The Dehesa de las Yeguas was, along with the sites already discussed, one of the sites which I had targetted before leaving the UK as worthy of further exploration. The reasons for this was two fold; first it was a site I’d only visited, unsuccessfully, twice before and second it was somewhere I had always been pretty sure Lesser Short-toed Lark should occur. As reports on E-Bird confirmed the latter suspicion, it was ripe for exploration.
Previously, the nearest go to site for this species from Alcala de los Gazules was the Salinas de Santa Maria. Conveniently placed a short drive from Exit 4 on the A 381 (and thus close to Laguna de Medina) I had found the site when looking around the rubbish tip (a) where I’d previously seen Eagle Owl one evening (but never since before you ask). The sight of a reasonable track (b) heading off towards the vast spaces of Bahia de Cadiz was too great a temptation to resist. Despite heavy salt laden lorries thundering along the track veiled in a cloud of dust my hunch proved correct and along with (Greater) Short-toed Lark on the track, I soon found a few Lesser Short-toed in the dry bushy salt marsh (c). I also has Collared Pratincole, Slender-billed Gull, terns & Flamingoes here. The the latter part of the track (d) which crosses the motorway held little other than a large colony of Yellow-legged Gull, despite many saline pools nearby. Unfortunately, subsequent visits by myself and others indicated that this species was difficult to see here and not as regular as I had hoped whilst those lorries made birding there a trial at times.
After locating this site following the CA 3113 further around in the hope of finding another access point into the distant marshes and saltpans was the logical thing to do. Somewhat disappointingly I could find only one more good point of access off the road (e) before reaching the A4 – the Dehesa de las Yeguas. This Area Recreativa had plenty of parking, an extensive open pine woodland and a track that made a bee line into the marshes. I soon discovered the downside – the track would have made a good training route for a tank! It was rutted, wet and, the final coup de grace, as I tried to drive down it a local in a beaten up old van warned me against it. If the locals were leery of using it then I didn’t want to risk it. On my second visit it remained much the same (although by then I knew that, as I’d guessed, others had seen Red-necked Nightjar nearby).
On a hot day the shade of the pinewood here is certainly attractive so it’s little surprising that it’s the site of an Area Recreativa (e) although seemingly a little used one. Resisting the temptation to drive straight along the track (and thinking it might well still be in a parlous state) I first explored the two tracks running parallel to the CA 3113. Turning left I eased my way along a fairly good track for c600m until it deteriorated and swung to the left. Parking up (there was plenty of space) I explored on foot. As I’d found before the woods here held numerous Chaffinches and Serins but little else ut beyond the trees I found an area largely of damp grassland and dry old salinas (f) with the occasional pool of water. These held a few Greenshank, some Kentish Plovers and a brace of Spoonbill but in theory parts looked reasonable for Lesser Short-toed Lark even if I failed to find any. Interesting but probably not always worth the bother. Returning to the car I drove to the other extremity of the wood some 400m on the far side of the main track (g). Here I found several Spanish picnickers so my exploration was probably briefer than it ought to have been. The main discovery was that there was a large dryish reedbed (h) here which I assume to be the Laguna de Cetina mentioned on the noticeboard by the main track. It seemed rather birdless and apparently dry so I didn’t give it the attention it probably deserved but I did note that a path ran through the woods along its margin (several paths/tracks snake through the woods although you can evidently wander at will through the trees).
Back on the main track, which had clearly been well upgraded and repaired, I headed towards the salinas with some optimism. About 800m along the track from the CA 3113 I cleared the pinewood and could see that the habitat was every bit as good as I had hoped. On the right (i) there was a wet marshy area with a flooded channel running along its centre. This had number of Glossy Ibis and Collared Pratincole hawking above them. To my great surprise (more because my hearing is poor these days) I could also hear the distinctive reeling of Savi’s Warbler. Having heard them recently at Brazo del Este I knew how tricky they were to see so I wasn’t entirely surprised that I failed to locate the bird. Back in the UK I checked on E-bird and discovered others had found up to three Savi’s Warbler at ‘Marisma de Cetina’ so I was annoyed by my failure to check the dry reedbed more carefully - in retrospect it looked like promising habitat for this scarce and elusive species. On the other side of the track was an area of drier and more saline marshes (j) that looked excellent for Lesser Short-toed Lark but try as I might I couldn’t find any small larks at all (an early morning visit here is a must next spring). Above Black Kite and Booted Eagle drifted over and an Osprey must be a good possibility here.
So it was with great anticipation that I continued along the track towards some flooded salinas (k) where I’d already seen some Flamingos and Black-winged Stilts dropping down towards. I’d already noticed a gate across the track (c750m from the last pines) which I hoped were just to prevent vehicular access and that I could continue on foot. Unfortunately, a notice on the gate informed me that a permit was required to go any further (of which more anon). This would have been frustrating in any circumstances but was doubly so as I could see two hides beyond the gate (the first c600m from the gate and the second c700m beyond it). To make matters worse I saw one then another Purple Heron fly up from a marshy area (l) behind the hides whilst several groups of Dunlin and Curlew Sandpiper dashed by confirming that this area has a good potential for attracting waders.
The good news is that the permits are free and all you have to do is give 24 hours notice of your intended visit and details regarding your car. The bad news is that, according to the notice, they only way of doing so is by phone (two numbers are given - Grupo Asal 600409685 and Atlantida Medio Ambiente 673766136). As a result getting a permit will be very tricky for the majority of birding tourists who don’t have fluent Spanish (or a friend who has). The obvious way around this would be to provide a website by which you could apply online or even just an email address (GoogleTranslate should be up to making your request clear) but evidently nobody’s managed to think of this simple strategy. I managed to discover an email address for the latter organisation (apparently based at one of the visitors' centres serving the Bahia de Cadiz) but weeks later I've still had no reply. I’m still making enquiries and, if all else fails, will ask at the Andalucia stand at the forthcoming Bird Fair in August. If I manage to find a way of obtaining a permit without phoning up then I'll post details on my blog and add them to my notes.
Of all the sites I revisited this spring the Marisma de Cetina impressed me most and has the greatest potential. The star species is undoubtedly Savi's Warbler which is a very scarce breeding species in south-west Spain with the only other regular site nearby that I'm aware of being at Brazo del Este in Seville Province. However, Marisma de Cetina is about half the distance (just over an hour's drive vs over 2 hours) from Tarifa, the area's most popular birding destination. The presence of Lesser Short-toed Lark here is also a great draw as the site is again closer than the best alternative site (the Guadalquivir marshes). Since it's also less than twenty minutes drive from Laguna de Medina - the nearest site from Tarifa for sought after specialities White-headed Duck and Red-knobbed Coot - it makes a great minor detour for birders visiting that well known destination. If problems regarding obtaining a permit can be resolve then this could well become a regular and popular destination.
About me ...
Hi I'm John Cantelo. I've been birding seriously since the 1960s when I met up with some like minded folks (all of us are still birding!) at Taunton's School in Southampton. I have lived in Kent , where I taught History and Sociology, since the late 1970s. In that time I've served on the committees of both my local RSPB group and the county ornithological society (KOS). I have also worked as a part-time field teacher for the RSPB at Dungeness. Having retired now spend as much time as in Alcala de los Gazules in SW Spain. When I'm not birding I edit books for the Crossbill Guides series.