Saturday, 16 May 2015

Spain - Coto Doñana/Extremadura: 21st-29th April, 2015 - Part One


Part One - Coto Doñana

Weather: Changeable, mainly hot and humid with some cloud. Rain on occasion.

Birds seen: 166 in total.
Plus: Beech Marten; Fiddler Crabs; Mediterranean House Gecko; Iberian Wall Lizard; Marbled Newt; Marsh Frog; Rabbit; Red Deer; Red-eared Slider; Wild Boar and piglets.
Plus: Bath White, Brown Argus, Clouded Yellow, Holly Blue, Large White, Orange Tip, Painted Lady, Silver Y moth, Small Copper, Small Heath, Small White, Spanish Festoon, Speckled Wood, Swallowtail butterflies.
Plus: Bluet species, Blue-tailed damselflies; Lesser Emperor, Red-veined Darter, Ruddy Darter dragonflies.
Plus: 7-spot Ladybird; Chequered Beetle; Dung Beetle; Grasshoppers; Lilly Beetle; Mediterranean Shield Bug; Red and Black Froghopper; Red Striped Oil Beetle; Soldier Beetle.
Plus: Poppies, Tongue Orchids, Violet Limadore and Wild Peony. Lots of wild flower fields.

'Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!' Cardinal Ximinez

'Have no fear of perfection - you'll never reach it.' Salvador Dali

'Travellers never think that they are the foreigners.' Mason Cooley

'A traveller is active; they go strenuously in search of people, of adventure, of experience. A tourist is passive; they expect interesting things to happen to them - they go 'sight-seeing.'' Daniel J. Boorstin

Situated in the province of Huelva, Coto Doñana National Park is one of the finest wetlands in Europe, encompassing a mosaic of marshes, reedbeds, stone pine woodland, open heath-land and sand dunes. A major site for migrating birds, the park as a whole comprises three distinct kinds of ecosystem: the marismas, the Mediterranean scrub-lands and the coastal mobile dunes with their 

Extremadura is famous for its' wildlife conservation and is one of the best areas in Europe for wildlife, especially birds. It's pretty much centred around the National Park of Monfragüe, but the steppes and plains are a must to visit. A visit is a journey into the heart of old Spain, from the country’s finest Roman ruins to beautiful medieval cities and villages. 

Leaving home just before midnight and via train; coach and plane I finally arrived in Seville late morning. The weather was significantly warmer than back in the UK. In fact it was quite humid and so I ditched the fleece immediately.

I soon met up with the other members of the group, including our lead guide for the trip, David Morris. There were 2 other guides, Simon and Amy, all turning out to be very knowledgeable and friendly. After a short delay, we were soon embarked on a pair of mini-buses and were heading off to our first hotel, in El Rocío. On the way we all immediately went into bird-spotting mode, seeing plenty of birds on the drive down to the hotel.

El Rocío is a very nice, typical Andalusian village, situated within the national park. With very wide sandy tracks, the Pueblos immediately reminded me of the wild west, most notably 'The Alamo'. Horses had the right of way!

Our hotel, the 'El Toruno', was situated right beside stunning views of El Rocío's La Madre de las Marismas, a large wetland area. Each room had a particular bird theme with pictures, information and even painted tiles - a nice touch. My room was designated as the 'Pintail' room - one of my favourite ducks. Soft drinks, fruit and snacks awaited us on arrival. 

The restaurant was adjacent to our Hotel, with the food typical Spanish fare, simple but delicious. Just how I like it! But best of all, we could view all the birds outside, on the lagoon, whilst having our dinner. Good local food, wines and perfect for a beer at the end of a long day's hard birding, outside under the 800 year old olive trees.

I waited until everyone had checked in, mainly because I had spotted my first dragonfly, right outside in the gardens. In fact, I had spotted two, a conjoined pair. I immediately grabbed my camera, but they flew off before I could get a shot or an ID.

After a quick check-in and a wash and brush-up, I headed outside to the lagoon. Birds such as Spoonbill; Black-winged Stilts; Little Egrets; Whiskered Terns and various Warblers were all on show. Soon after, lots of raptors appeared overhead, giving some really good, close-up views. More dragonflies were perching up right in front of me. They were a Darter species, later, after consulting a few books, I found them to be Red-veined.

We spent the rest of the afternoon visiting a small, local wildlife reserve, La Roccinas. A brilliant afternoon's birding, seeing some really great birds, including Serin; Hoopoe and Iberian Shrike.

Later on, hunting around the reed ponds, we spotted Glossy Ibis; Squacco Heron and lots of Red-crested Pochard. Then I had my first sighting of a Woodchat Shrike. It was a male and was soon joined by a female, giving us some great views. I was thrilled to see one, but by the end of the trip we had seen dozens and I even became a little blasé about them! A little later Amy spotted a calling Savi's Warbler, sounding like a Grasshopper Warbler. The Savi's that is, not Amy.

Towards the end of the day, at the nearby visitor centre, Dave managed to call down a Penduline Tit, another first for me. If the rest of the trip was anything like this, then we were in for a fabulous holiday. We arrived back around 6, with dinner at 8. I crawled into bed just after 10.

Breakfast was at 8, which was about the norm for the rest of the trip. Continental-style, no fry-ups here! It didn't get light here until around 7-ish. I took a walk 20 minutes beforehand, checking the lagoon, before we headed off around 9.

We drove to a place called Acebron Heath for some woodland birding, seeing loads of Bee-eaters, more Shrikes, mostly perched up on the fence-line and some raptors overhead. To be honest, raptors don't really do it for me. For one thing, they all look similar, gliding the thermals and for another, they look just like dots in the sky. Much too far away. I prefer my birding up close and personal.

We continued to walk around the area, another highlight being my first sighting of a Dartford Warbler, poking its' head up, giving us some tantalising views every few seconds. Sardinian Warblers were present as well, but I had seen a few of those on other trips. Golden Orioles flew overhead, but the 'Dartie' was the star.

Then we moved on to the Palace de Acebron, where lots of Cetti's Warblers and Nightingales were making their presence heard. There were some work parties here, making a lot of noise, so we moved swiftly on to explore the woodland around us. There was a handy boardwalk through the woods and it allowed us to get some great views of an Iberian Chiffchaff and a Melodious Warbler.

Every day was a packed lunch day and so we began a daily ritual of producing our plates and cutlery, in anticipation of the delights on offer. They were Ploughman's-style lunches, topped off with a few bars of chocolate - hey, we were on holiday! Lunch today was taken at a place called Acebuches - a large picnic area, where we saw saw our first Azure-winged Magpies, now renamed as the Iberian Magpie, an iconic bird of the area. Where we told off by a local for feeding them bread! I did feel a bit guilty, as it was white bread, but I was desperate to get a photo of the Magpies.

Next up was a visit to a wetland area. Although it looked pretty dry to me. So we headed back to pay another visit to La Madre de las Marismas, this time from the opposite side to the town. First up for our viewing pleasure was an Iberian Yellow Wagtail. Then we had closer views of the Black-winged Stilts. Looking out over the lagoon we saw many more species, all of it looking wonderful in the sunshine.

While the rest of the party were looking up at more raptors, I took the opportunity to look for more Dragons, which I had seen flying around. I managed to get some fairly good shots of both male and female Darters, as well as a few Iberian Blue-tailed Damselflies, plus various butterflies, including Speckled Wood.

Just before dinner a few of us headed around to the SEO building, seeing Hoopoe; Black-crowned Night-Heron; Black-winged Stilt and Purple Gallinule. And after dinner we drove back to Acebron Heath to find Red-necked Nightjar, just before dusk. There were only a few about but the stars of the evening were hundreds of Greater Flamingos flying noisily overhead. But I also remember being plagued by swarms of midges. Thank God Amy had the insect repellent!
I rose slightly earlier the next day, after a bad night. I had a light breakfast - I was still trying to acclimatise to the area, mindful of the fact that I might go down with a local revenge again, like I always seemed to do. I had also remembered to bring half of Boots the Chemist with me. Plus my shoulder was playing me up. Oh, the pitfalls of growing old!

We spent most of today birding in the Parque Nacional Reserve, with two local specialists. A lovely day, misty early on, the temperature dial soon went up to 'scorchio'. First up was a 'safari-type' hunt for the elusive Iberian Lynx, another icon of the area. Unfortunately, despite the Guides' best efforts we didn't see any all trip. But we did see recent evidence of footprints.

From here we moved on to a place called Coto Del Rey, where we spotted more raptors, including Booted and Short-toes Eagles, more Griffon Vultures and, of course, the usual Black Kites. We had a few sightings of Wild Boar, including piglets and then a few Red Deer, which were wandering around the area.

We broke for lunch and, instead of another ploughman's-style lunch we were treated to a very nice 3-course meal before being allowed a 2-hour siesta. I spent most of it looking out over the lagoon, seeing a lovely, close-up view of a Reed Warbler. We then returned to the same area as before, on another search for the Iberian Lynx. 

After another failure we headed further in to the Parque Nacional, this time the vast steppe and wetland areas, seeing Larks, Short-toed and Crested; Whinchat and Wagtails.

Then it was time for another wander along the roadside towards the Jose Valverde visitor centre. I was delighted to find loads of insects around this area, including Shield Bug; Butterflies and Dragonflies. From inside the visitor centre we could see loads of Little Egret; Squacco Heron; Black-crowned Night-Heron; Cattle Egret and Greater Flamingoes out on the lagoon. Other birds seen were Wood Sandpipers; Great Reed Warbler; Purple Swamphen; Garganey and Whiskered Terns. A wonderful spectacle as we sat back and topped it all off with a nice, cold beer.

We then drove back the same way, taking in a Lesser Kestrel colony. Further on we spotted at least one Red-knobbed Coot, amongst several Eurasian Coot. When we arrived back at the Hotel I was still feeing a little 'un-acclimatised' so I passed on dinner and had an early night.

It was an inspired decision as I woke up the next morning, feeling refreshed after a much better sleep. After another quick look out over the lagoon, I met the others for breakfast. Dave arrived and gave us a précis of the day's events. We were faced with quite a long journey to our destination and back, but it was certainly worth it. 

First up was a visit to the Bonanza Saltpan, where we saw loads of Waders, including Avocet; Black-winged Stilt; Dunlin; Kentish Plover; Little Stint and Curlew Sandpiper. We even spotted a lone Whimbrel. Also found here were Slender-billed Gull; Audouin’s Gull; Gull-billed Tern and more Flamingos. Although quite cloudy all day, the sun eventually made an appearance toward the end of the day.

Today's lunch was at a place called Laguna de Tarelo, where we were surrounded by a forest of pine trees. Very pleasant. While we waited for Dave and Simon to prepare lunch, we walked the short distance, through the pines, to the nearby lake, where we spotted White-headed Duck and Marbled Duck, with an escort of Black-necked Grebe. Refreshed we then drove to Coria Del Rio, via a short ferry ride.

Our last stop of the day - not including the many coffee stops - was at Dehesa de Abejo where we found a few Hides to sit in. Outside I could see Purple Swamphen and lots of Great Crested Grebes. By the car-park were several towering White Stork nests. It was to be our last night at Coto Doñana before heading northwards.

End of Part One.