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!
In a roundabout way the early history of Andalucian ornithology owes much to Sir Francis Drake who, in 1587, famously sacked Cadiz. Less well known is the theory that the 2,900 barrels of sherry he 'liberated' established the English, and later British, taste for sherry (or 'sack' as it was then known). As Shakespeare's Sir John Falstaff famously observed "If I had a thousand sons, the first humane principle I would teach them should be, to forswear thin potations and to addict themselves to sack." The history of birds in this area also owes much to the Treaty of Utrecht (1713). Why so? The first encouraged a close British involvement with the sherry trade based around Jerez de la Frontera. In the 19th and early 20th centuries this drew a number of Victorian 'sporting gentlemen' to the area amongst whom were a number of keen amateur ornithologists. The ceding of Gibraltar to Britain under the Treaty of Utrecht meant that what had been something of a backwater quickly became an important British naval and military base. Not surprisingly, off duty ornithologically inclined officers frequently ventured into nearby Spain.
One of the earliest British observers to comment on the ornithological richness of the area and the extraordinary bird migration was the Rev John White. His observations in 1776 would have been lost to posterity had not he communicated them to his more famous brother, Gilbert White of Selborne. His letters had a crucial role in persuading Gilbert White to favour the hypothesis that birds migrated in winter rather than hibernating as many then believed. Sadly, Rev John White's proposal to publish a book about his sojourn on Gibraltar was never realised. He was unfortunate not to be given the credit for “discovering” Andalusian Hemipode years before it was officially described.
The most singular ornithological discovery made by a visiting British officer in the 19th century was made by a naval man, Captain Samuel Edward Cook. In his in his book 'Sketches in Spain During the Years 1829, 30, 31 & 32” Pub. 1834 (see - https://archive.org/details/sketchesinspain00widdgoog) he recounts his discovery of Azure-winged Magpie writing that it is “common in new Castile, in the wooded parts, and is in vast numbers in the Sierra Morena ...” His short description of foraging flocks couldn't be bettered today - 'They live in small flocks, generally into a line, are extremely watchful, and are constantly moving, in short flights, commonly in cover, feeding on roads, or as food may offer'. Now this race has been widely split from its Chinese cousin it is sometimes called Cook's Magpie and bears the scientific name Cyanopica (cyana) cooki.
The tradition of studying birds started in England by William Turner whose 'Avium praecipuarum' (1544) was the first printed book entirely devoted to birds, continued by Ray & Willoughby's Ornithologia (1676), Gilbert White's 'Natural History of Selborne' (1789), Thomas Berwick's 'British Birds' (1797) and flowering in the 1800s simply didn't exist in Spain. Hence it wasn’t until the visits of Thomas Littleton Powys, fourth Baron Lilford (1833-1896) that observations of Andalucian (and Spanish) birds were put on a firm footing. Previous Spanish lists were dismissed by his contemporaries as being, to use a modern phrase, ‘not fit for purpose’ being riddled with errors. This was scarcely surprising as the native population was, according to later writers, notoriously slack about bird names using Aguila (Aguilucho) for any raptor from Lammergeier to Lesser Kestrel (and sometimes even Raven). The name Quebrantahuesos (Lammergeier) was often also used for Egyptian Vulture (a confusing habit that persists today). Unlike their English counterparts, the Spanish landed gentry had little interest in birds (unless they could be hunted) whilst the burgeoning middle classes that did so much for British ornithology scarcely existed in Spain. T
With his wealthy aristocratic background, Lilford had the means to pursue his lifelong interest in birds and wildlife. From 1856 to 1858, he cruised the Mediterranean in his private yacht stopping off at Gibraltar en route. On his return to England he became a founder of the BOU (1858) whose journal, ‘The Ibis’, he generously supported. Between 1864 and 1882, Lilford paid frequent visits to Spain, collecting and making careful notes of what he saw. After his two part paper entitled ‘Notes on the Ornithology of Spain’ (1865/66) was published (in “The Ibis’ naturally) he became regarded as the authority on Iberian birds (aided by his fluency in Castilian). Lilford’s influence continued well beyond his death since the illustrations by Archibald Thorburn which he commissioned for his “Coloured Figures of the Birds of the British Islands” were later used in the ‘Observer’s Book of Birds’; a book which probably encouraged more people to take up bird-watching than any other. (For detailed biographical information about the earlier ornithologists noted here see https://archive.org/stream/ibis29brit#page/n7/mode/2up)
Another notable ornithologists of this era was Howard Saunders, a wealthy merchant and banker, who visited southern Spain a number of times between 1862 and 1868. These trips formed the basis of several notes in 'Ibis' including a “List of the birds of Southern Spain” in 1871 (https://archive.org/stream/ibis13brit#page/54/mode/2up). These notes also formed the basis of a popular article, 'Ornithological Rambles in Southern Spain', published in 'The Field' in 1874. That such a respected and experienced ornithologist as Saunders claimed that he had found the nest of a Western Rock Nuthatch near Archena (Murcia) only serves to remind us how difficult things were for early ornithologists who lacked the background information and resources we take for granted. (The bird was doubtless a European Nuthatch which rarely nest in rocky crevices).
When in Dublin in the 1850s, Lord Lilford made a friendship that was to have a profound influence on Spanish ornithology. Lt-Colonel Howard Irby (1836 -1905) was his junior by three years and came from similarly aristocratic stock being the grandson of Lord Boston, but unlike Lilford he was a career soldier. Educated at Rugby, Irby served in the Crimean War, fought in the Indian Mutiny and survived a shipwreck, but his chance to make his ornithological mark came when he was posted to Gibraltar in 1868. Here, encouraged by his old friend Lord Lilford, he began his study of the birds of nearby Andalucia. Often staying in Casa Viejas (Benalup), Espartina (near Vejer) or Tahivilla he explored the great laguna that was La Janda and the rugged hills of the Alcornocales.
A typical Victorian sportsman-birdwatcher of the 'what's hit's history' school of birding, he was dubious about the value of sight records. This, though, was understandable in a time when observers had neither field guides nor decent optics and when extraordinary claims were sometimes made. His scathing comment regarding observers who identify “all and every species within range of their vision” has some resonance today, even if his scepticism that one could “distinguish a Common from a Lesser Kestrel” from a passing train doesn't sound so difficult to modern observers (as long as it's a male!). Yet he also had very progressive ideas, condemning “the slaughter of birds whose skins, when compared and examined by table naturalists …. made into new species without any knowledge of their habits, notes, etc” and suggesting that “Much more can be done by observation than by the gun, and when a bird is destroyed all chance of noticing its habits is destroyed likewise”. Accordingly, much of his seminal ‘Birds of the Strait of Gibraltar’ (1875), which contained a huge amount of new information, was based on personal observation. It’s doubtful, though, that any modern bird book would have a chapter on rough shooting, including that of Spanish Ibex! Irby’s work covers most of the regular species found in the area although he dismissed Thekla Lark as a race of Crested (probably due to his distrust of 'table naturalists') and makes no mention of the distinctive voice of local Chiffchaffs (now recognised as a separate species). Neither did it mention Red-rumped Swallow, but then at the time the species, now widespread, didn't occur in the area! His role in Iberian ornithology is commemorated in the scientific name for the local race of Long-tailed Tit – A. C. irbii. As late as the mid-1960s his work was still considered an useful authority on the birds of the area and was only replaced when Clive Finlayson's magisterial "Birds of the Strait of Gibraltar' appeared in 1992.
When Irby's classic work was revised and enlarged in 1895 (see - https://archive.org/stream/ornithologyofstr00irbyrich#page/n0/mode/2up) it was at the urging of Lilford and another British soldier-ornithologist, Colonel Willoughby Verner (1852 - 1922). Verner supplied many additional notes, photographs and sketches. This later edition had brief thumbnail descriptions of all the species covered and a few were handsomely illustrated with eight colour plates by Archibald Thorburn, courtesy of Lord Lilford. It's interesting to reflect that six of the eight of plates show birds of prey(the other two showing the endemic Azure-winged Magpie and a gamebird (Andalucian Hemipode), that most of the Verner's photos show the perilous location of raptor nests and of six monochrome sketches (half show hunting scenes). This may well give both the flavour of the time and the primary interest of the writers!
Although Verner was posted to Gibraltar in 1874, he and Irby first met on Tiree, in 1877; it was the start of a long friendship and fruitful collaboration. Although a man of many talents, being a soldier, military historian, artist, inventor, climber, speleologist and antiquarian, Verner’s overriding passion was natural history. As noted above he contributed many notes to the second edition of Irby’s work having retired to Algeciras at the end of his military career. Today his “My Life among the Wild Birds in Spain” (Pub. 1909 - see https://archive.org/details/mylifeamongwildb00vern) makes somewhat uncomfortable reading given his evident glee in birds nesting (as he euphemistically called it). Yet there’s no disguising that he was a superlative observer with a deep knowledge of the area and its birdlife. His book contains chapters on the larger and most charismatic birds of the area (particularly raptors and how to reach their nests). There's relatively little on what he somewhat disparagingly refers to as 'lesser birds'. He also pioneered the use of small hand held cameras at a time when their use was disparaged. As a keen antiquarian and expert climber, Verner was also one of the first people to explore Cueva de la Pileta in Benaoján which he helped bring to public notice.
Before Verner set pen to paper the study of Spain's wildlife by English visitors was stimulated by two books that found a wide audience (indeed they probably galvanised the old soldier to write his memoirs). These were the work of two well connected sportsmen Abel Chapman and Walter Buck. Like Irby, Abel Chapman (1851-1929) was an old Rugbeian, but, unlike Irby (and Lilford) he was not from aristocratic stock and nor was he a military man. He was, as Victorians disparagingly called it, ‘in trade’, but fortunately for ornithology, the family business of T. E. Chapman, were brewers and wine-merchants. Accordingly, after leaving school he visited Spain (sherry) and Portugal (port) mixing business with pleasure – principally wildfowling. Although first and foremost a sportsman (in the traditional sense of the word), Chapman was an observant naturalist whose first book was “Bird-Life of the Borders” (1889). In Jerez he made friends with Walter J Buck (1843-1917) who was the British vice-consul there. Buck was extremely well connected having taken over the firm Sandeman in 1879 and was instrumental in that firm producing its own sherry. More importantly, Buck and Chapman formed a small shooting syndicate that rented the Coto Doňana for several years. Together Buck and Chapman produced two highly influential books on Spain and its wildlife – “Wild Spain” (1893 – see - https://archive.org/details/wildspainrecords00chaprich) and “Unexplored Spain” (1910 - see - https://archive.org/details/unexploredspain00chaprich). Despite the wider canvas - geographical and otherwise - there's much in the books about Andalucia in general and the Coto Doňana in particular as Jerez de la Frontera was their base The subtitle of the first book - Records of Sport with Rifle, Rod and Gun, Natural History and Exploration - gives a good idea the book's main themes and the majority of birds discussed are the larger species either raptors or sporting quarry. The second book has less about birds in general, but the last chapter 'Sketches of Spanish Birdlife' gives a good formal account of various species. Unlike Irby’s more formal work, their books were wonderfully discursive and anecdotal. The books are also a wealth of information about Spanish society at that time and the desperate poverty of the campesinos which does much to explain the subsequent turmoil in Spaish society. The chapter in Las Hurdes in 'Unexplored Spain' presages Luis Buňel's classic film 'Tierra sin Pan' (Land without Bread) of 1933. It's also worth remembering that although railways in Spain had becomes quite well developed by Buck and Chapman's day (the Algeciras-Ronda line being completed in 1892 for example), journeys into the 'campo' at this time still involved the same long, hot and tiring journeys on foot or horseback that previous generations had endured. There was no easy motoring along tarmac roads for these adventurers!
Both books contain much information about the Coto Doňana and, although the main focus is on the larger mammals and gamebirds, they also dealt with the smaller birds, reptiles, insects and plants of the area. It was Chapman who first reported that Flamingo bred there and drew attention to the area’s importance as a migratory route.
Written in a fluent and interesting style, their books inspired generations of British naturalists; it was ”Wild Spain” that fired Guy Mountfort’s interest and was hence indirectly responsible for his equally inspirational book, “Portrait of a Wilderness” (1958).
Thus far all the British officer ornithologists have been army men but the Royal Navy played its part too. Amongst the most outstanding of these was Captain (later Rear-Admiral) Hubert Lynes (1874–1942). For decades the 'odd' Phylocopus warblers found in the mountains of western Andalucia had been thought to be Willow Warblers with an unusual song It was as a result of Lynes' work (who studied them near Gibraltar) that it was realised that they were actually a form of chiffchaff with distinctive song (now regarded as a full species, Iberian Chiffchaff). Lynes published his findings in 'The Ibis' Vol II 1914 (see – http://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/item/100092#page/370/mode/1up). Like those before him, Lynes initially mistook the birds' tripartite song as a local dialect of Willow Warbler. However, unlike others, he carefully investigated the situation. On finding a nest and collecting a specimen he realised he'd made an error and that the birds were a kind of chiffchaff. It's worth quoting Lynes' perceptive note more fully: “The only other breeding Phylloscopus (so far as we could find), was by its song, I think anyone would have agreed, a Willow-Warbler; singing males of this species shared the cork-oak glades in about equal proportion as Bonelli's. For a Willow-Warbler, true, the song was unmelodious and disjointed (“tin-potty”, if one may use such an expression), the first two notes jerked out, so that for a moment they might have been put down to an eccentric Chiffchaff, had they not invariably been followed by the four or five notes in descending scale characteristic of the Willow Warbler – in short, if it was a poor Willow-Warbler's song, it was an impossible Chiffchaff's”. It's perhaps unfortunate that Lynes seems to have collected his birds in early June when they would have been at their most worn and least likely to show their greener and yellower plumage. Had his birds shown the recognised traits of a 'good' ibericus then perhaps greater notice would have been taken of his observations (see also https://birdingcadizprovince.weebly.com/cadiz-birding-blog-page/a-mysterious-mosquitero-iberian-chiffchaff ).
Another amateur naval ornithologist John Hutton Stenhouse (later Surgeon Rear-Admiral John Hutton Stenhouse) (1865–1931) continued the two great traditions; ornithologist medical men and service personnel stationed on Gibraltar who explored the hinterland for birds. He was stationed there from December 1918 to July 1920 and in 1921 he reported his findings in 'Ibis' (1921) in a paper entitled 'Bird Notes from Southern Spain' – see https://archive.org/stream/ibis311brit#page/572/mode/2up). For a modern birdwatcher his note reveals just how difficult, and different, things were at the early part of the 20th century. First he complained that it was very difficult to get any distance into the country from Gibraltar, presumably due to poor roads and basic modes of transport (cars still being a rarity). He also complained that his studies were hampered from 1920 by enforcement of a law that forbade the use of a gun in the summer although this didn't stop him from shipping 260 'specimens' back to Scotland! However he did manage, with Willoughby Verner's help, to make three visits to La Janda and Sierra Retin. He obviously made good use of his time finding, near Laguna de La Janda in April 1919, one of the first Spanish records of Red-rumped Swallow (preceded only by one claimed by Verner some years earlier and a few others in the 19th century). In 1920 he went one better and discovered the first confirmed record of breeding Red-rumped Swallows for the region; naturally he shot the male! Stenhouse was also one of the first observers to appreciate that Thekla Larks bred at higher elevations than Crested. Unsuprisingly, he was unaware that Common Chiffchaffs were passage and winter visitors to the area and that the local population, now considered a 'full' species, the Iberian Chiffchaff, was a summer visitor. However, he was an acute observer and noted that the song of local chiffchaffs seemed to “change as the summer advances” and gives a good description - 'a double note followed by about five descending notes” - of what we now know to be the Iberian Chiffchaff's song.
Often inspired by Chapman and Buck’s work, many more British ornithologists visited Spain in the century that followed. F C R Jourdain (1865 -1940) went on five expeditions to southern Spain (1905 -1919), but his ‘Birds of Southern Spain’, being unfinished, only covered passerines. William Hutton Riddell (1880 – 1946) published a few notes on the birds of Andalucia, but is better remembered as a fine wildlife artist. Riddell, who rather enviably lived in Arcos de la Frontera’s castle, illustrated several of Chapman’s books (see ‘WH Riddell: Pinto y Naturalista 1880-1946’ Pub 2002). H F Witherby (1873 – 1943), famous as the founder of the journal 'British Birds' and co-author of 'The Handbook of British Birds', also visited Spain. His 'Two Months on the Guadalquivir' (published in five parts in 'Knowledge' magazine 1899) makes interesting reading, not just for the wildlife, but also for the vanished world it describes (see http://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/item/47635#page/26/mode/1up).
Other ornithological notables such as W M Congreve (1883 - 1967), Collingwood Ingram (1810-1981) and G K Yeates (1910-1995) followed. The latter’s “Bird Life in Two Deltas” (1946) was largely based on visits to the Camargue and Coto Doňana in the 1930s; a copy found neglected in a school library, along with Mountfort’s book (see below), inspired the writer of this note to visit both in the early 1970s. Published in 1938, Robert Atkinson’s ‘Quest for the Griffon’ is the entertaining tale of three, rather naive, undergraduates who drove down to Tarifa just before the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. They succeeded in their objective to get close-up photographs of nesting Griffon Vultures, but what would today’s digi-photographers make of the French customs, through which they passed, whose regulations stated that only “two photographic machines and twelve plates” could be imported? Happily the rules were sagely ignored by Atkinson and his friends! Collingwood Ingram, the last of the great “shooting birdwatchers”, visited the area in the 1920s mainly to hunt, but regularly returned in the 1950s and 1960s to watch birds. Wisely, in his later works he omitted his tales of shooting Great Bustards and thrushes! By the early 1950s he was regarded as the British authority on Iberian birds. He too had an interest in the sherry trade.
I realise I lack the obvious charms of Mae West (or Cary Grant come to that) but I'm happy to repeat her (in)famous line (see above) from "She Done Him Wrong" and invite readers of this blog to visit me if I'm in Alcala. I promise you that the Lesser Kestrels are far better than any of my etchings (if I had any).
One of the many delights of writing this blog and my site guide has been meeting fellow birders who've used them. Sometimes I do so by prior arrangement, sometimes we happen across one another by chance in the field (or elsewhere) and less often birders, usually in search of a good photo of Lesser Kestrel, just appear outside my house in Alcala de los Gazules. The attraction, of course, isn't anything to do with me but the fact that massive old tower (part of the town wall) is regularly home to 4 or 5 pairs of Lesser Kestrels (see right). Few houses can boast such a large, impressive and solid 'nest box' attached to the side of their house (although, in truth, it's more the other way round). On spring evenings I regularly enjoy the spectacle of 30-40 (and sometimes 80-100) of these falcons cheerfully chattering away above the terrace and we often watch one another at eye level as they perch on the trees opposite.
One spring I bumped into a birder (suitably equiped with binoculars) and his girlfriend in a local supermarket. Although staying in the village, he hadn't yet had good views of Lesser Kestrel. Naturally, he was promptly invited to join me on the terrace as, fortunately, it wasn't too far from where he was staying. As he thrilled to the views of the birds, I noticed a car pulling up outside the house from which a group of Spaniards, all decorated with high-end optics and cameras, burst forth. Fortunately, they spoke some English and I was amused to hear that they'd driven to Alcala from Madrid and had arranged to meet a second car load of birders with the specific aim of watching Lesser Kestrels outside my house. The street was, they told me, 'the best place in Spain for watching Lesser Kestrels'. Naturally, I corrected them, pointed at the terrace and invited them up to the actual premier spot for this superb colonial falcon. A few minutes later they were joined by their fellow Madrileños whose arrival meant there were now a dozen birders on the terrace watching them, still a record.
This spring was no different. About to make my breakfast one morning, I looked out of the kitchen window and spotted a birder trying to get photos of the kestrels. It turned out he was French birder and expert photographer, Rodolphe Cirouw. A few minutes later he was esconced comfortably on the terrace getting much better views of the target species. A tostada and coffee quickly followed, well I could hardly gobble my desayuno in front of him could I? Happily, he has kindly allowed me to post some of his shots (see above). I have to admit, though, that my favourite shot is not one taken from the terrace but of a bird emerging from it's nest site in the Iglesia de San Jorge at the top of the village some 200m further up the hill.
A few days later I'd arranged to meet a British birder (whose name, to my embarrassment, currently escapes me) late one morning. He'd asked me about seeing and photographing Lesser Kestrel when in the area and I had suggested a visit to Alcala. As I often do, since the route up to the house is tricky if you don't know it, I arranged to meet him at the bottom of the village to navigate him up to the house. This also suited me as I had some heavy shopping which I would have otherwise had to carry up the steep hill back home. My visitor followed me into the house with my shopping but when I suggested going to see the kestrels he turned to the door whilst I turned to the stairs. He was gobsmacked when he realised that the terrace was the site I'd promised to show him. I left him to it but later popped up with with a light tapas lunch. In all honesty, I can't promise everyone a breakfast or lunch (or supper come to that) but few go away without a coffee, beer or snack or some sort.
Although it's better to let me know in advance, I like spontineity so whether arranged or not by all means knock on my door if you're visiting Alcala de los Gazules. Just follow the road signs through the village towards the ruins of "Castillo de Alcala de los Gazules" at the top of the village and where a fabuolus view opens out on your left (and more prosaically where there are some large rubbish bins) just look for the house with a sticker of Andalucian Hemipode in the window. Unless encumbered with heavy gear it's better to walk up than drive as the route out by car is obscure, serpentine and narrow but if I'm at home I'll happily navigate you out again. If you drive up and find nobody at home then to exit the town take the road past the house and, as it swings to the right, take the turning that plunges down to your left towards the cemetery. This narrow (thankfully one-way) road, takes you below the ruined castle and, after an acute lefthand turn, to a T-junction where you go left for Paterna/Ubrique or right to rejoin the route by which you entered the old town. I may well not be at home (or even in Spain!) but you'll still get great views of Lesser Kestrels from the road. If photographing Lesser Kestrels is your aim then anywhen from late February to the second week of April is best as any later in spring birds perched conveniently on the trees opposite may be obscured leaves. You can still get excellent views of the birds in flight or on buildings on into the summer months but things are just a little harder. By late summer/early autumn there are far fewer Lesser Kestrels (sometimes only a handful) and even then they often only appear as they leave, or return to, their favoured roost in old buildings. Although this time can bring a steady flow of migrant raptors, the photographic opportunites are rarely as rewarding as they tend to be in spring when even an indifferent photographer like me can get decent shots (see below). If you're visiting in the winter months then you still have a chance of seeing Lesser Kestrel as a handful winter in Alcala (again most easily found as they leave or return to their roosts).
I've written elsewhere on this blog about the recent and very welcome positive moves by local authorities to develop resources for birdwatchers at Trebujena and on the coast at Barbate. News has just reached me of a scheme which promises to eclipse these developments both in scale and potential. I refer to the recently published scheme to convert acres of rather dull grassland in the upper reaches of the Barbate estuary into a huge freshwater lagoon with facilities for birding. Given how good the small freshwater 'flash' near the sewage farm just north of this site has been in the past this development should be superb and promises to transform birdwatching in the area. If it comes to fruition as planned this site will rank amongst the best in the region. It will certainly make Cadiz province an even better draw for birders from across Europe.
It's very early days but the following report from a local paper (Dario de Cadiz - translated by GoogleTranslate) gives a good idea of what we can expect:-
"The Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, Fisheries and Sustainable Development will promote the Integrated Territorial Investment (ITI) project for the development of the Barbate river marshes , in the terms of this municipality (Barbate) and Vejer de la Frontera, to promote ornithological tourism.
The territorial delegate of Agriculture, Livestock, Fisheries and Sustainable Development, Daniel Sánchez , on Wednesday informed Vejer that "this initiative, linked to the natural park La Breña and Marismas del Barbate, is at the drafting phase of the project." Speaking of this initiative in the company of the mayor of Vejer, José Ortiz , the delegate mentioned that "these important works will value a magnificent area and open it to the town of Vejer and the region ."
As the Board has indicated in a statement, it is within the planned actions, with European Funds, for ornithological tourism in natural areas of our province and this proposed action refers to an estimated budget of 1.15 million euros and is provides that it includes a walkway installation that facilitates access from the surrounding residential areas, in pedestrian, cycling or equestrian mode.
This project will include improvements that will affect, in the municipal terms of Vejer de la Frontera and Barbate, an approximate area of more than 80 hectares of lagoons and more than nine kilometers of roads , and that will contemplate more than three kilometers of new path, including bird watching points. The delegate of Agriculture has added that "this path will connect with another route that is being drafted and starts at La Barca de Vejer and that will reach the natural park of Los Alcornocales, where an initiative is planned to convert a section of the Barbate river into navigable zone ".
Regarding the marshes of the Barbate River, Daniel Sánchez said that "the development of this initiative will mean a substantial improvement in the entry points to the park and will contribute to the enhancement of this natural area and a better knowledge of the area by part of the citizenship, in addition to bringing benefits regarding the connection of this enclave with other areas, a question demanded in this environment. "
As indicated by the delegate of this Ministry, this project "will allow a better observation of the surrounding birds and the enjoyment of the natural park and the development of activities, as well as facilitating healthy practices, increasing safety and generating advantages for sectors such as tourism or the sports one."
The scale of the project can be better understood from my annotated GoogleEarth photo of the area above. The project proposes the construction of five hides/screens (presumably the tiny dark red dots shown on the map) and improved access. The latter seems to include a foot bridge across the river from El Soto. I hope that this scheme proceeds with as little delay as possible and that its undoubted success will hasten plans (long dormant) to transform La Janda in a similar fashion. All credit to the Andalucian authorities and local municipalities for recognising the potential of ornithological tourism and devising such an imaginative scheme.
It's something of a shock to realise that my birding guide to Cadiz Province which started off a decade or so as a couple of sheets of A4 now covers 88 sites & sub-sites, is approaching 90,000 words in length and sprawls over more than 280 pages. I decided quite early on to make them as comprehensive as possible even if that meant my knowledge of some sites was shallow, skimpy or, in some cases, almost non-existent. I felt, and still do, that it's better to flag up potential hotspots than omit them. One area I've shamefully neglected has been the Bahia de Cadiz. I've no excuse as the area includes some excellent sites. My hope was that users would fill in any details, correct any lacunae and contribute new information since it's simply not possible for me to check all of the sites on a regular basis (or even at all!). Unfortunately, this hasn't happened and my coverage of far too many sites rests on a handful of visits, many from years ago. Accordingly, I was delighted when keen young Kent birder Nick Brown sent me some first-rate (and detailed) feedback on Salinas de la Tapa, a rarity hotspot with an enviable record of turning up unusual birds. It's an area, I confess, that I've only visited twice so his feedback was particularly welcome. In this guest blog, Nick has provided a map of his route (which I've slightly amended for clarity) and a very useful digest of what he saw there earlier this summer. Naturally, I'm very grateful to Nick for his input. Thank you!
I decided to visit Salina la Tapa by bike as it was quite a distance from our apartment and the reserve itself is massive. Sadly, this meant that I couldn’t carry the scope which didn’t hinder me too much but probably meant that I missed a few birds. One huge advantage of having a bike was that it allowed me to evade the breeding Yellow-legged Gull population, which I’ll address later.
I entered the reserve behind ‘Club Guadalete’, the entrance being very inconspicuous and easy to miss. As previously mentioned, the Yellow-legged Gull colony was immediately apparent. I visited during the breeding season and I was therefore constantly mobbed from the entrance all the way to point ‘d’. This made viewing the salinas for prolonged periods of time a nightmare, and I was often forced to cycle past promising areas. I would imagine that viewing the Salinas at a different time of year would not have this problem.
At point ‘a’, Slender-billed Gulls were easy to find and I had one swimming very close to the path in the salina. Common birds included Flamingo, Black-winged Stilt, Kentish Plover, Little Tern and Yellow Wagtail. Point ‘b’ was visible from the path across a creek and seemed to be prefect habitat for larks, however, the fact that I lacked a scope as well as the position of the sun meant that I couldn’t positively ID any larks other than the distinctive Crested Larks (but other species were certainly present). It was around here that I somehow took a wrong turn and went towards point ‘c’ rather than the river. Luckily (and annoyingly) this stretch was the best for gulls, I found Mediterranean, Black headed, Slender-billed, Lesser black-backed and, of course, Yellow-legged Gull. This also meant that this stretch was the worst for mobbing, and the gulls would often aim their excrement at me while I was cycling. This meant that I got far less time to scan for other gulls and terns than I had hoped for and there could certainly have been rarer Larids present.
At point ‘d’ I came across a pumping station and this marked the start of the industrial half of the reserve. Interestingly, the pink water in the Salinas dyed all gulls completely pink and the Flamingos here were even pinker than usual. Soon, I came to an abandoned warehouse (e) which surprisingly had a colony (c.3 pairs) of Lesser Kestrel. The fact that the kestrels were dyed pink made initial ID a nightmare as they refused to show their backs to me and it made the rufous on the males’ chest far less obvious.
It was at this point that I realised I had made a wrong turn a while ago and I found a way out of the salt works at point ‘f’ which re-joined the cycle path which was guarded by a locked gate. From points ‘f’ to ‘g’, the habitat was perfect for waders but I found very few species, probably due to the time of year. However, a visit in spring or autumn would probably turn up many species. All I managed to find were Common Sandpipers, Avocet, Redshank and a large roost of Black-tailed godwits (as well as the ubiquitous Kentish Plover and Black-winged Stilt). More Slender-billed Gulls and Shelduck were also present.
Overall, the reserve seemed like it would be great for larids and waders in the right season, and with the help of a scope, point ‘b’ looks good for both species of short-toed lark.
The road coming up to the reserve also had many (Eurasian) Magpie, Red-legged Partridge and Cattle Egret.
Thanks once again to Nick for his excellent and informative commentary. If anyone would like to follow Nick in providing a Guest Blog here then please contact me via this website or (if you have it) by email.
Note that as Rafael Garcia has confirmed (see below) Nick unfortunately wandered off the official route. Access to the Sendero Salina de la Tapa is restricted to 10.00 – 19.00 and the route details can be checked in the ‘300 Senderos de la Provincia de Cadiz’ booklet (see Walk 150 in http://issuu.com/cadizturismo/docs/300senderoscadiz). As always I recommend checking locally for details regarding access.
The track across La Janda having been repaired some years ago is again in a rather parlous state needing careful, circumspect and temperate driving to negotiate safely. In early April the track just beyond the weir and the bridge (as you head up towards the finca) was badly flooded. As a consequence drivers were driving around it and along the side of the bank despite the novel track so created being canted at an alarming angle. Such caution was confirmed by the end of the month when the puddle was almost dry apart from the deep cobble-edged sump-wrecking puddle the nature od which had previously been invisible (see photos - note that my photos fail to show just how steeply angled the track round the puddle is). Happily, the track to the A 2226 Benalup - Los Barrios road (itself being widened and resurfaced) has now been resurfaced and is no longer the pot-holed nightmare of previous years. Disappointingly, there were no signs indicating whether road into the Las Lomas estate was now open to pedestrians. that had been previously closed to all were now open to pedestrians. However, an ancient sign facing this disputed track perhaps suggests it was once open to general traffic ...
It was previously possible to access the Embalse de Celemin from an old ‘area recreativa’ but this site is now an activities/adventure centre (‘Wakana’) which you now have to pay to enter. What is presumably a direct replacement for this facility has been built at the far end of the embalse (see photos) but as yet I’ve not had an opportunity to explore it. I did manage to check the nearby bridge over the Rio Celemin found good for Grey Wagtail and Red-rumped Swallow.
It’s always seemed a bone of contention for me that, unlike UK bird observatories, the Migres study centre at Punta Camorro has never seemed very ‘visitor friendly’ and that the organisation was less proactive in circulating news of engaging with visitors than its UK equivalents. I’m happy to report that my prejudices were undermined on my visit there in April as the new 'Observatorio del Estrecho' was open and signposted. Housed in the long low building overlooking the Straits it now has a small shop selling T-shirts and sundry items and, better still, an excellent exhibition (in Spanish and English) explaining about both bird migration across the Straits and the project to introduce Osprey to the region. The exhibition is certainly worth a look and supporting their organisation by buying something in the shop is a no-brainer.
Laguna de Jelli
The path from the A 390 Medina - Chiclana to the Laguna de Jelli is now easier to find thanks to the construction of small parking area, a fence and an information board. The laguna is c2.5 km from the road (and another c2.5 km back again). However, the 5 km track from the edge of Chiclana (see my guide) is in reasonable condition, has better views across the campo, in May-June remains a good bet for Rufous Bushchat and halves the walk to the laguna. This end of the path also has new fencing and a new sign. A few hundred metres along the path there’s a view point (Puerta Verde de Chiclana) and another information board but it’s too distant to obtain good views of the water which is kilometre or so further down to the path. Checking the nearby Laguna de Montellano (a short walk from the path to Jeli) I again found that views were poor and screened by bushes. Scoping the shrinking pool I found it only held several Black-winged Stilts and, briefly, a drinking Booted Eagle. A Roller in the hedgerow here, however, a a bonus. Closer to Chiclana I also checked the Laguna de Paja which can be excellent but this spring it was bone dry.
Laguna de los Tollos.
This year the laguna was almost completely dry with only the far corner (to the left in the photo below) being wet. The grassy sward in front of the hide did attract a number of Spanish Yellow Wagtails and provided a resting place for the Collared Pratincole which were hawking over the area.
The walk along the Molinos valley may never feature in anyone's 'top ten' birding sites in Cadiz Province let alone Andalucia but it remains a firm favourite with both myself and my visitors. It offers a good chance of seeing the birds of the Alcornocales without a tedious drive along tortuously twisting roads and the scenery is great. The suddeness with which you leave a busy pueblo and find yourself in what feels like a remote and timeless 'secret' valley is remarkable. For me at least it also has a strangely haunting atmosphere honed by the knowledge that this route has almost certainly been used by mankind for millenia with, particularly in its higher reaches, relatively few changes to the landscape. Not only is it within easy striking distance from my base in Alcala de los Gazules it's also one of the few sites in the area that you can feasibly reach by public transport. Admittedly, it's a 6 km walk from the bus stop in Alcala to the start of the sendero but after only c1 km you'll find yourself in a pleasant valley with plenty of birds to distract you. It helps too that there's a venta at the end of the road (Patriste). This year, though, the walk got even better ....
As you take the minor road (signposted 'Camping Gazules) out of Alcala de los Gazules into the Molinos valley you pass an area of thick claggy clay steeply cut through by a small stream (a). This is good spot to pause to look for Black-eared Wheatear, an increasingly scrace bird in Andalucia. I was pleased to find that a pair were still present in April 2019. The road then drops down into a broad valley (b) surrounded by mountains and the two streams (Arroyo de Patrite & Rio del Montero) that form the valley run east-west, they join together roughly at the mid-point of the lowlands to form the Rio Rocinejo which then cuts south through a narrow wooded valley (unfortunately this is does not seem to be accessible). Check the stream as it passes under the road (just before 'Camping Gazules') as it often attracts small birds usually no more that Goldfinch, Chaffinch & Serin but in late autumn sometimes the odd Siskin too. Woodchat Shrike pass through on migration (although breeding birds seem scarcer in recent years) and Iberian Grey Shrike turn up on passage and during the winter. The whole valley is a good place to scan for Griffon Vultures and other raptors.
Just after passing 'Camping Gazules' and then a small venta (both on yout right) the road becomes badly degraded and must be driven with care. After about 300m at the end of the track you reach the footpath (Ruta de los Molinos). Once again this is a good place (c) to see Serin and also seems to hold migrants such as Common Redstart and Whinchat. It's here too that I've had my only record of Rock Sparrow in the area. Crested Lark is common along the length of the valley but I have seen Thekla's Lark at this point several times (although Crested is far commoner).
Passing through the gate you soon reach an area of scrub where every other bird seems to be a Blackcap. The rocky prominence here (d) no longer seems to hold Blue Rockthrush as regularly as it once did but is still worth checking. Where the dense scrub gives way to open lightly wooded pastures is always a good spot to check for Cirl Bunting (although they can be seen near the gate). The path climbs gradually upwards into more wild olive scrub. On the knife-sharp crags to the right resting Griffon Vultures, often with wings apart after wet weather, sit waiting for thermals to form or resting after gorging themselves. As you reach a more open area with good views back down the valley it might seem that you've reached the end of the sendero as the path suddenly narrows and heads for what seems like a solid blank wall of rock (albeit one where Blue Rockthrush may distract you). Booted & Short-toed Eagles, Griffon and Egyptian Vultures, Honey Buzzards, Black Kites and even sometimes Osprey can pass over at any point along this route. Bonelli's Eagle are possible too and this April for the first time I had Spanish Imperial Eagle (juv.) here.
As you follow the narrowing path, shrouded by trees, the sheer rock wall before you seems to confirm that you've reached a dead-end. It's not until you stand right before the rockface that you realise that the path continues to your left as a steep rocky scramble. So steep is it that it's more secure, particularly after rain, to use your hands and feet rather than walk upright. At the top of the scramble the path turns sharp right to pass through the narrowest of defiles, a cleft contained by two rock walls of ancient strata that has been upended by collossal geological forces (f). A vast flat-bottomed rock is perched perilously at the end of this cleft. It's hard not to imagine our forefathers of many generations past taking the same route and, if caught by a sudden storm, shelting beneath the same jutting rock ceiling that I've used on occasion. I wonder too whether they paused to watch the Crag Martins that often pass at eye-level here.
As you drop down once more it feels like you've entered a secret valley within a secret valley. If you've not had them already this is a good spot to look and listen for Firecrest (if your ears are still up to it!) and the happy lilt of Iberian Chiffchaff. Look closely at the Long-tailed Tits as they belong the the Spanish race 'irbyi' - named after a pioneering British ornthologist of the Straits. Cast an eye over the rocky pinnacles here too as I've once had an out-of-range Ibex here. After an undulation or two the path reaches the ruins of an old mill where the official sendero (footpath) reaches its official terminus. However, you can slip through the gate here, cross the Rio del Montero (unless it's in spate) and up the slope beyond (h). In theory, you can walk from here up the slope to the 'camino forestal' (look for the crash barriers that mark the track) which is now a cycle route.
Since I first walked up to this ruin I've been intrigued by a sign that read 'Vereda de Patriste y Jimena'. A 'Vereda' is the smallest of the official designations of a droveway and Jimena it the nearest pueblo on the far side of the Alcornocales. At 31 km the route is shorter than the distance by car (51 km) which explains why the road from Alcala to Patrite was originally intended to push all the way through to Jimena.
Years back I tried to follow the path that snakes off through dense undergrowth a couple of times but found my way blocked by thick scrub. Now it might be that it was me that was thick rather than the scrub as when on an impulse I tried again this April, I found a narrow but well worn path continuing upwards. (In fairness to myself I've also been told that this route had been badly overgrown but was recently cleared). I only managed to walk another 400 m or so but that was enough to take me into more interesting cork oak woodland, discover a cyclopean rock surrounded by a shallow pool (i) and find still better vistas of the surrounding hills. The path up to this point offered a tremendous panorama of the surrounding hills and would be a superb spot for scanning for raptors. A little further on the pool and gargantuan boulders made an ideal picnic spot. Even in my brief visit it was clear that the woodland is better for Bonelli's Warbler than the more open and bushy areas up to that point. I didn't have the time to explore several paths that beg to be explored disappeared into the woodland.
To my annoyance once back in the UK I discovered (via GoogleEarth) that an attractive waterfall - Cascade del Espina (j) - was only another 250m further up the slope from the pool and behind it an interesting looking narrow gorge, the Garganta del Espina. Exploring further and, in particular, finding the waterfall is something for my next visit in spring (by summer the stream will be too dry rendering the waterfall at worst dry and at best anti-climatic). Those younger, fitter and better at map reading tham myself might like to try walking the 'vereda' to Jimena. Although 31 km might not seem too much of a challenge to keen hikers as you have to cut at right angles across the corregations of the mountain range the route is a lot tougher than you might imagine. Some sections apparently are paved with ancient stones and signposted but other parts seem obscure and without experience it would be easy to get lost. If you do attempt it, then I recommend looking at this website https://www.rutasyfotos.com/2016/03/patrite-jimena-por-la-ruta-de-los-quintos.html which gives a good idea of the state of the path and the difficulties in navigating it. Despite being experienced hikers, the walkers who set out from Jimena in the morning, got to this final section so late that night had fallen.
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.