In search of Two-tailed Pashas and the Autumn Narcissus

Written by Lucy Brzoska

On a trip to the Mediterranean, far from their Cantabrian mountain homes, Lisa and Teresa ventured into the big city to meet up with the Iberianature Barcelona contingent. Nick and I then accompanied them for a tour of some of the natural spaces that sustain the metropolitan populace.

The Garraf is an antidote to claustrophobic canyons, which is how Barcelona’s streets sometimes feel. It’s an airy expanse of garrigue-covered hills, open to the shining sea. We didn’t have to go far to find the Two-tailed Pasha (Charaxes jasius), top on Lisa and Teresa’s list along with the Autumn narcissus (Narcissus serotinus). While the Pashas chased each other around the fig trees near the visitors’ centre, Lisa and Teresa stalked them with their cameras.

Meanwhile, Nick and I followed a signposted botanical route, an excellent way to learn some of the plant species typical of the area: Kermes oak, Prickly juniper, and cistus. Nick spotted a solitary white flower, fragile among all the tough leathery leaves and spines. It was photographed and duly forgotten. We also discovered that the Garraf strawberry trees (Arbutus unedo) produce some of the best arbutus cherries anywhere: sweet and acidic, unlike the bland fruit I’d tasted before. They clearly thrive on this sun-soaked limestone terrain.

The lonely white flower did turn out to be an Autumn narcissus, as was discovered much later in the car. It was too late to turn back, but Teresa forgave us and continued to share her extensive knowledge. So we were able to learn that the Tree heath (Erica arborea) familiar to everyone who walks in Collserola only grows in acidic soil, and here is replaced by the purple-flowering Mediterranean heath (Erica multiflora). An insect slipping its black segments across the fallen pine needles turned out to be a Glow worm larva (Lampyris noctiluca), with a voracious appetite for snails. A dirty clump of debris hanging on a guardrail was identified as the case of a Bagworm.

After some debate, we decided there was time for the Llobregat Delta. Back down at sea level and just after the turn-off for the reserve, something white caught our eye: an extensive patch of Autumn Narcissi.

After liberal applications of mosquito repellent and an osprey-sighting, we crossed the bridge into the reserve. Outside the hides, translucent herons fished in sparkling water, sandpipers bathed in the shallows, cattle egrets groomed the horses, kingfishers streaked here and there, and spoonbills tried to keep up with their restless spatula-shaped bills.

There was little time left, but Collserola could not be missed. Up by the Forat del Vent, suitably windy, a flock of Pekin robins (Leiothrix lutea) held our attention with their melodious Blackcap-like song. Unlike other exotic escapees that settle in more urban environments, these South Asian cage birds are breeding in woodlands. They’re being monitored but studies suggest their presence has so far had no harmful effect on the authoctonous species.

We’d run out of daylight. After dropping Nick and I off at the metro, Lisa and Teresa drove away for the next stage of their adventure.

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.