Autumn colours in Collserola

Written by Lucy Brzoska

Though its woods are mainly evergreen, Collserola is livid with colour in the autumn. Blue-violet Rosemary flowers hum densely with bees, and yellow Mediterranean gorse shines against the rich blue sky of San Martín. As if decorated for Christmas, the Strawberry trees are hung with glowing red and orange fruit and clusters of bell-shaped flowers, creamy white like candles.

rosemary-bush-and-strawberry-tree

I found a Praying Mantis in almost exactly the same spot as last year, lightly clinging to a Narrow-leaved Cistus.  It had a contented post-meal air, probably having dined on the bees in the Rosemary bush next door. After cleaning them, it neatly folded its spiky “arms” and remained motionless.

praying-mantis-mantis-religiosa-cleans-itself

Under the dense Holm oak canopy, in the dark, boar-raked mulch, knots of scarlet tentacles emerge:  Latticed Stinkhorns (Clathrus ruber), or in Catalan Guita de Bruixa – “Witch’s Vomit”. A fungal wonder, it attracts flies with its rotten stench to act as spore-dispersers.

latticed-stinkhorn-clathrus-ruber

From a fallen tree comes the sound of Pekin Robins – or Red-Billed Leiothrix – who are hiding among the dried branches and leaves. This escapee cagebird, native to the jungles of Southern Asia, feels at home in Collserola, with its overgrown gullies and impenetrable tangles of creepers and brambles.

When disturbed they can’t seem to control their curiosity. One by one, Pekin Robins begin emerging from the dead tree to get a closer look at the intruder, all the time scolding vigorously. I got a noisy close-up of coral-red bills, yellow throats and bright black eyes.   With a steadily expanding population, their colonisation of other areas in Catalonia is imminent.

leiothrix-lutea-pekin-robin-in-collserola

Three flowers on Montjuic (part 2)

Written by Lucy Brzoska

“Off with their heads!” Parcs y jardins on Montjuic share the Red Queen’s mantra, waging war on the wild flowers that dare to approach the castle.  It’s a losing battle in spring though, their scythes and sprays can’t keep up.

From a distance, the pasitos (Anacyclus valentinus) appear like dense yellow spots.  Close up, the geometric intricacy of unopened florets makes your eyes whirr.

anacyclus-valentinus2anacyclus-valentinus1

At the edge of the pine wood, a cluster of Reseda lutea – Wild Mignonette – look printed on the grass: an abstract pattern of toppling cones.

wild-mignonette-reseda-lutea

Further along the road, there was a surprise half-hidden in the grass.  The Bee Orchid (Ophrys apifera) is always a marvel, but its appearance at the edge of this scrap of woodland, on an over-used, over-developed patchwork hill, with a 100 different functions (a dogs home is to be squeezed in next), seemed like a miracle.  Its utter strangeness was brought into sharp relief.

bee-orchid-ophrys-apifera-with-pollinia

As you approach, the impression of a bumble bee disappears altogether, taken over by a laughing homunculus.  It was like coming face to face with one of the bizarre characters from Doctor Slump.  You can see the waxy pollen clusters, the pollinia, dangling form the duck head helmet.

The green-veined sepals on this plant were a very pale pink.  The side lobes of the labellum are like welcoming furry arms.

bee-orchid-ophrys-apifera-on-montjuic

In the end someone got there before Parcs i Jardins.  Within a week, both orchid plants had been dug out.

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

Collserola: maquia ignites

Written by Lucy Brzoska

There’s a moment in every good firework display when, after a steady build-up, all the remaining ammunition gets simultaneously used up in a single relentless climax, leaving spectators gaping in awe.  That’s what’s happening on Collserola’s hill-sides at the moment.

From a distance you can already see the golden broom lighting up the slopes – Thorny (Calicotome spinosa) and Spanish (Spartium junceum). Honeysuckle (Lonicera implexa) weaves into the sky, inflated pink tentacles turning into white flowers. Lavender petals crinkle like crepe paper flames.  Rock roses fire off flowers faster than the fragile petals are shed.


All this exuberance has shrunk the paths and you brush your way through, smothered in fragrance and pollen.  A Southern white admiral (Limenitis reducta) was resting in the shade.  Like a magpie, it looks black and white in flight, but, depending on the light, can suddenly turn deep blue.

Painted Ladies streamed up the hill, as well as Marsh Fritillaries (Euphydryas aurinia), whose markings seem drawn by hand.

All this splendour has a soundtrack of nightingales, singing their extensive repertoire.  They stay undercover but don’t object if you stand near by and listen.

Collserola: guided walks

The Hummingbird Hawkmoth and the Wood Spurge

Written by Lucy Brzoska

hummingbird hawkmoth

On a path in Collserola I came across a whir of wings near a Wood Spurge (Euphorbia amygdaloides).  My camera caught the Hummingbird Hawkmoth (Macroglossum stellatarum) uncoiling its lengthy proboscis to dip into the glistening nectar.

hummingbird hawkmoth uncoils proboscis

At rest, the moth is a non-descript brown, but in flight you can see its orange hindwings, albeit in a blur. So much movement requires copious quantities of nectar, so they are restless foragers. They are also strong migrators, crossing the Alps to reach central and northern Europe.

Though innately attracted to blue, Hummingbird Hawkmoths soon discover that flowers of other colours can be profitable too, including the inconspicuous yellow-green Wood Spurge. A long proboscis is not really necessary with this plant, which serves nectar up on a plate.

What the Wood Spurge lacks in colour it compensates with elegance. Each cyathium contains four nectar-secreting glands in the shape of half-moons. They encircle the male and female flowers, although young plants are sometimes male only, like this one.  The whole structure is about to be repeated as two pale green cyathia are poised to unfurl.

detail of wood spurge

What’s blooming in Collserola

Written by Lucy Brzoska

This winter Collserola’s open spaces were white with Sweet Alyssum. In February Dog Violets huddled together in the woods.  By the beginning of March the horse paddocks were thickly edged with Wild Cary (Salvia verbeneca) and Field Marigolds (Calendula arvensis): a rich brocade of violet and yellow.

It was a focus for insect activity: lively Dappled White butterflies (Euchloe crameri) and large leaf-like Brimstones (Gonepteryx rhamni), Humming Bird Hawkmoths cruising from flower to flower in a haze of orange wings, bumping into the bees.

In the southern part of Collserola, the maquia is in full bloom and buzz: Tree heath, hung with diminutive white bells and Rosemary, whose dense blue flowers are popular with Cleopatra butterflies and fat Carpenter bees.  The occasional bush of Mediterranean gorse has waited till the end of winter to explode in scorching yellow.

It’s time for the rock roses to flower, starting with Cistus albidus, whose fragile, fleeting pink petals soon drift to the ground. In the pine woods, Viper’s bugloss (Echium vulgare) grows at the side of the tracks. “Bugloss” is derived from the Greek word for ox tongue, referring to the rough texture of the bristly stem and leaves.  The plant used to be recommended as a cure for snake bites, perhaps because its protruding stamen look like snake tongues.

Grass is flecked with Crimson Pea (Lathyrus clymenum), the flowers floating on barely visible stems. Like the other members of the pea family it has five petals: the prominent purple “banner”, two lilac “wings” folded over the two-petalled “keel”, where the stamens and pistil are kept.

While zigzagging up a sunny south-facing slope, following the disused terraces, I noticed a soft furry plant growing in the shade of some broom. It’s a species of Hound’s Tongue (Cynoglossum cheirifolium) with grey leaves and small wine-red flowers,

Exploring new paths one day, I took a wrong turning and found myself scrabbling through steep woods, the way increasingly blocked by fallen trees. Emerging hot and dishevelled, miles from where I wanted to be, I spotted something on the roadside.

The Giant orchid (Barlia robertiana) is quite a common species but a rarity in Collserola, where orchids are becoming extinct.

Collserola: guided walks

In search of Two-tailed Pashas and the Autumn Narcissus

Written by Lucy Brzoska

On a trip to the Mediterranean, far from their Cantabrian mountain homes, Lisa and Teresa ventured into the big city to meet up with the Iberianature Barcelona contingent. Nick and I then accompanied them for a tour of some of the natural spaces that sustain the metropolitan populace.

The Garraf is an antidote to claustrophobic canyons, which is how Barcelona’s streets sometimes feel. It’s an airy expanse of garrigue-covered hills, open to the shining sea. We didn’t have to go far to find the Two-tailed Pasha (Charaxes jasius), top on Lisa and Teresa’s list along with the Autumn narcissus (Narcissus serotinus). While the Pashas chased each other around the fig trees near the visitors’ centre, Lisa and Teresa stalked them with their cameras.

Meanwhile, Nick and I followed a signposted botanical route, an excellent way to learn some of the plant species typical of the area: Kermes oak, Prickly juniper, and cistus. Nick spotted a solitary white flower, fragile among all the tough leathery leaves and spines. It was photographed and duly forgotten. We also discovered that the Garraf strawberry trees (Arbutus unedo) produce some of the best arbutus cherries anywhere: sweet and acidic, unlike the bland fruit I’d tasted before. They clearly thrive on this sun-soaked limestone terrain.

The lonely white flower did turn out to be an Autumn narcissus, as was discovered much later in the car. It was too late to turn back, but Teresa forgave us and continued to share her extensive knowledge. So we were able to learn that the Tree heath (Erica arborea) familiar to everyone who walks in Collserola only grows in acidic soil, and here is replaced by the purple-flowering Mediterranean heath (Erica multiflora). An insect slipping its black segments across the fallen pine needles turned out to be a Glow worm larva (Lampyris noctiluca), with a voracious appetite for snails. A dirty clump of debris hanging on a guardrail was identified as the case of a Bagworm.

After some debate, we decided there was time for the Llobregat Delta. Back down at sea level and just after the turn-off for the reserve, something white caught our eye: an extensive patch of Autumn Narcissi.

After liberal applications of mosquito repellent and an osprey-sighting, we crossed the bridge into the reserve. Outside the hides, translucent herons fished in sparkling water, sandpipers bathed in the shallows, cattle egrets groomed the horses, kingfishers streaked here and there, and spoonbills tried to keep up with their restless spatula-shaped bills.

There was little time left, but Collserola could not be missed. Up by the Forat del Vent, suitably windy, a flock of Pekin robins (Leiothrix lutea) held our attention with their melodious Blackcap-like song. Unlike other exotic escapees that settle in more urban environments, these South Asian cage birds are breeding in woodlands. They’re being monitored but studies suggest their presence has so far had no harmful effect on the authoctonous species.

We’d run out of daylight. After dropping Nick and I off at the metro, Lisa and Teresa drove away for the next stage of their adventure.

A Walk in the Woods

Written by Lucy Brzoska

Early Saturday evening, a good time to head to Collserola. If you get ensnared in its web of delights, it doesn’t matter, because the metro runs all night. The rendezvous for Nick, Monica and myself was 5.30pm outside Mundet station, one of the last stops of the green line. As you ride the escalators up to the street, you’re gliding out of the city itself.

An aim of the walk was to increase our knowledge of Collserola’s plants and trees. We went along, pooling our fragments of information and consulting a guide book. Monica tapped into a great store of knowledge acquired when studying biology at university. The further she walked, the more she remembered.

The northern part of Collserola, lying between Horta and Cerdanyola, is the most thickly wooded and least disturbed, with the greatest variety of trees. If you grow up in Britain, an oak is an oak, but here there are three: Holm, Cerrioides and Kermes.

At the side of the wide track, tall shrubs were thriving – Matabou and Matapolls – ox-killer and chicken-killer in Catalan, or Shrubby hare’s-ear, with its yellow umbels, and Flax-leaved daphne, not yet in flower.

As we walked deeper into the valley, a sparrowhawk skimmed the tree tops. Looking up among the branches, you could see alpine swifts soaring high above, reflecting the setting sun. As the woods swallowed us up, the atmosphere became more mysterious. The fading light didn’t stop the identification process.

Monica picked out a plant and held up a leaf: “This is not a leaf”, she informed. It was a stem masquerading as a leaf, with a small point in the centre – a cladode – where the flower would grow: Ruscus aculeatus or Butcher’s broom.

We passed an earthen bank riddled with holes, each entrance lined with webbing, suggesting a colony of tunnel-dwelling spiders. It emerged that two thirds of our group were arachnophobes (Nick and me). The real test would come later.

On the floor of the valley now, we were surrounded by impressively tall pines. Large bats flickered among them. The light was very poor, but it was still possible to debate the differences between hazlenut and elm leaves. Green woodpeckers flew away calling, startled by the intrusion. There was an increasing urge to speak quietly, like in church.

The route out of the valley was along a narrow path, following the rocky bed of a steep torrent, brought to life only after a storm. It was hot and tunnel-like, making us sweat (some more than others). At the top we emerged into a more sparsely wooded area: nightjar territory.

Churring filled the twilight. Then close at hand came a soft quick call, and we saw the silhouettes of a pair of nightjars. Their long wings rose and fell as they encircled us. The reason was a fledgling on the path a few metres ahead, its eye gleaming in the torch light. The parents circled us even faster, like in a playground game, clapping their wings. As we approached, the bird on the path silently flew off.

In the last hour we’d heard some rustling and grunting among the vegetation, suggesting boars. Now came a loud huffing sound, quite close, and coming straight towards us. A big man was slowly and heavily jogging through the woods, oblivious to our presence.

There was just enough light to distinguish the fox when it crossed the track, a grey shape materialising out of the darkness of the trees, and a hint of an outline against the paler background of the track. When it paused and turned, the torch picked up its eyes.

Back on the ridge, the electricity pylons – a feature of Collserola almost as much as the oaks and pines – were silhouetted against the sprawling city glitter. The lights spilled out onto the sea, from summer yachts and cargo ships moored off the coast.

A solitary bar hidden off the road, reached by a dusty track, was irresistible. We joined a small group of people eating and drinking in the cool night air. It was time to check the photos and recap what we’d seen before descending to the metro again. Three boars came trotting down the path we’d just taken. The bar owner said all his plants had been ruined. Only those in big sturdy pots were boar-proof.

Alert for boar sounds, we slowly and carefully picked our way down the steep crumbling path, fragrant with rosemary. The botanical identification didn’t lose pace: euphorbias, fragrant clematis, stonecrop, strawberry trees, lentisk. At a junction of paths, there was some lucky fox scat. Lucky for me, at least.

While we paused to prod and sniff the droppings, the torch light detected a glinting circular structure: a vast web blocking the path like a toll gate, and the owner, a fat spider waiting to seize its dues (possibly Araneus diadimatus.) As I’d been leading the way, concentrating mainly on the ground for my next foothold, or the plants at the side, my nose might have been the first contact point.

Unfortunately, there was no way round, and the web had to be partially unhooked. Adrenaline levels shot upwards at that point at the thought of what else might lie ahead.

At the halfway mark back to Horta, where the path levels out by a spring, loud grunting and snorting were heard. We turned off our lights, climbed onto a wooden picnic table, and waited. A female boar came along, and began tossing some fallen branches, rummaging under the leaves. Like the jogger, she ignored us. We could see her in detail, from moist black nose to short hairy tail. The world was vibrating with night insects, hypnotic and calming. Midwife toads bleeped – there are water containers nearby full of their tadpoles. We stayed long after the boar went her way.

Once the descent had been resumed, the peace of the night was shattered by my ear-splitting shrieks. Nick and Monica thought I’d come face to face with an enormous boar. That would’ve been infinitely preferable to being wrapped in one of the mega-webs I’d blundered into. There was a change in walking order, with Nick bravely leading the way now. Only one more spider blocked the path, spreadeagled in the centre of its impressive domain. On this occasion there was room to carefully duck underneath. Identification continued of the different berry-bearing shrubs: elder, hawthorn, Mediterranean buckthorn and the prolific laurustinus.

Back on asphalt, we were five minutes away from the metro when a small gang of boars galloped up the steps to the university buildings. They’d been ploughing up the roundabout, tossing aside plants as they dug in the freshly irrigated earth. We decided to sit on the grass nearby in case they returned, while bats hunted by the street lights. After a while, there were rustlings from behind, and the ivy rippled. Although the hedgehog increased its pace, it couldn’t avoid being snatched up, gently jiggled so it would unroll, and be identified as a Common European hedgehog.

The last few metres to the metro escalators were uneventful, and we were home by 3.00am.

Thanks to Monica for her picture of the boar.