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.
A Mallorcan Interlude
On Sunday 19th I met an old university friend in Faversham for a coffee and chat during which I bemoaned the fact that my eldest, Gemma, was staying near Port de Pollença Mallorca, somewhere I've meant to go for decades mainly to see Eleonora's Falcon (a scarce visitor to Cadiz Province which has always eluded me) and what used to be regarded as a race of Marmora's Warbler (but has now been 'split' as the endemic Balearic Warbler) . Her response was simple and direct - "Why don't you go home and get yourself out there?" That evening I recalled her words and idly looked on www.lastminute.com to see what was available. The answer was that I could book a flight, car hire and 4 nights accommodation at BelleVue Club in Alcudia leaving Tuesday morning for a measly £270. So less than 36 hours later and with minimal planning I was off. Fortunately, my good friend Brendan Ryan had a copy of Hearl & King’s “A Birdwatching Guide to Mallorca” which, although over twenty years old, gave me some idea what to see and where to go as did a hasty internet search. He also reminded me that the breeding population of 'Subalpine Warblers' on Mallorca had also been split as Moltoni's Warbler and that Moustached Warbler (a species I hadn't see for over four decades) also occurred there. The first three species were my targets for the trip with the fourh being a huge bonus.
Tuesday 21st – La Palma – Alcudia
I had hoped to make sufficient time to spend the late afternoon on S’Albufera but the usual delays in picking up a hire car, finding my way to Alcudia etc meant I arrived later than hoped. En route I had little other than a couple of Red Kites, a Buzzard, a Booted Eagle and the usual Collared Doves, Serin, etc. Not going straight to the reserve with my baggage in the boot and booking in later proved a costly error as it meant I arrived at 16.30 after the reserve information centre had closed (16.00). Technically, this meant I couldn’t go on the s’Albufera reserve as you have to pick up a (free) permit at the centre but reserve staff on the gate took pity on me and let me in for a 90 minute reconnoitre. However, the biggest drawback to my late arrival was that I didn’t discover that the centre had copies of the excellent “A Birding Tourist’s Guide to Mallorca” (3rd edition) until I visited again Friday. This would have been extremely useful in finding the birds I wanted to see.
Short of time and not knowing quite where to go, compounded by my increasingly poor hearing, I found less on the reserve than I expected and perhaps should have done. The star species was my 'bonus bird' - a Moustached Warbler. Surprisingly, this was the only decent look I got of the species despite the high population here. Its affinity with Sedge Warbler was disconcertingly obvious but the upperparts were much browner, the supercilium whitish, the crown blackish and it was distinctly shorter winged. Other birds noted included Osprey, Squacco Heron, Cattle and Little Egrets, Purple Gallinule, Black-winged Stilt, Cetti’s, Reed, Great Reed & Sardinian Warbler and Reed Bunting (the latter presumably of the thick-billed race witherbyi). The big disappointment was failing to find Eleonora’s Falcon which, perhaps naively, I thought would be a shoe-in here. My attempt to find a view point over the back of the reserve to scan in the failing light was unsuccessful but I did get my first balearica Spotted Flycatcher in the process (more of which anon).
Wednesday 22nd – Boquer Valley – Formentor – Albufereta
With birding to be done and a daughter to see, I was up early and off to the Boquer valley asap. Arriving not long after 07.00 I quickly had Sardinian Warbler, Serin, Greenfinch, Linnet & Kestrel but lost little time walking up to where the path drops down to the sea (c2 km) which I’d been tipped off was the place to look for Balearic Warbler. Happily, when I arrived I quickly found one singing so close to the path that even I could hear it and then another a little further off. Both birds performed superbly allowing me to get even better views than I’d hoped. (I later met several birders who tried their luck here later in the day without success suggesting that an early start makes a huge difference for this skulking species). Having had problems with my Nikon P900 the previous month in mainland Spain, I was delighted with the photos I was able to get of the Balearic Warbler. The reach of the 2000mm equivalent lens was quite extraordinary and although the auto-focus could sometimes be frustrating when working well it produced first rate photos. Contrary to what may appear to be the case the birds in the shots here weren’t nearly as close as they may seem.
With the first of my four main targets ‘in the bag’ it was time to look for my second target – Eleonora’s Falcon. Walking down the valleyI had Pallid & Common Swift and met a birder who told me that the best place to look for the falcon was the lighthouse at the end of the Formentor peninsula. Having heard negative things about the road up to the end of Formentor from both my sister-in-law and my brother, both more confident drivers than me, and also hearing it could be chock-a-block with mini-peletons of cyclists I was a little daunted by the prospect of tackling this route.
However, my early start also paid dividends here as the road was still fairly quiet and there was still plenty of parking at the lighthouse. However, the twisting and turning drive along the narrow road meant I saw little of the view until I arrived at the lighthouse. It was worth the drive! Here I also had superb views of Blue Rockthrush – some of my best ever – as it fed around the near deserted car park.
With no falcons in evidence I started to scan for seabirds quickly picking up small threads of Balearic and the odd Cory’s Shearwater. It was when I was watching these birds that I picked up a bird of prey flying low over the water –Eleonora’s! Despite having never seen them previously they were instantly identifiable – long winged, elegant, a relatively slim body, relaxed wingbeats giving a skua-like impression. Although always distant, I had at least three of these elegant birds skimming over the water in search of exhausted migrants. Only one came close enough to be sure about plumage details – dark brownish-grey upperparts, white cheeks, dark moustache and brownish underparts (although others were possibly all-dark). After about ten minutes the birds suddenly vanished. I also had a couple of pods of (Bottle-nosed?) dolphin here. As the car park began to fill up I started to head back along the peninsula but my plans to pull off at a couple of stopping points I’d earmarked on the way up were stymied by them all being occupied by increasing crowds of motorists and cyclists. So it was back to Port de Pollença to meet up with Gemma et al for lunch and then on to the villa they’d rented a Cala Sant Vincenç. In the lazy afternoon that followed I had only a handful of birds but was interested to see a couple of desmarestii Shags feeding in association with swimmers. Presumably the latter were driving small fish towards the birds who swam, submerged, within a couple of feet of the swimmers. to edit.
Thursday 23rd Albufereta - Northern mountains – Albufereta
Being agnostic about its status as a genuine ‘tick’ and with two and a half days to see Moltoni’s Warbler, I was fairly relaxed about my plans for the next day. Instead of the planned very early start to drive up to the Cuber reservoir for Moltoni’s I started later so I could pick up Gemma en route at 08.00 as she was very keen to explore the mountains (which, despite two previous visits to the island, she’d never managed as she doesn’t drive). So today demanded a more relaxed approach than originally intended. A brief look at Albufereta before picking up Gemma produced nothing I hadn’t already seen other than Little-Ringed Plover so we were soon driving up the serpentine road into the mountains. Any concerns about starting (relatively) late were blown away by seeing a Pine Marten trotting along the side of the road not far from Lluc. A much desired mammal tick, this was quite unexpected. Both Gemma and I were absolutely ecstatic about seeing this iconic mammal. Interestingly, despite being recognised as a subspecies (Martes martes minoricensis), it’s thought to be an ancient introduction to the area. A little later I was pleased to show my non-birding daughter Blue Rockthrush since it was one of the few birds she’d expressed an interest in seeing!
The bird life as we drove up through the woodland was dominated by Chaffinch but seeing Griffon Vulture was a surprise (I hadn’t realised they’d colonised the island) but my first Black Vulture for years was still better. A confusion about where we were meant I sailed past Cuber reservoir and continued down towards Soller before I realised my error. Finding somewhere to turn round wasn’t going to be easy and the prospect of getting stuck behind the now numerous cyclists going up to the reservoir didn’t appeal. Besides, with a day and more to spare I felt I had plenty of time and I was happy just to enjoy my daughter’s company. A circuitous drive back towards Pollença (via Inca) for a late lunch netted a couple more Red Kite, Cirl Bunting and some wonderful scenery and equally impressive views (esp Ermita Santa Maria).
Our final stop was Albufereta but unlike the night before this time there were huge numbers of Common/Pallid Swift feeding over the area. Scanning the skies I soon picked up a couple of distant Eleonora’s Falcon only to be upstaged by Gemma who spotted a much closer bird. Once again I was struck by the distinctive jizz of this iconic species. A good contrast with the Eleonora’s was provided by a chunky Peregrine that also surged overhead. After checking Sa Barcassa where the same waders as previously were on show we drove back to Cala Sant Vincenç for supper.
Friday 24th Son Real - S’Albufera - Arta peninsula
The one thing that I hadn’t factored into my plans was that, despite the warm sunshine of the previous days, the mountains might be enveloped in clouds and rain which turned out to be the case. Accordingly when I got up just after 06.30 and found that the mountains were engulfed in clouds I had to do a quick re-think of my itinerary for the day. I opted to look at the Son Real area which, as it wasn’t covered in Hearl & King, I knew very little about other than access was possible via Can Picafort and that Subalpine Warbler (senso lato) had been reported from here in the past.
I then planned to have another look for Eleonora’s Falcon at S’Albufera as I still hadn’t had good views before deciding what to do with the rest of the day. My plans were nearly thwarted by the fact that there was a obscure one-way system in Can Picafort and that a street market was setting up which made parking was very difficult. Once parked I explored the coastline here finding Whimbrel and Ringed Plover on the shoreline but only Sardinian Warbler in the scrub. With S’Albufera only ten minutes away I opted to get there when it opened at 09.00 rather than remain searching what was an unknown quantity.
Brilliant though it is that permits for s’Albufera are free and access easy, it’s a shame it opens so late – 09.00 is far too late for serious birding! I (and I’m sure many other birders) would happily pay a premium to gain access earlier and stay later. So a couple of hours later than I’d have liked I started to explore the famous reserve. The pools had Black-winged Stilt, Kentish Plover, Ringed Plover, Flamingo and Glossy Ibis but I was miffed to miss a (Great) Bittern here. I also added Purple Heron to the tally. In the reeds/canes I had many Blackcap, Fan-tailed, Cetti’s, Reed and Great Reed Warblers but try as I might never managed more than a glimpse of putative Moustached Warblers. One significant bonus, however, was getting excellent views of Crested (Red-knobbed) Coot a species I was annoyed not to see this spring in Andalucia. The views were by far the best I've had of what is often a very elusive species in my usual patch in SW Spain. The only downside being that these birds all stem from a reintroduction programme. Then, at about 10.00, the Eleonora’s Falcons began to show and I at last got good close views of my most desired of the trio of ticks I’d come to see. They are such elegant raptors and ones that were curiously skua like. I never even attempted to take any photos as I wanted to relish every moment. I eventually had a flock of 20 birds busily catching insects.
By this time I was desperate for a coffee and a late desayuno so I headed out of the reserve via the Information Centre where I picked up both the “A Birding Tourist’s Guide to Mallorca” and “Aves de Mallorca” (oddly not available in English but the maps and bar charts were very infirmative). Crucially the latter has good distribution maps for all regular species which told me I’d been over optimistic about the distribution of Moltoni’s on the island and had wasted time looking in unlikely areas. The main population centre seemed to be the Arta peninsula which was not only half the distance but also, unlike the higher mountains, not (yet) clothed in cloud and drenched by drizzle. So although the birding guide didn’t mention Moltoni’s in its account of the area I opted to drive over to the Arta peninsula rather than brave the rain sodden higher peaks.
My first stop was along the road past Colonia Sant Pere on a path up towards the Ermita de Betlem. Once again, though I found nothing other than Sardinian Warblers (plus Cirl Bunting). With it now starting to drizzle I headed back to the car and drove into Arta (tricky!) for the long delayed coffee and what was now more almuerzo than desayuno. With drizzle now set in I drove up into the Arta peninsula stopping at the ermita and later S’Alqueria Vella d’Abaix. Here I picked up Great and Blue Tits, Firecrest and Tawny Pipit but of the warbler tribe only Blackcap and the ubiquitous Sardinian Warbler.
Although they had proved to be abundant and I’d been seeing them since my first day on the island, it was only at S’Alqueria Vella d’Abaix that I really looked closely at the balearica Spotted Flycatcher. When I did so my initial impression that they were a very pale taxon was confirmed; the back was several shades lighter than the nominate form, the forehead/crown so pale that at some angles they looked masked, the wing-coverts perhaps had broader pale edges and the chest was scarcely streaked at all (and then only on the flanks). They had a ‘frosty’ appearance quite unlike the Spotted Flycatchers I see in mainland Spain and the UK. Although the tyrrhenica form of Spotted Flycatcher make the split problematical, it’s hard to see what criteria can justify splitting Moltoni’s (and for that matter “Atlas” Pied Flycatcher) but not ‘Mediterranean’ (Spotted) Flycatcher.
Despite the weather, I found the Arta peninsula a very attractive destination with far less tourist traffic than Formentor but similarly wonderful views. Perhaps negotiating Arta’s tortuous streets to access the road running along its spine puts people off. Arta too proved to be an historic and attractive town (and seemingly very popular with German tourists).
Saturday 25th Cuber Reservoir – the last roll of the dice
With my flight not leaving until the late afternoon, I had much of the day to go birding so decided to wait and see what the weather held for my last day on the island. When I awoke, having been laid back about seeing Moltoni’s thanks to my agnosticism about its specific status, my impending departure suddenly made me anxious to see one. The omens weren’t good as the weather seemed worse than it had been on Friday. Although it was a few minutes longer than going via Pollença I decided to take the route via Inca and Selva as it promised an easier initial drive (via the fast Ma 13), a chance to better judge the conditions in the mountains and, if all else failed, time for some sight seeing in La Palma. It was still miserable weather as I approached Inca but not quite as bad as I feared so I opted to try for Moltoni’s again. Driving up into the hills this seemed like a foolish move as the light mist turned to drizzle and the drizzle episodically became heavier rain. It was still raining when I reached my destination but least this meant there was plenty of room to park!
Walking around Cuber the reservoir the rain began to lighten and I was cheered by the sight of a new bird for the trip Crossbill (presumably of the local race balearica). However, I was seeing little more that the ubiquitous Chaffinch, the odd Linnet and, of course, Sardinian Warblers but the odd glimpse of uncooperative smaller Sylvia warblers and brief snatches of song gave some hope. Crossing the dam the rain began to relent and Crag Martins showed well, a Little-Ringed Plover lifted off the path in front of me and the nearby quarry had a couple of squabbling Blue Rock Thrush. Finally, the rain actually stopped and not long afterwards up popped a Moltoni’s Warbler – being a nice male relieved any anxiety about distinguishing it from Western Subalpine as made the taxon's diagnostic Wren-like call. Perhaps that ‘Wren’ I’d heard earlier had actually been something rather more exciting! Not long afterwards the rain returned and by the time I got back to the car it was raining steadily. With all of my three targets now ‘in the bag’ I drove down into La Palma to meet Gemma (who was now staying there before flying home on Monday) for lunch and then the flight back to the UK.
Given the shortness of my stay, my lack of forward planning, absence of an up-to-date site guide (until the last two days) and that my focus wasn’t entirely on birds, not to mention inclement weather, I think my final list of 86 species wasn’t too shabby. With better weather I might have seen another dozen or so species and a century run in late May should be quite possible. My delight at seeing two long wanted birds, Balearic Warbler and, above all, Eleonora’s Falcon was matched by unexpectedly seeing Pine Martin. Moltoni’s Warbler may lack the iconic (or even taxonomic!) status of the other two star birds but my relief at seeing one in a last gasp effort told me how much I really wanted to see one. The one disappointment was failing to see the badius race of Woodchat Shrike which I’d assumed I’d just ‘bump into’ as I’m used to doing in Andalucia, but it seems much scarcer on Mallorca.
As a birding destination Mallorca has a lot going for it even beyond its three ‘jewels in the crown’ (even if some think the third member of the trio is only a semi-precious stone). I was particularly impressed by how the authorities seemed to actively embrace birding tourism and regard their reserves as places not only to preserve wildlife but also to engage with and educate visitors. The contrast with what seems to be the approach in Cadiz Province was startling. There the default attitude seems to be ‘keep out’ and many excellent reserves have no (or a poorly maintained) infrastructure making birding problematical. On the downside many birds one could expect in Andalucia were either entirely absent or only present as transient visitors on Mallorca. It was also even harder too to find convenient places to pull off the road and explore. I really missed the ubiquitous Andalucian venta which makes a quick stop for a coffee and tapas so easy in Cadiz province. Although the scenery was often fabulous and at the historic heart of some old towns a charming, I found much of coastal Mallorca depressingly over-developed. The constant babble of English drowning out Catalan or Spanish voices, pizzerias instead ventas, tacky shops and vast blocks of holiday apartments were all rather depressing. It may lack the trio of special birds but in my totally biased view Cadiz has far much more to offer the birding tourist – I just wish that the local authorities would wake up to the fact!
It was some six or more years back that I first noticed a large shallow body of water a couple of kilometres east of Complejo Endorreico del Puerto de Santa María (more informally just called Lagunas del Puerto de Santa María). I was unable to check it out at the time so earmarked it for future exploration the following year. Unfortunately, events beyond my control meant that I was unable to do so until this spring. By then I had discovered that the site seemed to have at least two names - Laguna del Hato Carne and Laguna de los Tercios (and third place name, Las Marismas de Pozo, may also refer to the area). Initially I settled on using the name Laguna del Hato Carne in my notes but as Laguna de los Tercios seems to be the one used on E-bird I’ve opted to use it too.
As can be seen from my photos it sits in a shallow basin and is, accordingly, very shallow too. Naturally, this also means its area depends on the amount of (winter) rain and that it may be ’s a very shallow so ay be entirely dry by late summer. It is also, apparently, far more brackish than other nearby lagunas. When I briefly visited the site on 18th April 2019 viewing from (b) I had 95 Flamingo, 3 Montagu’s Harrier, 54 Avocet, 3 Purple Swamphen, 9 Shelduck, 6 Shoveler, 2 Red-crested Pochard, 2 Glossy Ibis 9 Gull-billed Tern and 6 Black-winged Stilt (plus Dabchick and Coot). A subsequent visit produced similar numbers plus Short-toed Lark and a dozen Collared Pratincole (although in the past I’ve seen 50+ hawking over here from a distance).
At the time of writing the E-bird account for this site lists a meagre 28 species but since it derives from a meagre 3 checklists this can hardly reflect the site’s potential. Worryingly, this site doesn’t seem to be protected and is outside the boundaries of the Complejo Endorreico del Puerto de Santa María. At least, unlike many other lagunas in the area, it is relatively easy to view (although a ‘scope is needed).
Reaching the laguna is fairly straight forward. From the north take exit 646A off the A-4 and at the roundabout at the top of the ramp take the first exit (be careful as this is a narrow track running parallel to the ramp down onto the CA 31. After 650m take the track down to the laguna (c2km) which should now be visible. (From the south off the A-4 you reach the track via exit 646, a bridge across the A-4 and onto the same roundabout). This is a surprisingly busy but decent gravel track down to some fincas. On both of my visits I was passed by drivers in tractors and ‘agricultural’ 4x4s none of whom seemed concerned I was there so it seems access is OK and there are no ‘camino particular’ signs en route.
A second track (c) runs down towards the laguna from a track off the minor road near the casino (note the very rough track linking this route to the one mentioned above is not navigable by car). I've walked down this track to the small laguna (which only harboured a pair of Mallards on my visit) but this track becomes almost invisible by the time it reaches the laguna (see the photo below). Distant views can also be obtained from near Laguna Chica but this path (d) doesn't seem to reach the laguna.
The laguna probably will never be a major attraction for birders but it’s certainly worth a look if you're passing and clearly has a potential for providing the odd surprise.
With over 80 sites detailed in my birding notes it’s always been hard to keep them all up to date. The need for revision has been made all the more acute by my inability to visit the area in the last few years. This is one reason that I ask users for updates but there’s no substitute for actually having a look for myself. Accordingly, when I was out in the area for a month this April visiting several sites that I was fairly sure needed a thorough revision was a priority.
Amongst these was one of the few localities, Marisma de las Aletas (NW 14.4) that I had added to my notes without actually visiting at all but solely on the strength of information culled from Ebird (https://ebird.org/hotspot/L5561089). Not that there was much information to be found even in that admirable source. When I added it there were just 3 checklists featuring a meagre 45 species (this has since increased to six checklists and 86 species – not including my own which I will add anon). Four factors made me break my usual rules and add the site. First that it looked an easy way to access the vast and sprawling salinas of the Bahia de Cadiz. Second that it wasn’t too far from a trio of sites (Laguna de Medina, Lagunas del Puerto Santa Maria and Lagunas de Chiclana are all within 20 minutes) that are good for birds of freshwater wetlands so would allow visitors to add a set of additional species without too much effort or a long drive. Third that amongst the featured species was one that many visitors are keen to see, Lesser Short-toed Lark. Finally, and somewhat surprisingly, it was also had a railway station making it convenient for those without a car.
The Marisma de las Aletas was the second of three novel sites (which I will cover in further posts) that I visited this spring. As I had already visited Laguna de Medina in the morning it was already rather too warm when I checked out las Aletas so the birds had largely stopped singing. It was gratifying to discover that the assumptions I’d made proved to be correct. It was quick to get there from Laguna Medina and, the habitat, largely mud flats and salinas, promised a different range of species.
The station car park (a) is huge and, on my visit at least, hardly used. Driving over the bridge over the railway line I first continued straight on to check the open salt marsh/salinas (b). Whilst the habitat look perfect for my target species (Lesser Short-toed Lark) being the middle of the day I struggled to find any larks whatsoever – only poor flight views of Crested/Thekla’s and a brief snatch of song that I tentatively identified as (Greater) Short-toed Lark. The habitat certainly looked excellent for both short-toed species. The track was in good condition at least until (c) where I turned back to the station.
Reaching the tarmac road again this time I headed north towards (d). The muddy margins here were good, if not spectacularly so, for wading birds (Redshank, Curlew Sandpiper, Dunlin, Grey & Kentish Plover, etc) plus the ubiquitous Black-winged Stilt on roadside pools. (In hindsight I should have continued further along this road to checkout distant gulls as Slender-billed has also been reported here). So there was plenty here to quickly bump up your wader list after visiting somewhere like the Laguna de Medina.
Returning back along the road I had a stroke of good fortune when a Great-spotted Cuckoo flew overhead closely pursued by a Magpie. I’ve found the former species to be very elusive in the area so this was a great bonus. Cadiz’s bird atlas (published c1990) calls it a “A very scarce and localised summer visitor in our province. Regular in small numbers during migration” and shows ‘probable breeding’ in only two 10 km squares (both near Trebujena). Yet the loud calls and enthusiastic mobbing of the Magpie, which chased it for a kilometre or more, suggested that the cuckoo may have been doing more than just passing through. It’s tempting to speculate whether the apparently huge increase in the numbers of (Eurasian) Magpies, which in Cadiz province were evidently previously almost entirely restricted to Chipiona, but are now found more widely (esp. the Bahia de Cadiz) may lead to a similar increase in Great-spotted Cuckoo. Tempting but as the cuckoo doesn’t seem to breed in Morocco, where there’s a local race of Magpie, perhaps other environmental factors militate against it breeding regularly or in numbers quite so far south.
Returning to the station, I then checked out the new (2018) footbridge that spanned the busy main road (open 07.45 - 22.00). It’s existence is an unexpected bonus as it allows birders to explore the scrub and woodlands here (e), the estuary of the Rio San Pedro and the Los Toroñus peninsula beyond. Heading north takes you to more more salinas (c3 km) and the really energetic could even walk c10 km to the next station (Puerto de Santa Maria).
The Marisma de las Aletas may never be a first option stop for visiting birders but for those visiting the vicinity to check the nearby lagunas and wetlands, it certainly represents a good opportunity to add several species to their tally, particularly Lesser Short-toed Lark (and a chance for Thekla’s without heading for nearby mountains). For those using public transport (particularly those with access to a cycle) this could one of the best destinations available to them.
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.