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Birding in Spain

by Margo Hearne

Rain has not fallen on Spain's Andalucian plains since 1988. Many of the rivers which run into the Mediterranean Sea have dried up completely and the Sierra mountains have not been dusted with snow for many years. In Spain, you have to travel a long way to see a shorebird.

One of the greatest tragedy's occurring in Europe today is the draining of the Donana, the Donana is the estuary of the Guadalquiver River which joins the Atlantic on Spain's south coast. Once one of the richest estuaries in Europe, teeming with migrant and overwintering birds, over the years it has been drained and almost all turned into farm land. While some members of the European Union are trying to preserve what is left of the Donana, Spanish farmers continue to drain and dam the wetlands. International pressure is helping to preserve some of the remaining estuary, and many people are boycotting Spanish strawberries and also boycotting 'anything French' because of the French governments nuclear testing policies.

While in Spain visiting my brother, I took the opportunity to explore the country and find new birds. From his little bungalow near Malaga, on the Costa del Sol, we could see Gannets and Terns dive into the Mediterranean and feed busily close to shore. While it appeared a lively, busy sea it has changed considerably since my last visit in the late '60's. Once the sea was clear and blue with rose-pink evening reflections, it now has a foreboding line of shadow on the horizon, hordes of tourists have left their mark, with littered beaches and half-finished hotels, large freighters constantly move towards the Straits of Gibraltar their smoke-stacks adding a black smudge to the darkening horizon line.

Onshore in the hedges around the buildings small Robins and Sardinian Warblers feed and in the higher palm trees scattered about, hundreds of Spotless Starlings and House Sparrows chirp and chatter throughout the day. We were often saddened to see wild birds like Goldfinches and Greenfinches in cages outside shops. We had thought it was no longer allowed.

My brother and I took many detours up into the hills to the small white villages to look for perching birds. Often the subtle yellows and greens of European Warblers were difficult to identify and it was always a joy when a brilliant, clearly marked Black Redstart or Stonechat appeared. Our most exciting bird sighting was a Blue Rock Thrush sighted in the hills behind a small village. Goats grazed in the apparently barren meadows, their mellow bells tock-tocking in the quiet afternoon heat as we scrambled down a steep hillside to get a better look at the bird. It was dark blue, about the size of an American Robin, and, of course, it disappeared as we got a little closer.

On to the Donana estuary. As it was a six-hour journey to the Guadalquiver we decided to take the long route around, through Ronda in the Sierras and down into the Province of Cadiz, stopping to look for Larks in the dry, ploughed fields. We were approaching sherry country near Jerez and the flat lands and fields were cultivated, unlike the wild mountains we had just travelled through. We arrived in Sanlucar de Barrameda in the late afternoon and discovered a beautiful city where the river joins the sea. Time for a break, we sat beside the splashing fountain beneath the palms and sipped sherry and ate marinated olives.

Next morning we set out with the intention of discovering the Coto Donana Park Natural across the river from where we were staying, only to find out that the boat which takes 'touristas' didn't run on Sunday. Undeterred we drove north a few miles and parked beside a series of large impounded ponds which had been 'reclaimed' from the river. The sun, reflecting from the water, created a mirage-like image as we walked the dry, dusty paths between the ponds. The waters to our left shimmered in the heat and beyond the mirage a flock of Greater Flamingoes fed. These large birds, often parodied as plastic garden ornaments are truly beautiful. They move slowly, sweeping their sinuous neck through the water, their bodies the colour of a pale rose-pink summer sunrise. These are not birds I normally see in Delkatla and we spent a long time watching them feed.

In the nearby lagoons were a few ducks and the highest concentration of shorebirds I had yet to see in Spain. Godwits, Redshanks, Stints, and other shorebirds fed in the impounded salt-pans while a Little Egret stalked the edges. We had finally found a body of water with birds!


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