Birding (Cádiz): An introduction to big-bird country
If you have never been bird-watching before, we should start by making it very clear that what you have on your doorstep on the Costa de la Luz is no ordinary birding country. Not only is the Parque Nacional de Doñana (protected area of 1,300km2 joining the corners of the provinces of Cádiz, Sevilla, and Huelva) one of Europe's most important wetland reserves, but the Strait of Gibraltar, which constitutes the Province's southern boundary, is also the crossover point twice a year for millions of birds (including hundreds of thousands of raptors) on their migratory route. The combination of a vast array of resident birds and the non-stop traffic during the migratory months makes the area an experienced twitcher's paradise, while for those new to bird-watching this is perhaps the perfect place to start, because Cádiz is, without doubt, big-bird country. There are plenty of smaller and medium-sized birds alright and the guides that we recommend (see below) will be able to tell you everything you want to know about them and more, but the biggest thrill of all (if you are a novice like I was) is to have so many raptors (eagles, harriers, vultures) circling above you that you don't know where to point your binoculars!
Dos Xtremos recommends... a guide called Stephen Daly, who works under the name of Andalucian Guides (see link below). An expert in his field, Stephen has led birding tours in different parts of the world and continues to lead tours on a regular basis in Morocco, Senegal, Portugal, Turkey, Germany and the Austrian Alps. However, he has now made Cádiz his full-time base and nobody is better prepared to show novices and enthusiasts alike the ornithological wonders of this corner of Spain. Trips (see different options below) are tailor-made to a group?s size, knowledge, and interest, and range from half-days to several days, and from pure birding to general naturist tours (particularly recommended if you are taking children).
A full-day's birding in October
I had never been bird-watching before and decided to spend a full-day's birding with Stephen Daly on my own. We started reasonably early: breakfast at Venta Pinto just below Vejer at 09:00 and then headed straight towards the massive drained lagoon known as La Janda. This was once the largest lagoon in the Iberian peninsular and, together with a series of small neighbouring lagoons, one of the largest non-coastal wetland areas in the whole of Europe. Drained off in the 60's for its transformation to agricultural use (process which continues), La Janda's recent history makes a sad tale for environmentalists. However, the area remains home to a large number of threatened bird species and it is a favourite stopover point on the migration route. Although La Janda's ornithological importance is recognised internationally, the area still lacks the legal status of a protected area. A group called La Asociación de Amigos de la Laguna de la Janda (see link below) is currently fighting for this. Our route across La Janda took us along pot-holed farm-tracks that run like causeways across the vast expanses of rice, and no sooner were we off the main road than Stephen was leaning out of the car window to point out the first Stonechats and Corn Buntings. These are admittedly fairly small birds but, try as I may, I did not see anything for the first few minutes. Just under the acebuche bush about fifty metres in and I would swing my professional binoculars (on loan from Stephen) clumsily around in a hopeless attempt to focus on the bird that had by now darted off in the other direction. However, before long and following a few tips from Stephen, I was picking up most of his sightings and calling out a few of my own.
I made my trip in mid-October, which is towards the end of the autumn migrating season (due to climate change this is getting earlier each year). Most of the Short-toed Eagles, Booted Eagles and sub-Saharan migrant warblers had passed through by then, but this was still a good time for spotting Stone Curlews, Little Bustards, Marsh Harriers and Black-shouldered Kites on the move, plus the wide array of resident birds. There are plenty of birds to see in the area (either in La Janda or on The Strait) all year round and Andalucian Guides operate the full 12-months. However, the most active periods are the spring and autumn migrations (March-May and September-October respectively). The summer, on the other hand, is a good time to see Collared Pratincoles, Hoopoes, Bee-eaters, Montagu's Harriers and Egyptian Vultures, but bear in mind that average midday temperatures in Cádiz (particularly inland) will often rise to more than 30ºC in July and August and this restricts you to early morning birding sessions only. The winter is the rainy season (mainly December-February), in theory, but there is still plenty of bird activity and, as well as a plentiful supply of resident birds, Common Cranes winter until the beginning of March.
To add a bit of spice to my trip, we were to be on the look out for a bird called an American Redstart. Apparently this would normally be as futile as looking for a penguin in the Amazon, but two days earlier a birder had spotted an American Redstart in La Janda, which had supposedly been blown off-course by Hurricane Gordon and would now, Stephen told me, have to eek out a life on this side of the Atlantic as best it could, given that prevailing winds would make a return trip impossible. When Stephen brought the car to an abrupt halt and leapt out with camera (complete with giant telescopic lens) in hand I though perhaps we too had spotted the American stray. In fact, the excitement was over a Squacco Heron, which Stephen had managed to get several shots of while I was still fumbling with my seat-belt in the front of the car. From that moment, I learnt to judge the importance of a sighting by the speed with which Stephen would bail out of the car.
After spotting numerous other smaller birds, such as Serins, Willow Warblers, Whinchats, Kingfishers, an Alpine Swift, and the wonderfully named Zitting Cisticola, we later came to a piece of water that had formed at the end of a rice field. Here, on what was no more than a large puddle we saw at close quarters Common Sandpipers, Green Sandpipers, Snipe, and Black-winged Stilts with their marvellous pinky/orange legs. It was here that we also heard but did not see the elusive Cetti's Warbler. It was also at this spot that we bumped into a couple of Finnish 'twitchers', and very professional at that (at least to my amateur eye), given the quantity of equipment they had set up on the track. They knew the area well, had also seen the Squacco Heron (although I was sure they had not been out of the car as fast as Stephen), and, yes, they too had heard about the American Redstart and were on the lookout. Having exchanged notes and admired their equipment (in particular a curious stick used for holding binoculars so that your shoulders do not tire, called ? imaginatively- a Finnstick), and after Stephen had shown them a passing juvenile Bonelli's Eagle overhead and given them some advice on what would probably be the day?s best spot for sighting big birds, we moved on.
We were to see big birds immediately, and while they were perhaps not the rarest or biggest of the day, this was for me the most magical moment. In this part of the plain, the rice fields had given way to cotton and there, virtually stationary, no more than what appeared to be a feather's breadth above the cotton bushes, hovered a pair of Marsh Harriers with wing-spans well over a metre. Identified as juveniles by the yellow splodge on the crown, the two of them were systematically working the field in search of prey (small birds, amphibians, reptiles and large insects). Focussing my binoculars on one of them, I followed its effortless but precise progress across the field, watching how it accelerated with no obvious movement and then slowed, sometimes to a complete halt, before dropping out of sight for a tapa in the shade of the cotton bush. Up it would pop again and the same process would start again. Following this mesmerising show, one soon becomes oblivious to everything else around. A magical twenty minutes, and the trip was worthwhile for this alone.
Our next sighting would be the rarest of the day and it was, according to Stephen, rare indeed. Ornithologists, he told me, come from all over Europe to try and see the Black-shouldered Kite, and there was one sitting on a post just a hundred metres away.
We then passed groups of hundreds of White Storks and Cattle Egrets feasting behind mechanical rice collectors and we were now coming to the top of a rise, to some farm buildings where Stephen had sent the Finns earlier in their search for big birds. We found the Finns, necks crooked and focussed on the heavens. After another round of twitcher's shadow-boxing (and, no, they had not seen our Black-shouldered Kite!) we too focussed on the deep blue and without too much difficulty were soon following the movements of some majestic big birds. If you owned a copy of the Observer Book of Birds when you were small, the most thumbed pages were probably those containing the big birds. Well, in October in La Janda you can see most of the contents of these pages all on the same sunny afternoon. We saw Booted Eagles with their distinctive 'landing lights' on their shoulders, Short-toed Eagles with the distinctive hovering while hunting and their lightly barred under-wing (their toes are short, incidentally, so that the snakes they catch cannot slip through them!), the even rarer Bonelli?s Eagle, Griffin Vultures, Black Storks, and Common Buzzards with spectacular markings on the underside of their wings. What is more, Stephen had pinpointed today?s flight-path perfectly and, as a result, these monsters seemed to be queuing up for a slot in front of my binoculars. Depending on the direction and strength of the wind, the migrating birds will adjust their course, keeping further upwind as they cross La Janda and the mountains behind Tarifa if the Levante is blowing hard, so as not to be pushed the wrong side of Cape Spartel (Africa's north-western tip) by the full force of the wind over The Strait. Today, there was a moderate Levante and, sure enough, their plotted course was moderately upwind! We spent a good hour on top of the hill watching this marvellous procession, our binoculars slowly tracing the graceful movements of these giants, wings stretched out to eek the utmost from the thermal one moment, shoulders suddenly hunched as they prepared for a precipitous dive the next.
We had lunch in a local Venta and made our plans for the afternoon. The wind was dropping, and Stephen's idea was to move over to the Barbate reservoir, a little bit further inland, where we may get the chance to see some Osprey (the first to breed in the Iberian Peninsular in 60 years). A fifteen-minute car-ride through the lovely countryside east of Benalup brought us to the lake, but here we drew a blank; there were no Osprey today. Neither did I see a Spanish Imperial Eagle, which Stephen proudly announced had bred in Cádiz this spring for the first time in 50 years (the previous week he had seen dog-fights between juvenile Spanish Imperial Eagles and Bonelli?s), but I was certainly not worried. Stephen was already onto a Bonelli?s Eagle, and with his foot to the floor the Citroen Jumpy we hurtled precariously along the pot-holed causeway that led back into La Janda. I wanted to watch the road to make sure we stayed on it but my job was to keep an eye on the swirling fleck hundreds of feet above us. As long as it remained against the blue background and not the grey of the approaching clouds I could keep it in sight, but before long I lost it. We stopped the car and crooked our necks once again, soon managing to spot our fleck. The chase was resumed, and as the Bonelli?s came gradually lower Stephen picked the perfect spot yet again and clicked away with his camera as the beauty rushed overhead. We spent the rest of the afternoon working our way back across La Janda, watching Kingfishers and Stripe-necked Terrapins on a tributary of the Río Barbate, Kestrels soaring and diving incessantly under the afternoon sun, and enjoying more of the big birds, binoculars pressed tight and nothing but the sound of bees and bull-frogs in our ears. Stephen tested me on my new-found knowledge and it was most satisfying to be able to differentiate a Short-Toed Eagle from a Booted Eagle, Common Kestrels from lesser Kestrels, and Marsh Harriers from Buzzards. It was not much, but given the vast array of birds that we had seen, it was a start and certainly enough to make me want to twitch again!
Andalucian Guides offer half-day and full-day trips and also trips that last several days. Depending on the season, these trips will take in the La Janda laguna, the observation posts overlooking the Straits, the marshlands behind Barbate, the Alcornocales Natural Park, and beach walks on the Strait at Tarifa.