We begin on the banks of the Rio Guadalquivir, near Trebujena, where the sun is shining and there are flowers and birds everywhere, singing as if full of the joys of spring. Crested Larks are whistling all around, Corn Buntings are jangling from every perch, Zitting Cisticolas tirelessly “zit – zit” in a bouncing flight display, Swallows are zooming by and we soon hear our first Chiffchaff, which became a daily sight and sound. Around our thatch rooved cottages known as Chozas, we admire the Spotless Starlings in their immaculately smart navy blue suits, which shine like gloss in the morning sun. In a nearby pond leggy Black-winged Stilts are noisily chasing around like children in a paddling pool, while Cattle and Little Egrets are literally all over the place. A little further afield, good sightings include Calandra Lark, the beautiful Blue-headed iberiae race of Yellow Wagtail, tiny Kentish Plovers, our first of many Flamingo flocks and a cock Hen Harrier scoped while on the ground. Moving into the nearby pinewoods, we listen to the songs of Short-toed Treecreepers, while the rattling Sardinian Warblers are almost as elusive, whereas the lagoon of El Tarelo produces good views of colourful characters such as Red-crested Pochard, Black-necked Grebe with those ruby red eyes, a big roost of Black-crowned Night Herons, White-headed Ducks with bulbous sky blue bills and an overflying Black Stork.
After a picnic at the Laguna de Medina, we are teased by the explosive songs of invisible Cetti’s Warblers, but finally nail the Sardinian. Further south in the open expanse of La Janda, we see two more Hen Harrier males and the first of many Marsh Harriers, coming at ‘ten a penny’ as the week progresses. As well as a fleeting Kingfisher, we spot four Griffon Vultures, circling at such a height in the clouds that even these huge birds are mere specks, followed by a lovely male Penduline Tit, with rich rufous mantle and burglar’s facemask. As we drive back along the track to leave the area, a real showstopper enters the scene. It’s a superb Black-winged Kite, hovering on graceful wings straight ahead, so everyone gets a chance to watch the drama through the scope. Then it repeatedly lands on a favoured perch to show off its blue-grey plumage, bright yellow feet and deep red eyes enhanced by a black mascara effect. Surely the most attractive of European raptors. What a star performance to end the day, a real birdwatcher’s dream come true.
Reluctant to leave the wonderful area around our ‘Chozas’, we dally along the quiet road surrounded once again by birdsong, when a mournful wailing in the distance, alerts us to the presence of Stone Curlew. A careful scan picks out first one, and then two of these strange nocturnal birds, with large starring yellow eyes. An obstacle course of road works, slow moving vehicles and missing roads slows our journey to El Brazo del Este, but once there, we are soon enjoying good views of a group of Spoonbills, in fine breeding plumage with yellow crests and breast bands. Other good sightings here include the first of several Great White Egrets, plus Green and Wood Sandpipers, Greenshank, Glossy Ibis, Water Pipit and a lively display by a couple of singing Bluethroats. Crossing the Rio Guadalquivir to our second base at El Rocío, an early evening stroll along the promenade here gives even better views of Glossy Ibis, plus Flamingoes, Black Redstart, House Martins busy collecting mud for their nests and hundreds of cheaping House Sparrows. Then Bridget spots a Squacco Heron, perched on a fence, with a crest which erects quickly each time a Cattle or Little Egret goes near it. Another fine end to the day.
It is raining first thing as we set off in the dark for the visitor centre at El Acebuche, to join a four-wheel drive trip into Doñana National Park. Speeding along the beach in a green bus on massive tyres, we scatter numerous groupings of birds including Sanderling, Kentish Plover, Sandwich Tern, Yellow-legged Gull and Lesser Black-backed Gulls of the darker intermedius race from Scandinavia, while large rafts of Common Scoters bob like corks, beyond the surf just offshore. We now stop briefly by a Martello tower to scope the resident Peregrine and visiting Ravens. Driving deeper into the park, we stop to watch Red and Fallow Deer as well as a handful of Wild Boar alongside a lone stalking Black Stork, while one of the lagoons produces more Red-crested Pochards than I have ever seen in a lifetime.
After lunch back at the visitor centre, some left over bread entices a feeding frenzy of Azure-winged Magpies, and a photo-opportunity for our cameras. Also among the pines here we have bright yellow Serins and a gorgeous male Dartford Warbler. In front of the first hide a Crested Coot magically emerges from the reeds for a brilliant view at incredibly close range. The afternoon ends with a walk through the tranquil woods of El Acebron and sunset over the lagoon behind our hotel.
Today we head west to the Odiel marshes, where an Osprey on a post, is a local speciality. Next come a variety of waders including Dunlin, Redshank, Bar-tailed Godwit, Curlew and Grey and Ringed Plovers, while the saltpans add a single Avocet and literally loads of Black-necked Grebes, some coming into breeding plumage. Other top birds of the morning include Hoopoe and Southern Grey Shrike. After a lazy lunch, we drive south along the spit, reminiscent of Spurn Point only longer. Here we admire the elegance of the rare Audouin’s Gulls, spend time watching the hovering hunting style of an Osprey and at the lighthouse on the tip of the spit, a brief seawatch yields several Gannets.
It is now Thursday and as soon as we arrive at Dehesa de Pilas, we make contact with one of our targets for the day, the handsome male Spanish Sparrow, mingling with a flock of Passer domesticus. Next, a Zitting Cisticola makes a serious bid for ‘bird of the day’ as it repeatedly poses on the fence alongside us, allowing intimate views in the scope. Moving on, the onset of rain makes the drive to the Valverde visitor centre a very bumpy ride, but it is worth it just for the close views of roadside Purple Gallinules, Flamingoes feeding with their heads upside down and patrolling Marsh Harriers, with small groups of Cranes, feeding and dancing in the surrounding fields. On arrival at Dehesa de Abajo, it really begins to pour, but the wind and rain do not dampen the spirits of the bill clapping White Storks, although others are looking rather miserable as they shrug off the rain. Once back at El Rocío, the clouds break in time for a photo shoot of the magnificent white church, as it gleams from across the lagoon in the evening sunlight.
For our last full day in the field, we meet up with José and Alexandro for a guided safari into the national park. Along the edge of the pinewoods we see Serin, Short-toed Treecreeper and Tree Sparrow, with an apparently endless band of Azure-winged Magpies roving deeper through the forest. Exploring on foot, we find the prints of a desperately rare Iberian Lynx, perfectly preserved in the dried sandy mud. Next we are watching a Booted Eagle initially in a nearby tree, and then in flight, showing the ‘landing lights’ on its forewings beautifully each time it turns. Other raptors here include the omnipresent Kestrel plus Buzzard, Hen Harrier and several Red Kites, floating lazily over the tree tops. As promised by José, we are soon seeing Great Spotted Cuckoo after Great Spotted Cuckoo, as they raucously chase each other back and forth. We even get them perched in bushes at the side of the track and close enough for photos. At our next stop, we are scoping three Griffon Vultures, with blood red heads, squabbling over a carcass. Next, everyone enjoys the Sand Martins perched on a fence beside the track, and the Little Owls, watching us with those big yellow eyes but no one sees ‘my Rock Sparrow’, perched on a trackside fence, as it disappears so quickly. Then come a couple of salmon breasted Subalpine Warblers, a Crested Coot, looking very comical, with two big red knobs on top of its head, and a Barn Owl, which flies serenely away when flushed from its concrete bunker.
After a very pleasant traditional lunch in the warm sunshine at the front of a restaurant in Isla Mayor, we enter a vast area of rice fields and home in on a Spanish Imperial Eagle, sitting on its nest high in a clump of trees. We watch as it surveys its empire, with a large pale golden crown and nape, massive beak and a large white shoulder patch. In the same domain, eagle eyed watchers spot Kestrels and Marsh Harriers galore, plus an Osprey and a Peregrine, perched on a line of distant pylons. At the other end of the size spectrum here are Golden, Ringed and Kentish Plovers, Green Sandpiper, Sanderling, Dunlin, Little Stint and our first Northern Wheatears. Another notable sight is the Black and White Stork show, consisting of one of each species, apparently eyeballing each other at five paces.
By the end of this most productive trip we had seen everything from the tiny Zitting Cisticola to the mighty Spanish Imperial Eagle, with almost everything conceivable in between. Fantástico!