The Brazo del Este is located 20 km south of Seville in the Guadalquivir river estuary.
This former branch (brazo) of the Guadalquivir lies to the east of the main river and is surrounded by rice plains and intensive farmland.
It is quite possible to see over 100 species during a one-day visit here.
I first came across the Brazo del Este by happy accident, trying to drive from Seville to San Lucar de Barrameda on the back roads, keeping close to the Guadalquivir and hoping the often unpaved roads wouldn’t come to a dead end. The intensively cultivated landscape changed suddenly to something more wild – reedbeds alongside a river that didn’t go in a straight line. And then a volume of birdsong that had been missing since we left the Doñana Natural Park early that morning. Not forgetting the occasional wide verge full of flowers and insects.
About the Brazo del Este
The Brazo del Este Natural Park starts 17km south of Seville, where there is a fork in the main channel of the Guadalquivir. The brazo twists and turns along 39km of meanders, rejoining the main channel some 16km further down. Somehow, this channel has survived the 100 years or so of human intervention, and become an exceptionally important wetland for birds.
It is at least as important as the Doñana National Park Natural Park on the other side of the Guadalquivir – indeed, it has the advantage that it does not dry out in summer, and so provides a refuge for birds trying to escape the summer drought. The abundance of ducks (pintail, mallard, shoveler, teal), birds of prey, various herons, egrets, a colony of white storks, as well as a variety of other birds has meant that it has been declared a Special Protection Area (SPA or ZEPA in Spanish).
The wetland vegetation is mainly made up of marsh-loving plants, with reedmace and giant reed Arundo donax lining the channels. Tamarisk is abundant in drier areas. There are few trees, with some isolated specimens of ash and white poplar in the last stretch of the channel. However, it is not all natural. Red eucalyptus was introduced from Australia as an ornamental garden species, it escaped and here it now grows in abundance along paths and several sections of the river – an invasive species that may be creating problems.
Best places for seeing . . . . .
It’s hard to mention best places – we drove around and there seemed to be something new around every corner. This was the end of March:
After some kilometres (from Seville) we came to an area of olive scrub on slightly elevated ground. The rain stopped (more or less) and we stopped too, exchanging the sound of the engine for that of birdsong. It took us a while to work out what was singing. So many birds were singing that distinguishing a single song from all the others was difficult, but we eventually realised that they were mostly blackcaps. Scores of them. A few birds showed themselves, some looking decidedly wet and bedraggled while others were smart and dry. Serins, house sparrows and blackbirds tried to make themselves heard above the blackcaps’ din.
Jim saw a cape hare on his side of the van, and a few minutes later there was one on my side too. It looked us up and down, then disappeared into the scrub again.
Egrets flew over the road, along with white storks, black kites, and hoopoes. There was a strong passage of hirundines and swifts. Along the road were gold- and greenfinches, great tits, chiffchaffs and Sardinian warblers. After lunch we heard our first cuckoo of the year, and a little owl crooned from somewhere close by.
In places, the roadside verge was a ten-metre wide carpet of wild-flowers: asphodel, French lavender, broom, yellow crucifers, masses of pink Mediterranean catchfly, poppy, ramping fumitory, purple viper’s bugloss, bugle, weasel’s snout, Barbary nut and chives, to name but a few. Here and there I found small patches of ‘insect’ orchids; they did not correspond exactly with anything in the book, though the nearest seemed to be the early spider orchid.
A blue butterfly rested on a lavender stem, sheltering from the weather. It walked onto my finger ‑ presumably attracted by the warmth. We compared it closely with the diagrams in the butterfly book. The blue-grey underwings, with black spots rimmed with white. Then it opened the wings to show brilliant blue colouring with prominent white veins on the forewing and a black margin. The body was also blue and hairy. Having warmed itself sufficiently the butterfly flew off along the road. It was a black‑eyed blue, which should not have been on the wing until April.
There were more stunning invertebrates to come, firstly a huge brown slug clambering along thistle leaves – slugs might not appeal to everyone, but this one’s size was impressive. I have no idea what kind it is, though.
Then an oil (blister) beetle with a massive body about 50mm long ‑ all black but with red between the abdominal segments ‑ and small wing‑buds (they are flightless). The insect book did not show enough examples to identify the species so ID had to wait – in fact it had to wait several years, but this has now been identified as the red-striped oil beetle, Berberomeloe majalis. The female oil beetle needs this large abdomen to produce vast numbers – up to 10,000 – eggs, and it is a wonder that any larvae ever get to adulthood as most of them fail to reach maturity either for lack of food or through predation. The larvae are only about 3mm long, and their development proceeds through hypermetamorphosis – a process in which the larval stages are of different forms. Unlike the larvae of oil beetles of the genus Meloe that we have in Britain, the first stage larva has to actively seek out a suitable solitary bee host. Once the larva has consumed the egg and then the stored nectar and pollen from a bee’s nest, they leave it. They then moult again, and emerge with their back legs formed. From this stage they pupate, and emerge from the chrysalis as adults. If a larva accidentally selects the wrong type of bee as host, it will die.
But it was the water birds that dominated.
The road continued through the Isla Menor agricultural desert. The marshes shown on the map had been turned into arable fields with only a handful of small wet areas remaining. Nevertheless they did contain coot, moorhen, little grebes, grey, purple and squacco herons, marsh harriers, black kites, mallard, cattle and little egrets, snipe, Savi’s and fan‑tailed warblers, and red-crested pochard. Purple gallinules honked from the reeds.
In May, the migrants have arrived mostly settled down, and you can expect to add collared pratincole, black, whiskered, gull-billed and Capsian terns, as well as a variety of ducks, waders, little bitterns, spoonbills, booted eagles, hoopoes, and more warblers.
Summer and autumn brings a greater variety as birds breeding in the Arctic begin to migrate south again – those that failed at nesting will be the first to arrive. In winter add greylag goose and marbled duck, little crake, bluethroats and a whole lot more.
So there you have it
If you’re staying anywhere between Malaga and Gibraltar, and don’t have time to visit the Doñana National Park, then this is the next best thing. Take a GPS/SatNav – they didn’t exist when I first visited, so we had to hope that we were actually using the roads that we thought we were.
The heronries – I missed the heron roosts because I didn’t know they were there, never mind exactly where they were. Where to Watch Birds in Southern and Western Spain has the details.
Other species to look out for include purple and squacco herons, black stork, glossy ibis, marbled teal, purple swamphen, penduline tit, bluethroat, Spanish sparrow
The butterflies and flowers change too, with the seasons, so there is always something of interest.
Andalucia.com – tourism site, links to accommodation
Discovering Donana website – for information, local guides, etc.
Public transport – not easy. There is a bus service between Seville and Cadiz, with the nearest towns en route being Los Palacios y Villafranca and Las Cabezas de San Juan from where it is a long hike, or a taxi ride.
According to the Discovering Donana website – The main dirt road that cuts the Brazo and the old Carretera del Práctico (Coast Pilot Road), which runs along the Guadalquivir River, are the main access points, but to these must be added an intricate network of secondary roads and channels that make navigation difficult in the area, hence the usefulness of a local guide – and, obviously, they would prefer you to use one of theirs.
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