Do You Wanna See Doñana?

We departed from Seville under cover of darkness, driving towards the Atlantic coast. There was an hour of drive time to go before our predawn appointment with the Discovering Doñana tour company, an outfitter that offers access to Spain’s most famous national park. The public is not permitted to enter the majority of the vast wetland and forest habitats, widely regarded as one of the most important migration stopover sites in all of Europe. The reserve is also home to several endangered and endemic species, including the Iberian Lynx and the Spanish Imperial Eagle. A handful of options exist for exploring the interior of Doñana, but this particular operation came highly recommended by my good buddy Ben. Miriam and I reached the established meeting point in El Rocío just before sunrise, and the desk staff introduced us to our guide, Maria. As we loaded our gear into the 4×4, Maria give us a bit of background on her experience as a wildlife biologist, explaining that she specialized in studying Eagle-Owls and other raptors. We set off on the dusty trail to the park gates, hoping to locate some interesting wildlife in the early hours of the day.

We first passed La Rocina lagoon, noting foraging flocks of Greater Flamingos and spying the silhouettes of Iberian Magpies streaking overhead. We then journeyed through the Coto del Rey, the former royal hunting woodlands, where we came across a set of muddy puddles. Maria pulled over and hopped out to check the ground for tracks. We were stunned by the number and diversity of species that had left their soggy footprints alongside the road. Tiny paw impressions on either side of the water were evidence of a Common Genet that bounded through the area, and the larger ones with deep claw marks were a match for European Badger. A few different Wild Boar had apparently come to the watering hole, and avian trace included Eurasian Magpie and owl prints that Maria identified as Barn Owl based on size. We even saw a male Sparrowhawk standing at the edge of one pool, though he didn’t leave any visible signs of his visit once he flew off. Finding Iberian Lynx tracks was a real treat, but that was regrettably the closest we came to encountering the world’s rarest wildcat. Striking out with this wily predator was not terribly surprising, and I probably used up my lynx luck with the individual I met in Denali, Alaska a decade ago. Undaunted by the absence of the elusive feline, we continued onwards into the heart of Doñana.

We soon reached the boundary between forest and marsh, where we traded cork oak and umbrella pine for bulrushes and scattered shrubs. With the wide variety of fauna present in the region, it is easy to understand Doñana’s history as a private hunting zone. We observed both Red and Fallow Deer herds during our tour, and Red-legged Partridges were rarely far away throughout the morning. Songbirds were also abundant and vocal, with Blackcaps, Robins, Chaffinches, and Serins all adding their songs to the chorus. I also briefly glimpsed a Firecrest flitting among the branches of a roadside tree.

As we scanned with our scopes from the edge of a clearing, Maria pointed out a pale raptor perched on the opposite side. We got our optics on it and confirmed its identity as a young Spanish Imperial Eagle. We felt fortunate to cross paths the signature bird of Doñana, a true Spain specialty! This rare Iberian endemic wound up being the 700th bird species on my life list, a true honor. A second individual arrived on the scene a short time later, and we got to watch the two interact with one another from our distant vantage point. Although adults are quite similar in appearance to the familiar Golden Eagle, immature Imperials are lighter in coloration. Their large size and powerful build still make them stand out from smaller birds of prey. The same field also produced Red Kite and Black-shouldered Kite, and a pair of Great Spotted Cuckoos were putting on a show as they flew noisily from bush to bush. They had likely only just returned from Africa for the breeding season, but they seemed to be already on the lookout for a magpie nest where they could deposit their offspring. Before we returned to our vehicle, Maria directed our attention to the pit trap of a larval antlion in the sand at our feet. Not all predators are as conspicuous and dramatic as an eagle, but these voracious insects are every bit as fierce, if not more so!

Most of the wetland habitat we drove through was quite dry. Even so, the vistas were striking and there was plenty of action to be found. Several bushes dotting the extensive plains served as perches for the Southern Gray Shrike, which we observed aggressively chasing Hoopoes. I also added a duo of Eurasian Griffons, a small flock of European Golden-Plovers, and a Song Thrush that vanished just as quickly as it had appeared. I got a better look at some Calandra Larks, and Maria pointed out a cooperative Thekla’s Lark that allowed close study to focus on the traits which distinguish this lookalike species from its more common Crested cousins. The periscopic necks of Common Cranes peered out of the scrub as they searched for prey, though a few family groups appeared anxious to get a headstart their northbound migration. We eventually arrived at some deeper ponds that still retained their water, and these were predictably bustling with activity compared to the parched surroundings.

Eurasian Spoonbills swept their namesake beaks in search of prey alongside the flamingos and storks, and we also picked up Black-winged Stilt, Common Snipe, and Black-tailed Godwit. Western Swamphens stalked the shallows, and a few Common Pochards emerged from the reeds when Marsh-Harriers and Buzzards disturbed the peace of the waterside community. Miriam led me to a Sardinian Warbler that had materialized while she was photographing wagtails, pipits, and shorebirds, and we scarfed down some bits of sandwich to keep our bodies operating at full capacity.

When we finally finished up the tour and returned to El Rocío, we thanked Maria profusely for her guidance and help on our fantastic outing. After saying good-bye, Miriam and I began to talk strategy about our plans for the remainder of the day. We surveyed the shores of La Rocina one last time, and I was able to identify and check off Common Ringed Plover. Before leaving the national park for good, we decided the hit up the publicly accessible visitor center at El Acebuche. As much as we had adored every second of our Doñana adventure, settling for shadowy, first light glimpses of a bird as handsome as the Iberian Magpie seemed wrong. I had read that the species was “unmissable” at Acebuche, so we drove down to see for ourselves if we could get a better view. Sure enough, large family groups of magpies were moving around the area, but photographing them satisfactorily proved to be a challenge. Every bit as crafty and clever as any other corvid, the blue-winged birds are pretty good at steering clear of humans when they want to. A throng of screaming children, evidently visiting the park on a field trip, kept the magpies skulking in the shade at first. Following their raucous calls and tracking their movements through the branches, we caught a lucky break when they worked up the courage to begin scrounging in the open once again.

In addition to exhibiting engaging behavior and gorgeous plumage, Iberian Magpies are taxonomically fascinating. More closely related to the Gray Jay and its kin than they are to true magpies, Iberians were long considered to be the same species as the Azure-winged Magpie of eastern Asia. Genetic studies have revealed that these isolated populations have been evolving separately for up to a few million years, a remarkable case of relict distribution from a once more expansive range rather than a situation where a pretty bird was introduced half a world away as some had previously assumed. After getting our fill of crippling views and passable photos, Miriam and I took our leave of the magpies to continue south to Tarifa.

We reasoned that we’d have time for a stop or two on the drive down, and we ended up choosing the area surrounding Vejer de la Frontera. The marshes and cliffs near the town have become favorite haunts of reintroduced Northern Bald Ibis, a critically endangered species with only a few hundred surviving individuals. The experimental Spanish population is free-flying and breeding successfully in the wild, but they are not yet considered established and self-sustaining. Even so, successes for any individuals of a species so rare are a benefit to the entire population, and I’m fascinated by these kinds of intense conservation efforts. The ibis were absent from their nesting cliffs at Barca de Vejer when we arrived, so we checked out the wetlands where they feed down the coast at Barbate. Yellow-legged Gull, Common Redshank, House-Martin, and Linnet were welcome lifers all, and it was pretty cool to see Greenshanks on their home turf, but our targets were still no-shows.

Miriam suggested that we return to the roadside cliffs and watch for the ibis to return for the night. We set up camp in a nearby parking lot and stood post as the sun sank lower in the sky. Dozens of Cattle Egrets began flying in to a roost site in the reeds opposite the colony, later joined by a handful of Little Egrets. Hundreds of Jackdaws swirled overhead before settling in the trees, then the stalks above the egrets, then the trees again. We sadly saw no sign of the Bald Ibis, though we later learned that they were only just beginning to prospect the cliffs for this year’s breeding season and typically don’t roost at the nest site when they don’t have nests to tend to. Even so, we scored a pretty killer consolation prize when I looked up to see a huge Eurasian Eagle-Owl sailing along the wooded ridge above us. Even in the fading light, we enjoyed great views as the nocturnal predator headed out to hunt. It returned with a kill only a few minutes after flying out of view, floating into the trees and emerging a moment later empty-taloned. Watching a giant owl deliver prey to its unseen nest was not an expected goal for this vacation, but I didn’t know how badly I wanted it until I saw it unfolding in front of me!

At last, it was too dark to see, and the diurnal birds had all settled down for the evening. Miriam and I gathered our gear and returned to our car, wholly satisfied with the events of our sunrise-to-sunset exploration efforts. We discovered that our lodging situation in Tarifa was located right on the beachfront, next to a restaurant, with a clear view of the Strait of Gibraltar. Not a bad place to hang one’s hat for the night! Our miniature safari in Doñana turned out to be one of the clear highlights of our trip, and I was grateful for the chance to see such an incredible landscape up close and personal. Maybe we’ll find an excuse to go back someday: I’d love to see that park in a different season under different conditions! Only time will tell if and when such a wonderful opportunity will present itself again.

Year List Update, February 21 – 211 Species (+ Greater Flamingo, Iberian Magpie, Eurasian Sparrowhawk, Firecrest, Eurasian Blackcap, Spanish Imperial Eagle, Red Kite, Great Spotted Cuckoo, Black-shouldered Kite, Southern Gray Shrike, Eurasian Griffon, Thekla’s Lark, European Golden-Plover, Song Thrush, Little Egret, Glossy Ibis, Common Buzzard, Eurasian Spoonbill, Black-winged Stilt, Common Snipe, Black-tailed Godwit, Western Swamphen, Common Pochard, Sardinian Warbler, Common Ringed Plover, Yellow-legged GullCommon Redshank, Common Greenshank, Common House-Martin, Eurasian Linnet, Eurasian Eagle-Owl)

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About timhealz

A recent graduate (Cornell '14) and lifelong explorer cataloging my thoughts and travels.
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