Please welcome guest columnist Julia Zarankin as the first author in our “Travel Reporter” series.
I had to do a bit of arm-twisting to convince my non-birder husband that a visit to Doñana National Park would be a non-negotiable part of our two-week visit to Spain. I tried to entice him with science, by telling him that Doñana was Europe’s largest protected wetland, that more than half a million birds winter in the park every year, and by assuring him that it’s hard to find an area in Europe with greater biodiversity. But when he heard the words thousands of flamingoes and Iberian Lynx, his face lit up.
Doñana is a miracle of a nature reserve located in southwestern Spain. More specifically, the expansive park (both a national and a natural park) is in Andalusia, on the border of the Seville and Huelva provinces. The nature reserve – filled with sprawling marshes, lagoons, woodlands and sand dunes – lies on the right bank of the Guadalquivir River at its Atlantic Ocean estuary. The area has been designated a UNESCO biosphere reserve and a World Heritage site. Because the area is heavily protected, access to the park needs to be arranged with official guides, and it’s best to arrange these tours in advance, as things book quickly during prime migration times. We booked a half-day 4-person tour with Discovering Doñana, and had a great experience traversing the park in a four-wheel drive vehicle with a guide whose English was flawless and whose knowledge of birds (and sense of humor) was equally excellent.
Though the National Park was officially founded in 1969, Doñana’s chronicled human history goes back more than 700 years, when the Spanish Royal family used the park as private hunting grounds. In fact, Doñana was named in honor of Doña Ana de Silva y Mendoza (1560-1610), who joined one of Spain’s most aristocratic families when she became the Duchess of Medina-Sidonia.
We met our tour guide in the curious village of El Rocio (approx. 90 km from Seville), which also happens to be home to one of Andalusia’s largest pilgrimage sites at the end of May – due to the venerated Virgin of El Rocio, who is usually housed in the famed Cathedral of El Rocio. Over a million pilgrims arrive on the sandy streets of El Rocio for the second day of Pentecost, and the town transforms into a bustling frenzy of Andalusian pilgrim-revelry. The rest of the year, El Rocio resembles a ghost town.
Recently, El Rocio was declared an “International Horse Town,” which somehow summarizes the odd atmosphere in the sidewalk-less village where all the roads are sand-filled. It felt like being on the misplaced movie set of a Western, surrounded by world-class wetlands and hundreds of Purple Martins flying overhead.
We quickly boarded our four-wheel drive vehicle, left behind the horse-town of El Rocio and entered the magical realm of Doñana. In the woodsy area, we were quickly greeted by severe, no-nonsense Woodchat Shrikes, dozens of fabulous and slightly surreal-looking Hoopoe, with their majestic spiky crowns of orange and black-tipped feathers, and luminous European bee-eaters. I kept trying to capture their iridescent bluish-orange feathers, though my camera kept failing me.
Legendary White Storks stood out, even in the early morning fog; apparently, in Spain, legend has it that storks bring babies all the way from Paris! (The image below
And we had Turtle dove, Corn Buntings, and Crested Larks galore. Our guide pointed out numerous Iberian Hares, but sadly the Iberian Lynx turned out to have other plans that day. We did manage to detect lynx paw-prints in the sand, but that was the closest we came to seeing the endangered species, much to my husband’s chagrin.
Once we made our way out to the marshes, the tempo of our sightings picked up. Doñana gets an impressive number of African migrants on their way north. Great Egrets dotted the horizon, along with Little Egrets and Cattle Egrets. Thousands of Greater Flamingoes flew overhead and landed in the wetlands on either side of us, their pink and white bodies glistening in the mid-morning light. After a half-hour, I even stopped squealing at the sight of a gleaming, ever elegant Glossy Ibis. We came across an area with thousands of Glossy Ibis and Stork nests, and saw a few Black-crowned Night-herons in their midst; all seemed to be getting along quite nicely. I couldn’t get enough of the Black-winged Stilts; they looked like long-legged supermodels to me, carefully weighing their every step. I would have loved to stop and chat – perhaps ask them for some fashion advice! We caught two Great Spotted Cuckoos mating (for about two seconds), and then many more simply minding their own business. I finally saw my first Eurasian Spoonbill, with its spiky hairdo and it’s long, spatula-style bill. We had numerous Great Grey Herons and Purple Herons crop up around us. I marveled at my first Whiskered Tern, and couldn’t take my eyes off my first Little Owl – true to its name, the bird seemed diminutive – resting calmly atop what looked like a log or a horizontally positioned large dead branch. And Common Moorhens and Jackdaws and striking Red-crested Pochards, and Pin-tailed Sandgrouse…
It was a thrilling day of firsts for me, and my life list grew by 55 species! Next time we visit, we’ll also take time to explore the park’s majestic sand dunes and coastline. The park easily merits a three-day stay. The only bird that eluded us was the Purple Swamphen. Alas, we arrived at Doñana after two weeks of near-constant rains, and the grasses had grown beyond their usual speed. The Swamphen was there, likely mocking us, but refused to make an appearance. In a way, I’m glad the Swamphen and the lynx spent the day in hiding. It gives us all the more reason to revisit the park one day soon!