Written by Lucy Brzoska
The red squirrels (Sciurus vulgaris) of Palau de Pedralbes park stream along the branches unobserved, and build their dreys out of sight in the towering Aleppo pines, somewhere among the parakeet nests.
But sometimes they come to ground, especially in the afternoon when the army of gardeners have gone home and stopped their pruning, spraying and sweeping. Tails undulate in the grass like plumes as squirrels forage. Litter bins are investigated too, though at the moment there are plenty of seeds and nuts to gather.
Red squirrels vary in colour: those in the park tend to be a russet-brown, set off by white breasts, and black tails. At the moment their pelts are particularly lustrous, topped off by lavish ear tufts, their winter adornment.
When two squirrels meet, a helter-skelter pursuit often ensues. They scrabble noisily round and around the tree trunks, loosening a shower of bark debris. Spread eagled on opposite sides of the tree, they await each other’s next move. When one’s nerve breaks, the manic chasing resumes.
This ensures they’ll be fit for next spring, when the females go on heat and lengthy chasing begins in earnest, a prelude to mating. If climate and food supplies permit, which is surely the case in this Barcelona park, the females go on heat twice a year: between January and April, and then again between the end of May and August.
Red squirrels seem weightless as they skim through fragile canopies: the larger males reach a mere 350 grams. Other interesting anatomical features of squirrels include double-jointed ankles and long claws, permitting secure vertical descents. Like all rodents, their chiselled incisors never stop growing – about 15cm in a year. This red squirrel looks set to wear them down a little on a hard green pine cone.
Written by Lucy Brzoska
In the narrow valley of Sant Just, sounds carry far. The whack of tennis balls on the courts under the radio transmitter of Sant Pere Màrtir is distinctly heard on the other side. This late August evening a flock of around 50 bee-eaters (Merops apiaster) fill it with their distinctive calls. They’ve congregated to feed on the insects that have risen in frenzied columns after the rain. Insubstantial fare compared to their habitual prey, bees or dragonflies, which are picked off one by one from a vantage point, but available in industrial quantities.
Unlike the swifts, who maintain an intense silence when hunting, bee-eaters communicate constantly. They glide and flutter, with acrobatic flourishes, adding tropical colour to the dried-out end-of-summer valley. I’d love to have included a photograph of their turquoise breasts, their sharply pointed wings and tails, but none came out. However, their whirling supper was impossible to miss.
The first rain in a month has also drawn out scents, dampened the dust, washed off the leaves. In the last phase of summer, one of the few plants in flower is fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), grown tall and wiry, covering the hillsides in delicate yellow filigree. The animal scats along the way are packed with seeds and remains of berries. The path is littered with gnawed pine cones – the culprit, a red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris), gives itself away by shaking a branch overhead.
There’s not much daylight left when the bee-eaters withdraw, their calls gradually getting fainter. Alpine swifts plunge down the valley after them in a whoosh of strength. Soon it’ll be the bats’ turn to feast.
As I’m climbing up to Sant Pere Màrtir, the final outpost of the Collersola massif, the sun slips behind a cloud and then the horizon. I’m shocked to see it’s only 8.30pm – an hour of daylight has been docked since I was last up here. The low grey clouds are tinged violet, and eventually orange, as the city lights come on. Far below, the motorways are strung with golden beads, as cars pour into the city. Many people will be returning from their summer holidays.
I follow the ridge back to Vallvidrera in the dusk, bats flickering close to my head, and the pulsing crickets gaining volume. A family of boars is investigating the car park mirador. A deep grunt and they trot on, followed after a while by a tiny figure, scampering as fast as it can for fear of being left behind. This year’s boarlets have yet to experience the marvels of autumn – acorns without limit, softened earth that’s easy to dig, and muddy puddles to wallow in.