Last week my good friend John and I enjoyed a birding trip to Cadiz province in Andalucia; during the seven days we were there we managed to see a total of 157 different bird species – 30 of which were totally new for me, and if I am quite frank we were pretty chuffed with our success. We chose Cadiz for its great diversity of habitats and southerly location, which in turn results in a great diversity of birds. Across the province you can find mountains, oak forests, marshes, lakes, rivers, farmland, olive groves, coastal cliffs and pine woodland – each supporting special species. We chose to go at the end of April as it would be both an excellent time for bird migration as well as for resident breeding birds, without being too hot. Allow me to share with you some of the highlights of the trip.
Day 1 – We arrived at Gibraltar airport late morning on the Saturday, after a tremendously exciting landing in 40mph winds! We then picked up our hire car and set off inland to spend the afternoon exploring ‘Los Alcornocales’ National Park, a vast area of mountainous oak forest. We took a drive and then a walk down a terrifically scenic, wild, unspoiled valley; Corn Buntings sang from every bush and Griffon Vultures were a constant presence overhead. The fields and woods were alive with colourful wildflowers and insects of all kinds. It was in a stony field here that I saw my first ‘lifer’, a Tawny Pipit, although it took a while to be sure of the ID. We actually heard the distinctive song of an Iberian Chiffchaff, but failed to see the bird itself, but otherwise we did see a Cuckoo, a migrant Whinchat, a confiding Black-eared Wheatear, a Short-toed Eagle, a couple of unexpected Hawfinches atop an oak as well as a few Woodchat Shrikes – a common bird in the area.
Day 2 – The weather improved considerably and reached about 26 degrees Celsius, nice. We spent the day at La Algaida, a large area of salt-pans, freshwater pools and pine forest. We saw huge numbers of waders in breeding plumage, notably Curlew Sandpipers, but there were also Greater Flamingos, Black-winged Stilts, Spoonbill, Glossy Ibis, Kentish & Ringed Plovers and a Little Stint. We had good views of a speciality of the region – Slender-billed Gulls – on the salt-pans, a dainty, attractive species. We also had our first sighting of Collared Pratincoles when a flock flew over our car as we were driving. One large pool had a very busy nesting colony of herons and egrets on an island – it was home to Spoonbills, Night Herons, Cattle Egrets, Little Egrets and Glossy Ibis. Later on in an open, scrubby area we managed to spot both Lesser and Greater Short-toed Larks, which were lifers for me and thankfully not too difficult to distinguish. At some other pools we also saw some Little Bitterns, White-headed ducks, Red-crested Pochards and my first Gull-billed Tern. Other than birds we also saw a lovely big Jewel Beetle and an incredible butterfly called the Two-tailed Pasha, which looks tropical with a black and burnt-orange upperwing and complex colourful patterning underneath.
Day 3 – We went for a long drive around a vast area of open farmlands in a very wide, flat-bottomed valley. Here we came across an enormous road-side colony of Cattle Egrets (several thousand strong) that were nesting low-down in trees growing out of a ditch, staying in the car we got excellent views. In one of the drainage ditches I had my first ever sighting of a Purple Swamphen, basically a moorhen on steroids, these were quite common in wetlands in the region. We also saw a singing Melodious warbler, a couple of Turtle Doves, Red-rumped Swallows, Zitting Cisticola and another lifer in the form of a Calandra Lark. We then headed to the Sierra de la Plata, a high rocky outcrop on the coast where we had ridiculously close views of a singing Blue Rock Thrush, as well as nesting Griffon vultures and Iberian Green Woodpeckers. On our way back home in the evening we stopped in an isolated olive grove to look for another regional speciality – Red-necked Nightjars. As soon as we got out of the car we could hear the males’ song (a strange hollow-sounding ‘kyotock’ repeated continuously) and shortly after saw a couple of birds fly over the path wing-clapping – another lifer!
Day 4 – A day in the mountains just north of where we were staying, for some truly specialist species. The winding roads took us past rocky crags, steep cliffs and through narrow gorges; the first mountain specialist we saw was a singing male Rock Bunting showing off his humbug-head. Most of the day we spent walking through an isolated, high mountain valley where we saw Choughs, Black Redstarts, Black Wheatear, Blue Rock Thrushes, a bold Little Owl, several Rock Sparrows (lifer!) and an Iberian Grey Shrike (lifer!) which is a darker-coloured and heat-tolerant cousin of the Great Grey Shrike we get in Britain in winter. We then scaled a very high peak looking for Rufous-tailed Rock Thrushes, failed miserably but did see a Firecrest, a Wheatear and a pair of Western Bonelli’s Warblers – another lifer.
Day 5 – A long drive up past Seville to an area of expansive farmland near Osuna, we stopped on the way at a lagoon where we saw, amongst other things, a Purple Heron which was a first for me. We then pootled about along a rural road looking for both Little and Great Bustards, and although we didn’t see either we did see other fab birds such as Iberian Grey Shrikes, Bee-eaters, Hoopoes, Booted Eagles. Black Kites and some distant male Montague’s Harriers. At an old abandoned farm we had a good close sighting of a female Montague’s Harrier and a Marsh Harrier, but these were trumped by fab views of a much sought-after bird called the Roller, of which there were about 3 individuals – a truly gob-smackingly beautiful bird.
Day 6 – On this day we headed into Seville Province to a wetland site called the Brazo del Este, a famous wildlife site in the river valley of the mighty Guadalquivir. We had our best views of Collared Pratincoles as we arrived, curious but attractive birds that are quite unique. The marshy meanders were alive with birds of all kinds; Stilts, Swamphens, Herons, waders, terns and gulls. The best of which included Gull-billed Terns, 2 Caspian Terns, Avocets, a Temminck’s Stint (lifer), Squacco Heron, Great Reed Warblers (a lifer), several Whiskered Terns (also a lifer), a Wood Sandpiper and Yellow Wagtails of the blue-headed race. At one particular reedy spot we saw a Great White Egret which was the only one of the trip and even better a Penduline Tit close to the path, which was a really lovely addition to my life list! In the evening we traveled back to the Red-necked Nightjar site we had visited before in the hope of seeing a very special species. It was still quite light and surprisingly it did not take long to spot what we were after – a stunning Black-winged Kite! In fact we saw a pair of these birds hunting over the fields which we watched for some time, we also spotted a Little Owl and had further good views of the Nightjars.
Day 7 – We took the 3-hour long drive to Donana National Park in Huelva province, this was a must-visit site on our itinerary as it is one of the top wildlife locations in all Europe. The weather wasn’t great, with heavy but intermittent showers, although we managed to miss the worst of it. We had a good walk around two long nature-trails through forest, heath and wetland, the highlights of which were hearing and briefly seeing a Grasshopper Warbler (a long-awaited lifer), a pair of Tree Sparrows, great views of singing Savi’s Warblers, seeing plenty of Azure-winged Magpies (a bird characteristic of the park) and a male Pied Flycatcher. An incredible experience was seeing a flock of about seven Golden Orioles moving through the forest ahead of us, it was a magical moment to see such a gorgeous species that I never thought I’d see. Also amazing was coming across a totally unexpected female Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush that was on migration through the park! It was also nice to finally clinch the ID of a Thekla Lark, a tricky species which needs good views.
Day 8 – Our last day was a little troubled to say the least, not only was the weather a tad showery, but we also got our car totally stranded in a muddy lane and it took the majority of the day getting it out. The time wasn’t totally wasted though as we did see some migrating Honey Buzzards and an Egyptian Vulture (lifer!) while we waited for the tow-truck. When we finally got a new car in the late afternoon we still had time to visit the coastal town of Chipiona where we hunted down and saw some stunningly special Little Swifts, which can’t be seen anywhere else in Europe, and also saw some Adouin’s Gulls, which were both firsts for me. In the evening we popped into a nearby lake near Medina, which didn’t have loads of waterbirds but did have swarms of Swifts (both common and Pallid – a lifer for me), Black Terns and Collared Pratincoles feeding low over the water surface.
All in all it was a fantastic visit to a truly beautiful part of the world, certainly one of the best places to go bird-watching in Spain with such a varied host of incredible bird species to see. The wildflowers and insects were also amazing, and it really struck me how many birds there are there compared to the UK (in terms of numbers), there were birds in every field and every tree and the sky was always filled with Kestrels or Vultures or Swifts or Swallows – just a great wildlife experience.