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Birding Cadiz (& nearby) (1 Viewer)

John Cantelo

Well-known member
With the autumnal birding season in the southwest corner of Spain - Cadiz Province - rapidly approaching I think it is opportune to share some of the information gleaned there in my first spring visit post-Covid in April/May 2022. Although birders understandably congregate along the Straits (esp. in autumn) many seem not to fully appreciate just how good the rest of the province is for birding (esp in spring). This is why I wrote my guide - a labour of love (literally so in recent years) - to birding sites in the area which I freely share with birders (although I do invite folks to make donations to charity). Although all of the information is in my blog and/or notes, in an attempt to reach a wider audience I thought I'd kick off a thread on the area here (in part to replace that started by the late & much lamented 'Eddie the Eagle'). Hopefully, now that I have wi-fi in Spain I will be able to add further posts when I'm next out there. Perversely, though, I'll start with a neglected site which is probably not at its best in late summer/autumn but it is so neglected that I thought I'd highlight it here.

Laguna de Jeli has probably been overlooked by birders because Laguna de Medina offers many of the same birds (and more), is much better known and more convenient to visit (although Laguna de Jeli is a good deal easier to visit than most imagine). Over a decade ago when I first tried to visit this laguna I couldn't find the path from the A 390 (Chiclana - Medina Sidonia road) by which it was supposed to be accessed. This was a forgivable oversight as the path was then narrow, badly overgrown and un-signposted with nowhere to pull off on the main road. How things change! The footpath (Cordel de los Merchantes) is now very well-signposted on the A 390 (although you have to stop to find out where it goes) with a convenient car park.

However, long before the path to Laguna de Jeli was upgraded I searched for an alternative easier route to the reserve and, thanks to GoogleEarth, discovered an excellent wide gravel track, the Cañada de Marchantes, which takes you to the other end of the path. Not only does this route reduce the walk to the laguna from almost 3 km to half that distance but it's also worth checking in its own right. The cañada (= droveway) follows a ridge with good views towards Medina to the east and the Bahai de Cadiz in the west. I've had both Montagu's Harrier and Black-winged Kite here and during migration periods small groups of Honey Buzzards and other raptors drift over. Other birds such as swifts, hirundines, Roller and Short-toed Lark also seem to follow the ridge. Better still, the surrounding low-intensity agricultural plots hold Rufous Bushchat. So, although it means a 10 km detour to the footpath (if arriving via the car park on the A390), it's one that's well worth it even before you get there.

Walking along the footpath down to the laguna you quickly reach an information board and viewpoint which gave scenic views of the laguna c1 km away. Further along the path, there's a 350m long boardwalk through the bushes which is raised up high enough to see over the bushes. This was followed by another viewpoint that finally gives you a useful view of the laguna and then a slatted hide that overlooks the nearest edge of the laguna. The hide might be further away than ideal (c150-200m depending on water levels) but, if you have a 'scope, you should be able to identify most of the wildfowl here which, with White-headed, Ferruginous and Marbled Ducks potentially on the 'menu', could be worth the walk.

The Laguna de Jeli is a 'hidden gem' set in rolling countryside with terrific views and as such is well worth seeking out and exploring, particularly in winter and spring.

Laguna view.png. Even if the laguna is quiet and relatively birdless, this is a great area with much potential for a visiting birder to find something for themselves.

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Bonanza salinas are rightly celebrated as one of the region's premier birding localities, a hotspot for waders, gulls and terns which even manages to draw people away from the raptor-fest at Tarifa When first I ventured this way five decades ago the entrance to the salinas was gated but, although we didn't know it at the time, you could ask permission to enter. By the time I returned in the early 2000s access was unrestricted you could drive across the middle of the salinas (a on my map) viewing the waders, gulls and terns as you did so. There was even a large sign off the main road advertising that it was part of the Coto Donana reserve.

In the couple of decades since then, when you reached the T-junction at the end of the track, you could turn right and drive c1km up to a small white building (a pumping station) from which you could get still better views across the expanse of salinas and even more birds. Here I often found you could get the best views (and even photos) of the birds including Slender-billed Gulls, Caspian & Whiskered Terns, Black Stork, Red-necked Phalarope, etc., etc. There was a brief hiatus back in 2009, when a barrier appeared across the start of this route. It didn't last long and was soon wrecked. So for years, I and many other birders happily drove up this track. Here you could get the best views (and even photos) of the birds including Slender-billed Gulls, Caspian & Whiskered Terns, Black Stork, Red-necked Phalarope, etc., etc.

When I return this year (2022) I found the track across the centre in excellent condition although few birds nearby so I was keen to drive up to the pumping station to see what was around. To my dismay, I discovered a far more robust gate than hitherto on the side turning denting vehicular access up to the pumping station (see photos). It was open but I decided not to risk driving to the far end of the track (b). Later driving back past the gate our caution seemed justified as it was then firmly padlocked. So it seems that the owners of the salinas no longer allow cars to drive up to the end of this short track. However, the situation regarding pedestrians seems less clear. Unlike when a barrier that briefly appeared here in 2009 (and as per many other side tracks today), there are no signs forbidding access. There's also a well-beaten path around the gate which was being used by locals (both on mopeds/scooters and on foot). What this means for access to birdwatchers is unclear (although at least one local guide seems to have a key) but I'd be unwise, I think, to risk driving along this track. Walking may be permitted but it's a long 2 km round trip on a hot day!

The route down to the river (c) has never been in very good condition but now it's even worse than ever being thick with gluttonous mud after rain and at one point crumbling away as a canal cuts into it. So, unless you want to risk it, it's a 300m walk down to view the Gudalquivir (which can be quite productive for passing birds). It's now hard to imagine that the track (d) running north along the river bank was ever drivable but I once managed to drive all the way along it and on to Trebujena in a hire car! However, it remains worth the 800m walk up to the distant tamarisks if you want to find Spectacled Wabler and Lesser Short-toed Lark. Surprisingly, a friend even had an Azure-winged Magpie in the tamarisks a few years ago.

So whilst the site clearly still has sought-after birds, its utility as an easily accessed birding site is compromised and much diminished by the new barrier. However, the good news is that there's now an excellent alternative site where many of the same birds can be seen. Not only that but it's not quite so far if you're arriving from Tarifa and conveniently close to another popular site, Laguna de Medina. I'll be writing about that site anon but if you can't wait contact me with your email address for my birding guide for the area (it's free with the caveat that charitable donations are welcome!)


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Hi John, thanks for your efforts here. On pic one (the map) that little square of blue is presumably the Laguna de Tarelo?
Going gaga or going gaaa-gaaa?

On 07/05/22 I visited Trebujena to look for an iconic, yet tricky, species to see in this area - Pin-tailed Sandgrouse. So tricky, in fact, that I'd only seen them once myself (although for various reasons I’d rarely been able to visit when the birds tend to be most active at dawn and dusk). That said, I've known keen birders who've tried to find them here a dozen times without any luck.

My renewed determination to see the species was thanks to a young Dutch birder, Danny Bregman, who I’d met a few days previously. Having tipped him off where to look for the species, I was somewhat miffed to hear that he then saw a couple on his first attempt! Hence, I was up before first light to drive up to the Marismas de las Vetas (north of the A471 and c4km west of Trebujena) where he'd found them. It's a good area so I wasn't surprised to find Short-toed Lark, Montagu's Harrier, Spoonbill, etc with relative ease. On past visits when areas have been flooded (it was relatively dry on this visit) I’ve had hundreds of egrets and Glossy Ibis here too plus Little Ringed Plover and other waders. However, what was a surprise this time was an adult Great-spotted Cuckoo happily feeding along the track. As this is largely an early migrant in Cadiz province (and at a time I'm usually back in the UK), I don't often see them, and this bird treated me to my best ever view of the species. A 'result' but not the one that I expected. Happily, this saved me from my planned detour to an area north of Puerto Real (Las Aletas) where the species now seem to be regular visitors, perhaps related to the increase in Magpies, which they parasitise, in that area.

Excellent although it was to catch up with the cuckoo, I still hadn't seen any sandgrouse. I searched for another hour or so without any luck so as the habitat didn't look quite as good as that at Marisma Alventus (NW of Trebujena and c1km from the Guadalquivir) I decided to try my luck there instead. I knew that they were still present in that area as I'd missed them by minutes in March. So, 15 minutes later, I was just getting out of my car on the track by the cortijo when I espied a distant flock of twenty-plus sharp-winged fast-flying birds. I quickly got my binoculars on them and, despite the distance, the two birds I concentrated on were clearly Pin-tailed Sandgrouse! In fact, to my great surprise, I could even hear their distinctive gaaa-gaaa call (hence the Spanish name Ganga).

I didn't really take in what all the birds were but twenty seemed an awful lot for this scarce species, so I kept scanning for a more conclusive view. However, all I could find were flighty flocks of Grey Plovers (at least 60 and probably more), some in summer plumage, some in winter plumage and many moulting between the two. Sandgrouse resemble Golden/Grey Plovers in flight and the birds I saw were very distant so after fifteen minutes the doubts started to creep in - had I really seen them or was I just so desperate to see them that I'd imagined seeing the critical ID features? Given my poor hearing, could I really have heard their gaaa-gaaa call at that range or was it me who was going gaga? I was on the brink of discarding the record as the result of delusional overenthusiasm when I heard a much louder gaaa-gaaa, looked up and had two Pin-tailed Sandgrouse fly right above my head before zooming off towards the site I'd first tried. Phew! With hindsight, I think that, although I'm confident that I did see two birds earlier, I probably heard closer birds which I failed to see.

I've since discovered via e-Bird that the following day two other observers, Faustino Chamizo Ragel & Chúss Fernández Vélez, had 35 sandgrouse (plus 125 Grey Plovers) on the Marismas de Trebujena (which seems to be the generic name for the whole area). Hopefully, this, the highest count here for some years, may reflect the work in restoring the marismas in recent years. So, despite my pessimism, perhaps that original flock were all sandgrouse after all.
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That's a great record John, I've never seen any South of the river. (And only a couple North of it!) Not seen G-c C either, but there are usually a few Magpies near the river. If I ever get there again, I must remember to try and look!
And the 24th raptor from my terrace is ...

In Cadiz province seeing good birds is not all about rushing around from honeypot site to honeypot site but can equally well be enjoyed from home if you've got a reasonable view. Happily, despite my little house being conveniently sited in the centre of a small town (Alcala de los Gazules), it enjoys a splendid 180-degree view across the campo towards Medina Sidonia. So sitting at home on the terrace is often my favoured activity.

This spring on the 25th April I got back to the house mid-afternoon after a disappointing and dispiriting morning on La Janda confirming that the egret colony there was indeed deserted as I had suspected it to be on my previous visit back at the start of March. I pottered around for a while sorting out a late lunch and some tapas I'd bought for visitors later that day but casually looking out of the kitchen window at about 4.00 PM I was surprised to see a dozen or more Griffons circling around in the small blue rectangle of sky I could see. Whilst not unprecedented, this is a good sign that something's afoot!

Nipping up to the terrace for a better look I found the sky awash with vultures and then, scanning the fields at the base of the steep slope that falls away from the house, I spotted a dead cow. A dog was trying to keep the vultures at bay but with only limited success as the numbers built up. Soon there were around a hundred Griffon Vultures surrounding the corpse with still more circling in the sky above. At one point I estimated c300 Griffon Vultures were present in the air, on the corpse or resting nearby but it's hard to know exactly how many vultures were involved in all as birds were constantly passing over, some without stopping, others dropping down and a few already labouriously departing heavy with food. At least 500 I thought but it could well have been 700 or more. It's impossible to be sure. Hoping that other species of vulture might be attracted to the feast I kept scanning the birds in the skies above and the ground below.

Since I see them regularly enough over my terrace or in the Molinos valley near Alcala, I suspect that Egyptian Vulture hangs on locally in the nearby Alcornocales. Accordingly, I wasn't at all surprised that afternoon to see three Egyptian Vultures in the melee around the corpse. However, I was really hoping for an addition to my terrace list, perhaps a Rüppell’s or a Black Vulture (I'm old school and have none of this Monk/Cinereous Vulture nonsense!). I knew that the first had previously been seen in the parish but increasing reports of the second in the province (some from the previous month in Campo de Medina) made that species the front runner. I kept looking but my inherent optimism was beginning to flag until, finally, at 7.00 PM I spotted a magnificent Black Vulture bouncing along the ground, wings outstretched, towards the dwindling circle of Griffons around the cow. Result! Following spotting a long overdue Spanish Imperial Eagle (an immature) a few days previously it was my 24th species of raptor from the terrace. Hopefully, when I'm back this autumn another cow will conveniently expire to increase my chances of that elusive Rüppell’s Vulture (three unco-operative possibles so far!) or perhaps a Black-winged Kite (seen within 5 km) will stray overhead to make that quarter-century. Then again satellite tracking shows a couple of the introduced Bearded Vultures have passed over close to Alcala whilst the possibility of seeing a wandering falcon of some sort - Lanner, Red-footed or Eleonora's - cannot be entirely discounted. I've had the first 40 km to the SW near Los Barrios, the second even closer (25 km) on La Janda (and one's previously been seen in Alcala) and, having had excellent views of the third in Kent this spring, I'm well set up to pick up out the third one up in the autumn!
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John, I envy you on your terrace. Isn't Alcala de los Gazules a name to conjure with!? Your report brings back memories of a visit to the area in 1970. Altho' we had no vultures at AdlG, we did see a scrum about a dead dog on the football pitch at Zahara de los Atunes. Carry on with your brilliant reports.
Marisma de Cetina - the best birding site in Cadiz you've probably never heard of!

The vast intertidal mudflats, marshes and salinas of the Bahía de Cádiz may be good habitat for numerous waders, gulls, terns, etc but for the birdwatcher getting to grips with the habitat and obtaining satisfactory views of the birds (even with a 'scope) can be problematical. Large obvious birds like Flamingo aren't a challenge and even Slender-billed Gulls can be picked out at very long range with experience but most of the smaller waders are often too distant for confident identification and some small birds found in the saltmarsh simply impossible to see. For this reason, perhaps, the place hasn’t been as popular with visiting birders as the increasingly popular Barbate marshes or that old favourite, Bonanza. At just over an hour’s drive from Tarifa it’s a longer drive than Barbate (c40mins) but much less than Bonanza (1 hr 40min). A bonus is that, like the latter, the famous Laguna de Medina is only a short (c15 mins) detour off your route.

A decade or so I go I investigated the area along the CA 3113 which circles part of the Bahía de Cádiz with a view to finding a more convenient location for gulls, shorebirds and particularly Lesser Short-toed Lark and Spectacled Warbler than the Bonanza. A bonus, in some ways a dubious one, was finding that the large rubbish tip (a)* was a magnet for Black Kites which, on one occasion, even attracted an Eagle Owl. I quickly found all of my targets could be seen along the track into Salinas Santa Maria (b). However, this site wasn't 100% reliable for these species, the waders tended to be few and rather distant and regular passing heavy lorries (which pick up a veritable dust storm when the track is dry) made viewing less than ideal or even dangerous. Having checked for any other tracks into the marismas via GoogleEarth, my next stop was the Pinar de la Dhesa de las Yeguas (c). Whilst the woods looked attractive and had plenty of places to park, the track into the marsh (Marisma de Cetina) here was in an appalling state. So, I earmarked as somewhere to visit at a later date when it wasn't so hot (it was mid-afternoon in August on that first visit) or when the track was in a better state. Unfortunately, a change in my personal circumstances delayed my next visit to the Marisma de Cetina until spring 2019 when I found the track in a good condition and that the area was now a reserve. This good news was tempered by the fact that the track was now gated with access limited to those with a permit (available only by phone so tricky for monoglot foreigners like me). This was hugely frustrating as I could see that this was a site with great potential.
* the letters in this account refer to my map (see below) of the area taken from my guide to birding in Cadiz Province


Nonetheless I was keen to revisit this site when Covid restrictions were lifted and somehow, despite my poor Spanish, obtain a permit. I even tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade the authorities to provide an email address by which a permit could be obtained. So, when a local correspondent, keen young birder Bruno Asencio Sevilano, informed me that access was now free to pedestrians without a permit, visiting this site in April/May 2022 became my priority. I wasn't disappointed!

My first stop, though, was to reaquaint myself with the Pinar de la Dhesa de las Yeguas (c), an attractive open pine woodland with picnic tables and plenty of parking. I'd been there several times in the past later in the year and had concluded that it was likely that this area of relatively isolated woodland might hold good numbers of migrants in spring. This was confirmed by the large numbers of Spotted Flycatchers (plus a sprinkling of Pied) I found here on my first visit in late April and again in May. It also has the added attraction of holding both Great-spotted and Iberian Green Woodpecker (a species that has greatly increased in the province). It also has numerous Serin and, given their current scarcity in SE England, I was delighted to find Greenfinch particularly numerous here. Despite the disturbance the site suffers at weekends, an evening visit in summer should produce Red-necked Nightjar (5+ seen in one evening visit recently).

An additional bonus here for those with sharp eyes and, more particularly good hearing, is Savi's Warbler. This species is very sparsely distributed in Spain although the lower Guadalquivir (i.e. Brazo del Este and the Coto Donana) seems to be a hotspot for them. Despite the most recent Spanish atlas suggesting they're now absent here (the only regular site I know for them in Cadiz Province) up to three reeling birds were found in 2019 and at least one bird was present (although hard to see) in 2022. The best approach is to get there as early as possible, take the track to the right which runs parallel to the CA 3113 and walk along the path (d) following margins of the dry reedbed (optimistically called Laguna de Cetina on some maps). The edge of the wood is also good for migrants whilst Black Kites and Marsh Harriers are usually obvious above the marsh. Multiple paths here take you into the woods and back to the main track but don't neglect the small agricultural aqueduct and feeder tank just beyond the car park by the road as this attracts birds coming down to drink.


If you've not got a permit to drive into the reserve then there's space for several cars to pull off near the gate (e) although in hot weather you might prefer to return to a cooler car and pull off in the shade of the nearest trees. The trade-off is that you then have to walk c750m to the gates. In this context, note that this site is very exposed to the sun with no shade (other than the two hides) so take some water, wear a hat and appropriate clothing if you intend to explore the site.

On reaching the gates take care as you enter the reserve since the corner of the large evaporation pool on your left often has a muddy margin attractive to waders (in early May I had Dunlin, Sanderling, Curlew Sandpiper and Little Stint all in a single field of view here). Hopefully, with a little fieldcraft you should be able to slip through the gates and obtain good views of any birds present. Raising your binoculars a tad and scanning further over the area, Flamingos should be immediately apparent with smaller dots quickly resolving themselves to be Black-winged Stilt and Avocets. Taking a closer look at the gulls (preferably with a 'scope) should quickly reveal some Slender-billed Gulls. On my visits this spring I also had a Little Gull here so it's worth spending some time checking through the 'larids'. To your right (f) there's an extensive area of mud supporting a light growth of low halophytic plants. Both here and across the site this habitat is home to Lesser Short-toed Lark; in my experience this is by far the easiest site to catch up with this species in the province. (Greater) Short-toed Lark can also be found here albeit in much lower numbers (and only in summer). Also present in this habitat in summer are Iberian Yellow Wagtail and Collared Pratincole (although the latter are more likely to be seen, or heard, long before you spot their mud-coloured forms half-concealed in the vegetation). Kentish Plover, a declining species in Spain, are a year-round delight.

About 550m from the gate there’s an open-backed hide (g) that provides useful respite from the sun and shelter from the rain. It’s functionality as a hide is somewhat compromised as it faces back towards the way you’ve come so you’re liable to flush birds as you approach but it’s a handy place to stop to scan the salinas for anything you may have missed. There's a good chance of spotting an Osprey (or two) here whilst careful scrutiny of the birds across the vast open water could well reveal a Spoonbill (and perhaps Great-white Egret which is increasingly frequent in the province). A further c750m along the track takes you to a second hide (h) which also faces back down the track from which you can again scan over the salinas. On my visit this spring, the small pools along the right-hand side of the track between (g) and (h) seemed particularly productive for small waders so scan these before you head towards the second hide.1656954016443.png

If, instead of heading towards the next hide, you take the track to the right after c170m you pass a small pool to the right (i) which can hold more waders plus Glossy Ibis, Purple Swamphen and Purple Heron (although you've got a good chance of seeing all three before you reach this spot). This would have been a far better spot for a hide so let’s hope the authorities see sense and provide one here in the future. Also look out for breeding Lapwing which is a relatively scarce bird in the province . Continuing along this path there are various small pools to the left and right (j) which can harbour still more waders. As always, as you proceed check for passing raptors (Marsh & Montagu’s Harriers, Booted Eagle, Black Kite, etc) and distant Griffon Vultures but be prepared for surprises, as others had an imm. Bonelli's Eagle here on the day I visited in late April.

About 1.5 km along this track from the hide you reach an area of thicker, taller vegetation bordered by a small ditch. The map on the sign at the start of the reserve suggest this is the end of the footpath but another sign here suggests you can walk further (although this is doubtfully worthwhile as ornithologically dull commercial salinas start here). Don't ignore the taller vegetation beyond and to the right of the sign as this is the haunt of Spectacled Warbler, the last of the special passerines to be found here. This diminutive version of Common Whitethroat is an attractive species well-worth the 3 km round trip from the hide. You may need some patience to spot one since unless they're singing and/or song flighting they can be hard to spot in the dense vegetation.

The excellence of this site is reflected in the growing number of e-Bird reports (currently 545, seventy-five more than in March) and the number of species recorded here (199) - see https://ebird.org/hotspot/L6443288 - which compares favourably with the well-established Salinas de Bonanza which has fewer than twenty more species recorded despite not far short of twice as many trip reports over a much longer time span. Including the nearby woodland, it probably also has a better variety of species close at hand. With access to the better parts of the Salinas de Bonanza now restricted, the Marisma de Cetina is now, arguably, the better site to pick up waders and other specialities of salinas. In the brief period that access has been permitted it's racked up a good list of rarities which, in spring 2022 alone, included Western Reef Heron & White-winged Black Tern. As suggested earlier, a visit combining a look at this site with one to Laguna de Medina would make for some very productive birding.
Lagunas de Camino Colorado - a small hidden gem


A decade or more ago, when I first wrote about this site, very few birders (outside locals) had heard about it. Not surprisingly so as it's tucked away off the beaten track in the agricultural suburbs of Bonanza. I only found out about the place when a friend casually mentioned finding some small lakes in the area after getting lost en route to Algaida pines. His directions were more misleading than helpful so it was only by searching on GoogleEarth that I was able to locate the place. Even then, when I mentioned it to a distinguished local birder a few years later, he was disdainful about the place. Happily, though, attitudes change and, following a campaign by Ecologistas en Acción, it's now both officially protected and increasingly recognised as the best site in Andalucia to get good views of White-headed Duck. It's also a good place to check for Marbled Teal and Red-knobbed Coot.

When I visited the place in March I was concerned to find the water level exceptionally low for early spring (although not as bad as I feared after seeing Laguna de Medina almost dry). However, the pools still held a dozen White-headed Duck and a couple of Marbled Teal. The extensive muddy margins, however, were much better than usual for waders including 5 Temminck’s Stint (my first Spanish record of this species).


However, I must admit that on that visit, as so often, I failed to look at the third laguna here (iii on the map) simply because it was so easy to get all the target birds at the first stop where the road bisects the lakes. My usual primary target here, White-headed Duck, was absurdly easy to see on lagunas (i) and (ii) and there were other attractions like Purple Swamphen, Little Bittern and Marbled Duck. Hence I've rarely bothered to check the third laguna and only did so in April because my keen young correspondent, Bruno Asencio Sevillano, had tipped me off about a new egret colony there. It was certainly good to see the water level so high here thanks to heavy rains in late March/early April. The Camino Truncosa allows good views of the colony which, as expected, consists largely of Cattle Egret but also has a sprinkling of Squacco and Night Herons, Little Egret and Glossy Ibis. My total of 31 White-headed Duck here was far better than my combined tally at better-known sites such as Laguna de Tarelo and Laguna de Medina which confirms the importance of this once-neglected site. I failed to find the Red-knobbed Coot that's been in the area for most of the winter but having seen one on Laguna de Medina several times already I didn't try too hard.




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Incidentally, I'd much prefer this thread not to remain a 'one-man band' so if anyone wishes to add their own comments about birding in the area, photos of sites/birds seen, trip reports, etc., etc. please feel free to contribute!
In the bunker at Costa Ballena ...


When it comes to golf, I’m with those who call that form of recreation a “good walk spoiled ” (often attributed, probably wrongly, to Mark Twain). I also have a particular dislike of those big complexes of holiday apartments that mar much of the Spanish coastline. As a result, despite driving past it many times en route to Rota, I’d never bothered to have a look at Costa Ballena (nr Chipiona) combining as it does two of my pet hates. With plenty of wild and untamed habitats yet to explore, the well-manicured lawns and gardens have no appeal whatsoever. I really should have known better as golf courses have a good track record for turning up good birds.

On a visit to Cadiz in March one species I wanted to reacquaint myself with was Red-knobbed (or Crested) Coot. Unfortunately, the winter of 2021/22 has been exceptionally dry so all of the usual sites for this species, which can be elusive even in good years, were dry or nearly so. Fortunately, eBird alert was reporting birds from several sites including Costa Ballena which also had the bonus of Ring-billed Gull (the site has a great track record for rare American gulls). Accordingly, encouraged by my guest at the time (Brendan Ryan), I just had to ditch my prejudices and explore the Costa Ballena. The lawns there proved to be just as well-manicured and the grounds as well-tended as I'd assumed but, surprisingly, the ornamental lakes and waterways there proved to be a mecca for a surprising variety of ducks as well as the expected gulls, far too many Coots and even a few waders. The park was also rather larger than I had expected.

We pulled over near the canal connecting the two lagoons. We made a circuit of the small landward lagoon (a) with a lake picking up Common Sandpiper, Turnstone, Greenshank and White-headed Duck as we went (but not the reported Marbled Teal).


We then headed along the canal toward the other laguna checking the mobs of coots and many gulls as we went (the latter including a few Common Gulls). By the time we’d circuited the second lake (b) after an hour or more, we were starting to feel that this wasn’t going to be our day (although dozens of Greenshank, Black Redstarts and a gang of Monk Parakeets were a pleasant distraction). So, we despondently headed back towards the car.

Ever the optimist, though, we both kept on checking and rechecking the flocks we’d already grilled earlier. We’d scarcely gone more than a few hundred metres when I spotted a splendid adult Ring-billed Gull perched on a footbridge only a few metres away. Not having seen the species for decades, I wasn't sure I could pick it out but in the event it was obvious.


One down and one to go .....

Minutes after walking away from the Ring-billed Gull, I raised my binoculars for (yet) another scan of the numerous coots and found I'd put them more-or-less straight onto the Red-knobbed Coot. We'd obviously started at the wrong end of the park!


I'd never seen a Red-knobbed Coot feeding out on the grass like a Common Coot either which may also be attributed to dire necessity brought on by the drought this year. When I've seen them bobbing around on the water, I've managed to convince myself that the two species do have (slight) structural differences but walking around on the grass none of these were apparent. Like most of the specimens I’ve seen in the area over the years, this bird's trademark red appendages hadn't fully developed and consequently weren't at all obvious. In this state, such a bird can be very easily be passed over amongst its commoner cousins … as we had discovered!

This bird also showed distinctly brownish wing coverts which might seem to suggest that it was a first-year bird. However, this is not mentioned in the "Birds of the Western Palearctic" which only comments that feathers can be brownish when worn. That all three Red-knobbed Coots reported in Cadiz province (plus another on a golf course in Malaga) were feeding in unusual habitats probably reflects the exceptional dryness of the season. On my return in April, I managed to see the species again, this time at a more typical site, the Laguna de Medina and, once again, it was a very poorly marked bird, but it did allow me to confirm that they are some real if subtle, structural differences … a longer body with a higher rear end and a proportionately smaller head on a thinner ‘wobbly’ neck.

Costa Ballena turned out to be a better site for birding than I had imagined it might and is certainly worth more than a passing look. Although my focus was on larger wetland birds, there was enough scrub and good cover at this coastal site to suggest that it might be good for passerine migrants. In less dry years there are better places to look for Marbled Teal, White-headed Duck and Red-knobbed Coot but if you're a "Laridophile" then this is the place for you as you have a very real chance of picking up a vagrant American gull.


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Blistering Bushchats!

I first saw a Rufous Bushchat in autumn way back in 1970 on my first trip to Spain and, indeed, my first trip abroad at all. It flipped across the road and briefly perched on a wall before vanishing. Not brilliant views but enough to happily tick the species. Quite where that was, other than “southern Spain” I really can’t remember. Since then, it has declined sharply making the species still harder to find. In recent years the decline has deepened with a 95% reduction in numbers across the country, extinction in Granada and nearly so in Alicante and Murcia (98% reduction). Despite this, since visiting Cadiz province regularly, I've seen the species several times near Bolonia, near Marchenilla (Jimena de la Frontera) and at a classic site at Laguna la Mejorada near Los Palacios y Villafranca in Seville Province. However, they remained elusive with visits often drawing a blank (even on subsequent days).
To be honest for some years my search was somewhat compromised by not really having a clear idea of what constituted prime habitat for the species. I'd seen them scuttling about small allotments at Los Palacios, glimpses of them on rocky hillsides dotted with olive trees above Bolonia and along a tamarisk choked dry streambed at Marchenilla but never, despite many searches, in the prickly-pear hedges that some books suggest they favour. Even when located, views were often brief and less satisfactory than desired. In fairness, a bird did once 'perform' well within a few metres at Bolonia but that was the day I had forgotten my camera! More typical was the memorable occasion I saw one briefly within about 10 minutes near Marchenilla before it dropped out of sight but it then took over two hours for my friends and me to relocate it. They're a declining species and they certainly seem to have become still more elusive around Bolonia than when I first visited the area over a decade ago.
However, after a visit in autumn 2019 and subsequently, in 2022, I think I’ve managed to crack it. I've known for years that they were supposed be in the "Sanlucar area" but never had any specific details and a Spanish birding friend with family in the area wasn’t sure where they were to be found these days either. Finally, in autumn 2019 I managed to investigate the circular route north of Trebujena, something I'd been meaning to do since my first brief visit there years earlier (changes in my personal circumstances prevented me from looking earlier). The area around Trebujena I was set to explore, looked promising dominated as it is by low-intensity vineyards (unlike most in the 'sherry triangle'). Knowing birds start to depart in mid August, I wasn't confident that I'd see one on that first search of the area on 5th September 2019. Fortunately, when I randomly stopped a couple of kilometres along the route, up popped small family party of the birds. Another couple of kilometres along the road there were at least two more birds. Job done!

Later that month (16th September) two birding friends from Kent, freshly out from the UK, joined me for another search for this iconic species. Once more, being conscious that the migration clock was still ticking, I wasn't over-optimistic of success. I should have known better. Within minutes of our arrival at the first location a bushchat which obliged by giving us excellent views. The next stop, of course, was the second site where I'd seen them earlier. It took us a little longer to see than earlier, but our target again showed itself well.

Then something quite magical happened. A man working the land nearby came over to see what all the excitement was about and it was clear from the start that he knew the species very well. Not only that but he told us there were still some on his plot and invited us to come and look for ourselves. We did and there were! We walked around with him and, sure enough, saw our quarry - 3 or 4 of them. "Seňor Paco" was evidently delighted by our success telling us to come back any time. He plainly knew and cared about his "Caberrubia" (redtail), the species' local name in Trebujena. (The more usual name, Spanish name Alzacola is arguably better still as it means 'lift-tail'). He was a lovely bloke not only insisting on giving one of us a straw hat (concerned that she was hatless) but also collecting a small crate of his produce to present to us. It was a terrific end to a wonderful morning.
I fully intended to return in spring 2020 but Covid delayed my plans until 3rd May 2022. Once again, I wasn’t confident about seeing them not because they might have gone but because they might yet to arrive. Happily, I found a singing bird at the first place I checked (which was about 400m short of where I'd had a pair with young last autumn). A check at the latter site was unproductive but a look at a third location produced a second bird.

A few days later on the 7th May after finding Pin-tailed Sandgrouse nearby I went back for another look. This time, as I was arriving from the opposite direction, I tried my third RBC site first. When I got there, I pulled off next to a minibus and just as I got out of the car a group of four birders appeared from the other side of the road. Speaking one of them, Stefan Schlick, I discovered that they were from Oregon and had been looking, unsuccessfully, for Rufous Bushchat. What could I do other than show them where I'd seen the birds in the past? After a couple of false starts, we pulled off where I'd seen one on the 3rd. We got out of the vehicles and, as I pointed out where to look, the bird flew past us singing! Only having previously seen them sing from a perch, I hadn't realised that they also perform a song-flight! We all subsequently had fantastic 'scope views! Brilliant stuff!


Since my newfound friends hadn’t contacted yet with Lesser Short-toed Lark or many waders, I offered to show them Marisma de Cetina of which, unsurprisingly, they’d never heard. First, though, as this was a tour group and it was just past midday, they insisted on finding somewhere to eat and generously treated me to lunch. En route, we checked Laguna de Medina for Red-knobbed Coot which, to my annoyance, failed to show for the first time on my visits there on recent visits. Naturally, Cetina came up trumps with not only both short-toed larks but also a range of waders (including Lapwing which was high on their ‘wants’ list) and an unexpected Little Gull. I really don’t know who was more delighted, them to have someone to act as their guide who knew the area or me to have people to show it to! Either way, it was a great day.

Understandably, many more people are looking for Rufous Bushchats here as it is now the species' main stronghold in Spain with over 100 pairs in the area and with multiple sightings in this area on eBird (see A Fantastic Tail for more details about this population). Driving carefully around the 'circuit' here (see map) pulling over where possible to scan for birds or walking some of the paths should soon produce a sighting (esp before 10.00 AM). Even if you're unlucky you should still see a good variety of species. However, please bear in mind that:
  • Despite being relatively common here it is a rare and declining species in Spain
  • Give the birds space, let them come to you (esp. in the short breeding season)
  • The birds are always more important than getting a photo or a better look
  • Do not use ‘playback’ (which is probably illegal in the breeding season)
  • Remember that the goodwill and interest of the local community here are of paramount importance in conserving this species so avoid disrupting agricultural activities
  • Park sensibly; using your car as a hide can be effective
  • Explore on foot where possible sticking to tracks and posted footpaths
  • Act as an ambassador for birding – in my experience, if you’re pleasant, considerate & friendly then you’ll be repaid with generosity, kindness & interest.

Thank you John for this brilliant post, really helpful and a delight to read.
I have only ever had one brief view of a bushchat over twenty years ago so I am very keen to see another one.
I am planning another trip to the peninsular next spring so I will certainly include your suggested itinerary.
Thanks also for giving guidelines, very important.
Thanks, Mike for your kind words. Naturally, if I'm out in Alcala de los Gazules when you visit the area you'd be very welcome to pop in to enjoy 'my' Lesser Kestrels. You'll get excellent views and in the evening 40, 50 or more birds dip, dive & chatter over my terrace.


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Sounds exciting, I just can’t get enough of Lesser kestrels. Eleven is my record to date and they sent me into orbit so your numbers would be exceptional. Thank you.
Vultures and Bushchats:
I had a similar experience with Vultures at Marchenilla once. This time it was a dead sheep being protected by a large dog - they are usually very good guard dogs. But I think this one was particularly keen to see off the birds because he was partaking of a little Mutton himself! It was very comical watching as he chased off a bunch of birds to one side, the birds on the other side would close in, causing the dog to head that way leaving the coast clear for the other side to return. It reminded me of an ancient film (Key-stone Cops era) of a Butcher seeing off a few thieves doing a similar job on his shop-front. Looking more closely at the assembled throng one of them was much darker and deserving of some photos. Later consultation with some Spanish friends confirmed my thoughts that it was a Ruppell's Vulture.

Up along the Guadalqiver River, the old main road between Los Palacios and Seville (N4? my memory is poor so sorry if this is wrong - nothing wrong with this memory - N4 is right - looked it up in my notebook!) There's a dangerous turn off to a very small laguna which has a huge Heron/egret colony plus pretty much everything else you want, (the farm is called Mejorada) including Rufous Bushchat, on Prickly Pears! Also had a day flying Red-necked Nightjar! Waxbill, Golden Oriole, Little Bittern...
Sounds exciting, I just can’t get enough of Lesser kestrels. Eleven is my record to date and they sent me into orbit so your numbers would be exceptional. Thank you.
My record count above the terrace in April before the females are incubating eggs is c100. However, as I can only view the western edge of town there are many more around and I think the maximum count over Alcala is 120.

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