Written by Lucy Brzoska
In Barcelona, a sign that spring isn’t far away is an intensification of twig gathering by Monk parakeets (an activity they tend to do all year round). Away from their raucous nest colonies, built high up in the towering pines of Palau de Pedralbes park, a parakeet couple were snatching some quality time together. Snuggled up close, they were taking it in turns to preen.
Another sign of incipient spring in the city is the sound of serins singing. The jangling, irrepressible song, delivered from a suitably high spot, can be traced to a small yellow-breasted bird – Europe’s smallest finch and close relation to the canary.
In a prelude to copulation, the more discretely coloured female serin leaned over to receive her mate’s gift of food.
On Montjuic, two large fuzzy black carpenter bees flew past in an embrace – the female had been seized by the male, recognisable by its smaller size and orange-tipped antennae. When they settled on a leaf, you could see another distinguishing feature: the male’s silvery grey mesosomal hairs.
It seems that carpenter bees are prone to overheating, as they fly slowly and are black, so the pale colour is thought to be useful in reflecting away sunlight. Males spend more time out in the open – territory patrolling, looking for females, and then feeding in the afternoons, when the females are back in their shelters. (See this study for more interesting info.)
Much of the private life of the Red squirrels in Palau de Pedralbes park goes on out of sight, very high up in the trees. They come down to earth to dig up their stashed autumnal loot or explore the rubbish bins. This one was pulling up dried grass. With a very large mouthful, it ran up an Aleppo pine to furnish its drey, where it would soon be giving birth.
Written by Lucy Brzoska
You could hear the sounds of contented chomping from a distance. The fig trees scattered around Montjuic were heavily laden this September, much to the delight of Monk parakeets and other birds.
In October Magnolia trees in the Jardins de Mossèn Cinto Verdaguer produce large pods of shiny red berries, which are particularly appreciated by Great tits and Ring-necked parakeets. Far less common than Monks in Barcelona – and far shyer – Ring-necks are distinguished by their long thin tails, and higher-pitched screech.
November sees the climax of the acorn crop in Palau Reial Park. Along with Wood pigeons, red squirrels and jays, Monk parakeets are to be found either foraging on the ground under the oaks, or up in the tree tops. No stashing away for the winter though, the acorns are gobbled up on the spot.
Written by Lucy Brzoska
There was a strange crackling sound coming from above. The lime trees were filled with parakeets crunching on crusty pieces of bread, which they held securely in their claws. They were releasing a fine shower of crumbs, which the pigeons below waddled after.
Magpies observed the scene, frustrated by their own innate caution, which won’t allow them to approach people scattering food for birds. Instead, they resorted to chasing the smug-looking parakeets to make them drop their booty.
But magpies have their own tricks. They dare to disappear right inside the litter bins in their search for discarded sandwiches, throwing silver foil about. They also keep a close eye on occupants of park benches. The second someone gets up, they parachute down, tails held high, and quickly scour the area.
A long, shimmering tail is a sign of a healthy bird and a desirable mate. Magpies with the most resplendent tails breed earlier and are more successful at rearing young, studies have found. Unusually, this magpie was using its tail as a handy prop while exploring holes in the wall. In this case, a few worn and dishevelled feathers would only betray its owner’s resourcefulness.
Written by Lucy Brzoska
Bitterly cold winds keep people out of the park. In a low season atmosphere, the gardeners are cleaning the pond and cutting the hedges. The rows of lime trees are nearly bare, their last leaves flying across the grass. Only the Ginkgos are still in full flare, with a pool of fan-shaped leaves accumulating beneath.
Another source of intense colour, though much more condensed, are the firecrests, plentiful this season, and mixed up with assorted tits and the occasional goldcrest. Firecrests (Regulus ignicapillus) are very tolerant of people: they seem far too busy making inventories of every bush and tree to spare you any attention. You hear their high thin calls and realise you’re surrounded by tiny birds, whirring and hovering. You get quick glimpses of masked eyes, orange crests, and yellowy-green mantles.
Another energetic feeder, a Grey wagtail (Motacilla cinerea), speedwalks on the grass, constantly changing direction. It sallies forth, tail bobbing, then veers to the left before suddenly taking off, only to land again and take a completely new route. Like the firecrest, it’s moved into town for the winter. Its more usual habitat of fast-flowing water is reflected in its Spanish and Catalan names: Lavandera cascadeña and Cuereta torrentera.
The round ornamental hedges have been claimed by robins, who stay vigilant inside their thick cover, planning their next move. Their numbers increase considerably in October, a month when more transient migrants also swell the park’s bird population. This year I saw Pied flycatchers and a kingfisher, as well as a Song thrush digging for worms – a common enough species in other parts but a rare visitor to Pedralbes park.
Going back to the regulars, in this cold season the Monk parakeets (Myiopsitta monachus) look round and well-fed. Watching these versatile feeders happily grazing on grass, you feel they could never go hungry. A group opposite my bench chew their way through endless stalks of the stuff, blinking placidly, as if they find the act of munching on grass calming.
Palau Reial park provides refuge from summer heat with its cool shade and water. But earlier this year, in a public display of water-saving, the fountains and pond were allowed to run dry. Gaudi’s tiny dragon drinking fountain, much loved by small birds, looked dusty and neglected. Bathing had to be done in temporary puddles or on rain-soaked leaves.
Happily, the reservoirs have reached acceptable levels again and the drought is officially over. As the pond slowly fills up, dragonflies are darting once more, and the birds are enjoying a new lido, before it gets too deep.
At midday, as the cicadas’ wall of sound intensifies, a pair of magpies (Pica pica) arrive for a dip. They’re quite tentative at first, paddling about in the shallow end, sipping the water. They seem distracted by their own reflections.
But soon they’re dunking their heads, tails tilted high. As they splash, they spread out their feathers, allowing the cool water to penetrate right to the skin. There are flashes of metallic blue among the spray.
Encouraged by the sight of splashing magpies, a pair of Monk parakeets (Myiopsitta monachus) decide to join in. I’ve never observed any friction between these two highly gregarious species, the most ubiquitous birds in the park. The magpies and blackbirds have a more prickly relationship, perhaps because blackbirds are often energetically rummaging through the dry leaves and pine needles on the ground, and the magpies fear they’ll uncover a buried stash.
The parakeets sit motionless, nestling side by side in the water, looking rather shy. At moments like this, you can almost forgive them all the screeching and forget about the destructive raids on crops. The pair gradually lose all inhibition. Just like the magpies, they ruffle their plumage and bathe head-first.
Two soggy green clumps of feathers surprisingly can still fly, and repair to the trees to dry off.