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.

Early birds on Montjuic

Written by Lucy Brzoska

Remains of last night’s storm were still strewn across the eastern sky this morning. But the sun struggled free just as I reached the castle and it turned into a cold but clear day.

Too early for tourists, the castle was alive with birds, who find unexpected sources of water to drink and bathe in. A leaking waterpipe has created a long damp streak on the wall, like a banner of blue silk unfurled from the ramparts, capturing the vividness of the sky. There was a constant movement of visitors clinging to the wet stones. Black redstarts, which congregate in Barcelona for the winter, flurried to and fro, chasing each other in between sips. A handsome Great tit stopped by for a while, waistcoat matching the yellow poplar leaves. A lilting flock of goldfinches arrived, sweetly calling. The House sparrows, residents of the castle walls, had their turn, as did serins, a couple of Coal tits and a Tree creeper.

Round the corner, water has collected in an old stone gutter, to which someone once hastily attached a plastic pipe. A Blue rock thrush (Monticola solitarius) disappeared inside, emerging ruffled and damp. It dried off on the end of a canon.

This port-facing side of the castle is a haven in winter, secure from the north and westerly winds. The walls act like a storage heater, absorbing the sun all day. Sweet alyssum (Lobularia maritima) has spread unchecked on the grassy slopes, its fragrance living up to its name. A faded, threadbare Red admiral sunbathed on the wall. High up near the battlements, a Painted lady (Vanessa cardui) spread its wings on a plant rooted between two stones. Crag martins turned circles over the dazzling sea, over the castle and the half-bare fig tree. They only come in winter, but their leisurely swoops remind you of summer.