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A Report from

Donana in a Citroen C2, December 8th to December 10th 2006,

Colin Davies

On a cold, wet, miserable day in October, Mike Brown and I took a spur of the moment decision to visit the magnificent Coto Donana in Spain in December. We had both experienced the place before, and had both had several holidays to other parts of southern Spain, but neither of us had ever been in winter before, and it seemed an opportunity to gain a different birding experience at a familiar location. We flew from Liverpool to Seville on Friday 8th December 2006, departing at 16:40 and returning to Liverpool on Sunday 10th December at 22:55. We stayed at the Hotel Toruno in the village of El Rocio, a familiar hotel to many British birders and an establishment that we had stayed in on a previous visit, right on the edge of the marsh. It was a tight schedule, which if we were lucky and things went well, would give us two full days birding at the best site in Europe, but if there were flight delays or bad weather, could have been a complete waste of effort and money. Fortunately we were lucky, both flights arrived early, and the weather was almost cloudless on both days, with unbroken sunshine from dawn until dusk (which incidentally was 8:30 - 18:15, a big relief from the short dull days we were experiencing at home at the time).

We arrived at the hotel at 22:45, following the drive from Seville airport, and after some very light unpacking, made our way to the restaurant and bar, which served food until 1:00am. The following morning, we were up early and out of the hotel by 9:00. We intended to spend the first day on the northern marshes, and ultimately make our way to the remote Jose Antonio Valverde visitor centre. We were slightly nervous about this, because there had been a lot of rain recently and we had hired the smallest car possible, a Citroen C2. Legend had it that some of the tracks were almost impassible even in a 4x4, and the Citroen had even struggled with some of the "roads" in El Rocio.

However, we set out from El Rocio full of anticipation, and about a mile to the north of the town, turned right towards the town of Villamanrique. After about 20km we came to a roundabout with a petrol station, on the outskirts of Villamanrique, where we turned right, and then left at the next roundabout. We were now following signs to Isla Mayor. This road continued for about 10km, until we came to a "T" junction where we turned left. Another few kilometers down this road, and the tarmac ended abruptly and we were on a raised, sandy track. We were now in some excellent birding areas, and we found ourselves stopping every hundred metres or so, but eventually we came to a large white building on the right, an old pumping station. At this point, we could have gone right, but decided to go straight on. This was a mistake, because the road deteriorated dramatically from this point, and even the birding went downhill slightly, but even so, with care, we still managed to get the Citroen through to the Valverde centre. On leaving the centre, we were advised to turn left and then first right, and this proved invaluable advice, since this track eventually brought us back to the white pumping station, taking us through new countryside with the added advantage of being less bumpy than the previous route and with better birding. From here we retraced our steps back to El Rocio. Well done to the Citroen, which coped admirably where others feared to tread!

Because we had both been to Donana before, we were not looking for any one species in particular, but rather we were more interested in the overall winter spectacle, and in this we were not disappointed. The northern marshes of Donana are vast open spaces, mile after mile of flat, unpopulated marshland, rice paddies and fields. You couldn't fail to be impressed by the scale of area alone.

Raptors were everywhere, but the stars were six Black-shouldered Kites, five of which were seen shortly after leaving the village of Villamanrique. Wonderful birds, we watched them hovering and floating in the air like paper airplanes, amongst the best views I have ever had of the species. A personal favourite of mine further out on the marsh were the Hen Harriers. Perhaps not a bird that many would go to Donana specifically to see, the males were ghostly grey and white, almost the embodiment of the spirit of the marsh. We saw at least seven of these spectacular males and two females, all close to the car and showing very well. Strangely, the larger Marsh Harrier seemed to be numerically dominated by females or immature birds, which numbered about 17, whilst we only saw two males. Amongst the other raptors were good numbers of Red Kites, Booted Eagles and a single Osprey, the latter seen dramatically diving into the water and emerging with a large fish, which it seemed to struggle to carry.

Black Redstarts and Stonechats were everywhere, and flocks of larks included many Crested and a few Calandra. After turning left at the "T" junction as described above, the road bent to the right after about two or three kilometers, and there was another road on the left. We took this road for a short distance, and on the right we found a Night Heron roost in the tamarisk bushes, holding about 40 birds.  Back to the main road, and a few kilometers further on, in fields at the point where the tarmac ended, there was the spectacular sight of at least 400 White Storks, a single Black Stork and 50 Common Cranes, the latter filling the air with their evocative swan like trumpeting calls. In the same area, at least two flocks of up to 300 Glossy Ibis flew over. Later we saw another four Black Storks, six Great White Egrets, 800 Greater Flamingos and 30 Purple Gallinules, there were almost too many birds to take in. Perhaps the most impressive sight of the day was saved until the end, on our return journey, at dusk, just before we reached the road to the Night Heron roost as described earlier. We could see egrets dropping into tamarisk bushes at the side of the road, but as we got closer, it became clear that this was a huge roost. Counting the birds was impossible, the bushes were simply dripping with birds, many on the edges, many on the top, and many more inside, and flocks of 50 or more were arriving by the minute. In one bush alone, we counted over 200 birds, and we estimated that there must have been at least 5000 birds in total, with about four fifths Cattle Egrets and one fifth Little Egrets. A staggering spectacle on which to end the day.

"Feliz Navidad" the lights proclaimed at the entrance to El Rocio on our return to the town, "Happy Christmas", and it certainly seemed like it would be. We had inadvertently chosen a special weekend in the Catholic calendar, and the streets of this holy town were full of a strange combination of horsemen in traditional dress, and pilgrims visiting the impressive church, and it all added to the cultural experience. We spent the evening walking around the sandy, rutted streets of El Rocio, before retiring to the bar until the early hours. El Rocio is the perfect town for the perfect setting.

One advantage of visiting the area in winter was that we didn't feel the need to get up too early, because sunrise was only at 8:30, but even so we had finished breakfast, packed, paid and were out of the hotel by 9:00. Almost before we had got out of reception we saw a flock of about 150 Glossy Ibis fly over the hotel, and we decided to walk down the promenade towards where we thought that they had landed, just past the old SEO observatory building. It was an interesting walk, with several new species of bird added to our weekend list, as well as a few Iberian Wall Lizards basking in the warm morning sun and a few Marsh Frogs, but the highlight was a stunning male Penduline Tit feeding on bulrushes at close range, right alongside the promenade. It was the first I had seen for 20 years, and though they do occur in the area, it was not a species that I had expected to see.

We climbed to  the top of the ruined observatory building, and from here we had a great view of the Madre de marismas del Rocio, "Mother of the marshes of the dewdrop". To our left we could now see the breathtaking spectacle of at least 500 Glossy Ibis feeding below us on the marsh, with Egrets, and a few hundred Greylags behind them. In the distance, horses splashed through the water, whilst Marsh Harriers occasionally drifted over, scattering the ibis in all directions, and other raptors seen included Red Kites and at least three Booted Eagles. We had hoped to walk further out onto the marsh, but the track was impassible, cut in two by a raging torrent that was deep enough to have gone over our Wellington boots had we been foolish enough to attempt the crossing. So we turned back and decided to make for the hides at La Rocina, just a kilometer or so to the south of El Rocio.

We parked in the information centre car park, and walked back to La Rocina bridge, which had been a productive stop for us in the past. On this occasion however, it seemed strangely devoid of birds, though we did flush our only Common Sandpiper of the weekend, and had some great panoramic views of the marsh, with El Rocio as a backdrop, so it was worth the effort.

We returned to the visitor centre, and took the trail which led us to the hides which overlooked the marsh and across some excellent heathland. As with La Rocina bridge, the hides were surprisingly quiet, though Booted Eagles were almost constantly in the air, Marsh Harriers quartered the marsh and Red Kites drifted overhead, whilst on the water there were several Red-crested Pochard. It was the woodland and heathland that really stood out here, and we added many species to our list which we wouldn't have otherwise seen. These included Azure-winged Magpie, Short-toed Treecreeper, Crested Tit, lots of Iberian Chiffchaffs, Dartford Warbler and several other warblers which looked suspiciously like Melodious, though they are supposed to be exclusively summer visitors, whilst overhead we were treated spectacular views of two pale phase Booted Eagles. The sheltered heathland was a real sun trap, and it was almost like being on a Dorset heath in summer, except that in amongst the scattered Stone Pines were magnificent knarled old Olive trees or Cork Oaks. Apart from the birds, we saw one or two dragonflies which looked like Common Darters, a Western Willow Spreadwing damselfly and two Red Admiral butterflies, but the nearest we came to seeing any of the famous mammal species were the tracks and snuffling marks of Wild Boar, as well as other tracks that we could not identify.

We ended our weekend at the Palacio de Aceborn, a large former hunting lodge, with some beautiful woodland. Our weekend had been everything we had hoped for. Spectacular winter birding, vast panoramic views, a taste of Christmas in El Rocio, glorious winter sunshine and some nice long days, and all accomplished in a Citroen C2!

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