This is my account of a trip Phil Smith and I made to the Coto Doñana from 22 to 26 February 2006 . The weather was very variable – we had one good sunny day, one awful wet Saturday, and two indifferent days – all of them cold
Click here to see the Species List
The evening flight down with Ryanair from Stanstead was completely trouble-free. Baggage reclaim and car hire were easy, so that we were in El Rocio in time for some beers before turning in. We stayed in a bungalow at the La Aldea campsite, booked on our behalf by John Butler of Doñana Bird Tours, with whom we enjoyed a fabulous day tour on 24th
We relied on Garcia and Paterson’s guide to plan the trip, and would have found John Butler’s book even more helpful if I had ordered it in time – it arrived at home during the trip – details below
Day 1 – 23 February
Today was overcast and thankfully still, but surprisingly cold at 4 degrees. After shopping for breakfast in the campsite shop, we went first to the Palacio del Acebrón, driving directly but slowly down to the car park at the Palacio. There were many stops along this 2Km track, which makes it’s way across sandy heathland to an area of damp woodland and a small stream in the Palacio grounds. By the time we reached the carpark we had seen 31 species, including White Stork, Azure-winged Magpie, Raven, Southern Grey Shrike, and a Dartford Warbler.
The excellent close views of the shrike allowed us to see the pinkish flush on its chest and belly which we think made it a male, and the white eyebrow which, though smaller than a Great Grey Shrike, meant it wasn’t a Lesser Grey Shrike
Following the marked trail beside the palacio and along a boardwalk which winds it’s way through wet alder and willow, and over the stream, we flushed a Woodcock, and saw Nuthatch, Cetti’s Warbler and Serin among other more common species as the path continued through Stone Pine and Cork Oak woodland – all superb habitat, though quiet, with birds hard to find.
Back along the track there was a Red Kite and a Little Owl to see, and we spent time becoming familiar with Crested Larks as well as the ubiquitous Black Redstarts
Next call was at the visitor centre where we had a quick warm by the fire and then off to the José Valverde visitor centre out in the marshes. This doesn’t feature on Garcia and Paterson, but the directions in Butlers book are excellent – needless to say we got lost because we found the information sheet we were given misleading
First, though, we took in the promenade overlooking the lagoon in El Rocio, enjoying the informal road surfaces and traffic regulation in the town (there aren’t any!)
The lagoon was well-filled and the view spectacular. Chiffchaffs were busily feeding in the semi-submerged herbage at the water’s edge while Swallows, House and Sand Martins hunted insects low over the water. We added 20 further species here including tens of Black-Winged Stilts, Spoonbills and Greater Flamingos, hundreds of Black-Tailed Godwits, and Snipe, Little Grebe and seven duck species
We headed North out of town and back onto tarmac towards Villamanrique de la Condesa through strawberry and tomato tunnels and then Stone Pine forest. Again there was much stopping (with care as it’s a fast road in spite of calming to prevent Iberian Lynx casualties) for more Shrikes, Sardinian Warbler, Cattle Egrets, Spotless Starlings and Corn Buntings.
Somewhere in or near Villamanrique we got lost and in the hour or so we spent getting to the José Valverde visitor centre we found Glossy Ibises, a male Hen Harrier, 2 Black Storks, 2 Great White Egrets, and Marsh Harriers. Somewhere in these wanderings, in a wet slack area close to the track, I found 2 Lesser Short-Toed Larks which flew out of sight before Phil was able to see them, regrettably, as I’d have valued a second opinion
Once arrived at the visitor centre we enjoyed a much-needed coffee, and panoramic window views of Avocets, Green Sandpipers, Purple Gallinules, and hundreds of ducks, hirundines, waders and, well, the whole spectacle. Please don’t be put off going here by the tracks or getting lost, better still, go there as part of a trip with John Butler (see below) or using his book as an infallible guide. Whatever you do, go there, it’s more than worth the journey
Heading back to El Rocio through the evening we enjoyed more of the day’s birds, and a group of 12 Common Cranes brought the day list to 73 species
Day 2 – 23 February
Clear and bright this morning – hooray – as 1 emerged from beneath 4 blankets and with my socks still on (I didn’t know Spain got this cold) to find frost flowers inside the windows! It was a lovely sunny spring day and the temperature got as high as 10 degrees later on
We were met exactly as arranged by John Butler, who was then Doñana Bird Tours. Sadly John died in Sept 2007, a great loss, but the company he founded is alive and well (Contact Peter Warham via the Donana Birdtours website), and Johns excellent guides can still be bought. We shared our day with Ken and Maureen Newton and my notebook recorded 97 species for one of the best day’s birding I’ve had, in excellent company, too. Goodness knows exactly where we went, but I have copied the day’s trip report from John’s website, which gives a clue or two.
24th February. On my tour today were Ken and Maureen Newton from Plymstock, Devon and Peter Wells and Phil Smith from Dover , Kent . We began at the two lagoons inside the Corredor Verde and found Shovelers, Tufted Ducks, Little Grebes, Common Sandpipers, Cormorants, Cattle Egrets, Grey Herons, Snipe, Barn and Red-rumped Swallows, House and Sand Martins, White Wagtails, Black Redstarts, Crested Larks, Chiffchaffs and Corn Buntings
As we drove along the Corredor Verde, following the Río Guadiamar, we saw Red and Black Kites, 9 Black-shouldered Kites, Buzzards, Kestrels, Booted Eagles, Marsh and Hen Harriers, Ravens, White Storks, Black-crowned Night Herons, Hoopoes, Serins, Greenfinches, Goldfinches and Southern Grey Shrikes
Our next stop was at the "heron ponds", where Little Egrets, Green Sandpipers and a Red-knobbed Coot were seen.
The Cañada de Rianzuela is once again full of water and birds, waterfowl especially, are starting to return to the site. We managed to see Greylag Geese, Black-tailed Godwits, 2 Marbled Ducks, Common and Red-crested Pochards, Wigeon, 2 White-headed Ducks, Lapwings and Dunlins. In the afternoon we visited the northern marshes, using the route through the Partido de Resina and Hato Raton rice fields. At our first stop I picked out a Merlin and were able to get reasonable views with the telescope. Further along the route we found Black Storks, Black-necked and Great Crested Grebes, Spoonbills, Greenshanks, Kentish Plovers, Linnets, Zitting Cisticolas and several Yellow wagtails. The next bird to show was a Spanish Imperial Eagle carrying some source of food and being harried by two Black Kites. We had prolonged views as the eagle landed twice to escape the attentions of the kites.
At the JAV centre there were Glossy Ibis, Black-winged Stilts, Purple Swamp-hens and Avocets and near the Huerta Tejada we saw 4 Stone Curlews, 20 Common Cranes, 2 Great White Egrets a Little Owl and 2 Short-eared Owls.”
The highlights were the White Stork colony in Villamanrique (John’s home village), the Corredor Verde, the Night Heron roost, lunch in the Stone Pines, the Dehesa de Abajo, and our second journey across the marshes to the José Valverde visitor centre. I can’t overstate the enjoyment this day gave me – superb. Above all, the Imperial Eagle being mobbed by and dwarfing the Harriers and Kites we would otherwise describe as large was something very special
By way of a quick digression, the Corredor Verde is the river valley down which the catastrophic inundation of poisonous heavy metal laden flood water took place a few years ago. Originating from a broken dam at a mine near to Aznalcollar it threatened the whole Delta. We learned all this from John who explained how this disaster was averted, and the affected land taken out of agricultural use to become a superb linear nature reserve in which the Black-Shouldered Kites we saw whilst with him have started to breed
Day 3 – 25 February
Dawn was grey and although marginally warmer at 5 or 6 degrees, it was damping as we left the campsite. By midday it was pouring down, and did so for the rest of the day. In spite of this and being wet through by evening, the days list of “only” 64 species reflected some superb birdwatching
Starting at the promenade at El Rocio after shopping in the supermarcado (when we found it – the signs were understated to say the least) we walked the length of the waterside. A Bluethroat here was a superb sighting as it briefly perched on the promenade railings before skulking off into a large clump of flag iris leaves. There was a very confiding Purple Gallinule here, and a Glossy Ibis as well as some superb close Flamingos
The ruined observatory building was a fine vantage point for a serious scan round – during which there was a distant Eagle, and sundry Kites and Harriers all hunting and flushing great flocks of ducks and waders. There was another Black-Shouldered Kite here, and we had superb close views three beautifully elegant Red-Rumped Swallows
After an hour of this we went in the increasingly heavy rain to the reserve and visitor centre at El Acebuchal, where I bought a superb Doñana National Park map
We plodded off along the boarwalks in the rain, admiring the sandy heathland with occasional Stone Pines, and finding Hoopoes and Woodlarks. Suddenly, out of the murk, there appeared two Common Swifts which we had excellent close views of as the passed directly overhead
Back at the carpark we sat with open windows and fed bits of our rolls to the Azure-Winged Magpies, attracting 20 or more – lovely birds – before motoring down to Matalascañas for a look at the ‘oggin. Offshore winds when we found the beach meant there was little to see, but we added Sandwich Tern, Gannet and Lesser Black-Backed Gull before going back to the Palacio del Acebrón for another walk around the visitor route. In spite of the vile weather we dug out Short-Toed Treecreeper, Firecrest, Blackcap, and Red-Legged Partridge on the way back to the bungalow for a dry out, footer on the telly, and another excellent meal in the bar there
Day – 26 February
Going home day dawned fine, but noticeably cold again at 4 degrees. We started at the promenade again, noticing a substantial increase in the water level, and getting to grips a close quarters with another Bluethroat, as well as the Flamingos, Spoonbills and Glossy Ibis.
Another spell at the “observatory” was most enjoyable, though cold. After a couple of hours of thoroughly enjoyable birding we decided to head inland towards Aznalcollar for some hills we interpreted from my large scale map as being likely for raptors and possibly vultures – WRONG!! We had a pleasant drive through sleepy villages before finding our “hills” to be less than anticipated, and almost devoid of vegetation
Later contact with John Butler confirmed this was a huge area devasted by fire last year, as you can see. We found Thekla Lark in numbers though, and saw the now disused mines responsible for the pollution incident before checking in to the airport and the flight home –again trouble free
Click here to see the Species List
Most of the pictures on this page and the Species List are the work of Phil Smith - thanks Phil
Where to Watch Birds in Southern Spain (Helm) – Garcia and Paterson
Birdwatching on Spain’s Southern Coast (Santana Books) – John Butler
Contact Peter Warham via the Donana Birdtours website