Archive for January, 2009

Wild Wind

Written by Lucy Brzoska


The strongest winds in Catalonia are the Tramuntana in the north and Mistral in the south. Barcelona, halfway down the coast, usually escapes their full force, while enjoying sparking clear skies when they blow. But Saturday, January 25th was different.

For hours and hours, the wind tried to tear everything from its place. Lights dimmed, threatening to go out, and above the general din, sirens of firemen to the rescue were constant. Eventually the pauses between gusts grew longer, and their direction shifted from west to north, leaving people to face the consequences, in lives lost and property destroyed.

The next day, the force of the gale was writ large in Collserola. Nearly all the toppled trees were Aleppo pines (Pinus halepensis Leer

Birds in the bush

Written by Lucy Brzoska

There are two main parts to Pedralbes Park – an ornamental open space, divided by an avenue of lime trees, which leads to a wooded area further back. Bushes of Japanese spindle (Euonymus japonicus) – an oriental evergreen shrub – add symmetry to the triangular lawns. Gardeners find this unfussy and drought-resistant plant very useful, as do robins (Erithacus rubecula), who appreciate its dense cover. In January the berries attract Sardinian warblers (Sylvia melanocephala) at a time when insects are scarce.

It’s not only birds that enjoy the fruit. The Japanese spindle has been trimmed into an extensive hedge, enclosing the lawns. Protracted rustling from within attracted my attention.

Two Black rats (Rattus rattus) were feasting on the orange pulp. They looked clean and wholesome, with their pink paws and pale grey underparts.  Their ears are proportionally larger than those of their more urban cousins, the Brown rats, millions of whom are reported to live in Barcelona’s sewers.

Over in the bush near my bench, a robin had appeared in a gap, like a proprietor at the gate, on the lookout for a bit of lunch.

While retrieving a piece of apple, the robin tilted its head skywards, alerting me to the kestrel surveying the park. The parakeets soon drove the predator away.

A Flurry of Snowfinches

Written by Lucy Brzoska

The landscape was overwhelmingly beautiful but unforgiving. After stepping out of the car, my face soon numbed and toes froze. What would we find alive out here?

A steep crag rose out of the snow, facing the sun, gathering warmth. Four sets of binoculars scanned the rocks, and almost immediately we noticed restless flocks of brown-backed birds, briskly foraging among stones and plants, even digging in patches of snow.  Up went the telescopes, and you could see orange bills and contrasting black and white tails. Then every so often, a group would sweep off the ridge – a flurry of white birds magnified against the bluest of skies, clearly visible with the naked eye.

The snowfinch (Montifringilla nivalis) is in fact grouped with the sparrows, as suggested by the Spanish name, Gorrion Alpino. Like the urban House sparrow, it’s learnt to take advantage of humans and, since home is above 1500 metres, looks for feeding opportunities at ski stations.

As well as snowfinches we saw Alpine accentors (Prunella collaris) and, very surprisingly, a wallcreeper (Tichodroma muraria), first spotted by sharp-eyed Max. Our eyes were squinting and weeping with the glare, but as Mike said, sunglasses aren’t much use when birdwatching.

All kinds of intriguing tracks patterned the snow, some leading directly towards the snowfinches’ crag. A chamois in a thick winter coat of  brown and cream was grazing its way upwards.  Already at the top was a fox, surveying the land like a ginger cat.

If we tired of craning up at the rock, we could look the other way towards blue islands – Montserrat, and further away still, Collserola, with the minuscule needle of the Norman Foster tower.  The world was in reverse to my normal view from the coast.  Sometimes a Griffon vulture would float past or mount a thermal.  The snow-muffled silence was broken by the bark of a raven, the powerful light revealing contrasting shades of black on its wings, normally unnoticed. Lower down we’d seen crossbills, just next to the sign indicating the Ruta del Trencapinyes (Route of the Crossbills).

Back down in the valley, in Bagà, trees and rooves were dripping fast in full mid-afternoon thaw and the village cats sunned themselves in a spot freshly cleared of snow.  A dipper (Cinclus cinclus) probed the water under the medieval bridge.  The crooked shapes of Montserrat filled the horizon as we drove home.

Post script

What does a professional bird guide do when not working?  Go bird-watching of course.  Stephen Christopher of was intent on photographing the snowfinches, bad weather having thwarted his previous attempt a few days before.  The difficult light and restless nature of the birds meant he couldn’t secure a good shot.  He did get the following image, however: a Snow bunting (Plectrophenax nivalis), very rarely recorded in Catalunya.  Not bad for your day off.

Snowfall in Collserola

Written by Lucy Brzoska

On the rare occasion it snows in Collserola, you have to be quick. It has a tendency to fade before your eyes. When I got out at Mundet metro station, I searched between the buildings for a view of the transformed hills. Along the muddy path, small translucent patches began appearing at ever more regular intervals. The picnic tables were lightly powdered. I remembered summer nights, sitting there listening to crickets and midwife toads.

Higher up, flowering gorse wore the snow like epaulettes. The spiny leaves of holly oak pierced it. Strawberry trees bowed down under it, their leaves protecting the clusters of flowers. On other January days, you can sit on these slopes in a t-shirt.

At the top, among the umbrella pines, Collserola had turned monochrome.

In the woods on the other side it still seemed to be snowing. The air was powdery as trees spilled their loads. Through the mist you could sense a wintry island reflecting distant sunlight: Montseny. Bikes, dogs, boars and people had all been up before me, but there were still clean stretches to print and make that soft crunch, which you can distinctively feel through the soles of your boots, no matter how thick.

A couple had brought their little girl to witness it all. She rolled on the snow like a husky, and repeated with deep satisfaction: “Neu! Neu! Neu!”