There’s an arc of low-lying land running along the Cadiz-Seville border and down towards Mesas de Asta that begs to be explored. These low-lying fields were once beneath the waves and the isolated islands thus provided the site of the semi-mythical city of Tartessus. The Tartessian civilisation owed much to Phoenician traders who, according to tradition, founded the city of Cadiz in 1100 BCE making it the oldest inhabited city in Western Europe. They called the place Gadir taking the name from a Berber term for a wall or compound (and hence also the origin of the name for the Moroccan city of Agadir). It was silver that attracted the Phoenicians and reputedly made the Tartessians fabulously wealthy. Although their influence once stretched west to what is now southern Portugal, east to Murcia and north to Extremadura, relatively little is known about them. The Carriazo Bronze is one of the most famous examples of Tartessian art. This fabulous artefact, thought to be part of a brooch, is dated to 625-525 BCE. It is believed to depict a local goddess of the marshes but assimilates aspects of the Phoenician goddess Astarte and Egyptian goddess Hathor (polytheists are equal opportunities believers). Her tunic is adorned by water lilies and the birds depicted are surely Mallards suggesting an intimate familiarity with wetland wildlife (although I’ve no idea what outsized bottle openers she’s holding are meant to be!) It certainly makes you wonder what the vast, shallow Tartessian Gulf (now occupied by the Coto Doñana) and its multiple inlets must have been like for bird watching 3,000 years ago. This mysterious past, the city’s location beyond the Pillars of Hercules and their city being surrounded by the sea, has inevitably caused many to link Tartessus with the myth of Atlantis. This may well be entirely fanciful, but I quite like the idea that when I’m birding the area, I’m birding Atlantis!
At times after heavy rain, this area can appear to be straining to return to its former aquatic nature as extensive areas can be flooded. When this happens (an increasingly unusual phenomenon) it attracts hundreds of Flamingos , White Storks, three species of egret and a multitude of waders. When dry the patches of bare earth and poor vegetation look good for the ever-elusive Pin-tailed Sandgrouse (although I’ve only seen them here once). Within its orbit there are old settling ponds constructed for the sugar beet industry near Mesas de Asta, which have large colonies of both Gull-billed Tern and Slender-billed Gulls (although the destruction of the Coto Doñana on the far side of the Guadalquivir may now have changed things).
So why isn’t it better known? In one word “access” (compounded by the proximity of better known and reliably ornithologically productive areas). The aforementioned settling ponds off the A 2000 at Mesas de Asta have always been ‘out-of-bounds’ despite, as I vaguely recall, talk by the former owners Ebro Foods that it would become a reserve. Access to the nearer laguna & wetland (see photo) used to be permitted or at least tolerated via a track across the fields but this is now disputed so both can now only be viewed distantly by pulling of the road onto a track (GPS 36.7927, -6.1636) running parallel to the main road. Despite this, particularly if you have a 'scope, it can still be a good place to pause and catch up with Slender-billed Gull, Gull-billed and marsh terns, Collared Pratincole, Montagu’s Harrier, Red-rumped Swallow, etc. The fields to the south are a mix of rough grazing and arable land but when flooded when they can also attract waders, terns, etc. When the floods recede patches of bare ground may be left behind which can harbour Stone-curlews. It may also be worth exploring the Cañada Ancha which crosses the valley to the CA 3103. (This track passes under the A 2000 at GPS 36.7804, -6.1672 but to access it you need to use the track noted above running parallel to the main road or one on the outskirts of Mesas de Asta (GPS 36.7834, -6.1725)
A second area worth exploring are the Marismas de Casablanca. It's not an area I’ve often visited, despite my good intentions, but when I have done so it has proved to be worth the effort. From Jerez there are two alternative routes to reach area, one slow and the other fast. The slower route along the CA 3103 is the more interesting of the two as it gives you a better opportunity to pull over and scan the undulating countryside for birds like Montagu’s Harrier and Gull-billed Tern which often traverse the area heading to and from the nearby colony at Mesas de Asta (or they did when I was last here). Unfortunately, the colony and the marsh are out of sight to the west hidden in the rolling hills but as noted above, if you’re really keen the Cañada Ancha (GPS 36.7662, -6.1180) takes you across the valley towards the A 2000. This narrow thread of grass and scrub should have more birds than the surrounding farmland, but you have to walk 1-2 km before you reach wide open areas prone to flooding. Another potential plus of this route is that there remains an outside possibility that you might find Little Bustard. They are shown in this general area in the most recent Spanish atlas (based in surveys in 2014-2018). I’m told they were still around in the early 2020s but with this species’ rapid decline this may no longer be the case.
I’ve driven past the Cortijo de Capita along the CA 0606 (at this point essentially a continuation of the CA 3103 northwards) a couple of times but fully not explored the area. The track runs through a rather dull agricultural landscape until after c2 km the track drops down towards a flatter and often much wetter area bisected by an agricultural canal (Caño de Capita). By this point what started off as a good gravel track is now a poor farm track so on my few visits, I’ve only once driven down to the canal. In the valley around the canal the fields may be flooded and about 700m to the east, there’s a large triangle (c1.2 km long x 600m at the base) of rough grass dotted with small pools to which I’ll return in the next paragraph. In theory at least, the CA 0606 crosses Caño de Capita, loops east, past this area and on to Cortijo de Casblanca on the CA 3103. However, the track would be tough going even in a 4x4 so if you do want to explore then do so on foot (although remember I’m not 100% sure that access is allowed so ask permission first if possible). Alternatively, you can ignore the CA 0606 entirely and continue along the CA 3103 towards the Cortijo de Casblanca. I have seen Hen Harrier and Short-eared Owl along this stretch of road in winter. At the cortijo a track (again shown as a branch of the CA 0606 on Google Maps) heads across the fields to reach the wedge of good habitat noted above after c2.5 km. Take care if Cranes are present as in this open landscape they are easily spooked.
Before we leave the vicinity of Cortijo de Capita it’s worth noting that according to Google Maps, a c5 km drive from the CA 0606 west towards Trebujena takes you over similarly interesting habitat to a small aerodrome, restaurant and shooting range (Campo de Tiro). The reality is rather different as the indicated route across the campo follows very poor or even entirely imaginary tracks! In fact, to reach this area means driving back towards Jerez, then along the A 2000 almost as far as Trebujena and taking a track (signposted for the Campo de Tiro) a few km short of the A 471, a journey of 35 km! Obviously, it makes no sense to check this location if you’re exploring the Marismas de Casablanca via the CA 3103 but it may be an interesting diversion if heading for Trebujena. This is not an area I’ve explored and, obviously, the apparent presence of a shooting range here demands great caution. However, the far end of the track (c3 km), the open rough grassland habitat (as viewed on Streetview) certainly looks interesting enough to warrant further investigation particularly as one of the images on Streetview seems to have caught a couple of Cranes flying over! It is on my ‘must-do’ list next time I’m in Spain.
I must confess that as I’ve tended to visit the Marismas de Casablanca as an afterthought or when I’m short of time, I’ve usually arrived via the faster route along the NIV and pulled off onto the CA 3103 (signposted for Morabita) near the two prominent silos but then turning down a road towards the silos. Taking a track behind these landmarks leads you to a bridge (GPS 36.8381, -6.0733) over the railway which is one of the few locations that gives a commanding, if distant, view across the area (‘scope needed). On my most recent visit (February 2023) I had c200 Common Crane, 500+ White Stork, hundreds of Cattle Egrets many of which were feeding in the wedge of habitat noted previously. The fields also had Lapwings, Golden Plover and many small passerines too distant to identify with confidence. In the past it’s hosted c600 Common Cranes and attracted the odd rarity (e.g. Pallid Harrier)
When this area is flooded it can become a vast laguna (and is shown as such on some maps). It can be a mecca for huge numbers of Flamingos, egrets and waders. Unfortunately, I’ve only witnessed this ornithological extravaganza from a passing train over a decade ago. On that occasion, I was also rewarded by a group of Pin-tailed Sandgrouse – perhaps refugees from the flood - lifting off near the tracks as we passed by! At other times it takes on the appearance of a vast meadow covered in flowers and dotted with pools (see photos) although on my recent visit it was drier and much less interesting. I hope it’s not suffering from over extraction like the Coto Doñana. The track to the west of the railway (another section of the ubiquitous CA 0606!) is very poor so best tackled on foot but the one on the far side of the railway seems to be in much better condition. I’ve not tried it but I’ve seen a small van nipping along it at speed as if it was a motorway! This allows access to a second bridge (GPS 36.8566, -6.0877) c2.5 further on which should give better views of the area that held Cranes etc. This area is one for the adventurous and may not be as productive as some honeypot sites but where else can you claim to have gone birding in Atlantis?
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.