flying to North-west, but also some nice resident species like Crested Tit, Woodlark and Sparrowhawk.
But the best observation was, with no doubts, that of 7 Griffon Vultures (Gyps fulvus): the species breeds with maybe a hundred of pairs (108 in 2017, according to Kapelj & Modrić) on the near Kvarner islands, expecially on Cres/Cherso, but only occasionally wanders to Istria and very rarely offers such a gorgeous close view!
When I visited the Southern point of Istria, the Kamenjak National Park (“Capo Promontore” in Italian), the weather wasn’t so good like on mount Učka, but probably just because of the rain, the area was particularly rich in migrant birds: Kestrels, Lesser Kestrels, Marsh and Hen Harriers, thousands of Wood Pigeons, but also the last Pallid Swift of the year.
In the rich Mediterranean maquis, despite the rain, was spotted a lovely individual of Empusa fasciata, a graceful tiny mantis.
The National Park is not far from the ancient city of Pula (“Pola” in Italian) that hosts a wonderful Roman amphitheater.
Many times, when an hotel is settled in a rather wild area, the wildlife colonizes also the anthropic structures, being attracted by heat and light. During my week in Istria were spotted various moths, but also other funny inhabitants.
The western side of Mirna valley, by the mouth of the river, is rathern known among birders because some rare species of birds here reach their northern edge of distribution in the Balkans, including Eastern Olivaceous Warbler, Spanish Sparrow and Black-headed Bunting. Unfortunatelly those species are only present in summer, so the highlights of my the visit were a single Red Kite (Milvus milvus), a Marsh Harrier (Circus aeruginosus) and a couple of Great Grey Shrikes (Lanius excubitor).
The last area I visited in Istria was the small peninsula of Savudrija (“Salvore” in Italian): from the northern coast you can enjoy a stunning view into the gulf of Portorož/Portorose and the town of Piran/Pirano, both in Slovenia.
Once again the shore and the colour of the Croatian sea waters were particularly attractive.
If above the surface of water was plenty of Common Darters (Sympetrum striolatum), in the grass were particularly abundant some day-flying moths.
The birding was instead awarded with the view of a couple of Mediterranean Gulls (Ichthyaetus melanocephalus), among the commoner Yellow-legged and Black-headed, and of four Mediterranean Shags (Phalacrocorax aristotelis desmarestii).
A lovely end of my intense autumn week in Istria!