We all have our "nemesis birds", those irritating species which we just can't manage to see even though we think we really ought to have done. We also have "near-nemesis" birds. Those birds that we've seen but not nearly as often (or as well) as we feel we ought to have done. Amongst the latter is, to my embarrassment, Rufous Bushchat. (The current 'official' English name for this species is now Rufous Bush Robin but over the years it's been called Rufous Warbler, Rufous Sedge Warbler, Rufous-tailed Bush Robin and Rufous Scrub Robin but I prefer the name I grew up with, Rufous Bushchat, which, to me at least, has the most sonorous ring to it).
I've seen the species several times near Bolonia, caught up with them at the classic site at Los Palacios (Seville Province) and have seen them near Marchenilla (Jimena de la Frontera). However, they've never been easy to see, they've taken a long time to find and, once found, views were often brief. On one memorable occasion I saw one within about 10 minutes at the latter site but, having called my friends (good birders all) over to see the bird, it took us two hours to relocate it. They're a declining species and they certainly seem to have become still more elusive in the Bolonia area than when I first visited the place over a decade ago. Hence I was delighted a few years back when a friend, Richard Page-Jones, repeatedly found them near Chiclana (a more convenient drive from my base in Alcala de los Gazules). Unfortunately, though, my personal circumstances meant I couldn't look there until this spring but when I did in early May a succession of near gale force winds wrecked my plans.
After my visit this autumn, though, I think ... hope ... I've cracked it. I've known for years that they were supposed to the in the "Sanlucar area" but never had any specific details. One spring six or seven years ago I even drove around the circuit I'm about to describe but it wasn't a full-on birding jaunt and was a hot afternoon when birds tend to be inactive and prefer skulking in the shadows. Last year I read reports that the area around Trebujena had a good population (see https://birdingcadizprovince.weebly.com/cadiz-birding-blog-page/spring-2019-update-5-three-cheers-for-trebujena) but in spring, to my subsequent regret, the temptation of a shorter drive and precise directions to where they'd been seen persuaded me to focus on the Chiclana area. Knowing that they arrive late, I set aside the first three days of May (and the last of my break in Spain) to search for them. What I failed to factor in was that, being on a ridge overlooking the Bahia de Cadiz, the place is often swept by a fierce Levante wind. Naturall,y it was blowing so hard on my three allotted days that I could barely stand up let alone look for birds!
This autumn I decided to investigate the circular route north of Trebujena again, something I'd been meaning to do since my first visit since the habitat looked interesting. As I've raised the topic I ought to confess that I've never quite got my head around what constituted prime habitat for the species. I've seen them scuttling about small allotments at Los Palacios, glimpses of them on rocky hillsides dotted with olive trees above Bolonia and along a tamarisk choked dry streambed at Marchenilla (but never in the prickly-pear hedges that some books suggest they favour). I knew too that they were supposed to like vineyards but, despite looking several times, I'd never seen one in such habitat. The area around Trebujena I was set to explore, though, is dominated by vineyards and ones which, it seemed to me, were tended by more traditional low-intensity methods than most in the 'sherry triangle'.
Since it was already the 5th September, a time when the bushchats start to move south, and, as I still wasn't sure exactly where to look, I wasn't confident of success when I turned off the A 471 on the Lebrija side of Trebujena (a). At first the good, if narrow, tarmac road (b) was largely flanked by arable fields with most vineyards relatively distant but I soon found myself in areas dominated by grapevines right up to the road. Promisingly, there were a few spots that still had a few scrubby trees and shrubs indicating that this was no over-managed agricultural desert. I'm still not entirely sure what made me opt for my first stop. It was probably a mixture of somewhere convenient to pull off, a good view down a likely looking slope and maybe the sight of a small enclosure girded a chain link fence supported by concrete posts. I've found that Rufous Bushchats sometimes like perching on fenceposts which gives them a better view of their surroundings and, consequently, birders a better chance of viewing them. On my second or third scan of the area, I picked up a rufescent bird perched on a fence post - a Rufous Bushchat! I'd never picked one up so easily before. Calling over my birding pal Chris Cox, this time there was no two-hour wait and the bird continued to 'perform'. Better still we quickly discovered that two adults were feeding two well-grown young and even picked up a fifth more distant bird. Seeing five Rufous Bushchats in ten minutes was enough to make me feel giddy!
Keeping a sensible distance, we 'scoped the birds relishing their handsome colours, cocked and fanned tails before moving on the check elsewhere. Our first stop near a ruined building (c) had the habitat but (apparently) not our target species. Chris, though, had a Spanish Sparrow here - always a good bird to see. I tend to be an impatient birder so, perhaps prematurely, we moved on. Our next stop by one of a number of agricultural tracks (d) was much more to my taste - another open vista allowing views across and into the vineyards. Another five-minute scan and, yes, another Rufous Bushchat! Pottering along the track for a few hundred meters we found another three birds one of which gave superb views. Our total was now nine birds! We continued around the circuit stopping briefly as we entered Trebujena (e) to look at a noticeboard giving details of the Sendero de las Haciendas and to consider whether to turn left to complete the circuit or the press on towards the Guadalquivir. We decided on the latter stopping briefly en route (f) to scan another area favoured by bushchats albeit without success.
On the 16th September my Kent birding friends Rob Ratcliffe and Virginia Fairchild, fresh out from the UK, came over from their apartment in Sotogrande (see here) to join me on another search for this iconic species. Once more, being conscious that the migration clock was still ticking, I wasn't over-optimistic of success. I should have been. Within minutes of our arrival at the first location out popped a bushchat which obliged by giving us excellent views.
The next stop, of course, was the second site where I'd seen them earlier. It took us a little longer to see than last time but our target again showed itself. Then something quite magical happened. A man working the land nearby came over to see what the excitement was and it was clear from the start that he knew the species very well. Not only that but he told us there were still some on his plot and invited us to come and look for ourselves. We did and there were! We walked around with him, sure enough, saw our quarry - 3 or 4 of them. "Seňor Paco" was evidently delighted by our success telling us to come back any time. He plainly knew and cared about his "Caberrubia", the species' local name in Trebujena (that it has one tells its own tale). He was a lovely bloke not only insisting on giving Virginia a straw hat (concerned that she was hatless) but also collecting a small crate of his produce to present to us. It was a terrific end to a wonderful morning.
After such a wonderful high point further visits risked an anticlimax but with an old friend and colleague, Alan Cooke, arriving on the 17th it had to be done. Picking him up in the afternoon we went straight to Trebujena but in the heat of the afternoon, we struggled to find any passerines still less a bushchat. (That we missed seeing a bushchat is hardly surprising since one study found that 85% of sightings were made between 07.30 - 11.30 - see here). It seemed that my pesimism was, at last, justified although a passing juvenile Goshawk (a lifer for Alan's first and the third of my autumnal visit) was some compensation. On the 19th we headed off early in the morning to visit the Bonanza area but couldn't resist a quick last-ditch attempt to see a bushchat (a much-wanted lifer for Alan) in the vineyards around Trebujena. This time within minutes of our arrival at the first site one flicked up on to a gate and then into a bush giving us a great view - a fitting finale for my search for this most charismatic bird.
When I read online earlier this year that the Trebujena area harboured the highest density of breeding Rufous Bushchat in Andalucia, 130 breeding males in 300 hectares of vineyards, I admit that I couldn't help but feel a tad sceptical. This is an increasingly scarce and declining species (see here) listed as 'Endangered' in the Libro Rojo de las Aves de España. The idea that so many persisted in such a small area seemed improbable. Yet seeing so many birds so easily so late in the season suggests that it really is .... and I hesitate to use this word .... common in the vineyards around the town. However, visiting birders shouldn't allow such an evidently strong population make them forget that this is a rare and threatened bird in Spain and that they should act accordingly. So if you really want a photo make sure you're not disturbing or 'pushing' the bird particularly if it could be nesting nearby. For the record, my feeble shots were taken with a bridge camera at the equivalent focal length of 2000mm and heavily cropped. (For excellent photos of the species taken in the area by a local photographer can be seen here). The use of 'playback', particularly in spring when they're establishing territories, is unacceptable. Remember too that as this site becomes better known (as its rapidly becoming) it may not just be you trying to 'tape' birds in. Further, as I discovered, even as late as mid-September they can be feeding young so playback might then be distracting adults from feeding them. The local community is actively supporting the conservation of this species via the Colectivo Alzacola de Trebujena (backed by a clutch of local organisations including the town council). Hence it's important for visiting birders to act as ambassadors for their hobby by parking sensibly, being careful not to indavertently disrupt those working here, sticking to tracks and paths, politely explaining what you're doing to anyone who asks, etc. As my experience demonstrates, when you do so you can be treated with wonderful kindness and generosity. It helps too, if possible, to spend money locally in hotels, guest houses (see here), ventas, shops etc. and, if your binoculars are still dangling from your neck, locals will guess why you're there.
The drive along the southern bank of the Guadalquivir between Algaida (Bonanza) and Trebujena is one of my 'must-do' jaunts when in Spain. In April I was very concerned by some developments but also delighted by others. Accordingly, I was even keener than usual to revisit this area this September to see what had happened since I had last visited the area.
The first thing that I wanted to check out was the state of the Codo de la Esparraguera (a on the map above). This small triangle of reedy pools has long been my 'go to' site for Marbled Teal so I was concerned to discover in April that not only was it bone dry but also that it had been denuded of all its vegetation (see https://birdingcadizprovince.weebly.com/cadiz-birding-blog-page/spring-2019-update-6-along-the-guadalquivir). This had happened before in 2014, although perhaps less drastically, and Marbled Ducks had returned (see photos below). Accordingly, I was pleased to see that it was again wet although the absence of any sedges and reeds or, indeed birds was disappointing. Only time will tell whether it will again become a Mecca for what the Spanish call "Cerceta Pardilla".
The next pool along the road had also been drained and was almost bereft both of any vegetation or birds looking like the set from 'Lawrence of Arabia'. Happily, this had also now been flooded once more although it remained birdless save for a few gulls (see photo below).
My next stop was by the gates of a fish farm (c) where I found that the information on a new notice board, gave cause for optimism. The company involved seems to be committed to sensitive management of the area as the sign (see photos below) included the following declaration (translations by Google):-
We are committed to sustainable aquaculture
In the Guadalquivir estuary, we carry out daily cleaning and convergence (?) of our wetlands, as well as environmental improvements, which have been very positive for both our aquaculture activity and the aquatic birds that live here. The main objective of these works is to generate spaces and actions aimed at increasing and conserving the breeding, feeding of vulnerable birds threatened by climate change.
Other objectives are:
So my pessimism seems to have been not entirely justified and, if the company lives up to its fine words the future of Marbled Duck here seems secure. It also gave me hope that at some point access beyond the gate might be possible - why else put a sign too far away to read and build what looks like a reception centre (well, reception cabin)?
What I was most interested in discovering was whether any progress had been made in restoring the marshes and establishing a small reserve complete with a pool and hide (see https://birdingcadizprovince.weebly.com/cadiz-birding-blog-page/spring-2019-update-5-three-cheers-for-trebujena and e & f on the map). Knowing the wheels of government often grind exceeding slow I feared that the project might have got bogged down (physically and metaphorically) in red tape. I'm happy to report that my fears appear to have been misplaced. Whilst I didn't notice any obvious or significant work being carried out in the area where the marshes were to be restored (e) things were well in hand at (f). On my first visit on the 5th September I was delighted to find surveyors with red-and-white tape marking out the area. Given how slowly these things often move I was surprised ten days later when diggers were on site excavating the area (see photos below).
If things go to plan (as they surely will) then the excellent old salinas (f i) here which often attract good birds will soon be supplemented by a sizable laguna with a hide (f ii) and the tower (f iii) may even be accessed by a boardwalk to avoid the struggle across the mud and up the ramp (or at least that's how I interpret the embanked earth along the route visible in the photos). All this plus a convenient venta (f iv) in the servicios turisticos which, I hope, will house a small exhibition/information centre in the future. Once again congratulations are due to all involved in this splendid local initiative but don't leave it merely at 'congratulations' - make sure you shop locally and spend some money on refreshments and so on. And don't forget your bins so people know you're here for the birding. Virtue may be its own reward but injecting a little cash into the local economy will help too!
With my birding guide covering over 100 sites and subsites, it's a Sisyphean task to keep them up-to-date and I have to confess that I've not visited some of the sites for several years and several hardly at all. It is for this reason, amongst others, why I leapt at the opportunity to visit an area, Puerto Real, I don't know very well with local birder Antonio Villalpando. Actually, to say I don't know the area very well is an understatement as whilst I've visited Los Toruňos a couple of times and explored the Marisma de Aletas this spring (see here), I'd never gone more than a few hundred meters into Pinar de la Algaida. Accordingly, I was particularly pleased to be whisked around the Pinar de la Algaida part of the"Parque Metroploitano Marisma del la Torunos Y Pinar de la Algaida" and the old salinas to their north (d). What I really didn't expect when my friend Allan Cooke and I met up Antonio one evening was what amounted to a VIP trip around the area in a large 4x4!
We headed across open pastures into the woods and on to a tower hide (a) which commands excellent views of the area but be warned that the last section is accessed by a ladder rather than the stairs that serve the rest of the structure. Towards Cadiz, the elegant new (2015) bridge, the Puente de la Constitución 1812, dominates the skyline. It's one of the tallest and longest bridges of its type in the world and is a worthy monument to the liberal constitution of 1812 in which the people of the Cadiz area played a pivotal role even if it came in at almost double the cost and 4 years late! Closer to hand we had good views to the east over Algaida's canopy of the pine trees, to the north stood the wooden bridge that spans the river to link the two parts of the Parque Metroploitano and immediately below us flowed the Rio de San Pedro (b).
Tucked away some 120m on the landward side of the tower we were taken to a small bird hide (c - Observatorio de aves "Alaida"). September, when the area is very dry, was probably not the best time to see birds here but in spring it should give plenty of opportunities for bird photography. As can be seen from the photo of the area in front of the hide both water and feed (look for the seed hopper hidden in the pine tree) are provided. My quickly snatched photo of Greenfinch gives some idea of what's possible. Although I was there only for a short time, I enjoyed extended views of an Iberian Green Woodpecker whilst in spring it's worth searching for Wryneck too as a few pairs breed here. Where there were large areas of short grass we had Hoopoes although the most obvious bird here was Magpie surprisingly so given they only colonised the area 15 years ago. Although I've seen Great-spotted Cuckoo, which parasitises Magpies, nearby they apparently remain disappointingly scarce in the area. In the right conditions, these grassy areas must surely attract a variety of pipts and wagtails.
To the north of the woodland we visited an area of old salinas (d) which were prime habitat for a good selection of wading birds large and small. The margins of the Rio de San Pedro seemed particularly attractive to Whimbrels whilst some of the salinas held small parties of Kentish Plover.
In addition to the birds, it's well worth searching the scrub here for Mediterranean Chameleon. The most promising areas to search are just east of the Visitors' Centre (e) or near the university (f). It's very difficult to spot them looking down into the scrub so try getting down low and look up in the hope of spotting their silhouette. We were unlucky on the day but I was pleased to see one a few days earlier, oddly enough at the 'other' Pinar de la Algaida near Bonanza in the north of the province.
Having said good-bye to our driver we returned to our car and followed Antonio over to Puerto Real where our objective was La Puntilla del Muelle (a short pier off the Paseo Maritimo). Both the pier and the paseo allow great views across the open bay which, Antonio assured us, can be excellent for waders and passing birds like Spoonbill and Osprey (on passage & in winter). The historian in me found it frustrating to see little more of Puerto Real than it's grid pattern of narrow streets and what appeared to be a fine collection of 16th century buildings, a good an excuse to return.
One of the things that struck me, on this short visit was how much potential this area has for some good birding in a relatively small area. The combination of a variety of habitats, its coastal location and the woodland/scrub effectively being an island surrounded by more challanging habitats (the sea, saltmarsh and urbanisation) suggests to me that it could be a magnet for passerine migrants. Back home I checked and found the area had had a record of an Olive-backed Pipit (October 2012) which to a degree confirmed my suspicions. Non-birders and even may birders often assume that our hobby can only be pursued in wild remote areas "far from the madding crowd" but sites like this serve to remind us that rewarding birding can be had anywhere that there's suitable habitat. Balancing the demands of competing uses in a metropolitan park is never easy but those in charge of this area seem to be making a pretty good fist of things. At the foot of Los Turunos there's an excellent visitors' centre too where not only can you learn more about the area and obtain refreshments but also hire cycles which are probably the most efficient way to explore the park. Many thanks to Antonio and our driver for showing me this unfamiliar site.
As I've mentioned previously, from the start of my project to promote birding in Cadiz Province I had hoped that both my notes and this blog would be interactive and engage a variety of people for two simple reasons - a) I alone can't hope to keep my notes on over 100 localities accurate and current and b) a diversity of opinions and views makes for a more interesting blog than me just banging on about things that come to mind. Accordingly, I'm very grateful to Hilary MacBean for stepping up and promptly producing (on the plane home!) her account of a visit to Cadiz this September:
I have enjoyed a connection to John on Facebook for some time and very much appreciate his
contribution to the "Crossbill Guide to Andalucia" (see https://crossbillguides.nl/bookstore/western-andalucia), his blog and his contributions to the Andalucia Bird Society's quarterly magazine “Birds of Andalucía” (see - https://www.andaluciabirdsociety.org/our-magazine-birds-of-andalucia/). I also managed to miss him at Birdfair, so it was like meeting an old friend when we finally met in Alcalá de Los Gazules on 14th September. Birding buddy Lesley Silcock and I were birding the southerly migration based in Punta Carnero and Tarifa and then we moved up to Alcala to check out the wooded hills of Parque Natural de Los Alcornocales and inland sites such as La Janda. A very worthy combination for Spring or Autumn migration and the bird breeding season.
We were road testing John's "Birding Cadiz" guide (July 2019 edition) and I had already marked up most of his sites on my navigation system. John is extremely generous in the help, friendship and support he offers to fellow birders and the publication of his blog is a testament to his generous attitude (Thank you, JC). He does, however, ask two things in return: one, a contribution to a worthy and relevant cause, mine will go to a conservation effort in Andalusia and two, very importantly, feedback and updates. Written site guides are only as good as the latest visits, as changes are regular and inevitable. John says himself that he can't visit everywhere and much is based on his in-depth knowledge of Cadiz Province. He invited me to be a guest on his blog to pass on our very pleasing birding experiences in the area.
We stayed at Punta Carnero Hotel near Algeçiras (see http://punta-carnero.andalucia-hotels.com/es/) for six days and then at Casa Vista, Alcala de los Gazules (see https://www.booking.com/hotel/es/casa-vista-alcala-de-los-gazules.es.html) for five days. John laughed when he saw the size of our vehicle on the tight little streets in Alcala, but it did come into its own on the tracks of La Janda. Punta Carnero Hotel is quite new and comes highly recommended as a small contemporary hotel by the sea, with fantastic views of Gibraltar round to Tangiers. It offers great potential as a base for the Spring migration in particular. Its terrace and hospitality are a big improvement on the postage stamp-sized layby at the nearby lighthouse, as reported by John in the guide. Yeray Seminario of Birding the Strait (http://birdingthestrait.com/) gave us a very good introduction to the area, with two days guiding round the migration observatories at El Algarrobo and Cazalla, with sorties up to Sierra de la
Plata, Barbate and La Janda.
John’s notes are excellent and clear. His lettered points of interest are plotted on exquisite maps
that accurately show paths and features, but I would urge users to identify them on their navigation system in advance, just to help things along. Of course, every site varies with the seasons, but all good birdwatchers can make the necessary adaptations. Key species are identified by site, particularly for the migration and breeding seasons, helping to focus a plethora of choices about where to go. John admits he has left out a few key sites for conservation reasons, but that’s OK by me. He warns about the state of some tracks, but most are passable with a normal car and care in the dry season. Wet spells will be more of a problem. One at SW 8 Sierra de la Plata Point g, known as La Zarga, gives access to an impressive cliff holding a good population of Griffon Vulture, sometimes Ruppell’s Vulture, Blue Rock Thrush and if you are lucky, Bonelli's Eagle and even the now scarce White-rumped Swift, but don't count on getting your car up a very steep and rocky track, best to walk the last 500m distance up hill!
Barbate disappointed, perhaps because the water quality at the recommended Point g seemed seriously degraded, possibly by agricultural pollution from large numbers of cattle around the site. Passage migrants, indeed most birdlife was thin on the ground on two visits. The Barbate River was much better. We also called off at various sites at San Fernando, Laguna Medina and Chiclana, much closer to Cadiz. An arrival at Jerez airport made this straightforward and added considerably to our list. Tres Amigos at San Fernando (NW 15.1) and Salinas de Chiclana (NW 16.1) near the rotunda were productive and John’s notes worked a treat. We even had a Lesser Yellowlegs amongst mixed waders in the pools at the rotunda access track (to be checked out and confirmed by one of Yeray's colleagues). The rotunda restaurant is a nice lunchspot as well as coffee stop, by the way.
So to Alcalá de Los Gazules, John’s base. His terrace is everything he says it is and his welcome warm and genuine for fellow birders. Alcalá is a classic Andalus white hill town, in a cracking setting and great for watching migrant raptors moving down the valley. The town offers a friendly Spanish and expat welcome. We did the plains, spotted Montagu’s Harrier, missed Little Bustard and revisited La Janda, with some success, seeing a large kettle of White Stork desperate to get underway on migration but thwarted by poor visibility. We enjoyed the Roman ruins Baelo Claudia at Bolonia in the heat of the day. The first few hours of the mornings in the Molinos Valley and up into the Alcornocales, to Presa de los Hurones were both stunning in the cool of the morning and produced a Redstart passage, Pied Flycatcher, Spot flys, Nuthatch, Cirl Bunting, Firecrest, Crested Tit, the local race of Long-tailed Tit (ssp. irbii), several nice raptors and the only running water of the trip, so Grey Wagtails at Hurones, plus wintering Robin and tantalising signs of a possible Dipper on Garganta de Ortela, where it crosses the A375 road, but not marked in John's guide.
John always welcomes new information and updates and I thank him for a great guide. A dual location trip to Cadiz Province opens up lots of habitat and bird sites and is thoroughly recommended. They all said, “you must come back in the Spring”. I think that they are right! A big thanks to John Cantelo and friends.
I thank Hilary once again for her contribution to my blog, for her flatteringly generous praise and, above all, for her donation to a conservation cause in Andalucia. With regard to Hilary's useful point about identifying points on a navigation system, I'm currently experimenting with adding What3words co-ordinates (see https://what3words.com/daring.lion.race) to my guide but with 400+ points to cover this will take some time (if I complete the task at all!). And, yes, we are right - come back in spring!
About me ...
Hi I'm John Cantelo. I've been birding seriously since the 1960s when I met up with some like minded folks (all of us are still birding!) at Taunton's School in Southampton. I have lived in Kent , where I taught History and Sociology, since the late 1970s. In that time I've served on the committees of both my local RSPB group and the county ornithological society (KOS). I have also worked as a part-time field teacher for the RSPB at Dungeness. Having retired now spend as much time as in Alcala de los Gazules in SW Spain. When I'm not birding I edit books for the Crossbill Guides series.