Saturday, 19 September 2015 07:56

Pre-trip trip to Doñana offers promise for our Andalucían wildlife adventure!

Words by Michael Willett, photos by Jay Knight

A week ago today saw the arrival of the palest man to ever set foot on Portuguese soil; Jay flew into Faro to come and see me here at the CNRLI ex-situ Iberian lynx breeding centre, up in the mountains, in Vale Fuzeiros, in the municipality of Silves. The purpose of his trip was not just to come and see me, it was the important business of heading to Doñana, in Spain, to check out some Iberian lynx territories in advance, and in preparation, for our upcoming trip. 

Jay got here early and it wasn’t long before we were crossing the Guadiano river bridge over the border into Spain. It isn’t that far from where I am to Doñana, roughly about two and a half hours, and because we hadn’t seen each other for a while, and because of the fact we were both buzzing with anticipation and excitement at the prospects that the weekend had to offer, the journey passed by very quickly. 

El Rocio sits on the very edge of the Parque Nacional de Doñana, about 5k inland from Matalascañas on the coast, but the first thing that struck me was the sand. There was sand everywhere, in the roads and on the pavements, it was like being at a coastal resort dominated by sand dunes, and everywhere was parched. It was a virtual dust bowl. When we visited Doñana, a UNESCO World Heritage site and a RAMSAR wetland site of international importance, a couple of springs ago, it offered a very different sight: it was wet, and the marshes, lagoons, rivers and streams were teaming with birds, bugs, dragonflies, and butterflies, and the vegetation was lush and green. After two very dry summers, and because the water has been redirected towards neighbouring fruit farms, we were greeted by an extremely arid and foreboding scene. The thought of bringing our guests here in just a couple of weeks did not seem like the most exciting prospect, so we needed to tweak the itinerary. 

Still, our accommodation at El Rocio was booked and paid for, so we had no other option other than to explore. El Rocio is a striking place; get a picture in your head of the towns and saloons of the Wild West and you won’t be far wrong. El Rocio, as well as being a place of pilgrimage, is a horse town. The vast Doñana National Park is home to Retuerta and Marsh horses, some of the oldest breeds of horse in Europe. Once a year they are rounded up and checked over in El Rocio, just as they do with the Exmoor and Dartmoor ponies in the UK, under the shadow of Ermita, or Sanctuario de Nuestra Señora de El Rocío, a huge white church which dominates the skyline, totally at odds at with the Western town which surrounds it. Also, everywhere you look in the town, there are images of Iberian lynx, adorning menus, signs, and one building even has a life size cast iron lynx as a weather vane! 

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Lynx wind vane

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Santuario Nuestra Señora del Rocío

Driving around the area, and enquiring in the visitor centres, we were faced with the same answer –no birds, too dry. Still, even if we were a little deflated, we still managed to get sightings of booted eagle, azure winged, or as they are now known, Iberian magpies, spotless starlings, bee eaters and other Andalusian specialities. As night began to fall, we doused ourselves in mosquito repellent and headed out for some grub. Dusk offered a different proposistion in terms of wildlife, the air was alive with flying insects and bats, the shadowy figures of a 100 strong herd of fallow deer tiptoed across the dry marshland that edged the area where we sat to eat, the sound of the males groaning, getting ready to rut as the mating season approaches, and the electric call of a nightjar, resonated as the night time drew in. The food was awesome. The portions were a little large, but this was not the restaurants fault, this was more the fault of two daft Englishmen trying to order food from a menu written in Spanish. Jay ordered a trio of casseroles and a salad, thinking that the casseroles would be in tapas sized bowls, and the salad, a side salad. Wrong. The trio of casseroles would easily have fed three people, and the salad was on a plate the size of which would not look out of place on a buffet table at a wedding! It’s not often that Jay gets beaten by food, but this was one of those times. 


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Extreme portions


Morning saw us up before the birds. Well before 6am we had packed up our gear and left our accommodation in El Rocio and headed north of Doñana to meet Manu, the guide we will be using on our upcoming trip, who was going to give us up to the minute info of what to find and where in this dynamic landscape. Manu is an awesome guy whose English is better than both mine and Jay’s combined. What he doesn’t know about Doñana isn’t worth knowing. First things first, coffee, then after coffee, Iberian lynx habitat. As the sun began to rise over the dehasa – Spanish mosaic habitat consisting of scrub, grasses and cork oak, stone pine and wild olive trees – it soon became apparent that things were much more alive in this part of the reserve. Things were green, for a start. Manu directed us to what he called ‘a lynx hotspot’ and judging by the amount of lynx tracks on the ground, he was right. They were everywhere, going off in all directions. There was even the trademark lynx track; when a lynx is carrying a kill, the rabbit swings side to side as the lynx holds the rabbit by the jugular, creating a track which looks like a snake has been winding a patterned trail. This was a hotspot all right, but sadly our luck was not in that morning. Manu took us to an abandoned farmhouse and started skipping up some steps which where perilously angled away from the building, the top section of the flight jutting out a good foot from the gable end of the building. When Sir Alex Ferguson used the phrase “squeaky bum time”, I don’t think this situation is what he had in mind, but it’s pretty accurate. The rooftop terrace offered panoramic views of the surrounding area and the views were spectacular. It wasn’t long before we’d picked out an osprey eating a fish it had snuffled from a nearby fish farm. Another great spot that morning, as the sun was rising, was a little owl, just metres away from us, bobbing and winding its head, as it focused us in its stare. 


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Little owl


Manu showed us some excellent spots including flooded rice fields, lagoons, and rivers. The area was swarming with wading birds including flamingos, night herons, and black winged stilt. We saw a  fall of migrating Montagu’s harriers, up to a dozen birds must have been taking a break within a 1-2km stretch of track cutting through the paddy fields, most of them content sat in the middle of the road. Of the most unusual birds we saw that day were black-headed weaver and yellow crowned bishop, introduced birds which have thought to have sought refuge here after being released through the pet trade. Weird seeing such colourful birds that you’d usually place in an African setting, in southern Europe. Dragonflies of all different sizes and descriptions motored on the gentle breeze, as flocks of spoonbill and black storks purposely arrowed overhead. How the atmosphere had changed after the dustbowl of El Rocio, just the day before. Once again we were full of enthusiasm, knowing that our guests are in for a treat; a wildlife extravaganza. 


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Yellow crowned bishop (an invasive species)


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Black crowned night heron


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Greater flamingo


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Wader flocks on passage


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Montagu's Harrier in the middle of the road


After saying goodbye to Manu with handshakes and hugs we made our way to check into our accommodation at Aznalcazar. The rural hotel here is one of the best we, at Trek Eco-Adventures, use. Juan Antonio is one of the most likeable guys. He’s a keen birder, and really and honestly cannot do enough for you. The rooms are set in individual houses/apartments, offering privacy and cooking and dining facilities, and face onto a pool surrounded by sun loungers. The perfect place to relax with an ice cold beer after a hard day watching wildlife. As there was still an hour of daylight left we decided to head back to the lynx hotspot that Manu had led us to that morning. Luckily our accommodation is just a couple of kilometres away. We left the car and had a walkabout, disturbing rabbits and getting caught in the middle of a conversation between two tawny owls, but no Iberian lynx, despite the amount of footprints along the paths that we took. As the last of the light was leaving us we got back in the car and had a slow cruise along the tracks which dissect this area of the park. After driving for little over five minutes, Jay noticed something odd in the middle of the road, upon getting out, and paying closer examination it turned out to be the hind quarters of a recently killed rabbit. As lynx eat their prey starting at the head, this could only mean one thing: a lynx was nearby. Literally two minutes after starting the engine and crawling back down the track we were stopped in our tracks by an Iberian lynx on the right hand side of the track, it turned to look at us, then in a flash raced across the road to the safety of the dehasa on the right. After standing holding our breath for five minutes, listening and watching with every strained ounce of effort, a call rang out. A lynx call is a very peculiar sound. People here at the centre in Portugal describe it as sounding like a gull. It is very bird like. The call was followed by a deeper, lower pitched call from another area close by. Then the high pitched call shrilled out, immediately followed this time by the lower call. Then there was nothing. Silence. I looked at Jay, and Jay looked at me. Each of us with faces filled with shock and excitement. We hypothesised that as the lynx we saw was small – roughly around the same size as this year’s cubs at the centre – and it didn’t have a developed beard-like ruff, and the difference between the two calls, that it was more than likely a mother and her cub. The cub being the lynx we witnessed crossing the road just metres in front of us. Things were now looking extremely promising for the trip in a couple of weeks time.


The John Travolta swagger, from the time we saw Iberian lynx in Andujar, was well and truly back and in full effect has we headed out for a bite to eat that evening. We ate at a small tapas bar, in a busy seating area out on the street. The food tasted good that night, and there was a really friendly atmosphere as the locals ate and dined into the night. I ordered some prawns, and they came shell on. Now, I’ve eaten and peeled these many times without causing any sideways looks from anyone, but that particular evening I seemed to be drawing sniggers and sympathetic “oh look at the poor Englishman struggling to peel his prawns” looks from several tables. The waitress went one better than this and actually burst out laughing at my feeble attempts. This seemed to trigger a chain reaction of laughter from the tables around, at this point I was laughing too. The waitress gave me a prawn peeling demo, making it look as easy as peeling a Cadbury’s cream egg, but still my attempt was like somebody peeling the foil of a Cadburys cream egg wearing boxing gloves, and a blindfold. She gave up eventually and I struggled on, on my own. We could have stayed there into the early hours, but we had an early start the following morning; heading back across the border to meet one of the most highly regarded birders in the Algarve, Thijs, in Silves, who was going to take us around some of his favourite birding spots, including Sagres, to show us the potential of creating a Trek Eco-Adventures wildlife trip to Portugal in the near future. 


Next morning, after picking up Thijs at the old Roman Bridge in Silves, we were en-route to Sagres. Pretty soon we were pulling up to Cape Saint Vincent, a great rut of rocky cliffs that jut out into the North Atlantic Ocean. Very quickly our bird list was building up as we were seeing birds like Audoiun’s gull , Cory's and bBalearic shearwaters, gannets and shags. The highlight from the cliffs was watching a massive pod of common dolphins, probably numbering over a hundred or more, having a mass feeding frenzy on a bait ball – a huge shoal of fish – as gannets arrowed into the deep waiters between them. A magnificent sight, showing that these fisheries are still very productive with intact ecosystms still flourishing. No doubt there would have been whales lurking in the depths!


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Cape Vincent, Sagres, Portugal


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Yellow-legged gull


From here we met up with Thijs’ friend Nunu, and Ross, his friend over from South Africa who works for Birdlife International on their albatross project (two great guys), and headed to an observation point, still in Sagres. Here we met up with Alexander, a crazy Portuguese birder whose job it is to keep a look out for migrating birds who could potentially be on a collision course with nearby wind turbines. Should he spot anything heading periously close, he phones wind turbine control, who shut down the propellers. They have a great record of zero casualties using this method. Here Alexander’s and Thijs’ next-level birding skills truly came to the fore. What looked to our eyes like a black dot in the distance to us was a dark phase booted eagle to them. It was incredible to witness. Next stop was a pool near Alcantarilha. Here we got some more great birds including kingfisher and purple swamphen, but the absolute best bird was pectoral sandpiper, a North American blown all the way across the Atlantic, here to the Algarve, in Portugal. 


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Pectoral sandpiper


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Zitting cisticola


After checking out Jan’s house, Thijs’ brother, to scope it out as potential accommodation for a Portuguese trip (it is awesome, jaw-droppingly awesome, hand built, made in part from straw bales, set in a valley where invasive monarch butterflies soar past like paper planes) we checked into our hotel and had a bite to eat. We were in bed and asleep by 10pm. It had been a brilliant weekend, both of us, Jay and I, cannot wait to guide our guests on our tour which sees us staying in Tarifa, for the raptor migration and whale watching boat trip, Doñana with its plethora of birds, especially the oasis of waders and passage migrants, and of course the potential for seeing Iberian lynx, the world’s most endangered cat species, in the wild, and then up into the mountains of Andujar to again chance our arm with Iberian lynx as well as shed loads of birds and other wildlife including otter and maybe even gennet. Oh, I nearly forgot the food and wine; how could I forget the world class Spanish cuisine and wine which is renowned all over the globe. Then there’s the cultural sites; seeing Africa from Tarifa is a special sight, being just 14k away, there is glorious historically important architecture and buildings at all of the places we will be visiting, as well as the aesthetics of the surrounding scenary, especially at sunrise and sunset. There’s beaches at Tarifa and Donana. It really is promising to be one of our best ever trips. 

On the Monday morning I said goodbye to Jay, and see you in a few weeks. To our guests that are reading this, I’ll see you in a few weeks too. To people that are reading this with whetted appetites, we still have room to squeeze in another extra couple of places, so I could be seeing you soon too. For me, for now, back to work at the Iberian lynx breeding centre. I hope to see you soon. 


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Jan's house, an accommodation we will be using on future trips

Here is the pretty epic list of birds that we saw in 3 days:





Anas platyrhynchos




(Common) Pochard


Aythya ferina




Red-legged Partridge


Alectoris rufa




Little Grebe


Tachybaptus ruficollis




Cory’s Shearwater


Calonectris diomedea borealis




Balearic Shearwater


Puffinus mauretanicus




Sooty Shearwater


Puffinus griseus




(Northern) Gannet


Morus bassanus




(Great) Cormorant


Phalacrocorax carbo




(European) Shag


Phalacrocorax aristotelis




(Black-crowned) Night Heron


Nycticorax nycticorax




Cattle Egret


Bubulcus ibis




Little Egret


Egretta garzetta




Great Egret


Casmerodius albus




Grey Heron


Ardea cinerea




White Stork


Ciconia ciconia




Black Stork


Ciconia nigra




Glossy Ibis


Plegadis falcinellus




(Eurasian) Spoonbill


Platalea leucorodia




(Greater) Flamingo


Phoenicopterus roseus




(Eurasian) Griffon Vulture


Gyps fulvus




Egyptian Vulture


Neophron percnopterus






Pandion haliaetus




Booted Eagle


Aquila pennata




Bonelli’s Eagle


Aquila fasciata




(Western) Marsh Harrier


Circus aeruginosus




Montagu’s Harrier


Circus pygargus




Common Buzzard


Buteo buteo




(European) Honey Buzzard


Pernis apivorus




(Common) Kestrel


Falco tinnunculus




Lesser Kestrel


Falco naumanni




Peregrine Falcon


Falco peregrinus




(Common) Moorhen


Gallinula chloropus




(Eurasian) Coot


Fulica atra




Purple Swamphen


Porphyrio porphyrio




Black-winged Stilt


Himantopus himantopus




Little Ringed Plover


Charadrius dubius




(Common) Ringed Plover


Charadrius hiaticula






Philomachus pugnax




Pectoral Sandpiper


Calidris melanotos




(Red) Knot


Calidris canutus






Calidris alba




Curlew Sandpiper


Calidris ferruginea




Temminck’s Stint


Calidris temminckii




Little Stint


Calidris minuta




Wood Sandpiper


Tringa glareola




Green Sandpiper


Tringa ochropus




Common Sandpiper


Actitis hypoleucos




(Common) Redshank


Tringa totanus




(Common) Greenshank


Tringa nebularia




(Common) Snipe


Gallinago gallinago




Yellow-legged Gull


Larus michahellis




Audouin’s Gull


Larus audouinii




Lesser Black-backed Gull


Larus fuscus




Whiskered Tern


Chlidonias hybrida




Feral Pigeon


Columba livia domestica




(Common) Wood Pigeon


Columba palumbus




(Eurasian) Collared Dove


Streptopelia decaocto




Barn Owl


Tyto alba




Little Owl


Athene noctua




(European) Nightjar


Caprimulgus europaeus




Red-necked Nightjar


Caprimulgus ruficollis




(Common) Swift


Apus apus




(Common) Kingfisher


Alcedo atthis




(European) Bee-eater


Merops apiaster




(Eurasian) Hoopoe


Upupa epops




(Common) Skylark


Alauda arvensis




Crested Lark


Galerida cristata




Thekla Lark


Galerida theklae




(Greater) Short-toed Lark


Calandrella brachydactyla




(Common) Sand Martin


Riparia riparia




Barn Swallow


Hirundo rustica




Red-rumped Swallow


Cecropis daurica




Tawny Pipit


Anthus campestris




Yellow Wagtail


Motacilla flava




Grey Wagtail


Motacilla cinerea




(Winter) Wren


Troglodytes troglodytes




(Common) Redstart


Phoenicurus phoenicurus




Black Redstart


Phoenicurus ochruros






Saxicola rubetra




(Common) Stonechat


Saxicola rubicola




(Common) Blackbird


Turdus merula




(Northern) Wheatear


Oenanthe oenanthe




Zitting Cisticola


Cisticola juncidis






Sylvia atricapilla




Sardinian Warbler


Sylvia melanocephala




Cetti’s Warbler


Cettia cetti




Savi’s Warbler


Locustella luscinioides




Willow Warbler


Phylloscopus trochilus




Iberian Chiffchaff


Phylloscopus ibericus




Spotted Flycatcher


Muscicapa striata




Pied Flycatcher


Ficedula hypoleuca




Great Tit


Parus major




(European) Blue Tit


Cyanistes caeruleus




Iberian Grey Shrike


Lanius meridionalis




Woodchat Shrike


Lanius senator




Azure-winged Magpie


Cyanopica cyanus




(Common) Magpie


Pica pica




(Western) Jackdaw


Corvus monedula




(Red-billed) Chough


Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax




(Common) Raven


Corvus corax




Spotless Starling


Sturnus unicolor




House Sparrow


Passer domesticus




Spanish Sparrow


Passer hispaniolensis




(Common) Linnet


Carduelis cannabina




(European) Goldfinch


Carduelis carduelis




(European) Serin


Serinus serinus




Common Waxbill


Estrilda astrild




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