Archive for December, 2008

Boars in Collserola

Written by Lucy Brzoska

I found a palette of colours as autumn turned to winter in Collserola. It’s at this time of year that the variety of trees is most visible: the darker green of holm oak (Quercus ilex), the silvery olives (Olea europaea), the broccoli-green of stone pines (Pinus pinea), and the yellow-brown of deciduous oaks (Quercus cerroides), who are in no hurry to shed their leaves.

The constant rainfall this autumn – not the usual torrential storms, but steady day-long rain – has made moss and lichen flourish. A startling rock by the path is encrusted with orange-yellow lichen on top, and emerald-green moss on the side. The ground is a constellation of moss and earth stars, most of which have already popped. A vivid dark red fungus (a species of Russula) has pushed up through the pine needles, like a mole tunnelling its way out the ground.

A plastic strip tied to a tree guides you up the overgrown terraces, long abandoned. Butcher’s broom grows in the gloom, hung with smooth red balls. A gang of Pekin robins (Leiothrix lutea) express their displeasure at my presence with angry rasping calls. I climb up to the ridge, where spiny Mediterranean gorse (Ulex parviflorus) flowers among the rocks. You can see that Montseny is still powdered with snow, while the Pyrenees are solid icing-sugar white.

Instead of following the ridge back to Vallvidrera, I decide to take the path that skirts the coolest, shadiest corners of the valley. With so few shopping days left before Christmas, it’s very quiet. Probably only a handful of mountain bikers have passed all day. The wings of chaffinches vibrate inside a wild olive. The smallest member of a roving mixed flock, a goldcrest (Regulus regulus), investigates the tip of an oak branch.

The path steepens and it’s almost impossible not to run down . . . straight into a tribe of boars, who scatter through the leaf litter. A male with visible tusks gallops up the slope, where he stands huffing and puffing among the trees, staring belligerently. Poor light and the excitement of the moment has resulted in a less than clear image.

After they finally disperse, I reassure myself that no one in Collserola has ever been attacked by a boar. Their population in the park is estimated at 650 and rising. This season, the hunting clubs of the Collserola region are on strike in retaliation to new restrictions on their activities. Their demands have been partly met: they can continue killing thrushes, for instance. But rabbit shooting is still not permitted in the woods, and the number of days when hunting is allowed in the park has not been increased. So the hunters are envisaging a Collserola so overrun with rampaging boars that the administrative powers will come on bended knee next year and grant them all they desire.

Meanwhile, the boar population is controlled to some extent by forest rangers, who shoot the ones that leave the park limits to explore urban areas. This upsets the residents, some of whom can’t resist feeding the inquisitive beasts and become fond of them. After taming the boars, they have the unpleasant surprise of coming home to a bloodstained street and bodies piled up by their front doors.

Beech woods, volcanoes and beans

Written by Lucy Brzoska

Just before pulling into Olot, the bus passes the dramatically positioned village of Castellfollit. A vast senyera¹ draped from the church tower catches your eye. In Olot town centre, people crowd into the narrow streets, filled with market stalls on a Saturday morning, to a soundtrack of sardanas². This La Garrotxa, deep Catalunya.

¹ Catalan flag ² traditional Catalan dance music

As we walked out of town, the sun grew stronger, and the majestic snow-laden Pyrenees came into view, where hordes were skiing away the long weekend – the Puente de la Constitución. The mellow, late autumnal weather suited the gentle landscape of rounded hills – many of them volcanic cones -, fields, farmhouses and woods. Soon we were mingling with beech trees.

The reason the Fageda¹ d’en Jordá survives is presumably the lava flow on which it grows, which makes the land not worth cultivating. It’s surprisingly flat and – at 550-600m – low for an Iberian beech wood so near the southern edge of the tree’s range. In nearby Montseny, much more under the Mediteranean’s influence, beeches grow mainly between 1300-1700m.

¹ Beech wood

The Fageda’s accessibility means that on Sunday mornings it can feel like a genteel park, where people stroll sedately and bid each other good day. If men still wore hats they’d be doffing them. A final touch would be to hide speakers in the bird boxes to broadcast sardanas.

But on Saturday afternoon it was so peaceful you could hear a murmuring of decomposition from the thick carpet of coppery leaves, recently-shed. The beautiful monotony of the wood casts a spell as you wander around, endlessly repeating the here and now.

For beeches are good at fending off other species of trees and plants. They are experts at monopolising light, water and nutrients. Their weapons are a densely knit canopy, widespreading roots and copious leaf litter to smother the ground. Their leaves even contain a compound that impedes the germination of other plants.

Outcrops of black volcanic rock – resembling the carbon¹ naughty children get at Christmas – push out of the leaf bed and disrupt the uniformity. The rock is used in long stretches of moss-softened walls.

¹ sweets that look like lumps of coal

Our destination was Santa Pau, a fortified Medieval village, so picturesque that from a distance you can see camera flashes going off as visitors prowl its walls. Bags of fesols are sold – the local speciality of dried beans – though the sheer quantity of beans for sale makes you wonder if they’re all locally grown.

The next day we found a wilder, steeper beech forest on the higher slopes of the Serra de Finestres, which guards La Garrotxa to the south. The walk took us through contrasting woods: in a sheltered corner of the hills there were evergreen Holm oaks, densely tangled with creepers, typical of a Mediterranean climate. These gave way to deciduous oaks, the pale sun shining through their mustard-coloured leaves. Finally, higher up, we entered the clean silent grandeur of beech wood, whose leafless branches look like smoke from a distance.

Once at the top, looking south, the other face of the mountain was formed of exposed cliffs, like a waistband above skirts of dark green Holm oak. On a clearer day we would’ve seen the Costa Brava from up here, as well as the Pyrenees to the north. In the ruined walls near the Santuari de Santa Maria, excursionists were feasting on freshly grilled butifarras¹ and wine, and we were cordially invited to join in.

¹ sausages

Soon clouds started to settle on the sierra, and we began the descent. Smoke from the farmhouses merged with the mist, and flocks of chaffinches and hawfinches flew up from the fields. Two hunting dogs, with bells attached to their collars, came along the track, out on their own excursion. Woodpeckers tapped industriously. As the mist dropped lower, the day slowly turned to night.

Firecrest season

Written by Lucy Brzoska

Bitterly cold winds keep people out of the park. In a low season atmosphere, the gardeners are cleaning the pond and cutting the hedges. The rows of lime trees are nearly bare, their last leaves flying across the grass. Only the Ginkgos are still in full flare, with a pool of fan-shaped leaves accumulating beneath.

Another source of intense colour, though much more condensed, are the firecrests, plentiful this season, and mixed up with assorted tits and the occasional goldcrest. Firecrests (Regulus ignicapillus) are very tolerant of people: they seem far too busy making inventories of every bush and tree to spare you any attention. You hear their high thin calls and realise you’re surrounded by tiny birds, whirring and hovering. You get quick glimpses of masked eyes, orange crests, and yellowy-green mantles.

Another energetic feeder, a Grey wagtail (Motacilla cinerea), speedwalks on the grass, constantly changing direction. It sallies forth, tail bobbing, then veers to the left before suddenly taking off, only to land again and take a completely new route. Like the firecrest, it’s moved into town for the winter. Its more usual habitat of fast-flowing water is reflected in its Spanish and Catalan names: Lavandera cascadeña and Cuereta torrentera.

The round ornamental hedges have been claimed by robins, who stay vigilant inside their thick cover, planning their next move. Their numbers increase considerably in October, a month when more transient migrants also swell the park’s bird population. This year I saw Pied flycatchers and a kingfisher, as well as a Song thrush digging for worms – a common enough species in other parts but a rare visitor to Pedralbes park.

Going back to the regulars, in this cold season the Monk parakeets (Myiopsitta monachus) look round and well-fed. Watching these versatile feeders happily grazing on grass, you feel they could never go hungry. A group opposite my bench chew their way through endless stalks of the stuff, blinking placidly, as if they find the act of munching on grass calming.