Birding the Coto Doñana and the Doñana Birdfair 2015
The Coto Doñana has long been on my bucket list of places to visit to see birds and wildlife. Most people have heard of it even if they are not birders such is it’s fame. Older birders will have probably read “Portrait of a Wilderness: The story of the Coto Doñana Expeditions” by Guy Mountfort.
When I received an e-mail from Beltrán de Ceballos Vazquez inviting me to attend the Doñana Birdfair 2015 as a guest it took me all of five minutes to reply with a resounding Yes.
Doñana National Park is a natural reserve in Andalusia in the provinces of Huelva and Seville. It is more than 500 sq kms of which 135 sq kms is a protected area. The habitat consists of marshes, forests, beaches, streams and sand dunes in Las Marismas on the delta where the Guadalquivir River runs into the Atlantic Ocean. It became established as a nature reserve in 1969 when the WWF (World Wildlife Fund) in a joint venture with the Spanish government purchased a section of marshes to protect them. It has an incredible biodiversity and is a sanctuary for millions of migrant birds and endangered and rare species like Red-knobbed Coot, White-headed Duck, Marbled Duck, Imperial Eagle and Iberian Lynx. At this time of year the whole area is a riot of colour from the many flowers and plants.
On the 25th April 1998 the Aznalcollar mine tailing dam collapsed flooding more than 4000 hectares of the Guadidamar river plains and farmlands with toxic sulphide slurry, a major disaster for the whole area. The clean up took three years and cost €240 million.
An expansion of strawberry growing, some of it illegal, is restricting vital water supplies to the park. It is evident when you are travelling around and see the miles of poly tunnels, which all require watering. More than 1000 illegal boreholes are in Doñana, it is estimated that half of the strawberry crops are irrigated without legal permits and 1/3 is placed on formerly forested areas. There is also the risk of pesticide pollution from the run-off waters and plastic waste from the poly tunnels causing additional problems. Additionally rice growing naturally takes a further toll on the water resources.
The extraction of underground water for the Matalascañas tourist resort is also a problem and as tourism increases so will demand for water.
There is now the threat of a construction of a gas pipeline being built in the park. Read the article here
Natural reduction of water availability due to global warming will become an increasing problem.
The Trip members
The members of our visiting party were, Tim Appleton MBE, Reserve manager at Rutland Water NR and Co-founder and Organiser of the British Birdfair, Mark Avery, Independent environmental expert, conservationist, author and blogger, Niall Benvie, wildlife photographer, Rebecca Armstrong, Production Editor with Birdwatch magazine, Ed Hutchings, a Wildlife & Travel Journalist and regular contributor to Bird Watching magazine, occasional member Roland Digby of the WWT conservation team and me.
Wed 15th April 2015
An early start for me leaving Quedgeley at 6:30am for the long, boring drive to Stansted Airport in beautiful sunshine only brightened by five Red Kites along the M40. My flight was at 12:30pm but I’d had a trouble free trip so I was checked in, gone through security and was tucking in to a Full English breakfast by 10:30am. I wandered around until I recognised Mark and introduced myself. Gradually other party members appeared and we went to the gate, I found I was sat with Ed on the outbound flight.
Touching down in Seville 2hrs 40 mins later we were greeted with grey skies, heavy rain and a noticeable drop in temperature. This wasn’t what we’d ordered at all, it was more like an English spring. We were met by Ana Sanchez De Mora of Platalea expeditions, who proved to be an excellent guide, a great driver and good company.
We left for the 1/2 hour drive to our hotel, the Hacienda Olontigi. With Ed as our official scribe for the trip we started to build our trip list, notable birds on the transfer being Spotless Starlings, Cattle Egrets and a Short-toed Eagle.
We were speedily allocated rooms at the hotel, dumped our gear in the rooms and were whisked away by Ana to the Pinares de Aznalcazar, a local pine forest for some pre-dinner birding. It had stopped raining and warm sunshine brightened the skies. Birds were added thick and fast and included Iberian Magpies, Common Cuckoos, a Hoopoe, Sardinian Warblers and multi-coloured Bee-eaters. We then moved on to a small lake where we saw more new species including Fan-tailed Warbler (Zitting Cisticola), Black Kites, Woodchat Shrike, Nightingale and Crested Larks. As light started to fade and the evening chilled Ana drove us back to the hotel for a very quick change before a short walk to dinner at a hotel in the town.
Thanks to my limited Spanish and Ana’s help I made excellent choices of prawn stuffed mushrooms and a nice pork steak. Replete we made our way back to the hotel and all gratefully fell into bed.
Thu 16th April 2015
Today we were very fortunate to be allowed to visit Veta La Palma Fish Farm in the Doñana Natural Park/Biosphere Reserve. This area is not normally open to visitors although all of the birds we did see can be seen in the public areas of the park. Ana picked us up after breakfast and we headed off for a day’s birding. On the journey through Isla Mayor it was quite foggy but we saw our first White Storks on nests, the first of many. As we arrived at the entrance to the park the sun had burnt off the fog as if by order. The reserve covers 28000 acres and is utilised by fish farming, rice growing and dry crops with 12,000 acres maintained to preserve the original biotope of the marshlands. The birding was fabulous, we drove around the marshes stopping at intervals to birdwatch and enjoy the scenery and other flora and fauna.
We added new species to the trip list continuously, the more interesting being a pair of Stone Curlews, Calandra and Short-toed Larks, Iberian Wagtails, Glossy Ibises, Black-crowned Night Herons, Spoonbills, 5000+ Greater Flamingos, six Slender-billed Gulls, 50+ Black-necked Grebes, Whiskered, Little, Black and Gull-billed Terns. Then Niall spotted the first of six Marbled Ducks, a species I had seen in Britain, including in Glos, but will never get accepted, so these were a lifer for me effectively. Raptors filled the skies and included Booted Eagle, Griffon Vulture, Marsh and Montagu’s Harriers, Red and Black Kites and an Osprey. The Coot were all checked carefully but all proved to be Eurasian. Waders were everywhere but the best for me were a little flock of six Collared Pratincoles.
It had been a fabulous morning but soon thoughts turned to lunch and Ana drove us to Restaurante Estero in Isla Mayor. We dined on Arroz con Pato, a local dish of rice with duck; it was delicious!
After lunch, as it was now 4pm, plans were changed and we were to go to Dehesa de Abajo, the Birdfair site, to meet Beltrán, do a little birding and have a light evening meal there later and maybe a look for Iberian Lynx.
Near the entrance to the park we saw the only two Common Waxbills of the trip. The driveway into the Dehesa was flanked on either side by occupied White Stork nests. We set off to explore the area around the Birdfair, at times 50+ Black Kites were in the air and almost as many White Storks and smaller numbers of Booted Eagles and Griffon Vultures. Tim found the only Red-knobbed Coot of the trip. Previously I had only seen introduced birds in Mallorca so this was another lifer in effect. Bee-eaters were constantly around us giving their lovely bubbling calls. A pair of Iberian Grey Shrikes were near the hide from where a Great Reed Warbler shouted unseen.
We returned to the centre and met Beltrán, the most passionate conservationist I have ever met. After eating a light supper together and meeting Roland for the first time, Ana drove us out into the reserve to search for Iberian Lynx. A Wryneck spotted in a bush by Niall was a first for him and after careful manoeuvring of the van we all managed a reasonable view. We parked up at the top of a hill overlooking the lake over banks swathed with wild flowers. Here we sat quietly in the hope a Lynx would appear, as one had two nights earlier. The sun slowly slipped down in the sky and although we had plenty of birds for company, saw Lynx food (the introduced rabbits), and a melanistic Fox, which raised hopes, we drew a blank.
On the drive back to the hotel we stopped at the pines where Ana’s friends were helping Natterjack Toads across the road. They were the first I had ever seen.
Fri 17th April 2015
Again Ana picked us up promptly after breakfast and took us to the Pinares de Aznalcazar again, where we were able to spend a little time birding before heading to the Dehesa for the official opening of the Birdfair. New birds were more difficult to come by but we added Short-toed Treecreeper, Crested Tit and a very welcome Tree Sparrow, a major rarity in Gloucestershire now and probably extinct. Raptors were up early and we had four Booted Eagles, one dark phase, a close Short-toed Eagle, a Common Buzzard and the ubiquitous Black Kites.
We travelled to the fair and attended the opening ceremony where Tim made a speech, which helped a lot to set the scene, as all the other speeches were made in Spanish. Once the Fair had been declared open we visited the various stands, talked to numerous people who were happy that we had come and browsed through the wares that were for sale, as well as sampling tapas. After an hour or so we all took lunch together and then it was time to go birding again.
Ana drove us out into the Doñana N.P. which was again alive with birds. A very large and noisy flock of Spanish Sparrows were new for the trip. Lagoons and drier pans were alive with waders including Wood and Curlew Sandpipers which were surely northbound migrants. At a tower in the middle of the marshes was a colony of at 12 Lesser Kestrels. Eventually we arrived at the José Antonio Valverde Visitor Centre, an excellent modern centre overlooking lagoons. The islands were heavy with nesting Cattle Egrets, Black-crowned Night Herons and Glossy Ibises and a single Squacco Heron. Towards the bridge outside the centre Great Reed Warblers showed incredibly well, two Savi’s Warblers chased each other through the reed mace and a Little Bittern popped up right in front of us and as quickly vanished again.
Returning through the marshes to get back to the Dehesa we stopped at a fairly dry lagoon which was alive with small waders, mainly Ringed Plovers. After a few minutes Tim declared he had found a Lesser Yellowlegs, a great find and a rare bird for Spain. After we had all spent time looking at it, taking photos and being sure of our i/d we were late back so a second attempt at the Lynx didn’t go ahead. However Beltrán declared he would follow us back to the hotel and take us out for tapas and wine. This was at 10pm a time when us Brits are usually off to bed.
We went to a bar in Aznalcazar and enjoyed a variety of tapas and some very nice red wine and had great conversation with Beltrán about the Coto and its wildlife.
Sat 18th April 2015
An early start today due to a long day’s birding planned in the Doñana N.P. We had lost Niall who was giving a talk at the Birdfair and gained Roland who joined us again for the day. We drove to El Achebuche Visitor Centre at Matalascañas where we had breakfast. Here Ana handed us into the care of a local warden who drove us into the dunes. We stopped along the 30km long beach as we went checking for waders and seabirds. We added Sanderlings, Sandwich Terns and a Peregrine to the trip list. Into the dunes we went and drove through the tops of pines, the rest of the trees were buried in sand. Red Deer were incongruous here but remarkably well camouflaged. At the top of the dunes we could see for miles across the Marismas, aside from the call of a Redshank and the distant honking of Flamingos it was still, hot and devoid of any human noise. Moving on we drove down to the edge of a lagoon. It was alive with birds and it was difficult to believe in the summer the whole area would be bone dry. New species here were a Caspian Tern, a Great White Egret and a Melodious Warbler. Also noticeable was a flock of 50+ Whiskered Terns and 1000+ Flamingos.
At our next stop Tim found a couple of the very elegant Slender-billed Gulls, Ed added a Western Olivaceous Warbler (Isabelline Warbler) and I picked up the first Wheatear of the trip.
Then we moved on to Poblado de la Plancha where there were reconstructions of what traditional fishermen’s houses were like in time gone by. A Hoopoe showed very well here and we also had our only Black Redstart.
Returning along the beach in the Land Rover we saw impressive numbers of waders, gulls and terns. Most of the waders were Sanderlings, there were good numbers of Audouin’s Gulls, Sandwich and Little Terns and a single Common Tern.
When we got back to the Visitor Centre we were reunited with Ana and as we transferred our gear into the van a Red-rumped Swallow circled over us in the car park. We headed to a fabulous restaurant, the Aires de Doñana at El Rocío for lunch.
We were seated overlooking the Marismas and the picturesque town of El Rocío. In the foreground White Storks, Spoonbills and Whiskered Terns were feeding, the sun shone and the food, wine and company made it a very special meal.
After lunch we walked down to the bridge where we saw another Red-rumped Swallow and Roland fished out an American Crayfish to show us. Then we walked into El Rocío and explored the church, the dusty western style streets, complete with horse hitching posts outside of many of the buildings, and admired the panoramic view from the Visitor Centre. We drove to a nearby local wood but in the heat of the afternoon little was showing but song of Nightingales, Melodious Warblers, Cetti’s Warblers and Serins filled the air. After this we drove back to the Dehesa where a traditional group played flamenco music to entertain us, whilst we unwound with a drink or two.
Sun 19th April 2015
Ana and Beltran arrived early to pick us up, we were splitting up today prior to meeting at the airport to fly home. Rebecca, Ed and I were going for a tour of Seville with Ana and Mark, Tim and Niall were going back to the Birdfair. Tim was lucky enough to be the only one to connect with a White-headed Duck on the lagoon at the Dehesa on this last day. Ana gave us a very good tour of Seville and the avian interest wasn’t completely over as we added Pallid Swifts and Ring-necked Parakeets to the trip list. The Gothic Cathedral of Saint Mary of the See and it’s bell tower La Giralda was very interesting. Swifts of both species were flying around inside the Cathedral. At the Plaza de Toros it was the start of the bullfighting season so there was a very large parade to watch. There was much to see and not nearly enough time to do it justice.
Soon it was time to travel to the airport, we said goodbye to Ana, and our party was reunited for the flight home.
It had been a brilliant few days and an absolute pleasure to have been invited. Seville would be a great base for a long weekend, with cheap flights, a fabulous city and nearby some of the best birding Europe has to offer. As a group we had recorded over 150 species in the short time we were there.
I hope that this inspires you to see the Coto Doñana for yourself and if you do please use the local guides and support the local economy. I can thoroughly recommend Platalea expeditions as a great starting point. Hopefully the Doñana Birdfair will continue to grow year after year and become as successful as our own fair and maybe I’ll see you there in future years.
Thanks to Beltrán and Ana for taking such good care of us and for the friendship and hospitality of all the Spanish people that we met.
Mike King – May 2015