Review of 2019

Common Whitethroat, Rači Potok, Košice, Slovakia, 21.4.2019

On the basis of the year list, it might seem that 2019 was something of a disappointing year; the 93 species spotted is the lowest figure since 2017. However, I think it is in fact the case that this has been my most rewarding year since I started birding. Quality rather than quantity is the real story of 2019 on the patch.

The biggest highlight for me personally was the evidence that water rails were breeding in Rači Potok. I had heard calls before, but had never seen a juvenile until July.

Water Rail, Košice, Slovakia, 21.7.2019

The water rails were also very visible in January on the coldest days. It became almost routine to see them, but I’m very conscious of how lucky I am to get any glimpse of these beautiful creatures.

The juvenile water rail was spotted hanging out with another of the year’s highlight, the group of at least four juvenile moorhens which were very fearless by the pond for most of the summer.

Moorhen & Dice Snake, Košice, Slovakia, 22.7.2019

Moorhens, Rači Potok, Košice, Slovakia, 6.7.2019

Moorhen, Rači Potok, Košice, Slovakia, 4.7.2019

When I saw moorhen juveniles in 2017, I had to crawl on hands and knees to get a glimpse of them. So why were they so visible this year? Quite simply, this year I took a different route to the pond; in the past I blundered out of the forest in the exact point where the moorhens were sunning themselves every morning this summer.

Another breeding highlight was the successful fledging of four penduline tits in June.

Penduline Tit, Košice, Slovakia, 30.6.2019

Penduline Tit, Košice, Slovakia, 30.6.2019

Penduline Tit nest, Košice, Slovakia, 5.5.2019

After the unsuccessful attempt in 2017, I didn’t expect to see this species again, but it was fantastic to see them nest in such a perfect, secluded location this time. The juveniles disappeared almost immediately, although some others arrived during migration later in the year.

Another exciting breeding confirmation was woodlark. I had thought woodlark were only on the patch on migration, so I was very surprised to disturb a pair on the open space above the mine in July and then to spot three newly fledged birds a week later.

Woodlark, Košice, Slovakia, 20.7.2019

Woodlark, Košice, Slovakia, 20.7.2019

And although I didn’t see any actual juveniles, a pair of crested tits were regularly seen taking food to their nest at the Popradská entrance to the patch in April.

Crested Tit, Rači Potok, Košice, Slovakia, 20.4.2019

Crested Tit, Rači Potok, Košice, Slovakia, 14.4.2019

And finally, confirmation of my favourite species, wryneck, also successfully breeding on the patch. Always such a stunning bird…

Wryneck, Košice, Slovakia, 17.7.2019

Wryneck, Košice, Slovakia, 17.7.2019

The sheer numbers of breeding birds this year is summed up in some of my favourite photos of the year; the juvenile nursery on the solar panel fence. Wryneck, willow warbler (a good year for these guys after last year’s decline), black redstart, collared flycatcher, common & lesser whitethroat, robin and great tit, all hanging out and playing together.

Košice, Slovakia, 10.7.2019

Košice, Slovakia, 10.7.2019

Košice, Slovakia, 10.7.2019

Košice, Slovakia, 10.7.2019

In terms of non-breeders, I was incredibly lucky to get close to a pair of quail in May.

Quail, Košice, Slovakia, 25.5.2019

Quail, Košice, Slovakia, 26.5.2019

There were also quite a few corn buntings on the meadow in spring, a bird which is a real pleasure to watch and listen to.

I am calling these birds non-breeders, but the truth is that were it not for the utterly stupid decision to mow the entire meadow in early June, I am sure that these two species would have bred on the patch this year. They were singing every morning when I visited until the day the meadow was cut.

A long-awaited species was spotted in June when I finally saw a barred warbler. I have a sneaking suspicion that the species might be actually be breeding, but I’ve yet to confirm it.

Barred Warbler, Košice, Slovakia, 26.5.2019

Marked as a non-breeder but likely to be a future breeder are the linnets who seem to have settled in the big field above the mine.

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A great find for me was a common redstart in April. It took a long time to get this shot.

Common Redstart, Rači Potok, Košice, Slovakia, 21.4.2019

Another first for the patch was this common crossbill which I initially mis-identified in July.

Common Crossbill, Rači Potok, Košice, Slovakia, 6.7.2019

I also got lucky with this Montagu’s harrier in April. Another amazingly elegant bird which I would love to see more of.

Montagu's Harrier, Rači Potok, Košice, Slovakia, 20.4.2019

And the most incongruous find was this escaped rosella in spring. Not exactly something I expected to see on that rainy morning…

Rosella, Košice, Slovakia, 4.5.2019

These findings were amazing and are, of course, the main attraction of patch birding; there is nothing more exciting than the moment when you hear that unfamiliar call or the flash of unusual colour. But I can’t deny it would have been nice to have seen storks overhead or to hear the amazing river warbler song which I heard for a single morning last year…

If we are in fact speaking about disappointments from this year, then let’s mention the lack of red-backed shrikes, a theme from last year’s review also. Perhaps this is a longer trend, although maybe there is hope for a comeback this year. I heard a red-backed shrike sing for the first time this year, and it was not what I imagined it would be.

Another disappointment was that I failed to see a juvenile cuckoo again this year. I saw a female calling and two males were around for the whole season, but still no luck…

Off patch, 2019 was also an outstanding year for me. The biggest highlight was seeing 30,000 cranes in Senné in March.

To be alone with so many of these birds was an unforgettable experience.

I also loved seeing a pygmy owl and a three-toed woodpecker while looking (unsuccessfully) for capercaillie in Slovak Paradise in April.

Pygmy Owl, Pod Muráňom, Slovakia, 31.3.2019

Three-Toed Woodpecker, Pod Muráňom, Slovakia, 31.3.2019

Nearer to home I spent more time by the River Hornád in the city, with lots of highlights; juvenile dippers, kingfishers and a common sandpiper.

Dipper, River Hornád, Košice, Slovakia, 13.4.2019

Dipper, River Hornád, Košice, Slovakia, 13.4.2019

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I can’t stress enough that this is a filthy patch of the river right beside one of the busiest roads in the city, so it’s amazing to see birds like this in such an environment.

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And also in the city, indeed almost on the patch, a mere 200 metres from it in fact, I saw two nutcrackers in April, a bird I would be more than happy to see on the patch again.

Spotted Nutcracker, Košice, Slovakia, 7.4.2019

So all in all a wonderful year, particularly so on the patch, but perhaps this is fitting, because sadly it may be my last; in the next couple of months I am moving to Budimír, a village a few kilometres north of Košice.

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This is not my photo, nor is it actually Budimír, but it shows what the countryside around the village looks like. This area is good for raptors, and I have seen hen harriers and red-footed falcons there in the past. My new house is also only 10minutes from the River Torysa, so I should be in with a chance of seeing more waterfowl too.

I am not sure what this will mean for the blog because I haven’t started birding in earnest in my new locality; I’ll try to work it out in the next couple of months. But while I am looking to the new possibilities around Budimír, I’m going to be very sad to spend less time on my patch. I always look forward to visiting and never feel more relaxed and comfortable than when I am wandering around its grubby little paths. I only hope that someone else will be able to pays it and it’s beautiful wildlife the attention it deserves…

Rači Potok, Košice, Slovakia, 6.7.2019

Košice, Slovakia, 29.6.2019

Red Fox, Košice, Slovakia, 30.6.2019

Golden Oriole, Košice, Slovakia, 2.6.2019

Aesculapian Snake, Košice, Slovakia, 1.6.2019

Košice, Slovakia, 7.5.2019

Willow Warbler, Rači Potok, Košice, Slovakia, 19.4.2019

1-25.12.2019: The case of the disappearing winter

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Winter apparently arrived at the beginning of December but then mysteriously vanished shortly afterwards. As you can see from the goldfinch photo above, it looks and feels more like autumn than anything else right now. But the short spell of wintry weather did bring an expected winter visitor; one of two bramblings seen only during that cold weekend, with none spotted since.

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It was cold, but apparently not cold enough for the water rails; even in -5, they didn’t come out to play. I did hear moorhens calling, however, a nice surprise and reassuring to know they are still out and about.

Otherwise, very little else happening on the patch this month. Ravens are active, calling from the trees in Bankov from time to time.

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And there are impressive numbers of fieldfare hanging around, fifty plus on this blustery morning.

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But that’s really it; nothing unexpected or really worthy of note.

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As I was trudging around looking bored last week, I saw something shining enticingly in the far distance.

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The thin slither of gold you can see close to the horizon is the lake at Geča, someplace I had visited with my dog in the summer. And when a black-throated diver was seen there last week, it was enough to convince me to pay a visit.

The bar I parked beside when I visited on Christmas Day had a pretty auspicious name…

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But the raptor that flew overhead as I walked through the cottages surrounding the lake was just a sparrowhawk rather than the bar’s titular falcon.

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The lake was looking good in the dim light, the surface rippling in the slight wind.

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And the birds were already looking interesting; three black-headed gulls perched on various bhoys in the water, one of them with first winter plumage. They’re not everyday birds around Košice so I’m always happy to see them.

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A few cormorants, moorhens calling from the reeds, eight flushed pheasants, lots of magpies, sparrows, tits and mallards but no divers. Very far off were a couple of great crested grebes, but nothing else.

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Also some signs of beavers and a nice bank which is maybe possible for sand martins in the summer.

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After this, I stopped off at another promising looking lake but only a single crested grebe was there. A nice flight of geese also passed overhead, maybe going to the gravel pits at Kechnec.

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My last stop was a little industrial area in Sokoľany which I looked good on the map.

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There were no entry signs here so I didn’t hang around too long; even though it was Christmas morning, there was still steam coming out of one of the pools and I could hear workers there.

It looked OK though; a lot of mallards, some cormorants. And a heron and an egret perched in some nicely industrial settings.

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I made a few other trips over the last few weeks too. I took my camera to one factory by the airport where I teach to get some pictures of the crested larks which live there.

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And I found two pairs of Syrian woodpeckers not far from the city centre.

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And lastly, another trip to Hrhov last weekend but the fog which descended as I was driving there made the visit pointless. A kingfisher, a lesser spotted woodpecker, but nothing else visible. It looked pretty in the fog, I have to admit…

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This is probably the last post of the year (not counting the End of Year Review I try to get written up this week), so maybe there will be more snow to start the new year; and temperatures low enough to draw the water rails out of hiding again…

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1-24.11.19: Stuck in the mud

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Not such a great deal to write about this month; November is never the most exciting time on the patch. The highlights have mostly been late-staying migrants rather than anything more interesting; a blackcap on Nov 16th and a black redstart on Nov 24th.

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The group of siskins mentioned in the last post are still on the patch and I’m hoping that they are planning to stay for the winter. Their two-note call is one of the few novelties when trudging through the waterlogged paths.

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Good numbers of hawfinch turning up again, many more than in the last couple of years.

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Also a large group of greenfinch this week, another species that appears to fluctuate from year to year.

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The greenfinch were hanging around close to the small group of linnets who also appear to be planning to spend the winter.

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A late sighting of a pair of mallards in the pond ans also a very rare autumn sighting of moorhens; two birds calling loudly to each other with one emerging from the reeds for a brief second.

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Also interesting by the pond were signs that something had enjoyed a fish recently; scales on the tree trunk by the water. I have no idea what the predator could have been.

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And the only other noteworthy sighting was a group of 8 buzzards over Červený Breh last weekend, joined later by a small flock of cormorants. This is the largest number of buzzards I have ever seen on the patch.

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Otherwise, more of the usual subjects.

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Woodpeckers are more visible now that the leaves have gone; middle and lesser spotted were active last week and I also saw a green and a grey-headed, but I am missing the black woodpeckers who haven’t been seen or heard for a few weeks now.

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One new development on the patch is the appearance of a new little pond at the top of Červený Breh. Possibly connected to the mining activities, it is being filled from hoses. It is attracting large numbers of all the finches resident on the patch along jays and magpies. If it keeps filling up, it could attract even more species next year.

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Off the patch, little happening by the river; the high water seems to be keeping the dippers out of the water. Lots of rooks on the banks, but little else.

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And from my balcony last week I saw a probable Montagu’s harrier circling over the city centre before drifting over towards the patch.

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So heading into the long winter, I’m not sure what exciting things I might see on the patch. Maybe redpolls? Water rails again? More likely however is more of these guys…

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28.9-27.10.2019: Slim Pickings…

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I haven’t posted for a little while because quite frankly there has been very little to post about on the patch since I last wrote. The sole point of interest was a small group of penduline tits which passed through a couple of weeks ago.

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The family which bred successfully left almost immediately after the young had fledged, so this must be a group on migration.

Only a pair of rare-ish pair of siskin to enliven the boredom.

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And these suspicious looking buzzards I saw last week; only when I saw the photos at home did I start to suspect that the higher bird might actually be a rough-legged buzzard; the upper wings have really unusual patterning and the tail looks pale-ish.

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But there is little doubt about the lower bird, I think clearly a common buzzard.

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An unrelieved diet of regulars, although mistle thrush and bullfinch have already returned. The only remaining summer visitors are the black redstarts and a couple of chiffchaff, still blending in with the regulars.

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But I don’t often get so close to the pair of ravens which were sporting in the wind a couple of weeks back.

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And a few other handsome locals trying their best for me.

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I used my trail camera again with some success; foxes, wild boar, roe deer and wild boar all turning up within the space of a single night.

I also got close to a fox as it was hunting mice among the solar panels; so focused on its breakfast that it didn’t notice me.

Even my new spot by the river has abandoned me; the dippers, sandpiper and kingfishers have disappeared, leaving only a stonechat and a hungry rook to keep me company.

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So a couple of weeks back I tried a new location; the fish ponds at Hrhov, about 40mins by car from Košice.

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As often here, not a huge amount of birds present, but a nice group of heronscormorants and egrets at the westernmost pool.

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A kingfisher also flashed past me as I made my way further up the path; good luck finding it in this photo…

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There were also a few grey-headed woodpeckers calling and flitting about here; they seem to be moving in Slovakia from the forests to more open landscapes, and I am very happy about this as they are one of my favourite birds. There was even one calling in the trees below my apartment this week.

I hadn’t been up to the more distant ponds in Hrhov before and I was pleasantly surprised by how promising they looked. The beautiful weather on that morning certainly helped make a good impression…

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Unfortunately, there is no easy way to approach these ponds without flushing everything, which duly happened despite my best efforts.

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Mostly mallards and herons here, but I did also see a tufted duck, a couple of pochards, some little grebes and a probable black-necked grebe, although the birds were too far off to be sure.

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And on the way back, I stopped off at the nearby fishpond at Turňa. The water level here was very low, but a large number of mallards and a couple of little grebes had collected at the remaining shore line.

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A grey heron was also making itself very comfortable in the warm sun.

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This is a relatively easy to reach area, so maybe I will try to visit more often in the next year or so.

So not the most exciting autumn in east Slovakia, but this is nothing unexpected to be honest. And with November around the corner, little to look forward to either. Oh well, only a couple of months until the water rails come out of hiding again….

10-21.9.2019: Back to the Hornád

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Still very little happening on the patch these days. Every time I visit, two large sparrowhawks are harrying big flocks of fieldfares, tits and finches from one side of the field to the other, barely giving them a moment’s piece.

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The sheer wariness of the local birds means that there is little to see, not even many spotted flycatchers, usually the early autumn staple of the patch.

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Once again, the most exciting find on the patch was more terrestrial, this time an Adder crossing the path at the top of the rise below the meadow.

Together with Grass, Aesculapian and Dice Snakes, this means that there are four species of snake active on the patch; I only need to find a Slow Worm and a Smooth Snake for the full Slovak set.

Because of this prolonged dry spell on the patch, I’m spending more time these days looking around off-patch. For example, this Syrian woodpecker on the campus of the Technical University of Košice.

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I though I had seen this species (which is currently spreading further west) a couple of times whilst walking my dog, but this was the first time I was able to get a picture and confirm that the bird was really a Syrian. Not so easy to distinguish between the two species without binoculars to say the least…

But the majority of my off-site birding is being done at the grubby stretch of the River Hornád which I have mentioned in a previous post and where I also saw juvenile Dippers in April.

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Every visit over the last couple of weeks has brought some surprise or other. The first was a single Common Sandpiper flitting from the weir to the bridge and back.

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I absolutely did not expect to see a Sandpiper here and assumed it was just passing on migration, but I got a distant view of it again the following week, so possibly it has been hanging around for longer.

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The same second visit also turned up a great egret feeding a little further downstream.

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And another highlight; a pair of kingfishers. Both of the birds were hunting from the stone banks of the river as there are no overhanging branches for them to use.

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The pair of dippers also made a single appearance, feeding in exactly the same spot where I saw them before.

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Lots of White & Grey Wagtails hanging around along the banks.

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So it’s always worth popping down to the river to see what is happening. If only something good would pop up on the patch again…

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23.8-8.9.2019: Late Summer Doldrums

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This will be a fairly short post because there is actually very little happening on the patch at the moment.

One exception is a pair of sedge warblers which were feeding low in the reeds yesterday. Otherwise a few red backed shrikes like the one in the header photo are showing up, five young pheasants flushed on the meadow, and a mini-influx of spotted flycatchers.

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Also a couple of whinchats last weekend.

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The large sparrowhawk was very active on all of my visits during this period and I wonder if she is forcing the birds to keep their heads down. I can’t even get many photos because no bird will stay in the open for long enough for me to get a shot.

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The heavy winds this week brought down a couple of dead trees on the patch. Firstly this one by the little marsh which has been dead and branch-less for as long as I can remember.

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But sadly the dead pine at the back of the patch where I have seen several woodpeckers and the sparrowhawk also came down.

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Quite a few roe deer spotted, but no wild boar. Last week there was lots of shooting to the north of the city as the authorities have ordered a huge cull of wild boar in an attempt to restrict the big outbreak of African swine fever in the southeastern region of Slovakia.

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Fewer visits to the patch in the next few weeks as I get busier again, but maybe something interesting will turn up.

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28.7-10.8.2019: Linnets and Sparrowhawks

Linnet, Rači Potok, Košice, Slovakia, 9.8.2019

Everything has quietened down on the patch these last few weeks as the summer lull sets in. This is almost the only sign of summer, however, with dull and rainy days the norm since July.

Nonetheless, a few surprises since the last post. The open ground where I saw the woodlarks last month has offered up more excitement, with a pair of linnets apparently resident there together with a few white wagtails.

Linnet, Rači Potok, Košice, Slovakia, 10.8.2019

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These are fairly common birds around the city and I have long expected a couple to turn up at some point, but it is still great to finally see them. This open ground is seething with butterflies, moths and grasshoppers and has become one of my favourite parts of the patch, especially when the sun finally comes out and sets all the crickets to singing. It also seems to be the only spot on the patch where stonechats have bred this year, with at least one juvenile spotted this morning.

Sparrowhawks have also come back to the patch, with three turning up last week to bully the buzzard and some kestrels.

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The most visible of the three is a largish female who is hunting and hanging around all over Rači Potok, followed almost constantly by mobbing jays.

On Thursday she seemed to follow me around the patch, striking four times nearby me, almost as if she was using me to flush out prey.

Sparrowhawk, Rači Potok, Košice, Slovakia, 2.8.2019

Sparowhawk, Rači Potok, Košice, Slovakia, 7.8.2019

Sparrowhawk, Rači Potok, Košice, Slovakia, 7.8.2019

She’s a big beast, resembling a goshawk a little in that flight shot, and it makes me wonder if she is possibly the same female who I used to see almost everyday a couple of winters back. She hunts in the same style as that beauty, but I don’t think she is quite as big as the old bird which was approaching buzzard-size.

Also reappearing on the patch are a small group of serin, birds which I see every day in the city but less often on the patch.

Serin, Rači Potok, Košice, Slovakia, 9.8.2019

Lots of red-backed shrike juveniles popping up, presumably fledged on the patch but heavens knows where. The only confirmed breeding I’ve seen was again in my new hot spot by the mine where five juveniles were sticking close to their parents.

Red-Backed Shrike, Rači Potok, Košice, Slovakia, 2.8.2019

Red-Backed Shrike, Rači Potok, Košice, Slovakia, 3.8.2019

Red-Backed Shrike, Rači Potok, Košice, Slovakia, 3.8.2019

Juvenile yellowhammers also showing up in the past week or so.

Yellowhammer, Rači Potok, Košice, Slovakia, 1.8.2019

Only the youngest of the moorhen juveniles is still visible, with the older siblings presumably (hopefully) becoming more reclusive as they mature. This youngster was even climbing a tree this week; frankly, she is much more elegant in the water.

Moorhen, Rači Potok, Košice, Slovakia, 7.8.2019

Sadly I haven’t found my target bird of the summer, a juvenile cuckoo. Perhaps it is just not such a good habitat for young cuckoos and they fly off as soon as they fledge? Or perhaps they are still waiting to fledge in a marsh warbler nest? Sadly I will be away for the next couple of weeks so no chance to test that second hypothesis.

Still checking every great spotted woodpecker to see if it isn’t a Syrian woodpecker, but no luck yet. I know that there are Syrians in the parks near my flat, but I haven’t been lucky enough to see them during my dog walking activities.

Great Spotted Woodpecker, Rači Potok, Košice, Slovakia, 3.8.2019

Great Spotted Woodpecker, Rači Potok, Košice, Slovakia, 2.8.2019

Lots of whitethroats of both types floating around, and blackcaps more vocal than they have been so far this year. Lots of nightingales still on the patch too. Not so easy to spot these little birds visually, so I was lucky to get this shot of a lesser whitethroat this week.

Lesser Whitethroat, Rači Potok, Košice, Slovakia, 9.8.2019

Also a lot of very nice butterflies in the surviving meadow patches, including this pretty beaten-up lesser purple emperor. I think the second one might be a Pallas’s fritillary, with Slovakia being the Western edge of its range, but I’m not going to pretend I’m an expert here.

Lesser Purple Emperor, Rači Potok, Košice, Slovakia, 9.8.2019

Silver-Washed Fritillary, Rači Potok, Košice, Slovakia, 2.8.2019

Meadow Brown?, Rači Potok, Košice, Slovakia, 9.8.2019

And a lot of young mammals running around; hares, foxes and wild boar.

Brown Hare, Rači Potok, Košice, Slovakia, 9.8.2019

Definitely a quieter period on the patch, so I might not miss too much during my two weeks away; already can’t wait to find out what’s waiting for me when I get back.

Lesser Whitethroat, Rači Potok, Košice, Slovakia, 9.8.2019