My wife decided, rather worryingly, to rediscover the joys of skiing after a lapse of nearly 30 years, and had heard that Slovakia was a good bet. As a birder, I have always been keen to get to grips with the rare raptors, owls and woodpeckers that occur here. Hence this visit.
I write this report, not because of the vast number of species I saw (there were obviously no summering species and spent only 1-2 days in the best areas), but because my perhaps limited researches found only few reports about birding in Slovakia, very little detail about sites and nothing at all about birding there in February.
The first 5 days were spent in the High Tatras Mountains of northern Slovakia, not far from the border with Poland, based in the ski resorts of Stary Smokovec and Tatranska Lomnica (elevation 800 - 900 metres). Whilst my wife did indeed do very well on the slopes, I tramped the nearby forests. Birding was tough, partly because there was snow and hard ice on every trail and partly because bird numbers were simply very low. However, I did find Black Woodpecker and Grey-headed Woodpecker here.
The final 3 days were spent at a lower elevation near Kosice, Slovakia’s second and exceedingly beautiful city, in the east of the country.
On the evening of 10th February, and for the whole of 11th February, I was guided by Jan Dobsovic, an outstanding birding guide who made a big difference.
1. In the High Tatras, there is a trail in a small reserve called Naucny Chodnik Prameneste (NCP), mainly alders with some conifers on fairly boggy soil. The trail follows a raised wooden boardwalk. The reserve is hard to find on maps. It can be reached in one of 2 ways. Either by going about 1-2 km south of Tatranska on route 5863; a sign marks the start of the trail on your LHS – the first 200 metres of the trail run on the edge of a field/woodland. Or by going about 2 km south east down route 540 to the junction with route 5863 -- follow the wide trail east for about 1 km till you see a sign for the start of the southern end of the reserve trail on your LHS. The reserve held many woodpeckered trees, and I found Black and Grey-headed Woodpecker on the reserve’s edge. Could be good for owls.
2. The back of the stunning Grand Hotel Praha in Tatranska Lomnica. (GHP). This area holds some good mixed woodland, and can be reached simply by driving to the free car park at the back of the hotel. Note that, in most places, the woodland near these ski resorts was wrecked by a mega-storm about 15 years ago. I saw Black woodpecker here too.
3. Kvetnica (KV). This tiny hamlet, about 4 km south of Poprad (in the plain south of the mountains) lies on route 66. It has a small leisure park on the RHS behind which there is reasonable mixed woodland on a hillside. The trail here was really tough because of sheet ice, but there were a few more birds. Black Woodpecker also seen here. A local birder puts reports from this locality on ebird.
4. Hotel Bankov, Kosice. (HB). Elevation 350 metres. This hotel lies about 6 km north west of Kosice – take route 547 for about 4 km out of the city centre, then follow the inconspicuous sign for Hotel Bankov along a side road going off the main road at an 11 o clock angle. The hotel car park (free) gives immediate access to good oak woodland with a few conifers mixed in. One trail starts at the side of the hotel, another is reached by going about 500 metres up the road to the hairpin bend, and another is reached by continuing another 500 metres up the road to the end of the road on top of a ridge – this trail starts on the RHS of the Bistro Restaurant. I found Middle Spotted Woodpecker and Ural owl in this area. They have been recorded here before.
5. The Kosicka Kotlina IBA. (KK). This large flat plain lies south south west of Kosice just short of the border with Hungary. Our big win here was Saker Falcon. Beforehand Jan had been dubious about our chances of finding it – although it does breed here in very small numbers, it tends to scatter during the winter months. However the fates today were with us this day when he found a pair high up on a pylon. Jan asks me not to divulge the exact location because of fears that birders may disturb them by getting too close: we kept our distance and viewed them via a scope at a range of 650 metres. In another part of KK there is a group of fish ponds, frozen over on our visit where we found a pair of White-tailed Eagles. The extremely rare Eastern Imperial Eagle also occurs in this IBA year-round. NOTE that a couple of old reports suggest the castle at Turna nad Bodvou off the E571 could be a good site for Saker. Jan says he has been there many times and has never seen them there.
6. Jasovske Dubiny. (JD). Not easy to find on maps. Drive west from Kosice on route 548 to Jasov (elevation 280 metres) and look for the unmissable, colossal, two-towered monastery. Perhaps 200 metres south of the south-western corner of the monastery is the start of a defined “touristic trail” (ie a public right of way), marked by a picture of a large and ugly fish (there is a fish pond nearby) and a pair of large green solid metal gates. According to Jan these gates are usually open, but they were closed (though not locked) on our visit. Jan decided to phone a number shown on the gate and got consent to enter. If there are language difficulties, you can decide whether to simply unlatch the gate and enter. It was slushy underfoot but we managed a long walk. Initially quiet (save for the noise of some tree-felling) we eventually found White-backed, Middle - Spotted, Grey-headed Woodpecker and Great-spotted Woodpeckers. NOTE that a different trail, marked with a single metal barrier across the entrance, starts close by. Jan says that trail as not as good.
7. Stoske Sedlo (SS). Much easier to access. Drive west from Kosice on route 548 via Jasov and Medzev and the village of Stos. The road then climbs the steep side of a valley. At the top of the ridge is a small church on the LHS. Behind the church a single metal red and white horizontal bar marks the start of the trail. Very highly recommended by Jan for owls (such as Pygmy, Tengmalm’s and Ural) and woodpeckers such as Three-toed, though we saw very little on this visit. He explained that owls are not actively vocal till March, and we arrived late for any more woodpeckers. At an elevation of 860 metres, we walked on fresh snow under the light of a new moon.
1. We flew with Wizzair from Luton (UK) to Kosice: low-cost, efficient but red eye.
2. We rented a Skoda with Budget Car Rental via Rentalcar.com at Kosice Airport. This car rental was the cheapest at about £10 per day (perhaps because it had no radio) and most efficient I have known. Driving in Slovakia was easy. The car was pre-set in a non-skid mode so that it was perfectly OK in snow and ice. Budget let you take your rental car across nearby EU borders such as Poland and Hungary for a fee of 42 euros.
3. There is a wide range of places to stay in the High Tatras. We booked Hotel Bankov via expedia.com. You can e mail the hotel email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. There are probably cheaper places to stay in Kosice itself.
4. Jan Dobsovic was an excellent guide. Though his English is not perfect, his birding skills are outstanding. He can arrange provide or arrange guiding anywhere in the country (and no doubt nearby). He can be contacted at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org, phone +421 948 495111. I paid him 190 euros to cover an evening of owling at Hotel Bankov on 10th February and a very full day on 11th February, some 14 hours in total. He drove me throughout in his own car.
5. I did a lot, I mean really a lot of walking. Jan told me that on our full day together we had walked about 12 km. I was horrified. This was far more than I thought I was capable of: I’m 73 and have a smorgasbord of interesting medical conditions. Still, if I can do it, you can!
6. Slovakia is – never mind the birds – a lovely country to visit, with many Unesco-designated cities, towns, castles, caves and scenic areas. I thought it perhaps 20% cheaper than other countries further west.
7. From this brief visit, I reckon that in early February you can find rare raptors such as Saker with luck; that owls are tough to find because it is too early; and that it is a good time for woodpeckers -- they are in courtship mode.
White-tailed Eagle. 2 perched on trees near frozen fish farms in KK 11/2.
Common Buzzard. The commonest raptor.
Common Kestrel. The second commonest raptor.
Saker Falcon. A pair sat high up on a pylon in KK 11/2, maybe 1-2 km from an artificial nest box. An iconic species for me.
Hazel Grouse. 1 heard JD 11/2, 1 seen SS 11/2, crashing through a tree away from us.
Ural Owl. 1 heard hooting briefly off third trail at HB, 10/2 at 8 pm. Previous observers have found it here.
Black Woodpecker. Between 5/2 and 7/2, 3 seen and heard in the High Tatras at southern edge of NCP, at GHP and at KV.
Grey-headed Woodpecker. 1 calling briefly on edge of NCP 5/2. A single and a pair (responding to playback) seen in JD 11/2. Much smaller than Green, not as bright, and behaved like a typical woodpecker in the mid and upper levels of trees.
Great-spotted Woodpecker. Odd singles seen most days, but not as common as I expected.
Middle-spotted Woodpecker. A pair seen at HB in trees outside the front of the hotel 9/2 and 10/2.
In courtship mode, vocal, quite different from GSW, call “ki-ki-ki”, a rather Jay-like “Ahhk”; male raised crown feathers. No drumming.
Also 1 in JD 11/2.
White-backed Woodpecker. 1 male, and maybe a second, seen 11/2 in JD near the end of the trail. Repeated drumming louder and deeper than GSW.
NOTE: in Jasov itself near the monastery, we heard several other woodpeckers, but time did not allow us to track them down.
Marsh Tit. Quite common at JD 11/2.
Willow Tit. 1 at NCP 7/2.
Brambling. 1 large flock (100+) over NCP 7/2.
Crossbill. Quite common in the High Tatras and at HB.
In the fields in the KK area, there were mixed flocks of finches (eg Siskin, Goldfinch, Linnet, Redpoll) and numbers of both House and Tree Sparrows.