The road coming up to the reserve also had many (Eurasian) Magpie, Red-legged Partridge and Cattle Egret.
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.
Driving along the banks of the Guadalquivir (and nearby) between Bonanza and Trebujena is one of those things I feel compelled to do every time I visit Cadiz province. The reason is simple – it offers some of the best and most varied birding in the area. This April I visited the area twice, first on 5th April and again just over three weeks later on 27th April (NB – I apologise for being a bit vague about exact numbers as I’ve mislaid my notebook but will add details if and when I find it).
As often as not I start off at “Lagunas de Martin Miguel” (see https://ebird.org/hotspot/L4788573) which is a somewhat misleading name for what are no more than a couple of unpromising looking plastic lined agricultural reservoirs. Yet such is their position near the river that they are often worth a stop (a). Despite their visual unattractiveness (Photo 1) they may hold birds like Little Gull, Whiskered Tern and frequently White-headed Duck, a much sought after species. They also attract Collared Pratincole which sometimes nest nearby. This spring a bonus bird here on my second visit was a male Ring-necked Duck (Photo 2) more of which anon.
From “Martin Miguel” I cut through on a farm track (b) to what I refer to as ‘Bonanza Pools’ but are more formally known as the Lagunas de Camino Colorado (see https://ebird.org/hotspot/L6472187). This year the track seemed a bit bumpier than usual and in need of some repair so this may not be a convenient shortcut for too much longer. As always, Bonanza Pools (c) came up trumps for good close range views of White-headed Duck. Red-crested Pochard and Purple Swamphen were also present although I was disappointed not to see Little Bittern on either visit as this has often been a good site to catch up with what can be an elusive species.
Bonanza salinas (d) was the next stop. As expected the site held good numbers of Curlew Sandpiper (far more frequent here than in the UK in spring) plus all the usual waders (Kentish Plover, Redshank, etc.), Flamingo and Slender-billed Gull. On the second visit on the 27th found twice as many Curlew Sandpipers (300+) reminding me of how quickly numbers can change during migration periods. However, the star of the show on the later visit was a small flock of eight Red-necked Phalarope (e). My poor digiscoped photo of one of the males (Photo 4) doesn't do the species justice This site is arguably the best in Spain for this attractive species. I confess that before this visit I’d forgotten just how good the track running parallel to the river (f) here was for two of the area’s most sought after species – Lesser Short-toed Lark and Spectacled Warbler both of which showed well on my two visits. I have driven this track in the past but it is best to walk unless in a 4x4. Take the track towards the distant tamarisks (c1 km) and search the low saline scrub en route for the target species. On my first visit here I missed the best bird – an Azure-winged Magpie – which was in very atypical habitat, the open tamarisk scrub by the river (Photo 3). It’s hard to resist the idea that it had just flown over from the pine woods across the river where it’s far more frequent.
As always, the next stop on both visits was Laguna de Tarelo (g) which is set amongst the pines of Algaida which had the expected Spoonbill and other herons (particularly Night Heron) plus White-headed Duck and all the usual web-footed suspects. On 5th April my companion Ray O’Reilly, picked up a Ring-necked Duck here which caused great excitement until we discovered that it’d been around for a week or more. It was this bird that I later refound at “Lagunas de Martin Miguel” . It’s worth noting that our best views of this bird were not from the screen but the side track along the edge of the laguna. Birding from here, it seems, presented no problem as far as the locals – avian or agricultural - were concerned. The drive through the pines was uneventful although the track (h) is gradually becoming more degraded so needs to be tackled carefully.
Once beyond the pines, I usually drive back along the river (i) towards Bonanza for a couple of km but, having already seen the two target birds for this route (i.e. the lark & warbler) I omitted this route on my first visit and only had a cursory look on my second. As always it proved a good area for Spanish Yellow Wagtail. I neglected this area on my first visit as I was also keen to head to Codo de la Esparraguera as the sedgy shallow pools (j) here have always been a very reliable site for Marbled Duck (see Photos 5 & 6 from 2011). To my huge disappointment I found that this area had been grubbed out and the habitat completely ruined (see Photo 6 dated 2019). An equally horrified Spanish birder (who I met just along the road) told me that the area had previously been home to the largest single breeding population of this very scarce duck in Spain. Yet it has been entirely wrecked. The only chink of light is that in 2014 it was also damaged (see Photo 6) although not so severely and nature managed to re-asserted itself surprisingly quickly.
The large pool (k) further along the road was also dry and a shadow of its former self (see Photo 7) as, in the past, it has been full of Flamingos, Spoonbills, Red-crested Pochard, waders, etc (see photo 8), not to mention a family of Marbled Duck. Only the final large pool held any birds (a few Black-winged Stilt, half-a-dozen Flamingos and a few Red-crested Pochard) - well down in numbers over previous visits. Viewing here was made difficult by raised earthen banks (see Photo 9). This was the single most disturbing discovery of my spring visit in 2019. Hopefully, this is a temporary setback and the area will again be flooded in the near future.
It remains to be seen how far the work to restore the marismas just beyond (k) will improve the area for birds but it’s gratifying to hear of two records this spring of flocks of Pin-tailed Sandgrouse – the first I’ve heard of for several years – nearby. I’ve detailed the developments at (l) in my previous blog (Three Cheers for Trebujena) and commented on how slippery the paths there are after heavy rain. It should also be noted that the track (m) is similarly treacherous after rain and should then not be attempted in anything other than a 4x4 (and then only very carefully). Using your car asa hide the ditch here is usually good for getting photographs of Gull-billed Tern and various herons. As noted in my guide the end of this track can sometimes (but not often!) be very good for herons and waders when flooded but probably isn’t worth the drive otherwise. For details of (n) I once again refer the reader to my previous blog (Three Cheers for Trebujena)
It may be only a slight exaggeration to say that the average UK bird reserve has more hides/screens/viewing platforms than there are in the whole of Cadiz Province. Despite a fantastic avian heritage and a slowly growing ornithological tourist industry such facilities are few and far between. At the Lagunas de Puerto de Santa Maria, for example, it’s impossible to obtain a good view across the principal laguna from publicly accessible areas. There is a path that leads to a beaten area of earth at the edge of the reeds overlooking the water which calls out for a simple screen but for whatever reason (fear of vandalism, inertia or lack of interest or finance perhaps) one has not been provided. At Lagunas de Espera there is a hide but its poorly placed and the view largely obscured by trees (a little judicious ‘gardening’ here does not seem to have occurred to anyone in my ten years of visiting the site). Even where new facilities have appeared (e.g. Marismas de Cetina) little effort seems to have been made to reach out to birding tourists without Spanish. The above complaints are, of course, probably somewhat unreasonable and unfair since being a non-Spanish speaker myself I am blissfully unaware of the political and financial regime under which the relevant authorities are obliged to operate.
Yet it’s equally true that some authorities seem more open to actively addressing the issues than others. At El Cuervo the work at Laguna de los Tollos, largely by enthusiastic volunteers, is an example of what can be done (even if the site was very dry this year). Another stand-out local authority in this matter is Trebujena where work is at hand to restore a section of marismas and, significantly, provide an infrastructure for visitors (see photos). The signs on site suggest that the authorities here have been very good at obtaining grants and sponsorship to carry out the work. A quick search on the internet revealed photos of local children being involved in rasing environmental awareness which can only bode well for the future. On my visit in April only a viewing platform had been completed but noticeboards indicated that plans were afoot to provide hides and a shallow laguna. It’s not (yet) perfect as the path to the platform (and subsequently the hides) is across a claggy clay substrata which, when wet, makes progress across the site difficult and access up the ramp to the platform almost impossible. This shouldn’t distract from the importance of this project. The platform allows a good view across the marismas (look for Spectacled Warbler & Lesser Short-toed Lark in the low scrub, Pratincoles, raptors and, if you’re very lucky, Pin-tailed Sandgrouse in the sky). It’ll be a great spot to sit whilst watching for such birds in the shade provided by its roof. When the pools shown on the hoardings are excavated then waders, ducks & herons may well be attracted to them. There's even a pleasant venta nearby, Taberna Manegodor, which also has a view over pools that often attract herons, ducks and waders.
The new facilities alone should alone be sufficient recommendation to visit Trebujena but the area has another, perhaps even greater lure for the visiting birder and one which, once again, the local authorities seem to take great pride – Rufous Bushchat (or Rufous Bush Robin) Although I’ve long been aware that the species is found in the area (although I’ve yet to see one there) it wasn’t until recently that I became aware that it may well be the most significant stronghold for the species in Andalucia (and perhaps the whole of Iberia). I’m in good company though as I don’t think many other birders realised it either! On my return from Spain in May I read online that it has the highest density of breeding Rufous Bushchat in Andalucia apparently substantiated by a recent count of 130 breeding males in 300 hectares of vineyards (irritatingly I forgot to make a note of the web address for the source of these details). Although the official Spanish name for this species is Alzacola rojizo it is so well known locally that farmers of Trebujena use a traditional alternative name for the species, Caberrubia. So proud are they in their pueblo’s role in preserving this iconic species that a local organisation, the Collectivo Alzacola de Trebujena, has been set up to census the species, organise awareness campaigns and generally protect the bird and its environment by engaging with the local population (see the poster below). To this end they a plan to help preserve the traditional cultivation of vines, almonds, olive trees and small orchards which provide a home for this emblematic and remarkable species (see https://www.lavozdelsur.es/el-alzacola-un-ave-bioindicador-de-nuestras-vinas/ and https://www.facebook.com/colectivoalzacola/).
Hopefully, visiting birders will not only use and appreciate the new facilities provided (as noted in my second paragraph) but will also be tempted to stop off in Trebujena for a coffee or lunch break. I don’t know the place as well as I should but it’s a pleasant, friendly and typically Spanish pueblo blanco which, if you’re so inclined would make a good base for exploring the areas along the Guadalquivir. It's not co-incidental that birding expert Juan Martín Bermúdez runs a birders' guest house - El Martinete Guest House (see http://www.martinete.eu) - nearby as his expertise, drive and enthusiasm has helped to direct & galvanise these local initiatives.
If stopping for a snack, instead of leaving your binoculars in the car have them with you so the locals are aware of why you’re there so that they realise that their community’s efforts are appreciated. But if you do search for this superb bird please treat it and its environment with respect. A single thoughtless act could undermine the conservation efforts of many. Park sensibly, don’t use playback and keep to public paths and tracks. If your Spanish is up to it tell any locals why you’re there. They may be proud enough of their special bird to tip you off as to the best place to look. And if you happen to be there when the next Alzacola rojizo walk is organised then why not join in, I’m sure you’d be very welcome.
Trebujena may be a small town but it's one that is clearly leading the way in raising awareness in its local population as well as providing facilities for birdwatching (local & visitor alike). It deserves all the plaudits that may come its way for such forward looking initiatives. I earnestly hope that larger administrations like Jerez de la Frontera will take note and develop the Mesas de Asta marshes (which has huge potential) or Puerto de la Santa Maria will do more to make their natural heritage accessible. It's certainly encouraging that nearby Puerto Real now regards birding tourism sufficiently importat to feature it (with suggestions of where to visit) on their tourism site (see http://turismo.puertoreal.es/). Things may not be moving as rapidly as I'd like but there seem to be an increasing number of promising straws in the wind ...
The Dehesa de las Yeguas was, along with the sites already discussed, one of the sites which I had targetted before leaving the UK as worthy of further exploration. The reasons for this was two fold; first it was a site I’d only visited, unsuccessfully, twice before and second it was somewhere I had always been pretty sure Lesser Short-toed Lark should occur. As reports on E-Bird confirmed the latter suspicion, it was ripe for exploration.
Previously, the nearest go to site for this species from Alcala de los Gazules was the Salinas de Santa Maria. Conveniently placed a short drive from Exit 4 on the A 381 (and thus close to Laguna de Medina) I had found the site when looking around the rubbish tip (a) where I’d previously seen Eagle Owl one evening (but never since before you ask). The sight of a reasonable track (b) heading off towards the vast spaces of Bahia de Cadiz was too great a temptation to resist. Despite heavy salt laden lorries thundering along the track veiled in a cloud of dust my hunch proved correct and along with (Greater) Short-toed Lark on the track, I soon found a few Lesser Short-toed in the dry bushy salt marsh (c). I also has Collared Pratincole, Slender-billed Gull, terns & Flamingoes here. The the latter part of the track (d) which crosses the motorway held little other than a large colony of Yellow-legged Gull, despite many saline pools nearby. Unfortunately, subsequent visits by myself and others indicated that this species was difficult to see here and not as regular as I had hoped whilst those lorries made birding there a trial at times.
After locating this site following the CA 3113 further around in the hope of finding another access point into the distant marshes and saltpans was the logical thing to do. Somewhat disappointingly I could find only one more good point of access off the road (e) before reaching the A4 – the Dehesa de las Yeguas. This Area Recreativa had plenty of parking, an extensive open pine woodland and a track that made a bee line into the marshes. I soon discovered the downside – the track would have made a good training route for a tank! It was rutted, wet and, the final coup de grace, as I tried to drive down it a local in a beaten up old van warned me against it. If the locals were leery of using it then I didn’t want to risk it. On my second visit it remained much the same (although by then I knew that, as I’d guessed, others had seen Red-necked Nightjar nearby).
On a hot day the shade of the pinewood here is certainly attractive so it’s little surprising that it’s the site of an Area Recreativa (e) although seemingly a little used one. Resisting the temptation to drive straight along the track (and thinking it might well still be in a parlous state) I first explored the two tracks running parallel to the CA 3113. Turning left I eased my way along a fairly good track for c600m until it deteriorated and swung to the left. Parking up (there was plenty of space) I explored on foot. As I’d found before the woods here held numerous Chaffinches and Serins but little else ut beyond the trees I found an area largely of damp grassland and dry old salinas (f) with the occasional pool of water. These held a few Greenshank, some Kentish Plovers and a brace of Spoonbill but in theory parts looked reasonable for Lesser Short-toed Lark even if I failed to find any. Interesting but probably not always worth the bother. Returning to the car I drove to the other extremity of the wood some 400m on the far side of the main track (g). Here I found several Spanish picnickers so my exploration was probably briefer than it ought to have been. The main discovery was that there was a large dryish reedbed (h) here which I assume to be the Laguna de Cetina mentioned on the noticeboard by the main track. It seemed rather birdless and apparently dry so I didn’t give it the attention it probably deserved but I did note that a path ran through the woods along its margin (several paths/tracks snake through the woods although you can evidently wander at will through the trees).
Back on the main track, which had clearly been well upgraded and repaired, I headed towards the salinas with some optimism. About 800m along the track from the CA 3113 I cleared the pinewood and could see that the habitat was every bit as good as I had hoped. On the right (i) there was a wet marshy area with a flooded channel running along its centre. This had number of Glossy Ibis and Collared Pratincole hawking above them. To my great surprise (more because my hearing is poor these days) I could also hear the distinctive reeling of Savi’s Warbler. Having heard them recently at Brazo del Este I knew how tricky they were to see so I wasn’t entirely surprised that I failed to locate the bird. Back in the UK I checked on E-bird and discovered others had found up to three Savi’s Warbler at ‘Marisma de Cetina’ so I was annoyed by my failure to check the dry reedbed more carefully - in retrospect it looked like promising habitat for this scarce and elusive species. On the other side of the track was an area of drier and more saline marshes (j) that looked excellent for Lesser Short-toed Lark but try as I might I couldn’t find any small larks at all (an early morning visit here is a must next spring). Above Black Kite and Booted Eagle drifted over and an Osprey must be a good possibility here.
So it was with great anticipation that I continued along the track towards some flooded salinas (k) where I’d already seen some Flamingos and Black-winged Stilts dropping down towards. I’d already noticed a gate across the track (c750m from the last pines) which I hoped were just to prevent vehicular access and that I could continue on foot. Unfortunately, a notice on the gate informed me that a permit was required to go any further (of which more anon). This would have been frustrating in any circumstances but was doubly so as I could see two hides beyond the gate (the first c600m from the gate and the second c700m beyond it). To make matters worse I saw one then another Purple Heron fly up from a marshy area (l) behind the hides whilst several groups of Dunlin and Curlew Sandpiper dashed by confirming that this area has a good potential for attracting waders.
The good news is that the permits are free and all you have to do is give 24 hours notice of your intended visit and details regarding your car. The bad news is that, according to the notice, they only way of doing so is by phone (two numbers are given - Grupo Asal 600409685 and Atlantida Medio Ambiente 673766136). As a result getting a permit will be very tricky for the majority of birding tourists who don’t have fluent Spanish (or a friend who has). The obvious way around this would be to provide a website by which you could apply online or even just an email address (GoogleTranslate should be up to making your request clear) but evidently nobody’s managed to think of this simple strategy. I managed to discover an email address for the latter organisation (apparently based at one of the visitors' centres serving the Bahia de Cadiz) but weeks later I've still had no reply. I’m still making enquiries and, if all else fails, will ask at the Andalucia stand at the forthcoming Bird Fair in August. If I manage to find a way of obtaining a permit without phoning up then I'll post details on my blog and add them to my notes.
Of all the sites I revisited this spring the Marisma de Cetina impressed me most and has the greatest potential. The star species is undoubtedly Savi's Warbler which is a very scarce breeding species in south-west Spain with the only other regular site nearby that I'm aware of being at Brazo del Este in Seville Province. However, Marisma de Cetina is about half the distance (just over an hour's drive vs over 2 hours) from Tarifa, the area's most popular birding destination. The presence of Lesser Short-toed Lark here is also a great draw as the site is again closer than the best alternative site (the Guadalquivir marshes). Since it's also less than twenty minutes drive from Laguna de Medina - the nearest site from Tarifa for sought after specialities White-headed Duck and Red-knobbed Coot - it makes a great minor detour for birders visiting that well known destination. If problems regarding obtaining a permit can be resolve then this could well become a regular and popular destination.
On Sunday 19th I met an old university friend in Faversham for a coffee and chat during which I bemoaned the fact that my eldest, Gemma, was staying near Port de Pollença Mallorca, somewhere I've meant to go for decades mainly to see Eleonora's Falcon (a scarce visitor to Cadiz Province which has always eluded me) and what used to be regarded as a race of Marmora's Warbler (but has now been 'split' as the endemic Balearic Warbler) . Her response was simple and direct - "Why don't you go home and get yourself out there?" That evening I recalled her words and idly looked on www.lastminute.com to see what was available. The answer was that I could book a flight, car hire and 4 nights accommodation at BelleVue Club in Alcudia leaving Tuesday morning for a measly £270. So less than 36 hours later and with minimal planning I was off. Fortunately, my good friend Brendan Ryan had a copy of Hearl & King’s “A Birdwatching Guide to Mallorca” which, although over twenty years old, gave me some idea what to see and where to go as did a hasty internet search. He also reminded me that the breeding population of 'Subalpine Warblers' on Mallorca had also been split as Moltoni's Warbler and that Moustached Warbler (a species I hadn't see for over four decades) also occurred there. The first three species were my targets for the trip with the fourh being a huge bonus.
Tuesday 21st – La Palma – Alcudia
I had hoped to make sufficient time to spend the late afternoon on S’Albufera but the usual delays in picking up a hire car, finding my way to Alcudia etc meant I arrived later than hoped. En route I had little other than a couple of Red Kites, a Buzzard, a Booted Eagle and the usual Collared Doves, Serin, etc. Not going straight to the reserve with my baggage in the boot and booking in later proved a costly error as it meant I arrived at 16.30 after the reserve information centre had closed (16.00). Technically, this meant I couldn’t go on the s’Albufera reserve as you have to pick up a (free) permit at the centre but reserve staff on the gate took pity on me and let me in for a 90 minute reconnoitre. However, the biggest drawback to my late arrival was that I didn’t discover that the centre had copies of the excellent “A Birding Tourist’s Guide to Mallorca” (3rd edition) until I visited again Friday. This would have been extremely useful in finding the birds I wanted to see.
Short of time and not knowing quite where to go, compounded by my increasingly poor hearing, I found less on the reserve than I expected and perhaps should have done. The star species was my 'bonus bird' - a Moustached Warbler. Surprisingly, this was the only decent look I got of the species despite the high population here. Its affinity with Sedge Warbler was disconcertingly obvious but the upperparts were much browner, the supercilium whitish, the crown blackish and it was distinctly shorter winged. Other birds noted included Osprey, Squacco Heron, Cattle and Little Egrets, Purple Gallinule, Black-winged Stilt, Cetti’s, Reed, Great Reed & Sardinian Warbler and Reed Bunting (the latter presumably of the thick-billed race witherbyi). The big disappointment was failing to find Eleonora’s Falcon which, perhaps naively, I thought would be a shoe-in here. My attempt to find a view point over the back of the reserve to scan in the failing light was unsuccessful but I did get my first balearica Spotted Flycatcher in the process (more of which anon).
Wednesday 22nd – Boquer Valley – Formentor – Albufereta
With birding to be done and a daughter to see, I was up early and off to the Boquer valley asap. Arriving not long after 07.00 I quickly had Sardinian Warbler, Serin, Greenfinch, Linnet & Kestrel but lost little time walking up to where the path drops down to the sea (c2 km) which I’d been tipped off was the place to look for Balearic Warbler. Happily, when I arrived I quickly found one singing so close to the path that even I could hear it and then another a little further off. Both birds performed superbly allowing me to get even better views than I’d hoped. (I later met several birders who tried their luck here later in the day without success suggesting that an early start makes a huge difference for this skulking species). Having had problems with my Nikon P900 the previous month in mainland Spain, I was delighted with the photos I was able to get of the Balearic Warbler. The reach of the 2000mm equivalent lens was quite extraordinary and although the auto-focus could sometimes be frustrating when working well it produced first rate photos. Contrary to what may appear to be the case the birds in the shots here weren’t nearly as close as they may seem.
With the first of my four main targets ‘in the bag’ it was time to look for my second target – Eleonora’s Falcon. Walking down the valleyI had Pallid & Common Swift and met a birder who told me that the best place to look for the falcon was the lighthouse at the end of the Formentor peninsula. Having heard negative things about the road up to the end of Formentor from both my sister-in-law and my brother, both more confident drivers than me, and also hearing it could be chock-a-block with mini-peletons of cyclists I was a little daunted by the prospect of tackling this route.
However, my early start also paid dividends here as the road was still fairly quiet and there was still plenty of parking at the lighthouse. However, the twisting and turning drive along the narrow road meant I saw little of the view until I arrived at the lighthouse. It was worth the drive! Here I also had superb views of Blue Rockthrush – some of my best ever – as it fed around the near deserted car park.
With no falcons in evidence I started to scan for seabirds quickly picking up small threads of Balearic and the odd Cory’s Shearwater. It was when I was watching these birds that I picked up a bird of prey flying low over the water –Eleonora’s! Despite having never seen them previously they were instantly identifiable – long winged, elegant, a relatively slim body, relaxed wingbeats giving a skua-like impression. Although always distant, I had at least three of these elegant birds skimming over the water in search of exhausted migrants. Only one came close enough to be sure about plumage details – dark brownish-grey upperparts, white cheeks, dark moustache and brownish underparts (although others were possibly all-dark). After about ten minutes the birds suddenly vanished. I also had a couple of pods of (Bottle-nosed?) dolphin here. As the car park began to fill up I started to head back along the peninsula but my plans to pull off at a couple of stopping points I’d earmarked on the way up were stymied by them all being occupied by increasing crowds of motorists and cyclists. So it was back to Port de Pollença to meet up with Gemma et al for lunch and then on to the villa they’d rented a Cala Sant Vincenç. In the lazy afternoon that followed I had only a handful of birds but was interested to see a couple of desmarestii Shags feeding in association with swimmers. Presumably the latter were driving small fish towards the birds who swam, submerged, within a couple of feet of the swimmers. to edit.
Thursday 23rd Albufereta - Northern mountains – Albufereta
Being agnostic about its status as a genuine ‘tick’ and with two and a half days to see Moltoni’s Warbler, I was fairly relaxed about my plans for the next day. Instead of the planned very early start to drive up to the Cuber reservoir for Moltoni’s I started later so I could pick up Gemma en route at 08.00 as she was very keen to explore the mountains (which, despite two previous visits to the island, she’d never managed as she doesn’t drive). So today demanded a more relaxed approach than originally intended. A brief look at Albufereta before picking up Gemma produced nothing I hadn’t already seen other than Little-Ringed Plover so we were soon driving up the serpentine road into the mountains. Any concerns about starting (relatively) late were blown away by seeing a Pine Marten trotting along the side of the road not far from Lluc. A much desired mammal tick, this was quite unexpected. Both Gemma and I were absolutely ecstatic about seeing this iconic mammal. Interestingly, despite being recognised as a subspecies (Martes martes minoricensis), it’s thought to be an ancient introduction to the area. A little later I was pleased to show my non-birding daughter Blue Rockthrush since it was one of the few birds she’d expressed an interest in seeing!
The bird life as we drove up through the woodland was dominated by Chaffinch but seeing Griffon Vulture was a surprise (I hadn’t realised they’d colonised the island) but my first Black Vulture for years was still better. A confusion about where we were meant I sailed past Cuber reservoir and continued down towards Soller before I realised my error. Finding somewhere to turn round wasn’t going to be easy and the prospect of getting stuck behind the now numerous cyclists going up to the reservoir didn’t appeal. Besides, with a day and more to spare I felt I had plenty of time and I was happy just to enjoy my daughter’s company. A circuitous drive back towards Pollença (via Inca) for a late lunch netted a couple more Red Kite, Cirl Bunting and some wonderful scenery and equally impressive views (esp Ermita Santa Maria).
Our final stop was Albufereta but unlike the night before this time there were huge numbers of Common/Pallid Swift feeding over the area. Scanning the skies I soon picked up a couple of distant Eleonora’s Falcon only to be upstaged by Gemma who spotted a much closer bird. Once again I was struck by the distinctive jizz of this iconic species. A good contrast with the Eleonora’s was provided by a chunky Peregrine that also surged overhead. After checking Sa Barcassa where the same waders as previously were on show we drove back to Cala Sant Vincenç for supper.
Friday 24th Son Real - S’Albufera - Arta peninsula
The one thing that I hadn’t factored into my plans was that, despite the warm sunshine of the previous days, the mountains might be enveloped in clouds and rain which turned out to be the case. Accordingly when I got up just after 06.30 and found that the mountains were engulfed in clouds I had to do a quick re-think of my itinerary for the day. I opted to look at the Son Real area which, as it wasn’t covered in Hearl & King, I knew very little about other than access was possible via Can Picafort and that Subalpine Warbler (senso lato) had been reported from here in the past.
I then planned to have another look for Eleonora’s Falcon at S’Albufera as I still hadn’t had good views before deciding what to do with the rest of the day. My plans were nearly thwarted by the fact that there was a obscure one-way system in Can Picafort and that a street market was setting up which made parking was very difficult. Once parked I explored the coastline here finding Whimbrel and Ringed Plover on the shoreline but only Sardinian Warbler in the scrub. With S’Albufera only ten minutes away I opted to get there when it opened at 09.00 rather than remain searching what was an unknown quantity.
Brilliant though it is that permits for s’Albufera are free and access easy, it’s a shame it opens so late – 09.00 is far too late for serious birding! I (and I’m sure many other birders) would happily pay a premium to gain access earlier and stay later. So a couple of hours later than I’d have liked I started to explore the famous reserve. The pools had Black-winged Stilt, Kentish Plover, Ringed Plover, Flamingo and Glossy Ibis but I was miffed to miss a (Great) Bittern here. I also added Purple Heron to the tally. In the reeds/canes I had many Blackcap, Fan-tailed, Cetti’s, Reed and Great Reed Warblers but try as I might never managed more than a glimpse of putative Moustached Warblers. One significant bonus, however, was getting excellent views of Crested (Red-knobbed) Coot a species I was annoyed not to see this spring in Andalucia. The views were by far the best I've had of what is often a very elusive species in my usual patch in SW Spain. The only downside being that these birds all stem from a reintroduction programme. Then, at about 10.00, the Eleonora’s Falcons began to show and I at last got good close views of my most desired of the trio of ticks I’d come to see. They are such elegant raptors and ones that were curiously skua like. I never even attempted to take any photos as I wanted to relish every moment. I eventually had a flock of 20 birds busily catching insects.
By this time I was desperate for a coffee and a late desayuno so I headed out of the reserve via the Information Centre where I picked up both the “A Birding Tourist’s Guide to Mallorca” and “Aves de Mallorca” (oddly not available in English but the maps and bar charts were very infirmative). Crucially the latter has good distribution maps for all regular species which told me I’d been over optimistic about the distribution of Moltoni’s on the island and had wasted time looking in unlikely areas. The main population centre seemed to be the Arta peninsula which was not only half the distance but also, unlike the higher mountains, not (yet) clothed in cloud and drenched by drizzle. So although the birding guide didn’t mention Moltoni’s in its account of the area I opted to drive over to the Arta peninsula rather than brave the rain sodden higher peaks.
My first stop was along the road past Colonia Sant Pere on a path up towards the Ermita de Betlem. Once again, though I found nothing other than Sardinian Warblers (plus Cirl Bunting). With it now starting to drizzle I headed back to the car and drove into Arta (tricky!) for the long delayed coffee and what was now more almuerzo than desayuno. With drizzle now set in I drove up into the Arta peninsula stopping at the ermita and later S’Alqueria Vella d’Abaix. Here I picked up Great and Blue Tits, Firecrest and Tawny Pipit but of the warbler tribe only Blackcap and the ubiquitous Sardinian Warbler.
Although they had proved to be abundant and I’d been seeing them since my first day on the island, it was only at S’Alqueria Vella d’Abaix that I really looked closely at the balearica Spotted Flycatcher. When I did so my initial impression that they were a very pale taxon was confirmed; the back was several shades lighter than the nominate form, the forehead/crown so pale that at some angles they looked masked, the wing-coverts perhaps had broader pale edges and the chest was scarcely streaked at all (and then only on the flanks). They had a ‘frosty’ appearance quite unlike the Spotted Flycatchers I see in mainland Spain and the UK. Although the tyrrhenica form of Spotted Flycatcher make the split problematical, it’s hard to see what criteria can justify splitting Moltoni’s (and for that matter “Atlas” Pied Flycatcher) but not ‘Mediterranean’ (Spotted) Flycatcher.
Despite the weather, I found the Arta peninsula a very attractive destination with far less tourist traffic than Formentor but similarly wonderful views. Perhaps negotiating Arta’s tortuous streets to access the road running along its spine puts people off. Arta too proved to be an historic and attractive town (and seemingly very popular with German tourists).
Saturday 25th Cuber Reservoir – the last roll of the dice
With my flight not leaving until the late afternoon, I had much of the day to go birding so decided to wait and see what the weather held for my last day on the island. When I awoke, having been laid back about seeing Moltoni’s thanks to my agnosticism about its specific status, my impending departure suddenly made me anxious to see one. The omens weren’t good as the weather seemed worse than it had been on Friday. Although it was a few minutes longer than going via Pollença I decided to take the route via Inca and Selva as it promised an easier initial drive (via the fast Ma 13), a chance to better judge the conditions in the mountains and, if all else failed, time for some sight seeing in La Palma. It was still miserable weather as I approached Inca but not quite as bad as I feared so I opted to try for Moltoni’s again. Driving up into the hills this seemed like a foolish move as the light mist turned to drizzle and the drizzle episodically became heavier rain. It was still raining when I reached my destination but least this meant there was plenty of room to park!
Walking around Cuber the reservoir the rain began to lighten and I was cheered by the sight of a new bird for the trip Crossbill (presumably of the local race balearica). However, I was seeing little more that the ubiquitous Chaffinch, the odd Linnet and, of course, Sardinian Warblers but the odd glimpse of uncooperative smaller Sylvia warblers and brief snatches of song gave some hope. Crossing the dam the rain began to relent and Crag Martins showed well, a Little-Ringed Plover lifted off the path in front of me and the nearby quarry had a couple of squabbling Blue Rock Thrush. Finally, the rain actually stopped and not long afterwards up popped a Moltoni’s Warbler – being a nice male relieved any anxiety about distinguishing it from Western Subalpine as made the taxon's diagnostic Wren-like call. Perhaps that ‘Wren’ I’d heard earlier had actually been something rather more exciting! Not long afterwards the rain returned and by the time I got back to the car it was raining steadily. With all of my three targets now ‘in the bag’ I drove down into La Palma to meet Gemma (who was now staying there before flying home on Monday) for lunch and then the flight back to the UK.
Given the shortness of my stay, my lack of forward planning, absence of an up-to-date site guide (until the last two days) and that my focus wasn’t entirely on birds, not to mention inclement weather, I think my final list of 86 species wasn’t too shabby. With better weather I might have seen another dozen or so species and a century run in late May should be quite possible. My delight at seeing two long wanted birds, Balearic Warbler and, above all, Eleonora’s Falcon was matched by unexpectedly seeing Pine Martin. Moltoni’s Warbler may lack the iconic (or even taxonomic!) status of the other two star birds but my relief at seeing one in a last gasp effort told me how much I really wanted to see one. The one disappointment was failing to see the badius race of Woodchat Shrike which I’d assumed I’d just ‘bump into’ as I’m used to doing in Andalucia, but it seems much scarcer on Mallorca.
As a birding destination Mallorca has a lot going for it even beyond its three ‘jewels in the crown’ (even if some think the third member of the trio is only a semi-precious stone). I was particularly impressed by how the authorities seemed to actively embrace birding tourism and regard their reserves as places not only to preserve wildlife but also to engage with and educate visitors. The contrast with what seems to be the approach in Cadiz Province was startling. There the default attitude seems to be ‘keep out’ and many excellent reserves have no (or a poorly maintained) infrastructure making birding problematical. On the downside many birds one could expect in Andalucia were either entirely absent or only present as transient visitors on Mallorca. It was also even harder too to find convenient places to pull off the road and explore. I really missed the ubiquitous Andalucian venta which makes a quick stop for a coffee and tapas so easy in Cadiz province. Although the scenery was often fabulous and at the historic heart of some old towns a charming, I found much of coastal Mallorca depressingly over-developed. The constant babble of English drowning out Catalan or Spanish voices, pizzerias instead ventas, tacky shops and vast blocks of holiday apartments were all rather depressing. It may lack the trio of special birds but in my totally biased view Cadiz has far much more to offer the birding tourist – I just wish that the local authorities would wake up to the fact!
It was some six or more years back that I first noticed a large shallow body of water a couple of kilometres east of Complejo Endorreico del Puerto de Santa María (more informally just called Lagunas del Puerto de Santa María). I was unable to check it out at the time so earmarked it for future exploration the following year. Unfortunately, events beyond my control meant that I was unable to do so until this spring. By then I had discovered that the site seemed to have at least two names - Laguna del Hato Carne and Laguna de los Tercios (and third place name, Las Marismas de Pozo, may also refer to the area). Initially I settled on using the name Laguna del Hato Carne in my notes but as Laguna de los Tercios seems to be the one used on E-bird I’ve opted to use it too.
As can be seen from my photos it sits in a shallow basin and is, accordingly, very shallow too. Naturally, this also means its area depends on the amount of (winter) rain and that it may be ’s a very shallow so ay be entirely dry by late summer. It is also, apparently, far more brackish than other nearby lagunas. When I briefly visited the site on 18th April 2019 viewing from (b) I had 95 Flamingo, 3 Montagu’s Harrier, 54 Avocet, 3 Purple Swamphen, 9 Shelduck, 6 Shoveler, 2 Red-crested Pochard, 2 Glossy Ibis 9 Gull-billed Tern and 6 Black-winged Stilt (plus Dabchick and Coot). A subsequent visit produced similar numbers plus Short-toed Lark and a dozen Collared Pratincole (although in the past I’ve seen 50+ hawking over here from a distance).
At the time of writing the E-bird account for this site lists a meagre 28 species but since it derives from a meagre 3 checklists this can hardly reflect the site’s potential. Worryingly, this site doesn’t seem to be protected and is outside the boundaries of the Complejo Endorreico del Puerto de Santa María. At least, unlike many other lagunas in the area, it is relatively easy to view (although a ‘scope is needed).
Reaching the laguna is fairly straight forward. From the north take exit 646A off the A-4 and at the roundabout at the top of the ramp take the first exit (be careful as this is a narrow track running parallel to the ramp down onto the CA 31. After 650m take the track down to the laguna (c2km) which should now be visible. (From the south off the A-4 you reach the track via exit 646, a bridge across the A-4 and onto the same roundabout). This is a surprisingly busy but decent gravel track down to some fincas. On both of my visits I was passed by drivers in tractors and ‘agricultural’ 4x4s none of whom seemed concerned I was there so it seems access is OK and there are no ‘camino particular’ signs en route.
A second track (c) runs down towards the laguna from a track off the minor road near the casino (note the very rough track linking this route to the one mentioned above is not navigable by car). I've walked down this track to the small laguna (which only harboured a pair of Mallards on my visit) but this track becomes almost invisible by the time it reaches the laguna (see the photo below). Distant views can also be obtained from near Laguna Chica but this path (d) doesn't seem to reach the laguna.
The laguna probably will never be a major attraction for birders but it’s certainly worth a look if you're passing and clearly has a potential for providing the odd surprise.
With over 80 sites detailed in my birding notes it’s always been hard to keep them all up to date. The need for revision has been made all the more acute by my inability to visit the area in the last few years. This is one reason that I ask users for updates but there’s no substitute for actually having a look for myself. Accordingly, when I was out in the area for a month this April visiting several sites that I was fairly sure needed a thorough revision was a priority.
Amongst these was one of the few localities, Marisma de las Aletas (NW 14.4) that I had added to my notes without actually visiting at all but solely on the strength of information culled from Ebird (https://ebird.org/hotspot/L5561089). Not that there was much information to be found even in that admirable source. When I added it there were just 3 checklists featuring a meagre 45 species (this has since increased to six checklists and 86 species – not including my own which I will add anon). Four factors made me break my usual rules and add the site. First that it looked an easy way to access the vast and sprawling salinas of the Bahia de Cadiz. Second that it wasn’t too far from a trio of sites (Laguna de Medina, Lagunas del Puerto Santa Maria and Lagunas de Chiclana are all within 20 minutes) that are good for birds of freshwater wetlands so would allow visitors to add a set of additional species without too much effort or a long drive. Third that amongst the featured species was one that many visitors are keen to see, Lesser Short-toed Lark. Finally, and somewhat surprisingly, it was also had a railway station making it convenient for those without a car.
The Marisma de las Aletas was the second of three novel sites (which I will cover in further posts) that I visited this spring. As I had already visited Laguna de Medina in the morning it was already rather too warm when I checked out las Aletas so the birds had largely stopped singing. It was gratifying to discover that the assumptions I’d made proved to be correct. It was quick to get there from Laguna Medina and, the habitat, largely mud flats and salinas, promised a different range of species.
The station car park (a) is huge and, on my visit at least, hardly used. Driving over the bridge over the railway line I first continued straight on to check the open salt marsh/salinas (b). Whilst the habitat look perfect for my target species (Lesser Short-toed Lark) being the middle of the day I struggled to find any larks whatsoever – only poor flight views of Crested/Thekla’s and a brief snatch of song that I tentatively identified as (Greater) Short-toed Lark. The habitat certainly looked excellent for both short-toed species. The track was in good condition at least until (c) where I turned back to the station.
Reaching the tarmac road again this time I headed north towards (d). The muddy margins here were good, if not spectacularly so, for wading birds (Redshank, Curlew Sandpiper, Dunlin, Grey & Kentish Plover, etc) plus the ubiquitous Black-winged Stilt on roadside pools. (In hindsight I should have continued further along this road to checkout distant gulls as Slender-billed has also been reported here). So there was plenty here to quickly bump up your wader list after visiting somewhere like the Laguna de Medina.
Returning back along the road I had a stroke of good fortune when a Great-spotted Cuckoo flew overhead closely pursued by a Magpie. I’ve found the former species to be very elusive in the area so this was a great bonus. Cadiz’s bird atlas (published c1990) calls it a “A very scarce and localised summer visitor in our province. Regular in small numbers during migration” and shows ‘probable breeding’ in only two 10 km squares (both near Trebujena). Yet the loud calls and enthusiastic mobbing of the Magpie, which chased it for a kilometre or more, suggested that the cuckoo may have been doing more than just passing through. It’s tempting to speculate whether the apparently huge increase in the numbers of (Eurasian) Magpies, which in Cadiz province were evidently previously almost entirely restricted to Chipiona, but are now found more widely (esp. the Bahia de Cadiz) may lead to a similar increase in Great-spotted Cuckoo. Tempting but as the cuckoo doesn’t seem to breed in Morocco, where there’s a local race of Magpie, perhaps other environmental factors militate against it breeding regularly or in numbers quite so far south.
Returning to the station, I then checked out the new (2018) footbridge that spanned the busy main road (open 07.45 - 22.00). It’s existence is an unexpected bonus as it allows birders to explore the scrub and woodlands here (e), the estuary of the Rio San Pedro and the Los Toroñus peninsula beyond. Heading north takes you to more more salinas (c3 km) and the really energetic could even walk c10 km to the next station (Puerto de Santa Maria).
The Marisma de las Aletas may never be a first option stop for visiting birders but for those visiting the vicinity to check the nearby lagunas and wetlands, it certainly represents a good opportunity to add several species to their tally, particularly Lesser Short-toed Lark (and a chance for Thekla’s without heading for nearby mountains). For those using public transport (particularly those with access to a cycle) this could one of the best destinations available to them.
One of my main objectives when I visited Cadiz province this spring, my first extended birding trip there for over five years, was to visit several sites to which I felt I hadn't done justice or which I knew badly needed updating. One of these was the Barbate estuary as I'd never really felt happy about my coverage of the site in my notes. In large measure, this dissatisfaction was due to the disconnect between what I'd found 'on the ground' and what a couple of leaflets on the area told me. According to a leaflet - ‘Mapa Guia Ornotologico’ - I picked up some years back several footpaths ('senderos') allowed exploration of the area but on my previous visits I had found embankments that should have carried paths breached or prohibitive notices denying access. As a result, I found the site not as accessible as hoped and seeing a fraction of the birds present problematical. (Note that in the account that follows I refer to locations marked on the above map as Sites a to j. I have also used a satellite image to give the locations of the photos in the 'slideshow' towards the end of this account (referred to as Photos a to k - I hope this isn't too confusing!)
My exploration did not start well as I found that the Sendero Marisma Alta (just over 2 km along the A 314 Vejer-Barbate road – Site a on the inset map) was now closed. Having limited time I didn't explore further but viewing from elsewhere it looked as if the pools here are now smaller that they have been in the past. This is, perhaps, because the nearby sewage farm (a leak from which according to some fed the wetlands here) had been repaired. Further exploration will have to wait until a subsequent visit. Time constraints and a desire to check more productive areas prevented me from exploring Sites (b) & (c) which will have to wait for a future visit.
In the past, I've found that the bridge carrying the A 2231 across the main channel was a good location for finding gulls and terns (inc. Caspian Tern). However, the combination of a busy road and a narrow pavement (albeit protected by a good crash barrier) made for unpleasant viewing. I was also unaware of a very convenient place to park nearby. Happily, my search for a better place to park and an alternative location to scan this area proved successful. On the Barbate side of the bridge there's now a pleasant wooden 'boardwalk' (Site d) skirting the river and plenty of rough ground nearby on which to park. It also gives you access to a small area upstream where you can also scan for birds and, for those who insist on doing so, easier access to the bridge.
I've never found the old salinas that line the road beyond the bridge (Site e) very productive for birds beyond the odd Redshank and Black-winged Stilt. As a result I've only infrequently checked them particularly since it's easier to view the bridge by parking at (Site d) and other areas off more of interest. It may, however, be useful to know that you can pull off the road (with care) onto a track leading to some workshops/industrial buildings.
Now that the footpath near the venta has been restored and is now well signposted, it may be worth stopping at (f) - particularly if you need refreshment before exploring the eastern edge of the estuary.
If you start here walk along the track and then turn right just before the working salinas/fish farm takes you onto the sendero (see Photo b). This whole area is called the Esteros de la Isleta de San Fransico but the section here is called the Esteros de Miguel Caseta, the walk along the sendero from the venta offers excellent views across the old salinas (see Photo c). Although the birdlife here tends to be less exciting than the more open and muddy expanse further to the east, it can still hold Flamingos, Black-winged Stilts and various other waders. It is also often a good area for Spanish Yellow Wagtail (summer).
Alternatively, drive directly to the track near a large noticeboard (Site g/Photo d) where you can pull of the A 2231 and join the sendero mentioned above on the far side of Esteros de Miguel Caseta. Although it's possible to follow the track which loops round behind the farm buildings to the start of the sendero, I prefer to park near the road (Site g/Photo d). Parking further along the track is usually safe but makes you more vulnerable to theft. However, wherever you park be aware that in recent months there have been a spate of thefts in the area including once incident where thieves, apparently deliberately targetting birders, grabbed optical gear and cameras from the rear seat of a car just after it had been parked driving off before the driver had time to react. Accordingly, keep your doors locked even when parking and be aware of who's about. That said, although it pays to be cautious, most birders have not experienced any problems. In the past, despite the promise made in leaflets, those wishing to watch birds here were limited to the track as embankments had been breached rendering the paths inaccessible. Happily, the footpath has been repaired and is now well signposted.
Photo f shows the point where the two branches of the sendero join. In my experience it's better to take the path roughly northwards as the muddy area to your right holds more birds and of a greater variety the Esteros de Miguel Caseta to your left. All of the expected waders (depending on the season) can be seen here (e.g.Redshank, Grey, Ringed & Kentish Plovers, Dunlin, Curlew Sandpiper, Sanderling, etc.). Amongst the familiar Yellow-legged and Black-headed Gulls you've a good chance of finding Audouin's and Slender-billed Gulls. For those who only know the species in the UK, it's refreshing to see Little Tern is present in good numbers. Flocks of terns and gulls should be carefully checked as Caspian Tern is regular here and Lesser Crested Tern has occurred. By the time the path turns sharp right (Photo g) you should have seen most of the wader species present. Your best views are to your right but keep checking to your left where the banks allows. Frustratingly, large numbers of gulls often roost just beyond easy 'scoping range or partially hidden. Although you may have seen them already the stretch between Photo h & Photo i (Site i), tends to be best for Short-toed Lark (but don't forget to check for Lesser Short-toed which has been reported in the general area). Unfortunately, the Marisma El Botellero to your left doesn't live up to the promise of its name having been covered a layer of detritus (earth, plastic bottles, wrappers, etc) but keep looking for larks (Thekla's has been reported in the area) and, in damper patches, Kentish and Ringed Plovers. After about 350m along this stretch the official path as shown on signs gives way to a track which takes you back to the start making this a pleasant circular walk. (Bizarrely, at this point, although there's no sign forbidding you from continuing, there is a Prohibido El Passeo sign - see Photo i - telling people on the track not to go any further i.e. join the footpath!). As you follow the track keep checking the islands to your right (Photo j)- they often harbour Stone Curlews. Both here and further along the track there are stands of small trees (see Photo k) to your right. During passage these should not be ignored as they can attract a range of migrants - a quick search in April 2019 turned up both Pied & Spotted Flycatchers, Iberian Chiffchaff, several Subalpine Warblers, Bonelli's and Melodious Warblers.
The circular walk and better access to the habitat has made Barbate a much more rewarding site to visit than previously. So much better that I've re-written my account plus enlarged and redrawn my map of the site. As usual I found a spot of cartography oddly relaxing but as it also meant splitting my original map in two (as it also covered the La Brena - Trafalgar area). As a result I then had the tedious & tiresome task of re-numberng 39 subsequent maps after Map 33. That's how much I like the site but don't take my word for it but go and see for yourself!
About me ...
Hi I'm John Cantelo. I've been birding seriously since the 1960s when I met up with some like minded folks at Secondary School. 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.