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.

Snake in the Wall

Written by Lucy Brzoska

What drew my attention was the lizard dropping off the wall.

I was on the Camí del mar, a path that circles Montjuic castle and overlooks the sea, which on this misty, warm day merged seamlessly into the sky. People were walking, running or cycling. An old man sunning himself on a bench had brought along a goldfinch, which sang in its cage. The fig trees were still green, but their large leaves had stiffened and occasionally one came clattering down.

From a distance, the castle looks a warm sandy colour, but close up each of the stone bricks is unique, the faded red and yellow patterns sometimes erupting into psychedelic swirls. The quarries of Montjuic have yielded a lot of sandstone for the city’s buildings.

In places the stones have been crudely patched up with cement, but fortunately plenty of cracks and holes remain. There’s no shortage of nesting sites for House sparrows, or refuges for ants, woodlice and spiders. The south-facing slopes of Montjuic are a suntrap, and as the wall heats up, it begins to flicker with lizards.

Approaching the spot where the lizard had made a sudden dive, I noticed a Moorish gecko (Tarentola mauritanica, Salamanquesa común) clinging on near the entrance of a tiny cave. Another step and it withdrew inside.

But there was something far more dangerous than me only two stones away.

The snake, long and slim, lay apparently lifeless, draped on a narrow ledge. When you spot a snake, there’s a tingle of excitement and you hold your breath, almost with disbelief. It came to life and slid into a crevice, keeping watch from within. When I moved, it stretched out its head to keep track of my position.

I didn’t know it was a Montpellier snake ((Malpolon monspessulanus – culebra bastarda) till I got home and checked. The ones I’d seen before were adult, much larger and darker than this slender, well-camouflaged specimen. The unforgettable photograph on Iberianature left no doubt. I recognised the penetrating stare, tapering head and white stripes, like war-paint, below the eyes, although I don’t know if this young one was quite ready to tackle a sparrow yet.

There was a wall-full of prey there, but the Montjuic Montpellier snakes have a reputation for reaching a fiercesome size on a diet of rats.