Visit your favourite destinations
Western Europe
North America
Eastern Europe
South America
Middle East
East Indies

A Report from

A Winter Weekend in Spain. February 2008.,

Alan Jack

Cheap flights ,car hire and accommodation make a long February weekend in Spain a very affordable, welcome escape from the dreary, cold of north east England. Five days is just enough time to fit in both the famous Coto Donana and the steppe and hill country of Extremadura,  the two sites some five hours drive apart.

An early morning flight to Malaga from Newcastle had us birding the Laguna de Fuente de Piedra by early afternoon.

An hours drive north west of Malaga, this large, shallow lake is home to a large breeding colony of Greater Flamingoes and in february there were several thousand feeding birds together with a flock of some 60 Temminck's  Stints, Black winged Stilts, Crested Larks, Corn Buntings and Stonechats, as well as 2 Fan Tailed Warblers, a Sardinian Warbler, a Black Redstart and hawking House and Crag Martins.

Not a bad start made better by a migrant Short toed Eagle over the road. Although windy, the sun was out , blue skies and temperatures of 70 degrees were very welcome.

We headed west towards the Eastern side of the Guadalquivir  river, the delta of which forms the famous Coto Donana, one of Europe's greatest wetlands, and home to a wealth of birdlife, both resident and migratory. Passing along the way,  we saw White Storks already occupying their rooftop nests, we were to see hundreds in the next few days, many of which now spend the winter in this area of southern Spain, foregoing the ardous journey to Africa.

Several Swallows and House Martins and large White butterflies added to the early Spring scene. Late afternoon, and we arrived at the area known as Brazo del Este and the Pinzon marshes, where drivable tracks afford superb views of the many birds present.150 Night Herons , disturbed from their roost in trees flew by, 35 Spoonbills, Squacco ,Purple and Grey Herons fed alongside the car in shallow pools.Common Cranes, Glossy Ibis, White and Black Storks were seen and a flock of over one hundred Black tailed Godwits nervously fed as one of 20 Marsh Harriers sailed by.

Purple Gallinules, once considered rare, numbered almost 100 in one loose feeding flock. The many waders included Green sandpipers, Wood Sandpipers, Greenshanks, Spotted Redshanks, Common Sandpipers, and Black winged Stilts. Further raptors seen were another Short toed Eagle ,2 Booted Eagles and a  Common Buzzard, while passerines such as numerous Chiff chaffs. Corn Buntings and Larks, Crested and Short toed flitted ahead of the car.

A Bluethroat was  a nice addition to the ever growing list, then amazingly, there on the track in front of us was a cracking Dupont's Lark! Not unknown in Donana but very rare to see one, they breed in the grasslands way to the north in Spain.

We dragged ourselves away from this brilliant area as dusk was falling by 7;00 pm and drove to the destination of our hotel for the night in the "cowboy" town of El Rocio, in the heart of the Donana National park.

The Pension Cristina had gone down the accommodation scale since our last visit two years before and was quite shabby and was a total rip off food wise, £10:00 for a half cooked fish complete with guts still intact!  The room was dirty and again overpriced.

Not being able to sleep for my companion's snoring, I crept down to the bar and curled up on a convenient sofa only to be awoken when the owner arrived home blind drunk at 3:00am! Laying perfectly still I nearly got away with it until he turned back to discover one crazy tourist on his sofa. Not amused, he proceeded to rant in drunken spanish that I go to my room or leave-i'm fluent in this lingo-leave I did as it was nearly morning, but his frosty reception was nothing to the bitter frost outside. The car heater was a godsend.

First light revealed the famous marismas and lagoons of El Rocio absolutely crammed with birdlife, my eventful night quickly forgotten as I gazed on hundreds of Flamingoes, Egrets, Spoonbills, geese, duck and waders as they fed out on the mud. The geese were Grey lags and fed near 80 Glossy Ibis as a herd of deer passed by. Several White Storks probed the shallows and 3 Crested Coots together with numerous Pintail, Shoveler, Teal and Mallard vied for space. Some 400 House Martins began hawking for insects, their nests already complete in the town a full two months ahead of British Martins! A flock of 40 Azure Winged Magpies noisily moved through nearby trees, which also held Serins, Chiffchaffs, Tree Sparrows and several Blackcaps .Sand Martins and Swallows passed through and several gallinules shredded the reed stems as they fed.

The Jose Valverde centre in Donana is probably the very best area for birds,but to get there involves a 50 ,mostly on bumpy tracks,with dangerous potholes through never ending marshes but boy is it worth it! The whole trip takes hours, mainly because of the numerous stops to birdwatch. We were too early for the breeding Pratincoles here ,enjoyed on previous visits but the wealth of birdlife kept us very happy.

146 White Storks were counted feeding in fields alongside the car, outdone by over 250 Common Cranes. Further on.3 White pelicans circled overhead as we watched 2 Black Storks pass through .Little ,Cattle and Great White Egrets fed nearby, migrant Griffon Vultures sailed by on their way north, as 11 Red Kites were noted , 5 Common Buzzards and a splendid adult Spanish Imperial Eagle circled nearby woods,12 pairs breed here.

A fast flying flock was identified as Pin Tailed Sandgrouse, 7 birds, then 3 more ‘scoped on the ground! On we slowly drove, adding 100 Red crested Pochard, Purple Herons, Ravens and Green Sandpipers to our growing trip list. Larks were everywhere, Lesser short Toed, Crested, Short Toed,and Calandra’s all singing overhead and still in winter flocks in some areas,  60 Skylarks were winter visitors. 11 Black Redstarts were noted,Fan tailed Warblers,and many Corn Buntings, Meadow Pipits and Spotless Starlings all were seen.

Arriving, finally at the centre we ordered coffee and cakes and sat for some time taking stock of this amazing morning .We had the place to ourselves but for two Americans who were equally delighted with  what they had seen.

By now the temperature was touching 75 degrees, nice for February, and the huge plate glass viewing windows overlooking reed fringed lagoons revealed 1000’s of duck, among which we picked out several Black necked Grebes, 60 more Flamingoes swept their bills to and fro filtering out their food. as Marsh Harriers hunted the reed beds and gallinules strode by.

An adjoining lake revealed more Crested Coots, Flamingoes and 5 Cranes as well as 8 Black Storks on the track. A nice Little Owl and a Reed bunting reminded us of home.

Many of the species seen were duplicated as we headed north out of the marshes and reached the main road which would take us on up towards Extremadura  with it’s totally different habitats and fabulous birds, which draw us back time and again.

Five hours on ever improving roads, seeing Lapwings ,Buzzards, a Hoopoe and Azure winged Magpies along the way ,saw us arrive in the dark at our accommodation in Torrejon el Rubio, an amazing display of stars greeted us .A bite to eat ,2 lagers and off to bed .

We have now stayed here 3 times , in these very comfortable rooms of the Pension Monfrague.

An early start and we were watching a pair of superb Black shouldered Kites at a well known site west of  Torrejon  by 7;30am.This pair stay remarkably faithful to this area, despite reports of birders getting far to close to the birds. We have seen them mating and food passing in the air! As we watched a flock of 60 Azure wings flew noisily by, Common Cranes could be heard calling before we saw them, feeding among the cork oaks and 3 Woodlarks sang to establish their territory nearby .A male Lesser Kestrel flew past and hoopoes called, Spotless Starlings fed on the ground and Thekla  Larks sat atop bushes singing. As we left we counted 35 White Storks at their nests in a Stone pine plantation, this was February 13th,in central Spain, many books say these birds all migrate to Africa.

As we headed west towards Monroy, a few roadside halts gave us 10  more  White Storks,100 Lapwings .5 Ravens, and then our first Great Bustards of the trip, 23 fed in stony fields near the car. Calandra larks sang above and several Gadwall were on a small pool.

Our next stop was at the bridge over the River Almonte where we saw 35 Crag Martins, they nest here, some viewed from a few feet on the bridge.50 House Martins fed over the river and a Southern Grey Shrike perched on top of a bush. Rock Buntings are resident here and sure enough 6 birds fed along a track with some Chaffinches and two Blackcaps.

We turned left towards Santa Marta de Magasca and headed through open steppe country ,seeing a pair of Hoopoes at a water trough exactly where we had seen a pair 2 years earlier! 5 Southern Grey Shrikes were counted on fences. Larks were everywhere, large flocks of Skylarks, Calandra’ s and Short Toeds fed close by with 3 flocks of Goldfinches numbering 225 in total. Meadow Pipits, Corn Buntings and Linnets were counted in Hundreds, as the fence wires sagged under their weight!  A large flock of Golden Plover and Lapwings flew by followed by 6 Black bellied Sandgrouse and 47 Little Bustards! 11 Red Kites, Booted Eagles, Griffon Vultures and 2 huge Black Vultures hunted overhead, birds were just everywhere! We hardly knew where to look next as Common Cranes could be seen in distant fields and 35 White Storks followed a tractor. A pair of Stone Curlews took off as we approached and more Little Bustards flew past. Every few yards a Chiff Chaff  searched the grass verge for insects, a Swallowtail Butterfly added to the scene. Fieldfares, Mistle Thrushes, a little Owl and Azure winged Magpies, 4 Buzzards and some Red legged Partridges completed a superb hour or two!

As we drove on   5 more Black Vultures circled overhead on massive wings, with Griffons and Ravens, more Red Kites and a booted Eagle all enjoying the warm thermals as the temperature reached 70 degrees. Another flock of Golden Plover, some 400 sped by and 66 Common Cranes were counted in flight.

The village of Torremocha  gave us 6 Lesser Kestrels on rooftops, White Storks nesting, and Swallows back on territory, a Short toed Treecreeper and a Hoopoe.

We now headed for our last site of the day, the Belen Plains where 14 Great Bustards were found , then a superb flock of around 200 Little Bustards showing well in flight ,then on the ground. The sky darkened as 1000 Spotless Starlings wheeled above as a Hen Harrier hunted.6 Ravens some Cattle Egrets more White Storks and a few Azure wings completed another wonderful day’s birding. Darkness was falling by seven o clock as we headed back for our digs.

Next morning dawned cool and drizzly as we set south for Zorita and the rice fields of Madrigalejo. On the way seeing 11 Great Bustards on a grassy hill. Taking the road to Campo Lugar in more grassland habitat a Marsh Harrier floated by putting up large flocks of larks, Goldfinches and Linnets. !00 Corn Buntings perched on a fence then further down the road around 500 Skylarks fed on the ground. More Cranes strode through the fields.

Reaching the rice fields 9 Stone Curlews , Little Egrets, Storks and Lapwings were among the species noted. 150 Cranes were divided between the paddies and nearby Oak woods, a Dartford Warbler , 2 Cetti’s  Warblers ,10 White Wagtails and a superb Black shouldered Kite added to our pleasure. Further on we saw Lesser Kestrels, 4 Common Buzzards, Red Kites, a Little Owl and Black Redstarts, together with Hoopoes and Southern Grey Shrikes.

We headed now for the Embalse (reservoir) de santa Brava ,where we were greeted with 1000’s of wintering duck ,Tufted, Pochard,  Shoveler and Teal mostly with 17 Black necked Grebes, 5 Great Crested Grebes and many Coot.

Our route now headed east towards Logorosan and on to Berzogan and into some hill country as the rain fell lightly .A Great Spotted Cuckoo flew to a tree causing us to halt to ‘scope it, This another early migrant back on territory, one of three we saw. As we gained height the birdlife changed, giving us views of Griffons, lower today with no thermals, Ravens, Red kites and Crag Martins. A stop and we heard a Tawny Owl and saw Nuthatches, Great Spotted Woodpeckers, Blue and Great Tits in the woodlands a dozen Jays  ,Stonechats and Thekla Larks and Serins. Overhead a brief view of a pair of Bonelli’s  Eagles was not long enough and several Rock Buntings fed on the ground.25 Griffons and 4 Black Vultures were noted ,before another Bonelli’s sailed by.

Northward now to the Embalse de Arroycampo in lower country and among a dozen Great White Egrets in the trees was one of the race Modesta ,with bright red legs a rarity indeed, coming from Southern Asia.

50 Cattle Egrets fed with Grey Herons and in nearby woods were Short toed Treecreeper, Azure wings, Black Redstarts and 30 White Wagtails. Woodlarks sang and serins  chased each other in courtship flights.

As  dusk fell we arrived at a well known site for Eagle Owl at the Tietar Cliffs,but this visit had to be content with only hearing one calling. Griffons settled for the night on their cliff roosts as 8 Black Redstarts were seen , 20 Crag Martins and a Sparrowhawk  completed the day’s birding.

The following morning thick fog shrouded everything and we set off west towards the River Almonte, hoping it would clear. As we dropped down the road to the river we were strangely below the fog and again here saw Rock Buntings, Crag Martins , a Sardinian Warbler, Serins and 50 House Martins. Next stop back in thick fog and in wooded hillsides at Herre, and we managed to pick up Woodlark,Short Toed Treecreeper, Hoopoe, Jay, Serins, Great spotted Woodpecker, and Thekla Lark.Then a gap in the fog appeared and 8 Black Vultures,3 Griffons, and a Spanish Imperial Eagle perched on a cliff top cheered up our spirits. Nearby a Stonechat,2 Black Redstarts,a flock of Azure Winged Magpies and a Fan tailed Warbler were seen. Further down the road, another stop revealed another S.T. Treecreeper, Blackcap and a stunning male Firecrest. Singing Woodlarks and Thekla Larks were heard as the fog closed in once more. We decided now to try once again the steppes near Santa Marta in the hope of clearer weather and as we drove back north, remarkably the fog began to lift and a weak sun appeared warming things up and more birds now showed. Three large flocks of Larks appeared, Skylarks and Calandra’s, each species keeping separate from the other,a flock of 200 Goldfinches and then 50 Meadow Pipits were noted and 100 Corn Buntings lined a fence.4 groups of Little Bustards totalling 52 were counted, Ravens, Red Kites, a Hen Harrier,2 Black Vultures then a superb Golden Eagle hunting low over the road stooped at a rabbit which jumped six feet in the air and escaped! A flock of sandgrouse sped past, Black Bellied, then I turned to spot 30 Great Bustards feeding in a grassy hollow. This was Spanish birding at it’s very best! We dragged ourselves away and drove back towards Torrejon seeing 3 Little Owls,20 Common Cranes and 3 Southern Grey Shrikes on the way.

This, our last day,was coming to a close and we decided to finish our trip at the fabulous Monfrague natural Park, soon to become a National Park,recognition of the area’s status as a refuge for many rare birds. Breeding Black Storks, some 20 pairs, Black Vultures, the largest population in Europe, several hundred Griffon Vultures and Spanish Imperial Eagle are all found here,together with many more species such as Peregrine, Chough, Egyptian Vulture and Eagle Owl. The roads are being improved ,new hotels,are being built and car parks widened to accommodate the steadily growing influx of tourists to this remote corner of central Spain. Coaches from Madrid bring parties of School children and Spanish day trippers where on our previous visits there were none. A balance must be found where the visitors, including ourselves do not overwhelm the area and it’s fragile wildlife.

The impressive rock towers of Penafalcon held well over 200 Griffons and we watched as they slowly glided past, soaring close by in the cool evening air then landing on their lofty roost sites . A peregrine zoomed by and 3 huge Black Vultures circled above,Rock Buntings and Black Redstarts darted below us. 7 more Black Vultures were seen as we reached our last site of the trip, the cliffs of Tajadilla,a pair of Griffons were mating on the cliffs, Crag and House Martins hawked for their supper and as dusk fell on our final evening, an early migrant Egyptian Vulture flew in and settled for the night on the crags opposite, back in it’s breeding haunt.

A long drive back to Malaga for our flight home awaited and we vowed to once more return to this wonderful area.

Alan Jack.

Why not send us a report, or an update to one of your current reports?