Archive for September, 2008

Close encounters in Collserola

Written by Lucy Brzoska

While out walking on a warm evening at the beginning of September, it was Nick who first spotted this tiny snake on the track, rippling as fast as it could, anxious to reach cover on the other side. Once caught, it remained still, except for the flickering of its tongue. We weren’t sure of its identity, so it paid to have the camera at hand. The photograph clearly shows a black coronet and an elusive blue shimmer: the marks of the non-venomous Southern smooth snake (Coronella girondica).

We were lucky to stumble on it, as they’re not common in Collserola. Shy and secretive night hunters, they search out geckos, skinks and grasshoppers and kill by constriction. A passing resemblance to the viper is thought to work as a defence. We found the snake in the more open southern part of Collserola, an area of grass, shrubs and scattered trees, a summer hunting ground for Short toed eagles.

At the opposite end of the park, not far from a spring, this dragonfly was captured clinging to a bush. I’d have described it as red, till I got home and saw its range of fairground colours: a horse from a devil’s carousel. The rows of spikes on the legs are impressive, ensuring a firm grip on prey. The dimensions of its eyes immediately suggest extraordinary powers of vision.

When identifying the dragonfly, the yellow stripe along the length of the legs pointed me to the Common darter (Sympetrum striolatum), which was confirmed when Sue put her shots up on the forum.

Finally, in the centre of Collserola, the most disturbed and built-up part, this creature was rescued from a busy track. A convoy of cars was driving away from a restaurant, coating us and everything around in dust. The Eyed hawk moth caterpillar (Smerinthus ocellata) was carried to a safer place on a notebook, hence the garish studio background for its portrait.

The caterpillar has a distinguishing blue horn, slanting white stripes (7 in all) and red spiracles (breathing holes).

Pyrenees (v) Port de Ratera

Written by Lucy Brzoska

It was cold at nearly 2,600m, but there were plenty of grassy hollows and boulders to shelter from the wind. The Port de Ratera was created when ice overflowed from the Ratera basin into the Saboredo. This colossal polishing has created a natural resting place, appreciated by walkers, whether approaching via the scree slopes from the Refugio d’Amitges, or climbing up from Val d’Aran.

The route from the Sant Maurici lake, the GR 11, rises in a series of giant steps, a typical pattern of glacial erosion in hard granitic rock. For the walker this translates as tough slogs interspersed with welcome respites.

On one of these pauses, among still water and scattered rocks, a herd of chamois (Rupicapra pyrenaica) were foraging, a group of females and young. Separated from the rest, one of the adults came bounding past, hooves thudding as it circled the valley.

The renewed silence was broken by a piercing whistle, as if a referee had just stopped play. The first time I ever heard a marmot’s warning call, I was sure it was a bird. One tone warns of raptors and another of danger on the ground. The Pyrenean marmots didn’t survive the last ice age, but were re-introduced in 1948, and have been burrowing there extensively ever since. They are Europe’s largest and perhaps shaggiest rodents, preferring to stay underground on hot days, as well as hibernating throughout winter. This upright marmot was on lookout duty.

Black redstarts were ubiquitous at all levels, from the streets of Espot to the top of the pass. They’re also a familiar sight at sea level, visiting Barcelona in winter. Other birds I saw that day were rock bunting, wheatear and alpine accentor, and a solitary mallard in the Estanyet de Port de Ratera.

Near the pass I found Globe-headed rampion (Phyteuma hemisphaericum), which grows in the highest reaches of the park, up to 3,000m, thriving in thin sandy soils. Starry saxifrage (Saxifraga stellaris) was in flower by a stream.

Another resilient high altitude species is the Mountain pine (Pinus uncinata). One grows near the pass, braced against the prevailing north-west wind. Another, on the south side of Els Encantats at 2,700m, is a candidate for the highest tree of Spain. Bark blending into stone, they are capable of growing out of a fissured rock.

Pyrenees (iv) Els Encantats

Written by Lucy Brzoska

Presiding over the Sant Maurici lake, this vast two-peaked monolith is omnipresent in local hikes – a yardstick to measure how far you’ve walked and how high you’ve reached.

In the legend of Els Encantats, two hunters were enticed onto the mountain by the biggest chamois they’d ever seen, and then blasted by lightening for daring to mock the good villagers at mass in Sant Maurici’s chapel. Their fossilised remains, two splinters of rock, can be seen between the peaks.

Everywhere there are bleached, twisted wrecks of trees, another reminder of the dangers of lightning. With afternoon storms forecast, I didn’t aim to go far. The day had started misty and still, but seemingly from nowhere, waves of wind began searing through the crags. Suddenly the sky was an electric blue, and my hands were frozen. Clouds were surging past, and over the shoulders of Els Encantats a cumulo-nimbus was rising. Enhancing the vividness of the moment, a stunning tangerine-coloured butterfly was browsing at the shore of the Sant Maurici lake: a Scarce copper (Lycaena virgaureae).

I climbed up to a spot protected from the wind, with the whole majestic block of Els Encantats in view – from the peaks, with the doomed hunters inbetween, to the creamy-white glaciar in its belly button – a vestige of the 400m-deep glacier that once filled the Escrita valley.

I could see silver glitter racing across the Estany de Sant Maurici in the valley bottom, the water a deep turquoise compared to the dark blue of higher lakes, which lack sediments, minerals and algae. I was watching a flock of crossbills prise open pine cones but the sky beyond the great mountain was now the darkest blue – time to go.

Pyrenees (iii): Two-legged and hoofless

Written by Lucy Brzoska

On my second attempt to walk to the Port de Ratera, I took the GR 11, which goes directly there and beyond. It takes you round the Estany (lake) de Ratera, with its marshy grass and hairy Bog cotton (eriophorum angustifolium).

Further up, the path narrows, and you reach the Estany de les Obagues de Ratera (the Lake on the dark side of the Ratera). Red and white poles stop you getting lost, so the map could’ve stayed folded, but once open, a tempting alternative materialised, leading away from the GR 11 up to some tiny lakes. The contrast with the previous day was brutal. The way was marked by cairns, to guide you over an avalanche of rocks. Going became a little easier as the path crept along a narrow strip of grass skirting a vertical wall. There were traces of chamois everywhere. What took me half an hour of awkward balancing they could skip across in 3 minutes. There was no sign of any lakes.

I reached an outcrop of Mountain pines (Pinus uncinata) and sat in their shade, as if for protection. Unsoftened by vegetation or water, this was the harsh side of the mountains. The dead silence was broken by the cawing of a raven. Back at the Estany de Obagues de Ratera, I noticed a round white spot in a crevice: a dipper (Cinclus cinclus). Scouting around the streams I found some late pink and white orchids (see discussion on forum). There were also Field gentians (Gentianella campestris), discrete but welcome flowers at the end of summer. Small details, but very reassuring after the stark wilderness higher up.

This time I kept to the GR 11, but in the other direction. Instead of taking one of the jeep taxis that wait on the hour at the Sant Maurici lake, I walked back to Espot. The path follows the sunny side of the Escrita river, through meadows and tunnels of hazlenut trees. The dark side is covered by a thick mass of uniform fir forest haunted by capercaillies. The setting sun escaped from the clouds, lighting up the valley and the leaf flurries shed by silver birches. Long shadows were cast eastwards towards the mountains of Andorra.

Pyrenees (ii) Hanging Valley

Written by Lucy Brzoska

A mountain pass is a chance to look into another world, or at least into the next valley, so with a great choice of trails heading out from the Sant Maurici lake, I decided to walk to the Port de Ratera via the Refugio d’Amitges. The map showed an interesting looking path, an alternative to the more direct jeep track.

The way was unsignposted but quite well marked by cairns, and I only strayed twice, where the path branched. After a summer in sandals, I felt clumsy in heavy boots, stumbling over the rocks and gasping from the sheer steepness.

The path wound through a knot of Mountain pines and dense alpenrose, emerging onto a small plateau. It was a resting place for a narrow river that had just finished cascading down a cliff. It now paused to meander peacefully among grass and flowers, before resuming its turbulent course, crashing down into the Ratera lake, as the Cascada de la Ratera.

It was an arcadian scene at an altitude of 2,200 m. The water was crystal clear. Orange fritillaries floated among heather and harebells still glistening with rain drops after last night’s storm. The distant roar from the waterfall faded in and out with the gusts of wind. A one-horned chamois (Rupicapra pyrenaica) foraged among the boulders on the other side, unperturbed as long as I kept my distance. Perhaps it had found a patch of alpine clover, with its delicious liquorice-flavoured roots.

After some false starts, I located the path on the other side of the stream, and more steep climbing took me to a cluster of small lakes. Tiny frogs clung to stalks of grass, among white starry flowers. Unexpected murmurs came from the rocks, where water trickled unseen.

Besides its proliferation of lakes (272 in all), the park is also renowned for the splintered crests of its mountains, a myriad of crags and needles, the result of freeze-thaw action. The roving clouds fragment the mountains even more, as the sun selectively illuminates a peak or picks out a crevasse. Highly sculpted, yet never static, it’s a landscape that is renewed with every step you take.

I also appreciated the park’s capacity for regeneration in another sense. It bears the weight of visitors lightly – you wouldn’t guess it had just emerged from the busiest month of the year. In the peace of that day, a weathered clothes tag found by a rock, “Boreal UK”, seemed it was lost a decade ago.

In such surroundings, and with so much new flora and fauna to take in, you enter a different time dynamic, disassociated with your watch. I could hardly believe the time – mid-afternoon and, although the Refugio d’Amitges was in sight, the Port de Ratera was still a long way off. I’d try again the following day.

Pyrenees (i) Espot – stone, slate and wood

Written by Lucy Brzoska

There’s an air of expectation about the village of Espot. Hikers are shouldering their packs. The main drag is lined with jeep taxis, ready to run people as far as the Sant Maurici lake. No sooner had I arrived, I was longing to be off, up the long Escrita valley, to the lakes and high peaks.

For Espot is essentially a place for practicalities, somewhere to find food and a bed: a good base for exploring the Aigüestortes and Sant Maurici National Park. It was only after three days, when a storm chased me down early from the heights, that I went to look around.

The river Escrita runs west to east and divides the village into Espot Solau (sunny) and Espot Obago (shady). The Solau is the flatter side- it’s where the wealthier villagers established their homes in the past. There’s the usual smattering of cranes as apartments go up. A new complex advertises “the privilege of living in the Solau”. You too can have your place in the sun.

But there’s still a meadow, recently mowed, and the old slate roofs have rustied over with a moss that glows mustard yellow in the sun.

Over on the shady side, the houses shelter close together on steep and narrow streets. Cats slip through gaps under wooden doors. Near the top, sheep were bleating inside a barn. Stone, slate and wood, and the occasional boulder, are the building materials.

After the downpour, children, supervised by their grandmothers, were back out playing, and birds had resumed their activities. In Espot Solau, there was a constant traffic of swallows flying in and out of a half-restored barn. A bunch of young Crag martins (Ptyonoprogne rupestris) perched on the end of a wooden beam.

They exercised their wings, took short flights and begged – off each other as much as their parents.

Herons and Pelicans

The breeding season over for another year, by the end of August most herons have dispersed – though some will roost in the zoo during the winter. I found the plane trees deserted, with nursery activity reduced to the pines overlooking the pelicans, where young Cattle and Little egrets were still being fed. A handful of recently fledged herons also remained.

One grew tired of throat-wobbling and yakking, and crash-landed through the branches into the flamingo enclosure. The lion pen, fortunately, is quite far away. Dark and dishevelled, as if it had come through a chimney, it explored the area, not entirely sure where it was going. A more mature juvenile, sleek in morning suit-grey, exhibited the next stage of plumage in young herons.

The keeper arrived with a container of live goldfish, which he freed into the pelicans’ moat. It’s one way of stirring the hefty birds into action. They enthusiastically set about catching their lunch, casting their expandable bills sideways under water, like fishing nets. And there was plenty left for egrets and herons to practice their fishing skills too, deploying quite different strategies: the egrets would run after their prey, poised to change direction in an instant, while the herons relied on their long sinuous necks to snatch the fleeing fish. Owners of ornamental garden ponds would have had to look away.

As they live directly underneath the heronry, and share a fish diet, the pelicans are the captives most affected by its spectacular expansion. But although their placid existence has been disrupted, this year a pelican chick was successfully hatched, a rare occurrence in the zoo.

The one-footed Malibu stork that used to share the enclosure was immediately transferred elsewhere. A tough, powerfully-billed old warrior, it would brazen it out with the herons at their most competitive, while the pelicans, overwhelmed, huddled in a corner.

The baby pelican has grown into a vast fleecy lump that spends its life on a pedestal, being fed by doting parents. It appeared quite capable of looking after itself, lunging at one of the herons when it came too near. The startled heron waited till the chick had dozed off before approaching again, seeking out any forgotten fish.

Pelicans, herons and egrets, all were in moult, with feathers sticking out at odd angles, waiting to fall. The pelicans were like shabby old eiderdowns, shedding clouds of feathers. The plane tree leaves were also drifting down, and soon the empty nests will be visible again.