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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Written by Lucy Brzoska
The city doesn’t get more pristine than this. It’s the middle of July, typically a month of stagnant heat, when the sky is discoloured by smog. But in today’s diaphanous atmosphere, Barcelona is visible in intricate detail and the sea is like deep blue silk. After yesterday’s torrential storm, there’s a mountain freshness in the air that promises a good night’s sleep. The soaring swifts take your heart that little bit higher.
I’m in the southern part of Collserola, after catching the funicular to Vallvidrera, where rich Barcelona citizens used to retire for the summer, in the days when people didn’t travel far for their holidays. Once you leave the houses behind, you can follow the ridge to Sant Pere Màrtir, the last hill before the Sierra de Collserola drops down to the Llobregat river plain. There used to be an ermita here, before they tore it down in the 1930s and put up a red and white radio transmitter. Only the name remains, and the stunning views, as the hill falls abruptly away to the city.
I turn inland, where the slopes are more gradual and there’s a labyrinth of paths among pines, small holm oaks and broom. There’s a restlessness about the landscape. A considerable part of Barcelona’s swift population are also spending their Sunday evening on Collserola and the hillsides are swarming with them.
Mainly Common swifts (Apus apus), but the majestic Alpine swifts (Apus melba) stand out with their gleaming white breasts. Their wingspan approaches that of the approaching kestrel, who suddenly accelerates and takes a swoop at one of the house martins mingling in the crowd, making it yelp in alarm.
The path takes me to one of the deepest recesses, where Fragrant clematis (Clematis flammella) has run amok, smothering other plants and bushes with white flowers. The swifts are here too, swishing past, cutting the air to ribbons.
I start climbing up among oak trees, and the swifts cast their shadows on the path. There must be hordes of insects after yesterday’s rain, and they’re intent on hoovering the lot up. The only sound is the slash of their narrow, flexible wings, interrupted by the cheerful gossip of some passing swallows.
Up the grassy slopes, nearly back to the top of the ridge, the density of swifts is even greater. They pass very close, turning incredibly tight circles at relentless speed, weaving intricate flight paths. My camera can only capture them as flickering symbols.
Most of the city is now in shadow, as the sun sets. Only the part nearest the coast still glows. To the north, powerful storm clouds have risen, reflected in the sea.
When the sun has gone down, the swifts ease up, and begin to drift back towards the city. Perhaps some will be going back to their nest holes, even though the breeding season is virtually over. The Alpines are here till October but the Common swifts only stay for three months a year. Each one is linked to a particular barrio, street, unobtrusive hole.
The orange horizon behind them, the swifts float out into the dusk. It’s a vertiginous thought that they’ll be on the wing non-stop till next spring. And those who survive their first migration have 2 or 3 years of flight ahead.
Excellent website about swifts: