Unusual sightings on Montjuic

Written by Lucy Brzoska

First thing in the morning, when it was still dark at street level, you could see the gulls overhead burnished with gold by the rising sun.  When I reached the Cami del Mar they were pristine white, soaring in an intensely blue sky.

The sun had cast a blinding sheen on the sea, where cargo ships threatened to combust.  The fierce light probed deep inside the crevices of the castle wall, revealing toasting Moorish geckos and Praying Mantis oothecas.  A Painted Lady opened its brand new wings, glinting with copper dust, oblivious to the biting wind on the other side of the castle.  Only a light breeze ruffled its silky fur.

recently-emerged-vanessa-cardui-in-november

More Black redstarts have been arriving: some were drinking from the leaking pipe, others perched on the Agave masts.  These vanished, to be replaced by something stockier, with long yellow legs.  I’ve never seen a Sparrowhawk on Montjuic before, the terrain of cliff-nesting Peregrine falcons and Kestrels.  Accompanied by attentive magpies, the small raptor changed perch, and then took off, a soaring silhouette over the yellow cranes in the port.

sparrowhawk-in-barcelona

Further along, an even more unusual sighting.  A bird flew up to the castle in an unfamiliar series of shallow swoops.  Tawny stipples on the breast, a yellow base to the bill and wings edged with white spots – it was an Alpine Accentor down at sea level.  The last time I saw one was in the Pyrenees at about 2,000 metres.

alpine-accentor-at-sea-level-in-barcelona

Montjuic is a tempting stopover for birds on migration, a small green island on their coastal route, full of feeding opportunities.The records on www.ornitho.cat this autumn show redwing, siskins, Meadow pipits, Song thrushes, Cirl buntings, Common redstarts, Tree pipits, Subalpine warblers, a hawfinch, skylark and the tail feather of a nightjar.

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.

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.

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.