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.


Bookshop

Click on the covers for more information

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.


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 eagle owl in snow

Best places for wildlife in January

Europe can be as fascinating for wildlife in winter as it is in the warmer months. Here are some ideas on the best places to go in January

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.


Poster for pinterest

Pin for later

photo of eagle owl in snow

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.

Loading…

Something went wrong. Please refresh the page and/or try again.


Poster for pinterest
Pin for later
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

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.


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.

Keep reading
Poster for pinterest

Pin for later

Photo of spoonbills in flight

Las Marismas del Odiel

Poster for pinterest

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

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.

Keep reading

poster for pinterest
Pin for later
Photo of cranes in flight

Best places to see nature in Spain in January

There is a whole variety of places to see nature to see in Spain in January.  Here are a few ideas with links to companies offering winter trips there.

Extremadura

Winter is mild (except in the mountains).  On cold nights, temperatures may dip below freezing, but when the sun is shining, as it does most days, an agreeable temperature of around 15C makes it feel like spring

Winter is the best time of year to get to grips with the speciality birds of Extremadura, when resident species form flocks in the rolling steppes and cork oak dehesa.  You can expect to see around 150 species in a few days, including great bustard, little bustard, pin-tailed sandgrouse, black-bellied sandgrouse, Spanish Imperial Eagle, Black-shouldered kite, purple swamp-hen, black vulture, Iberian magpie, white-spotted bluethroat, alpine accentor, thekla lark, calandra lark and large flocks of common cranes.  Some 90,000 common cranes migrate to Extremadura for the winter, as do 30,000 greylag geese, and thousands of wildfowl of other species.

Monfrague National Park

Birding Extremadura for info, and a January blog post or two


Ebro Delta

Lying on the coast of Catalonia in north-eastern Spain, the Ebro Delta is a wetland of immense importance to birds – no less than 10% of all the waterfowl in the whole of Spain winter here.  Some 75,000 ducks – mostly mallard, around 15,000 coot (including a few introduced red-knobbed coot) and 30,000 waders.  If that isn’t enough, there are thousands of gulls including 30,000 Mediterranean gulls, plus Audouin’s and slender-billed gulls in smaller numbers.

Birding in the Ebro Delta


Doñana National Park

Spain’s premier wetland has plenty to offer at all times of year (except perhaps in the later summer heat).  A winter visit comes with fewer tourists and more pleasant weather.  More hotels are available now in El Rocio (top photo) than when I visited in 1989 and 2001.

Doñana winter holiday

Here are my suggestions for enjoying Doñana if you are travelling independently.

Donana Poster for pinterest

Iberian Lynx

In the early 2000s, the Iberian lynx was on the verge of extinction.  However, a recent, intensive conservation programme has brought them back from the brink. Numbers have increased from around 100 individuals in 2002 to more than 300 now. Iberian lynx are still found only in isolated parts of Spain and Portugal, with the two main breeding populations in Andalucia at Donana and Andujar. Sightings cannot be guaranteed, even at these strongholds, but there is plenty of other wildlife around.

Lynx-watching in Spain


Wolf-watching

The Sierra de la Culebra hosts the highest density of wild wolves in Spain.  However, any sighting has to be regarded as a bonus when spending time in this area of wolf country.

Guided trips do have a high success rate of sightings of these iconic predators, but at least be assured, even if you haven’t seen them… they have seen you!  This is a blog post from January 2017

Wolf-watching in Spain


Cantabria

The Santoña Marshes near Santander are always worth a visit – some 20,000 waterbirds spend the winter there. And it’s not far from the port if you are travelling to and from the UK by car ferry.

The Parque Natural de Santoña Victoria y Joyel, to give it its full name, was designated in 1992. The 6,500ha (25sq miles) is an outstanding area of estuary, marshland, freshwater and other habitats – considered to be one of the wetlands of most ecological value in the north of Spain. It attracts more than 20,000 birds of 120 different species, as well as being home to small mammals and a unique flora. 


Bookshop

These books will give you a few more ideas about where to watch nature in Spain in January

Book cover and click thru for more details
Book cover and click thru to order
Book cover and click thru to order

Click on book covers for more information.

Buying books through these links helps to fund and maintain this website at no extra cost to you.

More ideas for nature-watching in winter

Winter birds on the Gulf of Morbihan

The ‘Mor-Bihan’ – which means ‘little sea’ in Breton – lies on the southern coast of Brittany.

The ‘Golfe du Morbihan’ comprises 12,000 hectares of the Atlantic enclosed by land except for a 1km wide bottleneck, through which the tide comes and goes. 

Due to its location along the Atlantic coast flyway, and its high diversity of wetlands, the Gulf of Morbihan is one of 20 major sites for waterbirds in France

About the Gulf

The term ‘gulf’ was traditionally used for large highly-indented navigable bodies of saltwater that are enclosed by the coastline. So basically, a gulf is a large inlet from the ocean into a landmass, typically with a narrow opening to the sea – which is what the Morbihan is. However, the name Morbihan is given to the département, and so the embayment is referred to as the Golfe du Morbihan.

The Mor-Bihan was filled by Atlantic waters several thousand years ago, when the rising sea-levels (after the last Ice Age) flooded the existing river valleys. The result was a huge shallow pan of water, with some 500km of coastline and around 60 islands which vary in size from rocky islets to large enough to support whole villages. 

Over time, the Gulf developed a range of natural habitats and rich biodiversity. It is a designated Natura 2000 area and is also protected by various international and national regulations including Ramsar (for the protection of wetlands), decrees on biotope protection, and its designated statuses as a natural reserve, protected area and national heritage site. Processes are now underway to declare the area a Regional Natural Park. 

The area around the Gulf of Morbihan is densely inhabited with 230 inhabitants per km² which is twice the national average. Yet the natural beauty and tranquillity of the Gulf attract two million visitors each year, making tourism is the main economic activity. Other major economic activities include oyster farming (with 1,600 hectares given over to this activity) fishing, and agriculture (in decline). The area around the gulf is home to an extraordinary range of megalithic monuments. The best-known is Carnac, where the remains of a dozen rows of huge standing stones can be followed for over 10km. The passage tomb of Gavrinis, on a small island, is one of the most important such sites in Europe. There is more information on the tourist website for the area

In the Gulf itself, Huge areas of mudflats are exposed at low tide and there are saltmarshes and numerous islands, channels and lagoons as well as arable farmland, shingle beaches and rocky shores nearby. This makes it an extremely important stopover and wintering area for waders and waterfowl, with tens of thousands of birds present from Autumn to spring.

Winter Birds

Morbihan is the principal French haunt of dark-bellied brent geese from Siberia – some 20,000 over-winter here. 

From October to March, it also supports high numbers of Eurasian Wigeon, Northern Shoveler, Northern Pintail and Common Teal as well as Common Shelduck, Red-breasted Merganser and Common Goldeneye. 

Waders include most of the regular species of north-western Europe and other species found here in winter include Little Grebe, Great Crested Grebe and around 1000 Black-necked Grebe. 

By summer, most birds have left for their northern breeding grounds, but a few remain to breed. These include Little Egret, Kentish Plover, Black-winged Stilt, Pied Avocet and Marsh Harrier while Eurasian Spoonbill occurs regularly in some numbers during both passage periods. A passerine speciality of Morbihan is Bluethroat which breeds at the Reserve Naturelle de Sene near Vannes and can also be found at the Marais de Suscinio to the south of Sarzeau. 

The land surrounding the Golfe has extensive pinewoods with a good range of bird species including Black Woodpecker, Green Woodpecker and Great Spotted Woodpecker, Short-toed Treecreeper, Crested Tit and various warblers. 

The site regularly exceeds the threshold of 20,000 birds counted simultaneously during the winter (October to February). This makes it of International Importance for its bird populations. However, the total number of migratory and wintering birds (waterfowl and shorebirds) is between 50,000 and 100,000 individuals

Dunlin

Maximum counts for winter 2011-12 (the most recent figures I can find on-line)

  • Pintail 1285
  • Brent Goose 16,594 (20-yr average 20,000)
  • Shelduck 4249
  • Shoveler 669
  • Wigeon 5395
  • Merganser 1231
  • Pochard 53 (20-yr average 664)
  • Black-necked grebe 938
  • Spoonbill 50 passage
  • Avocet 1400
  • Lapwing 5441
  • Ringed Plover 839
  • Grey plover 1784
  • Black-tailed godwit 3660
  • Curlew 710
  • Spotted redshank 104
  • Redshank 1500 passage 463 winter
  • Dunlin 20305
  • Turnstone 238 (20yr average 91) 

Morbihan is also important for its breeding birds: 

  • Lesser black-back gull 400 pairs
  • Common tern 100 pairs
  • Avocet 150 pairs
  • Marsh harrier 6 pairs
  • Oystercatcher 50 pairs
  • Little Egret 100 pairs
Redshank

Bird-watching places around the Morbihan

We camped overnight at Kerhillion Plage, and did some early morning sea-watching, then wandered around the area for a while before moving east to the Morbihan itself.

The place is huge, by the time you’ve added the marshes, sand dunes, salt pans and islands to the sea area, you are talking about some 23 square kilometres (8 square miles). Then the indentations of the coastline plus the narrow roads mean that you can’t really race around it in a day. If, like us, you enjoy watching birds, rather than just ticking them off a list, then you need several days. And if it is sunny, then you have to take that into account, as the low winter sun bouncing off the water isn’t pleasant. Oh, and don’t forget the tide. When it is out, there isn’t much to see on the mudflats unless you have a telescope

Toulvern: a wooded peninsula in the north-west corner of the Morbihan, with the Etang de Toulveryn on one side, and more tidal flats on the other. Lots of access points and a seafood restaurant at the end. Coots, teal, shoveler, mallard, shelduck, grebes, and spoonbills can all be seen here – and a telescope is useful. 

Le Marais de Pen in Toul: a mix of salt- and freshwater habitats, this is the largest marsh in the west of the Morbihan. It has been protected since the late 1990s. There is a useful viewing platform located on a water tower, overlooking the marshes, and a walking route of about 3.5km. The area is freely accessible all year round. 

Ile de Berder: from a small parking area close to the island, it is possible to observe Roseate Terns, especially in September and October – but they were long gone by our visit in late November. The terns often land on the oyster barges that are in the cove. Also good for goldeneye and red-breasted merganser who regularly feed on the plentiful oyster beds here.  You can cross to the island, but the road is submerged at high tide (so we gave it a miss because of not knowing the tide times).

Pond Pump: at Le Moustoir along the D316 which connects Larmor-Baden in Arradon. Gulls and plovers especially gather on the edge of this private pond – but be aware of the heavy and fast road traffic (we didn’t stay there for long) – though there is now a cafe – La Chaumière de Pomper – nearby that might provide a parking place if you eat there, and also the old mill – Le Moulin de Pomper that has been turned into an antiques shop. 

The banks of Vincin: sandwiched between the suburbs of Vannes and the muddy shores of the Riviere duVincin this is easily accessible by coast path (wheelchair-friendly) from the town, or from the le Conleau campsite, or the best Western hotel on the Lily de Conleau. Going east from any of these takes you past the golf course to the Pointe des Emigres. It can be disappointing when the tide is out, but it is home to large numbers of ducks, such as mallard, teal and shelduck.

Shelduck feeding as the tide rises

Séné Marshes

From Vannes, go south on the D199 to the village of Séné. From there, the reserve is signposted. The entrance fee is about €5 and that gives access to the visitor centre, two footpaths, five hides, information from ornithological guides, and the chance to watch a film about the reserve.  However, the reserve centre is closed from mid-September to the end of January so during this time you’re limited to a free access trail in one part of the reserve.

The reserve covers 410 hectares, and is located on the river Noyalo. It was declared by Ministerial Decree of 23 August 1996. It comprises a section of the estuary with mudflats bordered by vast salt marshes, tidal creeks, channels and ponds. These marshes are in fairly good condition, some being replaced by areas of wet meadows, hedgerows and fallow land. 

Some 220 species of birds have been observed on this reserve, including the 76 that nest there regularly. It is a migratory stop-over used by almost all shorebird and wildfowl species regularly seen in Western Europe. It is also a haven for amphibians, reptiles, dragonflies, butterflies and a quarter of the plant species found in Brittany have been recorded here.

The reserve website (in French, but google did a reasonable translation to English) includes a library of videos about the marshes

Wigeon and other winter waterbirds

Noyalo bridge: On the opposite of the Chanel de Saint-Leonard is the village of Noyalo. There are a few places where you can stop along the D780, and the bridge at Noyalo proved interesting even though the tide was still low – shelduck, avocets and curlews, various gulls, several marsh harriers, egrets, etc.

At le Hézo people seemed keen to point us in the right direction to see birds, although it wasn’t until the tide was coming in that we fully appreciated the place. The road runs alongside the mudflats near the old mill – the Moulin à marées du Hézo – and there is a footpath from the parking area there, and another along the old saltpans just to the south. We watched waders pushed along in front of the rising tide, looking like a necklace along the water-line at dusk. As with many of the large semi-enclosed embayments, the high tide seems to last a long time. The next morning (obviously it had been out again during the night) we had to wait for it to go down a bit before we could walk the shore behind the houses. Here we found large numbers of the Brent Geese that the area is known for, and amongst them was a black brant – the Canadian sub-species rarely seen in Europe.

Lasné Marsh is just south of le Hezo, and can be partially circumnavigated by following the coastal path. Part of it is a quiet zone, closed to the public. Avocets and terns are very easy to observe during the breeding season at Saint-Armel. In addition, the coastal path opens directly onto the mudflat east of Tascon, which hosts one of the largest concentrations of birds wintering in the Gulf of Morbihan. Then there is another marshy area between Lasne and Saint-Colombier

Dark-bellied Brent Geese

The Reserve of the Pointe du Duer is just south of Saint-Colombier.  Old salt pans dating from the 15th century and in use until the 1950s are now managed to provide safe roosting places for wading birds in winter and on migration. In spring and summer black-winged stilt, common tern and shelduck breed here. Two hides and a small pine plantation provide shelter, and various pathways leading to them. The footpaths are laid out to allow access without disturbing the birds. Again, large numbers of birds can be seen from the tower hide, especially at high tide.  Some 160 species have been recorded here, including resident black woodpeckers and crested tits.

If you continue along the southern edge of the Morbihan, you find more places to watch birds on the mudflats – for example the Rue du Pont du Lindin is recommended for a variety of waders including grey plover, and from the Port du Logeo you can see groups of red-breasted mergansers and black-necked grebe (especially in January and February) – though a telescope is recommended. 

The marshes of the Château de Suscinio are near Sarzeau on the south side. Just follow signs towards the castle. Once there, turn right towards the sea and park your vehicle in the car park. The marshes spread along several hundred meters in both directions and are very attractive to birds which can be observed from close-by, especially in the morning. 


Bookshop

Click on book covers for more information.

Buying books through these links brings me a small commission (at no extra cost to you) that helps to maintain this website


Other places to go bird-watching in winter


Pin for later

Winter birds at the Tejo Estuary

The Rio Tejo (Spanish Rio Tagus) rises at the Fuente de Garcia in Teruel province, Aragon, Spain, flows 1038km (645 miles) across the Iberian peninsula to reach the Atlantic at Lisbon, Portugal. Its course has been dammed in several places for irrigation and water supplies. Just above Lisbon are the plains of Leziria, where the estuary itself has been drained, irrigated and planted on a huge scale.

To get to the estuary from the north, you drive along a broad dirt track. It seems unnecessarily wide, until you meet a tractor the size of a house trundling along it. The intensively cultivated fields eventually give way to pasture, grazed by the famous bulls used in bullfights. And at last, you reach the muddy creeks and channels of what is left of the estuary.

But the journey is worth the effort. This is the largest estuary in Western Europe, holding 54% of Portugal’s wintering waders, 30% of its wintering waterfowl, and 4% of its wintering herons. There are regularly over 50,000 birds in winter, and double that during the migration seasons.

About the Tagus Estuary Natural Reserve

Despite the 20,000ha of reclaimed land, the estuary upstream of Lisbon is still a vast intertidal zone of mudflats, bordered by 2,800 ha of saltmarsh (the largest in Portugal), saline marshlands, mudflats, shallow lagoons. Beyond this is a hinterland of dry grassland, cornfields, rice fields, stone pine and cork oak woodland. To the east some of this polder landscape has been somewhat modified by industrial and military installations which pose a serious threat of pollution, but the estuary is still frequented in winter and migration time by over 70,000 waders including 15% of western Europe’s wintering avocet, plus dunlin and curlew and several thousand duck.

Some 22,850 ha of the saltmarsh, mudflats and islands are included in a Reserva Natural, which was established in 1976 and covers an area of over 14,000 ha. Shooting and other forms of exploitation, except fishing, are forbidden. Access to the reserve for visitors is by road to perimeter then by footpath to points of interest, however, there is no entry to three strict nature reserves Reserva Integral areas that are left for nature to get on with its own business and even scientists are allowed in only to monitor the situation.

The protected area extends from 10m below sea level to 11m above, and is important for marine life such as fish, molluscs, crustaceans, etc, as well as birds.

Fortunately, the powers that be have recognised the value of the estuary:

  • 1976 – creation of the Natural Reserve of the Tagus Estuary
  • 1980 – declared a Wetland of International Importance by the Ramsar Convention
  • 1994 – established as a Special Protection Area for Wild Birds, under EEC directive 79/409
Young bulls, reared for bullfighting, graze the pastures.

Through the farmland

There were larks, finches and linnets in good-sized flocks, plenty of house sparrows and thousands of common starlings. Snowstorms of gulls followed tractors in the distance. Half a dozen little egrets flew out of a ditch as we approached and joined others in the fields together with lapwing, golden plover and godwit. Three cattle egrets stalked through another field, occasionally one stopped to stir up invertebrates with its foot, the way little egrets do in water. These birds have a peculiar rolling, goose like gait which distinguishes them from little egrets even at some distance.

A great grey shrike (below) hunted from the tops of weed stalks in a dry pasture, and a crested lark called.

January 5th, 1989

It was in the middle of nowhere with not a soul in sight. At about six-thirty yesterday evening a police vehicle pulled up; no questions asked but we could stay there for one night only. No problem.

At some time in the small hours, there was a banging on the camper door. It was the police again, the night shift wanted to know what we were doing. The guy with the torch asked if we spoke French, and his face fell when I said no (not at that time of night anyway!). We showed him our passports and the bird book, saying that we were looking for ‘aves’.

This morning I checked in the phrasebook that I had the right word for birds, only to find that birds are ‘pajaros’ and ‘aves’ are chickens. The police must have had a good laugh at us, looking for chickens out here. But we were told later that aves is the scientific term for birds, so perhaps we impressed them instead.

There was a drug-smuggling problem around Lisbon, and our stopping place for the night was at the end of the Tagus Estuary where a small boat could have brought in contraband. Thus the police probably made a point of checking the area regularly.

Some of the birds

Avocet Recurvirostra avosetta

An elegant wader found in the intertidal areas and salt pans. It is most active at dawn and dusk, and also feeds by moonlight on insects and small crustaceans. It sweeps its up-curved bill through the water and mud, finding prey by touch. Seen mostly on migration and during winter, but also occasionally nests on the reserve. Wintering birds come from the Waddenzee area, and the Tejo estuary holds about 15% of the population that winters on the western European coast.

Black-Winged Stilt Himantopus himantopus

Found in saline lagoons and other wetlands, where its long legs enable it to feed in deeper water than other waders. It preys on floating or underwater animals such as tadpoles, water bugs, beetles and fly larvae. It is a common nesting species here, with some individuals staying over winter, however, most spend the winter in Africa.

Cattle Egret  Bubulcus ibis

In one field there were some cows with very young calves, and also a number of cattle egrets hunched up against early morning mist. The egrets have a heavy-jowled, grouchy appearance that is matched by their complaining voice and reluctance to ‘get out of bed’ at a decent hour. One calf, only a day or so old and not quite sure how far its nose was in front of its eyes, found itself surrounded by egrets.

The calf tentatively tried to find its way out of the circle but always found its way blocked. It approached one egret, which shuffled off and made the calf jump. It approached another, which waved its beak threateningly and again the calf backed off. After several minutes, in sheer desperation (and probably with its eyes closed) it charged back to mum, scattering the egrets faster than they wanted to go.

Another calf, a day or two older and by now an old hand, charged around threatening a few birds which shuffled out of the way in disgust at the disturbance.

Dunlin Calidris alpina

Found mainly in intertidal areas where it feeds on invertebrates on the mud near the mud surface as the tide recedes. At high tide it roosts in salt pans or marsh-side banks. Common passage migrant, and winter visitor with over 1% of the western European population in some winters.

Redshank Tringa totanus

Found in intertidal zones with thin sediments, salt pans and waterlogged agricultural land. Also known as the sentinel of the marshes, this species is always on the lookout for danger, and noisily proclaims it. Usually feeds in loose flocks. Common winter visitor, with about 2% of the European wintering population on the estuary. Also seen on migration, and has nested occasionally.

Wigeon Anas Penelope

Found in intertidal areas, in the shallow waters of the Estuary and in Saragoça salt pan. Flocks lift off almost vertically and land again as one. Feeds on vegetation, both submerged and on the surface. Common winter visitor with about 1% of the European population recorded here.

Shoveler Anas clypeata

It is very active at night, sifting the upper layers of water and mud for freshwater fleas, mosquito larvae, and other invertebrates through the beak. Common winter visitor, with about 2.3% of the European population recorded here.

Marsh Harrier Circus aeruginosus

Male marsh harrier

Hunts over shallow, fresh or brackish waters, where there is emergent aquatic vegetation, and also over dense marshes. Spends the night on the ground or in marshes. Individuals spend the night in regularly-used roosts, which are located in marshes and reed beds. Nesting resident. Not common, but the reserve seems to support 40 to 50% of the national breeding population.

Black-tailed Godwit

Black-tailed godwits winter here in their thousands. Most of the birds breed in Iceland. They like to feed on invertebrates living in soft mud. So as well as the estuarine mudflats, you can find them on the rice fields. Their distribution depends on the timing of rice cropping, which in turn depends on the rainfall.

The Giganta rice paddies , located about 4 km southwest of Porto Alto, extend for several kilometres and are an excellent place to see birds at all times of the year;  In autumn and winter, when the area is covered with stubble flooded, the land is frequented by flocks of lapwing and, snipe as well as the black-tailed godwits. Occasionally flocks of flamingos appear here too.

EVOA

Espaço de Visitação e Observação de Aves (Bird Observation and Visitation Space)

These days, there is a delight at the end of the long road. The Tagus Estuary Bird-watching and Conservation Area provides a facility to attract birds to lagoons and scrapes in front of a visitor centre and a series of hides. There are a shop, café, exhibition centre, classroom, guided tours, and other activities on site.

The site opened in 2012, after my last visit to the area. Most reviews of the place are good.  Experienced birdwatchers have told me the birds are wonderful, but the guided tours etc are a disappointment.  But, as with most places trying to attract customers, the tours etc are designed for the general public and for educational needs, so that needs to be borne in mind.

The EVOA website is being updated and expanded, but offers plenty of information about the tours etc. in Portuguese, English and French, and also a calendar of what birds you are likely to see in each month. Make sure you choose the language from the menu bar, or you get some very strange google translations of bird names.

Visitor centre and lagoons at EVOA (c) EVOA

Getting there

If have a car, access is from the N10, across the river from Vila Franco de Zira. EVOA is signposted. Some of the dirt roads are accessible if your vehicle has reasonably good ground clearance. Other areas are gated off, but you can buy a pass that allows access. There is more information about access and a map on the Portuguese Birdwatching site If you have a car, you can take your time, drive slowly and stop almost anywhere to look at birds. But don’t forget those huge tractors and whatever huge farm machinery they may be pulling.

If you are staying in Lisbon, you can get to Vila Franco de Zira by train, but will need a taxi from there. Probably the best way to see the area is by using a local bird-guide – several are listed on Birding Pals.

Bookshop

Click on the covers for more information

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.

Pin for later

More nature-watching in Portugal

Watching Wolves in Europe

A selection of organised trips (eco-volunteering, guided vacations and single day/night opportunities) for watching wolves in Europe.

Parque Natural do Alvão

The Parque Natural do Alvão in the north-east of Portugal has Medieval villages, traditional farming, and a wealth of nature. Even through the mist, there was plenty of interest for a day out.

The Lauwersmeer in winter

It was cold, bitterly cold.  The Dutch birdwatchers apologised for the cold – it wasn’t usually like this in November.  The gas stove in the camper froze overnight and I had to wait for the sun to warm things up, just to get a cup of coffee. But, it was the cold that brought the barnacle geese southwards to winter here.  And that was what I had come to see. (November 1989)

Why the Lauwersmeer in winter?

  • 68,000 barnacle geese
  • 25,000 white-fronted geese
  • 33,000 greylag geese
  • 650 Bewick swans
  • 2,450 pintail
  • 1,350 shoveler
  • 5,700 gadwall
  • 2,350 black-tailed godwit
  • 1,200 spotted redshank
  • 380 Eurasian spoonbill

The spectacle of the geese alone is enough of a reason to visit, but there is plenty more to see. Those listed are present in internationally important numbers, and the numbers are the average peak between 2006-2010.

This has also been designated a ‘Dark Skies’ area, so if there is a reasonably strong aurora borealis, there is a good chance of seeing it here in winter – if there is no moon or cloud.

History of the Lauwersmeer

With much of the Netherlands at or below sea-level, repeated flooding was a common occurrence throughout history, especially as sea levels have changed naturally.  The Lauwerszee formed after a flood in 1280, and took its name from the river Lauwers that used flow through the area. Since Medieval times, farmers have reclaimed bits of this flooded landscape on a piecemeal basis. It was only after the disastrous floods of 1953 that a large scale scheme for the area became a reality.

The options were to reinforce the existing 32km of dykes around the Lauwerszee, or to build a new 13km dam to separate it from the vast mudflats of the Waddenzee.  Local people preferred the latter (more expensive) option. The new dam, incorporating a new harbour at Lauwerzoog, was closed on 25th May 1969.

Since then, it has been called the Lauwersmeer, which is more appropriate for a freshwater lake.  New flora and fauna moved into the site, and to protect this new nature area, the Dutch authorities declared it a national park in 2003.

Teal – Anas crecca

Ecological development

Within a few years Salicornia had covered over half of the of the 5000ha of sand-flats around the Lauwersmeer.  This provided a huge stock of food for autumn waterfowl. Up to 60,000 teal Anas crecca (photo above), 65,000 wigeon A penelope, and 50,000 barnacle geese Branta leucopsis took advantage of the bounty each autumn in the 1970s.

In addition to providing food for wintering and migratory wildfowl, the Lauwersmeer has become an important breeding area for many waders.eg lapwing Vanellus vanellus, avocet Recurvirostra avosetta, black tailed godwit Limosa limosa and redshank Tringa totanus, and for raptors such as kestrel Falco tinunculus, short eared owl Asio flammeus and marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus.

As the level of salt in the soils fell, so the vegetation changed. Perennial grasses replaced much of the Salicornia by the 1980s.  In autumn this provided food for the 30,000 greylag geese Anser anser (below) which pass through on migration. They strip the seed-heads but left the grass blades untouched.  Then they moved on south, leaving the grasslands to the barnacle geese.

Greylag Geese – Anser anser

Some of the brackish areas were extensively colonised by Phragmites and Salix as they dried out. Nowadays management is aimed at a fairly constant high water table with much of the area flooded during the winter. Waterfowl and breeding waders don’t like this taller vegetation, so cattle graze the area to to keep the vegetation open and low.

As the creeks and channels of the old inlet became fresh water, water plants such as Potamogeton pondweeds start to colonise. Coot, wigeon and gadwall consume the leaves and seeds of this submerged vegetation. Then, in mid October, up to 600 Bewick swans Cygnus columbianus (below) arrive in the area to feed on the tubers, before moving on to farmland to feed on the remains of sugar beet and potatoes after harvest.

Bewick/Tundra Swans (Cygnus columbianus

Arrival of the Geese at Lauwersmeer

Now, in November, huge flocks of barnacle geese begin to arrive from the north.

The Barnacle geese had previously wintered in western Germany, despite being hunted there.  However, increased disturbance plus drainage of their traditional wintering grounds forced them to move.  Damming the Lauwersmeer created a large area of suitable grazing, so the geese, sensibly, moved to the Netherlands, where they were protected.

The geese can recognise the most nutritious vegetation, perhaps by its colour, and so large flocks will descend on the best fields available.  You’d think you were looking at a domestic flock in a field surrounded with wire netting. . . . Until they take flight.

Barnacle geese, with their small bills, graze on short grassland that is regularly cut or grazed in summer.  They like the fine leaves of meadow grasses, but feed principally on stolons of clover (starch rich storage roots), probing their short bills into the mat of grass stems for the stolons lying beneath.

Barnacle Geese – Branta leucopsis

Geese of all species commonly graze young sprouts of autumn grown cereals, moving onto such fields as soon as growing shoots are a few centimetres high.  After a few days a field appears brown, but the crop is not destroyed –  the shoots sprout again, often more strongly than if geese had not been there. Sheep grazing and mechanical rolling have the same effect, so the geese are saving the farmer a job!.  If grazing takes places later when the plants are taller, the crop can be set back permanently but, fortunately, geese are less attracted to taller growth.

When the other species of geese have finished with arable crops they, too, switch to grass. As the grass is hardly growing at this time of year, they cause little damage, but it is common practice for farmers to fertilise a few fields each winter to encourage early growth.  Such fields look brighter green and the geese recognise them as good feeding, then there is conflict between farmer and goose.

It is not easy to assess damage to crops; experiments use domestic geese penned on plots to simulate effect of wild flock.  The results show no measurable differences when the crop starts growing again. Much of the vegetation passes straight through the bird and back onto the ground, with only a small amount digested and the rest recycled as fertiliser. 

Often several thousand geese occupy in a single field, though counting is next to impossible when you are faced with such a seething mass.  They keep up a constant bickering, threatening any neighbour that comes too close.  The birds on guard duty (usually males) watch carefully as other large birds flew overhead. They believe in safety in numbers, so if one bird is spooked, the whole flock is spooked.  It is much more difficult for a predator to pick a victim out of a moving flock.

Barnacle geese in flight.

Watching Geese at the Lauwersmeer

It is possible to drive all the way around the Lauwersmeer, sometimes in sight of the water, sometimes just through farmland. However, the geese spend a lot of the day on the fields, away from the water, so can usually be seen quite easily from the road.

And if you are on the road across the dam, look out at the Waddenzee to, as the mudflats teem with birds – probably best watched on an incoming tide.

Other skeins of barnacles flew in, the groups getting larger as the light faded. Eventually the cold got the better of us again and we prepared to leave.  Suddenly the noise increased and half the flock took to the air in a swirling cloud, victims of their own nervousness.  Within a few minutes, they settled back into the field to feed again.


Lauwersmeer: resources for visitors

Bookshop

A Birdwatching Guide to the Netherlands

With information to over 100 sites, this is a complete guide for birdwatchers visiting the Netherlands.

PS. I haven’t seen this book myself, but it is the only one I can find in English. And also www.birdingholland.com recommended it on their facebook page.

Note: 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.


Other Barnacle Goose winter sites

  • Barnacle geese breed in four main areas: Svarlbard, Greenland, Arctic Russia, and the Baltic.
  • They move south in winter with the main areas being the Waddensee (including Lauwersmeer) for the Russian birds.
  • Other populations head for the Solway Firth (eg Caerlaverock) and Islay in Scotland, the RSPB Ynys-hir reserve in Wales, and the north-west of Ireland. 
  • You can also see smaller numbers elsewhere in Britain and Ireland, and across the northern and central Europe.

A winter day at Santoña Marshes

Picture for pinterest about the Santona Marshes

Coming off the ferry at Santander, you need a place to stretch your legs and get on with the birdwatching.  I recommend the Santoña Marshes.

The Parque Natural de Santoña Victoria y Joyel, to give it its full name, was designated in 1992. The 6,500ha (25sq miles) is an outstanding area of estuary, marshland, freshwater and other habitats – considered to be one of the wetlands of most ecological value in the north of Spain. It attracts more than 20,000 birds of 120 different species, as well as being home to small mammals and a unique flora. 

The winter birds include a good number that come from Northern Europe to escape the harsher winter weather. These include divers, grebes, cormorants, herons, spoonbills, geese, ducks, waders, gulls and terns.  

The best way to see the marshes is to follow the established route that runs over the docks of the Marsh of Bengoa, north of the town of Santoña and along a road that runs parallel to the C-629 road. This easy 2.3km route can be traveled in about 2 hours – depending on how often you stop to look at the birds! And then there are other, longer routes – we also took one of them and made a whole day of it.

Three fairly short rivers flow into the bay at Santoña and Laredo, and saltmarsh is creeping onto the mudflats exposed at low tide. Sheltered from Atlantic storms by the limestone massif of Monte Buciero at the harbour mouth, the bay attracts sun seekers in summer and flocks of migrant wildfowl and waders in winter.

Spoonbills (above) stop here on migration, and shelduck have taken a liking to the place in recent years, though there were none of the latter to be seen today. The marshes are the principal site on the north coast for grey plover, dunlin, greenshank and curlew. The most numerous species that we saw was wigeon (top photo) – thousands of them – settled quietly on the water.

We parked in Santoña and walked. About half way along there was an area surrounded by a dyke and partly drained.  It had a few healthy-looking ponds and willow scrub in the wetter part

Eucalyptus

A small eucalyptus plantation occupied the drier area. The trees were regenerating, but there was no under-storey since the ground was carpeted with slow-decomposing eucalyptus leaves which inhibits the growth of other species.

Eucalyptus was introduced to Europe in 1804, within a few years of the discovery of Australia.  It was soon found to grow well on deforested land where the soil was so thin and badly eroded that few other tree-species could find sufficient sustenance. Throughout the nineteenth century it spread on eroding, near-desert, lands around the Mediterranean, serving as windbreaks, providing welcome shade and stabilising the soils. It is only relatively recently that its use in forestry has become important, the wood is ideal for pulping to make paper, and on less impoverished soils the trees grows very quickly.

Like most introduced species, the eucalyptus has a reputation for being no good for birds: and the few birds that we did see or hear were well-hidden by the evergreen (or should that be ever-grey) leaves.

Fishing – the human side

While the tide was low there were a number of people out on the marshes, variously fishing, digging or probing for whatever was there. We watched a couple of fishermen under a bridge. They baited a wok-shaped basket with a sizeable piece of fish.  Then they slowly lowered the basket, with the aid of a forked stick and a rope,  into the water and laid on a ledge or mudbank. After a few minutes it was slowly pulled out of the water and the catch of crabs and crayfish was emptied into another wicker basket.  Traditional methods of fishing are still allowed here since the marshes were declared a natural reserve in 1992.

The estuary of the Asón (the largest of the three rivers that flows into site) is also an important spawning/fishing area for sea ​​bass, red mullet, sea bream, sole and eel and Atlantic salmon. Shellfish are farmed here, and the development of the canning industry for anchovies and sardines is part of the economic activity of this area.

Birdwatching

It was mid-December, and our day at the Santoña Marshes was grey and murky with neither wind nor sun, but some drizzle in the afternoon.  At least we didn’t have to contend with the glare of the sun bouncing off the water

The tide was coming in and bringing with it a juvenile red-throated diver (above) and an adult great northern diver which we were able to study at much closer than usual quarters. The red-throated looked small and finely built compared with the heavy angular great northern. The latter swam mostly in a hunched posture, but then took to preening, followed by a fishing session. For this it swam around with its head and neck stretched along the water surface, then dived, sometimes coming up with a crab.

Four red-breasted mergansers flew in and spent most of the time vigorously stirring up the mud and shallow water. Eider and scoter also moved up-stream, some of the female and juvenile scoter looking almost chestnut in colour.

An adult Mediterranean gull roosted on the mudflat, then became active as the tide disturbed it. It walked a few metres and picked up an amorphous lump from the mud, took it to a nearby puddle and washed it thoroughly several times, then shook it vigorously for a few seconds before swallowing it whole. This species’ winter diet consists mainly of molluscs and marine fish.

Two little egrets fished close to the shore: one moving slowly and deliberately, stirring up mud with its foot, the other more energetic, rushing from side to side and flapping its wings to disturb prey. The first one seemed more successful. Later a dozen egrets joined a feeding frenzy of gulls, cormorants and herons. At high tide they all roosted together on a half-submerged wreck.

Among the waders common sandpiper and whimbrel were of particular note as we were now in their wintering areas. Some of the bar tailed godwit had cinnamon plumage on their necks, breast and scapulars indicating they were juveniles.

Out on the open channels, about forty black-necked grebe (above) were roosting or preening. As the tide brought them in, they dispersed into smaller groups and began feeding. Often a group dived together, leaving the water empty. They were quite noisy, calling to each other with high pitched whistles. If a bird surfaced alone, it sometimes got quite frantic, whistling loudly and paddling around to find its mates. Their rather contrasty plumage made the little grebe look quite drab.

A peregrine flew in, calling, and settled atop an electricity pylon to watch the world go by. We made our way back to the camper through drizzle.

Resources for visitors

Two excellent books (I have them both) about birds and nature, including the Santoña Marshes. Click on the covers for more information.

Buying books through these links brings a small commission, at no extra cost to you, that helps with the maintenance of this website.

The local tourist website has more information about accommodation etc, and a down-loadable leaflet about the reserve.  However, it is now available in Spanish only.

Brittany Ferries and others go to Santander – 15km to the west and the closest port to Santoña.  There is the chance of seeing cetaceans and seabirds as you cross the Bay of Biscay


Wikitravel For information about travelling in Spain

Picture for pinterest about the Santona Marshes
Train on the Algarve

Winter bird-watching along the Algarve railway

The Algarve has a railway line that conveniently connects some excellent bird-watching sites. At least, they are good for bird-watching in winter, and for general wildlife and plants for most of the rest of the year.

We try, where possible, to take trips to places where there is good public transport to visit interesting sites. And while the Algarve Railway does not get us to ALL the good bird-watching sites, it provides enough to get through a two-week trip easily. If you have a bicycle, that will extend the distance you can cover easily from the train stations. And, of course, there are buses and taxis that will take you further.

Vila Real de Santo Antonio station

Situated at the very eastern end of the Algarve, this station gives access to the Guadiana River. Walking south, follow the road more or less alongside the river down to the break-water and navigation light at the entrance. This can be interesting in stormy weather with seabirds such as shearwaters and little terns passing close. Gulls follow fishing boats going in and out of the towns. At low tide there are often gulls and waders sitting out on sandbanks, or feeding in the silt.

The forest on the inland side of the road protects the town from sand blown in from the shore. It’s good for bird-watching – with crested tits, shrikes, gold and firecrests, among the attractions, and much more at migration time. The network of paths is used by athletes training at the nearby sporting complex, so expect to see a lot of joggers and cyclists too. You can meander through the forest, and/or along the beach and dunes, then end up at the station at Monte Gordo (it’s 1km north of the holiday village).

North of the Vila Real station is the traditional fishing harbour, which again provides options for viewing the river. Walk along the road on the north side of the tracks to overlook the saltmarsh and creeks of the Carrasqueira Creek. This is pretty good for waders at low tide, but anything can turn up at any time. On the west side of the main road, the creek broadens out and always holds water as it is more-or-less dammed by the road. Lots of coot – often hundreds in winter – along with grebes and other waterbirds spend the winter here. It’s also good for Caspian terns – I’ve seen one on most visits.

Flamingos at Castro Marim
Greater Flamingos at the Castro Marim reserve

Reserva Natural do Sapal de Castro Marim e Vila Real de Santo Antonio

The official title is quite a mouthful, so it’s often just referred to as the Castro Marim reserve. The Carrasqueira Creek forms the southern boundary to this huge area of saltpans – some commercially active, others abandoned. The reserve also includes saltmarsh, fishponds and muddy creeks, bordered by pasture and orchards, and the town of Castro Marim itself.

From Vila Real, follow the busy main road north towards Castro Marim. Then it’s a relief to turn onto a track going west past ruined farm buildings. This is really the only official public access through the reserve away from the road. It takes you past the active saltpans to a minor road on the other side where you can walk south to the Castro Marim station, or north to Castro Marim town. There can be huge numbers of birds here, including flamingos and black-winged stilts. However, if the weather is calm and the tide is out, a good proportion of the birds will be feeding out at sea or on the Rio Guadiana margins. If the weather has been wet, the track can be very slippery, and the salty silt surface sticks to your shoes.

The reserve continues north-east of Castro Marim, but access is more limited. A south-facing pasture near the village is a good place for stone curlews and Iberian hares. Black-winged stilts, black-tailed godwits, curlew sandpipers and other waders feed or roost in the saltpans. There is a reserve information centre not far from the bridge across the Guadiana, but it is not always open. We took a taxi here from Castro Marim, and walked back along a track next to stone-pine plantations.

See also Nature-watching in the Eastern Algarve for more details


Bird hovering in the Algarve
Black-shouldered kite hunting near Cabanas de Tavira

Conceição station

Conceição station serves the community of Cabanas de Tavira, which has a small holiday resort area next to the creeks at the eastern end of the Rio do Formosa Natural Park. You can walk through the town to reach the shore, and access the offshore sand-bars. Or you can follow the track eastwards on the south side of the railway line into the Tavira saltpans. The pans themselves hold large numbers of a variety of waders (shorebirds) in winter, and small birds such as bluethroats and Sardinian warblers occupy the scrubby areas. The tracks will take you eventually to the railway station at Porta Nova – about 5km by the shortest route, but it can take all day if you meander around the saltpans. The black-shouldered kite (above) was hunting over fields just north of the station.


Fuseta-A station

Easy access along roads/tracks by the saltmarsh and saltpans along the coast to the west. However, I have not explored this area yet.


Olhao - a good place for winter birdwatching via the Algarve Railway

Olhão station

Olhão is a town without any obvious nature interest, but follow the track 2km east of the station (all along paved roads) and you come to the headquarters of the Ria Formosa Natural Park at Quinta de Marim. An alternative route via back roads and past the harbour is do-able if you have a map of the town.

The quinta is described as a microcosm of the natural park, with pinewoods, saltpans, saltmarsh, grassland, a freshwater pond, and mudflats. In one corner, the animal hospital takes in injured birds for rehabilitation to the wild. A large building houses exhibitions and offices, while an old mill on the tidal embankments provides a reminder of life in the past.

We’ve seen 50-60 species of birds here on each of our visits, and in February-March a variety of plants and butterflies too. If you are very lucky (and we haven’t been, so far) you may see a chameleon hidden on a pine tree.


Faro Station

The broadest part of the Ria Formosa Natural Park is adjacent to Faro. You can overlook it from Faro Station, or follow paths either way along the shore. If the tide is out, birds can be difficult to see in the channels. The best time is when the tide is rising and pushing birds closer to the shore. Or as it falls and the birds move from their roosting places back out onto the mudflats.

Cormorants at Faro
Large flock of cormorants fishing at Faro

In January 2019, we watched a flock of about 350 cormorants moving out to feed. Those at the front of the flock landed on the water and dived, the next few landed ahead of these and dived, the pattern continuing as the first cormorants surfaced, took off, joined the crowd and flew to the front to repeat the process.


The stations between Faro and Portimao are further inland, and while there is probably some birding interest around them, they are not prime watching sites.


Portimao

The railway line runs past saltpans and saltmarsh near Portimao and Ferragudo, but I don’t know how accessible any of it is on foot/bicycle without being on very busy and fast roads.


small bird in the Algarve
Zitting cisticola – a commonly seen and heard little brown bird.

Mexilhoeira Grande Station

Probably my favourite walk in the Algarve is around the Quinta da Rocha peninsula in the Alvor estuary. From the station, you just follow the tracks westwards, alongside the western marshes, down to the saltpans, and up through the farmland, past the A Rocha environmental education centre at Cruzinha, and back to the station. You can expect to see 50-60 species of birds during a day here, with a few plants, butterflies and other critters even in January. Ospreys, Caspian Terns, Spoonbills, Zitting cisticolas (above), stonechats – just to give an idea of the range of species (and sizes).


Lagos Station

Upstream of the station you come to tidal marshes and old saltpans occupied by stilts and storks and other wildlife. Once you get away from the busy main road, it is quite pleasant. We spent some time in a small marshy area known as Paul de Lagos, listening to Cetti’s warblers, reed warblers, corn buntings, and watching marsh harriers, among many others.

Downstream, the road goes past the marina, and along the canalised river. Terns and cormorants are most common here, but in stormy weather there can be other seabirds. Continue along the road and through the town for about 4km to Ponta da Piedade for more birds and some spectacular coastal scenery.

Another route takes you along the beach (or through the valley behind the hotels) eastwards to Meia Praia station – and beyond that to a shallow lagoon just west of the Alvor Estuary, where we came across over a hundred Mediterranean Gulls feeding. Iberian magpies (below) are abundant in this general area.

Iberian magpie in flight

Lagos is the last station on the line, but a short walk into town will take you to the bus station where you can continue to Sagres and Cape St Vincent – the most south-westerly points of mainland Europe.


Bookshop

Over the last few years, local birdwatcher Goncalo Elias produced am excellent series of birding hotspot books, each covering a particular area of the Algarve. You can still buy these individual volumes, but they have now been combined into a single book.

Each chapter begins with a two-page introduction, which highlights some interesting birds that can be seen in each area and how the hotspots look like. After that, detailed information is provided for each hotspot: a brief description, a list of the most interesting birds that can be found there, and some suggestions on how it can be explored.

The original series certainly allowed us to find more sites and birds in each area than we had previously been aware of.

If there was a book like this for every area I visited, I’d be a very happy camper. It takes you through the year in fortnightly chunks, with information about plants, birds, invertebrates, places, etc, etc.

It is a general guide to the most obvious bits of natural history, so if you are a specialist in birds, or botany, or butterflies, you’ll need a specialist book for that, and this will help with everything else.

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.

More nature-watching in the Algarve