Springtime in Barcelona: Montjuïc

April 23rd, 2014 Written by Lucy Brzoska.

Poo-pooPoo-poo. Perched on one of the tall Cyprus trees that surround Montjuïc cemetery, a hoopoe is calling, a peaceful sound of spring. But a rival takes objection, and a bout of fierce hissing ensues, as the aggressor tries to claim the territory.  Feathers are spread wide – the wings, tail and crest – making the birds appear double in size.

hoopoes dispute territory on Montjuic

A common visitor to Barcelona on spring migration is the Willow warbler.  This one was thoroughly grooming a blossoming Judas tree.

willow warbler pausing on migration in Montjuic Barcelona

A much rarer migrant is the Vagrant emperor dragonfly. Like the Willow warbler, it had paused on Montjuïc to refuel, after probably beginning its journey in North Africa.  It was hunting by the ponds in the Jardins de Mossen Cinto, a male recognisable by its blue saddle.

Vagrant emperor dragonfly - Anax ephippiger - on Montjuic Barcelona

The discrete presence of pheasants has been detected on Montjuïc this winter, but spring is making them bolder. This one was strutting in full view along the cemetery wall.

pheasant on Montjuic

A jay in the park

February 28th, 2014 Written by Lucy Brzoska.

jay in the park

It was probably the number of oak trees in the park that attracted the jays in the first place. In autumn they tirelessly collect and cache acorns. One of them is uncommonly bold and has a passion for peanuts. He only eats about 10%. The rest are carefully buried in the ground or stuffed into pine cones. A roomy crop is useful for carrying away the booty.

jay with a peanut in its crop

The jay has meticulous habits.  After burying the peanut, he carefully camouflages the spot by rearranging leaf litter and bark.  This usually flummoxes the spying magpies.

He’s equally meticulous when eating the peanuts.  The shell is pierced, the first nut carefully put aside, and the second one retrieved. Before eating a nut, the thin red skin is also deftly removed.

jay shellling peanut

When excited, the jay raises his crest, momentarily transformed.

jay with its crest raised

Last spring, his crest was raised a lot – the stresses of parenthood.

jay pursued by fledgling

 

Montjuïc Castle: the importance of holes

January 1st, 2014 Written by Lucy Brzoska.

Written by Lucy Brzoska

A young Montpellier snake, hatched in the walls of Montjuïc Castle, surveys the world outside.  The sandstone wall, mellowing through the centuries, is structurally sound but honeycombed with holes.

An exploring ant gets a foothold on the snake’s mouth, probing hesitantly with its antennae.  The tiny snake doesn’t move and observes cross-eyed.

There’s always lots to observe in an old sunny wall.  Fortunately, Galanthus, who work at promoting and preserving Barcelona’s biodiversity, have so far thwarted misguided attempts to fill the holes of Montjuïc Castle with concrete.

(NB. This photo is not upside-down.)

How to spot a Praying Mantis

November 28th, 2013 Written by Lucy Brzoska.

Written by Lucy Brzoska

One way is to look out for unusual portents, unnatural juxtapositions, something that just doesn’t feel right.  Like an immobile upside-down butterfly.

This butterfly was not responding to the other Large whites visiting the sticky fleabane on this warm October day. A closer look revealed it was firmly in the grip of a Praying mantis, who was eating it head-first, delicately picking off the proboscis, like a delicacy to be savoured.

The discarded white wings fluttered to the ground, and the mantis became invisible again, merging perfectly with the plant stem.

Zooming in on Montjuic (vi): autumn

October 25th, 2013 Written by Lucy Brzoska.

Written by Lucy Brzoska

An old olive tree is creaking.  It’s not the wind, but the sound of a tree frog singing from somewhere inside the hollow trunk.  The warm humid October weather suits Mediterranean tree frogs, and they appear on the dew-saturated leaves, in bushes and flower beds.  Some had shimmied up the newly blooming Red hot pokers.

Migrating song thrushes have settled unobtrusively on the hill. You’re aware of them but they hide out of sight, communicating with low calls.  Other arrivals are chiffchaffs.  They’re far less shy, too small to fear the shotgun.

I’m going along the cobbled path to the Sot del Migdia, and feel watched.  Just above me, I see tall ears, and a prominent brown eye.  It’s a boom year for rabbits on Montjuic – newly excavated warrens are gaping. They’ll be glad summer’s over, and the arid slopes have turned green, not so much from rain, which has been scarce, but from the heavy dew.

Zooming in on Montjuic (v): gecko

August 28th, 2013 Written by Lucy Brzoska.

Written by Lucy Brzoska

The craggy old gecko lies fossilized on the stone wall, flattened against the warm rock. A bug comes briskly by, and the gecko comes to life, peering down.

The bug quickens its pace, but the gecko’s tongue is faster.

Nothing more to do but lick one’s lips, settle back down into the warm rock, and wait to see what else turns up.

Close encounter on Collserola: Dwarf mantis

August 14th, 2013 Written by Lucy Brzoska.

Written by Lucy Brzoska

Illyrian thistles (Onopordum illyricum) are magnificent, even when all dried up.  By mid-summer their heads are like wicker baskets brimming with seeds.  When I looked inside one, something rapidly scuttled out on long thin legs, spider-like.  Then I noticed the curled abdomen, and thought it was a tiny Cone-head Mantis. But once it had stopped darting round to the opposite side of the thistle, I found its head was heart-shaped.

This female Dwarf Mantis, an Ameles species, probably A. spallanzania, has a plump curled abdomen that makes it look like a tiny rocking horse.

The mantis was minute, but just like its larger relative, it avidly monitored its surroundings and it repeatedly swivelled its head and trained its antennae in my direction.  When a colourful stink beetle walked by (Eurydema ornata), it instantly sprung from one thistle stem to another to get a better view, using the spines like the rungs on a ladder.

I wanted to stay and watch the mantis hunt, but the sun was rapidly going down. Reluctantly I left it there, a perfectly camouflaged speck on the hillside.

Flight patterns across Barcelona

August 2nd, 2013 Written by Lucy Brzoska.

One of a series of extraordinary photos taken by Barcelona resident Laurent Godel, this captures the calm steady rhythm of a Grey heron crossing the city.  But what really inspires Laurent are swifts, and their exuberance as they wheel over the roof tops.

You can find more of his work here.

Wood warbler spring

May 5th, 2013 Written by Lucy Brzoska.

Five days of rain, rough seas, and a lowering dark sky. The strong easterly winds at the peak of spring migration swept many birds off their usual path, and some of the lucky ones made it ashore in Catalunya.

Observations of Wood warblers, which breed mainly north of Iberia, are usually scarce in Catalunya.  This year, by the end of April, Ornithocat had recorded more than 200. On one of these dark rainy afternoons, I found several on Montjuic, scouring the trees along with Willow warblers. This photo was taken when the weather improved, the Wood warbler’s lemon yellow throat reflecting light under a freshly grown canopy.

Even in the gloom, the male Pied flycatchers were sharply visible. They are regular transients through Barcelona, but rarely seen in such density as this year.

On the last night of the deluge, the rain stopped just at dawn. On Montjuic, everything was steaming as the sun rose. A tremendous concentration of migrants had built up.  In the pine woods, every tree seemed to harbour a flycatcher (mainly Pied, but also Spotted), sallying out at regular intervals, gorging on the thick clouds of flies on this almost tropical morning. You could hear nightingales and Golden orioles singing, and observe many other species you might not expect to find in Barcelona, including Woodchat shrikes, whinchats, whitethroats and Common redstarts.

Even before the bad weather, I’d come across a pair of Woodchat shrikes who’d stopped to replenish forces on Montjuic. While the male sang from the top of a tree, the female tugged at a lizard impaled on an acacia thorn.

On the Cami del Mar, the Black redstarts had moved on to their breeding grounds by the start of April. Briefly in their place appeared a resplendent Common redstart.

Written by Lucy Brzoska

Wild couples in Barcelona

March 10th, 2013 Written by Lucy Brzoska.

Written by Lucy Brzoska

In Barcelona, a sign that spring isn’t far away is an intensification of twig gathering by Monk parakeets (an activity they tend to do all year round). Away from their raucous nest colonies, built high up in the towering pines of Palau de Pedralbes park, a parakeet couple were snatching some quality time together.  Snuggled up close, they were taking it in turns to preen.

Another sign of incipient spring in the city is the sound of serins singing. The jangling, irrepressible song, delivered from a suitably high spot, can be traced to a small yellow-breasted bird – Europe’s smallest finch and close relation to the canary.

In a prelude to copulation, the more discretely coloured female serin leaned over to receive her mate’s gift of food.

On Montjuic, two large fuzzy black carpenter bees flew past in an embrace – the female had been seized by the male, recognisable by its smaller size and orange-tipped antennae. When they settled on a leaf, you could see another distinguishing feature: the male’s silvery grey mesosomal hairs.

It seems that carpenter bees are prone to overheating, as they fly slowly and are black, so the pale colour is thought to be useful in reflecting away sunlight. Males spend more time out in the open – territory patrolling, looking for females, and then feeding in the afternoons, when the females are back in their shelters. (See this study for more interesting info.)

Much of the private life of the Red squirrels in Palau de Pedralbes park goes on out of sight, very high up in the trees. They come down to earth to dig up their stashed autumnal loot or explore the rubbish bins. This one was pulling up dried grass.  With a very large mouthful, it ran up an Aleppo pine to furnish its drey, where it would soon be giving birth.