Birding The Odiel Marshes – A Waterbird Wonderland in Andalucia

by Manuel Mojarro

In front of Huelva, possibly the oldest city in Western Europe, lies an estuary born from the sea foam and the embrace of the rivers Odiel and Tinto. Its waters have been plied by Phoenician and Greek boats, attracted by the gold and silver of the mythical Tartessos.

Thousands of years later, in 1977, the discovery of the most important colony of European Spoonbills sparked a movement for the protection of this rich and wonderful site. In 1983, the Odiel Marshes were declared as a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO due to their importance for wildlife and migratory birds. This, in turn, encouraged the Andalusian government to create the first Paraje Natural in this region. The area has also been recognised as a Ramsar Site (International Wetlands Convention), Special Protection Area for Birds and Site of Community Importance by the European Union. Thus, the Odiel Marshes have become the best preserved wetlands in Iberia and a paradise for birds that find here a fantastic collection of habitats to feed and to breed in: salt-pans, lakes, forest, sandbanks, tidal channels and rivers.

The Odiel Marshes by Manuel Mojarro

The Odiel Marshes by Manu Mojarro

The tide is the main factor that makes this area such a productive place with such high biodiversity (including an endemic beetle Akis saltesiana and butterfly Malacosoma laurea. Indeed, the tide sets the pace of life here. Every six hours the seawater comes in bearing nutrients that are spread through the veins of the marshes. Have you ever wondered why so many waders can be seen on a mudflat? Around 30.000 microorganisms live on a square meter of this mud; hence the Odiel Marshes are a paradise for waders and water birds.

Certainly the Spoonbill is a historic emblem of this natural site. In recent years, though, another bird has taken centre stage here. The Odiel Marshes are the principal wintering site for Ospreys in Spain, with around 30 individuals (there are only 60 in the whole province.) In addition, eight years ago a reintroduction programme began, which has become very successful. In 2009 three chicks were born, the first in 70 years in the Spanish mainland, and this year the nesting population has risen to 7 Ospreys (two pairs and a trio!) Fish will not be safe any more!

Osprey by JM Sayago

Osprey by JM Sayago

Since a bird ringing station was founded here in 1997, this area has also become very important for bird research in Spain. In 15 years over 25.000 birds of 43 different species have been trapped in the summer night ringings, which focus on monitoring waders and terns. About 600 of the captured birds had already been ringed abroad, most of them in Britain and Holland. More than 1.000 volunteers from all over the world have participated in this programme, making the Odiel Marshes a place of education and the celebration of birds.

Despite all this, the Odiel Marshes Nature Reserve has always been in the shade of the world famous Coto Doñana. However, this area is the perfect complement to the birds of Doñana as it is only 30 minutes from this renowned National Park. Moreover, as a tidal wetland, the Odiel Marshes are not affected by the lack of rainfall and an extensive checklist is guaranteed even in dry periods. As formerly mentioned, the different habitats favour a wide variety of birds (around 150 species throughout the year) among which we highlight:

Resident: Shelduck, Spoonbill, Flamingo, Marsh Harrier, Peregrine and Stone Curlew

Winter: Great White Egret, Common Scoter, Osprey, Audouin´s Gull, Slender-billed Gull, Caspian Tern and Bluethroat

Summer: Purple Heron, Osprey, Montagu´s Harrier, Booted Eagle, Squacco Heron, Little Bittern, Crested Coot, Collared Pratincole, Little Tern, and Bee-eater

Migrants: Knot, Spotted Redshank, Roseate Tern, Arctic Tern and Black Tern

Montagu´s Harrier by JM Sayago

Montagu´s Harrier by JM Sayago

The Odiel Marshes Nature Reserve is a wonderful meeting point between the sea, the earth and the sky where our beloved birds come from. And soon, hopefully, this will be a meeting point for you and its birdlife.

Manu Mojarro, the author of this post, is a guide with Spoonbill Trips. This article was previously published in the magazine of Andalucia Bird Society, and as such, retains original spellings.

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