Photo of a gannet in flight

The hottest weekend

According to the Met Office, July 19, 2022 was the first time 40°C (104F) has been recorded in the UK. It was recorded at Coningsby, Lincolnshire, exceeding the previous record by 1.6°C. A total of 46 stations across the UK exceeded the previous UK record of 38.7°C.

The date for the BirdFair had been set months before, it was just bad luck that the two would coincide that weekend. Because, if we were going to drive 260 miles each way to the BirdFair, we might as well have a look at some nature reserves while we’re in that area.

Global BirdFair

The British Birdwatching Fair had been going for several decades, but, like nearly everything else, came to a stop during the pandemic.  It was revived this year, under the title ‘Global BirdFair‘, moved from its usual Rutland Water Nature Reserve site to the Rutland Showground, and was a rather smaller affair than before.

We travelled to Rutland on Thursday 15th, stayed at the Market Harborough Premier Inn, thought we’d have Friday at the BirdFair before the weather got too hot, then go on to Bempton Cliffs and maybe a few other places in the north.  Day by day the weather forecast was changing – always for the hotter.  Saturday was going to be the hottest, then Sunday, and finally they were saying Monday would reach 40C – previously the British Record had been set at 38C in Cambridge a couple of years ago.

The Friday was somewhat cool and cloudy.  We were stuck in traffic for the last half mile of the journey, but still got into the showground soon after the BirdFair opened.  It really was much smaller in scale than before – perhaps because it was like a new event, perhaps the pandemic had meant fewer people were travelling, perhaps inflation was getting in the way . . . Who knows.  Bob said it lacked atmosphere, but really, Fridays were always the quietest days.  It was the day when stall-holders did their networking, talking business, and especially networking between overseas holiday companies and local guides. 

We bought a few books, looked at some photographic equipment, went to a couple of talks, met up with Ian S and Anne and later with Ian T – who had (inevitably) just negotiated an exotic birding trip to somewhere on the other side of the world. 

The bird fair isn’t just about birds. Any conservation can be part of it, and this photo was taken at the Mammal Society stand.

photo of a harvest mouse
Harvest Mouse (captive)

When the BirdFair was at Rutland Water, the entrance fee also gave visitors access to the adjacent Rutland Water Nature reserve, so you could split your visit between bird watching and the hustle of the fair.  It’s disappointing that we can’t do that now – well you can, but the two sites are several kilometres apart.

We left as the fair closed for the day, most people had already gone, and we missed any rush-hour traffic jams.  The journey to Lincoln Premier Inn was uneventful.  (My sister) Jane and Bill having moved back to Edinburgh meant we couldn’t stay with them this time.

The BirdFair raises money for international bird projects. This year it was the turn of the ‘Revive la Janda’ project which aims to revitalise a lake in Andalucia, Spain, that has largely been drained for agriculture. It is a vital link for migratory birds en route between the UK (and elsewhere in north-west Europe) and Africa. Water birds still attempt to spend winter on the semi-flooded fields, but the area available for them is decreasing drastically, and the nutrient status has been damaged by farming practices.

The total sum being donated by Global Birdfair to the 2022 Conservation Project is an incredible €100,000


RSPB Blacktoft Sands

Previously the BirdFair had been held in mid-August, so we would go on to visit a few sites good for bird migration as part of the same trip.  Migration starts in July, perhaps even late June, but as it’s mostly birds that have failed to breed successfully in the early part of the season, there might be nothing much to see anywhere.  So I didn’t have much expectation for the RSPB reserve at Blacktoft Sands on the south shore of the River Ouse, where it meets the River Trent and becomes the Humber Estuary.  Weather mostly warm and muggy.

A sign on the visitor centre door said ‘back in 15 minutes’, so we turned east and walked to the Singleton Hide, which was at the end of the trail.  It was too hot to hurry, so we admired dragonflies and damselflies, and other insects along the way.  The view from the hide was quiet – plenty of birds, but not doing much in the heat.  We listed 20 species, and took a few photos.

After a while we moved to the Townend Hide, which at first seemed even quieter.  However, there was more exposed mud, and we began to see a few things happening – birds coming and going, a distant marsh harrier looking for lunch, a greater variety of waders, etc.

And then some small brown birds on one patch of much at the base of the reeds. It took a while to sort them out through the heat haze, even through our long telephoto lenses. They were juvenile bearded reedlings presumably looking for seeds or invertebrates on the mud. Twenty-five species seen from this hide.

The First Hide is the one nearest the visitor centre. A magpie pattered around on the hot tin roof for a while before investigating why the occupants weren’t feeding him.  The other occupants threw out a few crumbs, and he obviously wasn’t shy.  Eventually, he got bored and went elsewhere.  Fewer species here, but again including the elusive bearded tits.  There was less open water to be seen, but something moved along the channel below the hide, hidden by the reeds.  Probably a deer, but no-one actually saw anything.

By the time we got back to the visitor centre itself, the warden was unlocking the door.  He had been checking a water pump – pumping water into one of the lagoons while there was still any water to pump anywhere.  We had a drink and flapjack while he told us what was going on at the site.  Then we moved on slowly to the hides to the west, missing out on the Xerox hide because it wasn’t in use, and then settling in at the Marshland hide (above).  This is usually the best hide for wader-watching, and overlooked the lagoon that the water was being pumped into.  We didn’t get around to asking if they filled naturally on high spring tides (the reedbeds kept the estuary itself out of sight), or by water from drainage ditches, but if there was no water, there would be no food for birds, and therefore no birds to watch.  When the water pump ran out of fuel, we enjoyed a short period of quiet before the warden came out and fuelled it up again.  There was another hide, further west, but the afternoon was just too hot for us to want to make the effort to get there.

Still, we had 27 species here, and a tally of 44 species for the site today.

It was late afternoon as we continued our journey north, following the satnav directions to the Wrangham House Hotel near Filey.  The place seemed to be a bit of a madhouse, but this was explained as a big celebration that had been delayed since last year (or was it the previous year) because of covid.  Fortunately, it was quiet in our room, and we managed to book a late dinner when the partygoers (or at least the younger generation of them) were winding down.


RSPB Bempton Cliffs

The RSPB reserve at Bempton Cliffs was only a short drive away – I might have been tempted to walk if it wasn’t for carrying camera stuff in the heat.  A cool offshore breeze made the day more bearable, but stop long enough in a sheltered place and you got covered with tiny flies that didn’t want to leave.

The gannet colony was as noisy and busy as expected – but a few dead birds had Bob speculating that the dreaded bird flu may be affecting them here – some seabird colonies in Scotland are already being badly affected.

Like most seabirds, gannets are long-lived (20-30 years) and produce only a single chick per nest per year.

On our last visit – August 2019 – gannets were the only species here, but now, earlier in the season, the ledges still held quite a few razorbills and guillemots with some well-grown chicks.

There were also plenty of active kittiwake nests (above). The two birds in the middle are chicks, and those dark markings on the neck remind the adults that these are youngsters to be looked after rather than rivals to be chased off. Unlike most other gulls, these nest on sheer cliffs, and it’s a long way down if you fall off! As with other species of gulls, each pair can lay three or four eggs, though usually only one or two chicks will survive to fledge.

Many people were keen to see the albatross that has taken up residence here.  Apparently it has a regular spot on the cliffs, though it can really only be seen from a distance, and it was difficult to make out which of the mostly-white birds it was – people with telescopes were convinced it really was there.  But later it took to the air, flying amongst the swirling gannets.  I was trying to video the gannets in flight along the cliffs, though it was difficult with the bright sunlight on the LCD screen.  It wasn’t until we were back home that I could be sure I really had got the albatross in there too.

Someone mentioned a Daurian/Isabelline Shrike – a vagrant from the area between the Caspian Sea and China – and told us roughly where to find it.  Having walked to the southern end of the reserve, we thought we might as well cross the two fields to see the bird while we were here.  A few others birdwatchers were already there, and the bird had been showing well along a particular hedge.  The lack of a huge crowd for it could be put down to the bird having been there a few weeks already, so it had been seen by most avid twitchers long ago.  I didn’t bother getting the camera out – a distant small brown bird through the heat haze wasn’t worth the effort.  It worked its way along a hedge, until eventually a couple of cyclists on the track on the other side of the hedge caused it to move further away.  So we headed back to the visitor centre for a late lunch.  Then we spent the afternoon looking at the cliffs along the northern end of the reserve.

While bird flu didn’t seem too obvious during our visit, later in the summer things definitely got worse. At Bempton, most of the losses took place in August, when hundreds of gannet chicks died in the densest area of the colony, and some dead adult birds were recorded on the sea. For most of the 13,000 pairs of gannets nesting elsewhere in the colony, the impact “has been thankfully very small”, according to site manager Dave O”Hara in an interview for the Yorkshire Post “We are not complacent for next year – it will be a worrying time.”

Meanwhile, the good news is that kittiwakes had the best breeding season for over ten years with 44,000 pairs producing around 30,000 chicks.

With the forecast for record-breaking temperatures still in force for the Monday, and recommendations that people should stay indoors with the curtains shut where possible to keep the heat out and avoid heat-stroke, we had to consider our plans.  By leaving very early in the morning, we should get past the area predicted to be the hottest long before lunch, and probably get home by Monday evening.  And maybe there would still be an opportunity to stay out somewhere overnight near another nature reserve.

The hotelier agreed it was sensible, but no, they couldn’t do us breakfast THAT early – not that we had asked them to.  However, they had a portable fridge which we could have in our room, along with milk, yoghurt, fruit, cereal, etc. 


We started out about 6am, with guidance from the satnav on my phone rather than using the old unit which has a few quirks likely to send us off to parts unknown.  Things went smoothly for the first couple of hours, but then came a warning that there would be a delay of up to twenty minutes due to a vehicle fire on one section of motorway.  We found a different route through a town, feeling that keeping the car fan going on the move was better than sitting still in an oven.  The motorway was just clearing as we rejoined it.  The newscasts kept us up to date with the temperature situation, and we kept going (apart from a comfort stop) to the RSPB Burton Mere reserve on the west side of England.


RSPB Burton Mere Wetlands

Burton Mere was hot.  Very hot, and quite dry – though really we’d only seen it in early spring before.  We had a quick look around the visitor centre, then walked out to the Marsh Covert Hide.  Despite the 360 degree views from that hide, there was not much to see as the water levels were so low, but at least it was a chance to stretch our legs for half an hour.  There was no shade between here and the further hides, so we walked slowly back through the woodland to the visitor centre.

There was more water in the area in front of the visitor centre, so we sat there in the shade for a while and enjoyed a coffee and snack – they weren’t keeping much food in the shop because of the heat. Altogether, we had 33 species of birds – the last of them being something of a surprise. A huge skein of pink-footed geese flew in, calling as they swirled around and then landed in grassland some distance away. Surely these geese should not be arriving until September, at the earliest? But the staff said they had been around for the last few days.


Record temperatures in Wales

On through North Wales, and more warnings about the heat on the news.  The car’s AC hasn’t been working properly for a while now, so the best we managed was the ordinary fan on cold.  Better than nothing.  The west coast was supposed to be the coolest area, so we went that way.  The Craft Centre at Coris was open, and we managed to get a decent, but late, lunch there.  Further south, as we went through Bow Street the car thermometer was reading 36C – which is what we were hearing on the radio, and at the time it was said to be the highest temperature in Wales.  Later, when all the data had been looked at, apparently the hottest place in Wales – 37.1C – was at Hawarden which we passed soon after leaving Burton Mere.

There didn’t seem to be much point in stopping anywhere else en route. Another time, we would have added a couple more nights and a few more reserves into the itinerary.

It was a relief to get home with the car and our sanity intact.


Bookshop

Click on covers for more information

Picture of book cover

Sadly out of print, but worth looking out for – covers all the RSPB reserves at the time of publication

An interactive guide to use on an iPad on-site at Bempton – sounds interesting, but I haven’t seen it myself.

The standard guide to birdwatching places in Britain – there are some regional versions too.

Note that buying books through these links earns a small commission (at no extra cost to you) that goes towards the cost of maintaining this website.


More places to go nature-watching in England

RSPB Pulborough Brooks

A visit to the RSPB Pulborough Brooks Reserve in Sussex, England, is about far more than birds.


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Photo of Laguna Gallocanta

Eurasian Cranes at the Laguna Gallocanta

At around 1,500ha, the Laguna Gallocanta is the largest natural lake in Spain.

Its other main claim to fame is that it is the major staging post for Eurasian cranes migrating between their wintering grounds in southern Spain, and their breeding grounds in northern Europe. 

The cranes arrive in November, with several thousand staying through the winter. The greatest spectacle is at the end of February, when they are heading north again.

About the lake

Laguna Gallocanta is situated at 1000m on a high plain in north-eastern Spain, meaning that temperatures can be bitterly cold in winter, and blisteringly hot in summer. Spring doesn’t seem to arrive until June, or so I was told on a cold windy day in April 1989. I certainly didn’t expect to visit again any earlier month of the year. However, there were no cranes on that first visit, and it is the cranes that bring people to the laguna in February and November. Some cranes remain for the winter, but most move on to Extremadura. 

The laguna lies in a tectonic depression. It is fed mainly by rainwater, and there is no outflow. Thus, the lake levels and extent vary by year as well as by season depending on rainfall. In a good year, the laguna covers some 1500ha ( sq miles). In some years the water level is below ground and the lake bed remains dry for months. However, there are some freshwater springs that allow localised growth of Phragmites reeds, reedmace and other freshwater plants.  Yet it is still the most important saline lake in Western Europe, and is well-studied by students from various Spanish universities.

About the birds

The Laguna Gallocanta has long been known as a fantastic place for wintering birds – though the numbers depend on the severity of the winter in northern Europe, and on the level of water in the lake. The name Gallocanta can be translated as Chicken/Bird Song, though whether that refers to the trumpeting of the cranes in winter or the songs of other birds in spring is anybody’s guess.

Eurasian Cranes are large birds, with males standing up to 1.3m (4ft) tall and with a 2.4m wingspan – females are usually a bit smaller. That should make them easy to see, but their basically grey colour means they blend well with the background, and at a distance they often look like rocks strewn across the fields.

February 18-20th 2015 were calm days following frosty nights. Some 30,000 cranes were already trying to move north, although snow-storms over the Pyrenees were forcing many to stay in Spain. During the following few days, the numbers at the laguna increased, as more and more arrived from the south-west and had to wait for a break in the weather. 

The photo below was taken on the evening of the 23rd. It is impossible to show the sheer numbers involved – this is just a small section of the lake near Gallocanta village. 

The cranes are counted weekly during the migration period. Antonio Torrijo from the Association of Friends of Gallocanta, and José Antonio Román who coordinates the crane censuses in Spain, took out a team of six for the counts. The area is divided between them, and each person counts from a set vantage point. In the late afternoon, they count the birds already on the ground, and then at dusk, they count the birds coming in to roost. 

Some 82,906 cranes were counted on the 24th. But the weather held up migration for another few days, so the total was estimated at 110,000 by the weekend when the wind dropped and most were able to move on.

Of course, there are other species on the lake – up to 3000 gadwall, 80,000 common pochard, and 40,000 common coot, and smaller numbers of other species. We saw 82 species altogether, including raptors such as northern harriers, golden eagle and short-eared owls, and small birds like Calandra Lark, Rock Sparrow and Theckla Lark. Amazingly, I also saw 82 species on my brief visit in April 1989, with about 40 of them seen both times. 220 species have been recorded over the years, and 90 of these breed here.

We stayed at the Auberge Allucant from the 18th – 28th, walking down to the lake shore nearest the village, or driving around the lake (about 35km), stopping at various viewing points, walking along the Camino del Cid, and one day driving just a bit further afield.


A day in the freezer

Javier, who runs Allucant, told us there were hides that would get us really close to the birds, and he arranged for us to get a permit and a key from the offices in one of the nearby villages. We had to be in the hide half an hour before dawn, and couldn’t leave until it was dark in the evening. So two of us, in a small square box, camera lenses pointing out the ‘windows’, wrapped up for the Arctic but still getting colder and colder – there was a sleet shower in the afternoon – sat it out for 12 hours. Was it worth it? Definitely YES. Would we do it again? Well . . . maybe . . . . .

Ghostly shapes in the half-light – Cranes roost at the lake margins and in the shallow water. They leave before sunrise, heading for feeding areas within a few kilometres of the lake.

As the light improves, wave after wave of cranes leave the laguna, but somehow there are still a few left as the sun begins to warm the land.

For a while, the lagoon is quiet, but at around mid-morning the birds begin to return.

Now the birds spend their time preening and socialising, sometimes feeding, and sometimes roosting. The way to get yourself noticed is to shout – and they do. Cranes are 1m – 1.3m tall (3-4 feet) and have a voice to match. The males are bigger than the females, and most of the squabbling seemed to be amongst the males.

Another way to get noticed, by humans at least, is to wear leg rings. Only a small proportion are ringed at the nest each year, and a few are fitted with radio-transmitters too. This particular bird (and one of the others that we saw) was ringed in Brandenburg, Germany, in 2006. A third bird was ringed in Germany in 2003, and this was the first time it had been recorded in Spain. Reporting colour-ringed birds provides so much more information, both for the researchers and for the observer.

It’s not yet the breeding season, but the activity swings between frustration (top photo shown by picking up things and throwing them) and mild aggression. They stick in tight family groups, sometimes with a youngster from last year AND the previous year in tow. But by now, the older youngsters – teenagers perhaps – are mostly in groups of their own age. The adults pair for life, but the pair bonds are renewed by dancing and marching displays when they get closer to the breeding grounds. In adults, the eye colour varies, as does the extent of the red patch on the head. Neither is correlated with age, sex or season. However, as their threat displays involved showing off the red patch, it may be linked with dominance.

The weather was cold but mostly dry. However, the cold brought sleet showers, and the cranes had to put up with it. This weather extended to the Pyrenees, forcing the birds to postpone the next stage of their migration. When the sleet stopped in the late afternoon, many headed out to the fields to feed again. They returned at dusk to roost.

In the late afternoon, many of the birds head out to the fields to feed again. They return at dusk to roost. Inevitably there is some conflict between farmers and birds, but an agreement has been drawn up to provide compensation if crops are damaged.

The last day

February 28th the wind dropped from force 4 to force 2, and the birds could finally move on. Throughout the morning, the excitement of the cranes was palpable – the sound was deafening and it was hard not to be excited with them. They rose in great flocks, circling to gain height. There was still enough wind to push them back southwards, and some returned to the lake. But the majority rest moved northwards.

As we drove to Zaragoza airport, we passed under huge skeins of them. If they encountered a thermal, they made use of it to gain extra height. They will fly at 40-50 kph in calm conditions, covering 300-500km in a day as they return to northern and eastern Europe to breed.

The website GrusExtremadura provides up-to-date counts and maps showing the progression of the migration.


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Facilities

A rough road circumnavigates the laguna, and is clearly signposted to keep tourists on track. Access is prohibited on other tracks through the farmland. The whole route is approximately 35km, with access points near the villages of Gallocanta, Tornos, Bello and Las Cuerlas. 

The Camino del Cid is a hiking route which passes along part of the above track. 

Two high observation platforms are accessible from the track. These provide a good view across the lake and fields, but may not get you close to the cranes – that depends on where they are feeding. 

The stone observation hides at los Ojos, la Ermita and at los Aguanares also provide some protection from the weather. 

The new interpretive centre (right) is more to do with local cultural history, but contains a collection of stuffed birds (these were previously housed in a small museum in the village). Glass walls provide a panoramic view. Entry is quite cheap. 

Another, smaller, information centre at the south end of the lake has more information about the wildlife, and the cranes in particular. 

Five photographic hides provide opportunities for close-up photography. They are administered by the local office in Bello, and there is a charge of 20 euros per day. However, it is a requirement that you enter the hide before sunrise, and do not leave until after sunset. 

There are limited accommodation and restaurant facilities in the nearby villages of Gallocanta, Berrueco, Tornos, Bello, and Las Cuerlas. We stayed at the Albergue Allucant in Gallocanta village, and can happily recommend it as providing good basic accommodation and excellent meals at a very reasonable price.  It can be quite busy, especially at weekends during the crane migration periods, and early booking is recommended. Not all rooms have en-suite facilities, but there are beds (and bunks) for up to 54 guests. 

Allucant boasts a good library of bird and wildlife books in a variety of languages. It provides a focus for birding activities in the area. The staff were very helpful, especially with regard to getting the permit for using one of the photographic hides. Muchas gracias, Señores, for giving us a good time.


How to get there

There is little in the way of public transport access to Gallocanta and the surrounding villages. Most routes suggested on Rome2Rio end with a taxi.

We flew to Zaragoza airport, picked up a hire car, and found it was a relatively easy journey not having driven on the right (wrong for us) side of the road for some years.

Once in Gallocanta or any of the other nearby villages, you can walk to the nearest bit of lake shore and surrounding countryside, but you really do need a car, or at least a bike, to see the place properly. And in winter, we were especially appreciative of the car for shelter from the weather.

Some nature tour companies (eg NatureTrek) do include a day or two in the area as part of a longer winter trip in north-east Spain, often combining it with looking for birds in the Spanish Pyrenees to the north.

More information at Wildside Holidays – walking and wildlife holidays in Spain


More winter nature-watching in Spain

Photo of Rocina Marshes

Doñana National Park

How to get the most out of a visit to the Doñana National Park. My recommendations after several visits.

Photo of spoonbills in flight

Las Marismas del Odiel

The Odiel Marshes Natures Reserve is the second largest wetland in Huelva province after Doñana, and the most important tidal wetland in Spain. Here’s how to make the best of a visit.


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Best places for wildlife in January

When I first travelled around Europe, in the days before the internet, finding out about the best places and when to visit relied mainly on word-of-mouth and a couple of ‘where-to-watch’ type books. My instinct was to head south, to Andalucia, but I discovered a lot of interesting places en route. Going north, to colder climes did not appeal, yet there is so much to see if only you know where to go.

Start with the brochures/websites of companies offering nature-based trips. Even if you don’t want to go on an organised trip, these will at least give you ideas of the top places.

After this list of organised trips, there is a list of posts on this website of more places worth a visit in winter.

photo of a red-breasted goose
Red-breasted Goose

Bulgaria

NatureTrek – Winter Wildlife of Bulgaria & Romania – On the Trail of the Red-breasted Goose. A 9-day winter tour in search of geese, ducks and other wildlife, taking in the Black Sea coast in both Bulgaria and Romania as well as some forest and steppe habitats.

Neophron – The northernmost part of the Bulgarian Black Sea coast – Coastal Dobroudzha – is famous for being the wintering ground for hundreds of thousands of wild geese, among which almost the whole population of the globally threatened Red-breasted Goose. In the recent 20 years up to 62 000 Red-breasted Geese have been spending the winter in the area of the lakes of Durankulak and Shabla.

Neophron – Wolves & Vultures of Bulgaria. The Eastern part of the Rhodope Mountains is locked between the valleys of the big rivers Arda and Maritsa in southern Bulgaria, near the border with Greece. This area hosts exceptional biodiversity – a result of the mixture of Mediterranean and continental climate. This is the realm of the wolf packs, as here is one of the densest populations of the Wolf in Bulgaria. The most spectacular birds of the region in winter are the vultures – Eurasian Griffon and Eurasian Black vultures.

Estonia

January-February – the best time to observe Steller’s Eider when flocks can reach 1000 or more. Saaremaa, the biggest island in Estonia, and the most north-eastern point of the mainland at Cape Põõsaspea are the best places to see them, along with thousands of long-tailed ducks, goldeneye, goosanders and white-tailed eagles. Can’t see any trips advertised, but Natourest are probably the best people to advise.

France

Check my page The naturalist in France in Winter for ideas

Photo of 4 white pelicans on water

Greece

Greentours – Lake Kerkini National Park is a winter bird-watching paradise and a haven for Pelicans, Waterfowl & Eagles! Let us take you on a week-long exploration of the Lake and the surrounding fields, forests, mountains and coastal lagoons to enjoy diverse and bountiful bird life!

Neophron – Dalmatian Pelican Photography – Nestled picturesquely between two separate mountain ranges, Lake Kerkini is one of the true jewels of European birding and the core of a nature reserve that is a relatively unexplored wonderland of beauty and biological diversity. Plenty of Great White PelicansDalmatian PelicansGreater FlamingosPygmy Cormorants, herons, ducks and other waterbirds, riverside forests and fantastic panoramic view from the mountains of Belasitsa and Krousia give it a characteristic atmosphere. The combination of wildfowl, flora and fauna, good weather for a large part of the year and a virtually traffic-free track around the lake make it ideal for birding and bird photography.

Neophron – Winter Photography in Bulgaria and Greece – To take photos of Dalmatian Pelican we visit either the Bourgas wetlands in the South-eastern Bulgaria or Lake Kerkini in Northern Greece, depending on the winter conditions and your preferences, and for Eurasian Griffon Vultures we visit the Eastern Rhodope Mountains in Southern Bulgaria, where we manage several fixed hides.

Neophron – Winter Birding in Northern Greece. In winter the wetlands of Northern Greece hold huge numbers of birds that have escaped from the harsh weather in Central and Eastern Europe. Join us for a great birding experience with opportunities to see a variety of highly sought-after species! This tour starts from Thessaloniki on the Aegean Sea. If time allows, we visit Kalohori Lagoon in the vicinity of Thessaloniki, which is a very good site for waterfowl and shore-birds in winter.

Photo of the Lanzarote coast

Spain

See my round-up of the best of Spain in January

If it’s plants you’re after, then the Canary Islands can be good at this time of year. Flowering depends more on rainfall than on date, and earlier is often better, as I discovered when visiting Lanzarote.

Sweden

NatureTrek – Northern Lights & Winter Wildlife. A 6-day holiday, including one night of “glamping” in Swedish Lapland, in search of spectacular winter scenery, wildlife and the Northern Lights.

photo of a flock of waders

Portugal

Classic places for winter birdwatching in Portugal include several wetlands in the Algarve easily accessible by public transport and from tourist resorts, and the Tejo estuary near Lisbon where a car is definitely needed.

Poland

NatureTrek – Poland in Winter. A 7-day winter adventure to Poland in search of large mammals rare or even extinct in much of western Europe.

UK

Oriolebirding – An action-packed five days birding in Norfolk maximising the daylight hours in the field. We normally walk around 3-4 miles per day and it can be wet and muddy at this time of year. At least two evenings finish with a roost for raptors and wildfowl.


More nature-watching in winter

Winter birds at the Tejo Estuary

Some 70,000 water birds spend their winter on the Tejo estuary near Lisbon in Portugal. That can mean some serious birdwatching there.

The naturalist in France in winter

France isn’t an obvious place for nature-watching in winter, but there are plenty of birds, and even some mammals to see. Here are some suggestions of where to find them.

The Lauwersmeer in winter

The Lauwersmeer National Park, in the northern part of the Netherlands, provides a fantastic winter feeding ground for geese and other birds that breed further north.

A winter day at Santoña Marshes

The Santoña, Victoria and Joyel Marshes Natural Park is probably the best, and most easily accessible, wetland in north-western Spain.

Winter birdwatching in Bulgaria

The northern-most part of the Black Sea coast (near Romania) has been dubbed Bulgaria’s ‘Geeseland’. Tens of thousands of geese and other wildfowl spend the winter here, where the Black Sea keeps the climate is a few degrees warmer than further inland. Here are some suggestions for the best places to visit.

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photo of a puffin in flight

Skomer Seabird Spectacular cruise

Landing on Skomer for the day (or longer) is only half the story. Yes, you get close to puffins, and you can spend all day watching them. But there is so much more to see and learn.

Several times a week, from May to July, an evening boat trip takes you to see the island, and its birds. More importantly, it takes you to see the Manx Shearwater, the most numerous bird breeding on Skomer and the one you don’t see when visiting Skomer during the day.

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The Dale Princess leaves Martin’s Haven at 7pm, with up to 30 passengers, a guide, and two crew.   A crew member gives a safety briefing as we leave the jetty – ending with ‘your emergency exits are  . . . . . ‘ as he points in all directions except down.  We pass Marloes Deer Park – a promontory walled off in the 18th century in anticipation of keeping deer there, but the deer never arrived.  The National Trust look after it now, managing the grazing to provide short turf for chough to probe into for leather-jackets and other mini-beasts.

photo of an island
Jack Sound and Skomer Island from Marloes Deer Park.

Beyond the Deer Park, the water opens out.  To the south is Jack Sound, a fast-flowing channel of water with rocks sticking out at low tide.  Many a boat has foundered here in the past.  A ridge of rock underwater causes quite a lot of rough water when the tide is running. 

Photo of a shag and a cormorant
Shag and cormorant in breeding plumage (the size difference is exaggerated in this photo)

Cormorants sit on the rocks, and ‘holding their wings out to dry’ – not so much their wings as their body feathers which aren’t very waterproof, and need to dry between fishing trips just to keep the birds warm.  If having non-waterproof feathers seems odd for a waterbird, it actually means they don’t keep so much air in their feathers when they dive, they aren’t so buoyant, so making it easier stay underwater to chase fish. The disadvantage is that they get waterlogged and cold after about 15 minutes.  Someone asks about the difference between cormorants and shags – shags are smaller, sleeker, blacker, narrower bill, and no pale patch on the throat (though young birds are paler on the underside, and a bit more difficult to separate without a good view).

Razorbills and a guillemot

Now we are seeing auks as well.  Puffins, razorbills and guillemots sit on the water or fly past, often coming in low and close.  The differences are obvious in close-up – puffins with their multi-coloured bill and orange feet, razorbills are black and white with a large beak the shape of an old-fashioned cut-throat razor, while guillemots are brown and white with pointed bills.  Questions come non-stop from the passengers, and they learn that seabirds are long-lived – thirty or forty years or more, don’t breed until they are several years old, mate for life, and only have one egg per year.  But they might get divorced!  If they have a couple of failed breeding seasons, perhaps it’s better to try with a new partner next time.  Puffins breed in burrows, razorbills nest on small ledges and in rock crevices, while guillemots believe in safety in numbers, choosing ledges where they can mass in their hundreds. 

Kittiwakes on the water below a small cliff where they nest

We chug along the ‘Neck’, the bit of Skomer Island with no human interference, look through the Lantern – a cave that runs underneath the island and out the other side, then the boat slows so we can hear the kittiwakes calling – kitti-wa-ake – at a small colony low on the cliffs.  These small and pretty gulls are hanging on here, despite having virtually disappeared from the Pembrokeshire mainland, and from other colonies further north.

Sometimes this journey throws up a real gem, and back in 1996  the skipper saw a couple of fins in the water just about here.  We went to investigate, and realised it was a fifteen-foot basking shark – just a young one really – and we were looking at the back fin and tail fin, and the shadow of its body under the water.  The boat got quite close before the shark dived.  It came up again a few yards away, but soon went under again and disappeared.    Basking sharks often come up through the Irish Sea, but mostly they are on the Irish side.  Probably less than one a year is seen on the Welsh side, and this is the only one I saw in twenty years of guiding these trips.

Guillemots on the cliffs in North Haven

The Princess moves into North Haven and the skipper cuts the engine.  The silence is wonderful!  The steep grassy slopes are seabird cities.  Rock ledges crammed with guillemots. Thousands of burrows, each with a puffin standing outside.  Yet there are still enough puffins to form a flying wheel – they fly circuits, apparently each bird more or less level with its burrow, and all the time birds are joining the wheel while others drop out and head for their burrows.  Then you begin to realise it isn’t really silent.  Apart from the whirr of countless wings (beating up to ten times per second), there are growls of puffins, gargles from guillemots and razorbills, the raucous cries of gulls, and even the songs of wrens nesting in scrub on the cliffs. 

photo of a puffin carrying fish
Puffin carrying sand-eels back to the nest

The relative quiet makes it easier to talk about the history of this island, 2-5000 years of human occupation, and farming that continued until the early 20th century.  It has been a nature reserve since 1960, owned by the Natural Resources Wales (successor to the Nature Conservancy Council and the Countryside Council for Wales), is managed by a committee that includes various local organisations, and is administered by the Wildlife Trust for South and West Wales.

Grey seals jostle for position on a rock exposed at low tide

The boat engines start up again, and the journey continues along the north coast of the island, stopping at the Garland Stone so we can appreciate the grey seals – come August, they will start dropping their pups on the beaches here and about 250 will be born by the end of the year.  

Porpoises are relatively small and unobtrusive

If the seabirds haven’t been spectacular enough so far, the real adventure is about to begin.  The skipper steers away from Skomer, and out into the open sea of St Bride’s Bay.  We aren’t going far out – keeping well within sight of land.  But now is time to keep our eyes peeled.  There is a good chance of porpoises – small dolphins that don’t really show much of themselves except a fin as they surface to breathe.  And just maybe there will be a pod of common dolphins – more rarely something really special such as a bottlenose dolphin or even a Risso’s dolphin.  But what we are really here to see are the Manx shearwaters.

Manx shearwaters tend to fly low over the water surface

Manx shearwaters are medium-sized relatives of albatrosses, and the Pembrokeshire Islands (Skomer, Skokholm and Ramsey) are home to about 400,000 pairs, or about half of the known world population.  They are the most numerous bird species breeding on Skomer, but the chances of seeing one alive during the day are slim.  They are very clumsy on land, and in order to evade predators (large gulls mostly) they nest in burrows and come to land only at night when the gulls are asleep.  On most nights, a few birds get caught out at dusk or dawn, or by moonlight, and the island is littered with corpses, testimony to the success of the gulls.  The numbers killed are, however, a minute proportion of the total population.  So the best way to see them is on a boat trip like this in the evening when the birds come back from the feeding grounds and form vast ‘rafts’ floating on the water, waiting for it to get dark.  The Manx part of their name is because the first ones to be described scientifically were taken from the Calf of Man – a small seabird island on the southern tip of the Isle of Man in the middle of the Irish Sea.  Few live there now, because that island became overrun with rats, which predate ground- and burrow-nesting birds.

Anyway, we start to see small parties of shearwaters on the water and the skipper steers towards them.  They are flighty at first, especially if the numbers are small.  On some trips we see only a few dozen, but on a good night, usually in June and July, there can be thousands, even tens of thousands.  One parent will be out on an extended fishing trip – perhaps for three or four days – before returning to the nest with food for the chick.  The other parent will be with the egg or the chick (at least for a few days after it hatches) and then will go on short fishing trips.  So on any night, up to a fifth of the population could be waiting to come ashore.

Manx shearwaters coming gathering just offshore, waiting for it to get dark

Although they are black and white, like many other seabirds, they are quite distinctive with their long straight wings, gliding over the water surface, taking lift from the slightest breeze and from air currents over the waves.  A flock seems to move as one all showing their black uppersides, then turning to show their white undersides, then back again.  They fly so low that their wing tips seem to touch (shear) the water surface. They flap only when they have to, and this energetically economical form of flying means they can cover vast distances quite rapidly with very little effort.

As the numbers build up, the birds fly close to the boat, even those on the sea may allow the boat to drift in closer.  Care is taken to avoid extra disturbance – this is an internationally important population of this species.  Having heard about the habits of these birds, the passengers start firing more questions -how long do they live (the oldest known individual was at least 55 when last seen), how far do they travel (down to the coast of Argentina), where else do they live (the Calf of Man, Rhum in the Scottish Hebrides, on some of the islands around the coast of Ireland, Iceland, and a few are even in the mountains on Madeira – see here for a full map. )  What do they eat (small fish, squid, other small sea creatures that they catch underwater having dived from the surface.)

How do they find their burrows in the dark?  Come to that, how do they find their island homes when out in the middle of the ocean?  Like any migrating birds, they seem to have a built-in compass, but also an acute sense of smell that picks up the scents on the air currents helping them home in on the colony.

During the day, the birds are pretty silent – we rarely hear anything from the boat – but as it gets dark, and they fly to their burrows, it gets very noisy.  They have a very raucous call (listen here), with a rhythm a bit like ‘a cup of caawwfeee’, which is individual to each bird.  We can tell the difference between male and female calls, but they can tell the difference between individuals.  So as they get closer to their burrows they are listening out for answering calls from their mates or chicks.  The noise is so incredible that the Vikings refused to land on some islands because they thought they must be haunted.

Are they affected by oil spills?  Now there is a question!  The last big oil spill here was the Sea Empress in 1996.  Fortunately for our seabirds, this spill happened in February, before the birds returned to islands to breed.  Otherwise, they would have been sitting ducks – floating on the surfaces amid the oil, diving down and coming up through it, feeding on fish that may have been affected – the oil would have destroyed the air-trapping features of the feathers, so the birds would have got cold and waterlogged and died – as nearly 5000 others did, birds (mainly common scoter) that were wintering in the area.

There are more general questions about the area, the island, and the seabirds.  Then one young lad put his hand up. When are we going back? There was a shocked silence at his temerity.  Fortunately, he could be reassured that we were already heading back to Martin’s Haven – the evening was getting decidedly chilly.  I welcome the short but steep walk back to the car park – a chance to get the body moving and warmed up after two hours of sitting still on the boat.

The Seabird Spectacular cruises can be booked on-line through Dale Sailing, and run several times a week (depending on suitable weather) from May to July. By the end of July, most of the puffins, razorbills and guillemots have gone out to sea for the winter.

In August and September, Dale Sailing run a different Pembrokeshire Islands Safari on a fast boat (protective clothing provided) that includes Grassholm Island where there are nearly 40,000 gannets nesting.

If you are staying in the St Davids area of Pembrokeshire, Thousand Islands also run similar seabird trips, though I have no experience of them.

The Dale Princess

Bookshop

A must-have book if you are looking at sea-birds in general
Fascinating book, but a lot of research has been done since it was published
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I think I need to add this to my collection
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There is just SO MUCH information here, gathered by a former warden of the island.
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Life as a seasonal volunteer on the island.

Click on the covers for more information.

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More ideas for nature-watching in Wales

Environmental volunteering

Environmental volunteering is a great way of getting to know more about a place or a species. It can be done quietly on a local level, or by joining a working group or a vacation.

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Estonia – resources for nature travellers

I was researching a trip to Estonia, then the pandemic happened. Even planning to travel came to a stop. However, I thought I’d share what I’d found.

So, if you’re thinking about going to Estonia, here are some websites, videos and books that will provide information and inspiration for nature-watching there.


Highlights of the year

January-February – the best time to observe Steller’s Eider when flocks can reach 1000 or more. Saaremaa, the biggest island in Estonia, and the most north-eastern point of the mainland at Cape Põõsaspea are the best places to see them, along with thousands of long-tailed ducks, goldeneye, goosanders and white-tailed eagles.

March-April is a good time to see forest birds such as nutcracker, woodpeckers, capercaillie, hazel grouse and various owls. There are still lots of waterfowl around – Bewick and Whooper swans, geese, ducks – perhaps including the last few Steller’s Eider before the last stragglers fly north. Resident songbirds are claiming their breeding territories. It can also be a good time to see elk (moose), as the previous year’s male calves are evicted from the herd and have to find their own way in life. The elusive European lynx is most likely to be seen at this time of year.

The botanical season also starts in late March, often before the snow had melted you can find Mezereon Daphne mezereum, Dwarf Milkwort Polygala amarella, Spring Vetchling Lathyrus vernus, Marsh Marigold and Toothwort Lathraea squamaria in flower. In dry calcareous meadows you can see Cat’s foot Antennaria dioica, Pygmyflower Rockjasmine Androsace septentrionalis, Small Pasque Flower Pulsatilla vulgaris, Bird’s Eye Primrose Primula farinosa and Globe Flower Trollius europaeus.

May-June is good for migrant songbirds, butterflies (including the Camberwell Beauty), and flowers. Bears emerging from hibernation are attracted to feeding stations. Flying squirrels can also be seen from now until the end of summer, but as they are endangered, access to their habitat to watch them is only allowed with the assistance of a local expert. Beavers are common across the country, and can be seen most easily from April to August.

May sees the first of the orchids – e.g. Military Orchid Orchis militaris, Sword-leaved Helleborine Cephalanthera longifolia, Fly Orchid Ophrys insectifera, and Lady’s Slipper Cypripedium calceolus. Raised bogs provide a spectacle of Bog Rosemary Andromeda polifolia, Labrador Tea Rhododendron tomentosum and Cranberry amongst others. By June, there are too many plants to mention.

July-August butterflies include swallowtail, purple and lesser purple emperors, chestnut heath, scarce fritillary and northern wall brown. The botanical spectacle continues into July and early August.

September-October is the best time for Elk-watching as it is the mating season. Bears start using feeding stations again in October if they have run out of natural food. Bird migration is in full swing as arctic breeders head back south.

November-December is when the bulk of the winter birds are settling in. The number of waterbirds, in particular, builds rapidly.

Yearling elk in spring

National Parks

Estonia has six national parks. These highlights are taken from the Visit Estonia website where there is a lot more information, and link to 10-minute videos about each of them (narration in Estonian, but with English subtitles).

Lahemaa is the largest and oldest national park in Estonia, and one of Europe’s most important forest protection areas. In addition, you will find rocky and sandy coastal areas and sediment plains winding along the peninsula. Forest, wetland and coastal ecosystems exist side by side with the geological, historic and architectural monuments. The forest paths provide easy access for picking berries and mushrooms.

Matsalu National Park is an important stopover for birds migrating between the Arctic and Western Europe. It is one of the most famous European bird watching sites and a true paradise for nature lovers.

Soomaa National Park is home to massive wetlands but it has become most famous thanks to a local natural phenomenon called ‘the fifth season.’ During the spring flood time, up to 17,500 hectares of lower forests, roads and yards can only be navigated by water, making it a perfect place for a canoe trip

Vilsandi National Park is home to Estonia’s largest grey seal colony and many kinds of seabirds.

Karula National Park is the smallest national park in the country, cherished for its unique domed landscape formed by glacial ice about 10,000 years ago. There are about 40 lakes hidden between the hills and domes, and a heritage landscape of meadows, marshy grounds and forest.

Alutaguse National Park is the largest coniferous forest and marsh area in the country. With more than half of the park consisting of vast bog areas and 42% of forested landscapes, Alutaguse is a sanctuary for wild birds and animals. Several mammals like the wolf, the Brown bear and the Eurasian lynx move between Estonia and Russia via Alutaguse migration routes.

Põhja-Kõrvemaa Nature Reserve Although not a national park, Põhja-Kõrvemaa Nature Reserve is a home to grandiose landscapes where large forests and steep eskers alternate with swamps, plains and kames. The varied terrain and soil have created an almost magically alternating landscape that takes the visitor to the creme de la creme of Estonia’s hiking terrain.


Websites

Soomaa Wilderness Area comprises 11,530 ha of the Soomaa National Park,  which is located in the south-eastern corner of Estonia. The Soomaa National Park was created to protect large pristine raised bogs, flood plain grasslands, wet forests and meandering rivers.  More information

Estonian Nature Tours (also called NaTourEst) has been a pioneer in developing nature and bird tourism all over Estonia. They have long-term experience in organising botanical and bird watching tours, and the feedback from clients is always positive. Their website includes links to a number of tour reports by their clients – usually worth reading for an idea of what they offer. They also offer self-guided tours for independent travellers.

Estonian Wildlife Tours aims to offer an unforgettable experience in nature to small groups of people. According to their website, they take a personal approach to each visitor and even in case of trips for groups we will try to accommodate all special wishes. Everything is genuine and comes from the hearts of specialists who love their field.

Visit Estonia is the country’s official tourist website.  Lots of information and links about nature as well as culture, accommodation etc.

Naturegate (Luontoportti) is a Finnish website that provides a very helpful ID guide and a tremendous amount of information about plants and animals of northern Europe.

Photo of a dam built by beavers
Signs of beaver, such as this dam, are everywhere.

Videos

In addition to the national park videos in the links above, I’ve found the following documentaries that are worth watching. The comments are the descriptions given for the videos on YouTube

Estonian Nature shows scenes from spring and summer in Estonia, accompanied by the natural sounds.

The Baltic coast is a documentary about the natural beauty of the shifting sand dunes of the Curonian Spit, the romantic beaches of the Latvian Baltic Sea and the island worlds of Estonia. Time and again, this deserted and almost untouched nature fascinates. In the winter, ringed seals give birth to their young on the pack ice. In the spring, Konik wild horse stallions fight fierce battles amongst themselves, while colourful European rollers fly through the dune forests. Lynxes wander through the coastal forests and in the orchid meadows turncoats and hoopoes find more than enough food. On the islands around Saaremaa in Estonia, grey seals hunt for fish. They share the archipelago with Europe’s largest tern, the Caspian tern.

The Baltic Forest is a documentary about the wide, often untouched wilderness of the Baltic hinterland that is home to many animals. More than 350 brown bears live in the primeval forests of Alutaguse. In the spring, the Soomaa National Park transforms into a huge lake. Europe’s widest waterfall is located in Latvia.

The Baltics are rich in superlatives: a fifth of the world’s spotted eagle stocks breed here. One of the largest courtship arenas for snipes is located here in the floodplains of Latvia. More than 1000 wolves hunt in Latvia’s forests. Lithuania is the land of storks – with over 13.000 pairs, no other region in the Baltic States has more white storks.


Bookshop

There are plenty of field-guides to birds in northern Europe, but it seems very little else. For plants, I’d recommend the Naturegate (Luontoportti) website which has an ID function, and lots of photos and details of most of the plants which are found in Northern Europe, including Estonia.

Birding Estonia provides the most comprehensive information on the best birding sites across Estonia and the best times to visit, as well as including advice for finding northern and eastern specialities like Lesser Spotted Eagle, Hazel Grouse, lekking Great Snipe, Ural Owl and White-backed Woodpecker.

Birding in Eastern Europe covers the best birding sites in eleven eastern European countries: Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia.

Book cover - Birding in Eastern Europe
Book cover

The Eurasian Crane in Estonia presents the most notable results of the studies of Eurasian Cranes in Estonia. The book consists of a short introduction, eight topical chapters, and conclusions

Wildlife adventures in Eastern Europe is an illustrated account of summer visits by a group of naturalists from England 2012-15, with checklists of the bird and butterfly species recorded. The book contains day-by-day accounts of where they went and what they saw. It includes a commentary on the places they visited, including accommodation, local people and appreciation of the different countries and their landscapes and culture.

Book cover
book cover

Butterflies of Eastern Europe covers all the known butterfly species distributed east of Finland, Baltic countries, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania. This area includes part of the Russian Federation, Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, NE Azerbaijan and NW Kazakhstan. Information and distribution maps are provided on 293 species, with over 1700 photographs of collection specimens (males and females, upper and undersides), and 48 photographs taken in the wild. Species entries pay due attention to taxonomic issues.

P.S. Buying books through these links brings me a small commission (at no extra cost to you) which helps with the costs of maintaining this website.


Resources for nature-watching in other countries


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Brazo del Este Natural Area

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.

photo of blackcap
Blackcap singing

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 beetleBerberomeloe 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.

Purple Heron

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.

photo of bird on water
Little Grebe in breeding plumage

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.


Resources

Websites

Andalucia tourism website

Andalucia.com – tourism site, links to accommodation

Discovering Donana website – for information, local guides, etc.

Videos

Views of the area and its birds
Good views of the habitats. People talking in Spanish about the area.
The birds speak for themselves – with music.

Getting there

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 websiteThe 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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Nature-watching in the Swiss National Park

Why visit the Swiss National Park . . . .

  • Glorious scenery
  • 100km of hiking trails
  • Wilderness that has not been touched (away from the paths) for over 100 years
  • Wonderful Wildflowers
  • Brilliant butterflies and other invertebrates
  • A good variety of birds and mammals

About . . . .

The Swiss National Park is located in the canton of Graubünden, spread across the four communes of Zernez, S-chanf, Scuol and Val Müstair and covering an area of 170 km2 at an altitude of 1,400 to 3,174 metres.

Established in 1914, it is the oldest national park in the Alps and indeed the oldest in central Europe. As of April 2021, the site is listed on the IUCN’s Green List of Protected and Conserved Areas and is formally recognised as one of the 59 best managed sites in the world. 

Protected areas in Switzerland

Despite its small size, Switzerland manages to squeeze in a number of major sites of ecological importance.  Perhaps that is not so surprising in a country where 25% of the land is categorized as “non-productive”, ie high mountains and lakes.  However, until 2007, there was only a single national park.  Now there are a total of 18 areas designated, or proposed for designation as, national or regional nature parks, each of them at least 100 square kilometres in area.

There are also a handful of nature discovery parks – relatively small areas of only a few square kilometres within densely populated regions, offering intact spaces for local flora and fauna and improving the life quality of the urban population. Their primary purpose is to allow the public to experience nature and receive environmental education. 

Map from the Swiss National Park website which provides information in German, English, French and Italian.

Best things to do:

Go to the visitor centre

I’m an advocate for visitor centres. Having arrived in Zernez when it was raining, this visitor centre was most welcome, and I visited on several other occasions when the weather was poor during my ten-day stay in the area. There were exhibitions about various aspects of the park – geology, animals, plants, history, hiking, etc. The staff were helpful, even the park director was happy to talk to visitors who had questions that the centre staff couldn’t answer themselves.

It has all changed since then. Opened in 2008, the new national park centre at Zernez attracts some 40,000 visitors a year.  It’s well worth visiting for up-to-date information, and for maps and route guides from the shop.  There is a comprehensive, interactive exhibition on permanent show, with various digital information systems, temporary exhibitions and a theatre, all of which provide a set of interesting alternatives for when the weather is too wet for hiking to be pleasant.

Download the app

A fairly recent innovation, the Swiss National Park app is a digital hiking guide that leads you through the National Park region with stories, information and detailed maps. Not all areas of the Park have mobile phone/online coverage; so the app was created in offline mode – so download it when you have a wi-fi signal because it is a rather large file. The app is available in German, English, and French, so is also useful if you are on a guided walk and need help with understanding what the guide is saying in German.

Take a hike

There is a single road through the park, going on down to the Italian border. Along it, you’ll find car parks, hotels, and bus stops. These are all very handy when hiking through the park. The rules are strict. You must stay on the path, camping and fires are not allowed. But the 80km or so of footpaths are all well-worth exploring. I’ve been on about half of them. The campsite in Zernez provided a useful base for some short hikes, and the starting point for some of the longer ones. The need to get back to base meant a good deal of planning for buses or trains, and making sure there was enough time to catch the last one back to base. Nature-watching really tends to slow us down, but if you are just out for the hike, the distances are easy to do in plenty of time.

Go on a guided walk

A guide can give so much extra information and interpretation about the landscape. Guided hikes happen on Tuesdays and Thursdays, are usually conducted in German, and usually have a specialist theme. Alongside the human guides, you can use the app to provide extra information. Both kinds of tour provide an opportunity to uncover some of the secrets of the astounding abundance of flora and fauna – all to be found in the Swiss National Park.

Look for birds

Despite there being only half a dozen pairs of golden eagles in the park, we saw one or two every day. During the summer they feed mainly on marmots, while in the winter they scavenge deer carcasses and whatever else they can find. Carcasses are also important for the Lammergeier – also known as the bone vulture and the bearded vulture. This species has been the subject of an extensive reintroduction program throughout the Alps, including 26 young captive-bred released in the park between 1991 and 2007. They seem to be breeding by themselves now, so no further releases are needed.

Nutcrackers are members of the crow family, restricted in range to areas of pine forests and so most often found in the mountains and the far north where conifers form the main forests. Like jays, it stores its winter food supply in the ground, and the seeds that it doesn’t find again germinate and extend the forest. The nutcracker is the logo for the Swiss National Park.

Looking at the list of 56 species that I saw here, the ptarmigan, Alpine chough, Alpine accentor, and citril finch stand out as being special to the mountains, at least. Most of the other species are more generalist, and found in the lower areas – the forests and along the river corridors.

Shepherd’s Fritillary
Silky ringlet

Look for butterflies

The best place for butterflies proved to be the track alongside the river from Zernez – and on a couple of occasions, we barely managed a mile of hiking because of trying to photograph and identify all the butterflies. But to find the specialities of the region, you have to go to higher altitudes.

En route to Alp Trubchun, we found a shepherd’s fritillary basking on a stone (above left), and while we were trying to photograph that, the local form of the silky ringlet put in an appearance (above right). Depending on the light angle, this butterfly can look much like any other brown ringlet, or it can shimmer an iridescent green.

It’s really the blues and the fritillaries that dominate the butterfly lists here. And to have any hope of identifying unfamiliar species, you really have to photograph both the under-side and the upper-side. And nowadays, having the luxury of looking at the photos on a computer screen, much enlarged, makes it so much easier. I ended up with a list of 34 species, plus a few that I couldn’t identify, and of course, there were a few that didn’t hang around long enough for a photo.

Leontopodium alpinum. Edelweiss – close up of the small white flowers.

Enjoy the wildflowers

Where to start with the wildflowers! As in most mountain regions, there is a huge variety due to the variation in altitude and aspect. However, there are perhaps not so many here as elsewhere in the Alps, due to the dry climate (low in rainfall and in humidity), the extremes of temperature, and the lack of limestone rocks. Nevertheless, up to 600 species can be found here.

I didn’t really look hard at them – I was more interested in the butterflies – but was happy to at last find an Edelweiss. This iconic flower of the Alps prefers rocky limestone places at about 1,800–3,000 metres (5,900–9,800 ft) altitude. Its leaves and flowers are covered with dense hairs, which are believed to protect the plant from cold, aridity, and ultraviolet radiation. It is a scarce, short-lived flower found in remote mountain areas, although it will grow in gardens with a bit of help. It is a national symbol Switzerland and some other Alpine countries.  It is non-toxic and has been used in traditional medicine as a remedy against abdominal and respiratory diseases.

Look for mammals

We saw mammals, or signs of mammals, on each day. However, the best place is generally considered to be Alp Trubchun at the south-west end of the Park. We took the train from Zernez to S-chanf, and started the hike from there – although now there is a bus service that stops closer to the footpath. It’s a relatively easy hike, gently climbing 400m in 10km, but you do have to allow time to walk back too. The scenery is, as always, wonderful, but with the added views of plenty of wildlife. We had to try to ignore the birds, butterflies and plants on the outward journey through Val Trubchun, just to make sure we got to Alp Trubchun itself.

Herds of red deer grazed on the Alp, watching us from a distance. Amongst them were a few ibex. This species was surreptitiously reintroduced to the area in the early 1900s after being exterminated by 1650 – thanks mainly to the medicinal properties attributed to its flesh and horns – plus the fact that they often seem to have no fear of humans, and are therefore easy to hunt. Chamois were not quite so easy to see, as they spend the summer at even higher elevations, so you need time to continue to path up to Fuorcla Trupchun – a steady but much steeper and more difficult climb – from where you can even continue downhill to Livigno in Italy (and return to Zernez by bus, according to the Swiss National Park website).

Marmots are also common on the Alp, and we stopped to watch their antics on the way back. This was early August, and youngsters were out, playing around a rock next to their burrow. An adult posed obligingly outside its burrow nearby. It then wandered through the flowery meadow, stopping to bite off some vegetation here and there, or tug at a juicy root just underground. Then two more young marmots appeared. They hung around a burrow entrance under a rock for a while – mum climbed on the rock to keep an eye on us – then scampered up the hill. When she returned, the family did a lot of licking and grooming as a greeting ceremony, and then the youngsters disappeared into the burrow while the adult still lounged outside, soaking up the late afternoon sun.

Another hike that gave us good sightings of mammals was the route from Zernez via Cluozza to Ova Spin. First, there were signs of otter and fox alongside the river. Then through woodland with red squirrels, and a garden dormouse which, unfortunately, was dead. The woodland gave way to alpine pasture, with red deer, chamois (probably the closest views we ever had), a few ibex, and the inevitable marmots. This route was much more demanding than the Val Trubchun one, including two 700m climbs and requiring sure-footedness in places on the downhills. Fortunately, there was a bus service from Ova Spin back to Zernez, although a passing motorist offered us a ride before the bus arrived.

Photo of chamois with kid
Chamois

So there you have it

Those are my recommendations, but I feel I sampled only a little of the park.

What I’d do next time

Some of the hikes I didn’t do last time – perhaps including the one where you can do an overnight stay in a refuge – remember to book first.

Watch and photograph Lammergeiers – I’ve had only brief and distant views so far

Take more photos – especially now that I’ve got better equipment!


Best time to go

Winter: From mid-November onwards there is generally so much snow that footpaths are no longer visible, and there is a risk of avalanches. From now until the end of May the Park remains closed to visitors. The main Pass dal Fuorn (Ofenpass) road remains open in winter, ensuring access to the Val Müstair. However, the parking areas within the Park and the Hotel Parc Naziunal Il Fuorn are closed in winter.

Spring: During May there can still be heavy falls of snow, and large avalanches are not unusual. But by the end of the month, the trails in the lower and sunnier parts of the Park become accessible, and wildflowers begin to bloom. Trails in the higher areas remain under snow, and are generally only passable towards the end of June. The birds in particular are especially active at this time of year.

Summer: July and August are the ideal months to visit the National Park. All the trails are accessible; days are long and the temperatures pleasant.  At 2000 and 3000m, most flowering plants bloom during the second half of July. In high mountainous regions flowering can be delayed until well into August, according to snow conditions. Depending on the weather, the main flowering season may be delayed by 2 to 3 weeks. With the flowers come the butterflies, providing a visual feast of colour.

Autumn: As the days shorten and the temperature drops, nights can be frosty and the first snows fall in the upper regions. Footpaths may be frozen in places, and walkers heading out to higher regions should enquire about walking conditions at the National Park Centre. The highlight of the season is the red deer rut – when hundreds of stags can be heard roaring and strutting their stuff in traditional rutting areas, such as the Val Trupchun.


Resources

Swiss National Park website

Videos

This short video from the ‘Idle Brain’ YouTube channel will give you more idea of the scenery of the National Park.


How to get there

The Swiss National Park lies in the south-east of the country, and is accessible by rail, bus and road. The nearest railway station is at Zernez, and the line also passes through S-chanf for access to Val Trubchun.

Overnight accommodation within the National Park is available only in the  Chamanna Cluozza (mountain hut) or at the  Hotel Parc Naziunal Il Fuorn. Other accommodation in the region can be found via the  local tourist offices or via the internet. There is also a campsite at Zernez.


Bookshop

Buying books through these links earns a small commission which helps towards the costs of this website at no extra cost to you.

Sadly the English version of this book is now out of print. It was a standard volume available in several languages. On walks, the guide would identify a flower, and whoever found it first in their book would call out the page number so everyone could mark it in their own book, regardless of language.

It’s a subject that seems to be more easily available locally rather than trying to buy something in advance.

 If you are trying to buy something in advance, make sure it is about the Alpine flora in Europe, rather than Alpine regions of North or South America, or Australia or New Zealand, for example.

Finding books specific to the Alpine Region seems to be best done when you are there. The National Park Visitor Centre usually has a good variety. There will be books in French, German and Italian, and it seems if you are lucky, in English too. Otherwise, the main guides to birds, mammals, etc covering the whole of Europe, will do the job. I am slowly replacing my older versions with those mentioned below.

The books below are my ‘go to’ books for European wildlife, when I can’t find anything more specific to a region. Click on the covers for more information.


Botany and Butterflies in the French Alps

The French Alps provide a wonderful backdrop for a botanical and/or butterfly trip. Here are some of my recommendations after a week at La Grave, near the Col du Galibier which is equally well-known for the tour du France cycle race.

Keep reading

Nature of Grindelwald

The area around Grindelwald, in the shadow of the Eiger and the Jungfrau, is great for plants, birds, and butterflies as well as just great scenery for hiking through.

Keep reading

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Photo of a puffin in flight

Resources for the naturalist visiting Iceland

We had a plan to go to Iceland a few years back. But health problems got in the way, then there was Covid, and still we’re not travelling yet. Iceland remains on the list . . . . and we will get there one day.

Preparation for any trip includes finding the appropriate books, websites, and other sources of information. I was well into searching for books before we had to cancel. The growing popularity of Iceland as a tourist destination has spawned a lot of general travel books.  Not quite so much for nature-watchers, but here is what I’ve found.  I haven’t actually bought any of them yet, so the information is from the publishers’ notes.


Note – click on any cover or link for more information. Buying through these links brings a small commission (at no extra cost to the the buyer) that helps with the maintenance of this website.

Crossbill Guides – Iceland

Picture of book cover - Crossbill guide to Iceland

Iceland is famous for its stunning landscapes, unique geology, and rich birdlife. There are few places on Earth where volcanism has resulted in such a multitude of different landscapes, and where such vast numbers of birds are easy to watch and photograph. The Crossbill Guide: Iceland shows everything Iceland’s nature has to offer, and contains 16 detailed itineraries for the best places to go. The guide also describes close to 50 sites with tips for visitors interested in geology, birds, marine mammals, flora, and history of the landscape.


Geology of Iceland

This is the first book describing the glorious geology of Iceland’s Golden Circle and four additional excursions:(1) the beautiful valleys and mountains of the fjord of Hvalfjörđur, (2) the unique landscape and geothermal fields of the Hengill Volcano, (3) the explosion craters, volcanic fissures, and lava fields of the Reykjanes Peninsula, and (4) the volcanoes (Hekla, Eyjafjallajökull, Katla), waterfalls, sandur plains, and rock columns of South Iceland. The Golden Circle offers a unique opportunity to observe and understand many of our planet’s forces in action. These forces move the Earth’s tectonic plates, rupture the crust, and generate earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, channels for rivers and waterfalls, and heat sources for hot springs and geysers.

The Golden Circle includes the famous rifting and earthquake fracture sites at þingvellir, the hot springs of the Geysir area, the waterfall of Gullfoss, and the Kerid volcanic crater. As The Glorious Geology of Iceland’s Golden Circle is primarily intended for people with no background in geosciences, no geological knowledge is assumed and technical terms are avoided as far as possible (those used are explained in a glossary). With more than 240 illustrations – mostly photographs – explaining geological structures and processes, it is also a useful resource for geoscientists.

Book cover - the Glorious Geology of Iceland's Golden Circle

Hiking in Iceland

Book cover - Cicerone guide to Iceland

This walking and trekking guidebook offers a total of 49 day-walks and 10 multi-stage treks set right across the magnificent country of Iceland.  It includes popular routes, such as the classic Laugavegur Trail from Landmannalaugar to Porsmork, as well as lesser-known trails.  Cicerone Guides: Walking and Trekking in Iceland is split into 12 sections that cover all the best walking and trekking to be had in and around Iceland’s amazing and awe-inspiring volcanic, glacial landscapes. The routes range in difficulty from easy walks to challenging treks and give readers all the information they need to experience this wonderfully unique destination on foot. Venture inland to the remote interior and captivating ice caps, cross glaciers, lakes and see coastlines and geothermal areas.  Paddy Dillon’s guide to this ‘Land of Ice and Fire’ encourages visitors to explore all that Iceland has to offer, and will inspire lovers of the great outdoors to return time and time again.  Cicerone Guides: Walking and Trekking in Iceland gives lots of tips for travellers on a budget as well as details on public transport and accommodation.


Birds in Iceland

This second edition of the popular Icelandic Bird Guide has been completely revised and expanded. It covers all Icelandic breeding birds and regular visitors in detail and also describes numerous annual vagrants – more than 160 species in total.

Icelandic Bird Guide is an ideal identification guide when travelling around Iceland for experienced birdwatchers and beginners alike. The clear and concise text describes the birds’ appearance and behaviour, as well their diet and habitat. Maps and diagrams clearly show distribution, movements and population sizes. It also includes photographs of eggs shown in actual size.

Book cover - Icelandic Bird Guide

Birdwatching map

Cover - Birdwatchers map of Iceland

A simple and accessible guide to Iceland`s birdlife, covering 70 species of breeding bird and 37 migrants, winter visitors and vagrants. Breeding birds are pictured together with maps showing their distribution and illustrations indicating the size and appearance of their eggs. The water-colour illustrations are by Jon Baldur Hlidberg. The Birdwatcher’s Map of Iceland is an essential companion for all nature lovers woh want to learn more about Iceland`s birdlife on their travels around the country.

There is a similar Geological Map of Iceland which shows the main features of the bedrock geology. Formations are classified by age, type and composition. The map also clearly shows the island’s volcanic zones and the distribution of the recent eruption sites. Lava fields of the Holocene are shown as pre-historic or historic. This is the second, revised, edition of the map.


Plants in Iceland

This illustrated field guide contains details of 465 Icelandic plant species arranged by flower colour, complete with photo keys and distribution maps. The unique features of each plant are briefly described, together with information about its habitat, distribution, flowering time and size. The latest edition of the Flowering plants and ferns of Iceland has been fully updated with many additional entries.

Cover Flowering plants and ferns of Iceland

Useful websites

Sustainable tourism in Iceland

Guide to Iceland – general tourism site – marketplace for activities, adventures, places to go, tours, accommodation, etc.

HeyIceland – Icelandic travel agency, seems to have some interesting self-guided tours of various lengths – accommodation, GPS and hire car included.

All links to the Iceland Nature Conservation Association seem to be unavailable.


The following blogs are not nature-specific, but do contain a lot of information about travelling around Iceland by people who have travelled there independently:

SueWhereWhyWhatWhat is Iceland facous for? 25 reasons to fall in love with Iceland

MyFabFiftiesLife – travelling the ring road in a camper

Meandering Wild – everything the author learnt from her time in Iceland


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Resources for other countries


Photo of Rocina Marshes

Doñana National Park

Why visit . . .

  • It is one of the largest and best-known wetlands in Spain
  • It holds internationally important numbers of geese and ducks in winter
  • Six species of herons, plus spoonbills and glossy ibis breed there
  • Nearly 400 species of bird, including vagrants from Africa, Asia and the Americas have been seen there.
  • The Iberian Lynx still survives there, along with 36 other mammal speces
  • 21 reptile, 11 amphibian and 20 freshwater fish species have also been recorded.
  • It is a World Heritage Site and a UNESCO Biosphere reserve

About . . . .

The Marismas (marshes) of the Guadalquivar found fame as the Coto Doñana – the hunting preserve of the Duke of Medina Sidonia, in the 16th century. It played host to hunting parties of the Kings of Spain for more than 300 years, and as many as 12,000 people were said to have assembled for the visit by Felipe IV in spring 1624.

In the 1960s, a group of scientists, including José Antonio Valverde and Guy de Montford, started to campaign for recognition of the importance of the area, leading it to be declared a national park in 1969. It has since been expanded, and a buffer area (pre-parque) set up around it, now designated a Parque Natural.

The Doñana National Park and its protected margins cover more the 1300km sq. of mostly flat marshes. The actions of the sea and the Guadalquivir river built-up a large sandbar that protected an inland sea of shallow lagoons and seasonally flooded salt flats. On the south side lie 35km of sandy beach, not accessible by vehicle and so populated only by a few dozen licenced fishermen. Inland, an extensive system of sand dunes is variously clothed in grassland, heath, cistus scrub, then stone pine and cork oak woodlands.

To the north and west, there are saltpans and rice paddies, these days giving way to polyculture – the growing of fruit and vegetables under never-ending rows of plastic poly-tunnels. While the micro-climate in these tunnels provides ideal growing conditions and conserves moisture, the very act of growing these crops demands that more and more water is extracted from water-courses and ground aquifers before it reaches the marshes. And then there are the pesticides and other chemicals used on the paddyfields. To the south-west, the expanding resort of Matalascanas wants to make golf courses and other tourist attractions that will further lower the water table.

Water isn’t the only threat to the marshes. In 1998 a retaining wall at the Aznalcollar mine, north of Doñana, collapsed, and five million cubic metres of toxic waste started flowing downstream. Fortunately, most of the waste was diverted to farmland that is now ‘decommissioned’ because of the high levels of zinc, cadmium and other metals. The mine is still in operation.

For now, the marismas and their associated habitats and species seem to be doing OK. They need to be seen and appreciated while they can be. Climate change will undoubtedly bring a slew of other problems to bear.


Eagle-watching

There is nothing special about booted eagles here – they can be found across Spain. However, on my first visit I met Gus, who was studying these birds, and his family. Gus showed us how he watched the birds and recorded their activities, and said he would be grateful for any observations. It wasn’t as if I needed an excuse to go out and just sit and watch for something to happen, but it helps when you know that what you are doing is useful. Keeping detailed notes also helps you to get a better understanding of the species. And you never know what else you might see.

Just looking at the notes of one afternoon, there were several pale and dark phase booted eagles (two different colour forms of the same species) hunting; a common buzzard sitting unobtrusively on a fence post; a pair of imperial eagles in display flight – stooping and dipping, pitching and rolling, etc, as if on their own personal roller-coasters – and later mating; a couple of red kites; a peregrine that swooped through the waders and wildfowl, but without catching anything; six griffon and one Egyptian vulture soaring overhead; from time to time there were also kestrels, sparrowhawks, and possibly a goshawk and a Montagu’s harrier, but these last two were too distant to be sure.

Spanish Imperial eagle – twice the size of the booted eagle.

On another occasion, a distant shape on the horizon that turned out to be a camel!  The last descendant of a herd of about eighty intro­duced to the Marismas in the early 1900s for meat and as draft animals.  Local people were not too happy about these newcomers, complaining that, amongst other things, they ate fodder that should have been for horses and cattle, and that the horses were terrified of them – horses were still an important part of life here in the 1980s.  They generally made life miserable for the camels, which did not thrive, and eventually the herd was left to its own devices.  Now, only this one remained.


Best places for watching birds

El Rocío and the Madre

After the road from Ayamonte to El Rocío via la Palma, with its thirsty red earth, never-ending orange groves and plas­tic covered strawberry beds, the Marismas of the Parque Nacional de Doñana came as an oasis: an outsize village pond on the edge of a collec­tion of whitewashed buildings and sandy roads.  As far as one could see through the heat haze there were birds, birds, and more birds.  Somewhere in the far distance, a huge flock took to the air.  They shimmered in the haze, giving off a faint pink glow to suggest they were flamingos. (My first impressions, back in 1989)

El Rocío is a town of whitewashed buildings and wide sandy roads, sitting right next to this vast shallow water often referred to as ‘the Madre’. Technically, the Madre de las Marismas is the stream feeding through from the west, but here it overspills the channel during winter, creating this vast shallow lagoon, dotted with birds – wading birds, shorebirds, ducks, geese, herons, gulls, small passerines looking for insects along the margins, and birds of prey overhead.

The promenade, which sort of separates the town from the water and continues across the Rocío Bridge on the old road, is the easiest place for bird-watching. And the place where most bird-watchers seem to congregate, so if there is something to be seen, you’ll soon know about it.

A Spaniard got out of his car, rushed across to where we had the telescope set up on the promenade, and muttered something about a lesser spotted eagle. Before we had time to process what he was on about, he had grabbed the telescope, pointed it in the appropriate direction, and was on his way back to his car. We peered through the haze at a large, fuzzy brownish bird on a very distant fence post. Lesser-spotted eagles were only occasional visitors here. The Spaniard, we discovered later, was in charge of censusing the birds in the Park.

Centro de La Rocina

Just south of the Rocío Bridge is the Visitor Centre of La Rocina. I don’t remember much about the centre itself, except for seeing booted eagles overhead as soon as I got there. Beyond the centre, a network of paths takes you through scrub and woodland, and to the hides along the south side of the Charco de la Boca (Charco = puddle or pool) a slow-flowing stream with boggy patches and islands and reedbeds. The hides provide welcome shade from the sun and the birds – anything can turn up here – can be seen at closer quarters than on the Madre.

Acebrón

Beyond La Rocina, the road continues some 7km to the Palacio del Acebrón – a good place to visit on a rainy day. It houses a permanent exhibition of traditional human life and exploitation of the marshes. A collection of stuffed birds and animals proved useful in looking at ID features for birds that didn’t hang around for close examination in real life. A stuffed lynx showed just how large these animals are, commensurate with the footprints I found along the Camino del Rey some time later.

Outside, there is a nature trail through semi-formal gardens, around the lake (El Charco del Acebrón), through woodlands and across waterways. My overriding memory of this place is walking through willow scrub in the sunshine of a spring morning, through a haze of yellow catkins and an incredibly loud buzz of insects. A week later, the flowering was over, and the insects had moved elsewhere.

Centro de Recepción El Acebuche

El Acebuche is closer to Matalascañas, and seems to be the main visitor centre – it houses displays, information, souvenir shops that include maps and books as well as car-stickers and T-shirts, and a cafe. Oh, and a pair of white storks nesting on the roof! A short walk takes you to the lagoon of El Acebuche, which is overlooked by seven large wooden hides – one of which had swallows nesting when I last saw it. The laguna is often the best place to see ferruginous ducks and purple swamphens, amongst many other waterfowl. A boardwalk trail goes off through the woods and scrub to the west, there are more hides, and usually plenty of birds.

phto of a western swamphen

Some strange noises had been coming from the reeds, honkings and hootings which one could imagine coming from a purple swamphen (gallinule) ‑ the largest rail in the western Palaearctic, with a wing‑span of nearly a metre, and a voice that seemed to come from way down in its boots.

After a while, a large blue‑black head with a huge bright red bill poked up from the vegetation.  A second gallinule appeared about twenty metres beyond, and the first one flew off with heavy wing-beats. The second bird waded ponderously towards the hide, picking its huge red feet clear of the water.  It climbed onto a pile of vegetation and looked around, calling continuously.  Then it selected some underwater stalk which it pulled on vigorously until it came free, and carried it in its bill to a nearby mat of reeds.  The stalk was dropped while the bird climbed out of the water, then picked up again and transferred to one of those huge feet to be held firmly, yet almost delicately, as the bird chewed chunks off the end.

The first gallinule flew back out into the open and the birds stood some distance apart, facing each other and performing exaggerated head-bobbing movements, and calling to each other.  The second bird wandered off, flicking its tail to show an expanse of white under-tail coverts.  The first flew closer to the hide, then pulled up a juicy stalk for its supper.

Later the honkings from the reeds increased in intensity: two gallinules were fighting ‑ we could see their wings flailing in the vegetation ‑ while a third bird peered over the top to see how things were progress­ing.  After a few minutes, the loser beat a hasty retreat. Others were heard in the distance.

Purple swamphens would not win any prizes for elegance, but they certainly are impres­sive.  They were surprisingly willing to fly ‑ perhaps those huge feet get in the way when they try to run in a hurry.

José Antonio Valverde Visitor Centre

Following the Camino del Rey (a dirt road) eastwards from El Rocío takes you first through pinewoods (good for birds, butterflies, plants and reptiles) then into a more open area where the roads are often along the top of embankments. On my first visit (photo above), this was an open plain of swampy grassland, with deer and cattle grazing on the drier areas, and frogs calling from the irrigation/drainage channels. I saw my first sandgrouse at a bend in the road – known forever after (in my memory) as Sandgrouse Bend!

On my last visit, heavy rains had flooded these fields, they were occupied by black-necked grebes and other waterbirds. The road surface was slippery and as we drove along, I reminded myself of how to survive if the car slid off into the water (especially not knowing how deep the water was in the channels by the road.).

The road does, however, lead to the Jose Valverde Visitors’ Centre, where there are displays, a shop, and a cafe. It has picture windows and a short, screened boardwalk overlooking an adjacent permanent lake. This lake is the home of a large nesting colony of glossy ibises, as well as colonies of other species of heron. Neither the centre nor the ibises were here on my first visits!


Best time to visit

The National Park itself is not open to the public – only park staff and registered scientists are allowed in for their specific projects. However, there are guided tours, operated by approved companies and individuals, and they need to be booked well in advance. We tried a couple of times – waiting at the departure area in case somebody didn’t turn up. However, people working there said that we wouldn’t expect to see any species that we couldn’t see in the Parque Natural area, so don’t worry if you can’t get in.

My visits have been between February and April, when generally the weather is not too hot, there aren’t too many people around, and the bird numbers are at their highest. Even when the wintering birds depart, there are plenty of migrants coming through in March and April. Plants, insects and herptiles can be found at any time, though there was a noticeable increase in activity in spring.

Water levels vary with the rainfall, some years are very dry, and sometimes most of the park seems to be flooded. Generally, October to May is considered the best. The marshes are fed mainly by rainfall, so in summer they can dry up completely, and the birds relocate to other wetlands, such as the Odiel Marshes which are tidal.

Unless you are really there for the festival, the area is best avoided at Pentecost (seven weeks after Easter) when up to a million pilgrims converge for the Fiesta de Nuestra Senora del Rocío. Traditionally, some residents rented their houses at high enough rates that they lived on this festival income for the rest of the year.


So there you have it

My first visit to the Doñana National/Natural Park lasted a month, subsequent visits have been shorter. Most of that time was spent exploring the areas mentioned above, and anywhere else that took my fancy – the advantage of getting to know a place.

What I’d look for next time – José Antonio Valverde Visitor Centre and its environs must be worth a visit, and more time in the dunes near Matalascañas. But just wandering around those same areas as before – because with wildlife, you never quite know what might turn up. Perhaps being there in January when the cranes are wintering there – I had missed them by mid-February. Perhaps seeing what it is like in May – before it gets too hot, but the flowers, birds, butterflies and lizards should be abundant. Maybe I’d try again for one of the guided trips into the interior of the Nationa Park – just to see what it is like. Or one of the trips that specifically goes out looking for lynx – nothing is guaranteed, but it would be nice to see a real live one instead of just the pawprints (and the stuffed specimen!)

And I’d go with a list of all the places and things I didn’t photograph previously. A wildflower book would help too, so I could concentrate more on plants and butterflies, than on birds.


Resources

Websites

Doñana as a World Heritage Site

Doñana as a Ramsar site – for a detailed technical ecological appraisal of the park

Department of the Environment website – in Spanish (clicking English on the language tab doesn’t give you the whole website in English. You’ll probably need Google translate if you don’t read Spanish)

Wildside Holidays – lots of information about this and other sites in Spain, plus information about accommodation, guides, etc.

Getting there

The Donana National and Natural Park lies between Seville and Huelva. It is possible to get to El Rocío by bus, but this is time-consuming. And because of the size of the Park, a car is a necessity if you want to go further than the Madre and the la Rocina Centre. Hotels in Seville, and/or the tourist office, will have details of day trips by coach.

Visits to the protected area of the national park can only be undertaken with licenced operators. There are several, I don’t know anything about any of them, but these two have been mentioned by friends who have been there.

Discovering Doñana – tour operator – lots of information on their website

Doñana Visitas – tour operator – a local cooperative

There is plenty of accommodation in El Rocío, and in Matalascañas to the south.

Videos

This documentary from Planet DOC gives an excellent idea of the variety of wildlife of the Doñana


Bookshop

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Buying through these links earns me a small commission, at no extra cost to you, which goes towards the cost of maintaining this website.


More nature-watching in Andalucia

Brazo del Este Natural Area

If you’re staying somewhere between Malaga and Gibraltar, and you can’t get to the Doñana National Park on the other side of the river, then the Brazo del Este is the place to head for. A true oasis of wildlife surrounded by an agricultural desert – a desert in terms of wildlife.

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Photo of spoonbills in flight

Las Marismas del Odiel

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Why visit . . .

The Odiel Marshes Natures Reserve is the second largest wetland in Huelva province after Doñana, and the most important tidal wetland in Spain.

One third of Europe’s spoonbills breed here.

The marshes lie on silt deposited by the rivers Odiel and Tinto, and provide a paradise for birds.

The protected area also includes salt-pans, lakes, forest, sandbank, tidal channels and rivers.

There is fairly easy access to the reserva from the town of Huelva.


About the Odiel Marshes

The estuary at Huelva has long been considered good for birds, but when a breeding colony of European spoonbills was discovered there in 1977, extra effort went into protecting the site. It was declared a Biophere reserve by UNESCO in 1983 because of its importance for wildlife, migratory birds in particular. It has also been recognised as a Ramsar Site (International Wetlands Convention), and a Special Area for Protection of Birds (Zonas de Especial Protección para las Aves) and Site of Community Importance by the European Union.

The main part of the 6750ha site lies at the confluence of the rivers Odiel and Tinto, with marshes forming behind the sandbar deposited along the coast by the sea. The variety of habitats include salt-pans, lakes, forest, sandbank, tidal channels and rivers. Small wonder that it has been described as a paradise for birds, despite being surrounded by the town of Huelva, the industrial activities based on the mining areas upstream, intensive agriculture (largely grown under plastic tunnels) and human recreation such as the the beach resorts at Playa de los Enebrales.


Best places to go

The best time to visit is in spring during the breeding season and in winter when there are lots of waterfowl. The Easter and summer periods bring lots of tourists.

La Calatilla Visitors’ Centre – Anastasio Senra

I’d always recommend starting with at least a quick visit to the visitor centre of any nature reserve or other protected area. If there are access issues (eg areas to avoid because of breeding birds, or damaged roads, etc) or something more exciting like what birds have been seen recently. It will also give information on any permit requirements, guided tours, etc.

The ‘Centro de Recepción La Calatilla – Anastasio Senra‘ visitor Centre was opened in 1994. It offers basic information on the different aspects of this natural area, via a very interesting exhibition with information boards, tools, samples of vegetation and animal life, archaeological remains and audiovisual information on the salt marshes. Although opening hours are limited, it proved a useful and interesting place to hide from the heavy showers on the day I visited. The Centre is also home to the offices that take care of the area and its natural habitat. There is a large car park and this makes a good starting point for some of the signed footpaths. It is located on the Dique San Juan Carlos I, and overlooks the River Odiel.

Usefully, there is a popular restaurant located next door!

Isla de Bacuta

From the visitor centre you can walk or cycle around this island of salt pans, and overlook creeks and marshes. At one point there is a covered look-out area – the Observatorio de Aves – with views across to the Isla Enmedio. There is usually a good range of waterbirds along here, and small birds in the scrub.

Photo of Flamingos
Greater Flamingos

El Dique San Juan Carlos I

The visitor centre sits beside the Dique San Juan Carlos I, a road that branches off the main A-497 just west of the two road bridges across the Odiel. The road carries on another 20km or so towards a lighthouse, passing through the centre of the saltmarshes. If there is little other traffic, it is easy to use the car as a hide, stopping at intervals along the road (note, this situation may have changed recently and at least in busy periods you may be able to park only in designated car parking areas). This is the best on a rising tide that is likely to bring birds closer to the road. It’s also quite an exposed road, and in winter the car provides welcome shelter from the wind and rain. The far end can be good for sea-watching, and there is a chance of dolphins here.

Photo of Sandwich Tern
The morning’s wind had died down and it was now calm and dry with good visibility. We saw four red-breasted mergansers, twenty‑five Balearic shearwaters, four common scoters, ten puffins, four razorbills, two great-crested grebes, thirty sandwich terns and thirteen gannets. And of course, lots of gulls, a huge flock that took to the air from time to time, perhaps being moved on by the tide. No dolphins this time

Photo of sage-leaved cistus
There were a number of plants in bloom along the tracks including blue lupins, and gum‑leaved and sage‑leaved cistus (above). Closer to the water’s edge were typical salt-tolerant plants such as Salicornia, Suaeda and Arthroc­nemum.

Punta Umbria

Punta Umbria lies at the end of another spit, which runs parallel to the salt-marshes. To get to it, follow signs on the west side of the Odiel to the Playas (beaches). However, if you use the older, smaller roads, you can access the surrounding scrub where small birds such as Dartford warblers can be found. This area is part of the Paraje Natural de Los Enebrales de Punta Umbria. There are also dirt tracks leading to the saltmarshes, etc. The pinewoods around Camping la Boca and eastwards to Punta Umbria are good for Iberian (Azure-winged) magpies, and during migration periods especially, for all sorts of birds. Punta Umbria was a fishing village, now more of a tourist resort (so food and drink easily available) with a long beach facing the Atlantic. Roads on the north side of the town do allow some views across the saltmarshes, and access to dirt roads and footpaths such as the Sendero Caño de Melilla Honda.

Photo of a pair of Kentish Plovers
About fifty kentish plover were loafing and feeding on the beach, some of them clearly paired up. We noticed the male apparently making a scrape. When that was done, he started opening and closing his bill and moving his head to and fro at the same time. Then a female circled him twice, stopped with her back to him and, with an exaggerated movement, bent forward and thrust her tail up. The male ran forward and jumped on top of her, seeming to make cloacal contact immediately. They stayed in this position for about two minutes with the male softly treading the female’s back. Then the female moved, causing the male to step off. After standing together for about a minute, they resumed feeding

Huelva City Waterfront

On the eastern side of the estuary, you can look across the water (and saltmarshes north of the city) from the coast road. It’s best in the morning with the sun behind you, but not in the brisk westerly that dominated the weather when I was there.

Following the road south-eastwards (towards the Doñana Natural Park), you come to the point where Christopher Columbus set sail to discover the Americas. Crossing the Rio Tinto gets you to La Rabida where various roads give views across the saltmarshes and saltpans – the jetty at Muela de Reina is recommended as large flocks of gulls often gather there. The creek between the road and La Rabida attracts herons, spoonbills and other waterfowl.

Photo of Audouin's Gull
Audouin’s Gull

La Rabida is full of historical monuments, and a new (1991) amphitheatre – the Foro Iberamericano. The Parque Botánico José Celestino Mutis is devoted to plants, especially trees, from South America. However, if you continue another 8km along the coast road you come to Jardín Botánico Dunas del Odiel another Botanical Garden, this one run by the local government and displaying plants of the Atlantic Coast.


So there you have it

The February weather wasn’t brilliant during my visit, but it’s on my list for another time – perhaps March or April when there will be more flowers out, with attendant butterflies.

There is plenty to see there, so not a place to rush through. However, if time is limited and you are on your way between the Algarve and the Natural Park of Doñana, it makes a worthwhile break in the journey.

Photo of white broom Retama monosperma
White broom – Retama monosperma – was abundant along the roadsides in February.

Getting there

Huelva is accessible by train, several parts of the reserve are accessible on foot or by bicycle. However, to make the most of the site, a car is recommended.

It is easily accessible from the Natural Park of Doñana, or the Algarve, though if you are hiring a car at Faro Airport, make sure you are allowed to take it into Spain (shouldn’t be a problem with reputable companies).


Resources

Useful Websites

UNESCO – about the biosphere reserve of the Marismas del Odiel

Andalucia department of the environment

Huelva tourist board – information about other things to do in Huelva, accommodation, etc.

Wildside Holidays – information about the site, accommodation, guides, and about wildlife in the rest of Spain

Local tour guides

Many nature tour companies include a visit to the Odiel Marshes within a trip to Andalucia, but the following locally based guides are able to give a more focussed tour of this site.

Wild Doñana is based in Huelva, and offers tours of several local wildlife hotspots

Living Doñana organises guided Andalucía bird watching and wildlife tours from 1-day trips, tours of up to several days and tailor-made trips seeking the best wildlife Andalusia has to offer.

Videos

No commentary on this one, but excellent videography to show off the area and its wildlife:


Bookshop

Click on covers for more information

Buying through these links earns me a small commission, at no extra cost to you, which goes towards the cost of maintaining this website.


Other places for winter birds


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