Do you like to spend time searching for frogs, lizards and snakes? Or are you surveying freshwater fish? Then our Amphibian Reptile and Freshwater Fish Study Tour in Slovenia is the perfect holiday for you!
We will certainly see beautiful landscapes and we will stop at the sight of colourful flowers and rare birds. Yet, this is not a typical eco tour. Instead, you may find us wading through the mud, in the hope to see a small creature called the Yellow-bellied Toad. Or we may be hiking several hours deep into a cave to find a blind Salamander. This animal is so unusual that it got nicknamed a “baby dragon” and a “human fish”: the Olm, Proteus anguinus. We may even ask someone to place a gentle electric current on a small part of a stream in order to stun fish.
All native amphibian, reptile and crayfish species and many of the freshwater fish are legally protected in Slovenia. With care, we can often photograph them without the need to catch or disturb them. Our guide will have special permits for handling animals for the purpose of identifying the species. For catching and handling freshwater fish we will cooperate with local specialists, who have the necessary permits to do so.
All animals will be released at the same place where we found them. While this tour is not meant as a survey to collect many distribution data, we will provide all our observations to the national Slovenian database.
Participants from any country are welcome but should arrange own flight ticket from the most convenient airport to Ljubljana Airport, Slovenia.
Arrival and departure time will be different for participants from different countries, please contact us so we can arrange your transport from and to Ljubljana airport.
This is a specialised study tour in which we focus on Amphians, Reptiles and Freshwater Fish.
We will be outdoors for much of the day, sampling aquatic habitats and surveying a variety of habitats. Although we will not walk long distances, we do go off-road on sometimes difficult to access terrain (steep, rocky, dense and thorny vegetation). We work as a group: together we will see most. During the tour, there will be ample time for photography.
On one or two days, we invite a local expert who will demonstrate freshwater fish surveying with electrofishing.
Expect to make long days: during some of the evenings, there will be excursions and presentations.
Please note that taking any plants or animals from nature is not permitted during this tour.
We arrive at Ljubljana airport where we meet our local guide and tour organiser. Depending on our arrival time we may have a stopover on the way to our accommodation. Here, we can see the first amphibians and reptiles in Slovenia!
We start our study tour in the complete southwest of Slovenia, in the Vipava valley. This area is much influenced by the Italian Po plain. The northern edge of this valley is formed by a series of spectacular steep rock walls. Streams flow from underneath these walls towards the river Vipava, a tributary of Soča (Isonzo).
In the morning we walk along some of these streams, in search of a small frog: the Italian Agile Frog (Rana latastei). This species was once widespread in the entire Po plain, where it’s numbers dwindled because of the intensification of agriculture. Its remaining strongholds are in Slovenia, on the edge of its range. It shares this habitat with the more widespread “common” Agile Frog (Rana dalmatina), Italian Crested Newts (Triturus carnifex) and Mediterranean Smooth Newts (Lissotriton vulgaris meridionalis).
In the afternoon, we will look for the unique freshwater fish in the region, for which we enlist the help of a local specialist. Adriatic freshwater fish share common ancestors with the more familiar Central and Western European species. However, they are separated for such a long time that they evolved to distinct species of their own. In the Vipava valley, we hope to find among others Triotto (Rutilus aula), Alborella (Alburnus arborella), Italian Spined Loach (Cobitis bilineata) and Padanian goby (Padogobius bonelli).
The Olm (Proteus anguinus) is by far the most charismatic amphibian species in Slovenia. This large salamander (up to 35 cm) is entirely adapted to live in underground rivers and streams. It has almost no pigment and its eyes are reduced and invisible underneath its skin, as adaptations to life in total darkness. Most places where it occurs are inaccessible (networks of small underground streams where we can’t enter) or only accessible to licenced and experienced speleologists. Fortunately, nearby our accommodation, there is a cave which is easier to access. In the company of a local cave-guide, we will spend much of the day exploring this cave. Both the water level and the clarity in the cave are dependent on rainfall in the region. Under favourable circumstances, we may see quite many “baby dragons”.
In the remaining part of the day, we will visit a population of yellow-bellied toads which we photograph individually. We will later during the tour use these photographs to make an estimation of the population size.
Today we go southwards to the Mediterranean coast of Slovenia, where we visit a beautiful, small river which flows over white rocks. Here we find an endemic fish, the Istrian Chub (Squalius janae) alongside Padanian Barbels (Barbus plebejus). The shores of the river are a good place to observe reptiles including Wall Lizards (Podarcis muralis), Italian Wall Lizards (Podarcis siculus) and occasionally dice snakes (Natrix tesselata). Nearby is the only Slovenian locality with Four Lined Snakes (Elaphe quatuorlineata), but the chance to see this species is relatively low: the place is well known among local herpetologists and even the “locals” don’t manage to find this species each year.
Other species which we may see include Yellow-bellied Toads (Bombina variegata) and Green Lizards (Lacerta cf. bilineata). In the afternoon, we make shorter stops to several places, in search of Whip Snakes (Hierophis carbonarius) and Mediterranean Toothcarp (Aphanius fasciatus).
In Western Europe, heathlands would be the place to go if you want to see vipers. In Southern Slovenia, you may find similar places at roadsides in forests, but this is not where most vipers are. Instead, you’d have to go to places which have either an Alpine-like vegetation or to open, rocky places with thorny scrubs. For today we will invite local field herpetologist Erika Ostanek to join us. Under her guidance, we will learn how to search for vipers and how to do this safely in this rather different habitat.
Sometimes the Lake Is, and sometimes, It Is Not. That’s how the locals summarise the highly fluctuating water levels at Lake Cerknica. The Intermittent Lake Cerknica dries up during the summer and sometimes also in winter. Every time the lake dries, many fish become stranded and die. When the lake fills up with water from the spring rain and melting snow, it forms an extensive amphibian habitat, with a low density of predatory fish. From underground hibernating places (partly in caves), many thousands of Grass Frogs (Rana temporaria) appear, forming the biggest population in Slovenia and one of the biggest in Central Europe. Considering their numbers, they become surprisingly difficult to find in summer, when they disperse into the surrounding forests.
Along the lake, we can find numerous Common Toads (Bufo cf. bufo), Grass Snakes (Natrix natrix) and Green Frogs (Pelophylax sp.). In the surroundings of the lake, we can also find small populations of Wall Lizards (Podarcis muralis) and Italian Crested Newts (Triturus carnifex).
We spend the afternoon exploring the nearby hills, where small streams have formed quiet valleys which remind somewhat of the Alps. Typical stream animals include Stone Crayfish (Austropotamobius torrentium), Yellow-bellied Toad and Fire Salamander (Salamandra salamandra). We also have a fair chance to see Viviparous lizard (Zootoca vivipara), which lays eggs in this region, and Smooth Snake (Coronella austriaca). If the water level is not too high, we may see the endemic Barje Sculpin (Cottus metae) on the way.
Later on, we re-visit the population of Yellow-bellied toads which we photographed on day 3 and repeat our photographing-action. When we compare our photograph from both days, we can estimate the total population size.
Now that we have seen the enigmatic “normal” white Olm, it would be nice to see it’s black counterpart as well. The Black Olm is hardly known outside Slovenia, and no wonder, because it only lives in a single valley where it can be observed in only a single spring. And this is where we will go today. The Black Olm differs not only in colour, but also because it has normally developed – although a bit smallish – eyes. To get here, it is a bit longer drive, but we feel that it is well worth it.
Nearby we find river Kolpa, which has an exceptionally rich diversity of freshwater fish. With the help of local specialists, we will try to see Balkan Golden Loach (Sabanejewia balcanica), Balkan Spined Loach (Cobitis elongata), Spirlin (Alburnoides bipunctatus), Danube Gudgeon (Gobio obtusirostris) and many more species.
Depending on our aeroplane schedules, we may still have much of the daytime to spend in the field. We drive stepwise in the direction of Ljubljana Airport and make stopovers at some remarkable habitats. One of the species which we hope to find is the White Clawed Crayfish (Austropotamobius pallipes), which is in Slovenia restricted to the Adriatic basin …
This study tour differs from regular nature tours because we have a busy evening program. This evening program depends partly on the weather and will be fully worked out in the weeks before the tour takes place. The evening program will include:
– introduction to the frogs, newts and salamanders of Slovenia, including species identification, distribution and threats.
– identification of tadpoles and newt larvae: as many amphibian species occur both in Slovenia and in western Europe, the identification methods are the same and can be used throughout much of Europe!
– amphibian diseases and field protocols: what do we know and which preventive measures can we take to avoid that we spread diseases to the animals which we like most?
* An evening visit to a museum/exposition which explains the dynamics of the intermittent Lake Cerknica, one of the most important habitats for amphibians in Slovenia
* An excursion to listen to amphibian calls, including tree frog, green frogs and common toads as well as to observe newts by torchlight
* Our fun quiz to test your identification skills based on photographs of Slovenian amphibians, reptiles and freshwater fish
* The Bombina-memory game: a practical demonstration on how to, in a fun way, estimate the population size of the endangered Yellow-bellied Toad. We compare the photographs which we made on day 3 and 7 and use a simple capture-recapture formula to calculate their numbers.
Moderately difficult and occasionally demanding. During the tour, we will walk slowly and stop many times, but terrain can be difficult, rocky and occasionally steep, without real climbing. At other places, it may be muddy and we may encounter dense and thorny vegetation as well. Please make sure that you have good hiking shoes and sturdy trousers!
We will be out all day in sunny weather with temperatures up to, and above 30 oC. Please take a sun-hat and suncream.
During this tour, we stay in a countryside hotel or an agritourism, right in the middle of the area which we visit. In this way, we reduce daily traveling time to our destinations a minimum: up to one hour on most days.
Participants should arrange the transport to Ljubljana airport or train station, where we will pick you up.
During this tour, we will use a van which has eight seats for participants and one for the driver. The tour guide will also be the driver of the van. This gives us a maximum of flexibility: how long we like to stay at each place, is up to us.