Archive for March, 2009

What’s blooming in Collserola

Written by Lucy Brzoska

This winter Collserola’s open spaces were white with Sweet Alyssum. In February Dog Violets huddled together in the woods.  By the beginning of March the horse paddocks were thickly edged with Wild Cary (Salvia verbeneca) and Field Marigolds (Calendula arvensis): a rich brocade of violet and yellow.

It was a focus for insect activity: lively Dappled White butterflies (Euchloe crameri) and large leaf-like Brimstones (Gonepteryx rhamni), Humming Bird Hawkmoths cruising from flower to flower in a haze of orange wings, bumping into the bees.

In the southern part of Collserola, the maquia is in full bloom and buzz: Tree heath, hung with diminutive white bells and Rosemary, whose dense blue flowers are popular with Cleopatra butterflies and fat Carpenter bees.  The occasional bush of Mediterranean gorse has waited till the end of winter to explode in scorching yellow.

It’s time for the rock roses to flower, starting with Cistus albidus, whose fragile, fleeting pink petals soon drift to the ground. In the pine woods, Viper’s bugloss (Echium vulgare) grows at the side of the tracks. “Bugloss” is derived from the Greek word for ox tongue, referring to the rough texture of the bristly stem and leaves.  The plant used to be recommended as a cure for snake bites, perhaps because its protruding stamen look like snake tongues.

Grass is flecked with Crimson Pea (Lathyrus clymenum), the flowers floating on barely visible stems. Like the other members of the pea family it has five petals: the prominent purple “banner”, two lilac “wings” folded over the two-petalled “keel”, where the stamens and pistil are kept.

While zigzagging up a sunny south-facing slope, following the disused terraces, I noticed a soft furry plant growing in the shade of some broom. It’s a species of Hound’s Tongue (Cynoglossum cheirifolium) with grey leaves and small wine-red flowers,

Exploring new paths one day, I took a wrong turning and found myself scrabbling through steep woods, the way increasingly blocked by fallen trees. Emerging hot and dishevelled, miles from where I wanted to be, I spotted something on the roadside.

The Giant orchid (Barlia robertiana) is quite a common species but a rarity in Collserola, where orchids are becoming extinct.

Collserola: guided walks

Tranquility, this way – Pla de la Calma

Written by Lucy Brzoska

Near the Bellver farmhouse there’s a sign depicting a walker with an arrow and the legend “La Calma”.  Tranquility, this way.

The Catalan word calma can also be translated into the Spanish altiplano or meseta, and the sign points to the undulating, largely treeless plateau on Montseny, Pla de la Calma.

I’d started walking in Figaró, at the bottom of the gloomy Congost valley, following a relentlessly steep track, coloured purple thanks to the lurid sandstone of the area.  It’s the quickest way up on foot but still a relief when you finally round the Tagamanent hill and join the GR 5 on the grassy terraces of Bellver.

A day of spring had arrived from out of the blue to finish off February.  Sitting on a slab of warm purple sandstone, I reviewed the landmarks: la Mola, the horizontal stripes of the Cingles de Berti, (the opposite, even steeper wall of the Congost Valley), the tips of the Montserrat peaks, and over to Barcelona, the Norman Foster tower and Tibidabo church. In between, a light veil of mist lay draped on the Valles.

Legs recovered, I followed the arrow.  Walking across Pla de la Calma puts a spring in your step.  Montseny’s steep, thickly wooded slopes are left behind, the sky opens up and you feel at eye-level with the Pyrenees. Down in the valley, noise gets trapped and amplified:  a barking dog is answered by a hundred echoes, a passing quad drills into your brain.  But up here, small sounds drift free and clear in the stillness: lark song, raven conversation, the hum of bees.  Fieldfares were everywhere, flying ahead, briefly perching on tree tops before fleeing further.  All day long I herded fieldfares across la Calma.

The main track takes you across to Collformic and the foot of Matagalls, still capped with snow.  I turned off, walking among broom, juniper and tree heath.  The grass was withered and colourless, recently thawed, and heaps of bracken lay dry and brown.  It was a landscape waiting to be transformed. In a fold of the plateau, I came across a swathe of beech trees by a stream, each one with space to spreadeagle its branches.  It’s still about a month before their leaves shoot.

Pla de la Calma used to be covered in beech woods before it was cleared for pasture, back in prehistory.  Flocks of sheep still graze here, but the open space is shrinking, with a consequent decline in biodiversity.  Shepherds used to burn off the encroaching woody species, but when Montseny was declared a natural park in 1978 the practice was outlawed.  There have been attempts to protect the area by cutting down invading Holm oak, clearing shrubs and sowing mixtures of herbaceous species.  But earlier this year the restoration project suffered a major setback.

Quick to curb traditional ways of exploiting Montseny, even banning grazing altogether in some areas, the park authorities have shown less initiative in controlling access to the track that crosses Pla de la Calma. In January,  Montseny shone like a beacon, a magnificent snow-covered vision clearly visible from the Barcelona metropolis.  Motorised hordes blocked the roads, delirious to play in the white stuff. Years of work was destoyed as cars, motorbikes and quads went off-piste.

In the aftermath, the track was closed and the day I was there no one passed. The stillness was restored.  As the day heated up, the Pyrenees became more and more abstract, a long line of white etchings, the blue above paler than the blue below.  It was warm enough to lie on the ground and dream – a sure sign of winter’s end.

Heavenly mud

Written by Lucy Brzoska

During the recent years of drought, in parched, dusty Collserola, life was more of a struggle for the boars.  Their long muscular snouts found the ground unyielding, and food supplies dwindled. And for an animal that can’t sweat, damp places to cool off were few and far between.

But the continuous rainfall this winter has restored streams that had run dry.  The water took a long time to seep through, but finally springs I’ve never seen working have woken up.  And for the boars, apart from making their ploughing a lot easier, there are now plenty of muddy puddles to bathe in.

Mud also makes walks in Collserola more interesting.  Signs conjure up nocturnal scenes we’re not privy to. We can see where the boars habitually rub their flanks on the rough pine trees after a satisfying wallow.

And two-toed hoof marks proliferate.

In a stream just below a narrow road in Vallvidrera, opposite a row of houses, a boar was satiating its thirst and rooting in the soft mud. Tiny eyes contrasted with large hairy ears and snout – reflecting weak sight but sharp senses of hearing and smell.

It was a typical Collserola periphery boar: used to living alongside people.  Hopefully, it wouldn’t venture too far across the boundary.  (See previous post for boar problems in Collserola.)

The Black redstarts of the Camí del Mar

Written by Lucy Brzoska

Large numbers of Black redstarts (Phoenicurus ochruruos) move into Barcelona every winter, and some of them settle in Montjuic’s Camí del Mar (Sea Walk), a prime location. Where the castle wall forms a right angle and a palm tree with a fire-blackened trunk reaches the battlements, a handsome male has established his territory.

He’s often to be seen perching on the rubbish bin, scanning the ground for insects.  Sometimes he briefly clings to the wall, with a flash of white wing patches, to pick a morsel out of its recesses.  His front is dark and sooty.  His back is slate grey with a faint hint of blue.

Another Black redstart presides over the grassy slopes by the small fig tree.  Grey-brown, it could be a female or a first-winter male.

There are many theories for why the majority of young male Black redstarts stay mouse-brown and only moult into full adult finery in their second autumn. Suggested advantages include less attention from predators or aggressive rival males.

But some of the first-winter males have nearly managed to moult into full adult plumage first time round: they only lack the natty white wing panels, like this individual, who can be seen by the steps leading up to the castle draw bridge.

Regardless of sex or age, all Black redstarts have fiery red tails, which they constantly flick.  They have an alert demeanour, bobbing up and down, reminiscent of a robin.

There’s an interesting study of Black redstarts and the phenomenon of delayed plumage maturation here.