Late July in the park

Written by Lucy Brzoska

Up in the pine trees, the hectic sawing of the cicadas almost drowns out the parakeets. The sprinklers are on in force, hissing curtains of recycled rain water. When puddles form on the paths, magpies and parakeets waddle over to bathe.  A Tree rat emerges from the undergrowth, spruce and bright-eyed, and wants to join in, but is driven off by a magpie.  Tail-pecking is a tried and trusted technique, often used on cats.

I get to see my first ever cicada.  It seems ludicrous that I’d never seen one before. Fixed quite low on the tree, its body vibrates without pause, long wings curved like sycamore seeds.

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Over in the pond, an inevitable Red-eared slider swims ponderously past.    Someone’s also introduced shoals of small gold fish – several days hunting for any kingfisher passing by next autumn.  Dragonflies sunbathe on the stone slabs round the edge and I try to sneak up for a closer look.

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The Broad Scarlet Darter (Crocothemis erythraea) is almost transluscent under the hot sun.  It’s saturated with colour, which spills over to the wings, where the veins near the body are like red netting.  The amber pterostygma at the tips are like small stained glass windows.

There’s another basking dragonfly – the Blacktailed Skimmer (Orthetrum cancellatum) – stocky and powder blue.

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So many male dragonflies – where are the females? I spot two Scarlet Darters coupled up in the wheel position.  Once released, the beige-coloured female oviposits pogoing across the water, dangerously oblivious to the group of young mallards.  One lunges at her, but she’s away.

Birds in the bush

Written by Lucy Brzoska

There are two main parts to Pedralbes Park – an ornamental open space, divided by an avenue of lime trees, which leads to a wooded area further back. Bushes of Japanese spindle (Euonymus japonicus) – an oriental evergreen shrub – add symmetry to the triangular lawns. Gardeners find this unfussy and drought-resistant plant very useful, as do robins (Erithacus rubecula), who appreciate its dense cover. In January the berries attract Sardinian warblers (Sylvia melanocephala) at a time when insects are scarce.

It’s not only birds that enjoy the fruit. The Japanese spindle has been trimmed into an extensive hedge, enclosing the lawns. Protracted rustling from within attracted my attention.

Two Black rats (Rattus rattus) were feasting on the orange pulp. They looked clean and wholesome, with their pink paws and pale grey underparts.  Their ears are proportionally larger than those of their more urban cousins, the Brown rats, millions of whom are reported to live in Barcelona’s sewers.

Over in the bush near my bench, a robin had appeared in a gap, like a proprietor at the gate, on the lookout for a bit of lunch.

While retrieving a piece of apple, the robin tilted its head skywards, alerting me to the kestrel surveying the park. The parakeets soon drove the predator away.

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.

Cattle Egret in the Park

Written by Lucy Brzoska

An unusual visitor came to the park this week. While people lolled on the grass, kissing, reading and eating lunch, it quietly decimated the park’s lizard population.

Cattle egrets (Bubulcus ibis) breed in Barcelona zoo within the Grey heron colony. Unlike their bigger relatives, they are mainly land foragers and can usually be seen in the fields around the Llobregat Delta. Their adaptability to man-altered habitats is one of the reasons for the Cattle egret’s spectacular worldwide expansion over the last century (first pair bred in UK this year).

The opportunism of the egret in the park was richly rewarded. It stalked the ivy-covered ground, alert for rustling movements. Whenever potential prey was spotted, its neck would start wobbling. The undulation would travel back in waves, till even its tail was shaking. Its head, however, remained quite still. The sinuous movements seemed to be a way of warming up for the final pounce, which was nearly always successful.

The egret’s bill was an efficient pincer, applied with masterful technique. Each lizard was grabbed firmly by the body, away from the detachable tail. Sometimes the helpless lizards would wrap their tails around the egret’s bill, as if desperately trying to bind it. But struggling was useless. Inevitably they would be swallowed head-first, to join the ever-growing pile in the egret’s powerful digestive system.

On a short break, it stopped to preen, and caught a couple of flies, particularly annoying at this time of year. It was a reminder why Cattle egrets are valued by ranchers as an alternative to pesticides. They are often to be seen delicately picking bugs off animals’ backs. But the egret in the park soon went back to its more solid menu, swallowing reptile after reptile.

I began to worry about the park’s lizards, (mainly Podarcis hispanica), who normally enjoy a placid predator-free existence. But later I read about a study of an island population of lizards – the park is like an island in the city, after all – which involved unleashing an alien predator and observing the effect on the resident reptiles. The population was badly hit initially, but the species triumphed, exhibiting longer legs at first (better to run with) and then shorter legs (more useful when they took to the trees). An example of rapid evolutionary resilience.

The Cattle egret returned to hunting, but I’d had enough of observing. My lunch-break was nearly over, and I was starving.

Splash

Palau Reial park provides refuge from summer heat with its cool shade and water. But earlier this year, in a public display of water-saving, the fountains and pond were allowed to run dry. Gaudi’s tiny dragon drinking fountain, much loved by small birds, looked dusty and neglected. Bathing had to be done in temporary puddles or on rain-soaked leaves.

Happily, the reservoirs have reached acceptable levels again and the drought is officially over. As the pond slowly fills up, dragonflies are darting once more, and the birds are enjoying a new lido, before it gets too deep.

At midday, as the cicadas’ wall of sound intensifies, a pair of magpies (Pica pica) arrive for a dip. They’re quite tentative at first, paddling about in the shallow end, sipping the water. They seem distracted by their own reflections.

But soon they’re dunking their heads, tails tilted high. As they splash, they spread out their feathers, allowing the cool water to penetrate right to the skin. There are flashes of metallic blue among the spray.

Encouraged by the sight of splashing magpies, a pair of Monk parakeets (Myiopsitta monachus) decide to join in. I’ve never observed any friction between these two highly gregarious species, the most ubiquitous birds in the park. The magpies and blackbirds have a more prickly relationship, perhaps because blackbirds are often energetically rummaging through the dry leaves and pine needles on the ground, and the magpies fear they’ll uncover a buried stash.

The parakeets sit motionless, nestling side by side in the water, looking rather shy. At moments like this, you can almost forgive them all the screeching and forget about the destructive raids on crops. The pair gradually lose all inhibition. Just like the magpies, they ruffle their plumage and bathe head-first.

Two soggy green clumps of feathers surprisingly can still fly, and repair to the trees to dry off.

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.