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.
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). Skirting the southern edge of 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!
For birdwatchers much under 50 it must be hard to appreciate just what an impact "The Birds of Britain and Europe" by Heinzel, Fitter and Parslow made when it was published way back in 1972. It was only two years previously that Roger Tory Peterson's fieldguide finally had its first serious rival, "The Hamlyn Guide to Birds of Briatin and Europe" by Bruun and Singer. The latter guide introduced us all to the now standard 'plate-opposite-text-layout' format but was seriously flawed by often lamentable illustrations. Not only were Heinzel's illustrations far better (although not quite up to Peterson's standards) but even before we saw the illustrations and text, the book's subtitle "... with North Africa and the Middle East" alerted us to the fact that here was something radically different: in effect a guide to the Western Palearctic (not that most of us knew at the time exactly what that meant!)! For all but a handful it introduced us to the exotic birds (rare vagrants aside) to be found on Europe's doorstep.
Whilst a good proportion of the eastern species were not entirely unfamiliar (many being vagrants to the west) for many, me included, it was the illustrations of North African species that really enthralled particularly many of the passerines; the familiar looking yet strange wheatears, exotic larks, curious warblers and much else. The stand-out bird for me, as it was again for many, was Hoopoe Lark. If a camel is "a horse designed by a committee" then the same committee, armed with a little more experience, probably designed the Hoopoe Lark (Alaemon alaudipes) taking the long legs and stance of a courser, the bill of a thrasher and the wings of a hoopoe to concoct a bird quite magnificent in its oddness. For over forty years for me it remained a must see, rather the have seen, bird. Such birds may have helped form the initial desire of visiting North Africa but it was gazing across the straits from Spain at Jebel Musa that transformed it into a determination to do so as soon as I was able.
Due to that infamous spoiler of the best laid plans, fate, I found myself unable to visit North Africa for almost a decade longer than I'd hoped. Since most of my birding pals had already visited the area (some several times) the best option, given my increasingly poor hearing, was to join a commercial birding trip with people with working ears. Fortunately, Naturetrek had vacancies on a trip they were running so on 7th March I joined a group of fellow hopefuls on an early flight to Marrakesh.
One of my targets, apart from the mythical Hoopoe Lark itself, was to bump my lark list from a mediocre eight (Sky, Wood, Shore, Greater & Lesser Short-toed, Crested, Thekla's and Calandra Larks) to a more respectable dozen or so. I also wanted to grapple with the problem of distinguishing Crested/Thekla's in a North African context.
As we climbed up into the Atlas Mountains through steady drizzle we saw the odd wayside Crested Lark but it was only when we breached the misty ceiling to emerge into the sunlit uplands that we got our first decent views of any larks. Those larks were as familiar as their surroundings seemed alien. What we call 'Shore Larks', a name based on where we happen to see them winter, the rest of the world know as Horned Larks. Despite being aware that they were breeding birds of the high peaks, it remained disconcerting to see them happily feeding on alpine meadows or scree slopes rather than the seashore. Closely related to our visitors from Scandinavia (Eremophila alpestris flava), these birds belong to the local North African race (E. a. atlas). The plumage differences are subtle to the point of being invisible unless you look for them (the mask bolder, the horns longer and, to my eye, a warmer rusty hindneck) but,unlike the ones we know as winter visitors, these birds only move further down the mountain in winter rather than decamp to the seaside. Several flocks of up to 20-30 birds happily flitted around although none lingered close-by long enough for my inadequate photographic skills to grab a photo.
Heading south towards the rim of the Sahara more Crested (Galerida cristata) and doubtless many Thekla's (Galerida theklae) Larks darted away as we passed without giving a chance of close scrutiny. Fortunately, on reaching the dry stony plains, I discovered that Temminck's (Horned) Larks (Eremophila bilopha), had no such reservations. In pattern the plumage was clearly similar but the general colouration had a warm, sandy isabelline tone which served to highlight the bold black horns, bandit mask and chest crecent. Given the close similarity in plumage pattern between this and Horned Lark , it's not surprising that this attractive species was once classed as a supspecies of Horned Lark but in the field they had a different jizz as, despite a relatively small difference in length (14.5-16 cm vs 16 - 18 cm), they seemed surprisingly diminutive, compact and less robust than their cousins. Young birds were a surprise - their plain warm sandy plumage was unexpected (reflecting my failure to do any homework!) which caused me to momentarily consider whether they were Desert Lark!
Rivalling Hoopoe Lark on my 'wants' list and in many ways its polar opposite was Thick-billed Lark (Ramphocoris clotbey). This is a chunky lark with, as its name suggests, a heavy Hawfinch-like bill is a very distinctive species. Although I later had several fly-by birds (which are equally distinctive in flight thanks to the bold white trailing edge to the wing which contrast nicely with the rest of the flight feathers which are blackish ), I only once managed to see them well on the ground. The small flock was actively feeding in low open scrubby cover. Like most desert larks they were predominantly sandy coloured above and paler below but unlike the next species the head and chest were boldly marked with dark blotches and chest streaking. Since neither I nor, it seems, anyone else got a decent photo of the bird I offer my sketch (above) as a poor substitute. Incidentally, its scientific name derives from the somewhat unfortunate (to Anglophone ears at least) surname of French medic Antione Clot who was given the Egyptian honorific 'bey' for his services to medicine having, remarkably, founded a School of Medicine for women in Egypt in 1832.
Desert Larks (Ammomanes deserti) proved even more bland and characterless as the young Temminck's but not nearly as approachable. In the field guide they sport paler underside and modest streaking on the chest but in the field the harsh light from above bleached out the tawny-grey upperparts and cast a strong shadow below making them seem almost uniform in colour. For the most part we had them, as the books suggest, on rocky often sloping ground. I'd like to say more about Bar-tailed Desert Lark (Ammomanes inctura) but I only saw one fleetingly albeit fairly well. They too looked somewhat bland but to me they seemed more strongly patterned on the head than their close relative with a bolder supercilium and whiter 'collar' combining with the subtly darker cheeks. The clincher was the tail bar and the darker wingtips although that it was in an area with sandy dunes also helped! One to go back for. The same can hardly be said of Maghreb Lark (Galerida (c) macroryhcha) which we saw in the same area as the Bar-tailed Lark. This species - or subspecies - was, as far as I could discern, identical in plumage to the Crested Larks we'd been seeing elsewhere in Morocco (and those I've seen in southern Spain). They're supposed to be paler and sandier than the general run of Crested Larks but the combined effects of wear, strong desert light and the reflected colour from the surrounding makes such a distinction a rather fine one in the field. It may be auto-suggestion but the bill looked longer than I've seen on 'typical' Crested Larks. My reference books tell me that, as befits its scientific name (macroryhcha means 'long-billed), Maghreb Lark has a bill length of 19.5-25.5 mm vs 17.6 - 21.3 mm in cristata (see my diagramatic sketch). Obviously, there's a degree of overlap but birds with bills at the longer end of the range should look different. Fortunately, the most obvious characteristic, the location where we saw it in Morocco, is said to be the most diagnostic feature of all!
My intention to get to grips with the local Crested Larks was thwarted largely by my indifference to them when more exciting larks (and species like Mousier's Redstart) were on offer. I did find myself momentarily confused by a couple of Crested that seemed to have the short stubby bills that I associate with Spanish Thekla's. However, on closer inspection they proved to be young Crested Larks; I'd forgotten how early they'd be breeding this far south. On the last day, however, I did manage to obtain good views of the local Thekla's Lark when the rest of the party were enjoying Bald Ibis (although technically an untainted lifer I've seen too many of them in Spain to get too excited). As expected, the birds proved to be quite distinct from the Spanish birds I see (far more so than Maghreb Lark) which are usually greyish-brown birds with dark blobby chest markings and a relatively stubby bill. In contrast these birds were distinctly warmer brown in tone and had a bill the length similar to many Crested Larks (although biometrics don't seem so very different) However, although not easy to see the lower mandible was convex (best seen when the bird was facing away from or towards me thanks to the foreshortening effect of x8 magnification) and in flight there was a distinct contrast between the brighter rustier upper-tail coverts and the rest of the upperparts. The underwing also seemed greyish (although I didn't get a good view of this feature). Once home and able to examine the photos closely, I was concerned to note that the last primary feather was shorter than the primary coverts - a feature I associate with Crested Lark. Fortunately, when I posted my photos on Bird Forum Bird ID guru Grahame Walbridge (who I knew decades back from my days visiting Portland Bill) confirmed that, contra to what I'd been told, Thekla's can have relatively short primary like this. Phew! On range these birds should be Galerida theklae ruficolor.
But what of my main target, Hoopoe Lark? On our first day in the desert just after we caught up with Temminck's Lark we pulled off onto a dirt track heading off towards nowhere in particular. There we found still more Temminck's plus our first small parties of highly mobile migrating (Greater) Short-toed Lark (Calandrella brachydactyla) which were to be a regular feature of our time in the desert. Scanning the stony desert immediately after we emerged from the van, I was the first to clap my unbelieving eyes on this mini-Road Runner of a bird. I quickly got everyone on to it in pretty short order but I doubt if anyone was quite excited as I was! The bird didn't just live up to my high expectations, it exceeded them. The following day we saw more on a 4x4 drive across the desert where we also saw Maghreb and Bar-tailed Desert Larks with a supporting cast of African Desert Warbler, Desert Sparrow, Cream-coloured Courser, Egyptian Nightjar and Houbara (none of which, not even the bustard, came close to matching the charisma of the Hoopoe Lark). It was enough to see them sprinting across the desert between hesitating for a moment or two but there was more to come. Perched atop a convenient bush they voiced a series of piercing chimes (see https://www.xeno-canto.org/species/Alaemon-alaudipes) before launching a twisting leap into the air so they could semaphore their amorous intentions with the black-and-white flags of their wings. I was so enraptured by finally seeing one that I nearly forgot to take any photos but happily just before we left them the bird below posed beautifully for me. Did I really open by saying this vision of gorgeousness could have been designed by a committee? Well, perhaps so if they were organised by Heineken since it's the best lark in the world .... probably!
My Promised Birding Land across the straits proved to be even more diverse and fascinating than I'd imagined. On the high peaks of the Atlas Mountains (above) I experienced mist, rain, snow and bright sunshine. The Moroccan desert was uniformly bright and sunny but took many forms from rugged rocky slopes, stony plains with a sparse cover of grasses dotted with isolated trees to flat sandy deserts (below). Each habitat had its own community of birds, in some like the palm fringed oases they were surprisingly familar (e.g. Blackbird, Greenfinch, Goldfinch & Linnet) but those out on the desert proved to be even more exotic and mysterious than I'd hoped when I first opened Heinzel, Fitter and Parslow's guide all those decades ago.
I originally meant my previous post to be the only one about Liz's passing, but Gemma's tribute to her Mum at her celebration (I'm boycotting the 'F' word) last week is so sublime, packed as it is with warmth, emotion and acute observation, that it begs to have a wider readership. Her moving tribute is crafted with a poet's ear and a daughter's love. I'm in awe both of her talent as a writer and her strength in reading it so beautifully to a packed congregation, few of whom, I suspect, had a dry eye.
When I was little, I followed you around the house - an absent-minded shadow drifting with you from room to room, just to be close. I lay at your feet beneath the dining room table, my legs in the air: you balanced your chequebook; I counted the knots in the wood until you were ready to be mine again.
You told Anna that you thought - and dreamt - in words, not pictures. Wide-eyed, we imagined your mind as a giant Rolodex of words: shifting tiles of English and German and Swedish and more.
Words wove through our home, holding up walls (1) and knitting us together. Words filled our evenings on the sofa – Anna and I each side – as you told us of Swallows and Amazons, of Chocolate factories and Giant Peaches, of Lions and Witches and Wardrobes. Words carried us up the stairs (begging for just one more chapter) and tucked us beneath blankets of faraway lands.
You told us your stories. Of Grandma and Grandpa and Auntie Pat. Of Diggers and Scruffys (2) of innumerable incarnations, all loved just the same. You read us the stories you wrote when you were small, etched in smudgy left-hand. All ending in the same, pragmatic, reassuring phrase: “And that was the end of that.”
Words filled our hearts and our imaginations, but also our stomachs. They spilled from shelves filled with cookbooks onto our plates. We skipped home to cakes filled with cherries or drizzled with syrup. We found our special second stomach to squeeze in Summer Pudding after dinner with Grandma. We drew friends home to scoff Banoffee Pie and leave with tinfoil parcels of joy and generosity.
Words drawn from phrase books and borrowed cassettes took us on adventures. We spent our summers devouring apricots in Prague, watching bats in Brugges, feeding goats in Holland. Whatever language you spoke, you spoke it fluently – shyness overcome by learning and skill.
You chose your words more carefully than us, so that they carried more thought and more meaning. Among our noise, you could be still. Your peace drawing even the occasional rare bird to hop contentedly at your feet, unobserved by the cacophony of birdwatchers that surrounded you.(3) Drawn instead by your calm. Just as I was, counting the knots in the wood under the dining room table.
I dream in pictures, but you taught me to feel in words. To weave words that cast memories, that knit us together and tuck you in: We love you.
And that is the end of that.
1 - Since the girls were small we’ve always had floor to ceiling bookshelves
2 - Digger was the family’s Dachshund and Scruffy Liz’s Teddy Bear
3 - Back in the 1980s I and others were desperately searching for Kent's first twitchable Olive- backed Pipit at Sandwich Bay and we eventually found it happily feeding a few yards from Liz who'd been atching it for ten minutes or more as she sat on a log quietly knitting
When seven years ago, I wrote an appreciation of my late sister here (see https://birdingcadizprovince.weebly.com/cadiz-birding-blog-page/in-memoriam-susan-cantelo-1947-2011) I already felt tendrils of fear that my wife, Liz, was not herself and was suffering from some sort of serious malady. Worse still, some of her symptoms mirrored those of my sister's fatal brain tumour. Eventually, over her protests that she wasn't ill, we got her to a doctor who quickly diagnosed the early onset of Alzheimer's; a tragic diagnosis for such a clever and talented person. Sadly, after a long battle with dementia, she passed away on Boxing Day 2018 and this is my clumsy effort to pay tribute to her.
We met at Keele University in 1971 when I was quickly swept away by her sparkling blue-grey eyes, lovely smile and loving nature. They say opposites attract and in many ways that's what we were with the sum of us somehow making a greater whole. Where I'm loud, out going and disorganised, she was quiet, reserved and well-organised. I'm a hopeless monoglot but she had A-level French, a degree in German (with Economics which I failed at O-level) and obtained an A grade in O-level Swedish having taught herself the language is a few months (she then translated, for fun, one of the Moomin books then untranslated from the original Swedish). As a result of her studies, she could also read Norwegian, Icelandic and Dutch with some fluency. She also had a smattering of Italian, Czech and Hungarian (her accent in the latter language being so good that when we were in Budapest the locals were astonished that she wasn't one too). In retrospect, her inability to learn Spanish was a straw in the wind. We were married in 1975 and Liz quickly became a much loved (and admired) member of the Cantelo clan. In 1978 we settled in Canterbury where we've remained ever since.
Born within a day of one another but three years apart we had a ritual whereby on my birthday (the first) she'd tell me she was now 4 years younger than me and then on her birthday I'd remind her that I was then only three years her elder and that, therefore, she'd aged a year overnight. Amongst the things we shared were a similar sense of humour, a love of books and reading and, although far more understated than mine, a similar political outlook. Her deep understanding of language helped me hugely in writing/editing the Crossbill Guides and her great good sense always provided a reliable touchstone. She was a great cook too which suited me perfectly as I I've always enjoyed eating! She also had a particular affection for pigs which just might explain why she got on with me so well. Above all, she was a wonderful homemaker - perhaps an underrated talent - and mother. That our two talented, clever and loving daughters, Gemma and Anna, have turned out so well is in largely down to her thoughtful nurturing. When I was ill with stress-related depression, I couldn't have had a more thoughtful or considerate partner. Always kind, all too often she put herself before others. Despite her quiet nature, she charmed and was loved by all who met her. Much though I loved her when we met ours was, I believe, a love that continued to grow throughout our marriage. Well into the fifth decade of our relationship she still had the uncanny ability to give me a certain look or little smile that could make my knees wobble (although of late that just might have more to do with my increasing age). The trick of our happy marriage was, I discovered early on, to agree with Liz since, annoyingly, she was usually right.
She was not always right, though. Misled by tales of ‘sun, sand and sangria’, she resisted going to Spain for years but once there she soon fell under its spell. I cherish the moment when gazing across yet another gorgeous view in Extremadura, she turned to me and said, tongue firmly in cheek, “Why did you never tell me Spain was so beautiful?” Together we discovered and fell in love with the village of Alcala de los Gazules in Cadiz province where we enjoyed many holidays in our little townhouse there.
Whilst she tolerated my birding escapades with undeserved good humour persuading her to love birdwatching took much longer. However, the chattering of Lesser Kestrels and the melodic babbling of Bee-eaters over our terrace in Alcala quickly converted her where my efforts over the decades had failed. In Alcala, she was always happy to welcome birders to our terrace to share 'our' Lesser Kestrels although I was never quite sure which amused her most, the antics of the kestrels or the birders!
She was my constant companion and source of much wisdom and even more love for 47 years. A long, cruelly one-sided battle with dementia robbed her of so much but what persisted almost to the end was her sparkling eyes and heart-stoppingly beautiful smile which allowed her to win everyone’s hearts even after she was unable to communicate verbally. That she never suffered any pain was a great comfort as was the fact that she quickly became unaware of her tragic circumstances. Against the odds and despite the circumstances, her last years were happy and contented. She did become agitated at times but rarely suffered the bouts of aggression that regularly afflicts some sufferers. Even then a timely hug or cuddle usually returned her to her happier self.
Repeated hospital admissions and multiple problems arising from her illness meant that, with great reluctance and on the insistence of Social Services (worried for the safety of us both), she moved to Whitstable Nursing Home in February 2018. That she was cared for under the NHS Continuing Care scheme helped me to accept just how ill she had become and that keeping her at home, as I wanted, really wasn't possible. Happily finding Whitstable Nursing Home proved to be a stroke of great good fortune as the staff there looked after her superbly. That wonderful smile again did its trick. I went out to see her every day to help with her lunch (she could no longer feed herself) or just to hold her hand. Despite the excellent care she received, she was admitted to the hospital again at the start of December with pneumonia but, against the odds, she survived and returned to the nursing home. She seemed to be recovering but the pneumonia returned. She gave the Grim Reaper a hard fight battering and blunting the blade of his scythe for longer than anyone could have imagined. Sadly, she grew weaker and weaker until she quietly passed away in the early evening on Boxing Day 2018. As I sit here typing this tribute I still keep thinking she's still here just out of sight. It's still hard not to turn and ask her for advice.
I must also pay tribute to the extraordinary kind support I've had over the past few years from the birding community (both in Kent and elsewhere), many friends (on and off-line), our neighbours (in Canterbury and in Alcala) and, most touchingly, my former students. There are simply too many to name them all individually but exceptions must be made of birders Brendan Ryan & Chris Cox (who kept me [relatively] sane by regularly taking me birding) and, online, Harry Hussey (whose kind concern often helped), our Alcala friends Claire & Bob Lloyd (for relieving any worries about our house in Alcala), my UK neighbours David & Jan (don't pop in on Burns Night without arranging to be carried home) and Gemma-across-the-road (for many kindnesses) and former students Sharon & Sara (of Goodfellas barbers), Georgie Moon (manager of Ecco shoes) and Joanne Delo-Taylor (who's finally forgiven for talking throughout her History lessons). Most touchingly another former student, Larry Warren, has raised funds for Alzheimer's Research by doing walks in Liz's name; next time I will join you Larry. Dirk Hilbers (Crossbill Guides) and my old birding school friend, Phil Gregory, helped enormously by distracting me with texts to write/edit/proof read. The latter also helped with sage Antipodean advice when things got on top of me. I could not have managed the last few years without your help.
I am also deeply grateful to our local branch of "Bill's", where Liz and I often ate, whose extraordinary kindness to us both has been quite humbling. The Collins Unit at AgeUK Canterbury gave me time and space when I much needed it. Above all, though, I must give thanks to my brother Anthony for his unstinting support (and totally unbiased match reports about
the Saints) and our two daughters, Gemma and Anna (supported by our daughter-in-law Jayne), for giving me strength when I weakened. There is, and there will remain, a huge Liz shaped hole in my life but the kindness of so many will be a balm to what still seems an unstaunchable wound. Despite the painful sadness that overwhelms me at Liz's passing, I cannot but feel blessed at being surrounded by so much love and kindness. It's said that you reap what you sow but I can never have sown so much and what little I have sown has been reaped a hundredfold.
If you find this blog and my birding notes on Cadiz Province helpful then, if you’re so inclined, when using them to explore the birdlife of the region please raise a glass in her memory for, without her, they wouldn’t exist.
Should you be so kind as to wish to make a donation to AgeUK or Alzheimer's Research UK in her memory then our daughter, Anna, has set up a webpage here for that purpose
Only a half-dozen Andalucian sites on Ebird (https://ebird.org) have managed to top 200 hundred species and just as few over 500 trip reports so with a reported 235 species listed in 538 reports (figures correct to 20/11/18) La Janda is clearly a remarkable birding destination despite being a mere shadow of its former self. If current plans come to fruition it's about to become even better. The circumstances behind this change are explained in the paragraph below and the map that follows it shows the area which may soon be open to (pedestrian?) birders. This new paragraph has been inserted into my account of La Janda after my description of the egret colony (f). Please note that as area (g) has not previously been mentioned in my notes (h) to (q) on the map below refer to (g) to (p) on the most recent previous version. It should, however, be noted that these details are preliminary. Another recent development is that the road onto La Janda from the A2226 near Benalup has now been resurfaced and improved.
To the north-west of the weir lies the strictly private Las Lomas Estate. The roads here have long been gated and inaccessible. However, in 2018 a judgement regarding the legal status of the area concluded that the Junta de Andalucia had a legal claim to the area and a responsibility to develop which should mean better access (see http://blog.lagunalajanda.org/2018/08/14/los-humedales-de-la-janda-son-dominio-publico/). As a result, following an initiative by the Asociación de Amigos de la Laguna de La Janda (www.lagunalajanda.org), the Department of the Environment of the Andalusian junta has requested that the Las Lomas Estate allow access on tracks currently kept closed (see yellow routes marked on the map (g)). This should open up a lot more of the area for birdwatchers but note that, although it is planned to allow unrestricted non-motorised access along these routes, vehicular access will only be by prior arrangement and “for a justified reason”. Details of how to gain permission and what qualifies as “a justified reason” remains to be seen ….. The track first follows a main drainage channel (3.5 km) before turning south along the Rio Barbate and then on to El Canal (5 km). There’s also a shorter spur (3 km) towards the estate buildings although it seems unlikely that you will be able to access the A 2228 by this route). The bushes along the canal/river may prove to hold interesting species whilst the track down from El Canal should offer excellent views across the area. Check locally for the current situation and whether access has been formally agreed (hopefully I will be able to post details on my occasional blog).
When I have any further information I will post it here and add it to my notes. If you visit the area before I do so please don't assume the the area is open unless you have positive news of the fact. If so let me know asap!
To get some idea of who the professional guides in Cadiz Province (and elsewhere in Andalucia) are and what they can offer I recommend taking a look at a short video of interviews with some (but not all) of the guides I recommend which was made at the 2018 UK Birdfair - see www.youtube.com/watch?v=ydA8kmiKPFY
Having been back to Cadiz province this September (at long last!) one of the sites I really wanted to visit was La Janda. On doing so I decided that the map of the area in my birding guide wasn't up to scratch so once back home I decided to redraft it to make it more clear and to show the main 'central' section' in greater detail. Naturally, I couldn't do this without tinkering with the text. Equally predictably that 'tinkering' turned into a full scale redrafting which, I fear, has turned out to be rather longer than I'd intended and probably a little OTT. That said this is an iconic and well visited site where too much detail is probably better than too little. I've reproduced the revised text below (with minor alterations) and have added a number of my indifferent photos. I've omitted my original (lengthy) access details but, in short, arriving along the N 340/E-5 from Tarifa and turning right into (a) or (d) should not cause problems as long as you indicate in good time. Coming from Vejer is a little more difficult as you have to cross the northbound carriageway of the N 340/E-5. Access via Benalup (m) is straight forward and is my usual approach as I generally come from Alcala de los Gazules but as the majority of birders will be arriving from Tarifa the description that follows is based on arrival via (a).
This iconic site was once the largest, if very shallow, natural lake in Andalucia and rivalled the Coto Donaña in terms of rare and scarce species. (see the Asociacion de Amigos de La Janda Facebook page for further details of the history & background of this site https://www.facebook.com/AmigosLagunaJanda/posts/1485470394846998:0).
Sadly, the wetland was drained and large wind farms have now been built south of Tahivilla and near Facinas. To the west lies the strictly private Las Lomas estate (once the playground of field sports loving Spanish royalty). However, the estate has resisted the financial temptations of wind farms and much of the area is given over to rice paddies – an attractive habitat for wetland species. The rice fields are usually re-flooded at the end of May. In winter it is now one of the best sites in Europe, let alone Spain, to see a variety of large eagles (including in recent years Greater and Lesser Spotted Eagles plus hybrids between the two) and has the additional draw of wintering Common Crane. Accordingly, I have treated this site in particular detail.
Much of the area is strictly private and most side tracks are designated private (‘camino particular’). Towards Tahivilla and again along the road to Zahara vast wind farms now mar the skyline – a development that may account for the increasing scarcity of Little Bustard in the area. Unfortunately, a project to ‘restore’ a small part of La Janda to its former glory seems permanently stalled (being an offset measure if/when the N 340/E 5 is ‘improved’). However, as noted in my last blog, in 2018 a judgement regarding the legal status of the area concluded that the Junta de Andalucia had a legal claim to the area and a responsibility to develop it for the public good which may mean better access (see http://blog.lagunalajanda.org/2018/08/14/los-humedales-de-la-janda-son-dominio-publico/).
As it’s the most frequently used access point the description that follows assumes entry off the N 340 (E-5) as you drive north opposite the turning for Zahara de los Atunes (a) although there’s a second point of entry off this road further north (d). (Note the restrictions & warnings regarding turning off the N 340 under ‘Access’) In theory, the area can also be reached via the ‘canada real’ (j) from Facinas (n), but this route is so badly degraded in parts such that even an off-road vehicle may struggle.
Turning off at (a) the track runs parallel with the main road for c120m before swinging right and dropping down to the ‘Canal Principal’ c1 km below. Before doing so it’s often worth scanning the area from the top of the track as this affords a good panorama of the old lake bed. Doing so will locate any areas of standing water (a draw for many species) and, in autumn–early spring, flocks of Common Crane. As you drop down check the fences for birds like Fan-tailed Warbler, Woodchat Shrike, etc., the ditch for Green Sandpiper and pull over where the track turns sharp left. Depending of the state of the rice paddies and time of year you should see wetland species such as White Stork, Glossy Ibis, Black-winged Stilt, etc. The corner where the track turns to follow the main irrigation ditch is a popular stopping point to scan for birds so it’s often the place to meet other birders and hear what others they've seen.
Following the track (b) you have the ‘Canal Principal’ on your right and pylons with rice paddies beyond to your left. Raptors (esp. Short-toed Eagles) often use the pylons as vantage points whilst harriers – Marsh (resident), Montagu’s (summer) and Hen (winter) - skim low over the fields and eagles/buzzards/vultures pass overhead. Check passage/winter harriers for Pallid Harrier, a rare but regular visitor in recent years. In addition, to the species already noted the rice paddies may hold a variety of waders (Ruff, Snipe, Greenshank, etc), Purple Gallinule and egrets/herons (Squacco, Purple, etc). Check sparrows carefully as Spanish Sparrows can often be unearthed amongst the more numerous House Sparrows. Similarly check any Whitethroats since, although this is the most usual species here, Spectacled Warblers do occur. Black Stork turn up on passage and a few winter. For non-avian delights check the main ditch for Otters, look out for Mongoose, search the embankment for the rare and localised Zeller’s Skipper (found only in the Campo de Gibraltar in Europe) and expect a variety of dragonflies (esp. the abundant Northern Banded Groundling, a recent colonist from Africa).
After just over 5 km you reach a bridge on your right across the ‘Canal Principal’ (c). Continuing along the track you are likely to see many of the birds noted in the previous paragaph before reaching, after just over 4 km, the N 340. On reaching the main road check the ditch on the right as it often seems attractive to migrating Bee-eaters in autumn In the evening check the pylons here for Eagle Owl (esp late winter). Turning right towards Vejer you can also pull off at a picnic site (e) which offers views across a different aspect of La Janda – I have seen both Crane and Black Stork here in winter.
Crossing the bridge at (c) takes you along a track which borders a channel screened by trees which for much of its length in spring/summer hosts an egret colony (Cattle and Little Egrets plus a handful of Glossy Ibis). Minimise disturbance by staying your car and remembering to have your camera handy before you proceed. After c1.5 km you reach an area near a weir where there’s plenty of space to pull over. This is another good place to scan for raptors - I’ve had 3 or 4 Bonelli’s Eagle from here in autumn. It’s also a good spot to look for Black-winged Kite perching on pylons or irrigation superstructures. During migration periods the whole area can be alive with Back Kites, Montagu’s Harrier, Lesser Kestrels, etc. The reedy scrub here can also hold wintering/passage Bluethroats and other passerines.
Continue across a small bridge and around the flanks of a small hill. (NB – there’s often a large puddle across the track just after the bridge which should be negotiated with great care even though the surface below is largely solid cobbles. If in doubt wait until a local passes by to see how they tackle the flooded section!). Being a little raised above the old lake-bed the track here again offers a good opportunity to scan for raptors. The track then drops down to the old lake-bed before edging along the flank of a second larger hill topped by an old finca (g). Pull off just beyond the crash barriers on your left to enjoy a splendid panorama across La Janda which once again offers a good chance of scanning for raptors.
From the farm (look out for Little Owl) a straight concrete track runs along the top of a ridge flanked by light woodland to the left and weedy fields to the right (h). Inevitably, this is another location where patient scanning of the skies may yield results but don’t neglect the fences and scrubby field which may hold Woodchat Shrike, wheatear sp., warblers, etc. After c2.5 km the track (now tarmacked) drops down towards a junction with the old cañada to Facinas and a small bridge and more rice paddies (i). During peak migration periods the hillsides here can be alive with resting Black Kites. Check the paddies, old river channels and drainage ditches here for species like Purple Gallinule and the wet scrub for passage/wintering Bluethroats. The track runs along the drainage channel towards the Embalse de Celemin can also be profitably checked for the same species (Bee-eaters often hawk from the wires here). The low wooded ridge here offers creates updrafts for passing raptors.
The gravel track (j) towards Facinas was once in very poor condition this track was regraded and improved in 2011 and is now signposted (look for orange tipped finger posts). In summer check for Red-necked Nightjar along here. (Note – if you find a roosting bird be careful not to approach too closely or linger too long to avoid disturbance). If you do take this track look out for Spanish Imperial, Bonelli’s Eagle etc and carefully check any Buzzards as Long-legged Buzzard are a remote possibility (as elsewhere). However confusing ‘Gibraltar Buzzards’ (Buzzard x Long-legged hybrids) are far more likely. Little Bustard has also been reported along here (although there are much better sites locally for this species). Sadly, Great Bustard is now extinct on La Janda. Unless badly degraded by winter rains the track should be easily drivable (with care) until roughly opposite Tahivilla. However, it is frequently in an extremely poor condition beyond this point with a c1 km long section that is deeply rutted and flooded challenging even in a 4x4. As it nears the wind farm it improves but access here is better from (n). (Note – the 2013 booklet 'Birds from the Coast of Trafalgar' appears to suggest that you can use farm tracks here to reach the N 340 but access to these tracks from that road are often guarded by closed gates which suggests local farmers may be of a different opinion …).
The concrete track from (i) towards Benalup and the A 2226 (CA 212) was, until recently, in an almost un-drivable condition with numerous deep sharp-edged holes that you had to negotiate with great care. Patched-up in summer 2018 it is now easily drivable but it’s a moot point how long this repair will last so be prepared for a long detour if it again falls into disrepair. If you take this route look out on your left after c750m an old 'oxbow' (k). When muddy this can be an excellent spot to stop and scan for waders (esp. if there's little suitable habitat along the main track across La Janda); during passage periods waders (e.g. Wood, Green and Common Sandpipers, Greenshank, Little Stint, Collared Pratincole, etc.) plus larger birds like Glossy Ibis and herons. A further 2km along the track you cross the Rio Barbate where you can pull off onto a track (l) on your left that allows exploration of wet river margins that can be of interest (Squacco, Purple Herons, etc) and fields nearby often have Montagu’s Harriers. From here it’s c2 km to (m) and the A226 (which can come as a relief after driving on poor tracks for several hours!). The fields on the right after the bridge have held Little Bustard in the past but new buildings here may have deterred them. Nonetheless, it may be worth checking along the track on your right that runs past an active sandpit and down to the Rio Barbate (c1.5 km after the bridge)
For those determined to reconnoitre the La Janda area in its entirety there remain two additional areas to explore. The track (j) running along the north-eastern edge of La Janda finally reaches the road to Facinas at (n). This area has been made is less inviting than elsewhere thanks to the construction of a large wind farm so is infrequently visited . However, the presence of the wind farm at least means that the track to a bridge (c3 km from the Facinas road) over the Rio Almodovar (o) is kept in good repair. The area around the river here (and by a ford a little further on) can be worth closer scrutiny - Hoopoe and Tawny Pipits are often found in this area and flocks of Corn Bunting can exceed 200 birds. As already noted beyond the ford the track is usually in an appalling undrivable condition. To be honest this area is probably not worth making a time consuming diversion for unless you like to explore neglected lesser known spots.
Back on the N 340 at Tahivilla, the Venta Apolo XI makes an excellent refreshment stop as the food is first rate (and is often an impromptu meeting point for lunching birders). A narrow road beside the venta loops around and back to the main road (via a failed polígono) which allows you to scan this part of La Janda if you wish (impossible from the busy N 340). Across the road from the venta is the village of Tahivilla itself where, if you take the first left onto Calle Corrales, which runs parallel to the main road for a few hundred metres before swinging sharp right across open farmland towards a large wind farm (p). This track (sometimes called the ‘cemetery road’) was once particularly good for Little Bustard and, although reduced in number, they are still reported here at times. It can also be good for Montagu's Harrier, larks, etc.
As noted at the start of this account, the whole area has a good record for birds of prey with Pallid Harrier now turning up regularly in autumn and sometimes wintering, both Lanner and Eleonora's Falcon have sometimes lingered in autumn and there's even a recent record of Steppe Eagle (plus those aforementioned “spotted” Eagles). A survey of La Janda (inc. some areas normally closed to birdwatchers) in January 2017 found an exceptional 4-6 Spanish Imperial Eagles, a Golden Eagle, 2 Spotted Eagles, 3 Lesser/Greater Spotted Eagle hybrids and 9-12 Bonelli's Eagles.
It's not possible to mention all the possible (or even likely) species you might see on a visit to La Janda but in this account I've endeavoured to note the most sought after species (or groups) you should encounter. For a full list of species and their pattern of occurrence check E-bird accounts for La Janda particularly https://ebird.org/hotspot/L2345561 . Knowing where in the account to mention them is problematical and whilst I've tried to do so at what I feel are the most appropriate points in reality expect any of them anywhere on this route! At the very least I hope this account conveys something of the nature of the area and its birds even if the dry pedantic nature of 'route guide' has robbed the text of excitement and wonder.
The Asociacion Amigos de la Laguna de la Janda's blog is always worth reading even if, for monoglots, like me it means doing so through the uncertain medium of Google Translate. Arguably, their latest post (see here) is their most significant one yet as it reports a recent finding regarding the legal status of La Janda. This legal paper (see here) has concluded that La Janda is publicly owned. This 38 page document probably doesn't make transparent reading even if you've perfect Spanish so my take on what it says and it's importance may well not be as accurate as it might be so read what follows with a pinch of salt!
Fortunately, though, the document has an abstract in English which explains the background to the legal finding. This reads as follows: The opening In the second half of the 20th century, the largest wetland in Spain, the lagoon of La Janda (Cádiz), was drained, pursuant to a law that conferred special incentives to the drainage promoters such as ownership of the land. However, in the case of La Janda this drainage did not succeed and the Government reversed the grant of the property and announced its return to the public domain. Notwithstanding this, the Government has not exercised its jurisdiction to regain its full property rights, even though the Supreme Court has ruled in its favor and the land has retained its wetland characteristics. This paper analyzes the legal history of this event and the authority of the State for the restoration of the lagoon.
The rest of the paper is not only in Spanish (of course!) but in a legal jargon that defeats online translation. However, from what I can make out (and what is suggested by the abstract) it seems that the failure to fully drain the land, as set out in the original grant, means that La Janda remains in public ownership. Not only that but in the paper's conclusions there's a relatively simple sentence which reads, in translation, as follows - "The investigation is not subject to the administration's discretion, but is a duty that must be fulfilled in the defence of its assets, in the face of which there is no scope for administrative inactivity". This I understand to mean that the governmental department responsible is legally obliged to take control of La Janda as it forms part of the state's assets. There's a good deal of dense legal argument (I think!) in the document but from what Google and my meagre Spanish can make out, the conclusion is that the restoration of the laguna, or at least of some of the wetlands, would be the in the public good and that therefore the administration is obliged to take action.
At this point a note of caution must be added since those who currently farm La Janda are both very wealthy and well connected politically. One apparent example of this influence is that when, a few years ago, a paper was prepared on La Janda for a conference in Jerez on Spain's wetlands, it was suddenly pulled, without explanation, by the organisers. Talking to my well informed Spanish friends at the Birdfair last week, they seemed to be confident that the case is watertight(!), that the administration includes those willing to push this forwards and that the judgement can be used to exert pressure on those who farm the land to make concessions. That said, there also seemed an awareness that a wholesale restoration and any consequent loss of jobs was not feasible in the current climate (nearby Benalup has one of the highest unemployment rates in Spain). However, there seemed to be a real confidence that birding visitors should see concessions to allow for the wider public use of the area within a year or two. This may take the form of access along currently closed tracks to areas of wetland and of other interest (although whether this would be by permit or entirely open remains to be seen). In the longer term there may even be some restoration. It would be foolish to underestimate the reality of political inertia, the lack of funds for any significant restoration and the power of vested interests, but the judgement gives hope that this superb birding site may become still better in the foreseeable future. Watch this space ....
Update - I am indebted to my friend Javi Elorriaga for the link to an article in La Vanguardia (see here) which, even in Google Translate, explains the situation very clearly. For those with good Spanish, he also directed me to a book on the restoration of La Janda (Bases ecologicas para la restauracion de los humedales de la Janda - Cadiz, España € 17.00 by Manuel Angel Dueñas López € 17.00 - see here)
Look at a large scale map of any part of Andalucia (and most of Spain come to that) and you will quickly discover that rural areas are crisscrossed by cañadas (droveways). Andalucia has a disproportionately high proportion of these old cattle trails - 3,000 km - amounting to 25% of the total national network. Their abundance reminds us of the former importance of transhumance (the seasonal movement of livestock) and that, before mechanisation, droving (herding animals along what amount to linear pastures) was the only way to get sheep and cattle to market. Hence these ancient vias pecunaira (as they are also known) are flanked by broad margins to provide grazing en route, wells to provide water (abrevaderos), overnight resting places (descansaderos or majadas) and points where counting animals to enable royal taxation was facilitated (puertos reales).
Exactly how old these routes are is a matter of some dispute. Most authors suggest that they date to the early Medieval period but some suggest, perhaps fancifully, that they may be traced back far further into antiquity and are an echo of the migratory routes taken by wild animals and early human hunters who pursued them in Neolithic times. It is certain, though, that their use and legal status can be traced back to the 13th century. The most significant regulation was enacted by Alfonso the Wise of Castille in 1273. Their legal status as protected common land has since been confirmed and regulated by national laws in 1995 and local regulation in Andalucia in 2001. These laws were enacted to ensure the conservation and restoration of these trails (and anything culturally or environmentally valuable associated with them). Despite this, rapacious landowners have habitually used their power to illegally block cañadas or absorb them into their own landholdings. Hence some routes exist only on paper, many are illegally blocked at some point and others have degenerated into narrow little used paths but many remain as gravel tracks with generous borders.
Cañadas (in the north called carrerada or valgada) fall into three main categories:
Cañada Reales: tracks up to 75m wide.
Cordel: tracks not above 37.50m wide (literally a 'string')
Vereda: tracks not above 20m wide (a 'sidewalk')
For the most part they seem to be named for the places they link but they are also named after topographical features or the trades using them. Not surprisingly, today they more used by walkers and cyclists than herders. Happily for naturalists those broad untamed margins are a perfect reservoir for wildlife. They can also act as unexpected sources of cultural, social and historical information as I discovered when researching the Cañada de Marchantes (Merchant's Droveway) as noted in my previous post.
With the help of "Google Translate" I managed to resolve all but one of my questions. The word that remained, "Paquiro", was obstinately obscure no matter how many dictionaries, online and otyerwise, I consulted. However, this too was explained when my good friend Luis-Mi Garrido Padillo explained that it was a name. So thanks to Google, Luis-Mi and with a little editing by myself this, I discovered, was what was written:
Magic Point - Miralamar.
Our Romantics and seafarer forebears rightly called this place Miralamar (Sea View). The sea, the bay (of Cadiz), Chiclana and its countryside, a whole wide horizon is viewed from this hill where Paquiro had his vineyards and the drovers' road takes us to the lagoons of Jeli and Montellano and 'Cortijo del Ingles'. Chiclana de la Frontera VII centenary 1303 - 2003"
"Paquiro" was the nickname of Francisco Montes Reina who was born in Chiclana in 1804. Abandoning his ambition to become a surgeon due to his father's financial problems, he turned instead to bullfighting. Reina remains one of the most famous names in bullfighting history, having codified rules for the corrida and introduced the matador's now traditional "Traje de Luz" (Suit of Light) and hat, the Montera. Indeed, the toreador's headgear is named after him (from his family name Montes). Whatever your personal views about bullfighting, it's clear that Paquiro was a considerable local celebrity whose memory was so important to the town that almost 200 years after his birth (and over 150 years since his death) it was felt it important to name him on this monument. That he is still revered by many in his hometown, a traditional area of support for bullfighting, is also reflected by the fact that there's a museum dedicated to him and bullfighting in Chiclana.
The view from Punto Magico is indeed extraordinarily spectacular encompassing, as the inscription tells us, a wide panorama across the sea and the hinterland of Chiclana. Yet so wide and open is the view that it's difficult to do justice to it in a photograph (particularly one of mine). Today it seems a somewhat out of the way place to commemorate Chiclana's septcentenary but I would imagine that it was chosen as from this point all the factors that shaped the town's history are visible from here. The sea that provided both sustenance and, until the coming of the railways, the best means of transport (although it wasn't until 2009 that a tramway linked Chiclana to the 19th century line to Cadiz).
The 'Cortijo Ingles' mentioned on the inscription may seem surprising given that this view looks out towards Cadiz the scene of Drake's (in)famous 'singeing of the King of Spain's beard' when, in spring 1587, the English privateer sacked the place (and in the process gave the English a taste for 'sack'). However, it was also near here that the British tried to break the Napoleonic siege of Cadiz at the Battle of Barrosa (Chiclana, 5th March 1811). Despite a single British division defeating two French divisions and captured a French regimental eagle, the British were unable to break the siege and the French continued the siege and held Chiclana until August the following year. Subsequently, British investors became heavily involved in the sherry trade and it is probably then that the farmhouse was given its name (one of several farms in the province so named).
All of this, of course, will be lost on determined monomanic birders who will have eyes only for the avian delights of the area which, with luck, can include the declining and much sought after Rufous Bushchat!
It was great fun helping Julian with information for his short trip to Andalucia but the credit for seeing all of his target birds belongs entirely to him. He did exceptionally well with the rarer swifts which have proved elusive in the Bolonia area for many visitors and particularly well with Crested Coot at Laguna de Medina where it's been seen very infrequently in recent years. I'm always very happy to have any feedback or trip reports for this blog so please don't hesitate to contact me if you'd like to contribute. Many thanks to Julian for letting me share his excellent account here - I hope it will encourage others. (NB - As Julian only took photos of the Northern Bald Ibis I've added several of my own indifferent photos to the blog).
I had flights left over from a failed British twitch, so decided to switch them to Bristol–Malaga for a short break in southern Spain instead. A small number of target lifers and Western Pal ticks awaited, and planning was aided mightily by John Cantelo’s excellent online guide to birding Cadiz province and nearby areas – see https://birdingcadizprovince.weebly.com/ – plus additional info from John and from Cliff Smith.
Monday 25 June
The early morning flight arrived at Malaga airport late and picking up the hire car took ages, so it was 1130 before I started the 200km-plus drive to Vejer de la Frontera. The journey was uneventful other than 2 Monk Parakeets near the airport and occasional Spotless Starlings and Crested Larks.
The prime target for today was Northern Bald Ibis (or Waldrapp) at the well-known roadside colony at Barca de Vejer, but when I arrived mid-afternoon, no sign! Presumably they had finished breeding. No sign either in fields between Barbate and Zahara de los Atunes, but plenty of swifts, including several Pallids and at least one Little Swift showing close and well. No swifts, however, near the lighthouse at Atlanterra, just good views of 3 Red-rumped Swallows, a Sardinian Warbler, and 2 or 3 Monarch butterflies. As I drove back out of Atlanterra, thinking that things were not going well, a single small, attenuated swift whizzed across – White-rumped! I tried the famous Cuevo del Moro at Bolonia in the hope of better views, but no joy; I did, however, add Alpine Swift, 2 Blue Rock Thrushes, and several Griffon Vultures. Back to Barca de Vejer, hoping that the Bald Ibises would come in to roost, and there they were – 8 of them! A contender for ugliest bird in the world, but globally rare, and quite bizarre (and wonderful) to see them just above a busy road.
Vejer is a classic Spanish hilltop town – white buildings and a maze of narrow, often one-way streets. The Hostal La Posada (basic but comfortable, and unbeatable value at €25 per night) was easily accessible from the west, however. After checking in it was straight back out again the same way for the short drive north-east to Cantarranas, noting an occupied White Stork nest on the church there as I headed towards the olive groves. I didn’t see Black-winged Kite (normally easy there, apparently*), but I got good views of Iberian Green Woodpecker and then, as dusk fell, the main target – Red-necked Nightjar (three flight views, including one virtually overhead, and I heard several others). It turned out to be a good day after all. (* I've been there many times at dusk and never missed them so, unless they've declined locally, Julian was unlucky to dip the species there - John)
Tuesday 26 June
A quick look back at Barca de Vejer at 0700 showed only one Waldrapp left on the cliffs, though another was circling. Next stop was Laguna de Medina, about 45 minutes’ drive north. I spent longer than planned here (c. 90 minutes), but it worked out very well, with good views of 4 Western Olivaceous Warblers, and plenty of Reed Warblers (a recent paper assigns Iberian birds to African Reed Warbler rather than European, so technically a Western Pal tick for me). Nightingales, Crested Larks, Sardinian Warblers, and Zitting Cisticolas were singing continually, and a gravelly Great Reed Warbler sang from a reed head, though the calling Stone Curlews remained invisible. From the hide I scoped the wildfowl on the lake, especially the coots, and was rewarded with one that, though distant, had a squared-off shield and red bumps on the crown – Crested Coot! Several White-headed Ducks and Black-necked Grebes too, plus a drake Ferruginous Duck, and on the walk back a male Common Waxbill showed well perched on a reed.
It was another hour’s drive north to Los Palacios y Villafranca, and the morning was wearing away when I arrived at Laguna de la Mejorada. The lagoon held lots of herons (including Squacco), single Little and Whiskered Terns, and a very close Red-rumped Swallow. My main target here, though, was Rufous Bush Chat, and I found a pair nest-building in a bush close to a track – sumptuous views, though I didn’t stay long for fear of causing disturbance. Besides, the next stop was just west of Los Palacios at the fantastic Brazo del Este, where I ended up spending several hours. It was an extraordinary spectacle, with astonishing numbers of Black-winged Stilts, Glossy Ibises, and Whiskered Terns, various herons (including several Purples and a male Little Bittern), 2 Caspian Terns, several Collared Pratincoles hawking over nearby fields, and many Western Swamphens. Two introduced African weavers have also established populations here, and I got great views of several Black-headed Weavers and a fine male Yellow-crowned Bishop.
Leaving mid-afternoon, I headed south towards Sanlucar de Barrameda via Lebrija. It took ages to find the right way along a maze of gravel tracks and poor tarmac roads, but at last I did it. Relief! It was already 5pm, though, by the time I reached the famous* Bonanza Pools. (* That's the first time I've heard them called 'famous'! Until I publicised this superb little site, I knew of no other birders who visited it! John). More brilliantly close views of White-headed Ducks here, but I failed again on Marbled Duck, the last lifer target available. One last site to try, Las Portugueses saltpans, but time was running on and the short drive north through Algaida Pines (itself an interesting site which I had no time to explore) seemed to take forever, not helped by the many speed bumps. At last I got there, only to find the first pool virtually dry! Disaster, or so I thought. Several Gull-billed Terns showed very well by the sluice, but…
A short drive further on, the second pool had much more water, lots of Greater Flamingos, and 20 exquisite Slender-billed Gulls. Almost out of time, I was still determined to enjoy scoping these beauties. Then I noticed a pale duck way over at the back - Marbled Duck! Even better, it had at least a dozen ducklings in tow. Then I noticed another, also with a large brood (14 this time), much closer. At 19.00 I dragged myself away, arriving at my overnight stop at Mollina just before 22.00. A fantastic day’s birding, celebrated with a cerveza grande or two.
Wednesday 27 June
I said goodbye at 0700 to the Hotel Molino de Saydo (highly recommended – great old building, good rooms and food, and very friendly, helpful staff). A short drive later I was at Laguna de Fuente de Piedra – the sheer spectacle of hundreds of Greater Flamingos, Black-winged Stilts, and breeding Gull-billed Terns is worth it in itself, and there were plenty of passerines too (Western Olivaceous Warbler, Nightingale, ‘Iberian’ Yellow Wagtail, Corn Bunting, etc.). The prime target here, though, was Lesser Flamingo, a Western Pal tick for me – regular at this site now, and I knew up to 3 had been seen recently. Two good sets of scope views, possibly of the same bird, in the near corner of the lagoon left of the viewpoint behind the visitor centre, and thankfully no issues with heat haze that early in the morning.
By 0900 it was time to pack the scope, use the automatic car wash in the nearby village of Humilladero to avoid any extra charges for ‘more than reasonable cleaning’, then drive the hour or so back to Malaga in time for my lunchtime flight. I arrived back at Bristol airport at c.1430, happy with a very successful short trip, including 4 lifers, 8 other Western Pal ticks, and a host of wonderful birding experiences.
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.