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?
Birding along the Guadalquivir
Since the raptor passage across the Strait of Gibraltar is one of the great spectacles of bird migration not merely in Europe but the world, it’s understandable that visiting birders tend to congregate between Tarifa and Algeciras. Many seem to get scarcely any further north than La Janda or Barbate, fewer still venture as far as Laguna de Medina (for White-headed Duck et al), Bahia de Cadiz and the Sanlucar area (for waders and terns) and, more recently, Chipiona (for Little Swift). Those arriving via Seville may divert to take in Brazo del Este but for most visiting birders the area between that site and Cadiz Province is terra incognita. To be fair, this is not helped by a lack of information and, often, limited access. I cannot pretend that this is a top-drawer birding destination but exploring this area can be very rewarding and, for me at least, the shady drive along the Guadalquivir is one of the most relaxing sites for some gentle unhurried birding.
Even those who manage to penetrate as far as Bonanza’s famous salinas don’t necessarily follow the Carretera de Practico (CA 9027) along the Guadalquivir. As you approach the marismas across what seems to be an open flat plain, it can be something of a shock when a large cargo boat interposes itself between the viewer and the horizon. Perhaps surprisingly, the twisting and turning Guadalquivir is navigable all the way up to Seville (c85 km). It comes as no surprise then that the name comes from the Arabic al-wādī l-kabīr meaning “Great River”
The surface of this road has been gradually degrading over the past decade and some sections are now dotted with potholes but it's still reasonably drivable (with care) and there are plenty of opportunities to pull over the scan the marismas to the south or a series of large lakes between the road and river. The large numbers of Flamingos dotting the lakes are obvious but you need to look more carefully to pick out waders and the odd Marbled Duck (reduced to 13 pairs on the Coto Donana in 2022) hiding amongst the more numerous Red-crested Pochards. The scrubby marshes to the south conceal small birds including Spanish Yellow Wagtail, various larks and warblers but the prize here is Pin-tailed Sandgrouse. In my experience, one of the best places to look for this elusive species is the track near the Cortijo de Adventus.
Heading further north along the Carretera de Practico (which is transformed into the SE 9013 when it crosses the provincial border) can be problematical as the track can be in a particularly poor state. If you balk at driving along the track it may be worth walking a little way along it to get views of the back of the “Manegodor Salinas". If you do persevere then that track progressively improves after you reach the Cano de Yesos (c3.5 km) which is marked by two low but prominent white towers. En route you pass an area of saline vegetation worth checking for Collared Pratincoles, Lesser Short-toed Larks, Spectacled Warbler, waders, etc. Following this route makes for a delightful drive along the banks of the Guadalquivir. The river to your left acts as a highway for Slender-billed Gulls, Caspian Terns, waders, etc and whilst the farmlands to the right are intensively farmed, occasional wet spots can hold birds. The first section runs along close to the river but c4 km from the towers a broad reed-fringed channel separates you from the river for c1.5 km. This can be good for herons, Great Reed Warblers, etc. Around this point the track becomes an old but surprisingly good well-patched tarmac road.
For the next c10 km the road shifts a little away from the river to pass along an avenue of rather birdless eucalyptus trees but they do make for a delightful shady drive on hot days. You then reach La Señuela which is, arguably, the most scenic point along this drive. To the left you can access the Gaudalquivir again at a pleasantly shady spot ideal for a picnic and for scanning the river. However, the greater delight is the church on the right which is bedecked with White Stork’s nests – possibly the most photogenic colony in Andalucia. Both here and elsewhere along this route flooded fields can attrack large numbers of Collared Pratincole. At this point you can either turn down the road radiating out from Lebrija to reach the A 471 or continue north following the river along the Carretera de Practico.
Returning to the Cadiz end of the Carretera de Practico (CA 9027), instead of continuing along the riverside you can turn right towards Trebujena. At the turning is a small reserve and a little further on a track into the Marismas de Adventus which, as I’ve described previously, I won’t dwell upon here. Similarly, I’m not discussing what could be regarded as the ‘jewel in the crown’ here, the vineyards surrounding Trebujena that harbour Spain’s largest population of Rufous Bushchat. (for more details on both see https://birdingcadizprovince.weebly.com/cadiz-birding-blog/may-2022-update-vi-trebujena-area-going-gaga-or-going-gaaa-gaaa).
Continuing along the river after c4 km you reach a shallow pool on your left, Laguna del Rincón del Prado (see https://ebird.org/hotspot/L3062453 ). Although it looks somewhat unprepossessing, this site can be excellent for birding with good numbers of birds (recent counts include 90 Spoonbills, 20 Purple Swamphen, 200 Collared Pratincole,1,000 Avocets, 250 Lapwing and 150+ Black-winged Stilts plus a good mix of exotics (Black-headed Weaver, Yellow-crowned Bishop, Common Waxbill & Red Avadavat have all been reported) and small passerines (including Olivaceous Warbler & Spanish Sparrow). The odd rarity (e.g. American Golden Plover & Pectoral Sandpiper) has also been found here. A further inducement to come this way is that there’s a small authentic café, Venta El Santero, here which presumably largely serves the local campesinos so prices should be reasonable. By now you’re only 8 km from the famous Brazo del Este which, admittedly, holds a greater number and variety of birds.
If you opt to return to the A 471 from La Señuela then, as noted earlier, the most direct route is to take the A 8150 back towards Lebrija. This route is erratically lined by palm trees hence it's name - Via Verde "Las Palmares". Like several other routes (see map) this track is bordered by a large canal. When full this can harbour various egrets and herons. These may linger in odd wet pools as the canal is dries out in late spring when they are joined by waders like Black-winged Stilt and Collared Pratincoles. The driest spots are also worth checking for larks and pipits. Just east of Lebrija you pass Balsa de Melendo (aka Embalse de Lebrija) on your left. I’m not sure about access to this reservoir as I’ve only visited once and then some years ago but a road off the A 8150 does permit at least a partial view of the open water. Such a large body of water is bound to attract good numbers of hirundines and swifts whilst eBird suggests it can hold several thousand ducks, mainly Shoveler including the odd rarity (see https://ebird.org/hotspot/L6218427). I've not visited the site but friends tell me that if you want to stop off somewhere to check for passerine migrants (and enjoy a little shade) then Parque de San Benito (on a low hill just east of Lebrique) is worth investigating.
If you do opt to look around Trebujena’s vineyards rather than driving along the river but still want to check out La Señuela and Laguna del Rincón del Prado then you can do so by taking the A 471 towards Lebrija but take a left turn signposted to Desguace to explore the area. Note that this turning is not well signposted so look for the turn c1 km beyond the Repsol petrol station. You may want to stop before this point as the c2 km stretch between a car-breakers yard and the Repsol garage has been flooded in the past and the habitat looks interesting. Pulling off on to a track on the left by the yard or another near the garage should permit you to scan the area. I’ve only had Montagu’s Harrier and good numbers of Lapwing and Golden Plover here but I’m told Pin-tailed Sandgrouse have been spotted near here in the past.
The proximity of better known and arguably more productive sites probably accounts in good measure why this area is often overlooked (including by me!) but for those wanting a pleasant riverside drive and the chance to make discoveries of their own then this route comes highly recommended. For the slightly less adventurous, note that Manuel Bárcena (Oxyura Birdwatching - https://oxyura.es/es/) is one of the few birding companies that visits this area so if you need an ornithological hand to hold he's the man to contact.
i) Osuna Area
Osuna is one of my favourite Andalucian towns with a superb architectural heritage which alone would make it worth visiting but it's the presence of some of the last remaining "pseudo-steppe" in Andalucia and accordingly a population of bustards that brings me back time and time again.
As usual I started by exploring the SE 715 from Osuna stopping at the first bridge over the unfinished AVE railway line. In the past I've had Great Bustard here but the bare arable field has long since been replaced by an olive grove. Happily, the second bridge (which also crosses the SE 715) came up trumps with three droves of Great Bustard in view (one to the right, a second roughly in front of me at the edge of an olive grove and a third larger group further off towards the SE 710 - see photos). I could also see half-hidden smaller birds that I suspected to be a couple of Little Bustards. They were too distant and partly obscured to absolutely discount the possibility that they were Mallards (which occur here and can look surprisingly bustard-like at extreme range) Hoping to get a better view of the largest drove I took the track over the third bridge (the connecting track from the second bridge is undrivable unless in a 4x4) to get a closer look. En route I found another small group of Great Bustards way off to my left. Arriving at the junction with the track from the second bridge the Little Bustards (as they proved to be) were flushed by farmworkers. Rather than just a couple of birds, there was a flock of 11 individuals which, fortunately, soon pitched down in a field near the track (see photo) hundred meters towards the SE 710. As I hadn't seen this species on my last couple of visits I was delighted to catch up with them (but was chagrined to discover others saw a flock of Black-bellied Sandgrouse in the same area a few days later).
Moving on to the fourth bridge, I briefly explored a few hundred metres along the gravel track running along the unfinished AVE line before heading for the track leading to the Lesser Kestrel Tower (at GPS 37.3076, -5.2314) which is an area where I've seen sandgrouse in the past. I failed in my quest but had a further two Great Bustards fly over (making my total for the day 56 birds) and a couple of Dartford Warblers. Less happily, I also saw further evidence of the encroachment of new olive groves on previous bustard/sandgrouse habitat (see photo).
I also managed to explore a couple of areas I'd not looked at before or hadn't done so for a long time. The first was the Vereda del Alamillo off the SE 715 which I'd passed many times and stopped at before but never fully explored. This time I walked c1 km down the track to and under the unfinished AVE railway line (although in doing so I discovered the track was perfectly drivable). En route I saw disappointingly little (House & Spanish Sparrows & Corn Bunting). Beyond the AVE line I had views across towards the tower constructed for Lesser Kestrels (in theory at least this track should link up with the track there but it is very degraded and suitable only for exploring on foot). I also confirmed that the track back towards the 4th bridge was still in good condition and decorated with 'official' signs' (implying public access). In the other direction the track seemed to be degraded as it ran uphill. This track eventually reaches the SE 7201 but exit is prevented by a chain (see photo). A track on the other side of the AVE track was in a far worse condition. I remain uncertain whether either track allows public access to or an overview of Laguna de los Ojuelos (although eBird reports suggest there is some sort of access is possibly by prior arrangement by the estate). Caution is advised as the estate raises fighting bulls ...
The second area I explored was along a track that's a westwards extension of the SE 715. This track soon becomes badly rutted and peters out after c500m just after it reaches a bare stony field. Black-bellied Sandgrouse have been seen in this area and the habitat (to my eye at least) looks ideal. Below at the foot of the hill lies the dry bed of the Arroyo Salado which also looks like suitable sandgrouse habitat. It may be possible to get a better view of this area by following the track immediately north of the AVE line where (after c1 km) another bridge crosses the unused railway (but not the active one).
If you want to see Black-bellied Sandgrouse and both bustards in Andalucia my advice, considering the continuing growth of olive plantations, is to go as soon as possible.
The Cordel de Jara is a narrow vein of wild habitat off the SE 7200 which threads its way trough a landscape dominated by intensive farming. It used to have a small observation tower but neglect seems to have taken its toll. The remaining information boards are so bleached by the sun that they are virtually illegible. Good to see that the pylon here has been modified to prevent large birds of prey perching on them, a major cause in mortality for Spanish Imperial Eagle, Bonelli's Eagle and other raptors. It's not a site you'd detour to see but it's a pleasant place to pause or have a picnic.
ii) Costa Ballena
It's a sad commentary on the current dire state of many wetlands in the province that this golf complex is (in 2021-2023 at least) the easiest place to find Red-knobbed Coot. It appears to favour the area where a bridge takes Calle Beethoven over a small canal linking the two 'lagunas' here.
iii) Humedal Cerro de la Ciguenas
Having 'discovered' this site online via GoogleEarth last autumn it was somewhere I was very keen to visit in person this February. Whilst I saw relatively few birds it proved to be a pleasant site with good potential for picking up interesting birds when conditions are suitable (i.e. wet). It's a couple of km NW of Los Palacios y Villafranca so is a very minor detour, particularly if heading along the NIV. To be honest, it has less to offer than Laguna la Mejorada (which is accessed off the same turning off the NIV) and still less than Humedal El Pantano on the other side of the town (best accessed off the E5/AP4). Yet if you turn off for the former then the extra 5 minutes to drive over to this site - if only out of curiosity - is very tempting and could pay dividends.
With a dozen or so White Stork nests (most already occupied) dotted around the site certainly lived up to part of its name which means "Hill of the White Storks Marsh" but the flat open landscape offered no hint of a hill as far as I could determine. The fences surrounding the reserve are punctuated by two daunting-looking gates both of which, happily, proved to be unlocked. The hide has a good view across what would be after a wet winter a small shallow laguna. It was dry when I visited but eBird reports suggest it could hold Whiskered Terns, Glossy Ibis, egrets, various waders, hirundines, etc. There was a small wet area behind the levee on my visit (see photo) which had a couple of Black-winged Stilts, 4-5 Avocets and a single Glossy Ibis. The broad Cano de la Vera nearby was dotted with shallow puddles (see photo) which could well attract Pratincoles, waders, hirundines, etc if still present in spring.
A noticeboard here gave some background about the site:
The Ecological Reserve "Humedal Cerro de las Cigüeñas" is declared with this figure of protection on the 19th December 2017.
It is a wetland located next to the Caño de la Vera, in the north-western part of the municipality of Los Palacios and Villafranca, in an old marsh area of the Guadalquivir river, which is currently highly modified by human activities. It has totally lost the tidal influence due to the multiple channels and dikes that have replaced the natural channels. Its waters essentially come from direct precipitation, surface runoff and artificial inputs through irrigation ditches and drainage from nearby cultivated areas. Despite this input, the wetland is seasonal, becoming completely dry during the summer period or maintaining very low water levels in the summer months, if rainfall and crop irrigation are scarce. Due to its characteristics and location to the nearby Coto Doñana marshes, this wetland is important for birds linked to wetlands.
It is included within a property owned by the City Council and has an extension of approximately 21.67 Ha. of which some 5.37 Ha. correspond to the floodable area. This, specifically, is not a natural wetland but arises from the closure and environmental restoration of an old uncontrolled landfill of urban solid waste in which the extraction of solid waste accumulated for years was carried out and sealed in 1997. Open for public use. (Translated with minor modifications by Google).
The Los Palacios y Villafranca council is also responsible for the hide and other work at Humedal El Pantano and must be congratulated not only for conserving these sites but also encouraging public access. I wish other local councils in Spain did half as much!
iv) Humedal El Pantano
This is one of three small wetlands around Los Palacios y Villafranca. Although the Laguna la Mejorada is the most well-known, in my experience Humedal El Pantano is much better with a greater variety of birds. On my short visit in February I had 65 Shoveler, 2 Gadwall, a Pintail, 5 Teal, 20+ Mallard, 15 Spoonbill, a Glossy Ibis and a Purple Gallinule but in spring it's far better. In the past I've found it to be the best site I know for seeing Little Bittern and Purple Heron but that depends on the water levels. Hopefully, as my photos indicate it should be in good condition in April and May.
The new noticeboards here give some interesting background to the site. The Google translation of the noticeboard (slightly amended) reads:
HISTORY AND RELEVANT INFORMATION
The Ecological Reserve "El Pantano" was declared on October 30, 2018. It has a flat morphology located in the zone of the transformed marsh, whose substratum is made up of Quaternary deposits. Ther artificial drainage and the Caño de la Vera accumulates water for long periods, generating detrital aquifers. Within the area you can differentiate three zones: the wet zone of about 14 hectares, a dried and cultivated zone of 21 hectares and another zone, also dried, separated from these two on the other side of the first arm of the Caño de la Vera occuping about 17 hectares. The characteristic vegetation of the area and its distribution are conditioned by two main factors, the duration of the flooding and the degree of salinity. The role played by these natural spaces in an environment as anthropic as this one is essential, especially as a refuge for birdlife. A large amount of zooplankton, water fleas, insects and various molluscs are found in the water. The abundance of the introduced Red Swamp Crayfish is remarkable. Among the vertebrates we find Common Frog, Ocellated Lizard and the water snake (presumably Viperine or Iberian Grass Snake - JC) , together with fish, including carp and eels. But the greatest value and attraction of these natural spaces is the abundance and diversity of waterfowl. Some species use these wetlands as a resting and feeding place during their migrations to Africa and others breed here. Respect the reserve and private property.
I wish other municipalities were as active in preserving wetland habitats and trying to make them accessible to visitors as Los Palacios y Villafranca! The contrast with my visit to Lantejuela is telling.
I've rarely visited this site so detouring to do so when en route to Seville and then back to the UK was an irresistible temptation. On some maps the area west of the railway line here is shown as a vast laguna understandably so on the rare occasions when an exceptional heavy winter rains flood the area. I've twice seen it in such a state when the shallow waters have been dotted with a multitude of of gulls, waders and Flamingos. Unfortunately, on both occasions I was going past on the train. Whilst poor winter rains seem to have made flooding less frequent, the poor vegetation here clearly shows that large areas remain soggy and unsuitable for arable farming. This was also confirmed by presence of almost 200 Cranes, 500+ White Storks and hundreds of Cattle Egret here on my recent visit. Surprisingly, GoogleEarth shows that several tracks that cross the area have designated road numbers indicating that they're accessible for the general public. Next time I visit I must give the area a whole day!
vi) Los Badalejos
I visited the area around Benalup several times to look for Little Bustard and was rewarded by twice finding small groups of this fast declining species. On my first visit I had a flock of 11 birds but a few days later had a group of 10 birds plus another 5 in the distance.
vii) El Portal
The old sugar processing factory at El Portal has one of the largest White Stork colonies (c50 nests) in the area. It's always worth a stop if only to hear them bill-clattering - a sound used to give voice to triffids in the 1963 film "The Day of the Triffids".
vi) La Janda
During my two week stay in Alcala de los Gazules I visited La Janda several times but, as I have before, found the site failed to live up fully to its high reputation. The best area was along the track from Benalup near the road up to the Embalse del Celemín where the soggy fields held Spoonbill, Glossy Ibis, Greenshank, Green Sandpiper, LRP and Ringed Plover.
However, I was delighted to be able to join the protest march for the restoration of part of the ancient laguna. This is a fantastic and well-thought through project that could transform the area for birders. My Spanish is shamefully poor but I was pleased to pick up in the speeches references to the pioneering efforts of Brits in discovering the ornithological delights of the Laguna de La Janda. See also - Cientos de personas marchan entre Barbate y Vejer para pedir que se recuperen los humedales de la Janda (lavozdelsur.es)
viii) Puntas Secreta & Carnero
My guest's flight out of Gibraltar was delayed which meant we had time for a quick look at Puntas Secreta and Carnero. A stiff onshore SW wind was blowing so we had many passing Gannets, Kittiwakes and Balearic Shearwaters at Punta Secreta (although, to my surprise no Bonxies). The bay at Punta Carnero was more sheltered and attracted c100 Balearic Shearwaters.
I stopped off at Palmones for lunch with my guest that week en route to Gibraltar airport. Wind surfing within the sandbar at Palmones (i.e. in the Nature Reserve) is banned but many surfers ignore this rule (in fairness signage is not good). Shortly after I took this photo the police arrived to tell the wind surfers to pack up but only once their friends had finished surfing. Happily, a few minutes later we met a British birder who'd just found a Lesser-crested Tern. With time pressing we'd only casually looked earlier through our binoculars so were pleased to have a look at the bird in his 'scope.
i - Lagunas de Lantajuela
Laguna de Gobierno - As usual Laguna de Gobierno had plenty of birds - Flamingos, Black-necked Grebe, a good variety of ducks (inc. White-headed). Also as usual there was no access to the walkways and hides within the reserve nor even the "public" hide and viewpoint on the flat roof building nearby. Hence, visitors are obliged to peer over the wall on either side of the Observatorio Orntologico to see the birds. If there's a way to gain access then the authorities don't seem keen to share it!
Hoya de la Verde Sal - In the context of this complex a hoya is, as I understand it, a shallow depression prone to flooding but drainage (or the lowering of the water table) seems to have reduced the Hoya de la Verde Sal to just another arable field. Nothing remains of the poor tussocky vegetation that marked it out a decade or so ago and the only reminder of its former status is a muddy smudge in its centre.
Laguna de Ballestera - Happily this laguna was much as I remember it and was teaming with ducks (mainly Shoveler), a few Flamingo and a couple of Cranes. However, the perimeter of what looks like builders' rubble shows how close it too came to extinction as a wetland.
Laguna Consuegra - My recollection may be at fault but in the past I'm sure that Laguna Consuegra was plainly visible from the SE 705. However, on my recent visit all I could see were some distant willow scrub suggesting that it too was dry (or at best slightly damp) although I admit I didn't look too hard or venture along the tracks heading that way. A bonus here, though, was a small flock of Cranes.
Laguna de la Turquillas - as this site is sometimes referred to as a hoya rather than a laguna it is not, perhaps, surprising that it's often dry but I had hoped to see some water here in midwinter. When wet this can be a great place for Collared Pratincole, marsh terns, ducks, etc. but, frustratingly, there's nowhere you can legally park to view the laguna. That's not quite true as there is a car park off the A351 from which you can walk (c700m) along a sendero to a viewpoint overlooking this laguna but the track is invariably gated and invariably locked.
Lagunas de Calderon - Chica & Grande - These lagunas are off the A351 immediately south of Laguna de la Turquillas. The larger, but shallower, Grande was dry but the smaller laguna, Chica, looked full and inhabited by birds. Exactly how many birds and of which species is less easy to ascertain as these lagunas too are invariably locked away behind the gate and there's nowhere to safely or legitimately to park. Even if - mirabile dictu - the gate's open, the car park is useless as there's no indication of opening times (if there are any). Hence the substantial sums of EU money spent on conserving the lagunas and developing 'ornithological tourism' here appear to be wasted (when I asked at the Osuna Tourism Office some years ago they knew nothing about access).
Laguna Ruiz Sanchez - I only briefly tried to see what the situation was regarding this laguna and then only from the main road as the track I've used previously was in poor shape. I was not surprised that it was easier to find evidence of potentially damaging agricultural activity (laying drainage pipes) than the laguna itself. Concrete blocks with manhole covers have sprouted in fields all along this section of the A351 which may explain the absence of flooded fields I've seen here in previous winters. Clearly, far more money has been spent on improving farming than preserving wetlands here ...
ii - Lagunas de Puerto Santa Maria
Before I left for Spain this February, I was intrigued by a FB post that showed that a new 'viewpoint' plus various noticeboards had appeared at Lagunas de Puerto Santa Maria. (more specifically at Laguna Juncosa) I had hoped that this development might mean that the authorities had at last optimised the potential of this site for ornithological tourism by providing facilities to encourage and help visiting birders. Disappointingly, my hope that a screen or hide might be constructed to give better views of Laguna Salada proved to be without foundation. However, it was good to see that both the Laguna Juncosa and the Laguna Salada were not as dry as I'd feared following my earlier visit to Lantejuela. Although I did not manage to visit the site, I was similarly pleased to see that Laguna de los Tercios was well flooded and looked good for the spring.
iii - Lagunas de Espera
The headline news regarding the Lagunas de Espera is that the track from the Castillo de Fatetar above the town to the lagunas has been resurfaced and what was a rather treacherous route is now an excellent, if narrow, road. Admittedly, the route to the castillo through Espera isn't well signposted and the more obvious route via the SE 5207 still requires you to negotiate a rather rough 1 km track. That said, it's worth driving up to the castillo for the impressive view across the campo.
As far as the lagunas are concerned, little has changed. Laguna Hondilla remains choked with vegetation, the view from the "hide" overlooking Laguna Salida de la Zorilla is still largely obscured (although the laguna is reasonably wet). In contrast, Laguna Dulce de la Zorilla remains bone dry.
iv - Lagunas de Lebrija
I made a quick stop here after visiting Lagunas de Espera to check the state of Laguna de la Galiana and Laguna Cigarrera. These lagunas have been declining for some time and what I saw gave no cause for optimism. Laguna de la Galiana is currently a damp hollow choked with vegetation without any sign to standing water (although I was pleased to see a Black-winged Kite here). Laguna de la Cigarrera was in an even sorrier state. I found a dense 40+m deep 'necklace' of tamarisk surrounding a dry weedy centre without a hint of moisture let alone standing water (see photo). Even if there's an exceptionally wet winter and it refills to former levels seeing waterbirds from the track will still be virtually impossible. Given the state of these two "lagunas" I didn't check Laguna de Pilon as it's usually the first to dry out whilst, being on private land, neither Laguna de Taraje nor Laguna de Pena are accessible. It seems depressingly likely that these lagunas, like several others, will soon be little more than a memory.
v - Laguna de los Tollos
I've told the sad story of Laguna de los Tollos and the efforts to restore it elsewhere on this blog. Sadly, the laguna remains no more than a dry basin with, on my recent visit, a few small rainwater "flashes" along the northern rim and a couple of deeper pools. The 'laguna' is surrounded by a protective wire fence but with several breaches around the circuit it now seems a popular place to exercise dogs. An well worn but entirely unofficial path now links the hide (a) with Mirador la Mina (d) via two such holes on the fence. There were a few Shovelers and Flamingos here but the best birds were a flock of c70 Stone-curlews resting on the dry bed of the laguna.
vi - Laguna de Medina
Happily water levels at this laguna were good this February when I visited the site with plenty of wildfowl (c400 Shoveler, c200 Red-crested Pochard, c130 Mallard, c30 Teal, c25 Gadwall and a similar number of Pochard but only 2 White-headed Ducks) and c250 Flamingo).
vii - Lagunas de Camino Colorado
Superficially, the Lagunas de Camino Colorado looked to be in good shape when I visited the site in February with the usual White-headed Ducks, Purple Gallinules, etc. However, not all is well here with the pools still being impinged upon and polluted by agriculture despite recently being legally protected. Not long after I visited this site the Ecologistas en Acción (see www.ecologistasenaccion.org/284556/celebran-haber-conseguido-que-las-lagunas-de-bonanza-esten-protegidas/).
Click here to edit.
Despite the good work of Ecologistas en Acción and others, my tour of lagunas (real and virtual) has left me deeply concerned about their future or, indeed, whether they have a future at all. Whilst the cycle of dry and wet years are part of the essential ecology of these lagunas, a combination of increasingly dry winters and more intensive agriculture seems to have resulted in a lowering of the water-table making many former lagunas no more than, at best, damp hollows. Despite the heroic efforts to restore lagunas like Tollos, Ruiz Sanchez, Calderon, etc conservationists will never have the resources (financial and political) enjoyed by large land-owners and agriculture. In Spain, just as elsewhere, it seems that the lefthand doesn't know what the right hand is doing with lofty conservation projects being undermined by grants/subsidies to intensify agriculture. The lack of practical management evident at several sites and the half-cocked attempts to encourage "ornithological tourism" in Andalucia don't help; it can and is being done in other regions in Spain.
I'm constantly astonished that so many otherwise well-traveled birders have never visited the Straits of Gibraltar. In my youth, admittedly a very long time ago, partly inspired by Mountfort's 'Portrait of a Wilderness', south-west Spain was the place to go not just in Spain but Europe as a whole (which was then pretty much the limit of a birdwatcher's horizons). The advent of world birding based on (relatively) cheap long-distance flights has pushed the Straits too far down the pecking order. Then at some point Extremadura went from being 'unknown' to becoming THE, and often only, place birders thought about visiting Iberia so, whilst hardly neglected, the Straits have become somewhat overlooked by too many
Nikki & Simon, my friends at 'Inglorious Bustards' (https://ingloriousbustards.com) have just released a superb high-quality video (see Inglorious Bustards - #FlywayBirding on Vimeo) which captures and conveys the magic of birding the straits. Obviously, there's a commercial element in the production as it also (understandably) promotes their company (other equally excellent guides are available see elsewhere on my website) but it does give a wonderful taste of birding this extraordinary area.
I've been asked a number of times for help in suggesting a strategy whereby those visiting Cadiz on a cruise ship can get away to do some birding in the limited time that they have in the area. My standard advice is that, unless you're happy seeing little more than Flamingos, waders and gulls in the Bahai de Cadiz via public transport, the best idea is to hire a local guide. That's what one of my correspondents, Mike Pennington, opted to do. I'm delighted that not only did he have a great time but has agreed to share his account here. I have lightly edited his account for length, put bird names (etc) in bold (as per the house style here) and added a few clarifications of my own. I've also used a small selection of Mike's photos (plus a logo of the birding guide he used).
I have done remarkably little birding in Mainland Spain. A drive from the French to Portuguese border in 1985 and an unscheduled stop in Galicia at Vigo on our first cruise in 2018. A trip to Cádiz, then promised to be very interesting, as I know southern Spain has some excellent birding and some species I have never seen. My initial research suggested that a lake a fairly short drive inland, the Laguna de Medina, might be a good bet. There is some excellent coast birding around Cádiz, but the species I thought would be the best bets were all fresh water species. Further research produced two more relevant pieces of information: it did not seem to be possible to hire a car near the cruise terminal, and there would be a good chance that the laguna would be dry at this time of year. (Good call - it was! JC)
I decided that we might do better with a guide, but then had trouble finding one. I found John Cantelo’s website, someone I had met briefly at Sandwich Bay in the 1980s, which was full of useful tips, but many of the connections to guides were dead links, presumably companies that had fallen victim to the effects of the pandemic, although eventually I found a guide. (Now corrected - JC).
I do like birding on my own, but there are advantages to having a guide. You put some money back into the local economy, and with people who are making a living from the natural environment. I may be able to find out where the best sites are (we went nowhere I didn’t know about today, at least in general terms), but a guide will know which sites are best and which birds are where, which is important when you have limited time. And guides may also be able to access sites which you cannot otherwise get to.
We arrived in Cádiz at seven, when it was still dark, and we left the ship just before eight to meet our guide for the day. Manuel Bárcena (Oxyura Birdwatching https://oxyura.es Email: firstname.lastname@example.org) began by apologising for his English, as many competent English speakers do, embarrassing me by being proficient in my language, while I can barely string together a few nouns and verbs in theirs, if that. His English was perfectly good, especially when talking about birds!
Manuel was a birder, not just a bird guide. Almost the first thing he said to me was “I read your blog! The birds you saw at sea. Fantastic!”. Then he started telling me what rare birds were around: “here,” he said, as we passed one place on our way out of Cadiz, “there is a very rare bird, Yellow-browed Warbler!” And then some of the rare birds he had seen: “one year, a Hooded Crow, and sometimes we get Great Black-backed Gull or Common Gull. Maybe for you, not so good, but here! One year, I found an Iceland Gull. Wow. Fantastic!” It does make you wonder a little bit about the merits of finding rarities, when someone is telling you all about common birds from home, on his way to show you relatively common birds in his area. But, then again, that is part of the magic of bird migration. The fact that almost anything can turn up almost anywhere.
Manuel was also very enthusiastic. Excited by almost everything he saw. And everything was “fantastic”, although I suspect that “fantastic” may be a Spanglish idiom, in the same sort of way I would probably describe everything as “magnifico” if I could speak Spanish. Nevertheless, hearing that everything was “fantastic” was, well, rather fantastic.
We headed north of Cadiz through some busy morning traffic. The highlights of the journey were a flock of Spoonbills coming into land in the Bahia de Cadiz and an Iberian Green Woodpecker that flew across the road in front of us, which was fantastic.
Our first port of call was what appeared to be a holiday development named Costa Ballena (whale coast). Here, there was an artificial lake, just along from a water park, which was quiet enough to hold a good selection of birds. There were plenty of Coots and Mallards, and amongst them a few Shovelers and a couple of Pochard, while there also several Little Grebes. A few Little Egrets including one taking off and calling vociferously. Then, I spotted a male Ferruginous Duck. Not a bird I expected to see. I showed it to Manuel and he was pleased. “That is a good start,” he said, “I only see a few of those each year!”.
The main reason we were here though, was to see two male White-headed Ducks which are apparently more or less resident at the moment. This was the bird that I had decided was the best bet for a ‘lifer’ (a new bird for my life list) in southern Spain, especially when I decided to go with Manuel, who’s company is named Oxyura Birding (Oxyura is the genus of the White-headed Duck). Other birds here included a Monk Parakeet and two Rose-ringed Parakeets, two alien birds which are firmly established in Europe these days. (This is a surprisingly good site for waterbirds and unusual gulls see https://birdingcadizprovince.weebly.com/cadiz-birding-blog/update-1-march-2022-costa-ballena - JC).
Our next stop was Chipiona, the home of the only Little Swift colony in Europe, although they breed just across the Straits of Gibraltar in Morocco. (Little Swifts are found breeding elsewhere in Spain - although mostly in Cadiz province - but this is by far the largest colony - JC). We need to get there before the birds left the colony for the day to feed. I was expecting to see the odd birds flying around, an expectation reinforced when Manuel saw a bird flying along the street and got quite excited. I wondered why we didn’t stop but instead we drove to the port authority building. What I wasn’t expecting was that the Little Swift colony is amongst girders in a roof in the port authority building, that you can drive right up to it and, today at least, there were about 60 Little Swifts flying around chirruping softly, right above our heads, with many of them visiting their nests on ledges amongst the girders. A few Crag Martins were also amongst the swifts and they appeared to be nesting here as well.
Next, we headed north through Sanlúcar de Barrameda, which was Manuel’s home town but also an important site in world history. It was from here that Christopher Columbus departed when he discovered the New World (leaving aside the fact that it was already inhabited and that the Vikings had already been there). Ferdinand Magellan also left from Sanlúcar de Barrameda.
Manuel apologised before we reached the next birding site. “I am sorry,” he said “I try to tidy it up, but the next time I come …”. The site was what British birders seem to call Bonanza pools (I think it was me who coined the name as I believe I was one of the first British birder to find the site - JC) although the eBird name is Lagoa de Camino Colorado. These pools are in the district of Bonanza, which probably translates from the Spanish into something awfully mundane, but has all the cowboy/good fortune overtones for Anglophones. (Bonanza, comes from Medieval Latin bonacia meaning 'calm sea' - JC)
The two pools can viewed from the surrounding roads (only one of which is named Camino Colorado), and they were a bit messy, with plastic and bottles strewn around. We’ve seen worse, and in general the birds don’t seem to care. The first pool was a site for Marbled Teal, and two birds swam out from the reeds beside the road and then settled on the mud on the further side of the pool. Both bore green colour-rings and although I didn’t get the numbers, another Spanish birder used Manuel’s scope to get the details. They were joined by a couple of Western Swamphens (formerly known as Purple Gallinules) while some other birds here included Black-winged Stilt, Common Snipe, Zitting Cisticola and Melodious Warbler.
The next pool was viewable from the other side (in Camino Troncosa). There was a roost of Night Herons in the trees here and a Spoonbill feeding at the back. In amongst the ducks were two Pintails and a Red-crested Pochard, along with Mallards, Shovelers and Pochards, and a single Teal just as were leaving. A juvenile Greater Flamingo was swimming in the pool and looking awkward. Manuel was checking all the Coots and eventually found what he said was the only Red-knobbed Coot in the area. It was into the sun, so it was quite tricky seeing the red knobs on the head, but they could be seen as it moved its head. Other birds here included the only Tree Sparrow of the day, some Crested Larks and a Kingfisher, but we missed the Wryneck that perched up in front of Manuel and then disappeared. (For more details of this excellent site see - https://birdingcadizprovince.weebly.com/cadiz-birding-blog/march-2022-update-ii-bonanza-area)
Then we headed to the Laguna de Tarelo which, despite being east of the Guadalquivir river, is part of Doñana National Park. I referred to it by its old name of Coto Doñana, but Manuel pointed out that Coto refers to a hunting preserve and, although is still allowed in parts of NP at times, the name isn’t appropriate.
The laguna is artificial, and looks very square on a map, although you probably wouldn’t know from on the ground. There were another nine White-headed Ducks along with a selection of commoner waders and wildfowl we had already seen elsewhere, including Greater Flamingo and Black-winged Stilt. Four Glossy Ibises flew up the river. Some small birds were in front of the viewing blind: two Cetti’s Warblers were seen chasing each and there was also a Reed Warbler and several Sardinian Warblers.
Our final birding visit of the day was to the salt pans at the Salinas de Bonanza. The research I had done before I got here suggested that the access here was restricted for birders, so here is where Manuel really came up trumps again. We drove past the innermost salt pans, which were largely birdless. “It is dead here”, Manuel commented. Too much salt. Eventually we came to a right turn with a locked metal gate blocking access, but Manuel got out and unlocked the gate and we carried on to the end of the track, which overlooked the main birding saltpans. There were plenty of new birds here: a large flock of 180 Avocets, 60 Slender-billed Gulls, Dunlin, Ringed Plovers, Redshanks, four Kentish Plovers, nine Grey Plovers and three Little Stints. Singles of Black Stork and Great Egret were part of very small wintering populations here. Raptors included three Ospreys, a female Marsh Harrier and, then, a male Hen Harrier which put almost everything to flight as it flew over the pans.almost everything to flight as it flew over the pans. A distant but still distinctive Booted Eagle was seen through the scope flying over pines to the north of the salinas. There were only a few passerines but Crested Lark, Sardinian Warbler and Stonechat were all common. Other birds included a Kingfisher and at least 30 Grey Herons. On the way back we saw a Wheatear and 25 Sanderlings amongst the ‘dead’ pans.
We drove back to Cadiz along the new road, which was uneven in some places. We passed through mainly brown fields. Some were brown because they had cotton plants growing on them, and the leaves die before it is harvested. Others were brown because they had been cropped, and were bare earth. Nevertheless, the overall impression was of a dry landscape. This should be the rainy season in Andalusia but, as Manuel lamented, the autumn rains are becoming increasingly erratic. At least the fields here aren’t covered in agricultural plastic, as is the case in other parts of southern Spain.
Note a slightly fuller version of this account with more photos can be found on Mike's excellent blog at whenigrowupiwillgothere.wordpress.com/2022/10/28/birding-bonanza-and-other-nearby-locations-cadiz-andalucia-spain-friday-28th-october-2022/
Thanks again to Mike for allowing me to post his account.
These days, I rarely write up a visit to Cadiz Province in narrative form partly because I'm there for several weeks at a stretch which would make any account very long (and a tiresome chore). Another reason is that I often spend my time just watching what happens to drift over my terrace in Alcala which tends to be repetitive and often not very exciting. The downside of this approach is that I never give a useful impression of what it's like birding intensively in the area for a week or so which, after all, is what most visiting birders tend to do. Accordingly, I'm very grateful to David Tomlinson for permission to reproduce his diary of a visit to the area this October. I've edited it a little for length, put names in 'bold' and clarified a few points - apologies to David if I've been too ruthless!.
Andalusia - 3 to 12 October 2022
A nine-night visit to Andalucia with Martin Garwood, Chris Roome and Mike Copland. We stayed at three different centres, which worked well, and employed professional guides on two days. The weather throughout our stay was very hot (up to 35°C) and mostly sunny, though with strong winds at Tarifa. We missed few of the birds we might have expected to see, while finding Rüppell's griffon vulture and both little and white-rumped swifts was a bonus. I had never seen either the vulture or white-rumped swifts in Europe before. Our final group total was 158 species. Butterflies were poor, but we did manage to see a single monarch.
Stansted at 5am is a horrible place. The airport seemed exceptionally crowded - there was hardly a seat to be found - but we were soon called for our flight, which took off on time and arrived in Seville early.
Finding the hire-car courtesy bus was a minor challenge and it took some time to get the car. The big excitement here was a large raptor spotted by Chris. I only saw it briefly, but it’s large size drooping primaries suggest that it was a juvenile imperial eagle, as did its plumage, with notable white rump.
We stopped at Aldi in Marchena for a quick shopping expedition, then carried on towards the great bustard zone (i.e. the Osuna area). It was very hot (33°C), but the sky was rather hazy. Through we found birds in the rolling cereal-growing area, we failed on any steppe species. The landscape was parched, though there were a few puddles. Crested larks and stonechats were common, and we saw a good number of spotted flycatchers, as well as a few warblers - Sardinian, willow and best of all, olivaceous, though the latter is now called isabelline warbler. There were raptors, too, though most turned out to be buzzards, plus an immature marsh harrier. Other birds seen included Spanish sparrows, corn buntings, a few linnets and goldfinches, a single whinchat, blackcap, blackbird, one yellow wagtail, several ravens and lots of spotless starlings. Butterflies were few, with a couple of probable Bath whites and two swallowtails. Interestingly, we met a young Italian couple who were also birdwatching. They had been to Doñana but said it was very dry, while they had suffered from strong winds at Tarifa. We continued on to Osuna, then south-west through the mountains to Montecorto, stopping briefly to watch a soaring golden eagle, a very showy and handsome young bird. We soon found our accommodation in Montecorto, a three-storey town house, El Mirador
I woke at 3.15am and felt rather pleased to hear a tawny owl. Martin did rather better, both hearing and recording an eagle owl and a little owl. Frustratingly, the eagle owl was never heard again.
Sunrise wasn’t until well after 8am, so by the time we left it was still quite cool. We took a rural road through the cork forest to Grazelema, with our first stop producing a variety of new birds, most of which were heard rather than seen. Blue and great tit, chaffinch, nuthatch, jay, Iberian green woodpecker were all noted, while a small group of woodpigeons were spotted high on a tree warming in the early morning sun.
Our next stop was close to a large and impressive cliff face close to Grazelema. The first good bird was an Iberian grey shrike, warming up in the sun, but we soon saw and heard our first choughs, their wonderful calls so evocative of sites such as this. Stonechats were common, and we also saw Sardinian warblers and once a melodious warbler, but our first rock buntings were very distant. Mike spotted a group of griffon vultures waiting in the sun for the first thermals, while I found an ibex that no one else saw. Butterflies offered a diversion, with wall browns, southern grizzled skippers and southern common blues.
We then dropped down into the valley where a small water-treatment plant’s settling pools offered a different habitat. There were lots of warblers here, but they were mostly elusive, though I photographed a small group of smart young chiffchaffs feeding by the side of the road. White wagtails were numerous, and a grey was also noted. Our first short-toed eagle was seen high overhead.
After a false start (though we did manage to refill our big water bottle from a spring) we climbed up to the Puerto de las Palomas (Pass of the Pigeons), but apart from a few griffons and high hirundines we struggled for birds. The far-reaching views, however, were superb, and we did see blue rock thrushes, while Mike surpassed himself with finding a pair of black wheatears. Martin and I missed them as we were then back at the car. We then wound our way down to lower altitudes and made our way back to base for lunch and a siesta. At 4pm we set off for Ronda, a large and challenging town to drive through. We eventually found the historic centre and drove across the old bridge, but it was packed with people and parking was nearly impossible. So, we finished our afternoon by driving south through the mountains on the Algeciras Road, stopping at various miradors. We did see birds: big numbers of migrations hirundines, with our first red-rumped swallow. Distant black wheatears were enjoyed, but birds were generally few as the ground was parched and arid. We didn’t even manage a Thekla’s lark. Again, though, the scenery was superb, and we enjoyed a picturesque drive home.
No exciting owls in the night. We set off shortly after 9am for our morning’s excursion, enjoying the brief period of cool temperatures before the sun had risen in the sky. We made two or three stops in the cork-oak woods finding our first pied flycatcher, shortly followed by a pair of firecrests that showed well. A great-spotted woodpecker flew over, nuthatches were seen, along with blue and great tits. We continued to the valley below Grazelema with the water treatment works, and here we enjoyed great views of blackcaps, saw another grey wagtail along with numerous white wagtails. A hawfinch flew over and turned out to be one of a flock of perhaps nine or ten birds. None showed particularly well (no chance for photographs), but we enjoyed seeing them. As we drove out of the valley, we stopped for a blue rock thrush posing on a rock: there were two birds, one an immature male, the other a full adult. Martin and I took some pleasing pictures.
We then took the road to Ubrique, with our first stop overlooking an extensive flat grazed area. Here the first new bird was a mistle thrush: there were four or five of them. A Dartford warbler showed well close to the road, while an unseen bird with a dry rattling song confused us. We eventually saw it, and it was of course a cirl bunting. Griffon vultures were now circling in numbers over a nearby ridge, while an unseen woodlark was singing close by. We also saw a perched northern wheatear. Hairstreak butterflies were flying around the ilex oaks. These were presumably ilex hairstreaks, but according to the books there is only one brood that flies from May to late July. Curiously, no hairstreaks are noted as flying in October.
A little way farther on we stopped at an attractive wooded site with picnic tables where we enjoyed watching (and trying to photograph) a pair of pied flycatchers. Here a tired-looking great banded grayling was new for the list and was the only one seen during the holiday. Our route took us on through a deep but wide gorge - we paused briefly for a black wheatear close to the road. The scenery was spectacular, but the birds were few. There were no raptors other than a few griffons, while the only birds to photograph were Sardinian warblers. We paused in Ubrique for coffee, or in my case a cheesecake. House sparrows clustered round our table, including an interesting bird with white in its primaries.
On the way back we paused to look over the reservoir in the valley below Montecorto. The level was desperately low, while there was not a single water bird of any description to be seen. After our late lunch and siesta, we drove out again, covering a loop of rolling agricultural countryside behind Montecorto. As usual, the scenery was spectacular, but we saw some birds, too. We had fine views of alpine swifts, high overhead, and apparently moving south with house martins, while we also saw a short-toed eagle. There were lots of griffons, as usual, with many sitting in trees, as if waiting for something to happen. We were also entertained by a number of paragliders, flying at great altitudes with the vultures. At the high point of our drive, we came to the ruins of ancient Ronda (Ronda la Vieja), a protected archaeological site. Here there were scores of corn buntings resting in the tangle of brambles below the summit.
We were packed and on the road before 9am. I chose to drive on the main road to Arcos de la Frontera, so we didn’t take long to get there as the road was fast with little traffic. We soon found the reservoir, which I couldn’t remember at all from my last visit, as it is now a public recreation area, with fishing and even paddle boarding. There were few birds. Initially all we found were Muscovy ducks and a few domestic mallard and waxbills, the latter feeding in the trees close to the banks. We did add black headed gull, great-crested grebe and coot, while Mike and I saw a spoonbill drop into the extensive reedbed, but it wasn’t good birdwatching. We eventually added serin (heard but not seen), plus marsh harrier and a distant soaring booted eagle (we were to see a much closer booted eagle from the car as we drove out of Arcos.) I managed to find the road below Arcos that gave us a fine view of the famous Arcos cliffs, and here we enjoyed great views of a small male peregrine.
From Arcos we drove south to Medina Sidonia on a remarkably smooth road that must have been finished a few months ago, but in contrast in Medina we crawled through the town on the same old narrow roads that have been unchanged in decades (Note - this was an unnecessary detour as there's now a ring road by-passing the town but older sat navs seem not to have been updated - JC). We soon found the Valcargado track that John Cantelo recommended, a broad, well-graded but very dusty sand road that took us deep into the rolling countryside past a few rather grand country houses. (Note - grand and with an interesting history as Valcargado finca was often visited by Ernest Hemmingway and later Orson Welles - JC) We stopped for our lunch not far from the end of the track and had scarcely taken the first bite before a fine juvenile Bonelli’s eagle appeared over the ridge to the north of us, soon followed by a juvenile Spanish imperial eagle from the same direction. Both gave prolonged and good views, though mainly at long range (at least for photography). We had fine views of another imperial eagle but didn’t see another Bonelli’s. It was hot and sunny, as usual, but there was a very strong and gusting wind that made conditions less than pleasant. Buzzard, kestrel and griffon vulture were added to the raptor list, and we also saw red-legged partridges, but not much else, possibly because it was too windy.
It was then just a short drive to the coastal town of Barbate. We approached past the cliff where the bald ibises nest, then drove across the bridge with the extensive marshes to our left, the sea to the right. It was brilliantly sunny, but horribly windy. Out to sea we saw our first gannets, while the big gulls loafing on the spit were all yellow-legged. A whimbrel, a flock of turnstones and a single ringed plover were our first waders of the trip. Looking out over the marismas, we saw very distant flying bald ibises.
We continued along the road between the sea and the marsh - I overshot the turn I wanted to make, so we turned round, came back, and drove off road to the edge of the marismas. Here our first stop was close to a pool crowded with a variety of waders - stilts, dunlin, little stint, curlew sandpiper, ruff - while farther out there were many more waders to see, along with flocks of flamingoes. Two of the latter were pronounced to be dead, but they were simply having a snooze on the mud. There were lots of good birds to be seen. We soon added osprey to the list (a bird with a fish, when it flew it took its fish with it, leaving a disappointed gull behind), plus avocet, black-tailed godwit, redshank and a large flock of resting Audouin’s gulls. However, that horrible wind made it difficult to use the telescope and took away much of the fun.
We all felt tired and sun- and wind-battered, so we decided to head for our new base in Tarifa (Hotel La Torre) an easy drive past the hundreds of wind turbines. We were delayed briefly by an accident that had happened (fortunately) some time before, with a rolled and destroyed 4x4 upside down in the ditch. (It remained there for the next two days).
We eventually got away not long after 8.30. Our guide, Javi Elorriaga, from Birding the Strait (www.birdingthestrait.com) proved to be a likeable chap in his 40s, originally from Bilbao and with a Belgian wife.
He certainly knew his birds and how to find them, taking us first to the cliff face (Laja de la Zarga, Bolonia - JC) where scores of griffons roost and a number breed. He soon found us a Rüppell's, an immature bird standing on a ledge next to a standard griffon which allowed us to compare the two. The former was distinctively darker headed, and quite clearly a different species, though its slightly smaller size wasn’t obvious (NB - although texts often suggest that smaller size is a distinguishing feature of Rüppell's there is a considerable overlap in size with griffons - JC). We watched it for some time before it finally launched itself off, soaring high above us. I took a number of photographs, but the light was poor, and none were worth keeping.
We then climbed back into Javi’s small Renault van and drove for about 20 minutes up to Tahivilla and then La Janda (seeing a red kite en route), where before long we had our first rather brief glimpse of a black winged kite. The strong wind made it more challenging to see, but we eventually found it again and enjoyed great views of it, although at some range. A delightful and entertaining bird, and a lifer for Chris and Mike. (I had seen my first near Badajoz in 1964). Here we also saw a pair of stock doves, apparently rare birds in Andalucia. A number of distant booted and short-toed eagles were also seen, but no harriers other than a marsh - this is apparently prime harrier country.
We then drove south, pausing in Tarifa to buy sandwiches and trying to see the world’s loneliest bulbul that lives there - we failed. We then drove along the busy coast road towards Algeciras, turning round then stopping at a raptor watchpoint with a backdrop of Gibraltar. Here a couple of professional watchers were already in place. We saw numerous griffons, booted and short-toed eagles, but all at long range. As we left a juvenile Bonelli’s eagle flew over, but by the time we saw it was all but impossible to identify. Apparently Bonelli’s are often identified because of the reaction of other birds to them, as they are regarded with fear. The wind remained too strong for the raptors to be able to cross the Strait.
Our next stop took us back much closer to Tarifa on the south side of the road, driving through a crumbling tarmac road through a derelict army base, eventually ending up with commanding views of the Strait (Observatorio de Guadalmesí - JC). It was very windy, and we didn’t see a great deal here, other than a single black kite and an unexpected juvenile honey buzzard, an extremely dark individual that, without Javi’s expertise, would have been tricky to identify. We returned to the main road, pausing for coffees and/or ice creams at a rather scruffy cafe (Mirador de Estrecho - JC) with an impressive view. Then it was back across the road, into the natural park, travelling on a rough but well graded dirt road. We gathered from Javi that this is a classic roosting site for short-toed eagles that bottle-up here when they are unable to make the crossing. We then had a fascinating hour watching these impressive and beautiful birds, mainly from above, as they landed in the trees below us. We gathered that breeding birds from southern Italy and even Croatia will cross here every year, rather than risk the longer crossing from Scilly to Libya.
Apart from the snake eagles there were also a number of booted eagles, and we also saw two hobbies (or perhaps the same bird twice), along with a number of sparrowhawks. It was an attractive drive which we much enjoyed.
We finished the day with an abortive search for monarch butterflies, but our efforts were rewarded with the sight of a flock of around 30 black kites high overhead, one of the very last migrant kite flocks of the year. We had seen 16 species of raptor, including all three kites, while we hadn’t expected honey buzzard or black kite as they should have all gone through. A memorable day.
Though this was a second guided day in a row, it was quite different in many ways from yesterday. Our guide, Manuel Morales from Birding Tarifa (www.birdingtarifa.com) is quite a different character than Javi yesterday, and rather more fun. He arrived five minutes early (our breakfast was rather slow as usual), but we were soon off in his spacious VV minibus for our first destination, the old Martello tower on the headland south of Zahara, the Cabo de Gracia. The sky and the sea were both a rich shade of blue, and though we were partly sheltered from the wind it was still fierce. It was challenging seawatch, as most of the birds were well offshore.
A number of Cory’s shearwaters were eventually spotted passing distantly, and we did see two Balearic shearwaters, but passage was light. Gannets were more numerous, and once we saw a flock of a dozen spoonbills heading south along the coast. A couple of Sandwich terns were noted, but no skuas. In many ways more interesting than the seabirds was the steady passage of hirundines moving south. These included sand and house martins, as well as swallows, but red-rumped swallows were the most numerous. We had only just set off when Manuel spotted a couple of swifts flying above the road - little swifts. We jumped out and enjoyed watching these delightful birds. I saw two but the count was five individuals.
Our next stop was the marshes at Barbate, which we entered at exactly the same place as we had done 48 hours before. There were all the birds we had seen before, plus a couple of lapwings, but despite trying hard we failed to find stone curlews. There was a party of ex-pat birdwatchers, led by a jovial chap called Peter Jones, already there, and they had recorded 56 species for World Birdwatch Day. We didn’t see nearly as many, but we enjoyed a trio of bald ibises feeding in one of the scruffy and crowded cattle enclosures, in company with scores of feral pigeons, a few corn buntings and a single hoopoe. They were tame and took little notice of us. Next Manuel promised us imperial eagles, but en route on the A396 he spotted a pair of swifts over the road. He did a quick U-turn, managed to park the van, and relocated the birds which hawked over our heads for the next few minutes. They were white-rumped swifts, a bird first found nesting in Spain (and Europe) for the first time in 1967 by an Englishman called Geoffrey (FGH) Allen. I had stayed with Geoffrey in October 1968 at Los Barrios, in his house close to Gibraltar. This was my first sighting of Apus caffer in Spain, so a satisfying moment. Before our eagle hunt, we stopped at a roadside venta ... as we ate on the terrace, I saw short-toed eagle, marsh harrier, red kite and a possible (if not probable) lesser kestrel.
Our search for the eagle took us back along the Valcargado Track we had driven along on Thursday, and which I now recognised as the one Rocio had taken us along in April 2019. We had reasonable views of juvenile imperial eagles, but the adults were more elusive and viewed only at great range.
Then it was on to La Janda, driving first past an extensive and hugely intensive plantation of olive trees, not a fine advert for the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy. We paused briefly to admire a herd of toro bravo, though they were mainly cows, then stopped to watch a delightful young Montagu’s harrier hunting along a waterway. Scores of corn buntings rose from the fields, and we saw several flocks of calandra larks, too. Our final stop of the day was at a couple of flooded rice fields, and here there were lots of birds to see. Most obvious were the hundreds of glossy ibises, but there were also white storks, lapwings, a few ruffs, ringed plovers (and also one little ringed), our first wood sandpipers, a few green sandpipers along the ditches, stilts, snipe, a kingfisher and a bluethroat, though the latter were only glimpsed. A pair of ortolans buntings, spotted by Manuel, came into the latter category. A large flock of calandra larks stopped and circled over one of the paddies. We had been promised hen harriers, and though we missed seeing a cock, we did see three different females. It was a great way to finish the day, with nearly 90 species in the bag. We didn’t get back until after 7pm - a long day.
Our last morning in Tarifa, so we ventured out first thing to check the beach. Tarifa’s beach is a magnificent five-mile long broad band of sand, so is attractive to birds, but even more so to humans. Disturbance is such that even in the early morning few birds loaf on it, and we only saw a few Kentish plovers. Out to sea we did see distant Cory’s shearwaters, plus Sandwich terns and gannets and the inevitable yellow-legged gulls. On the way back we made our last try for a monarch, and this time we were successful, with a pristine butterfly posing for us briefly.
We then drove on to Barbate, where we once again failed to see a stone curlew. This time it wasn’t as windy, so we spent some time with the scopes, checking out the waders. Martin spotted a trio of ducks that proved to be shovelers, a new addition to the list; it proved to be only one. According to Manuel, the marshes here were once a rubbish tip, but the neighbouring fish farm had to restore them as a condition of planning permission. You can still see the rubbish, but it’s a good nature reserve now.
We then drove north-west along the coast, past Cape Trafalgar where we nearly stopped (but were put off by the possibility of finding it packed, as it was a busy and bright Sunday), so continued on to Conil de la Frontera, where we had our lunch sitting on benches overlooking the river estuary, an attractive spot. As we ate, we watched little egrets and a whimbrel, and also saw ringed plovers, redshank, sanderling and our first bar-tailed godwit. Martin spotted an osprey resting on a fence post, and when we went for a walk after lunch this bird flew over us, eventually hunting a large lagoon just inland from the sea, where it dived, unsuccessfully, on at least four occasions. Funnily enough, Martin and I watched Chris and Mike studying waders on the lagoon, oblivious to the osprey fishing in front of them.
After lunch we tried to find a site recommended by John Cantelo on the Rio de San Pedro. It was impossible to find with our large-scale map, and even defeated the navigation system on Chris’s iPhone, so after driving in circles for half an hour we eventually gave up, continuing on to the LB Lebrija Hotel. (Note - to find the site take the CA 35 towards Cadiz but turn off following signs for the Barrida Rio San Pedro where the waterfront is easily found. Old sat navs may confuse as the road system here was altered in 6-7 years ago with the opening of a new bridge).
John Cantelo advised offering a prayer to the Virgin Mary to improve our chances of seeing sandgrouse (As an atheist this isn't something I often do but, in my experience, seeing sandgrouse here involves a lot of luck! - JC ) . We failed to do so, so failed on the sandgrouse, too. We had, however, left the hotel well before sunrise and driven to a suitable site outside Trebujena, as recommended by John, but there wasn’t a hint of a sandgrouse. There were compensations, including big flocks of calandra larks. We found a small freshwater wetland reserve with hides (locked so unusable) which had flamingoes and stilts, plus a solitary pochard and several little grebes. On our way home a dozen stone curlews flushed and gave us good flying views.
We weren’t on the road again until 10.30, retracing our early morning route, then carrying on to the Bonanza saltpans. As we drove we saw the expected birds on the floods of the Guadalquivir, including a variety of waders and an osprey. At the northern part of the saltpans we saw a good flock of lesser short-toed larks, their buzzing call highly distinctive. The track was now very rough, so we turned round and back to the Algaida pinewoods where I hoped to see azure-winged magpies. No luck. (NB - this is a traditional site for the magpies but they are now very hard to find here - JC) A hobby soaring overhead was the best bird, but there were a number of spotted flycatchers in the umbrella pines, where I also saw blue tits and Sardinian warblers.
We continued on along the rough road, with its fierce sleeping policemen, to the unattractive Algaida lagoon (Laguna de Tarelo - JC) , with its rather nasty reed-screen hide. There were hundreds of shovelers on the water, with hardly any of the drakes showing any sign of moulting into full plumage. There were also seven or eight white-headed ducks, while I managed to spot a trio of marbled teal at the farthest end of the lagoon, but the view was bad due to a combination of distance, heat haze and tall reeds blowing across the telescope lens. A bonus was a sighting of four black storks circling in the distance.
We ate our lunch in the woods, pestered by numerous small flies, before setting off to try and find the Lagunas de Camino Colorado. We found them eventually - two scruffy pools but with plenty of birds. The first held our first purple swamphen and a couple of Temminck’s stints that I eventually found, along with moorhens, coots and a couple of juvenile glossy ibises. I also had two brief views of a kingfisher. The second larger pool held a trio of marbled teal that showed well. These two small pools are surrounded by rubbish in an area of extremely intensive agriculture, but remarkably attract interesting birds.
We then drove into the Bonanza salt pans that, to my surprise, didn’t hold a lot of birds. There was the usual sprinkle of waders and flamingoes, but not much else. We paused near the Guadalquivir, a broad and mighty river here, and were rewarded when a fine Caspian tern came over, repeatedly hunting the same beat. A single black stork also appeared and dropped in on a wetland that also held a couple of feeding spoonbills, along with several grey herons, little egrets and flamingoes.
Our drive home was slow and at times painful, with the road rough and broken. We stopped again in the pinewoods but failed to see anything new, though we again saw a hobby (the same one as this morning?), plus a trio of red kites. Then it was back across the dried marismas, and back to base at 6.45.
Breakfast in a noisy and popular local bar, with three televisions all showing the same news programme (with devastating floods in Valencia), started our day. We then drove south to Sanlucar, threading our way past the bodegas to the river front. Here there was ample parking, with fine views north across the mouth of the Guadalquivir towards Doñana and Huelva. A large expanse of sand was exposed, and the tide was falling fast, but few birds were visible. We continued south, stopping at two more viewpoints where we had a commanding view over the estuary. We heard, then saw, our first curlews of the trip, along with bar-tailed godwits, sanderlings, turnstones and ringed plovers. At one site, La Jara, an extensive rocky foreshore was exposed, and here we scoped a distant group of terns and gulls. I found our first Mediterranean gull, while there was a common tern with the Sandwich terns. The great majority of the gulls were lesser black-backed.
We continued on to Chipiona, winding our way through narrow streets until (with a little help from electronic devices) we eventually found the fish market, complete with several little swifts flying overhead. Most disappeared soon afterwards, but there were regular returns from pairs, some of which visited the nest sites under the low roof of the market. Photography was a challenge, but the pictures we did get showed that several of the birds were carrying feathers. The swifts here are resident, and are apparently double-brooded, though The Birds of the Iberian Peninsula suggests that the nesting season finishes in July. It clearly doesn’t. Out to sea I spotted a skua, which judging by its size and flight was an Arctic. Mike and Chris eventually saw two together.
We had our lunch on the beach next to an old castellated building, watching the gulls on the beach that waited hopefully for crumbs. Again, the majority were lesser black-backed, and most of them were immature birds. They are more athletic birds than the yellow-legged, with slightly shorter legs and slimmer bodies. Here sanderlings and turnstones were clearly used to people and very approachable. A trio of greenshanks landed noisily on the tideline: I managed to photograph two of them. I was tempted to explore the coast towards Rota, but it’s heavily built up with new holiday developments. (Note - the largest development here, the Costa Ballena, has a large park with ornamental pools which can be surprisingly good for birds, often hosting ring-billed gulls), We did stop once, walking to the beach where a gannet was seen offshore and a fine Mediterranean gull flew by. There were blackbirds in the bushes, but nothing to excite us, so we head back towards La Jara, as John’s email had told us that it was a good site for terns a couple of hours before high tide. Alas, the whole bay was now flooded, and there was nothing to see. We tried again a little closer to Sanlucar, but without success.
The Colorado pools weren’t far away, so we decided to have another look at this productive but unattractive site, and to find the third lake. We soon added a new bird - a drake pintail - and the Temminck’s stints were still to be seen. The third lake (which I hadn’t seen before) proved to be most productive. Here there were roosting night herons (at least a dozen), plus our first teal, which flew off. A pair of garganey ... and we enjoyed good views again of marbled teal. I checked out the coots carefully, but they were all the standard model. We also saw two or three swamphens, lots of moorhens, half a dozen very young flamingoes and a kingfisher. As we watched the sky darkened, thunder rumbled, and eventually it poured with rain, though it didn’t last long. It was time to head for home, a 35- minute drive.
We set off for the airport at 7.30 sharp. It was an easy drive on deserted roads (apparently because it was Spain’s National Day). Security was quiet and easy, but it was a long walk up to Gate 24 for our flight.
Autumn Updates 2022 - I Montes Propios
The city of Jerez de la Frontera sits a low hill surrounded by rolling farmlands covered with cereals, sunflowers and, of course, vineyards. Understandably, this rich farmland forms the core of the municipality but, as the map shows, there’s a 20 km long administrative tombolo (at one point little more than 100m wide) that links the principal part of the municipality to an ‘island’ wooded hills and modest mountains (with peaks of c400-c500m), the Montes Propios. There must be some reason for this odd arrangement but it’s hard to see what this could be since the connecting filament of land doesn’t follow a road, stream or link to a village. My only thought is that it may be to protect the headwaters of the Embalse del Guadalcacin which presumably supplies the city with water. However, this explanation can hardly apply to the entirely detached “fingernail” of municipal land (c5km x 1 km) near Algar which seems to contain but a single small farm so perhaps other factors are at work.
Whatever the logic of this arrangement, it seems that the municipal authorities have decided to embrace this area, part of the Parque Natural Los Alcornocales, as a valuable ‘green lung’ for the city’s population. With rocky crags, dense cork-oak woodland and cistus clad hillsides the area is certainly very different to and much wilder than the rest of the municipality’s rural areas. Presumably it’s for this reason that the area has an Education centre (Centro de interpretación Montes Propios) here.
Similarly, it probably explains the relatively dense network of footpaths (including several, circular routes) in the area. (More details of these footpaths may be found at Senda Cadiz Senderismo). Note that the starting point of some of these senderos does not seem clearly marked.
It was only when I read about the Casa de Torres trail in the “Birdwatching Calendar of the Province of Cadiz” (see an earlier blog) that I realised that the road down to the Centro de Interpretation was open to the public rather than private as I’d always assumed. My confusion stemmed from the road being flanked by a wall topped by two lanterns which made it resemble the route up to a private finca. So, when I visited the area this September, I made sure that I visited the site. I didn’t have time to explore the various senderos but I saw enough to appreciate that this site offered an excellent opportunity to explore a part of the Alcornocales on foot. I've found Iberian Green Woodpecker, Bonelli's Eagle & Iberian Chiffchaff in the wider area but I'm sure that there's more to find here.
Autumn Updates 2022 - II El Berrueco
It's hardly surprising that the raptor passage across the strait is invariably the first thing that comes to mind when birders consider Cadiz Province or that a close second tends to be various Iberian or Mediterranean specialties like Lesser Short-toed Lark, Black Wheatear, etc. What tends to be forgotten, or perhaps not appreciated at all, is that many common (or in some cases formerly common) passerines also get funneled down through SW Andalucia as they approach Africa. This was brought home to me in mid-September as I stood in a municipal park just over the border in Seville Province and found myself surrounded by a dozen or so Pied Flycatchers - more than I'd expect to see in a whole autumn in Kent. Even though I was there to help (successfully) a friend find two lifers, Iberian Green Woodpecker and Azure-winged Magpie, for me the highlight was seeing 'commoner' migrants. Every other bird seemed to be a Pied Fly., those that weren't often turned out to be Spotted Flycatchers or, less often, (Common) Redstart. , both now depressingly scarce migrants in SE England. This wasn't a one-off but was a regular feature during my visit and I'm sure a systematic survey at several sites would have turned up many dozens of birds, perhaps a100 or more in some instances. This isn't a peculiarly autumnal phenomenon but happens in spring too. Urban parks (notably Parque Princessa Sofía in La Linea), coastal strips of woodland (Tarifa beach) and isolated woods surrounded by pastures and saltmarsh (La Agaida, Bonanza) often harbour more migrant flycatchers, Redstarts and warblers than you might expect.
However, this post isn't about a coastal site or an isolated patch of flycatcher-friendly woodland but a small arid site surrounded by poor cistus scrub not too far from the centre of the province near Medina de Sidonia, El Berrueco. So what has this site got going for it? The optimistically named Rio Iro does provide a narrow thread of better vegetation but after a long hot dry spring and summer (as was the case in 2021) is reduced to a series of disconnected puddles. However, what it does have is an old quarry in the middle of which is an overflowing water trough that feeds several larger puddles nearby. Looking at noticeboards informing visitors about this quarry it seems this trough has been leaking for several years! Here I had good views of Common Redstart, Pied and Spotted Flycatchers, Goldfinches, Serins, Linnets and Ortolan Bunting. Other observers here have seen Blue and Common Rock-thrushes, Cirl Bunting and various warblers here (see https://ebird.org/hotspot/L13469116 ). . A more patient observer here armed with a decent camera and lens would be in a good position to take some decent photos of the birds.
I was delighted to see the Ortolans as, embarrassingly, it was a species I hadn't seen in Cadiz Province. They're a declining and uncommon breeding bird in Spain being restricted, apart from an outpost in the Sierra Nevada, to the northern half of the country. They're regular but rather scarce migrants in the province so seeing one is a bit of a lottery. I had three Ortolans at El Berrueco but others reported 4, 5 or even a dozen birds at this site (for photos of Ortolan at this site see Ortolan Bunting - Emberiza hortulana - Media Search - Macaulay Library and eBird).. This seems to have been the only site they were regularly reported in the area on eBird with only two isolated reports elsewhere during the autumn (both of single birds) from Vejer and La Zarga (obviously more were seen by observers not using eBird but the paucity of reports on this increasingly well-used app is a fair indication of the species' status). In fact, it was through these eBird reports (cleverly discovered by my guests Ben & AJ) that I became aware of the site and although I do randomly explore tracks leading off into the campo, I doubt that I would have found it otherwise. This is where eBird can be extraordinarily helpful (although it seems in this instance some of the references took us to the centre of the village rather than the site itself, the photos on eBird certainly helped to confirm once there that we were in the right place). If, as seems likely, the supply of water here isn't a one-off due to temporary negligence but has been a recurrent feature over a number of years then if you're driving along the A395 between Medina Sidonia & Chiclana de la Frontera a detour here could be well worthwhile.
The two morals of this post are a) remember to check eBird for details of target birds and b) in drought conditions even the most unpromising sites can attract birds if there's a good source of water.
I started this account by doubting that El Berrueco is very reliable site for birds but on reviewing my photos, I notice that the image on the noticeboard shows an overflowing water trough. Perhaps, then, the supply of water here isn't a one-off due to temporary negligence but has been a recurrent feature over a number of years. If you're driving along the A 395 between Medina Sidonia and Chiclana de Frontera in the autumn, then a detour to check this site could be worthwhile.
My first visit to the Desembocadura (= rivermouth) de Rio San Pedro this September did not disappoint as I managed to see my first lifer in Spain for a decade or more - Elegant Tern. The second wasn't too bad either as I had Lesser Crested Tern. With such a track record it's no surprise to discover that this site (along with Montijo beach, nr Chipiona) has a growing reputation as THE site to see rare terns in Cadiz in autumn. Playa de los Lances (Tarifa) once almost had a monopoly of 'orange-billed' terns in the area but I suspect that in large measure this reflected where the birders were as much as where the terns were. This site seems to be best for roosting terns and gulls about an hour or so before high tide when birds are pushed up along the river as the vast expanse of the mud & sand on the seaward side of the Los Toruños peninsula disappears. A 'scope is invaluable here since the birds are generally c100-150m away on the far side of the Rio San Pedro (although I got lucky with the Elegant Tern as it lingered for a while on the nearside of the river). If you get your timing right expect to see hundreds of gulls (inc. Mediterranean, Slender-billed & Audouin's) and a good mix of terns (Caspian, Sandwich, Common & Black). Orange-billed terns are generally to be found amongst Sandwich Terns and, unless they're sleeping or hidden by other birds, shouldn't be too hard to pick out with a 'scope. However, distinguishing Lesser Crested and Elegant (see Orange-billed terns photo ID guide - BirdGuides) is another matter so I was happy to be with birders who'd seen the species before! The site also has a good range of waders although these too tend to be distant and other sites in the area are better. Small passerines shouldn't be ignored as the pines along the esplanade can hold a good numbers of flycatchers, redstarts, etc in the autumn. eBird account lists 106 species for this site (see https://ebird.org/hotspot/L11907457 ).
I also had Elegant Tern at Montijo beach but, unlike Rio San Pedro, this site is better when the tide is lower and should be avoided on summer weekends when the beach can be busy.
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.