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 Guadalquivir 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Brazo del Este on the east side of the Guadalquivir and 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 longer visit (especially without the worry of driving on wet slippery tracks), 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.
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.
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.
This documentary from Planet DOC gives an excellent idea of the variety of wildlife of the Doñana
Click on covers for more information
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