Black storks at the service station

The Catalan coast is part of an avian migratory motorway, and Montjuïc a service station where birds pull over to have a feed or rest. A walk there in early autumn can bring surprises.

The wild part of the hill merges with the enormous cemetery. As I approached its walls, I noticed two large birds looking out across the port and ring road.  It was a strange image – I thought at first they might be an exotic species escaped from a zoo.  But the long red legs, long red bill and dark plumage meant only one thing, however unlikely: black storks.

black storks on migration in Barcelona

European black storks breed in the centre and east, with a small Spanish population in Extremadura and the frontier with Portugal, and they winter in Africa. Unlike the white stork, they are very wary of humans.  Yet there they were, an adult and juvenile, enjoying the early sunlight, quietly preening and surveying the view of heavy coastal development and transport infrastructure.

They must’ve noticed me, as they suddenly took to the air, circled slowly, and headed to the Llobregat Delta for breakfast.  The adult bird had been ringed in Germany, June 2014.

black stork flying over Barcelona's port

 

 

Wood warbler spring

Five days of rain, rough seas, and a lowering dark sky. The strong easterly winds at the peak of spring migration swept many birds off their usual path, and some of the lucky ones made it ashore in Catalunya.

Observations of Wood warblers, which breed mainly north of Iberia, are usually scarce in Catalunya.  This year, by the end of April, Ornithocat had recorded more than 200. On one of these dark rainy afternoons, I found several on Montjuic, scouring the trees along with Willow warblers. This photo was taken when the weather improved, the Wood warbler’s lemon yellow throat reflecting light under a freshly grown canopy.

Even in the gloom, the male Pied flycatchers were sharply visible. They are regular transients through Barcelona, but rarely seen in such density as this year.

On the last night of the deluge, the rain stopped just at dawn. On Montjuic, everything was steaming as the sun rose. A tremendous concentration of migrants had built up.  In the pine woods, every tree seemed to harbour a flycatcher (mainly Pied, but also Spotted), sallying out at regular intervals, gorging on the thick clouds of flies on this almost tropical morning. You could hear nightingales and Golden orioles singing, and observe many other species you might not expect to find in Barcelona, including Woodchat shrikes, whinchats, whitethroats and Common redstarts.

Even before the bad weather, I’d come across a pair of Woodchat shrikes who’d stopped to replenish forces on Montjuic. While the male sang from the top of a tree, the female tugged at a lizard impaled on an acacia thorn.

On the Cami del Mar, the Black redstarts had moved on to their breeding grounds by the start of April. Briefly in their place appeared a resplendent Common redstart.

Written by Lucy Brzoska

Unusual sightings on Montjuic

Written by Lucy Brzoska

First thing in the morning, when it was still dark at street level, you could see the gulls overhead burnished with gold by the rising sun.  When I reached the Cami del Mar they were pristine white, soaring in an intensely blue sky.

The sun had cast a blinding sheen on the sea, where cargo ships threatened to combust.  The fierce light probed deep inside the crevices of the castle wall, revealing toasting Moorish geckos and Praying Mantis oothecas.  A Painted Lady opened its brand new wings, glinting with copper dust, oblivious to the biting wind on the other side of the castle.  Only a light breeze ruffled its silky fur.

recently-emerged-vanessa-cardui-in-november

More Black redstarts have been arriving: some were drinking from the leaking pipe, others perched on the Agave masts.  These vanished, to be replaced by something stockier, with long yellow legs.  I’ve never seen a Sparrowhawk on Montjuic before, the terrain of cliff-nesting Peregrine falcons and Kestrels.  Accompanied by attentive magpies, the small raptor changed perch, and then took off, a soaring silhouette over the yellow cranes in the port.

sparrowhawk-in-barcelona

Further along, an even more unusual sighting.  A bird flew up to the castle in an unfamiliar series of shallow swoops.  Tawny stipples on the breast, a yellow base to the bill and wings edged with white spots – it was an Alpine Accentor down at sea level.  The last time I saw one was in the Pyrenees at about 2,000 metres.

alpine-accentor-at-sea-level-in-barcelona

Montjuic is a tempting stopover for birds on migration, a small green island on their coastal route, full of feeding opportunities.The records on www.ornitho.cat this autumn show redwing, siskins, Meadow pipits, Song thrushes, Cirl buntings, Common redstarts, Tree pipits, Subalpine warblers, a hawfinch, skylark and the tail feather of a nightjar.

Cattle Egret in the Park

Written by Lucy Brzoska

An unusual visitor came to the park this week. While people lolled on the grass, kissing, reading and eating lunch, it quietly decimated the park’s lizard population.

Cattle egrets (Bubulcus ibis) breed in Barcelona zoo within the Grey heron colony. Unlike their bigger relatives, they are mainly land foragers and can usually be seen in the fields around the Llobregat Delta. Their adaptability to man-altered habitats is one of the reasons for the Cattle egret’s spectacular worldwide expansion over the last century (first pair bred in UK this year).

The opportunism of the egret in the park was richly rewarded. It stalked the ivy-covered ground, alert for rustling movements. Whenever potential prey was spotted, its neck would start wobbling. The undulation would travel back in waves, till even its tail was shaking. Its head, however, remained quite still. The sinuous movements seemed to be a way of warming up for the final pounce, which was nearly always successful.

The egret’s bill was an efficient pincer, applied with masterful technique. Each lizard was grabbed firmly by the body, away from the detachable tail. Sometimes the helpless lizards would wrap their tails around the egret’s bill, as if desperately trying to bind it. But struggling was useless. Inevitably they would be swallowed head-first, to join the ever-growing pile in the egret’s powerful digestive system.

On a short break, it stopped to preen, and caught a couple of flies, particularly annoying at this time of year. It was a reminder why Cattle egrets are valued by ranchers as an alternative to pesticides. They are often to be seen delicately picking bugs off animals’ backs. But the egret in the park soon went back to its more solid menu, swallowing reptile after reptile.

I began to worry about the park’s lizards, (mainly Podarcis hispanica), who normally enjoy a placid predator-free existence. But later I read about a study of an island population of lizards – the park is like an island in the city, after all – which involved unleashing an alien predator and observing the effect on the resident reptiles. The population was badly hit initially, but the species triumphed, exhibiting longer legs at first (better to run with) and then shorter legs (more useful when they took to the trees). An example of rapid evolutionary resilience.

The Cattle egret returned to hunting, but I’d had enough of observing. My lunch-break was nearly over, and I was starving.