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.

 

When winter turns to spring

Written by Lucy Brzoska

February 2012 will be remembered as one of the coldest on record in Catalunya. Waterfalls and rivers froze solid, and thin layers of ice even covered the ponds in Barcelona’s parks. The bitter Siberian air finally abated, and the sun felt warm again. One of the Montjuic castle sparrows was airing his feathers and singing non-stop in celebration.

A prize piece of territory on the Cami del Mar is the corner where people sit and look at the view, and quite often eat at the same time.  The robin that rules there looks sleek and smooth, no longer a ball of fluffy insulation.

Across the road from the Funicular station, there’s a tall row of shrubs, with glossy, laurel-like leaves (Ligustrum lucidum).  Rustling and squabbling sounds emanate, as blackcaps have taken up residence there.  They are coming to the end of a copious supply of berries.

On the Cingles de Berti, small tokens of spring are visible: the first grape hyacinths and liverwort.  A common toad surprised on the path tries to ward off attack by inflating itself and standing on tiptoe, before deciding to bury itself in the leaf mulch.  Then, spotted in the distance, a long strand of birds crosses the sky, forming an immense curve: a hundred cranes powering their way north.

 

Unusual bird sightings: migration

It’s the time of year for unusual sightings in unexpected places. Recent observations recorded on Ornitho.cat include 28 Booted Eagles heading northwest and 2 Ospreys southwest, seen by an observer on a roof in the middle of Barcelona. In Sallent a goshawk was seen eating a mallard and a Black Stork was wheeling over Tordera.  And someone snapped this Griffon vulture on a structure over a busy road near Montserrat.  

Zooming in on Montjuic castle (iii): spring

Written by Lucy Brzoska

The horticultural guides aren’t exaggerating when they describe Common Borage as a very easily grown plant that likes plenty of sun.

common-borage-growing-in-wall

This year, after an abnormally wet winter, it’s even sprouting from the walls of Montjuic castle, having swarmed the slopes below.  As borage flowers droop quite heavily, standing underneath them is a perfect way to appreciate their heavenly colour. People add them to salads for a surreal touch of blue.

The flowers have prominent black stamen that form a pointed cage.  Like other members of the Borage family, their colour can hover between pink and blue, changing with age as cell sap turns alkaline.

common-borage-flower

The old walls are ringing with house sparrow chatter, now the breeding season is underway.  This male was taking a short break outside his particularly noisy nesting hole, out of which issued an endless stream of chirping.

male-house-sparrow-by-nest-hole

Round the corner, a familiar flat-topped silhouette appeared on the barbed wire.  Generations of hoopoes have been raised in the wall cavity there.

hoopoe-on-montjuic

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.

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.

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.