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|A Report from birdtours.co.uk|
Going through 600 in Andalucia,
Looking at my Western Palearctic list last November I could see a big chunk missing which could be nicely plugged by a trip to southern Spain in late April. When you've travelled like I have in the region the ticks come few and far between and the prospect of getting at least six in one week was too good an opportunity to miss.
I made a few enquiries over the internet during the Christmas period and since I don't drive needed to enlist some guides to help me find my target species. Entering 'Andalucia birds' into the Google engine threw up two likely candidates who had interesting websites which would seem between them to fulfil my needs.
So on April 23rd I set off from Gatwick on a scheduled flight to Seville. I had a n hour or so wait at Seville Santa Justa railway station before my connecting train to San Fernando a distance of 140 km for the miraculous price of 6 Euro for a return ticket. I was met by my guide Stephen Daly at the small station at San Fernando just north of Cadiz. A short drive later we stopped at a small lake surrounded by trees where I year ticked two drake and three female White-headed Ducks, the first I had seen since 1993. A selection of commoner ducks sat humbly on the same stretch of water no doubt slightly envious of the limelight enjoyed by these beautifully ugly birds. I might add there was not a Ruddy Duck in sight.
We couldn't stop long as we were expected by Stephen's wife for tea and made tracks for Barbate and Stephen's idyllic pad in the sticks just outside this small town in 'Frontier country'. One Night Heron later I was introduced to Patricia and their gorgeous 14 month old daughter Lucia who is so cute it was a strain not to smuggle her home in my suitcase. I sat down to a wonderful curry and spiced poppadoms before a few beers and a good night's kip.
I awoke the next morning to Serin, Common Nightingale and Woodchat Shrike outside my room. After breakfast we headed out to the hills picking up a selection of migrant and resident birds including cracking views of Melodious Warbler on the way. A supporting cast included Dartford Warbler, Common Redstart, Spotted Flycatcher and a cameo by an Iberian Chiffchaff.
In drier habitat we hit both the black-throated and black-eared forms of Black-eared Wheatear plus several Northerns. Raptors on show in the perfect weather included Lesser Kestrel, Booted Eagle, Griffon Vulture and one brief Black Vulture.
After a three course lunch with beer for a measly 7Euros per head we set about my first main target of Little Bustard. En route to the weedy, grassy fields favoured by these lesser giants of the bird world we noted a very late Common Crane, a bird which should have been much further north and if who didn't get a move on would fry in the Andalucian summer which regularly hits 45 degrees.
On arriving at the spot where Stephen had scored with two birds in flight a day earlier we heard the characteristic 'dziiiik' emitted by our prey. It was several desperate minutes later when I eventually spotted one through my bins after ceremonially chanting the Latin name, something which had worked spookily reliably so often in the past with other tricky customers. I was rewarded with descent scope views for fifteen minutes before we headed back to Barbate. The Little Bustard had not been just another tick but a really lovely bird and what's more number 599 for my WP list. I had hoped it might be 600 but for that I would have to wait another 18 hours.
It had been a great day with Cattle Egrets on every available pool, a pleasant selection of songbirds and a handful of waders. It was a lightning tour of the pretty rolling countryside in the far south with an almost single minded quest on my part for the Bustard; but I had been deftly manoeuvred by Stephen towards a great days birding with good food, good company and excellent birds. Stephen is a natural companion for a day or more birding having a good command of Spanish and a keen interest in the culture of this neck of Andalucia. I was grateful not only for his knowledge of the local avifauna but the countless tips on the pronunciation of the local tongue which came in handy later on.
As if to show my appreciation I allowed him to thrash me at pool that night at KL's bar in Barbate a pleasant watering hole run by Crocodile 'Larry' Dundee and his Catalonian wife Lourdes.
The following morning Stephen dropped me off at San Fernando station and I returned whence I came.
No one can visit southern Andalucia even if a fanatical birder like me without visiting Seville Cathedral. This, the largest such structure in the world is a wondrous piece of architecture and is the home not only to The Almighty but a healthy colony of Lesser Kestrels.
After a whistle stop tour around the other older parts of the home of so many oranges I hailed a taxi to the main bus station and the 16:30 coach to my second base of El Rocio. Like everywhere it seems except in England, the bus was bang on time.
El Rocio was like nowhere I had been before - straight out of a Spaghetti Western, the streets two inches deep in sand with as many horses as cars. Being a Sunday there was quite a bustle in the town with a market and all the cafes thronging with Spanish Sunday drivers partaking in the local tapas. It was far too hot for any birding so I set about finding my digs. The Isidro, right on the edge of the town was a pretty, air conditioned pension. No one spoke any English and so I relied on my best Spanglish to secure my booking.
After a shower and a beer I explored the local marshes where Whiskered Terns, Little Egrets and Black Kites floated, paddled and soared respectively. As dusk approached I had a single Kingfisher zoom just past my feet and a little party of Sand Martins collecting the gathering mozzies. I slept well that night and looked forward to the following morning.
I was picked up at the Isidro by John Butler (Contact details for John) my guide for four days and began the next major part of my holiday. The northern parts of the Cote Donana marshes are among the best and most accessible of the Parque Nacional de Donana and with John's help I was to realise all of the rest of my targets. A short distance from the town and along the outer reaches of the park led a long straight road between two stands of Stone Pine and it was here that I hit my 600. Little parties of Iberian - formerly Azure-winged Magpie scooted around the woodland edges picking up titbits and foraging here and there. They are super birds and rather more jay than magpie-like in my opinion but there you go. The gleaming blue on their wings certainly fitted their former less prosaic name.
We saw the same little family parties every day but I can't say in the four days I remotely got fed up of them. The open wooded glades and scrubby bits of the park were also home to healthy numbers of Woodchat Shrike, Hoopoe and Serin.
The marsh itself was just too fabulous for words, with Cattle and Little Egrets, Purple, Squacco, Grey and Night Herons and Little Bittern all seen easily and frequently in the numerous reed beds and bushes. To add a splash of the exotic we located a single dark-phased western Reef Heron which had paired up with a Little Egret just outside the Valverde Centre.
Waders were also in good supply with Wood Sandpipers, Temminck's Stints, Ruff in full dress, Black-winged Stilts, Ringed, Little Ringed and Kentish Plovers and Avocet among the best spotted here, there and everywhere in the ever decreasing puddles and wet scrapes. To cap it all lots of Collared Pratincoles winged their way about the greener areas. Although recent rain had swelled the ponds, the sun would soon catch up and by July much of the area would be a desert and the birds would then concentrate on the flooded rice fields.
Number 601 was Purple Swamphen nee Gallinule and a few handfuls of these ungainly slightly prehistoric but pretty birds were seen each day in the reed beds.
It was not until my second full day on the marshes though that I hit 602 and the now somewhat embarrassingly named Red-knobbed Coot. Crested Coot was surely adequate but never the less was a welcome addition to the list. The red appendages could be easily seen at close quarters but the bird also had a slightly longer, slimmer neck than the Common Coot which was also present for comparison. This was a good rare bird and Donana is one of the few places where this species can be seen in Europe.
Raptors seen in the area included the aforementioned Black Kite, many Booted Eagles, Griffon Vulture, Marsh Harrier, the occasional Montys, Kestrel and Common Buzzard.
On the second evening, following John's directions a fellow participant - Mike and I teamed up in search of Red-necked Nightjar, a species which had fortunately not succumbed to the recent name changes. We went out long before dark, exploring some scrub and broad leafed woodland a few kilometres from El Rocio picking up four stunning Golden Orioles, as well as Short-toed Tree Creeper, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Sedge Warbler, Great Tit and Blue Tit. As dusk approached more and more Nightingales began to sing and I would estimate a population of about 10 birds per acre in the area. In the gloom birds would hop about on the road and were positively indignant at having to move out of the way of the car.
Then at exactly 9:30 a Red-necked Nightjar flew on to the road. The rufous neck was clearly visible before it moved off to hunt moths in the bushy heath. It was not long before the distinctive somewhat partridge-like Kyok-kyok song could be heard. Number 603 was in the bag.
Beers were called for and a few were merrily quaffed back at the pension in celebration of a quality bird and one I had missed in Morocco years earlier.
Day three saw us heading south and west away from Donana and to the Odiel marshes near Huelva. A network of ponds, lagoons, saltpans and inter-tidal marshes were a haven for waders. Good numbers of birds in full or near breeding plumage included Curlew Sandpiper, Black and Bar-tailed Godwits, Spotted Redshank, Knot, Little Stint, Whimbrel, Curlew, Grey Plover, Oystercatcher and a single Stone Curlew. Raptors included a distant Osprey and more Montagu's Harriers.
Nearer the coast a little collection of Gulls included Lesser Black-backed Gull of the races graelsii and atlantis, Yellow-legged Gull and a few Audouin's Gulls, the latter surely among the smartest of the genus Larus with that red bill and self-assured appearance. In the same area a party of Terns included Sandwich and Little and nearby we added one Caspian.
Our final day at Donana left just one bird required for my shopping list, but the dull, cloudy conditions were a little ominous. Before that though, excellent views of a pair of Marbled Ducks were had just by the car, the birds showing marvelously in open water before half retreating in to the grassy margins where they feel most at home.
After one of John's super picnic lunches we headed to the northern edge of the park and surveyed the woods in the distance. After a few minutes I picked out one very large raptor soaring in the middle distance and could just make out the pale head and distinctive outline of a Spanish Imperial Eagle. A population of 21 pairs two years ago had been reduced to just seven after a bout of myximatosis had decimated the local rabbit population forcing the birds to spread out of Donana. Although not that close the observation was lengthy and adequate and 604 was under my belt.
The phrase 'knowing somewhere like the back of your hand' is perhaps over used but that is how well John Butler knows the northern marshes of the Cote Donana. He knows the multitude of tracks and roads which traverse the area back to front. He also knows his birds and where to find them, and if he said there is going to be a so and so on this pool or in that field it invariably was. His enthusiasm for and knowledge of the area is excellent, as is his garlic and olive oil dip accompanying each picnic.
Our final day - Friday saw us guideless as Mike and I headed for the mountain and scrub of the Parque natural de Grazelema 100 km to the east. Equipped with no more than a map of Spain and a thirst for birds we headed out after a early breakfast and were soon rising above the flat fields of the west for more hilly, interesting country. An inviting group of raptors an hour in to the journey included 20 Griffon Vultures and a single Short-toed eagle all at close quarters. Close on their heels was a tight flock of Alpine Swifts which zoomed over the landscape in search of insects, no doubt. Pressing on towards Zahara we stopped in a nicely scrubby hillside picking up Sardinian warbler, Melodious Warbler, four Blue Rock Thrush and three Red-billed Chough. However it was cloudy and cold- this would not be a day for raptors. After meandering through wonderful scenery we eventually reached Grazelema, parking just above the town. Now was time to open up our lungs as a steep climb was necessary if we were to see anything good. In the lower reaches of pines and bushes Coal Tit, European Robin, Firecrest and Subalpine Warbler were added to the list. We climbed and climbed some more until all the trees were nearly gone. At the edge of the tree line we hit several Black Redstarts, with four or five pairs dividing up territories for the spring.
At last we reached a sort of rocky plateau, where we could see higher inaccessible peaks in the distance. The air was clear and fresh up here and with patience we eventually connected with a spanking male Rock Bunting and a single Black Wheatear. It was all good stuff but I was pleased to be back down at the car and the waiting bar of dark chocolate.
We needed to press on to Jerez and made our way down through some excellent habitat where we picked up a pair of Cirl Bunting, two Eurasian Jays and a single Bonelli's Eagle.
A last minute drive round Jerez found Mike a Red-legged Partridge for his list as well as stupendous views of Montagu's Harriers displaying just metres from the car.
After a final night in the sherry capital of the world, I was flying back home a few birds happier. I can't wait to go back and try to find some rarities, perhaps next October.
I hope I have whetted your appetite for Andalucia and its amazing wealth of birdlife.
The email addresses for Stephen and John are: