photo of red kite in flight

Sierra del Hornijo

A nature-watching road trip through Cantabria in winter

This journey was undertaken in the days before the internet and digital photography. The only information we had was about the Santona Marshes. Everything else was just there to be discovered.

We had expected the mountains to be snowy in winter, but in December, it was just frosty at times.

About the Cordillera Cantabrica

The northern strip of Spain is a more or less continuous mountain range, the Pyrenees forming a barrier between Spain and France, and the Cordillera Cantabrica separating the Spanish interior from the Bay of Biscay. As in many moun­tain regions, the inhabitants were isolated and developed a culture and language of their own. About 25,000 years ago, at the beginning of the last ice age, the forebears of the Basque people settled the eastern end of the Cordillera and the western Pyrenees. The mountains are littered with archaeological remains, including cave paintings at Altimira. The Basque language, Euskadi, is considered to be one of the oldest in the world and is said to have no affinity with any modern language – except that a few French and Spanish words have crept in here and there.

The Cordillera is formed from a layer of Carboniferous limestone up to a thousand metres thick with the main outcrop forming the Picos de Europa; shales and slates influence the landscape to the east, metamorphic rocks are found to the west. High precipitation from the Atlantic cli­mate has given rise to typical karst formation of fissures and caverns, some of which formed permanent channels for water courses. Raptors favour the high cliffs and ledges, while chough make use of the more sheltered cracks and pot‑holes where their chicks are safe from predators.


Day 1

In Laredo I tried out my Spanish – “Por favor, ¿Donde esta el correo?” (where is the post office?). The small Spanish lady looked at me quizzically and I repea­ted the question. “Ah, el corrrreeeeeo” she cor­rected my pronunciation in a voice that came from her boots and sounded as if it was loaded with flu viruses – I was to suffer later. Fortunately, the post office was not far away, and I just about understood her rapid-fire answer – helped by a lot of arm waving in one particular direction.

We continued to the Santona Marshes. The weather was calm and grey along the coast, and there was little out to sea.  We didn’t have a plan – it would all depend on the weather.  Dare we risk the mountains?  We did not fancy get­ting caught in winter mountain weather but while it was settled, we could surely take a look.

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.


Day 2

Mountain roads were usually narrow and stop­ping places were few and far between. The first one we tried had been used as a rubbish dump and smelt bad ‑ a member of the civil guard drove past slowly and gave us a long what-are‑you‑up‑to sort of look. However, we were looking up at the end of a lime­stone bluff ‑ the Sierra de Hornijo ‑ there were goats up on the scarp slope, then three griffons sailed over the ridge.

Another stopping place, which looked up at the dip slope of the same ridge, was more pleas­ant. The vegetation on the slopes was a mosaic of eucalypt and conifer plantations, and of evergreen and autumnal deciduous trees ‑ mostly various species of oak ‑ and sweet chestnut which was now leafless.

We walked up a steep track through a euca­lyptus plantation and then through conifers. Beyond that was lush rolling farmland. Although the rock massifs were limestone, much of the vege­tation was more acid‑loving, including the oaks, gorse and eight kinds of heather found along the track. These mostly had seed heads rather than flowers and so proved difficult to identify, how­ever they included St. Dabeoc’s heath, Spanish heath and Dorset heath.

On the farmland there was a usual selection of passerines: robins, blackbirds, tits, fire­crests, chaffinches, and one female hawfinch which sat in a bare tree ‑ conveniently for us. There were some chough‑like calls and we located eight birds flying north, high overhead but in the poor light it was impossible to decide if they were the red‑billed or alpine kind. The most common corvid at all heights seemed to be the jay, noisily fly­ing from oak tree to oak tree, and usually carry­ing an acorn.

As we headed downhill, the three griffons circled the limestone bluff again and settled on a pinnacle. Later forty or fifty corvids circled the area before settling to roost.


Day 3

Barn owls were hissing and tawny owls were hoot­ing close to the camper last night, and the tawn­ies were still quite vociferous again at dawn. There were two, one in the trees above and the other below where we were parked. They talked to each other in voices halfway between those of youngsters calling for food, and adults hooting.

We walked uphill along a minor road, birds were similar to those on the farmland yesterday but fewer of them. The very steep slope was covered with evergreen holm oak and deciduous species such as sessile oak, hawthorn, hazel, field maple, and some beech and privet.

We drove on and stopped for lunch at a view-point overlooking a sheer limestone cliff which was marked on the map as Cueva de Covalanas. There were a number of cave entrances visible and signs re­questing visitors to check with the authorities before exploring them.  Inside, there are cave paintings dating back 5,000 years or more.  To protect and preserve the paintings, human visits are regulated, and the caves are closed at this time of year.  A buzzard and a raven circled in the valley, and a couple of meadow pipits flew through. On the higher peaks on the other side of the valley were the three griffons again.

Mountain tops were generally in the clouds but the road went to 1000 metres at Alto de los Tornos and we followed it. Visibility was often down to 50 metres, so we stopped to listen for bird sounds ‑ mostly a few unidentifi­able noises in the distance. Close to us was a chunky-looking pipit with white supercillium, eyestripe and moustachial stripe, faintly striped on the back, dark legs, and white belly and outer tail feathers. The elusive (for us) water pipit was found at last. There was another as we reached the viewpoint at the top, feeding along the road then bathing in a nearby puddle (photo above).


Day 4 – Vultures

We were surrounded by thick cloud again this morn­ing and had to go down the road some way to get under it. Surprisingly griffons were amongst the first birds to be seen, floating along level with the cloud base, about thirty in all. At night these vultures roost communally in loose groups, usually on cliff ledges or rock outcrops. They leave as soon as temperatures rise suffic­iently or wind currents are adequate for soaring. But on misty mornings, like today, they may not vacate the site until ten or eleven o’clock and birds may stay put when it is wet or foggy. The members of a colony fly off together up to sixty kilometres in one direction, then they split up and apparently each individual systematically circles one area, searching the ground but still keeping an eye on its neighbours just in case they find food first.

After a rather circuitous journey we managed to get onto rough ground above farmland. The vultures were descending onto something just over the ridge and out of our sight. Vul­tures are attracted to a carcass by sight, and often by the movements of other birds on the ground or in the air ‑ here crows, ravens and magpies were also in attendance. A hundred or more vultures may alight some distance from the food and approach timidly. We could see at least ten birds on the ground and another fifteen in the air. Those on the ground appeared to be pulling at something while others appeared to be defending themselves – or their meal.

Natural history films often show vultures feeding together in a squabbling mass, but this only happens if all the birds are equally hungry – and it looks more exciting on film. Usually they take turns, the hungriest birds first while others queue up and wait. Feeding birds maintain their positions by threatening, chasing and fighting others. Fights, which are usually brief and highly ritualised, also break out amongst the nearest onlookers. After feeding for several minutes a bird at the carcass may be displaced by a hungrier one from nearby group. Many gorge so much that they are unable to take off and may have to eject part of meal before flying.

Despite the fact that I was now struggling to breathe because of a bad cold (courtesy of the lady in Laredo, perhaps), we walked up a jeep track to level with the cloudbase, which had by then risen to about 950 metres, passing a plantation of what appeared to be cupressus sp. and Monterrey pine, eventually emerg­ing in an area of heather, gorse and grass. A few ponies and cattle grazed the hills, but there were no sheep at this time of year. Higher up was deciduous wood ‑ beech, alder and Pyrenean oak. There were few small birds apart from half a dozen siskin around the alders and flying into an apparently moss-filled crevice.

By the time we reached the place where the vultures had been feeding, they had dispersed; a high fence and locked gate prevented us from see­ing what they had been feeding on.

Traditionally, each community had its own “mule tip”, a place where they took mules, cattle, etc when they died and left the bodies to be cleaned up by the vultures. This practice is dying out as farmers prefer to bury the carcasses in pits and use a chemical to speed up the decom­position pro­cess. These pits are actually illegal and are depriving the vultures of food. People studying vultures now sometimes provide carcasses at conv­enient places, and in recent years the vulture population has increased by up to 400% in some areas. As this particular area was fenced off, we might have come across either a mule tip, or a study area here.

We circled back to the viewpoint near the Cueva de Covalanas. About twenty or thirty red‑billed chough were gathering on the rocks above us before going off to their roost. Jim scanned the rocks for smaller birds and discovered half a dozen crag martins hawking insects along the cliff top. This species is typically found feeding just below the tops of cliffs, where they catch insects carried up on air currents as well as those they disturb by flying close to the cliff face, and even picking insects directly off the rock as they fly past. They glide most of the time, occasionally giving a little shake, perhaps as they manoeuvre to catch a nearby insect.


Day 5

There were some weird noises at dawn, the loudest being chough (above) possibly calling from one of the limestone caves which was acting as an echo cham­ber. Then there were some loud hoots which I suspected as being from ravens, but was surprised, later, to discover the callers were crows. Some chacking calls turned out to be black redstarts being chased off by a robin.

A track cut into the cliff‑side led up to a cave which had been bricked up but had two locked doors. A small flock of birds flew overhead and landed on the cliff even higher up. Through the binoculars they were dumpy grey and rufous birds but with the telescope Jim saw enough detail to confirm that they were alpine accentors, adults with speckled chins and first winter birds in plainer plumage. They did not stay long, perhaps they were just passing through for although alpine accentors sometimes move below 1800 metres for the winter, they do not normally utilise the kind of precip­itous or broken terrain that characterised this area.

In fact, coming across many species here seemed to be a matter of luck. Yesterday’s crag martins were not seen again, the black redstarts were gone when we descended the track, and groups of siskins and linnets also came and went.

Halfway back down the track a vole was sitting out in the open eating grass. It did not seem to notice our approach, perhaps the large tick on its neck was interfering with its vision. I moved around for a better look but then it became alarmed and scuttled into the rocks. This vole was quite a dark colour, almost like a bank vole, however, its very short tail and uniform colour on the back and sides convinced me that it was actu­ally a field vole.

A red squirrel clambered up a wall across a ravine. It stopped in a crevice for a while ‑ until we wondered if we were just looking at squi­rrel-shaped vegetation ‑ then it disappeared.


Day 6 – 8

We drove south, and then turned west towards the Embalse (reservoir) del Ebro.  We were in the neighbouring provide of Burgo at this point, taking the main road rather than mountain roads. The route went through the Ojo Guareña Natural Monument – a huge area with extensive cave systems – 110 km of navigable natural tunnels deep in the limestone.  Again there are places with cave paintings, though these are only hundreds of years old rather than thousands.  Again it was closed for the winter, but pictures of the interior show something quite fantastic.

We stopped in the village of Soncillo to buy bread and milk; the storekeeper, on realising we were English, insisted that we visit an English couple in the near­by hamlet of Montoto.  He gave us detailed in­structions (in Spanish) and was most adamant that we should go there.  We decided we might as well try.

The instructions were easy to follow, and Montoto turned out to be a hamlet of a dozen or so farmhouses.  We drove through it in a few seconds and stopped for lunch at the side of a field.  As we finished eating and were looking at birds in the field, I heard strange voices talking in English.  By chance, the English couple had come out for a walk and taken the road we were parked on.

We joined them for the walk and later for coffee, discussing Britain and Spain and what we were all doing. Vicky was Spanish but had spent the last nineteen years in London.  Andy was from York­shire but also had spent some years in London.  They had both been involved in social work, and event­ually got fed up with it. 

They had considered buying a flat in Barcelona, then one of Vicky’s relatives had men­tioned cheap houses for sale in Montoto and so they changed their minds, bought a huge farmhouse and moved out to it in October.  One wall of the house is believed to be at least a thousand years old, other bits having been added as required.  The place had not been properly lived in for some years and it did not have much in the way of mod cons.  Andy and Vicky put in a bathroom, got the kitchen stove working and organised a bedroom.  They are working on the rest of the house as they have funds and time available, and may convert it into holiday flats.

After a couple of days with Vicky and Andy, learning about the local environment, the effect of Spain joining the European Union, visiting a local dairy farmer for milk, fixing the battery properly in the camper (before it fell through the rusting base), and having a very nice meal in a local taverna, we continued our journey to the Embalse del Ebro    


Day 9

The Ebro is one of the largest and most important rivers in Spain.  The Romans called it Iberus, from which the peninsular takes the name Iberia.  It rises in the Cordillera Cantabrica about 40 km from the north coast and meanders along the inland edge of these mountains and the Pyrenees to drain into the Mediterranean via the vast Ebro Delta.  It was dammed some ten kilometres from the source to form a reservoir (embalse in Spanish) twenty by four kilometres, the largest area of fresh water in Cantabria, with twelve villages lying beneath it.  

The reservoir was at too high an altitude to attract large numbers of breeding or wintering birds but was a useful stop‑over point for migrants.  So far as we could see it provided roosting places for black‑headed gulls and also held mallard, coot, gadwall, teal, tufted duck and great-crested grebe in small numbers.  A peregrine flew in and watched proceedings from a mudbank.

The countryside around the Embalse del Ebro was rolling rather than moun­tainous but, being mostly above 600 metres, it looked harsh and hungry.  In those fields which were cultivated the soil looked peaty and probably quite deep in places, yet most of the area was covered with heather and bracken with some scrub and the occasional small plant­ation.  There were rocky out-crops and small ravines and plenty of power lines.

We stopped a few kilometres east of the dam and waited for birds to appear.  They were slow in coming ‑ a griffon, a couple of ravens, crows, etc.  A small bird appeared in a bush some 150 metres away and looked like a bullfinch; it appeared to have a pinkish breast, dark cap, grey back, white rump and dark tail.  It came closer and was re‑ident­ified as a great grey shrike as the markings and shape became clearer ‑ the white “rump” was actually white tips to the tertials (photo above).  

The shrike moved closer in stages, stopping on a fence post or twig, looking around intently for a few minutes then perhaps swooping down on something on its way to the next post.  It ignored passing cars but did not think much of the lorries.  When we left it had done a circle back to the bush where we first saw it.

A collection of twenty or so red kites (photo below), numerous ravens, jackdaws and black-headed gulls and a few buzzards and crows near the town of Reinosa suggested the location of rubbish dump.  We managed to get off the main road (the second stopping place we had seen in 50 km) and watched the kites for half an hour or so.

The weather was noticeably colder and we saw a snow plough ready for action on the road to Reinosa.  Time to head back to the coast.


Bookshop

Book cover - where to watch birds in northern Spain

If this book had been available when we made this journey, it would have added so much.

For example, the book recommends driving along the south side of the Embalse del Ebro, while we drove in happy ignorance along the north side.

And there is even good bird-watching to be had in the Bay of Santander, ideal for stretching your legs if you’ve come in by ferry from Britain or Ireland.

Click on the cover for more information.

Buying books through this site earns me a small commission, at no extra charge to you, that helps with the cost of this website


Other resources

Tripadvisor gives more information about history, access and facilities at the Embalse del Ebro

Wildside Holidays provide a lot of information, including accommodation and guides in the area

Cantabrian Tourist Board Website for more general information (English version here)

Wikitravel provides more information for visitors to Spain (but not much directly about Cantabria)

The Cabárceno Nature Park was conceived for educational, cultural, scientific, and recreational purposes, and has become one of the major tourist attractions in northern Spain. Something of a safari park, with animals from all continents but may be worth a visit to see some of Europe’s larger mammals – I haven’t been there myself. I’ve mentioned it here to distinguish it from the countryside areas designated Nature parks or Parque Natural.


More winter bird-watching ideas in Spain

Eurasian Cranes at the Laguna Gallocanta

The Laguna Gallocanta near Zaragoza in north-eastern Spain provides an incredible spectacle in late February as thousands of cranes stop by on the way to northern European breeding grounds.

Doñana National Park

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

Las Marismas del Odiel

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


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Photo of birds on mudflats

Best places for wildlife in February

How do you find the best places to visit in February? I’ve trawled the internet and come to the following conclusion:

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.

Disclaimer – I have no connections with these tour companies, and have not used their services. However, as their websites have provided me with useful information, the least I can do is mention them.


  1. Bulgaria
  2. England
  3. Estonia
  4. France
  5. Greece
  6. Iceland
  7. Italy
  8. Norway
  9. Poland
  10. Portugal
  11. Scotland
  12. Spain
  13. Sweden
  14. More nature-watching in Europe calendars


Bulgaria

The northernmost part of the Bulgarian Black Sea coast 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. February may be the best time to see them as the hunting season is over, and birds generally are more settled. Branta and Neophron both offer winter birding and winter photography tours.

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.


Photo of landscape at the Somerset Levels

England

Naturetrek –  Somerset Levels – The magical movements and acrobatics of a million roosting Starlings. Bitterns. Huge congregations of wintering wildfowl, Lapwings and Golden Plovers. Birds of prey; amongst them the possibility of  Barn Owls, Marsh and Hen Harriers, Peregrine and for the very fortunate Merlin. These are just some of the possible highlights on offer at this special expanse of seasonally inundated lowlands that spans 650 square kilometres between the Quantock and Mendip Hills. This ancient habitat, which until recently had fallen victim to drainage and other modern farming demands, has now been restored to much of its former glory by the RSPB and other conservation bodies. It is a heartening modern-day conservation ‘success story’! The photo above shows old pollarded willows marking ancient field boundaries.

Naturetrek – The Forest of Dean covers an area of about 100 square kilometres and is England’s second-largest expanse of ancient woodland. From our comfortable hotel base in the heart of the forest, we will make daily walks exploring the surrounding trails during the day, and on one evening head out in search of Wild Boar! We will hope to see flocks of Siskin and Redpoll as well as Brambling and one of the stars of the forest – the Hawfinch. Mandarin Duck and Goosander should be present and we’ll also look for Dippers on the rivers.


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 (below), goldeneye, goosanders and white-tailed eagles. Can’t see any trips advertised, but Natourest are probably the best people to advise – they also provide self-guided tours which can be tailored to your requirements.


France

All the big estuaries of the north and west coast are worth visiting, as is the Rhône Delta on the Mediterranean coast.


Greece

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. Then goes on to various lakes, the Dadia Forest National Park (for vultures especially), and the Evros Delta.


Iceland

Most tours to Iceland in winter concentrate on the Aurora Borealis – the Northern Lights, but this Naturetrek one crosses the country from south-west to north-east and includes the specialist winter birds too.

  • Pulsing green, blue & red glows & dancing patterns of the Northern Lights
  • Barrow’s Goldeneye, Snow Bunting & Ptarmigan
  • Stay in scenic Skútustaðir, under the flight path of a Gyrfalcon!
  • Glaucous & Iceland Gulls
  • Wintering sea-ducks near Husavik
  • Boiling mud pools, cinder cones, black lava fields & steaming fumeroles

The Travelling Naturalist provides a great winter break searching for birds and whales in south and west Iceland, at a time when they struggle to survive the harsh winter conditions and often congregate around the coast or other sheltered areas. Travelling as part of a small group in a specially prepared winterised 4-wheel drive vehicle allows us to reach some out-of-the-way places.

Some excellent advice about photographing the Northern Lights here


Italy

The Po Delta is good once the hunting season is over.


Norway

Skua Wild – Eider Special – In February, the King Eiders, one of the North Sea’s wonders, exhibit their colourful plumage over the icy, snow-covered waters. With it, the Steller’s Eider, the smallest of the Eider family, which is seriously threatened by a decline in its breeding range, primarily owing to climate change. These two unusual seabirds spend most of the winter in the Barents Sea, which stretches from northern Norway to Arctic Russia, but they begin their journey to the Siberian Peninsula in late March. Common Eiders and Long-tailed Ducks can be observed all year in the Varanger Peninsula, and they congregate with the two species listed above in February.


Poland

The Travelling Naturalist has a tour that focuses on the large, yet elusive mammals of the Biebrza Marshes and Bialowieza Forest. Studying tracks in the snow, we look for European bison, wild boar, elk, red deer and, if we are extremely lucky, some the country’s predators. We also search for the smaller, yet equally fascinating species such as otter, beaver, red squirrel (above), pine marten and up to ten species of bat.


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.


Scotland

Oriole Birding – Islay is perhaps best known for its geese, and watching flocks of Barnacle and Greenland White-fronted Geese will certainly be a major focus as we search for rarer species that can include Cackling Goose or Snow Goose from across the Atlantic. In fact we can view geese from the sun room of our fantastic accommodation near Port Ellen in the south of the island, where we hire two self-catering houses for the tour and enjoy a house party experience which is perfectly suited to this holiday. Over the few days we will enjoy wintering divers and seaduck in secluded bays, both species of Eagle over the hills and such Hebridean specialities as Red-billed Chough, Twite, Black Guillemot, Hen Harrier, Merlin and of course Otter (below) around Islay’s varied coastline. 


Spain

Naturetrek – The Coto Doñana is regarded as one of the best birdwatching sites in Europe and rightly so. At all times of year this superb wilderness of wetlands and woodland is teeming with birds! On this short winter break we explore a great range of habitats and birds will range from the great numbers of wintering wildfowl and waders to a whole host of raptors including Spanish Imperial Eagle and Black-winged Kite. Bluethroat winter here and are another highlight, while mammals may even include the Iberian Lynx if we are lucky within the private reserve! With so much to offer a visit to Coto Doñana is a must!

Read my recommendations for getting the most out of the The Doñana National Park

Naturetrek – On this wildlife holiday we visit three of the Canary Islands – Tenerife, Gomera and Fuerteventura – in search of the five endemic birds, many of the 600+ species of endemic plants, and other wildlife. On Tenerife we explore the pine forest and high slopes of Teide National Park, then we cross by ferry to the tranquil island of Gomera, where we will spend a full day exploring the marvellous Garajonay National Park. We finish with three nights on Fuerteventura, flatter and more arid than the other islands, and home to a totally different flora and fauna, more African than European. The unusual, exotic and magnificent subtropical Canary Islands with their endemic flora and fauna, and spectacular volcanic scenery will make this a memorable and rewarding tour.

For the botanist visiting the Canary Islands, flowering depends more on rainfall than on date, but Febuary is considered a good month for botanising in Lanzarote.

My best February trip to Spain has to be the Laguna Gallocanta and its tens of thousands of Eurasian Cranes (below). Several companies offer trips to the area, usually combining it with looking for wallcreepers and other species in the mountains.

Also take a look at this round-up of the best of Spain in January – most of the information applies to February too.

Photo of a flock of cranes

Sweden

NatureTrek – Winter birdwatching in northern Scandinavia is very special. Though there are a limited number of species present, such beautiful species as Waxwing and Bullfinch look even more exquisite in the magical winter light of the far north and against a backdrop of snow, and keen photographers will be in their element. We’ll be based in the lowlands of Svartadalen in central Sweden and make daily excursions to look for finches, tits, Nutcracker and woodpeckers (including Grey-headed) in the forest and at bird feeding stations. We should be able to get very close to some of our target species on this trip; this, combined with a stunning quality of light, hearty local food, log fires and hospitable hosts, make this a very memorable holiday.


More nature-watching in Europe calendars


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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 (5.8 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 moved northwards.

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

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


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Facilities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


How to get there

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

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

Once in Gallocanta or any of the other nearby villages, you can walk to the nearest bit of lakeshore 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

Sierra del Hornijo

A December road trip into the Cordillera Cantabrica in northern Spain.

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 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.


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

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

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

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

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

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


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 Brazo del Este on the east side of the Guadalquivir and the Odiel Marshes which are tidal.

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


So there you have it

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

What I’d look for next time – José Antonio Valverde Visitor Centre and its environs must be worth a longer visit (especially without the worry of driving on wet slippery tracks), and more time in the dunes near Matalascañas. But just wandering around those same areas as before – because with wildlife, you never quite know what might turn up. Perhaps being there in January when the cranes are wintering there – I had missed them by mid-February. Perhaps seeing what it is like in May – before it gets too hot, but the flowers, birds, butterflies and lizards should be abundant. Maybe I’d try again for one of the guided trips into the interior of the Nationa Park – just to see what it is like. Or one of the trips that specifically goes out looking for lynx – nothing is guaranteed, but it would be nice to see a real live one instead of just the pawprints (and the stuffed specimen!)

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


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


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More nature-watching in Andalucia

Brazo del Este Natural Area

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

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Las Marismas del Odiel

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Why visit . . .

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

One third of Europe’s spoonbills breed here.

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

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

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


About the Odiel Marshes

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

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


Best places to go

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

La Calatilla Visitors’ Centre – Anastasio Senra

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

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

Usefully, there is a popular restaurant located next door!

Isla de Bacuta

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

Photo of Flamingos
Greater Flamingos

El Dique San Juan Carlos I

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

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

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

Punta Umbria

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

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

Huelva City Waterfront

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

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

Photo of Audouin's Gull
Audouin’s Gull

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


So there you have it

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

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

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

Getting there

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

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


Resources

Useful Websites

UNESCO – about the biosphere reserve of the Marismas del Odiel

Andalucia department of the environment

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

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

Local tour guides

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

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

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

Videos

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


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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.

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Photo of cranes in flight

Best places to see nature in Spain in Winter

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.

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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. 


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

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More ideas for nature-watching in winter

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.

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. 


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Nature along the Dorset Coast

Why the Dorset coast

Spectacular Jurassic limestone scenery

Lots of large nature reserves

Plenty to see at any time of year

Best place for Lulworth Skipper, great raft spiders, smooth snakes and others

The section of coast between Poole Harbour and Exeter is popularly known as the Jurassic Coast, for its abundance and variety of fossils laid down in the Jurassic period – 200-145 million years ago. However, the geological time period of the rocks also covers the Triassic (250 – 200 million years) and the Cretaceous (145 – 60 million years ago). The Jurassic Coast website gives plenty of information for visitors interested in the prehistory of the area.

There is, however, much more to this section of coast than just the geological spectacle. The South-West Coast path provides a walking route from end to end – and beyond. It offers the hiker stunning views of many coastal features, from the sheer cliffs and limestone formations such as Lulworth Cove and Durdle Door (top photo) to a great range of birds, flowers and butterflies including the rare Lulworth Skipper Thymelicus acteon (well, rare in Britain as it is only found in this area, although widespread and even common in parts of central and southern Europe).

The Lulworth Skipper is like a large skipper (with the orange patches on the wings) but is much smaller.
The Essex skipper is like a small skipper but has black-tipped antennae

Poole Harbour

Just inland from the sea is a series of nature reserves. Many of these are associated with Poole Harbour, providing refuge for a variety of birds during winter. The harbour itself is a huge shallow bowl with a relatively small outlet to the sea. It has double tides, which means lots of shallow water over mudflats, and lots of food for waders and wildfowl. On the west side, there are several heathland nature reserves which include the shoreline eg Studland Heath and Arne.

Dark -bellied Brent Geese at Poole Park in January

On the east side is the town of Poole – an extensively built-up area with considerable boating and recreational activity on the water. Nevertheless, Poole Park, an area of municipal parkland between the harbour wall and the town is excellent for birdwatching – with a large flock of dark-bellied Brent geese Branta bernicla among the other wintering wildfowl and gulls.

Brownsea Island, within the harbour is important for its red squirrel Sciurus vulgaris population. The island is owned by the National Trust, with managed forestry and heathland areas, as well as parkland.

Avocets in the lagoon at Brownsea Island in January

The northern part, however, is leased to the Dorset Naturalists Trust. Here there is a large lagoon surrounded on the outside by a high sea wall, areas of alder carr and other wet woodland, and generally much more natural habitats. The lagoon is frequented by waterbirds, especially herons, egrets and spoonbills Platalea leucorodia, and holds Britain’s largest single wintering flocks of avocets Recurvirostra avosetta and black-tailed godwits Limosa limosa – over 1000 birds of each species at times. Within the harbour are a number of small gravel islands, used by terns and gulls for nesting.

The RSPB reserve at Arne has been in existence since 1965. Like the nearby Studland Heath National Nature Reserve, it is important as one of the main sites to see all six species of British reptiles – adder Viperus berus, grass snake Natrix natrix, smooth snake Coronella austriaca, slow-worm Anguilis fragilis, common lizard Zootoca vivipara, and sand lizard Lacerta agilis.

Rare plants on the site include Dorset Heath Erica ciliaris (left), while the freshwater pond is one of only three sites for the great raft spider Dolometes plantarius in Britain. The wasp spider Argiope bruennichi is also found here (below – photographed in July).

The heathland provides a breeding stronghold for the secretive Dartford warbler Sylvia undata, as well as European nightjar Caprimulgus europeaus, woodlark Lullula arborea, and stonechat Saxicola rubicola. Waterbirds commute between the shore here, and Brownsea Island lagoon.

Weymouth area

Some 35km (22 miles) to the west of Poole Harbour is the town of Weymouth, and another set of nature reserves. Within the town itself is the RSPB reserve of Radipole Lake – a long finger of open water and reedbeds. The southern end, with a small RSPB information centre, is next to the railway station, is very popular with families wanting to feed the ducks and swans, so the birds here tend to be quite tame and tolerant. Following the footpath to the north hide takes you to more secluded areas, often quiet in winter except for the explosive calls of Cetti’s warblers Cettia cetti. It is also a good place for bearded reedlings Panurus biarmicus again a species more often heard – pinging calls as they move through the reedbed – than seen.

It is also a good place for a variety of plants, dragonflies and butterflies in the appropriate seasons.

On the eastern side of Weymouth, is the RSPB reserve of Lodmor. This is an area of open water, saltmarsh, wet grassland and scrub, separated from the sea by a shingle embankment and road, and with the ever-increasing housing development of Preston on the north side (view from south side below).

Birds move between here and Radipole, so the species seen are similar. However, it does have one of the largest common tern Sterna hirundo colonies in south-west Britain, and autumn migration can be spectacular. On a rather blustery late August day, we saw more than 50 species easily from the footpath (wheel-chair and push-chair friendly). The last few common tern chicks were being fed by their parents, while large numbers of swifts Apus apus gathered with the swallows and martins preparing for migration south.

Sunburst over Portland Bill

Portland Bird Observatory

A programme of bird ringing (bird banding) has been carried out since the earliest days of ornithological exploration at Portland in the 1950s. Bird Observatory staff and suitably qualified helpers use ringing as a tool to assist research into the migration patterns, population changes, biometrics and longevity of birds. The majority of ringing is carried out within the grounds of the Bird Observatory, where over 225,000 birds of 200 species have been trapped and ringed to date. There have been subsequent recoveries of birds marked at Portland from as far north as Finland, as far south as Ghana and as far east as the Republic of Georgia in the former USSR. (from the PBO website)

Portland Bill is a narrow promontory at the southern tip of the Isle of Portland which is connected to the mainland by a shingle spit, the eastern end of Chesil Beach. Jutting out some 8km (5 miles) into the sea, it makes a convenient departure and arrival point for birds on migration, and also catches birds moving along the coast.

The Portland Bird Observatory occupies the Old Lower Lighthouse just before the Bill (tip) itself. The observatory is open all year round.

Back in around 1982, I visited Portland Bill in migration season, just because it was said to be good for birds. The first afternoon was pleasant enough, and somebody mentioned that a hoopoe had been seen. OK, so we kept a look out for it, but weren’t too bothered if we saw it or not – our philosophy was to enjoy the place, and the birds would be the icing on the cake. In the evening we pitched our small tent in a seemingly out-of-the-way place. The next morning we opened the tent only to find a dozen birdwatchers about 50m away, all looking through binoculars and telescopes at the hoopoe feeding right in front of the tent!

Chesil Beach

There are other places to watch birds, or just to enjoy the coastal scenery and plants, on Portland Island. Then just to the west is Chesil Beach – 30km (19 miles) of pebble beach, separated from the mainland by the Fleet Lagoon for most of its length. At the western end is the Abbotsbury Swannery which is the only managed colony of nesting mute swans Cygnus colour (above) in the world.


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This is the updated version of the book we used. Each of the sites mentioned in this article is given several pages of text and maps, It gives the history of sites, the location and access provision, what you will see in each season, and much more. We found it very useful and will be using it to find more sites on our next visit to the area.

Obviously, it is about bird-watching sites, but most sites will have other nature interest as well.

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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.

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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 naturalist in France in winter

The naturalist travelling through France in winter can expect bleak weather with little sunshine and drizzly, icy rain. 

Paris, for example, sees an average of 37°F (3°C) and two inches of rain in January. You’ll find colder, snowier temperatures in the northeast of 37-43°F (3-6°C), and in the mountain regions of the south. However, it is milder along the coasts, 43-46°F (6-8°C) on the Atlantic (west coast) and 48-55°F (9-13°C) in southern France (Mediterranean coast).

As with most of northern and central Europe, the most obvious winter features are the birds. Large areas of water both inland and along the coast attract vast numbers of wintering wildfowl. However, a few mammals can be seen, especially in the mountains.

Common Cranes

Lac du Der-Chantecoq

Lac du Der Chantecoq is the second-largest artificial lake in Europe. It was dammed in 1974 as part of the plan to reduce the flooding further downstream in Paris. Der is from the Celtic word for Oak, and Chantecoq was the name of one of the villages now submerged. It is now an internationally recognised place for wintering wildfowl, as well as for the thousands of common cranes (above) that stop by on migration.
Information for visitors

Wigeon

La Brenne

La Brenne is an area dominated by some 3,000 lakes (actually Medieval fishponds) to the south-west of Paris. In winter, it is home to vast numbers of wintering ducks. Gadwall, shoveler, wigeon and teal mingle with scarcer species such as smew, red-crested pochard and ferruginous ducks. Up to 4,000 cranes also spend winter in this area. Information for visitors Downloadable leaflet in English

Dark-bellied Brent Geese

The north and west coasts of France in winter

The Atlantic coast of Europe is part of a major flyway for birds moving from eastern north America, Greenland, Iceland, northern Europe and Russia to wintering areas further south. The mudflats in the wide shallow estuaries, and lagoons formed by sandbars, provide stopping-off places for these migrants to rest and refuel. Some are also major wintering sites for thousands of waders (shorebirds), wildfowl and other water-birds. Where you have waterbirds, you have predators, and there seems to be an abundance of marsh harriers at most of these sites. The best wintering sites along the French coast include:

Baie de Somme – the largest natural estuary in northern France. Its vast sand, mudflats and grassy areas provide refuge during cold weather events, especially for waders and ducks. During the average winter, the Baie de Somme is internationally important as it holds over 1% of the individuals of the biogeographic populations of pintail, shoveler and common shelduck. Information for visitors

Knot

Baie du Mont Saint-Michel – has the fifth largest tidal range in the world, and includes sand/gravel beds supporting large bivalve (shellfish) populations.  Up to 100,000 waders winter at the bay, including over 1% of the populations of oystercatcher, knot, and dunlin. Marine mammals such as bottle-nosed dolphins and common seals also visit the site. Information for visitors

Golfe du Morbihan – A large, almost enclosed, estuarine embayment and saltmarsh complex at the mouths of three rivers. Vast mudflats support large areas of eelgrass (Zostera species) and an extremely high density of invertebrates. Up to 100,000 waterbirds winter annually at the site, and numerous species of migratory waterbirds stop by in spring and autumn, and nest in the area. See this post for more detail.  Information for visitors

Baie de Bourgneuf, Ile de Noirmoutier et Foret de Monts – a complex site of sands, mudflats, saltpans, marshes, reedbeds, oyster basins, saltmarsh, dunes, etc. More than 60,000 waterbirds use the site in winter. Information for visitors

Marais du Fier d’Ars –  Another coastal complex with more than 31,000 waterbirds using the site in winter. Of particular importance for dark-bellied brent geese, avocets, dunlin and black-tailed godwit.

Greater Flamingo in winter

Camargue

The Camargue, the Rhône River delta, is the premier wetland of France. It comprises vast expanses of permanent and seasonal lagoons, lakes and ponds interspersed with extensive Salicornia flats, freshwater marshes, and a dune complex. It is of international importance for nesting, migrating and wintering waterbirds. Tens of thousands of ducks, geese, swans and other water birds, including greater flamingo, occur in winter.  Other birds present include great spotted and white-tailed eagles, and penduline tit and moustached warbler – the latter apparently easier to see at this time of year.
Information for visitors

Click here for a flavour of the area from Luca Boscain

Eagle owl

Les Alpilles

Les Alpilles (the Little Alps) are easy to access – and not often snowy!  This limestone ridge provides good flying conditions for raptors at any time of year, so eagles can be seen.  But more importantly, the village of les Baux attracts wallcreepers, blue rock thrush and eagle owl (try behind the Hotel Mas de L’Oulivie) and citril and snow finches can also be found. Wallcreepers head back into the high Alps for the summer so their time in the lowlands is limited. Tourist information

Mountains

High mountains are often not the most exciting places for wildlife in winter. The sub-zero temperatures limit plant growth and insect activity. Birds often migrate to the lowlands or to warmer climates. On the other hand, there is likely to be a concentration of food around human habitation, and ski resorts can provide interesting bird-watching. Alpine choughs, alpine accentors and snowfinches, for example, forage around ski resorts, and can be observed at close quarters.

Alpine Ibex

Mammals often move to the lower slopes or seek shelter in woodlands. However, mammals may also be easier to find as their tracks are more obvious in the snow, or in muddy areas. And it’s often easier to see into the distance when vegetation isn’t in the way. This Alpine wolf-tracking holiday in France is an example of the specialist trips available.

Chamois inhabit both the Alps and the Pyrenees. They spend summer above the tree-line, but descend to around 800m to live in pine forests during the winter. In the Alps, Ibex are also found high in the mountains, Females spend the winter mostly on slopes that are too steep for snow to accumulate. However, males sometimes come down to valleys during the late winter and spring.


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More places to go nature-watching in winter


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