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.
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.
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.
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.
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