Archive for June, 2010

Black-tailed Skimmers at lunchtime

Written by Lucy Brzoska

With parallel worlds evolving in the park, it’s amazing what can be happening by your elbow, unnoticed.

I’ve seen squirrels hanging upside down on the tree trunks, looking down at oblivious heads only inches away.  Or Black rats bursting out of the hedge, flying straight into a litter bin, while people chat or have lunch nearby, none the wiser. And the other day it was the Black-tailed Skimmers.

A pair were trying to mate in the wide expanse of the palace forecourt, getting pestered by a lone marauding male.   The couple finally found some peace and quiet on the stone balustrade that runs behind the semi circle of benches.

black-tailed-skimmers-orthetrum-cancellatum

You could clearly see the way the male folds the darkened tip of his flexible abdomen over the head of the female, to secure her in position.  Or the way the female uses four legs to hold onto her partner, while the third pair gets tucked right back, neatly out of the way.

Perhaps I disturbed them, because the Skimmers flew over to a flowering bush, next to a woman absorbed in her newspaper. The dragonflies, their green eyes like aviator goggles, held on tight, as the twig swung in the breeze.

black-tailed-skimmers-in-wheel-position

After separating, the female rested on the ground for a while.  Female Black-tailed Skimmers emerge into the world bright yellow, but with age can change colour.  This one had an indeterminate grey green shimmer.

female-black-tailed-skimmer1

I saw her zipping over the ornamental fountain, dropping off eggs at a terrific speed.  The only pity is it wasn’t the pond, where chances of hatching are significantly higher.

A new generation of damselflies

Written by Lucy Brzoska

All round the pond, firmly stuck to the low concrete wall, were quantities of papery husks.  I immediately suspected what they might be, remembering the concentration of mating Western Willow Spreadwings (Lestes viridis) in the park last autumn.  It must have been a spectacular sight to see the nymphs emerge from the pond in such numbers and burst out of their unravelling skins.

One damselfly was still clinging to an exuvia, much smaller than itself. How could it fit inside?  Reading up, I found that once half out, they pause and inflate their wings and abdomen into shape with hemolymph, the insect equivalent of blood.

lestes-viridis-damselfly-with-exuvia

Looking closely at one of the exuvia, it appears like a Mutoid Waste sculpture. The long “snout” is the labial mask, or lower lip, which the nymph flips open to grab passing prey.

lestes-viridis-exuvia-showing-labial-mask

The nymphs do their work well. The two biology students who volunteer to keep algae levels at a  level acceptable for park authorities found no mosquito larvae in the pond at all.

After the mass metamorphosis, the damselflies had dispersed, but I did find one pristine young female clinging to a leaf.  Her wings had a pink shimmer and were still held close together, not at the 45 degree angle that gives the species its name.  With any luck, in a few weeks she would be laying eggs in the bamboo grove by the water’s edge.

lestes-viridis-damselfy-recently-emerged

Three flowers on Montjuic (part 2)

Written by Lucy Brzoska

“Off with their heads!” Parcs y jardins on Montjuic share the Red Queen’s mantra, waging war on the wild flowers that dare to approach the castle.  It’s a losing battle in spring though, their scythes and sprays can’t keep up.

From a distance, the pasitos (Anacyclus valentinus) appear like dense yellow spots.  Close up, the geometric intricacy of unopened florets makes your eyes whirr.

anacyclus-valentinus2anacyclus-valentinus1

At the edge of the pine wood, a cluster of Reseda lutea – Wild Mignonette – look printed on the grass: an abstract pattern of toppling cones.

wild-mignonette-reseda-lutea

Further along the road, there was a surprise half-hidden in the grass.  The Bee Orchid (Ophrys apifera) is always a marvel, but its appearance at the edge of this scrap of woodland, on an over-used, over-developed patchwork hill, with a 100 different functions (a dogs home is to be squeezed in next), seemed like a miracle.  Its utter strangeness was brought into sharp relief.

bee-orchid-ophrys-apifera-with-pollinia

As you approach, the impression of a bumble bee disappears altogether, taken over by a laughing homunculus.  It was like coming face to face with one of the bizarre characters from Doctor Slump.  You can see the waxy pollen clusters, the pollinia, dangling form the duck head helmet.

The green-veined sepals on this plant were a very pale pink.  The side lobes of the labellum are like welcoming furry arms.

bee-orchid-ophrys-apifera-on-montjuic

In the end someone got there before Parcs i Jardins.  Within a week, both orchid plants had been dug out.

A walk in Montseny

Written by Lucy Brzoska

White tufts were floating up into the stratosphere.  It was liberation time for poplar wool, with clouds of the stuff trapped among the grass like studio mist.  It was also the time when flowers explode.  There were places where one species had rioted to the exclusion of all others.  A ditch in Campins was thickly covered in Tufted Vetch and above the field the slope was pink with Snapdragons.

snapdragons-in-montseny

Water was rushing down the varied slopes of Montseny.  Where the GR5 climbs out of Campins, streams were pouring into brimming irrigation tanks.  Swallows were bathing on the wing, skimming in and out of the water like stones, and then preening on the wire.  Buzzard calls were coming from the farmhouse roof: the Montseny starlings do a good impersonation.

The path takes you through endlessly changing habitats.  In the sheltered cork oak wood, it almost felt like summer, partly because of the steepness of the track.  Among the white rock roses, filaments glittered in the aromatic heat: the micro moths.  Hairstreaks (Callophrys rubi) blended with the leaves, both matt green.

green-hairstreak-on-cistus-salvifolius

The route levels off by open fields, heavily grazed by cows, who often plod along the track in search of more succulent fare. I noticed some austere purple stems among the pines.  Some were producing violet flowers, with the familiar orchid shape: it was the Violet Limodore or Violet Bird’s-nest Orchid, a chlorophyll-free saprophyte.

violet-birds-nest-orchid-limodorum-abortivum

Among the pine needles were pure white Stars of Bethlehem, whose petals have cool green stripes underneath.  They’d survived the cows, though their leaves had been bitten off.  A froghopper was emerging from the safety of its blob of spit.

froghopper-emerging

I tiptoed through the farmyard, vainly hoping not to wake up the guard dog, who bursts out of his wooden kennel en cue, like an enraged cuckoo in a clock.  The outraged snarls fading away, I found a meadow tangled up with a dizzy array of flowers: Tassle hyacinths, euphorbias, daisies, buttercups, plantains, vetch, more Stars of Bethlehem embedded deep down, Crimson Peas, poppies.

If you look closely at a flower in May, you’re almost bound to see a spider – dashing to the other side like a woodpecker round a tree trunk – or a technicolour beetle.  My guide to Montseny suggests this hairy individual, with its red and black stripes and turquoise head, is a Trichodes apiarius, or Bee beetle.  Its larvae prey on beehives, while the adult visits flowers in search of pollen and small insects.

bee-beetle-trichodes-apiarius