Written by Lucy Brzoska
Walking along a hot, dusty track in the Alt Emporda, a woodchat shrike singing in a nearby tree and bee eaters dipping and diving over the olive groves, we heard a piteous crying sound. It was coming from the long trough-like irrigation channel at the side of the track: a strongly protesting Iberian water frog (Pelophylax perezi) was in the grip of a Viperine snake (Natrix maura).
The aquatic snake had seized the frog by the leg and was swimming vigorously up and down the channel, the belly of its helpless prisoner flashing white in all the whirling.
The non-venomous snake next tried tightly knotting itself around its resistant prey, its mouth still gripping the leg.
Suddenly it seemed to tire, released its coils and swam to the side of the channel. The frog waited a moment, and then tried to swim away. But its movement immediately triggered a reaction in the snake, which this time seized the amphibian by the back.
Despite the considerable gape of the Viperine, it was clear the frog was too big for it to swallow. Eventually the frog was allowed to make a getaway, but fatally weakened, it didn’t survive the attack.
Written by Lucy Brzoska
A fierce northerly wind had blown November’s mild mist into space. But on the south side of Montjuic castle, in early December, it was warm enough for the geckos to materialise from their nooks and for a very small Montpellier snake to go in search of them.
I found it coiled at the foot of the wall, pale brown and very slender, gazing upwards. When it began to negotiate the irregular stones, it revealed a length of only about 30-40 cm. Montpelliers are Europe’s largest snakes, with adult males reaching 2 metres or more, so this was still a baby.
For the moment it was perfectly suited for life in the castle wall, threading neatly in and out of the crevices, among the snail shells and woodlice.
Despite the scrutiny, the young snake didn’t go into hiding. Instead it began gathering information by flickering its forked tongue at me, the equivalent of twitching a nose in the air, picking up scent particles.
From a distance the snake was well camouflaged and plain. Close up, it showed intricate and rhythmic patterns. The particularly striking markings on the head will soon disappear as the snake grows. The juvenile Montpellier spotted here a year ago had already lost them.
Varied in size and shape, each scale on a snake’s head is carefully labelled and mapped out for identification. The Montpellier is distinguished by having two loreal scales, located between the eye and nostril but without touching either. The narrow shape of its small head means the frontal scale, centre-top, is also long and thin, squashed in by the supraoculars.
Grateful for letting me have such a good look, I left and let the little Montpellier get on with the business of hunting.
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.