Sunday, 10 December 2017

Southern Iberia including Doñana, December 2017

This was a trip to Southern Iberia from 2nd December to 9th December, taking in some of the best birding areas in Europe. We flew to Faro in Portugal and hired a car to drive into Spain almost as far as Cadiz and spent two days in Doñana. In total we saw an impressive 139 species including the majority of the so called target species of the area. The main purpose of the trip however, was to experience the impressive spectacle which is winter birding in Southern Iberia!

I offer guided tours of Southern Iberia and various other localities. If this trip report inspires you to join me, please click here.

Sunday 3rd December 2017 - Ria Formosa and Quinta do Lago

Touch down Faro, Portugal at 7pm. It was dark so no birding distractions to worry about, just pick up the car, drive to the hotel and get out for some food. The following day we were out at dawn....

Ria Formosa is a great place to start a holiday to Southern Iberia. It breaks you in gently, allows you to see a few of the specialities of the peninsular, and offers up a variety of habitats, including saltmarsh, salinas, freshwater and stone pine woodland.

Today we parked near the airport and walked to Quinta do Lago, a golf resort some 2.5 miles distant. It's a decent walk offering lots of good birding.

Azure-winged magpie (and a hoopoe!)
Quinta do Lago is a great place for seeing azure-winged magpies, in fact it would be virtually impossible not to notice them flying around the greens and fairways of the San Lorenzo golf course where they are joined by the equally stunning hoopoes and offer great photo opportunities.

The magpies would land on the fairways and then fly up and hover for a moment before dropping down again, presumably on some unseen prey. Throughout the holiday we saw hundreds of these birds, in virtually every habitat except saltmarsh and salinas, but nowhere did they show better than at Quinta do Lago.

San Lorenzo lagoon
However the main reason for coming to Quinta do Lago is to visit the San Lorenzo bird hide which overlooks this freshwater lagoon. This is an outstanding place for many species, including good numbers of wildfowl, egrets and herons, ibis and swamphens.

Purple swamphens and a drake gadwall
When I first visited Iberia I thought that purple swamphens (or purple gallinules as they were called then), would be very rare, very skulking and very difficult to see. My first encounter with the species only served to confirm this belief when I had a brief back end view of a bird lurking in a reedbed. Subsequent sightings however have completely dispelled the myth!  In the correct habitat and in the correct part of the world, purple swamphens are not difficult at all, in fact they can be very obliging.

Purple swamphens
On golf courses across the Algarve, purple swamphens can be seen like this, walking across the fairways and greens, out in the open and well away from cover. This is not an unusual scene. When we get to Doñana we can expect to see 30 or 40 birds on view at any one time. They may not like close approach, but they're not skulking, not secretive and not in the least bit difficult to see. In fact you would need to work hard to fail to see purple swamphen at San Lorenzo.

Glossy ibis
Another bird which can show exceptionally well here is the glossy ibis. There are usually a few around this lagoon. They may not be in the huge numbers which occur in Doñana, but nowhere do they show better than at San Lorenzo and today we saw about eight.

Ludo salinas
The walk back to the car took us past Ludo farm and salinas where we saw the usual selection of birds that you might expect on a salina, black-winged stilts, avocets and various other waders, white storks, greater flamingos, spoonbills, egrets etc., whilst overhead was a pale phase booted eagle, marsh harriers, a black kite and at least one osprey. The rattle of the Sardinian warbler was never far away here. In hindsight, perhaps the most intriguing bird of the day was a female ring-tail harrier which flew directly overhead. Too small and long tailed for hen harrier, we initially  identified it as a Montagu's, but looking back at it I can clearly remember a pale neck collar, possibly suggesting pallid. Pallid is now annually recorded in Southern Iberia in winter, so it's not beyond the bounds of possibility but unfortunately I have no photographs so it will have to remain an unidentified ring-tail harrier.

There is also another fresh water lagoon here which in fact is the very place where I saw my first skulking swamphen way back in 1994, from a hide on stilts which is now long gone.

Ria Formosa
Ria Formosa with spoonbills in the centre of the photo
The final major habitats here are saltmarsh and estuarine. A large variety of waders occur here and today we saw grey plover, redshank, curlew, whimbrel, little stint, dunlin, sanderling and common sandpiper, whilst larger birds included many white storks, spoonbills and egrets. I've seen bluethroat here in the past, but not today.

Caspian tern
Possibly the star of the show at this time of year however, is the Caspian tern which winter here. Today we saw up to six of these huge terns fishing close to the path, allowing good photo opportunities. Also in this area we saw dartford and spectacled warblers.

Black-winged stilt
Booted eagle
Mediterranean gulls
One of the most remarkable sights of the day was this flock of Mediterranean gulls which passed overhead. There had been about 30 on the water at San Lorenzo, and I guess that some of these were from there.

Tavira at  Christmas
One of the joys of being away at this time of year is to see all of these lovely Portuguese and Spanish  towns and villages lit up with Christmas lights and decorations.

Monday 4th December 2017 - Marismas de Odiel

Marismas de Odiel is a large area of saltpans and marshes on the west side of the rio Odiel, opposite the city of Huelva. It's a good stop off place on our journey from Faro to el Rocio and Doñana, not least because it offers the possibilty of a few species which may otherwise prove difficult. Unfortunately one of these species, red-knobbed coot, we didn't connect with today, but otherwise we did ok here.

Audouin's gull
Probably the main species I wanted to see here was Audouin's gull, and fortunately a drive along the peninsular followed by a walk through the dunes produced the goods, with this fine looking adult in amongst the other gulls. Whilst walking through the dunes we also had the bonus of a stone curlew and a few Dartford warblers.

Greater flamingo
This is also a good place for seeing greater flamingos, but it's not often that they fly quite so close and it's even rarer that I manage to capture it in a photo! Normally all I would get would be its feet! Marismas de Odiel is also one of the best places for spoonbill, and other birds seen here today included southern grey shrike and a flock of 30 black-necked grebes.

Then we pressed on to el Rocio, full of anticipation for what the next couple of days might bring.

Salinas at Marismas de Odiel
Southern grey shrike
Dartford warbler

Tuesday 5th December 2017 - Doñana west of the rio Guadalquivir

el Rocio is an experience like no other. It looks like a cowboy town with wide, sandy streets lined with houses complete with broad verandas and wooden rails for tying up horses. It feels like you've arrived in a frontier town and it would be no surprise if Wyatt Earp himself walked down the street towards you. Yet in the middle of this town there is a church with the look of a cathederal which wouldn't be out of place in a major Spanish city. This is the focal point of the annual el Rocio pilgrimage when up to a million pilgrims arrive in the village from all over Spain.

It's also the focal point of another pilgrimage, that of birders and naturalists who use the village as a base for exploring the vast marshes, rice fields and woodlands of Doñana west of the rio Guadalquivir.

We were up early and after a quick breakfast in the Hotel Toruño restaurant we headed for the promenade. Apart from it's quirky charm and relatively central location, the main benefit to birders from staying in el Rocio is that it is right on the edge of Madre de las Marismas, Mother of the marshes and when the marshes are wet there is often a birding spectacular to be had right from the balcony of your hotel or from the promenade.

Despite the long drought in southern Iberia this year, the marshes were full of water and a quick scan revealed flocks of greater flamingos, spoonbills, cattle egrets, little egrets, glossy ibis, and wildfowl including shoveler, teal, wigeon and greylags. A closer look revealed black-winged stilts, godwits, redshank and lapwings. A cetti's warbler called from the reedbed, stonechats were everywhere and a couple of zitting cisticolas (fan-tailed warblers in old money) flitted in and out of the reeds. Behind us spotless starlings and black redstarts were on the roofs, sardinian warblers in the bushes and white wagtails on the lawns. A lot to take in.

White-spotted bluethroat on el Rocio promenade
Suddenly a robin size bird popped up onto the fence, a stunning white-spotted bluethroat in full breeding plumage at point blank range. These birds breed in Iberia and I have seen them before in both Portugal and Spain in winter, but they don't usually look this good in December!  A cracking bird, we watched it as it occasionally disappeared under the board walk to feed before flying back to the reeds and then returning to the fence. Bluethroats are funny birds, sometimes they are very skulking, yet at other time such as this, they can be as tame as a robin.

Time to move on though, we had a lot of places to visit today, many more birds to see, and Doñana is a large area to cover with plenty of potential for getting lost resulting in wasted time!

el Rocio church
Just enough time for a little sightseeing though. We may be primarily here for the birding but it's nice to take in some of the culture and appreciate some of the architecture. It's all part of it after all.

Madonna of the Dew
Our breakfast bar
Great location for a hotel! el Rocio.

The promenade
Dawn over Madre de las Marismas del Rocio, taken from the promenade

Fan-tailed warbler (or Zitting cisticola)
Greater flamingos, el Rocio marsh.
Sardinian warbler
Spotless starling
Black stork
Today we were heading for the the Valverde centre in the heart of Doñana, not because it's any better than anywhere else in Doñana, but simply because it's a central point which offers facilities and refreshment, and also because to get to it you pass through some wonderful places and can see some great birds.

We took the scenic route, down the Corredor Verde to Canada de la Ruinzuela, through Isla Mayor and its rice paddies, past Casa de Bombas and Veta Hornito to arrive at Valverde at about 3pm. No worries though, even in December it's not going dark here until 6:30pm, so plenty of daylight left. En route we saw many great birds including a flock of 150 black-winged stilts and 50 avocets at Canada de la Ruinzuela and many white storks, egrets, flamingos, glossy ibis and black storks at Isla Mayor.

At the start of the Corredor Verde we came across two little bustards, but even they were eclipsed by the sight of two displaying black-shouldered kites which twisted and turned and danced in the air like a childs paper plane on a light breeze, before briefly locking tallons and then flying to land in a distant tree.

Cattle egrets near Casa de Bombas

Common Cranes

By the time we had reached Casa de Bombas we were beginning to see flights of common cranes, and just a mile or two past the pumping station we came across a large flock on the ground. These are always one of the highlights of a winter visit to Doñana. To see one or two or even double figures counts in the UK is one thing, but to experience a flock of 1500 or more in Doñana is quite another. It's like watching a large flock of geese, small groups are constantly flying around and their calls fill the air. Meanwhile in the background, marsh and hen harriers drifted past quartering the marshes, hundreds of white storks were dotted across the area in small groups, and other birds which barely get a mention and were largely taken for granted included 20 great white egrets, 50 cattle egrets, hundreds of crested larks, 50 buzzards, 50 kestrels and 100 corn buntings. A great spectacle.

Common cranes
Common cranes
The Valverde centre was fairly quiet for birds, as it often is in winter, but it provided some nourishment and we were ready to go again after a short break. That said, we did get some nice views of purple swamphen from the cafe as we drank our coffee, and flocks of common cranes continued to pass overhead.

However, just a mile or two past the centre we came across another flock of cranes on the ground and we decided to stop and have a proper scan over the area. This is often a good area for larks, and so it proved again as a flock of around 1000 birds contained largely calandra larks, their black underwings making them easy to pick out in flight. Closer scrutiny revealed their black collars, whilst other species in amongst the flock included lesser short-toed larks. Suddenly there was a crashing through the reeds behind us, and a huge wild boar ran past us! What an experience, I've never seen one so well!

This also seemed a good spot for hoopoes because there were several on view, whilst the ubiquitous marsh harriers, buzzards and kestrels provided the background entertainment. And still more flocks of cranes flew over calling.....

One of the features of the holiday was the large numbers of chiffchaffs. Theye were everywhere, in the woods, in the marshes in the reedbeds, alongside the rice paddies, from Quinta do Lago in Portugal to the furthest point we travelled to in Spain. Everywhere! At first we had a go at identifying them to species and managed to pick out both common chiffchaff and Iberian chiffchaff on plumage and call. However after a while we gave up, we were seeing hundreds of chiffchaffs everyday and identifying everyone to species level was way down our list of priorities! Please just accept that there were a lot of chiffchaffs everywhere!

Isla Mayor
Night heron in the Corredor Verde
White storks
White storks and spoonbills at Isla Mayor

Wednesday 6th December 2017 - Doñana east of the rio Guadalquivir
A journey over to the east bank of the rio Guadalquivir from el Rocio is a longish drive of up to 180km, but it is well worth it. Today we headed first for the furthest point on our itinary, Bonanza saltpans and the freshwater lagoon of Laguna de Tarelo. I like this lagoon because it offers the possiblity of several species which can be quite difficult to find elsewhere, and it's a different type of birding to the rice fields and marismas which dominate much of Doñana. If you like, it's a softer, gentler type of birding.

It's no less exciting though! Within minutes of leaving the car we were walking through a stone pine woodland and overhead we were glimpsing hirundines between the pines which surely were crag martins? While we were trying to get a decent view of these to confirm the identification, suddenly a swift shot overhead. Was that a pallid swift? It looked brown. We moved towards a clearing in the woods to try to get a better view. There was another swift. Yep, pale throat it's a pallid. Hang on though, that was more than pale it was white..... and it's got a white rump! Now panic set in, was it white-rumped swift or was it little swift? Either would be good, both are rare breeding birds in Andalucia but I wasn't expecting either of them in winter. Unfortunately the bird had gone, disappeared over the trees as quickly as it had arrived.

Little swift??
There was a viewing screen ahead which overlooked the lagoon. We should be able to see more sky from there and the birds might be feeding over the water. Almost ignoring the white-headed ducks on the water and allowing ourselves no more than a cursory glance at a firecrest flitting around in the pines, we continued to look to the skies. Over the next few minutes we saw many crag martins and swallows, a single red-rumped swallow, a house martin, a few pallid swifts and we were able to confirm that there were indeed at least two swifts with white rumps flying around and their squared off tails immediately identfied them as little swifts. And relax....

Little swift is the rarer of the two swifts with white rumps in Spain, at the time of writing known from just a single colony with scattered single nests elsewhere. It's estimated that about 30 pairs breed in Spain, so a pretty decent find in the middle of December.

Definately little swift!
Little swift
Now we could take the time to have a look over the water, where we discovered a nice flock of 34 white-headed ducks intermingled with common pochard and red-crested pochard. In the bushes at the side of the lake we counted at least 40 roosting night herons, a pale phase booted eagle flew overhead whilst in the distance an osprey hovered over unseen water beyond the lagoon. Great stuff. We ate our lunch, had a quick look at Bonanza saltpans and then headed back north towards Seville. Our second major destination of the day was Brazo del Este, one of the top birding destinations in Doñana, and we were keen to get there as soon as possible.

White-headed ducks
Red-crested pochard

Brazo del este is an incredible birding experience. No words or photographs or list of birds seen can do it justice. You can only know what it is like by being there. The approach to Brazo del este is fairly uninspiring, through miles of farmland, but gradually it gets better and better until you reach the river and turn north. Now the rice paddies are in front of you and if you're lucky enough to be here at harvest time you'll really understand why this is considered to be one of the greatest birding experiences there is.

Job done for the season. A rice harvest tractor is moved back to storage.
Just part of a flock of 10,000 glossy ibis!
If your only experience of glossy ibis is twitching the occasional bird or two in the UK then it's hard to comprehend what a flock of 10,000 glossy ibis looks and sounds like. From a distance it's almost as if there has been a large spillage of oil over the fields. The air is full of their calls and flocks are flying in to join the masses all of the time and from all directions. It's just staggering. Other birds are here as well, white and black storks, spoonbills, egrets, gulls and waders, but it's hard to avert your gaze from the glossy ibis spectacular. It's just mesmerising.

Glossy ibis

And still more glossy ibis kept arriving!
Black stork, almost overlooked in the excitement
Black-winged stilt
Eventually we had to move on in anticipation of still more great birding experiences ahead of us. Just a mile or two from the ibis spectacular, we arrived at Brazo del este. There was a black and white haze on the water.....

Part of the flock of at least 1000 black-winged stilts.
Individually black-winged stilts are beautiful birds. Imagine then how a flock of over 1000 looks! Quite spectacular would be an understatement. Every now and again they flew up in panic from some real or imagined unseen predator before settling again, whilst in the reeds in the background around 200 purple swamphens were flying around or feeding or just perched up on top of the reeds. How do the reeds support their weight? In just one small patch of reedbed I counted 40 swamphens in one quick scan. In the distance there was a circling flock of 20 marsh harriers, and ibis, egrets, storks and ducks constantly flew past. A red kite circled overhead.

Barn owl
Still there was no let up to the excitement, as we left Brazo del este we drove past rice paddies which held thousands of waders, mainly dunlin and we spotted a barn owl on the ground, a magnificent bird and a great way to end the day. What a day! Was it really just one days birding?

Thursday 7th December 2017 - Sierra de Aracena

After a final goodbye to Madre de las Marismas we left the marshes and rice paddies behind and set off into the mountains for a different, less intensive kind of birding. The next two days were to be spent targeting some enigmatic species which just can't be found in Doñana.

We drove towards the mountains of Aracena and passed pylon after pylon with white stork nests, some with as many as seven nests per pylon. Cattle egrets were everywhere and red kites and buzzards hunted the fields.

Black vulture
As soon as we got into the mountains proper we started to see vultures and the first two we saw were our main target species, black vultures, these days also often called monk or cinereous vultures. Magnificent birds, they obliged by circling quite low overhead for several minutes allowing us to see them in great detail, even including their diagnostic yellow feet. It's not everyday you see a vulture well enough to determine the colour of its feet!

At a second stop we came across a large group of mainly griffon vultures which stretched away into the distance, with at least 100 birds circling. These were a bit more distant, but the closest two birds were black and griffon vultures which circled together and provided a great comparison between the two species.

Several further stops produced more vultures as well as many woodland species which were common but new for the list, including short-toed treecreeper and best of all a new Spanish tick for me in the form of a woodcock which I flushed from a wooded stream as I searched for salamanders.

It was dark when we arrived at our hotel overlooking the rio Guadiana and the hilltop village of Mertola.

Black vulture
White storks on nests
Mertola at night - the view from our hotel
Seriously, is there a better view from a hotel anywhere?

Friday 8th December 2017 -The plains of the southern Alentejo

The rolling plains of the Alentejo stretch for mile after mile after mile. It seems like every telegraph pole has a storks nest and every storks nest has a small colony of Spanish sparrows. In summer Montagu's harriers and black kites quarter the fields and great spotted cuckoos harass the azure-winged magpies.

As we drove through this arid landscape we spotted another black-shouldered kite sitting on a telegraph post and every wire had a southern grey shrike or an azure-winged magpie.

Great bustards
This is the best area in Portugal for bustards, particularly great bustard and it's one of the easiest place to see them..... if you know where to look! Fortunately we knew exactly where to look and came across a flock of about 30 birds today.  I have seen great bustard close to the road in this area on previous visits, but generally they are quite timid birds and usually slowly walk away from you even at quite a distance. Even today in mid December heat haze was a bit of a problem, but in spring or summer it can make viewing virtually impossible unless you're prepared to be there early morning, and at that time of year the height of the vegetation can cause further problems.

While we were watching them we also kept seeing small groups of distant black-bellied sandgrouse flying around, easily identifiable but frustratingly brief and distant. Eventually though a flock of 50 sandgrouse flew low right over our heads allowing us to see every detail.

Great bustards
Common Cranes
There are plenty of common cranes in this area in winter, and at various places along the route we could hear them and it sounded like there were quite a few, but these three were the only cranes we saw today.

Sharp-ribbed salamander
Despite the impresssion of a dry, arid landscape, there are damp areas and ponds, and a bit of searching in these areas can occasionally be productive as it was today when we found this sharp-ribbed salamander.  This is a species which is endemic to Iberia. Winter is generally the best time of year for seeing amphibians in the Mediterranean though they do wait until the rains before they become active and  at the time of writing it had barely rained for six months following a summer with temperatures reaching 50'C, so unsurprisingly there weren't that many amphibians around during our stay this week.

Thekla lark
This area is also good for Thekla lark and today we saw several, including this one obligingly sitting on a fence alongside the car. Apart from anything else, note the clearly convex base to the lower mandible which is a feature of thekla lark and seperates it from the very similar crested lark. Several other features also make this a thekla lark, including the heavy streaking on the chest and flanks on a white base colour, dark streaked ear coverts and white eye ring and white eye stripe. What isn't obvious from these photos is the habitat, which is arid, stoney hillside, classic thekla lark habitat rather than crested lark, though it should be noted that the latter do occur here and so care is needed when claiming thekla lark.

Thekla lark
Thekla lark
This is a different thekla lark to that above, but all of the same criterea apply, though it's perhaps not such a classic thekla. Once again though, note the convex base to the lower mandible, probably the most important feature in identifying the species.

The Mertola lesser kestrel nesting colony on the far side of the ria Guadiana from the hotel swimming pool!
Our hotel at Mertola had spectacular views overlooking the ria Guadiana and Mertola. Of particular interest to me was the great view you got from the hotel of the lesser kestrel colony on the other side of the river. Not particularly relevant to this trip because there are no lesser kestrels about in winter, but a good selling point for future trips at the correct time of year?

Homes for lesser kestrels

Saturday 9th December 2017 - Quinta do Lago revisted

Our flight was in the evening so we had opportunity for a full days birding and decided to spend it back at Quinta do Lago and San Lorenzo. After a hectic week it was a chance to catch up with any missed photo opportunities.

Waxbills - Photo Mike Brown

Azure-winged magpie
Kentish plover
On the estuary we came across a few Kentish plovers which were new for the trip, and on the same mud flats we found a nice group of fiddler crabs.

Male and female fiddler crabs
Purple swamphen

Purple swamphens. The perfect end to a great trip!
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