Archive for July, 2008

Splash

Palau Reial park provides refuge from summer heat with its cool shade and water. But earlier this year, in a public display of water-saving, the fountains and pond were allowed to run dry. Gaudi’s tiny dragon drinking fountain, much loved by small birds, looked dusty and neglected. Bathing had to be done in temporary puddles or on rain-soaked leaves.

Happily, the reservoirs have reached acceptable levels again and the drought is officially over. As the pond slowly fills up, dragonflies are darting once more, and the birds are enjoying a new lido, before it gets too deep.

At midday, as the cicadas’ wall of sound intensifies, a pair of magpies (Pica pica) arrive for a dip. They’re quite tentative at first, paddling about in the shallow end, sipping the water. They seem distracted by their own reflections.

But soon they’re dunking their heads, tails tilted high. As they splash, they spread out their feathers, allowing the cool water to penetrate right to the skin. There are flashes of metallic blue among the spray.

Encouraged by the sight of splashing magpies, a pair of Monk parakeets (Myiopsitta monachus) decide to join in. I’ve never observed any friction between these two highly gregarious species, the most ubiquitous birds in the park. The magpies and blackbirds have a more prickly relationship, perhaps because blackbirds are often energetically rummaging through the dry leaves and pine needles on the ground, and the magpies fear they’ll uncover a buried stash.

The parakeets sit motionless, nestling side by side in the water, looking rather shy. At moments like this, you can almost forgive them all the screeching and forget about the destructive raids on crops. The pair gradually lose all inhibition. Just like the magpies, they ruffle their plumage and bathe head-first.

Two soggy green clumps of feathers surprisingly can still fly, and repair to the trees to dry off.

Swifts in Collserola

Written by Lucy Brzoska

The city doesn’t get more pristine than this. It’s the middle of July, typically a month of stagnant heat, when the sky is discoloured by smog. But in today’s diaphanous atmosphere, Barcelona is visible in intricate detail and the sea is like deep blue silk. After yesterday’s torrential storm, there’s a mountain freshness in the air that promises a good night’s sleep. The soaring swifts take your heart that little bit higher.

I’m in the southern part of Collserola, after catching the funicular to Vallvidrera, where rich Barcelona citizens used to retire for the summer, in the days when people didn’t travel far for their holidays. Once you leave the houses behind, you can follow the ridge to Sant Pere Màrtir, the last hill before the Sierra de Collserola drops down to the Llobregat river plain. There used to be an ermita here, before they tore it down in the 1930s and put up a red and white radio transmitter. Only the name remains, and the stunning views, as the hill falls abruptly away to the city.

I turn inland, where the slopes are more gradual and there’s a labyrinth of paths among pines, small holm oaks and broom. There’s a restlessness about the landscape. A considerable part of Barcelona’s swift population are also spending their Sunday evening on Collserola and the hillsides are swarming with them.

Mainly Common swifts (Apus apus), but the majestic Alpine swifts (Apus melba) stand out with their gleaming white breasts. Their wingspan approaches that of the approaching kestrel, who suddenly accelerates and takes a swoop at one of the house martins mingling in the crowd, making it yelp in alarm.

The path takes me to one of the deepest recesses, where Fragrant clematis (Clematis flammella) has run amok, smothering other plants and bushes with white flowers. The swifts are here too, swishing past, cutting the air to ribbons.

I start climbing up among oak trees, and the swifts cast their shadows on the path. There must be hordes of insects after yesterday’s rain, and they’re intent on hoovering the lot up. The only sound is the slash of their narrow, flexible wings, interrupted by the cheerful gossip of some passing swallows.

Up the grassy slopes, nearly back to the top of the ridge, the density of swifts is even greater. They pass very close, turning incredibly tight circles at relentless speed, weaving intricate flight paths. My camera can only capture them as flickering symbols.

Most of the city is now in shadow, as the sun sets. Only the part nearest the coast still glows. To the north, powerful storm clouds have risen, reflected in the sea.

When the sun has gone down, the swifts ease up, and begin to drift back towards the city. Perhaps some will be going back to their nest holes, even though the breeding season is virtually over. The Alpines are here till October but the Common swifts only stay for three months a year. Each one is linked to a particular barrio, street, unobtrusive hole.

The orange horizon behind them, the swifts float out into the dusk. It’s a vertiginous thought that they’ll be on the wing non-stop till next spring. And those who survive their first migration have 2 or 3 years of flight ahead.

Excellent website about swifts:

http://www.commonswift.org/common_swift.html

Hoopoes in the Park

Written by Lucy Brzoska

A woman comes out on the fire escape to smoke a cigarette. Nearby there’s a Judas tree – it’s seen better days and bears little foliage now, only on the highest branches. The woman stands and talks on her mobile. She’s unaware that on the other side of the tree, there’s movement and two eyes appear at a hole.

Undeterred by the proximity of the office block, hoopoes (Upupa epops) have nested inside the tree. People are constantly walking to and fro, but it doesn’t bother them. Perhaps because these eye-catching birds have also perfected the art of melting into the background. In flight they’re a flurry of black and white, and uncertain zigzag direction. But on the ground they blend in with the dust of the paths or the dappled shadows under the trees.

The hollow tree is conveniently surrounded by excellent foraging ground, with scattered pines and sparse grass. I watched the parents walk about probing for bugs in the soft earth, unnoticed by busy passers-by. Whenever they returned to the nest, an item of food held fast at the tip of their long pincer-like bills, they were greeted by their hissing young.

Hoopoe nests are so renowned for their stink that it was disappointing to find no evil odour emanating from the hole. It was too high to look into or, for that matter, to receive a faceful of noxious nestling fluid, another defensive measure they employ.

A week later, the young hoopoes were no longer content to sit still in the protective darkness of their tree. Leaning out inquisitively, they would look in all directions – at the sky, neighbouring trees, at me. If I took a step too near, then the faces would disappear inside and remain hidden.

It was no surprise to find the nest deserted the following week. And no sign of the family. Despite its plentiful food supply, this small park has an important drawback for tender young hoopoes taking their first forays into the world: a colony of cats, who can be seen crouching, hypnotised by the busy tree creepers.

Nearly a month later, when the parents were busy with a second clutch, I found a young hoopoe dozing on a branch. It was in another park, but very near, so there’s a chance it was one of the brood, now fending for itself. It looked rather vulnerable, with soft downy breast feathers. Luckily, it had found a place where cats are actively discouraged.

The next day the fledgling was still there, but this time bright-eyed and awake. It studied me, and decided I wasn’t a danger, allowing me to observe a curious episode. In the full noonday sun, it snuggled into the loose sand of the path, burrowing down till its tail was grey with dust. Sitting there like a brooding hen, it occasionally shuffled itself further into the hollow. There was none of the vigorous dust-flinging that goes on when a sparrow takes a dust bath, nor any attempt to preen. It merely stretched its neck, with a tentatively flickering crest, and its bill began to gape.

Sufficiently baked, the hoopoe finally moved into the shade, where conveniently an irrigation sprinkler had just been turned off. After drinking from the rivulet of fresh water, the young bird flew a short distance for some vigorous foraging among tree roots. That’s when it gave me a clue to its activity. Without warning, its crest stood on end, and tail and wing feathers were splayed out. It seemed to have received an electric shock. Or been stung by an insect.

Then I remembered the “anting” activity that some birds perform – active anting, which involves capturing ants and placing them inside the plumage, or passive anting, which hoopoes are known to do. They can adopt quite dramatic postures spreadeagled on the ground, making it easy for the insects to hop on board. Anting is not fully understood: the formic acid secreted in ant bites might help control parasites. Or maybe the sensation of ants among feathers is soothing, especially during a moult. Regardless, anting and related activities like dusting and sunbathing, give birds great pleasure. A new urban activity can be added to the list: massage by air-conditioning.

The young hoopoe continued foraging, its crest still restless. Finally, it flew up to a branch, and settled down for a siesta.