Cádiz is home to two of Spain’s iconic birding sites – the Strait of Gibraltar and Doñana – a migration bottleneck and a wetland wilderness. Admittedly, not all of Doñana sits in the province, but some of it does, and with low-cost flights to Seville, Jerez, and Malaga, this chunk of Europe is a realistic destination for a few days birding. I visited during the first week of October, staying for four nights in four locations with the birding focused on three areas – the Strait, La Janda, and southern Doñana. Here’s a taste of what these areas offer.
Around The Strait
The Isla de las Palomas is next to Tarifa and is the southernmost point of mainland Europe. From here, it’s just 14.4 km to Morocco, which at times, looks almost swimmable. If you’re a sea-watcher come here and watch the seabirds – about 30 species are up for grabs, including 600,000 Scopoli’s Shearwater which come through on migration. We saw some in close, presuming they were Scopoli’s and not Cory’s – without a good photo it’s a tricky call. I watched one twist and flash white as it caught the sun. There were Balearic Shearwaters out there, and Gannets – some of which breed in the UK, so I may have seen a bird that I saw at Bempton in August! There were Whimbrel, Turnstone and Grey Plover around the rocks, an Audouin’s Gull flew east – pearly, and paler than Yellow-legged – and a Swallow flew out over the sea, en-route to South Africa.
Photo credit: David Chandler, Towards Morocco
Elsewhere we checked out two migration watchpoints – Algarrobo near Algeciras and Cazalla near Tarifa. The viewing can be spectacular. How does 30,000 Honey Buzzards coming through on one day sound? Or 10,000 White Storks casting shadows on the ground? Or thousands of Black Kites, delayed by the wind, sitting on the hillside waiting. You won’t see those things every day, and it was relatively quiet when we were there. Some Griffons drifted through, there were Booted Eagles (mostly light phase), Sparrowhawk, Raven, a Black Stork and a Short-toed Eagle. That’s quiet for here but imagine that at home… For raptor migration come during the first 10 days of September – you could see 20 species in one day.
Photo credit: Juvenile Honey Buzzard, Inglorious Bustards
If you’ve never been to a Griffon colony check out La Zarga. And if you have, visit anyway. There were Griffons in the air and on the rock ledges, an Egyptian Vulture on the cliff face and in flight, Black Kite, an immature Bonelli’s Eagle, and indifferent cattle loitering nearby.
The Levant wind was blowing very strongly – so much so that the boats wouldn’t go out to look for Cetaceans. Force eight was forecast, and force three is their limit. But if you’re here and it’s not too windy get out there – Common, Striped and Bottle-nosed Dolphins, Long-finned Pilot Whale, Killer, Sperm and Fin Whale are possible, and you are very likely to see something.
La Janda is primarily a rice-growing area, and is bird-rich. Our birding here was van-based and covered an extensive area. Corn Buntings jangled and a distant flock of black underwings and white trailing edges revealed the Calandra Lark identity of their owners. Non-native crayfish feed La Janda’s egrets, ibises and otters. We didn’t see the latter but we did see the others – Great White, Little, Cattle and Glossy. We drove past a roadside heronry, slowly and very close. When the breeding frenzy is on there are oodles of Cattle Egret here, plus Little Egret, Squacco Heron and Glossy Ibis. They are so close that feathers drift into the car. Elsewhere, Glossy Ibis were numerous with 200 or so at one pond. We had to wait a bit longer for the other Ibis…
Photo credit: Glossy Ibis, Living Donana
There was Marsh harrier, Booted Eagle, Buzzard, Griffon Vulture, Kestrel and an Osprey – they breed here, winter here and come through on passage. One van stop yielded three eagle species – an adult Spanish Imperial with white leading wing edges (always helpful) – from one of Cádiz’ three pairs presumably – a bit of jostling and tumbling from two light-phase Booted Eagles, and a Short-toed Snake Eagle – I do like that name. Onward – two Black Kite, more Short-toed Snake grabbers, Red-rumped Swallow, five Lesser Kestrel, another Spanish Imperial. Tawny Pipit, and then lunch.
It was late afternoon, sunny and outrageously windy when we hit Barbate marshes. These lagoons were a rubbish tip and are now a fish farm. It was worth a visit – we saw tens of Greater Flamingo – neck, legs and pink, two Spoonbill, Audouin’s Gull, Kentish Plover, half a dozen Black Stork and three ‘Little Storks’ – that’s what the Spanish call Black-winged Stilts.
The piece-de-resistance (wrong language!) came as headed off to our next hotel. In a field by a busy road, with cattle, chickens and straw bales, but no less remarkable for that, were six Northern Bald Ibis. We stopped, watched and photographed. They were very obliging…
It was another hot day, but the wind had blown away. Bonanza Saltpans had flat-topped salt mounds and mirror-like reflections. Imagine a scattering of Dunlin in the foreground, Greater Flamingo, Spoonbill and Great White Egret decorating the distance, and Black-tailed Godwits in between. A Caspian Tern flies by – with a carrot-dagger beak. There’s the tell-tale white rump of a Curlew Sand, Little Stint, and Kentish and Ringed Plovers. A small group of Lesser Short-toed Lark go over, with buzzy calls. A Black Stork is wading, near a Great White Egret. There are Slender-billed Gull. That was one of the lagoons…
We drove on to Laguna de Tarelo and looked for White-headed Duck. We didn’t see any but there were about 80 Little Egret, a Night Heron, a Black-necked Grebe and a nice Redstart. You can see Short-toed Treecreeper, Firecrest and Hoopoe amid the pines, and in season, there’s a colony of almost 100 pairs of Black Kite not far away.
Photo credit: White-headed Duck, Wild Doñana
The ponds by the Camino Colorado road are not the most salubrious birding destination. But they are productive. It was here that we caught up with White-headed Duck, a male and four females. I watched one of the Marbled Ducks preening its marbles, a Squacco Heron doing not much on the bank, a Purple Swamphen doing purple and legs on the bank, and a Little Grebe eating a dragonfly. And just before we left, a Red-crested Pochard showed up.
The Port of Chipiona was our final stop and a highlight. Here, in the company of boats, fishing nets and shouting workers, we watched Little Swifts. This species is common in Africa but this is the only place it breeds in Europe. Nest-boxes have been installed for them but they don’t bother with those – Red-rumped Swallow nests are more to their liking.
And that was it. The evening’s flamenco beckoned…
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Wildlife writer, photographer, public speaker, trainer and educator