I have done remarkably little birding in Mainland Spain. A drive from the French to Portuguese borders in 1985 and an unscheduled stop in Galicia at Vigo on our first cruise in 2018. A trip to Cádiz, then, promised to be very interesting, as I know southern Spain has some excellent birding and some species I have never seen. My initial research suggested that a lake a fairly short drive inland, the Laguna de Medina, might be a good bet. There is some excellent coastal birding around Cádiz, but the species I thought would be the best bets were all fresh water species. Further research produced two more relevant pieces of information: it did not seem to be possible to hire a car near the cruise terminal, and there would be a good chance that the Laguna would be dry at this time of year.
I decided that we might do better with a guide, but then had trouble finding one. I found John Cantelo’s website, someone I had met briefly at Sandwich Bay in the 1980s, which was full of useful tips, but many of the connections to guides were dead links, presumably companies that had fallen victim to the effects of the pandemic, although eventually I found a guide.
I do like birding on my own, but there are advantages to having a guide. You put some money back into the local economy, and with people who are making a living from the natural environment. I may be able to find out where the best sites are (we went nowhere I didn’t know about today, at least in general terms), but a guide will know which sites are best and which birds are where, which is important when you have limited time. And guides may also be able to access sites which you cannot otherwise get to.
We arrived in Cádiz at seven, when it was still dark, and we left the ship just before eight to meet our guide for the day. Manuel began by apologising for his English, as many competent English speakers do, embarrassing me by being proficient in my language, while I can barely string together a few nouns and verbs in theirs, if that. His English was perfectly good, especially when talking about birds!
Manuel was a birder, not just a bird guide. Almost the first thing he said to me was “I read your blog! The birds you saw at sea. Fantastic!”. Then he started telling me what rare birds were around: “here,” he said, as we passed one place on our way out of Cadiz, “there is a very rare bird, Yellow-browed Warbler!” And then some of the rare birds he had seen: “one year, a Hooded Crow, and sometimes we get Great Black-backed Gull or Common Gull. Maybe for you, not so good, but here! One year, I found an Iceland Gull. Wow. Fantastic!” It does make you wonder a little bit about the merits of finding rarities, when someone is telling you all about common birds from home, on his way to show you relatively common birds in his area. But, then again, that is part of the magic of bird migration. The fact that almost anything can turn up almost anywhere.
Manuel was also very enthusiastic. Excited by almost everything he saw. And everything was “fantastic”, although I suspect that “fantastic” may be a Spanglish idiom, in the same sort of way I would probably describe everything as “magnifico” if I could speak Spanish. Nevertheless, hearing that everything was “fantastic” was, well, rather fantastic.
We headed north of Cadiz through some busy morning traffic. The highlights of the journey were a flock of Spoonbills coming into land in the Bahia de Cadiz and an Iberian Green Woodpecker that flew across the road in front of us, which was fantastic.
Our first port of call was what appeared to be a holiday development named Costa Ballen (whale coast). Here, there was an artificial lake, just along from a water park, which was quiet enough to hold a good selection of birds. There were plenty of Coots and Mallards, and amongst them a few Shovelers and a couple of Pochard, while there also several Little Grebes. A few Little Egrets including one taking off and calling vociferously. Then, I spotted a male Ferruginous Duck. Not a bird I expected to see. I showed it to Manuel and he was pleased. “That is a good start,” he said, “I only see a few of those each year!”.
The main reason we were here though, was to see two male White-headed Ducks which are apparently more or less resident at the moment. This was the bird that I had decided was the best bet for a ‘lifer’ (a new bird for my life list) in southern Spain, especially when I decided to go with Manuel, who’s company is named Oxyura Birding (Oxyura is the genus of the White-headed Duck). Other birds here included a Monk Parakeet and two Rose-ringed Parakeets, two alien birds which are firmly established in Europe these days.
Our next stop was Chipiona, the home of the only Little Swift colony in Europe, although they breed just across the Straits of Gibraltar in Morocco. We need to get there before the birds left the colony for the day to feed. I was expecting to see the odd birds flying around, an expectation reinforced when Manuel saw a bird flying along the street and got quite excited. I wondered why we didn’t stop but instead we drove to the port authority building. What I wasn’t expecting was that the Little Swift colony is amongst girders in a roof in the port authority building, that you can drive right up to it and, today at least, there were about 60 Little Swifts flying around chirruping softly, right above our heads, with many of them visiting their nests on ledges amongst the girders. A few Crag Martins were also amongst the swifts and they appeared to be nesting here as well.
Next, we headed north through Sanlúcar de Barrameda, which was Manuel’s home town but also an important site in world history. It was from here that Christopher Columbus departed when he discovered the New World (leaving aside the fact that it was already inhabited and that the Vikings had already been there). Ferdinand Magellan also left from Sanlúcar de Barrameda. Strictly speaking, he started in Seville, but when they stopped in Sanlúcar they were detained as the local authorities didn’t believe that the king of Spain would put a Portuguese in charge of the expedition. Magellan is still given credit for being the first person top sail around the world in the English-speaking world. Interestingly, when I mention Magellan to Manuel he did not recognise the name, although he would be Fernando de Magallanes in Spanish, but later Manuel mentioned Juan Sebastián Elcano and referred to him as the first man to sail around the world. Although Elacano was not skipper of any of the ship that left Sanlúcar, he did captain the only ship that returned to Spain, after Magellan’s death.
Manuel apologised before we reached the next birding site. “I am sorry,” he said “I try to tidy it up, but the next time I come …”. The site was what British birders seem to call Bonanza pools, although the eBird name is Lagoa de Camino Colorado. These pools are in the district of Bonanza, which probably translates from the Spanish into something awfully mundane, but has all the cowboy/good fortune overtones for Anglophones.
The two pools can viewed from the surrounding roads (only one of which is named Camino Colorado), and they were a bit messy, with plastic and bottles strewn around. We’ve seen worse, and in general the birds don’t seem to care. The first pool was a site for Marbled Teal, and two birds swam out from the reeds beside the road and then settled on the mud on the further side of the pool. Both bore green colour-rings and although I didn’t get the numbers, another Spanish birder used Manuel’s scope to get the details. They were joined by a couple of Western Swamphens (formerly known as Purple Gallinules) while some other birds here included Black-winged Stilt, Common Snipe, Zitting Cisticola and Melodious Warbler.
The next pool was viewable from the other side (in Camino Troncosa). There was a roost of Night Herons in the trees here and a Spoonbill feeding at the back. In amongst the ducks were two Pintails and a Red-crested Pochard, along with Mallards, Shovelers and Pochards, and a single Teal just as were leaving. A juvenile Greater Flamingo was swimming in the pool and looking awkward. Manuel was checking all the Coots and eventually found what he said was the only Red-knobbed Coot in the area. It was into the sun, so it was quite tricky seeing the red knobs on the head, but they could be seen as it moved its head. Other birds here included the only Tree Sparrow of the day, some Crested Larks and a Kingfisher, but we missed the Wryneck that perched up in front of Manuel and then disappeared.
Then we headed to the Laguna de Tarelo which, despite being east of the Guadalquivir river, is part of Doñana National Park. I referred to it by its old name of Coto Doñana, but Manuel pointed out that Coto refers to a hunting preserve and, although is still allowed in parts of NP at times, the name isn’t appropriate.
The laguna is artificial, and looks very square on a map, although you probably wouldn’t know from on the ground. There were another nine White-headed Ducks along with a selection of commoner waders and wildfowl we had already seen elsewhere, including Greater Flamingo and Black-winged Stilt. Four Glossy Ibises flew up the river. Some small birds were in front of the viewing blind: two Cetti’s Warblers were seen chasing each and there was also a Reed Warbler and several Sardinian Warblers.
Our final birding visit of the day was to the salt pans at the Salinas de Bonanza. The research I had done before I got here suggested that the access here was restricted for birders, so here is where Manuel really came up trumps again. We drove past the innermost salt pans, which were largely birdless. “It is dead here”, Manuel commented. Too much salt. Eventually we came to a right turn with a locked metal gate blocking access, but Manuel got out and unlocked the gate and we carried on to the end of the track, which overlooked the main birding saltpans. There were plenty of new birds here: a large flock of 180 Avocets, 60 Slender-billed Gulls, Dunlin, Ringed Plovers, Redshanks, four Kentish Plovers, nine Grey Plovers and three Little Stints. Singles of Black Stork and Great Egret were part of very small wintering populations here. Raptors included three Ospreys, a female Marsh Harrier and, then, a male Hen Harrier which put almost everything to flight as it flew over the pans. A distant but still distinctive Booted Eagle was seen through the scope flying over pines to the north of the salinas. There were only a few passerines but Crested Lark, Sardinian Warbler and Stonechat were all common. Other birds included a Kingfisher and at least 30 Grey Herons. On the way back we saw a Wheatear and 25 Sanderlings amongst the ‘dead’ pans.
We drove back to Cadiz along the new road, which was uneven in some places. We passed through mainly brown fields. Some were brown because they had cotton plants growing on them, and the leaves die before it is harvested. Others were brown because they had been cropped, and were bare earth. Nevertheless, the overall impression was of a dry landscape. This should be the rainy season in Andalusia but, as Manuel lamented, the autumn rains are becoming increasingly erratic. At least the fields here aren’t covered in agricultural plastic, as is the case in other parts of southern Spain.
We returned to the city the same way we had left, over the impressive Bahia de Cadiz Bridge, which opened in 2015. Cadiz is built on a small rocky peninsula, connected to the mainland by a narrow sandy spit. This makes it an easy place to defend but, for the very same reasons, a difficult place to access. Before the opening of the new bridge, there were only two roads into the city, and subsequently there was frequent congestion.
We went for a quick look around the old town. Squeezed into a confined space, the city still has a warren of narrow streets and a few generally small plazas. We stopped for a drink and, as the restaurant specialised in seafood, I had to try the battered langoustines. I had intended going to the furthest point but it was easy to get disorientated in the enclosed streets. Still, in Cadiz you can’t walk far without coming to the sea. We came out near the cathedral and then walked to the cathedral plaza where we bought very welcome, and sizeable, ice creams on our way back to the ship.
We left our berth just after our scheduled departure time of 17:00. There was not much to see on the way out, just some Sandwich Terns around the harbour, and some Gannets as we got a little further out.
We passed through the Straits of Gibraltar in darkness, around about 23:00. The shipping lane for traffic going into the Mediterranean is on the African side, so we were very close to Morocco. I went out on deck for a while, jokingly saying that I might see some birds to start my Morocco list. I did actually see five white shapes flying over the ship but I couldn’t honestly identify them.