October heat

Written by Lucy Brzoska

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The roast chestnut stands were raising the temperature of the city streets while people roasted in the October sun. In the park, where benches in the shade were at a premium, there were other reminders it was officially no longer summer: the rustling of squirrels picking acorns in the oaks, or the engrossed silence of parakeets gorging on berries and seeds. One day the grass was cut, and a flock of swallows paused to dip and dive and feast on the disturbed insects. Pedralbes Park is on the busy Diagonal road, a causeway for migrating hirundines, just like the coast.

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A  new sign has appeared at the pond: “Urban diversity protection programme. Amphibian reproduction point.” Hopefully, pond life will be allowed to develop undisturbed and the bright spark who thought to drain and scrub it out mid-May will now be restrained. Sheltering from the heat, I sat down under the Buckthorn tree to watch the legion of Darters who’d gathered to mate.

One had set up his territory in front and hovered in a haze of just-discernable wing-movement. I was awestruck by this display of energy. It only allowed itself the briefest of rests on the ledge. These breaks would last all of 2 seconds before it zipped off in pursuit of a rival Darter, driving it into another part of the pond. As well as aerial pursuits, there was also a lot of ovipositing going on, the darters still in tandem as the female dipped into the water.

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Even more copious, though much less conspicuous, were the Western Willow Spreadwings. They’ve been in the park throughout summer and autumn, barely noticeable except as a spindly insect presence, dangling off leaf tips.

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But if one lands nearby you notice their beautiful green and coppery colouring, and their astonishing eyes. Our eyes, set deep in sockets, are half hidden. These orbs are on full display.

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On this day there were couples of Spreadwings dangling all over the place, looking for a quiet spot. One pair alighted in the Buckthorn tree. The male clasped the branch and then his long straight abdomen began to fold. He slowly lifted the female, like a dancer raising his partner.

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She reciprocated by thrusting her abdomen up in the air, until they were linked together in a jagged heart. While he clung to the branch, she clasped her abdomen. They remained like this, rocking gently from side to side.

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This year I’ve seen 5 Dragonfly species in the park: the Broad Scarlet Darter (Crocothemis erythraea), Blacktailed Skimmer (Orthetrum cancellatum), Red-veined Darter (Sympetrum fonscolombii), Desert Darter (Sympetrum sinaiticum) and the Emperor Dragonfly (Anax imperator).  On this occasion, despite clicking away, I somehow managed to avoid all the best ID angles!  They might have been Common Darters, but a positive ID is impossible.

 

Close encounters in Collserola

Written by Lucy Brzoska

While out walking on a warm evening at the beginning of September, it was Nick who first spotted this tiny snake on the track, rippling as fast as it could, anxious to reach cover on the other side. Once caught, it remained still, except for the flickering of its tongue. We weren’t sure of its identity, so it paid to have the camera at hand. The photograph clearly shows a black coronet and an elusive blue shimmer: the marks of the non-venomous Southern smooth snake (Coronella girondica).

We were lucky to stumble on it, as they’re not common in Collserola. Shy and secretive night hunters, they search out geckos, skinks and grasshoppers and kill by constriction. A passing resemblance to the viper is thought to work as a defence. We found the snake in the more open southern part of Collserola, an area of grass, shrubs and scattered trees, a summer hunting ground for Short toed eagles.

At the opposite end of the park, not far from a spring, this dragonfly was captured clinging to a bush. I’d have described it as red, till I got home and saw its range of fairground colours: a horse from a devil’s carousel. The rows of spikes on the legs are impressive, ensuring a firm grip on prey. The dimensions of its eyes immediately suggest extraordinary powers of vision.

When identifying the dragonfly, the yellow stripe along the length of the legs pointed me to the Common darter (Sympetrum striolatum), which was confirmed when Sue put her shots up on the forum.

Finally, in the centre of Collserola, the most disturbed and built-up part, this creature was rescued from a busy track. A convoy of cars was driving away from a restaurant, coating us and everything around in dust. The Eyed hawk moth caterpillar (Smerinthus ocellata) was carried to a safer place on a notebook, hence the garish studio background for its portrait.

The caterpillar has a distinguishing blue horn, slanting white stripes (7 in all) and red spiracles (breathing holes).

Hoopoes in the Park

Written by Lucy Brzoska

A woman comes out on the fire escape to smoke a cigarette. Nearby there’s a Judas tree – it’s seen better days and bears little foliage now, only on the highest branches. The woman stands and talks on her mobile. She’s unaware that on the other side of the tree, there’s movement and two eyes appear at a hole.

Undeterred by the proximity of the office block, hoopoes (Upupa epops) have nested inside the tree. People are constantly walking to and fro, but it doesn’t bother them. Perhaps because these eye-catching birds have also perfected the art of melting into the background. In flight they’re a flurry of black and white, and uncertain zigzag direction. But on the ground they blend in with the dust of the paths or the dappled shadows under the trees.

The hollow tree is conveniently surrounded by excellent foraging ground, with scattered pines and sparse grass. I watched the parents walk about probing for bugs in the soft earth, unnoticed by busy passers-by. Whenever they returned to the nest, an item of food held fast at the tip of their long pincer-like bills, they were greeted by their hissing young.

Hoopoe nests are so renowned for their stink that it was disappointing to find no evil odour emanating from the hole. It was too high to look into or, for that matter, to receive a faceful of noxious nestling fluid, another defensive measure they employ.

A week later, the young hoopoes were no longer content to sit still in the protective darkness of their tree. Leaning out inquisitively, they would look in all directions – at the sky, neighbouring trees, at me. If I took a step too near, then the faces would disappear inside and remain hidden.

It was no surprise to find the nest deserted the following week. And no sign of the family. Despite its plentiful food supply, this small park has an important drawback for tender young hoopoes taking their first forays into the world: a colony of cats, who can be seen crouching, hypnotised by the busy tree creepers.

Nearly a month later, when the parents were busy with a second clutch, I found a young hoopoe dozing on a branch. It was in another park, but very near, so there’s a chance it was one of the brood, now fending for itself. It looked rather vulnerable, with soft downy breast feathers. Luckily, it had found a place where cats are actively discouraged.

The next day the fledgling was still there, but this time bright-eyed and awake. It studied me, and decided I wasn’t a danger, allowing me to observe a curious episode. In the full noonday sun, it snuggled into the loose sand of the path, burrowing down till its tail was grey with dust. Sitting there like a brooding hen, it occasionally shuffled itself further into the hollow. There was none of the vigorous dust-flinging that goes on when a sparrow takes a dust bath, nor any attempt to preen. It merely stretched its neck, with a tentatively flickering crest, and its bill began to gape.

Sufficiently baked, the hoopoe finally moved into the shade, where conveniently an irrigation sprinkler had just been turned off. After drinking from the rivulet of fresh water, the young bird flew a short distance for some vigorous foraging among tree roots. That’s when it gave me a clue to its activity. Without warning, its crest stood on end, and tail and wing feathers were splayed out. It seemed to have received an electric shock. Or been stung by an insect.

Then I remembered the “anting” activity that some birds perform – active anting, which involves capturing ants and placing them inside the plumage, or passive anting, which hoopoes are known to do. They can adopt quite dramatic postures spreadeagled on the ground, making it easy for the insects to hop on board. Anting is not fully understood: the formic acid secreted in ant bites might help control parasites. Or maybe the sensation of ants among feathers is soothing, especially during a moult. Regardless, anting and related activities like dusting and sunbathing, give birds great pleasure. A new urban activity can be added to the list: massage by air-conditioning.

The young hoopoe continued foraging, its crest still restless. Finally, it flew up to a branch, and settled down for a siesta.