The vast intertidal mudflats, marshes and salinas of the Bahía de Cádiz may be good habitat for numerous waders, gulls, terns, etc but for the birdwatcher getting into the habitat to obtaining satisfactory views of the birds (even with a 'scope) can be problematical. Large obvious birds like Flamingo aren't a challenge and even Slender-billed Gulls can be picked out at long range with experience but most of the smaller waders are often be too distant for confident identification and some small birds found in the saltmarsh simply impossible to see.
However, as the Laguna de Medina - a popular stop for birders - is relatively close-by, a decade or so I go I investigated the area along the CA 3113 with a view to finding a location for gulls, shorebirds and particularly Lesser Short-toed Lark and Spectacled Warbler rather closer than the Bonanza area (c50 minutes from the laguna). A bonus, in some ways a dubious one, was finding that the large rubbish tip (a) was a magnet for Black Kites and even on one occasion, attracted an Eagle Owl. I quickly found all of my targets could be seen along the track into Salinas Santa Maria (b). However, this site wasn't 100% reliable for these species, had few(distant) waders and regular passing heavy lorries (which pick up a veritable dust storm when the track is dry) could make viewing less than ideal. Having checked for tracks into the marismas via GoogleEarth, my next stop was the Pinar de la Dhesa de las Yeguas (c) about 25 minutes drive from the Laguna de Medina. Whilst the woods looked attractive and had plenty of places to park, the track into the marsh was in an appalling state. So I earmarked as somewhere to visit at a later date when it wasn't so hot (it was mid-afternoon in August on that first visit) or when the track was in a better state. Unfortunately, a change in my personal circumstances delayed my next visit until spring 2019 when I found the track in a good condition and that the area was now a reserve but gated and access limited to those with a permit. This was hugely frustrating as I could see that this was a site with great potential.
Nonetheless I was keen to revisit this site when Covid restrictions were lifted and somehow, despite my poor Spanish, obtain a permit. I even tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade the authorities to provide an email address by which a permit could be obtained rather than by phone (which required excellent command of Spanish). So when a local correspondent, keen young birder Bruno Asencio Sevilano, informed me that access was now free to pedestrians without a permit, visiting this site in April/May 2022 became my priority. I wasn't disappointed!
I've looked at the Pinar de la Dhesa de las Yeguas (c), an attractive open pine woodland with picnic tables and plenty of parking, several times in the past and had already concluded that it was likely that this area of relatively isolated woodland might hold good numbers of migrants in spring. This seems to have been confirmed by the large numbers of Spotted Flycatchers (plus a sprinkling of Pied) I found here. It also has the added attraction of holding both Great-spotted and Iberian Green Woodpecker (a species that has greatly increased in the province). It also has numerous Serin and, given their current scarcity in SE England, I was delighted to find Greenfinch particularly numerous here. Despite the disturbance the site suffers at at weekends, an evening visit in summer should produce Red-necked Nightjar (5+ seen in one evening visit recently).
An additional bonus here for those with sharp eyes and, more particularly good hearing, is Savi's Warbler. This species is very sparsely distributed in Spain although the lower Guadalquivir (i.e. Brazo del Este and the Coto Donana) seems to be a hotspot for them. According to the most recent Spanish atlas, they're now absent in this the only regular site I know for them in Cadiz Province. However, up to three reeling birds were found in 2019 and at least one bird was present (although hard to see) in 2022. The best approach is to get there as early as possible, take the track to the right which runs parallel to the CA 3113 and walk along the path (d) following margins of the dry reedbed (optimistically called Laguna de Cetina on some maps). The edge of the wood is also good for migrants whilst Black Kites and Marsh Harriers are usually obvious above the marsh. Multiple paths here take you into the woods and back to the main track but don't neglect the small agricultural aqueduct and feeder tank just beyond the car park by the road as this attracts birds coming down to drink.
If you've not got a permit then there's space for several cars to pull off near the gate (e) although in hot weather you might prefer to return to a cooler car and pull off in the shade of the nearest trees. The trade off is that you then have to walk the last c750m. In this context, note that this site is very exposed to the sun with no shade (other than the two hides) so take some water and wear appropriate clothing if you intend to explore the site.
On reaching the gates take care as you enter the reserve since the corner of the large evaporation pool on your left often has a muddy margin attractive to waders (in early May I had Dunlin, Sanderling, Curlew Sandpiper and Little Stint all in a single field of view here). Hopefully, with a little fieldcraft you should be able to enter and obtain good views of any birds. Raising your binoculars a tad and scanning further over the area Flamingos should be immediately apparent with smaller dots quickly resolving themselves to be Black-winged Stilt and Avocets. Taking a closer look at the gulls (preferably with a 'scope) should quickly reveal some Slender-billed Gulls. On my visits this spring I also had a Little Gull here so it's worth spending some time checking through the 'larids'. To your right (f) there's an extensive area of mud supporting a light growth of low halophytic plants. Both here and across the site this habitat is home to Lesser Short-toed Lark; in my experience this is by far the easiest site to catch up with this species in the province. (Greater) Short-toed Lark can also be found here albeit in much lower numbers (and only in summer). Also present in this habitat are Iberian Yellow Wagtail, Kentish Plover and Collared Pratincole (although the latter are more likely to be seen, or heard, long before you spot their mud-coloured forms half-concealed in the vegetation.
About 550m from the gate there’s an open-backed hide (g) that provides useful respite from the sun and shelter from the rain. It’s functionality as a hide is somewhat compromised as it faces back towards the way you’ve come so you’re liable to flush birds as you approach but it’s a handy place to stop to scan the salinas for anything you may have missed. There's a good chance of spotting an Osprey (or two) here whilst careful scrutiny of the birds across the vast open water could well throw up Spoonbill (and perhaps Great-white Egret which is increasingly frequent in the province). A further c750m along the track takes you to a second hide (h) which also faces back down the track from which you can again scan over the salinas. On my visit this spring, the small pools along the right-hand side of the track between (g) and (h) seemed particularly productive for small waders so scan these before you head towards the second hide.
If, instead of heading towards the next hide, you take the track to the right after c170m you pass a small pool to the right (i) which can hold more waders plus Glossy Ibis, Purple Swamphen and Purple Heron (although you've got a good chance of seeing all three before you reach this spot). Continuing along this path there are various small pools to the left and right (j) which can harbour still more waders. The latter may include breeding Lapwing which is a relatively scarce bird in the province . As always, as you proceed check for passing raptors (Marsh & Montagu’s Harriers, Booted Eagle, Black Kite, etc) and distant Griffon Vultures but be prepared for surprises, an imm. Bonelli's Eagle was seen here on the day I visited in late April.
About 1.5 km along this track from the hide you reach an area of thicker, taller vegetation bordered by a small ditch. The map on the sign at the start of the reserve suggest this is the end of the footpath but another sign here suggests you can walk further (although this is doubtfully worthwhile as ornithologically dull commercial salinas start here). Don't ignore the taller vegetation beyond and to the right of the sign as this is the haunt of Spectacled Warbler, the last of the special passerines to be found here. This diminutive version of Common Whitethroat is an attractive species well-worth the 3 km round trip from the hide. You may need some patience to spot one since unless they're singing and/or song flighting they can be hard to spot in the dense vegetation.
The excellence of this site is reflected in the growing number of e-Bird reports (528 at the time of writing, sixty more than in March) and the number of species recorded here (currently 198) - see https://ebird.org/hotspot/L6443288 - which compares favourably with the well-established Salinas de Bonanza which has fewer than twenty more species recorded despite not far short of twice as many trip reports over a much longer time span. Including the nearby woodland, it probably also has a better variety of species close at hand. With access to the better parts of the Salinas de Bonanza now restricted, the Marisma de Cetina is now, arguably, the better site to pick up waders and other specialities of salinas. In the brief period that access has been permitted it's racked up a good list of rarities which in spring 2022 alone included Western Reef Heron & White-winged Black Tern. As suggested earlier, a visit combining a look at this site with one to Laguna de Medina would make for some very productive birding.
No visit to this part of Spain, particularly in late spring, is complete without a look around the Trebujena area for Rufous Bushchat. It's a species in serious decline with a 95% reduction in numbers across the country, extinction in Granada and nearly so in Alicante and Murcia (98% reduction). Fortunately, as I've noted before a good population persists in the vineyards around this small town. I wasn't absolutely confident that I'd see one on my fist visit here this spring on 03/05 as birds sometimes arrive as late as June. Happily, I found a singing bird at the first place I checked (which was about 400m from where I'd had a pair with young last autumn). A check at the latter site was unproductive but a look at a third location produced a second bird.
My second visit to Trebujena was on 07/05 for another iconic and even trickier species to see in this area - Pin-tailed Sandgrouse. So tricky, in fact, that I'd only seen them once myself (although that's partly because Liz was always reluctant to get up early enough or stay late enough to give a good chance of seeing this species which tends to be most active at dawn and dusk). That said, I've known keen birders who've tried to find them multiple times without any luck. A few days before my visit, I'd tipped off a young Dutch birder, Danny Bregman, where to look and was somewhat miffed to hear that he then saw a couple on his first attempt! Hence I was up before first light to drive up to the area north of the A471 and c4km west of Trebujena where he'd seen them. It's a good area so I wasn't surprised to find Short-toed Lark, Montagu's Harrier, Spoonbill, etc with relative ease but what was a surprise was an adult Great-spotted Cuckoo happily feeding along the track! As this is largely a migrant in Cadiz province (and at a time I'm often back in the UK), I don't often see them and this bird treated me to my best views of the species. A 'result' but not the one that I expected. (NB - This saved me a trip to the area north of Puerto Real (Las Aletas) where the species now seem to be regular visitors, perhaps related to the increase in the Magpie, which they parasitise, in that area.
Excellent although it was to catch up with the cuckoo, I still hadn't seen any sandgrouse. I searched for another hour or so without any luck and as the habitat didn't look quite so good as that at Cortijo de Alventus (NW of Trebujena and c1km from the Guadalquivir). I knew that they were present in that area as I'd missed them by minutes in March. So 15 minutes later, I was just getting out of my car on the track by the cortijo when I espied a distant flock of twenty-plus sharp-winged fast flying birds. I quickly got my binoculars on them and, despite the distance, the two birds I concentrated on were clearly Pin-tailed Sandgrouse! In fact, to my great surprise, I could even hear their distinctive gaaa-gaaa call (hence the Spanish name Ganga). I didn't really take in what all the birds were but twenty seemed an awful lot for this scarce species, so I kept scanning for a more conclusive view. However, all I could find were flighty flocks of Grey Plovers (at least 60 and probably more), some in summer plumage, some in winter plumage and many moulting between the two. Sandgrouse resemble Golden/Grey Plovers in flight and the birds I saw were very distant so after fifteen minutes the doubts started to creep in - had I really seen them or was I just desperate to see them? Could I really have heard their gaaa-gaaa call at that range or was it me who was going gaga? I was on the brink of discarding the record as the result of delusional overenthusiasm when I heard a much louder gaaa-gaaa, looked up and had two Pin-tailed Sandgrouse fly right above my head before zooming off towards the site I'd first tried. Phew! With hindsight I think that, although I'm confident that I did see two birds earlier, I probably heard closer birds which I failed to see.
I've since discovered via e-Bird that the following day two other observers, Faustino Chamizo Ragel & Chúss Fernández Vélez, had 35 sandgrouse (plus 125 Grey Plovers) on the Marismas de Trebujena (which seems to be the generic name for the whole area). Hopefully, this, the highest count here for some years, may reflect the work in restoring the marismas in recent years. So, despite my pessimism perhaps that original flock were all sandgrouse after all!
Buoyed up by my success and as it was still relatively early, I decided have another look for bushchats and then visit Marisma de Cetina on my way back to Alcala. This time, as I was arriving from the opposite direction, I tried my third RBC site first. When I got there I pulled off next to a minibus and just as I got out of the car a group of four birders appeared from the other side of the road. Speaking to their guide, Stefan Schlick, I discovered that they were from Oregon and had been looking, unsuccessfully, for Rufous Bushchat. What could I do other than show them where I'd seen the birds in the past? After a couple of false starts, we pulled off where I'd first seen one on 03/05. We got out of the vehicles and, as I pointed out where to look, the bird flew past us singing! Only having previously seen them sing from a perch, I hadn't realised that they also do so in flight! We all subsequently had fantastic 'scope views! Brilliant stuff!
It transpired that Stefan had used an old version of my site guide in planning his trip so he asked me where his group might see Red-knobbed Coot and some waders. I suggested Laguna de Medina for the first and Marisma de Cetina - which he'd never heard of - for the second. My offer to show them both sites was quickly taken up but first the group kindly insisted on buying me lunch. Medina proved to be a disappointment but Cetina delivered the waders some of which (Dunlin, Grey Plover, etc) are commonly found in America but others like Little Stint and particularly Lapwing were most appreciated. The Little Gull I'd seen here previously was also present amongst the Slender-billed Gull. More expected were Lesser Short-toed Lark which they hadn't seen previously. Showing people the delights of the area and a clutch of new birds was a bonus and a delightful way to spend my day ... without actually changing any of my plans!
Just about the only downside to being a birder based in Alcala de los Gazules in Cadiz Province is that Azure-winged Magpie are very elusive and hard to see in that province. The only place they are said to occur regularly is in Algaida pinewoods near Sanlucar. I have indeed seen them there but very infrequently and I know others who've looked several times without any luck. Yet just across the Guadalquivir on the Coto Donana they're usually easy to find. So any hope of seeing them when staying in the area involves driving up to Seville and then down to El Rocio, a round trip of almost 5 hours. Other less certain sites in the Sierra Norte or in the north-east Malaga will take almost as long.
I was updating my notes and writing up any changes when I had an email from Gordon Shaw for tipping me off about a colony in Alcalá de Guadaíra, a mere 90 minutes away from my base in Alcalá de los Gazules (there are many "alcalás" as it means 'stronghold' in Arabic). Better still this site is only 20 minutes from Aeropuerto de Sevilla (into which I often fly) and only a 10 minute detour off the SE 40 as you head south. A quick check of the Atlas de las Aves Reproductoras de España (Pub. 2004) confirmed that this population hadn't been reported twenty-odd years ago. However, with the release online of the latest Spanish bird atlas (III Atlas Aves - see https://atlasaves.seo.org/ and below) it's clear that the population had been established at the time of the new survey (2014-2017). The new atlas appears to show a mixed picture with populations now established on the east bank of the Guadalquivir but also missing in large areas of Huelva province. Does this apparent absence reflect a decline in population or poorer survey work?
So, I checked the maps on eBird and I found that the eBird map seems to broadly confirm the results of the atlas work. The odd reports of Azure-winged Magpie across northern Huelva, where there's a blank space on the new atlas atlas, seems to mirror to a large degree the route of the N-435 from Extremadura which suggests they're still present, just under-recorded.
Delving more deeply into the reports around on eBird I found fewer than a dozen reports from the immediate vicinity of Sevilla (mainly of 1-2 birds although eight were reported at Parque del Alamillo in 2019). Given the source it's not surprising that most reports are post 2020 (i.e. after the use of eBird increased markedly). Records from Alcalá de Guadaíra are quite different in nature (if not in time frame); the first report on eBird comes from 2018 when 8 were reported and since then the lowest count has been of 3 birds (2021) and the highest of 39 (2022). Gordon reported to me that they were 'common' around his hotel in Parque Oromana and the report in 2018 of 8 birds in the Parque Ribera del Guadaíra (just to the west of the castillo) which suggests a population throughout the stone pine woodland along the Rio Guadaíra Unlike reports in Sevilla this is obviously a secure and perhaps growing population. The nearest other cluster of reports (involving fewer records and fewer birds) is from Carmona to the north-east. It's likely that Azure-winged Magpie were commoner in the lower Guadalquivir valley in the past when more areas were, I'm told, afforested so this may be an overlooked relict population. However, I prefer to think it's a indication that the population is expanding. Either way my chances of seeing this handsome species on my jaunts out to Spain have increased considerably and besides as a retired history teacher I really ought to visit the castillo in Alcalá de Guadaíra as it's said to be the finest Moorish fortification in Spain.
Marismas de Cetina
I didn’t manage to get to this site but am pleased to hear that, although vehicular access still requires a permit, a new sign states that pedestrian access to the hides etc is now permitted. Visiting the place will be a top priority on my next visit. Still little known by visiting birders, this site is only 20 minutes from the ever popular Laguna de Medina. As it includes marisma-loving species like Lesser Short-toed Lark and Spectacled Warbler along with Slender-billed Gull, terns, waders, etc it combined with a visit to the Laguna de Medina makes an excellent detour when heading south. (I am indebted to keen young Jerezano birder to Bruno Asencio Sevillano for this information)
Laguna de Medina remains one of the 'classic' Cadiz birding locations. Other sites may offer better views of White-headed Duck, easier to find Red-knobbed Coot, etc but it's iconic status is assured not least because it's a very quick detour off the A 381. Unlike most other lagunas in Cadiz it rarely dries out completely and when it does so it's usually after a long dry summer. However, the winter of 2021/2022 has been exceptionally dry and the laguna has shrunk to a fraction of its normal size in spring. Since I knew other lagunas in the area were bone-dry I was expecting it to be drier than usual. It's easy to over-react and see this as a disaster but it is part of a natural cycle that keeps the laguna fish-free. When fish, particularly carp, periodically colonise the laguna after floods they out-compete the waterfowl causing a drop in the number of birds. Naturally, as it dries the laguna retreats away from those areas easily viewed by the public so a 'scope becomes even more vital.
NB - within days of my return to the UK the heavens opened and there was heavy rainfall in parts of Cadiz Province. Whether this will fully compensate for the exceptionally dry winter remains to be seen but hopefully Laguna de Medina will be wetter than I feared.
In the past I’ve seen Little Ringed Plover and Stone-curlew in an old quarry next to Exit 4 on the A 381 (i.e. immediately east of the laguna). Driving past in February, I noted that this area has now been remodelled and landscaped with paths and what seem to be observation screens. I hope to find out more on my next trip to Spain.
As expected in February, La Janda was largely dry as the rice paddies are not yet reflooded. In these conditions the small ox-bow off the track near Benalup (‘l’ on the map in my notes) held what few wetland birds were around (Black-winged Stilt and Spoonbills plus Glossy Ibis near the river). Cranes were still present, though, which was a bonus.
NB - I visited La Janda after a long dry winter but within days of my return to the UK it started to rain and parts of La Janda were flooded (including the bridge over the main canal) as the ghost old laguna made its presence felt.
It was good to see that the track across La Janda has again been regraded and repaired so is, for the moment, without deep puddles and craters (I give it two years max). Best of all, where the cobbled and pot-holed track was regularly flooded and tricky to negotiate just beyond the weir (as you head towards Benalup) a new culvert has been built and the road surface raised which should resolve the problem of flooding.
The road up to the hilltop finca has been widened and regraded but at the expense of s number of trees and bushes. Further on beyond (as you head for Benalup) the farmhouse, the bushes that were seriously encroaching on the road have been cut back making this stretch much wider making it easier to pull over (usefully so as large agricultural trucks use this route). Much of the previously badly potholed road taking you to the A 2226 has been improved and several sections tarmacked but be aware that one or two nasty potholes remain to catch out the unwary.
.More good news comes in the shape of several large informative noticeboards dotted across the area (an initiative of the Asociacion Amigos de la Laguna de La Janda). One confirms that the tack across the Las Lomas estate from the weir to El Canal was now open to pedestrians and cyclists. It’s about 8 km to El Canal so I doubt many birders will explore the route (even on a bicycle) and it remains to be seen what advantage there might be in doing so (although the track does follow a water course for much of its route). A more profitable strategy may be to park at El Canal and walk along the path sufficiently far to obtain what should be commanding views of the Las Lomas Estate (and hence any raptors in the area). Something I hope to check out in April.
Another noticeboard near the egret colony helpfully gives details of the number of breeding pairs here in 2020: Cattle Egret 3,600 pairs, Night Heron 80 pairs, Little Egret 30 pairs, Night Heron 8 pairs and Squacco Heron 3 pairs. The notice also reminds visitors to stay in their cars, be quiet
On the downside, driving along the droveway towards Facinas there was more evidence of the spread and growth of olive groves in Andalucia to the detriment of steppe species like Little Bustard..
Humedal El Patano
This small wetland just south-east of Los Palacios y Villafranca achieved ornithological fame in 2018 when long staying Laughing Doves were found here. Most reports involve 1-2 birds but up to six have been reported (see https://ebird.org/species/laudov1/L6722670 ) here with a few reports elsewhere within c5km (inc. Laguna de la Merjorada). I briefly visited this site to see these birds in 2019 but finding them fairly quickly I only looked at a restricted area (I & j on my map) since I was en route to Osuna. I was very keen to return to have a closer look at the swampy area I could see through the trees along the road but, like many plans, the Covid outbreak scuppered my hopes of doing so until this year.
This time I could have a much better look around with a view to adding this site to my notes (although I was again under a time constraint as I was driving down from Seville airport to meet friends in Alcala). The first thing I noticed was that there’s now a cap park and small tower hide opposite the T-junction as you arrive (h on my map). That’s the good news, the bad news is that the view from the hide is almost entirely obstructed by reeds which probably explains the existence of a narrow but well-beaten path heading off into the marsh at its base. Either side of the structure the trees were crowded with (unoccupied) egret nests.
On my next visit, I’ll try walking along the road (g – i) to see if there are any points where you can conveniently see over the wetland. This time, however, I contented myself with looking at the area just west of the car park (g) as it seemed by far the wettest part of the reserve in this very dry year. My reward came in the form of a dozen each of Teal and Shoveler, half-a-dozen Purple Swamphen, a couple of dozen Snipe and at least 4 Spoonbill.
Much of the area close to Los Palacios y Villafranca is occupied by low intensity farming as indicated by the presence of working horses, mules and even ‘oxen’ which suggests that Rufous Bushchat may still hang on here although there are relatively few reports on eBird (where it’s called Rufous-tailed Scrub-Robin). For more details about the species found here, which includes several exotics, check eBird.
All this new information demanded that I rewrite my account and redraw my map for the Los Palacios area to include El Patano. In doing so, I also discovered that the upgrading of the N IV and changes in the junction with the N IVa meant my directions for that site too needed revision.
Visiting the straits during raptor migration is always a highlight of any trip to Cadiz province in spring/autumn. This year I was lucky to witness a particularly good passage of Short-toed Eagles at Cazalla. The eagles were constantly pushing across from Africa generally in dribs and drabs but also sometimes in groups of twenty odd. It’s hard to keep count in such circumstances but I probably saw c1,000 birds (although the official Migres count that day was 1,500+). There were also a few Egyptian Vultures and ubiquitous patrolling Griffons but, surprisingly, hardly any Black Kites. Good though the Cazalla watchpoint is, I often prefer dropping down to the coast at nearby Punta Camorro (to get there from Cazalla you have to drive down towards Tarifa round a roundabout and then back the way you came - see map).
The scrub and bushes here always hold the promise of small migrants (I've had Pied Flycatcher, Redstart, Woodchat Shrike, Wryneck, etc here in the past) whilst the sea is worth scanning for shearwaters, gulls (although neither put in an appearance this time around) and even whales. I’ve redrawn and made minor alterations to the map of the area and my description in my notes. This includes slightly treatment of two tracks, one running along the coast (d) and the other heading up towards the coastguard station (e). The first passes by some good cover and should take you all the way to Algeciras if you’re determined (or more likely have a bike). The second takes you past the coastguards up to an old military battery which some may find of interest. Beyond the decommissioned guns there’s a small hill regularly used by Migres counters but, unfortunately, this is in a restricted military area and you need a permit to go beyond the guns. This pity, as it has better views along the coast than anywhere else. I’ve continued to mark the old watchpoint on my map (a) despite being little used as the track here allows you to loop round back into Tarifa or back down to (b).
Guadalmesi is at the mouth of the valley that drops away from the popular Mirador del Estrecho on the main road. The small stream and cover on the coast here looks ideal for attracting passerine migrants and the old medieval tower nearby adds a dash of romance. However, access to this area has often been in doubt since, like much of this coastline, it’s in a restricted military area and both cars & pedestrians have been stopped by the military and turned back. However, I was informed by friends that the army has now returned to their old laissez-faire approach and allows access (more de facto than de jure, I suspect). The military seem fickle about such things and may yet return to restricting access so use at your own risk.
The Bonanza salinas are rightly celebrated as one of the region's premier birding localities, a hotspot for waders, gulls and terns. When first I ventured this way five decades ago the entrance was gated but, although we didn't know it at the time, you could ask permission to enter. By the time I returned in the early 2000s access was unrestricted you could drive across the middle of the salinas viewing the waders, gulls and terns as you did so. When you reached the T-junction at the end of the track, you could turn right and drive c1km up to a small pumping station from which you could get still better views across the expanse of salinas and even more birds. Then in **** a barrier appeared across the start of this route. It didn't last long and was soon wrecked. So for years, I and many other birders happily drove up the track to the small white building.
However, when I return this year (2022) I found the track across the centre in excellent condition but discovered a far more robust gate than hitherto on the side turning up to the pumping station. It was open but we decided not to risk driving to the far end of the track. Later driving back past the gate our caution seemed justified as it was now firmly padlocked. So it seems that the owners no longer allow cars to drive up to the pumping station. However, the situation regarding pedestrians seems less clear. Unlike a barrier that briefly appeared here in 2009 and many other side tracks today, there are no signs forbidding access. There's also a well beaten path around the gate which was being used by mopeds/scoters and, quite probably, pedestrians. What this means for access to birdwatchers is unclear but I'd now be loathe to risk driving along this track. Walking may be permitted but it's a long 2 km round trip on a hot day!
Deciding not to risk driving up this turning we proceeded towards the river. The track here was in a poor condition and whilst you could drive down to the river, it seemed unwise to do so given the ruts, slippery surface and, at one point, a narrowed track being eroded by water. The track on the right running parallel to the river was in a similarly poor state too. It's hard to imagine that back in 2011 I drove a hire car along this track past the Observatorio de Bonanza and then on to Trebujena.
Nearby, the water in the nearby Lagunas de Camino Colorado (aka Bonanza Pools) was lower than usual for early spring but not as bad as I feared and the pools still held a dozen White-headed Duck and a couple of Marbled Teal. The extensive muddy margins however were good for waders which included 5 Temminck’s Stint (my first Spanish record of this species). The really good news is that after a campaign by Ecologistas en Acción this unprepossessing but excellent site is now officially protected (although what that means in practise is another thing!).
It’s always been surprising that the narrow poorly maintained road along the Guadalquivir to Trebujena merits official designation as the CA 9027. Unfortunately, it continues to degrade and now needs some care to negotiate but the good news is that this has slowed the traffic down.
The route has now sprouted some handsome tiled information points and a shelter for cyclists.
However, the development of ornitho-tourism here seems to have stalled or at least not given the same priority as attractive tilework. The gateway though which I could see information boards which I optimistically hoped was infrastructure for better access for birders is now boarded over (thus restricting the view), adorned with 'Keep Out' notices and some of the information boards seem to have disappeared. A disappointment. Further along the track the small reserve area with pools and hides (where the road turns inland) was also closed with more signs that it's private. The sign announcing its temporary closure ("cerrado temporalmente"), that during the bird breeding season the reserve will remain closed and apologising for the inconvenience ("Debido al periodo de cria las aves, la finca permanecera Disculpen las molestias") which is fine but it does look (as I have been told) that the sign's been there for some time ... This isn’t a great problem as viewing from the road is good but as a former field-teacher I hate to see the opportunity of educating and informing the public apparently so under-used.
Happily, the track by Cortijo de Alventus was dryso easy to drive along but less happily we missed a Pin-tailed Sandgrouse here by minutes (although it’s good to know that they persist in the area).
I've visited many of the sites in my guide to birding Cadiz numerous times, others only occasionally and a few only once but there are a fewsites I've not visited at all. These I've added due to their long standing repute (e.g. Pinar del Rey), recommendations by others (mainly sub-sites) and, more recently, due the number of lists on eBird (e.g. Dos Rios). One such site is (or rather was) the Costa Ballena just south of Chipiona. I first became aware of its existence through the 'Rare Birds in Spain' website but latterly largely through the many eBird lists generated from there. I admit that I've driven past the place quite a few times mainly when en route to look for Chameleons in Rota. I confess that visiting a large golf complex with well-manicured lawns and gardens had no appeal appeal whatsoever even if good birds could be seen there. I really should have known better as this site has an unrivalled track record for turning up rare American gulls.
On my recent visit to Cadiz (my first for over two years) one species I wanted to reacquaint myself with was Red-knobbed (or Crested) Coot. Unfortunately, the winter of 2021/22 has been exceptionally dry so all of the usual sites for this species, which can be elusive even in good years, were dry or nearly so. Fortunately, eBird alert was reporting birds from three sites, all of them atypical habitat; Lagunas de Martin Miguel, a small pond on an Industrial Estate near Puerto de Santa Maria and at Costa Ballena. With my guest for the week, Brendan Ryan, we first tried Lagunas de Martin Miguel, a misnomer for two embanked, lined reservoirs near Sanlucar. Not helped by having only one 'scope between us or that, as we subsequently learnt, the bird had only tiny red swellings, we couldn't winkle out our target amongst the many distant Common Coot.
Accordingly, we decided to try our luck at Costa Ballena encouraged by recent reports of both Red-knobbed Coot and Ring-billed Gull there. The lawns at Ballena proved to be as well-manicured and the grounds well-tended as I'd assumed but the waterways there proved to be a mecca for a surprising variety of ducks, many gulls, even a few waders and, of course, coots. The park was also rather larger than I had expected. We pulled over near the park (f on my map below), checked the canal below the bridge and then made a circuit of the small lagoon with a lake picking up Common Sandpiper, Turnstone, Greenshank and White-headed Duck as we went. We then headed along the canal toward the other laguna (g) which we also circuited but still had no luck (although Black Redstarts and a gang of Monk Parakeets were a pleasant distraction. We were heading back towards the car when I spotted a fine adult Ring-billed Gull perched on a footbridge only a few metres away. Not have seen the species for decades I wasn't sure I could pick out but in the event it was obvious.
One down and one to go .....
Minutes after walking away from the Ring-billed Gull, I raised my binoculars for (yet) another scan of the numerous coots and found I'd put them more or less straight onto the Red-knobbed Coot. We'd obviously started at the wrong end of the park! I'd never seen a Red-knobbed Coot feeding out on the grass like a Common Coot either which may also be attributed to dire necessity brought on by the drought. When I've seen them bobbing around on water I've managed to convince myself that the two species do have (slight) structural differences but walking around on the grass none of these were apparent. You can decide for yourself by checking out my short video of the bird at youtu.be/CYo2KDB0mQM As with the bird reported from the Lagunas de Martin Miguel, this bird's trademark red appendages hadn't fully developed and consequently weren't at all obvious. In this state, such a bird could easily be passed over amongst its commoner congeners (as we found out at the previous site). This bird also showed distinctly brownish wing coverts which seemed to suggest that it was a first year bird. However, this is not mentioned in the "Birds of the Western Palearctic" which only comments that feathers can be brownish when worn. That all three birds reported in Cadiz province (plus another on a golf course in Malaga) were feeding in unusual habitats probably reflects the exceptional dryness of the season.
Costa Ballena turned out to be a better site for birding than I had imagined it might and is certainly worth more than a passing look. In less dry years there are better places to look for Marbled Teal (reported here several times during our stay), White-headed Duck and Red-knobbed Coot but if you're a "Laridophile" then this is the place for you as you have a very real chance of picking up a vagrant American gull.
Entering the resort from the roundabout at the junction of the A 491 and A 2077, as we did, proved to be a mistake as you then have a tedious drive through the whole area before reaching the lakes. It's better to take the A 491 north for c3 km and come in on the northernmost entrance. Unfortunately, I discovered, the map in my notes wasn't entirely accurate as it omitted both this and another entrance to Costa Ballena. The corrected version is below. I also realise that I haven't given full access details to the site in my notes. These too are below -
For Costa Ballena – head south from Chipiona on the A 491 & take the first exit signposted for Costa Ballena to enter the complex. Turn left at the second roundabout & park near the park. If arriving from Sanlucar on the A 2077 head north on the A 491 for c3 km and follow instructions as above.
I was browsing in my local branch of Waterstone's last week when my eye was caught by Tim Birkhead's latest book, Birds and Us. He's an excellent writer but I don't usually buy his books as soon as they come out, not least because my daughters complain that there's nothing left for them to get for me on my birthday or at Christmas. However, one glance at the opening chapter and I knew I had to buy the book without waiting.
The subject of that chapter was El Tajo de las Figuras, a small rock shelter (it can hardly be called a cave) a few kilometres east of Benalup. Despite being more open to the elements than most 'cave' paintings sites, the inner walls are decorated with hundreds of images dating back 8,000 years. The Neolithic artists who decorated caves rarely bothered with birds concentrating instead on humans and the large game animals like bison, deer, horses etc that they hunted. So it's quite remarkable that so many images here are thought to represent birds - more than all the other European cave art sites combined. I knew nothing of this when Liz and I visited the site back in 2005 so I was taken aback by the volume and number of paintings crammed into a relatively small space. I took some indifferent photos of the paintings with my small and by today's standards primitive digital camera . To my irritation all of my photos proved to be indifferent and the worst of all were of the birds, most didn't come out at all. I promised myself that I'd come back the following year to obtain better images but I have never found the place open since! Birkhead himself apparently had to have permission from the Junta de Andalucia when he visited the site in 2017 with two local archaeologists.
Birkhead's book gives details of how they were revealed to the wider world by oologist, pioneer bird photographer and inventor Willoughby Verner in 1901. Local people, of course, had long known about this Neolithic Sistine Chapel as it was Verner's guide who told him about them. It was Verner, though, who publicised the existence of the site which resulted in great interest from archaeologists.
Birkhead goes on to write that "There are no fewer than 208 birds on the walls of the cave. Some 150 have been identified as comprising at least sixteen different species". After a quick bit of Googling, I managed to find a 2018 paper written by the two archaeologists from whom Birkhead appears to have obtained his figures (see www.researchgate.net/publication/330685602_Prehistoric_Bird_Watching_in_Southern_Iberia_The_Rock_Art_of_Tajo_de_las_Figuras_Reconsidered?fbclid=IwAR06b5wv0Yi-PP3jgJe-IqgdI3H0rlELnuG1Aqytj8PYjauVbFhmft7x-Do).
The figure of 208 is, it seems, a little optimistic as this includes 44 'possible' birds but even so this represents a remarkably high percentage of all the bird images ever found in Neolithic cave art. Of the remainder 150 are described as 'securely identified' and a further 14 as 'unidentified'. The species list is interesting - Great Bustard (35), Little Bustard (7), Purple Swamphen (3), Purple Heron (15), Cattle Egret (3), Common Crane (17), Flamingo (11), Spoonbill (2), Glossy Ibis (5), Avocet (2), Black-winged Stilt (2), Marsh Harrier (1) and Ruppell's Vulture (1) plus gull sp (24), coot sp (16) and duck/goose sp (6). Some of these identifications such as Flamingo seem reasonable but others strike me as highly conjectural (particularly Ruppell's Vulture!).
Oddly enough, from photographs of the illustrations I've seen elsewhere there's a reasonable case to suggest that one of the species shown is Bald Ibis which they don't list. The table listing these birds in the paper also has a column for 'Habitats' which indicates that of the bustards is "ﬂooded lowland" ...! I was amused to find Birkhead suggesting, as I have done somewhat tongue-in-cheek, that the paintings were a proto-field guide for nascent hunters.
As indicated above, this treasure is strangely neglected and rarely open to the public but if you're in the area look out for a small wooden kiosk half hidden in bushes north of the road that passes the Embalse de Celemin (see map). Nip in if it’s open as you may not get another chance. Hopefully, when Birkhead’s book appears in a Spanish edition (as most of them do) then it will generate sufficient interest this site for it to be open to the public more often.
About me ...
Hi I'm John Cantelo. I've been birding seriously since the 1960s when I met up with some like minded folks (all of us are still birding!) at Taunton's School in Southampton. I have lived in Kent , where I taught History and Sociology, since the late 1970s. In that time I've served on the committees of both my local RSPB group and the county ornithological society (KOS). I have also worked as a part-time field teacher for the RSPB at Dungeness. Having retired I now spend as much time as possible in Alcala de los Gazules in SW Spain. When I'm not birding I edit books for the Crossbill Guides series.