Strictly come raven dancing

Written by Lucy Brzoska

Written by Lucy Brzoska

Trona means pulpit in Catalan. But the great rock bearing this name that thrusts out of the Cingles de Berti feels more like a throne. You can sit up there on great stone slabs and survey the land: the misty Valles plain stretching south towards Barcelona, the rounded peaks of Montseny across the Congost valley to the east, and the Pyrenees to the north. In winter there are Crag martins weaving around, ganging together to chase off a buzzard. Mediterranean heather is in mid-flower, droning with bees. The day I climbed up there I found ravens courting.

Ravens are a constant presence on the Cingles. At the end of the day, they sometimes assemble near the mobile mast above Aiguafreda, where they swirl round and round. On La Trona I watched a single pair: perhaps they were setting up a nest somewhere. I’d been listening to their calls as I climbed up, including bill-knocking and a low but resonant guttural sound. (Listen to a wide range of raven calls here.)

Though very large (bigger than buzzards), they are incredibly graceful birds in flight. They were completely focused on each other, moving in perfect synchrony, sometimes touching. They plummeted down and rose up again, and spun like barrels. I watched until they were swallowed up by the mist rolling from across the flat fields.

 

 

A walk in Montseny

Written by Lucy Brzoska

White tufts were floating up into the stratosphere.  It was liberation time for poplar wool, with clouds of the stuff trapped among the grass like studio mist.  It was also the time when flowers explode.  There were places where one species had rioted to the exclusion of all others.  A ditch in Campins was thickly covered in Tufted Vetch and above the field the slope was pink with Snapdragons.

snapdragons-in-montseny

Water was rushing down the varied slopes of Montseny.  Where the GR5 climbs out of Campins, streams were pouring into brimming irrigation tanks.  Swallows were bathing on the wing, skimming in and out of the water like stones, and then preening on the wire.  Buzzard calls were coming from the farmhouse roof: the Montseny starlings do a good impersonation.

The path takes you through endlessly changing habitats.  In the sheltered cork oak wood, it almost felt like summer, partly because of the steepness of the track.  Among the white rock roses, filaments glittered in the aromatic heat: the micro moths.  Hairstreaks (Callophrys rubi) blended with the leaves, both matt green.

green-hairstreak-on-cistus-salvifolius

The route levels off by open fields, heavily grazed by cows, who often plod along the track in search of more succulent fare. I noticed some austere purple stems among the pines.  Some were producing violet flowers, with the familiar orchid shape: it was the Violet Limodore or Violet Bird’s-nest Orchid, a chlorophyll-free saprophyte.

violet-birds-nest-orchid-limodorum-abortivum

Among the pine needles were pure white Stars of Bethlehem, whose petals have cool green stripes underneath.  They’d survived the cows, though their leaves had been bitten off.  A froghopper was emerging from the safety of its blob of spit.

froghopper-emerging

I tiptoed through the farmyard, vainly hoping not to wake up the guard dog, who bursts out of his wooden kennel en cue, like an enraged cuckoo in a clock.  The outraged snarls fading away, I found a meadow tangled up with a dizzy array of flowers: Tassle hyacinths, euphorbias, daisies, buttercups, plantains, vetch, more Stars of Bethlehem embedded deep down, Crimson Peas, poppies.

If you look closely at a flower in May, you’re almost bound to see a spider – dashing to the other side like a woodpecker round a tree trunk – or a technicolour beetle.  My guide to Montseny suggests this hairy individual, with its red and black stripes and turquoise head, is a Trichodes apiarius, or Bee beetle.  Its larvae prey on beehives, while the adult visits flowers in search of pollen and small insects.

bee-beetle-trichodes-apiarius


Sunday evening in sunny June

Written by Lucy Brzoska

Sometimes on a June evening Barcelona skies fall strangely silent because of an absence of swifts.  They go elsewhere for richer pickings, returning to the concrete sprawl at night.  Standing on the Collserola ridge at dusk, I watched hundreds pour down into the city.

I’d started walking late in the afternoon, skirting the small Vallvidrera reservoir, where families picnicked in the shade and dogs nosed among the algae, silencing the legions of frogs.  Climbing a steep path, where a meagre stream trickles down, I found Rampion Bellflowers and tiny tangy wild strawberries, which no one else had thought to pick.  Iberian Water Frogs (Pelophylax perezi) crouched invisibly in the grass around a small pool. Every time I moved, more would leap into the water and vanish, till it must’ve got quite crowded down there in the mud.

iberian-water-frog

Vallvidrera is posh, but some of the houses near the path were built when this was no man’s land, and the crowing of cockerels mingles with Golden oriole song.  A beautiful Comma butterfly (Polygonia c-album) was perched on a leaf, jagged as a jigsaw piece.  Perhaps it was the same one I’d seen a few days before, puddling on the wet stones, and giving me a glimpse of the neat white mark on its underwing to which it owes its name.

comma-butterfly-underwing-polygonia-c-album

As grass goes to seed, the slopes behind Sant Pere Martir are turning pale gold, the colour of summer.  The bright yellow flowers of broom have nearly gone, and now it’s time for Scabious (Scabiosa atropurpurea).   Its frothy purple-pink blooms are everywhere, on waist-high stems, leaves hardly to be seen, and usually with a butterfly attached.

marbled-white-melanargia-lachesis

Down in the valley bottom, rabbits rustled among the new crop of fennel that’s already taller than me.  An insistent screeching made me think a new exotic bird had arrived in Collserola.  Something large and yellow moved in a pine tree – a Golden oriole.  Until then I’d only known their catchy whistles, which starlings love to mimic.

Nearly at the top of the ridge, as the sun dropped lower, I stopped to admire the spectacular Illyrian thistles (Onopordum illyricum) that have shot up like spiny candelabra. Hummingbird Hawk moths were zipping among the electric purple flower heads. I’d seen a man come armed with gloves, cut some selected stems and strip them of thorns with a knife. If the Devil grows them in his garden – in Spanish they’re called Cardo del Demonio – it’s because both stems and flower heads are edible.

illyrian-thistles-onopordum-illyricum

illyrian-thistle-head-onopordum-illyricum

Beyond the thistles a flock of bee eaters were on a late foraging swoop. The swifts were beginning to return. I noticed a Woodchat shrike (Lanius senator) on a dried up branch of old broom, its chestnut crown lowered as it dealt with its prey. It flew off with something pale in its bill, having left an egg shell spiked on a twig.

It was delicious to lie down on the track and feel the day’s heat stored there, in contrast with the cool evening air, and listen to the sound of swifts searing past. A rabbit popped out of the grass, and promptly jumped back again. A boar emerged, huffed indignantly and kicked up the dust.

Darkness was falling and the swifts were still swarming along the length of the ridge.

Collserola: Guided Walks