Birding in the Pais Vasco, Spain

The seaside town of San Sebastian draws many visitors to the the Pais Vasco – Basque Country. San Sebastian is beautifully situated on a beach-fringed bay. Irun and the bird sanctuary at Txingudi Plaiaundiko is not far away, nor is Biarritz in France where I hoped to see some new gulls and seabirds.


San Sebastian

I liked San Sebastian, also called Donostia. Lots of bars with pinchxos, called tapas elsewhere in Spain. Our accommodation was a pension complete with pink satin bedspreads and embroidered linen. Granny-chic, my wife calls it. I can’t complain. In North America, I’m used to staying in the type of places where signs ask you not to clean your fish in your room. So granny-chic is okay. By the way, they stay up late in Spain. We waited for a taxi while trying to catch an early train, lined up with the kids going home from nightclubs. This was at eight in the morning.

Basque country is hill country. Swiss-looking houses perch on steep slopes; swift rivers run through narrow ravines on their way to the sea. A great place to look for eagles, although I saw none. Too early in the year perhaps. This used to be, and maybe still is, the most important industrial region in Spain. Now many of the riverside factories are closed and abandoned. With windows broken and walls covered with graffiti, they are symptomatic, perhaps, of the economic forces that have driven the unemployment rate in Spain to 25% or more.

The largest city, Bilbao, has transformed itself into a cultural mecca. The famous Frank Gerhy-designed Guggenheim Museum, situated on a beautiful stretch of the Nervion River, is the crown jewel of the redevelopment, although I was encouraged to see a maritime museum nearby. The Basques have always been great seafarers, being among the first to visit North American waters. i think, but don’t know, that the ruthless explorer, Vasco da Gama, was Basque. In Spanish, Vasco means Basque.

I’d heard unflattering things about industrial Bilbao but I found it quite pleasant. To the south is the wine growing region of La Rioja where I saw White Wagtails and heard thrushes by the score as well as sampling some very fine wine.


Bilbao Riverside

The next day we went to Biarritz in France with a stop on the way back at Txingudi Plaiaundiko, near the town of Irun. Txingudi is a nature reserve with trails and walkways through marshes, ponds and along the estuary foreshore. Well-placed viewing blinds allow views of the muddy shallows favoured by shorebirds. As is the case everywhere in the Pais Vasco, all signs are in Spanish and Basque.


Park Sign in Spanish and Basque

I was probably a little early for the full migration but lots of birds were in, including many Chiffchaffs and some other warblers, European Robins, Eurasian Blackbirds, Black and Red Kites, and Song Thrushes. The day was cool but sunny, with birds seemingly everywhere. The park buildings and  structures seem to be deteriorating, a likely indication of lack of funding and a struggling economy. There seems to be a bit too much trash lying around too, especially in the water.



Shorebirds were plentiful. I was delighted to see both Redshanks and Greenshanks. Little and Cattle Egrets wandered the flats spearing fish.A half dozen Little Grebe chased each other in deeper water. A Squacco Heron mingled with gulls on an island in the estuary, hardly larger than they.




Little Grebe

We left Txingudi late in the day. The wind had picked up and cooled off – it was still March. Back in San Sebastian we had to find parking for our rental car, there being none near the pension. That accomplished, we headed into Old Town for pinxchos and crianza. Two countries, and a major birding site. Not a bad way to spend a day.

Birding in Spain: El Rocio and Cota Donana

El Rocio

A strange town, El Rocio. A Spanish pilgrimage town with unpaved, sand streets, hitching rails, low white faced buildings – a spaghetti-western place. Not my comparison, someone else’s, but it works. The pilgrimage, an incredible procession of horses and wagons with participants in traditional Andalusian costume ends up in El Rocio around Pentacost. Then the population of town tops a million, they say. Now, it’s a semi-ghost town.  It’s been raining and the streets are barely passable because big sections of them are lakes.

On my GPS, the car icon floats on a block of ‘no streets’ and real car almost floats on some real ones. We take the better part of an hour to find the hotel we’ve booked. At one point, my wife claims we must be going wrong because she recognized a pile of dirt! We pass many of the combo stables and lodgings for the ‘hermandades’, the brotherhoods who will fight it out for possession of the statue of the Virgin when the ‘Festival’ begins. The hotel’s dry and we get coffee there but there’s something odd about it too. More about that later.

That night, we eat in the best restaurant in town. It’s on the water, with views of the marshes. A table of English birders, and a young Spanish couple are the only guests. Another young couple arrives – with binoculars. Most of the birders are up and down, dashing to the windows to catch glimpses of birds spotted through the windows by the guide. Not the Greater Flamingos, which are everywhere. A Booted Eagle perhaps. But I can’t see much from where we sit. I’ve only brought my cheap monocular with me and the light is failing.


Greater Flamingos

The waiters in this place speak so low and quick that it’s impossible to catch what they say. I think it’s deliberate; my wife thinks I’m a conspiricist. My Spanish is adequate but these guys seem to mock the fact that you try. The food is good though. Anyway, Andalusians aren’t overly welcoming. Maybe it’s the family thing. Outsiders are obviously not family and that’s that. Nobody’s rude. The Spanish have invariably been polite in our experience. Except maybe the waiters in the ‘best restaurant in town’. The Pilgrimage is like that I’m told, as is the week-long Feria in Seville. Don’t expect to join in. It’s an ‘our thing’ thing. Understandable, perhaps. Still….

The something about our hotel that bothered me before still does. I can’t put my finger on it. The windows open onto a kind of corridor, tarped over against the rain but there aren’t any back windows. The room is comfortable enough,the beds are good, breakfast included but it’s unlike any other hotel I’ve ever stayed in. There’s even a loft over our heads. Then it dawns on me. It’s like a stable; it is a stable – or was. Horses don’t need a back window in their stalls. I think of the lodgings of the hermandades, which are a lot like this hotel. Okay, I’m a conspiricist. I’ve also slept in stables before, including one with an elephant in it. Never mind, I’m mostly here for the birds and this odd town is on the edge one of the best birding spots in Europe.

Cota Donana and Birds

As one of the largest nature reserves on the continent, Cota Donana is a place that warrants more time. It also warrants more accent marks and  a tilde but I can’t figure out how to stick these on the words in the right places, so there it is. The marsh is fantastic with hundreds of birds here now. It’ll be dry in few months, really dry. Then all these flamingos , Glossy Ibises, Eurasian Teal, Shelducks, Coots and Marsh Hens will be gone, gone north, along with most of the birds of prey that hunt here.


Glossy Ibises

The Cork Oak Forest

The drive to the Cork Oak forest reminds me of some of the roads I’ve travelled in Texas, grass and scrub and lots of open spaces – a birdy kind of place. I like the road in but I really like the Cork Oak forest at its end. This looks kind of ‘Middle Earth’ ancient but is in fact what’s left of the commercial Eucalyptus plantation laid in decades ago. Now the Eucalypts with their peeling ghost grey boles and pale leaves tower above the gnarled and twisted Cork Oaks and other trees. Here and there, the thick cork on damaged oaks can be seen. Weird stuff. I’d heard of these trees but this is the first time I’ve seen them. Hard to imagine a piece of that funky bark in the neck of a wine bottle.



The Cork Oak Forest

Many birds are singing here, thrushes and warblers mostly, but few are flying; it’s too wet. We follow a bold Chaffinch for a hundred yards of more, his strategy being to fly a few feet ahead and hope we go away. When we don’t he repeats. Finally, he loses patience and flies behind us and gets back to his dinner. And then a delight – a Hoopoe! I see the unmistakable striped wings as he flies off. And then another bird dodges away through the oaks. Fantastic. I’ve wanted to see a Hoopoe ever since I saw a picture of one, striped and crested,  in my first bird book, the one my aunt sent me from England when I was eleven. I would have loved a photo of the bird but I have to content myself with a snap of my new friend the Chaffinch. His picture was in the same book.



We carry on and close in on the parking lot, the end of a wonderful walk through a beautiful, likely unique forest.  Suddenly, a half dozen colourful and noisy Bea-eaters light in a tree and chase each other around before departing. Just before we go, a Black Kite appears floating, the way these birds do, above the scrub. The two species make a nice end point for our trip to Donana, the almost tropical Bea-eaters particularly.  It would be nice to linger but it’s started to rain again and time to go.




Black Kite




Mallorca Birding

Mallorca, the largest of the Balearic Islands of Spain, is rugged. Much of the agricultural land I saw  on the western side of the island was terraced for olive and lemon trees and other crops. Walking the paths and roadways among the terraces in the early morning produced many species new to me, including Blackcaps, Song Thrushes, Chiffchaff, Black Redstart, Wood Pigeons. On the north coast, extensive coastal marshes hold many shorebirds, such as Black-winged Stilts and many others.


It helps that Mallorca is on a migration flyway between Africa and Europe, I was there in mid-March, at the beginning of the migration.We’re staying in the mountain town of Valledemossa. Georges Sand and Chopin stayed here too and hated it, apparently. Times change. Valledemossa is beautiful.


Mallorca Terraces


Main Street, Valledemossa



Albufera, a wildlife sanctuary at the north end of the island near Can Picafort, is one of Mallorca’s birding jewels. One of the few places in Europe where the threatened Red-crested (or Red-knobbed) Coot still lives, it covers many hectares of marshland crises-crossed with trails and walkways.


Red-crested Coot

Black-winged Stilts are plentiful at Albufera. They don’t mean to be hilarious but I smile whenever I see them. They’re so serious too. I guess you have to be to pull it off, what with those extra long ‘red vine’ legs!


Black-winged Stilt

European warblers are not related to our warblers, which are wood warblers. Often the European types are brown and, for me as a newcomer, not easy to identify. That’s putting it mildly. I think this guy is a Moustached Warbler, scolding me from a thicket. Of course, I could be wrong.


 Moustached Warbler?

And then there are the Moorhens, some of them quite bold. This bird ran ahead of me down the walkway and then, chicken-like, hopped onto a rail and lingered a moment before jumping down into the scrub. A water bird with a vermilion beak, lemon yellow-tipped with extra long toes to boot — great.



Back in Valledemossa,  a few tiny Scops Owls start calling at nightfall. This is a monotonous rounded peep, repeated at regular intervals. It sounds, at least to me, like water dripping (loudly), or like an attenuated sonar ping – slow and amplified, a submarine sound. I read somewhere that having a Scops Owl in your garden during mating season can drive you mad. Peep-peep-peep-peep—peep-peep-peep. You get the idea. I’m delighted to hear the little blighters though. Then again I’m only here for a few days.