Archive for August, 2008

Last of the Summer’s Bee-eaters

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.

Note on August hoopoes

No sign of any hoopoes, young or old. I was beginning to wonder if the nest had been deserted. No doubt I looked eccentric, sitting on the ground, staring at a tree for an hour. But another individual came along and outdid me in strangeness.

Nattily dressed for such a hot day, he was wearing a crisp orange shirt, brown trousers belted high and a blue beret positioned in horizontal perfection. He approached the hoopoe tree but wasn’t interested in the nest. Instead, he held up a tape recorder and recorded the cicadas singing. Satisfied, he played it back and went on his way.

Immediately, a hoopoe nestling peered out of the hole. This second clutch of mid-summer will have grown listening to the relentless orchestra of cicadas – briefly intensified by the man in the blue beret.

A Walk in the Woods

Written by Lucy Brzoska

Early Saturday evening, a good time to head to Collserola. If you get ensnared in its web of delights, it doesn’t matter, because the metro runs all night. The rendezvous for Nick, Monica and myself was 5.30pm outside Mundet station, one of the last stops of the green line. As you ride the escalators up to the street, you’re gliding out of the city itself.

An aim of the walk was to increase our knowledge of Collserola’s plants and trees. We went along, pooling our fragments of information and consulting a guide book. Monica tapped into a great store of knowledge acquired when studying biology at university. The further she walked, the more she remembered.

The northern part of Collserola, lying between Horta and Cerdanyola, is the most thickly wooded and least disturbed, with the greatest variety of trees. If you grow up in Britain, an oak is an oak, but here there are three: Holm, Cerrioides and Kermes.

At the side of the wide track, tall shrubs were thriving – Matabou and Matapolls – ox-killer and chicken-killer in Catalan, or Shrubby hare’s-ear, with its yellow umbels, and Flax-leaved daphne, not yet in flower.

As we walked deeper into the valley, a sparrowhawk skimmed the tree tops. Looking up among the branches, you could see alpine swifts soaring high above, reflecting the setting sun. As the woods swallowed us up, the atmosphere became more mysterious. The fading light didn’t stop the identification process.

Monica picked out a plant and held up a leaf: “This is not a leaf”, she informed. It was a stem masquerading as a leaf, with a small point in the centre – a cladode – where the flower would grow: Ruscus aculeatus or Butcher’s broom.

We passed an earthen bank riddled with holes, each entrance lined with webbing, suggesting a colony of tunnel-dwelling spiders. It emerged that two thirds of our group were arachnophobes (Nick and me). The real test would come later.

On the floor of the valley now, we were surrounded by impressively tall pines. Large bats flickered among them. The light was very poor, but it was still possible to debate the differences between hazlenut and elm leaves. Green woodpeckers flew away calling, startled by the intrusion. There was an increasing urge to speak quietly, like in church.

The route out of the valley was along a narrow path, following the rocky bed of a steep torrent, brought to life only after a storm. It was hot and tunnel-like, making us sweat (some more than others). At the top we emerged into a more sparsely wooded area: nightjar territory.

Churring filled the twilight. Then close at hand came a soft quick call, and we saw the silhouettes of a pair of nightjars. Their long wings rose and fell as they encircled us. The reason was a fledgling on the path a few metres ahead, its eye gleaming in the torch light. The parents circled us even faster, like in a playground game, clapping their wings. As we approached, the bird on the path silently flew off.

In the last hour we’d heard some rustling and grunting among the vegetation, suggesting boars. Now came a loud huffing sound, quite close, and coming straight towards us. A big man was slowly and heavily jogging through the woods, oblivious to our presence.

There was just enough light to distinguish the fox when it crossed the track, a grey shape materialising out of the darkness of the trees, and a hint of an outline against the paler background of the track. When it paused and turned, the torch picked up its eyes.

Back on the ridge, the electricity pylons – a feature of Collserola almost as much as the oaks and pines – were silhouetted against the sprawling city glitter. The lights spilled out onto the sea, from summer yachts and cargo ships moored off the coast.

A solitary bar hidden off the road, reached by a dusty track, was irresistible. We joined a small group of people eating and drinking in the cool night air. It was time to check the photos and recap what we’d seen before descending to the metro again. Three boars came trotting down the path we’d just taken. The bar owner said all his plants had been ruined. Only those in big sturdy pots were boar-proof.

Alert for boar sounds, we slowly and carefully picked our way down the steep crumbling path, fragrant with rosemary. The botanical identification didn’t lose pace: euphorbias, fragrant clematis, stonecrop, strawberry trees, lentisk. At a junction of paths, there was some lucky fox scat. Lucky for me, at least.

While we paused to prod and sniff the droppings, the torch light detected a glinting circular structure: a vast web blocking the path like a toll gate, and the owner, a fat spider waiting to seize its dues (possibly Araneus diadimatus.) As I’d been leading the way, concentrating mainly on the ground for my next foothold, or the plants at the side, my nose might have been the first contact point.

Unfortunately, there was no way round, and the web had to be partially unhooked. Adrenaline levels shot upwards at that point at the thought of what else might lie ahead.

At the halfway mark back to Horta, where the path levels out by a spring, loud grunting and snorting were heard. We turned off our lights, climbed onto a wooden picnic table, and waited. A female boar came along, and began tossing some fallen branches, rummaging under the leaves. Like the jogger, she ignored us. We could see her in detail, from moist black nose to short hairy tail. The world was vibrating with night insects, hypnotic and calming. Midwife toads bleeped – there are water containers nearby full of their tadpoles. We stayed long after the boar went her way.

Once the descent had been resumed, the peace of the night was shattered by my ear-splitting shrieks. Nick and Monica thought I’d come face to face with an enormous boar. That would’ve been infinitely preferable to being wrapped in one of the mega-webs I’d blundered into. There was a change in walking order, with Nick bravely leading the way now. Only one more spider blocked the path, spreadeagled in the centre of its impressive domain. On this occasion there was room to carefully duck underneath. Identification continued of the different berry-bearing shrubs: elder, hawthorn, Mediterranean buckthorn and the prolific laurustinus.

Back on asphalt, we were five minutes away from the metro when a small gang of boars galloped up the steps to the university buildings. They’d been ploughing up the roundabout, tossing aside plants as they dug in the freshly irrigated earth. We decided to sit on the grass nearby in case they returned, while bats hunted by the street lights. After a while, there were rustlings from behind, and the ivy rippled. Although the hedgehog increased its pace, it couldn’t avoid being snatched up, gently jiggled so it would unroll, and be identified as a Common European hedgehog.

The last few metres to the metro escalators were uneventful, and we were home by 3.00am.

Thanks to Monica for her picture of the boar.