Wood warbler spring

Five days of rain, rough seas, and a lowering dark sky. The strong easterly winds at the peak of spring migration swept many birds off their usual path, and some of the lucky ones made it ashore in Catalunya.

Observations of Wood warblers, which breed mainly north of Iberia, are usually scarce in Catalunya.  This year, by the end of April, Ornithocat had recorded more than 200. On one of these dark rainy afternoons, I found several on Montjuic, scouring the trees along with Willow warblers. This photo was taken when the weather improved, the Wood warbler’s lemon yellow throat reflecting light under a freshly grown canopy.

Even in the gloom, the male Pied flycatchers were sharply visible. They are regular transients through Barcelona, but rarely seen in such density as this year.

On the last night of the deluge, the rain stopped just at dawn. On Montjuic, everything was steaming as the sun rose. A tremendous concentration of migrants had built up.  In the pine woods, every tree seemed to harbour a flycatcher (mainly Pied, but also Spotted), sallying out at regular intervals, gorging on the thick clouds of flies on this almost tropical morning. You could hear nightingales and Golden orioles singing, and observe many other species you might not expect to find in Barcelona, including Woodchat shrikes, whinchats, whitethroats and Common redstarts.

Even before the bad weather, I’d come across a pair of Woodchat shrikes who’d stopped to replenish forces on Montjuic. While the male sang from the top of a tree, the female tugged at a lizard impaled on an acacia thorn.

On the Cami del Mar, the Black redstarts had moved on to their breeding grounds by the start of April. Briefly in their place appeared a resplendent Common redstart.

Written by Lucy Brzoska

What do Barcelona’s parakeets eat in autumn?

Written by Lucy Brzoska

You could hear the sounds of contented chomping from a distance. The fig trees scattered around Montjuic were heavily laden this September, much to the delight of Monk parakeets and other birds.

In October Magnolia trees in the Jardins de Mossèn Cinto Verdaguer produce large pods of shiny red berries, which are particularly appreciated by Great tits and Ring-necked parakeets. Far less common than Monks in Barcelona – and far shyer – Ring-necks are distinguished by their long thin tails, and higher-pitched screech.

November sees the climax of the acorn crop in Palau Reial Park. Along with Wood pigeons, red squirrels and jays, Monk parakeets are to be found either foraging on the ground under the oaks, or up in the tree tops. No stashing away for the winter though, the acorns are gobbled up on the spot.

 

Close encounter on Montjuïc: Peregrine falcons

Written by Lucy Brzoska

For 2 or 3 weeks a year, when the Montjuic peregrine falcons fledge, you can watch incredible displays as they practice their flight skills.  Often you get very close views as they pass close to the hillside.

But it’s not often you find one sitting on the ground in the middle of the Cami del Mar. I could see its heavily stippled breast – these markings turn into lightly spotted horizontal bars in the adults.

On my approach, the falcon flew up to the wooden fence, scanned the sky for its siblings and went back up to join them.

All three were out flying, constantly tilting at each other, raising their talons. You could see one was smaller – the only male.  Sometimes they chase each other low down, skimming the slopes, negotiating the pine trees.  They practice stoops, wings held stiffly at the sides, transformed into missiles.  They sometimes break off to go after a seagull or unwary magpie.

The week before, I’d watched a gull lunge at one of the young falcons, briefly grasping it on the back.  The juvenile raptor screamed and feathers floated down. Yellow-legged gulls are large, with wingspans of up to 140 cm. The Peregrines seem much smaller alongside them, more compact, a female wingspan reaching 113 cm. The gulls are aggressive, and saturate the air space over the Montjuic cliffs.

A week of experience later, and the falcons are outmanoeuvring the gulls with ease. A flicker and they’re out of reach. They go after the gulls and make them squeal.  The play is still very gentle.

One of the falcons comes to rest in a nearby pine tree, wings outstretched.  It looks straight at me, with enormous dark eyes, and moves to a branch a little further away.  They haven’t learnt to be fully afraid of us yet.

Peregrine falcons have become urban birds, encouraged to nest on buildings with specially installed boxes. Barcelona has several pairs, most famously in the Sagrada Familia.  You could describe those on Montjuic as semi-urban, as they nest in a scrap of inaccessible wilderness, but when they take to the air, they are soaring over cranes, heavy traffic, and ship containers.

 

Birds on Migration in Barcelona

Written by Lucy Brzoska

The three Honey buzzards soaring over Montjuic Castle run into a swarm of Alpine swifts, and start circling to gain height.  When they are specks they continue southwards. They are the most notable of the raptors who take the Catalan coastal route.

Montjuic overflows with birds during autumn migration.  Swallows are swooping low over freshly cut grass. The robin population has multiplied.  One feisty individual is jostling other birds out of a stand of trees. The woods and parks become incredibly crowded with them: too many robins in the broth, so inevitably some have to keep moving further south or inland.

Another redbreast is in evidence, the Common redstart, far from common in Barcelona, and only glimpsed on spring and autumn passage. Unlike its not particularly close relative, the Black redstart, who arrives to spend the winter, its destination is tropical Africa.

Flycatchers – spotted and pied – make protracted stopovers in the city’s parks, breaking up the long haul south. The warm weather ensures plenty of insects so they can fatten up for the tough journey ahead: the sea followed by a desert that’s expanding year by year. Slim, sprightly birds, you notice them as they repeatedly launch themselves to scoop up prey and return to the same perch.

In the woods, firecrests are back, travelling with the tit flocks, always in the lowest branches, and last to move on. There was lots to eat in this holm oak infested with gall midge larvae.

Three winter birds in Barcelona

Written by Lucy Brzoska

These three insectivores find winter feeding opportunities in Barcelona’s sheltered urban environment on the Mediterranean coast.  They also share an ability to go about their business undisturbed by human proximity.

White wagtails are a common sight on the pavements and in the parks, careering after their prey.  One theory for the constant tail wagging is that it gives an impression of alertness to potential predators.  This Wagtail, zigzagging along the paths in Pedralbes Park, wears a winter plumage, with white throat and chin, and a faint yellow tinge to the face.  In summer they look much more pied.

white-wagtail-motacilla-alba-winter-plumage

By the end of the winter the Black redstarts who’ve moved into town become quite approachable, though finding corners where they can stay aloof from the bustle and noise.  In comparison with the Wagtails, they’re often to be seen static on a vantage point, sharply scanning the vicinity for food.  A beautiful male was sitting on one of the fig trees of Montjuic, smoky grey plumage fluffed out on a crisp cold day.

black-redstart-phoenicurus-ochruros-adult-male

This Chiffchaff was one of several who had gathered around the park pond, snatching insects while hovering over the water or scooping them off the surrounding wall.  Small and inconspicuous, one regularly comes to the balcony to pick off the tiny bugs that always seem to infest my plants.

chiffchaff-phylloscopus-collybita

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.

The Black redstarts of the Camí del Mar

Written by Lucy Brzoska

Large numbers of Black redstarts (Phoenicurus ochruruos) move into Barcelona every winter, and some of them settle in Montjuic’s Camí del Mar (Sea Walk), a prime location. Where the castle wall forms a right angle and a palm tree with a fire-blackened trunk reaches the battlements, a handsome male has established his territory.

He’s often to be seen perching on the rubbish bin, scanning the ground for insects.  Sometimes he briefly clings to the wall, with a flash of white wing patches, to pick a morsel out of its recesses.  His front is dark and sooty.  His back is slate grey with a faint hint of blue.

Another Black redstart presides over the grassy slopes by the small fig tree.  Grey-brown, it could be a female or a first-winter male.

There are many theories for why the majority of young male Black redstarts stay mouse-brown and only moult into full adult finery in their second autumn. Suggested advantages include less attention from predators or aggressive rival males.

But some of the first-winter males have nearly managed to moult into full adult plumage first time round: they only lack the natty white wing panels, like this individual, who can be seen by the steps leading up to the castle draw bridge.

Regardless of sex or age, all Black redstarts have fiery red tails, which they constantly flick.  They have an alert demeanour, bobbing up and down, reminiscent of a robin.

There’s an interesting study of Black redstarts and the phenomenon of delayed plumage maturation here.

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.

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.