Bob Newman and Diane Major
This was not an "eyeballs out" birding trip as we were visiting friends who live near Estapona, also it was a little late in the year for the best birding in Southern Spain. We spent the first three nights at our friends' villa in Buenos Noches, the rather tweely named urbanisation near Estapona, two nights in El Rocio on the edge of the Coto Donana National Park and the last night back at the villa.
Sunday 10th June
We arrived at Malaga airport on time (10:50) with Easyjet from Luton and after waiting in a fairly lengthy queue to collect our hire car we got away from the airport around 12:30. Although the rest of the day involved just the drive to Estapona, a lazy afternoon at the villa and an evening out, we did pick up some good birds. A couple of Bee-eaters from the car were nice start while hirundines and swifts, including Pallid Swift, filled the air. At the villa, oily black Spotless Starlings were nesting next door, a few dainty Red-rumped Swallows passed by with the more numerous Barn Swallows, many Yellow-legged Gulls moved up and down the coast and occasional small, but noisy groups of Ring-necked Parakeets shot passed.
Monday 11th June
We played the tourist today with a visit to Ronda, a very attractive and scenic town with a strong Moorish influence, which straddles a stunning gorge in the Sierra Blanquilla. A fairly heavy night-before precluded an early start, so we didn't get going until 9:30 or so. We took the A-376 inland from San Pedro de Alcantara, which traces a very scenic rout as it climbs through the mountains to Ronda. There are good places to stop on the way but we declined these, choosing instead to press on to Ronda itself. A good choice, as even with our late start we were able to beat most of the tourists and park in a convenient, if very tight underground car park beneath a central square. Ronda is an easy place to spend a day and interesting birding can be had from the famous bridge itself and the walkways which run round the back of the Paradore de Ronda and along the northern ramparts of the town. (The Paradore, which overlooks the gorge, looks like a good place to spend a night or two) From the bridge we had several families of Chough flying aerobatically in the void beneath our feet, while fluttering Crag Martins hawked right up against the vertical rock face. Excited parties of swifts included the occasional group of javelin like Alpine Swift and we found an immaculate male Lesser Kestrel among its more common cousins. Further round, where you overlook less steep, scrub covered ground, we looked down on singing Serin and had fabulous views of a pair of Sardinian Warblers. Male and female Blue Rock Thrush were also evident here and we were treated to a flyby from a local Peregrine, doubtless with his eye on the numerous Rock Dove/Feral Pigeons filling the gorge. On the way back we took advantage of a pull-off and were rewarded with our first views of European Griffon Vulture when two of these jumbos drifted over the road.
Tuesday 12th June
We resolved to make an early start today and go birding and walking in the Sierras de las Nieves, mountains we had passed through yesterday on our way to Ronda. Accordingly we were up at 5:30, after a very short night and were heading off into the dawn 45 minutes later. Now, up until this point the weather had been fantastic, cloudless sky and hot sun being the order of the day. However, today was different, it was gloomy and dark heavy clouds hung over the hills just inland. We retraced yesterday's steps up the twisting A-376 and we very soon disappeared into these clouds, as did the road. Consequently the journey today was much slower and tenser than on Monday, so we were pleased when we reached our turn off to the Los Quejigales camping site in the Sierras de las Nieves natural park.
A couple of km over the rough track took us to our first stop, as recommended in 'Where to Watch Birds in Southern and Western Spain'. Here a track to the left should have taken us 1.5 km or so into the hills, however, after walking 200-300m we found the way gated with many no entry signs. (Well, the Spanish equivalent anyway!) The area did not look good birding habitat, so with drizzle setting in we headed disappointedly back to the car.
We decided to drive the 9km or so up to Los Quejigales, sign-posted left at the fork just ahead: bad idea! The rough track went up and got thinner, the clouds came down and got lower, the visibility closed in and got less, a lot less. A couple of kilometres from our objective we opted to turn back, to avoid a breakdown of our nervous system and probably our relationship as well. That in itself was not without excitement, as even if you know there is some track behind you, reversing into what appears to be a grey void is quite an act of faith. We parked back at the fork, regrouped, sat around a bit, ate some food and thought about what to do.
The track to the right was sign-posted to a mirador about 5km away and, as it looked unsuitable for anything less than 4WD and we'd both had enough white knuckle driving for one day, we decided to walk up this way: this was a much better idea. For the first 2km or so the hillsides were covered in dense wood/scrub with a generally familiar cast of birds, Blue Tit, Blackbird, Jay, Coal Tit, Chaffinch, Wood Pigeon etc, enlivened by perky Crested Tits and lots of very smart Subalpine Warblers.
As we got higher the land opened out, at first with rocky outcrops and then into rocky hillside with very light cover. At this point the weather got much brighter and so did the birding. There were lots of larks singing, including Woodlark, we got some very nice views of Western Bonelli's Warbler and watched a lovely pair of Black Redstarts coming and going from their nest site in a rock cavity. A cheery, chirpy song, rebounding round the rocky walls, led us to our first target bird of the day when Diane latched onto a very handsome male Rock Bunting. Stunning Black-eared Wheatears started to appear on top of boulders and Stonechats abounded.
Just round the corner the track opened out into a flat-bottomed valley with some rocky grazing land, a couple of hay fields, two white farm buildings and a few trees. This was a great place for birds with lots of activity. The short-cropped grass held numbers of the aforementioned wheatears and redstarts, and more significantly for us, our second "wanted" bird, handsome Black Wheatears. Blue Rock Thrushes sat on the rocky outcrops and a bleating juvenile Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush was a lucky find. On the dowdier, but no less exciting side, a scrubby sparrow, on close examination, turned out to be Rock Sparrow and a jaunty Thekla Lark (third lifer of the day) was carefully studied as it investigated a dry stone wall. A hesitant jangle advertised the presence of a Corn Bunting singing from the top strand of a wire fence, while on the ground some longer tussock grass held a bold Tawny Pipit.
As we had run out of water and with the day now very hot and sunny, we reluctantly walked back down to the car. Sitting outside, drinking and eating the last of our food, we were treated to a female Goshawk passing overhead being mobbed by a Common Kestrel, which looked diminutive by comparison. This was followed by our only Short-toed Eagle of the trip, which, with further Griffon Vultures in the distance, made a great finish to a day that had started so inauspiciously.
Wednesday 13th July
Today we travelled to El Rocio, on the edge of the Coto Donana National Park, which is about 300km from Estapona, via Gibraltar and Seville. However, it's a fairly easy run as the roads are mainly very good and it only took us around 41/2 hours including a 30-minute stop. The route is also quite scenic at times, particularly around Gibraltar/Tarifa with the Moroccan coast looking incredibly close across the straits. The roadside birding can also be good, especially the section between Gibraltar and Jerez: we had our only identifiable Booted Eagle of the trip, the first of only two Red Kites and a nice flock of Collared Pratincoles. The journey also gave us our first views of several species that would become very familiar over the next couple of days: Cattle Egret, Little Egret, Greater Flamingo, Black Kite and Black-winged Stilt.
We arrived at El Rocio about 2-o clock in the afternoon and climbed out of the car to be hit by a wave of heat with the temperature hovering around 370 C. I strongly recommend paying the little extra for an air-conditioned hire car!
El Rocio is an amazing town, unique, with its sand roads, no pavements and hitching rails for your horse outside every building. In fact, until quite recently the horse was the preferred mode of transport and even today many still use it. A word of warning here! Stay on the beaten track, that is the centre of the road, or like me, you may soon find yourself axle deep in sand. We had to be pushed out by two very friendly local policemen, who I'm sure had performed this task many times before.
We stayed at the Hotel Toruno, which was very comfortable, excellent value and had a fantastic position overlooking a bird filled Laguna. There were hundreds of Greater Flamingos, the Little and Cattle Egrets were joined by Eurasian Spoonbill, Grey Heron and White Stork, while smaller waders were represented by hundreds of Black-tailed Godwit and a few Common Sandpipers. The air was filled with Whiskered Terns, the ever-present Black Kites were on the look-out for an easy meal and Yellow Wagtails of the Iberian race fluttered about on the grassy banks.
After we had made contact with Claudio Manetti, our guide for the Coto Donana tomorrow, Diane unpacked and took a rest while I made a short, but very hot trip to the Centro de La Rocina. There is an information centre here with three hides overlooking a marshy area with some open water surrounded by scrub and woodland. This is a very pleasant spot with some interesting birds, which that evening included a single Black Tern, a family of Woodchat Shrikes, a flock of 20+ Tree Sparrows, singing Savis, Reed, Fan-tailed and Grasshopper Warblers, plus a number of very bold Nightingales.
Thursday 14th June
We were up early in order to meet Claudio at 5:30, which enabled us to reach a reliable Red-Necked Nightjar site well before dawn. This we duly did, and after listening to these enigmatic birds calling in the darkness we were rewarded with great views of up to four individuals, at first in flight and then sitting on the sandy track, only a few meters away in the ever improving morning light.
From here we drove in Claudio's Land Rover over rutted tracks through the Park Natural and into the Donana National Park. We stopped to examine fresh paw prints in the sand, made, as Claudio explained, by Spanish Lynx. Unfortunately, we never saw the owner of the furry paws that left those prints, but doubtless the Lynx had a very good view of us. New birds for the trip included Hoopoe and Common Buzzard while further Eurasian Bee-eaters were, as ever, a delight. Soon we were scattering flocks of larks in all directions, where, among the common Crested and Short-toed Larks, we found plenty of Lesser Short-toed Larks. These looked quite grey and streaky on the breast compared with their slightly larger cousins, which thankfully made them a lot easier to identify than the ones I had seen in Jordan twelve months earlier.
When we came to the wetland areas on the reserve we were treated to an extravaganza of large wading birds. Along with the previously noted flamingos, herons and egrets there were masses of Black-crowned Night Herons, Squacco Herons and prehistoric looking Glossy Ibises, intermingled with stately Purple Herons and diminutive Little Bitterns.
Standing at a pre determined spot, we watched pair after pair of Pin-tailed Sandgrouse as they flew low overhead to and from their drinking pools, the males clearly discernible from the females by their chestnut breast-band. Further along, a dry area held a pair of Stone Curlew and a fine quartering male Marsh Harrier, while a distant adult Egyptian Vulture took the raptor count to thirteen.
Nearby, at the new reception centre with its huge glass sided observation hide, we watched the residents of a large mixed colony of herons, egrets and ibises come and go over a coffee. We also had excellent views of Great Reed Warblers singing in the reeds only a few feet away and noted a few Gull-billed Terns patrolling with the more common Whiskered.
We visited a number of other lagoons and marshes were we found Kentish Plovers along with the more familiar Ringed Plovers, Avocets, Green Sandpipers and Redshank. Ducks were well represented with Ferruginous Duck, Gargany and genuinely wild Red-crested Pochard being of particular interest. Finally, with both the sun and the temperature now very high, we found a single Crested Coot, swimming among hundreds of Common Coots, at one of its few European outposts.
We arrived back at our hotel around 2pm; having been out since 5.30am, with virtually all our target species in the bag, at the end of what Claudio generously called a half-day trip.
After a few cold beers and a little relaxation we took ourselves off to the information centre at El Acebuche, a few kilometres down the Almonte-Matalascanas road from El Rocio. Here we had eyeball to eyeball encounters with flocks of the usually retiring Azure-winged Magpies that maraud around the picnic site. We'd had fleeting glimpses of this species earlier in the trip, but didn't bother much as we knew in advance that we could sit here and ogle to our hearts content. From El Acebuche we drove back up to La Rocina, where we saw Spotted Flycatcher, Short-toed Treecreeper and Melodious Warbler along with many of the species I'd seen on the previous evening. And so ended a great day!
Friday 15th July
But all was not done! Claudio had given us directions to a site for Spanish Imperial Eagle and 6:30am found as there, scanning a fairly distant belt of trees, anxiously waiting for the light to improve. As it did, we were privileged to have clear scope views of a chick and one of the adults as it perched in and flew regally around the trees, showing its white head and shoulders to its distant admirers. Eventually we had to walk away. Well it was time for breakfast and we did miss yesterdays!
After paying a remarkably small bill we checked out and headed back towards Estapona with the intention of taking in a couple of birding spots along the way. The first of these was Laguna De Medina, alongside the A-381 near Jerez. The road from Seville to Jerez is very quick and we were past our turning before we realised it. The only solution was to drive down the next section of toll road, turn round and drive back again, very irritating as this meant we had to pay the toll twice. I suspect they may have built a new section of A-381 as you can not see the Laguna from the road as described in Garcia and Paterson. However, there is a sign and a turning at the correct position, 10k south of Jerez, and although the car park was padlocked you can safely park on what I took to be the old road, which now appears to go nowhere. Access is limited to a footpath along the southern edge, but this does give adequate views over most of the lake.
Our perseverance was well rewarded, as the lake held several splendid pairs of very scarce White-headed Duck for us to peer at though the telescope and was dotted with attractive Black-necked Grebes in breeding plumage.
A short stop at Tarifa beach on the way back produced nothing much of interest, wrong time of day, wrong time of year, I guess.
Saturday 16th July
The short drive back to Malaga Airport did not produce any new birds.
So ended an excellent short trip to Southern Spain, which produced a remarkable selection of speciality birds of great interest to birders from Northern Europe. We logged 127 species and I added 10 new birds to my life list.
Flights with Easyjet from Luton to Malaga.
Around £140 return per person including taxes.
Toyota Yaris with A/C from Europcar via the Easyjet website.
£109 per week all in, unlimited mileage, insurance, CDW etc
Plaza Acebuchal 22
21750 El Rocio (Huelva)
Tel +34 959 442333
Fax +34 959 442338
Two nights half board cost us a little over £100 for the two of us.
Claudio Manetti at
Aguila Imperial 150
21750 El Rocio
Tel/Fax +34 959 442466
A half day guided birding
(actually in the field for well over 7 hours) with Land Rover including
tax cost us 16240 pesetas (~£60).
Great Crested Grebe
Black-crowned Night Heron
Spanish Imperial Eagle
Lesser Black-backed Gull
Lesser Short-toed Lark
Blue Rock Thrush
Great Reed Warbler
Western Bonelli's Warbler